In the heart of that season’s dry spell something happened at night. Darkness enveloped our village, Odiya, and several voices began wailing noisily at the shops just after we had eaten the night’s meal of kuon and fish. The bright moon was absent.
That was the late 1980s when the lone runner, Democracy, was still searching for his footpath lost in the bush. The runner did arrive, finally, but not before Father learnt to wear a very defiant expression on his forehead. Those days the regime insisted that all citizens celebrate ‘mwongo wa nyayo’ – ‘twenty years’ during which the ruling party had followed the great footsteps of the deceased president. Husbands and their wives were obliged to pin small, rounded party tags onto their coats and dresses just above their breast. You had to. If you did not, the youth wingers had the right to arrest and charge you in the names of both God and the party. But the truth under the sky is that it is possible to be very sad at a wedding, and be happy even in the saddest funeral. The loudest mourner is not always the saddest. The villagers obeyed the decree even though their hearts and spirit remained with the sentiment of opposition, whose zygote was still hidden in the national womb. I wish you had seen Father’s face those years. It was twice the silent, steely mind which the calabash has always adopted in cooling the porridge. What still awes Odiya people to this day is the usual African miracle that the ruling party also doubled up as a practising psychologist, a know-it-all magician. He read people’s minds. And so, even though the village overtly swore allegiance to the party by donning these tags, Odiya forever remained the saddest victim of bloody beatings and cattle robbery and theft from the President’s people across the border…
It was the noise at the shops which threw us children out of the hut that night. Father thought it was the cattle robbers again. The natural impulse was to grab the okumba shield and find his way to the place of wailing. He did not go. Standing there in front of the hut, we discovered that no one was wailing. It was a strange collection of murmuring voices whirling and sweeping across Odiya like the wind. The regrets and demands of the voices were strange, such as we had never heard in a dark night:
“Give me my cup!”
“Give me my calabash!”
“Ah, yawa, my baby is remaining behind”.
“Even mine – where is my daughter!”
And then we heard those babies cry in time.
“This cold is killing me!”
“Ah, miya suka na – give me my shawl!”
They were mostly women’s cries. A voice asked where the group was going to worship the following day. The voice was punctuated by that of a cat. One of them had stepped on the cat, a hair-raising meowing. None gave the questioner a definite answer.
Just then the wind turned. It blew towards our homestead. We heard someone shout far, far away near the shops, “Nyawawa! Dhi uru e nam; wan ne ok wanegou – Ghosts! Go disappear in the lake; we did not kill you!”
Mother hurried us back into the hut. Father remained outside, planting himself near the cattle kraal with a spear and a shield. In the hut, Mother threw ladles, plates and pans at us. She blew out the nyangile tin lamp. Before long the whole village was drowned in noises that people made by beating pans, cursing the ghosts, and telling them to go and drown in the lake. We stopped striking the pans around midnight.
The following day Mother said the ghosts were dead people. Each season they blew across a village, a disease called ‘anyiew’ descended on children. That was measles. A few days later, several children in the homestead – including myself – had our insides cleaned and wiped clean by that disease. It would be weeks upon weeks before we could recover with nausea, peeled lips, big heads, knobby knees, and an elephantine appetite which wanted to eat nothing except ripe-red tomatoes.
* * *
I was walking behind him that morning several days after the disease had had mercy on me. He was telling me about ghosts. A clear sky, the sun lifted quietly above our eastern hill. We took the path which the soles of human feet had rubbed between rows of the green cane crop, going to the Tiriki hunter who kept many dogs near the river, and from whom Father had bought our black dog, Bebi. Father kept dogs beyond my ten fingers. Bebi had sneaked and returned to her initial Tiriki owner the day before. So we were going to retrieve her.
“Do you see that homestead?” Father asked when we crossed the river on our way back home. He held onto the chain as the dog followed him. I came last.
These were the early 1990s, and we could smell the bloody stench of multi-party elections oozing darkly from the green breasts of the hills that besieged Odiya.
“Yes, I see it,” I had said.
“Do you really see it?”
He stopped and looked at the home near the hill. Huge cypress and eucalyptus partially hid the tiles on the red roofs. The sun was becoming angrier than it had been that morning. The dog panted as we talked. Her wet tongue dripped saliva onto the grass.
“I see it, father. Where there are many trees?”
“Yes – it is true that you have eyes,” he said in approval.
Then he began walking again. I followed him.
