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Imagine africa volume 3, p.5

Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 5

 

Imagine Africa, Volume 3
 


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  While they were thinking about this and that, recalling both past and present matters related to the mysteries nature mercilessly throws at men, they quickened their step toward the nearby village, whose little streets were deserted, quiet except for the growing murmur of the leaves in the trees and the haphazard wafting of smoke from some of the huts, where fire clung obstinately to the logs as they succumbed to ash.

  They grew close to the first hut and Ualalapi went ahead. A middle-aged woman, seated in front of the house, was suckling a child.

  “What’s wrong, mother?” Ualalapi asked, crouching down and putting his spear down where his right hand could reach it.

  “The bats kept flying over the houses, squeaking all the time and bringing spirits to trouble our minds that had long been at rest, and some died,” replied the woman with a tired air, as she concerned herself with her child who was desperately moving his feet and eyes, trying to fend off the flies that persisted in settling on him.

  “Has anyone in your family died?”

  “My husband.”

  “I’m so sorry, mother…I’m so sorry. And the menfolk, where are the menfolk?”

  “Who has the courage to go out and about in these times?…They’re consulting their soothsayers. It’s not a man who’s died but the empire.”

  “Who else has died?”

  “You’ll find out. Chiefs like you are awaiting Mudungazi in the square.”

  “Very well. What did your husband die of?”

  “Of fright. But how significant is the ant before the elephant?”

  “How many times has the ant not killed the elephant, mother?”

  “And how many times has the crocodile left the water, young man?”

  “Thank you, mammy,” said Ualalapi, perturbed. He got to his feet, grabbed his spear and turned to his warriors who were looking at him, tired of waiting.

  “Guard the meat and await orders. I’m going to the square,” and he left them without further delay, walking swiftly and oblivious to the wind that gusted grains of sand and scattered leaves, forming little eddies that swirled upwards in chaotic circles, forever touching Ualalapi’s body, covered by a layer of blood and bits of leaves. These were detached by the strength of the wind carrying with it a strange smell, first sensed in a long forgotten age when men from other tribes watched the houses swaying in the force of the wind and rain that covered the earth and bushes with pungent, muddy water at the very moment when they had completed the burial of a king of Manica who, as predicted by his swikiro – the term Shona people used to describe their spirit mediums – had not ruled for more days than the fingers of his hands. But this had proved time enough for him to grow fat on delicious meals that came to an end on the fateful day when he died of congestion.

  By now, Ualalapi was approaching the square, the place where the king’s body lay stretched out inside a hut, under the watchful eyes of the kingdom’s elders, encharged with the duty of witnessing the corpse’s putrefaction so that malevolent spirits should not take possession of bits of the body, and enduring for days and nights the unbearable smell of rotting flesh, the liquids which dripped into receptacles positioned for that purpose. Ualalapi placed his hand over his nose as he entered the square. He looked up at the sky and saw the dark, heavy clouds descending from the heights. The wind buffeted both the loftiest and the shortest trees. He walked up to Mputa, a warrior destined to die a stupid, innocent death, but whose face would remain in everyone’s memory. All this was confirmed when his destiny was predicted, although the causes of his death were never explained, for in stories of kings and queens, even the all-prophesying swikiros omit such details.

  “What’s happening, Mputa?”

  “Muzila has died.”

  “How?”

  “They say he died of an illness, for he hadn’t stopped staring at the ceiling for some nights.”

  “An inhuman death for an Nguni.”

  “There are some who say his father died in the same way.”

  “It wasn’t what they wanted, Mputa.”

  “I know of few kings who have died in battle.”

  “But they all insist it’s the best way to die.”

  “When they’re addressing their warriors.”

  “You’re a very quick thinker.”

  “That’s what war teaches us, Ualalapi.”

  “You’re right…Can you smell this stench?”

  “It’s the stench of death. When a king dies, some of his subjects are supposed to keep him company.”

