Chapter 17: Rolling Stones

Lake Victoria, the third largest in the world is, in fact, a sweet water ocean in the midst of East Africa. It touches the Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan borders and is one of the sources of River Nile. Like an ocean, it has several islands, huge waves and big boats ferrying everything from vehicles to bananas. A huge steamer takes the whole night to cross the lake. About one thousand tons of its fish, Nile perch, is air-freighted daily, for European middle class consumers. Mwanza is situated on this lake.

Because it is situated on the lake and has several tall trees, Mwanza has a vast population of birds, such as kites, storks, egrets and spoonbills. Each species has a preference for a certain kind of tree to stay and perch on. Egrets, in particular, prefer trees with a thin leaf cover, such as the eucalyptus, and perch on its branches and trunk. Even the road below was stained white with their droppings. In the late evening, between the hills, the sky was filled with thousands of bats.

 

Mwanza, with its two million-strong population, was busy during the day but very quiet in the early morning and evening. The city was in the midst of several hills on both sides of the main city centre. The hills were dotted with huge granite rocks, mostly egg-shaped, oval or round, some of them more than two storeys high. Due to erosion, there was no grass or mud on them and the rock surfaces were neatly exposed.

Many of the rocks rested on a single gravity-defying point. Many were overhanging, like a toad or a reversed egg, looking very unrealistic. Some rocks as big as a lorry rested on the top of other rocks.

They all looked so neat, as if a careful child had washed and arranged the pebbles, sometimes one over the other. It was nature’s sand play, rather pebble play, on the beach of the great lake.

In fact, the hills had more rocks than trees or open space. Many people stayed on the hills. The poor ones lived in huts using the rocks as walls. The rich lived in the valley in buildings two or three storeys high. Also situated in this area were banks, markets and other important establishments. The city was divided by two major roads; one, along the lake and the other in the centre of the valley, dividing the hills.

Lake flies were a peculiarity of the area. These were tiny, like mosquitoes starved for one week, constantly flying in dense clouds. They did not bite or buzz, but they clogged mosquito nets and filled every open space with their dead bodies. They got stuck in the hair, in your mouth, nostrils and ears. It was not advisable to attend nature’s call in the midst of a cloud of lake flies. The flies formed such a dense cloud over the lake and surrounding coastal areas that it could be seen as smoke or fog from a twin propelled aircraft.

The lake with islands, hills, birds, tall trees and millions of rocks was a true natural delight.

Since the site was not very far from the city, Raj stayed there in a rented apartment. He loved to jog along the lake in the morning and would try to climb one of the hills. He would reach the peak, choose a rock and rest there for a while looking at the majestic lake.

Work progressed well and was completed on time. Raj, Poto, a watchman and Huku stayed back to complete commissioning while the rest of the gang including Bonde proceeded on a long journey south with all their materials.

Raj wanted to start commissioning in the early morning, and so went to bed before midnight after flipping through a few TV channels as usual and so did the whole town. At 3 am, there was a mild tremor. Some husband thought his wife had gone to pee as usual and pushed the bed. Some wife thought her husband changed the side rather too vigorously. Some old people thought their sugar had gone down, some old people got up and enquired in loud voices and were silenced by even louder voices from their progeny. A few dogs barked and the birds chirped noisily. People got out of their homes and into the streets. A police van prowled the roads. One could see how ugly the usually pretty looking, tidy, well-dressed lady or a gentleman looked when they have just got out of the bed.

Huku and Raj were too lazy to get up and the squeaky ceiling fan created a sound curtain around them, not allowing any other sound to enter the room. After a while, panic was replaced by a sense of adventure. Some people stayed up to have fun, while the rest of the town went back to sleep.

But forty miles away, on an island called Ukerewe, people could not have fun or sleep. The tremors were stronger there, waves crashed onto buildings and shops. Roofs vanished, anchored boats collided against each other, and the powerful sound of waves and screams engulfed the island. There were thousands of fishermen all over the lake fishing Nile perch. Boats near the epicentre overturned. Many people died, some managed to stay afloat. But the rest started fleeing towards the coast. The island had no electricity from the mainland. The waves blew two or three transformers on the outskirts of the island and silenced the generator within minutes. The waves dislodged the generator, the transformers, the cables and poles. Those who survived tried to hang on to whatever they could grab and fled with whatever came in their way.

