Father of Serengeti_Dean James Martins
It was Africa at the dawn of the twentieth century. A raw and virginal
continent; stupendous, and arrogant in its contempt of civilisation.
Africa of the mighty jungle and the vast plain. Of untraversable
deserts and insurmountable mountains. Africa of the pyramids
and of the Savannah. Of towering cliffs and roaring, rushing rivers.
Africa of impenetrable forests and mysterious caves. Of the Congo
and the Kalahari.
Africa of strong proud peoples. The Arab and the African. Africa
of tribespeople – a like, yet so greatly dissimilar. Of resplendent
kingdoms and powerful chiefdoms. Africa of a myriad ethnicities and
a thousand tongues. Of fierce warriors and tall, strong women who
were the wealth and pride of their communities. Africa where
superstition reigned, where witchdoctors who knew the wisdom and
magic of the ancients ruled.
Africa for the wild animal. For the bataleur and the barracuda. Africa
of the hunter and the hunted. Of the lion and the gazelle. Africa –
where every conceivable form of nature flourished, where the
wildebeest could be counted in their millions as the earth shuddered
under the their stampeding hooves. Africa of the trumpeting elephant
and slithering python. Of the cheetah that ran with the speed of wind
and the rhino that bore a horn of majesty. Africa of the crocodile that
lay submerged beneath the waters of murky swamps. Of the vulture
that rode the wind in search of carrion.
Africa of a million varieties of bird that filled the air with shrieks
Africa of unforgiving climate. Of skies that scorched and showered
the earth at whim. Africa of a sun that baked its subjects and reddened
the horizons with shimmering heat, then drenched the very same
surroundings with impunity, with storms of thunder and lightning that
tore up trees a hundred feet tall.
Africa of a thousand deities and gods. Africa of the ancestors;
uncowed, unforgiving, untamed. Africa that was bound by none.
A continent to be strong in.
It was to this Africa that Fr. Angelo di Fransisco came. On a ship of
timber and canvas-sail, with a bible and rosary, in a cassock and
collar. He braved the unknown and sailed round the world many
miles from Sicily to Zanzibar, trekked many more with a caravan of
Arab merchants from Zanzibar to Mombasa, and drove the last
hundred by a cart of oxen to the Serengeti plains, home to the Maasai,
a tribe of nomadic pastoralists.
In Maasai folklore, it had been often told that there would be a time
when strange men of pale skin would come to them. Now the
prophecy had been fulfilled. His lined, white skin contrasted sharply
with the rich darkness of the black skin of the Maasai. His straight,
brown hair that ruffled in the winds soaring across the plains with the
force of the mighty Kilimanjaro behind them was unlike the redochre
braids of their men or the clean-shaven heads of their women.
His intense blue eyes marvelled at the splendour of majestic forces of
nature that he saw at play all around him. At the insects that buzzed
with a ferocity that surprised the unwary.
In the Enjeera he was welcomed and befriended. To the Maasai, he
was Nkuba Msungui, the “white chief from across the seas”. To him
they were the children of the God of his faith. It was amongst these
people he settled.
The tribe made him a gift of a mud hut. The hut was low roofed,
thatched and circular. Its round mud walls were plastered with the
dung of the many cattle that belonged to the tribe, that filled the hut
with a pungent odour. His bed was but a hide of a single bull, whose
horns were ornaments that adorned the entrance to his dwelling. A
red-earthen clay pot sat on three large stones in the centre of his hut.
Calabashes sat in a dark, cool corner holding juloti, the mixture of
milk and cow-blood that the Maasai drank each day.
In the ensuing years both the tribespeople and Fr. Angelo learned
much about each other. He embraced their culture and learned of their
beliefs and ways of life. He began to speak their language with ease.
He learned of Enkaai the sky-god of the Maasai and of the cattle that
were the very lifeblood of their existence. He learned of the feared
ancestors and spirits of the skies, earth, rivers, trees and animals.
He took part in their cultural ceremonies. He watched their rites of
circumcision and initiation into adulthood. He often spent days with
them herding their cattle, with the boys in the scrubland who stood
still on one leg for hours on end, silhouetted against the horizon like
statues of sculpted stone. He ate their meat and each day he drank
juloti with the tribespeople.
He learnt of the revered elders, the leaders of the tribal communities.
Often he sat and spoke with them and marvelled at their strength
of character and wisdom. He drank their naisho, traditional beer
from the central pot, from which each man shared by pulling
at a long reed straw.
At the end of his first year with them, the Maasai made him a present
of ten heads of cattle, a bull and nine cows. It was a gift that paid him
the highest compliment for amongst the Maasai nothing is as valuable
as cattle, given to them by Enkaai at the beginning of time. He tended
them well and with time his tiny herd grew and prospered.
