I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

Unforgivable moments_Lawrence Lentilalu

foto sul futuro_Africa Teller 2007-


I woke up from the bed one early morning to prepare myself for the usual

work of collecting the wild fruits in the jungle. I stood at the door of

our nkaji 1 (hut), to accustom my eyes with the blending brightness of

the dawn. It was a warm, dusty morning, and the thorny acacia trees

swayed incessantly in the breeze. The sun was rising gradually from the

eastern horizon like a red ball of fire, giving the landscape a typical characteristic

of a tropical desert.

I walked down the sandy meadow towards the lonely jungle. I was carrying

a hairy leather bag on the left shoulder. I anticipated picking every

single berry, which might have fallen by the shaking of the winds. When

I approached a cluster of shrubs, something peculiar flashed at my eyes.

At first, I did not decipher how it looked like and this led me to gaze at

it with harmless contempt. Precisely, the desire for the berries however

inspired me to forget the insidious object.

For that reason, I dashed forward and before I had covered a safe distance,

I noticed something like a huge log. Admittedly, the forlorn figure

had assumed the posture of a resting body. It was leaned poignantly

against the trunk of a productive wild berry tree, which grew at the

loose bank of a seasonal river. It was wrapped tightly with a tattered blanket.

Besides, its legs stretched distinctly along the gentle slope of the

riverbank. It was so much conspicuous that any hungry African boy searching

for the wild berries could easily spot it. Virtually, I had a difficulty

to ascertain if the body was really dead. I tried to jump over it but I ac-

cidentally trod upon it. Then a brown dust coated my body head to toe,

and I was momentarily as blind as a mole. I shook it off and clenched

my rungu, (a wooden-weapon with one end round) tightly in the right

hand. Definitely, I was not prepared to fight other than defending my

life in case the strange figure turned ferocious. In the recent past, my

mum was fond of telling me some frightening tales with animal characters

such as ghosts, ogres, lions, hyena, and hare. I was quite certain

however that my mum loves me and she did not mean to scare me. Perhaps

she had predicted that I would one day come across a corpse, yet

I feared it altogether.

Later on, I detected a white form oozed from the nostrils and the mouth.

Alas, it was a dead body. Of course it was a dead young woman. Fear

then gripped me and I took a short shallow breath of relief. Concurrently,

I hardly withstood all what I saw. In that case, I had a nerve-wracking

moment that had transformed my audacity into incapacity to overcome

the danger. With a loud shriek of horror, I jumped backward relentlessly.

The edge of my small loincloth swayed and hooked to a bending branch.

My legs trembled and I could not conceal the neuralgic panic. Immediately,

I stood aimlessly while my lower lip was tightly curled under

the incisors teeth in anxiety. I moved away from the corpse and stood

watching indecisively. Everything was then in flaw. I explicitly sensed

that my thwarted mission to collect the fruits had come to a standstill.

The whole gathering program hence was extremely barred.

As the sun grew high, air became calm and warm. The surroundings then

became deserted and everything was enclosed in solitude, which was

exaggerated by the presence of the dead body. Then I walked down the

path that led me home. Our manyatta (a Samburu residence, circular in

shape, and fenced with thorny branches to protect themselves and their

livestock) was situated on a cleared ground. When I arrived home, I saw

my mother at a distance and she entered the manyatta and head towards

the hut. She had my younger sister on the chest and a pile of firewood

on her back. Generally, it had been the duty of the women to fetch water,

collect firewood, look after the livestock, and prepare meals for the

family among other chores. On the contrary, my dad spends most of his

time sited on a three-legged chair, playing ntotoi, a traditional game played

with small stones. He habitually takes part in marriage negotiations, settling

disputes, and protection of the family against cattle rustlers. Some

of his responsibilities however take place hardly ever.

At once, an idea struck my mind. Firstly, I thought it wise not to pester

the working mother. She must be tired, thirsty, and hungry under the hot

sun. Secondly, I considered reporting the problem to the custodians of

the law and order. Conversely, I preferred to leak the mystification to

my mum because of the absurd fear of the disciplinary dad. Indeed, I

had known him for rigid servility especially in issues pertaining to ethnicity.

“Are you fine?”, my mother said with concern. Perhaps she had

guessed my unhappiness through unusual silence. “Is everything fine?”,

she said. I scribbled on the ground like an earth norm. No word, no response.

Silence persisted. Then she stretched her left hand and tapped

me on the head to draw my misplaced attention. “I am fine mum”, I answered

awkwardly. I was unable to gather the appropriate words that

could make her understand my predicament. At that moment, I sensed

the contradiction in my words. I had also expressed myself with jumbled

thoughts and feelings although she was adept to estimate what I

meant. “but you seem to be disturbed”. she was surprised.

