Even the elderly villagers in Odiya could not tell where the wild pigs had gone to that season. The animals disappeared suddenly, and without any cause. It was rumoured that the herd might have discovered other maize fields across the border where the President’s people lived, and the pigs were raiding these at night. Ordinarily the murder of a patriarch bull and the ripping open of its bowels and sprinkling the dung in the season’s maize fields would have caused the disappearance of the widows and their children till the next season. But no one had murdered the patriarch bull. Not Father, not Akumu, our neighbour across the stream, who was Father’s worst enemy.
Mother complained around that time, “I wonder which devil spread hunger in the stomach of these monkeys”.
I thought Mother spoke the truth. The monkeys living in the dark branches of the huge stream trees became daring. As usually happened with nature, the absence of one calamity is compensated for by the doubling of the other. The wild pigs were gone. But the ong’eche monkeys were intact, their appetite for green maize doubled, and it was the reason our dogs and I spent whole days in the maize fields keeping the tailed animals at bay.
At midday Mother brought food. The baby was strapped to her back. Before eating, I pinched two or three balls of the kuon maize-bread, dipped in the omena soup, and slowly threw at the dogs. They jumped and caught these balls in the air.
The osogo weaverbirds resembled the monkeys. The birds arrived every morning in their large groups of yellow bellies, black heads, and red eyes. Trapping some using the long hair from the tail of Lando, our cow, I thought that someone had lengthened the beaks of the osogo. Their beak resembled two sharp knives glued side by side. By midday all these black beaks were white from the raw maize milk which the birds sucked.
“Saaau!” I would shout at the birds and throw sanjura mud-stones released from the tip of a stick. The birds would beat their wings and flutter away.
“You are lazy animals, fools!” I would tell the monkeys. “You wait for my Father to prepare the farm with our plough and our oxen. You are nowhere when my Mother and I are sowing and weeding. But when the maize is nearly ready you arrive with your parched faces, your chin, and your mouth, just like oyundi the small bird”.
I then mocked the monkeys by singing the oyundi song:
Oyundi, ani dhi imoti Oyundi, please go and fetch firewood
Oyundi ni tienda lit Oyundi my legs are painful
Oyundi, ani mok mach Oyundi, please light the fire
Oyundi ni tienda lit Oyundi my legs are painful
Oyundi, ani luok sende Oyundi, please wash the plates
Oyundi ni tienda lit Oyundi my legs are painful
Oyundi, ani bi itedi Oyundi, please come and cook
Oyundi ni tienda lit Oyundi my legs are painful
Ah, bas, Oyundi koro bi ichiem Ah, then, Oyundi now come and eat
Oyundi ni sesese… Oyundi comes sesese…
I hurled stones at the monkeys. But the patriarch bull did not run. He walked. His wives and children climbed the trees and disappeared. The patriarch held onto a branch and shook his head, his two arms pushing up his body. Cowardly blood rushed into my head. The dogs ran and barked at the patriarch. He fled as I remarked:
“I will beat you monkey. I am as brave and strong as the President”.
Someone threw a stone which passed over my head and rushed to the monkey. The animal threw himself and melted in the green branches. I looked back. It was Mrenju, our herdsman. After searching around and throwing another stone at the fleeing monkeys he said:
“The President is a coward; ‘our person’ is brave”.
I asked, “The President is not brave?”
“No. But ‘our person’ is”.
I said, “I think the President is also brave”.
Mrenju looked at me strangely.
“How do you know?” he asked. “You were not born when ‘the first one’ died. Even this ‘second one’ resembles the first. The two of them are pure cowards”.
“I have seen their heads on the money”.
He said, “Today I can tell the government’s money-makers in the city to smear the head of the hare on that money. That would be a great thing. But it would not rid ogila nyakarondo, the hare, of its known cowardice and change him into a brave lion”.
“Mother said money is a great thing. It buys anything”.