The homestead in question had belonged to a certain white man in the colonial times. I had heard such rumour. Now it was left in the hands of an African widow. Her husband had bought when the white owner (like many others elsewhere at the country’s independence) had sold and fled to Britain in panic.
“They used to slaughter people there,” he said as we walked on.
In Odiya, there were whispers that the homestead near the hill had been a place for butchering tough-headed Africans. The rumour spread forests of terror in our hearts. Our fear worsened when we heard that a corner of the road which passed near the homestead was haunted by a very tall ghost. They said the ghost was so tall that the cars went under him without touching his buttocks at night. The ghost, they whispered, was the sad spirit of the Africans once slaughtered in the white man’s homestead.
I asked: “Slaughter people?”
He said curtly, “Yes. Just the way I said it.”
“Were they eating people?”
“No one knows,” he told me. “We hear that the white people who lived in this Odiya before we came were strange people. Sometimes they drank people’s blood and ate the heart and the liver. Where else do you think the ghosts that smeared you people with anyiew came from? Right there – in that homestead.” He pointed as we walked. “Have you not asked Kadaya?”
“I have not”, I said.
“Ask him and he will tell you”.
Kadaya was the painfully bow-legged labourer who weeded our cane crop field. He laughed very readily, even with children like me. I did ask him why his legs were that badly twisted and he said he had once been a champion dribbler who scored countless goals in colonial matches before a defender ruined his career by breaking both his knees. I never believed him.
The widow who now owned the home near the hill kept many pigs. Each time we went to buy milk (she also kept dairy cattle) we had time to watch the pigs as they ate and snorted. These pigs were said to have been reared there to keep the ghosts of dead Africans at bay.
“I came here in 1964,” Father said as we came to the last bend to our homestead. “Odiya was bush from horizon to horizon.”
“Where had you been?”
“You see, I had gone to Tanganyika. That was how they used to call Tanzania – do you know Nyerere?”
I said I had heard of the name.
“I left Kenya and went in 1951.”
“What took you?”
“I was looking for possession – my own wealth,” he said. “Land was very large there. You could farm the whole world without anyone bothering you. Our biggest fear in Tanganyika was witchcraft. There was not a single thing which God could do under this sky but the witchdoctors could not; except giving life to living things and human beings.”
Mother had told me that it was possible to get lost forever in Tanganyika. A witchdoctor could blind the eyes of your people till they thought you were dead, and then they buried the sausage fruit, yago, or a whole bunch of bananas. And yet, all this while, the witchdoctor had made you a permanent labourer in his cotton fields. You became a living zombie. You saw people, but you could not talk. You had to work in the fields till you aged and died.
Father said it was in Tanganyika where he first learnt to grow cotton in large scale. He grew, harvested, and sold. Before that, he had made bricks and sold.
“If it had not been for my own courage,” he told me the second time we had gone to the Tiriki hunter to retrieve the dog, “I would not have bought this land in Odiya. I would have been as landless as my brothers in Kano.”
He was referring to his two siblings, Wila and Jula, who then lived in Kano. The two had remained in the warmth of their father’s home when Father bolted out in 1951.
In Tanzania, he had been buying time for all the period he grew cotton. Word arrived about independence. When news finally reached him that the new African government was settling people in tracts of land initially owned by the white ranchers, he sold all his assets in Tanganyika and set out on his journey back home. It was the money he used to buy the Odiya tract of land.
No, the village was not initially called ‘Odiya’. Before the British had chased them out of the vast land, the Talai had called it ‘Songhor’, a word whose meaning the new settlers do not know to this day. It was when the Luo arrived that they named it ‘Odiyo Wang’e.’ The name would later be shortened to ‘Odiya.’ This is how it happened: as they stood on a nearby hill, one of the people who were demarcating the land asked how they should call the village.
“We must call it ‘Odiyo Wang’e’”, a man suggested.
“Why?” they asked him.
“But can’t you see? The land has ‘a pressed eye’”.
Those who know say there was such a bout of laughter that the surveyors wiped tears from their eyes when it ended. That was true. Odiya was ‘pressed like an eye’ between three long hills, and that remains its name to this day. Two streams cross the stomach of the village. When it rains, its black, fertile earth is impassable to even the most muscular tractor hauling cane to Chemelil Sugar Factory…
“Do you hear me?” Father would ask as we walked near the green cane-fields. “This land was so wild, so cold, so wet, and so full of cattle rustlers that some Luo who had bought in 1964 quickly resold their parcels to new buyers and fled back to the place near Nam Lolwe, Lake Victoria.”
