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Water make the river – River wash the mountain – Fire make the sunlight – Turn the world around
As I write these words, I must resist the urge to make life in
the Ajuru tribe sound like a paradise. I and the Ajuru tribe
have been lucky all things considered, but no life is without
the pain and sorrow that makes the brightness more pronounced,
and colours the memories in a gentle glow. What I remember
most fondly about my time with them, are the late evenings
discussing everything and nothing while sipping tea. My dark
memories are those where I saw friends suffer and die from
things that back in England would be cured with medicine and a
few weeks bedrest. Which society is better, I honestly cannot
say. Both have much to recommend themselves. If I were to
describe a perfect world, it would have the mind of the
Western world, and the heart of Africa.
— Carl Tennant, “My life with the Ajuru”
As it turned out, the river people had brought us a surprise. A massive fish – some kind of sturgeon. It was carried ashore on a wooden stretcher by four of the river men. With a little effort, one man alone could probably have carried it out, but there’s no harm in a little theatre. They had already gutted it, and it was ready to be put on the fire for tonight’s festivities. They carried it over to the fire pit and with proper ceremony handed it over to the women. Despite being land dwellers, they knew exactly what to do with a fish, even that size. They cut steaks out of its flanks, wrapped them in leaves with some herbs and fruit, then put the packages in holes in the ground, adding stones heated in the fire. They filled up the holes with earth to trap the heat. A simple but very effective way of cooking. When first the tribe came to this place, the men had constructed an oven out of mud bricks. When the tribe would move on, in perhaps a few months or so, it would be smashed, and the pieces returned to the river on the principle that you should leave your campsite as you find it.
The Ajuru were rich in traditions, habits and rituals. The first bread baked in a new oven was fed to the creatures in the river, so that they might return the favour and feed the tribe. A successful hunt was celebrated with hauntingly beautiful chants from the hunters. Building a new camp, then accepting it as their home for the duration of a few moons, was an event for the spirit almost as much as it was for the body. And of course, meeting old friends again was cause for much celebration.
The Ajuru met the river people roughly twice every year, at different places on the White Nile. The river people had truly made the river their home, with most of their diet being fish. They would provide fish products. Oils. A very useful glue made by boiling the skin and bones of fish. A fish sauce that provided a wonderful flavour to meat dishes despite smelling foul. For their part, the Ajuru would provide dried meat, dried fruits, root vegetables gathered from the forest, rope made from plant fibres, and other things that one needs to stay ashore for.
Let it not be said that African tribal people do not know how to enjoy themselves. There were foot races, in which I was hopelessly outclassed by the hunters, though faster than most of the fishermen. There were archery contests, where I managed not to make a complete fool of myself, and wrestling matches, which were without a doubt my speciality because of my training in various martial arts. Unsurprisingly, the river people had an impressive upper body strength, and I had to use the techniques my dear sister used to use on me.
For those of us who preferred a more relaxing kind of competition, there was a curious game played on a game board with twelve small cups and two larger ones, in which small nuts were passed round until one side ran out of pieces to play. Fatin was amazingly good at this game, and beat me with a cruel ease. There were groups of people telling stories, catching up with the news and the goings-on in places far away. There were several people discreetly vanishing out of earshot for some private discussions. There was lots of food. We didn’t keep to any set mealtimes, but simply ate when hungry.
Night fell, and we gathered round the fire pit for music and dance. I sat on the ground clutching a cup of something bittersweet and fermented, while the river people sang their songs, accompanied by the Ajuru’s wooden instruments. There was one dance with Odawaa wearing some kind of headdress that looked like horns, upon which balanced a round bundle of cloth. In front of him sat his wife Kinsi, and they looked at each other intently, with Kinsi gently swaying to the beat of the music. All round Odawaa, men and women danced. Men growling at him, leaping at him with wildly exaggerated aggression, threatening him with spears, and women shamelessly offering their bodies to him, their fingers roaming Odawaa’s body, though never actually touching. I was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to see my beloved Fatin, belly round like the world, joining in the attempts to distract Odawaa from his wife. Faster and faster went the music, until suddenly, at a particularly savage spear thrust from Elder Hanad, Odawaa looked away for a moment. The music stopped in that very instant, and someone threw a heavy rock into the fire pit, making a rain of sparks fly up. Geedi returned from the fire pit with a big grin on his face, put down his spear and sat down next to me. I handed him a cup of brew.