In turn, he taught them of his country, from the land whence he came.
He shared the richness of his culture with them and explained a world
so different from their own.
He described the outstanding architecture of the Roman Empire, the
churches and cobbled streets. He told them of the vineyards and of
the wine, the naisho that his land was famous for. He explained the
use of guns and cannons and their superiority to the Maasai spears.
He spoke of the ways of life of his people, of their art and music.
He showed that ties to family amongst his people were as strong as
the Maasai’s own.
To some he even began to teach his tongue. They laughed as they
mouthed the strange sounding words. Amongst them, one girl in
particular was captivated by Fr. Angelo. Her name was Nkolana, she
was the daughter of a respected elder and an outstanding beauty. Her
skin was rich, as brown and smooth as burnished bronze. Her head
was clean-shaven as per the custom. She was tall, well formed, strong
and of good gait. She was graceful, as she walked from the river with
a pot of water balanced carefully on her head she stood out from the
other nditos. She was a hard worker and the cause of much pride in
the community. Many young girls were brought to spend time in her
company, in the hope that they would be influenced by her gentle
nature and quiet character.
Fr. Angelo had noticed her too. She was the most eager of his students
when he taught them of his home. And one of the few Maasai women
that had been unafraid to partake in Christian mass. She often helped
him out with his daily chores, when she had done with her family’s
and the community’s.
In 1914, when Fr. Angelo had lived amongst the Maasai for seven
years, another stranger was to come to the tribe. Irene O’Shaughnessy
was Irish, a nun and a severe woman of forty-five. She had seen much
hardship in life and little joy. Her face was lined and harsh of
Her life was dedicated to God and she chose to live it in Africa.
As Fr. Angelo, she too was accepted in the community. It was yet
time before white men would be considered the enemy.
It was thought at first that she was Fr. Angelo’s wife, for amongst the
Maasai who count part of their wealth in the numbers of their wives
and sons nothing is so strange as a man who would not marry, now
here was a celibate woman! The elders pondered over this that night
and concluded that the msungui were indeed strange in their habits.
She helped Fr. Angelo in much of his work and he was grateful to her.
Many days thus went by peacefully for the tribe. Fr. Angelo and
Nkolana grew closer. Their attachment to each other ran deep, though
the men of the tribe saw no reason for suspicion, as they knew Fr.
Angelo to be a man of God.
There came a time when Fr. Angelo and Nkolana were alone in the
hut that served as a chapel. It was evening and the orange-gold of the
setting sun lit up the plains and bathed it in a light that seemed to set
the entire earth on fire. The cattle were rounded up in their kraals and
meat was roasting for supper. Nkolana had swept the earthen floor
and now stood and faced Fr. Angelo.
Fr. Angelo looked up from the diary in which he was writing and met
her gaze. In the light of the setting sun, now a deep russet-red, she
seemed to glow, aflame with an opalescent countenance. His heart gave
a start, for the feelings which she now stirred in him were unknown to
him before, for until then he had lived his life for God in celibacy.
Unaware of what led him to her, he stood from the huge tree-trunk
that he used as a table and reached out to her. The tumult that was in
his heart was in hers too, they embraced. Each held on to the other’s
embrace, neither willing for the moment to end. Time and cultural
identity ceased to exist.
At that moment, Sr. Irene stepped into the hut from the small
vegetable garden that she had planted and had been tending.
Transfixed, she stared at the sight before her – such as she had never
seen before. Gathering her habit about her she turned and rushed from
the hut. Fr. Angelo and Nkolana turned as she did, each still entwined
in the arms of the other.
Quietly Fr. Angelo turned to his beloved, for that is what she was, in
truth. With a fear in her heart that could be seen in her eyes she turned
to him and asked “What have we done? What are these feelings we
have?” His heart pained to see the confusion she was in. He traced his
fingers down her cheek gently, and held it in his palm. “Let it be”, he
said, “we have done no wrong”.
He gazed deep into her eyes, brown and soft. “Nkolana”. He spoke
her name, tenderly, quietly, realising for the first time how beautiful it
sounded and how much it meant to him. “Go to your hut, I will sit
here and think of what to do”. Trustingly, she obeyed.
After she had left, he sank to the earthen floor wearily. His mind
raced with a thousand thoughts. What were he to do? That he loved
her he was sure of. For never before had his heart been so full of such
pure an emotion.
