"Grebo Timber Enterprises," Said
George, "Owned by Worldwide Resources of Houston, Texas, and
the largest timber operation in Ngombia. Their spares business
is worth millions."
They stood on a small hillock at the
edge of a clearing, watching a wheeled log loader lower a massive
tree trunk onto a waiting pole trailer. The previous night a
light dry-season shower had fallen, and the air steamed in the
morning sun. In the centre of the clearing, a large, mud-spattered
white man stood directing operations, his shirt open to his navel.
"And that's Grebo's bush manager,
As if hearing his name, the man turned
and saw them. He waved and started forward to meet them, his
feet slipping on the shiny wet ground.
"George Sanders," Steven Harrison
beamed, "How're you doing?"
He extended a massive arm and shook
George's hand vigorously.
"Good to see you, you old rogue,"
George grinned, "How’s business?"
Steven shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, not bad, not bad," He grinned
back at George, "But your bloody spare parts prices are murderous."
George had heard this one before.
He and Steven fought the same battle every visit and the answer
During the dry season, GTE's trucks
worked flat out, thundering down ruinously rough roads to Grebo
port hauling trailers laden with massive, and massively valuable,
hardwood logs. Availability of spares on M & M's shelves
was vital, but it cost money, lots of it. Warehousing, finance,
staff, deterioration and obsolescence; not to mention the risk
of doing business in Ngombia in the first place. It all had a
price and, ultimately, that price had to be paid.
"I could make my spares cheaper,"
Said George, "If I just stocked the fast-moving items but,"
He nodded in the direction of the truck and pole trailer, "If that
machine over there went down for ten days waiting for a spare part
to be shipped in, what would that cost you?"
"O.K," Steven grinned, and clamped
an arm around George's shoulders, "Forget the spares; let’s
talk about new machines instead."
They wandered off, Steve's arm still
around George's shoulder, heading for the shade at the edge of
An hour later, the haggling was over.
Sat together on an abandoned log, Steven and George were both
looking enormously pleased with themselves. 'Tweedledum and
Tweedledee,’ Thought James.
"James," Steven’s voice interrupted
James thoughts, "You and George will be joining me for a noggin,
It was abominably hot and humid; sweat
trickled down the back of James' neck, and his shirt and trousers
were sodden. Flies buzzed infuriatingly about his head. The apparent
lack of discomfort of the other two irritated him, but politeness
compelled him to smile.
"That's very kind of you," He said.
The noggin lasted through the afternoon
and late into the evening.
"Steven's an old west-coaster,"
George and James walked back across the compound to their sleeping
quarters. The night air was soft and warm; above them, rimmed
in colourless moonlight, heavy dark clouds hung silent and
"It would have been unthinkable to leave before we'd finished the
"He's as rough as a tree stump,"
George’s voice came out of the blackness, "And he's a little
eccentric in deciding who'll be his friends. He's been in the bush
for almost twenty years, and I've known him for most of those."
Swarms of storm-flies gyrated around
the camp floodlights. The never-ending songs of unseen insects
filled the air. From far away in the darkness came the distant
steady thump of the camp generator. Gravel crunched under their
"Steve's never, ever asked me for
a commission or kickback," George stabbed at an invisible stone
with his boot, "But something still tells me that, underneath
it all, the man's a crook."
They arrived at the door of their
trailer home; George pushed it open.
"Or would be if he could."
James’ trip upcountry had
been followed by one of the longest and hottest dry seasons in
living memory. For months, PUA had run their hydroelectric plant
flat out, eventually exhausting the already depleted St. Luke
reservoir. Power and mains water were now available only at night.
The last stand-by generating set had long since been sold, and
tanker drivers were plying a thriving trade.
It was wretchedly hot. James' office,
like all others, had been without air-conditioning all day. Sodden
in the stifling humidity, he gazed wistfully at the green grass
and multi-coloured crocuses on the March page of his 'In Britain'
calendar. He longed for his nighttime shower and the possibility
James rose from behind his desk; the
proffered hand might have been that of a woman, and its owner
well past youth, but its grip was firm, assured.
