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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Kilted Symbol. By John von Daler

                          We sat on the beach in Zanzibar and looked out across the strait towards Tanzania. We were feeling free, on vacation, inquisitive. The warm scent of unfamiliar spices and the blue-green view caught us by surprise and lifting us from our chairs on the beach sent us off on an expedition. 

                "Let's take a walk!"
                As we scrambled down the beach, first quickly, then in more of a stroll, we pointed out sights, the mangrove trees that clustered along the coast, the clear water, the deserted beach itself. Turning to pick up an unusual stone, I noticed we were being followed by a Masai warrior carrying a submachine gun at his chest.
                I am an old Karen Blixen fan. You do not place a Masai at my rear without my whole brain setting off to place him in a befitting context. The Masai, the aristocracy of Kenya, the royalty of tribes, cast out, hated by the others, left to stand alone guarding proud traditions that no longer could evolve in Africa: the shooting stars of Out of Africa.
                Rule number one of my writing: one does not dump symbols into stories; they evolve, emerge, gain patina through time, take on meaning from the context in which they participate - first perhaps as metaphors, later, in time, as full-fledged symbols. And yet, here was a Masai so laden with machineguns and meanings that I had to stop, to retrace his steps, to regain his story, to place him in some tale.
                He had been taking care of cows as he had been taught to do in the countryside close to his village. But there had been a drought, no, no, a flood, then a drought, and many of the cows had died. His family lacked money to buy produce. They could not get work; nobody would have them in Dar-Es-Salaam. Even the bus drivers refused to pick them up because they smelled. The elders had said, some of the young men must leave; you must find jobs anywhere, anyhow.
                So he had taken the ferry to Zanzibar and had stood in line among the other unemployed men. But he could get no work; he smelled of cowdung and the look on his face boded trouble. He slept in the few deserted parts of the wild forests and found his food among the wild herbs and fruits.
                Then he had turned up at this hotel owned by an Englishman. He applied for a job as a dishwasher, but the cook sent him away, saying he stank. But then the owner happened by. Here, he said, You look imposing. Take this gun (it's empty by the way) and follow my guests if they wander along the beach and off our property. If anyone tries to disturb them, you must scare them off by running and yelling and looking ferocious. Do you think you can do that? And remember to stay down wind from my guests!
                So now he wandered behind wayward tourists, gun in hand, a glare on his face, his dark skin shiny as molten iron, but black as the African night. His woolen kilt bore the name of a Scotch clan unknown to him, but he wore it with a pride that would have astounded them.
                So I wandered along the beach, my wife in hand, Zanzibar at my feet, and this staid and staunch symbol some fifty meters at our rear. He was awake, on watch, probably ready to enter someone's tale, to mean something if needs be. 

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces HERE. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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