I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

Do you care enough for a dying culture?_Jack Ernest Mbiso

studiare 2_Africa Teller 2005.


“This is going to be fun”, I thought to myself, “ten days and ten nights

alone in the forest”, that was a scarry thought. But because it is the only

way into being a respected man in society, I was ready to go all the way

with my people’s tradition. The first difficult and most painful part, I had

strongly survived. I must admit it was the most painful experience for me.

My father and elder brother, had gone through the same and whenever

I looked at their mouth and saw how much respect they were awarded

in society, I knew in my mind that it was the most important pain to go

through. I remember the week before my six lower teeth were removed.

Early each morning I would join my other age mates and go into the

river and would drink with our mouths like animals did. On our way to

the river we were not supposed to talk to each other or any other person.

This was discipline.

The elders in the village would sneak on us and some pretended to be

drunk and even cursed and abused us. But we were to give no vocal or

body reply. Ours was to ignore. Other canning elders would even crack

very funny jokes but to us laughter during this week was not an accepted

reaction. No word whatsoever was allowed to leave our lips. We kept

our lips tightly shut and continuously chewed on the herb that we were

given by the village elder. We also ate separately and slept by the animal


Each evening at the family open fire one elder would tell us of stories

of how one in their age mates, bled to death immediately after their teeth

were gorged out. The reason being he was a known lier. Another had

his gum swell until both of his chicks burst open because he used to make

faces at people during the week of initiation. Because we were not allowed

to utter even a single word, we could not discuss amongst ourselves

about our characters.

On the morning of the initiation, we went to the river very early in the

morning. To our surprise, the village elders and the initiator were already

there drinking from the river. Each of us first went down on our knees

and started to drink. “Don’t rise up, continue drinking”, one elder gave

the instruction. Before we knew what was happening we were all toppled

into the chilling water of the river. The elders watched and gave us

further instruction. At every third tap of their walking sticks we were to

dive under water. They were watching. Whoever stayed longest under

the water would be the leader of our age group.

This exercise continued until the birds started to wake up. It was the second

cork-crew. My father could not conceal his pride when I was declared

the leader of the groups of fifty young boys. I was to face the chisel

first. The initiator would push a chisel-like knife into my gums. He

did this on both sides of every tooth then like a wedge he would try to

up-root the tooth.

My father kept giving the “death eye” every time I made any kind of

sound. “I cannot let my father down”, I kept telling myself.

When the initiator pulled the last tooth I was all blood and all pain.

My father jumped back into the river and I was pushed towards him.

My father almost drowned me. He also kept calling the names of our

ancestors and his message to them was: “Here is the sacrifice you have

been waiting for and now I am ready to join you”. My other age mates

were still in water in a line waiting to go through this ordeal.

My father took me to the fireplace, which was the other side of the

river. By the time we reached the fire it was dawn and birds were singing.

There was this old man, the oldest man from our village who was squatting

near the fire. There were several knives in the glowing fire. “At

this time you can talk and if you must cry, next to the fire you can cry.

After today whether in pain or pleasure, I want you to promise that you

will never cry or make any sound associated with pain”.

I took the oath never to show my emotions no matter what happens to

  1. The old man took a red-hot knife, with my mouth open, he touched

the six wounds of my missing teeth. Believe me you, we the pain was

unimaginable. I almost defecated on myself. I yelled in pain the next

thing that happened I will live to tell my great grand children. My father

gave me a spear and a walking stick. He told me to go home for my

herd of cattle, which was already in the cattle-shed waiting for me.

And now here I am. I do not know what happened to my age-mates. I

don’t know who made it through to the fireplace. My father had told me

that everything which was important. Other things I will know when I

rejoin the village after my ten days in the wilderness. I look forward to

coming back and being respected by everyone in the village.

My intention is to be a chief in future. I know I am good in making appropriate

decisions. When I become chief, everyone will respect me. Even

the foreigners who are ruling our country. They will have no choice. I

don’t have teeth and they have teeth. Respect is only in one direction.