Some died, some survived like ants clinging on to a floating leaf or twig in a steam. Lake struck with vengeance. It removed every traces of civilisation and fell silent as it was millions of years back.

Ukerewe was submerged.

Though the lake covered up the Ukerewe disaster because of its huge mass and size, like the Russians trying to cover up Chernobyl, it could not prevent a few huge waves from spilling over the road in Mwanza city that overturned a few boats, but no one noticed. Most of the town was asleep.

But soon there was somebody else silently complaining about Ukerewe. People woke up to find themselves buried under the bodies of dead clouds of lake flies. The news about Ukerewe spread like wildfire. Although the tragedy of Ukerewe was confirmed, businesses, government offices, banks and schools in Mwanza opened as usual. People were talking in groups in the streets and on the main road.

Raj woke up to find a thick sheet of dead lake flies on his mosquito net. He peeped out of the window and saw a thick cloud of flies covering the street. Huku’s body had flies all over; he got up and shook them off. Raj came down to his parking area with Huku where the watchman told him about the tremors at night and about Ukerewe. Raj was surprised at the large-scale devastation, but felt something was amiss. He thought it might be because of the flies and smoggy atmosphere. He drove off to work.

On the way, he found the whole city was on its feet.  On reaching the site, Poto told him the same Ukerewe story but he dismissed it as a rumour. He got on with his job.

At around 10 am, short but strong tremors were felt. Streetlight poles vibrated and tube lights fell off. The sky was dotted with birds issuing loud cries and circling the city. Billboards fell down, and some hung up precariously, injuring people. Within seconds, people were rushing out of buildings. Shops and business establishments started closing down.

Suddenly, the lake bulged and a huge wave engulfed the city in waist-deep water, which quickly entered the streets, shops, banks and vehicles. Panic had set in and people and vehicles went about helter-skelter banging each other, blocking the streets. The rich were determined to leave town with their families as long as their vehicles would permit it. Some were apprehensive of the masses and the floods.

Most people went towards the hills. The people on the hills watched the commotion down below. The choice was between the flood and the earthquake. Some started shifting on the terraces with foodstuff and bedding.

Groups of vandals broke open shops and started looting. One group entered the bank. The guard had disappeared and so had most of the staff. The officers were closing the strong room and safes. They were pushed aside and the money was stashed in bags. The robbers inside did not leave because of their greed. They were squeezed and squashed as more people entered the bank to take what they could find. It was the same case in the shops.

A few people laughed, while some cried and prayed. Food, garbage, plastic, slippers and the assorted belongings of citizens started floating in the flood water.

The lake flies had disappeared. The sky was clear, the birds had disappeared. The worst was yet to come.

Raj was about to put a tiny screwdriver in the screw slot when his hand was pushed aside by the tremor. Poto jumped out of the room shouting, “Bossi, kimbie (run).” Raj followed.

They ran out of the control room and saw the tower shaking. The antenna and the dishes were vibrating eerily. Huku was barking incessantly.

When the tremors stopped, they were all panting. Poto said, “Bossi, let’s leave Mwanza now. It is dangerous.”

“Where should we go? It is not safe to drive when the earth is shaking. Wait till it cools down.”

“Let’s slowly drive and go to Shinyanga. I told you about Ukerewe. You did not take me seriously.”

Raj waited for a while and then mocked Poto, “Ahh, wewe mayayi tu (you are soft like an egg). Be a man, dume. I am about to finish my work. We shall go then, okay?”

“You will repent bossi. Hurry up.”

They went inside the room again. They did not notice the mercury-like lining on the horizon a few kilometres away. The lake was taking over the island.