“What was that all about?”
Geedi drank, wiped his mouth. “Ancient legend,” he said. “The world is balanced on the head of a bull, and in front of him is his beautiful cow. As long as the bull looks at the cow, the world is at peace, in balance. Look away, and earthquakes and storms happen.”
I laughed. “Well for God’s sake then, stop distracting him!”
“What, and miss looking at all these beautiful women? And these beautiful women to miss looking at fine hunters such as myself?” Geedi thumped his chest. He started to say something, but we were rather rudely interrupted by Fatin, who put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me onto my back. She flopped down on top of me.
“Go away, Geedi. I need my man for something.”
“We were speaking about important things, woman! Be off with you!”
Fatin turned her eyes to Geedi. “At the other end of the fire is a river girl named Binti. She asked me if you had a woman. I said no.” She grinned. “She looked happy to hear it.”
Geedi looked over, and without another word got up and disappeared. Fatin turned back to me. I put my arms round her and kissed her.
“So. Have you forgiven me for being stupid?”
Fatin closed her eyes and put her head on my shoulder. I could feel her hand straying down.
“No,” she said, with a smile. “But I don’t need you to be clever right now.”
Nobody got up early the next morning. The day was bright. Slowly, people began to make breakfast out of last night’s leftovers. The river people packed up their things and put them in the boat. The hunters and Elder Hanad took Elder Ramaas to his boat. He was the last to get on board. We pushed them off, and the boat turned. With a final wave, they sailed off down the river. We looked at them till they disappeared round the bend, then turned back to camp. Elder Hanad called the group to order.
“These river people have eaten up all the food. We need to go out hunting again, and maybe find some yams and bread-fruit. Odawaa, please see to it.” Hanad looked at the camp, where his wife Dhuuxo was organising a sweep to remove all evidence of last night’s extravagant debauchery. He looked up at the sky. “Wind is changing,” he said. “May it bring good things.”
I returned to my tent to pick up the things I’d need to go out hunting. I had made a bow and arrows, preferring to leave my rifle in my trunk for special occasions. Fatin came into the tent, looking annoyed, and carrying a big water-tight basket she had just emptied into the river. Luckily, she didn’t get sick very often. I put my hand on her shoulder, smiled at her.
“Go away,” she said. “Not feeling well.”
“Get well soon,” I said. “I’m out hunting with Odawaa.”
She took a deep breath, and forced a smile. “Good hunting, my love.”
Today, we were hunting monkeys. I must admit that to my Western eyes, monkeys looked a bit too much like people to eat them, but then again, once prepared, meat is simply meat. Obsiye looked annoyed as he looked up into the trees for prey, rolling a blow dart between his fingers.
“Hunting late. Never good. The monkeys are laughing at us, hiding.”
“Then look better,” said Odawaa.
Nuune, the other hunter, looked down and pointed. “Ah. Some good roots. If Obsiye’s eyes fail him, at least we eat.”
Nuune, Geedi and I kneeled down and started digging up the yam roots. Raw, they are perfectly horrible, but steamed in leaves, the yams can be used much in the same way potatoes are in England. Geedi gathered them up and put them in a bag.
“I don’t know why you are so glum,” he said, eyes shining. “I had an excellent hunt last night.”
I laughed. “I was at a campfire once. And the men were showing off, one of them jumps up and says, my woman and I make love every night! And another says, that is good. My woman and I only make love every other night. What about you?”
Geedi and Nuune looked at me. I continued.
“So the third man looks glum, and says, my woman only comes to me every moon. Still, it is better than nothing.” I looked from one hunter to the other. “So the last man jumps up, arms in the air, and shouts. Every six moons! My woman comes to me every six moons! And the others say, only once every six moons? Why are you so happy about that?”
Geedi and Nuune stared at me, waiting. I thumped Geedi’s shoulder.
“So he says, because tonight is the night!”
Geedi and Nuune burst out laughing. Obsiye looked at us over his shoulder.
“Will you idiots keep it quiet?”
“No,” said Nuune. “Cheer up will you?”
