When the bandits crept into the widow’s homestead that night, they intended to steal her two cows but found the door bound with two thick chains. They could not break in without being heard. They stood for a while, thought, and thought. After looking around in the darkness, one of them thrust a hand into his pocket and reached for a matchbox.
That was Opasa’s fourth year of widowhood. She lived in the small village, a settlement scheme where the government had given parcels of earth to her landless citizens after independence. She and her only son Lebo lived under remarkable solitude in their homestead of two lonely huts. Those were many years into the past. Three decades later, the government would descend on its own people and rob them in broad daylight.
She had begun ageing even as she continued to live in her homestead of many mangoes, ripe guavas, and red flowers which the bees and sunbird came to suck every morning. Her husband of a lifetime had long departed. He had abandoned Opasa and Lebo in the quiet village of few, scattered homesteads where everybody knew everybody else by name, look, and colour of cloth.
They founded Nam Village in the sunken eye of the earth. It was an eerie depression of bush and tall trees, and the land, besieged by the green lips of the three hills, sank deep. Quiet streams twined round the chest and arms of the village. Nam was a wilderness because its animals and birds frightened young children whenever such children were sent to the lonely shop. And from above the long, running hills, clouds would slowly lift, revealing the sun. It resembled God waking up the village with His torch…
Had the bandits broken the door that night, the widow and her son would have wailed for help from the whole village. So, out of jealousy, the two men lit the hut and melted into the night, running all the way till they reached behind the hill.
“Ma, but is it the moon?” It was her son Lebo who asked, seeing that the homestead was unusually bright that night. He could see light dancing between the joints and hinges of their small door. The widow continued kneading the kuon corn-bread over the hearth at a corner in the hut.
The mother said, shifting the ladle to her right hand, “Child. Be sure you did not see your own eyes.”
“Ma, I am looking between the door and the wall of our hut.”
“And what do you see, my child?” she asked.
“There is light outside.”
“Ah, it is not time for the moon,” the widow said thoughtfully. “Open the door and look.”
It was then that they heard the muted cries of the cows mooing distressfully in the other hut, struggling to break the walls from inside. Lebo hurriedly pulled the door and ran to the hut, which was beginning to burn in a big smoke. Opasa followed in panic.
“Oh, my mother who gave birth to me! Ululululu!” the widow mourned, her old voice echoing with agony over the vast wilderness of the village. “My hut – my cows – my hut – my cows! Who will help me! Who will help my cows!”
The night sky was dark. Lebo ran toward the hut, but the small fire and the huge, billowing smoke kept him at bay. He panicked, turned back, and joined his mother in wailing for the whole village to rush and help rescue the cattle.
The first man to enter the widow’s yard was Akol’s father, Wuon Akol. He had a shield and a spear in his hand. Opasa received him with tears and wailing, for he was the husband of Min Akol, her bosom friend in the whole breadth of the village.
“Wuon – Akol,” the widow struggled between wails and sobs, “my cows – cows – burning!”
He did not ask for the origin of the fire. The smoke had thickened, and the fire was big. The cows went on struggling with the walls of the hut, their despondent mooing much louder than before. He dashed to the hut, saw the chains, and when more villagers arrived promptly, they used a length of metal to bring down the door at the hinges. The first cow miraculously burst through the door as soon as it went down, and the roof immediately sank behind her.
“There – there – catch her for me – Lebo – Lebo!” Opasa called out. They let the cow roam the homestead in her surprised look. She had no hair on her coat, and her tail was a long whip, its thick end singed by the flames.
“One cow remaining – one inside,” the widow cried urgently.
But no one could enter. Not even Wuon Akol who was more courageous than the rest. And as the widow spoke, something gave way inside the glutting redness of the burning hut. It was a muscular, bursting sound which threw coils of smoke above the fire, with embers and dust, and its rolling echo enveloped the sunken spread of the village, crawling towards the lips of the long hill that night. The gathered onlookers cursed. Others threw their arms sideways. They knew it was the belly of the cow that had been trapped in the cruel heat of the burning hut.
“My cow – oh my cow!” the widow cried.
Before he had died, Opasa’s husband had named the cow that had escaped ‘Openda,’ the reddish-black one. And for days upon days, the villagers saw the cow’s struggles against flies which came to perch on her skin and feed on the pus. Whenever she was overwhelmed by the insects, Openda walked through bush, if only the leaves could keep back the flies. If this failed, she walked home silently, and Lebo opened the door to the hut which the villagers had helped them build anew, where the cow rested away from the buzzing torment of flies. And then, slowly, her hair grew, and the tip of her tail thickened into a knot. For many years to follow, the widow could not forget the tragedy that had befallen her cow. When Openda gave birth to a calf two years later, Opasa named her ‘Apala,’ the white-brown one, after the cow which had died in the hut that night.
