the bottom of the lake

first; i want to write about what happened to david.

it was the 31st of October, heads were fuzzy, footsteps and progress was slow, we had said goodbye and thanks to some fellow volunteers, and drank some wine, as we do, the night before, did not sleep enough after spending too long tuning a guitar and sipping whisky nightcap/s. the 6am wake up every day of the week is still 6am every day of the week. I had been staring at my computer screen for hours trying to determine if I was being productive or more useless than usual. I wanted to go to the farm and help burn the bricks, or help weed, or help mulch. But I was doing something, I remember I was doing something… useful, while staring at the screen.

I chose rice over spaghetti that day. Like most days, if I had the choice.

11.30am and I must be consumed by water, I needed to be consumed by water, the fresh cool delicious water of lago Niassa just there, waiting, calling, perpetually, just there.

I see some staff on the beach chatting about something, I pass and say hello, “im going in there,” I say to dev, pointing at the blue, “nice,” he responds.

I strip to my bra and nickers, and put my goggles on. There are some waves breaking close to the shore, I swim past the beginning of their swell and a bit far out to swim alongside the lakeshore – david comes past me in a canoe, david is from the farm, and although we don’t share a language, we’ve had fun, we’ve managed to laugh, and work together, digging pits for the mud bricks, carrying bamboo, weeding, eating cassava and plantain bananas, and drinking tea.. “where are you going?” I ask. “Yah,” he says, always ‘yah’. “Are you going to the farm?” “Yah, no, Mala, Manure,” he says pointing north; he’s going to Mala, a nearby village to collect manure for the compost. “Okay, tunana bambuyo,” (see you later) I say. “yah..” he goes…

and I go swimming down the lakeshore, slowly, bobbing over the waves. When I come back after a few minutes, I notice some other staff in the water, hurrying to get out and put their shorts on, I wonder if its because they don’t want me to see them in their undies… Jamie, one of the staff from guest-management, runs over the platform that goes out on to the rocks just past the harbour. He runs back and up to the office. I see two fishermen come around from the rocks in a dugout canoe, and I think it must be because they’re not supposed to be fishing so close to shore, and they’re going to get yelled at.

Devon, one of the mzungu managers, rushes back down with Jamie and Willard and on to the platform; I get out of the water and wrap a sarong around me just as other staff come rushing down, I wonder what’s happening. Joal, a carpenter, is next to me and says, “guy from farm, canoe,” and signals it tipping over, “david?!” I say, shit, I run over to the platform and see that the guys are in yellowfin, the speedboat and are looking in the water, fuck… I run back to the lake and see them pulling the green canoe out from the water onto the boat… my heart takes gulps of air and starts to beat faster.

I grab my goggles and run into the water and swim out the boat, just near the furthest rocks, I’m cursing and breathing and cursing in time with my strokes. I start to swallow air and dive down a meter or so, to see the bottom, I can see it, but nothing..
The boat comes over to me, can you see him? No, where was the boat? I keep diving down and looking around, rocks shock me as I spot them, up and down, my head feels like it’s being squashed together between an iron clamp the deeper down I go. We keep looking for 20 mins or so, the boat circling around, and the guys looking over the edge. Finally they leave to see if/what the fishermen saw…

I swim back to shore and run around to the rocks on the other side of the bay, in case he’s over there somewhere, I clamber up and over the rough black and white stained surfaces, my feet gripping as I move. I’m still swearing as I move from one high point to the other; I look around, the clouds are semi-covering the sky and in the cracks the lake glistens and shoots crystals into my squints – I keep seeing breaks of water out further, ‘is that him?’ please let it be him, after about another 20 mins I see the speedboat coming back, so I go around and see that they continue looking around where they pulled up the boat.

I slide roughly into the water again, by this time the swell has picked up a bit and the waves are stronger – I swim over to them and dev says “the boatmen said they saw him swimming to the rocks, and we spoke to emmanuel (at the farm) who said one time david ran away into the bushes when a rock got into the water pump and he was scared.. so he might be okay..” – oh, but no one has seen him. We would have seen him. We keep looking, and eventually someone from the boat points somewhere, I follow them- now emmanuel and some fishermen have come out in another boat and we stop at the same point, he’s pointing down, I duck under, a meter or so, and see a shape, it shocks me, I see it’s an orange shirt – like the one’s the farm staff wear – I pop up, it’s his shirt, shit, oh shit oh fuck, oh jesus, I go down again and see it again, clearer.