"My name is Gertrude Sharman."
James' visitor sat down, stationing
a massive fortress of a handbag squarely in the middle of her
"I would like to buy a new truck,"
Gertrude Sharman paused, "A fleet of new trucks."
"From ourselves?" Gertrude's Garbage
had never before dealt with M&M.
"Maybe," James’ visitor settled
back into the chair, resting her hands on the ramparts of her
handbag, "If your offer is the most attractive."
"Is there anything that you would
particularly like us to consider in preparing our offer?"
"Let us just say," She had a remarkably
direct gaze, "That I would prefer to deal with someone sympathetic
to my ideals."
James hadn't got a clue what Gertrude
Sharman was on about; he stalled as diplomatically as he could.
"We'll do our best to come up with
an appropriate proposal."
"I'm sure you will, Mr. Davidson."
Gertrude Sharman was not one to waste
time. She hoisted her handbag back up off the plateau of her
lap and rose to her feet.
"I'll wait to hear from you," She
James stood and held out his hand.
"I'm sorry we couldn't offer you a
coffee or tea."
"No coffee? No tea?" Gertrude smiled
disapprovingly, "My, my, how little you and I have to worry about."
James was caught off-guard again.
"Mr. Davidson, you and I cannot have
coffee or tea this afternoon because there is no power to boil
our water," Gertrude lowered her handbag onto James' desk, "But
some of us do not even have water. The streams are dry, and the
poor cannot afford tankers; they must walk to what is left of
the river," James was taken aback by the sudden strength of emotion
in Gertrude’s voice, "They must walk, Mr. Davidson,"
Gertrude continued, "With old buckets and rusty basins, then walk
back again, taking care not to spill too much. That is miles, Mr
Davidson, miles and miles. Every morning, every evening, every
day; for every drop that they need."
Gertrude swept her handbag from the
"Think about it, Mr Davidson."
James did think about it.
"What should I do, Charles?" He squeezed
a tea bag hard against the inside of his cup with a spoon, "What's
the best way to handle Gertrude?"
A cup of hot water, a dusty teabag
in the saucer, and a battered tin jug of lukewarm condensed milk;
such was M&M's office tea. It ranked high on the list of
the world's worst.
James struggled to infuse a hint of
colour and flavour into his drink, "I got the impression that
a big discount wasn't her main consideration."
"Nah," Charles sucked through his
teeth dismissively, "You're right; it isn't."
"She told me she'd prefer to deal
with someone sympathetic to her ideals, whatever they are."
Charles thought for a while.
"There's something not many people
know," He said eventually, "Gertrude likes to get involved in
charity work; she might appreciate some support."
"You mean, like a donation?"
"No, man, that's too easy; anyone
can write out a cheque. Think of something more imaginative."
"I'll try," Said James.
And he did.
"Where on earth did it come from?"
The small black furry ball nestled
in Julie's lap, fast asleep. On the couch beside her, Lucy and
Annie reached out with timid fascination to stroke it.
"Helen Edwards found the litter on
her doorstep," Explained Julie, "Nobody knows if there's an owner,
and she couldn't just let them starve. She wondered if we'd like
to have one."
Julie picked the little black ball
out of her lap and put it down on the floor. It wobbled uncertainly
over to James's left shoe and began tugging at the lace. Lucy
and Annie watched, spellbound.
"It's mostly bush dog," Said Julie,
"But Helen thinks there's a bit of Labrador in there somewhere."
James reached down and stroked the
furry ball softly; it licked his finger.
"I never had a dog," He murmured,
half to himself, then, "How on earth do you housetrain them?"
"You don't have to," Replied Julie,
"They live outside, otherwise you end up with ticks all over the
"How about vets and innoculations
For just a second, Julie's face hardened.
"Forget it," She said, "Ngombia doesn't
even have enough doctors for people. Pets either survive, or
Oblivious to the discussions going
on above it, the little furry ball squatted.