After about half an hour, there were very strong tremors again. Entire buildings collapsed. Electric and telephone poles were uprooted. Transformers burst, sounding like bombs. Vehicles overturned and vandals were entrapped and found their wealthy grave in the shops and banks they were looting. Some just left the booty and tried run out into the open but fell down and struggled to keep out of the water.

The worst was to come now. Bismarck Rock, a famous landmark in Mwanza city, stood like a huge toad on a sharp edge, defying gravity for eons. When the tremors struck, the toad seemed to lower its head as if it had regained life after millions of years of hibernation. It lowered itself gradually further and further, as if to drink water from the lake. It toppled into the water.  When the king bowed down, his army followed. The rocks that had been sitting pretty in the hills of Mwanza city for millions of years started rolling down.

People in the hills were still watching the floods and the panic in the streets. When the avalanche started, they did not have a chance to prepare themselves.

In the first tumble, the rocks flattened houses under them and then they rolled down and killed the people who had gotten outside their homes. This took everyone by surprise; just as people from the city crawled up the hills, the hills pushed everyone away.

There were cries, confusion and chaos. Some were aghast and just accepted their stony death. There were many who climbed the hills, fearing bigger waves. When they saw the rocks coming down on them, they ran down. They fell over each other and the rocks made their fossils for the future.

There was no husband, there was no wife. There was no father. There was no son. Every body was looking at the rocks and trying to dodge. Rocks had no definite path. They would roll and hit other rocks and either stop or bring down another one too. They would get deflected by smaller stones or stubborn tree trunks and change their path.

It did not matter whether someone ran or stopped or got behind a solid rock. Death had come with a long checklist.

A mother had gone to fetch water from a tap, leaving behind a five-year old daughter with a three-year-old son. Both children were in their hut under a huge rock that served partly as a roof and one wall. On hearing the loud cries and colliding rocks, they started crying. They fell down frequently due to tremors. The sister came out to look for their neighbours and the brother followed her, holding on to her skirts. They stepped out of their hut. Their backs were towards the hilltop. They were looking down the hill expecting their mother and crying.

They did not know that a huge rock had started from the edge of the hill in their direction.

The rock came down tumbling over them. A half-cut tree trunk about two metres away deflected the rock slightly. The rock fell on one side and hit the rock that formed a part of their hut. There was a big crash. The tumbling rock was stopped by the saviour rock giving asylum to the poor family.  The children were frightened at the sound and turned back to see another wall behind them. They did not know anything and the sister pulled her brother along and went back into the house.

Destiny was not kind elsewhere. There was a government hospital located on one of the hills. As the tremors started, the hospital staff ran out of the two-storied building. Some patients, a few helped by their relatives, also managed to come out. The stronger tremors pushed the ground floor underground and the second storey crushed the intermediate one, which it overhung with broken slabs.

An old lady got out of the building but was unable to walk due to jerks. She shouted for help when she saw people running outside the hospital. When the building collapsed, the 10,000-litre tanks burst and let out the water stored in them. The water came down with force and washed away the old lady down the hill.

A young man shouted at his family to look up to the hills and dodge the rocks. He managed to dodge two rocks as he watched his family get crushed by a large rock. As he recovered from the shock, a herd of cows came running on the narrow pathway from behind. The first cow hit his back and threw him down. He was trampled underfoot by a herd of stampeding cattle.

It seemed as though the hills were melting—the small rocks that sat on top of the larger rocks like a baby monkey sitting on its mother’s back, began to tumble down with great momentum. Multi-storied buildings fell like a pack of cards. Two petrol pumps, at the bottom of the hills, burst into flames. Several large trucks with long tankers and cargo containers, which were parked close to the pumps, were squashed like toothpaste tubes.

The sounds of falling and colliding rocks were so loud that human cries could not be heard. Rocks formed a barricade around the hills at the bottom. The debris of buildings clogged the streets.

The tremors seemed to have given the lake a life of its own. Within minutes, it looked like a dome made of a huge gas balloon and thrashed the city with two-storey high waves, one after the other. The water found its way through the streets and the buildings. It moved with great force through the hills. The barricade of rocks on both sides of the town and the debris in the street restricted the water mass spread. As a result, the water entered the city centre at great speed and tremendous force like a water jet. It washed away trucks, vehicles, beds, windows, furniture, roofs, trees, animals and people and all that came after the lake was formed millions of years ago. There was nothing left in the centre of the city other than dunes of wet rubble.