You have teeth you respect the one without teeth. You don’t have teeth

you give instructions to those with teeth. So, the foreigner will have no


My three grown bulls and the other seven young ows are going to make

me rich some day. I took my herd and left home. I had my ten little sticks.

I was to throw away one stick after every night. And when I did not have

any sticks left in my pocket, I was to travel home. I looked forward to

my first night in the wilderness. From the hills I could see a lot of smoke

from our village. I could not help but wonder what was it they were cooking

that sent such huge smoke and a particular kind of aroma. “When I

will be chief I will be sending messengers to those villages to spy on

them and report to me. Rumour also has it that the foreigners are attacking

villages and burning houses, killing all adults and taking their animals.

The adults are always talking of such things. When I return from the

forest, I’ll be part of the grown-up men. I will be able to be part the discussions

and I’ll start making decisions”. Such were my thoughts. All

was only ten moons away.

That first night I climbed one of these large shaded trees. My father had

told me that no wild animal will ever attack any other animal up in the

branches. I have never been afraid and now was not the time to begin.

I was completely asleep and dreaming of how I had gone to the market

place and snatched away the girl who was going to be my first wife. As

I ran away carrying her over my shoulders, I could hear her brothers in

hot chase. I had no problem with the girl. She also liked me and she agreed

that I put her down so that we could run together. I obeyed she was outrunning

me and as I ran, the shouts of those chase us became louder. In

my dream I remember trying to jump over thickets of thorns when I fell

headfirst. That is when I woke up. I could not remember where I was.

Then a doubt hit me: where were my animals. Also there was great noise,

a rushing kind of noise and voices of women and children.

“My ancestors what is going on?”, I remember asking with my face skywards.

Then I saw women and children, men and young men everybody

was running deep into the forest. I could not believe what was happening.

All my ten herds of cattle were gone without a trace. I joined the

crowd. No one was in a position to tell me what was going on. We just

ran and ran until morning. We were going on. We continued walking

the forested land. We were going the direction the sun always went. At

midday the men called us to a stop. Women, children and the very old

were told to continue until the next village. We men were to go towards

the lesser star. Some elders had been there.

They said: “The time has come for us to join the fight”. Now everything

came clear to me. The foreigners had reached my village and destroyed

everything. I was told that my father was the first to resist his house being

burnt and he was cut by a sharp sword, then pieces of his body was

thrown back into the house before it was set on fire.

We walked towards the hills. For two moons, there was little conversation

but walking. When we arrived at our destination we were given a

very warm welcome. We fed on meat, a lot of meat. Then we were given

guns and old army uniforms. Then a tall-dark man, stood and said:

“We are not here to impress anyone, we are not here to wage war against

anyone. We are here to protect our land and property. The only thing we

do comfortably here is to breath. All other things are luxury. We know

our enemy and we kill our enemy. They are moving along the main roads

but we will wait for them at the rivers. We will kill them, take their clothes

and their weapons. Then wait for the next group. From tomorrow morning

we teach everyone how to use the weapon. That is the only skill you

need. You have ears and eyes. Use them. Other tricks you will learn before

the enemy arrives at the river. I don’t want any questions, I don’t

want any regrets. I will kill any of you who shows any signs or regret”.

That was the only thing he said. Then he left and we all left. No one

needed to know who he was and why he had a limp in his walk. He also

had one ear lobe missing.

After about one month the enemy reached the river. They were many

but they did not know that we had build traps for them. All of them found

themselves in the holes we had dug. Several of them died from snakebites,

others broke their necks and a few who tried to escape met with rain of

bullets. That evening I expect some kind of celebration. I was wrong.

The man with a limp did not show any emotions. No one talked only

everyone was humming a traditional song, which I also knew.

My mother, my father my brother

All of you who gave meaning to my life

Tonight see how the enemy spends the night

Tomorrow show me how to see the sun set

My mother you are still strong

My father you are still alive

My brother and sisters, wait for us by the river.