People are further over and I move with them, I duck down and see him, david, this image will never leave my mind – he’s lying there, on his side, as if sleeping, arms bent and near his head, as if near where his pillow would be, he’s swaying with the undercurrent; I go up. ‘oh jesus, oh fuck, its him’ – I go down, there are other guys swimming now, trying to see if they can get down to him. It’s too far. He drowned.

I’m in between the boats now, and there’s a lot of commotion, people know, they know he’s dead, but people are moving fast, or slow, I don’t know.

Eventually one of the staff dive down with a rope and manage to loop it around his legs – they pull him up onto the boat, and as his torso is making its way over the edge, his limp arms flap over his chest.. I just watch..

I think, ‘should I do CPR?’ Should someone try? It’s been over an hour now, there’s no chance.

They take him back to the land, and I swim back to shore; I wrap my sarong around me and move to where everyone is gathering – the women are separated from the men, and one person starts wailing, and others join in, they start screaming and crying and fall to the ground sobbing – I don’t know where to sit, should I stay with the women or the men, I stay with the women for a little while; then we move over to join the men – discussions are happening about what to do, – we have to send a message to his family, who will go?

They are discussing whether or not to call the police, the police might cause problems if they don’t see the ‘scene’ – they might cause problems for us – say that something else happened, but devon and I are determined that we have to tell the truth, there is no other option – the alternatives scare me a little.

So dev calls the police in Cobue, and two people go off to send a message to his family, an hour or so walk south of nkwichi. – people sit together for a while, then break apart, we walk back to the office and it starts to rain – emmanuel sits down and starts crying, I am stunned, but calm.

I go to the farm to find hilda and joyce – to tell them, I walk the 15 minutes there feeling surreal and unsure, it’s grey and raining a little, thunder is cracking, and lightning threatens..the bush is bright green and yellow..  I don’t find anyone there, so come back.. I sit down to eat something, rice… and stare into space, at people moving about slowly, and murmuring, sitting, staring also. Later I go back to the farm with a letter from emmanuel to joyce and hilda.

‘I’m going to wait here, we’re going to wait for the people to come back from mbueca with the family’s choice about what to do with the body, then we will take the body by boat to his family’. They’re in shock, not speaking, murming, hilda asks me if his body is bloated… ‘I don’t know..’ ‘he had 5 children,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry’. We go to the lake to remove the pump from the rocks, and hilda puts it on her head, ‘you’re strong’, mpavu I say.

I walk back and later, just before sunset about 20 of us cram into the boat, with david’s body wrapped in a sheet and blanket at our feet. Everyone puts on life-jackets, for the lake is angry, rough, the sky is dark clouds and raining on and off – why must we put them on now? Its ironic, I have never seen anyone wearing one before. The journey to mbueca is quiet, but people chatter and babies cry. The swell is big and we move slowly over the water, up and down.

Once we arrive, the chief is sent for, and we sit on an old dugout, murmuring about mosquitos, Rebbeca, big mama, who is like a mother to me, says we should be careful, because the family might say that we killed their son.

The chief and some people come down, we speak a bit, about what to do, then a bed frame is brought and we place david’s body onto it, then we carry it along the beach as the moon is appearing from behind the clouds and we can see everything, this silent precession along the lakeshore, we go into the village, up through the ghostly cassava plains, past mounds of rocks keeping the soil in place, past homes made of earth, of grass, and women begin to wail, scream, weep, yell and scream, I can see shapes, people, figures, clearly, not clearly.

We arrive at his home, and lay the body down, the family is there and are weeping, some women fall to ground at his side and cry and yell and wail. We step back and wait to be asked to be welcomed by the father.

He is humble and grateful, for us bringing his body ‘I know it was an accident, I know how hard it is to find the body out there, sometimes it gets so deep and people never find the body, thank you for bringing him to us, I hope you treat all your staff like this.’ – devon says a few words, and so does emmanuel. Tomorrow will be the funeral, the carpenters will make a coffin and bring it by boat.
We leave, back through the cassava under the moonlight, our trail, barefoot over rocks and sand, back into the boat, surreal laughter, silence, chatter, movement, the women stay in the village. We return. I wash, and notice the crocodile tracks are back, leading from the lake to the swamp across the glimmering white sand.

That night I sleep, I’m scared a little, in shock, I worry about dreams, of that image. But I sleep.

I spend the morning at the farm, watering mostly, there is no pump because emmanuel is at the lodge, and there is no one else now.

