By Tim Wilson
“In the discarded husk of yesterday’s sugarcane, the ant sees a harvest.”
Brad glanced in anticipation at his two friends as they stood at the edge of the African rainforest that would be their home for the next few days. Between the guarded gate of Highland Academy and the forest’s edge, they had divested themselves of all things Western; from here on, they would speak only Swahili, their first language.
Highland Academy, the boarding school, provided an American-based education to the children of foreign workers in Africa. Most of the students were in Africa temporarily while their parents, on professional sabbaticals, did relief work; these students had little understanding of the Africa they often reluctantly lived in. Brad, Scott, and Dave belonged to a much smaller group of students who had spent most or all of their lives in Africa, and who resisted the value of learning about such things as Richard Nixon’s resignation as President on the other side of the world. The American teachers found many in this small group painfully challenging, but for these young “white” Africans, no education compared to what they learned around the village fires from African tribal elders.
“Ready?” Brad asked. Scott and Dave nodded. “We’ll head first for the mossy rock and get materials for our hunting weapons there.”
Brad’s two companions were opposites in many ways. Dave was short and kept to himself, quietly flunking his classes. Scott was tall; his humor and broad, contagious smile won him a wide range of friends at the school. He garnished the top scores in class, to the enthusiastic commendations of teachers who punctuated their praise with the most important endorsement the school offered: “This one will make it just fine in America.” His athletic abilities earned him the midfielder position on the high school football team (which the American coach called soccer). That’s where he first met Brad. Though Brad grew up in Africa it was his first semester at the academy; Scott immediately recognized a fellow African and invited him on weekend rifle hunts near the school.
All three friends were skilled hunters with a rifle. Scott was the best shot, but could not sit still and too often scared the prey with his impatience. Whereas Brad and Dave could do the ‘walk of the leopard’—a high-stepping, flat-footed stride which allows one to walk noiselessly upon prey—for miles at a time, Scott often snapped a twig or rustled leaves at just the wrong time.
On this hunting trip, they would take no weapons except for one knife apiece. Scott and Dave explained to Brad that they would find the materials and build hunting weapons as they went through the forest. Dave had brought only a small four-inch curved blade on a leather strap around his neck. Brad stared at it in disbelief, but with that little tool, Dave had built weapons and traps renowned for their quality throughout the region.
As they stepped into the rainforest canopy, Brad took the lead with his superior tracking skills. Scott, a sure-shot with the bow, followed next. Dave lagged behind, listening to the forest around them. The boys understood the vigorous struggle between life and death in the rainforest: the growth of trees, plants, and flowers drawing life from the pungent rot of death and decay under-root; shafts of life from the sun poking into the dark decay; the ubiquitous water, dripping from broad leaves, moss and flowers; fluttering butterflies, insects and birds crashing about, eluding the waiting clutches of snakes, spiders and bats; leopards lying in wait to feast on the abundance of bush antelopes. For these boys, this was their banquet of opportunity.
“Dave, are you doing okay?” Brad asked.
The scuffling figure rounded a clump of brush, several rotting logs behind Scott, and waved without a word that he was okay. Dave’s slow and awkwardly limping step appeared painful at times. He could barely run faster than he could walk; his running stride a ridiculous wobble that made him the brunt of many jokes at school. Brad knew he was fine.
Dave’s wild, curly, reddish-black hair remained a stranger to both brush and comb.
“This one will never make it in America,” the teachers would say, sending him to the next grade, hoping someone else would have better luck with him. He stayed quiet and alone at school and did not seem to mind this fate.
“Scott, it seems like this will be a pretty tough walk for us, we’ve a long way to go,” Brad said quietly. “Do you think Dave is strong enough to keep up with us all the way there?”
“I wouldn’t think of wandering this deep into the forest without Dave watching my back. You’d be a fool if you ever tried it without him, either. Dave is better in these woods than you or I will ever be.” It was the first time that Brad had ever heard anger in Scott’s voice.
Brad wondered about Dave—he never laughed or smiled. An African maintenance worker at the school had told Brad that Dave had unusual connections with the elders in the area and that many stories were told about him around the village fires.
“Let’s stop a little,” Scott said anyway. Your friend has bad legs and a bad heart, his mother had told him. Some sort of birth defect. Dave had never talked about it, never complained, and had kept Scott from defending him at school. Scott had overheard his missionary father tell his mother, “That boy’s father is a ticking time-bomb”—and he used other words, like “molestation” and “incest.” An African asks few questions, but Scott became very protective of his best friend afterward, despite Dave’s protest.
Yet, despite his limitations, Dave handled a rifle with skill; he lacked the strength to use a bow, but he had built the bows Scott and Brad used and proudly displayed in their dorm room. Brad had never seen such quality in a hunting bow. Scott often bragged about Dave, “the best trapper in Africa.” How odd that the popular and chatty Scott bragged so much about his feeble, outcast friend. The two had grown up together in the little village of Kagawe. Three times a year at the trimester school breaks, they would walk through the rainforest, hunting, as they made their way back to their village, never taking the “safe route,” the long looping road that connected Kagawe to the school. Brad was excited to be invited along this time. His Canadian parents taught in an African school among the Wavuvi, two hundred miles east of Highland Academy; he would fly with Borman home from Kagawe later in the week.
They arrived at the mossy rock, as deep into the Kulima rainforests as Brad had ever been. Perched on the hillside, the boys looked out over the misty haze rising above the shimmering emerald treetops.
“We should stop here and make the weapons before we go any farther in,” Brad said.
