Celebrating East African Writing!
Mzee Lemangen sat down on his old three legged stool outside his Manyatta wondering what he had done to annoy the gods. His face, pale and wrinkled by old age, did not glow even as the sun set behind the beautiful savannah. A poker-face embodied by his pierced ears as he chewed on a root and spat on the ground. From a distance he could hear his eldest son Lengosek whistling as he drove the cattle back to the Lorora. He drew in a sigh and disappeared back into deep thought. His eyes were teary with resignation and frustration. This was the third season that the gods had not blessed his land with rains.
“Father…” Lengosek called out.
“Father!” there was no response; only a sad stare greeted him back.
“Please let me move to the city,” Lengosek implored. “There I can find a job as a watchman and be sending you some money.”
Mzee Lemangen did not flinch. They had been over this countless times and he was getting tired of being pestered. He was not for the idea of his eldest son moving to the damned city. He had already lost enough siblings to let Lengosek go. Just a few seasons back Lekey, the son before Lengosek had died before he became a Moran. Tradition has it that for a young Samburu warrior to be initiated into Moranhood, he has to pass one of the grueling tasks of killing a lion. Lekey was destined for great things. He was to inherit his father’s wealth and be inaugurated into the council of elders. It was therefore unfortunate and depressing that he met his death from the same cruel custom that Mzee Lemangen upheld and preached so vehemently.
On the fateful day, Lekey was in a buoyant mood. He was so proud of their culture and traditions which his Matapatu clan cherished and retained. It was time for his age-set to be initiated into Moranhood. It was time to enjoy a convivial and relatively undemanding life with permissive sex. Every Samburu boy looked forward to this period in their lives. Lekey was no different. He had spent hours having his hair braided the day before. Donning abstract designs in orange on his face and red ochre on his head, neck and shoulders, there was no doubt that he would have enjoyed his Moranhood. It was his time to be fearless and arrogant. Moranhood would have been his prime and he would have been free to do largely exactly as he liked.
Lekey must have forgotten to spill some blood and milk for the gods. Maybe he got too excited or too arrogant to remember his forefathers. Lekey had just returned home from the market after buying more beads for the festival. Simba, his dog, was strolling lazily beside him when the rustling of dry leaves behind a bush caught his attention. Off he went, disappearing behind the bush barking. Lekey did not pay attention for this was the wild and it could have been a hare or squirrel that Simba had ran after. No sooner had he called Simba back than a load roar met his earshot. His first reaction was to aim his spear but he was from the market. He did not have a spear, only his rungu. His feet got numb and his tongue heavy. Simba would be torn to pieces. Despite ironically being named Simba, he would be devoured by a real lion. This was not the case. Simba, the dog, disappeared into thin air when he heard the roar. He was wise enough to know the difference between a cat and a lion.
“Simba!” Lekey tried to call out, whispering instead.
His heart was beating louder than the Ameru drums in a Njuri Njeke celebration. There were no trees nearby where he could have climbed. And before he could conjure his way out of it, she appeared. Her eyes firmly focused on him giving away her intentions. An enraged lioness who had just lost her cub to hyenas. There was no pecking order as to whom she would unleash her wrath on. Lekey was no match for her. He could not outrun her and if this was an early initiation then he was never going to become a Moran. The initiation required skill, wit and a few age-mates backing you. His knees buckled and the once outspoken warrior wet himself as he collapsed to his knees. From the iota of strength left in his subdued body, he clenched his fist and wildly swung his rungu hoping for a lucky blow. His death was fast and cruel though she did not devour him. It was pure murder; a retaliation. His body lay lifeless with the beads sparsely scattered on the red soil. There was blood on his braids and his shuka. She must have drunk his blood.