So I make several trips to the lake with a watering can, I want to water the fruit trees, it’s hot, but overcast, I don’t want them to die, the trees…

Around lunchtime, a man from mbueca comes and asks if we can hurry up with the coffin because the body is starting to puff up and bleed, they want to bury him.

The coffin is beautiful, and wrapped in green and black ma

terial. We take it to mbueca by boat – I have my camera, I want to photograph the ceremony, once on the land I ask if it would be possible .. they ask the family for me, and then I am directed where to go. I follow the men under a big tree, the largest I have seen in this area, there is maybe 100-200 people sitting under it, all men, the women have split off and gone somewhere else – I am feeling awkward, sticking out as the only white woman amongst a crowd of Mozambican men. They’re looking at me and I hide on the edge.
– some words are said, and I am pointed at as the mzungu from the lodge, and after a little while I am taken up to the family home, past the place where david’s grave has been dug – a wave with respect to those who dug it. Up to the house, there are maybe 50 people, 100 people gathered under the grass thatched roof, singing, all singing and looking out, down to the lake below. Inside are the priests, the family, david, others. I sit outside with the singers, as one song follows the other, they’re beautiful – the songs, I wish I could sing them. I record them instead.

I am taken inside and into the room where david’s body now lies in the coffin – I didn’t ask to photograph this, but it appears they want me to. The father and some other men nod at me, and signal to photograph – so I do, click, click, it’s dark, you can’t see his face, but maybe that’s ok.

Out again, and I am signaled to photograph the wife, and family who are on the floor, staring at the wall and crying – I wonder why, but do so anyway, I feel like such an intruder, photographing people grieving and singing – I can’t hide now, I am standing in front of everyone.

david's family and community

Out again and down the path to the tree. Then the ceremony starts- the singing comes closer and closer, led by the cross and the priests – in single file through the cassava fields, under the tree they lay his coffin, they sing, everyone sings, these beautiful songs, I have heard some of them, from where? The church singers.

They say some prayers and the ceremony moves to the graveyard. There is singing, non-stop, as he is lowered into the ground, and people begin to shovel dirt over the coffin, taking turns, the men, taking turns with all the shovels, smiling, some, this ceremony, I’ve never seen anything like it – it seems so regular, almost, but with so much respect and love, it is a beautiful ceremony; he was loved, he was known, everyone, it seems, from the entire village, is here. the clouds are booming, blossoming almost, above behind the mountains behind us, and over the lake on the other side.

Eventually it is over, and the food arrives, but we are leaving, and we run down to the boat, dodging plants and rocks; there is an incredible burst of light breaking and splitting onto the lake far away. It seems too fitting, too planned, it’s there, it’s present.

On the boat back people are laughing. And smiling, some vomiting; but this life has been cherished, even if people experience death at a much higher rate than I do, than some do. It is respected and cherished, but life for others continues…


that night, in my hut, in my home, my temporary home, my bamboo and grass thatched hut, where I have been able to lay my belongings for longer than I have since leaving Australia, I wake up, its about 2am, I need to go to the toilet, but contemplate not going, convincing myself I don’t need to. The moon is still bright outside and I can see it through my mosquito netting.

Suddenly I hear a mans yell, a screaming becoming louder up the path towards me, as if he’s running away from something, a leopard? I have had too many dreams about leopards for me to now see one. My heart starts beating at a million beats per second – I get up and listen, it sounds as if the man has run up my path and stopped at my door, I am silent, but I can’t hear anything, I am frightened, shit-scared, I have never felt this fear before – I keep listening. Nothing. I get out from my mosquito net and grab the machete I have been keeping beside my door since I am the only one in my village now, the others left two nights ago. Where is Esau? Where is the nightwatchman! I want to yell for him, but am dead silent. I try and peer on to my veranda, but only the glimmering-flickering of the lantern is there. I stand behind the mesh for about 10 minutes, and still I hear nothing. I really need to pee now, but am way too scared to go outside. So I pee into my large camping mug, and it resonates throughout the hut, I am still holding the machete.

Eventually I get back into bed with the machete beside me and take a while to get back to sleep. In the morning I ask Esau in broken chinyanja and portugese if he heard anything last night, nothing, nada… I was scared, I say, telipo, he says, I’m here.
I know! but maybe you were asleep… I wonder if I was dreaming, I can’t have been dreaming, it was more real than dreams of mine. But maybe I was dreaming…

David couldn’t swim, he was a fisherman before being a farmer, and he couldn’t swim, he lived on the lake all his life and couldn’t swim.
I hope he is now resting in peace.

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