Mrenju told me, “Yes. But the heads they select to smear on that money of theirs do not belong to great and brave people”.
“Why do they choose the heads of cowards?”
“Why have they not selected the head of ‘our person’?”
‘“Our person’ does not want his head smeared there…”
* * *
All the monkeys had fled our stream the next time we talked about them. The maize fields were still green with the crop, but no monkey came to destroy. Mother was happy that I was not going to spend days shouting in the maize field. Father was as quiet as his disposition allowed. I was about to ask him where the monkeys had gone to when he walked me to the kiru hut which stood on a raised ground near the maize field one evening. Father and Mrenju used to rest in that hut while they guarded the maize at night. I would also shelter there when the sun was too hot to stand in, and I was telling the birds and the monkeys to leave our maize fields.
“Look at him”, Father pointed a short distance away as we walked to the kiru hut. “He is the reason his wives and children went away”.
My mouth was open.
I asked, “What killed him?”
“Human beings killed him”.
Father did not reply. He looked at the dead monkey. He turned and directed his winner’s arrogance at the huge trees. Lastly he turned his face, shielded his eyes with the right palm from the orange rays of the evening sun sinking in the western sky, and threw both eyes across the stream where Akumu lived. He was Father’s age-mate. More than this, he was also Father’s bitterest enemy. The whole of Odiya knew it…
I went and stood near the dead monkey. Whoever killed him had meant to advertise the animal to the whole world, and to the other monkeys. His head faced the ground. The ears were small and dead. His eyes were closed. The nostrils were innocent. His tail looped and dangled near the ears. The wind came and blew his coat. The hair shook with purple health. I looked well and guessed why Father was avoiding my question. I did not like the monkey’s pain because they had taken a length of wire and tied the animal on the neck of his male bell. That was what they suspended him by.
We went home that evening. Father cleared his throat and spat on the grass. His voice boomed. When the maize had started to dry, Mrenju whispered to me how Father had struck the head of the monkey with his orujre sling.
* * *
There was a rumour about widow Ludfina, but Mother dismissed it with a wave of her hand. She said to me:
“Liars are countless in this Odiya. We came here when Akumu had inherited Ludfina. The man who fathered you could never have dreamt, even at the point of death, of entering a hut whose floor had been touched by the soles of Akumu’s feet. I can swear”.
She was referring to Father.
Mother told me how clans had fought and thrown spears at one another before the coming of the white man. Father’s clan, Kano, had turned Akumu’s clan, Oywa, into slaves. Oywa people had arrived late on their journey across the lake. Finding no land that they could settle in and call theirs, Oywa people sought refuge in Kano. They felt welcome. But soon, as happens to all visitors, Oywa people had slave rules set for them by their hosts. If a cock belonging to an Oywa family opened his throat and crew, Kano neighbours chased, caught, and slaughtered him. If an Oywa bull bellowed, Kano neighbours arrived, drove it out of the boma, and butchered the animal.
Mother said that the anger of Oywa people was too much to bear. They decided to leave. But Kano could clearly see that they were losing their slaves. The slave-holders fought to subdue the fleeing multitude, but the bravery of a suffering man cannot be matched. Oywa people gained their freedom by moving southwards, displacing a weaker clan, and settling on the land. When the white man arrived at the turn of the century and put a big full stop to the war, spears and okumba shields went silent, but the enmity between the two clans was indelibly etched in the hearts and memories of every clan member.
Mother whispered to me how the tribe threatened to split after the country got her independence. Whatever the direction of the split, many could swear that the two clans did not wish to belong in the same basket. The group that supported the President from the other tribe naturally benefitted. A few people in Oywa clan did, and Akumu was one of them. A majority of Kano did not, and Father was one.
