The drive to Makalamabedi was beautiful. Good rains meant the trees were leafed out and the bush green. At the T-junction they turned right. Delly insisted on driving her battered Land Rover which though older than Dambuza’s Corolla was in better condition and more reliable.
“There’s the compound,” Delly said.
They turned down a curved dirt road and parked outside a compound with three mud huts and a walled kitchen made of reeds. Many people were gathered sitting on the bare ground or broken upturned cement blocks. Some women spread out kanga cloths and sat on them. At the front of the group sat an older woman, probably in her fifties, with a small boy sitting on her lap and an older girl sitting quietly at her feet. A few older men sat on each side of the old woman, five in all. An elderly man stood addressing the crowd.
As Dambuza and Delly approached the gathering, a man standing to the side came up to them. “Dumelang, Delly. O teng?” he said.
“Ke teng, Les. This is Detective Dambuza from the Maun Police. He’s here to help.”
“I’m so glad you two came. We’re just organising today’s search. Let Baleka’s uncle finish and then we can go and speak with MmaShorty and the uncles,” Les said. He was a tall gangly man with a pleasant face. Dambuza could tell what had happened was affecting him. His hair was uncombed and his clothes wrinkled, they looked slept in and worn for a few days. At the moment such things didn’t matter.
They stood back and listened. Dambuza looked around at those gathered. They were mostly older people. There was a group of young men at the back who seemed riled up and ready to go. One, named Pops, spoke, saying he had his mother’s bakkie and offered to take a few people deeper out in the bush for searching. The crowd gave appreciative nods to his offer.
Soon everyone was assigned their area and the gathering dispersed. Les came toward Dambuza and Delly.
“Okay let’s go,” Les said and lead them to the mud and dung lolwapa where Baleka’s mother and uncles were gathered. He introduced Delly and Dambuza and they were offered chairs.
“Do you have any news from Maun?” MmaShorty asked.
“No, I’m sorry I don’t,” Dambuza answered. “I was hoping you could tell me a bit about what you think happened.”
“They’re taking them,” MmaShorty said, her eyes red from days of crying.
“What do you mean they?” Dambuza asked.
“You know when people disappear; when people vanish, they’re taken for muti. Everyone knows this. They’re operating in Makalamabedi. Every day someone is taken. Now they’ve taken my Baleka.” She began to weep into the edge of her shawl.
“Have you found anything Les?” Delly asked.
“We know she was grabbed at the river. We followed the footsteps. They carried her; we think they were two, to a vehicle. The tracks looked like a big car, maybe a 4 x 4. The police took casts of the footprints and the tyre treads. They drove to the tarred road and were gone. That’s it. That’s all we’ve found out so far.”
“Do you search everyday like this?” Dambuza asked.
“Yes, this is our sixth day. The kgosi thinks we should do it for a week. But he’s told me if after a week she’s not found he’ll call it off.”
“On the day she went missing where were you, Les?” Dambuza asked. He knew it wasn’t the best tim,e but he was here to get information.
Delly answered instead. “He was out on safari, I can vouch for that.”
Dambuza asked, “Is there anyone new in the village maybe in the last year or so?”
“I mostly stay in Maun,” Les said. He turned to the old man who had been conducting the meeting. “This is Rre Kelebogile, the VDC chair, he knows just about everything that happens in the village. Rre Kelebogile, do you know of anyone new around the village in the last year or so?”
The old man looked at Delly and then spoke to Les. In Setswana he asked, “What does this white woman want here? Is she from that church again?”
Before Les could speak MmaShorty broke in. “What do you mean? My church? What is wrong with my church?”
“You know that church is run by makgoa with all kinds of funny ideas,” Rre Kelebogile said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they are found to be involved.”
“What do you mean funny ideas? Involved in what? And besides it is not all whites, most of the people are just ordinary Batswana from Maun. The white people have gone. The church has nothing to do with any of this. This, what is happening, the disappearances, the vanishing of my Baleka, this is evil. My church is for God, my church is for good.”
“Still some are outsiders in that church...” He turned away from MmaShorty and lowered his voice. “They have funny ideas no matter what she says. And too, they only started operating around here a year in a half ago. Who knows maybe they’re part of the vanishings? Who knows about these kinds of people?”
MmaShorty shot to her feet. “How can you tell lies like that? Are you saying my church stole Baleka? Is that what you are saying, old man? The only outsiders were Mr and Mrs Johnson, the missionaries from America, but they’ve gone home. You ought to get your story straight before you get yourself into some problems. This woman was never part of our church.”
