A Life in Thorns
By Dipita Kwa (Cameroon)
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But the sons of rebellion shall all be as thorns thrust away,
because they cannot be taken with hands.
But the man who touches them must be armed with iron and shaft of a spear . . .
Mutatedi didn’t know why this verse kept ricocheting in his already clouded mind when all around him men chatted merrily as they drank what the tappers had brought in with the rain that morning. It was half past five from the flock of parrots heading westwards back home for the night from the tall bush behind St. Augustine Catholic Mission. He was pleased to see that Mukunda was alive again after the rain that had kept the entire village indoors since dawn had finally ceased.
Sitting on a bench in this shade built of Indian bamboo serving as Mami Koko’s palm wine parlour, Mutatedi looked beyond the green palm trees of the CDC plantation, at the giant Mt. Cameroon looming in a clear blue sky and stretching her broad shoulders down to the Atlantic Ocean. The mountain reminded him of those days of his apprenticeship in Herbalism when he was still a boy under his father’s tutorship. Every pupil of Jongise had made those numerous trips to the mountain and back with his retiring tutor who was invariably his father. With the reasoning of a child then, those were worse days – days he regretted being Muna Ikanea – the son of Ikanea – the Chief’s son. Being the Ikanea’s son and by stellar appointment the next person in the line of the clan of apothecaries wasn’t his main reason for learning hard. He learnt because of his love for mysteries.
It was always on Saturday mornings when it was still dark and his mind gladly shrouded with sleep that his father would send for him to meet him at the beach with two paddles. He would gruntingly throw the blanket off the bed, deliberately exposing Kingue his twin brother to the piercing cold that always gripped their room during the last hours before dawn. Kingue wasn’t a guardian so he could sleep till sunrise, eat a fat breakfast and join the hunters to the forest latter on. Kingue was the next Ikanea by virtue of his being born sixteen minutes before Mutatedi.
Carrying the two paddles carved from cam wood from the palace all the way down to the Mongo River, Mutatedi felt a sublime communion with the Station of the Cross acted on Good Fridays with Catechist Isaiah as the Christ. The paddles were his cross borne for the redemption of mankind from diseases and careless death. Tree roots, sleep and the piercing darkness caused by the thick canopy of the branches of those mango trees bordering the path that led to the Mongo made him fall on several occasions. He recalled losing three of his milk teeth during one of such morning trips. From the beach, he and his father sailed in a canoe from Mukunda up the fast-flowing river that relentlessness tried to sweep them backward. His father was a fine canoeist who never wasted any ounce of unneeded muscle power to get the canoe moving.
Located some four kilometres west of the Tiko-Douala Highway wasn’t the only aspect that isolated Mukunda. The mud-brown road with several wide and deep potholes compounded its inaccessibility. A car watched from a high like from the top of one of the many tall palm trees that flanked the road could be seen to weave its way about like a beaten snake, creping from one end of the road to the other, jolting, rebounding, and then smoothly gliding in those short distances void of holes. To the passengers it meant a short moment of relaxation before an abrupt jump off one’s seat again as the car hit one of the stone-lined puddles and then falling back on their cushionless seats with their butts crushing on the iron framework.
Many inhabitants of Mukunda didn’t cherish undertaking gruesome journeys by road. River Mongo provided an acceptable alternative means of transport by canoes. The Mongo was the mother of life, flowing solemnly through the ages as generations passed through her womb to disappear into the darkness of the life beyond giving room for those taking on a fresh breath of a new life.
Ikanea Nya’sam wasn’t an exception to the users of the river route. Gently and chatting all the time, he and Mutatedi sailed right up to Mofondo.
The Ikanea knew a total of two hundred and sixty nine thousand plants by their names and uses, from the algae on the river bed to the baobab on the mountain top, as written down in the Malée Ma Jongise – the Bible of Redemption. The Malée was a book with three-inches-thick covers of sheep skin and brown pages of tanned hide with symbols in Masri engraved in every leave. She was written by one of Mutatedi’s great-grandfathers Lokula Mukodi more than five centuries ago. Lokula was believed to be a descendent of one of Shishak’s courtiers. His grandparents are said to have migrated from Mesopotamia, through the Congo down to Bimbia. Lokula was skilled in woodwork. As a young man and against his father’s commands, he got entangled with the Portuguese sailors who traded in hide and mythical handicraft among other local handicraft along the coast. Acting as a middleman between the strangers and the men of the hinterland, he soon learnt to read and write the strangers’ language. All seemed to be going well until one evening, like many other evenings, he boarded his canoe and sailed up to the ship, got himself merry and drunk and couldn’t paddle back home that night. He returned home in the morning to find his first son dead from tetanus infection. It was said that he accused himself of being the curse of the death of the boy. How could the son of the next apothecary die of a minor ailment like tetanus when his father was still alive? The evening of that same day, he packed his belongings together with the corpse and sailed down River Mongo with his two wives, a daughter and the second son to establish his own chiefdom and to immortalise the generational wisdom of plants. The substance of what Lokula wrote was supposed to be the guided remains of what had trickled down from the recovered works of Elihoreph, one of King Solomon’s scribes. That was how Mukunda, named after Lokula’s deceased son, was founded.
These were just rumours. However, Mutatedi believed in one thing: the special powers of the Malée. To him the book was a treasure worth preserving till the end of time.
The Malée was composed of two parts of seven books each on the medicinal uses of plants. The different methods of inflicting and eradicating ailments were grouped into two broad headings: Killing the Seven Virtues – with detailed descriptions of the uses of one thousand six hundred and thirty nine plants, and Healing the Seven Vices using one thousand and twelve plants. The original language had been Portuguese, putting the Malée’s birth around the 1470s. Lokula had inserted extra empty sheepskin leaves at the end of each book to enable additional knowledge to be included following the format of summation as it was handed down the line of seers. In the course of time the language changed from Portuguese to German, English, Duala and even traces of Lingala as more remedies were discovered and added in the tongue of the new seer.
After he had established the root of a clan in Mukunda, Lokula Mukodi weaved a training routine for seers and their successors. Like all chosen young seers Mutatedi too went through the sweet tedious grilling.
During those Saturday mornings of his apprenticeship, Mutatedi and his father would journey on from Mofondo through the stony farm path that ran through the columns of those abandoned German buildings now strewn with mosses and ferns to the mountain. With the Malée and a day’s provision in the Treasure Bag of antelope skin carried over the Ikanea’s shoulder, they combed the mountain, and as the day grew older, Ikanea Ngody Mudiedi Nya’sam taught him the sacred names of the various herbs, reeds and trees, and their distinct life-giving and life-taking powers as described in the Malée. Mutatedi on his part wrote down what was handed down to him into his own note book bought for him by his mother on her last trip to the hospital in Tiko from which she never returned. They spent the night in a hole in the trunk of a mahogany and began their journey back home on Sunday morning before sunrise.
Before he was twelve, Mutatedi could concoct portions for the treatment of asthma, chronic eczema and all forms of skin diseases. What his copy couldn’t have then were the of the master’s copy. This meant he couldn’t create or heal severe diseases like insanity then until he was older.
Over the years as he grew stronger in the ancient wisdom of giving and taking life, Mutatedi began to worry about preserving the sanity of this culture. He thought there might one day be a disruption in the chain of transmission and the book fall in hands that would use her for evil ends. That was, however, the least of his worries. How could the Malée be used for the wellbeing of a larger population, was his main preoccupation. One seer in every generation wasn’t sufficient to take care of the numerous health issues that plagued Mukunda and the surrounding villages. His shoulders were already drooping from the work load he had been saddled with from when his father departed to the land beyond.
Mutatedi saw the obligation of ensuring the putting in place of a more secured and efficient system of handing down the knowledge. Not that he didn’t trust the judgement of the stars in this matter – human interpretation might be blurred by the cares of life especially when all rest in the head of one man.