He said that wild animals had abounded in the green wilderness. The hyena laughed in the darkness. Python crawled in the bush and strangled the dogs. The leopard had been the most feared. They called her ‘nyawang’e tindo,’ – ‘she of the small eyes’.
In the early 1980s something happened in Odiya which reminded the village that the biggest threat to human life is not usually the wild animals; it is the human beings themselves (indeed, even in the case of cattle-rustling in the later years, it turned out that the young men of Odiya were colluding with the President’s people across the border). The misfortune awoke all the old ghosts of dead Africans slaughtered at the white man’s homestead near the hill. It was a wet, rainy evening. Father grabbed his shield and spear, and then dashed into the rain with our herdsman and all the dogs. Mother went and stood in the yard in spite of the drizzle while I stood at the door. We could hear a girl’s voice crying for help from the depths of the cane crop, where the footpath crossed from the shops. I remember Mother standing there for long, looking at the direction of the distress, both her hands folded across her breast.
Father and the herdsman returned later that night. I had not slept and hugged the mat. I heard him tell Mother that someone had removed the eyes of our neighbour’s daughter. Mother screamed with fright. The young girl had been hurrying home from school that wet evening, when an unknown man who had been hiding in the cane crop pounced on her and removed both her eyes.
Around that time Mother’s friend – a widow – was murdered in her hut at night. They said that the murderer removed Suslia’s tongue. The widow’s death so chilled the backbone of Odiya that the nyatao bird grumbled her sad cry in the dark nights. The night owl, tula nyongoro, hooted in the grass behind our homestead. We were warned not to point at an ant-bear even if we saw a fat one fetching termites along the road at night. Dead spirits lived in them, and these could kill us. Bush pigeons sang sadly many days after the widow’s burial.
Of all the terrors that tormented Odiya there was none to rival the trauma of the coming of Democracy in the early 1990s. The brief lull of the late 1980s cheated us that eventually the village would prosper, only to be ambushed again.
That year passenger vehicles plying the Kisumu–Meteitei route began dropping letters which warned villagers to prepare for war if we did not leave Odiya. The President’s people wanted us to go back behind the railway line at Chemelil where, they said, Father’s tribe had been before the white man arrived in the country in the 19th century. In mid-1991, Odiya shops swelled with numbers of Kisii, Luhyia, and Kikuyu visitors fleeing the Rift Valley. Any tribe who wanted to vote for the opposition had to leave the ‘President’s province’.
Our visitors arrived with chilling tales of their wealth plundered, and of people torched in their huts. That was how, as long as the rumour persisted for a good part of that year, half the village slept in the bush at night as fathers and grown sons watched over cattle kraals. The village was angry and shocked. Others laughed off the suggestion to go back behind the railway line at Chemelil. People were desperate – the desperation of landlessness. Father said with a bitter, defiant roar in his voice:
“I shall not leave Odiya. I did not get my land for free. I bought my land with my cotton money. They will take my land only after they have killed me.”
In early 1992, when the maize crop was still very young, our Odiya was attacked by an endless band of young men who painted their faces with white ochre. It was on a quiet February Saturday at around midday. Father lost someone he knew, one who had always greeted me by holding my small palms in his. The barbed arrow struck his heart. The whole village fled to Chemelil.
When we cautiously returned to Odiya that April, we found all the maize crop irreparably swallowed up by the weeds, and the parched hunger which swept the village that year is still remembered to date as ‘Jalang’o lawa’ – ‘Jalang’o is pursuing me’ (a mildly derogatory term then used by Odiya to refer to the larger President’s community).
* * *
“You wait,” Father told me many days later, towards December. “Jaramogi is going to beat him when the elections come. And then we will have nobody telling us to give up land which we bought with our own money.”
The two men he was talking about were Mr. Daniel Moi and Mr. Oginga Odinga, chairmen of the then incumbent KANU party, and opposition FORD respectively. The elections were due at the end of the year. The village knew nothing but extreme happiness. In Odiya, birds danced and whistled in the air, cocks crowed with healthy voices. Children forgot themselves and played with abandon. The sun rose with glowing rays each morning.
“Jaramogi will beat the President?” I asked him as we walked.
“He will – Odinga will,” Father said, stopping to look at me. “Why do you doubt? Of course our FORD will win – unless Moi steals the election. But if he steals then America and Britain will help us.”
