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Scribbling the Cat: travels with an African soldier

About the author
Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969 and in 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. In 1981, after the civil war, they moved again, first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Alexandra’s first book, Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight: an African childhood, was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2002, a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, and was chosen as the BookSense Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2002. Alexandra lives in Wyoming and has two children.

This extract is from one of seven books shortlisted for the 2005 Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The winner will be announced on 15 October, and openDemocracy has presented extracts from each of the finalists:

  • “Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq”, Riverbend
  • “Of Wars: Letters to Friends”, Caroline Emcke
  • “Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier”, Alexandra Fuller
  • “A Season in Mecca: Account of a Pilgrimage”, Abdellah Hammoudi
  • “The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans”, William Langewiesche
  • “Maximum City: Bombay lost and found”, Suketu Mehta
  • “Death in the Little Pentagon: The Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army”, Ricardo Uceda
  • * * *

    Extract from Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier (Picador, June 2005)

    Brothers in Arms

    By the time we left the farm, the sun had taken its place in the sky, spreading across the divide of east and west, elbowing out sky and colour and perspective, and sending a flattening assault of rays to the earth. The greater part of Africa — the vast, uncurling spill of cities and roads, and jungles and savannahs — lay behind us. We were heading steadily toward the Indian Ocean, toward the thick slice of land that curled around Zimbabwe’s eastern shoulder, nudged Zambia, and almost swallowed Malawi off the map altogether. Scattershot in our path were soldiers from K’s war. Hundreds of them probably, most of them silent about the years that were stolen from them and the years that they had stolen from others.

    It’s not hard to find an old soldier in Africa. In fact, there are probably parts of Africa where almost anyone over the age of ten is an old soldier and has held an AK-47 in his hands and let its fire chatter into human flesh. (Christmas-cracker guns is how they seem, cheap and deadly and associated with mass production in China.) And then there are parts of Africa where ammunition and guns aren’t available and citizens — children among them — take up arms against one another with whatever instruments they can find: machetes, hoes, knives, their bare hands.

    What is harder to find are old soldiers who will talk about their war with strangers. And why should they talk? Those of us who have escaped the horror of being turned — by whatever euphemisms there are for the calculated process of dehumanization — from people into machines that issue, and might reasonably expect to receive, a sentence of death are ill equipped to judge (let alone understand) anyone who has been a soldier. Our minds are still innocent of the stain of sanctioned murder.

    I can recognize a certain breed of ex-soldier, not only for what they look like, but also for how their lives have unravelled. There are the tattoos, the shaggy beards (something about all the years of military seems to instil the need for copious, perhaps disguising, facial hair), the cigarettes, the drinking, the bluster. If you sleep in the same house or camp with them, you will hear their spooks. They shout their ghosts away all night.

    There are the multi-marriages (of the six soldiers I met and talked to in any kind of depth while travelling with K, three were divorced, one had been widowed when her husband committed suicide, one had never married but tore haphazardly through his relationships with women). There is the history of violence: the brawls, the destroyed bars, the nights in jail. And then, when everything else has peeled away from them, there is God.

    The first ex-soldier whom I met on my journey with K had been a soldier for almost all his life. Riley had started out as border patrol for the Rhodesian army in 1962, and had stayed on to fight until shortly before that country’s independence. When he ran out of war in Rhodesia, Riley headed for South Africa. Riley’s wife is also an ex-soldier. She joined up in the 1970s and met Riley in training camp soon after. Her first husband (who had been a soldier too) had shot himself.

    In 1992, when South Africa was clearly on its way to democratic rule and wars in Africa had changed their tone (they had turned in on themselves — tribal, hand-to-hand, and indistinct and no longer the black-and-white wars of the liberation days), Riley and his wife came to Zambia looking for work. For a while, they camped on K’s farm and acted as his farm managers.

    One night, when K was away, armed thieves came to the farm. Riley was shot in the hand before he could return fire. He showed me his hand. “Almost thirty years as a soldier and I don’t get hit,” he told me, and then I get nailed in Sole by a gondie with a sawn-off shotgun!” When Riley laughed, as he did then, it was an alarming event. His laugh caught, like a two-stroke engine on an old motorbike, and turned into its own choking throb until the man had turned a pale, airless green. He broke the filter off a Madison — Zimbabwe’s strongest cigarette — and lit it, which took some doing because his hand shook so violently that the match almost flitted itself out.