It took the ingenuity of Wuon Akol and the other villagers to trace the footprints of the arsonists. When morning came, they braved the mud and returned to the widow’s homestead, where they went round the overgrown lantana camara hedge. They found a narrow opening. And there were two footprints which had walked in the night. These were unknown people, for Opasa said it was neither she nor her son Lebo who had walked there. The footprints were too big to be theirs anyway.
Wuon Akol led the chase. They followed the footprints along the main road. The road had been recently paved by the government to help the few, new farmers transport their sugarcane to the factory several kilometres away, in Soba Town. The footprints left the road for the narrow, winding paths, which they followed into the green hill, which was the boundary between Nam Village and the president’s people. The villagers had never before climbed the hill, and they marveled at the thick, closely-knit, heavy-trunked dampness of the trees. Branches towered above them as if from the heavens. The pursuers felt dizzy casting their eyes at their village below.
They came to the end of the hill and looked farther east. They could see how the small, squatting huts which belonged to the president’s people dotted the other hills. The footprints of their quarry walked on along the narrow, pressed footpaths. They chose to look for the Assistant Chief, to tell him what had led them to his village.
“Jatelo, your honour,” Wuon Akol spoke. “We belong to the village on the other side of the hill. We were following footprints. They led us here, into your village.”
“Footprints?” the Chief asked.
“Eee, jatelo, footprints,” Wuon Akol replied. “It happened in our village last night. They set a widow’s hut on fire and burnt the cattle inside. They were two grown cattle. One cow died, but we managed to break the door in time to save one.”
“Oh, it is well,” the Chief said casually, after a long silence. He spat on the floor. “I will call a meeting baraza and find out. Still, I doubt if it was my people. I know my people. They are not thieves.”
He then bid them farewell, and wished them a safe journey back home.
* * *
For many days after the burning of the hut, Opasa and her son Lebo carried their belongings and went to live in Wuon Akol’s homestead. The widow and her son were too frightened to live peacefully in their homestead. Min Akol welcomed them with wide arms. Opasa dragged Openda along with her, and the cow would graze where she was tethered, near the entrance to Wuon Akol’s homestead, as Wuon Akol led his herd to the fields. The widow would see how flies tormented Openda, her whole skin having been ripped red by fire.
One night around the year democracy came, after the meal of kuon and omena soup, the two families sat talking in Min Akol’s hut. Their minds went back to the night of the fire that had consumed Apala, and then to the villager whose cattle kraal had just been relieved of its cattle wealth by unknown bandits.
Indeed, Opasa and Lebo had many times returned to their home. But they had severally fled back to Wuon Akol’s homestead, when the period of bold cattle raids re-emerged with a vengeance. That plague of torment entered people’s huts and attacked them even in their bedrooms. Those were the years of democracy, and the president’s people plundered with abandon.
“Min Akol,” the widow was saying, “I cannot sleep in that hut of mine. They will burn me with the hut the same way they burnt my cows that year. Even my child Lebo.”
“Rest here in peace, daughter-of-a-woman-like-me,” Min Akol consoled her. “Our neighbours have cold stones for hearts.”
Min Akol’s husband was quiet. He was looking at the wall. He coughed, breathed in deeply, and observed, “They say democracy has come. We will be choosing between many parties at the vote when the New Year comes. But, look at what it means for us – your cattle being raided, and led behind the hills by the president’s people.”
Akol looked at her father. She was Lebo’s age. “Ba, what do they want?” she asked.
“I do not know, my daughter,” he replied. “Perhaps the land. They say the white man took it from them, and we were brought to settle here.”
Opasa said, “They do not want us to give vote to our man when the time comes.”
What worried Wuon Akol even more than the cattle raids by the president’s people was the fat loan. These loans were encouraged by the ministry, and he had acquired a huge one, but had not re-paid a single dirty cent. He was yet to cut the crop and deliver to the factory. The loans were meant for small-scale farmers to expand sugar-cane farming across the country.
“All things have an end; this too will end,” Wuon Akol forced himself to say. But as he talked, his words came out of his mouth with a measure of reluctance.
“Ah,” Opasa disagreed, “I have been running to my homestead and back to yours all these months like a bird building her nest. And someone spoils my nest each time.”
“In the end, even such birds get their nests,” Wuon Akol said with resignation. “But a snake still visits.”
“It is true. One can get tired,” Min Akol supported her friend.