"Look!" Annie squeaked in delight,
"Oh, wow, great," Muttered Julie,
"The entire city of Tuehville without water and we have our own
little tanker deliver it free on the carpet."
Thus did the Davidsons acquire their
dog, and Puddle his name.
And James the solution to his problem.
"Fit tanks to her new garbage trucks?"
George was floundering, "What on earth would Gertrude do with tanker
"Distribute water free to the shanty
"Charles tells me she's heavily involved
in charity work."
"So why can't we just provide a donation?"
"Why don't we just provide a donation
to the British Women's Association?"
"I'm not with you."
"Every year, Nina Murchison and the
BWA Committee work themselves to a frazzle over their fete. Why?"
"We all know why," Said George,
"To raise funds for charity."
"Why don't they save themselves a
load of hassle, forget the fete and just ask every British company
in Tuehville for a cheque?"
"Would hardly be the same," Murmured
"No," James Agreed, "No visible righteousness."
George's eyebrows rose in query.
"If you write out a cheque," Explained
James, "You're just rich, but," He continued, "Organise a fete
in aid of charity, and you become a pillar of society." He shrugged,
"You’re seen to be doing something worthy: you’ve got
"You're a cynic," He observed,
"But you may be right."
"And," Added James, "It would be the
same for Gertrude: particularly if the tankers had her name on
George thought for a moment.
"What happens when the rains come
and all this is over?"
"Gertrude swaps the tanks for garbage
"I rather suspect," Said George dryly, "That
we'll be the ones who do the swapping for her, at our expense."
James was ready for that one.
"I allowed for that in my costing."
George raised his hands in mock surrender.
"You win," He said, "Go sell the woman
It was still suffocatingly hot. Tiny
beads of perspiration stood out on the back of Gertrude's smooth
plump black hand as she signed her name.
"May I ask what gave you this idea?"
James scratched the back of his head
"It was sort of a combined family
effort," He told her.
"That's nice," She said, "I like a
good family: everybody should have one."
She dropped her chequebook into the
cavernous depths of her handbag.
"You will, of course," She switched
instantaneously back into business mode, "Be able to exchange
the tanks for garbage bodies later on?"
"Free of charge?"
James gave himself a mental pat on
"It has been a pleasure doing business
with you, Mr Davidson," She tore the cheque from its book, "I
hope that we meet again.
James sat in his office and stared
at nothing. The dry season had ended, it was pouring, and in
two years time he would be thirty years old.
At ten past eight, Charles breezed
in through the door, an emerald green blur of good cheer.
"What's up James?" Charles sprayed
raindrops energetically across the floor, "You look like you
just forgot where you put your brain."
James looked up and smiled weakly.
"I feel old," He said.
Charles sucked disapprovingly through
"Bullshit, man, you're one day younger
than you will be tomorrow, same as you are everyday. Come on," He
hauled James out of his chair, "We need to talk. Let's go grab
a breakfast at Willie's."
Wilhelm Wiesenthal's modest restaurant
was informal, neutral, and discreet and, within its walls, the
lesser cogs of the Ngombian economy were oiled. There, over pepper
soup with palm butter and cassava, pitta bread with hommus and
chicken livers, or tea and toast with bacon and eggs, Lebanese
garage proprietors met government purchasing officers, Asian
importers met Ministry of Commerce price inspectors, and the
junior ranks of the British business community discussed other
men's wives. It was known to all simply as 'Willie's'.
Charles' driver double-parked outside
the restaurant. He watched as his passengers disappeared from
view, then tilted his seat back as far as it would go. Within
seconds he was fast asleep: he and the car were well known to
Tuehville police; he would not be disturbed.
"You made some good friends over the
past months," Charles crunched happily at the fishheads in his
soup, "You should keep on looking after them."
"Thanks, Charles, I intend to; but
the question is, how well?"
"How well?" Charles almost choked,
"How well? The Minister of Commerce and the wife of the richest
man in the country? You just look after them, period."