Now at the age of fifty two, Mutatedi and his twin brother the Ikanea Kingue Ngea Elolombe had a plan which they considered safer for the transmission and use of the content of the Malée. They knew it wasn’t the most reliable and safest plan to say the least but the only best option they could think of.
Mutatedi found himself emptying the second cup of fresh palm wine and almost feeling the urge to command a third. He shook himself free of the temptation and searched his shirt pocket for a hundred francs.
‘Thank you Docta,’ the barwoman said as Mutatedi paid his bill and stepped out of the low shade.
‘I should be thanking you for the good wine, Mami Lucia,’ Mutatedi said with a thin smile.
It wasn’t every day that Doctor Mutatedi came into her bar to drink palm wine. He never seemed to be free of work. Behind his back he was often referred to as a bee.
Mami Koko certainly felt honoured by this brief visit. She wringed her fingers and smiled back shyly.
‘We hope you pass again some other time, Docta,’ she said, ‘Koko, say goodbye to Uncle Docta,’ she pulled her three-year-old daughter from under the table where she was playing with beer cocks.
‘Bye, bye Uncle,’ the naked child said, waving her dusty hands. ‘You will come again tomorrow, won’t you?’
‘Surely, I will,’ Mutatedi said with an assuring grin.
Dressed in his best black velvet sanja and starched white shirt, Mutatedi walked thoughtfully to the palace. Firmly held in his armpit was the project for the development of a Research and Development Institute on Traditional Phytochemistry in Mukunda approved for a joint sponsorship by the WHO and the Herbal Society for a United Africa (HSUA) in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health. Mutatedi smiled broadly as he greeted women and children on the way. Everybody knew him. As Traditional Doctor, he was famous.
Today the 16th of March 1973 was a great day. At last his vision of bringing hope for a healthier life for all and making Mukunda the most prosperous village in Mongo Area was becoming a reality. His main task this evening was to formerly announce the good news to the Council and to get everyone to start mobilising the necessary manpower and other local resources necessary for the project’s take-off which wasn’t long from now. Most importantly he needed the collaboration of all traditional medical practitioners within and without this chiefdom.
The courtyard was crowded as usual, both with councillors and idle people who always came to stand by the window to pick up pieces of information to stock their grapevine.
‘I salute you all!’ he called out to a group of six councillors standing together under the palm tree in front of the palace. ‘I am almost late,’ he added before realising that nobody was listening to him. The councillors were tightly entangled in an argument. There wasn’t a single face without the ridges and furrows of a frown on it.
Nobody among the men acknowledged his presence and Mutatedi wondered what they were seriously deliberating on when he had good news for everyone.
‘They are always complaining!’ Mutatedi grumbled quietly. ‘If they are not cursing the rains for coming early, they are insulting the sun for refusing to give way for planting to begin. Whatever came their way brought with it a motive for criticism.’
He shook his head piteously and walked into the empty courtroom. He took his usual seat, two places from the Ikanea’s throne, turned the first page of the project booklet he was carrying and smiled back at the golden letters of the title: “Flowers for Tomorrow”. It was a title chosen by their father, the Ikanea Nya’sam the night before his eternal sleep. Nya’sam hadn’t any knowledge on project writing and development. When Mutatedi had come up with the idea some twenty-six years ago, he and his brother Kingue had written the first draft and shown to their father. The retiring Ikanea had insisted on blessing it with a name before joining his predecessors.
‘The journey is beginning to late when the fuel is almost depleted!’ Mutatedi said aloud, stretched his legs in front of him and began reading. He couldn’t tell how many times he had read this work from cover to cover. He knew every phrase and formerly in it by heart yet each time he read through there was this unique thrilling sensation like that of a dreamer soaring in the sky over a barren field with a can in hand spraying the water of fertility on the dying crops below and seeing them slowly getting greener behind him as he passed by. Each time he read through, he felt that sweet peace of a job well done.
‘Thank you all for attending this historic session.’
Ikanea Kingue’s voice brought Mutatedi back to the present. He hadn’t heard anyone come in. Looking around he saw that the other eight councillors were already seated. He equally noticed that Ekambi, Mbollo and the other four councillors with whom they had been arguing a while ago were still wearing that gloomy look. The Ikanea Kingue Ngea Elolombe was complete in his ceremonial regalia, from the brown skullcap of woven raffia fibres adorned with twelve cowries and three red parrot’s feathers. Two cowry necklaces of varying lengths lay loosely on his chest over his sky-blue shirt. His sanja too was of velvet tissue but unlike Mutatedi’s, his was an elaborate cloth with flying birds embroidered in gold. On his feet were light brown leather sandals. He held a broom in his left hand while a black paddled with a key clipped over its neck, the nginya mboka or the force of the house, leaned against the wall on the right of the throne of polished bamboo.
‘Our grandparents toiled,’ Ikanea Kingue said with a distant look on his face. ‘They used axes, cutlasses, shovels and hoes to dig the roads we are using today. My father and some of your fathers carried seawalls and gravel on their heads in buckets to fill the numerous potholes multiplying on our roads every season. All this they did to better our lives. I am confident to say that the tears, sweat and blood shed for this community didn’t go in vain.’ He placed the broom he was holding on the arm of the chair.
‘We have lost children, wives, brothers and sisters,’ he went on, his voice carrying a lingering tremor, ‘not because we deserve losing them but because we are trapped in our ignorance on how to effectively wage a war against illnesses and pain. We perish when everywhere around us we are surrounded with the most lethal weapons of all times to combat the enemies of life. Because of the blindness of our minds to the essence of our natural habitat, for centuries the human race has suffered and died from strange and familiar illnesses when we have the cures growing on our doorsteps. Today another sun is about to shine her healing light to enable us live a life of minimum pain. We shall be able to live a life in which death doesn’t visit us because of our lack of knowledge, but because our bell above has finally tolled summoning us back to our source of life. We must thank God today for keeping us alive to change our fate for the better.’ He stopped to regain his breath.
Mutatedi realised he had held his breathe through his brother’s opening address.
‘Not wasting much of our time, I will immediately call on Mutatedi Elame Ngody – the Healer and Guardian of our Treasure from Afar – to take the word from me,’ Kingue concluded, his grave face now taking on the brilliance of an achiever.
‘Thank you Ikanea,’ Mutatedi said and stood up. He had long waited for this moment and didn’t have time to run around words. ‘I know the existence of the Malée has not been a topic open for discussion out of the realm of the generational six chosen to live her mystery. From the age of three, I have remained her ardent pupil and a practitioner of her values to this day. The Ikanea, Nubokise, Elongui and Mukuri here present have been the wall of support I have always needed to help me in my task of middleman between God and the sick of our land. So far we have tried our best. But our best is not enough. We can’t afford to function in a setting where we can only use our gift to the fullest of what is in the head of one man – me. My son who is the next in the line is still a boy, barely five years old.’ He stopped for a moment as he realised that Ekambi and Mbollo were frowning and fidgeting with their seats as though they were bored by his words.
He picked up the project booklet he had placed on a side stool and opened the first page. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the new way forward. Some of you know what this is all about but for those whose knowledge is based on rumours I will like to present to you today a project aimed at giving a broader scope to the bearers of the sacred wisdom of Malée Ma Jongise. This project, Flowers for Tomorrow, is for the setting up of a research structure that will look into ways of establishing a comprehensive scientific analysis of the content of the Malée. We are glad to announce to you the decision of the Herbal Society for a United Africa (HSUA) and the World Health Organisation to sponsor the creation of this centre right here in our village. This project is intended to carry out a detailed study of our medical processes and formulate the scientific basis of every cure.’
‘With due respect Councillor Mutatedi,’ Ekambi interrupted with a voice that sounded like a grunt, ‘you shouldn’t waste your time and ours in telling us what we already know. We don’t think you actually know the implications of this fabulous project of yours. I will not elaborate any further.’
