The first I hear of the hedgehog is from the outgoing psychologist, who is a little bristly himself with his short ginger hair and ginger beard.
“Look out for the hedgehog,” he says. “It lives under the mortuary and comes out sometimes at night. There used to be a family of them but I think the guards must have killed them. It’s harmless.”
I’m intrigued. A hedgehog in this hot, dry place? I’m already surprised at the number of trees in the base and at the flock of birds that nest in the white satellite dishes and around the mess. You see them at dusk, sweeping through the cool air like a small cloud of bats.
The mortuary is a container with steel drawers situated next to the health staff accommodation. It is covered with brown shade-cloth and cooled by an air-conditioner. A perfect place perhaps for a family of hedgehogs you might think. Cool, safe from the boys of the village and near enough to humans to scavenge for food.
Perhaps the hedgehogs had it all worked out. After roll call there’s enough peace and quiet to make a beeline across the path and to the dustbin. Except today is different. Today we have room inspection and stand around for an extra 20 minutes while the base Colonel makes his rounds like some kindly headmaster.
Our own Colonel (bristling himself at the idea that the base Colonel can inspect the health group’s rooms) suddenly lets out a cry.
“Watch out!” he yells, pointing behind us. We all jump out of the way, hands up to protect our faces as we look round at what might be about to attack us. There, next to one of the cubicles, is a small hedgehog. I am delighted. It’s still alive. After the last one found on the rubbish dump I thought they were all dead. Our Colonel steps up to the creature, picks it up by its bristles and carries it back to the mortuary where he puts it under the shade-cloth. One of the thin stray dogs of the base gets up and slinks over to the mortuary and I follow to see if it’s going to try something. But it just sidles through a gap in the wall and out of the way.
If the hedgehog has any sense it will stay put. But perhaps it’s hungry (or pregnant) and desperate enough to take the risk. After a couple of minutes it comes bustling out again and heads straight for one of the nurses who is standing in the path. A smallish, pleasant-enough woman (or so I think). Who then proceeds to give it a hefty kick with her military boots.
The poor thing is stunned but still manages to roll itself up into a ball, which then rolls for a yard or so and comes to rest in the dust.
I’m shocked. Why would she do such a thing? I guess that she got a fright and was reacting out of instinct. And I remember the little shudder of disgust she gave when we were all taking cover the first time.
As we’re standing there, a bit in shock, one of the sergeant-majors picks up the hedgehog and turns it over. Such a cute little creature underneath all those bristles. That soft white fur, the cute face. It’ looks wounded and he takes it off to the wall to put it in the shade.
A few hours later I see one of the Majors standing by the wall having a look. There’s the hedgehog, lying still as can be, with a few ants already making an inspection. It’s dead.
I feel saddened and angry and I remember my time at a black school in Limpopo where the kids used to stone the owls that took refuge in one of the classrooms. As teachers we tried to educate them about why owls are good and not things to be feared and hated. But the fear and disgust was such a strong reaction. How do you work against culture?
But here, what can I do? This is an educated woman, at the same rank level as I am. We have to work together (or at least co-operate with each other) for the time of our deployment. What good would it do to speak to her and tell her that it’s wrong to kill small creatures?
At brunch I see her walking in, laughing to one of her colleagues. She comes to our table and sits down, smiling a bit nervously.
“Eish, I’m so tired” she says with a little giggle. And I know immediately that I can’t just sit here and say nothing and eat at the same table as her. At the risk of provoking a racial incident I get up, my hands shaking a little (I realise with surprise) and address myself to her.
“Sorry,” I say, “but I just don’t want to sit at the same table as you today. I’m still a bit angry with you.”
She raises her hand, half in apology and half to avoid having to see my face.
“Sorry,” she says.