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"If I had a hammer" by Murray Mitchell
      #174773 - 03/02/11 05:47 PM


© Copyright Murray Mitchell

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We sat at the crossroads; it was early in the rainy season and we all sweated gently in the humidity. I say crossroads but really they were just dirt tracks. The one from the east led in from the coast and went on to the big lake, to the township where we lived and from which we had motored early in the morning in the Land Rover. The southern track wasn’t up to much but the north-going one went on to the diamond mines.

There were four of us, being the forestry officer, the game ranger, the bank manager, and myself; Mabwana Miti, Nyama, Fedha, and Samaki. In KiSwahili meaning Messrs Trees, Animals, Silver, and Fish; a man is known by his trade in that part of the world.

‘Do you think they’ll come?’ asked Banker.

‘Mungu and PWD willing they will,’ replied Forests.

‘Oh, they’ll come all right,’ said Ranger.

We just lay there in the hollow where we had concealed ourselves and stared down the track to the east. The red earth glowed dully and the mottled thorn trees and the scrub to one side was full of doves which cooed gently in the shimmering heat. The doves of Africa; I would miss them when I was gone. Maybe where I was going I wouldn’t hear much at all. Some impala crossed in front of us; then the air was full of bounding brown and gold shapes as they got our scent. Sweat collected on our brows. It formed big drops which trickled down the face and the saltiness stung our eyes. The shirt on the man in front of me had a big, dark, sweat stripe down the back.

It was the third year of uhuru, freedom, when the colonial yoke had been cast aside. First it was uhuru na kazi but there wasn’t much work, so they changed it to uhuru na umoja but there wasn’t any unity either. But there was plenty of uhuru all right. Everyone loved this freedom, this wonderful new thing which they had been promised.

The army was busy working on uhuru. They had revolted in the barracks down on the coast. Loading their European officers onto an aircraft was one thing, but then they went out into town and harassed shopkeepers. An old Arab flourished his brass-bound musket and had been cut down with pangas, those all-purpose machetes. From the Arabs to the Indians was but a short step for, of course, all freedom fighters like to settle-up with the exploiters, and most of all those from alien cultures. It wasn’t just the men; they chopped women and children too: it was Zanzibar all over again. No, it was just Africa. A screaming man with bloodshot eyes and foam-flecked lips, coming at you swinging a two-foot jagged steel blade and babbling about foreign exploitation, tends to remove all thoughts of equality and social justice.

A day’s ride east from where we lay, the local army detachment had broken out. Some had taken plain beer; others liked it with a splash of bhang, hemp juice, just to liven it up a bit. But in any case they’d gone crazy and run amok through the township liberating many who got in their way. Liberation with a panga is final and the colour of blood seems the same no matter what your tribe.

It had been the same over on the Congo side of the big lake when they had also found freedom. The corpses floated out from Albertville and they came across the water, dead dogs too, all puffed up in the tropical heat. They bobbed and rolled in the little waves in quite a jolly fashion, all celebrating their uhuru.

‘Trouble is,’ said Banker, ‘that Africans have no sense of humour. When did you hear one laugh except at someone else's misfortune? I remembered the truck driver who had gone off the bridge into the river and no one would lend a hand because, as they said, he was not of their tribe. And as the last bubbles rose they pointed and laughed.’

Ranger said, ‘No that's not right, you've got to know the way they think.’

‘Tell us,’ I suggested.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘have you heard about how the cat came to live with the housewife?’


A family of lions crossed ahead of us. There must have been some sort of game trail; maybe they were following the impala. Mother was leading, then came three well grown cubs, with dad bringing up behind. ‘That’s the way,’ said Ranger, ‘be a lion and have fun. Mum does all the work and dad gets all the glory.’

‘That’d be a good way,’ said Forests.

‘Eh, a lion?’

‘No, a Muslim with four wives. Now that’s what I call getting organised. The roster system would be best. One to look after the kids, one to do the housework, one to go out and earn money, and the last one to look after Dad. Besides, divorce is easy. All you have to do is say, "I divorce thee," three times and its done. Beats family court all ways up.’

Said Banker, ‘That’s not the way it is at all. Read the Koran and get it right. You’ve still got to pay.’

‘But about the cat and the housewife,’ prompted Forests.

‘Well, it goes something like this. One day the cat was out in the forest, it being the dry season and a good time for a safari. It met up with a hare and they became quite friendly. They went down the track together, quite content, when a leopard jumped out of the bush and killed the hare. The cat ran off but soon ventured back as it thought to itself, why, the leopard is a big and strong animal and would make a fine ally. So the cat made advances and they became firm friends, and off they went together down the trail.

‘It was only a couple of days later that they were walking in some thick bush and got a little careless, being engrossed in cat gossip, and suddenly found themselves amongst a group of elephants, some of which took offence because such are often unpredictable. The leopard got stamped on until it was quite flat. The cat, being small, managed to escape unharmed. It sat alone in the scrub and thought things over and came to the conclusion that the elephant was a mighty beast and could just be the right sort of mate.

