An Act of Kindness (1976)

Published in Africa Geographic, July 2004

Memory is selective. It has to be. I spent eleven months travelling through Africa and every day something special happened. Now, 28 years later, only bright fragments can be recalled, teasing me with their forgotten context. Where was I when that particular incident happened? I can’t remember. But I can still feel the chill of the night air somewhere in Central Africa, and the rough, inadequate warmth of my orange-and-white striped kaftan. And the fear. I think it was eastern Zaire, but was it a game park we crossed in that truck or just bush country? I don’t know; the facts have all become blurred, but the sensations and emotions are still in sharp focus.

It had been a shock to move from Anglophone Africa to the French-speaking countries. The everyday aspects of travel that we now took for granted, like bargaining for transport, became an ordeal. We struggled to find the right words and to understand the response. It was late afternoon when we finally found a pickup truck loaded with produce and passengers heading for our destination. The price quoted seemed unreasonably high and it took some time to agree on an acceptable fare. We squeezed in and joined our fellow-travellers on the hard side benches. Twilight came, and then darkness. The road got rougher and we had to hang on to the sides to prevent ourselves being thrown out. There were no friendly lights from settlements. Nothing but blackness. Then the truck stopped.

Footsteps crunched through the sand as our driver came to our side of the vehicle to speak to us. He wanted more money. If we didn’t pay, he said – or we think he said – he would put us out in the bush. He pointed into the darkness. “Il y a lions” he said. We believed him, but lions or not we were not going to pay more than the agreed price. The other passengers watched impassively, only the whites of their eye visible in the gloom. The argument continued for a few minutes, then he returned abruptly to the driver’s seat and we continued on our way. I was frightened. More of the power this man wielded than of the wild animals that no doubt lurked in the bush.

We continued along the dirt road, swaying from side to side avoiding potholes. It became very cold. Our warm gear was in our backpacks which were inaccessible under the seats. We sat close, hugging ourselves to retain body heat. The journey seemed to last hours. Perhaps it did. Finally bright lights in the distance heralded a small settlement. The driver stopped outside a house and disappeared inside. We were sure he was visiting his girlfriend and felt bitter and angry at our helplessness. We didn’t dare get out in case he jumped in and drove off with our luggage. He was gone a long time. A light drizzle was falling. We waited grimly, the cold gnawing at our bones. Then the driver reappeared. I have a perfect memory of him standing for a moment in the doorway, a silhouette lit from behind, holding something in each hand. He walked up to our side of the truck and handed each of us a glass of steaming hot milk. As he gave it to us he smiled for the first time.

© Hilary Bradt

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