The Meerkat-answer

Lucinda allows the lorry to slow down in the thick sand of the Kalahari and coasts to stop next to a thorn tree. She needs time to think, to contemplate the unexpected rush of excitement Boggel has caused in her life. Listening to the engine creak as it cools down; she opens a beer as she sits down on the step to the cab.

Africa had been an act of defiance. She had to get away from the fighting and squabbling about money – the entire Eurozone crisis and the austerity measures made life difficult in Filettino, the small town where she grew up. Near enough to Rome to attract to occasional tourist, but far enough away to keep its rural atmosphere, Filettino is home to about 500 inhabitants. When the austerity measures to make Italy solvent again required them to merge with their bigger neighbour Trevi, the townsfolk revolted.

They are like that: independent, strong-willed, and sometimes even obtuse. Their mayor, Luca Sellari, declared the town as a principality and printed their own money. He said they needed to stand on their own feet, and that it was unfair to punish Filettino for the mistakes made in Rome.

It was her father, Marco Verdana, who prompted her trip to Africa. Go, he said, and look for a place where the people are more important than the politics. Find somewhere, where morals are worth more than money. Somewhere, where there is enough humour to rub out hate; enough laughter to kindle love and enough compassion to ensure kindness. And when you find it, my daughter, you come back here and tell me about it.

I am old, he said, and I want to spend my last days in peace. In Italy, we have many problems. People fight all the time – even our town wants to be separated from our mother-country. No, I don’t want this. You go, you come back, we move.

And so her journey through Africa began. With the considerable Verdana fortune at her disposal (her grandfather  was the nephew of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of the Fiat company, and inherited a sizable chunk of shares in the original business), she travelled from country to country. Sometimes she worked, to keep the boredom away; but mostly she sought out the small villages to see how they live.

Was it in Ethiopia, or Kenia? Somewhere her knowledge of trucks and engines became a useful tool. Africa has more broken vehicles per square kilometer than any other place on earth and mechanics are in short supply. The time spent in the Fiat factory in Turin (her father arranged work for her there, every holiday, to earn pocket money) suddenly became her passport to acceptance wherever she went.

She soon added two and two together: if she started driving trucks, travelling in Africa not only became cheap (and she got paid, too!); she also got to places where the usual tourist would never see. And so eventually, at last, she found Rolbos.

When she first arrived in the dusty little town, she mentally ticked it off as just another of the small villages that dot the African landscape. Still, she kept an open mind and asked Sammie where she could have a beer. That’s when she met the funny little guy with the hump in Boggel’s Place. He was easy to talk to, a good listener and a man with an extravagant sense of humour. Soon, she found herself laughing at his remarks and told him about her quest to find a place for her father to spend his last days in.

Boggel told her about their idea to become a Republic, and how they also printed their own money. She laughed and showed him the notes they had printed in Filettino, with mayor Sellari’s face frowning at the world. Several other people arrived in the bar. More talk followed. Eventually she spent the night in Boggel’s bed, with him sleeping on the couch.

Now here, she decided, is a special place. Boggel treated her like a lady and the people embraced her with their kindness. But then, when Boggel served her breakfast in bed, she saw him smile.

It was an uncertain smile, the smile of a man serving a simple breakfast, hoping she’d approve. There was a gentle plea in that smile, begging her to see him – not as a deformed man, but as a human being, a gentle soul, offering her the best that he can. She saw loneliness in that smile, a solitude she was no stranger to.

An how can she forget the sparkle in his eyes when she complimented him on the meal? She had to look away, to give him time to wipe away an unwelcome tear. Was her approval worth so much? Did he want to please her with such emotion? She felt the tug of appreciation turn to … something much more. Was this what love felt like?

Sipping her beer, Lucinda watches the sun sinking in the west. This is the best time in Africa, she decides: the transition between light and dark, warmth and cold, a quiet time to contemplate the past and the future.

A movement near the tree catches her attention.

A meerkat! Oh she’s seen these little creatures many times on her trip through Africa; but this one is staring at her in deep concentration. Then another appears…and another. The whole family gathers, staring at her.

And then she realises – she must be sitting near their home! She’s parked her truck in their backyard…and they want to turn in after a long day in the veld. Scouting around, she soon sees the burrow, right over there in the ant heap, next to the tree. She gets up quietly, starts the engine, and watches them flee in fright. Letting the truck roll on a few yards, she stops to watch what happens. After a minute or two, the brave one of the pack scoots over the sand to disappear in the hole. For a few seconds nothing happens – then his head appears from the burrow again.

It’s like he scouted, and now he’s waiting for the family, she thinks. Soon, the rest of the group scamper towards the sanctuary, to disappear below ground in a huddle.

Smiling to herself, Lucinda drives off. Yes, she’s found the answer she was looking for. That’s how Africa works – if you’re patient enough, the answer will always be given to you. Like that little brave one, she has to consider the options and make a choice. If she’s right, she soon will be comfortable in the warmth of a family. A new family. In her own little burrow called Rolbos.


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