Les stood up and went to MmaShorty. “Of course she wasn’t, this is Delly Woods, she’s my boss. And you might pay attention to your language, Rre Kelebogile, Delly is a Motswana and speaks Setswana.” He took MmaShorty’s hand in his. “Mme, you need to try to keep calm. The nurse said if your BP goes up again you’ll need to be admitted in Maun. Rre Kelebogile was just answering the policeman’s question. They’re new around here, the church people, that’s all he was saying.”
MmaShorty sat back down, but kept looking at the VDC chair, her battle with him was not over.
“Maybe you can go with me. I was just off to talk to Rre Khathurima,” Les said.
“Why? Who’s that?” Delly asked.
“He’s a traditional doctor. He was at the meeting. He asked me to come and see him after we were finished.”
Dambuza, Delly, and Les headed for the Land Rover.
The small girl who had been sitting quietly next to MmaShorty during the meeting came racing up to them. “Are you going to get Mama?” she asked Les.
Les picked up the little girl. “We’re still trying to find her Penny. You must be a big girl and go and help Nkunku with Moarabi. Can you do that?”
Les put her down and she ran back to where a little boy sat playing with his clay cattle. Les wiped his eyes and followed Delly and Dambuza to the car.
The compound Les directed them to was opulent compared to MmaShorty’s. There was a big face brick house and a wide tiled lolwapa shaded by a massive mopipi tree. Opposite to the house on the far side of the lolwapa was a smaller house like the larger with face brick and black roof tiles. Les walked to the smaller house. Before he could speak a voice inside said, “Tsena, Lesedi.”
Delly looked at Dambuza and lifted an eyebrow. Les opened the door and they walked into the large room. Two walls were lined with shelves containing various traditional medicines. The man they were visiting, Rre Khathurima, sat on a low stool wearing an animal skin around his shoulder. There were two low, long wooden benches opposite him. The three sat down on one of the benches.
“Les, I wanted you to come. I had a dream about Baleka. I want to tell you the dream. I want to tell you the dream and then throw the bones to see what badimo tell us. I’m glad the bush woman and the police man are here with you. They need to hear everything.”
Dambuza felt a shiver up his spine. He didn’t know this man. He doubted Delly did either. So how did he know who they were? Dambuza was rational and didn’t go to such men, but, like most Batswana, he had a healthy respect for traditional doctors. He knew they could be powerful. He knew there were many things they did that could not be explained. He could feel that he had entered the house of a very powerful man.
“Baleka is alive. She is not dead. They hold her. They want things from her, things only she can give. She is with others. Her will is strong. But Lesedi, nwangaka, these people who hold her are very dangerous. Very dangerous indeed. She thinks she can fight them, she thinks she can win. She cannot. They are far more powerful than her, even than me. But she is alive and there is hope. My dream showed me this.”
The three kept quiet. The doctor took up his bones. He blew on them and then he put it out to each of them, they blew on the bones, and then he threw them on the leather mat. He waited and suddenly the room changed. Dambuza thought a cloud must have passed over the sun because the room darkened. The doctor moaned a deep guttural moan. His body shook. He closed his eyes and something pulsed through his body, something he could not control. It shook him violently.
He spoke in a tortured voice. “They are good, on the outside…good on the outside. Good on the outside. Watch out!” His eyes opened wide and he looked above their heads. “She is in danger! They will steal her. They will kill her. They are good ….. but they are evil. He will do it again. He will kill again. He will kill all of them!”
He fell back and Delly jumped to her feet and fell to the floor where the old man lay. “Are you okay?”
Rre Kathurima opened his eyes. He grabbed Delly’s hand and looked her in the eyes. “Please be careful! Be very careful! You are not safe.”
Delly dropped Les back at MmaShorty’s and she and Dambuza headed back to Maun. They were quiet for some time. Dambuza was trying to make sense of what happened at the traditional doctor’s house.
After they turned at the T-junction heading to Maun Dambuza said, “So, did you know him?”
“Who? The doctor? No, I’ve never seen him before. But he might know me, lots of people know me. Just because he said that doesn’t mean he knows us. I’m wearing khaki shorts I drive a Land Rover, not a hard stretch to say I’m a bush woman. And you, well anyone with any sense can see you’re a police officer at ten yards.”
“But what do you think? Maybe he’s making that all up to get us off his trail. Maybe he’s the one stealing these people for his medicines. Traditional doctors are the ones involved in all of this sort of thing. It could be him.”
Delly looked at him. “Do you believe that?”
