The road is this straight as a die grey ribbon vanishing into the hazy blue beyond. The dome overhead is pupil-contracting quicksilver. The sun, at its highest point, is angry as hell.
“Look at those kids ahead, Joseph,” shouts Wilfred over the blaring radio – it’s Thomas Mapfumo’s Mbuya Nehanda. He indicates an amorphous blob rising out of the nearest mirage a half mile in front of us. “They are going to have something nice for us.”
We are thus: Machona, the driver of the Sunday News pool car, a Peugeot 504 estate; Wilfred riding shotgun; me in the back, sandwiched between two enormously matronly ladies, one of whom is doing a good job of compressing her skinny husband into the farside rear passenger door.
In the adjoining boot behind us are seven more adults, one with a bulging-eyed infant strapped to her back.
Wilfred has confided in me his latest enterprise. He’s written a series of exclusives which have spiked the paper’s Sunday sales. The subject is a inyanga, a traditional healer (it’s not polite to say witch doctor). The inyanga at the heart of Wilfred’s startling revelations possesses the magical severed hand of a tikoloshe. This is a wicked little African sprite that steals into homes and enjoys secret nightly carnal encounters with the spellbound wives.
The inyanga also has a giant python, which lives where we are now headed – in the ancient granite citadel and spiritual centre that is the Matobo Hills, 20 miles south of Bulawayo.
When tempted with warm goat’s milk, the serpent may emerge from a deep crevice beneath the balancing boulders – and has been known to speak great words of wisdom.
This is something people will part with good money to see, which explains the ten paying customers in the company car with us. Wilfred is turning a tidy profit and the editor is turning a blind eye for now. This goose is laying golden circulation figures.
“But what if the snake doesn’t appear, or if it doesn’t feel like chatting? Do you give the money back?”
“Let me tell you,” Wilfred schools me patiently, “how a good story works.”
He recounts the tale of a gecko that needs the help of a crocodile to reach an island in the middle of a river. This is where the flies and other insects are juiciest. But the gecko will also need the crocodile’s help to get back. ‘I am visiting my brother,’ says the little lizard. ‘His wife just had ten babies.’ The crocodile licks his lips and thinks, ‘This one will lead me to the others.’ So he carries the gecko to the other side. He follows behind as the gecko darts about the island eating until he is full. ‘Where is your family?’ asks the crocodile. ‘I want to say hello.’ The gecko replies: ‘They must have found a way to visit me. Take me back and you will meet them if we are not too late. By the way, did I tell you my brother has eight legs and two tails?’.
“If your story continues to give people hope,” explains Wilfred, “they will continue to come back. Because they want to believe.”
It’s another way of saying never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. But in the scheme of things, he’s just presenting a different kind of theatre, or church. The parable hurts no one. The people in the car with us will return feeling luckier, happier – more full of hope – simply for being in the presence of an otter’s paw and a saucer of milk. There’s nothing wrong with hope.
Machona pulls over and a dozen dusty village children from toddler to teen converge on all four open windows. They are selling plastic cups filled with dried macimbi, caterpillars of the mopane tree. Wilfred buys their entire stock of the crunchy delicacy without haggling over price, one portion for every person in the car. He winks at me and laughs, “Popcorn for the show”.
But he thinks I don’t notice when he quietly hands a crisp note to the astonished eldest child – it’s way more than the caterpillar cups are worth. When I ask him about it later, he explains that as a child he sold roasted mealies at a busy bus terminus in order to survive. He remembers how it felt to get unexpected help from a stranger.
“We must share,” he says simply. And he did. Siyabonga kakulu, Wilf, rest in peace.
* Machona, I remember you also Mdala, RIP.