We met Li on a hot afternoon when he turned down a lift from the control gate to the Mana Pools Headquarters in Zimbabwe. “I’ll wait for another vehicle,” he said after peering inside and confirming that our 41 year-old Landy lacked air conditioning. Four days later we encountered Li again near our camp along the river. “Are you heading out of the park now?” he asked. “Can you wait five minutes? I want to get my things.” His things turned out to be a small sack of dried meat. Many Africans don’t get a chance to eat meat very often. When he told us what was in the sack he said dried meat in the same way someone I would say dark chocolate, or someone from Europe would say a thousand Euros.
It was a bit squished for four hours with three adults and an AK47 in the front seat but for the first time in 12 months we were waved through every police check along the way. Police never stopped my grandfather when he delivered beer to San Francisco speakeasies during prohibition either. Why? Nuns. “Would you be needing a ride now, Sister?” he would ask in his thick Irish brogue and off they would go, waved through all police checks along the way.
“I wish you could come with us all the way to South Africa,” I said to Li enjoying the benefits of driving with an AK47-toting policeman for the first time in my life.
When we stopped in a biggish town to gas up, I bought a bunch of bananas with the help of Li who told me the local price was just pennies apiece. I offered him a banana. “No. I’m okay,” he said after a slight pause.
“Would you rather have some juice?” I asked.
“No. I’m okay,” he repeated. Then quietly so that the banana lady couldn’t hear, “Police are not allowed to eat in public.”
“Oh! Really? Sorry, I didn’t know!” I said feeling like an entrapper.
When we were a kilometer from town Li said, “I will have that banana now.” As he ate I noticed how thin he was and offered him another.
I asked Li about his life and work, eventually working my way to burning questions about stepping on someone’s egg, which means to hit someone’s cow or goat or to be the cause of losing something of great importance. Driving through Africa can be stressful not only for the chassis-busting potholes and time-consuming police checks but also for the number of humans and animals on the road. I fret about hitting a cow or child every time we get behind the wheel.
“Li, if we were to hit a dog or a goat what should we do? I mean, should we drive to the nearest police station and report it?”
“No, you don’t have to do anything,” Li answered quickly. “The owner is supposed to keep the animal on a lead at all times. If you report it, he will run away believe me. It is he who will be in trouble.”
I needed clarification. This was serious. “So, we just leave the dead dog or goat there and carry on? We don’t report to the police station?”
Li was quiet for a moment. Then, in the exact way the character in The Godfather delivered his line “Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli” Li said, “Yes, come to the police station. But leave the dog. Bring the goat.”