“No,” Dambuza said. He had to admit he didn’t think Rre Khathurima was involved. He thought what they saw was authentic, not a ruse, based on nothing except a gut instinct. “Do you think it might be the church then? He said they appear good but they’re evil. It could be the church, the one the VDC guy talked about.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know anything about the churches in Maun. Not a big believer myself. Are they into things like that?”
“I don’t know. There is that Gutara Mwari where allegedly parents need to kill their oldest child as a sacrifice so they can become rich. Maybe it’s something like that who knows.”
“Jesus. Do you think Baleka’s mother is involved in something like that?” Delly asked.
“I don’t know. Shit man! You know as well as I do that a human is the most difficult animal to understand. I think I prefer your Kgosi, at least he doesn’t hide what he’s up to. If he’s going to eat me, he’s going to eat me. He’s not going to be smiling behind a Bible while he pulls out his knife.”
Delly nodded her head and smiled.
“I really can’t believe I have no leads and I’m putting together a case based on dreams and the bones thrown by a traditional doctor,” Dambuza said. He laughed a forced laugh in an attempt to push away the thought of what happened in that small house. If the people were being held somewhere and were still alive, than the case just took on a far more serious edge. He could save these people if he cracked the case, he wouldn’t just be finding their murderers, collecting their bodies. If the traditional doctor was right, he was looking for their kidnappers.
“I think I’ll do a bit of checking around about the other missing people.”
“But he said Baleka is alive, maybe we can still find her,” Delly said.
“We? Have you joined the police force?”
“No... but …I have an interest here. I know this woman, and now I heard what the doctor said. I think I can help. I feel like I should. Like you said- I know Maun, you don’t.”
Dambuza looked out the window at the passing fields of mealies and watermelon. If the people kept vanishing they’d soon all leave the lands in fear. Who wanted to be out in the bush waiting to be the next target? It was up to him to figure out what was going on. Were these disappearances related? If so, why were they being taken? For what reason? If they were dead- where were the bodies? If they were alive, why were they being kept? It was a mess, an unsolvable puzzle and no leads at all or hardly any leads, that was if he considered what the traditional doctor had said as a lead.
There was the church. New in the area about the same time. Did that mean anything? Could MmaShorty be involved in the disappearance of her own daughter? And what about the traditional doctor? What if he was taking them? He could be taking the parts he needed and burying the bodies. Appears good but they are evil? That could apply to just about anyone. And what about at the end, when he grabbed Delly’s arm, what did that mean? Was Delly in danger?
Dambuza turned to Delly. “What happened at the end? Why did he say that?”
Delly looked at Dambuza and then smiled. “Who knows? I have two fighting hippos out my door, maybe one is going to pop in and eat me.”
She laughed but they both knew there was little joy behind it. Dambuza couldn’t shake the feeling that they did have a reason to be scared, because they were in danger.
Dambuza was surprised how quickly he was able to forget about the day. He’d gone on only a few dates in his life since he’d been married for the bulk of it and he’d never been on a date with a woman like Nana. But then again maybe this wasn’t a date? He needed to keep his thoughts steady and take it as it came, not assume anything. Maybe it was two buddies meeting up for a beer. In any case, spending the evening with Nana, date or not, had put him in a great mood.
He found Chuck’s easy enough. It was the only bar on the mall with a parking lot overflowing with cars and music pouring out its open door. Inside he found Nana sitting at a quieter table in the corner. Two men stood nearby trying their luck with her, but when Dambuza came near, they disappeared.
“You clean up okay,” Nana said giving him the once over.
He’d bought a new shirt, since most of his nice shirts were still in the wardrobe of his former home. Luckily he’d brought his leather jacket and Levis when he left Francistown. He might be forty-nine going on fifty, and have the beginnings of an unavoidable beer gut, but he wasn’t a complete loser, despite Bontle’s attempts to make him feel otherwise. Dambuza sat down opposite Nana and he could almost hear the sighs of disappointment from the male population of the bar.
“Ma said you and she went out to Makalamabedi today. How’d that go?” Nana asked.
“It was okay but I’d really like to talk about something else if we could.” Dambuza paid the waitress for the beers she brought. “So why’d you leave UK and come back here anyway?”
Nana smiled. “You realise that is the fourth time you’ve asked me that question since I met you.”
“Really? You were counting?”
“Yes.” Her face got serious. “I had some trouble. Boyfriend trouble.”
“Well, I can certainly understand that.”
Her face changed and Dambuza could see that this was something serious. “No, I don’t think you can. I accidentally killed him.”
