I remember suddenly what I thought I had forgotten, the smell of oil and hot sand in the constant, immobile heat of the Kavango sun. It was my first important job. I was twenty. I had found my way there on the empty trailer of a cattle truck which was traveling north, through the barren wastes of South-West Africa/Namibia, from the slaughterhouses of Cape Town, the city that had been my home. We passed many other cattle trucks, sending their cargo south, away from the drought which had been slowly transfiguring this landscape through the past months into primitive dust.
In the north, where I was sent, the dying continued, but not because of drought. Here were Namibian fighters. In the quiet afternoons at the bush camp I could sometimes hear the mortar fire, which formed an erratic counterpoint to the bursting seeds of the germinating plants in the undergrowth as I sat sorting samples.
It was my job to traverse the bush on a compass bearing and pick up soil samples, with the possibility that they contained trace elements of diamonds. The district I was sent to, called Kavangoland, was in the northeastern corner of the country, bordering both Botswana and Angola. When I applied for the job I was required to write my will, and later provided with a rifle with which I was supposed to protect myself in the event of mishap.
I arrived at the camp in the evening after many hours of dirt roads. I was greeted by a jocular young man with a Scottish accent and owlish eyes. He spoke affectionately about the blacks, whose company he had exclusively entertained for the past two and a half years. He also made nervous jokes about recent terrorist attacks nearby.
I settled into the hot days and cold nights. I started to learn from the Africans. My compass guide in the bush, Petrus Hamutsja, would smile distantly through his teeth, which had been filed to points years before, and start telling me of the time he had killed a leopard single-handedly with his spear. His soliloquy was punctuated by animated gesticulations and shouts. The others in the sampling team would join in to elucidate details of the event in the attempt to bring the animal back to life for the sake of the story. It seemed they were practicing something which they had told over a thousand times before.
Most of these people had been hired from the surrounding villages, but many of them had found their way here when our diamond operation in Angola had closed down during the revolution of '73. Fired on by both sides, they had swum the Okavango River and started their lives again, bringing with them nightmares of friends and family indiscriminately murdered in the mad confusion that left Angola crippled in its wake.
It seemed that I was living under two different realities, that of the quiet evolving forests in which tribal life followed its age-old ritual; and then the incomprehensible spasm of terrorist war, devouring lives in a frenzied passion somewhere out there beyond the shadows of the anthills. These children did not understand the forces that were turning their forests into a battleground. In the past, time had been measured by the migration of the elephants and the progression of seasons, and this took them back into the timeless void of unconscious myth when their forefathers had hunted in the isolation of unmapped forest. Now, watches, worn like talismans on their wrists, dictated objective time.
The animals faced the same predicament as the people. I found an elephant with its tusks removed, lying on its side fringed by hundreds of vultures. The natives told me that it was the army that did these things, that killed without jurisdiction.
During my morning drive to my sample section the natives would tell me what each spoor meant and which animals had passed in the night. Larger animals would often make chimeric appearances on the road, and the Africans behind me would tell me what type of animal we had seen. These people understood the shy language of this land, but not the word ''freedom.'' They had only existed in one system and therefore had nothing to compare it with. Freedom only makes sense when one understands slavery. The politicians, leading these people out of ''slavery,'' regard ''freedom'' as some manipulative commodity, since they can only see it within a restricted system.
The freedom offered them by the revolution was the freedom that was offered to Adam: the terrifying freedom to eat of the fruit of two worlds. The temptations of modern technology shine like some pagan god to them.
I watched their faces change smoothly from raucous laughter to theatrical consternation. They were living out an incongruous culture as it was being irreparably assailed by political turmoil. This small arena of action and emotion seemed fragile and impotent as combatant helicopters flew overhead.
On the Botswanan border in the east, long, ten-foot ladders stretched over the border fences, enabling the Bushmen to enter and leave the country as they pleased. I had encountered a Bushman while driving through a remote area of the territory. He stood, half in shadow, holding his bow. The natives that I was transporting yelled at him and he turned his gentle face and retreated into the foliage. I asked the natives about the Bushmen and they laughed and tried to explain how they were just animals and used as servants in the villages. The Bushman, like the white man, was often blamed unjustly for everything from fires to wrong decisions by the Kavango natives, becoming scapegoats when things were too difficult or too unpleasant for the Kavangos to face.
But it was difficult to be angry at their faults because of their affluence of natural charm. Chemea Trotsi, the mechanic, would amble out of the compound every morning in his sagging trousers, which he had never quite been able to grow into, and greet me; his eyes were shy as if this new day cut the ties of the days before and we must get to know each other over and over from the beginning. The others would stand around in the crisp, early morning and nod and bob their greetings earnestly at me and less formally among themselves until we had all become acquainted on this new day which was unlike any other, sandwiched , as it was, in eternity. And then I would drive out into the wilderness with these people and walk for miles through the undergrowth, systematically collecting sand to examine it for diamonds. I led them nowhere, neither out of bondage nor to the promised land. I could not understand them when they spoke of their sorrows. I loved their laughter, but sometimes it turned so quickly to enmity that it seemed like a mask. Sometimes I felt that all that I saw of them was this intricate mask. I was alienated from them by my whiteness and my youth.
The African has always been misrepresented by those who regard him as backward, or who romanticize him as some solution for our atom bomb technology. I do not believe that he is either. Everything that is his has been handed down to us. His war is our war, too. His culture has to battle for survival as ours floats estranged and mobile.
Our traditions are too frequently impersonal and abstract, while these people relate to reality on intimate terms, and their lore dictates their survival.
The odd thing is that wars go on in the shadows, victories are won and territories lost, but nothing seems resolved. Many among the Kavango people have crossed the Angolan border, to return as SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) terrorists, to fight for what they consider to be their freedom. Those who are killed in the cross-fire are there to make up the rest of the picture and give value to the other characters in the plot. We white people resolve small things such as land, but this makes no real difference to what we believe in. What the black African believes in does not change, like his feeling for the soil. This defines him. It is always a part of him. I do not believe that this feeling is based on pantheism or theism, it is just a deep assurance of something that, for him, can be relied on. No matter what aberrations are inflicted on him by politics, the soil and the warm sun will always be a comfort and a symbol that all is still right with his world and that the turmoil is insignificant and transient. It is this stability which gives him his unique perspective and which we stutter about when we attempt to communicate with a primitive culture.
My feelings about Kavangoland faded when I returned to the city. I do not know what it is that I lost, except that it is something painfully delicate. But sometimes I find it again. It has something to do with the wild raw mornings as the sun sings over the trees. Every now and again, when I walk on the sand on hot days or smell the oil with which we used to grease the engines, I think back to that camp, which is still out there at the fringes of our Western reality, but full of people living full lives and laughing with joy at nature's irresistible performance.