Despite Obsiye’s misgivings, we managed to bring down a few monkeys. Monkey and yam. The local variant on fish and chips. We came to a grassy clearing by a water hole. As good a place for lunch as any. We sat down at the foot of a tree and chewed dried meat and flat bread. We lapsed into a mild brooding silence, until I saw a small deer-like creature walk up to the water to drink. It was smaller than a kudu, probably a gazelle. I picked up my bow, fitted an arrow, drew back, aimed. There was a sudden noise, and the deer, startled, turned round and disappeared in a flash. I looked up to see Obsiye glaring at me. He was the one who had clapped his hands and scared off the deer.
“We have enough, Lion-feeder. Do not take more than you can eat.”
Geedi sniffed. “I could have eaten that, Obsiye. So could several folk in camp.”
I put away my bow and arrow, and said nothing. Of all the Ajuru, Obsiye was still the only one who was openly hostile towards me. I never had figured out why. Nuune got up.
“Let’s get back to camp. Daylight is running short.”
Odawaa led us back to the river, and started to follow it upstream to camp. We had walked for about an hour or so, with maybe a few minutes more to go, when Odawaa suddenly stood still, listening. We all looked at him for a few moments. Geedi frowned.
“What do you hear, Odawaa?”
“I hear nothing.” Odawaa’s jaw set as he looked at us. “Nothing at all. No children playing. No voices. No noises of work. Nothing.”
As though a switch had been thrown, he sped off in the direction of camp. At the very edge of the forest, he knelt down, watching. I could see him turn pale under his brown skin. I looked. In the camp, everyone was gathered in the middle, where the fire pit had been, sitting quietly, looking at their feet. All round the camp nothing was moving. Odawa raised himself to his full height, and walked into the clearing. We followed him. As we approached, we could hear the soft distressed noises people make when they are too scared to scream.
Odawaa walked up to Elder Hanad. He was sporting an impressive bruise on his face, and one of his eyes was closed. I looked round the group. Nobody else seemed to be seriously hurt. But where was Fatin?
“Too many of them,” said Elder Hanad. “Too many men. Not enough women.”
Using the supplies in my trunk, I had seen to Elder Hanad’s bruises. The camp was a sad sight. All the young girls, Odawaa’s wife Kinsi, the girl who had helped Fatin when she was sick. I’d given some of them rides on my shoulders, wild with laughter. All gone.
Fatin was gone. My wife. The mother of my child. Taken like so much cattle, to replenish the stock of a tribe that had not been as careful with its women as we had. Hanad’s wife Dhuuxo was still here, because she was old and of no use to them.
I could feel my sadness, my fear, slowly hardening, settling into a burning anger. Nobody, nobody does such a thing to me. I stepped back into my empty tent and got out my rifle, my machete, and two revolvers. I loaded them all, put them on my belt and on my back. For the first time in months, I put on a shirt. I put on my helmet. I didn’t know why, but it felt to me like strapping on armour, or perhaps painting my face with war colours. I went outside again, and walked up to Elder Hanad.
Elder Hanad looked at me, his eyes sad. Then, he shook his head.
“We cannot defeat them. There are several dozen men in their camp. We are only…” Hanad took a shivering breath, not wanting to count who was still there. “Few.”
I closed my eyes a moment. “What will happen to them, Elder Hanad? What will happen to Fatin? Kinsi? To Filsan? Gacal?”
“They will be given husbands. They will live with them and bear their children. Their children will never know that their mother did not want to come, and be as happy as they can be.”
“What will happen to my son? Tell me, Elder.”
Hanad looked up at me. “He will be the first born into that tribe. His light skin will be seen as a good sign.”
“No Elder.” I was shaking with rage. “That is not what will happen. We will find them, and we will bring them back. What I have to do to make that happen, I will do.”
Elder Hanad jumped up and grabbed my shoulders. “Do you think that my heart tells me any different? I would rain fire and death upon them if I could! But they are too many for us! If we try and fail, then they will come back and kill us all! Even if we try and succeed, they will be back. They have done what they did, not because they are evil, but because they must! They have lost their women to disease and accident. They must have ours as the lion must kill in order to see the next morning. There is nothing that we can do.”
I looked round the group.
“I am going to find our women, and bring them back. And it will go ill with any who tries to stop me. Who will come with me?”
I looked at the faces round me. One by one, they looked away. I realise now that these men were not cowards. They simply recognised a superior force, and acted according to wisdom. I knew things that they did not. I had firepower. I had my weapons. I had my anger. Still, did I act any wiser than they did? I still cannot say. I rolled my shoulders, and walked off into the forest.