Ekambi got up slowly. ‘I too have an announcement to make,’ he said. ‘In my capacity as the new Project Coordinator of Mukunda Traditional Council, I and my competent collaborators would have been the once to draw up what you now present to us as a new way forward. To cut things short, I and my collaborators have a better project which meets the true needs of our community – a project that won’t enrich the powerful few and impoverish the powerless masses. ’
‘I don’t understand,’ Mutatedi said and looked at the Ikanea for an explanation but only saw a look of bewilderment on Kingue’s face. He sat down without another word.
‘Councillor Ekambi, can you please hold your peace and let Mutatedi speak?’ Kingue asked slowly.
Mutatedi could see that the Ikanea was trying hard not to look and sound embarrassed and annoyed.
‘I am sorry Ikanea,’ Ekambi said with his thin lips twisted in a provocative smile, ‘But we are tired of having a minority sit in their corner and draft whatever children’s rhyme their shallow minds could allow to impose on men like us.’ He looked proudly at the other councillors around him and seemed to be inflated by the stony looks on some faces.
‘We refuse to be manipulated into accepting to follow a wild dream that we won’t be able to sit with our grandchildren tomorrow and recount,’ Ekambi said, his voice getting louder with each word. ‘This is an act of grave treason, selling the heritage of a people to foreigners in the name of giving it a universal view for the benefit of the so called world-at-large. As a result, we sat together and carefully came up with this new project which will be submitted to your herbal-whatever within next week. Mbollo, can I have the book, please?’
Mutatedi sensed his breathing cease for a long while. Then he felt like screaming and hitting his head against the wall as he watched Mbollo hand across a three page document with mud stains on several places.
‘This is ridiculous,’ Mutatedi mumbled and felt beats of sweat already breaking on his forehead and trickling down his nose.
‘I think we are missing something here,’ Ikanea Kingue said cryptically. ‘We cannot replace Flowers for Tomorrow, I’m sorry. It is too late now. We can’t go back to our partners to say . . .’
‘Of course, we can always go back,’ Mbollo interrupted loudly. ‘Are we not the ones who gave them the first one? What is their problem if we decide to change what we asked in the beginning?’
Mutatedi could hear his heart punching his ribs as though looking for a route to break free and run. A bunch of men who didn’t know how many letters constituted the alphabet now stand to challenge the substance of his only legacy to Mukunda!
He looked at his brother who seemed to have suddenly grown older than his fifty-two years. Kingue’s face had drooped and his eyes had a frightful lifelessness in them. Never had anyone dared to interrupt the Ikanea during a council session without permission as Mbollo had just done.
‘Councillor Ekambi, what is this new idea you’ve got then?’ Councillor Nubokise asked. Nubokise was the person raising Mutatedi’s son. Musango had been living with the Nubokises from the day he left the midwife’s home five years ago after his mother’s death during labour.
‘The idea is simple,’ Ekambi said confidently. ‘We have over twenty native doctors in this area who are doing their good work in very deplorable conditions. We understand that this project of Mutatedi’s is supposed to cost some hundreds of million francs. We think this is just a waste of resources as the Malée or whatever you call it might end up being nothing but a concoction of words intended to sooth the frustrated spirit of the writer.’
‘I might need to draw your attention to the fact that you are making reference to the great founder of this land that welcomed you as a stranger just twelve years ago,’ Mutatedi said admonishingly.
‘Sorry, if the truth aches,’ Ekambi said. ‘What I was saying is this: we would rather prefer a project costing half of this amount, a project to provide financial and material support to each and every Native Doctor to do his job more efficiently. That is, of course, after constructing a better road and providing electricity to Mukunda.’
‘And that is the people’s mind,’ Mbollo chipped in hastily.
‘Look, I don’t care whose minds you are representing,’ Mutatedi said curtly. ‘You and your clique of traitors may come up with a plan for skyscrapers and ring roads for Mukunda some other time and get the World Bank to fund it. But as far as this is concerned –’ he waved his booklet in the air ‘– I won’t sit and watch you destroy the only hope of building the foundation of traditional medicine on a scientific base for the betterment of everyone!’
‘Is this supposed to be regarded as a threat?’ Ekambi hissed.
‘If you wish to consider it so,’ Mutatedi replied.
‘My people,’ Kingue called out, ‘I think we have been pulling on each other’s beard unnecessary. This session wasn’t called to judge the authenticity of the Malée or how the project developed from her will benefit each of us sitting here. We were chosen to work for the masses and that is exactly what I urge us all to do.’
‘That doesn’t mean we should sit and blindly watch you sell our values for your personal gains,’ Mbollo blurted out. ‘We have lost so much from this marriage between tradition and modernity.’
‘So much indeed,’ Ekambi shouted his confirmation. ‘And we suffered these losses because a few persons given the responsibility to guide ancestral values decided to sacrifice the people’s destiny for their own selfish needs.’
‘What values are you two really out to defend?’ Mutatedi shouted. ‘Neither you nor your fathers or grandfathers before you were here when this treasure was built, yet you sit here today to defend what I call blind selfishness. You don’t sound different from many of your gifted parents who died taking with them all the knowledge they had on different aspects of life because they were afraid the prospective beneficiaries might use it to lead a better life than themselves.’
‘Or to cause more evil because of present day quest for personal gains, do not forget,’ Ekambi interjected.
‘I haven’t forgotten, Councillor Ekambi,’ Mutatedi said. ‘I wonder what would have become of the world if every young woman seriously abstained from suffering from the pains of childbirth as narrated by their mothers. Everyday we come across children who are a source of grief to their parents and a liability to the society and others who are a blessing and a hope to mankind. Must we then, because of the thorns, reject the roses?’
‘Yes, Doctor Mutatedi,’ Ekambi said in a firm voice. ‘We can reject the roses if plucking them for their sweet scent and beauty might bleed us to death. The needs of Mukunda are electricity, pipe borne water, a school and a good road linking us to the major highway and not an organised scheme to impoverish those who have been .’
‘Good words from a visionary,’ Mutatedi said, nodding stiffly. ‘What then keeps you from realising this great ambition of yours right away? Mukunda has the strongest young men in Mongo Area. You just need to get them together and the work will be done in less than no time. Look, Councillor Ekambi, the reason you haven’t realised your bright vision is because you lack the means – especially the knowledge that others have developed for centuries and are now sharing for the good of everyone.’
‘Not for free!’ Mbollo shouted.
‘Not for free, I agree,’ Mutatedi said, his face wearing a faint smile spiced with anger. ‘That is why the choice of the project site wasn’t a mistake. Putting it right here in Mukunda, among other things, fulfils your marvellous dreams – our road will be properly rehabilitated, electricity will come, pipe-borne water . . .’
‘And a fat envelope will enter your pocket at the end of it all!’ Mbollo grunted and shook his head. ‘This can’t be! You have drained this community for too long that this time we are ready to fight to the last breathe for the projection of our own voice. We won’t allow you to ruin the lives of other big native doctors while you grow fat from their source of livelihood.’
‘I now see the root of your worries,’ Mutatedi said in a whisper. ‘Mbollo, can you tell this council how much I charged for curing your tuberculosis or your son’s jaundice for you to give the impression that I do my work for money? I once again warn you that I won’t allow a bunch of greedy people who don’t know the difference between heartlessness and responsibility to dissolve in one day a vision we have been building for over two decades.’
‘Your vision is for you and your stomach,’ Ekambi remarked and leaned back in his chair.
‘With due respect Councillor Ekambi, between us you know that Mutatedi has always been an honest and dutiful doctor to the patients of Mukunda and the neighbouring villages from Moquo to Missaka, as far as Misselele and Mongo,’ Councillor Nubokise said, his face contracted in an angry frown.
‘An honest doctor indeed who killed his own wife for power,’ Mbollo said, gritting his teeth.
A chorus of murmuring filled the room.
Mutatedi felt blood drain down to his feet. He never expected anyone to go this far. He thought he now understood why that verse had stuck in his head a while ago. Truly one needed to be armed with the iron of endurance and the shaft of the spear of good discernment to touch these sons of rebellion.
