Today was just like yesterday, because there was a red dawn. As usual the sun appeared from behind the mountain and eclipsed the foggy night time world of the waste-high grasslands. It was here that they met the thin beginnings of the equatorial jungle. It brought to life the day and dispelled the silent predators of the night, by adding the searing heat which blew from the flatlands of the Sudan. This morning it was mixed with a very strange quietness too.
It was a silence which had only recently occurred. The clouds of locusts that daily swarmed out of the heavens had quickly eaten their way through what little the world had left, for this poor forgotten region in East Africa.
Staring at the ominously red sky, the two monkeys sat high in the branches of a Tamarind tree and spoke to each other in restrained calls, as they brushed off the big yellow insects that were caught in their light brown fur. What had happened? Why was their life – once so full off laughter and fun – now becoming so dull, and just a little bit frightening?
The red dawn also awakened the humans. And now a new dimension of sound ricocheted through the jungle quietness from the hill where they lived. Immerging from a simple hut – made from grass reeds and strange blue plastic bags –a painfully thin figure started to pound some corn into a thin white powder with two stones.
The song she sang was mournful, and told the story of marauding Janjaweed Arab horsemen, how they had burnt her village and taken the young men and women away.
Bashee had grabbed her son Mumbo and somehow they had escaped the gunfire and screams, by running into the bush and hiding. Now they lived here alone in the wilderness.
Afterwards, they had both been very brave. A few days later they quietly returned to the village to inspect their home; only to find that very little was left. All the grass huts had been burnt, and even less remained as evidence of the small closely-knit community that had once been their world. In the corner of the village compound there were signs of a newly dug pit, but that was all.
Bashee went into the hut they had once called home, and removing some debris from the floor, she started to dig away the earth from a corner of the hut with her bare hands. Half a meter down she found what she was looking for; it was a large stone reservoir containing corn. Removing the round flat stone from the top, she took all the corn they could carry.
Wrapped and knotted in cloth, she strung these bags around her waist and over both shoulders. What little water they had for the journey ahead, they kept in a leather goatskin and a small clay pot. Bashee knew that there would be a long uncertain painful trip before them, and Mumbo was only five years old.
They had first traveled southwest – initially at night and under the stars – but as the jungle began to approach, they also walked during the early morning, through the cooling mists. When the sun rose they found water in the larger leaves, although very little. By chewing roots and young shoots, they also managed to get some moisture, and a little nourishment. There were many secrets that the forest kept to itself, but Bashee knew many of them in their hunt for food.
They were becoming thinner by the day, and finally stopped walking when they were both completely exhausted, and could go on no further. It was fortuitous that their final destination was green and fertile – and more than that – it also seemed comparatively safe.
During their trip they had seen no other humans, only some Hyenas which had stalked them for a while, and some Vultures which circled in the sky overhead, riding the thermals, and watching for carrion and small rodents. In the distance they saw a lone Giraffe, and a small herd of Elephants with huge wide feet, the ones which can easily walk on sand. Now everything from the past seemed so far away, as they became forgotten by the world they knew.
From the top of their small and newly discovered hill they could easily see the valley which now spread before them, thickly strewn with trees and bushes, and full of the calls and sounds of Africa. In the distance there was a water hole, into which flowed a small stream that ran through the jungle valley. The waterhole was the exclusive domain of the wild animals, but the stream itself seemed safe enough for them and where they were able to get fresh water each day.
Life now took on a different complexion. Although not altogether safe from the more dangerous animals, it was peaceful being away from the fearful Arab militia and the terrible uncertainty they presented. Soon the days turned into the inevitable routine that surrounds everyday survival, and the resumption of some sort of domestic life. Bashee made breakfast for them both, at the start to each day. Her name for the porridge that she made from the ground corn was Melimeli.
Now that the trip to the stream proved relatively safe, Mumbo’s job each morning was to get fresh water, so his mother could cook, they might wash themselves, and water the plants. She had planted some of the corn, and it now grew in a small garden next to the hut. The blue plastic bags which fluttered in the breeze – which also frightened away the birds – and from which their hut was partly built said on the front in English – ‘Milk Powder from UN.’ If in the past there had been other people living in this area, there was little evidence, for they were now long gone. There was just Mumbo, his mother and of course the animals.
