New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 278

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The Devil Bush

There may be a rational explanation for what happened to a village in the forests of West Africa, but Donald MacIntosh isn't keen to return.

Osei the Carpenter had one hour to live, give or take a few minutes.

Not that he was aware of it. In fact he was rather pleased with himself. He had just embraced, with almost equal enthusiasm, the Muslim faith and Bindu his new wife. He had also been given permission by the village chief to build a hut for her - a privilege for anyone, and he was not of their people or even of their country.

Osei had arrived in the village many years earlier, footsore and weary, and asked permission to stay the night. He had never left. He became a man of substance through one talent - he was a carpenter of the highest quality. The golden-brown patina of African walnuts; the aphrodisiac fragrance of rose-pink guareas wood - only those born to be carpenters can appreciate the sort of pleasure experienced by Osei as he whittled and smoothed the time away in his lean-to shop under the old mango tree at the foot of the village. People came from far and wide to purchase his carvings.

With that, Osei the Carpenter was content. He had no further ambitions left - except to build a splendid house for Bindu. So he toiled away in the yellow heat of noon, heaving at the heavy mahogany planks he had pitsawn and stacked at the edge of his farm during the previous dry season.

Eventually just the bottom tier of planks remained. It was now cocooned in a tangled mat of thorny vines, which he attacked with his machete. He tugged at the nearest length of timber - and the whole tier came apart with a splintery explosion. He stumbled backwards onto his rump.

A long, black coil slid from the timber and grabbed his leg, chewing like a dog - as cobras will - each bite injecting enough venom to flatten an elephant.

Osei was laid to rest in the Devil Bush, a tract of low-lying, swampy forest a few miles from the village. Snakes infested it, hairy spiders lay in wait behind vast, sticky webs. It was a silent, gloomy place, forbidden to all except the witch doctor and his burial parties, and frequented - as legend would have it - by the souls of the dead.

Two years passed before I returned, and I was well on my way to the village before I realized that the path would take me close to the Devil Bush. Then a movement far in front of me caught my attention and I stopped. The figure of a woman was moving slowly down the path towards me. She was balancing a large pan on her head, piled high with yams and plantains.

'Bindu!' I exclaimed. She looked at me through milky-white eyes. She was completely blind.

'You are the white man who used to buy things from Osei the Carpenter,' she said. I knew the ways of the forest better than to ask how, with her blindness, she had known instantly who I was. 'I am taking food to my husband,' she continued. 'He is building a house for me in the Devil Bush.'

She turned off the path and headed down the hill to the Devil Bush. At the edge of the swamp she turned to face me. She was smiling with the purest serenity and joy. She was, I realized with sudden shock, quite mad.

'Take care how you walk, white man,' she said.'You may meet Osei the Carpenter on the path in front of you.'

My feet fairly flew over the ground until I reached the point where the path meandered through the timbered valley to the clean, fresh air of the hills around the village. I rounded a corner and there in front of me was an enormous spitting cobra making for the Devil Bush. It reared up, its vivid red hood flaring, black bootlace tongue flicking. Deciding I was harmless it lowered its head and slid away.

I stood rooted to the spot and slowly became aware of a tapping sound, a tac-tac-tac from deep within the swamp. Then I found myself walking down the slope to the edge of the Devil Bush.

The tapping stopped. Far out a light flickered, dim and bluish like a smoky lantern, moving in the heart of the swamp. Then I saw another, and another, coming towards me, faster and faster, over the black water. I yelled. A great grey heron rose from a clump of reeds close by, wings beating, up towards the evening stars. The spell was broken. I turned and fled to the village.

'What has happened to the village and your people?' I asked later as I sat with the village chief outside his hut.

The chief said that he had taken Osei's three wives into his ménage, as decreed by tribal law. Bindu was still distraught and had foolish Muslim ideas about fidelity - she had to be forced into sharing his bed. Two days later she had come upon a large cobra which spat its venom full in her face, blinding her. A week later a terrible sickness visited the entire village. One after another the villagers were carried off to the Devil Bush. Now only the chief, his senior wife and the youngest wife of Osei the Carpenter were left.

The chief sat in silence for a long time. At last he whispered: 'The snake you saw was Osei the Carpenter!' I said nothing, remembering the snake-cult tradition among the people of the coast. 'Just before my people took sick and died, the snake entered every house in the village except my own. One night soon it will come to my house, and then I will join Osei the Carpenter in the Devil Bush.'

'Lassa fever,' said my eminent medical friend brusquely, many years later, when I told him the story. 'Nothing ghostly about it. A serious viral disease spread by rats. Only properly identified in 1969...'

We were sitting in the plush surroundings of a London hotel. He himself had practised for many years in West Africa and had made a detailed study of witch doctors.

I was still not satisfied. 'What about the lights?'

'Ignis fatuus!' he grinned smugly. '"Will-o'-the-Wisp" to you!... The rotting material produces methane, and this can be ignited by the traces of hydrogen phosphide...'

He rose and went over to the bar to order another round. I settled back in my chair and stared at the chandeliers. He was right, of course. But I wouldn't go back to the Devil Bush if you paid me a king's ransom.

Donald MacIntosh lived and worked as a forester in the rainforests of West and Central Africa for 30 years.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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