Sikumbi

IF THIS IS WINTER, Hilda thought, I am glad I took my leave in August. This should have been the coolest month, and the air temperatures were nothing like the heat wave she had left behind. But the hot winds from the Kalahari Desert had started in July instead of September this year, and the sun beat down relentlessly.

She stopped and straddled her bike, a rugged Raleigh DT-21 “Bobby bicycle.” She had rented it in Bulawayo and had it outfitted with racks for the panniers she had brought with her. With only three gears and heavy 28-inch wheels, it made her work harder than her German touring bike back home. The sweat had soaked her clothes and threatened to give her saddle sores. At least she was used to the bicycle now, and she was not in a hurry. The air was so arid that her clothes dried while she stood there.

She took a rationed swig from her bicycle bottle, and surveyed the land ahead. Sparse bushes and stunted little trees provided the only vegetation in the sun-baked dirt. This scrubland would soon give way to true desert, which she would have to cross tomorrow to reach the scrubland southeast of her destination, the Buffer Area between Hwange National Park and the Sikumbi Forest Reserve. She was halfway there, having left Bulawayo only the day before yesterday. Mercifully, the elevation was more rolling and gentler than the mountains in Western Europe. The road was paved and ran along the ridge line. It had seemed a little out of the way looking at a map, but now she appreciated that she was making better time by being on asphalt.

Only two other vehicles had shared the road with her so far: a dusty Range Rover loaded with tourists, and a bike like hers, bearing a woman riding the other way. She carried her load on her head, keeping an easy balance and managing a friendly wave to Hilda.

Mhoro!” Hello! They shouted to each other as they passed. The other woman was almost as tall as she, with skin that shone like anthracite, also like hers. Hilda felt a special kinship in that simple exchange of greetings.

Hilda had spent three days in Bulawayo before starting out, testing the Shona her father had taught her. At first, she had struggled to remember simple words she had not used in years, but to her surprise, much of what she had learned came back quickly. It also pleased her to be complimented on her accent and fluency.

With a deep breath, Hilda put the heavy bicycle in motion and continued to the northwest. Alone on the road, she sang Impi. The Zulu song by the South African band Juluka had stuck in her head, giving her legs an easy rhythm as the road fell behind her. Despite the wide brim on her hat and the darkest sunglasses she could find in Kaiserslautern, the sun strained her eyes. A cold store appeared on the side of the road, just where the scrubland ended. Gratefully, she stopped at the unnamed collection of buildings and took refuge in the shop for a while.

She had packed enough water for two days, but she bought another three-liter jug and lashed it behind the saddle. About an hour later, she was long out of sight of any sign of humanity. She walked her bicycle off the road and selected a campsite in a flat area that was obscured from the road by the cliff above it, and from the desert below by an unscalable cliff face. She pitched her tent and assembled the cold meal she wanted for supper.

Twice she heard a car or truck pass on the road above her, and once a group of women went by, singing a Shona song in harmony. They must have been on bicycles, because Hilda heard three verses before they faded in the direction of Mananzwa.

In the silence, she imagined her grandfather, walking and biking through this land. Garai Paisley had grown up on the ranch of a Scottish family, who educated their children and the children of their workers. He had joined the Rhodesian civil service, but could see that his future would be limited with the imminent breakout of World War II. He had emigrated from Rhodesia with his young wife just before the war, fought in North Africa with Montgomery, then entered the priesthood after the war. “Greg” Paisley still served as the vicar in the African/Indian neighborhood of London where Hilda’s father was born.

Garai’s son Tongai (“Tom,” to his English friends) grew up speaking English and Shona at home, Xhosa with his friends in the neighborhood, and French and Latin in school. No wonder then, that when he emigrated to the United States to join the US Army, he became a military linguist and learned another half-dozen languages.

Hilda knew where she was going from the maps her father had shown her, and the photos and stories that her grandfather had shared with her. Notwithstanding the many places she had lived and served, this felt like a great adventure for her. When she found that she could string her accumulated leave into a two-month vacation after her second tour in the Middle East, she decided to visit the place where her sekuru had been born and raised.

The Paisley ranch had been in what was now the Buffer Area. She wondered what it would look like today. Even with Google Earth, she had not been able to make out the buildings. Her grandfather remembered more tree cover, but maybe the yellow areas were fields, not just dirt.