Several fishing boats and ferry vessels were anchored on the shores of the lake. Some of the ferry vessels would even cart huge trucks and goods train to neighbouring country like Uganda and Kenya. There was fish auction yard and wholesale market. There was a fuel depot with huge storage tanks. When waves struck the shores, they dislodged the boats and splashed them on houses and near by streets. The waves took the dead fish with them trying to capture them back from humans. The first wave lifted mighty ferry vessels like a mother lifting her tiny child for diaper changing.

There were some foreigners living on the hills, specially carved out to nest these privileged birds. Some were working for mining companies; some, for road construction companies; some, on water pipeline projects and others as missionaries or NGO workers.

When the lower tide swept the city, it surrounded the hills. A middle-aged white couple were curiously watching the lake water surrounding their hill from wide glass windows of their house near the top of a hill.

The panoramic view of the overflowing lake and its water encircling their hill was exhilarating. After the initial tension, they stood on their balcony with their two daughters.

They moved from one side to the other and called to each other to have a look at the goings-on. Soon, the mother brought four mugs of coffee. With a mug in their hands, they looked on.

When the tremors struck their house, the mugs fell down. The father shouted ‘Out, out, out of the house’. They tried to come out but fell on the floor and on the staircase. They tried to grab each other and help.  The daughters cried. The parents yelled. They saw a crack in the middle of the floor like a serpent. The house tore from the middle. Walls collapsed. The ground gave way. The house came down like a pack of cards. The first giant wave hit the compound wall like a herd of running beasts. The wall was gone in seconds, as if it was nothing more than a curtain. Wave after wave came but could not touch the debris of the house. They pounded the soil underneath. The bungalow melted into the waves like an iceberg. The mugs of coffee, like a drop in the ocean, were lost in the waves.

When tremors struck the Tancell towers, the tower started shaking and groaning. Raj, Poto, the watchman, and Huku crawled, tumbled and rolled out of the control room. They got up and ran away only to fall down again. In between the tremors, Poto and the watchman ran for the pick-up; Huku followed Poto, while stopping briefly for Raj to catch up. Poto carried Huku into the back of his pick-up and fumbled with the keys as Raj turned behind to look at the tower. He noticed the water shining behind a distant hill, covering the entire horizon. He was frozen into immobility. He realized that the lake had spilled over.

Since it was the first low-height wave, it was fast but smooth. From the tower hill, it looked harmless. Poto started the engine and started honking frantically.

Raj stopped and started pointing out the water behind the hills, screaming that they had nowhere to go. Poto could not see it; he threatened Raj that he would go away, if Raj did not get into the pick-up. Then the final tremor came. The tower tilted slightly like the Tower of Pisa. The huge antenna fell to the ground. It bounced twice and rolled towards the pick-up. Poto could wait no longer; he drove the pick-up down the hill. Raj was left behind.

As soon as they reached the bottom of the hill, the watchman realised what Raj was trying to say. He started banging the top of the driver’s cabin and started screaming. “The lake water is coming. Stop the car.”

Poto did not listen and increased the vehicle’s speed. The watchman tumbled from his seat, reached the window and screamed again into Poto’s ears.

When Poto looked sideways, he saw the water coming towards him. He turned the vehicle around and started driving away from the approaching water. Raj could clearly see Huku, the helper and the pick-up being chased by the oncoming water.

.Raj could clearly see Huku, the helper and the pick-up being chased by the oncoming water.

A loud sound behind him forced Raj to look away from the impending disaster. A huge wave was about to hit the control room. Raj started climbing the tower. He was not sure if the wave would flow over the hill but he kept climbing. He had hardly reached the middle rung, when the waves passed him by. He looked at the waves as they swallowed Poto’s pick-up, which was tossed up like a rubber toy and pushed down by the second wave.

