The Graveyard

It’s early. Twenty folk of various ages and nationalities, one broken orange Bedford truck and trailer, a cattle track, and a graveyard in Tanzania are my companions. It’s hot in or out of the sun. How hot is difficult to say since our thermometer blew up, but sweat runs from under my breasts leaving lengthy ruts in the dust on my stomach.

The heat brings a quiet with it, as the varying complexions among our group seek shelter. Some assemble in the back of the truck; others lie on camp beds under dispersed trees lining the track. Even those busy with engine repairs do not disturb the heaviness of the heat. We’d not chosen to camp here; our truck had simply decided to stop.

Graves line one side of the track. There are no orderly lines of uniform headstones. Instead there are small groupings, distinct but not separate from each other. They are marked by simple stones, or carved wooden adornments. Up close, these are delicately intricate. Although unable to decipher what is written, the deep scoring has been done with precision, and leaves you with a sense of solicitude.

A sound like thunder, but softer and more consistent, announces the coming of a hundred or more large beasts with curved horns and one hump, dragging a dust eddy with them. The orange Bedford stops them. Huddling together, the front ones refusing to get near to the truck while those in back push forward, they form a huge jam of bellowing beasts.

At the back of the herd, amongst the churning air and floating pieces of earth, a tall and slender Masai appears. His skin is a buffed black mirror, brightly reflective. Moving among the cattle, his voice clear above the noise, they quieten as he speaks.

One piece of cloth is wound around his frame, a dark, worn, red colour, matching the colour of the earth under us. Long hair is pulled back from his face with plaits and beads. Bracelets sit above his elbows. Beads ornament his neck, and beat against his chest as he moves. About his waist hangs an earthy coloured woven belt, from which a large straight knife dangles.

“It is not usual for people to camp beside graves,” is his first comment.

“It is not by choice,” our driver Gus tells him, explaining our break down.

“Why do you travel here? It is hot, and there are no hotels.”

“We are travelling north to Europe.”

“Mmmph. I would like to travel to Europe, but not like this.” He waves his arm to indicate our camp.

Some of our group try to take his photograph. His body language underlines his verbal, “No photos!” One girl, an Australian, keeps trying. So quickly I don’t register the movement, he has his knife out, its point resting in the curve between her nose and lip. Again he requests no photos. At this, she puts the camera away, and the knife returns to his belt. Except for the expression on her face, it is as if the moment had never happened.

Returning to the problem of the cattle, he asks for our help in moving them past the orange monster. We arrange ourselves around the truck, forming a barrier between it and the cattle. Moving back among them he uses sounds, and a long stick, to encourage them to go forward. He is taking them to the local market for a monthly sale. Once the front of the herd passes the truck, the others move to quickly join them.

While the cattle continue ahead, the Masai rejoins us briefly, and he farewells all twenty of us individually.

“I hope that you are able to leave before I return,” he says. “It is not good for people to camp beside graves. It disturbs them.”

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