  “I spoke to a woman who lost her husband.”

  “Others died. When old Salama heard of the king’s death, she went to the riverbank and waited for her crocodile ancestors to come and fetch her half an hour after she’d sat down to contemplate the waters of the river. Old Lucere died while he was taking an afternoon nap, devoured by giant ants that didn’t leave a trace of the old man’s flesh. When Chichuaio stepped inside his house, he found himself surrounded by snakes that fought each other for possession of his body. And there are more cases, it’s always like that.”

  “I know, but it’s incredible…How long have you been waiting for Mudungazi?”

  “Ever since early afternoon. This smell is too much…”

  “It’s of those who’ve long since died, Mputa.”

  “Bones don’t smell, Ualalapi.”

  “But the spirits can make anything happen.”

  “You’re right. Let’s get up. Mudungazi is going to appear. How did the hunt go?”

  “It went well. We’ve got a lot of meat.”

  “Abundance in the midst of disaster.”

  “Exactly,” said Ualalapi, wiping his body. The clouds threatening the village began to disperse, bearing with them the wind and the stench of death that hovered over the village during the week Ualalapi spent in the interior of the territory of Manica.

  II

  In a hesitant, mawkish voice, but one which gathered strength as the speech progressed, as is the case with those skilled in the art of addressing the people, Mudungazi began his speech to his warrior chiefs by affirming that matters of the plains had no end. “There are countless harvests that we have conquered with our blood-soaked spears and our shields weary of protecting us.

  “We have won battles. We have opened up paths. We have sown corn in stony soil. We have brought rain to these arid lands and we have educated these people, brutalized by the most primitive customs. And today, this people dwell among you, Nguni!

  “This empire without limit was built by my grandfather after countless battles in which he was always triumphant. Within it, he spread order and the new customs we brought with us. And when he died, he appointed Muzila, my father, as his successor. Muzila had the heart of a man. He was generous. And many took advantage of his goodness. Among them Mawewe, his brother, who in the midst of shameful intrigue, managed to usurp power without the agreement of the spirits and the grandees of the kingdom who had accepted Muzila as the successor, for it was he who had been the first to prepare the grave where his father would be laid to rest for ever and ever. But Mawewe forgot all this and took the throne for a period of time that history will not record, and if it does, it will do so in order to brand the face of that man I dare not call uncle with the stamp of perfidy.

  “At that time, dear warriors, the land was covered with the bodies of innocent folk and the waters took on the tinge of blood for week after week, causing people to drink the blood of their dead brothers because they could no longer bear the thirst that tormented them. And all this because of Mawewe’s obstinacy in keeping himself in power.

  “Muzila has died, dear warriors. As he lay dying, he appointed me as his successor. His grave should be prepared by me. Do you think history is going to be repeated?”

  The warriors, in precise rhythm, beat their leather shields on the ground and shouted “no.”

  “You are with me,” Mudungazi said, “not out of fidelity to me, but because you have respected my words. That is what I exp
ected of you.”

  He paused in his speech for a few moments, and ran his bloody gaze over his silent warriors. The sun was sinking. The wind was placid. White clouds covered the dark ones in the blue sky.

  “My brother, Mafemane,” he continued, “lives some fifteen kilometers from here. I am certain that he is getting ready to leave in order to prepare my father’s grave. History must not be repeated. Power belongs to me. No one, but no one can take it from me until I die. The spirits have descended into me and are accompanying me, and are guiding me in my wise, well-considered actions. And I shall not allow the same carnage as took place when Muzila took the throne, because I shall act immediately. The men who do not yet know me, will come to know me. I shall not share power. It has belonged to me ever since I was born from the belly of Iozio, my mother, Muzila’s favourite wife. And all shall fear me, because I shall not be called Mudungazi, but Ngungunyane, just like those deep furnaces where we hurl those who are condemned to death! Fear and terror of my empire will last for century after century, and it will be heard of in lands that you cannot even dream of! That is why you must sharpen your spears, my warriors. We must clear the path ahead of us with all urgency, so that we don’t stumble into possible traps.” And so Mudungazi finished his speech to his warriors. Night was now falling. Followed by his aunt, Damboia, Mudungazi walked towards the great hut, his ample flesh swaying, flesh that would change little until the time he died in unknown waters, wrapped in clothes he had always rejected and among people the colour of skinned goat, who had been thoroughly alarmed when they had first set eyes on a black man.

