The Tattered Man
It was a warm and sultry Zimbabwe day; a good day for lazing in the shade of an acacia tree and watching the world pass by. That’s exactly what my husband, David Haydon, our Professional Hunter, Gordon Stark, and I were doing.
We had spent the last 5 very long days running after elephants that seemed to disappear just before we arrived. At every village they had recently seen one, two, three elephants! We should have been there last night! The villagers wanted the elephants, which had destroyed crops and killed 6 people in 4 months, killed, and the government had agreed. Now we rested and waited while the scouts combed the area for sign. It had been a frustrating few days, so I decided to go for a quiet walk and relax. I knew I couldn’t go out of sight or sound, but there was still quite a bit to explore. There were rolling hills, interesting vegetation, and a few tiny rondovals (mud and stick houses) in the area - but they looked rather broken down and deserted.
As I walked along a dusty path a man rounded the bend in front of me. At least, I thought it was a man. However, he looked much more like a dark skeleton draped with rags. One shirt sleeve was missing and the other was only a few inches long, while the front of his shirt lacked buttons, had multiple holes and tears, and half the back was missing. It made the shirt flap in a most peculiar way. His only other piece of clothing was a pair of pants that had even less material than the shirt, held up with some twine.
Should I run, call for help, or stand my ground? He solved my problem by waving his hand and hollering “Hello”. This was followed by a wonderful smile that lighted up his old and wizened face and brought a smile to mine. His teeth, all six of them, were a bit broken but still white. He acted as if I was an old friend and I suddenly felt like one, too.
“Welcome my village!” he said. We talked for a few minutes, partly in English and partly by waving our hands a lot. He found me every bit an interesting and entertaining as I found him. He liked to laugh and I believe he thought my blonde hair was quite the funny stuff. I learned his name was Jo.
I walked with him a bit him and then he stopped and thought. With questioning and sad eyes he turned to me and asked, “Do you have food where you live?” I immediately felt a great guilt for taking such things for granted and for always having abundance without appreciation. “Yes,” I replied, “we do.” He thought a bit longer and then asked “Could you send us some?” With heart in throat I replied, “Our country sends a lot of food to your country.” “Oh”, said Jo,” we don’t get any here.” I knew, and I think he knew, that he never would. His tribe doesn’t belong to Mugabe’s ruling party, and so are left to struggle with no hope of help.
As we strolled along I learned he was headed for his little farm plot to pick melons and corn. He suddenly stopped, turned to me with a bright expression, and asked if we could visit him at his house tomorrow to meet his wife. I told Jo that I wasn’t sure we’d be in the area tomorrow and he said “Yes, you come, meet wife! Then you take us your home – 3 year. Then bring back.” He thought it was a grand idea and I was never able to properly explain that I couldn’t take him with us when we left.
Dave joined us and we went to help him pick his melons and corn. However, when we arrived it was discovered that almost all the food was gone. The elephants, which had left the preserve due to over population, had visited during the night to feast and trample on his poor half-acre. Very little was left; certainly not enough to feed two people until the next growing season. Dave and I felt so rich by comparison and so completely helpless. This can’t happen. This isn’t right.
We gave Jo some money and promised that if he would write us with an address we would make sure he received food and clothing for himself and others. He said his cousin got mail and he would visit her so that she could send us the needed information.
As we drove away it felt as though we were leaving a place the world had forgotten, a village with no people, a husband and wife with nothing to cling to but each other.
I waited and waited. He never wrote. I’m still waiting. I think of him often.
by Paula Haydon.