The nights are beautiful and missiles cross the summer sky.
Our tribe lives in huts of straw and mud. In the evening when we get back tired from gathering coconuts we sit at the entrances, some on their heels, some on a mat, the children, bellies big as footballs, playing round about, and we watch the sky. For a long time, perhaps since time began, the eyes of our tribe, these poor trachoma-inflamed eyes of ours, have been gazing at the sky: but especially since new celestial bodies began to cross the starry vault above our village: jet planes with white trails, flying saucers, rockets, and now these guided missiles, so high and fast you can't see or hear them, but in the sparkle of the Southern Cross, if you look very hard, you can pick up a sort of shiver, a tremor, at which the most expert of us say: 'There, a missile passing at twenty thousand kilometres an hour; a little slower, if I'm not mistaken, than the one that went by last Thursday.'
Now, since this missile business has been in the air, many of us have been seized by a strange euphoria. Some of the village witch-doctors, in fact, have led us to believe, by inference, that since this shooting star originates from beyond Kilimanjaro, it is the sign foreseen in the Great Prophecy, and hence the day fast approaches, as promised by the Gods, when after centuries of slavery and poverty our tribe will reign over the whole valley of the Great River, and the barren savannah will bring forth millet and maize. So -- these witch-doctors appear to be insinuating -- it is hardly worth us racking our brains over new ways of emerging from our present situation; we should trust in the Great Prophecy, rally round its only rightful interpreters, without asking to know more.
It has to be said, however, that even though we are a poor tribe of coconut gatherers, we are well informed about everything that goes on: we know what a nuclear missile is, how it works, how much it costs; we know that it won't only be the cities of the white sahibs which will be scythed down like fields of millet, that as soon as they really start to fire them these things will leave the whole of the earth's crust as spongey and cracked as a termites' nest. No one forgets for one moment that the missile is a diabolical weapon, not even the witch-doctors; on the contrary, in line with the teaching of the Gods, they are always heaping curses on it. But that doesn't change the fact that it is convenient to consider the missile in a good light too, as the shooting star of the prophecy; not letting one's mind dwell too much on it perhaps, but just leaving a little mental window open to that possibility, partly so as to let all our other worries fly out the same way.
The problem is -- and we've seen this time and again -- that a little while after some devilry appears in the sky above our village coming, as the prophecy foresaw, from beyond Kilimanjaro, another, worse than the first, always appears from the opposite direction, and shoots away to vanish beyond the peak of Kilimanjaro: and this is a sign of ill-omen, dashing our hopes that the Great Day is approaching. Thus, one moment in hope the next in fear, we stare up at an ever more armed and lethal sky, as once we read our destiny in the serene trajectories of the stars, the wandering comets.
The only thing people talk about in our tribe now are guided missiles, while we are still going about armed with crude axes and spears and blowpipes. Why worry? We are the last village at the edge of the jungle. Nothing is going to change here, until the Great Day of the prophets dawns.
Yet even here these are no longer the times when a white merchant would occasionally arrive in his piragua to buy our coconuts, and sometimes he would cheat us on the price and sometimes it was us fooled him: now we have the Nicer Nut Corporation, who buy the whole harvest en bloc, imposing their prices on us, and we have to gather the nuts faster than before in teams that work shifts day and night to reach the targets laid down in the contract.
Nevertheless there are those among us who say that the times promised in the Great Prophecy are nearer than ever, not because of the celestial omens, but because the miracles announced by the Gods are now just so many technical problems that only we, and not the Nicer Nut Corporation, can solve. Easier said than done! Meantime, you try and touch the Nicer Nut Corporation! Seems their agents with their feet up on the tables of their offices in the docks on the Great River, glasses of whisky in their hands, are only concerned about whether this new missile mightn't be bigger than the last; in short, they don't talk about anything but missiles either. There is agreement, here, between what they say and what the witch-doctors say: it is in the power of these shooting stars that our entire destiny lies.
I too, sitting at the entrance to my hut, look up at the stars and at the rockets appearing and disappearing, I think of the explosions poisoning the fish in the sea, and of the courtesies those people who decide the explosions exchange with each other between one missile and the next. I'd like to understand more: certainly the will of the Gods is made manifest in these signs, certainly they foretell the ruin or the fortune of our tribe . . . Still, there's one idea I can't get out of my head: that a tribe that relies entirely on the will of shooting stars, whatever fortune they may bring, will always be selling off its coconuts cheap.