In the morning, she fixed a breakfast of muesli and UHT milk, and set out as the sun was still rising over the mountains that formed the border with Mozambique. She made good time, and stopped for the night in the village of Bemba, where the owner of the local general store invited her to supper and to camp behind the house. He also invited her to use the bathroom and the shower in the house, which was a big treat. Over supper, they exchanged histories. The merchant’s family was impressed both with Hilda’s command of Shona, and her connection to the land. He remembered a Scottish family when he was young, and was sorry that his father was not alive to give them the details.

Before leaving the next day, Hilda bought as many supplies as she could carry. She could not thank them in any other way, she knew.

The asphalt ended when she took a right turn off the highway (such as it was) to go north to the buffer lands. She rode another twenty kilometers through scrubland, skirting a patch of desert by noon. After stopping for lunch, she started the last ten kilometers to where the old Paisley ranch should be.

Almost immediately, she noticed fences on either side of the dirt road she was riding. Five kilometers later, the first full trees appeared. This was ranch land and farmland. Trees that remained from farmers’ clear cutting grew around large, but simple, farmhouses. She could see the Sikumbi Forest in the distance.

A large arch over what would be a driveway in the United States looked almost exactly like the gate in the old photo her grandfather had shown her. No names, no mailbox, but she was sure that this was the place. As she rode up the path, her bicycle tires tossed little clouds of dust into the wind.

Around the first bend, she saw the place, almost exactly as she imagined it. A plantation house, two stories with a pitched roof that probably covered a large attic, and a wrap-around, screened-in porch. The old photos had been black-and-white, so the house might have been white. This house had been painted a pleasant pastel yellow-pink that would age well in the brutal sun.

A woman opened the front screen door, and stood in the opening. Hilda was becoming accustomed to the features of Bantu women, but she still took in a small breath to see this one. Very tall, slender but strong, and carrying herself erect. A younger version of Hilda’s grandmother.

Her fearless expression conveyed neither threat nor pleasure, as she watched Hilda stop and dismount.

Mhoro, mai,” Hilda continued in Shona. “I have come to see this place, where my grandfather was born and raised.”

“His name?” The face was stony and firm, which disquieted Hilda even more.

“Garai. Garai Paisley”

“And you are?”

“Hilda Paisley. And you, ma’am?”

“Maita Sibanda.” She switched to English. “You can call me Maita. I can tell you are European by your dress.” Hilda recognized a gentle Gaelic burr in her speech.

“Yes. American.”

“I would not have guessed by your speech. We could have continued in Shona all day.” She held the door. “Please, come in.”

Hilda leaned the bike against the house and climbed the stairs. Maita led her into a parlor that matched the photographs taken of the Paisley families shortly before Garai left.

“I’ll fetch some water. The loo is across the hall, if you would like to use that.”

“Thank you.” Hilda appreciated being able to relieve herself and wash the road dust off.

Maita came back with tray with a pitcher of water and two glasses. When they were settled, Maita asked about Hilda’s family and how she came to be riding to the house.

“How did you know this was the place?”

“My grandfather had photographs of the house and this parlor. Except for the paint and the solar panel, it has hardly changed at all.”

“That is not surprising. It is still in the Paisley family.”

“That’s wonderful. Are you the Paisley or the Sibanda?”

Maita smiled. “Paisley. Sean Paisley owned the farm when our grandfathers were here. He became very close to my grandfather and to my father, Ariko. He died a childless widower, and willed the ranch to my father. I was born and raised here, too.”

“May I look around outside before I leave?”

“I hope you won’t leave too soon. Please stay with us.”

“Thank you. I’d be delighted.”

“Let’s take a look at the house. Then you can bring in your things, and we’ll walk around before Gamba returns.”

“Gamba is the Sibanda, I take it?”

“Yes. We met at Agricultural College. His brother runs their farm. He’s helping his brother deliver a calf today.”

After Maita left the drinks tray in the kitchen, she led Hilda upstairs.

“The house is intended for a big family, but we haven’t started that yet. Why don’t you bring your things up here? The bath is there.” She pointed to the bathroom.

“Thank you.” Hilda brought her panniers up to the bedroom, and showered.

When she returned to the kitchen, Maita was assembling ingredients.

“May I help?” Hilda asked.

“Certainly. Here, chop these up.” Hilda took the knife and the vegetables and chopped, while Maita put things into a stewpot that already had a rich stock heating on the stove. When the vegetables were added, they left the stew on a low simmer.

“Come. Let’s walk around.”