The two monkeys listened carefully through the buzz of locusts and heard a muffled roar, immediately followed by a little whimper. Jumping from tree to tree, they finally found the source of this sound. Lying next to the stream was the lion cub they called Tiky. He was licking his paw, with tears running down his face from his deep brown and pained eyes. The two monkeys were called Herman and Hermione, and they were brother and sister. Their parents were not very cleaver, and could only think of one name which they now shared.
The humans had lived in the area now for some weeks, and the animals –who were used to seeing him – were the nearest that Mumbo had to being friends. He knew the monkeys were silly, but they were very kind in their own silly way. Carrying the goatskin and the empty water pot, Mumbo walked trough the beginnings of the forest towards the stream. Herman and Hermione squeaked and chattered to him, pointing to Tiky who lay by the stream. ‘What is the problem?’ asked Mumbo, but the two monkeys simply continued chattering, and swung off the branches.
Mumbo had only seen Tiky from a distance, usually with his extended family of brothers and sisters and the females of the pride. He had always kept well away from this family of Lions, and his mother warned him to stay well away too. But now it was different, and Tiky the Lion cub needed his help. ‘What is wrong with you?’ Mumbo asked as he came closer to Tiky. ‘I have got a thorn in my paw, and I cannot get it out’ – said Tiky.
Quietly, Mumbo picked up the cub’s paw, and examined it very thoughtfully. ‘That is a nasty thorn, but I am only little and I don’t know what to do, so I had better ask my Mummy.’
Out of the blue the two monkeys had a better idea. Although both of them couldn’t do anything at all, they were never the less extremely good at handing out advice. ‘Why don’t you stand on your head,’ said Herman. ‘Why don’t you eat a banana?’ said Hermione.
Having said which, they both skipped away. The thought of bananas, had suddenly made them both feel very hungry. So Tiky and Mumbo sat there by the stream wondering what to do.
Suddenly there was some movement in the bush, and Wiggle the snake appeared. He was a five-meter long Python, and frightened of nobody. ‘What is wrong with Tiky,, hisssss,’ he said, looking cross eyed at a locust which had just landed on his nose!
Mumbo stroked the lion cub’s head, and told Wiggle the story about the thorn. ‘Perhaps, if Tiky licks his paw it might get better, hisssss,’ said Wiggle.
‘Perhaps we could sing a song,’ piped up a little voice. Sticky the frog had jumped out of the water and landed on the bank of the stream. ‘I know singing always makes me feel better,’ he said as his tongue shot out, removing the locust from Wiggle’s head, which he swallowed in one.
Sticky’s eyes disappeared for a moment and sank into his eye sockets. ‘I know a song about something called Spam; I think I can remember the words,’ which he then started to sing in a very high squeaky voice.
‘Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam,
Let’s eat lots of Spam,
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam,
You buy it in a can.’
‘That is the most stupid song, I have ever heard,’ hissed Wiggle, ‘and if you don’t stop singing it I will eat you, man!’ At which point Sticky the frog let out a frightened gasp, leapt in the air and jumped back into the water. ‘What a plonker,’ said the snake, as he curled himself around a branch in the nearest tree. Then looking puzzled he remarked, ‘spam, hisssss, I’ve never heard of it!’
Mumbo sprinkled some cold clean water on the paw, which was now very sore and hot, when suddenly this huge head appeared through the bushes. ‘Did somebody mention thorns? I love them, and I can eat them all day long. Delicious!’ Shorty the Giraffe was standing on the other side of the stream, but his neck was so long, that he could lean over and talk to them.
‘That’s why I have got a long neck,’ he said in his slow ponderous voice, ‘So I can reach up high into the trees, and eat lots of thorns and incredibly tasty prickly things!’ As he considered the epicurean merits of jungle life, a little dollop of dribble fell off his wobbly lower lip, and splashed into the stream.
‘I think he is very lucky having a thorn,’ he said, ‘nothing wrong with that!’ And as quickly as he had arrived, he was gone leaving only the sound of munching high in the trees. ‘Hmmm, delicious,’ he said.
Wiggle the snake was in a pensive mood. ‘Right! Eating and living in a tree. That’s cool, especially if you want to go to sssssssssleep. Wow!’
It was all right for him to hiss, but it didn’t really help Tiky – as the Python dozed off – and it didn’t help Mumbo sort out the problem of the thorn either. Why couldn’t any of them be more sensible?