The old clan grudge was at the core of the boiling blood between Father and Akumu. When the government turned Odiya into a settlement scheme, Akumu bought tracts of land ten times larger than Father’s. They rumoured that Akumu had been favoured by the system. Indeed he had a gun, having been a soldier before, and he and the game wardens used the weapon to shoot down bushbuck antelopes in the night. At daytime it was the awendo guinea fowls that bore the brunt of Akumu’s gun. Mother said that the government had brought the game wardens to Odiya so they could protect the game animals, and Mrenju and I laughed till our eyes filled with tears.
* * *
Across the stream, his stretch of land bordering ours on the other side of the water, Akumu lived like the white men who had once haunted Odiya. His land was neat. There were rows and rows of Napier grass on the cheeks of his hill where the water threatened to sweep away the red soil. The flowers were large and bright. The hedges and trees looked fresh and pruned. There was a large space on his side of the river. He brought a tractor and ploughed it one day. We saw deep holes being dug. Soon there were oranges growing there; neat, well-kept fruits. Before we began stealing those oranges, the stream swelled so powerfully that it left its path and wandered in a curve into our side of the land one rainy season. Akumu quickly brought young banana suckers and planted in the old eye of the stream.
Father was silently livid. When the rains receded, he too planted banana suckers. The next rainy season the stream swelled, uprooted Akumu’s suckers, and dragged them downstream. There was a glitter in Father’s eyes. As usual, he swept his throat and spat on the grass while he looked towards his enemy’s homestead across the water.
* * *
It was the herdsman Mrenju who told me how Akumu and Father began being very bad enemies. I was helping Mrenju tend the cattle on our side of the stream that evening, when we heard the bursting of Akumu’s gun. Monkeys fled from the orange orchard. When the animals were gone, we saw Akumu climbing the steep hill that rose from the stream. I saw a young girl slightly above my age standing in Akumu’s homestead. Mrenju told me the girl was called Rembo.
Akumu walked home. He wore heavy gumboots like a real soldier. His clothes were a real hard khaki trouser and a thick pullover, both dull-green in colour. His cap was also green. When he turned and looked at our direction from across the stream, his gun in hand, I thought Akumu had just returned from a real war. He was capable of beating up all the villagers and expelling them out of Odiya. Only my Father could beat him and snatch the gun from him. We looked on as he turned again and walked home in quiet, measured steps.
“You see that man across the stream?” Mrenju asked me.
I told our herdsman, “I know he is called Akumu. He was in the army”.
“Eh, this child, where did you learn his name?”
I said, simply, “It is not hard to know people’s names”.
Mrenju was still looking at me with hanging lips. He had not expected me to know the man’s name. He recovered and went on:
“Well, you see him?”
“He and your father cannot drink water from the same calabash”.
I did not understand.
I asked, “What if you give them water in a cup?”
The herdsman laughed till he spat on the dry grass. When he raised his face and looked up, still laughing, I saw the sun shining on his teeth. He stopped briefly and shouted at the cows not to wander into the nearby bush of oturo bam trees. He resumed and said:
“You are still a very small child. You see, it is not that he and your father do not like calabashes. I mean that they are the worst of enemies”.
“He is a very bad man. He wronged your father”.
“Your mother had not even put you in her womb”.
“How did Akumu do that?”
“I will tell you”, he said. “When people first settled here in Odiya, there were very many wild pigs and antelopes. The pigs destroyed maize, while antelopes ate people’s beans. But you see this Akumu?”
“He had that gun he still carries, so he could shoot down many of the wild animals that went to eat and destroy his crops. Your father did not have a gun. And so, one day, your father took his dogs and a spear. He hunted down and pursued a very big bull bushbuck antelope till he killed it near the stream. Do you know what Akumu did?”
“Akumu watched your father kill the antelope. That bad man went and told the game wardens. They came immediately and found your father skinning the antelope. They took him to court. He lived in prison for one year”.
I asked, “Antelopes must not be killed?”
“They must not”.
“The government says so”.
“White people who come to this country pay money to see the animals”, Mrenju explained. “The country earns money from the wild animals”.
“Who collects the money?”