"Charles, I have the entire Cabinet
running around in our cars; there’s no way I can look after
all of them the same way."
"Who said anything about the same
way for all? You think you need to look after the Minister of
Tourism the same way you look after the Minister of Commerce
or the Minister of Finance?" Charles sucked loudly and disparagingly
between his teeth, "Come on, man, use your brains."
"O.K.," James shrugged the topic to
a close, "Point taken."
"James," Charles was prising pieces
of fishhead from between his teeth with one of the wooden toothpicks
that Willie's provided on every table, "How long have you been
"Just over a year."
"How many more are you going to be
"Never really thought about it very
much. A few."
"Then what? Back home?"
"James, you're not building a career
out here. When you get back home, all your old friends will be
years ahead of you."
'Busy chasing careers back home….'
From far away, the words of Bill Haslam echoed in James' mind:
the meeting seemed a century ago.
"So," Charles probed, "What will you
"Well," James stirred uncomfortably,
"We'll have a little bit of savings."
"A little bit of savings." Charles
mimicked him, "James, you don't need a little bit, you need a
great big bit."
James felt even more uncomfortable;
he had a nagging suspicion that Charles was right.
"So what am I supposed to do?"
"James, you ever thought of running
your own business?"
"Want to try?"
"What kind of business?"
"James," Asked Charles, "Have you
heard of the O.A.U?"
"You mean the Organisation of African
"You got it in one."
"Of course I've heard of it," Said
"You know anything about it?"
"Not much," James admitted.
"Then let me tell you."
Established some years previously
in 1963, the OAU had its headquarters in Addis Ababa. Every African
state except South Africa and Namibia was a member. The Organisation
maintained the 'Africa Group' at the United Nations; one of its
principal aims was the development and restructuring of agriculture
in the African continent.
The highlight of the OAU calendar
was its annual assembly of heads of state and government. These
summit conferences rotated from one member state to another,
and the opportunity to play host was a highly prized honour.
"Fascinating," Said James, "But what's
it got to do with me?"
"Four years from now, the OAU conference
will be held in Ngombia."
"Whoopee for Ngombia," Said James,
"But what am I supposed to do about it? Arrange hotel accommodation?
Book air tickets? Set up as a security guard service?"
"James, hosting the OAU is a once
in a lifetime thrill," Explained Charles, "Whoever's staging
the event blows everything to make sure their place looks bigger,
better, newer, grander and richer than anybody else's."
"Sounds great, Charles, but there's
just one small snag."
"How's Ngombia going to pay for this
"Easy, man, the USA and USSR will
be falling over themselves trying to work out how they can fund
the shindig. They both know that if you want to keep a friend
in Africa, you help him pay for the party when it's his turn."
"Charles, western governments give
aid to help the starving poor; not to pay for the frolics of
"So?" Replied Charles, "Some clever
diplomat will have to think up a way of funding it under a legitimate
aid programme. But that's not our worry; all we've got to do
is figure out what's needed, and sell it to the government."
"Just like that, eh?"
"Why not? I've got the political contacts
at this end; you know how to arrange suppliers at the other end.
Between us, we could sew this thing up."
"Of course," James voice bore just
a tinge of sarcasm, "No-one else is thinking of doing anything
"No-one like you and me."
"If we did," James toyed with his
teaspoon, "I'd have to leave M&M."
"If you want to fly, you've got to
quit the nest."
"I wonder what Julie would think."
Julie thought James was quite daft.
"You can have as many dreams as you
want," She warned, "But just make sure they stay in your pipe
where they belong."
"I'd still like to have a crack at
my own business."
"Excitement: the chance to build something
of my own," He shrugged, "To be rich."
"Rich?" Julie had never thought of
James as being avaricious, "Do you really want money that much?"
"It's not just money," He knew he
wasn't handling it very well, "I'd like an achievement in my
"Isn't a happy and secure childhood
for the children an achievement?" A hint of irritation had crept
into Julie's voice, "Besides, you're supposed to be running M&M
The difficult bit; James had been
"I'd have to leave."
