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Chabi of the Okavango

Chabi Maenga bought me a chicken. It took two, three hours to cook in the big black pot and was still tough as our leather boots. A goodbye gift to me, upon my leaving the district, leaving the passenger seat by his side.

Chabi had met me in Gaborone with a newly-issued 1978 model Toyota, a boxy thing that bounced crazily on the dirt tracks but was considered state of the art at the time. We drove north until the paved road ran out, then north east across the remote reaches of the Northern Kalahari to my new duty station in Maun. We slept half-way at Serowe, at the 'we are working together' cooperative hotel, under thatch. On the second day we skirted two of the four long walls enclosing the richest diamond mine in the world and tracked the elongated fence that separated buffalo, endemic with foot-and-mouth disease, from cattle. We swung north once more as we reached the side of the 'vanishing lake', Ngami, that in some years confirmed its presence on the standard maps, and in others was simply no-where to be found. All depended on the rains in distant Angola.

Chabi and I shared that front cabin, on and off, for nearly three years. 'Call me Chabi.. like Chubby Checker' was how he introduced himself. He was early 50s, salt and pepper in his tight thin curls, and I was 24... supposedly the boss, the one who signed the requisition slips and the log book for each and every trip. But Chabi was very much in charge.

The first thing he taught me was the Tswana language. After three months by his side I was almost fluent - a status I had not remotely reached in my two years to that point in the capital city. I spoke with his northern dialect: 'f's pronounced as 'h's, 'tl's with a silent 'l'. This marked me as a man of the Okavango, the Ngami, for the rest of my days among the Tswana people. Later my wife of the southern Tswana, and her family, would tease me constantly about this northern country-bumpkin accent. But what did I care? It sounded good to me and I was proud enough simply to be rattling away in SeTwana, however rustic it might sound, and to know more or less what others were rattling. In reciprocation, I helped Chabi with his English, when he was in the mood for it.

The second thing he taught was how to shoot guinea-fowl. He did this mainly by intimidation. Since he was putting in all the hours of driving - not only did I have no licence, but he was the designated official (although I did break the central transport rules more than once when his arthritis was playing up) - and it was me who had better take care of the supper. He would slow the truck to a crawl and I would open the window as we came across a gaggle of birds on the left hand side, gesture for me to pick up his shotgun and cue me... 'ema.... ema.... jaaanu! '. And if I aimed for the centre of the crowd, and kept the gun fairly straight, we would be sure to get a couple of birds for the pot. These we would take to the local primary school and have any available hungry teachers take care of the cooking and share in the meal. This required some concentration to avoid biting down on buckshot.

But the best times we had were on the road to Shakawe. He was delighted, first of all, when I nicknamed the village at the end of the Delta, at the remote northern border, as 'Shake-a-way'. He found this unnecessarily hilarious and I backed it up with a cassette recording of the South African multi-racial band Juluka's song, 'Shake My Way'. In fact we played very little but the first few Juluka albums on my portable cassette player during those trips.

We loaded up the back of the truck with the necessary items: my metal trunk, bought from the Mazezuru (the impoverished itinerant white-clothed Jehova's Witnesses expelled from Rhodesia-Zimbabwe - as it was at the time of my purchase, temporarily - who lived by tinsmithery, also beating out conical tin tops for rondavels) , and filled with a few changes of clothes, a couple of books and plenty of 'tinned stuff', cheap imported meals such as chicken biriyani. On top of the trunk went Chabi's battered suitcase. And then the two most essential items, side by side: a barrel of drinking water, a barrel of fuel. And a prayer that the last of these should not leak or spill over anything else, along those bumpy roads.

If it was winter, it was plain sailing. The dirt roads were dry and firm and we could make it to Shakawe in a day. We would circumnavigate most of the villages along the way:

.... Sehitwa, within sight of the vanishing lake if it had not vanished, Sehitwa where an Irishman started a little fishing industry singlehanded, selling frozen bream fillets all the way down to Johannesburg, supplying my monthly 'Fishko' party... until the Lake dried up...

... Nokaneng, meaning 'by the river', but it was a river that had long disappeared with the gradual drying of the swamps that fed it;

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North America Internal Combustion Engine Era Diorama Rant

In a smoky diorama, under glass
At the corner of the century,100 million were asked
To choose between a facile man, who presented himself cleverly
Hiding his real designs
And a complex man, presenting himself poorly
Hiding his hopes and dreams.

As I peered through the screen
They chose the latter in their numbers. But
High office was awarded to the one
Who played a better legal game.

I shook the glass in disbelief, put it aside
Waited for a while, and picked it up again.

Four years on, the facile man
Was widely understood, to believe
That the problems of his nation
And of its interests in the world
Could be solved by war

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The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

I. Outnumbered by armour (A reply to William Shakespeare)

Outnumbered by armour
and by men we met the enemy,
FAPLA and Cubans under Russian leadership
and the men accompanying me
was very worried
and wished for the whole
of the seventh armoured division
to have been deployed.

I said to the men
in the armoured car with me
that if we must die here in vain,
the fewer men it be
but if we grasp the victory
the world will know
that we are brave and honourable men
capable of destroying whatever faces us.

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Wings of destiny

I

Ask any parabat that jumped at Cassinga
and he would tell you
that destiny has wings.

While facing a battalion of
Cuban tanks and armoured cars,
out of the blue and as if by magic
a Buccaneer appeared.

There was nothing more beautiful
than to see that jet
making self-sacrificing dives,
before it flew off to disappear
into the blue sky,
but let me tell that heroic story
as I know it.

II

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