He said, “The man in Nairobi has a big basket. White people put the money inside the basket”.
“But Akumu also shoots antelopes with his gun”.
The herdsman said to me, “That is why your father is bitter with him to this day. Akumu has two mouths and four eyes”.
I too began to hate Akumu that day. The whole Odiya knew that, because of him and his gun, the antelopes knew no peace. All of us had stood in the patio one night as we saw spotlights burning in the darkness, the gun bursting. Father had said it was Akumu and the game wardens hunting at night. The hunters must have lost their quarry. For, while herding our cattle the next day, a few bushes away from the spot where the spotlights had burned, Mrenju and I found a bull bushbuck dead with an open stomach. The carcass was huge. Its neck resembled our bulls’. The white tail looked up. The horns were spindly and threatening. His eyes were dead and blue. His intestines were being bitten by many ochunglo ants.
Akumu must have heard me calling Mrenju to come and see the dead animal. We were still standing there, looking at the great, elegant bull, when Akumu arrived in his boots and tough, green clothes. He carried his gun.
“You found him here?” he asked.
“This child found him”, Mrenju said to him.
“Oh, very good”, Akumu replied. “We could not catch him last night – a very troublesome bull. I and the game wardens shot him. And then he got lost. We looked for him with the wardens – with the wardens. But we could not find him. So this is where he came and died”.
Saying so, he turned the animal this way and that, and made him sleep on his back. Then he fished out a long, sharp knife from a sac somewhere in his waistline. I did not blink thrice before Akumu dismembered the bushbuck’s right arm and gave it to me.
“Tell your father I was with the game wardens – the game wardens”, he stressed as he dragged the animal into the bush.
Before long, Mrenju showed me two of Akumu’s seven sons going to help their father butcher the animal in the bush. It was Edi and Roja. Mrenju said Edi was Akumu’s lastborn son, and the father loved his son more than a mother leopard did her daughter. Rembo followed them much later. I raised my arm and waved at her. She waved back.
At home that evening, it was Father who made us know why Akumu had repeated ‘I was with the game wardens’ several times.
“That fool”, Father said with a defiant look. “He must have been hunting with his sons. He does not want me to report to the game wardens the way he did in the 1970s, and I was arrested. I have a very selfish man for a neighbour”.
We did not eat the bushbuck arm.
Father said, “Give it to the dogs”. And then Father looked on as the dogs lay on the grass and broke the bones with their teeth. He stood akimbo. He cleaned his throat and spat on the grass. His voice boomed the way it always did…
* * *
It surprised me how family secrets in Odiya suddenly came out after the first democratic elections were won and lost. Take the example of the villager called Oyoo. They rumoured that he did not have male children because he had fathered a son in Randiki’s homestead. I heard that Randiki’s wife, Dunata, was busy looking for a male child elsewhere, and there was no stopping her. That was how Mrenju told me about Akumu’s family across the stream.
The herdsman said to me that Akumu was the wealthiest man in Odiya. I had seen the man’s gun. I also knew that his minibus was gathering money by carrying passengers all the way to town, very far away. Mrenju swore to me that no villager’s piece of land equaled Akumu’s. Standing on one end, you could look across Akumu’s universe of land ‘till your eyes got lost’. There were the oranges which we saw many buyers harvesting near the stream, to resell.
Mrenju began telling me about Akumu’s homestead because we stood on our side of the stream and saw the leaves of the oranges turning yellow. The trees had also grown bushy. This never happened before. Akumu had been so organized that the whole farm had looked regularly fresh. The weeders and pruners had gone there daily.
“Do you see the leaves of the oranges turning yellow?”
I told Mrenju, “I see the fruits and I want them”.
“Ah, nch, I mean the leaves”, Mrenju sucked his teeth impatiently.
“Not the fruits?”
“No!” he pushed my head. I fell on the grass and laughed. “Do you see the leaves?”
“Yes”, I said.
