They were back.
Karimba craned his neck and squinted his eyes at the marks carefully carved on the plank of wood next to him—eighteen days, his predictions had been accurate. He could not wait to brag about this fact to his elder sister Netani. Letting out a deep sigh, Karimba mustered his strength and pushed himself off the bed. There was a twinge in his heart when he saw his reflection on a broken mirror mounted carelessly on the wall. He tore his head away, unwilling to stare at what he was.
Karimba shook his head and continued with his mission; tonight was a night of celebration, his father, his younger brother, and other warriors had returned from battle. Anxious to arrive at the square before everyone scattered to their homes, Karimba made one aggressive move that landed him on the floor. Groaning, he murmured Netani’s name in disdain. Why had she not come to get him? Had they forgotten about him amidst the celebrations? Karimba suddenly felt rage bubble in the pit of his stomach. How could they forget about him? Was he not named after the greatest warrior across all seven communities in the West?
Karimba’s train of thought scrambled when a foul smell attacked his nostrils. The stench was so strong, so dominating that it brought tears to Karimba’s eyes. Karimba lowered his head to the ground, connecting his forehead to the wooden floor. His torso was quivering while his lower body remained still. How could he be so foolish? Of course, no one wanted the stench of urine welcoming the great men of Kano.
A ghoulish scream pierced through the night pulling Karimba from his pensive thoughts. At first, he thought that he had conjured the scream in his head but then another scream ensued and another and another. Was it possible that these were ululations? Perhaps a cry of appreciation to the ancestors? Karimba cocked his ears and waited to discern an ensuing scream. This one sent a chill up his spine, this one made his blood curl, this one belonged to his sister.
* * *
“They were too powerful. Large in number, well-prepared. Their weapons were sharp and lethal. We thought we were surprising them but…they were so many.”
Karimba aggressively swatted a fly that had been buzzing near him. His eyes, however, never left his brother. Sekku’s narration of their community’s defeat had been riddled with sadness and grief. In the seventeen years that Karimba had known his younger brother, Karimba had never seen Sekku cry. Karimba vividly recalled their mother fussing about the compound with Sekku wrapped in her arms. She had tossed and kicked soil in the air while cussing her ancestors. How could they have allowed the gods to give her two boys who would only bring her and her husband shame? Was it not enough that she had given birth to a crawler? Would she be forced to raise an apathetic boy as well?
Karimba waved his hand in the air, the fly was still alive and well.
“The deaths were swift and ruthless. Their leader, Mandogo, was a beast. His weapon of choice was a large machete. After each kill, he would stop and lick the blood of his enemies. It was as if he believed he was harnessing the power of the dead warriors…”
Fearful whispers filled the air as everyone in the hut attempted to paint the image of Mandogo in their heads. Father once said that our imaginations tended to be worse than reality. While others conjured an image of a beast in their heads, Karimba saw a human being, a man. A man that could bleed like the rest of them.
Karimba closed his eyes as a buzzing sound approached him. Was this how he would eventually descend into madness? Directing all his focus to the fly, Karimba cupped his hands and brought them together. Certain that he had captured the annoying insect, Karimba flattened his palms, happy with his momentary achievement.
“My child, we are happy to see you alive. You survived the impossible, you have made your people proud. Still, we cannot help but wonder why you were spared.” Elgo, one of the village’s leaders asked in a low tone.
The whispers stopped. Silence draped over the gathering in the hut. Every head turned to face Sekku. Karimba thought he saw his younger brother shrink at the attention. Karimba had never seen his brother look so…small.
“Mandogo pulled me aside. He said he had a message for Kano.”
Karimba’s heart began thudding against his chest. The movement was so violent that he was certain his heart had somehow appeared inside his ears.
“Mandogo is summoning us to battle. He said if we did not show up in the field of Tai in three weeks, he and his army…his army will come here.”
There were no whispers this time. There was no need for them. There was no room for imagination and therefore, there was nothing to be discussed. The Dingo community wanted their land and they were going to take it by force.
As the men filed outside the house, Karimba spotted the fly on his left leg.
* * *
“Those monsters. That is what they are: monsters!”
Karimba watched his mother pace about in her hut. She had grown thin in the last eighteen days. This, however, was typical of Mother. Each time Sekku and Father went to battle or to a raid, she would cease to eat and douse herself in unhealthy worry. In the past, both her husband and son had come home while other men had not. Sometime during all this, Mother had convinced herself that fasting while Father and Sekku were away somehow saved the two men from demise.
Well, there goes that theory.
“How could they take your father away from me, from us, from the community? What shall we do now that the greatest warrior is dead? Who shall go to fight at Tai? Weak and elderly men? Children?”
At times Karimba wished that Kano traditions would change. For instance, his mother had asked the question that had burned in his throat while he was at the debriefing meeting in the elder hut. No woman was allowed to join those meetings, Karimba had always thought that this rule was foolish. But how could he raise his voice when he was barely welcome?
