I was the only white man in the village.
Tariq and Inga had left early that morning to go to BigTown. There was no signal in the village so as well as fetching provisions they were going to connect with the outside world for the first time in over a month. Unable to go with them I trusted them with my email password so that they could bring back personal news and send a brief message to my friends and family. I had only known Tariq and Inga for two months, yet I was willing to trust them with total, unfiltered passage into my personal life, my email codes, my facebook, bebo, everything. In this way I trusted them more than I had ever trusted girlfriends and even my wife. Africa does this to you, makes you closer to those you don’t know, more distant from those you do.
The heat of the morning sun wakes me up. The absence of bodies and bags reminds me that Tariq and Inga have gone. I step outside, where many of the villages are gathering for a morning meal. Probably they are gossiping, planning the day, discussing the weather and the prospect for the coming year’s crops. But I don’t know, I still haven’t learnt a word of their language, not even ‘hello’. I can’t say good morning to them, so I say “Good morning,” to them instead. Thirty happy voices greet me in unison. I have no idea what they say.
Already I am sweating. My body has never adjusted to this heat. I am still weak from the fever and after just a few paces have to sit down. Some kind sole passes me water and a rice-pudding like dish.
Jumbo speaks to me as I eat. At least I think his name is Jumbo, his name is thick with sounds that don’t exist in the western world, just as an eagle sees a spectrum of light that are invisible to the human eye, so the Oblongu uses sounds that are incomprehensive to the European ear. Jumbo is close enough, he answers to it and it is easy for me to remember, for he is a big man, wide, muscular arms and thick, tree-trunk-like legs. Even his nose is big.
He gestures in the direction of BigTown and I gesture in the direction of our hut, saying something about Tariq and Inga, but knowing the words themselves will not be understood, I don’t even listen to what I am saying myself. Words are worthless, understanding is all.
Jumbo’s tone changes and I realise he is trying to convey something serious to me. Something important. He makes a gesture of blocking out the sun and I realise he is talking about the night. “Will there be another party?” I ask him merrily, for the night before there was much drinking, dancing and chanting, but he shakes his head sternly and makes a position of sleep. Tonight, he is saying, we bed early, do not stray from the hut, do not step outside. Once darkness comes, stay indoors. All this is said in a language the words of which I didn’t comprehend, but the meaning of which is still-water clear.
After speaking with me, Jumbo leaves with the rest of the men to hunt. I am an honorary woman, because of the fever I am not deemed up to man’s work. Instead I help weave baskets, and when it is noted I couldn’t weave baskets, so I am shown how to help prepare the rice.
All day the women work and all day they talk, never ceasing. The sound is rich and thick, you could live off the hearty voices of the Oblongu.
At various points in the day the conversation turns serious and I am made aware of the dangers the night will bring. What god or devil superstition has taught them to fear I can’t properly ascertain, something big apparently, something that eats those that stray outside, but only on this night. Oblongu superstitions are as diverse as tropical diseases, a plague of peculiarities: do not tread this path, eat this fruit with your left hand only, spit on your food before eating, do not go out tonight for a monster is on the prowl. In the village we are all children and the world is either a big playground or the scene of the grimmest of fairy tales.
Towards sunset the men return. Their day’s hunting has brought them nothing, yet still the village rejoices at their return. We sit round the great fire eating rice and meat – I had given up my vegetarian diet the day I entered Africa. The men thrill us with stories of their day’s hunt. So close they came, so many times, to great game, but each time the gods intervened and allowed the animal to escape. Without speaking a word of their tongue I understand every gesture and mime, just as I understand the women’s patient laughs and grins. The meat we are eating is not hunted meat, it is one of the last of the goats. How many times, I wonder, have the Oblongu faced total oblivion? Eating their last goat, drinking the final drop of water, stretching out the last of the rice. And yet somehow their gods have relented, for they are still here.
The sun falls to the floor. The mood also descends. Warnings are barked at stray children who run tearful to their beds. Night is coming. The night of nights. Again Jumbo explains to me in patient Oblongu that tonight I must sleep, must not venture out, for a great thing walks through the village that night and I must not disturb it.
I nod my consent and return to my hut, determined to stay awake to find out more about this mythical beast.
I strip to my underpants and sit against the door. On this night the voices, the whisperings of people, are not to be heard. The forest itself is surprisingly still, there is breeze in the trees but the usual cacophony of birds, insects, mammals and who knows what is on silent. The forest agrees with the Oblongu, tonight something is going to happen.
I drift into sleep. Sitting on the hard mud floor, propped against a door, even in this position my body needs to sleep, to taste dreams. But I am easily stirred.