When the bandits arrived that night, they found Wuon Akol resting awake in the hut. Min Akol was snoring on the mat. Their daughter Akol, the widow Opasa, and her son Lebo were stretched near the warm hearth, sleeping. It was a month without rain. Outside, the moon had called all her children and grandchildren, the stars, to laugh at Nam Village from up above. It was so clear outside that anyone who had lost a coin could have seen it shining in the grass.
Wuon Akol’s was the only homestead on the other side of the river, pressed at the foot of the small hill in the village, so it took longer to reach whenever there were calls of distress. Many years after the government had demarcated the land and settled people in the new village, Wuon Akol and his wife would curse why they had accepted to buy that piece of land, which was the last homestead before one entered the land of the president’s people. For that year, when democracy descended on the country, nights were moments of torment. The family – like all families in Nam – could not sleep. And one was doomed if he did not keep dogs.
Many years before, Wuon Akol had been lucky to visit his cattle kraal at night just in time to find three of his bulls loosed from their pegs of loch, ready to be driven out of the enclosure and led into the hills. It had been a narrow catch, and the thieves had fled without their quarry. The following day, Wuon Akol had entered the bush and cut thick poles, which he used to reinforce the walls of the cattle kraal.
The second time, he had opened his door, but only in time to see three of his five bulls being led out of the entrance. The thieves had tried to run with the bulls, hurling stones and arrows at their pursuer, but Wuon Akol’s torch had confused them, Min Akol wailing in the night for help. Soon the whole village had arrived, paths had been blocked, and the thieves had been driven into the hills without their prize. Since that night, Wuon Akol had kept dogs to raise the alarm…
“Chems, Chems,” one man called Wuon Akol by his Christian name that night, ‘James.’ “We came to take them.” They were four people, all standing outside the door.
Wuon Akol did not reply. He listened. The dogs barked vigorously. “Chems,” the voice called again, “it is us. We came to take our cattle.”
Something burned in Wuon Akol’s breast. He knew, somehow, that the thieves had returned, this time to rob him of his cattle and not to steal. It made him angry. The cattle he bought using part of the loan, and which he had not even begun repaying; the cattle he used to till his cane-field with a plough; the cattle he had struggled to acquire all his life, for years and years, to own.
The dogs and the bold voices awoke the sleepers. They sat breathing fast, sleep having fled from their eyes. The widow, her son Lebo, and Akol were all lost in the darkness, looking for Wuon Akol. Min Akol sat on the mat, holding her husband’s wrist. She wanted to light the nyangile paraffin tin lamp, but her husband whispered to her not to do so.
“Chems,” the voice said again, “come out if your body cannot shed blood. Our eyes long to see you. We hear you are the bravest person in this small village.”
Two men had separated and gone to release the bulls from their loch pegs. Wuon Akol could hear the cattle kraal being broken into, and the dogs running, barking.
Min Akol held fast onto her husband’s arm. “Jemsi,” she whispered in the darkness, “do not go.”
“And leave my cattle to go?” he thundered, switching on his torch.
“Chems,” the voice outside said again. “I have bunduki gun, and my friend a panga.” The one who had the machete struck it on the wall three times for Wuon Akol to hear. “If you come out, it will be a contest between our two weapons, which should reach your meat first.”
Wuon Akol wanted to open the door. But Min Akol pounced on him and desperately begged Opasa to stand with her back against the door. The widow did so, crying and catching Wuon Akol to not open the door. Min Akol’s young baby cried on the mat.
“Wuon Akol,” the widow begged, “do not go. You are the only one we have. If they should kill you, we will all remain defenseless.”
A voice mocked from outside. “Ahahaha, let him come out. If you think I do not have bunduki gun, give me your ears.”
The one holding the gun stood and looked for one of the barking dogs. He took aim, pulled the trigger, and the sound echoed. The dog coughed under the mango tree and was soon silent.
“Did you hear?” asked the man with the gun. “Chems. Your dog is now dead. I shot him in the breast.”
Min Akol begged her husband, wrestling with him. “Do not go.”
“I must go. My cattle? I must go.”
“Do not go, Wuon Akol. You will leave me a widow in this strange land.” That was what Min Akol said last, and then she began crying, while she gasped for breath. She was tired.
The voice outside said, “You people say you want democracy. Well, our president has given you that. But give us our cattle also, and all our land. Then you can vote for that man of yours who wants to compete against our president, given to us by none other than God, to rule Kenya.”
