Don’t you carry?
In Harare to watch Mugabe steal the election I quickly got some reminders I didn’t really need that I wasn’t too welcome. The state-owned media repeatedly declared that foreign spies posing as journalists were flooding into Zimbabwe and would be harshly dealt with. The Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, went on TV to say that such people had better be prepared to spend a very long time in Zimbabwe and we knew what he meant. Mr Moyo had several times made it clear that he regards me with particular loathing so I wasn’t too surprised to find myself watching a ZTV programme about myself as the evil genius of the whole Zimbabwe crisis. When I told the paper I was writing for they got quite excited: ‘We’ll send a photographer around,’ they said.
‘Christ, don’t do that,’ I said. ‘The last thing I need is to have a mugshot over an article at this point.’
‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘it’s only for use if you get put in the slammer. Or for your obit.’
At this stage I decided I’d better go somewhere a bit more defensible, to the little compound of my friend Dave the hunter. Dave’s house was, from that point of view, reassuring: Kalashnikov rounds on the mantelpiece, crossed Martini-Henrys on the wall and pictures of the Pioneer Column, of Selous, the greatest of all hunters, and of First World War fighter aces in the hall. On the floor, a hyena skin, the mouth still gaping wide with carnivorous lust. Across the compound lived Barry, getting on now but still a legendary crocodile hunter. Barry’s wife, Jane, insisted on giving me a haircut as I sat under the giant baobab and listened to Barry. ‘Only got bitten twice by crocs,’ he said, ‘but both times my own stupid fault for just wounding ‘em. A wounded croc is like a wounded tiger, bound to come back and get you.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘When it’s wounded it just closes its eyes and sinks to the bottom, tries to make you think it’s dead.’
‘How do you know when it’s really dead?’ I asked.
‘Can’t miss that,’ says Barry. ‘Shoot one through the brain and they throw themselves round on top of the water: somersaults, handsprings, what have you. The big thing then is to catch hold of its tail or one of its legs while it’s still thrashing about or else it will just die and sink to the bottom and you won’t get the meat or the skin or anything.’
‘Isn’t that a bit risky, I mean catching hold of it when it’s still full of energy?’
‘Not really,’ says Barry. ‘It can’t fake the somersaults: that really does mean you’ve blasted its brain out. It beats the hell out of just wounding it so that it comes back under your boat, knocks you into the water, forcing you to shoot the bugger while it’s trying to eat you. Take my word for it, that can be quite unnerving.’
Dave and Barry both carry guns all the time, small personal revolvers or pistols tightly and invisibly clamped to their bodies. ‘Don’t you carry?’ they ask. Dave talks to me very seriously about the merits of carrying. Given their fascination with guns and the books about the Rhodesian Air Force and the Special Forces of the old South Africa lying round the house, it would be easy to write off Dave and Barry and their white hunting friends as recalcitrant Old Rhodies. But quite wrong. They are all in Africa because, like me, they can’t imagine being anywhere else and have happily embraced majority rule as the only right thing. They speak Shona and SiNdebele just as fluently as their black girlfriends and sometimes, after explosive bursts of laughter, I have to ask lamely for a translation.
Which is not to say there wasn’t something unsettling about several of them. Dave pushed weights every morning and I asked what the big white scar across his shoulder was. ‘Poacher, AK-47,’ he said. ‘He’d just killed an elephant and thought, quite rightly, that I’d turn him in. Damn near took off my shoulder. But I was with Zeno and Zeno nailed him, filled him full of holes. There’s a shoot-to-kill policy with poachers in Zim, and Zeno takes full advantage of that. Helluva good guy but maybe a bit of a psychopath.’