‘Not long afterwards the cat came across an old tusker which had been thrown out of the herd because it had reached pensionable age, which is the way of the world. It had big ivory, enough to make the trade drool with lust. The cat was very impressed and old Tembo was lonely, so it wasn’t long before the two became friends although it was a bit hazardous for the cat when they went for a walk together. The elephant kept tripping as it sought to avoid treading on his new friend, but it kept its temper, by and large.

‘It was rather unfortunate that a hunter of the famous Waliangulu tribe cut across the tracks and scratched his head as he looked at the tiny catprints alongside the big ones. He checked his mighty bow and long, poisoned arrows with the heads bound up in cloth against unfortunate accidents.

‘It was long and hard tracking but finally the quarry was sighted. Shaking his ash bag to test the wind, the hunter moved in close behind and to one side for the shot: it is essential to reach the liver for a quick effect. The bow slapped and poor Tembo jumped, screamed with fright, and ran off at full speed. It was all the cat could do to catch up. ‘Why didn’t you attack the two-legged creature,’ it asked. Tembo just shook its head and said, ‘I am going to die.’ The cat couldn’t believe it but sure enough, after a while the elephant gave a sort of groan, fell over on its side, and not long afterwards was dead. The hunter came up and, seeing the defunct monster, gave a shout and did a little dance.

‘The hunter went away and not much later the tribespeople came up in a laughing, shouting mob, and hacked old Tembo to pieces. They cut the meat into strips and hung it on bushes to dry. They lit fires and cooked more meat and had a great feast and there was much happiness, even for the man who got cut a little when inside the elephant after some delicacy. There was grease everywhere and the vultures sat in rows in the trees. The hunter took the ivory away and hid it, or so he thought.

‘When the villagers had all gone back home, the hunter went off secretly to collect his ivory He was a rich man now and the future stretched temptingly down a rosy path lined with gourdes brimming with pombe, all nicely brewed from bananas and millet. He would be drunk three times a week and his wife would respect him as a big man. But when he got to the hiding place there was nothing to be found because he had been observed in the process and the goods were already on their way to the coast to be sold to dealers who would send them to India in a dhow. Such carvings are very beautiful and look nothing like a heap of bleaching bones back in the forest.

‘The hunter sat on a log and cursed his bad luck. He was doing so when he felt something furry rubbing against his legs. He looked down and there was a cat doing what cats always have done when they want something. It had thought about the death of the elephant and had come to the conclusion that although it was a very big and powerful animal it was still no match for the little two-legged human who obviously was mightier still.

‘And of course the cat followed the hunter all the way home to the village because it was obviously the best kind of friend to have, and there would be mice.

‘Well, they came to the hut where the hunter lived and the man put down his bow and arrows, his panga, and his water gourd against the entrance. His wife came out smiling.

‘Where is the ivory?’ she asked.

‘Alas, dear wife, someone has stolen it.’

‘Both tusks?’

‘I'm afraid so.’

‘Whereupon, the woman, seeing her dreams of riches vanishing like morning mists, was filled with rage. She seized a broom and beat the unfortunate husband about the shoulders, screeching the while. The man ran off into the bushes and hid himself.

‘The cat followed at a discreet distance and, seeing the victim sitting on a log, head in hands, settled down in the dust for a long, hard think. After a while it came to the conclusion that mighty as the hunter was, clearly the woman was mightier still!

‘So the cat went back to the hut and the woman was surprised to feel the cat rubbing against her legs. Being sometimes lonely she fed the cat a little goat’s milk and in a short time it selected a likely spot, purred and padded it to satisfaction, and laid down with paws tucked under its chest; residence was established.

‘And that is why today you find the cat with the housewife,’ concluded Ranger. ‘Don’t tell me that Africans have no sense of humour.’

I was about to applaud the little story when the sound of trucks came on the slight breeze.

‘I think they’re coming,’ said Banker.

‘Let’s go back,’ suggested Forests. But our vehicle was a little way back, over the brow of the rise, and it was too late now.

An army Land Rover dressed in khaki paint came up the track very slowly as if feeling its way. It stopped about a hundred yards from where we were. Nobody got out. There was more noise of motors and a three-ton truck came up and ground to a halt some way behind. You could hear other trucks further back still, then the noise ceased and it was deathly quiet. Only the doves droned on in the bush by the track. I could feel the pulse beating in my throat.

I thought, one damn war after another even when you're not looking for it. My mind suddenly went back, for some strange reason, to Malaya to a time just after the big war when we stood in a group by the prison door and a stern-faced, middle-aged Japanese man emerged, all neatly groomed, to walk up the wooden steps without a flicker of emotion. When we cut the rope he body flopped like jelly on the stretcher. I wondered how I would look when, in the very near future, some African would solve all my troubles for me. Just the same, I supposed but probably more bloody. We kept out heads down by the crossroads.