‘I am sorry, Ikanea,’ Mutatedi said and got to his feet, pushing aside his chair.
He clasped the project booklet under his arm and matched out of the room into the cold night air.
Mukunda was laid out like a fallen tree. The lower end of the trunk pushing from the roots was the bumpy road that began from Tiko - Douala Highway and ran in its ugly scattered humps through a palm plantation on the left and a forest of variable thickness on the right. Some two kilometres from the root, it grew branches on both sides that formed the nine main quarters of Mukunda. Each main branch further split out into narrow animal-like tracks terminating either along the right bank of River Mongo or in isolated houses built away from the rest. At the end of one of this tracks stood Mbollo’s three-roomed plank house, the one he had built from the thatch hut he bought from Dikalo. The sales agreement had been simple and clear enough: Mbollo gave Dikalo seventy-five thousand francs, transformed the rickety mud hut with leaking thatched roof into a spacious three-roomed plank house with a roof of corrugated iron sheets. Dikalo occupied one of the rooms for free. Until after Dikalo’s death, the provision of a coffin and the organisation of a proper burial by Mbollo would the land and the house finally become Mbollo’s. The traditional council was the natural trustee.
Although a Nigerian, Ekpo wasn’t really considered a foreigner. His father had come to Cameroon some fifty eight years ago. Ekpo was born in Malende, just across the river from Mukunda and had schooled at Penda Mboko. It wasn’t abnormal when he presented himself as Mbollo’s witness during the signing of the agreement some four years ago. He had encouraged Mbollo with the reasoning that Dikalo wouldn’t have to be tolerated for long as the ailing drunkard couldn’t have more than twelve months to live. But to Mbollo’s greatest anguish, with Mutatedi’s help Dikalo survived the tuberculosis a month after the deal and didn’t seem to have the faintest plans of suffering from a cold, let alone dying. Ekpo knew Mbollo somehow blamed him for urging him to sign the agreement even when it hugely favoured him in the long run.
However, that was not why Ekpo had sailed all the way from Malende this night to visit Mbollo. The witch doctor from across the Mongo had given Mbollo an assignment two days before this afternoon’s council session and what he wanted now was a confirmation that all went and planned. It was sixteen minutes past seven from his cheap electronic wrist watch with plastic strips. For three minutes he had deliberately kept their discussion rove around pleasantries in order to relax his tense host as they drank the bottle of Johnny Walker he had brought with him.
‘You should try to reduce some of the fat,’ Ekpo said as he watched Mbollo slumped in his tight wooden sofa like a hippopotamus. ‘You risk ending up with diabetes or some heart problem.’
The faint light of the hurricane lamp with soot-blackened glove sitting on a bamboo cupboard cast the two men’s crooked shadows on the plank walls behind their chairs.
Mbollo attempted a slightly visible smile.
‘This is all the life we have, Doctor Lu . . . ’
He checked himself.
Ekpo laughed and gulped down the whisky in his cup of ram horn. ‘Say it!’ he challenged. ‘I am Doctor Lucifer to my friends and foes alike. You can call me by the name.’
‘Well, eh,’ Mbollo stammered. ‘I was saying that this is all about life. When I see the corpses of men, women and children younger than me, I see no reason to restrain from enjoying myself, Doctor Lus . . . ’
‘If you see eating and drinking heavily as the trunk of enjoyment . . . Now tell me, what happened.’
He thought Mbollo would have jumped out of his chair if he was thinner. He saw his friend quickly grasp his cup and burry half of the rim in his mouth. He waited, staring indifferently at the numerous copper rings in the four fingers of his left hand.
‘He stubbornly walked out of the room,’ Mbollo said, perspiring profusely.
‘Yes, before then?’ Ekpo urged calmly.
‘I did as you said. I took Ekambi and the other three to Mami Koko first where I bought them drinks with all what you left with me. I explained to them the situation and I think we all think the same way now.’
‘The council therefore accepted not to give their blessing on the project I presume.’
Mbollo shook his head.
‘He and his brother didn’t want to hear a word that opposes their plan for a stupid book,’ Mbollo said with a stiff frown
‘And you did your best to ruin the rest but throwing Mutatedi out of the room,’ Ekpo said and raised a hushing hand as Mbollo was about to protest. ‘My friend, there something you have to know. If you and your countrymen see this as manna from heaven, then let it be engraved behind your minds that we the native doctors of this area can see nothing in it but the steady drifting of desert sands. That is the reason we are ready to reward you enormously to stop this madness as soon as possible.’
‘But I . . . we are doing our best,’ Mbollo cried out.
‘By reminding a man of his dead wife and accusing him for her doesn’t look like the opening greetings for a friendly talk. There are moments like this that I really want to split open that head of your to examine what you have got for brains. You were given a simple assignment to convince just five out of the eight councillors to oppose the project and immediately demand a vote of views. You instead spent precious time crying over how rich the two brothers will become if everyone is led down their road.’
‘But I thought that was what you said the other day,’ Mbollo said. ‘You would have been there to hear him preaching about that useless book written by his great-grandfather as our hope of salvation.’
Ekpo could have told him then to hold his tongue and mind what he said regarding the book but he thought Mbollo’s feelings at the moment were adequate to achieve his aim. Ekpo knew about the Malée. His father and the late Ikanea had been very good friend frequently visiting each other and exchanging medical ideas. For example it was the Ikanea thought Ekpo’s father how to cure asthma using the stones from the head of brokemarried. The power of the Malée was indisputable and, like all his colleagues, Ekpo would pay any affordable price to lay hands on the book. But this he wouldn’t achieve by hailing the herbal bible in the presence of Mbollo. It was better if each of them maintained their impressions at their present levels.
‘When is the next session scheduled?’ Ekpo demanded.
‘The Ikanea dissolved the council yesterday until further notice,’ Mbollo whispered. ‘He said he would call for a revote of councillors in the coming communal Labour Day and until this is done, all decisions rest with him and his immediate advisers.’ Mbollo cleaned sweat from his brows with the thick first finger of his left hand.
‘That doesn’t sound right to me,’ Ekpo said meditatively. ‘I think we are forced to take care of him first – and as quickly as possible.’
He saw Mbollo’s eyes fly wide open with fright and awe.
‘Yes, my friend, we have to act fast before finding ourselves as jobless beggars,’ Ekpo growled. ‘I have no other source of income from my noble job as an herbalist and I will be a real coward to sit and watch anyone heap starvation on my doorstep.’ He got up abruptly to Mbollo’s chair, squeezed the councillor’s fleshy shoulder, and smiled down at his wet face. ‘I will get back to you shortly. Good night, my good friend.’ He patted Mbollo’s back reassuringly and walked out into the dark night.
* * *
After the premature termination of the council session, Ekambi had stopped at Mami Koko’s to drink a cup and think. Mbollo had refused to join him claiming to have a very important business back at home to take care of. It was a long time since Ekambi experienced profoundness of thinking with successive cups of palm wine – and a bottle of beer. Before it was eighty-thirty-six he had emptied over nine cups of palm wine. It came a moment when he couldn’t place the face or voice of the man who had offered him a semi-empty bottle of beer. But he knew it almost tasted bitter. He still felt it in his tongue and some of it must have poured on his dress. He couldn’t actually picture how he got back home although he recalled someone tugging on his elbow and ushering him roughly down the road. Now he knew he was standing at the open window of his living room and leaning on his shirt that he had removed and placed on the lower window frame.
‘You are tired,’ he heard his wife whisper close to his neck. ‘Come let me accompany you to bed.’
‘Efeti, please leave me alone,’ he said. ‘I am not a child to be carried to bed.’
‘You need to rest.’
‘Rest!’ Ekambi barked. ‘How can I rest when Kingue makes a fool of me Ekambi Epale Ngando? I will rather sit up all night until I find a permanent solution to his troubles. He has the stone heart to dismiss me from the council – I, Ekambi Epale Ngando!’