"Now I know you're not being serious,"
Julie wasn't even bothered enough to be angry.
A week later, she'd completely forgotten
Back to previous page
"Some weeks ago," Dr. Dempster confided
to James, "I was talking with God."
James glanced surreptitiously around
the table; forks continued to pass from plates to mouths and
back without hitch, and conversation murmured on undisturbed.
He wondered if this were a joke.
"I was telling Him," Alan Dempster
ran a hand through his tousled black hair and hitched his tie-dye
tee shirt into a more comfortable position, "I was telling Him
about the difficulties of maintaining our clinic when we are
so desperately short of funds."
It all sounded so matter of fact,
not like a joke at all.
"Which clinic is that?" James asked
"Alleluiah Missionaries Embracing
Ngombia," Alan didn't bat an eyelid.
"Yes, missionaries," Dr. Dempster
smiled, "And we welcome new faces at our services. You don't
have to be a Christian to join us, although we’d hope you
James realised there never had been
a joke: he listened as Alan Dempster continued.
"We have a station about halfway between
Tuehville and Gbedeh airport," He explained, "With a church,
school, hospital, clinic, and a radio station. Our hospital is
one of only two in the country. The other is the City hospital;
you’ve probably heard about it."
James had; not very encouragingly.
"They lose a lot of patients,"
Alan sighed; he sounded tired, "But they, like us, have little
money for medicines and equipment. And," His face tightened fractionally, "What
little they do have is all too often stolen by senior medical staff
for use in their own private practices."
There were no clinics in the interior.
To obtain treatment, country folk had to travel enormous distances
by pulley-pulley buses on roads that were no more than dirt tracks
through the bush. They would do so only when all other traditional
medicines had failed.
"By the time they arrive at City's
doorstep," Alan concluded, "All that most of them can do is just
James had never in his life met a
missionary; until that moment he hadn't been at all sure that
they even existed outside Sunday school stories about Dr. Livingstone.
"Have you been a missionary long?"
"This is my wife's and my first post," Dr
Dempster told him, "We've been here just three years. Some of
our brothers and sisters have been here over thirty."
"Thirty years?" James was staggered,
"Here? In Tuehville?"
"No," Dr. Dempster shrugged lightly,
"Some have been called to bring the word of the Lord to people
in the interior."
"But how?" James protested, "I mean,
most bush people can't even read or write."
"Many of them," Said Alan, "Don't
even have a written language for them to learn to read or write."
"So where on earth do you start?"
The Wycliffe Bible Translators, Alan
told him, had dedicated life-times to building new, written languages
for what might be called the small tongues of the world. Tribal
tongues such as those found in Ngombia.
"Of course," He added, "Building a
new written language is one thing. Teaching those who speak it
to read it is quite another."
Dr. Dempster took a sip of water from
the glass beside him; like everyone else at AMEN, he did not
"But, eventually," He said, "Some
do learn, and another small candle will have been lit in a dark
corner of the world."
"It sounds," Remarked James, "Like
something out of 'Famous Bible Stories'; your faith must be very
"Thank you," Said Alan, "It is."
"But how does that help you to deal
with all the corruption in this place?" James was intrigued,
"Everyone I've met just says that's the way the game is played
here. Don't you ever feel despondent?"
Alan Dempster smiled, a little sadly,
"Of course we do," He acknowledged,
"It is very easy to give way to doubt, to anger, to despair. But,
at the end of the day, God is there to guide us."
James scratched the side of his head,
"You talk as if you are able to actually
communicate with God," He said.
"But how?" James was finding Alan's
matter-of-fact accounts of divine conversations increasingly
disconcerting, "I mean, I remember Sunday school as a child;
I used to say prayers, along with everyone else, but God never
spoke back to me; not once."
Dr. Dempster looked James straight
in the eye, plainly not in the least disconcerted.
"Perhaps," He suggested mildly,
"You never listened."
Julie was thoughtful on the way home.