    “That was enough for me,” said Riley’s wife, shuddering. “Being out there in the bush with those ... bloody bandits. I mean it’s not like it used to be, you know. It was safer during the bloody war than it is now.

    “I told Riley, ‘No, man. I’m not staying here to get chayaed by some gondie with half a gun. Not after everything...’”

    “I don’t know how K stays down there alone like he does.”

    Then we all had to be quiet while Riley was shaken by another fit of coughing. He took a deep drag off the shortened cigarette, and that subdued his cough for a moment.

    I said, “Did you ever catch the guy that shot you?”

    Riley’s eyes slid across to K and there was a significant silence.

    At last K said, “Riley is a highly trained soldier.”

    “Meaning?”

    “Meaning, ‘Rest in peace, gondie’” said K.

    “And the police?”

    “Were very grateful,” said K. “They wrote that the gondie died of natural causes.”

    Which sent Riley into another spasm of laughter-turned-coughing. Then he leaned over and said to me, “What you need to understand, Bobo, is that this isn’t how it used to be. There aren’t rules of engagement anymore. The way it used to be, the enemy was there” — Riley moved a box of Madison cigarettes across the table to represent the enemy — “and he was in his uniform. You were over here” — Riley placed a fork opposite the cigarettes— “and you were in your uniform. Then you opened fire and whoever got scribbled lost and whoever didn’t get scribbled won.”

    He smashed his fist down on the fork, which sailed in a high, graceful cartwheel off the end of the table, and then he sat back and pulled his lips down. “Now it’s just dog-eat-dog. Gondie-scribble-gondie. No one gives a shit. It’s not about colour. People think it’s about colour. It’s not about colour. If it was about colour, it would be easy to understand.”

    “No,” agreed Riley’s wife, wagging her finger at me, “not about colour.”

    Riley said, “You want to know what it’s about? It’s about pure animal survival. And these lazy bastards want something for nothing. Why go out and get a job when you can wave a shotgun in someone’s face and get money for nothing?”

    “Life’s expendable,” said K. “It doesn’t matter to these guys if they get plugged because they’re going to starve to death anyway. It’s what...? What do you say when there are no rules of engagement anymore?”

    “Anarchy,” replied Riley. “Pure and simple anarchy.”

    “Ja,” said Riley’s wife, regret underpinning her voice, “the war was the easy part. Not this…” and she gestured toward the veranda of the hotel on which we were having lunch (the empty tables, the cluster of noisily drunk clients at the bar, the pale glare of rain-washed sun).

    “And now?” I asked. “What do you do now?”

    “Now we’re fishing up here,” said Riley breathlessly, waving at the expanse of Lake Kariwa. “Civvy street,” he said, as if the word could be picked off his tongue with the debris of loose tobacco that had scattered there from the end of his butchered cigarette.

    I asked if he regretted the war and Riley blinked at me, as if I had said something blasphemous. “Regret?” he asked rhetorically. “No. No. Those were the best years of my life. Maybe I could have skipped South Africa. That was bullshit. They treated us like shit. But Rhodesia” — Riley cocked his head in the way that people do when the ability to define a fine wine has eluded them — “Rhodesia. That was living.”

    “You don’t think it...” I searched for a word that could put what I was trying to say delicately. “…it affected you? All those years of fighting?”

    “War doesn’t have to mess you up” — Riley eyed me suspiciously — “if that’s what you’re trying to say. Is that what you’re trying to say?”

    It was, but I shook my head.