Pausing before the back door, Maita opened a gun cabinet in the wall, extracted a rifle, and pocketed a clip of ammunition.

“That’s an M-16,” Hilda said in a surprised voice. “Why do you need that kind of firepower?”

“Leopards, mostly.” She eyed Hilda as they walked down the steps. “You’re familiar with the weapon?”

“I was infantry before I went to nursing school. Are leopards a problem here?”

“Oh, aye. Being in the buffer between the Sikumbi and the Hwange, we are constantly holding them back. Damn fools won’t read the No Trespassing signs.”

Hilda chuckled. “I guess not.”

Maita showed Hilda the smaller house, where her grandfather had lived, and the one next to it, where Garai had grown up. One story, with a common room, two bedrooms and even a small water closet. Hilda ran her hand over the rough wooden table and the stones around the hearth. She choked slightly. She felt the ghosts of relatives she never knew reaching to her touch.

“This is very moving to me. I never expected to be able to follow my father’s family back to Africa.”

“I am glad for you. From what I read, most Americans cannot do that.”

“No. I am lucky that my history was European rather than American.”

“But you said you were American.”

“I am, but not through our slave history. My father, Tongai, emigrated to the US from England and enlisted in the Army. During the Cold War, he met my mother in Kaiserslautern. He did a full Army career, but retired to Kaiserslautern. I was born in Stuttgart and raised in Kaiserslautern.”

“She’s German?”

“Yes. And my grandmother is Swedish.”

“You have your mother’s looks, don’t you?”

“We resemble each other exactly, except for color. Even the eyes are hers.”

“It’s a striking, and, I might add, a beautiful combination.”

“Thank you. I am enjoying riding around in a country where I don’t stand out so much.”

“I can only imagine. You would be a beautiful Bantu, also.”

They walked to the barn, where Maita checked on the cattle that had just come in. A farm hand was filling their feed troughs. Hilda guessed he was no more than sixteen years old.

“Remember to close them in, Kutenda,” Maita said in Shona.

Hongu, mai” Yes, ma’am. Kutenda gave her a slight nod and a shy smile to Hilda.

Maita stopped on the way out, and turned back to Kutenda. “Have you looked for her?” She pointed to an empty stall.

“Not yet, ma’am.”

“We will look, but check with me after you close if she doesn’t show up.”

Hongu, mai.”

Maita and Hilda climbed the hill behind the barn. Hilda saw that the fence ran inside the edge of the forest.

“Is the fence effective against the leopards?”

“Not really, but if they live long enough, they learn that humans can hurt them.”

“So, the usual stupid teenagers?”

Maita grinned at that. “Not so different from our own species, eh?”

Hilda looked at a group of large birds circling north of them.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Bloody hell!” Maita began jogging to the ridge. At the top, she paused. “Damn!”

At the edge of the field about halfway down the other side from the barn, a flock of vultures was alternating with a small cackle of hyenas picking at a carcass. Maita ran to the dead animal, scattering the birds. The hyenas tried to pick a fight with her, until she shot the pack leader through the head. In a rage, she picked up the dead hyena by the tail and flung it over the fence after the others.

Hilda caught up with her hostess, who was kneeling by the neck of the cow, her shoulders shaking. Hilda knelt next to her, and put an arm around her. After a while, Maita stopped shaking. She pointed to the jagged hole in the throat of the cow.

“Leopard?” Hilda asked.

“Aye. They’re incredibly stealthy and go straight to the throat when they get close. That’s why they can bring down animals bigger than themselves.”

‘I’m sorry. Was this one special?”

“Not particularly. But she was one-fifth of my dairy production. With our margins, that hurts.”

“I see. What does is cost to replace a cow like this?”

“Between six hundred and a thousand dollars US.”

“What do we do with the carcass?”

“Leave it. In a day or two, it will hardly weigh anything. We can move the bones to the forest, then spray the area with deodorizer, so more scavengers don’t come through the fence. Let’s go back.”

They stood and turned to climb up the hill. A tall man with broad shoulders and long arms was running toward them. He could win marathons with that stride, Hilda thought.

He looked briefly at the dead cow, then ran to envelop Maita in his arms. They held each other for a while, until Maita stepped back.

“Gamba Sibanda,” she said in Shona, “this is Hilda Paisley, our guest.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, shaking hands. “Is this a family reunion?”

“Of a sort. It seems that my grandfather lived in the house next to the one that her grandfather lived in. He emigrated to England as a young man.”

“But you speak Shona.”

