Nine thirty … lights out. The generator ground to a halt. The full moon cast eerie shadows across the mission station. A light wind afforded the only relief from the muggy night. A hush fell over our house as the activities of the day came to an end. By candlelight we prepared for bed and crawled under the sheets.
“Do you hear that drumming?’ I asked my husband, Jim.
“Yeah, it sounds close.”
The discordant beat and sinister chanting grew louder. My heartbeat quickened. I looked at Jim. “This gives me the creeps.”
Eight days earlier my husband, Jim, our eighteen month son, Christopher, and I had arrived at Chitokoloki Mission Hospital in a remote area of the Northwestern Province of Zambia, Africa. For our first week we lived in the guest house of the doctor and his wife, Doc and Hilda Worsfold. They introduced us to the mission station and the new hospital, which they called Kariba. Post-operative and more seriously ill patients received treatment in the wards of Kariba.
Across the road, Doc showed us the old hospital compound which was a square mud brick building made up of individual cubicles. Patients with minor illnesses and their families could stay and care for themselves while they received treatment. As we walked through the open courtyard of the old hospital, the smoke of the cooking fires, the smell of slightly rancid meat and various body odors filtered across the open space. Quite a contrast from our antiseptic, germ-phobic hospitals in Canada.
While we stayed in the guest house we got to know Doc and Hilda. Doc struck us as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality. He had worked at the hospital for twenty-six years and showed concern and commitment to the Zambians. At the same time, he delighted in relating stories about the “rascals” from the area and their love of the local whiskey, called lituku. His favorite name for these rascals was “silly sausages”.
Another story he told us was of an early Scottish explorer and missionary, F. S. Arnot. When Arnot arrived at Chief Msiri’s boma, or compound, in 1886 he found skulls of the chief’s enemies on poles surrounding his palace. As he told us the story, Doc watched our reactions as though he hoped for a shocked response. We obliged, though we weren’t sure which of Doc’s stories were truth, which were fiction. However, while we stayed in Doc and Hilda’s guest house we felt relatively safe and protected. After all, the doctor slept next door, so we had to be safe.
But this was the day for us to leave the guest house and move into the two-storey house, the only one of its kind in the whole province. Doc dubbed it “Mawhiney’s Folly” after its Irish builder. Unlike the other homes with cement floors, this house had floors of wooden parquet and a wooden staircase to the upper floor. It stood on the northern end of the mission station, slightly apart from the rest and near to the closest village. It looked out of place; grey, gloomy, and foreboding.
“What are we doing here?” I asked Jim that night. “This doesn’t feel like anything I signed up for.”
The repetitious beat of the drumming and chanting increased as the breeze changed direction and wafted through the windows. We huddled together in our bed, neither of us able to sleep. I remembered Doc’s stories and wondered how much could actually be true.
“I’m going to get the grass slasher,” Jim said. “If they’re coming for us, I’m going to be ready.”
He inched his way across the hall and down the stairs to the kitchen. In the storage area he found the three-foot flat iron rod, curved and razor sharp at the end. As he retraced his steps, the stairs groaned and the floor creaked.
As I heard him returning, my mind flashed back to expectations I had while still in Canada: Florence Nightingale curing malaria-stricken children, relieving the suffering of the malnourished, saving babies in complicated deliveries. Africa was an adventure waiting to be experienced. Some of our friends thought we were out of our minds taking a baby to such a remote place. Others told us how brave we were to leave everything, pick up, and go to Africa. Now, here I was, immobilized under the covers.
“Maybe we should call Doc,” I said. “He could take us back to the guest house.”
“It’s two o’clock in the morning,” Jim said. “I don’t think so.”
I looked at Christopher, sleeping undisturbed. If we ended up in a pot of stew, surely they would spare him. Weariness finally overtook me and I fell asleep, dreaming of skulls on poles and foreigners in cauldrons over cooking fires.
Crowing roosters woke me a few hours later. The sun streamed into the room as voices from the path to the Zambezi River drifted through the open window. I rubbed my blurry eyes and scanned the room. Jim lay snoring. Christopher was stretching and yawning. No more drumming. No massacres. No missionary stew. Relief and fatigue swept over me as I drifted again into another world.
“Hoity mwani, hoity mwani,” someone called outside our window – “I’m here, thank you.”
I awoke from my dreamland. I threw on my tee shirt and wrinkled skirt and hurried downstairs through the kitchen to the back door. I had been told by Hilda that a man called Luvuwa would come to help me with household chores. I guessed this was Luvuwa.
Beside Luvuwa stool a man dressed in spotless brown trousers, a white shirt, and wearing a broad smile. In his arms he carried a squawking chicken. He spoke in the local language, Lunda. Luvuwa, in his limited English, explained that this man was the headman in the village beside us (the same village tha, as it turned out, had just been partying through the night). He and his village wanted to tell us how happy they were that we had come to help them. He came this morning to present a chicken as a gift and to welcome us to Chitokoloki.
I felt foolish, but relieved. It would be chicken in the pot, not me. In the future, I’d try to restrain my vivid imagination.
Kathryn Rennie lives in Burlington, Ontario, with her husband. She and her husband worked in Zambia, Africa for fourteen years in a medical mission hospital. She enjoys writing stories of her family's experiences during those years. She has three children, two of whom were born in Zambia, and ten grandchildren.
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