Chapter 12: Serengeti adventure

Raj’s army of workers had shifted to Serengeti. Being a wildlife sanctuary, the work in the area had to be finished speedily, with minimal vehicular movement. It was decided that the workers would finish the job in shifts. The noisy generators would ensure that animals stayed away and a few Masai, the local shepherds who were known to fight lions, were hired to ensure the safety of the workers. The Masai were getting paid in free meals, local booze and $100.

It took them two days to find the right site and mark the area. The Masais cleaned up the site and put up a fence of thick thorny bushes. The whole area had only one wooden gate wide enough to allow a truck inside. Fires were lit in several places outside the fence, to scare away any animals, while the Masais and the workers would sing and dance through the night.

One day, while cleaning the area, Raj and Bonde were pegging the area with their team. They were walking through tall grass.

“Mzee, Bonde! There are no snakes here?”

Like a heavy Patton tank coming to a screeching halt, Bonde stopped.

“Aan, aan. Don’t talk about snakes when we are in the field,” he warned.

“Why?”‘

“If you remember them, they will come, Bwana. We never talk about it while we are clearing the site.”

“Are you serious?”

“Very much. You know the snakes in Serengeti? Go to Arusha Snake park and see. Have you heard of Kali (deadly) snake Mamba?”

“Really?”

“Wewe (you) Mistaa Raji! If Black Mamba comes now, he will stand like you and bring his face to your level and then he will spit in your eyes. You will be blinded immediately. Then he will bite you on your face and everywhere. You will die immediately.”

The workers walking close behind them seemed immobilised. Raj could see the halo of death around Bonde’s face. He could not smile and pass this off as a joke.

“There is one more snake, Green Mamba. He will always be sitting on the tree. Veli komfotaboli (very comfortably). When you pass by the tree, he will hang upside down and come…”

Bonde lunged forward, grabbed Raj’s head with his hands and brought his face close to Raj. His eyeballs seemed to pop out of his head; his mouth opened wide and he hissed with incredible force… ‘ffffaaahh’ .

Bonde’s imitation of the Green Mamba’s hiss was so perfect that Raj could almost see the huge python-like creature hanging down from the tree to kill him. The foul smell from Bonde’s dry mouth almost made him vomit. Bonde decided to take a break and asked the staff to get him tea and water.

When they had gone, Bonde continued, “In a jungle, there are two deadly things you should worry about, which even the Masai cannot stop. Snakes and bees. They can be any where. They can come at any time and you cannot escape, even if you have a gun or a Masai with you.” People nodded heavily.

“If Simba (lion) comes, this Masai will stand here. He will not run away. He will fight. But if bees come, you will not find him. When bees attack you, they go into your ears, eyes, mouth, and any hole in your body. They bite like dogs on your cheeks, stomach, chest, hiaa dheya evere whia (here, there, everywhere). They are so many that you have no time to push them away.”

“When I was young, I was in the jungles looking for firewood with my friends. We were throwing stones on the mangoes in the tree. We did not see the beehive inside. One big stone hit the beehive. They came down on us like smoke from a gun. Luckily, I fell down, as I was heavy. The other boys ran so the bees chased them. Two of them died. They removed bees from inside their stomach and intestines!”

The listeners grimaced as though they had bees in their intestines.

He lowered his head to show scars left by bee bites. They looked like patches of burnt land on a hill.

Raj tried to ease the tension, “Mzee, you are scaring me now.”

“Haaki ya Mungu (I swear by God)! These two, snake and bees, are deadly. Never remember them, otherwise they will remember you.”

The silence after this statement lasted for a long time. Then Poto asked, “wipi Profesaa?”

Professa, as usual, was ready with a comment.

“Kweli! If you call Mungu, he may or may not listen to you, but if you call bees and snakes! Halleluyah! They will come. As we say in our language,Ukitaja nyoka, shika fimbo mkononi. (When you mention a snake, have a stick ready in your hand.)

For the first time, everybody around did not respond with the customary ‘Ndiyo’. They started dispersing after listening to the bee-like words of the Professa.

Within three days, the huts were ready, and work on the foundation had started. All the necessary material had been piled up all over the site. The trucks would make only one trip in a day, bringing diesel, cement, gravel, and other construction equipment.

It was a quiet afternoon and everybody took a short break for lunch. They were eating quietly. Poto was teasing Rose. Others were watching them and commenting in between. Raj enquired. ‘Hey! Why are you teasing her?”

Bonde said, “Mistaa Raji, Rose is very rich now. She will leave our work.”

“Why?”

“Her big mother died a few days ago.”

“What do you mean ‘big’ mother? Grandmother? And what is there to celebrate?”

Bonde explained that Rose belonged to the ferocious Kuria tribe living on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. As per the Kuria rules, a rich lady with a barren womb can marry another, generally younger, girl by giving some cattle to the father. They stay together in a house and the arrangement is called Nyumba ya Ntobo.The younger girl then conceives children on behalf of the rich lady and hands over the children to the lady who uses them to perform household chores, such as getting firewood and looking after cattle.

