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Authors: Alexandra Fuller

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #History, #Military, #General

Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier

BOOK: Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page



PART ONE - Sole Valley, Zambia

Uncharacteristic Sole Flood

Characteristic Malidadi Flood

Worms and War

Words and War

Curiosity and Cats

Dogs and Curiosity

The Left Behind

The Leftovers

God Is Not My Messenger


PART TWO - Mozambique

Accident Hill

Cow Bones I


Brothers in Arms

Demons and Godsends

Cow Bones II

Beware of Land Mines and Speed Guns

We’re Not Really Lost

We Just Don’t Know Where We Are

Or Why We Are Here

Have You Got a Map?

I Don’t Remember Getting Here

The Big Silence


The Journey Is Now




Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:
An African Childhood

a member of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014

Copyright © Alexandra Fuller, Inc., 2004

All rights reserved

A portion of this book first appeared in
The New Yorker
as “The Soldier.”

Photographs on pages 19 and 126 courtesy of William Higham. All other photographs courtesy of the author.

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from
Echoing Silences
by Alexander Kanengoni, Baobab Books, Zimbabwe, 1997.

The author would like to acknowledge Peter Godwin and Ian Hancock, the authors of
Rhodesians Never Die: The Impact of War and Political Change on White Rhodesia, c. 1970-1980
and would also like to give special thanks to Sean Jacobs, Jessica Blatt and Oliver Payne.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fuller, Alexandra, 1969-
Scribbling the cat : travels with an African soldier / Alexandra Fuller.
p. cm.
Includes index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-11880-1

1. Zimbabwe—History—Chimurenga War, 1966-1980—Veterans.
2. Zimbabwe—Social conditions—1980- 3. Zambia—Social
conditions—1964- 4. Zimbabwe—Description and travel.
5. Zambia—Description and travel. I. Title
DT2988.F85 2004
968.9404’2—dc22 2003062375

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

For two African writers who stared war in the face
and chose not to look the other way—
Alexander Kanengoni and
the late Dan Eldon


With much respect




And for K and Mapenga

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”



This is a true story about a man and about the journey that I took with that man. It is a story about the continuing relationship that grew between the man and me and it is a story about the land over which we journeyed. But it is only my story; a slither of a slither of a much greater story. It is not supposed to be an historic document of fact.

Even if you were to do as I did—leave your family and your real, routine-fat life and follow a feeling in your gut that tells you to head south and east with a man who has a reputation for Godliness and violence—you will not find the man whom I call K. You will not find where he lives. You will not be able to trace our steps.

I have covered our tracks as a good soldier always does.

But, as a fallen soldier might, I have broken the old covenant, “What goes on tour, stays on tour.”

Because what is important isn’t K himself, or me myself, or Mapenga and St. Medard and the whole chaotic, poetic mess of people that turned this journey of curiosity into an exploration of life and death and the fear of living and dying and the difficulty of separating love and judgment from passion and duty.

What is important is the story.

Because when we are all dust and teeth and kicked-up bits of skin—when we’re dancing with our own skeletons—our words might be all that’s left of us.

Sole restaurant


Sole Valley, Zambia

So when he finally heard the section commander talking about civilizations that existed in the country before the coming of the white man, he was shocked to discover the history of his people did not start with the coming of the whites. The section commander began with Munhumutapa and the Rozvi empires during the Great Zimbabwe civilization, and continued on to the coming of the white man and the first chimurenga, and on through the various forms of colonial government up to Ian Smith’s UDI, when the last bridge between blacks and whites was burned down and the only way left to communicate was through violence: the war, the second chimurenga


➛ From
Echoing Silences
by Alexander Kanengoni

Uncharacteristic Sole Flood

Road sign, Zambia

BECAUSE IT IS THE LAND that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.

But I was astonished, almost to death, when I met K.

For a start, K was not what I expected to see here.