They collected wattle branches for Dave’s traps, and mahogany branches for Brad and Scott’s bows and arrows. Dave staggered slightly under an armful of gathered treasures; Brad shook his head in amazement at all the things Dave had found. “I told you,” Scott said. “You haven’t seen anything yet.” They found a fallen log in the clearing. Without a word, Dave rubbed and twisted long strips of vines across the log, making tightly wound strings for their bows.
“This is so cool,” Scott said. He grinned at Brad as they watched Dave go to work. He had always wanted someone from the school to know his friend the way that he did.
Scott and Dave had experienced much of Africa together. Together, they had sat and learned at the feet of the Kulima elders, made friends with the same Kulima children, and always hunted together. Many thought that Scott was the smart one of the two, but Scott knew a side of Dave that others did not often see. Scott could give the scientific and African names for all the plants and trees in the forest; Dave did not know or care about their names, but he knew how to use them to his advantage. Dave often said that an animal’s best advantage is in its instincts, but the human’s advantage is in his creativity.
“See, Brad, we’ll use these vine strings for our bows until we get our first animal. Then Dave will replace them with braided gut or skin to make the bows stronger.”
While his friends worked on the bowstrings, Dave took out his odd little knife and began to scrape and shape two long branches into hunting bows. He handed one nearly-completed bow to each of them to finish up with their oversized knives while he began work on his trap.
He took thin wattle branches and began to weave them together into a flattened basket. He wove a freshly made vine-string around the outer edge and laid his trap on the ground to test it. He imagined a small animal crossing over the basket and pulled the string; the basket quickly snapped shut. Armed and ready, the boys slipped back into the shadows of the trees and worked their way deeper into the woods.
Scott loved these hunting trips when they took no weapons. Even the Kulima people said that Dave hunted better than their most skilled hunters. They admired him even more because he did not use a bow or spear to hunt. Scott grinned, watching Brad check tracks and look for signs of prey ahead of him. He wondered how long it would take Brad to understand Dave the way he did.
Dave lived by the stories of his mentors. His African education was not limited to the wisdom of the Kulima farmers who raised him. Dave often visited the Ibutho people, who roamed the great savannah lands in the valley beyond the rainforests, not far from the school. They were proud of their large cattle herds and renowned for their skills as warriors. Their chief Lenana explained to Dave that humans have been given two eyes: one is the eye of the predator; the other is the eye of the prey. The predator looks too closely for the prey and misses the predator, and the prey looks too closely for the predator and misses the prey. In order to live well in the world, one must learn to see with both eyes.
Dave smiled to himself, as his friends, so focused on the hunt, walked directly under a colobus monkey perched on a low branch above their heads. The monkey, deep black with a mask of white whiskers around its face, cocked its head in bemusement as the two hunters passed. Dave waved to the monkey; the colobus seemed insulted by the gesture and scrambled, crashing up the tree. His friends whirled around, bows drawn at the friend or foe that had escaped their notice.
“Colobus,” Dave said, casually pointing over their heads. “Meat is no good.” His friends, embarrassed, turned and continued their hunt. Dave always waited to let his friends make the first kill.
Several times that day, Dave had seen a dark movement to the left of his companions. He felt certain it belonged to a man, not an animal. He turned toward the movement and held his hand with an open palm pointed up and outward, a sign of peace, to show the stranger he had been detected and that Dave had no ill intent. He did not see a return sign, but he felt no danger and continued to follow his friends.
It was not until late in the afternoon that Brad stopped and held his hand straight up to signal he had detected something. Scott stopped behind him. Catching Dave’s attention, he pointed eagerly to a narrow worn path in the underbrush. He flapped his hands indicating a bird, cupped his hands slightly to indicate that the bird was the size of a large chicken. He flipped up eight fingers indicating a small flock. Dave saw it was a guinea fowl trail and nodded.
Taking charge, Brad pointed to Scott and then toward the path entrance. Both boys armed their bows with the arrows Dave had made. Scott crouched down with an excited grin and prepared to shoot any fowl that might come up the trail. Brad looked at Dave and pointed in a circular motion to the right of the brush. Dave began a leopard walk and circled to the exit bird trail on the other side of the thicket. He carefully laid out his braided trap on the trail and waited.
Brad circled left, bow drawn. He then turned and leopard-walked straight to the hiding gaggle of fowl. A thwap broke the silence, echoed by the panicked clucks and screeches of the fowl.
Dave heard a thud; one of the birds was hit. He listened as the birds scurried up their tiny trail toward Scott. A second thwap followed more screeches. Scott shouted, “I got one!”
The panicked birds switched direction and charged out of the other side of the brush and over Dave’s trap. He let one go by before springing the trap, catching a big hen. He quickly grabbed the hen by the legs, broke her neck, and reset the trap. The confused flock changed direction and went back up the trail toward Scott and Brad. Dave could hear his friends talking; they did not anticipate the flock coming back toward them. He smiled. The confused flock burst out in front of Scott and Brad, who shouted in surprise, which again turned the frightened flock back down the trail toward Dave. He let several birds go past the trap and sprang it on a second large bird. He snapped the guinea fowl’s neck and decided that they had enough meat for the evening meal. He wrapped up his trap and walked back to Scott and Brad.
Scott triumphantly held up a hen with two arrows in it. “Brad shot it first and then I killed it.”
Dave smiled his congratulations as he held up his two hens.
“I never believed that trap would work,” Brad said.
Visit us again soon to read Part 2 of this story.