‘I don’t like when you speak like that of the Ikanea,’ Efeti said and crossed an arm around his shoulder trying to pull him from the window.
‘I said leave me alone,’ Ekambi shouted and stroke off her arm. ‘Who is Kingue after what he did today? Kingue thinks he came out of the placenta with the throne. I will have to show him that my grandparents too were chief’s where I was born.’
‘You are shouting!’ his wife remarked, attempting to close the window.
‘Yes, I will shout again. So what? Kingue and his brother believe they can cook cockroaches and dead rats and feed Ekambi with. I say today that they have failed. Mbollo opened our eyes to the stupid game those two were about to play with this village. But they have failed really badly. Before this is over we shall know whose blood is most bitter. Who said I can’t be the Ikanea of Mukunda? Is it because I didn’t go to school as he did? I shall lead the revolution to throw him face-down out of that chair and show him how a leader should lead the people. ’
‘Yes, you are right,’ Efeti said in a low voice and began to caress his bare shoulders. ‘They must have forgotten that my dear Ekambi doesn’t eat cockroaches and dead rats. You were born to be an Ikanea and not a mere councillor.’
‘That is it! They must have forgotten that solid fact!’ Ekambi reaffirmed.
‘Come on to bed and we shall together think of how to force his dead rat down his throat,’ Efeti said, slowly leading her husband to their room.’
There were five main occupations in Mukunda. If you were not a farmer like almost everyone or a fisherman like Edimo or a carpenter like Ndille who built most of the plank houses and all the coffins for the dead, or a palm nut thief like most of the youths, you were a native doctor or a combination of two or more of these functions.
Since Mutatedi walked out of the council yesterday, he hadn’t spoken to his brother again. He had gone straight to bed that night and was the first person to leave for his farm this morning where he had spent all day weeding grass from his maize farm. It was the night call of the partridge that got him on the road back home. As soon as he had dropped his machete behind the door, he picked up his soap dish, closed his door and was heading for a bath in the river when a child selling okra hailed him to say the Ikanea wanted to see him.
Now after watching Ndille the carpenter quietly washing his dirty clothes by hitting them on the huge log that stretched from the shore down to the middle of the Mongo, Mutatedi dived again into the water. He lay flat on his stomach on the river bed and carried golden sand grains in both hands. Then he threw back the content of one hand and began counting the tiny grains in the other as he remembered yesterday.
As usual a verse resurfaced from his many thought: there are those who rebel against the light; they do not know its way nor abide in its path.
Like several other days of his life, he regretted being old. If only he had more years to live he might be able to correct some of the errors committed in the course of his youth. Of course, there were some he wouldn’t be able to redress. For instance, he wouldn’t be able to go back on his decision not to travel abroad for further studies after graduating from St Joseph’s College Sasse. Every young man of his age then was leaving the country. And today most of his age mates were ministers and directors of companies. Here he was at last; a miserable farmer and an unwanted and hopeless traditional healer.
If only he was a young man again instead of a fifty-two-year-old with just a bag of herbs and a cold and lonely house to leave behind for his son. He had a chance yesterday and he failed to use it because of anger . . . because of people like Mbollo and Ekambi who had nothing to add to the life they had met.
Mutatedi’s heart began throbbing violently against his ribs as his body demanded air. He couldn’t resist much longer. Like an arrow, he shot out of the water and gulped in as much air as his lungs could take.
‘Ah, Doctor, you are here!’ He heard a voice say from behind the long fingers of elephant grass up the banks which hid the beach from the road.
‘I thought I will be bathing alone without anyone to talk to,’ the newcomer said.
Mutatedi knew that crispy voice that sounded like breaking dry leaves beneath one’s feet even before the owner made his appearance up the stairs of logs which led to the water below. It was Dikalo. He must have recognised the wrapper spread on the grass. Mutatedi sighed and wondered how Dikalo succeeded in giving names to people and ensuring that they stuck. Since Dikalo started calling him Doctor, nobody has ever called him by another name. He was sure that two-thirds of the children below the age of fifteen in Mukunda did not know his true name other than Doctor.
‘When I say men are wicked, I really mean every word,’ Dikalo was saying as he took off his once-white singlet with a tear around the navel the shape of a dog’s head. His trousers ended just below his knees and were coated thick and smooth with ageless dirt which he never bothered to wash. ‘Can you imagine that the biggest bunch of plantain on which I have made all my plans for the month was technically beheaded early this morning? The thief must have been a very tall person to cut off the bunch without wounding the stem. I strongly suspect Binzi. I don’t know what he is always searching for in people’s farms.’
‘A community blessed with idle young men is a good breeding ground for crime,’ Mutatedi said and felt thankful that Dikalo would tell him how yesterday’s council session ended after he was forced to depart. Dikalo wasn’t a councillor but he never missed a phrase properly or badly placed anywhere around the village.
‘You’ve been missing,’ Mutatedi said, watching Dikalo pick his way down the wet and slippery logs. ‘I hardly see you these days.’
‘Doctor, I won’t tell you a lie,’ he said. ‘It is that diarrhoea again. It has kept me indoors for two days now.’
‘For once, I am happy to hear that you suffered again from diarrhoea,’ Mutatedi said in an admonishing tone and felt his hopes for information ebbing away. ‘What did I tell you?’
‘Not to eat pork again, Doctor,’ Dikalo recited like a school boy caught shooting mangoes during school hours.
Mutatedi saw Ndille look up from his washing for a second and chuckle.
‘That’s not what I said,’ Mutatedi said to Dikalo. ‘I never asked you not to eat pork. What I warned you against was organising the burial of the carcass of sick pigs in your kitchen. I heard Mbollo’s pigs are dying of the swine fever. You must have counted yourself blessed by his misfortune…’
‘No, Doctor. You know…’
‘I know nothing other than that a few weeks ago I prepared medicine for you and immediately you felt better, you plunged back to the source of your miseries. Come down and bath. Don’t stand there staring at me. You alone know what is good for you.’
‘Just help me for the last time,’ Dikalo pleaded. ‘I swear I won’t come to you again with the same complain.’ He appeared very sober as he always was when his mind was free from the clutches of afofo. If there was one place Dikalo cherished most, it was Mami Koko’s. There he was sure of free cups of palm wine and several shorts of the locally brewed gin – and of course a great dose of the latest news in and around Mukunda.
Mutatedi pretended to think about his request.
After a while he said: ‘Come to my house this evening at about seven or early tomorrow morning.’
‘Thank you Doctor. Without you, most of us would have joined our forefathers long ago.’
He stepped gingerly into the water and screamed.
‘What is it?’ Mutatedi asked, looking very alert.
‘Don’t mind the cat!’ Ndille said in a mocking tone. ‘Having all those dogs for friends is the surest way of ending up with rabies.’
‘Look Ndille, I am not your equal,’ Dikalo retorted angrily as though he had been waiting for Ndille to utter a word. ‘If you had any sense in that thing you carry around for a head you would have noticed that I ignored you from the moment I came here. I know you have no respect for your betters so I am not asking you to respect me. Just ignore me as I have been sensibly avoiding a bunch of you lately.’
‘Wait, Dikalo, how old are you? Look at a small boy of forty-nine!’ Ndille sneered.
Dikalo turned to Mutatedi, his almost empty mouth revealing two incisors and three infected molars living their last days. ‘Doctor, did you hear that? Ndille calling me a small boy! I, Dikalo La Ngoss’a Pungu, being called a child by someone who still lives from his mother’s pot!’
‘It’s better than selling my father’s house and living in it again as a tenant,’ Ndille said and dove into the water.
‘Did you come to this river today for me?’ Dikalo demanded in fury when Ndille resurfaced a few seconds after.
Mutatedi who has been soaping his body in silence decided to intervene.
‘I think he was only joking, Dikalo,’ he said. ‘Now come on and bath before night meets us here. E—eem, Councillor Ndille, how did it go yesterday after I left?’ Mutatedi asked, knowing beforehand from where he would get the right information. ‘I mean at the palace.’
