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The elderly woman ran out again, waving her hands and this time berating the M&M guys.
“This is about to turn ugly,” Kiwi said.
Having as they did such a scary name, as well as money and guns, the Mokele Mbembe were granted certain perks and entitlements in this community, generally eating, drinking, and fucking for free. Sometimes they’d pay generously and everyone would be most thankful and relieved. But on occasion someone would be less than deferential and regret it a lot.
These guys did not actually conceive of themselves as predators. Rather, they resented the traditional leadership, which they believed had been co-opted by the mining company to sell out the interests of the community. So they were pushing for the installation of a different paramount chief that they thought was more representative. In the meantime, the chieftaincy struggle led to a breakdown in governance. And now these Mokele Mbembe took it upon themselves to enforce law and order and collect taxes for doing so. The Mokele Mbembe resented the mining company for corrupting their traditional leadership. That tension between the youth militia and the mining company was the main reason they weren’t allowed to mingle in town for fear that they’d stir up trouble by doing so.
“That’s Captain Butt Naked,” Fonyo said, nodding at the man with the gun. He had army boots on his feet and cornrows in his hair.
“Goddamnit,” Barry said. He’d heard stories about Captain Butt Naked.
“That old woman is fed up,” said Kiwi. “She doesn’t give a fuck.”
The old woman was yelling at the Mokele Mbembe. The one-legged girl shuffled out on her crutches as fast as she could, calling to her mother, her voice shrill.
Fonyo heaved a big sigh, stood up, and walked over to where things were about to turn ugly. The M&M crew had each one of them turned to face the old lady, leering. Captain Butt Naked had his hand on his gun, waiting to see what Fonyo would do. The girl was pulling on her mother’s skirt, trying to get her to come back inside the house.
Before anybody could do anything, though, Fonyo strode up to the woman and slapped her hard and hauled her back to the house by her elbow. On the way, she kicked him in the shin. Out of sight, the sound of a scuffle reached Barry and Kiwi. The M&M boys laughed so hard they wiped tears from their eyes.
Fonyo came back out front. He gave the goons a big-assed thumbs up and went back to his table and sat down.
Kiwi said, “Told you it was gonna turn ugly.”
“Could have been uglier,” Barry said.
“Almost was,” said Fonyo. “Her husband came at me with a machete. I had to clear the air very fast. Hey, let’s go to the palm wine plantation and see how it compares with mine.” The M&M guys felt that they had bonded over the abuse of the woman so they accompanied them to the edge of the village, everybody walking along swinging their arms and acting tough.
“See those trees?” said Fonyo. “See how they cut a groove in the trunk so that the sap can drip? You can drink palm wine all day. In the morning it is sweet. Then by afternoon it has begun to ferment. Finally, at night it is very strong. Palm wine is the perfect beverage.”
The M&M crew was scouring the trees for calabashes full of wine cinched tight against the trunks. Whenever one of them found one he shouted a great shout of jubilation and the others came running. For lack of anything better to do, Fonyo, Kiwi, and Barry joined in the hunt for booze. As the hours passed, Fonyo kept saying, “See how the wine gets stronger? This one was very strong.” Pretty soon they were firing their weapons into the trees.
“It’s a good skill to develop,” Kiwi said. “Shooting while drunk.”
“I can see how that would be,” Barry said. “Eighty-six percent of all gun battles occur while intoxicated. Best be prepared.”
“Safety first, that’s my motto,” Kiwi said and shot over Barry’s head into the trees. “Remember what I told you,” Kiwi said. “Left hand supports the weapon.” He was sitting flat on the ground with his legs outstretched, his head sort of lolling to one side.
“Did I ever tell you what a great mentor you are?” Barry asked him. “When we get back to the capital I’m going to have to tell everyone how truly wonderful you are. Really spot on, as you people say.”
“Thanks,” Kiwi said. “That means a lot.”
This was years ago, when the conflict was still winding up. Everybody acted crazy in those days. Even so, that behavior was beyond the pale as far as headquarters was concerned. When they got back, Barry blew the whistle on himself and his two friends and they all lost their jobs. Barry went to work for a small NGO.
