11-Sep-2010 -- Bringing home the Cutter – no one is left behind
The Boys of Borneo were waist deep in water when the first bolt of lightning splintered an ancient baobab tree a hundred metres west of the river bank.
“Another fine mess you got us into, Prussian,” whined Saint Bofana, “we’ll get Guinea Worm for sure now. We’re all going to die...”
“Shut your face, princess,” the Sergeant Major snarled irritably, “or I’ll shut it for you. Permanently!”
For a moment there was only the sound of rushing water, the deafening thud of tropical rain on the shoulder high grasses on the river bank.
“Look out, Sergeant Major!” Saint Bofana screamed suddenly.
“You don’t talk to me that way, upstart,” the Sergeant Major retorted. Her right hand flashed to the kukri carried on her left hip, a micro-second before the floating palm trunk slammed into her back like a battering ram. Her body folded like a ripe plantain hit with a baseball bat, and disappeared into the muddy maelstrom...
These days the Boys of Borneo met much less frequently than in the past. The Bull-Necked Prussian, known to most as Kel Bendeich, had returned to Ghana only recently from training mine fire fighters on the island of Lombok in Indonesia.
The Sergeant Major (aka Anita Tarab) was fresh back from a mission to Odessa on the Black Sea. Under orders from a friendly but highly excitable foreign power, she had righted wrongs dating back to the Cold War. The press now blamed the CIA. We knew better but said nothing.
Ghepetto, whom others knew as Raymond Rutherford, returned only a few days earlier from his charity work in the Orient. The Ghepetto Reform School for Wayward Girls, in Pattaya, Thailand, took up much of busy schedule.
Saint Bofana, the local Holy Man and Peace Maker, whom some called Dan Michaelsen, was fresh in-country after a summon from the Vatican who had sought his advice on proposed controversial changes to contraception by the Catholic Church.
Only the Toe Cutter, who also went by the name Patrick O’Brien, was absent from the table that late Ahafo evening. The accomplished documentary filmmaker and heavy equipment maintenance engineer had been missing for some time. Not that this was unusual – it was common for this modern day Magellan to vanish, sometimes for months, only to return to civilization with unique film footage that would guarantee him another prize at Cannes.
Ever present and always silent was our getaway driver, Joseph Dadzie. A taciturn Fire Chief at the gold mine where we presently holed up, he generally responded to the moniker “Mercedes Driver” because of his love of high-performance European automobiles.
“Those are scary reports from the north,” the Bull-Necked Prussian mused, pointing to an article in The Daily Graphic, Ghana’s main newspaper. “A crazy white man is causing havoc near Gushiegu; strange howling noises at night. The guinea fowl are disappearing and the small children are terrified.”
“I saw that,” Ghepetto replied, “The locals report sightings during the day, too. He carries a big film camera – 35 mm. They say he’s insane.”
“35-mm camera? The Toe Cutter always shoots 35 mill...” said the Saint. “This is too much of a coincidence...”
“But the report says this guy is crazy,” The Prussian interjected. “TC is a little eccentric, but he’s not crazy.”
“They say the guy is crazy because he shoots film. No one shoots film since the advent of High Definition Video,” Ghepetto volunteered.
Silence fell as we contemplated our discovery. The Prussian poured another shot glass of schnapps and passed the bottle to the Sergeant Major.
The Sergeant Major broke the silence. “We can’t ignore this. The Toe Cutter is missing. Now there are weird sightings of a camera-wielding white man in the far Northeast of Ghana. We must investigate, and if it is indeed to Toe Cutter, we must bring him home.”
“Don’t get involved,” The Prussian protested. He downed his schnapps and reached again for the bottle. “If the Toe Cutter needs time to commune with nature and straighten out the old antenna, we should let him.”
“May I remind you that no one gets let behind,” the Sergeant Major snarled irritably.
“The Sergeant Major’s right,” said the Saint after a long silence. “If it is TC up there he needs our help. This smacks of The Strangeness: an affliction that takes over a man’s soul after he has seen too much horror. We must bring home the Toe Cutter.”
The Bull-Necked Prussian tipped back the schnapps bottle, then licked its neck, ensuring that not a drop was wasted. No one objected to the Saint’s final words. The schnapps now gone signalled the end of the evening.
Two days later in the morning dusk, the small convoy left the confines of the gold mine in Brong-Ahafo where the Boys of Borneo resided temporarily.
