The Old diviner
My father had a geologist friend who knew of my interest in crystals and attractive pieces of coloured ore. He was going on a day’s journey into the bush with an old water diviner to site a new mine. My father asked if I could go with. I didn’t like the geologist, I felt that he considered me to be a burden, but I wanted to go deep into the bush. I wanted to see wild animals and find wonderful crystals. Most of all I wanted to see a hyena. The start of the journey was exciting, it was my type of bush – thick forests and open vleis (seeps) – but the dense forest soon petered out. Village charcoal burners had thinned the forests to make charcoal to sell across the border in the Congo. On the way there I was sitting straight, looking out for wildlife – but I saw nothing. The area had been hunted out long before. There were no crystals to be found either, and the geologist sarcastically said, ‘elephants and crystals don’t grow on trees sonny – anyway this bush is dead.’
Only a prig like you would say something like that, I thought. I had learnt the word prig from a Somerset Maugham story about an arrogant rubber plantation manager in Malaya. I liked both the sound and meaning of it. I could name a few prigs in Luanshya. The geologist was added to my prig list. The day was tedious and uneventful. On the way back I was tired. We had been out nine hours. I flopped back in my seat on the point of dragging my musings into a funk hole – I was told I was very good at that. The old water diviner, an Afrikaner who had been raised in the Karoo desert, the driest part of South Africa, must have sensed my gloom for he started telling me stories.
He told me he was able to find water with two copper rods, but that he could also divine with two green sticks. The geologist, who was actually doing the groundwork for a modern hydrological survey, respected the water diviner and his methods. They often yield interesting results, and had brought him along ‘out of interest’, so he said.
The diviner went on to tell me that contrary to what you see and think you know, Africa does not always deliver what you would expect. Even if you had prior knowledge as to what should happen – it might not happen. He said he used this way of thinking when he was divining for water. Underground water was never a given – Africa had many dry rivers both above and below the ground. He then fell into a preoccupied silence as he groped for his tobacco in a canvas bag under his seat. What was this wizened old man with tobacco stains on his teeth and fingers telling me? I guessed it was going to be interesting. Then he looked at me, and cleared his tarred throat; it was as if he was about to give a wedding speech. His pupils were glistening black diamonds in the wrinkled recesses of his eye sockets as my curiosity took a strong hold.
Out of earshot of the prig steering his rattling Land Rover, the diviner told me that in Africa, physical things could suddenly appear and then just as quickly disappear. ‘But they did nothing of the sort’ he said with a confident snort. ‘It was the way we were looking at them that made these strange things happen. Everything had an energy of its own which could never be lost – it merely altered its shape in time and space.’ Nodding in mused self-agreement, he then kept quiet for a good while. ‘Energies are like hyenas,’ he finally uttered. Wow! Now I really was all ears. I really wished I had a grandfather like him. With slow forceful words he continued, ‘An area could have no hyenas – then suddenly out of nowhere, one would appear.’ If someone in a remote village had been cursed; that night, without a single pug mark on the sandy floor of the village clearing, a hyena would appear at his door – even though hyenas had not been seen or heard of in the area for a very long time. ‘This was because the hyena had always been there,’ he said with a smug air of all-weather assurance.
True to form, the prig appeared oblivious to our important conversation, his mind doggedly fixed on the bumpy road that was pulling his vehicle to pieces. Once again I was sitting upright looking for hyenas in what remained of once thick Miombo woodlands while the old diviner spoke. My ears were pricked, my eyes peeled and my skin bristled – my bony little bum hardly made an indent on the green canvas of the backseat. Out there in the failing forest light I was hyper-sensitized to everything real and imaginary. I knew that hyenas were tribal omens for very important things in Africa, that’s why the Nyau and the Makishi only used effigies of hyenas in their most serious rituals. There was no logical reason for a hyena not to re-appear in the ‘dead’ bush, in the immediate here and now of our homeward journey in the prig’s rattle wagon.
The diviner continued: ‘Hyenas are a mystery to their fellow beasts. They can eject an aardwolf, an aardvark, or even a bad tempered honey badger from its burrow in an anthill, commandeer it, and with the collusion of the termites; do the strangest of things.’ Now I was nape hair erect and alert! My mind ran wild, throwing my thoughts all over the back seat and floor of the vehicle as it trundled down that remote dirt road. The light was receding fast and Mr ‘Cool’ the geologist put his foot on the accelerator of his ‘Landy.’ The diviner fell into another one of his tobacco chewing silences and I started to ruminate over things – I took as long as it took for him to suck on nicotine: spit spent tobacco, and pick his cracked lips free of the soggy shreds. Whatever it was that crept through his well-seasoned mind was worth waiting for.
‘Lion, in particular,’ he said, ‘despise hyenas, and will hunt them down and kill them – sometimes heartlessly killing hyena pups in the den so as to curb the number of hyenas in their territory.’ When being chased by a lion, he explained, a hyena would disappear down a burrow in an anthill and never come out. The lion would give an eerie howl of frustrated annoyance, but no matter how long a lion waited; even if a pride of lions took turns to be on guard for a month, the hyena would never come out – this was because the hyena was no longer there. ‘When a hyena takes over a burrow in an anthill,’ he said, ‘it is his intention that his mind and body be melted down by a sea of termites.’ This was very different to a dead animal being eaten by red ants. It was the morphing of the hyena into an aethereal life force that parasitically attached itself to all members of the termite Queendom. After an uncanny gulp of held breath he explained further; the termite mind is a collective mind, it thinks as a one mind spreading and sharing its synaptic thought processes between Queendoms right across subterranean Africa. Because the hyena had slyly embedded his spirit into this endless termitine mind – their ‘everywhere’ and their consequent awareness of all bush goings-on had unavoidably become his for his own perverse machinations. By the same willed intent, he would then coalesce his virtual spirit-being out of the termite world and back into his physical reality: to resurface wherever he felt his real presence was needed – or not needed, as in the case of the lion.
And with that, the old diviner returned to his tobacco pouch, leaving me to digest his awesome words.
What could have been a tedious journey home, flew by. The long edges of evening shadows melted into a deep velvet of forest dark; there to be sown up for the night with thin threads of wood smoke from village charcoal burners along the roadside. Soon we would be back in Luanshya with its cheery electric light windows and warm tarmacadam roads. Once home I asked my father to offer the old diviner a beer and a lift home – which he graciously accepted; luckily the prig was in a hurry to get back and write his report. For me it was an unwilling quick bath with Dettol, a willing fish finger and tomato sauce sandwich, and bed. I did not really object.
Hyenas danced a sly shuffle on the silver screen of my fading consciousness. I knew that they had been there in the bush, they were everywhere, even in my bedroom, but in reality, you just couldn’t see them.