Dambuza wasn’t sure how to react. What do you say when someone says they killed their lover? “Huh...you’re right, I don’t understand.”
“Now I freaked you out. Sorry, maybe I didn’t word that properly. It was an accident. He was married; he wasn’t even really mine in the true sense. We were arguing. I wanted to break up. I was tired of it all. All the hiding and the games. More than anything, tired of being second. Always second. I wasn’t born to be second.” She took a long drink of her beer. “He was an actor, a bit well known. Better known than me in any case. So the papers went crazy, as UK papers do.”
“So are they looking for you? The police I mean?”
She threw her head back laughing, her neck stretched out and Dambuza couldn’t stop his eyes from following it down the plunge of her button up shirt. He looked away just in time, before his mind and body went to places he wasn’t sure they would be able to come back from.
“Would I tell a cop I killed someone if the cops were still looking for me? Ah Dambuza, I can be foolish, obviously, but I’m not stupid. I have no interest in spending any of my fabulous life behind bars. No, the police are not looking for me. It was an accident, like I said. I was never even charged. He tripped trying to grab me and fell. Unfortunately he hit his head on the hideous marble table he’d bought me. Dead before he landed on the floor the police said.”
Dambuza was relieved. He didn’t want to be put in a situation where he needed to arrest his date. “When did it happen?”
“Beginning of November.”
“But that’s like two months ago. Are you okay?”
“You’re sweet, Dambuza, you know that?” She put her hand over his where it rested on the table. Only for a minute or so but even when she took it away he still felt it there. “I’m fine. It was horrible, of course. Besides him dying, the affair came out, and it was all a huge awful mess. The papers wouldn’t drop it, even after I was cleared and I was trying my best to get over it. Ma said I should come home, and suddenly it felt like the best thing to do. So…here I am.”
She smiled but with a tinge of sadness. Dambuza could see she was Delly’s daughter, a few shades darker, fabulously beautiful, but tough as they come. A dead boyfriend, a potential murder charge, life strewn across the tabloids, and still she had a smile.
“And you? What’s your story?” she asked sipping at her beer and looking at him with the sexiest eyes he could ever have imagined.
Dambuza shook his head. “Do we really want to get into that?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Eighteen years married, out of the blue, I get served with divorce papers three days ago.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s the best thing for us. Neither of us has been happy for a very long time.”
“Yeah…I think that’s why we toughed it out for so long. Three.”
“Must be hard.”
“Yeah well…” Dambuza looked around the bar slightly lost at how he should respond. He didn’t do weakness well. Chuck’s had something for everyone. There was a big screen TV at the front for the sports fans. In the back there was a small wooden dance floor and a DJ for the dancers. Brenda Fassie’s ‘Weekend Special’ played for the few dancers on the floor.
Nana stood up. “Okay let’s go.”
She reached out her hand to him. He took hers and stood up, but still wasn’t clear about what she was on about -but then everything became frighteningly clear. She was walking him to the dance floor.
He stopped. This he could not do. “I…I’m not really a dancer.”
“Don’t be silly, everyone’s a dancer.”
She was already on the floor and it was obvious in her world everyone was a dancer. In Dambuza’s almost no one was. He stood watching her move her body and felt light headed. He was completely lost. Everyone around the dance floor turned to watch her. She reached for Dambuza’s hand and he stepped forward mechanically. He did his best, basically rocking back and forth, and watching her. He was smiling like an idiot, but he didn’t care. Nana was fabulous.
They drank quite a bit more and even danced to a few more songs. She talked about the UK and the theatre she loved so much. He talked about his kids and his job. Dambuza was surprised when last call was announced. The time had disappeared.
He walked her out to her car. “Are you going to be okay driving home?” he asked.
“Sure, I’m fine.”
They stood awkwardly. Dambuza didn’t know what to say. If he said the truth he’d sound stupid. He didn’t know if he should try to kiss her since he still wasn’t sure if they had been on a date or not.
“I like you, Dambuza,” Nana said. “There’s something about you… an honesty I think. Yeah. I get a lot of posers coming after me. But that’s not you. You’re just straight. There you are in your thrown together charming way. Take it or leave it. I like that. It’s refreshing.”
She leaned into Dambuza and kissed him. First on the cheek, then on the lips. Then again- and suddenly the answer to the question that rolled in his mind the whole night was answered. Yes, it had been a date. And against all the odds in the universe, all the voices shouting no way in his head, it looked like Nana was interested in him. He wondered what he’d done to deserve that.