Saturday, February 19, 2011

Counting a Baboons teeth!

I sat on the bonnet of our Land Rover, my derriere firmly planted in the middle of the spare tire, which was bolted into place. The roof had been removed from the vehicle and my family and I could communicate clearly with each other. My father drove slowly along the uneven dirt road and I scanned the dirt ahead. Disturbed dirt was cause for worry. The terrorists were crawling all over Rhodesia and one of their effective tactics was planting, into these dirt roads, landmines. The countryside also crawled with Rhinos and Hippos, military vehicles designed to locate mines and survive the blast, but they didn't find them all. That's what I was doing, hopefully... Actually, I felt pretty important, being given this job, and in retrospect, I am sure my father was not relying solely on my eyes.

We were on our way to a braai, a barbeque to us Afrikaaners. The fun outing was to take place on someones farm and we were so excited. As we neared the farm my parents began the “rule countdown”. It went something like this, “Remember not to sit in grownups conversation and count teeth [and listen to every word], do not ask for seconds, wait till you are offered but don't hang around waiting to be asked, do not take seconds on dessert, even if you are offered, no fighting with other kids, Bernadine watch Jannie and Belinda and if you kids go near that Baboon, you will be sorry!” I sighed, usual list. No worries, especially when it came to the Baboon.

I stood before a curious sight! A tall pole was rooted into the earth and at the very top was a small hut, like a dog house. A chain connected to the pole, looped towards the earth and disappeared into the hut. That Baboon was in there. No fence surrounded the Baboon but it was obvious just how far he could reach, because a path encircled that pole. When that Baboon was out, he prowled at the full extent of the reach of that chain. Belinda balanced on my hip, she was about 3 years old and there weren't many kids around her age, Jannie stood next to me, he was six, or so. We all watched, waited, would the Baboon look out his house, down at us? Nothing happened and Jannie ran off the play and I sat down on a low rock wall, it encircled the Baboon and a patch of lawn where the children all played, separated from their parents by the cleared circle of Baboon territory. Belinda wandered around me examining everything that moved. I kept one eye on the Baboon, another on Belinda and a third...on my brother.

One advantage to being raised in Africa is the knowledge that you gain, absorb, by being aware of wildlife. We were educated by comments our parents made (counting teeth when we shouldn't have been), our wanderings in the bush, and things other kids said. I don't recall fear when I remember hearing a lion, seeing an elephant suddenly nearby, but rather a deep thrill, a primal joy. But now watching the chain jingle as the hidden, hairy beast moved in his aerial hut, made the hair raise on the back of my neck. I had seen plenty of Baboons. They weren't cuddly looking things. Longish, grey fur, dusty and constantly picked clean of ticks, lice and vegetation, covered every inch of them, except their rear ends. As children, we giggled at those exposed backsides, bright red during mating season. But the heavy brow was a bit menacing and when a baboon yawned, that face was terrifying. Their fangs hung like razor sharp assegais, deadly. The only cute thing about a baboon was the way the mothers held their babies, as if they were little humans.

At some point we ate, minus second desserts, and we got back to playing on the lawn, careful not to cross the path that marked the reach of that Baboon's chain. I had joined the game, having left Belinda with my mother so that I could run. We were having fun! The evenings in Africa are magical, it seems that the continent wakes up as the sun sets. Unbeknownst to us, so apparently had that Baboon.

One kid was assigned to be the “monster”, and as he was blindfolded, spun dizzy in our midst and then set free, we scattered from his flailing arms and squealed running in all directions, watching over our shoulders as he chased, following our voices. I watched as Jannie crossed into the Baboon's territory, I saw the horror register on his face as his feet hit the bare dirt, cleared by that Baboon. Then my vision slowed, I was across the lawn, the bare space and pushing Jannie onto the grass ahead, hearing the clang and snap of that chain as the Baboon reached the range of his leash, his breath on my neck as his teeth snapped together, and then the ripping of my dress as those great muscular arms reached for me. I tumbled onto the lawn, right in front of where the grownups sat.

The awful realization that the Baboon had nearly had my marrow for dinner wasn't the worst of it. My father was furious! I had disobeyed. Later that night I received a “hiding”, a very good spanking. I am not sure if “hiding” referred to the blistering of your hide, or not, but I remember wondering every time my brother and I had an argument, during the next week, whether or not it had been worth saving his hairless, little hide.


CJ said...

Hello Bernadine,

I'm CJ and I guess from your blog that you and I are the same vintage - approximately. Really enjoying your writing, esp the family anecdotes re. growing up in Africa. I write about my life in SA,our family in Africa and our work with wildlife at sunshineandshadow-cj.blogspot(dot)com.
Great blog - I'm off to check out your older entries. Cheers, CJ

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