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 Thirteen, scene one: Visit some villages.
Armed with a satellite phone, modem, laptop and satnav, I set out at first light the next morning with Kanene seated beside me. Our mission was to visit a few of the villages and put faces to the numbers that the Nchimbis had given us. I was happy to have Kanene with me; she may not speak the local dialect, but out here, her Swahili would get us a lot further than my English would.
The major villages were only a few kilometres apart and, for the most part, well served by unpaved roads. Some had mains electricity, and I was surprised to see a few mobile phone masts and even satellite dishes. Away from the larger villages, provision was not as good, and the lifestyle was more traditional. It was the people in these small settlements that I wanted to get to know first; these were the places where traditional healers and their methods would be most likely to hold sway.
These villages were all within the area that the nurses from the orphanage visited, so they were accustomed to strangers appearing in their midst. I got the impression, though, that they were less comfortable with the presence of a European, or at least a European woman. It seemed unlikely to me that they had never seen a white-skinned person before, so I could only assume that they had, at some time in the past, been through a bad experience with one of my complexion. It was, of course, possible that the only fair-skinned people they had ever seen were albino members of their own race, but I found that hard to believe, too. The presence of satellite dishes in the larger villages, and the steady growth of internet access, particularly in the schools, suggested that they were probably in a position to see European and American programming output which would expose them to white faces, too. I told Kanene to venture out first, to speak to the people and introduce me. I hoped that she could convince them that it was safe for them to talk to me.
None of the men of the village wanted to talk to either of us, but Kanene managed to collect a group of about a dozen women whom I addressed, as well as I could, in their own common language. Once again, I was thankful for Kanene’s presence; she had need to intervene more than a few times to stop me from saying something that was culturally insensitive or just plain wrong.
From this group I learned that the nurses’ visits were always well received, and that they believed that the visits were beneficial in helping to slow the spread of HIV, though it was proving very difficult to convince many of the most sexually active men to use condoms. Sex is regarded as a leisure activity among a good few people of both genders, leading to what our western society would regard as a high level of promiscuity. This is what the nurses have tried to discuss, with limited success. However, limited success is still some success. When I turned to the subject of people with albinism, the group became less happy to talk to me. This was clearly a subject that was not normally discussed. Traditional beliefs state that albinism is a curse, and is a result of the presence of evil spirits. It is for that reason that the sufferers are rejected by their own village, even by their own families, and are ostracised from the community. A few decades earlier, in the north of the country, it began to be believed that body parts from albino people could have a beneficial effect in connection with certain spells for good luck and good fortune. This belief was slowly spreading throughout the country although it had, at the time of my visit, not yet fully taken hold in this area. It was plain to see that the women lived in fear of the traditional healers, the people we know as shamen or witch-doctors, and were not comfortable talking openly about matters that fell within the healers’ domain.
Before we left, the women offered us food and drink; ugali in a thin gravy with pombe, the locally-made maize beer, to wash it down. I was comfortable with ugali; I had been introduced to it by Kanene’s friend Sekelaga, and Kanene has made it for me on a few occasions. I was also sufficiently familiar with pombe to take no more than a few sips. I didn’t want to risk becoming tipsy; there was still much ground to cover.
This experience was repeated in each village we entered: women would talk to us about HIV/AIDS but not about albinism, and men wouldn’t talk to us at all. Notwithstanding that, we had received enough information by the end of the day to give us a clear picture of the situation as it then was.
Shortly after we had left the last settlement on our list, while driving through a heavily wooded area, on the rutted mud that passed for a road, our Land Rover suddenly pulled hard to the right. I braked. The vehicle came to a halt, missing a tree by inches. Kanene hit her head on the windscreen, causing a lump to appear almost immediately.
“Are you okay, Kanene?” I asked.
“Ow! I think so, Max. It hurts bad, though.”
“We’ll get a nurse to look at it when we get back. Let’s have a look and see what happened.”
We got out of the car and immediately saw what cause the problem. There was a four-foot spear embedded in the front right tyre.
“Somenody was unhappy with our visit,” I suggested.
“They try to stop us going back?” Kanene asked.
“My guess is that they didn’t want to keep us here; more likely they hoped to cause a crash that would do us serious damage.”
“They want to kill us?” Kanene asked, in a small, frightened voice, as I walked around to the back of the vehicle to take the spare wheel from its carrier.
“Possibly that,” I said, humping the spare wheel around to the front. It was heavy, and I needed to stop for a minute before the next step. “Can you think of any reason they might want to kill us?”
Kanene sat in the driver’s seat, sideways on, her legs dangling over the step.
“Out!” I ordered, as I came from the back with the heavy-duty jack and wheel-brace, “I need to lift this side of the car to change the wheel, and your extra weight won’t make it easier.”
Kanene jumped out and stood beside me. “Only if their shaman orders it,” she suggested.
Conversation stopped whilst I slackened the wheel-nuts and raised the corner of the vehicle with its jack.
“Is he likely to do that, just because we talked about his pet subject?”
“I think no, but if a man from the village say one black woman, one white woman in the car, he think you are albino – good for spells.”
I changed the wheel, lowered the jack, and put it and the damaged wheel – complete with spear – into the back of the Land Rover. Before setting off again, I had a good look around, in case I could see anyone, and then used the satellite phone to call the orphanage. I spoke to Makena, and told her what had happened. I also gave her our exact location according to our satnav, and told her I was bringing in the spear, still embedded in the tyre.
The rest of the drive back was uneventful, but we kept our eyes peeled. I was very aware that I was, at that point, driving in remote, rugged country, without a working spare wheel.