Raj screamed, “Potooooooo.” He then closed his eyes and softly cried, “Huku.” He stopped climbing and looked around for the pick-up, which had vanished.

There were so many things floating in the water; the debris of vehicles, houses and uprooted trees. There was a deadly silence.

Mother earth probably experienced it for millions of years earlier when it was born and was cooling down. It had a barren womb then, preparing for life on her.

But the outside world was noisier with radios and TVs flashing news of the disaster. Some thought it to be a minor breach of the lake. But soon the news spread fast. The government and NGOs started appealing for help. The army got there first and sent the first aerial pictures of the devastation. They did not find a landing place for relief work. The president, ministers and journalists got there too and were stunned at the extent of the devastation. It was too much to handle for the poor country.

Hours went by. It was getting darker. Like insects coming out from crevices and holes, survivors started making their way out of the rubble. They were looking for their families, for food and water, and for light. People were asking for matchsticks or burning wood to light up their shelters. Children could be heard crying and elders were helplessly pacifying them. It was going to be a long, long night.

Raj slowly climbed down from the tower and started walking around the hill looking for some sign of life. He could not find the pick-up. He held half a bottle of water that he had rescued from the control room. He took one sip and looked at the sky as if he was thanking God for sparing his life. He realised that his parents might know about the quake and the floods by now. They might think he had died. He could imagine their plight, but there was nothing he could do. He was very tired and lay down on the roof of the control room. He fell asleep, only to wake up from nightmares of a fresh onslaught.

Frogs and insects took charge of the night. The noise they made was head-battering. It was like giving various opera instruments to a whole school and asking children to play whatever they felt like.

When Zuly heard about the quake, it took him some time to realise what it meant. He called Raj’s parents and promised that he would find their son. He also told them that Raj’s home was about twenty kilometres away from the lake. Both the parents decided to fly immediately to Tanzania. Raj’s friends and relatives called or met them to give moral support. Leena wanted to join them.

Bonde, on his way to Iringa with the rest of his army, was taking a break in a small eatery. He was laughing and holding forth on many discussions, when Juma shook his shoulders and pointed at the television screen. Suddenly, the eatery fell silent. Everybody including the hotel staff was looking at the TV. Bonde’s hands started trembling. “Allah! Mmeona jamaani (did you see, folks)? Mungu, Al–Madad, help my son and Mistaa Raji.” After few moments, he got up. He turned to Juma, “‘Jamaani, tuna ondoka Mwanza (we go to Mwanza).” He could not control his anxiety and shouted ‘Twende..(let’s go)’.

Salome and her friends tried to get as close to Mwanza as possible, and find Raj on foot. She asked her parents to request a special mass in church and pray for Raj and his team. While climbing into the vehicle that would take her to the nearest village, she looked at Mount Kilimanjaro with tears in her eyes and whispered.  “Wait till he comes, don’t go away.”

Mwanza airport used to get 1 or 2 two Russian-made cargo planes everyday, carrying frozen fish from the lake to Europe. The airport was just a few houses and a tarmac road without lights. It was a refreshing change for a visitor who was used to the Gatwicks of the modern era to climb down a tiny aisle from the aircraft and walk down to the single-storey main building with its iron sheet roof. The first room had two open rectangular openings in the wall, facing the airstrip to push the luggage in and a few grill-like holes above to see the baggage cart coming.

There would be a mild commotion to grab the baggage over exchanges of ‘excuse me’ and ‘samahani-s (sorry)’ followed by smiles. The second room was the exit. Four flights of small and medium aircrafts, from morning to evening, would make this airport a reality. The Lake was at the end of the airstrip. The airport was not very well illuminated but because the surrounding area was dark, pilots could manage landing an aircraft in the late evening. Such landings were mostly done by four or six-seater charter planes, used by aid agencies, such as UNHCR and WHO.

Once, a Russian cargo plane pilot wanted to land his aircraft in Mwanza after night had fallen. He circled the lake, he mistook the lights on the fishing boats for airport lights and landed a few kilometres away from the airport, in the lake waters, like a swan! Best thing about Vodka is that it’s not just the pilot but even the aircraft goes tizzy over it.