Familiar towns: Sunyani, Kyeraa, Techiman, and Kintampo flashed by under the lead-coloured African sky. Three hours into the journey we crossed the White Volta, and less than an hour later stopped in Tamale for a guinea fowl lunch.
On continuing excellent sealed road, the convoy reached Yendi near the Ghana-Togo border by early afternoon. Turning north, the sealed road ended; 50 km of pot-holed ruts lay ahead.
Two bone-breaking hours later the small convoy arrived at our destination. Gushiego is a quiet, pleasant little collection of local architecture. Arriving on the eve of the holiest day of the Islamic calendar, we saw the town dressed in its finest and most colourful garb.
As darkness fell, the aroma of roasting yam and guinea fowl filled our nostrils.
“Let’s ask about the crazy obruni (Twi language for foreigner. Derived from a Portuguese phrase meaning “one who comes from over the horizon”) we read about in the Graphic,” the Prussian suggested, gesturing at a middle-aged inhabitant clad in finest Muslim robes.
The Mercedes Driver, fluent in seven West African dialects, approached the Alhaji and asked in the local tongue about the crazy white man allegedly roaming the north Ghana savannah.
Alhaji froze, and his face filled with horror. “It is true,” he muttered, “A deranged Obruni does indeed roam the plains in the Northeast. Many have seen him – fleetingly. He is crazy and dangerous.”
“Please, one moment,” the Driver interjected, “how do you know he is crazy?”
“He shoots fil-em,” blurted the terrified man, “no one would shoot fil-em since the advent of HD video...” Alhaji folded to the ground in the foetal position and wept liked an orphaned lamb.
“That’s enough, Driver,” the Saint intervened, “desist with your line of questioning. Alhaji has been through enough.”
As darkness fell, the Boys of Borneo convened an emergency meeting, in a disused circular mud hut with a grass roof. A tiny charcoal fire illuminated the living space; our faces casting ghostly shadows in the semi-darkness.
“It has to be the Cutter,” the Prussian mused, pouring a shot glass of local schnapps.
“Most likely it you are right,” Ghepetto confirmed, “but what do we do now?”
“Clearly he is menacing the local populace. That is not acceptable. Let’s hunt him down like a wounded animal,” the Sergeant Major insisted.
“No,” the Saint responded, “clearly the Cutter is not himself. A rescue party is in order.”
“Let’s get some sleep, and decide in the morning,” the Saint advised, “by then our thoughts will be clear.”
Steady rain fell through the night. As day broke, the Boys of Borneo emerged to a granite sky, the terrain the consistency of watery porridge.
“Great,” snarled the Sergeant Major, “this will do my new jump-boots a world of good.” The Boys knew better than to reply. The convoy departed Gushiegu in a north-easterly direction. Yesterday’s tracks were now flowing streams. The undulating north-eastern savannah had become an inland sea.
Two hours of four-wheel driving brought us to the village of Nasandi; a quiet subsistence community surviving on collecting and selling the Shea nut, used extensively in production of cosmetics. Shy locals peered from the open doorways of circular mud huts.
“This behaviour is not normal,” said the Saint, “clearly these people are traumatized by something. Usually strangers in these parts are welcomed like kings.”
“Dismount,” yelled the Sergeant Major “we have a confluence point to claim. Only five kilometres to go.”
We waded through the soggy landscape in single file, passing through three more villages, all equally subdued.
“Two kilometres to go,” shouted the Prussian. We kept our head down and slushed through ankle-deep mud.
The water rose consistently as we forged towards confluence point 10N 0E. By now the water was thigh deep, and ahead lay a torrent of swirling brown water.
“River crossing!” yelled the Sergeant Major instinctively. Instinctively we locked wrists, and the Prussian led the group into the angry waters beyond.
A yelp from the Saint disrupted the clock-like teamwork of the group.
“You and your damned guinea worms,” Ghepetto muttered under his breath, watching as the last link in the human chain. Ghepetto watched the argument develop, and saw the palm trunk slam into the Sergeant Major’s lower back.
Like a human torpedo he tore off his shirt, revealing the marble-sculpted physique of a geriatric body builder. He launched himself into the boiling brown river, and grasped the jump boot of the hapless Sergeant Major in a vice-like grip.
The remainder of the group watched helplessly as two of their team tumbled out of control in the angry flood waters.