“I will tell you when I return”.
Mrenju looked around, saw nobody, and crossed the stream. He looked again. There was no one guarding the fruits. He plucked the oranges very fast, like a monkey, and ran back across the stream. As we ate the stolen oranges, I wondered why the fruits were not being guarded these days.
“I was beginning to tell you something”, Mrenju said.
I said, “Yes”.
“Things are not well in Akumu’s homestead”.
“People say his wife Siprosa wants to leave him”.
“Mrenju has not asked Siprosa; go and ask her so Mrenju may also know”.
We ate all the oranges and washed our mouth in the stream. The sun was going down. The weaverbirds were flying back to their nests inside plantations of sugarcane. Mrenju later told me that Akumu was dividing his land to his seven sons, and also to the two boys he had fathered with widow Ludfina, but Siprosa did not like the idea. That was why the orange orchard was not being weeded, and the minibus was not being driven to town. Siprosa and her seven sons were disobeying Akumu.
* * *
There was a small scuffle across the stream as we stood in our homestead that night, towards the arrival of the second democratic elections. The noise came from Akumu’s homestead. A female voice screamed once and died out because a huge voice commanded so. The female voice must have been Rembo’s, Akumu’s beloved daughter. Someone must have run forward and sealed that mouth. Father would have rushed there very fast had the noise come from a different homestead. But not from the homestead of his sworn enemy!
Mother went to see Siprosa the following morning to find out what had happened. She returned home with the news that Akumu had ‘fainted’, and his family had rushed him to the hospital in town. Siprosa said her husband was doing well in the ward. Father was indifferent.
That evening I stood beside Mrenju as sad noise tore the air. Akumu was dead. Rembo cried the most because she loved her father.
The previous night, it was she who had screamed with fright as she bolted out after hearing her father’s death-snore. Edi had barked her down. Rembo had found her father’s body prostrate at the door, quiet under the solid weight of Odiya’s darkness, the death rattle in his throat rumbling as he drew air in and out. Edi had stood near the body. He prowled like a lion. When the lastborn son had roared, Rembo had immediately kept quiet because she could vaguely see that Edi still held in his right hand the tarimbo crowbar he had used to strike a single death blow to the back of his father’s head…
They brought home and buried Akumu’s body on a Saturday. Father did not go to the funeral. And you do not know the emptiness that haunted Father’s life after they buried his enemy! Mrenju and I used to gossip that Father was suffering from terrible boredom – a winner who had won all matches in the world, and there was nothing else left for him to win. I asked Mrenju what fighters who had conquered all battles should have done with life. I said it was a life of endless nausea. People looked at the winner without any interest. They whispered: ‘Well, he won everything. But so what? It did not even stop his fingernails from growing. He too will still die’. Mrenju laughed and laughed, and said I needed to ask God such questions.
In the weeks that followed, Mother said Father was talking to himself. He muttered on his way to the shops, and back. He bought a new walking-stick. It did not help him. The emptiness of living without an enemy cleaned his insides. The days were the same. The sun still rose from the east and walked on the belly of the sky. The nights remained the same. The stars did not turn red and black. They were simply there. It was Mother who saved the man who was slowly losing his sanity. Father was tethering Lando to the peg and muttering to himself when Mother held him:
“Look, omera. One of these days you will run mad. What strange anger do you still hold against dead enemies? Go to Akumu’s grave and help set him free. You will also have helped yourself”.
That day Father and I crossed the stream. I stood aside as he laid his walking stick on the grass near Akumu’s grave. He closed his eyes, and his head drooped. I could see him praying. His lips moved. He prayed for long. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the mound of earth stretching from Akumu’s toes to the dead man’s head. Father breathed in, deeply, and expelled the air from inside his breast. We did not find Siprosa at home. We bid Rembo farewell and left. Father looked at me on the way, and I had never seen a human being so totally relieved of all his burdens…
IMAGE: Michał Huniewicz