‘I don’t think they’ve seen us,’ said Ranger.

‘I bloody well hope not,’ grunted Banker.

‘What’ll we do now?’ asked Forests.

It was a good question.

We had guns, of course. Ranger had the tool of his trade, a big bore rifle of elephant calibre, dangerous at both ends. I had my .375 magnum which could do as well if used accurately. There were two other guns, borrowed under protest from the American missionary. One was a bolt-action 30.06 and the other a 12 gauge self-loader. Forests had the rifle and Banker the shotgun. For a man who not long before had decried any violence except fiscal it was a remarkable change.

The silence was deadly. Out in front nothing moved. The Land Rover and the three-tonner just sat there and the heat rose in shimmering waves and the sweat ran off us. There was no shade.

Forests switched on his little transister radio. The sounds came in waves from the coast. There were no voices, no news of an uprising, just faint music and the song was one which had been played every day since uhuru. It seemed that someone had a bell and it was ringing about freedom and there was love between brothers and sisters all over the land. That’s what the song said. And there was a verse about a hammer of justice which would hammer out a warning.

‘Shut that bloody thing off!’ jerked out Banker. Clearly he was as nervous as the rest of us. There was silence and I could hear no judicial hammering, only the pulse in my throat. I would have given a lot for a long, cool drink.

Ranger muttered something.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘I said let's get it over with; I feel like a gin and tonic.’ He probably did too, and one day maybe, if we got out of this, an elephant would do for him as he trembled with the midday shakes. I looked at his hands; they seemed steady enough now.

Said Ranger, ‘this is what we’ll do.’ He pointed at me clutching my .375. ‘You and I will shoot at the Land Rover. He looked at Forests. ‘I want you to have a go at the truck with your far-shooter.’ He turned to Banker. ‘What size shot have you got?’ ‘Sixes! Bloody bird shot! Never mind, just fire her off in the general direction. Make it sound as if we’re a big squad.’

The nervous shotgun muzzle swept us all and we dodged.


Close up it would have been as deadly as a big rifle.

‘When I count to three, then all together?’ We nodded dumbly and settled down on the red earth rim of the hollow in which we lay and looked down the track The vehicles still sat there.

We all fired pretty well together. There were fourteen shots between us without reloading and it sounded quite impressive. I put a shot into the Land Rover windscreen and then a more careful one into the engine, trying for the carburettor. We reloaded but Banker was fumbling it. You should have heard the language. My ears rang! The new silence was as heavy as the heat.

Two figures jumped out of the Rover and jinked into the bushes on one side. They suddenly re-appeared by the three-tonner, gesticulated, then dashed round the back and we saw them no more. The truck roared, turned around in haste, and went off back down the track. We could hear other motors and in a while the sounds died away and we just lay there sweating, parched, and making small talk. The doves had gone.

Fifteen minutes more and Ranger looked at Forests and Banker, saying, ‘Will you fetch our truck? We’ll be down there,’ he added, nodding towards the enemy.’ The two of them faded over the rise whilst we did a circuit fetching up alongside the army vehicle. Nothing, no one, empty, all gone.

The windscreen was shattered and there was water dripping from the engine. On lifting the bonnet you could see where the two big, .475 slugs had gone through the water jacket. The carburettor was smashed. ‘Bingo!’ Ranger grinned and said something about lung and heart shots. I felt better then.

Our Rover came up very slowly and carefully from one side, through the light scrub. They weren’t taking any chances and I didn’t blame them. We motored a little way back and stopped at the end of the rise. We waited for some time but nothing else showed. Banker switched on the transistor and would you believe it …If I had a bell I'd ring it in the morning; I'd ring it in the evening; all over this land. It's the bell of freedom…

When it got to the hammer bit, Banker growled, ‘I've got a hammer.’ He jumped out, threw down the radio, and put his heel on the little harbinger of freedom. The plastic crunched and it sounded very good as it choked in the dust. We cheered quietly and drove homewards, to be quite well received in town.

I was in another country when Forests came by on his way home. He told me about Banker. It seems that a visiting official had asked to be taken out into the bush for a few photos, hopefully of big game. They ran into a freedom fighters’ camp and the cameras were damning evidence of neo-colonial spying. Both were tied to trees where the visitor died of a heart attack. Banker was held and his wife permitted to see him once before he just vanished.

It being the wet season and travelling almost at a standstill, the bank arranged for a Cessna to land at a deserted sisal plantation at full moon. Mrs Banker and her little daughter got away just as a mob of drunken apes came on the scene and started shooting, but no one was hit. She was reported as saying that it did seem an odd way to treat the hired help. Not long afterwards, the expelled army expatriates returned by invitation. They brought some persuaders with them and the rebels quickly lost interest.

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