A hundred metres downstream Ghepetto wrestled the Sergeant Major ashore, while the remainder of the Boys of Borneo exited the stream, and made their way towards their hapless colleagues.
“Unhand me, shrimp,” screamed the Sergeant Major in a shrill, high-pitched voice. “Are you trying to drown me?”
“I just saved your life,” quipped Ghepetto. “Are you ok?”
“Of course I’m OK,” snarled the Sergeant Major. “Shaken, not stirred.”
“How is this possible?” the Prussian inquired. “No one can survive a blow to the back like that!”
“Kevlar spine replacement,” said the Sergeant Major softly. “I’ve had the prototype since my tank took a direct hit in the Sinai in ’67. But we have a confluence to conquer. Move out!”
The Boys marched towards the Northwest for 600 metres where our Garmins told us we had arrived. We stood silently for a few moments, collecting photographic evidence of our conquest.
“What an adventure,” said Ghepetto in a festive voice.
Just then a strange sound reached our ears. It sounded almost like a twelve-string guitar, and someone singing.
“I come from the south and my name is Field
And when my shears are properly steeled...”
“I know that sound,” shouted the Saint. Only the Cutter can sing the song that way!”
The Boys of Borneo followed the sound and moments later came upon a tiny hamlet comprising nine circular huts.
“And I'll never open Sawbees or take another blow...”
The folk song mingled with birds chirping following the tropical downpour.
“I think we have our man,” ventured the Saint.
The Boys marched on in single file towards the circular mud hut on the edge of the village. The melodic sounds of the rustic Australian voice accompanied by a twelve-string grew louder.
“I’ll go point!” the Sergeant Major shouted, instinctively reaching for her kukri; ripping it from its scabbard and wielding it high in the air. We stormed the hut and burst through the cloth covered entrance in a second.
None of us were prepared for the spectacle awaiting us.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a frightening apparition. A silver-haired white man strumming a twelve-string, sat in the darkness, his nakedness covered only by a loincloth. Feathers of guinea fowl covered the floor, and the man had a necklace of carefully interspersed fowl heads and feet threaded on a rude string around his neck. A young woman of 20 years or so, rubbed cocoa butter mixed with essential oils extracted from vetiver grass on his feet. She averted her eyes and continued to apply the ointment. It was indeed our Toe Cutter.
“There's a bloke up north or so I've heard
With a face like a dried up buffalo tur...”
The music stopped abruptly.
“What are you doing here?” The Cutter removed the twelve-string from his chest and leaned it against the mud wall.
“We’re here to bring you home, Cutter,” the Prussian said almost in a whisper.
“I’m not going anywhere. This is my place. Go away. Leave me alone!”
“No, Cutter, you are not well. Let us take you home,” the Saint interjected.
“I am not going anywhere. Besides, I have a contract for a seven part documentary on the Ghana Shea butter industry with National Geographic channel.”
When our eyes adjusted to the darkness we saw the enormity of the situation.
Among the ankle-deep blanket of guinea fowl feathers were several scattered boxes of un-opened 35-mm movie film. A state-of-the-art cinema camera lay at his side.
“Come home, Cutter,” begged Ghepetto.
“I am not leaving. I have been there. The horror... THE HORROR!”
“We can’t leave him here to terrorize the locals,” the Sergeant Major growled under her breath.
“Come on, Cutter, it’s not that bad. We need you back at the mine,” the Saint added softly. “The SAG mill is down. Experts from South Africa, the US, Australia, and Britain could not diagnose the problem. The mine is losing millions every day. We NEED you. No one knows more about semi-autogenous grind than you!”
Suddenly the wild man’s expression changed. He seemed exorcized.
“The SAG is down?” the Cutter asked, almost as if re-connecting to civilization. “I bet they haven’t checked the fuse box behind the gold room.”
Without a word the Cutter rose to his feet, discarded his necklace and shook the adhering guinea fowl feathers from his feet. He placed a peck on the cheek of the maiden who moments before had applied ointment to his calloused feet. Picking up his twelve-string he left the darkness of the hut to the outside world.
“This calls for a celebration!” Ghepetto shouted, producing from his rucksack a bottle of 1947 Moët, popping the cork towards clear skies. He took a swig and passed the bottle to the Prussian.
Squinting into the post-downpour sunlight, the Cutter was going home at last.