I tentatively told her about the corpse laid in the jungle. “That was the

body of a girl who was forced into an early marriage”. She picked the

answer at once. “This group of village men”, she continued, “had

bartered the girl for an exchange of cows, money, liquor, and blankets.

At that time, men drank muratina – a local brew – in order to negotiate

for the marriage down payment”.

Customarily, a girl was regarded as a source of wealth while a boy

dominated the higher caste as an inheritor. When a family had girls, it

is regarded as rich. It had been a common practice that the council of

elders forces the young girls into early marriage. This system constitutes

what is called nkauti (dowry), which is mostly a contract that involves

the whole community, rather than the married couples. This kind of marriage

is bound by the value of the dowry instead of love.

Payment of dowry, of course, could be damn expensive but it should

never be equated with the life, rights, desires, and freedom of the girl.

Later on, the girl discovered an enigmatic marriage arrangement and she

did not accept to be the sixth wife. “She thus decided to drink poison.

She committed suicide”. My mother said, and then paused. Finally, she

added that the dead woman was thrown into the bush.

I felt distasteful as I listened without interruptions. “Such unmarried

woman could not be buried suitably and worst still; she was a victim of

suicide”, she added. I could not resist the venomous hatred. “She was

regarded as an out cast, an abominable and possessed by the evil spirits”,

my mum said. Then, she kept silent, shook her head, and looked at

  1. She must have noticed bitterness in me. I wondered thus far why

the village elders had failed to conduct a proper community burial.

Then my mum interjected. “That is our culture!”, she paused. From that

very moment, I had really gotten the glimpse of the truth. Yes, it is our

traditions, which yearn for the patriarchal sensitivity. Then I took long

breath to reflect upon such unjust generation that had failed to yeld refined

cultural order, which could ultimately transform the unpromising

social standards. I was thereby filled with displeasure that ultimately made

me feel exhausted. Finally, as the atrocious commentary passed by, I became

aware of the unproportioned gender imbalance and unreasonable

way through which the dead woman disposed. The cool evening breeze

swept across the dust terrain of the land, while the sun slipped splendidly

down the distant horizon.

Unfortunately, there was no room of my own. I had no private room to

rest except the common circular grass-thatched hut. That in fact, was

the only available space, regardless of size, where the whole family members

claim their rights. The bed was a rectangular structure, fifty centimetres

above the ground. It was made up of wooden materials while

the bedding was a hide of a bull recently killed by a scrawny lioness.

Oftentimes, the bed could be turned to serve the purpose of a dining table.

In such traditional setting, nothing could be scorned, although one thing

was certain, that is, to squeeze myself between the siblings yet no one

could ever complain for congestion. After that, I collapsed into the bed

and lay under the black batch of soot hanged from the top of a roof. That

very moment, a whirlwind blew the grass on the roof leaving wide

gaps. The fire was glowing maliciously and the ashes had been spread

almost all over the hut. The rays of the sun mixed with clouds of smoke

then stretched leisurely into the dim hut through a perforated roof. There

was neither housing insurance nor a guarantee for an indemnity in case

of natural disaster.

Meanwhile, a starved bedbug was apparently a big nuisance to me while

its friend; Mr. Cockroach was hastily rummaging calabashes for food.

No one had provided him with a clue that I collected nothing, which could

be worth sharing. In spite of countless difficulties, I lastly felt secured

and incredibly relaxed. Then my mother gave me a calabash of sour milk

for an evening meal and I gratefully drank it all. Coincidentally, I

yawned, and breathed heavily, after which I snored like a cat. Truly, I

had eaten like a pig and slept like a child.

I was subsequently haunted by harsh fantasies of a ghost. In fact, I

could not find out how it looked like but I still remember its brutality.

It chased and pushed me down a steep cliff. Everything seemed loosely

fitted. Additionally, I felt weightless, yet nothing could support me.

My feet sank into the loose sand. After along struggle, of push and pull,

I staggered over a monumental anthill. Then, I endeavoured to run for

my life but my legs could not carry me.

Consequently, an ominous numbness suppressed my strength. I was absolutely

weak and neither able to jump over the bordering gully nor divert

to a safer direction. Regrettably, it was too late for me to run away

for safety since the ghost had already trapped me ferociously and lashed

me out into an overhanging acacia tree. Afterwards, frailty overwhelmed

me and I found myself hanging at the middle of the great towering cliff.

The ghost had exposed its spiky teeth in readiness to chew me up.

“Waaaahh! Waaaaahh!”, I screamed sonorously. After a while, I watched

my crucial body being dragged mercilessly by the ghost between its teeth.

Luckily, it was a dream, nevertheless.

