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Early or Late

He hated being late. In his hurry he ignored a red light. St Peter said, ‘You’re now late, but we did not expect you for another 47 years.’

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A Jungle Encounter

A Jungle Adventure

In the seventies, when I was teaching at the university of Kisangani in the Congo, I hitch-hiked to and from Kampala. On my way back, I arrived at some border post in Uganda on foot, hoping to catch a lift into Kigali in Rwanda. At first, the immigration officers began by eyeing me suspiciously, and talking to me with ill-disguised hostility, but their better nature soon took over, as I knew it would, and soon we were talking like old friends. They said that they were dubious about my chances of getting a lift into Kigali that day, as often they hardly saw any traffic for a whole week. Oh don’t worry, they told me, you can always sleep in the office. In the meantime we sent for some beer and we sat down in the veranda drinking and smoking English cigarettes which I had obtained in Kampala, talking and playing cards. When they saw my camera, they Asked me to take some snaps of them, and I was pleased to do this.
Fortunately within an hour a van appeared suddenly and screeched to a halt just outside the building, scattering pebbles in all directions, and everybody rushed out to greet the new arrival, a rather tall bony woman, probably in her thirties, pretty if a bit weather-beaten, but with a hard, determined face and an impressive suntan. My newly-made friends obviously knew and admired her, for they beamed their admiration on her as they spoke. Someone mentioned her name; Diane Something, but to his disappointment this rang no bell with me. I understood that she was on her way to Kigali, and thanked my lucky star. I had stayed put in the veranda, and the small crowd were moving away from me, as they wanted to show the woman some strange flowers growing between some rocks in a corner. From the distance I could see the chief immigration officer talking to the visitor, pointing in my direction, seemingly entreating her on my behalf, but I saw the woman frown unhelpfully. He must persuaded her in the end, for as they came back towards me, he smiled at me and winked. I stood up and went to meet them. The woman looked at me unsmilingly. I want to make it clear to you, she said in some American accent, if I give you a lift to Kigali, I don’t want to listen to you chattering, I hate small talk. I am not a chatterer I said, vexed. That’s fine then; are you ready?
I collected my rucksack and made towards the van after shaking hands with everybody and promising to send them the pictures I had taken of them. I naturally aimed for the right hand front door of the van, but the lady demurred and shook her head. No, she said, I don’t like to have people by my side when I drive, you will have to go in the back. I might be able to catch some sleep then, I thought, but when she opened the back door, I found that there were no seats, everything had been removed and there were only a couple of boxes of provisions. Where am I supposed to sit? I asked. On the floor, was the curt answer. I was in no position to protest and sat down, reminding myself that I had been in worse places before.
The moment she started the van on the road, I heard voices, and discovered that she was talking to herself, although I could not catch the drift. But I had not bargained for the woman’s style of driving. She believed in speeding round corners and slowing down on straight roads. This would have been all right if I had been unaware of the centrifugal laws of physics. Every time she swerved, I had to brace myself up really hard, having nothing to hold on to, in order not to knock my head against the sides of the car or crushed by the skating boxes. If only I could anticipate when the next corner would hit us, that would have possibly helped, but at the back of the van, I could see nothing. After one or two near fatal knocks on the head, I banged loudly on the sides of the van and asked her to stop. I must have been punch drunk, for I asked her to let me out there and then. She stared at me and said, I can’t let you out here, we are in the middle of the forest and the place is still full of wild animals in spite of all man’s attempts to wipe them away from the face of this planet. She seemed deep in thought for a time, and then she said I could come and join her in the front. When I did, she told me that she was Dian Fossey, anthropologist. The name still meant nothing to
me.
I sat next to her and she drove on in much the same manner as before, and after a while
she picked up the thread of the conversation that she had been having with herself which I had so rudely interrupted, stopping when she became aware of my presence. After hundreds of miles of dense and monotonous forests, not stopping once, we reached Kigali just as the sun was beginning to set. I thanked her and she said that she was sorry if she had appeared hostile. I am more used to gorillas than people, she said smiling merrily.
Back in Kisangani, almost the first thing I saw on the coffee table of my friend John O…, who had said he would offer me a meal on my return, was a copy of National Geographic Magazine, and in it was a lengthy feature on Dian Fossey and the work she was doing with the gorillas of Rwanda. When some years later I read that she had been brutally murdered, I forgot the bruises on my head and felt that I had lost a friend.

A Poem

Mama, Mama, I’ve lost my balance,

Cried the little bacterium in the aquarium.

Wipe your tears and dry your eyes,

Said Mama Bacterium

We’ll buy you some more

Tomorrow,

At the Equilibrium Emporium

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