We just hummed this song until everyone went to sleep. In the morning

we had to go back up the hill from where we would wait for the next

troop. Within my mind I kept thinking about my ten herds of cattle, my

dream with my wife-to-be and pieces of my father’s body in a burning

house. These thoughts were hurting me. The big problem is that here in

the bush people do not talk to each other. People only talk during training

but when it was time for relaxing, it was like everybody become preoccupied

with their own problems.

On the third month I met one of my age mates. All this time he had been

with me in this group but I could not know. Even now we only exchanged

warm glances and that was all. From then on, each night we would se-

Jack Ernest Mbiso Do you care enough for a dying culture?

cretly search for each other and when we finally met, we would exchange

warm glances and then go away. One night he did not turn up. I could

not sleep.

In the morning we were to move to another hill. The commander with

one earlobe called everyone. In my heart I was happy because I was going

to see my friend. I saw him during parade but I was not happy. The

commander brought out the dead bodies. Three of them. Then he said:

“If any of you want to know what happened to these three, then advice

him to go and look for another camp. Here I make all the rules except

for breathing. Before you do anything, you must ask me first. And remember

I don’t like questions. When I put you to take care of food, you

must not eat more than all of us. I will kill you”. He finished and started

walking into the forest.

I could feel fear in everyone. We left in a single line into the forest. It

also begun to rain. From that morning I decided that I must escape from

this war. I no longer knew who my enemy was. All I wanted was to go

to the camp. My father used to tell me of a camp in a neighbouring country

where people like me, would live. Those without parents, relatives

and homes. That country where people brought you food and blankets.

My father also used to say that in that camp you can learn how to read

and write some foreign languages. The only thing he warned us against

was the God those people taught about. My father used to say: “A God

who does not want a man to marry many wives. A God who does not

want us to go to the Witchdoctor. A God who tells you to run away instead

of fighting back when attacked. A God who wants you to love your

enemy. A God who wants you to read a big book and just believe without

proof. A God who does not want animals and blood sacrifice…”. “My

children, if I was to die and you were to go to the distance land, accept

all things but not this God”.

Now here I was contemplating going to that camp. I had made up my

mind. I was going to go. That night I had trouble not thinking about the

God my father warned us about. As we camped under a tree that night,

it began to rain. Lighting struck the tree and there was fire everywhere.

Three of my colleagues were lying died. I could not move. Then I saw

three men dressed in white. The one in command gave instructions. “Don’t

leave this boy, take him with you”, he said this pointing his flaming sword

at me. My mouth said what my head had no idea where from: “Ooh my

God what have I done to deserve this”. And instantly the three white

men left. I ran into the bush where others were now standing as they

watched. I started telling them about the three men. They did not believe

  1. They had been watching me lying there in fame but they did

not see any men dressed in white who were carrying swords. That night

we did not sleep.

One young man who was slightly older than me, told me that he believed

me and my story. He told me that the same thing had happened to him.

He had called the name of God and the three men left. This man was

called Metak. He also told me that he had a small book from where he

always read about God. By morning Metak and I were great friends. I

told him I wanted to escape. He told me he already has a plan and that

as soon as he stole enough food from the men carryng food he will tell

me so that we can move.

As days went by, my story was also told to the commander. One afternoon

after the rains had subsided, he sent for me. I thought to myself I

was going to be killed. As I walked towards his tent, I started telling God

not to let the man kill me: “God of Metak please if you are there and

you love me like Metak tell me, then don’t let the man kill me. Amen”.

I repeated this so many times until I was shaking. When I reached where

the man was, my whole body was shaking. The man held my shoulders

and did not speak for so long. Then he said: “From today you will carry

food with the others. One day you will be a great worrier, even greater

that me”. Then he worked his mouth and spit on my fore-head. He

reached into his bag and gave me a smaller gun; he told me it is called

a colt. He showed me how to use the gun, how to load it and how to

clean it. That night I slept in the tent of the commander. But in reality I

was awake the whole night. My pointing finger never left the trigger of

the gun, which was under my head rest.