Simba had witnessed this from a distance and barked his lungs out. His bark loud and assertive but it gradually declined into a whine. He had slowly realized that he had just lost his master. He sat there hoping his mind had played tricks on him and Lekey would get up call his name and play with his ears like he always did. He didn’t. And so he ran home alone. He was sad when he got to the homestead and being an evening, no one took notice. It was not until everyone had finished their chores from feeding the cows to fetching water that Mzee Lemangen sent out Lengosek to ask Lekey to join him in his hut. Lengosek had finished milking the cows when he decided to pass by Lekey’s newly constructed hut to tease him. No one was in. There was nothing unusual until a frantic call from outside the homestead got his attention. A passer by walking home from the market had found Lekey dead by the roadside and rushed to his home, bearing the heartbreaking news. No one really could comprehend his fate.
Mzee Lemangen like many other African men had many wives. He had three, and all three wives had given him seven children with the third wife expectant and due in a few weeks. It was not all gloomy after all, or so he hoped. He had just lost his eldest son and the ancestors were about to bless him with another. A son, he hoped. Tribesmen never tire of sons. They call them warriors and he wanted an army. Life in the village had changed drastically. More and more conservative cultures were dieing and the Samburu’s was no different. He had held countless meetings with the council of elders to instill discipline and morals back to the community but it was a difficult task. Mzee Lemangen sometimes felt his predicaments were rather harsh and he constantly wondered why the gods hated him most. Misfortune seemed to ghost around his homestead probably as a payback to all the sins his forefathers and earlier generations had committed.
He was still in a dispute with the other elders over his young daughter’s refusal to be circumcised. His daughter Naisekui was learned. She met a missionary who introduced her to a classroom and ever since she became the rebel in the family. She still upheld her morals and traditions but she refused to follow most of them that she felt were untenable. Circumcision was one of them. Mzee Lemangen was perturbed by this newly acquired knowledge Naisekui proclaimed to get from the school. He called it poison and it was slowly eating him up. Poison that must have been in the watering hole otherwise why else was it spreading so easily in his homestead?
“Why do you shame me?” he had asked. “Don’t you see you are the only girl who has not been circumcised in this family?” She had looked down in shame staring at her toes. “Father, circumcision is dangerous,” she tried to convince him. An obnoxious stare is all she got from him before he dismissed her to go fetch firewood for the evening meal. Later that evening Mzee Lemangen visited Nenkai, his third and most recent wife.
Nenkai was young and beautiful. She had milk white teeth and her head was clean shaven with coloured beads hanging round her neck. She adorned herself like any young lady would. Not only did she wrap herself with the most expensive shuka from the market, but also her jewellery ranged from cheap bracelets made out of copper cables to priceless soft-stone earrings and beads that embraced every inch of her body. Her big beautiful eyes easily gave away her innocence and naivety. He had married her as a present from his best friend. She was his favourite and from first glance, you could tell why. She was proud with a hint of arrogance. She had a bit of informal education and from the many little favours she got from her husband it was easy for her to look down upon the other wives.
“Did you lock up the chickens?” He started never mind the fact that he did not keep that many, they were just two chicks. In this part of the world, there were no darlings and sweethearts, no sweet pies and pumpkins. A man would simply utter the first and most random thoughts that came to mind. Shakespeare would have been shocked to his death by how the village setting had no clue or room for romance. She giggled and nodded her head as if that was the sexiest pick-up line she had ever heard.
“You know you are my favourite.” He continued. “I have been breeding those chickens for you. We are soon going to have a feast.”
“A feast? What for?” She asked rather puzzled.
Pointing to her bulging belly he smiled and said, “Because of that,” before giving a chuckle of delight. His chuckle was short though, and then he turned his attention to the matter at hand.
“I was wondering whether you could talk to Naisekui and convince her to be circumcised.” Naisekui and Nenkai did not see eye to eye. They were too alike and the age difference was too small to anchor any form of respect between the two. Naisekui’s mother was Mzee Lemangen’s first wife so she found it difficult calling someone almost her age ‘mother’. Mzee Lemangen’s obvious favouritism for Nenkai also did little to help ease the tension between the two.