An old widow had married Rose’s mother who had been the fifth child in a large family. Her grandfather could not afford her. His need or greed was cattle, not Rose’s mother. Rose’s grandfather had agreed to this marriage for barter. He had received two cows, two lambs and five bags of maize for his daughter. After the marriage, she had to do all the work around the house. She would go for cattle grazing. She would fetch fire wood. She gave birth to three children following a long relationship with a truck driver. She could not get married to the man, since her husband was the old lady!

When Rose grew up and had children, the old lady had the first right to them. The children started working around the house. Rose’s husband left her when Rose was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her brother sent her to Dar-es-Salaam so she could get medical attention.

After a few months, Rose was feeling better and started working in Bonde’s house. Her mother had died and now the old lady had died, leaving behind cattle, a big house and a small maize farm. Rose and her two siblings had inherited all this.

Her brother was asking her to meet him to decide the division of the inheritance and take care of her grown-up children.

Raj heard all this in silence and turned to Rose. “What will you do now?”

Rose replied shyly, “I do not know.”

Poto stood up, “I am going to marry her. Ukipanada mboga, lazima upenda ua lake.(if you want vegetables then first like their flowers)”

Rose screamed with laughter, “Wewe toto (you kid)!”

“What did Poto say?” asked Raj quickly.

“If you want to marry a woman, better accept her children first,” said Bonde.

Before Raj could react, he saw a Masai running towards them shouting something they couldn’t hear. As he got closer they realised he was saying “Climb on the trucks”.

People left their food and ran towards the trucks. Raj and Poto climbed over the roof of a truck, but still had no idea why the warning was issued.

“Shida gani (what’s the problem)?” Raj asked the Masai.

In reply, the man pointed at the nearby hills. Raj could see nothing more than a cloud of dust on the horizon. Within moments, under the cloud of dust, he could see a black rug of a massive horde of running beasts —wildebeests and zebras descending from the top of the hill on the back.

“Bossi, yule nyama (those beasts) can you see them?” Poto yelled.

“Yes but after going down that hill, where will they go?” Before Poto could answer, they saw the first line of beasts crest the top of the hill nearest the site. People were still not clear why they were on the trucks.

Raj laughed, “Ah, wewe Masai! Why are they so scared? Let’s go ahead with our work.”

Before Raj could jump down, it was clear that the beasts were headed towards them. The earth vibrated under the thundering hooves and now everyone feared for their lives.

Some of them cried, prayed or simply held on to the truck’s roof as well as they could. For a moment Raj felt numb. Poto pulled him into the truck and shouted, “Bossi, get inside the cabin.”

A few yards away from the fence, the running beasts had gotten divided into two deadly streams. In seconds, the streams closed in and circled the site. Finally they hit the fence, ran over it and started running all over the site. The huts were torn apart, utensils, clothes and light building materials that had been so carefully stored on the site, were now flying in the air and being trampled into the dust. The animals banged into the diesel drums and the generator and toppled them over. They stomped over the cement bags and every thing that got in their way.

Some animals stumbled, fell and were trampled by the others behind them. But nothing could be seen clearly now, the dust that had risen had made everything beyond a few inches from their eyes invisible. The trucks were shaking. The animals banged their heads and bodies on the front and the sides.

Suddenly, a gazelle jumped over the driver’s cabin and landed into the open carriage at the back. It fell in the midst of the trembling humans clinging to each other in fear. Their cries could not be heard, but the gazelle’s hooves did break a few skulls and cut scars on faces. In fear, it jumped again, but could not jump out of the carriage. After a few seconds, the animal stood quietly watching the herd pass by.

Poto and Raj were hiding under the steering wheel. Raj had closed his eyes waiting for the worst to get over. The animals had slowed down and in a few minutes, they had disappeared, leaving behind the badly mangled bodies of their mates and a shattered worksite that looked as though a particularly devastating earthquake had struck.

The trucks were damaged beyond recognition. The torn out radiators, broken fenders, shattered headlights and the blood on the windscreens made for a ghastly scene. The people gingerly picked their way across the mess only to find a pride of lions merrily picking up their food.

Cries for the Masai filled the air. But the famed shepherds seemed too scared to do what they did best. Raj called out to Poto, “Start the truck, reverse it and blow the horn. Fast!” Poto panicked. He reversed the truck rashly without paying any attention to what was behind the vehicle. People still clinging on to the back of the truck fell down in surprise and the gazelle that had been left behind, jumped out and ran for its life. But the lions became cautious at the sight of this noisy vehicle. They went away reluctantly.

***

It took them two more days to reorganise the site.

“Mistaa Raji! One more very bad news, Bwana.”

“What?” Raj thought Bonde would refuse to get back to work on the site.

“That ministaa, did not get tiketi (ticket) for re-election from Bagamoyo. Now they will not declare free port there I lost my money Bwana.”

“Pole saana,” Raj said. He felt genuinely sorry for Bonde.

“Bahati mbaya (bad luck),” then with his characteristic smile Bonde said,

“Ukimwiga tembo kunya utapasuka mkundu.”. Juma and Poto standing next them, started laughing.

Raj did not understand “What?”