‘The palace! . . . they said many things,’ Ndille said and lowered himself into the water again.
‘They! Were you not there?’ Dikalo asked as soon as Ndille surfaced. ‘I hate hypocrites. You people go about in this village at night backbiting those you call your own during the day.’
‘Dikalo, I think you said a while ago that I should keep my mouth out of what concerns you,’ Ndille said pointing a warning finger at Dikalo. ‘I demand that you too should keep your hollow mouth out of my business.’
‘I won’t, Ndille,’ Dikalo retorted. ‘I say I won’t keep my mouth shut for anything in this life except death. If you like don’t build my coffin when I die. They will smoke me on a barn. What you people are plotting in this village concerns me from head to toe. By the way, the doctor asked you a very pertinent question, give him an answer.’
‘And if I refuse?’ Ndille asked.
Dikalo laughed, splashing water over his scaly bald head ravaged by dandruffs..
‘You can sew your mouth if you want,’ he said. ‘I have all the facts up here.’ He hit his head with a finger and cringed at the impact. ‘Do you think there is something that goes on in this world that I don’t know about?’
He turned to face Mutatedi.
‘Let me tell you, Doctor. As soon as you left, Mbollo, Ekambi and this idiot engaged in a rotten scheme to convince everyone that you are a vicious fool. They said you were planning to throw a last heavy punch on life before you faded away. That is why you secretly wrote and sent a project that concerns everybody without consulting anyone. They said you are the type who sells a nation for a seat in a cult since life meant nothing to you but a play tool. Mbollo called you a short-sighted owl. Ndille called you a one-legged thief. I will not tell you what they said about that group that is supposed to build that your hospital.’
Mutatedi thought that Dikalo got his vibes mixed up there.
‘I am not planning to build any hospital for myself,’ he corrected.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter what you want to build – a pig sty or the Unity Palace won’t change the present state of things. To conclude, all the ideas laid down in that project for which that your group will be throwing money were rejected yesterday. Mbollo called for the revision of the entire project as though he knows how to spell his own name. He sees you as a louse wanting to fill your flat stomach for the last time with the life-fluid of Mukunda before you die.’
Mutatedi wadded towards Dikalo. ‘Dikalo, my dear friend,’ he said, placing a hand on Dikalo’s thin shoulders. ‘The Ikanea, Nubokise and myself have been fanning this flame for a long time, even before your father died – for more than fifteen years today. Now that the fire is about to be kindled, how do you expect some us to feel when we see ducks coming to dance and flap their dripping wings around. How do you call that?’
‘They say the blind manner in which the Ikanea supports you calls for suspicion,’ Dikalo said. ‘They say the two of you have secretly been planning to drain the last breath from this village before you go.’
‘Go to where?’ Mutatedi asked.
‘Die!’ Dikalo said, almost smiling. ‘After all, you are two old people with death impatiently waiting in the next bend. As though you two are the oldest people we have around!’
‘What exactly did we do wrong? Staying awake all night to think of the tomorrow of a people who were deep asleep in the drunkenness of the evening before?’ Mutatedi asked, his brows wrinkled in a thoughtful frown.
‘Ask me again!’ Dikalo said, splashing water on his head. ‘Oh, before I forget, it was suggested and agreed that the treasury be transferred to Mbollo immediately. And I hear our good friend Ndille is the one who brought up the most acclaimed suggestion of the evening. So you must note that as from yesterday the 16th of March Mutatedi Elame Ngody ceased being the Treasurer of Mukunda Traditional Council.’
Mutatedi regarded Ndille who was concentrating in putting away his washed clothes into a black plastic bag.
‘Where have we kept our senses of priority?’ Mutatedi asked. ‘This is an opportunity that you and your children might never have again if I die without making it happen. Yet here we are, comfortably kicking the offered plate of food with our sandy feet . . . Dikalo, please bath otherwise I will leave the two of you behind.’ Mutatedi said and began swimming vigorously upstream as though he needed somewhere to vent the frustration welling inside him.
‘Doctor, don’t be angry,’ Dikalo said. ‘It is untamed illiteracy that is eaten us dry. You should not always believe that it is indisputably true that in the village of the blind the one-eyed is made the Ikanea. Here in Mukunda, we sought to take out that lone eye of his so that we all talk from the same treetop.’
‘I think I will be leaving,’ Ndille said picking up his bag and faking a shiver. ‘I have a slight fever coming.’
‘It should have been epilepsy,’ Dikalo mumbled and gave way for him to wade to the foot of the stairs. ‘Disciple of the blind!’
‘We must learn to tolerate others, after everything otherwise the world will be too hot for all of us to live in,’ Mutatedi said later on after Ndille had left and they too were dressing up to leave. ‘It’s not every thing we feel, hear or see that we must express in action. I now think I would have stayed back yesterday and tried to safe our future. I really feel sorry for what I did yesterday. I know that the truth itches most of the time, but we must try to contain it at times.’
‘I have been trying to ask you what actually made you leave,’ Dikalo said as though speaking to himself.
‘Mbollo accused me of killing Ngonda.’
‘What! I missed that part.’ Dikalo screamed and cupped his mouth with his left palm. ‘And what did the Ikanea say to that?’
Mutatedi smiled in spite of his heavy heart. ‘I didn’t sit long to hear that. Let’s be going. It is getting dark.’ They walked in a file, Dikalo ahead and Mutatedi following behind.
‘God and every honest person know that your wife died of fatigue and birth pangs while she gave birth to Musango. I was there myself when Jombi closed her eyes. We have all shared your sadness following her death. Ngonda was a kind woman, the love of this community. I gave her the name of Mami Mukunda before she became pregnant and kept everyone waiting for that child who will change the name.’
‘I loved my wife, Dikalo,’ Mutatedi whispered. ‘And whether they believe it or not I did not kill her. I still love her even in her grave –’
‘I am not the one you should be telling this. I know. Otherwise you would have remarried long ago. I can still picture the two of you walking foot-to-foot like a man and his shadow. I have the feeling that someone is planning something really bad against you. You know money is something that causes a mother to strangle her baby without a second thought. And this money that these people have decided to donate to Mukunda I hear is too big an amount that many people will do everything to keep everyone else away permanently.’
‘They said I sacrificed her in exchange for greater powers to heal.’
‘You know that the witches and wizards of this community do not like the work you are doing. It is like seizing their plates of hard-earned food and emptying them in the Mongo. As soon as they struggle and succeed to get someone caught in their trap, the next minute you are letting the person loose with your herbs and whatever-else you have.’
‘What I don’t understand is the rumour about this loose money that is about to be poured over the village,’ he said. ‘Thinking about it, I now realise that Ekambi was drunk that evening. He must have assembled those men and got them drinking and in their collective drunkenness he had poisoned their minds with this tale of free fortune floating with the wind. I can still remember the stench of liquor that lingered heavily on the air as I walked past him to the door. But it was too late.’
‘It is good you said that the truth itches,’ Dikalo said. ‘It’s people like Ndille who make me speak and earn the name of a Local Parrot – ‘Dikalo stopped abruptly and Mutatedi could see that he was seriously considering whether to say what was now in his mind or not.
Dikalo decided to say it. It was unlike him to keep secrets.
‘There is another serious matter,’ he began.
‘Which was the first?’
‘Well, I don’t know. There are just so many things wrong that I’m confused which is what.’
‘Let’s be going while you sort out the order of your troubles,’ Mutatedi suggested.
‘They are not my troubles,’ Dikalo whispered. ‘Well, they are my troubles, our troubles. But the troubles of Mukunda are mostly your troubles. Ikanea Kingue proclaimed war when he dissolved the council yesterday.’ He looked up at the dark sky. ‘It will certainly rain this night,’ he said, changing the topic.