“My father spoke it at home, and taught me what I know.”

“Let’s go in,” Maita said. “Supper should be ready.”

“I turned the flame off. It looked done.”

“Good. Thanks.”

They walked back to the house with a saddened Maita between them. Gamba had his arm around her, sharing her worry, but not bothering her with helpful chatter. I like that, Hilda thought, a man who doesn’t have to try to solve her problems right away.

Over supper, they discussed when the market would have a good selection of dairy cows, and what they could move around in the budget. Hilda could tell that the budget was very tight, but she avoided bringing attention to herself.

Then they asked about Hilda’s trip. She explained her itinerary: round-trip from Frankfurt and the rented bicycle from Bulawayo.

Gamba was stunned. “You rode that bicycle from Bulawayo?”

“Yes. And I saw a number of women who were coming and going along the way. Some of them had their loads on their heads instead of on racks behind them.”

“You won’t find them riding close to the Buffer Area.”

“I noticed the lack of traffic once I got off the asphalt.” She looked at Maita. “Leopards?”

“Yes, and jackals and hyenas. Look at it from the predator perspective,” said Maita. “A person walking is easy prey for any number of animals, whether leopards alone, or groups of hyenas or jackals. But leopards would see a cyclist as bigger prey, like antelope and zebra. Their favorite food.”

Hilda thought about that. “They go for the throat, you said. Would that be mine or the handlebars, I wonder.”

“I’d hate to find out.”

“I got here safely. Maybe it has to do with the time of day.”

“They are more active at night, but, as you can see, they have no problem hunting in the daytime.”

“Let me think about that. Meanwhile, is there anything I can do around here to help? You don’t seem to have lots of hands.”

Maita and Gamba looked at each other. “We could not put our guest to work.”

“In this case, I’m asking. It would make me feel better, and give me a feel for what it must have been like for my grandfather when he was Kutenda’s age.”

“We’ll think about it. Anyway, only one of us has to milk cows, and it will not be you. So, sleep in.” She stood. “Let’s have dessert.”

***

Hilda did sleep in, but she was up, washed and dressed when Gamba came through the backdoor with a can of fresh milk. Maita had made coffee, and was frying some kind of meat on the stove when he walked in. He kissed Maita on the cheek and turned to the coffee maker.

“Sit,” he said to Hilda. He put a coffee mug in front of her and filled it. Then he took some eggs from the refrigerator, and began whipping them in a bowl, with spices, some of the milk, and at least two kinds of chopped peppers. “I have an idea for Hilda, dear.”

“Well?”

“Let’s double the barbed wire on the fence. I know the leopards sometimes jump the fence, but those hyenas should not have gotten through.”

“Well, it’s something, anyway.”

Hilda nailed up barbed wire for the next two days. At the end of the second day, she helped Kutenda load the skeleton of the cow into a wagon. The bones had been picked so clean that there was no odor or decaying meat visible. She also harvested vegetables, repaired stalls, and did other carpentry projects.

The feeling of being useful, working with her hands, and helping her new friends filled her heart. She noticed that someone always carried a rifle when they were out in the field.

On the third day, Hilda and Kutenda were walking to the harvester at the far edge of the farm. She was carrying the rifle, it having been determined in an evening competition on the second day that she was the best shot on the farm.

She caught a movement to her right, and whirled to see a leopard leap gracefully from a tree over the fence. With its eyes fixed on Hilda’s neck, it ran and lunged at her.

But not before she put a triple burst into its face. She had not been aware of bringing the rifle up.

The big cat stopped in the air with its teeth around the barrel. She saw surprise in the animal’s eyes. It fell to her feet, knocking her over, and gouging her leg on the way down.

Hilda dragged herself out from under the leopard. The pain shot up her leg as she struggled to stand. She looked down. The rounds had exited its neck, leaving the head dangling on the neck bones. Her leg was bleeding down on the head, but she could tell it was not arterial. Still, she needed —

Kutenda screamed.

She turned to see the shaking boy staring at the dead leopard. She limped to him, and hugged him. “It’s all right now, Kutenda. It’s all right.”

When he stopped shaking, she got his attention back to the practical.

“Quick, run to the house and ask Maita to bring a first aid kit.”

With a shocked glance at her leg, he ran up the hill toward the house. Even in his urgent panic, Hilda admired the natural grace of his long stride.