    Riley bit the head off another Madison and I thought of the Zimbabwean advertisement, Man, make yours Madison. “It didn’t mess me up. I’ve been a soldier most of my life and it didn’t mess me up.” He coughed his metallic-coffin laugh again. “We had information on where the gooks were. We were dropped out of airplanes, did the job, and then they pulled us out. When it got stressful ... well, yes: it got stressful when there were three or four contacts a day. That’s how it was. Dropped you in, take you back to base to reissue and give you a brief, and then you’re back in the plane. It was okay. It was a job. It was just a job. Better than sitting behind a desk. Now that would have messed me up. Sitting behind a fucking desk with a tie around my neck” — Riley grasped his neck with his powerful hands and throttled himself — “that would have killed me.”

    It was only after we had crossed the border from Zambia into Zimbabwe that K remembered that he still had his revolver with him. “Shit,” he laughed, rooting around in his briefcase and emerging with the weapon, “the Almighty was looking after us, my girl. If those customs guys had found this thing” — he waved the revolver around carelessly and the car swerved, narrowly avoiding a stub-tailed chicken that had chosen that moment to scuttle across the road — “we’d both be melting to death in a gondie jail by now.”

    “How about we don’t try and cross into Mozambique with it?” I suggested.

    “I’ll leave it with a friend,” said K. “You talk to Dingus while I drop the gun.”

    That was the other peculiarity of the soldiers I met. None of them went by their given names. K is known variously as the Phantom Sergeant (he refused to stand for troop photographs during the war, and in commando pictures he shows as a white gap in the front row) or Savage or Goffle. The man whom I was about to meet was known, not as Peter, but Dingus after his habit of asking for “that dingus” or “this dingus,” or for referring to a woman as “quite a dingus.” Dingus is Afrikaans for “thing”.

    Dingus turned out to be an incredibly soft-spoken man. He almost whispered in answer to my questions. His wife was a vivacious, blonde Englishwoman. Both smoked cigarettes as an apparent substitute for breathing. Dingus’s wife brought out a pot of tea and we sat around a rickety veranda table; its Formica top had curled up at the lip, showing rotting plywood underneath. Dingus and his wife, in common with many Zimbabweans, were leaving Zimbabwe.

    “Nothing left here now,” said Dingus, shrugging. “Look, we can stay and starve and wait for the end, or we can leave while we still can.”

    Packing cases and boxes waited in stacked, sagging towers. Where are you going?”

    “North,” said Dingus. He lit a cigarette with the end of one he was just finishing. “I got a job as a boat mechanic on Lake Tanganyika.”

    “God help us,” said his wife with feeling.

    Dingus, like K, had found God. I asked him what prompted his conversion and he told me that after the war he had been such a violent man — so angry all the time — that he had gone through two marriages (he said this the way a rally driver might talk about needing to change shredded tires in the middle of a gruelling race). “During the war it didn’t matter. The aggression was — well, you needed it. It was a way to survive. It was afterward... When my second wife left me, that was when I woke up.” He, like K, had joined the army straight out of school. “I could hardly read,” he said, “but I knew how to shoot. I could fight.”

    Looking at him, it was hard to believe that he was any kind of young man, or soldier. His eyes washed pale and blue into the back of a yielding face. His lips were indecisive and sad, looped down at the edges. He carried a soft paunch over which was stretched a holey, pale blue vest. He looked like a man who had surrendered. And, like so many Africans, he’d had his gut of tragedy. Four years before his daughter died of malaria. He talked softly almost mouthing the words about her death, his voice barely rising above the tenure of breath. There were no other children. His wife looked stunned and stiff while he talked and her eyes filled with tears.

    Then he talked about the war, his regret that he had any part in what he now saw as mindless killing. And he talked about what was happening in Zimbabwe now—the way that land redistribution, from landed whites to landless blacks, had turned into a full-scale war of looting, thievery, and political oppression.

    “It’s just wrong,” Dingus told me in a disappearing voice, “criminal. That man” — he meant Mugabe — “should be stopped before he destroys this entire country.”

    Only when Dingus talked about God did his voice sound as if it were on firm footing gripping on something actual and strong and real. But he whispered about his life before God and the death of his daughter, as if, by whispering, he could undo his own history.