  III

  “You’re in the habit of climbing trees by their branches, Mudungazi.”

  “They got the message, Damboia.”

  “I doubt it.”

  “You only show a warrior his target.”

  “So why didn’t you pick the man to carry out the execution?”

  “I’ll do that at daybreak. And don’t worry about Mafemane: the vultures are already preparing to devour him. Let us take some doro to mark my rise to power in this empire.”

  “To your health, Ngungunyane.”

  “Indeed, Ngungunyane. I shall be known as Ngungunyane for ever more, and I shall live to a great age. That is what the spirits decreed.”

  —

  “What’s happening, Ualalapi?”

  “Muzila has died.”

  “I know. But what did Mudungazi say?”

  “Mafemane must die.”

  “Why?”

  “Only one man should go through the door at a time.”

  “And the other has to wait outside.”

  “Ah…men always avoid turning their backs on someone. It’s dangerous.”

  “Not always. But who is going to kill him?”

  “You’re very worried. Forget it. Is the water for my bath ready?”

  “It’s warming on the fire. This situation makes me anxious.”

  “Why?”

  “I had strange dreams.”

  “That’s normal when one’s in mourning.”

  “I dreamed of your death.”

  “My death?”

  “Yes.”

  “How did I die in your dream?”

  “You died as you walked along. Your voice sustained your lifeless body. Your son and I died, drowned by the tears that wouldn’t stop flowing from our eyes.”

  “That’s incredible, but none of that is going to happen, woman.”

  “I’m scared, Ualalapi. I’m scared. I can see lots of blood, blood that came from our forefathers who invaded these lands, while their sons and grandsons remain here, killing as well. Blood, Ualalapi, blood! We live on the blood of these innocent people. Why, Ualalapi?…”

  “It’s necessary, woman. We are a people chosen by the spirits to spread order through these lands. That’s why we advance from victory to victory. And before green shoots appear, this land needs to be irrigated with blood. But for the time being you shouldn’t worry about anything, because we are in a time of peace and of mourning.”

  —

  “And what about your brothers, Mudungazi?”

  “Which ones?…How. Who, Anyane, Mafabaze?”

  “Yes.”

  “They won’t have the courage to go against my orders. The danger lies with Mafemane. He’s the one who should die.”

  —

  “If you’re the one chosen to kill Mafemane, refuse, Ualalapi.”

  “It won’t necessarily be me. But why?”

  “I fear for your life, Ualalapi.”

  “Don’t worry. I shall only die in combat like my father, who with four spears buried in his chest, was brave enough as only he could be to hurl the spear that I now use at the chest of a Tsonga some ten meters away. I shall only die in combat, woman. It’s my fate, and the fate of all the great Nguni warriors.”

  “Don’t deceive yourself, Ualalapi. Many were the warriors who died stupidly and not in battle. Sereko, who killed so many in combat, was killed by a snake sent him by his irate grandfather. Makuko died in the bush, defecating non-stop for two whole weeks. And when they found him, already dead, shit was still coming out of his body. They had to bury him still shitting. You can’t get away from this. Men die outside the field of battle. And I’m scared, Ualalapi.”

  “You’re dreaming, woman.”

  “And how often have my dreams been wrong?”

  “You may be right, but if I’m to die, how can I escape my fate?”

  “Don’t say such things. You exasperate me. What I’m asking is that you should refuse the order to kill Mafemane.”

  “I owe my loyalty to Mudungazi.”