And so, when the first democratic elections came at the end of 1992, and KANU remained in power, the whole of Odiya learnt to live by squatting. It had voted for the opposition, and that opposition lost. But no one had whispered to the village that the five years which stretched after the first elections of 1992, to 1997 (the year of the second elections) would be hell in Odiya. Everything broke down. That period of five years is remembered in Odiya as the time when the most number of school children abandoned their education and turned to crime. It was also the time of pettiness and frivolity. Deadly gossiping shot to the skies. Quarrels and boundary disputes between neighbour and neighbour became more common and ordinary than buzzing flies. They began accusing a white-haired cobbler of being a night-runner. No one beat him though. The second mystery was the coughing man called Osuka. To this day Odiya does not know whether or not it was a case of suicide but, in 1994, shortly after the death of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (the FORD leader who had lost the 1992 elections), they found Osuka burnt like a small log inside the cane field where he had gone to remove some weeds around midday. His clothes were found gathered in a bundle under a guava bush. They said he had killed himself by jumping into the fire.
The furnace of the sugarcane crop continued to burn the people. Immediately after the 1992 elections, there was a systematic plan to grind the sugarcane farmers of Odiya to powder because they had voted for the opposition. The whole of Odiya sagged under the weight of ready cane crop which the factory was unwilling to harvest. It suddenly dawned on us that there was an ethnic sugarcane quota at Chemelil Sugar Factory. For Odiya and other villages, the restrictive quota limited the number of tonnes of cane crop per day. The rest of the tonnage came from deep inside the Rift Valley where the President’s people lived. While looking after Father’s herd near the road, and still thinking about the white man’s homestead where people had been slaughtered in the past, I remember the eternal sight of cane trailers trundling from the distant hills to the factory, when Odiya’s crop was drying in the field, just near Chemelil Sugar Factory. I cursed.
That was how Odiya’s hands were tied. Fathers and mothers lost the only means of paying school fee for their children. Most of these left school and became criminals. When another election came in 1997, and the ruling party ‘won’ again, Odiya’s fate was sealed. But the people were not giving up. The village began running away from sugarcane farming and nursed their misery by briefly building a jinxed communal fish pond.
The sugar-cane curse was so bad that the local co-operative society which had a tractor could not cater for all its members, and Father was one. Seeing that the tractor was going to haul someone else’s cane to the factory but not his when here I was, having been chased from school because of fee, Father asked me one evening:
“Now, what do we do?”
I was quiet.
“Mm? Do you stop going to school?”
I looked at him briefly, and then lowered my head.
“Go and sleep,” he said after some time. “Leave it to me. I will have known what to do when I wake up tomorrow morning.”
Early the next morning, I heard him whistle as he walked to the gate. I could hear spanners grinding in his hand. An hour later he came home pushing one front wheel which belonged to the co-operative society’s tractor.
“Eh, and what is it today?” Mother wondered aloud as Father pushed the wheel into the gate. But the man did not reply. He entered the house, took water, wiped sweat from his neck, and then he told me to carry his chair and place it under his favorite jamna tree a short distance away from the hut. He followed me with one large spear. He sat and leaned the spear against the tree trunk.
“If they come today,” he said, firmly looking towards the gate, “I will murder somebody. This wheel is my share of contribution to that co-operative society. I have pulled out this hour. I am no longer a member. Now let me see whose cane crop that tractor will carry to that Chemelil.”
He won the battle that day both for him and myself. Before midday, the society’s chairman arrived and begged him to release the wheel. But he firmly refused. He said he could only do so if the tractor was coming to carry his cane to the factory. The chairman obliged. I realized that the society was even too poor to afford another wheel at short notice. They borrowed someone’s wheel, drove the ageing tractor to our cane farm, removed the borrowed wheel and returned to its owner, and piled Father’s cane on the trailer. Only then did the spear-carrying man release the wheel he had brought home that morning.
* * *
So when he took his sleep seventy-six years after his birth in 1936, and we buried him because his heart betrayed him, I thought even Odiya had died with him. The fears which had walked with him since settling there in 1964 were never exorcised by successive elections. The sugarcane crop was a worse curse than it had been in the tumultuous 1990s. Indeed, in the post-millennial Odiya, banks were swooping and pouncing on dead people’s land to recover defaulted loans, and the second generation of settlers was readily selling its small pieces of earth to hawk-like buyers who listened to auctioneers’ bells ringing in the farms.