Every time the commander come from outside after going for a shortcall,

he came and stood near me. Then he would say: “Young man you

are not asleep and stop pretending. The way you breath tells me you are

not asleep. But it is good to be awake, it gives you time to think”. At

daybreak he sent me back to my group. Our group leader immediately

gave me a rock-sack containing meat and bones. The meat was dry and

was put in black nylon bags. In some tin were beans and corn. He also

awarded me a different uniform and for the first time I was given a headscarf.

His final words were: “Now you are a Leutenant”. Everybody stood

still with their bags together and saluted. Even my friend Metak.

We broke camp and started moving. My friend told me that we were to

break and go to the camp in the distant land. I could not believe what

was happening. By sunset me and my friend were crossing a small

stream. We were moving towards a village, which we had seen earlier.

We slept just at the outskirt of village. In the morning we approached

some old man who was out attending to his traps. My friend engaged

him in a language I did not know. All I kept hearing was “Loki, Kenya,

Kakuma”. After about an hour, we left and went like the old man had

described. My friend later explained to me that if we moved both day

and night then only three moons will pass and we will reach Loki from

where it would be possible to go to the camp – Kakuma.

He was right. On the third moon we reached a place with very beautiful

buildings and many people. Some of them were from my village and

even my younger sister was there. I was happy for the first time in a long

time. We were given some paper with some writing. Everybody who was

going to the camp was given this paper. My sister was not very fine. She

was sweating all the time and was also vomiting.

At this place, my friend was now in charge. He could listen to the people

and translate into our local dialect what was said. He also said that

the following morning we were going to be taken to Kakuma. I can remember

how happy we were. Even my sick sister could afford a smile.

That night my sister become so ill until she could not even sit on her

own. I only knew how to cure her but in this strange land there is no

vegetation. Where would I get the healer herbs? I started telling the God

of Metak to heal my sister.

In the mid-morning sun, we got into large lorries to be taken to Kakuma.

I was carrying my sister on my lap. She kept vomiting and trembling.

Then she started getting cold. The woman seated next to me told

me: “She is dead throw her out of the truck”. How could I do that. I could

see my sister was dead but throwing her body out of the moving lorry

I could not. There were other lorries following ours. I wanted our lorry

to stop so that at least I could burry my sister by the road side. But our

lorry was not going to stop. Hot tears just rolled and burnt my cheeks.

I started humoring the funeral song.

Now that you came to visit

You had to leave with some one

That someone is Ajoik my only sister

I send you out with my sister

I remain expecting you to come for me

Please come back but not soon

Give me enough time to prepare

To prepare my soul

All those who were with me hummed along. I gained strength and stood

with Ajoik body in my arms. I threw her out on to the hot earthen road and

I watched as the other lorries crushed my sister’s bones and flesh. I stood

there for a long time until one of the women came and held me by my shoulder.

She then whispered to me. “Young man you have courage. You did

the right thing. The only thing any of us could do. At least you were here

to give your sister a final send off. Like we have just sung, let us prepare

because the visitor will be back before we know it”.

Our journey was very brief. We all arrived safely and we all began to

build our shelter from the white nylon we were given. Now I live in this

foreign land. I go to school to be taught how to read and write English.

Every Sunday we meet with some people who tell us about God. I know

it is the same God who saved me from the three men dressed in white

who wanted to take me with them. My only regret is that I did not go

back to my village with the ten herds of cattle. I did not go back and

face the initiators knife. I am one step away from adulthood. Who can

I blame for robbing me and my age mates of our cultural rights? Now

who will be the chief of our village? Who will be in the Rainmaker, the

Storm-Preventer, Sign Teller and, most important, who will be the

Witchdoctor for our village.

Now you know me please you can help me. In my country Sudan, we

have not only lost lives but we have also lost several generations, lots

of culture and most important we have lost our integrity. Who we are

and what we value as important. Help us heal, help us return to our country;

help us to learn to forgive the enemy. For it forgiveness, we will build

trust and move towards prosperity.

Do not just watch and listen, stand up and do something.