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A Tale of Two Children
and a Famine

By Muli wa Kyendo (Kenya)

Muli is the Managing Editor of

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A Tale of Two Children and a Famine

By Muli wa Kyendo

THE grasshopper jumped and hopped as the small girl ran after it. It perched on dry grass and Mwelu paused. She held her breath and her eight-year-old body tightened as she walked slowly, carefully and steadily towards the insect. Then bang! Her tiny hands closed on the yellow grasshopper. Happy, she ran towards the baby.

"Look! Look!" she said, showing the grasshopper to the baby. The baby grinned, revealing two teeth, which was all he had. "Look at it moving on the ground."

Mwelu put the grasshopper together with others she had caught earlier. "They are our cows. We have raided them!” She put it on the ground and incessantly hit the ground with the palm of her right hand to scare it to move. “Look, this is the big bull. We'll call him Nzau. And this small one here is very tough and greedy. All of them are our cattle. We raided them from the Maasai."

The baby grinned again and the small girl's face became radiant with anticipation. She wished she could continue to humor the baby like this for a while as they waiting for the return of their mother.

"Let's build a shed for them…. No, stay here 1'Jl go to raid some more cattle!"

Mwelu ran after grasshoppers in the dry grass. But when she had all but caught one, it would fly away zigzagging  -  moving this way and that way, its wings leaving a trail of forlorn noise. The more the grasshoppers eluded her, the more Mwelu got involved in running after them, her soul and body concentrating on the activity. Her open mouth became dry, her heart drummed loudly inside her chest. If only she could catch this one, she thought as she tiptoed towards one that was green and slender. And again, it flew away, frustrating Mwelu’s efforts once more.


Now there was a large yellow one within easy reach. The girl held her breath again.  Her heart beat too loud she feared the grasshopper would be scared away. She put her hands out, cupped ready to fall on the insect. Then there was a boo-o-om, boo-o-om noise that filled the whole world. Frightened, Mwelu ran towards the baby who was crying frantically.  The noise had stopped, suddenly as it had come. And now there settled a frighten­ing stillness. No wind shook the leaves of tall eucalyptus trees. No doves sang happily in the dense forest that surrounded the village. There was silence and silence everywhere except for the noise of the crying baby.

 Mwelu held her breath and listened, scared. There were no children playing anywhere. There was only silence whose fright­ful effect was heightened by the shimmering blaze of the sun.

Mwelu put the baby on her back, strapped him with a piece of cloth and jumped him up and down hoping that he would sleep now that he was tired. But he didn't. His crying increased and the girl felt more tormented as she realized that she would not be able to offer him what he wanted.

She looked at her shadow on the ground. Wanza, their mother, had told her that she would be back before the sun stood over the head. Now it was begin­ning to bend on the other side and there was no sign of her. What could have happened? She never passed the time she had said she would come. Mwelu did not want to imagine that something bad might have hap­pened to her mother. Even at her tender age, she could feel the change that had come into the village in the wake of the floods which had swept away all the food crops in the farms.

Initially the children had taken the damage being done by the unusually heavy rains as fun. They would go to the river and collect the arrow-roots which the water had abandoned in its furious hurry. They would make a fire in the bush and roast the arrow-roots, enjoying the new freedom that the floods gave them.

Even when one day the village woke up to find the whole land, including the house and the farm on which it stood, sliced off by lightening and moved to a neighbor’s farm, the children found it something to laugh  at.  “Whose land was it now?” was all the children could marvel about. Even when a huge tree fell upon the house of Kioko in the next village demolishing the whole structure, the children still thought it was fun.

But the older people's mood contrasted sharply with that of the children. The older people – including their parents - became restless, agitated as they watched the floods with worried faces, knowing full well the calamity that would follow. Laughter gave way to misery as greetings turned into the talk of the certain calamity. The rains eventually stopped – they went away, as the children loved to put it. Then the fierce sun came and burned dry everything that had been left by the floods, save for the big trees in the forests. And people became more restless, always moving, always searching.

The baby was crying more frantically, now totally disregarding the lullaby that Mwelu sang for him.  With tears flowing down her cheeks, Mwelu jumped the baby up and down, up and down singing as she struggled to control the chocking t tears.

Now the child is crying.
He is crying because of his mother
She went to the farm
To look for food for him
She will come back and bring him food
Lulu-iii, Sleep baby,

Lulu-iii, sleep baby.
Because your mother is soon coming
She went to the farm to look for food for you.
 Lulu-iii, sleep baby.


Suddenly the baby was quiet. Relieved, Mwelu took him down from her back and held him in her arms.

 "See the butterflies, running here and there. See the butterflies, see the butterflies, and beautiful trees," Mwelu tried to divert the baby’s attention but without success. She put him on the ground, her mind searching for some­thing that would make him happy and probably forget that he was hungry. With the porridge they had taken the night before, even she herself was feeling very hungry. But then she didn't know whom to blame. Wanza worked very hard every day. And even for the one cup of maize-flour, which they rationed for porridge for several days, she had to work the whole day, re­pairing old roads or digging new ones. In the evening, she would come home all dust, tired and miserable after working on the roads in the seething heat. But she had to work. For the government headman had said nobody would be given the flour if they didn't work for it.

 "There are no free things," he had told the large public meeting of old men with stick-thin legs jutting out of patch-works for trousers, women with dry breasts coming out of torn clothes like flat pipes, and children, dirty with running noses.

"There are no free things in this country!" he had repeated emphatically, "and those who wait for free things . . ." he had smiled mischievously, his hands akimbo, "those who wait for free things, you see how the sun is hot, blazing hot. Let them keep on waiting for their free things! Even God himself said man must work for his food."

Since the famine set in,Mwelu’s family had changed notice­ably. Ndisya their father had gone to the distant city of  Nairobi to look for a job and the family had not heard from him for months. Wanza had suddenly become sullen and withdrawn. She no longer told the children the good stories she used to tell them, she never even played with them anymore. She had suddenly turned serious and gloomy. Mwelu saw the change in her mother's behavior, sympathized with her and tried to lift the gloom in the home by being cheerful and playing with her younger brother.

Last night Wanza had ironically smiled as she told Mwelu "Tomorrow, I'll go very early in the morning. But I'll be back before the sun stands over the head. Take care of baby. Understand?"

Suddenly, Mwelu realized that the baby's silence was unusual! Color had drained out of his face and his eyes had become white. She ran to the house to fetch some water. The cups were all dirty and the waterpot was as dry as a rock in the wilderness. Mwelu felt a tremor in her body as she looked into the empty cup. What would she do? Then she remembered the old widow! She ran towards the house determined to steal whatever food she could find for the baby. With strength she didn’t know she possessed, Mwelu hit the door open and burst into the house. There was no body in the house. She looked everywhere but there was no food. She quickly poured water into a gourd and rushed back to the baby. She poured the water on his head and lifted him to her arms. Then she heard him kick, his body became stiff. His eyes were turned and white. She knew he had died like many other children in the village.





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