Mutatedi hadn’t heard of the dissolution of the council but he didn’t press him because he knew Dikalo well. Dikalo couldn’t leave a good story unfinished even if his audience was asleep.
There was the gentle peeling of thunder in the violet cloud. It rumbled from one end of the heavens to the other, stopping momentarily to regain its lost breath and then beginning to roar all over again.
‘I wish it rains so that I can sleep comfortably and forget some of Mukunda’s headache,’ Mutatedi said. ‘I love the music played by rain drops on the thick canopy of leaves before falling on the roof.’
‘You are just like me,’ said Dikalo. ‘I heard he dismissed the council after he was about to say something and Mbollo boldly told him his term of office has expired. Since when did the Chief have a term of office in Mukunda?’ Dikalo asked not expecting an answer.
There was a moment of silence as they walked on along the narrow path flanked on both sides by mango trees, the same path that Mutatedi had started walking some forty eight years ago with two paddles on his shoulders when the rest of Mukunda was still in bed.
‘The father of your brother’s son is the cause of all this!’ Dikalo said suddenly.
‘What did you say?’ Mutatedi wasn’t attentive.
‘You heard me, Doctor. The man your brother is learning to trust is the one sleeping with his wife and planting this confusion among the councillors.’
‘I see!’ was all that Mutatedi could think of saying.
‘You see nothing,’ Dikalo said admonishingly. ‘This man is very dangerous. First, he is a native doctor with terrible destructive powers. I hear he thinks that he stands to lose so much if this hospital is ever built.’
‘Dikalo, I am not afraid to do what is right.’
‘You can say that again, Doctor. I will tell you a story of a fish –’ Dikalo seemed to consider a suitable name. ‘For convenience let us call him Kah. Kah had a friend, Mr. Ant, with whom he spent most of his afternoons conversing, Kah in water and Ant on the sandy shore. Everyday, after their separation for supper, Kah would swim happily home. One day Old Uncle Crab called him aside and said to him “My dear child, be careful with the one you always go to meet every afternoon. Never allow yourself to get too close to him beyond the protection of your home. One’s flesh is very tasteful in the mouth of his friends.” But Kah laughed and thought that Uncle Crab was getting old and unnecessarily suspicious.’
Dikalo stopped to regain his breath.
They were now at a junction where one other narrow road led to Mutatedi’s house which was the last in the outskirts of Njiba Quarter, backing a thick forest that had not been exploited for over a quarter of a century. His closest neighbour was some seventy meters away which wasn’t very common in a village setting where everyone sort the warmth of everyone else. Some people said the location of Mutatedi’s house was proof enough that he was evil. How could anyone prefer the jungle to the heart of the village?
‘Can I come now for the medicine?’ Dikalo asked.
‘If you wish. It is already dark but I think I have some of those things in my bag. Now, the story – what happened to the fish?’
‘His name is Kah,’ Dikalo corrected. ‘One day he was playing on his own while waiting for Ant. He was skipping high in the air above the crests of waves, and then falling back in the cold welcoming hands of the Mongo. He did this repeatedly but wasn’t very lucky when he jumped for the fifty-second time. He saw a fisherman’s net coming over his head and made a double skip in mid-air to avoid being caught. And of course he wasn’t caught by the net but found himself on the hot sandy shore.’
Dikalo derailed once more and began talking about scarecrows that didn’t serve their purpose of keeping off the birds from maize farms. He complained about Edimo who took five hundred francs from him two weeks ago promising to bring him fresh fish but hasn’t come back from fishing since then. There was very little hope of a good mango season, he forecasted, because the sun was selfishly refusing to give rain a chance.
It was pitch-dark when they got to Mutatedi’s house. Mutatedi opened the door, searched for a match and lit a hurricane lamp while Dikalo settled into a cane chair and complained about the time God wasted in creating mosquitoes that served no useful purpose.
The house was big with three sleeping rooms and a spacious parlour. The only trouble was with the large windows that Mutatedi had left open. A chilling stream of breeze was drifting in through them, causing Dikalo to pull his feet up the chair so that his knees touched his chin.
‘I always keep asking this question. How do you feel, having such a church all to yourself?’ Dikalo asked, looking around admiringly.
‘Fine, although I must admit that I feel very lonely most of the time. I like it because it is peaceful. You know that my type of calling requires much time for meditation. And I find it hard to reflect with people calling every now and then. Ngonda understood me so well –’ He bit his lower lip as he thought of his wife.
An owl hooted somewhere among the trees.
‘Take your bad-luck away from here,’ he shouted.
‘Please, leave that bird alone. Go on with that story. What happened to Kah?’
The owl persisted for a while and then gave up.
‘I am happy you remember the name. It means you are following. Where did I end?’ Dikalo asked pleasantly. ‘Yes, I remember. While on the hot sand, Kah saw the horrible face of death over his red nose. That face, with its wrinkles and long spike-like teeth shot waves of panic all over him that he fought his way back into the water without looking backward. He went to bed straight away, noticing only in the morning that he had lost a good quantity of scales during the struggle to live.’ Dikalo stopped, and stared questioningly at Mutatedi who was leaning forward behind one of the cane chairs.
‘Is that all of it – I mean is that the end?’ Mutatedi asked.
‘What about the medicine? Be preparing it while I round up. I won’t sleep here, Doctor.’
Mutatedi disappeared into one of the rooms and brought back a raffia bag full of dry roots, barks, leaves, and small bottles filled with brown liquids. The moment he sat down, he suddenly realized that he was very hungry.
‘I think I should get us something to eat before getting down to this doctor business,’ he said.
‘Wait, let me finish the story first. What did you cook? It has been a long time since I cooked. I doubt if I can still bowl water properly. Yes, the story!’ He scratched his head, sniffed his fingers, grimaced and then continued, ‘The next afternoon, Kah went to look for his friend in order to recount the terrible story. This time he did not skip and laugh and tumble. He swam cautiously. And do you know what he met on the shore?’
Mutatedi did not know.
‘You are tired, Doctor. You ought to think. Anyway, I will tell you. He found Mr. Ant and his entire family feasting on his scales! Yes, that was what happened. Kah was gripped with horror to see his friend feasting on the most unappetizing part of his body! What would have happened if Mr. Ant had found him whole on the sand instead?’
‘He would have eating him together with the bones,’ Mutatedi replied.
‘Good, you gave the correct answer. Dead friends, like dead enemies and rivals, don’t sing,’ Dikalo whispered through the space where his incisors had been.
‘Your brother’s nchango is after something!’ he added in a prophetic tone.
‘It could be true that you ate up your twine so that you could be born alone,’ Mutatedi said jovially. ‘At times conversing with you is as difficult as trying to interpret a drunk’s dream especially when you choose to speak in the broken language of a soothsayer. Who is this you are talking about?’
‘The father of the chief’s son. He is dangerous! Don’t you know him? Don’t you know Epko, the baboon from Malende? He is Ekon’s true father.’
‘Is that not the young hunter who comes around here every weekend?’
‘You know him alright, although for a long time now he is no longer interested in hunting animals. The chief’s meat is what he hunts now both night and day.’
‘Maybe he ended up killing that his dog.’
‘Which one? Because he always travels with a park of them.’
Mutatedi regretted bringing this up.
‘He was here about a week ago asking for Njowamundi,’ Mutatedi said.
‘What!’ Dikalo shot up from his seat.
Njowamundi was a charm that brought instant madness to whoever it was administered to.
‘Did you give it to him? What did he want it for?’
‘You know the answer to the first question. Before my father died he made me vow to be the Healer and made my brother Kingue, the Leader.’
‘I know all that, Doctor. You recall that I was among the privileged few to attend the secret ceremony. What did Epko want Njowamundi for?’
‘He said it was for one of his dogs that preferred to eat and sleep while the others hunted. He wanted something that will render it wild and aggressive –’
‘And he thought Njowamundi will serve that purpose?’
Mutatedi got up with difficulty. He didn’t think there was another answer to the question different from what Dikalo knew already.