After the hour had passed and night had fallen, he arose and walked
across to Irene’s hut. She was quiet, seated on a small log with her
bible in her lap and her rosary between her fingers. Her mouth moved
silently as she prayed, the repetitions soothing her, calming her
As he tapped her door lightly and entered, she turned and faced him
stoically. Before he could utter a word she said to him “I have written
to the Monsignor Emanuele in Rome”. She said, “we will await his
reply”. With his calm demeanour he met her eyes “Irene, I have done
no wrong, neither has the child”. Irene sat, unmoved. Then she spoke
“that is for our superiors to decide”.
The weeks passed uneventfully. Irene refused to take part in Mass, or
have anything to do with Fr. Angelo or Nkolana. In desperation, Fr.
Angelo turned to the Maasai council of elders for guidance. The
elders heard him out patiently and sat each night around the fire with
their naisho in a quandary, for never before had they been faced with
a dilemma of such proportion. The idea of the proposed marriage of
Nkolana to Fr. Angelo was repulsive to some. They knew that their
decision would set a precedent for the tribe, and their blood would
henceforth be diluted.
“This man means no harm”, said bayan Kimiya, the oldest of the
men, whose wisdom was much respected. “He has lived amongst us
for such a very long time, yet he has respected our customs and even
helped with our ill with powdered medicines from across the seas”.
“Yes, he has certainly helped”, spat bayan Loriso, Nkolana’s father,
his voice tinged with bitterness. “Now I will no longer be of any
standing amongst my own people”.
“You know how it is with matters of the heart”, said yet another,
“nothing ruled by the heart is rational, but to give our daughter in
marriage to Fr. Angelo would be to dishonour her family and weaken
the blood of our descendants”.
Bayan Loriso was the last to speak. “His blood is not weaker than
ours, does he not eat with us, guard our cattle and even hunt with us,
though in his youth he knew nothing of these matters”.
It was amid all this that Fr. Angelo decided to travel to Italy. He knew
that his mind was made up, and indeed the Church would hurry him
along to a conclusion in this matter. He knew that Monsignor
Emanuele would expect it of him. The journey was tedious, for he
knew the controversy that awaited his arrival.
He arrived in Italy as Europe prepared for the first world war. Gunfire
and sirens rent the air every so often. Bombers screamed overhead.
The nations were bent on annihilation and extermination and he
longed far more for the peace of Africa, the stillness of the African
night, the chirruping of the insects, the winds that whistled through
the grass of the plains and Savannah, and the gentle Maasai tribe that
he had grown so attached to.
The horse-drawn carriage that took him at the Cathedral cost him
eight times as much as it had when he had left for Africa. In times of
war, the cabby had grinned with a mouth full of broken teeth.
The passing years had been unkind to the Monsignor, he had aged,
and the signs of his aging were manifest all over his being. His face
was heavily lined, the wrinkles ran deep and his step had weakened
considerably. When he had received Sr. Irene’s letter he had been
deeply disturbed, for Angelo was like a son to him, the Monsignor
had known since his youth and had been his friend and mentor.
Fr. Angelo made his way to the Monsignor’s chambers. The two men
of the cloth faced each other across the room. Each greeted the other
with true warmth, for they had been part of the Church together for a
time that transcended any differences that now stood between them.
“The peace of our Lord be with you” –
– “And also with you”.
It was a greeting that was potent in its simplicity.
“you have come”, said the Monsignor, “I am glad – for we have much
to discuss.” He walked to his desk and took a letter from the first
drawer, handing it to Fr. Angelo he said, “Two months ago I received
this letter from our dear sister Irene, who serves in the same
community that you do on the continent. I shall not ask you to read it,
for I am sure you are well aware of its contents.” Fr. Angelo remained
quiet and standing. The Monsignor Emanuele motioned to the seat
before his desk “Sit,” he said, “sit and tell me of what has come of
your time in Africa.”
Fr. Angelo sat before the Monsignor, and began to speak. His voice
was filled with a passion that welled up from the strength of the
emotions that he was feeling. He spoke of his arrival in Africa and of
his life amongst the Maasai. He told his superior of the Serengeti and
the Maasai, much in the same way that he had long before spoken of
Italy to the tribal elders.
He spoke of the African people that he had grown to cherish as if they
were his own. At the end, he spoke of Nkolana and of the special
place that she held in his heart and being. Monsignor Emanuele
listened patiently, he was an old man and had passed through many
places and learned much in his own life. He knew that there would
come a time when the Church would have to face the predicament of
Fr. Angelo that was before him now.
As Fr. Angelo drew to the end of his tale Monsignor Emanuele
sighed. In the end he knew the decision was not his to make. It was
Fr. Angelo’s. And from what the man had said, he knew too that the
truth was in the heart and the soul of the man who sat before him.