‘Mud is the answer,’ said a very gurgly voice. ‘Glorious mud will solve the problem. I know that for certain!’ Porky the Warthog had spent the whole night at the water hole, rolling in the mud with his family. With his familiar snort – often mistaken for haughtiness and self-importance – he rolled onto his back, and stuck his legs in the air. ‘As the World’s leading expert on mud, I would say – all things being equal, and the greater being the lesser – that life is solely about mud, and more mud. That’s what he wants; lots of mud!’
Then in a very gurgly voice he continued, ‘well that’s my advice to you all, but – take it or leave it – I can’t hang around here all day long chatting, because it is time for me to get back to my mud hole. Good morning everyone!’ Then he was gone, and both Mumbo and Tiky were none the wiser.
‘Did you know that the two middle letters of the word life spell if,’ mused Wiggle in his semi conscious state? ‘Wow! What a cool thought! It makes you really wonder about why we are here, doesn’t it?’
Mumbo thought that he too must be asleep and dreaming, because the things occurring around him seemed so strange. ‘I know that I talk to the animals, and I am sure that they occasionally understand me, but I don’t remember them talking back to me before!’ Mumbo continued to wonder at such unusual happenings, as he sat holding Tiky’s paw, and as they sat by the stream.
Quite suddenly, he felt a nasty painful sting on his leg. His immediate reaction was to rub his leg, but from nowhere he heard a very loud voice cry out. ‘Don’t squash me please, I came here to help you.’ Mumbo looked around but he could see nothing except Tiky and the sleeping snake. ‘Where are you, I can’t see you, and who are you,’ Mumbo demanded?
‘I am here, sitting on your leg. I am one of Tiky’s fleas, and I am fed up with all of you! You are all so thick.’
Looking very carefully at his left knee, Mumbo saw this very tiny flea who was jumping up and down and rubbing his head. ‘It’s not much fun being a flea you know, what with all that scratching and smacking and now I have got an awful headache; you also knocked my glasses off.’ Mumbo was dumbfounded, but at the same time he was fascinated. ‘How come you voice is so loud,’ he said, ‘I mean, for someone so small, it is very loud.’
The flea sat down and folded all four of his arms. ‘It is quite simple; I have been taking elocution and singing lessons from the frog. Although,’ he continued, ‘I have no idea what Spam is either!’
Rising to his feet, the flea declared in an almost Shakespearian manner, ‘by the way we have not been properly introduced. How do you do? My name is Itchy the flea and I live on Tiky’s head.’
After a few minutes it was clear that Itchy the flea was most unusual. Apart from being noisy he also seemed to be very clever. ‘I don’t know if you noticed, but I am extremely clever,’ announced the flea in a very self assured way, ‘and I know exactly how to pull the thorn out of Tiky’s paw if you are interested.’
‘That’s cool man,’ Wiggle opened one eye and stuck his forked tongue out, to see what was going on in the world, ‘yeh, really cool!’But Itchy the flea was more concerned with good manners and the social protocols and decorum of a civilized society.
‘I’m sorry but I don’t believe we have been properly introduced,’ he announced to Wiggle the African Python. ‘My name is Itchy the flea, and I live on Tiky’s head.
‘My name is Wiggle, and I live where I like,’ came the sleepy reply, ‘and right now I live in this tree, you know? It’s where it’s at, man!’
‘Well Mr. Wiggle, I don’t know many snakes because I am a flea, but you do seem to be a very cleaver one to me. And how long have you been a philosopher?’
The snake closed one eye, and then opened the other, ‘about five meters up until now, but I expect I will get longer man!’
‘How interesting,’ said the flea, ‘yes that is er a very long time indeed.’
But by now the sound of hissing had turned to snoring, which entirely interrupted the conversation. However, with a little roar from Tiky, it announced the fact that the pain had returned, and something had to be done about it quickly.
‘I don’t suppose you three could stop nattering, and give me a hand to get rid of this thorn, do you?’ Tiky was getting tired of the jungle babble. ‘And by the way, how come you never spoke to me before, Itchy,’ Tiky definitely sounded a little hurt?
‘Because we were not properly introduced for a start, and you were always too busy scratching which kept me jumping about all the time! It’s not much fun being a flea, sometimes!’