The next few hours, I spent the nap in a nauseating mood. No part of

my sleep was joyous anyhow; it was dominated entirely by inadequate

vigour. The whole sleeping process was rather a collection of scaring

memories, which were instigated probably by the formidable dead body.

Suddenly, I stepped down and knelt miserably behind the three-stone

fire. Thus, I was apparently sodden with sweats and my skin irritated.

It was morning, another gleaming sunrise, announced by the vigilant cock-

erels and the sky was clear. The birds were shimmering their melodious

songs at the surrounding bushes. Shortly, I sneaked into the scene

to observe curiously what might have happened to the dead body. What

I saw filled me with unprecedented premonitions. Several yards away

were some crushed berries spread all over. Evidently, the berries were

contaminated with human flesh.

Everything was thus soaked beneath the putrefied body. The natural purplish

colour of the fruits had therefore turned brownish depicting an extreme

stage of decomposition. I ultimately began to be more concerned

with the wrecked corpse rather than the fruits.

Admittedly, I saw a footpath of a beast, which had dragged the corpse

into the bushes. I thus extended my look across the sideways of the bushes.

Suddenly, I sighted a family of hyena. The male hyena was conspicuously

chewing a bone while the rest of the family was audibly laughing

in concealment. Surprisingly, I saw a jackal carrying a bone between

its canines. I took a dim view of its baked surface. Undoubtedly, it was

a fibula. I was scared further by the presence of the appendages that extended

to form a human foot.

Nothing of course could have persuaded me into forgiving the jackal

although its brother hyena bears the greatest blame. The scattered bones

had therefore made me apathetic. At worst, some vestiges had become

as black as charcoal and a horrific odour became unbearable under the

scorching sun. Moreover, a swarm of houseflies had covered the corpse

completely to siphon its dampness. Then a plump housefly with a

swollen abdomen hummed noisily on my face as if to warn me off going

nearer to its meal. I did not heed the warning, anyway. I thought that

the insects have enjoyed a petrifying meal at my expense. Thereafter, a

bad smell fumed into my nose. I held my breath to avoid breathing in

the horrible stench. Immediately, I felt a strong sensation to vomit since

I had developed an aversion to inhaling anything in such unpleasant environment.

In the end, I pessimistically underestimated my success.

Until then, I had lacked heroic confidence to burry the dead body. I had

otherwise considered it awkward yet the necessity for a proper disposal

lingered in the mind.

I began to ask my self why the body was placed on that particular place.

I presumed that the corpse was intentionally put there in order to discourage

me from collecting the fruits. Logically, I considered not to blame

anyone of ignoble negligence but animosity was reserved in my subconscious

mind, nonetheless. My thinking capacity was interfered with

and I could no longer continue with the task. I became confused and undecided.

A gnawing dilemma had eventually taken away my hope of extending

the search for the fruits.

For the meantime, I had no option but to hurry back home. Then I bent

my back to enter into my mothers’ hut. Actually, some pieces of a broken

calabash had littered the entrance making my movement a little difficult.

Cautiously, I sat and leaned my back despairingly against the wall.

The wall was smeared with cow dung, which gave it a rough texture. In

a while, I coiled my head between the knees. A housefly strayed into

the house and landed softly on my mother’s chin. It indignantly reminded

me of the previous one that buzzed on my face. I was very impatient as

my mother paused to slap it away. I then changed the sitting position. I

squatted and supported my chin with cupped hands. Nothing interested

me; no part of my time was active. At best, my mum showed me some

filial companionship that broke my calmness.

My mum had sat on a hairy goat’s skin cleaning calabashes with a spicy

smoke as a disinfectant used commonly by the nomads. She had been

fond of taking care of the calabashes, which she used often to milk the

cows. She milks them twice a day morning and evening. Alternatively,

she had approached 70’s but still kept her work schedule consistent. Resting

had never been her hobby and I almost always see her doing some

work that might have been forgotten undone. Despite of her physical

degeneration, she was admiringly beautiful. She was adorned with

colourful beads, and copper bracelets. But one thing was sure about her,

the smile she gave even in the midst of tragedy, yet I rarely return it back.

Beyond doubt, my mum had an instinct maternal love for me. She was

actually a source of comfort to me during that period of mayhem. I must

therefore acknowledge her presence. “My son, please bring us some water

from the stream”, she asked. “Yes mum”, I agreed with a nod. She

must have been tired and thirsty splitting firewood in the jungle.

That very day, she went hurriedly into the boma (an enclosure fenced

with thorns to restrict the movement of the livestock) with a rope and a

calabash in her hands as her normal routine. It was late in the evening

and the dairy cows were waiting patiently for the usual milking process.

