The Occupation of Survival

Journeys back – into the Middle World

Here, in the Middle World between hunter-gatherers and civilisaton-supported settlements, mere survival remains a full-time occupation.

The dry season has long sucked the last moisture from the source closer to their little village – a few dozen mud huts at the top of a steep rise.  Now, there’s the shallow pit, hollowed out of the unforgiving rocks a kilometre further upstream.

The women take turns with a battered enamel bowl to scoop the muddy water into their containers from a plate-sized puddle at the bottom, a few cups-full at a time. To fill each to its roughly twenty litre capacity could take thirty minutes, if you work fast. But working fast is not part of the lifestyle here. Here the women would patiently wait, gossiping, joking, dreaming, perhaps rubbing away at some washing they had brought to the water, sometimes dozing, while the children play around with the simplest of toys  – stones, reed stalks, sticks – and fashion fantasies from mud.

The animals would patiently wait out this slow sequence, sleepy-eyed, motionless in their yoke except for the occasional flick of a tail. And once the basket is filled, someone would take up the steering thongs and bark a sound different from the relaxed prattle, and they would heave against the wood and the chain would go taught and they would lurch over the rocky surface, dragging a straggling line of women and children up the hill. The yoke would bite into their humps, the strops would choke at their wind pipes, but there would be the prospect of being set free and being able to wander off to find something from their barren environment to chew on.

Some women’s containers would not fit into the sapling-woven basket. Those would cheerfully lift the twenty-kilogram weights onto their heads and set off up the steep slope on foot without so much as a pause in their babbling.

Once in the village, there would be more slow chores – wandering off for kilometres to gather wood, which would be trussed into bundles with bark strips and carried back on their heads, or crushing maize at the pounding block or with the grinding stone, or sweeping in front of the hut with a bundle of stiff grass or weeds tied together with bark strips, or gathering cattle dung from the sleeping pen and smearing a new layer on the hut floors, or tending the tennis-court sized field on which they relied for sustenance till next season.

I gave the three pail-carriers a lift to the village – two older women and a girl of about fifteen, pregnant. They sat chatting animatedly at the back, happy as birds. Life was simple and good


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