It was the bitterness of his death which drove me to find out for myself the mystery of the white man’s homestead at the foot of the hill.
“Ah, come in without knocking, child of my friend,” the old man called Ominda said to me as I entered his house. “Your father used to visit me, here in this house of mine.”
He had been born in 1924, a whole twelve years before my father. He had come to Odiya to work as a cook for one of the colonial white men. He and a few others had arrived prior to the great arrival of 1964. Ominda began:
“The whole of Songhor – before it was called ‘Odiya’ – was settled by white farmers. Before that, the land belonged to our Talai neighbours. I know it because, when I arrived here before your father did, we used to hunt wild animals on top of that hill. I remember well the dead Talai we used to find abandoned and rotting on the hill. Our neighbours used to throw their dead. Odiya was a wilderness. One day we were hunting, and we saw a dead antelope resting on the branches of a tree. We ran away very fast. We knew a leopard put it there”.
He then began counting the white settlers on his fingers. “There was Mr. Potter. We called him ‘Poto Poto’. He grew sisal. There was Mr. Tutton. We called him ‘Tatni’. There was a judicial court in his estate, and people were judged there. And then there was Mr. Meclaud who lived near the museum site, just near the hill. People called him ‘Oliewo’, and his home was the most feared.”
I asked him why the homestead was feared.
“Hele!” the old man exclaimed. “But people were slaughtered there, and they sucked your blood. Have you not gone near the museum site and seen the hole where Oliewo imprisoned his victims? He built a deep hole under his big house”.
My mind tossed and whirled. I tried to remember the ghosts that had made us beat the pans that night in the late 1980s, the one which made us fall sick with measles. It brought back to my mind Father and I walking back from the Tiriki hunter with our dog Bebi in the 1990s. Was it really true? I wondered whether the dead people’s ghosts were the reason Odiya had been such a violent place over the years.
“It was not a secret”, the old man continued. “Any white man who was fed up with his workers always arrested them and handed over to Oliewo. Such people would be kept in the hole as their blood was sucked till they died. After the bodies were thrown where the museum site is, the relatives were called to take the dead men’s clothes home in Luoland, and to report that the man had died in the course of work. There was also a lorry which they used to arrest and collect people. But with time, people would hide in the bush whenever they heard it approaching. If you do not believe me, then look for my age-mate Kadaya. He used to drive the lorry for Bwana Oliewo.”
That was what I did when I left Ominda’s homestead. I knew Kadaya very well. He used to weed our cane crop in the 1980s. The following day, I walked to Kadaya’s lonely hut near the primary school. I found him with no clothes on, except a thin strap round his waist. He could not walk as his legs were painfully folded at both knees. He lived on handouts after losing all means of fending for himself. Hunger was strangling him. Thick dirt stuck on his greasy skin. His toe nails were very long. Kadaya confessed to me, with bitterness in his eyes, that he was paying for his sins. Beginning from 1951, he said to me, he drove Oliewo’s lorry as it arrested people. In the white man’s homestead, he told me, the victims were first injected with some medicine so that they became zombies. And then they were pushed into the hole. There, these sad people would be served little food as their blood was siphoned out. But on the fifteenth day, there were three butchers – an Indian and two Africans – who cut the victims’ throats and removed their liver and lungs. The rest of the body was dumped at the government museum site.
I yearned to see this mythical hole. Walking to the homestead near the hill that evening, I passed the spot where Father had lost his friend to the barbed arrow that February of 1992. The aged smell of the homestead hit me. And then, after persuasion, the labourer I found there took me and pointed at a small underground door, and a very strongly grilled window. I peeped inside. Darkness met my gaze. I went to the museum site nearby – a great joke. Not much could have been excavated from that small place all those decades. Oh dear me, it must have been a ploy for exporting African bones.
I imagined the sorrowful misery which thousands of powerless people had had to go through, all those years, and wondered how such inhumanity could have gone on for such a long time in Songhor, and without the government ever discovering it. And then, to my sad satisfaction in the course of research, I realized that one of the two white men who are listed to have ‘founded’ the Songhor Museum Site in 1932 is the same man who was in charge of the African Section of the colonial government’s Criminal Investigation Department, from 1939 to 1945. He was also a bosom friend to Mr. Oliewo. He was a palaeontologist whose love for human bones still echoes across the whole breadth of the country. I remembered Father and instantly realized how Odiya Village had died even before it lived; her ghosts had every right to bother the living.
IMAGE: Arthur S. Peck