Eventually the Mokele Mbembe got their choice of Paramount Chief, who, as it turned out, lived just down the road from Barry. So when the NGO he worked for was contracted to do “key informant interviews” of all the major stakeholders in the community, he went over to the palace to meet with him. These interviews were required as data for an assessment of the main conflict drivers in the region. The research was to inform the program design of a large peace building intervention, funded by USAID. Barry walked over to his compound early in the afternoon. He waited his turn in the front room. The front door was flanked with elephant tusks. Animal skins hung on the wall, next to the chief’s university diploma. There was a photograph of the chief shaking the president’s hand. People wandered in and out with their various concerns: land conflicts, chieftaincy tussles, domestic disputes. Others came in to pay their respects. Others came to ask for various blessings and endorsements. Barry had to wait a long time because there was an ambassador from across the river. The chief and the ambassador were huddled in the office for over an hour. Barry waited. He had nothing better to do than wait. He stood up and went outside to smoke a cigarette. Fruit bats boomeranged in the palm trees. The sun was going down.
As he ground his cigarette butt in the dirt with the heel of his flip-flop, the ambassador walked down the front steps, and rode off on his motorcycle, fishtailing in the dirt. The chief’s assistant called out and Barry went into the chief’s office where he stood, apparently seething.
“You want to interview key stakeholders?” the chief said, finally. “You should interview my cousin, Sam Katinde. I’ll arrange it.”
About a week later, Otis Redding sang out on Barry’s phone. And a week after that, Barry was sitting in a canoe with an outboard motor, escorted by a teenager with a distended belly and an AK-47. Monkeys chattered in the mangrove roots. Long-tailed birds darted in the green.
Barry tried to learn what he could about Sam Katinde. He yelled over the sound of the outboard motor: “Hey! How long have you worked for Sam Katinde?” The man busied himself navigating to the edge of the river to avoid a small whirlpool.
“Watch your head,” the man said, pointing to a branch hanging low over the river. Barry ducked as the leaves scraped over them.
Still Barry pressed. “Tell me about Sam Katinde,” he said.
Low thunder rumbled, lingering. The air felt suddenly cool.
“Eyes in the sky,” the man said, and refused to acknowledge another word that came out of Barry’s mouth, whether comic, directive, affirmative, or inquisitive. After a while, Barry gave up and settled into an anxious, brooding silence.
They took a branch in the river, then another, and another. No way Barry could find his way back by himself. At last they ran aground. The man jumped out and tied off to a tree, cinching the slipknot tight. There was a whistle dangling from his neck. He put it in his mouth and blew two short bursts and one long.
Two youths appeared, one with a handgun and the other with a bow and arrow. They smiled big, welcoming smiles. Barry clung to those smiles, pitifully, as they all walked up the trail together, just four people walking on a trail. They passed by mounds of rock where artisanal miners dug with pickaxes and shovels. The miners looked up as they passed. “Oyibo,” a little boy shouted out and followed them down the trail. When they arrived at the camp, there was a whole parade of children and men and women laughing and waving and talking to one another. The man from the boat knocked on the door of a hut, and everyone hushed.
The door opened. The man from the boat ushered Barry inside and shut the door behind him. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dark. A citronella candle burned in the corner. After the spots in his eyes cleared, he could make out the form of a slender man standing there with his hand outstretched. Barry shook it.
“Thank you for coming,” said Sam Katinde. “I’m sure you must be apprehensive.”
Katinde had delicate features, fine cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes.
Katinde smiled sadly. “I know,” he said. “It’s strange to see the face of a monster, isn’t it?” He talked quietly, hardly moving his lips when he spoke.
“I’ve heard the stories,” said Barry.
“So many terrible things,” said Katinde. “Have a seat.” He gestured towards a low, wooden stool. Barry sat. Katinde himself sat on his haunches, adjusting his holster so he could squat comfortably. “We don’t often receive guests here,” he said by way of explanation or apology.
The door opened, sending a wedge of sun shooting across the floor. It closed again. A young woman came in with a tray. She knelt, setting down the tray. She poured palm wine from a calabash into a metal cup. She handed the cup to Barry. Her hands were steady, sure. She had small, ivory earrings, cowry shells braided into her hair. Smelled faintly of flowers.
“Thank you, Oka,” said Katinde.
“Yes, sir,” she said, looking into Barry’s face for a second. Then she stood and walked towards the door, opened it, and left.
“You’re not drinking?” Barry said.