Sunset At Kilombero

A short story by

George Pararas-Carayannis

Rufigi is the biggest river in Tanganyika but 300 miles from its mouth on the Indian Ocean it is called Kilombero. This is the wildest part of Tanganyika. During the long rains, the whole Kilombero flats are flooded and the entire district is cut off from communication with the rest of the country.

Here, in a small village near Kilombero, called Kibereze, I had my farm. I had come to Africa, the land of the hot sun, some years previously and learned to love it. And here, where the heat of the day dissolves into the heat of the night and the earth lies warm under the velvet Capricorn, I found happiness and freedom. I became an integral part of Africa, hunted its animals and learned its customs. Here, the hippo who raises his broad snout in the lake, the crocodile who lies half in half out of the waters of the river, the buck, the lion, the elephant, the antelope, all became my friends. True, I often had to kill them but not because I hated them - how can someone hate nature - but simply because I had to fill my pot. After all a man must live like a man. A man must have his sport. So I killed for a head, a skin, a tail, the ivory, but even then with regard to what I killed.

Most of the time I would pass them by without lifting my rifle. Instead I would stop and watch them with admiration. I would watch the flamingo, the heron and I would laugh at the fat hippo who nodded their heads like old men in study. I was a free man in a free country. Free from the tensions of the so called civilized life, and finally free from the terrors of the wars that raged my native country. War was now distant, so far away, but so was home. But here, in my new home I could come or go as I pleased. I could shoot a buck if I wanted food. I could explore the bush or simply lie down and watch the African sun slide toward the distant hills leaving a trail of fire behind.

But aside from sunsets, I would find the long rains of Kilombero fascinating. All of a sudden I would hear the rise of the wind over the trees. Soon I would see black clouds hung low over the tops of the trees, tipped pale with violence. I would see a fork of lightning slicing the blackness and then I knew the rains were coming. I would hear the thunder grumbling and then I knew I should run for shelter, like all the other animals. Soon the storm would burst, the lightning would split the sky once more, the thunder would hit the trees and the wind the water of the river. But I enjoyed these violent forces of nature that came to break the monotony. The tropical storms never lasted long. Soon, out of nowhere, the sun would come out to trail the sky once more, and another beautiful sundown would follow. Then it would get dark, but this was time I also enjoyed. In the evening and at night the jungle takes on new sounds. Birds gather each to its own. Short legged ones high in the trees, long legged ones low in the water, first there is raucous cacophony, then noisy silence.

And I would sleep, accustomed to these sounds, close to the fire, right on the earth. The jungle, I found out, intensified the best and worst in man, depending on the man. But as far as I was concerned it was my best. And that far apart from me there were the strange integrities of the river and the sky, the vast symbiosis of the bush.

In this land, I found death to be the most dominant principle but also the most acceptable, the most normal. The lion would kill the antelope, the leopard would kill the zebra. There was no hate or vengeance in this killing. It was only the natural order of things, the trail of life, the natural behavior. Survival of the fittest. The need for species to go on.

It didn't take me long to learn the ways of the jungle. The ways of the hippo were etched in my knowledge and those of the elephant, the crocodile and the wild buffalo, were sealed in my memory. I could outsmart the elephant or the buck if I wanted to. I could creep, or crawl inside the bush like the leopards and sniff the air as they did. I would aim and then pull the trigger of my rifle with clean sharp finality. Then, I was the master of the bush, the king of my surroundings. I would feel sorry for the dead animal, but this was the law of nature to which I had to conform if I were to survive.

Of course the kill was not always that easy, but after staying in Africa for as long as I did, one gets accustomed to dangers and the unexpected becomes nothing more than an everyday reality. At times the hunter becomes the hunted. But now the dangers are over. I have now become a farmer. I promised Fabia, my wife, that I would stay home. I must. I am tired. The life of farmer now seems better. Besides it is April and soon we will have our harvest of papayas. Perhaps we can start the harvest tomorrow.

This constant barrage of thoughts come and go as I am having my traditional late afternoon rest, sitting below the shadows of the mango trees in front of my plantation, in the almost unbearably heavy heat and the late afternoon stillness. In spite of the heat, this is my favorite time of the day - the time the sun sets at Kilombero.

