After locking up the cattle our herdsman hurriedly squatted and told me to mount his neck. His great height made the short pants he wore to reach high up his thigh. Looking at him squat there, I thought Denga’s left ankle, which faced me, bulged with secrets as big as the ones I was hearing about the country down there, where Baba said they were going to set the strange man free and let him leave the big water.
Dibuoro raised her black tail and freed her dung onto the boma floor – thach…thach…thach… The black cow had a heavy stomach which sagged like “The Time Has Come” which Baba said yesterday about the strange man.
Mama must have gone to borrow salt from the Chief’s wife near the bongu tree in the direction of the evening sun. My elder sibling, Tabu, had not returned from school.
“Climb”, Denga quickly urged me.
I stood in front of the herdsman, my small back facing him. He maneuvered his big head and I sat astride his neck. He slowly rose.
Denga was so tall that my head spun. I was dizzy with fear as he hurried down the slope. I clutched at his tough, knotted hair.
“Denga yawa!” I screamed.
“Why are boys crying like unborn girls?” he asked with detached attention.
“Doesn’t your hair hurt?”
He went many long strides before asking, “Who was hurting the hair on Denga’s head?”
“I am pulling hard!”
He did not answer.
We finished the bend that went round Baba’s sugarcane plantation.
“Mm?” he asked. “That is not called ‘hard’, ayom yom nyathi winyo weak baby-bird. With both your hands –”
“Eh?” I was curious.
“I would not manage to pull a small kitten over the grass”.
“You lie!” I defended my strength.
“Tomorrow I will tie your Baba’s cat round the neck with a rope”, he challenged me. “I will see if you can pull it over the grass”.
“I can pull”.
“But if the cat beats you?”
“I am strong; I can pull him”.
“Only your mouth can pull”.
We came to the end of the sugarcane stretch where the stream was and saw many banana stems, some heavy with fruit. Denga roared once and a gang of monkeys sprinted up huge trunks which stood on the lips of the quiet stream. Crickets were singing amongst the leaves. Yellow-ripe mabonwe fruits dangled heavily from climber stems. Denga said how all ong’er monkeys knew no delicacy tastier than mabonwe.
He turned and left the monkeys alone.
“Men would like to pass”, Denga suddenly announced.
We stood a short distance from the mouth of the stream where people crossed on their way to the shops. Tabu usually crossed it on his way to school. I had seen the white of dry foam smeared onto large stones on the other side of the stream on the lips of the soil. Denga said it was the women who lived near the shops who came to bathe.
“Men would like to cross”, Denga repeated.
“How did those men know that someone was taking a bath?” a voice asked. “They must have been stealing my body with their ugly eyes”.
It was a woman. The voice was smooth like the porridge Mama fed Ana, the baby girl born behind me.
“Not all men are foolish like that”, Denga said.
“You were looking at me”.
Denga said, “We were not, Zani”.
“You were; I will tell my husband”.
Denga replied immediately: “Chacha cannot beat even this child I am carrying on my neck”.
“Who cheated you?”
After the woman’s question the herdsman bravely rounded the bush which hid us. He stood on this side of the stream and squatted. I alighted from his neck.
I looked at Denga. His eyes were fixed on the black flesh of the bathing woman. Zani’s body was so bare that I pretended to look at the stones. It was all soap, smooth and wet except her plaited hair; under her chin were other two brown mabonwe fruits dangling; below them was her stomach and the small thing she wore. The small thing was followed by the upper flesh of Zani’s legs. Something told me to begin demanding for some of Zani’s wealth if at all I was also the son of man, not God. Suddenly the woman pulled and rubbed below her stomach while she looked at us. From a corner of my eye I saw Denga run his tongue over his lips.
“Why do you do that?” Zani asked Denga.
“What did I do?”
“I saw your tongue”.
“Only that I remember things”.
I looked at the woman and saw her cheeks infected with a bitter smile.
“You know I am a married woman”.
“I know”, Denga said sadly.
“You may desire but you will never touch”.
“Say the truth, Zani?”
“People do not swear like that”.
“Teach me how they swear”.
“Mh,” Denga sighed. “People swear by the name of God”.
“I swear”, she repeated. “I hear they will release that man from his jela prison in South Africa soon. This woman cannot give you even if they released him this evening”.
“And if our president himself stood here?”
“Speak the truth, Zani”.
“Even if the new opposition party were registered right now, I still would not let you sleep on this stomach I am washing with cold water”.
I looked where the water was coming from. There was a dark bend with a quiet pool near the lips of the water where nyamilmil insects were dancing in circles. Denga had said small girls who wanted quick breasts gave them to nyamilmil to bite. A yellow leaf fell on the water. It swept past me, slid behind the stone where the woman stood scooping water with both hands and throwing on her back.
Zani stood on a large stone drying herself. Her quiet ankles looked at me.
She wore her clothes, carried the black water-pot on her head, and walked away. I saw Denga looking at her back.
The herdsman squatted. I mounted his neck. Water giggled as it slid stones. We hurried home when bats began flying where we stood.