‘Let me warm the food. You almost made me forget how hungry I am.’
‘No need to warm the food. Did a rat fall into the pot? Bring it like that.’
As soon as Mutatedi placed a bowl of porridge plantains on the table, a loud knock at the door prevented him from sitting down.
‘Open the door, Brother!’ a frightened voice cried out followed again by three sharp knocks that shook the entire building.
‘That is Nubokise. It has happened!’ said Dikalo, eying the food with a frown.
‘What could be the matter?’ he asked, seemingly not very pleased with Nubokise’s interference.
‘Open the door quickly, please!’ the voice persisted.
‘Come in, the door is open,’ Mutatedi said, wondering at the same time what might have gone wrong.
The outline of a face painted with alarm and horror peered through the door. But it was just for a second. It retreated quickly into the pitch-dark night outside.
‘Come out brother! I won’t come in.’
‘What is the matter, Nubokise?’ Mutatedi asked, taking the lamp outside with him.
‘Doctor, run for your life,’ the frightened man said through quivering lips. He was sweating all over. He must have run from his house all the way to Mutatedi’s.
‘Just run! Go anywhere and hide your badly needed head even for a day. Mukunda is on fire,’ Nubokise continued.
‘Ahah, I said it!’ Dikalo shouted from over Mutatedi’s shoulder.
‘Come in and sit down,’ Mutatedi said calmly, though his heart beat fast in his chest.
Nubokise shook his head.
‘They will be here any moment from now! Don’t you understand?’
‘What do you want anyone to understand when you babble in parables like a dying cock?’ Dikalo asked throwing his arms about.
‘Speak out, Brother. What is it?’ Mutatedi said, leaning on the door frame and looking at Nubokise blankly.
‘Is Musango ill? Tell me!’
It had been a fateful coincidence that the day Mutatedi’s wife had died while giving birth to Musango, Nubokise’s wife Endale had lost her own forty-three-minutes-old daughter. The first breast milk that Musango ever tasted was Endale’s. For five years now Musango has been Nubokise’s son, and Mutatedi his uncle. Nubokise and Mutatedi called each other Brother because of this.
‘It’s not Little Mus, it’s the Ikanea – your brother – he is dead. He was found dead this evening on his bed.’
There was a dreadful silence during which Mutatedi and Dikalo regarded Nubokise in consternation.
‘For affliction does not come from the dust,’ Mutatedi recited, ‘nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble as sparks fly upward.’
His mind flashed back to his short visit to the palace on his way to the river barely an hour ago. Mbango, Kingue’s wife had told him the Ikanea was in his room. Mutatedi had met the door to the room slightly opened. He had stood a few paces from the door and watched his brother deep asleep or so he thought with the nginy’a mboka lying on the floor beside the bed as though it had fallen off Kingue’s hand. He picked up the paddle with the key dangling on its neck and locked it back in its place in the tall cabinet beside the window and then tiptoed out, closing the door behind him.
‘He must have been dead then,’ Mutatedi mumbled, staring at the lamp in his hand. ‘No it can’t be true.’
‘Yes, it is true and the entire village – the youth – have been convinced you strangled him, that you destroyed him in order to take his place,’ Nubokise shouted hysterically as though he was explaining this for a hundredth time.
‘What you are saying is that Doctor here killed Ikanea Kingue and that he should run before an angry crowd skins him alive, am I right?’ Dikalo recited as though summarizing a thick volume of Mukunda’s genealogy. One could see the wrinkles of anger criss-crossing his face.
‘Who is behind all this?’ he demanded severely.
‘You can’t fight the people, especially a thoughtless mob,’ Nubokise said desperately.
‘Who told you I can’t?’ Dikalo asked, flexing his thin arms. ‘Just tell us who is behind all this,’ he insisted.
Nubokise ignored him and instead stared at Mutatedi with supplication in his eyes.
‘Brother, please go now and think of proving your innocence later.’
The three men listened. There was a faint roar of angry voices drifting from a distance like the noise of an approaching storm.
Nubokise’s fright rekindled.
‘Think of your son – brother,’ he pleaded. ‘Think of Musango! Please for his sake, go away before it is too late.’
The hubbub was fast drawing nearer.
‘I have no intention to fight,’ Mutatedi said. ‘I’m too old for that. And I can’t run away from my land of birth because a stranger wants me dead. In life or in death I must live as a healer of life and not a destroyer of it.’
‘You know we’ve been like brothers –’
‘Then give I and my brother a befitting burial,’ Mutatedi responded rather stubbornly.
It was then that the first stone swept across his face and crashed against the wall, dislodging a plank.
Dikalo quietly sneaked away into the heart of darkness and was gone.
Nubokise hesitated only for a moment before taking to his heels.
Mutatedi turned, entered his house and locked the door.
Once part of a rioting mob, one quickly lost his heart, conscience, and sense of reason to the powerful spirit of destruction. He soon found himself driven by a motive he couldn’t explain if he was instead laying on the comfort of his pillow. And in that magnetic grip of crowd-will, nothing mattered more than the sharp desire to satisfy the cravings of the thoughtless communal heart, now inside the grip of the forceful spirit of chaos.
Mutatedi listened to the noise of angry voices now hailing around his neighbourhood and wondered if those were the voices of the same people he had once helped with his medication to be delivered from the teeth of death.
‘You wizard!’ he heard a woman shout, accompanied by the thundering of stones on the roof and plank walls. Several voices joined in to fire accusations.
‘You wicked old man!’
‘You killed your wife!’
‘Now, even your brother you didn’t spare!’
‘You call yourself a doctor!’
‘Unfortunately for you Ndille told us everything!’
Mutatedi heard the accusations ringing on and on. What could Ndille have told these people to make them so angry and blood-thirsty? Tears and perspiration filled his face.
‘Will you sit around and watch a selfish old man eat you up alive?’ Mutatedi heard Ndille’s musical voice floating distinctively above the general uproar.
‘Noooooo!’ the crowed hailed back.
‘Do you need to have a wizard among you to be depriving you of the love of your dear ones?’
‘Must we leave this to continue?’
‘No, we burn him alive!’ someone shouted triumphantly.
Mutatedi shivered as though cold water has been poured on him. His skin crawled with the pain of betrayal. He didn’t know what he actually felt at that moment. There was anger, mixed with fright and self-pity. He thought of Dikalo’s story. The fish jumped for the fifty-second time! And he was a few days away from his fifty-second birthday!
‘Oh, God, may it be a horrible dream from which I will soon awake,’ Mutatedi cried aloud. ‘The night has closed her eyes and ears to my troubles! Musango, my son, how will you ever live to know the truth? Ngonda, my dearest, I now know it is time for our final reunion. But must we be so cruel to leave him so – our long awaited gift – to be buried in this mud of solitude? Please answer me! Why must we always live in perpetual pain of loss? Please, God help me.’
The untouched food stared innocently at him before the bowl was toppled over by a stone that burst through the roof.
He was now drenched in sweat from his face down to his feet. There were bright red lights now shining from every corner of the house with a steady wave of heat pushing inward as though to clamp him into a precipitous death. His house was on fire! Like Kah, Mutatedi saw death over his red nose.
The heat was getting at his bones and his lungs were filled with smoke. On all fours he crept to his room to die on his bed. Then his fingers caught a wooden rectangular box. The lead jerked open as he applied all his force on it in an effort to climb onto the bed. He stumbled backward to the floor, his left hand clutching a book with a thick hairy cover – his entire library – the treasured accumulation of herbal knowledge. His most cherished inheritance felt smooth in his fingers. Fright and the will to continuity won over the stubborn and arrogant wish to die a martyr.
Ngonda had spoken. He had always known that she was alive somewhere around his life. He could hear her voice resonated in the hot room:
‘Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,’ she seemed to be saying from crunching noise of the fire, ‘and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.’
An entire wall of flaming wood crumbled to the ground as the pillars and planks were being eaten up by fire.