She turned her attention to her leg. Taking off her shirt, she wiped off the wound, pulled the edges together and wrapped her leg as tightly as she could, making a knot with the sleeves, which she tightened with a stick. Not as tight as a tourniquet, but enough to keep the wound closed.

Feeling light-headed, she lay down with her leg elevated on the big cat, and rested while she waited. The pain was a burning as much as anything else, as long as she did not move it.

Maita and Gamba arrived with a box of supplies. Hilda opened it.

“This is a full combat first aid kit. I’m impressed.”

“We’re on our own out here. Let me see.” She cut away Hilda’s pant leg, and competently cleaned the leg and the wound with hospital wipes. “It’s long but not deep. Stitches?”

“I think not, if you have plasters and gauze. We should be able to keep it closed until it seals itself.” It felt strange to have hands to help, but being able to feel the wound as she squeezed it closed and held it while Maita bandaged it was undoubtedly more effective.

Gamba ran back to the house to get a tractor, while Maita and Hilda examined the cat. Maita told Hilda that it was an adolescent.

“First and last time it tries to eat a rifle,” she said. “I hope this is the one that got the cow.”

Gamba came back with a small tractor that they used in the fields, so that Hilda could return to the house in the trailer without moving her leg. She was not bleeding through the bandages, so they set her up in a comfortable chair in the parlor. That night, she was able to climb the stairs to go to bed, though Maita walked next to her.

The next morning, they changed the bandages. The wound had sealed over lightly. Hilda would need to keep the bandages holding the wound closed for another day or two, but she could move carefully without pain.

***

At supper on the fifth day, conversation returned to replacing the cow. Maita was concerned, because they could fall behind in milk deliveries.

“How do you get the cow here from Bulawayo?” asked Hilda.

Gamba said, “we have a cattle truck on the other farm.”

Maita paused her fork and put it down. “Gamba, we could take Hilda back to Bulawayo with her bicycle. Then she would not have to change her booking. I know there’s a charge for that.”

“Let’s do it,” he said. “And come back with a new cow.” He mentioned two animals that he had seen online. “I’ll put in a bid on the Mashona so it’s still there on Monday.”

Maita’s expression alternated between pleasure that they were making movement toward replacing their cow, and worry about the cash flow problem, which she did not mention.

“Under the circumstances, I’d be happy to hitch a ride back to Bulawayo.” Hilda waved at her leg.

On Monday, Gamba came back from the other farm with a stake truck rigged for carrying cattle. He lashed Hilda’s bicycle in the back. The cows were milked, and Kutenda promised to keep them from straying too far from the barn. With that taken care of, the three friends climbed into the cab, and Gamba drove to Bulawayo. Hilda watched the scenery go by in fast motion, but the arid, dusty land still filled her heart. More of her than she realized was tied to this beautiful but unforgiving land.

In Bulawayo, they stopped at the bicycle shop. Maita helped Hilda out of the truck and pushed the bicycle to the shop for her.

On their way across town, Hilda took out two traveller’s cheques that she had filled out and folded over. She pressed them into Maita’s hand.

“Let me buy you a present. The farm and you mean so much to me.”

Maita looked at the two pieces of paper and gasped. “No! We cannot let you do this.”

“Maita, three days is the traditional limit for hospitality. We’re past that. Consider our situations. I am on holiday, with a budget that includes hotel accommodations and meals. You have freed up that money in my budget, and there is nothing I want to do with that money more than buy that cow. Please!” Hilda was surprised to feel tears welling in her own eyes. Maita noticed it, too.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I still want a card at Christmas. I’ll send one, too.”

At the stockyard, Hilda waited in the truck. When Gamba and Maita came back with some workers and the big, brown Mashona cow, Hilda was stunned.

“That cow is enormous,” Hilda said, as her hosts joined her. Gamba put the truck in gear.

“Yes, but did you notice the udders? This cow can produce half again as much milk as the other ones.”

“That’s good.”

When they arrived at the airport hotel, Hilda hugged Gamba. Then she let Maita help her slide down.

“You have change,” said Maita.

“Buy yourselves something. Or tip Kutende for watching the farm. Or buy his books next year. Just don’t give it back.”

Maita let the tears fall as she hugged her new friend. Gamba was wiping his eyes, too.

Hilda watched them get in the truck. The big cow eyed Hilda, as Gamba put the truck in gear and drove into the sun. With a sigh, Hilda shouldered her panniers and limped carefully into the hotel lobby.

© 2021, JT Hine

Photo credit: National Geographic.

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