As far as Mumbo could see, Itchy was quite upset because being very clever also meant that Itchy was rather vain. But he went on, ‘so let me tell how to remove the thorn!’
In the end it mainly involved finding two very small sharp stones. The stream was not very fast, and the water was clear. No humans had been living close, and so the environment was natural and clean. Free from the pollution of modern living and away from the belching factories of the developed world, Mumbo got on his knees and looked deeply into the clear clean cool running water.
The early morning sun was filtering through the trees, and a ray of sunlight shone into the shimmering water before him. Most of the little stones in the stream were round and black, and old as the hills themselves. But suddenly he noticed two glittering stones, which at first sight he thought might have been glass, or even part of a broken mirror.
‘Will these two do Itchy?’ Mumbo presented his find to the bespectacled flea. Sounding exceedingly pompous – as very small people often do – the flea removed his glasses, and wobbled his head from side to side in approval. ‘Yes, they look eminently suitable, and now I will tell you what to do.’
‘Firstly Tiky, you must lie on your side, so that Mumbo can put a little pressure on your paw. You must keep your paw on the ground palm up, so we can all see everything.’ Mumbo picked up a large green leaf, which had suddenly floated down from on high.
‘Put that under his paw,’ said a slow ponderous voice from above, ‘it will keep Tiky’s paw clean and off the ground.’ A dollop of dribble, landed in the water.
Itchy continued, ‘now you have to press the two sharp sides of the stones either side of the base of the thorn, and press down so it is visible and sticking up a bit!’ Itchy said in a didactic and scholarly way. ‘And then, you have to press the two stones together so they grip the stem of the thorn.’
Mumbo was being as gentle as he could, but poor Tiky – although he was being very brave – squealed in pain. ‘Now, you must slowly pull the torn out with the two stones pressed together.’ Gradually the thorn started to come out of the paw.
‘Not too quickly please, or it will break off and then we will be in real trouble,’ said Itchy in a nervous voice.
When it had been removed from the paw, everyone stared in awe at the black thorn and wondered how such a long and ugly spike had managed to get into Tiky’s little paw. Whilst Mumbo bandaged it with another leaf which had mysteriously floated down from the heavens, he was certain that Tiky would be all right and would get better soon.
It was a familiar jungle story and it could really have happened to any one of them, including Wiggle. ‘I was running after this big blue butterfly when I crashed into this prickly Acacia bush, and then it happened,’ Tiky said tearfully, ‘but thanks to Mumbo and Itchy I can now go home to my mummy!
Everybody thanked Itchy for his good advice, although he pompously stated, ‘it is a great pleasure for me to be indubitably and pre-eminently helpful under the circumstances, by using my skilled and tenacious mind and extensively developed lateral thinking process to help a fellow creature, thus confirming our mutual respect and fraternal felicitations!’ But, it didn’t matter if he was a pompous twit, because he had helped Tiky; someone on whom he lived after all.
‘Cool dude,’ hissed Wiggle.
Sitting by the stream that morning, they had all become firm friends, which people generally do when they help each other. Putting the two stones in a little leather pouch which hung around his waist, Mumbo sat and looked happily at the flickering water and thought of his new life with the animals. Porky the Warthog then appeared dripping with mud, Herman and Hermione swung into sight, and Sticky the frog jumped out of the water once more. As he started to sing, they all joined in together.
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam,
Let’s eat lots of Spam,
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam,
You buy it in a can.
Entwined within his tree, Wiggle hissed, ‘yeah, that’s cool man!’
It was later than Mumbo realized – because he never wore a watch or had even seen one before – and it had started to rain. Having filled the leather goatskin and the clay pot with water, he said goodbye to his new friends and made his way back to his mother and their little hut. Mr. Thompson the Gazelle was – as usual – very nervous.
‘It is not right, not right,’ he repeated, ‘the rain is not right, not right at all, it makes you cough, you cough.’ He jumped around, wagging his tail in the excitement. ‘It’s a funny color too, color too.’ And he was right, as he ran in different directions constantly repeating himself.
The acrid smell of chemicals made Mumbo’s eyes water, and he also started to cough as his throat contracted from breathing in the strange pungent fumes. As he walked he could see the locusts falling from the trees and bushes in their thousands. Piling up under the trees in great mounds, they lay on their backs and waved their legs around, until they were finally still.
