Charlie Ray and I were milling around, kicking up dust, as I did when I was a boy. It was 1977 and we’d hit a dead end in our road-trip through Botswana and into Zambia, ending up on the Mission Station where I grew up. Back to where it began. And then Ruth and Ruby showed up. Ruby Rook and Ruth Kingston, to be exact. Names straight out of a regency romance novel.
Ruth and Ruby solved our problem—well, mine, at least. They were nurses and were due to go and do work at a leprosy clinic but had been struggling to find a ride there. We started chatting and they learned that I had grown up in Zambia and was without plan at the minute. They asked me to drive them to the clinic. I thought, “why not?”—and after loading their luggage into a long-wheelbase Land Rover, we hit the trail.
I followed a track through the brush and scrub, dodging mopane trees and sickle bush. At times I’d hit a bump and our heads would rebound off the roof of the car interior; Ruth and Ruby would exclaim a collectively posh, “Oh Dear!” in that polite English way, which never failed to amused me. After a good amount of Oh Dears we arrived at the clinic, a place called Copperhill, and were accosted by a swarm of flies as we emerged from car—I counted 150 of them on my front before acknowledging the futility of the exercise. The heat was blazing.
We weren’t there long before someone came rushing out of one of the grass structures that made up the clinic—there was a medical emergency nearby, and would I drive? I did, of course.
We bounced along in the Land Rover to another village and were met by the principal of the village school and he took us to his home, where a little boy lay. Ruby and Ruth had a look at him; their concern was palpable. They asked him to open his mouth. The boy’s tongue was as white as snow. He had a severe case of Anaemia. Both nurses suggested that it was imperative that we leave immediately to get the boy help. We got in the car—we being: me, Ruth, Ruby, the little boy, his mother, father and grandfather. We hit the bush trail yet again, only able to go as fast as the uncompromising landscape would allow.
The little boy was in his grandfather’s arms, wrapped in a blanket. I thought that this was probably the first time he had been in a car; he was eager to look out of the passenger window and as he gazed at the view outside, would shift position into the beaming sun, absorbing the rays; the way a dry succulent might ingurgitate water. He stared, barely flinching as leaves and branches swiped the clambering intruder, oblivious to our urgency of purpose.
It was a 70-mile trip (three hours) to the hospital. Just as it came into sight, the boy’s grandfather tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. The boy was dead. I stopped the car. Immediately, the wailing began. Raw, pained, broken, grief-stricken noises escaping from the souls of the boy’s family; sounds that had been waiting for this exact moment from the beginning of time and were finally free.
We drove the rest of the way to the hospital, reported the death, and drove three hours back to the village. Before we arrived, I could hear it—guttural cries and falsetto sorrow. Neither seen, nor heard and yet…
Storyteller: Noel Huntingford
Author: Andrea Zanin
Noel Huntingford (aka “the boy”) was born in London. From the age of 6 weeks, he lived in Zambia with his missionary parents and two older sisters. When he was 14, he moved with his family to South Africa. Noel has been living in the UK for the last couple of years (to spend time with his three children and ten grandchildren) but plans to return to Africa, where he left his heart.