Wuon Akol overpowered his captors and broke loose. Taking his machete, he quickly unbolted the door and made his mind to die with one man. The first shot was buried in the wall, and the vicious whiz of Wuon Akol’s machete flew to the grass with one man’s head. That was when the other man shot again. Wuon Akol fell. The bandits cut him to pieces. The two widows wailed…
* * *
They buried him in a hurry. The birds were silent. Curved velvet of dark cloud shielded one horizon of the village sky to the other, and the sun refused to appear. You could have touched the panic with your own hands. The first democratic election was fast approaching, and people knew they would be told to leave their land and return where they had come from.
They called a simple ceremony and, on a cloudy midday before the rain fell, the whole village gathered and buried Wuon Akol in his homestead near the hill. It was a ceremony which Akol could not forget twenty years after her own marriage, and for the rest of her life. She remembered her mother’s breast drenched in tears, and Opasa struggling very hard to console her, while Akol herself minded the baby. And even Opasa had been crying.
No one bothered about the robbery and the murder. But long after the election, and after the president retained his seat, the villagers saw a police van driving to the homestead. Min Akol later said they had gone to ask what had happened, when it had happened, and how it had happened. The police soon abandoned the task without a single fruit…
* * *
There was a rumour sweeping across the country, that parastatals were empty of any money. People wondered in silence. But why? Because their funds had been surrendered to the president’s party to seduce voters with honey and beat the opposition to pulp. To recover the money, the state Agriculture Corporation was advised to demand for a re-negotiation of all loan repayments in the country. One month after the democratic election, even Min Akol had received her letter, which her daughter Akol read to her, and it demanded for full repayment of her late husband’s loan within six months. The widow nearly collapsed. The cane crop was young. It would be a whole year before it could be ready for harvesting.
The period immediately after that year’s election was also the time Akol saw the thick, green trees in the distant hill beginning to look scattered. They said the government was felling and selling timber. But the hill looked beautiful still. Clouds would gather above the distant hill, darken, and then the whole of Nam Village would be shivering under the rain…
“Opasa,” Min Akol said in fright, “these people will take Wuon Akol’s land.”
The village was quietly regaining its calm, and so Akol’s mother had gone to visit her widow friend in the homestead where Opasa had returned with her son Lebo, the burnt cow Openda, and her calf Apala.
“I curse the devil,” Opasa replied, beating her two hands. “I would die myself.”
“What shall we do in this world?” Min Akol asked.
“Child-of-a-woman-like-me, God will find a way to intervene.”
“God is good forever, but my blood has itched me. I fear for my husband’s land. And then Akol and her brother; how will I take care of them?”
“God takes care of children. He knows.”
“Eh!” Min Akol sighed, beating her hands.
“And I welcome you into this homestead even in the middle of the night, Min Akol,” Opasa said, and she began to sob. “How – how – can I forget – how your brave husband – Wuon Akol saved my cow Openda? And – how – I lived in your homestead all that time? If it must come to that, Min Akol, come to this widow’s home; come to this widow’s homestead. It is also yours…”
They held onto each other and cried for a long, long time.
* * *
However, it did not take long before Min Akol received her letter to vacate the land. It was one dull afternoon, and she and her two children had just eaten the midday meal. Opasa had come to see her in her hut. When the man alighted from his car and gave the letter to Min Akol, the widow’s lips dried, and she nearly vomited all the porridge and cassava she had just eaten. She had to go to the latrine and relieve herself. Opasa was crying for Min Akol when the car slid away, boasting out of the homestead.
It was a group of people who arrived one day, at midday, and the visitors told Min Akol that they had come to view the land. She did not stand very far away as they went round the cane crop farm. And then, somewhere near the farm, she saw one man counting one, two, three…and he rang the bell. The shame of indebtedness could not allow Min Akol to ask them any question.
The following week, she and her daughter Akol heard a huge grader tractor approaching one morning. The young baby had been suckling. Before they could find out what it was, the big tractor was running over their small hut, leaving them with no alternative but to flee the hut in a hurry, their porridge quietly resting over the hearthstones. When the hut was laid on the grass, Akol and her mother picked up what they could from the rubble, and then they went and spent the night in Opasa’s hut.
This news reached Min Akol’s brother who lived a whole world away in Uyoma, who then came for his sister and her children. To reach where her brother lived, Min Akol had once had to travel by car across the plain to the other horizon, then farther again, beyond, and beyond, till she had disappeared behind the lake. When he came, they bid Opasa farewell and took the long road. The memory of widow Opasa crying and rolling on the grass as they left her homestead that morning was to remain in Min Akol’s mind till her own death, twenty years later, and it was Akol and her young daughter who returned to Opasa’s burial when news reached her that the widow had died in Nam Village…
* * *
When the minibus stopped, Akol alighted with her only daughter, Alseba, and the mother’s feet touched the village earth after twenty years in all. She carried the child and made her stand somewhere beside the dusty road before returning to pick her basket from the bus conductor. As the car went away, and left them standing, she adjusted her headscarf and let her eyes run over the green landscape of Nam village, and the distant hill. The wind blew, and the old smell of the village as she had known it those twenty years in the past, rushed into her nostrils. She looked at the basket resting on the dust. She remembered her dead parents, one buried here in Nam, the other in Uyoma, and emotion overwhelmed her. But she steeled herself.