  IV

  The sun hadn’t yet burnt off the dew when Manyune and the warriors under his command drew near Mafemane’s village, and began to listen for signs of movement. But the huts of Mafemane and his men and women were shrouded in silence, the same silence that affected everyone during those days. In the narrow streets there was nothing to be seen except for little leaves and bits of broken pots scattered across the ground. Manyune left most of his warriors there and took two with him to Mafemane’s house, which stood in the middle of the village. There was something terrifying about that silence, for as they walked towards the heart of the village, the only sound they heard was that of their bare feet treading on the damp ground. Mafemane was awaiting them, standing tall and unflappable in front of his house, his hands crossed on his strong, wide chest.

  “I’ve been expecting you,” said Mafemane, walking towards Manyune. “I know that Muzila has died. I also know that my brother has been chosen as his successor, even though I am the eldest son of Fussi, Muzila’s first wife. The throne belongs to Mudungazi. I know, too, that you have come with orders to kill me. I am ready to die. But I ask that I should be allowed to say farewell to my wives and children. Come back at the end of the day.”

  The words came from on high, and penetrated the mind of Manyune and his warriors with such clarity that they were petrified by Mafemane’s calmness and serenity. The latter smiled and stared at them. His eyes were transparent, glowing, formidable. Incapable of giving an answer, Mudungazi’s men began to retreat, their eyes fixed on Mafemane. Manyune stumbled, fell, got up and turning his back on Mafemane, began to walk so fast that the warriors who were waiting for him were surprised and disturbed.

  “What’s wrong, Manyune?”

  “Don’t ask me anything. Let’s go, let’s go back to our village.”

  And he led the way. When they got back to their village, they tried to explain what they had seen and heard to Mudungazi, but Damboia, her eyes flashing, intervened, berating them as no one had done since they had been trained in the use of weapons. And for them, this criticism became all the more impossible to bear coming as it did from the mouth of a woman, a woman of ill fame, even though she belonged to the king’s court.

  “Is this the elite guard you rely on, Mudungazi?…A bunch of cowards, dogs that only know how to bark. What loyalty have you sworn to Mudugan
zi? What loyalty, you dogs?…No, don’t answer me, you’ve got no right to speak. You should be fed to the vultures. That’s what you deserve, you children, you ill-begotten sons! You come here trying to convince us that Mafemane knew of his death and wished to take leave of his wives and children. Why didn’t he do it before? Oh, you dogs, imbeciles, idiots, you stupid boys!…Mafemane is preparing to escape, and he’s probably already gone. Idiots. And you, Mudungazi, do you still have the courage to give shelter to dogs that only know how to bark? If I were you, I’d kill them…Let’s not waste any more time with these idiots. Maguiguane, Mputa, Ualalapi, you go. And take the warriors you want. But don’t come back here without Mafemane’s body, even if you have to chop down all the forest around you. Get going!”

  Ualalapi’s wife followed her husband with her gaze until he had disappeared into the forest. She gathered up her son and began to weep gently. She went into her hut and didn’t leave until she and her son had died, drowned by their tears that didn’t stop flowing from their gaping eyes for eleven days and eleven nights.

  Far from his wife’s torments, Ualalapi approached Mafemane’s village. The sun had turned red. The daylight was ebbing away. When they caught sight of Mafemane’s house, Ualalapi and his soldiers stopped some fifteen meters away. Maguiguane and Mputa edged forward to the right and the left, leaving a corridor along the middle at the end of which Mafemane stood waiting for them at the entrance to his house, a smile on his lips.

  “I thought you weren’t coming,” Mafemane said, fixing them with a trenchant, piercing gaze. “You didn’t have to bring so many people with you, two would have been enough. But I’m ready. You can kill me. I know you can’t go back to your village without my body. I know Mudungazi from childhood. And I know that dissolute wife of his, who goes by the name of Damboia. I don’t want to take up your time, you’ve walked a long way. You can kill me.”

 
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