There was no equipment to remove the sunken planes and boats.

Once submerged, they would stay submerged. A few divers might get underwater to take away valuables if any but that was a part of their ‘hobby’.

When the tremors had struck, the airport had been instantly destroyed. The earthquake pulled down the galvanized roofing sheets of the airport and the control tower tipped on one side. The giant waves had tossed the two cargo planes a couple of times and made them lie like cockroaches on their backs.

They were ripped open in the centre and the wings were broken. The frozen fish were strewn all over the airstrip, making a carpet of ice and dead fishes.

The army helicopters landed first on the muck and dead fish at the air strip and immediately started cleaning up and making room for more planes and food supplies

The skies that used to be dotted with a variety of birds all the time had a few small jets and copters from aid agencies, foreign news channels and politicians flying every now and then.

It was difficult to land in or around the town because of the rubble and mud.

Raj spotted a helicopter. He removed his t-shirt, tied it to a stick and climbed the leaning tower. He hooked his legs around a pole and waved the stick wildly. It was a small airplane. He was spotted, but could not be helped. He waited for a while and climbed down again. He was very hungry and thirsty. There was very little water left in the bottle. He felt helpless just sitting there so he walked down the hill towards the closest village. It was the same direction in which Poto had driven away. The water had receded to the extent that it only lapped his ankles.

On his way he saw more ghastly remnants of the flood and the quakes. There were dead animals, uprooted trees, human clothes, broken kiosks and human bodies. He gathered his courage and went into a broken hut. He found the food supplies almost immediately, but they were all wet and coated with mud.

He managed to salvage a few bottles of water, a little bread wrapped in polythene, biscuits wrapped in foil and a glass bottle of squash. He ate and drank a bit of everything. He walked around the village trying to find his pick-up again. Everything was covered in muck and mud, making the original colour of objects difficult to recognise.

Every now and then he referred to his hill and moved in the direction of the waves. He finally saw a pick-up lying on its side. When he got closer, he saw that the front of the vehicle had been smashed in and the steering wheel was jutting out awkwardly. There was no mistaking it now, it was his pick-up.

Through the open window, he could see the burly but mangled body of Poto stuck in the vehicle. He was still for a moment, “God, how cruel!” he cried. He covered his face with his hands and cried. He looked for the watchman and Huku, but could not find any sign of them. He decided to get back to the tower and get some help.

He heard the copter again and ran towards the tower, dropping everything, except a bottle of water. He splashed muddy water while running on both sides. He discarded his shoes. He could see a helicopter halting probably to photograph the inclined tower. Its tail was pointing towards him. He yelled like mad and ran for his life. He fell down a couple of times, barely reaching the tower, before his only hope flew away. He was panting heavily and cursed his fate.

As he neared the site, he saw something small emerge from the control room. “Huku?” he called out and started walking fast. The animal saw him and came running towards him.

“Huku! Huku!” It was indeed Huky. When the two met, Huku, though weak by now, jumped up to Raj’s throat and started licking him all over his body. The loyal dog wagged his entire body with his ears back and barking faintly with delight. Although both of them were very weak and tired, the man and his dog were happy for the first time in ages. Raj was on his knees and hugged Huku. Huku could not be controlled. He ran all around, jumped over Raj, licked him and peed in excitement. Both were dirty with mud, both were injured, both were crying. Poor Huku wanted to tell his story but could not do so.

Thanking God that he was not alone anymore, Raj set about the task of getting help.

***

It was the third day after the quake. Bonde and his team had reached Mwanza with a few donkeys and two gunmen with food, water, and medicines. Other essentials and a caravan were trucked in.

The donkeys were wondering why they had no load on their back and were been given a ride on the truck instead. They stopped by a broken bridge about thirty kilometres from Mwanza. Many NGOs and government aid agencies had set up camp there. Many vehicles were stranded on the road. Bonde saw Zuly standing there with Raj’s parents.