I hear the beast outside. And it is a beast, for the silence has been replaced by the stir of footsteps, big footsteps from something big.
My skin itches and crawls with fear, yet I force myself to act against my better judgement. This is what I came to Africa to discover; the unknown, the mythical, the mystical. It might be an elephant, a hippo, even a giraffe, but if so why the fear, why the panic? Yet if sounds too big, too loud, for a predator like a lion, a leopard, those are beasts you do not hear until their teeth are around your neck.
Tentatively I open the door of my hut an inch, maybe two. I collect my camera from the floor and my torch, which I use to scan the outside. I see nothing.
Sweat is pouring over my eyes so I wipe my face with a towel I keep about me at all times for that purpose.
I open the door wide and take one step outside. Crouching down low I swivel the torch to get a good view. There, to my right, I make out a shape, a giant shape that isn’t trees, isn’t huts and is moving.
From my memory, from books I read as a child, from films I have watched on TV, I recognise the shadow. It looks just like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Whatever it is it is massive, taller than an elephant, as it walks upright, just like T Rex in that movie. Impossible as it seems a creature that died out 65 million years ago is just a few hundred metres away from me. Even as I recognise it, it sees me, notices the light or is somehow attracted by my attention. I watch it slowly turn and take a step towards me.
It is impossible, but it is real. Fear takes over from logic. I switch out my light. I crawl backwards, the single step into my hut which now seems a million miles away. I stare at the shadow in the trees, but without my light it is simply one form of total darkness juxtaposed on another.
I close the door tight shut and try to see outside through the faintest of cracks.
I see nothing. But I hear the approach. The approach of something giant and massive trying to step as lightly as possible. Thump, thump, thump its giant feet crush as they step towards me.
I have no time to rationalise or think but some instinct kicks in. I remember what I have been told, not about T Rexes, but about predators generally: I cover myself with dusty earth so as to minimise my sweat and scent. I crawl gently to the far left of the hut, so that my scent will be downwind of the creature, whatever it is. And I pray, to the gods from my home I have abandoned, to the gods I have met or seen observed in Africa and to whatever gods the Oblongu worship.
I can see nothing, but the T Rex is close enough for me to feel it with every other one of my senses: I can hear its breathing, close and strong enough to put out a candle were I so foolish to light one. I can smell it’s odour, an odd scent of flesh, like raw meat, maybe I am simply smelling its most recent meal. And though I can’t touch it I can taste it, in the air, salty and rich. And my other senses, the ones we put away in cold storage when mankind built the modern world, these all spring to life. “Watch out,” I feel them tell me, in a million forgotten ways, “There’s a fucking T Rex out there.”
I become aware of all that protects me from the beast. The hut, its thin wooden walls, not enough to survive a single puff from the big bad wolf outside. I become aware that I am inches from death, or to put it another way, seconds.
I crouch by the wall, trying to see, trying not to breathe, trying not to sweat and trying to stop myself excreting involuntarily. I remember in the city a few months ago I was offered a gun. A gun and enough ammunition to kill a village, all for less than one American dollar. I was tempted, aware of the dangers that Africa held if you were unarmed, but declined, knowing also the dangers that Africa held if you were armed. Should I regret that decision now? What harm would a bullet do a bloody great creature like that? Would the noise and pain scare it away or simply infuriate it?
Luckily or unluckily I am in no position to find out.
The night lasts forever. The T Rex does not move from his position the whole night long, he stays there, outside my door, sniffing and breathing, and I crouch here, frozen with fear, every sense alert.
And then daylight comes and again I am awoken by the heat. Awake? How the fuck did I fall asleep?
Outside I hear the village, back to life. I try to brush the fear away. All logic tells me that the beast has gone. I chance a look through the window – everything is back to normal, children running and jumping, women fussing over food and the men sharpening spears and planning the stories they will tell that night of how close they were to capturing some beast.
I hastily change into clean clothes and step outside. I examine the ground outside my hut, and in the direction that I had first seen the beast. I look for footprints and when I see none I look for any other sign, broken branches, trampled huts, yet somehow this giant creature has passed through the village with so much as upsetting a stone.
I eat quietly and say nothing. My mind is racing. The experience was too real, I felt it, smelt it, lived it 100% for hours on end. Yet my rational mind challenges me: the creature is extinct, there are no traces, no prints, no tracks, no droppings. All I ever saw was shadow, if I saw it and it wasn’t simply all a dream. And I am still alive. If a T Rex had really seen me and headed towards me I simply wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
Like so many times before I am left confused, with no answers.
For this is Africa and in Africa nothing ever makes sense.