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The Leopard Man

Extracts from the novel(in English 2008)
Translation by Katherine Stewart-Kreisman

We all live our lives on this side of the mirror. But when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror - the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at an unsuspected paradise. The greatest stories speak to us with our own voice, but they speak from the other side.

Ben Okri

These days people are angry. There is no understanding between a man and his parents, a man and his neighbours, and this has led to trouble among our entire family, among our Iraqw people. It is said that to gather the people together is medicine enough. . .gathering together and drinking together will result in getting the thing which they seek. . . the voice of many people who have one thing on their minds, the soil and earth of the world, this surely Looaa will hear, and receive the voices from this gathering. If everyone prays with one heart, certainly Looaa will listen to our pleas.

An Iraqw elder at harvest festival.

Confused.

I was awakened by a sound like a thump on the chest, and sat up in bed with a jerk. It moved through my body like a dark hum. I listened again, but could hear only Ingrid breathing beside me, and the weak whistling of the trees outside. The children were asleep in the next room and all was still.
   The night was pitch dark and smelled of paraffin. I opened the mosquito net and took a few steps across the cold cement floor. Flicking on the light switch by the door achieved nothing for, naturally, the generator had shut off at 10 p.m. I moved over to the window and felt something crunch under my feet. Suppressing an urge to scream I swiftly pulled my feet away. There were cockroaches on the floor; they bit and stung me.
   What have I got myself into, I thought? Why am I fumbling about in the dark, in this guesthouse, in dead of night? I had to be crazy; Thomas Andersen from Trondheim, Norway had become a lunatic, fumbling around in the wee hours, in a dwelling in black Africa. And for what?
   Should I light the paraffin lamp or the torch? The torch, I thought, and bent down beside the bed. I went to the window and shone it out through the netting. The beam danced around between the trees, but only grass and tree trunks were visible. Lowering the torch I stepped back and - there was that sound again! A deep rumbling, a terrible bellowing; it must come from some animal.
   I tried to open the lamellas of the windows, the better to hear. The sound was coming from the direction of the school. It was a fearful lowing from a creature in distress. Perhaps it was a wild beast, a hyena or a leopard? Should I awaken Ingrid? And now there were voices. I listened intently to try to make out some of the words but all became quiet again. The silence settled dark as the night over the trees and fields. I was trembling, so I closed the lamellas and tiptoed back across the cement to bed. Crawling back into my sleeping bag I tried to sleep. But it was as if the weird lowing was locked in to my chest. I tossed and turned and brooded. Why was I here, in a ghost town as deep into the bush as it is possible to be?

Didn't all this begin at the breakfast table one morning, at home with Ingrid, Dawn, Anne, Eric and Simon? We were arguing with the children about sitting properly at the table. I think it was Dawn who helped herself to some food and Ingrid just exploded: was Dawn aware that she was eating all the bread and leaving the crusts?
   Dawn tried to explain that she didn't like the dry, hard edges of the bread, and obviously neither did the others in the family, so the crusts were always wasted. And besides, wasn't this discussion out of date ages ago? Ingrid replied that, considering what was happening in the world, it was likely that Dawn's attitudes were out of date.
   "So throw it away!" Dawn shouted.
   "Or send it to some one who needs it," I said sarcastically.
   All became quiet around the kitchen table and I could see that Ingrid was thinking, making connections.
   "That's it!" she cried, beaming.
   I smiled indulgently.
   "But I mean it!" said Ingrid.
   "What are you on about?" asked Anne.
   I was bemused - Ingrid actually meant what she said. She had come up with something she thought was a good idea.
   "You said some one needs it. I just have to find out where we'll go; I don't know anything, say - about Africa." she said. Not long afterwards she would begin toting home many books from the library.
   The children and I rolled our eyes. I wanted to duck, to sink like a stone into the depths.
   I had begun to work on a novel and had in fact no interest in going to Africa, and especially not at that time. There flashed before me a vision of a yellow savannah landscape, dry and dusty, and a god-forsaken village somewhere in the bush. And there, in the middle of the shimmering haze: Thomas Andersen, forgotten by civilisation, without newspapers, television or hi-fi system.
   "We can't go on quarrelling about things of which we're ignorant." Ingrid said.
   I didn't know what to say.
   "If we want to change things in this world we must at least learn how everything is interconnected." she continued.
   One couldn't argue with that. But all the same I felt ambivalent, just like the time I had been pulled up on stage by a magician so that he could deceive me. And there sat the audience, watching.
   And then, one fine day, we were all standing on the pavement outside our house. That's the way things had to go. I felt dizzy, trying to hold on to something that wasn't there. Were we really going to make this journey? Yes, we were. Ingrid had decided to put aside her writing and had applied to serve in the Peace Corps. We were subjected to all the tests and procedures, and Ingrid was given the job of agricultural instructor, a newly created position at a secondary school up in the highlands of north Tanzania. We went through NORAD's test programme and answered questions on the subject of how many uses one bottle of Coca-Cola could have. We were given thorough health checks and vaccinations and deemed sufficiently fit. I was engaged as a so-called "spouse", together with my two children Dawn twelve, and Eric ten, who would return home to their mother after one years. Also with us were Ingrid's ten year old daughter, Anne, and our son, Simon, just four; quite a project.
   Ingrid shuffled us around the pavement; the neighbours laughed and chatted; camera shutters clicked.
   "Well," said our neighbour from the second floor, "Do you think you will like living outside the city gates of Trondheim, Thomas?"
   I gave him a wry smile. We hugged our friends for the last time and said farewell. Then we lumped our way down the road toward the bus station where the airport bus was ready to roll.