“Do not tell anyone what you saw”, Denga warned me. “Not your Mama, not Baba, not Tabu, not Ana –not even the cat you will fight with tomorrow. Keep as silent as a sick person”…
Baba came home with the newspaper where a man with parted hair was not smiling. The man must have used an angry comb. In another picture they showed him fighting another man in the boxing ring. In a third picture he was old but smiling. He raised his fist in the air. Some distance away people were hailing him the way I used to when our bull, Chilo, had beaten another.
“It is what I said. Yes!” Baba said. “They had to release him – bring my chair”.
Tabu brought the chair and placed it near the hut wall. Baba sat, cut the polythene with a knife, and plucked out the black batteries. He opened the back of the wooden transistor radio and removed the red, spent batteries which leaked. He put the new black ones.
“Baba”, I asked.
“Don’t they get tired?”
“These men who talk inside the radio”, I said, pointing at a row of upright things which looked like human beings with small heads.
The herdsman laughed.
“If you eat well”, Baba explained, “you do not get tired”.
“They eat well?”
“When does Mama give them food?”
“At night when you are asleep”.
“Do they sleep?”
“Do they wake up?”
“If they refuse?”
“I slap them very hard”.
Baba tuned the radio. The wind hooted inside it. I heard “Ndela….Ndela…Ndela” said many times. Baba listened attentively.
“Baba”, I asked.
“Do they now want to eat ‘ondelo’?”
“Because I hear the small men say ‘ondelo…ondelo…ondelo’”
Mama laughed from the kitchen. The herdsman laughed too. Tabu carried Ana on his back.
“No”, Baba corrected me with a smile. “Ondelo dry-roasted-maize is so hard it can break all their small teeth”.
Baba told the herdsman to give him the newspaper again.
“Look here”, Baba showed me, “the small men inside the radio are not saying ‘ondelo’. They are saying ‘Mandela’. This is Mandela”. He pointed at the bare-chested man on the large newspaper page. “They put him in jela a long time ago. They have released him now”.
Denga was quiet. I looked at his long legs and the small pants. Down near his toes were his ankles, always quiet. They said nothing about Zani rubbing herself in the stream. Denga had also told me that the land on the other side of the stream belonged to Chacha, Zani’s husband.
The next time I looked at the herdsman’s ankles we stood in the sorghum garden. It had rained the day before. Near the big orembe tree ng’wen white ants beat their wings, falling in twos. On the grass they shed their wings. The fat one led the way as the small one hurried behind.
A pair fell.
“Where are they going?” I asked Denga.
“To keep the sweet honey”.
“Where is honey?”
“In the big buttock of the fat one”.
“Why does the small one follow?”
The herdsman turned his face the other way and laughed.
When I looked again we saw a white ant without its fat buttock. It was kicking in the grass.
“Who hurt her?”
“That”, Denga pointed at the big insects flying through the swarm of white ants circling the orembe branch. The large insects had very big eyes, and yellow abdomens – dragonflies. “They are called tik jodongo”.
I giggled because their name meant “old men’s beard”.
The herdsman continued, “They cut and eat the buttock of ng’wen”.
The next day we went to the stream Tabu came too. The water in which we bathed was brown, dirty and strong because of the rain. Tabu and I were looking below our stomachs and comparing our things like two small rats sizing up their noses. Denga kept a python under his stomach. I saw him smile and turn the other side the way an elephant would if it saw two rats comparing the lengths of their two noses.
As we left the stream the herdsman said, “The water in the stomach of Dibuoro will come out before tomorrow”.
“Water?” I asked.
He said, “Eee, water. Can’t you see Dibuoro’s stomach is very swollen?”
“Eee”, I agreed.
“She is carrying a lot of water in her stomach”.
Darkness fell and it started drizzling. We remained in the hut. Tabu carried Ana on his lap. Baba took the spotlight and went near the granary where Dibuoro was tethered. Baba and the herdsman were doing something in the rain. Mama stood at the door. Tabu wanted to join her but she refused.
“Enter the hut”, she told Tabu.
Tabu did reluctantly. I went to the door and stood.
“Even you”, Mama said.
I turned, but not before seeing Baba holding the spotlight as Denga pulled with both hands, his shirt-sleeves folded, the cow turning round and round with a raised tail. Rain-drops slashed across the light and fell on wet grass.
“Careful”, Baba told Denga. “It should not fall very hard on the grass”.
Pulupulupulu… I heard big water pouring on the grass where the two men stood behind the cow. Dibuoro snorted. Then the calf bleated like a sheep. Mama allowed us to come to the door and see the cow licking the calf. Baba stood there with the spotlight burning. Arrows of rain water cut through the light.
The following morning Tabu and I stood near the granary, looking. The calf was black with tiny circles of white on her forehead. There was a brown patch on her small neck. I loved the way she was twisting her nose. Dibuoro wore black eyes which warned us not to go too near her baby.
