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Authors: Frank Coates

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Echoes From a Distant Land

BOOK: Echoes From a Distant Land
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DEDICATION

To Wendy …
       … ever thine

1906

The sun had long ago disappeared behind the overpowering presence of Nyundarua as Wangira hurried home. The mountain range dominated the surrounding land, its bulk dictating even the length of the working day because, without the mountain's great shadow, the women could spend more time tending their food gardens.

Wangira was late from school. It was not his fault, and he was unhappy to be walking through the forest at the time when the shadows merged — the time when the old people said that the
irimu
came looking for wayward children.

It was said that the
irimu
could emerge from a tree or rock and snatch a child. He might be whisked away into a waterfall where he would be imprisoned until the
irimu
grew bored with him and then either ate him, or let him run home. It was never made clear how that decision would be made. Either way, Wangira was worried.

The
irimu
had existed in his imagination for as long as he could remember. It lived among the many stories his grandfather told him, but since Wangira had been attending the mission school, he had learned from the nuns of numerous other demons. Apparently there were demons for all occasions, depending upon your sin. Sister Rosalba frequently reminded the class of the many known demons. There were demons to tempt you into wrongdoing, and when they did, there were others to ensure you were thoroughly punished. They would offer fruit, called apples, and if you took a bite from such a fruit, you would be thrown out of your village and would wander alone until you died. The only consolation Wangira could find in the apple demon story was that no matter
how clever demons were, he could never be tempted because there were no apples to be found in Igobu, the village where he lived. Or in any of the neighbouring villages, so far as he knew.

The missionary school was established soon after the British administration opened the country to settlement. The Protestants had Embu District; the Independent Church of Scotland had Meru; and in Igobu, three years ago, the Consolata Sisters had staked their claim by erecting a
makuti
-roofed, open-sided shelter that served as their church.

The great majority of the people were suspicious of the newcomers and chose not to change their old form of worship, or give up educating their children through stories, or discard traditional medicines for the treatment of the sick. The new, untested regime had been largely ignored.

Wangira never knew why he had been the only one chosen out of all his family to attend the school. Like most of his father's decrees, this one had been obeyed without question.

After a nervous beginning, Wangira had enthusiastically embraced the white man's ways, especially the games the nuns organised before and after school. Wangira's strong body equipped him well for football and athletics, in which he excelled.

His enthusiasm spread into the classroom. He always sat taller and straighter in his chair than anyone else in his class, just as Sister Rosalba had taught them to do. He was first to shoot up his hand with an answer and the best at deciphering the simple texts they used for readers.

The Consolata Sisters distinguished between those who attended school and the remainder of the population: there were the
athoni
— literally, those who could read — and the Kikuyu — those who could not. Wangira found this classification difficult to understand and he felt uncomfortable about revealing it to anyone outside the school. It seemed to separate him from his family. He wanted to belong to both tribes, but the Consolata Sisters insisted he could be only one — an
athoni
— and that was not negotiable.

‘You are different from the others in your tribe,' Sister Rosalba often reminded them. ‘You will be leaders because you are
athoni
,
you can read. It is your duty to go forth and preach the story of Jesus Christ our saviour. If you do, He will open doors for you.'

Wangira was eight years of age — a fact unknown to any in his family until he informed them. It was Sister Rosalba who proclaimed it. The news had astounded him, but made no impression on his parents, who cared nothing for white people's counting. They simply reminded him that he was just a child, and would remain so until the tribal ceremonies promoted him to boyhood and then warriorhood.

But even at eight years of age, and as Sister Rosalba's
big boy
in class, he was ashamed of himself because, secretly, he was terrified of both the Kikuyu's
irimus
and the Christians' devils.

It was the reason he was now hurrying home, looking over his shoulder after every dozen or more paces, and throwing sideways glances at trees partially concealing faces in the gnarled bark.

As the big boy of the class, it was his Friday duty to carry all the books back to the compound where the sisters lived, and to stack the slates and chalks until the next school day. It made him late, but today he was even later because Sister Rosalba, who thought he had an interest in such things, had shown him a picture book of angels and demons. The angels were beautiful, as expected, but the demons were horrifying. They lived in a fiery place and had faces contorted with anger and pain. And now, as the sun fell further behind Nyundarua and the shadows merged into a monotone of grey light, they also lived in his mind.

His haste made him thirsty and the burbling stream following his path tortured him with the promise of a delicious cool drink. He tried to lick his dry lips but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He had to drink regardless of the demons lurking in the bush.

He squatted in the semi-darkness at the side of the stream and scooped handfuls of sweet cool water into his mouth. He closed his eyes and let it slide down his parched throat.

That was when he heard it.

The faintest snap of a twig.

His hand paused on its way to his lips, the water leaking through his fingers.

Wangira's ears rang with the effort to detect the source of the sound, now gone, but threatening to return in a rush and a whoop of demonic and hysterical shrieks.

Silence.

A frond on a short palm shivered, catching his eye. A rustle in the undergrowth.

He strained his eyes.

He could see nothing, but he knew in his soul that something was lurking just beyond his sight. He should run, but a lesson ingrained in his child's mind warned him that to run was inviting an even greater tragedy. Maybe it was something his grandfather had taught him, for he was always giving Wangira good advice about hunting and stalking. But Wangira could not run even if he wanted to. He was stuck to the ground, squatting on his heels where he would no doubt be found, dead, by his grieving family sometime the following morning.

The bush trembled.

A leopard strolled from concealment.

Wangira suppressed a gasp and nearly wept with relief, before realising that although it was not a demon or an
irimu
, he was still in serious danger. The leopard, or one of its kind, had taken many children in and around Igobu.