I hadn’t walked for more than two minutes when I heard footsteps next to me. I looked round, and to my surprise, next to me walked Obsiye. A contemptuous sneer was on his face.
“You are going the wrong way, Lion-feeder. Have you learnt nothing of tracking? This is where we go.”
I looked at his back as he turned round. I hesitated a moment, but I had no choice but to follow him.
“Why are you helping me?”
Obsiye looked at me angrily. “My future wife is among those women. I will not let the M’bari have her. Why do you think I am helping you, Feeder-of-lions?”
There was nothing more to be said. He led me straight and true. The trails were easy to see for him, at least. After an hour’s march, Obsiye stopped. As I strained my ears, I could hear human voices, talking loudly, laughing. A cold hand clutched inside my chest as I could hear higher pitched voices screaming. Obsiye and I slowed down, sneaking up on the strangers’ camp. A fire was burning, recklessly wasteful of wood. Our women were sitting on the ground, cowed, watched over by guards. In the firelight, two of their men were fighting, wrestling. I realised with dread what they were fighting over. They had taken only seven of our women. There were at least fifteen men. The winner would get… I looked at the row of our women. Fatin was sitting at the very end. Her hands were tied behind her back like the others.
As I watched, one of the fighters held down his opponent until he admitted defeat. With a big grin, he stood up, raising his arms. Then, he walked over to the women. They all looked away. He grabbed the chin of one of them, made her look up. Then, he laughed, and grabbed the girl next to her by an arm. This one. He pulled her to her feet and dragged her away as two new wrestlers started. Obsiye crawled backwards, went round. I followed him. The poor girl was screaming as her new “husband” pulled her away from the crowd, then dropped her on the ground. He never got to explain to her what he was going to do as Obsiye sprang forward with a rock in his hand and knocked him senseless with a loud snap. I bent down to the girl and cut her bonds with my machete. I grinned at Obsiye.
“And do that seven times, then we go home.”
Obsiye glared. “Be quiet.”
We returned to the fire just in time to see a bout end, and the winner picking Kinsi out of the row. Kinsi did not go quietly. She screamed at him, spat, kicked. The man held her at arm’s length for a while, then shook her, punched her in the stomach, then screamed at her. He grabbed her throat, then pulled her away and pushed her to the ground, well within the circle of light. There was no way to repeat our earlier attack. The time for stealth had passed. I took my rifle from my back, and as the man raised his fist to punch Kinsi again, I pulled the trigger. He stiffened, then fell down dead on top of her. Kinsi cried out, and rolled out from under him as I put my rifle on my back again and pulled out both my revolvers.
It wasn’t a fight. It was a massacre. At first, the M’bari ran towards me, spears held aloft. I fired my pistols, and at every shot, one of them fell. I roared! I exulted in the feeling of power bestowed on me by my invincible weapons. Every man was a valid target. Every man was an enemy. Every man deserved to die for what they would do to our women. By the time I fired the last round from my revolvers. holstered them, and grabbed my rifle, they were running. A few of them escaped, but I felt no need to pursue them. They were nothing.
I pray that some day, I may be forgiven for what I did that evening.
We gathered all the women and sent them ahead of us, guarding their rear against further attacks. Fatin was walking next to Kinsi, both of them supporting each other. Fatin hadn’t looked me in the eye. Her shoulders were hunched. I could only guess what had happened to any of them. Had we been in time to save them all?
Obsiye walked next to me. He grinned at me, and I grinned back.
“Are you feeling good about yourself, Lion-feeder?”
“We got them all out,” I said. “Tonight, they sleep in their own beds, with their own men. I call that good.”
Obsiye laughed. “Not all of them, Lion-feeder. But she will. She will.”
“Who do you think I came for? My brother’s wife? One of the little girls? I know them from before they could hold up their shit.”
I gave him a strange look.
“Lion-feeder, I came with you for Fatin. She will be my woman when you are gone. She was going to be my woman before you walked into our camp and put your cursed child in her. For what you have done tonight, Elder Hanad will throw you out. Fatin will be very sad for a while, but I will comfort her. And I will raise that bastard child of you like the piece of rot it is. Maybe it’ll die when it is young. Most of them do.”
Obsiye picked up his pace and went to the front of the group.
I honestly didn’t know what to think, or what to say.