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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Murray Bail — Killing an Elephant

page 113

Murray Bail

Killing an Elephant

Glass is precious in Tanzania. Cars and taxis rattle about with cracked windscreens and side-windows, and the shells of cars abandoned in the streets, missing some vital part, are stripped of glass. Wherever the eye rests in Dar es Salaam it settles on a crack in a piece of glass: the windows of shops, offices and small factories, such as the Tanganyika Tyre Retreading Company. Broken pieces are left in place. Sometimes, as in the windows of the courthouse facing the harbour, where pedestrians can simply stop and look in from the footpath, nothing remains of the windows but a small triangle curving out from a corner. Mirrors are cracked too, in lifts and in hotel bathrooms, glass-top desks, and even the framed photographs of leopards reclining in trees, which are screwed on the walls of the unpunctual Air Tanzania planes, have multiple fractures. In poor, hot countries there are more urgent priorities for replacement than glass.

I was idly thinking this while sauntering along Kalute Street, the Indian quarter behind me. On the footpath young men squatted over displays of secondhand textbooks on accounting and chemistry, and it crossed my mind that it was time the history of the world was rewritten, concentrating on the effects of climate — debilitating heat, in the case of East Africa.

Dar es Salaam has its beginnings in 1857 when the Sultan of Zanzibar decided to turn a creek into a safe port and trading centre. Dar es Salaam — Dar, as the locals call it — means 'haven of peace.'

The streets were pot-holed, the buildings dusty, mostly grey.

In front of me on a corner was a white mosque. As I approached there was a sudden commotion. People were running towards it, and others running away from it. Their eyes and mouths were opened wide and there was shouting. Near me an Indian woman with a child fell on to her hands. Others from across the street and on balconies had stopped and stared.

I turned the corner. A car parked against the wall of the mosque had page 114 caught fire. It was an old cream Volkswagen — a Beetle. Around it, a group of young Africans were darting about, pointing and shouting. Nobody seemed to own the car; and nobody seemed to know what to do.

The fire was in the back, in the engine. Already the asphalt underneath was alight. There was certainly something unpleasant about the lick and flow of the flames.

The young men were making brief skipping movements, forward and back, shouting and yelling, trying to push the car out of its spot. One of them would press on a mudguard, then leap back as if it were hot. A tall thin one lifted the lid of the engine. The flames shot higher. He slammed it shut.

By now the fire was into the back seat. The shouting rose into short shrill notes, a kind of hectic jabbering which followed the general darting motions, and always there was that wide-apart expression in their eyes and mouths, in the helpless spacing of elbows and hands, which multiplied like a secondary fire through the crowd, now blocking the street.

Experiences are compressed during travel, I said to myself, especially in strange, slightly uncomfortable places. Pushing forward I noticed the rear window was cracked and, painted on the glass, the hopeful phrase: 'Love and Joy Driving Cabs.'

At that point a young Goan in tight trousers and cream shirt sprinted across in front of everybody, pushing people aside, to reach his red pickup, a new Datsun, parked behind the burning car. He had a desperate look on his face. Grating the gears he reversed, stalled, reversed again, almost running people over to get it to safety and banged into the corner of the wall. More broken glass. People turned back to the car.

The Beetle was now rolling across the street, its doors open. Briefly, I recalled an item in the Tanzanian Daily News that morning inviting tenders for two cars: 'All in good working order', the notice explained, 'except no tyres and engine not working.'

The car stopped and was simply burning. Then a strange thing happened. Out in the open the car seemed defenceless. People broke away from the main crowd and rushed at it, banging the roof with their fists. A man kicked the mudguard. Someone else joined him. A large African woman ran forward and swung her handbag at the headlight. Why? This wasn't putting out the fire. Squashed in the middle I couldn't have left if I wanted to. The crowd tilted as in a wind, and there was an approving murmur. I remembered in a bar the night before, an enormous Idi Amin lookalike, bloodshot and perspiring, who happened to be a page 115 Superintendent of Police, telling me that if a thief is caught in the street in Dar es Salaam the crowd will beat him to death. He had seen it several times.

They were throwing things now, anything they could find. The lid of the engine was up. Handfuls of dirt were chucked at the engine, and gravel. Lumps of cardboard were hurled in. A middle-aged man waved a stick. Someone found a piece of tin. It fell back on the street. Another man threw it back in. A general dancing motion shifted the crowd about in waves. An Arab came forward with a large rock. He hit the flaming engine several times, then left it there. And still people were kicking the body and tyres. They were shouting, leaping about, as others watched.

Finally they killed it. There was a bit of black smoke, then nothing. There was a slight hissing sound.

The crowd relaxed. That wide-open, irrational expression subsided. Everyone looked satisfied.

People stepped forward to inspect the smouldering corpse. I noticed some would look at the wreck, then turn and smile at me. Naturally, I smiled too. Their mouths were so large they appeared to be on the verge of laughter.

Of course, virtually none of them would ever be able to afford a car in their lifetime, not even a Beetle on its last legs. People walk long distances in Africa. Patient lines can be seen, beginning at first light. To see men, women and children fighting to climb on to a windowless bus is horrible. And now, for a moment, before everybody moved on, it seemed as if something of the original order of things had been restored: a familiar, yet out-of-reach example of European progress, and all that it stood for, had been rendered useless.

Otherwise, I don't have an explanation for the incident, which lasted less than five minutes.