    When K returned from stashing the gun and we took our leave in the late afternoon, Dingus leaned over the edge of his veranda to see us off. The rusted rails of the veranda looked too fragile against the press of his belly and the ache of his past. He waved good-bye, saying to K, “Don’t let the ghosts in Moz bite you, Goffle!” and at that moment, the sun glittered off our windscreen and blotted his face into an obliterating white and he flinched back his hand to his cheek.

    When I looked over at K, he had tears in his eyes.

    As we drove away, K said, “Dingus and I are closer than this” — K crossed his fingers. “Look at our lives? The army, then broken marriages, then ... The drinking, the violence, all that is there too. Then, you know, we both realized at some point that the way we were going was killing us, killing the people around us. We were destroying so much. You know after I lost Luke, that’s when I woke up and started to listen to the Almighty. Dingus had to lose a wife before he woke up.” K shook his head. “He’s a lovely man, that. A lovely, lovely man. I’ll miss him when he heads up north. He’s the only man ... he’s probably the only person in the world who knows why I am the way I am. He’s maybe the only human being who knows everything I’ve done — every good thing, every shit thing. And he still loves me.” K sniffed. “Now that’s really something, hey?”

    Demons and Godsends

    K looked at me sideways. We were climbing out of the valley into which Lake Kariwa spills, gushing out of the gorges of the Pepani River and slamming to a standstill at the wall near a rock that the Tonga people call Kariwa — the trap. This escarpment was a road of memories for K. He moved here with his young wife a few years after the war and this was where his son was born, and died. He said, “I love this valley,” and his jaw bulged in a way that I now recognized as a prelude to something that made my heart grab at the edges of my ribs.

    “The ex was such a ... She’s tiny,” he said, “but very strong. She works out in the garden all day, like she’s trying to run from something. Well, she is. She is trying to run from something.” He paused and said, matter-of-factly, “She’s possessed.”

    I realized then that we had slipped — as periodically happened — off the edge of normal conversation into K’s mind, where he was at his most paranoid and angry.

    “Possessed?”

    “Ja. By demons. Ja.” His lips slapped shut with finality. It was a long time before he said, “You know, she never got over Luke. She can’t leave that poor boy to rest in peace. Luke’s room, all his clothes, everything, even his ashes. They’re all in his cupboard. Everything washed and folded and in his cupboard like he’s going to come home after lunch for his afternoon rest. She’s even left his toys where they were when he died. All his stuffed animals are on his bed... It’s all there. And she spends hours sitting on his bed, like she is waiting for him. To this day, she’s there. Every day. She’ll never leave Zimbabwe. She’ll never leave that boy alone. If those ‘landless peasants’ come for the house, they’ll have to kill her or let her live there with them because they won’t get rid of her.”

    I said, “I don’t think that’s being possessed. That’s grief.”

    K shook his head. “No. You don’t understand. I actually saw the demons entering her. I woke up one night and I watched the demons fighting for her soul. If I hadn’t woken up... I pulled the sheets up around her and I told them to fuck off and they went back out the window. The demons — well, there was one in particular, like a cat’s head floating there, black and with bright green eyes, that was trying to get into her. But I chased it out. I used the power of the Almighty to chase it out. But the ex has never believed, really. She used to say that she did, but she doesn’t. And since then, oh ja ... she’s evil. She opened herself up as a house of Evil and they came. She’s possessed.”

    I don’t underestimate the power of ghosts and spirits and, at that moment, I could feel K’s own demons. They were burning and noisy and hard-edged and they were churning about in the front of the car. The windows were open and the air was rushing around us, hot and black from the tarmac, but it couldn’t sweep the demons out of the car.

    “When we were going through all our shit” — by which I assumed K meant the affair that he said his ex-wife had had — “I knew she was possessed. What else would make a woman do what she did?”

    I puffed hard on my cigarette and said nothing.

    “About ten years ago, when we were still trying to work out our marriage, I prayed to the Almighty, what should I do? I read that the answer to my problem could only be resolved by prayer and fasting. For twenty five days I prayed and fasted and then I waited for God to tell me what to do next. Nothing. I waited three days. On the third day, He told me to visit the ex. I was with Dingus at the time.

    I told him, ‘Dingus, the Almighty has sent me to her.’