Bonde refused to interpret, he felt shy.

Poto explained “If you copy an elephant shitting, you’ll burst your… (anus)” He could complete only pointing at his bottoms.

***

Raj modified the plans for the site and fortified the fence to prevent any disasters in the future. People worked at an unbelievable speed and worked beyond their normal shift times to get out of the place at the earliest. Raj no longer spent the evening playing the guitar and reminiscing about Leena.

Every now and then, the workers would look up at the hills, where they had first spotted the running hordes. The hills had become the real supervisors on the site, reminding every worker to get back to work.Bonde was also a changed man. He no longer idled his time away and was always on his feet shouting ‘Harakka’ (fast) to the workers.

Finally, the site was ready, and it was with a lot if relief that the materials were packed up and loaded in the trucks.

A herd of about sixty wild buffaloes was grazing not more than a hundred metres away from the site for a few hours. Suddenly, all of them turned their heads in one direction. They were looking at something and one of the bulls issued a loud cry. The whole herd turned, walked a few paces and turned around again in perfect tandem like a ballet. The Masais once again drew the attention of the workers.

A pride of six lions had appeared. They were cautiously approaching the herd of buffaloes. The herbivores stood together, forming a protective circle around the calves. The lions did not charge but continued to move slowly, never once lifting their eyes from the prey. The buffaloes started to move away from the lions. Two of the animals at the periphery were not quick in keeping up with the rest of the herd.

Two lionesses seized the moment to charge and caught a buffalo that was farthest from the herd and brought him down. The buffalo gave a loud cry and tried to stand up; the lionesses were hanging from his sides. One more lioness charged as well and bit his throat. The herd turned around again to face the lions. One of the bulls leading the pack issued a loud cry. It was time for the lion to act now. He was standing a small distance away. Now, he stalked the herd. The herd moved away as fast as it could, leaving behind the hunted one.

By now, the lion had reached the injured animal, and stood watching the herd move away. It seemed as if they were not in any hurry to kill the animal, but wanted the herd to go away. The herd turned around once again to face the lions.

The buffaloes, with head and ears erect, took two steps in the direction of the lions and stood still. The lions took a step forward as though accepting the challenge.

Raj was moved by what was unfolding in front of him. The people beside him enjoyed watching this battle of nerves. Raj wondered if it would help the poor animals if he would back his vehicle into the lions or at least honk the horn. He urged the Masais to do something, but they were content to just watch.

The herd had moved away again, and had resumed their watchful stance. Both sides were watching each other. The injured buffalo had started bleeding. Three lionesses were trying to gouge his flesh out. But he had not succumbed.

Two buffaloes from the herd took three steps ahead, a few seconds later a few more followed them. Then the whole herd moved a few steps closer to the lions. But they stopped again. The lions were alert and ready to attack.

The injured buffalo fell to one knee, the buffaloes moved again. One of the younger lions, at the head of the pride slowly, took a step back. This prompted the buffaloes to move forward again. They were now just twenty feet away from the lions. The lions held their ground, unfazed by the herd. One of the lionesses let go of the buffalo and joined the pride. The herd was feeling more confident now; the buffaloes leading the herd shook their heads as a warning. Another lion took a step backwards.

Another lioness let go of her hold of the buffalo’s neck. When the herd was within ten feet of the lions, the other lioness left the buffalo and moved back. The herbivores reclaimed their ground, step by step. The lion turned back and was about to walk away when two lionesses charged ahead. The herd froze, the lion turned back and roared.

It was too much for Raj to bear. He jumped into his pick-up and sped all the way to the middle of the scene, honking as loudly as the vehicle’s horn would let him. Both sides looked at the charging vehicle. Raj took it behind the lions. The pride was now between the vehicle and the buffaloes. They ran away as fast as they could. The herd circled the victim and watched the vehicle turn away from them. The buffaloes slowly moved away from the place with the bleeding victim.

The mood back at the site was jubilant. But one Masai was very disapproving of Raj’s interference. “It is illegal to run vehicle like this on animals,” he said. Poto retorted, “You are not real Masai, he is real Masai. Get lost.”

The team headed back to Arusha. The Serengeti experience had knocked out Bonde and his team. His vehicles needed urgent repairs and Ramadan Eid was a good excuse to recharge everyone’s spirits and spruce up the equipment.

After a lot of deliberations and pleading, Zuly agreed for a two-week break. Mama Rose set out to find her new-found fortune.

As Bonde’s army headed back for a well-earned rest nobody was in a mood to talk. Some of them were irritated that they could not sleep on the way home because of the bumpy roads. After hours of torture, the trucks rolled on to tarmac roads.

The Profesaa took advantage of the moment to say, “Serengeti is full of animals. I do not know why we were putting simu tower in jungle. Who will use it?”

Glad to be back on their favourite routine again, everyone chorused, “Ndiyo-o-o.”

Bonde had dozed off and woke up on hearing the shout. He opened his eyes and said, “Profesaa! Eh!” He fell asleep immediately.

Raj was in his own world, thinking about climbing Kili again. Serengeti had taken him away from rest of his world.

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