I followed her quietly and stood listless and listened admiringly to the

mooing of the cows. The hungry calves on the other hand were busy

jostling in the pen waiting for their usual ration of milk. I knew of

course that they were unhappy about my mum’s tendency of snatching

them their mother’s milk. If cows of course had lawyers, my mum

would have been convicted of harassing the minor. Without wasting time,

however, I took a medium sized calabash and headed towards the stream.

The journey was nasty, even as the burning sun could not allow me to

walk further. I therefore took a rest under the shrubs which was the only

safe way to avoid the burning heat.

In few minutes later, I moved to the water source. The pathway became

narrower and straighter with some shrubs on its sides. At the end it seemed

to peter out in perspective while “Liyo” (mirage) was shinning visibly

yet indistinctly difficult to go closer. Truly, it looked a layer of water at

a far distance. Culturally, mirage gives an impression of faint hopes, unrealised

ambitions, and unattained relationship. This is rather a supplementary

realism which the Samburu community purportedly considers

being a symbol of loneliness, and isolation. Yes, solitude crept into my

consciousness. Subsequently, the hooting of the doves soothed the loneliness

in the waterside. I squatted at the edge of the water ready to

quench my thirst. Unexpectedly, a fat frog kicked its way in fear of the

approaching traitor.

Conversely, I was surprised to recognize that something shapeless and

stinking was floating at the surface of the tranquil water. Suddenly,

without warning, a bad smell betrayed the spewed flesh. Certainly, I realized

that it was the constipated hyena that had vomited into the pool.

I was overly disgusted. The spongy texture of the rotten stuff reminded

me of the decayed body. In fact, the weird thing shocked me. It smelt

like a rotten egg. No matter how it was, nothing could have put me off

quenching my thirst or takes some water home. Down deep into the water,

I saw my image. It rippled rhythmically with the buoyancy of the

waves. If reflection, by the way, could really speak the truth, I saw my

facial haplessness down in the pool. The Samburu superstitious truism

meata nkare paya” (naturally, water has no stench) however inspired

me to drink water despite of the presence of the stinking fleshy tissue.

Instantly, I scooped water with a calabash. Instead, a foreign object filled

the calabash and with a deep sigh, I subsequently let it go and it hence

fell back to the stream with a splash. I turned backward and the optimism

to quench my thirst was put to a sudden halt. At that time, I took

a step backward and subsequently ran very fast like a crazy boy chasing

a straying beetle.

Obliviously, a stump hit my toe. I flopped and abruptly fell into the mud

with a thunder. I suddenly found myself sprawling helplessly with an

injured head. I groaned unconsciously, completely drenched by the spattered

water. I was weak and unconscious. When I opened my eyes, several

people were gathered around me. Among them was a woman dressed

with white; a nurse. She had worn a white dress and a scarf on her head.

Some of the other people craned above me to examine every detail of

the wound. In fact, I was however concerned with the odd place and the

strange woman who nursed my wound. She gave me some tablets to swallow

after she had finished injecting me with a drug.

In fact, I was amazed by the extraordinary place. “Ma’am”, I said.

“Which place am I?”, my mother said. The roof was made of glossy iron

sheets, stony walls that were painted blue. The metallic bed was cosy

but narrow as compared with the traditional one. “ou collapsed and a

Good Samaritan, Mrs. Naanyu, gave you a first aid before she called

for assistance”, she added.

In reality, I did not know the Good Samaritan woman, as alluded by my

mother, even in the past days, but I could not doubt her kindness. Mrs.

Naanyu, our neighbour, took the chance to describe how I got there. “I

was behind you when you fall over a stump”, she said. She explained

that I had fallen on the stump and landed on my head. The centre of an

accident was virtually rocky and my forehead was cut by an edge of a

stone. Mrs. Naanyu then dropped her calabashes and came hurriedly to

rescue me. She then tore my cloth and placed a rag on an opened wound

to stop bleeding. The blood was dripping down my cheek to the ground.

It flooded uncontrollably, particularly in such a hottest hour of the day.

Mrs. Naanyu then gave me some first aid before she called for help. She

had raised an alarm and a big crowd of people arrived immediately at

the spot. “We, in the end, brought you here for treatment in nearby dispensary.

But do not worry, my son, everything will be fine”, she replied

calmly. Undoubtedly, I trusted these women and in view of thet, I did

not want to bother them. My mum in particular had great curiosity to

know the cause of the accident but she was aware of my feeble state.

Then, I stayed there for about three hours. Finally, I was discharged as

soon as I got better. Indeed, I will never ever forget that horrible incident

in my life.


(1) nkaji: This is a Samburu dialect, of a nomadic community, belonging to plain nilotes,

living in the northern part of Kenya.