I stick my head over the counter of the village shop and recoil as about 2,000 wasps fly up at me from the bags of mangos and grain on the floor. The shopkeeper looks astonished. Later I realise he always looks like this, and treats any request as though it is the most outrageous, insane demand he’s ever heard. “A packet of cigarettes? ONE packet? Of CIGARETTES? Now?”
Mustapha has made a puzzle out of copper wire: a fish dangling from a hook suspended on a line. The trick is to unhook the fish without bending anything. Such is the pace of life at Mustapha’s, that one can happily spend 24 hours puzzling over it under the shade of the banana trees or under the stars.
The puzzle sits on the table at dinner and everyone shares their theories about how it can be done, while Mustapha looks on and smiles his inscrutable smile. If any cynical unbelievers question the idea that the puzzle can actually be solved, he will take it, put his hands under the table, and quick as a flash the two pieces of copper will be winking separately in the light of the hurricane lantern with Mustapha beaming calmly around.
If you’re lucky, Mustapha might invite you for a smoke in his room, a hut with a mattress, a mosquito net, various pipes and dozens of mystical and intellectual books lying on the floor: The Celestine Prophecy, the works of Nostradamus, new interpretations of the Bible, and the poetry of William Blake and W.B. Yeats.
It’s New Year’s Eve, too hot for a good night’s sleep, and everyone at Mustapha’s place seems to have gone a little mad. Paulus, the French skiffle musician, becomes more and more manic in his wild enthusiasm for world music. He spends hours haranguing Kasim, the stoned guitarist, and Terry, the incompetent trumpet player, about the need to fuse a reggae bassline with a Tarab vocal (plus Terry’s trumpet, presumably) and create great music before the fascists of the Western music industry arrive and-hop!-steal it all away.
For a moment a new genre is in the offing, until after their sixth Safari the lads decide to race up the beach instead and the world loses a potential musical revolution. Paulus arrives with a leggy, crop-haired blonde who declares the next morning that he is an evil man and that she “feels sometimes like killing him in the night and escaping to Africa which is my destiny”. She gazes long and hard at a somewhat perplexed Riaan, (the nubile young Afrikaner), and tells him she feels deeply that their Chi is in alignment and their star signs are very, very compatible.
As the day goes on and sunset approaches, we can’t help feeling that if all the dire predictions of the millennialists come true, and the western world disappears in a puff of atomic smoke and electrical fires, we could soon be the last people left on earth, living our free and feral life on the beach. Conversation turns to omens, portents, astrological patterns and obscure conspiracy theories about aliens having built the pyramids etc. Suddenly everything looks sinister in the afternoon heat haze; a flock of crows fills the tree by the tower, and cows plod solemnly down the beach in single file – where are they going? What do they know?
Midnight duly arrives and amidst the countdown and popping of champagne corks (Paulus has carried a bottle of Dom Perignon, lovingly wrapped in a towel, all the way from France for the occasion) we suddenly realise that the lights have gone out. Fuddled with champagne and lethal Tanzanian whiskey, we all gaze incredulously at each other in the firelight. For about five minutes I think we actually believe that the apocalypse has happened. Fortunately for the future of mankind, the lights come back on again a few minutes later, and we rush into the shallows hooting with relief and the excitement of the 21st century.
Getting tired, but determined to stay up and see the sunrise, I sit on the beach and in the half-light see a dark mass behind me, which I take to be a rock. Gratefully I lie back and rest my head on it, before discovering it is in fact a decomposing lobster left there by some fisherman – I do hope this is not a metaphor for my 21st century. As if to console me, the first sunrise of the new millennium bathes the beach in a brilliant white light and the children, stumbling out of their houses to play, salute with cries of ‘Mambo!’ as I walk home to bed.