    “I was — I was so sure that God was going to send the demons out of her. I could feel His power all around me. Dingus dipped his finger in cooking oil and he drew a cross on the windscreen, right there” — K pressed his finger against the windshield and drew a cross on the glass — “right there.” K glanced over at me to make sure he had my attention, which he did. Every nerve was prickled. I felt as if I was sitting in a small chamber of ever advancing needles. “Dingus came with me. We drove to the ex’s house and I got out of the pickup. The gate was locked. I called for her, I hooted. I shouted some more. I knew she was in there. I could just feel she was in the house. When she came out, she had a gun with her.

    I asked her, ‘What’s the gun for?’

    She said, ‘Leave me alone.’

    I said, ‘I need to talk to you.’

    “We went back and forth for quite a while like this, hey. Eventually, she let me in. We went into the house. I told her to put the gun down. I mean, I am the one that taught her how to shoot the blerry thing and she can shoot straight, that woman. I fixed the trigger on the pistol to make it less stiff for her. That’s when I did this.” K lifted his left leg and showed me the holes in his calf and ankle, which I had correctly assumed were bullet wounds. “See? Bullet went in here” — K pressed his calf — “and out here. I always used to wonder what it would feel like to get shot, and then I shot myself by accident and found out. It hurts like sterek man. Shit, it hurts.

    “Anyway, I told the ex, ‘The Almighty is my shield. Put the gun down.’

    “She told me, ‘Your God is your God, and I respect that. But I don’t communicate with Him.’

    “And I told her that she needed to get onto her knees and ask His forgiveness.

    She said, ‘No.’ Then she said, ‘Leave me alone.’

    I said, ‘Can I pray for you?’

    She said, ‘I want you to leave now.’

    “I put my finger on her cheek and she screamed at me, ‘Don’t touch me.’

    “I thought, I honestly thought, that I’d feel something. That God would give me the power to heal her. What I felt was” — K flicked the top of my arm — “Like that, a small electric shock That was all. Nothing else.”

    By now we were beyond the road that snakes out of the Pepani Vallq and that describes the long eastern border between Zambia and Zimbabwe which surfaces at Mkuti. Here, the Pepani Escarpment gathers to a long, undulating ridge as far as the eye can see; a quivering headdress of spring-red msasa leaves and lichen covered branches. A gray cloud swung its belly over the brush at the summit and fat drops of rain burst on the windscreen and splattered into the car and dotted up and down my arms. I hung out of the car and let the rain fall on my face.

    K said, “When I drove home, the cross that Dingus had made on the windscreen with cooking oil, it nearly drove me benzi, I tell you. I kept staring at it and I wanted to wipe it off the windscreen. It hadn’t bothered me when I was driving out to the house, but coming back it was making me crazy. What does that tell you?”

    I brushed the rain off my forearm and pressed myself against the door. “Maybe the light hit it differently,” I said. Since K kept his car, like everything else in his life, meticulously washed and clean, I was not surprised to hear that he found a smudge of oil on his windscreen annoying.

    “No,” said K, “it tells me that I had Satan within me. And when I got home to Dingus’s house, he made some tea and I took the cup from him and I found my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t get the cup to my lips.” K took his hand off the steering wheel to demonstrate how much his hands had been shaking. His hand fluttered in my face, like a bird trapped indoors. “Just like that. And the next thing I knew I was on the ground and this ... scream ... It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my voice. It was something else. This powerful scream came out of my throat. A roar, I guess. It was like a lion and it felt like my neck was going to burst.” Looking at K’s neck now, I had the same concern. “And this great yell. And then I blacked out.”

    He gave me a long, significant look. He said, “That was the power of the Almighty. That was the Almighty fighting Evil.”

    Anyone who has, involuntarily or voluntarily, starved in the course of her life knows the light-headed, almost hallucinatory effect of an extensive fast. I said, very quietly, “You don’t think you just needed a square meal in your tummy?”

    You think I’m benzi, don’t you?”

    “No,” I said. And then, “Well, yes. A bit.”

    “Do you believe in love?”

    “What?”

