Tuesday, 3 April 2012

What Noise?

I learned how to deal with noisy neighbours when I lived in a village in Botswana, in a house that had a curse on it.

           My wife and stepdaughter and I had all been pleased with the relative luxury of the cement block shack, because it had a tin roof and a high wall of shrubs all around.  The place belonged to a Mme Tlokweng. When she came to collect the rent, she used to stand at the gate in order not to be affected by the curse. True, the outhouse had fist-sized spiders in it, and the solitary tree was inhabited by snakes, but we had no sense of bad luck until the first Saturday night.

          In a yard some 200 metres distant, some off-duty soldiers from the army post had acquired a grass-roofed rondavel to use as an informal night club. They had a generator and a set of speakers as high as a man and a clutch of electric guitars. For percussion, they used a wrecked car’s roof as a drum. That first Saturday, the gumba-gumba music began at seven o’clock. It went on until four a.m. the following Monday, with hardly a pause-- foreign, repetitive and off-key.

          The glass rattled in the windows from the volume. My wife and I had to shout to hear each other speak. It was a palpable force that we could feel throbbing through the ground itself. By Sunday morning, after hardly sleeping at all, we were ready to leave, so we got into our jeep and drove to a shady place by the river and went to sleep in the car.

          I tried to remain cheerful.  Surely it wouldn’t continue for a second night, I reasoned. The soldiers probably had to report for duty bright and early on Monday morning.  We went home at dark. The music was still in progress. If anything, it had increased. I had underestimated the stamina of young African men.

          The music stopped abruptly just before dawn on Monday.  I heard the dying rattle of the generator and relief washed over me. It must have been a special occasion, I told my exhausted family.  A party, some celebration we knew not of. They didn’t seem to believe me.

          The week wore on, and I began to brace myself as Saturday approached. This time it began earlier, at about six. I looked at my despairing family and began to roll up bits of toilet paper to stuff in my ears. I found a few old cigarette ends, and discovered that the filters fitted nicely into place, but they didn’t seem to help much.  More than a year later, when I was having my ears syringed, the doctor was astonished at what came out. My wife wept silently, and my step-daughter seemed to be losing contact with reality. At one a.m. we got into the jeep and drove to the capital and checked into a tourist hotel we couldn’t afford.

           The next day I sought advice from an old Africa hand I had met through mutual acquaintances. He listened sympathetically. “What did the chief have to say?” he asked finally.

           “The chief?” I replied  I was vaguely aware that there was a traditional leader somewhere in the village, but had never even considered consulting him. “Can he do something?”

          The old hand smiled “Try him and see.  It can’t do any harm.”

           The following day I stood in a queue of villagers in front of the chief’s house, a traditional, mud-walled building, but larger and more sophisticated than most. I saw a new Land Rover parked behind it, and the rusty form of an air-conditioner jutted out of the wall. Along with everybody else, I carried gifts of tea, sugar and powdered milk. After an eternity, the people before me finished their tales of cow theft and wife-beating, and it was my turn.

           Chief Solomon Dihutso greeted me warmly. I sat facing him on a stool so low that my face was at the level of his knees. He began by discussing Manchester United football club, of which he was a fan. Then we turned to world politics before finally discussing the novels of EM Forster. By the time we got around to my complaint I had almost forgotten why I had come.

           “So,” he said, peering at me from a pair of filmy but possibly wise eyes, “I understand you don’t like that soldier music.”

           “No Chief,” I said, aware of the understatement. “I don’t like it at all.”

           “Hmmm,” said Chief Solomon. “Would you like my advice?”

           “Yes, Chief, please,” I said, keeping my voice even so that I wouldn’t cry.

          The chief raised a single finger. “What I think you should do is…”

          “Yes?” I nearly whined.

          “Don’t listen to it,” he said.

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