“Did Father struggle?”
Netani’s eyes were bloodshot. She looked older than her real age, probably because of all the hours she sat listening to Mother’s worries. Netani was tall and firm, she was also quite agile. When they were children, Netani had successfully beaten all the young boys in our village, especially the ones that called Karimba “crawler.”
“He killed six men before Mandogo swung his machete and cut off his head.”
A gasp escaped Mother’s throat. Netani bobbed her head. Karimba smiled with pride.
“Are you smiling? Does your Father being…being decapitated bring you joy?”
Karimba opened his mouth to speak but it was not his voice that filled the hut.
“Mother, let Kari be. He is proud that his father died a hero. Father died protecting his people and his family, we should all be proud of that.”
Karimba watched as his mother pursed her lips and crossed her arms. His heart sank, he knew those features all too well.
“Well, that is something your brother will never get to experience. Come on Sekku, let’s go to the kitchen hut, all those killings must have made you hungry.”
After Mother and Sekku left, Netani pushed herself off the ground on the opposite side of the hut and walked toward her brother. Before she sat next to him, they stared at each other, their eyes glassy with unshed tears. Netani then sunk to her brother’s level and cried against his shoulder.
* * *
Rumor has it that when Karimba was a child, Mother had swaddled him in stark white sheets and taken him to the river after everyone in their household had fallen asleep. According to the different storytellers, Mother had begun to undress Karimba when Father found her. This was said to be the first and last time that Father had laid his hands on Mother in a violent manner. Apparently, he had slapped her across the face so loudly that the whole village had been awakened by the sound.
Rumors suggest that since that incident, Mother had hatched her plans in a more careful manner but none of them had been successful. It was only after the birth of Sekku that the madness had stopped.
Despite multiple sources, Karimba refused to believe that his own mother would want to end his life.
Karimba darted his eyes between Elgo and Marakwet. These two brothers were the leaders of the community. Despite their striking resemblance to one another, they were utterly different. They were also quite old.
“Six battles we have lost.”
“More men than we can count.”
“Have you seen the ones remaining?”
“Frail things…we have a better chance of defeating Mandogo than they do.”
“You mean I have a better chance, right? Have you seen your reflection lately?”
“Nonsense, Elgo, I am the picture of health.”
“Yes Marakwet, you certainly have a healthy appetite. Tell me, where does all your food go?”
“Says the eighty-year-old bag of bones.”
“We are twins Marakwet.”
Karimba cleared his throat. He was lying face down, supported by the short metal rods that had become his allies since childhood.
“Oh yes. Semi’s boy is here. The one named after the famous ancestor.”
“Oh yes, speak up boy.”
Karimba opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. His tongue suddenly felt heavy, his stomach queasy. Long after Netani had put him to sleep, Karimba had stayed up all night concocting a plan, a plan that he thought could save Kano. He had been so certain about his plan that he had sent Netani to set up a private meeting with the village’s leaders. Now that he was in front of them, he felt foolish.
“Boy, this might be the last days for us as Kano. I don’t know how you would like to spend them but I want to spend them bickering with my brother.” Marakwet said.
Elgo chuckled at this causing Karimba’s familiar rage to replace the queasiness in his stomach. Karimba lifted his head to address his elders.
“So you have decided they have won? Even though we have not fought back?”
Elgo’s laughter vanished into the wind. He bent down, his eyes squinted, his mouth curled.
“Six battles boy. We have lost six battles. The last one took all our healthy men, our finest warriors. In three weeks, the only men left in our village will go to Tai and get slaughtered by that beast Mandogo. Even if by some miracle we do win, do you not think other villages will attack us? Will they not want our animals, our land, and our women? Kano is finished. We did not decide that Dingo has won, the gods have.”
Elgo was trembling. Karimba recognized this body reaction well. What he was witnessing was not anger but fear.
“My brother and I never agree on anything but this we agree on. We lack the numbers…“
It was a whisper. Well, it was barely a whisper but Karimba had said it. Clearing his throat, he voiced his plan.
“Elders, you are right. We do lack the men to fight against the Dingos but we have women. Healthy, strong women who love this community as much as you and I do. I have watched my sister overpower my brother in every fight they have ever been in. I believe that if well-trained, the women of this community can defeat the Dingos and that Kano will not die with us.”
Karimba’s heart was pounding, his mouth was dry. Elgo’s cackles filled the air shortly after his speech. The old man whizzed and slapped his palms against his bony knees.
“Women? Fight? You realize that we train our men to fight in battles from childhood right? Even the weak ones have had training. The little children too. Tell me, did Netani receive training as a child? Did your father train Sekku alongside her?”
Karimba opened and closed his mouth successively. He and Netani had spent their childhoods enthralled by stories from elders, molding their minds rather than their fighting skills.
“What about you? Did the great warrior pass his fighting skills to you? Is that why you somehow believe that you know about battle?”
Karimba lowered his head. Scorching tears tingled at the corner of his eyes.