"They were a nice couple, the Dempsters,
"He was certainly different," Acknowledged
James, "But I didn't meet her. What was her name?"
"Sarah," Replied Julie, "She's very
quiet; a bit timid, but just as committed as her husband."
Julie lapsed into unaccustomed silence.
"You know," She said at last, "We
haven't been to church once since we came to Ngombia. I sometimes
miss it, don't you?"
James didn't very much; he hmm'd non-committally.
"It's Christmas in a few weeks time," Julie
went on, "Perhaps we could try and see what an AMEN service is
"Do they have evening services?"
Asked James. He didn't mind attending, but wasn't too sure about
doing so in the heat of the midday sun. He decided that he
wouldn't make a very good missionary.
AMEN chapel had no soaring spire.
No arches, apse or ambulatory graced its lines. Chancel, transept,
and gallery were but words of another tongue, another time. Instead,
standing at the eastern end of a crescent shaped beach, on a
small hummock that caught the sea breezes, AMEN chapel was no
more than humbly utilitarian. But it was full; full to bursting
with a singing, chanting, technicolour congregation praying and
swaying in a sea of faith.
"My text today," Alan Dempster called
out to his congregation, "Is taken from the Gospel according
to Saint Mathew, Chapter sixteen, verse twenty-six."
An agitated chorus of rustling pages
whispered through the church, like dry autumn leaves blowing
amongst the pews. Alan waited patiently until all had found the
"For what is a man profited," Alan
did not read from the bible on the lectern behind which he stood,
but instead spoke straight to the sea of faces before him, "If
he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul."
Alan paused. His congregation waited
silently in comfortable, attentive anticipation, ready to be
entertained. And they were not disappointed. For the next thirty
minutes, Alan delivered a scathing indictment of greed and corruption:
an impassioned, unequivocal condemnation of those who abused
trust or power for their own material gains; of those who turned
their backs on their Maker and pursued the road to easy riches,
and ultimate perdition.
James was electrified. What might
have passed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands for a standard
Sabbath-Day warning of hell-fire and damnation was in Ngombia
nothing other than a blazing call to insurrection. James felt
the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and, as the congregation
stood for the final hymn, he wondered, not altogether idly, whether
Ngombia executed enemies of the State, and how.
After the service, James and his family
filed out into the blinding sunlight to find Alan and Sarah Dempster
waiting by the chapel door, both clearly delighted to see them.
James held out his hand.
"Brave sermon," He said to Alan,
"I'm amazed the authorities haven't slung you behind bars."
Alan shrugged resignedly.
"I told no terrors for them," He observed, "Senior
government officials go to church with their families every Sunday,
and listen to the preacher fulminate against the sins of the
flesh." He smiled briefly, without humour,
"And it's the ministers of state who say 'Amen' the loudest. They're
like the wealthy in Victorian England: models of rectitude in public,
but privately morally rotten to the very cores of their souls."
Standing close to her husband, Sarah's
gaze fell on Lucy, perspiring in stoic silence, and Annie clinging
damply and steadfastly to her sister's hand like a sticky pink
"We live down by the beach," She offered
hesitantly, "Why don't you come back with us for a cold drink?"
They walked with the Dempsters down
the little dusty track that led from the chapel, meandering between
the palm trees that lined the shore and past the tiny graveyard.
"Most of those buried here are Ngombian
folk who worked with us at AMEN," Alan explained, "But a few
are people like ourselves who came here with the mission and
spent their lives in Ngombia." He stopped, indicating a gravestone
set amongst a bank of cheerful pink and white Periwinkles,
"Martha and Wesley Harman," He said, "They lived here almost thirty
five years; Ngombia was their home. They chose to rest here."
"I think it's beautiful," Julie was
clearly entranced, "I'd love to be here, overlooking the sea,
surrounded by people who cared; not in some anonymous corporation
cemetery in dreary grey England."
James was silent; he still wasn't
quite sure whether Alan Dempster was an unusually brave man,
or just a very foolish one.