On the day we landed the weather was clear and sunny. We set foot on the shimmering Tarmac and, along with the other passengers from the huge 'plane, moved slowly into the terminal building. The Tanzanian passport control began, with great difficulty, leafing through the passports and travel documents.
   A strange, sweet odour wafted through the hot vestibule. The queues did not move and the sweat began to pour. The passport controllers seemed to feel they had all the time in the world, and spoke slowly and in depth with every single passenger about what he or she planned to do in the country before finally stamping their papers.
   The counters were constructed of dark wood and completely worn down. The concrete walls were filthy. A young soldier with an automatic weapon casually patrolled the vestibule, scratching his neck with the gun barrel. Simon was whirling around the place more or less at will, and the soldier sat down by his side and began to demonstrate his weapon. At this, Simon was thrilled, attentive and wide-eyed. Other people with small children were not so fascinated. They sank, exhausted, onto the unwashed brown benches that lined the walls.
   I felt my irritation build. What the hell did the authorities think they were doing? It was as if we had run up against a system that simply didn't function. People were patching up and trying to run something that really didn't seem worth the effort.
   We approached the customs counter where a clerk asked brusquely if we had with us electrical apparata or other goods that should be declared. I produced the radio/cassette player and the clerk nodded to indicate this was fine. Ingrid had to mention our portable PC, and then both it and the clerk disappeared - forever, I feared.
   Finally, after two hours' wait, we were through the paper mill, reunited with our PC, and moved toward the exit. There, we were mobbed by a gang of over zealous taxi drivers who pressed us to hire them. The rear door on one of their vehicles was attached to the chassis with wire. Luckily, we were able to move directly to a mini-bus that was waiting especially for us.
   Packed in together, we drove off into the flat savannah landscape of Tanzania. This was my first encounter with the African continent, and I will never forget it. I felt that my grip on something was about to loosen. It loosened - rather like when someone opens a door and the knob comes off in his hand. They just stand there smiling stupidly.
   For the first few days in the land I was overwhelmed and walked around with my head swimming. Our first month was spent at the training course centre that lay at the foot of Mount Meru. Several small rivers flowed down from the snow-capped mountain, irrigating grey volcanic earth and nourishing the plants. I had never before seen such startling, full-bodied colours. Flowers of every brilliant hue pitched forward from beds, bushes and trees, offered themselves to us shamelessly. Even the petrol station nearby looked inviting with a blue flowering jacaranda tree against its stone wall.
   Rain forest guarded the slopes of Mount Meru, through which we walked on one of our first days in the area. Its arching foliage, millions of leaves, sheltered us like umbrellas and offered pleasant shadow from the burning sun that shone over the area for hour after blazing hour. We were drowning in sunshine. So romantic was the scene that we became new lovers again, kissing under the branches.
   Nature was exaggerated all along our way. People brought stacks of fruit and vegetables to sell along the roadside. Women in gaily-coloured khangas, native dresses, offered masses of red tomatoes, yellow bananas and green papayas. I had never eaten such tasty papaya in my life - soft fruit meat reminiscent of banana, but with a sweeter and richer flavour. The bananas themselves also tasted much better than at home, fresher and stronger.
   As I tossed and turned in my bed, awaiting sleep, I wondered if all that strength and beauty could possibly be genuine. There seemed to be too much of everything. Was it camouflage? Did it hide something?