The sun above the eastern hill tomorrow, and the herdsman and I crossed the stream to tend the herd on Chacha’s land. Denga carried the calf across the powerful water. Dibuoro followed behind his heels. The herdsman crossed again and came for me after putting the calf on the other side of the stream. When we crossed I looked at Denga’s ankles…
She was drawing water with her pot when we arrived with the herd to cross the stream again that evening. She looked on happily as Denga’s thighs hardened to stop him from falling in the water with the young calf. Zani put the pot on her head. The herdsman looked at her and murmured something to her…
In the homestead Baba tuned the radio.
“An”, Mama responded from the kitchen.
“But did I not tell you?”
“What is it, Wuon Tabu?”
“I told you well that in the same way Mandela left jela, this country would allow for many parties. This radio says our new party is registered. You see, even ‘Amerka’ and ‘Britis’ were on our side this time round. Now that president and his people can remain with their cock party. We will die with our lion party”.
It was Tabu who went to look after the herd tomorrow. Denga left the homestead earlier than usual, immediately after the midday meal, and disappeared towards the stream.
“No”, he told me. “Cigarette – Denga is going to buy cigarette at the shop”. He added, “I will return quickly. I will carry you when I go to cut grass and thatch my new hut which your Baba built for me”.
He wanted to laugh as he told me this. I saw his ankles.
In the evening I went to fetch clay to mould bulls when I saw Denga crawling out of the sugarcane his eyes thrown to the other side of the stream.
“You did not return quickly”, I shocked him.
Denga saw me and laughed.
He told me, “These days the shopkeepers are useless”.
“They no longer stock enough cigarettes. I waited and waited for them to order from the city”.
“How did they?”
“By aeroplane – very fast”.
“Why did you go inside the sugarcane?”
“Well, but I went to see if wild pig are spoiling the crop. There is very good cane in this farm you see here. Your Baba is a lucky man –a millionaire. What should he buy for you when the cane is taken to the sugar factory?”
At that moment I saw Zani on the other side of the stream. She had the pot of water on her head. Like the herdsman, she too occasionally looked behind her as she walked in the tall grass where the footpath crossed. From that day on we did not cross the stream to herd on Chacha’s land. Denga did not tell me why…
Towards the end of that year we stood in the sorghum garden. Zani was going to the stream. As soon as she descended, a very light-skinned man hid behind the thick stem of a big ng’ou fig tree which stood on a raised ground. He had a club in his hands, and he kept throwing his eyes towards the mouth of the stream where Denga and I had looked on that day as Zani bathed.
Denga asked me, “Do you know Chacha?”
“That is Chacha”, he said without pointing.
After two days the herdsman returned home with a swollen cheekbone one evening.
“Heh, Denga! What happened?” Baba asked.
“Mh”, the herdsman dodged. His eyes did not want to meet Baba’s.
As I held Dibuoro’s tail and Denga milked I asked the herdsman if the monkeys had hit him with a big mabonwe fruit.
Before nightfall Baba and the herdsman stood whispering near the entrance. Tabu told me that Chacha had struck Denga with a club…
After days Baba called me to accompany him. Denga walked behind us, his head straight and alert, and his cheek still swollen. Elderly men were seated. Near them I saw Zani, quiet and tense. Her light-skinned husband stood nearby. At the baraza meeting under the big yago tree Chief Odoje wanted to whip Chacha:
“We do not want lawlessness to reign in this Odiya. And you know that, Chacha”.
“He is robbing me of my wife, Jatelo Sir”, Chacha pleaded.
“Did you report to me?”
“I am sorry, Jatelo –”
“Chief Odoje and the law do not entertain sorry people – not even if the country has become a multi-party democracy”.
“Next time I will control myself, Jatelo. Anger blinded me because the woman is my wife, and we have one child with her – this one”.
Chacha pointed at the young, light-skinned son.
“Have you taken even a bag of chumbi salt to this woman’s mother in Ogilo?”
“No, Jatelo –”
“You know very well that you have no right to call ‘wife’ a woman to whose parents you have not delivered even a sick kitten.– And to you”, Chief Odoje turned to Denga, “you appreciate that the navel of a woman has been the death of many. – And to you”, he turned to Zani. “You will not be the first woman on earth to make men kill each other”.
Zani looked down.
Near me, those who knew whispered that it was Denga who had first planned to marry Zani before Chacha arrived from the city and bought land on the other side of the stream. They said it was Denga who first “untied Zani’s ropes”.
I began school in the early months of the year of many parties and saw Zani standing with a swollen stomach at the stream. Her two ankles were silent.
She arrived in our homestead and entered Denga’s new hut one year after Mandela. The small baby wrapped in the blanket was as black as Denga. Zani’s light-skinned first son walked behind her. Baba released two heifers and, one morning, the herdsman drove both to the homestead of Zani’s parents in Ogilo. During the burning of houses which arrived with the first elections I saw Chacha with his new wife as Odiya poured onto the road, fleeing. Chacha greeted Denga with his own palms, and Zani and the first son. Chacha then touched the young baby’s cheek and Denga smiled. Behind us rainclouds were gathering. People were walking. I looked at Denga’s ankles keeping all the secrets between Chacha, Zani, and himself; secrets of the prison they were leaving behind them…
Image: Peter Stevens via Flickr