I was nine when I went to Kariba with my father. Father drove trucks, the eighteen-wheeler type with a comfy bed behind the curtained-off section in the cab.
‘Would you like to come to Kariba with me,’ he’d asked me the evening of the day I brought home that year’s class first prize.
I almost fell backwards. The excitement came later and robbed me of sleep.
We started early. He had a diesel delivery to make, for all those houseboats on the lake. Father was usually taciturn and remote and I had prepared to fill the longeurs with the music that spilled out of his glove compartment. The mournful Sam Mangwana. The riffs of Sankomota. The saccharine melodies of Miriam Makeba. The thump of Mapfumo’s Chimurenga. But he surprised me. He wanted to talk.
Perhaps he sensed that this was it; a chance to bond before it was too late. I sat with him in the capacious cab of the rig, high up like a treehouse and the tarmac rolling away beneath us like a molten river.
On the way, he pointed out Karoi and said, ‘The most number of witches live in that little town, never stop there.’ My hair stood up on my head until we had passed.
We stopped at a lay-by after Karoi near a school which was not visible from the road save for a large sign that said Rydings and the long meandering drive that disappeared in the distance.
‘That is the most expensive primary school in the whole country. It has an airstrip,’ father said. ‘The children of farmers and government ministers go there.’
We drove for hours then came to Makuti where we negotiated hairpin bends, with sheer rock on one side like a palisade and vertical drops on the other.
‘If you look down, you will see all the lorries that fell over. You need to concentrate properly when you drive around here,’ said my father, waving a hand about.
Further on, he pointed out a gaping hole in the rock and said it was called Kaburi.
‘That is where that white man who went missing in Chinhoyi Caves emerged from many months later without his clothes,’ he said. ‘And that is the Rift valley,’ he pointed at yawning dongas gouged into the earth by yearly pluvials and which snaked off into the distance.
‘If you keep your eyes peeled here, you may see a pangolin.’
We were now passing a place with red boulders and flat-topped acacia trees, like plates balanced high by a waiter. I must have blinked or maybe we went by too fast because I did not see any pangolins. But pangolins are very shy creatures anyway. And very rare. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister shook the hand of everyone who found one and brought it to him although I wondered for a moment what on earth he did with all those pangolins he received.
We arrived in Kariba in the mid-morning. It was like we’d climbed into a crater. The well-to-do are literally above everybody else; they live in an area called Heights where the air is cooler. The poorer people live in the valley where the air does not move and sits on your nose like a blanket. Here, they also talk about the coming down of elephants into the townships in the same way that people in Honde Valley talk about the coming down of baboons.
At the fuel depot, we sat under expansive jacarandas and swatted dragonflies, below us a fishing camp where fishermen were offloading their catch from the pontoons which sat back asquat in the water like bloated pigs.
A talkative man with a very bad limp and no teeth at all cooked hard sadza for us and served it with grilled tiger fish, firm as steak, only tastier.
‘You are unlucky, you should have been here last week. We had elephant meat here,’ he lisped and licked his fingers.
‘Tiri vaera nzou!’ father said, horrified. He paused from teasing the bone out of his fish.
‘Ah, too bad, too bad. No, of course you can’t eat your totem, your teeth will fall out. But truly, elephant mean is very special meat. It has the meat of other animals inside it, even tiger fish, even chicken. And two or three men can climb inside an elephant through the back. Problem is, it’s very dark inside an elephant. That is how I got cut,’ he said, patting his back pocket where he was missing a buttock.
Afterwards, we de-coupled the tankers and went around the town in the rig, our shirts unbuttoned down to our navels like builders.
At the bridge, I crossed over into Zambia by stepping over a line, my first foreign trip. I was disappointed that I did not meet any Zambians. I would have asked about Kalusha and Benjamin and Joel Bwalya and what juju they took to make all three brothers so good at football. We went down to the engine room and then up to the little museum where the records of deaths and earthquakes associated with building the dam were stored and where an old Batonga man with hollow eyes told us about Nyami-nyami, the river god who got trapped on the lake when the bridge was built by the Italians.
‘The problem is that his wife was downriver on the other side of the bridge and so he shakes the bridge when it is mating season.’
The old man showed us the Nyami-nyami walking stick, carved in intricate detail and with rings and a fanged snake head on the top with hollow eyes just like his.
‘Touch it,’ the old man said. ‘It will bring you good fortune.’ I caressed the shiny head of the snake.
‘Is it true, about Nyami-Nyami?’ I asked father on the way back.
‘Nonsense, son. When the earth shakes under your feet, you need to create an explanation for it,’ he said with a faint smile.
We stopped and got off to admire the Caribbea Bay, a beautiful hotel with pink walls where little pink children frolicked in the shallow pool and others danced around a smiling ice cream vendor and sang;
Zsa Zsa the Starlet Mama Chompkin Puzey the Dog Professor Flab Jack the Pirate Harry the Hippy.
And then, there in the foliage on the far side of the pool area was the scaly and hunched creature, almost balled up.
‘Father, look,’ I yelled, ‘pangolin.’
‘Yes, son, but it’s on private land. Come,’ he said and led me back to the rig.
Taffi Nyawanza is a Zimbabwean writer who lives in the UK. His short fiction has been published in Afritondo, the Untitled anthology and the National Flash Fiction journal. He is on the Exiled Writers Ink programme for his debut collection of short stories.