Not here, where the elevation rises just a few feet above ennui and where even the Goba people—the people who are
to this area—look displaced by their own homes, like refugees who are trying to flee their place of refuge. And where the Tonga people—the nation that was shifted here in the 1950s, when the colonial government flooded them out of their ancestral valley to create Lake Kariwa—look unrequitedly vengeful and correspondingly despondent. And where everyone else looks like a refugee worker; sweat-drained, drunk, malarial, hungover, tragic, recently assaulted.

Down here, even those who don’t go
for trouble are scarred from the accidents of Life that stagger the otherwise uninterrupted tedium of heat and low-grade fever: boils, guns, bandit attacks, crocodiles, insect bites. No ripped edge of skin seems to close properly in this climate. Babies die too young and with unseemly haste.

If you count my parents and K, there are maybe two dozen people—out of a total population of about sixty thousand—who have voluntarily moved to the Sole Valley from elsewhere. That’s if you
count the occasional, evaporating aid workers who slog out this far from hope and try to prevent the villagers from losing their lives with such apparent carelessness. And if you don’t count the Italian nuns at the mission hospital who are here as the result of a
from God (more like an urgent shriek, I have no doubt).

Sole Valley is a V-shaped slot of goat-dusted scrub between the Chabija and Pepani Rivers in eastern Zambia. The town of Sole has metastasized off the cluster of buildings that make up the border post between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It consists of customs and immigration buildings, a (new and very smart) police station, an enormous tarmac parking lot for trucks, and a series of shabby tin and reed shacks that billow tarpaulins or plastic sheeting in a feeble protest against rain or dust and that offer for sale black market sugar, cooking oil, salt, mealie meal, and bread.


People at the border post climb out of their cars and you see them looking around and you can hear them thinking, Save me from what?

Guinea fowl destined for a torturous journey into someone’s pot clatter from their bush-tambo baskets, “Nkanga, nkanga!” and the Heuglin’s robins call from the dust-coated shrubs, “It’s-up-to-you, it’s-up-to-you, up-to-you, UP-TO-YOU.”

Truck drivers in diesel-stained undershirts slouch in the shade of brothels and taverns, suffocating their boredom with women, beer, and cigarettes. A sign dangling above the shelves of one tavern, whose wares include not only beer and cigarettes but also condoms and headache pills, asks, HAVE YOU COME TO SOLVE MY PROBLEMS OR TO MULTIPLY THEM? Prostitutes lounge from trucker to trucker, casually soliciting in a hip-sliding sly way that hides their urgency. It’s a deadly business. Cutthroat and throat-cut. Girls as young as twelve will sell themselves to the long-haul truckers for as little as a meal or a bar of soap.

In the shade of a shack that advertises MAX BARBERS ARC WELDING AND BATTERY CHARGE NOW OPEN, a truck yawns and surveys its parts, which are vomited greasily on the ribbed earth in front of it, while a young man in a shiny nylon soccer shirt has his hair braided into porcupine spikes by a woman with deft fingers.

And next to a sign that says RELAX & DISCUS RESTARUNT WE SALE SHIMA & TEA, two women from the Watchtower Society sit out in the sun with their legs stretched out in front of them, stern in their reproachfully white robes. They drink Coke and eat cakes of fried mealie meal.

There are, in Africa, many more glamorous and inhabitable addresses than this low sink of land on the edge of perpetual malaria. Scratch the surface of anyone who has voluntarily come to this place—and who is unguardedly drunk at the time—and you will invariably uncork a wellspring of sorrow or a series of supremely unfortunate events and, very often, both.


Stiff upper lips crack at the edge of the bar, and tears spill and waves of unaccustomed emotion swallow whole brandy-and-Coke-smelling days. These tidal waves of sadness and hopeless nostalgia (not the hankering for a happy, irretrievable past, but the much worse sensation of regret for a past that is unbearably sad and irrevocably damaged) are more prevalent when the heat gets too much or when Christmas creeps around and soaks the senses with the memory of all that was once promising and hopeful about life. And then tight tongues grow soft with drink and the unavoidable sadness of the human condition is debated in ever decreasing circles until it sits on the shoulders of each individual in an agonizingly concentrated lump. Eventually someone drinks himself sober and declares that life is short and vicious and unveeringly cruel, and perhaps it’s best not to talk about it.

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