In the distance Mumbo could hear the sound of an engine – roaring, stopping, and then roaring again – and still the yellow rain fell all about him choking him and making him feel dizzy. In his panic he started to run, and in the distance he heard the crump of something crashing to the ground, followed by an explosion.
Mumbo was very frightened, but he kept on running towards home, even though his lungs were bursting with the horrible fumes he was forced to breathe in.
Mr. Thompson was leading the way, and kept muttering to himself ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! What can we do, can we do,’ as he galloped in all directions? And then as quickly as the yellow rains had started, they stopped. Suddenly he heard a shout, but it was too late! Blackness was followed by excruciating pain, and then finally nothing at all.
When he woke up he was in his mothers arms. She was sitting by a tree holding him tight, and staring at a huge white man with a large black mustache. Towering over them both, he was wrapping up a large green silk canapé. Carefully folding it and pushing it into a large canvas bag which he had removed from his back, he casually undid the harness into which he was tightly strapped.
‘My God,’ he said in English, ‘that was a very close call! Bloody Russian flying deathtrap.’
He sat on the ground, and lit a cigarette which he took from a shiny chrome case. He unzipped his leather jacket and undid the red scarf around his neck. Mopping his forehead with one end he laughed. ‘Welcome to Uganda Marik. What a place to end up in!’
Looking at the boy, he smiled, and then reaching into his pocket he produced a bar of chocolate. ‘Here’ he said ‘this was going to be my breakfast but you can have it now!’
More frightened than badly hurt, it was the parachute which had suddenly enveloped Mumbo. The blackness had only lasted a few seconds. He stared at the first white man he had ever seen and hesitantly took the bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and broke off a piece. It was a very new taste and he wondered if it was called Spam.
‘Are you all right boy,’ the pilot patted his head and smiled? Mumbo was rubbing his eyes and sniffing, but he could see the boy would be OK soon.
‘Nasty stuff that DDT 25, but it certainly gets rid of locusts doesn’t it?’ The boy nodded, then not understanding what had been said, he handed the rest of the chocolate bar to his mother.
Bashee had only met one white man before, and that had been many years before. A UN official had visited them in Darfur when she was a girl. He had said he was an American, and he chewed a funny rubber substance, all the time. ‘Where are you from,’ she asked?
‘Most recently I am from that rubbishy Russian helicopter, but originally I am from Poland,’ he laughed again at his own black joke; the one which had most recently nearly killed him. Looking at the emaciated woman he smiled.
‘How far is Pakwash from here,’ he said?
‘Are we not still in the Sudan,’ Bashee asked by way of a reply? ‘We have just escaped from the Janjaweed.’
Marik looked at them both in disbelief. ‘You must have traveled over a thousand miles to get here. How long did you both walk for?’
She looked vaguely at the distant plains and then gazing at her feet and said, ‘Forever.’
‘You are both very brave people,’ Marik said removing a satellite telephone from his outer pocket. Pressing a button, the light in the window came to life and then quite suddenly it started to ring. The Polish pilot became stern and angry.
‘Yes I’m OK, but no thanks to your bloody helicopter,’ his face showed how annoyed he really was, his bottom jaw extended and his teeth clenched, ‘so you had better send another helicopter to pick me up, and make sure it isn’t a bloody Russian one. Oh, and by the way, there will be two extra passengers coming with me, and don’t bloody argue!’
On an island called Namaluso, which is on Lake Victoria, CBRE the builders had just finished constructing Marik’s new house. It was a large bungalow with verandas all around, overlooking the sea, complete with a special annex for the housekeeper.
The reason that there was no housekeeper was because of Marik’s precarious profession, which of course meant that there was no wife either. The UN was not just about food and politics, and sometimes crop spraying, and aeronautical biology was just as important. Being a pilot, Marik could fly anywhere in Africa, and he had therefore chosen to finally live on Lake Victoria. It was his first proper home in years.
Mumbo kept the two stones. They were not just a memento of that special day many years before – when he had helped to make Tiky better – because they also reminded him of the many animal friends he had made when life had been so cruel to him and his mother Bashee. One day he showed his secret stones to Marik, who seemed very surprised.
‘These are not stones Mumbo, they are diamonds; didn’t you know? Now you and your mother will never have to worry about anything ever again!’
And, they never did!
BY PATRICK BRIGHAM