On the opposite side of the wooden table, Fabia, my wife, is sitting poised and calm with that incredible grace of hers, figuring out our budget for the coming month. The sun now hangs low in the western sky, a gleaming ball of crimson fire lighting the edges of distant clouds. My eyes move slowly and lovingly from the stray locks of Fabia's black hair, past our hut, which hardly could be called a house, across the fields, and up the far end of our plantation. Then my eyes move further toward the rim of the world , toward this distant horizon of the western hills where the lowest edge of the sun is now reaching. I see red streaks of clouds surrounding the fiery orb of the sun changing colors gradually from turquoise, to lavender then to red, a perfect backdrop for pyrotechnic displays unfolding one after another. I watch fascinated as the sun slowly slips away toward the end of yet another perfect day at Kilombero.

A dreamy time of the day it is for me, the colors muting and fading giving rise to purples then grays. Now, a red flash of light crosses the sky and the ever-fading colors of the soft clouds is all that remains of the sun's unstoppable descent to temporary oblivion. A flock of shrieking birds swoops low over the top of the trees in front me, looking for shelter for the night. This is the most perfect time of the day for me, sitting, seeing and thinking, even long after the colors of the sunset have faded away. Behind me the palm trees begin to sway gently in the early evening breeze, their dark green fronds whispering and exchanging the secrets of this day as they touch and rub together softly. I feel content surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature, waiting for the planets and stars to appear in the sky, first Venus bright and shiny, then one by one the other, smaller beacons of light in a purple sea of of enveloping darkness.

I think of the days and weeks and months of waiting for the harvest of the papaya. I am relieved that the long wait is almost over and that soon some money will start coming in. Not that my hunting trips were not profitable - at least they paid for the farm and had taken care of our expenses till now, but the anticipation of having some steady income, with not much work on my part, is very sweet indeed. Today, it seems, I am carried away in my day dreaming more than usual, but pleased as I am, I let myself practically drown in my thoughts. I think of the lovely nights I had spent in the bush, lying wide-eyed and steeple in my tent, of the green solitude broken only by the occasional sharp cracking of branches by passing animals. I think of my struggling to push back the slow, dark waves of uneasiness, of fear, of my first days in Africa.

But it did not take me long to find my place and get used to the unknown wilderness that lied somewhere in the path of life I had chosen for myself. But now, looking back at it all, I am glad that today is today and tomorrow will be tomorrow. I do not think beyond that. My eyes move slowly and lovingly back to Fabia's graceful noble face. She looks so much like a painting I saw once at an old villa in Sintra, the Portugal hangout of Lord Byron and the other English poets. It was the portrait of a noble lady praying in the cathedral at Sao Vincente de Fora perhaps a painting by Titan or Coreggio - I don't remember. All I remember is that Fabia looked so much like the noble woman in that painting.

I am glad I found Fabia on my last trip to Mozambique. She was a rare jewel, a direct descendant of those early Portuguese adventurers that followed Vasco De Gamma' s route for spices and wealth in the East Indies and settled instead in Africa. We married in Pemba that same spring and then moved up north to Ifakara, then to the Kilombero flats where we got our farm, planted the papayas and finally settled down - Favia always at my side.

I am glad to be living the life of a man, to challenge nature and its creatures and to make decisions so impulsively with such certainty, with such belief in myself. Perhaps I did not reach as far as I wanted to reach. Perhaps I did not see as much of the world as I would have liked to see. Perhaps I could not be considered a success, but what is success and by whose standards? I feel sorry for the people of the civilized world, the so complex, the so conscious of the passage of time, a commodity so precious for them. I feel sorry for the so many little needs they create in order to make their life more complex, themselves more important.

But why should I worry about them and who am I to judge them? After all I might some day be unfortunate enough to join and become one of them. I hear rumors about unrest and independence from the British. But here we are so far away that nothing can touch us. At least not today. Nothing is going to disturb this sunset at Kilombero. So now is now and, in these surroundings, now can last an eternity. Tomorrow the papaya will be ready for harvest.

© 1999 George Pararas-Carayannis


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