“I will,” Nenkai reluctantly responded before folding one of her shukas and tucking it beneath the mat to use as a pillow. “But you know that brat never listens to me.” “She thinks I stole you from her mother.” Her smile had turned into a frown and Mzee Lemangen was too egoistic to stick around and get drawn into that conversation.
“When can we start celebrating his arrival?” he asked trying to change the subject. Nenkai was not impressed and she rudely excused herself after reminding him that it was the night for the council meeting. He did not say anything. He no longer had the strength to quarrel so he sat there after she had left and reminisced over the lost glory when everything was good. He mumbled a few words to the gods in discontent before dragging himself up and out into the savannah darkness.
The bonfire was wild and smoke had left most of the elders teary and with running noses. Most just blew their nostrils with their hands before wiping them on the grass or their shukas. When the meeting finally got off, the elders all took turns to drink the blood of a bull that had been slaughtered earlier to appease the gods and cleanse all evil spirits. After a few rounds one of the elders cleared his throat and got straight to the point.
“We are gathered here today…” His speech was cut short by one of the elders who bent over and whispered something to his ear. “Perhaps we should decide on whether Lemangen should attend this meeting?” he continued. Mzee Lemangen was perplexed and he sat there staring as if he had just seen the holy angel Gabriel taking sour milk from a calabash. “Why do you say so?” he asked, his eyebrows were raised with suspicion. “Well, we know this is a delicate matter and maybe we should deliberate on it without you in attendance. Mzee Lemangen did not give away his anger rather he softly obliged and stood to go back home. A few mumbles stopped him before one of the elders demanded he staid put. The other elders agreed some reluctantly. As he took back his seat, the chair of the meeting continued.
“Let’s get on with it. A few weeks ago, Lengosek, Lemangen’s son, and a few of his friends drove cattle away from the village in search for pasture.” As he paused, it was so quiet that the silence gave away the wild laugh of a hyena far away in the wilderness. No one seemed to care. It was nothing unusual in this part of Kenya.
“They traveled over hills and valleys but as you all know we are facing a famine so pasture is hard to find.” He continued. “Eventually after walking for a few days and nights, the young men found a ranch and drove the cattle into the ranch to graze them.”
“Unfortunately, the boys hadn’t realized that was private property and were confronted by the guards under watch. There was an altercation and a fight broke out leaving both parties seriously wounded. This is Mr. Mayani’s ranch, our MP.” A few murmurs of shock and a few muted stares were exchanged before he continued. “Mr. Mayani is not happy with what happened and has asked for an apology or the herders involved would be arrested.”
Mzee Lemangen’s heart skipped a beat as the thought of losing another son made his blood temperature rise. All of a sudden he felt suffocated even though they were out in the open and there was a fresh breeze blowing the smoke from the bonfire into thin air. As he caught his breath, he missed a question from the chair of the meeting and had to be nudged back into the proceedings.
“I am sorry, what did you ask?” he asked.
The other elder repeated the question to him.
“What do you suggest we do? We thought the fathers of the boys involved should apologize by ‘donating’ livestock to the MP.”
“They should agree on who will give goats and who will give out cattle to Mr. Mayani,” he continued. At this point Mzee Lemangen’s utmost worry was losing his son to the brutal judicial system. Even in this remote village, everyone had heard and developed a fear for the judicial system because the most influential people were the wealthy ones with high government offices. He nodded his head and offered two goats as compensation to Mr. Mayani. The other fathers gave cattle and the council agreed to drive the animals to Mr. Mayani’s Office in the urban centre the following day. The council then touched on other issues that were affecting the community and somewhere in there they discussed the circumcision of all girls with no exceptions. Mzee Lemangen did not object because his family had led him into enough trouble already.
On his way home from the meeting Mzee Lemangen was infuriated and red faced with anger. He was talking to himself and cursing out loudly. He did not go to his hut rather went and banged on Naisekui’s door and threatened to circumcise her himself if she did not go ahead and do it the rightful way. She was shell shocked and scared and so in the wee hours of the morning, she fled to the missionary’s home to take refuge.
