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new internationalist
issue 182 - April 1988


Bringing in the big gun
In the shade of ancient trees in Botswana a group of village elders
teach a group of young white teachers a lesson in justice.

[image, unknown] It was the old men who told the story. They were talking to a group of newly arrived expatriate teachers - young men with shaggy beards and Jesus sandals; women folding back their skirts to tan their legs in the stifling heat. It happened long, long time ago, the old men said: that day they watched their fathers and grandfathers pull the big gun through miles of treacherous sand to reach the village. And all because of one white man - and one black woman.

The man had always been remote from the villagers, striding around in a sharp-creased uniform and high shiny boots. He carried a short riding-whip with him always, though he was never seen on a horse. He used to prod the villagers' lumbering cattle with it, or crack it loudly in the air, making the herd-boys scurry fearfully away. The red dust scuffed at his gleaming toe-caps as gradually he became more and more isolated, more aloof. Then one day he raped a woman.

Led by the young woman's grizzled and irate father, the villagers swarmed around his house in the noonday heat. But the woman shook off her father's solicitous hands and faced the white man herself, accusing him with bright dark eyes and telling her tale aloud in a clear and carrying voice.

The raised voices - hers accusing, his angrily defending, the village chorus demanding justice - woke a South African trader who was passing through the village, selling mass-produced fripperies to the natives.

He roused himself quickly, not waiting to see the man hauled in front of the kgotla, the village court. He knew that, if found guilty, the white man would be flogged - by natives. And the thought of this indignity made him mount his horse and ride day and night to summon help from the British authorities.

And so it was that a British officer, whose face and neck were burned as red as British brick by years of African sun, found himself yelling at a team of natives pulling an enormous gun through the bush, heaving its wheels through the rutted red sand.

Cecil Rhodes must have used the same curses as he trekked north to found Rhodesia. The Boors must have cracked similar whips over dark sweating flesh as they laboured north from the Cape in search of new prosperity.

The village chief, waiting in the deep shade of the green trees round the kgotla, heard about the progress of the big gun several times a day. It slid into a river bed, one breathless runner said. It sank so deep in sand that it took an hour to dig it out, gasped another. The track had disappeared entirely in last year's rains, a third cried.

When the gun was one day's journey from the village, the villagers gathered in the kgotla's merciful shade for the trial. And when the witnesses had been heard and the elders had conferred and given their judgement, the chief sent a team of strong men to help the British officer.

They hauled the gun over sand so deep it took all their combined might to drag it finally through the clustered huts and the browsing cattle to the heart of the village.

When they arrived, the officer ordered them to swing the gun round so its dusty barrel aimed straight at the kgotla. Then the sweating men - whose aching shoulders had hauled the gun over impossibly long miles for reasons just as impossibly incomprehensible to them - melted into the shadows.

[image, unknown] The officer bent to load the gun.

From the deep cool shade a group of young men - later to become the fathers and grandfathers now telling the story to a new generation of white people - watched in silence.

The brick-necked officer stood upright, wiped the perspiration from his shining forehead, and waited for the chief.

The air shimmered between them as the chief approached the officer. Courteously and in well-schooled English, the chief explained that the trial was over. The white man had himself consented to be flogged in public earlier that morning.

Politely, solicitously, the chief offered beer and meat to the brick-skinned officer recovering from his long trek. And after a few days' rest, the chief lent his men again to haul the big gun on its painful journey to the South once more.

Sixty years later the old men sitting beneath the ancient trees shading the kgotla rocked and laughed and proffered more beer and meat.

And the young people, still milk-white under Africa's sun, shuffled their sandals uneasily in the red dust and laughed too.

Carol Fewster spent her childhood in Botswana, then a British Protectorate known as Bechuanaland.

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