The Orphans is mostly set in the rural Tanzania I remember from the early 1980s, but some of the technologies used are much more recent. To that extent, it is anachronistic. Don’t forget, though; it is fictional, made up, lies. All of it.
Max Matham is a self-employed freelance forensic accountant living in a quiet village in Buckinghamshire. Della Jont is a hard-nosed businesswoman who presses Max into working for her, investigating alleged financial irregularities at an orphanage in East Africa. Max soon finds that some disturbing things are going on at the orphanage, and becomes involved in a set of intriguing events involving orphans, government agencies, witch-doctors, an old university chum and a multinational pharmaceutical company.
Beginning on 10 January 2016, I shall publish The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Twelve, scene one: To the orphanage.
All weekend long, on and off, Kanene was asking me questions about aircraft and flying. She said she was just curious, but I was certain she was nervous. I was prepared for that. Although living in a sophisticated city, there was still a lot of country girl in Kanene, and some of the old tribal superstitions were still in the background of her mind.
When Monday came, we took a taxi to the airport, where we found ourselves in the middle of a large, newly-arrived group of enthusiastic volunteers; young, and some not so young, people who were donating their time and expertise to help the ‘less fortunate’. That’s what they thought, anyway. In my experience, they would leave having learned at least as much as they had taught, and having received at least as much as they had given. And an equal exchange like that can only be good for everyone involved.
They were milling around the departures area, some with obviously new suitcases, rucksacks and other assorted carrying bags; some with equipment that was clearly well-travelled and, in some instances, that appeared to have spent more time navigating the planet that their holders had spent occupying it.
The presence of so many younger people, talking and joking amongst themselves, obviously relaxed about their travelling, had the effect of calming Kanene’s fears; either that, or her upbringing had conditioned her not to show negative emotions when there were strangers around. Either way, she had stopped fiddling with her hair, picking up her bag, turning it around and putting it back down again, checking the seat number on her boarding pass, looking around and sighing.
When our flight opened, we joined the queue for check-in. As expected, it was a very short line, a family of about eight in what I by then recognised as the habitual dress of the area, two young women from the volunteers’ party, and we two. Once we had checked in, one of the two volunteers approached us.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Sadie and my friend is Pauline. Are you going to Songea?”
“Yes, we are,” I replied, “I take it you are, too.”
“Yes, we’re volunteering at an orphanage near there for a month.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“Let me check,” she said, digging into her hand baggage and rummaging through its contents, “yes, here it is. According to this, it’s called the Jont Orphanage.”
“There’s a coincidence,” I remarked, “we’re heading there, too. I’m Max, by the way, and my companion is Kanene. It’s her first trip there, too. Are you excited?”
“You bet! We’ve never done anything like this before, and we have no idea what to expect. This is really a holiday for us, but we wanted to do something different, something more worthwhile than lazing on a beach or trekking through the mountains, which is what we usually do on holiday.”
“What kind of job do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a canine beautician and Pauline is an immobilière – like an estate agent.”
“And you are friends?”
“Yes, we met at a club quite a while ago. We both live in Paris. Pauline is learning English but she’s not that confident yet.”
“Same like me,” Kanene piped in.
“How are you planning to get to the orphanage from the airport?” I asked.
“We are supposed to phone a Mrs Nchimbi there, and she’ll send transport for us,” Sadie replied.
“No need,” I said, “you can come with us; there’s a rented Land Rover at the terminal, with my name on it.”
There’s not much to say about the flight to Songea. Clear skies and a good landing meant it was unexceptional. Kanene thought otherwise, as did Sadie and Pauline. It was a lesson to me, flying with one person who had never flown before, and two more who had no experience of flying over the plains of East Africa. I’d forgotten the wonder of looking down on fluffy, cotton-wool clouds; of seeing whole rivers winding through the land, from their outpouring into the ocean to their very first beginnings in the hill-country; of witnessing the joining of small flows of water to form a mighty torrent; the small communities dotted around the countryside and, as we lost height, the large animals roaming the plains, undisturbed by our presence. I reminded myself to add a balloon safari to my bucket list.
All of this was new to Kanene. Her face was like that of a small child on its first trip to the zoo: expressions of wonder, amazement, awe and deep, absolute delight played across her features for the whole flight. Sadie and Pauline were chatting away in French at an alarming rate; I had no idea what they were talking about, but they certainly spent the whole trip in a state of excitement. Even her first ever landing didn’t faze Kanene; she was still processing the sights and experiences of being in the air. Whatever she found to tell her father about after our visit to the orphanage, I was sure that she would have plenty of material, from this single flight, to keep him entertained for some time.
The short road trip from Songea to the orphanage was, for the three of them, like a continuation of the flight. The countryside near the Livingstone mountains, to the east of Lake Malawi, was as different from the lowlands around Dar-es-Salaam as the flight was to the view from one of the city’s high-rise buildings, and not at all like the countryside around Paris; and the range of animals to be seen was every bit as different as was the country through which we drove. Whatever else happened that day, I knew that three young women would sleep well that night; provided their levels of excitement subsided a little.