Naisekui spent a lot of time at the school compound where the missionary lived with a few orphans. So Mzee Lemangen sent a search party to the school to find out whether she was there. When they got there, she had been taken to a near-by town to a local priest’s church. They went back and informed Mzee Lemangen who decided to go into town himself to bring back his daughter. His son Lengosek accompanied him on this particular mission. It was one of the few things the two had ever done together and probably the only thing they had agreed on. They did not speak much on their way there. They both had enough going on in their lives and the last thing they both wanted was to get into anything that would make their trip more awkward.
The small town was busy with a few motorists and bicycles haphazardly going about their businesses. Mzee Lemangen and his son were not used to these ‘wild’ happenings and looked rather lost. They found it had to get by. Finding the church seemed like an uphill task until they ran into an old friend who was kind enough to take them there. On arrival, Naisekui had dressed herself in a branded T-shirt with a Jimi Hendrix photo on the back. She wore a long pleated skirt that had geometric patterns running around it. Her ochre was still visible but hardly. It was difficult to recognize her from afar until she shied away and Lengosek confirmed that in deed that was his sister. They grabbed her by the hands and as they tried to lead her out of the compound, an elderly man with spectacles and a suit ran towards them calling out and ordering them to stop. They did not oblige and Lengosek proceeded to arm himself with his lethal rungu. He was ready and willing to strike before the man begged them to hear him out.
The church van dropped them off at their village and beaming with smiles, Mzee Lemangen, Lengosek and Naisekui all emerged carrying plastic bags full of niceties that the church had been kind enough to give. Their joy was met with ululations and cheer from the children but the women just stared in silence. They whispered to themselves in sparse groups and looked away. Something was wrong. Mzee Lemangen was puzzled so he enquired to try and find out what was going on. No one said anything until his first wife emerged from Nenkai’s hut. Her eyes were hiding away a fear that Mzee Lemangen had only seen once before. That was when a man came to his homestead bearing the news of Lekey’s death a few seasons before. He had never forgotten those eyes. His wife had the same eyes and he suddenly realized all was not well.
“Please come into your hut I have some news for you.” She finally said something.
“What is going on here? Is Nenkai alright?” He demanded to know.
“She is okay, Lemangen,” she assured him.
“Then what seems to be the matter? I can see it in your eyes.” She did not know how to tell him. She tried to search for the words but there were none for what she was about to tell him.
“You have a son.” The words fell on his ears like the fine tune of a stringed instrument. He was about to jump up with joy when it hit him that no one was celebrating.
“Why the long face then?” he implored.
“Please come with me to Nenkai’s hut,” she said as she led him out, round the kennel and into Nenkai’s hut. There were three midwives all clasped in each other’s arms. One had one hand on her chin as she shook her head and murmured something. He walked past them to where another midwife sat next to Nenkai holding the baby. He was wrapped in a clean shuka as the mother lay there in her sleep. Mzee Lemangen took a few steps closer and reached out to hold his son. Suddenly his expression changed. His eyebrows arched as he picked his son up and glanced at him for the first time. His arms then became weak suddenly but he managed to salvage some strength to hold the baby boy. He was light skinned. The baby had the same kind of skin that the missionary who taught Naisekui had.
“Whose child was this?” He wondered to himself. The missionary was a lady so there was no way she could have impregnated his beautiful wife Nenkai. He wondered whether he was cursed and this was another one of the gods’ punishments for his sins. He needed an explanation so he woke Nenkai up after handing the baby back to the midwife. Nenkai was weak and still recuperating after a long night giving birth.
“Why is that child different from all the other children in our family and in the whole village?” His voice was rusty and weak with contempt. “You are not worthy of being my wife! Get out of my homestead and never come back! And take that child with you,” he barked. “You shame me and humiliate me in front of the entire community by sleeping with the army men that blew up our land.”
He continued making reference to the British and American soldiers who had come to take part in some military practice with their Kenyan counterparts. Nenkai had neither explanation nor excuse. She was as astonished as everyone else. What they did not know was that the boy was an albino.
©George Kinyua 2010
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