“Answer me, crawler!”
Marakwet had remained quiet during the exchange. He had never been able to keep up with his brother.
“Son. I know you want to help your community in any way that you can but our women do not and cannot fight in an actual battle. It goes against tradition and not only that, they physically cannot fight. Now go home. Spend time with your family while you can.”
Karimba wanted to argue. He wanted to say that they were bad leaders. That a good leader would fight till their dying breath. Instead, Karimba lifted his left rod and used it to pivot his body away from the two brothers. As he crawled away from them, he wondered who had shown him mercy that night, Father who wanted him to live or Mother who wished him dead.
* * *
Karimba woke up with a start. His upper body was drenched in sweat. He brought his hand to his flannel and tugged at it. He then blew air into his chest. Karimba tried to recall what had awoken him. Had he been having a bad dream? Was it this awful heat?
No. Someone had called out his name. He craned his neck to get a better view of his door. He spotted a candle dancing through the cracks of the door. What did Netani want at this hour? Karimba’s heart sunk, had the Dingo come for them?
“Karimba? Can we come in?”
We? Who was we? Sekku had barely spoken to him since he came from battle and Mother, Mother had not been in his hut for years.
It took a minute for Karimba’s eyes to adjust to the silhouettes in his hut. He was aware that they were several in number but could not tell who they were.
“Karimba, we heard what you said to Elgo and Marakwet.”
Women. The people in his hut were women. A mixture of young, old, tall, short, heavy-bodied, and thin women. They were cramped in his hut, their faces etched with an emotion Karimba could not decipher. Karimba lifted his upper body using his elbows, he would not apologize for wanting to fight for his community.
“Netani, I did not mean to put anyone in the line of harm. I just don’t believe that our answer to the war declared on us is staying still or running to other villages as some men have suggested. I have seen you grow Netani, I know your strength and frankly, you are stronger, smarter, and more agile than any man in this village. I believe you are the saviors of Kano and if you are angered by that then do what you have come to do to me quickly and be on your way.”
For a moment, poignant silence dominated Karimba’s hut.
“We agree, Karimba. We want to fight for Kano. Show us how.”
Karimba watched as one head bobbed and another and another and another. It finally dawned on him that the expression on their faces was an expression he had carried all his life, helplessness.
* * *
Karimba Ikoye was a famous warrior. He was short and not particularly strong but people in Kano village revered him. It is said that warriors would convene in his hut before every battle and that he would prepare them, share tactics with them, reinforce their confidence. What he lacked in physical strength, he made up for in intelligence and charm. Netani says that Father hoped the same for present-day Karimba. That his mind would eventually make him a great hero like the famous Karimba Ikoye.
Karimba stared at his reflection in the puddle of water. The red and white dye that Netani had painted on his face at dawn made his appearance seem more intimidating, dangerous even. Karimba smiled at his reflection, he did not feel the familiar twinge in his chest—he had seen who he was, a warrior.
He proceeded with his crawl.
“Kari, how do you do this all day? How have you done this for years?”
Karimba grinned at his sister’s comment. After scouting Tai two days ago, Sekku had come back and drawn the area’s terrain for them to examine. Karimba had suggested that they use surprise to their advantage by positioning themselves in secure places before their enemies arrived. The only way they could enter the field’s terrain without being noticed by Dingo scouts was by crawling. Since the terrain was muddy, Netani had suggested that every warrior use a metal rod to ensure they do not get stuck. So far it had worked although Karimba had heard some of the warriors complain of their hardship.
Everyone suddenly stopped a command that had been issued by Sekku. He was leading the warriors, just as Father had done for years. To Karimba’s surprise, Sekku had not contested the plan once he caught wind of it. In fact, Karimba did not have to ask him to train the women, Sekku had volunteered.
“Are you still wondering why Sekku did not side with Mother or the elders?”
“Do you read people’s minds?”
“Yes, you already know that. He ran Kari…Sekku ran. He was not given any message by Mandogo, he overheard Mandogo say it to one of his men. Sekku helped us because he feels guilty for running.”
For three weeks, Karimba had watched his brother tirelessly train inexperienced mothers, sisters, and daughters on how to fashion a weapon, hold a weapon, and use a weapon. Sekku had been ruthless in his training, relentless. None of these women had slept more than five hours a night. On the first day of training, Sekku had asked the women why they wanted to fight. Some had said it was for vengeance, others had said it was for protection. Everyone, including Sekku, had agreed that they wanted to stop feeling helpless.
At that moment, Karimba had not understood how Sekku could feel helpless. But now he did.
As Karimba lay there, next to his sister, covered in dye and mud, waiting for the Dingos to blow their battle horn, he came to the conclusion that Father had been the one to show him mercy that night and in doing that, Father, Kano’s great warrior, had saved Kano not from the Dingos but from itself.
When the battle horn blared through the air, Karimba found the sound to be hopeful. For once in his life, he did not feel helpless.
Image: Jr Korpa on Unsplash