Celebrating East African Writing!
The milk sprayed into the bucket with a sound like rain on a tin roof. Kamau pressed his forehead on the warm flank of the cow as his fingers squeezed the milk out of the swollen udder and thought about nothing. It was quiet in the cowshed, this early in the morning. The sun was still below the horizon somewhere, but the birds had started chirping meaning that the sunrise would soon be along. The sound the milk made in the bucket thickened as it filled up.
Kamau jumped. The cow fidgeted and turned its head to look at him. Jamo, Kamau’s elder brother was standing behind him, an amused look on his face. He had crept up from somewhere. Kamau turned around on his stool to face him.
“Don’t do that,” Kamau said, annoyed. “What if the milk spilt?”
“Stop being such a wuss, boy,” Jamo said, laughing now. “Where is father?”
“In the house. You should leave. If he finds you here it’ll be shit for both of us. More for me because I live here. I get all the flak.”
“Don’t worry about the old man. I wanted to remind you about this evening. You will show up, right?”
Kamau turned back to the cow. He rested his forehead on the flank again and milk continued streaming into the bucket. The froth looked like detergent suds.
“I will think about…,” Kamau started.
“You will show up,” Jamo cut in. “Because you hate it here. You hate that you are a farmhand in your father’s house. You hate it that you know he will never see you differently.”
Kamau squeezed a teat too hard and the cow bucked. If its hind legs were not bound it would have surely kicked the bucket over. What Jamo said was true. Their father was a hard man who liked controlling his family. Their mother was a browbeaten wisp of a woman who crept around in her husband’s shadow. Jamo was the rebel. And this rebellion had cost him his place in the family. Their father had disowned him and sent him away. Jamo, always an enterprising young man, was now a matatu driver in Murang’a town. He was also known, by a select few, as the leader of the local Mungiki cell.
“I’ll come,” Kamau said.
“Good boy!” Jamo ruffled his brother’s head and disappeared like smoke in the wind.
The bucket was full and Kamau carried it and the stool back towards the house. He met his father on his way back from the latrine. A grunt that passed as ‘good morning’ came from his father. Kamau said nothing. He went into the kitchen and placed the bucket of milk on the old table at the corner. He got the jerry cans and the funnel out of the cupboard and prepared to fill them from the bucket. His father, sipping a tea from a tin cup, slammed his hand on the table. Kamau jumped. Too many people creeping up on him in too short a time.
“How many times do I have to tell you…” he started, “…to rinse the jerry cans out before you fill them? You useless boy!”
“I rinsed them last night,” Kamau said.
His father was not impressed.
“Do it again! You don’t know what has been crawling around in this kitchen your mother can’t keep clean. Do you think I want to be known as the man who provides dirty milk? Rinse them!” The old man walked out of the room, muttering under his breath about having being cursed with mentally retarded family.
The evening was cold as the initiates stood in a line by the riverbank. There were eight of them, all from the same neighbourhood plus a couple of guys that Kamau did not recognize. The shopkeeper’s son was there, as was the carpenter’s son, a burly lout who drank too much and a few other men that Kamau had gone to high school with. They were all shivering, despite the heavy jackets and sweaters they all wore. Someone lit a cigarette and it was passed down the line, muttered words of gratitude breaking the heavy silence.
Jamo appeared from the bushes on the opposite side.
“I see sheep,” he proclaimed. “Do they want to become men?”
“Yes,” the line mumbled. Someone finished off the cigarette and tossed it into the slow moving river.
“I am not convinced, ”Jamo said mockingly. “Do you want to become men?”
“Yes!” More energy this time.
“Then shed your coverings and cross to the other side. Leave your boyhood behind forever and become the master of your destiny. I call unto you. Come!”
One by one, they shed their clothing and plunged into the shockingly cold water in their underwear. Two men had appeared next to Jamo. One held a flywhisk and the other a clay pot. As each shivering individual passed them, the man with the whisk plunged it into the pot and smacked it across their backs. It smelled foul.
The initiates were herded into a little clearing behind the bushes lining the bank. A goat was tied to a stake in the ground. They were instructed to sit in a circle. Jamo produced a large knife and went over to stand by the goat.
“A sacrifice,” he intoned solemnly, “to the one true God: Mwene Nyaga.” His assistants grabbed the goat and lay it on its side. A small sufuria was placed under its throat.
Kamau looked his brother. What the hell was this? What had his brother become? Jamo was the most untraditional man he knew and his role in this ceremony struck Kamau as fake, plastic even. Jamo did not believe in the one true God, and if he did it certainly wouldn’t be Mwene Nyaga. They had been raised Christian, good Anglicans who went to church every Sunday and paid tithe. So, again, what the hell was this? He knew one of the assistants; he was a tout in Murang’a town. They were not priests of some ancient religion, trying to maintain tradition in the face of modernity. They were kawaida guys, just like him. This whole ritual initiation shit was a front for what Kamau knew all along was a gang. A regular criminal gang. A guffaw threatened to burst from his lips.
The goat had been slaughtered and the entrails removed. The initiates were asked to strip naked. Kamau, having seen the light, flatly refused. This was not what he had in mind when Jamo, a week ago, had told him about the benefits of being a member. Jamo had painted a picture of money and freedom, a life unencumbered by parental influence. Kamau would be a man, Jamo had said, free to find his own path in life.
“Take off your clothes, brother,” said Jamo now, his face a black mask of anger. “You of all people will not embarrass me.”
“I will not,” Kamau said calmly. The bloodstained knife in his brother’s hand struck a deep terror somewhere in his psyche but he outwardly he was calm. “This is not right.”
“You want to be a man, little brother? Do you want to be a man? Because this -” Jamo indicated at the pathetic form of the goat, lying in a puddle of its own blood and shit, “- is the only way.”
“Then I will take my chances,” Kamau said as he stood up. “I am going home.”
The punch was hard and Kamau was taken completely by surprise. He found himself face down on the cold grass, a throbbing pain in his left cheek and the large bloody knife pressed against the back of his neck. Kamau went numb, whether from shock or from the cold he couldn’t figure. He closed his eyes and imagined the ground his head was pressed against was the warm flank of the cow. He understood milking. It was so simple; don’t pinch, squeeze. Not like this complicated sample of real life. Kamau decided that, given the choice, he would rather be his father’s serf.
“Are you a man or a goat?” Jamo asked. “Because you know what happens to goats.”
Kamau, still imagining his head pressed against the warm cow, remembering how simple life actually was, said, “Baa-aa.”
© Steve Mwangi Ichungwa 2010