    “Love,” insisted K urgently. “Do you believe in it?”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Can you see love?” K persisted but before I could reply K shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, you can’t.” He let this sink in before saying, “The ex made me go to a shrink after that. She also thought I was benzi.”

    “Yes.”

    “The shrink told me God wasn’t real. She told me that I couldn’t see God or demons. That I was hallucinating or imagining stuff.” K was sweating. Under the spice of his aftershave, he exuded wood smoke, the singe of charcoal-ironed clothes, and an aroma like a freshly turned field. “So I asked her, ‘Do you believe in love?’”

    “She said, ‘Yes.’

    I said, ‘But you can’t see it, can you?’

    She said, ‘No.’”

    K started to laugh humourlessly. “It’s the same with God. You can believe in Him without seeing Him. He’s there! He’s there!” He slammed his fist into the dashboard twice to emphasize his point.

    I said, “Steady on. Remember what happened to the taxi.”

    K glanced at me and his look was so purple with fury that I choked back my words and lit another cigarette. Then I looked out of the window at the way the bush uncurled a more vivid shade of green as the black clouds rolled on. The tree trunks were like charcoal-blackened posts in the painted red soil. Suddenly, a man emerged out of the bush with an enamel basin full of wild wood mushrooms. He had a yellow plastic fertilizer bag over the top of his head against the spitting rain. He sprang forward at the sight of our lonely car, almost into the path of our tires, and I caught the edge of his high voice, “Boss! Mushrooooms! Boss! Madam!”

    I said, “Oh look, someone selling mushrooms. Should we buy some?”

    Barely pausing, K hauled the car around in the road, peeled out a U turn on the wet tarmac, and bore down on the little mushroom man. As K climbed out of the car, the man pressed back in response. K has that effect on people — a sort of don’t-even-think-about-thinking-about-messing-with-me look about his shoulders. But when K spoke, the neck-aching fury of late had left his voice. He sounded almost gentle and cheerful. He spoke Shona quickly, too fluently for me to follow entirely, but I understood enough to know that he asked about the man’s business and asked how things were these days.

    Yes, things were hard with this government, the man agreed.

    K wanted to know, How was the man’s family.

    The man looked away. The smallest child had died. The mother of his children was in Malawi with her people. No, times were very hard.

    And K tutted under his breath and asked the man whether he preferred Zimbabwean dollars or Zambian kwacha for his mushrooms. K pulled out a plastic bag in which we were carrying cash for our trip: a wad of Zambian kwacha, a stack of Zimbabwean dollars, and a pile of Mozambican meticals. K waved the alternatives at the man. The man responded, “Kwacha, boss. Please, boss. Zim dollar is buggered.” So K gave him the money and he didn’t haggle about the price of the mushrooms and then he put a hundred dollar bill in the marls shirt pocket and said, “Bonsella.”

    K put the mushrooms into the tin trunk with the beer and chips and nuts and green peppers. “Tatenda, eh.”

    “Tatenda, boss.”

    As we were about to leave, the mushroom seller leaned into the car and pressed another bag of mushrooms onto K’s lap. “For you, boss. God go with you.”

    I slumped back into my seat and closed my eyes.

    I don’t think we have all the words in a single vocabulary to explain what we are or why we are. I don’t think we have the range of emotion to fully feel what someone else is feeling. I don’t think any of us can sit in judgment of another human being. We’re incomplete creatures, barely scraping by. Is it possible — from the perspective of this quickly spinning Earth and our speedy journey from crib to coffin — to know the difference between right, wrong, good, and evil? I don’t know if it’s even useful to try.

    “God go with you!” the mushroom man had said, and I was grateful to him.

    Because if anyone was going to be with us on this journey, it might as well be God. Especially if the alternatives were K’s demons, those loud little creatures with their party hats and whistles and tap-dancing shoes that caught in the front of the pickup and sucked up all the air.

    A guide to the idiosyncratic mix of slang and languages used in the text

    Benzi: crazy
    Blerry: derived from mild expletive “bloody”
    Goffle: person of mixed blood
    Gondie: derogative term for blacks
    Munts: people; also used by whites as derogative term for blacks
    Scribble: to kill


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