Though not sure about his own son’s fate, Bonde tried to comfort Raj’s parents, “Mzee, don’t worry. Mungu (God) Atubariki (will bless) us. Your son and my son will come back. I promise you, I will bring them.”

When Leena saw Bonde, whom she had gotten to know so well during her stay, she felt close to Raj. Raj’s father joined Bonde’s caravan. Others stayed back. Once they were dropped off the truck, the donkeys were loaded with supplies and led towards the town. Donkeys were back to their normal routine. Donkeys were donkeys again.

It was difficult locating the road to the hill. As they moved closer to the site, they kept glancing up at some prominent rocks and trees along the way that were being used as landmarks by locals who knew the site. Both fathers were oblivious to the pain and fatigue of walking barefoot in muddy unpaved terrain. They passed by several people who begged them for medicines and water. A few people tried to grab the rations tied on the donkeys’ backs.

They could see the tilted tower on the hill. Both fathers stopped looking down. Their eyes were glued on the tower. They were charged suddenly and so was the group. As they neared the tower, the two men stopped to look at the tiny cabin at the base of the tower. They started running towards it. On his high perch, Raj could see small ants moving towards him. He started waving his t-shirt again. Someone in the group spotted him. “He is Mistaa Raji, I think,” said Juma.

Tears blurred Raj’s father’s eyes. He looked at the sky and prayed to God. As the group climbed the hill, Raj knew it was his family and friends.

He could see Bonde clearly now. This brought him back to earth painfully. He wondered how he would answer what was bound to be Bonde’s only question — Poto yuko (is) wapi (where)?

He was surprised to see his father. His fatigue forgotten, Raj got off the tower and ran down the hill. Huku followed.

‘Ata (even) Mbwa (Dog) yupo(there).’

Bonde was alarmed to see only Raj and the dog, “Poto wapi?” he asked.

Raj’s father said, “He will be there, do not worry.”

Raj went to Bonde first. He took the older man’s hands in his and started crying. Bonde understood and could not stop his tears as well. Raj’s father was elated that his son was well, but he felt the grief that Bonde was going through. He knew that he could have been equally unfortunate.

Raj led the group to the pick-up. Everybody was aghast at the sight. Bonde tried to regain his composure, and whispered Ayahs from the Koran. “Innalillahi wa inna ilahi rajioon, Allahummag fir lahu war ham hu (God sent us to earth, to him we shall return).”

Juma asked Raj to take Bonde away while they tried to get Poto out. Poto’s body was covered in a cloth and put on a donkey’s back. The unloaded foodstuff was partially served to the group and transferred on the other donkey. Everybody started walking back silently. Bonde kept whispering religious prayers for the dead.

After a while Raj narrated the whole story. Bonde was tired. The group stopped in their tracks. Raj’s father gave him water and a packet of juice and tried to comfort him. They walked till late in the night and rested till sunrise.

When the caravan reached the camp, there were emotional scenes. A large crowd had gathered to observe the rescue operations. Raj’s mother ran towards her son. She hugged him and cried. So did Leena and so did Salome. Zuly also hugged Raj and said, “I am so happy you are back, brother!”

They could not express much as Poto’s body was alongside. They held Bonde’s hands and tried to console him. The big man broke down and told Raj’s mother ‘Bibi, I promised you both our sons alive. I could bring only your son alive..my son…’ He broke down into sobs.

Bonde and his team took Poto’s body to his native place for the funeral rites. Raj and the others stayed in Shinyanga town. Salome wanted to be with Raj, but he was constantly surrounded by his parents, Leena and Zuly. Many times she was left alone. She told herself that Raj was safe and taken care of. Her mission was over. She slipped away from the camp and went home with her friends.

Huku would not leave Raj’s side for even a second. He would tail Raj even to the toilet. Raj did not mind this attachment at all, as both had seen death together. The bondage grew stronger when they came out of the calamity. Raj would somehow get a feel of Poto when Huku was beside him as the three of them had spent a lot of time together. There was some trouble with the airline while returning to Dar but Zuly managed to make things work out.

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