It came to the stream not ten paces from him, with rippling muscle and sinew and eyes from another world. Fear and awe intermixed. He'd never seen a leopard so close and marvelled at its deadly beauty. Surely it was the most beautiful animal in the world.

He watched, fascinated, as the leopard daintily lapped water from the stream. It raised its head from the water, ran its fat pink tongue around its white fangs and stared at Wangira for a moment with large green-gold eyes. Before Wangira could jump or otherwise alarm the leopard, it moved on across the stream, tongue lolling, to disappear into the darkening forest.

The boy remained at the stream long after the leopard had gone, feeling the pounding of his heart subside as the moments passed.

He felt he'd been touched by a presence outside his experience. One of Sister Rosalba's perplexing Bible stories came to mind. Now
he understood what she meant by
divine visitation
. Wangira had been in the presence of a superior being, one quite capable of taking his life, but which, for some inexplicable reason, had spared him. He felt the tears of joy well in his eyes. He was blessed!

He suddenly remembered the lateness of the hour and dashed from the stream, running down the path to his village.

His grandfather, standing as straight as a bow string within the circle of huts, watched him arrive, running at breakneck speed.

‘
Guuka!
' Wangira said. He had forgotten that his grandfather would visit that day.

His grandfather's face creased in a multitude of wrinkles. ‘May Mogai smile on you, the child of my child,' he said.

Wangira stood before him, head lowered to receive his blessing.

‘Look at you,' Wangira's grandfather said, smiling at the boy, who was almost at shoulder level. ‘How tall you are already. And this body! Soon you will be a bull like your father.'

He was referring to Wangira's father's legendary strength. There was no one in all of the highlands who could out-lift, out-run or out-fight his father, whose name was Kungu. Many said he should be called Wamugumo after the gigantic man in legend who could thrust three-fourths of a hunting spear into the earth, and whose size and appetite were spoken of down the generations.

‘But I have waited so long for you to come,' his grandfather said. ‘Already the goats are tethered and you are not home.'

‘I was coming along the path from the missionary school and I thought I saw an
irimu
. But it was just a leopard.'

‘Hmm,' he said, flicking his giraffe-hair fly whisk. ‘Your father is still sending you to the mission school. I would hear about this place. Come, sit with me; my old legs have carried me far this day.'

Wangira sat at his grandfather's feet as the old one lowered himself to a squat three-legged chair — one of the insignias of his status as an elder. Wangira loved his grandfather like no one else in his family. The relationship didn't suffer the formalities required between father and son; in many ways it was much closer. Every first-born grandson was given the paternal grandfather's name, in
this case, Wangira. The special closeness was also inferred by the nickname that grandfathers used for the first-born son of a son:
wakine
. It meant
my equal.
Their relationship had indeed developed as between equals. It was the reason the young Wangira could confide in the old Wangira to an extent he would not dare do with his father.

The old man took a large pinch of snuff from the kudu horn on his beaded belt and snorted loudly. ‘Now, tell me about this mission. What is it that you learn there, and cannot learn from your father or even your old
guuka
?'

‘Of course you teach me well,
guuka
. Even my father, who is so busy with his wives and other children, teaches me. But in the mission school we are learning to speak Kiswahili and also English.'

‘Hmm …'

‘And also we are learning to read and write.'

‘What is this “read and write”?'

‘Writing is a way to send messages or thoughts to another,' Wangira said.

‘Do we Kikuyu not have the
gichandi
for that purpose?' his grandfather asked. A decorated gourd with strings and beads on the outside, and seeds and stones on the inside, actors and storytellers shook the
gichandi
in various ways to enhance their stories.

Wangira thought it best not to mention that the nuns were discouraging such old traditions.

‘It is different to the
gichandi
,
guuka
. It can send messages at a distance.'

‘Pah! That is what the
macoro
, the kudu horns, are for.'

‘Oh, no,
guuka
, with writing you can send very long messages, messages too long for the drums.'

‘Then you send a messenger.'

Wangira sighed. ‘May I show you how I write,
guuka
?'

The old man feigned great disinterest, but shrugged noncommittally.

Wangira selected a suitable stick from the firewood pile, smoothed the dirt at his grandfather's feet, and used the stick to write
Sam
.

The old man studied the scratching for some time. ‘What is it?' he asked at last.

‘That is my name. Well, it is my mission-school name. Sam.'

‘It is so small.'

Wangira used the stick to add another three letters. ‘There,' he said. ‘My full name is Samson.'

‘Hmmph,' his grandfather muttered, before rising with a groan. He glanced down at Wangira's dirt scratching, and then turned away in disgust. ‘Ah-ah-ah. These days you young people have too much time to waste on such nonsense. All that work for one small name. And not even your correct name.'

He strode to the door of his son's hut.

‘And one more thing, my young Wangira. This leopard you saw …'

‘Yes,
guuka
?'

‘What makes you think it was not the
irimu
in the disguise of a leopard?'

 

The red murram road to Nyeri wound among the green hills where scores of women bent over their hoes, tilling the fecund earth of Kikuyuland. Long rows of maize stood tall in the blood-red soil, their cobs near bursting. Fields of millet, banana, cassava, beans and the purple-red sugarcane much loved by new mothers, filled every cleared plot between stands of virgin bush. Here and there were the white flowers of pyrethrum — the only cash crop permitted to be grown by the Kikuyu. It was a popular crop, not least because the pyrethrum flowers were an ideal height for children to pluck. The much more profitable coffee and tea crops were the exclusive preserve of the whites.

Wangira was thankful for a reprieve from the pyrethrum field. It was mostly girl's work anyway. He was helping his mother take her produce to market, which was also girl's work, but as his sisters were quite young, he couldn't avoid both. At least there would be the excitement of a big market day to enjoy in Nyeri.

BOOK: Echoes From a Distant Land
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