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 three: Back to base.
How quickly we become accustomed to things. How rapidly we become jaded. Kanene had passed the entire flight to Songea wondering at the new sights and sounds. Every little thing: islands of clouds gracing the ground with their payload of rain; groups of large mammals roaming the savannah; the view down on small airports as, far below us, light aircraft took off or landed, looking like children’s toys; the Livingstone Mountains ahead; the Songea Mountains to our left. All of these things interested, fascinated and excited her.
Kanene’s head was looking better. The nurse had dressed it, but said that there was no real damage. The lump should go down after three or four days, leaving only a bruise. Kanene spent the flight from Songea talking about what she had seen, about how her perception of the problems on which we were there to gather information had changed. The preconceptions about people with albinism that she had acquired from her father had been profoundly challenged, and she felt that she needed to talk through this. I was happy to engage in this conversation, which went surprisingly well, given my level of Swahili and Kanene’s level of English. She wanted to resolve the conflict in her mind between what her father and the village elders had told her and what she had learned from being there; the conflict between what she had previously heard and what she had now seen. I wanted to give her the opportunity to talk through her confusion, and perhaps resolve it. Having been close to the receiving end of what looked like an attack intended to ‘harvest’ body parts from an albino, the things that she had read about in the newspapers had suddenly become very real.
Just as the captain made his pre-landing announcement, Kanene turned to me and quietly said, “Max, there is something I have to tell you, but I’m afraid to, because I think you won’t like me any more and won’t want me to work for you or go out on trips with you.”
“What is it, Kanene?” I asked.
“If I tell you,” she said, “can you not tell anyone else? Not yet, anyway. Please.”
“You can tell me anything, Kanene,” I reassured her, “it won’t go any further unless it has to.”
“Okay,” she said. She paused. Her head dropped, her chin touching her chest; she averted her eyes from me and trembled, as though sobbing. “It’s my father, Max. He is a shaman,” she said at last, though so quietly I could hardly hear ait above the background noises of the pane’s engines and general conversation. “There, I said it.”
I rested my hand on her shoulder, to comfort her, to reassure her that I was still close to her. “Do I know your father?” I asked.
“Yes, you do. He is Afolabi Fonseca, a director of TanzCap.”
“I do know him. I wasn’t sure whether you were his daughter, although there is a strong family likeness, and I thought you might be. I didn’t know that he is a shaman, Kanene, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Several things that he has said and done are easier to explain, knowing him to be a shaman. But what about you. Do you have any part in his activities?”
“He has asked me to find information for him, and I’ve done that.” She covered her face with her hands and started to cry, her body convulsing with each heavy sob.
“That isn’t so bad, just giving him information. There’s no need to cry, Kanene.”
“But you don’t know the worst thing,” she blubbered.
I hugged her close to me and shushed her. “Do you want to tell me about it?” I asked in a near-whisper.
“Uh-uh… He told me to sprinkle some special powder at the top of the stairs in Mr Knight’s house. He said it would make Mr Knight slip and fall down the stairs.”
This was a development I didn’t want to hear. “And did you? Did you put the powder there?”
“When you and Mr Knight were in the meeting with the other man, I was going to do it after I brought the tray of tea, but Mr Knight came out before I could reach the stairs, so I kept the little bottle of powder in my pocket.”
“So it can’t have been your fault.”
“But it is, don’t you see?” At this point, she was almost wailing, causing other passengers to look around, to see what was happening to this poor girl.
“Father says all the power is in the mind. The spells and potions he calls ‘props’. That means that the powder didn’t matter; what mattered was that I had decided to do it, and that’s what made him fall.”
“I believe you father is right; all the power is in the mind.”
“See? It was my fault,” wept, beating her thighs with small fists.
“Let me finish, Kanene,” I interrupted, “the power is in the mind, but it’s in the mind of the victim, not in the mind of the shaman. The shaman puts a man into a trance, and tells him that he will die in nine days. Sure enough, nine days later, the man dies. He dies then because the shaman told him he would, and he believed the shaman. The power of the suggestion in his mind was so strong, that his mind, not the shaman’s mind, his own mind believed that he was going to die, so he died. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“So Mr Knight’s mind told him to slip?”
“I don’t think so. I think it was an accident. It just happened when you were supposed to arrange it. Coincidence. Not your fault. And yes, I still like you: yes, I still want you to work for me; and yes, I still want us to do trips together – it’s good for my Swahili, it’s good for your English; and we have fun. What’s not to want?”
“Thank you, Max. Thank you.” She hugged me and showered my face with kisses as though I were a long-lost relative returned from the dead. Well, not quite that, but you know the kind of thing I mean, right?
“Just one thing, Kanene,” I cautioned her, “If your father asks you to spy on me or anything I do, or on any of my friends, you must tell me. We will work out together what you should tell him. Okay?”
“Okay, Max. Thank you.”
We fell into silence as the plane came in to land. Kanene’s father collected her from the airport, and as they walked away together, I was impressed by the calm composure Kanene displayed. To see them, you would have no idea that she had only recently got off her chest a load she had been bearing, alone, for some time.