“Going,” Alseba said, pointing at the bus, disappearing in the distance. “Bus going, see?”
“It will return,” Akol told her daughter.
“Will carry us?”
“Yes. It will carry us back to Uyoma.”
“No, not tomorrow.”
“When?” the daughter asked again, “When bus carry us?”
“The day after tomorrow – walk, Seba.” She loved to call her by the shortened form of her name, leading her only child to the footpath which did not pass near their old homestead. She had wanted to take the path that went past the homestead, but a terrible fear seized and suffocated her. She unwillingly abandoned the idea.
Akol balanced the basket on her head, and she concentrated on Alseba’s small legs as the daughter walked on the dry dust. The child had small, young legs, onto which the wind rustled the small white dress as they walked. The child was so light that her small, black shoes did not produce a tapping sound on the dry earth.
“Yes, my child?” Akol encouraged her.
“Bird – bird,” Alseba pointed at the long-tailed oluru bird which crossed their path, in the small guava bush some distance ahead.
“Oluru – it is called ‘oluru’,” Akol said.
“That is true, Seba, oluru bird has long tail.”
More birds crossed the path to join the first. They were flying from the leaves of sugar-cane where, for some reason, they had gone and perched. Akol looked and saw a few white ants beating their wings, flying above the green leaves of cane crop. She concluded that the birds had gone to eat these, and they were now full, so they were flying away.
As mother and daughter went past the small bush, Akol remembered what she had been told those distant years ago, about serpents and white ants. That it was not uncommon to find serpents where white ants were rising and flying from the soil, exactly a day after it had rained. No, serpents did not really eat the ants, but they went there to lie in wait for the birds and, specifically, rats. Her mother had told her that rats were to serpents and snakes what cooked chicken was to human beings – a most treasured delicacy.
They went down the steep bank and crossed the stream, mother holding her daughter’s hands. Akol could see – and it saddened her deeply – that the old log was still being used as the only ladder with which to cross the small stream. Many years before, when Akol’s father had been alive, a villager had slipped and fallen into the water as he tried to cross by jumping over the stream one rainy evening. The following day, led by Wuon Akol, the whole Nam Village had gathered and felled a big tree, which then became a ladder across the dangerous stream. Because the log was slippery when it rained, Akol could see that the only improvement on it – in all those years – was a few wooden poles and rails which had been nailed onto the log, and the villagers held onto these as they crossed. The lips of the stream were starved of all their green, moist trees and climber vegetation. The thin length of water was running on bare rock, panting under the hard, dry sun.
“Water – running,” Alseba said. “Yes, water,” her mother confirmed.
“Can sweep me?”
“Yes, Seba. Till you reach the lake in Uyoma.”
“You die, my child.”
“Swim – swim.”
“Seba, can you swim?”
“Eee… swim,” the child said.
Akol laughed absentmindedly.
She then adjusted the basket seated on her head as they walked on and, after climbing the steepness of the stream bank, her view of the village became clear. They stopped, and she sighed, before taking the last bend into Opasa’s homestead. She could hear people mourning her mother’s friend in the old homestead, the home she, her mother, and Akol’s uncle had walked from, on that morning those twenty years before. And now her own mother could not come because she had herself died in Uyoma. Akol remembered her father’s murder that night. How widow Opasa and her only son Lebo had sought refuge in their hut, and how the two cows had been burnt confronted Akol like a wound in the ear. Tears welled her eyes, and her breast heaved. She looked at the distant hill. Her eyes could see only a few trees. She turned to the hill near which they had lived, and where her father, Wuon Akol, had been buried. It was bald, like a widow who had shaved her head after mourning her husband’s death. Like Lebo, many people who had been mere children those years now had their own homesteads. There were dark-green cane leaves where Wuon Akol had once had a home. Her father’s homestead was completely erased from the face of the earth. As Akol faced the entrance into Opasa’s homestead, which was overgrown with weed, she suddenly dropped her basket, something rattled in her throat, and her lonely voice echoed among the sugarcane leaves and mango trees in the compound. Alseba ran behind her with small strides, crying…