We sit around our newly lit campfire on the banks of the great Save River, mostly sand at this time of year, but still flowing through a few deep channels and over shallow sandbars, even at the end of a long dry season. This is a river worthy of the name- shelter and sustenance to all, home to many fish and mollusk species, frequented by a myriad of waterbirds, dinosaur-sized crocodiles, wallowing elephants and numerous floats of hippo families – a watery boundary where women come at midday to do their brightly coloured washing, boys come late in the day to water their cattle and elephant cow herds tiptoe down to drink in the dusk, clustered protectively around their new-borns. We sit facing Gonarezhou National Park with our backs to the lands of Chief Mahenye, our local Changana community. A long hot lowveld day has been our lot, and it is a relief as the burning sun sinks before us into the dark wilderness, silhouetting the filagree baobab horizon and lighting up the river. Cold drinks tinkling with ice reflect the setting sun as we lift the glasses to our lips, and warmth rises from the white sand under our bare feet wafting evocative scents – traces of the Changana cattle and the Gonarezhou elephants who have passed over these sands in the last twenty four hours and for generations…
We must have a fire, not for warmth, of which we have indeed had too much today, but for the ambience, the comfort and the rightness of it. The scent of it. A primeval need for the glow of coals against a backdrop of a darkening wild horizon? An African skimmer scoops past us in the shallows, trawling the water with its strange long lower mandible, and leaving a wake of molten gold ripples behind it to mark its passing in the shadows. I know it has a shallow nest on a large sand bank in the centre of the river- during daylight hours I have watched it chasing Spurwing Geese and Hadeda Ibises away from the area…
Jupiter shines bright above us and the constellation of Scorpio takes shape alongside, growing out of the darkening sky with it’s first visible star being Antares, a red heart in the centre of Scorpio’s thorax.
A hyena yodels in the dark and much as I love the sound, it is a comforting feeling to have a fire burning….
Why our elemental need for fire? Beyond the obvious need to cook on it and use its warmth and protection, fire draws us all, speaks to us all, much as water does, sophisticated city dweller and simple peasant alike.
In the verbal history of the Mahenye Chauke Clan, there is a fascinating story told by the elders of how the Giant African Snail and Fire came to be their totem. Back in those far-off days of hunter/gatherer existence, their Uncles, the Hlungwani family, had the knowledge and use of fire. The Chauke clan did not. Fire was supposed to be their totem- and yet they were deprived of it. A young girl was tasked to bring back fire to Chauke village from the distant Hlungwani Family by any means she could. She attempted to carry burning embers as a glowing bundle of bark and merely burnt her fingers. By luck and with enterprise she discovered an empty giant land snail shell and cleverly used it as a receptacle for the glowing treasure. The Chauke clan celebrated the fact that they at last had fire in their clan. They could now keep warm and cook their meat, and most importantly they could fire and harden the full-bellied clay pots that the women crafted to carry life-giving water, cook food and brew sorghum beer. They adopted the Giant snail as their totem – a creature which “withstood” the fire and also a creature which, even after a strong bush fire has passed, will eventually creep out of its underground hiding place to emerge victorious over the fire…
Since it is their totem, the Chauke family are not allowed to eat a snail. (It is believed that if you eat your totem you will loose your teeth!).
The Chauke clan use the fire as their slogan when they chant “iyachisa,… mulilo” (“Fire…it Burns”) the beginning and end of every important meeting. With every greeting to their chief.
Perhaps trial by fire is a necessary part of our lives, our growth and resilience, our inventiveness, animal and human alike.
What does not kill us, makes us stronger!
Enough musings…back to the simplicity of merely enjoying the moment!
Sitting quietly in the dark, flames flickering on white sand and silent nightjars flitting overhead against a canopy of stars, we stare out over a softy flowing African river into the inky wilderness beyond.