Monsignor Emanuele waved his spotted and gnarled hand. “My son,
your decision is in your heart. When you joined this Church years
ago, you were asked to take, but three vows; poverty, chastity and
servitude. Perhaps in Africa, with Nkolana and amongst your Maasai
friends, by embracing their ways of life you have truly lived out those
vows to a greater extent than those of us that live here, enemies with
our neighbours, hoarding our wealth, and living in times of war.”
“Should you choose to leave us for Nkolana, you have my blessing. I
will make the necessary arrangements for your step-down from the
Church. Go in peace, return to Africa, live as one of God’s own.” Fr.
Angelo took the aged hand in his own, kissed the ring on its third
finger, then kissed both the cheeks of his mentor. “Thank you,
Monsignor.” It was all he could say.
Fr. Angelo left the Monsignor’s chambers and walked to a chapel.
There he knelt before the crucifix of his Lord and Saviour and prayed
from the depth of his spirit. The hours passed, but in his communion
with his Creator he was unaware of time. He prayed that he would be
forgiven his decision, that he would be true to Nkolana and blessed in
his future with her people.
He prayed for the understanding of the Church superiors and the
Maasai elders. He prayed till the sweat poured from his brow. In the
dead of the night, exhausted, he rose from his knees.
That night he slept with a light heart.
He lived in Italy but for a few weeks. He found it strange to call this
“home” when the home of his spirit was now so different and starkly
dissimilar a thousand miles away in Africa. He arranged his passage
back to Africa with haste. He visited family and friends, bidding
farewell as he had once done decades previously. On his last day
home he visited his parents graves, laying wreaths on each stone slab,
bidding them a final farewell.
As he boarded the ship, he kissed the earth of the shores of his
motherland. In his mind he spoke to the land “farewell, you beautiful
country”. He made the journey fevereshly, the weeks rushed by. For
he was returning to love and life, to hope and dreams. Sea, caravan,
oxen-carts, then at last he was in the arms of his beloved, on the
plains of steppe that danced all day and night.
The elders had agreed to a marriage between him and Nkolana. In
honour of their custom of bridal-price, Angelo gave the entire herd he
owned to bayan Loriso.
The tribe prepared for the their wedding as they did for all weddings,
with laughter and merriment and feasting and much rejoicing.
When the matters of matrimony had been finalised, Nkolana left her
mother’s hut for her new husband’s. A larger hut had been prepared
for them, in the centre of the manyatta, where they would be one with
all the tribe’s members. The night that she moved there was a feast.
The aroma of roasting meat filled the air, as the people basked in the
heat of the fires. Tendrils of pungent wood-smoke drafted upwards to
meet the dark sky, with stars as large and bright as diamonds.
Angelo and Nkolana sat together. Close in heart and mind and spirit.
Happiness permeated their entire beings and brimmed forth in their
eyes and smiles. Nkolana had known such happiness would be hers
with Angelo by her side, and against all odds they had triumphed.
That night, when the feasting and rejoicing had ended, they lay
together in their home as man and wife. When their passion was
spent, they spoke in whispers of their future, one to be shared in total
communion. They spoke of the place they would now hold in the
community that they both respected. They spoke of children they
would bring forth together – strong sons and fine daughters. They
spoke of cattle and the herds that they would raise.
The months passed, and Nkolana grew heavy with child. Angelo
watched over her tenderly as did Nkolana’s own mother. When the
time for the birth grew near Nkolana returned to her mother’s hut.
Each day Angelo visited her, regaling her with tales of humour and
telling her of how much their child meant to him.
On a cold, clear morning when the first faint pink of light touched the
eastern horizon of the savannah, Nkolana began her labour. The pains
wracked across her swollen womb as the child inside her felt the
insistent pushing that would bring her to the world. Her mother and
other women of the tribe came to Nkolana and watched her carefully,
waiting for their child.
Hours later, Nkolana called to her mother. She felt that the time had
come, the child inside her would be patient no longer. She groaned
deeply and gulped in huge breaths of air. Her mother and aunt bent
above her as she used the might of her strong frame to push her little
child into their waiting hands. Nkolana heaved, and the wail of the
newborn filled the tiny hut.
Ululations from the womenfolk rent the air. The news was passed
from hut to hut. A girl – a girl has been born to Nkolana. The tribe
thanked the ancestors.
Sr. Irene had come to them, with a gift of a shawl for the child. As
she looked at the scene before her, her heart melted, the hardness
softened and she was once again a friend.
Later that night, Angelo watched as their tiny girl suckled. Nkolana
looked into the eyes of her husband, weary but proud. He lifted his
sleeping daughter to his cheek, and touched the soft silk of her skin.
He carried her gently, crooning to her as one can only croon to a
newborn child. Then he lay beside his wife and the family slept.
The following morning they named their daughter – Serengeti – for
the land in which they had loved and lived. The land that had taught