A house, like a cave, has an entrance. Call it a doorway. So has this story. A brief opening.
The Maasai steppe, the setting of the certain circumstance to be entertained herein, is a vast savannah land in East Africa. It is a rolling grass terrain. Lonely and naked knolls jut out randomly. Patches of bush, bodies of water and even a few mountains are there. Its inhabitants, the Maasai were - still a few are - nomadic pastoralists. They found here a haven for their animals along side the native wild ones. This was after migrating from the North of Africa.
The Maasai live in large but isolated clusters enclosed by thorn fences. Within are cave-like dung huts encircling a coral. An enclosure housing families is called an enkang`. One with only warriors, young boys, and animals is called a manyatta.
The name for god is Enkai.
Also, a little about this story. It comes from my grandfather, who was a warrior when this happened. On various occasions, he beguiled me with it. Whenever I recalled those nights, I remember his enthusiasm. After a long time, I realized that he wanted me to tell other people. He knew that stories are treasures and shouldn’t be consumed by just a few people.
And so he related to me that:
There was a locality within the vastness of the Maasai Steppe, distant from molls and mountains. It had a name called Whistling Thorns. There, in about the late nineteenth century, a warrior named Ndukus lived. He had a splendid slender height. His mild face concealed warmth and gentleness. His strength was overshadowed by his goodness. He was the type who once spoke, twice acted. He was a wish comes true to parents if he wanted to marry their daughter.
As a boy, Ndukus usually woke up and found breakfast to be fresh milk laced with cow’s blood. Sometimes a bitter stewed herb back or root was added. Satisfied or not by what he had eaten, he was helped by a grown-up to take the entire enkang`s flock to a nearby pasture where he was left alone for the day. There, Ndukus learned to frighten lions and laugh off the hyena. He also gave hand to delivering animals and mending their leg bones. Lunch was sucking a cow’s udder, but he was often blamed, because of this, for stealing the food of the calves and stunting their growth. Suckling cushioned his daytime hunger. These were normal encounters; trivial, but they shepherded Ndukus through his boyhood.
His parents had only him and very little else: a flock of fifty cows and two donkeys. Among fellow Maasai, this was pitiful. Someone passing-by and seeing their enkang` would spit out that he would never want to live like that, with so little fortune and even less blessing. But time would reduce this disagreeable plight to triviality as Ndukus grew up. He would take over eventually and the neighbors knew it. They were spiteful, sometimes, and wondered why Enkai, their God, gave low-life parents such a good son.
But they knew Enkai doesn’t make mistakes in the long run.
Ndukus grew and, at the proper time, was initiated into warrior-hood through the rite of circumcision. As is expected of a young warrior, he then tended his family’s herd alone, separate from other un-initiated boys. He roamed more and extended the reach of his pastures. In drought, he gulped mouthfuls of water from holes he dug in streambeds for his thirsty animals. In green periods, he kept his cattle from wandering into infested pastures. With hard work, the herd increased, though not appreciably
In the evening, before the sunset, Ndukus returned with the cattle, drifting slowly towards the family’s enkang’. He whistled soothing sounds, special to his animals, during the return journey. Since the cattle were satisfied with grazing, the whistling, like caressing, touched their hearts. They lifted their heads towards Ndukus and lowed. Having directed his cattle into the enkang`, he further guided them into their proper enclosures. The milking and calf suckling soon followed. Ndukus was there to oversee the rhythm of their lives.
He was, without reservation, totally occupied with his daytime task. Animals and the landscape furnished him un-equaled satisfaction. In the evening he took pleasure in the company of his age-set friends. Later, he enjoyed fresh milk and the scent of his wife Simaloi’s fragrant necklaces, which were made from wild plants. He hoped her breaths and her beauty would occupy the rest of the night.
But, for the esteemed warrior, the expected leisure of the night with Simaloi, his elegant wife, was not so!
Before Ndukus married Simaloi, she lived in a large enkang` of five families. It was not far from where Ndukus lived. To reach her enkang’, he had to cross a savannah dotted with umbrella shaped trees. He had to walk through a gorge full of scavenging hyenas and their kind. She was a little girl of ten or twelve, at most, when he first saw her. Her beauty was definable. People enchanted her by calling her e-Simaai, for it was more intimate name, sort of like My Sweet Little Simaloi.
One evening after returning her parent’s flock, Simaloi’s mother confided to her that some people had come in wanting her to marry their warrior son. In a childish joy, Simaloi asked her mother, “Is he a warrior like me?” She looked at Simaloi and could not answer.
One proposing suitor became four, much to her parents’ liking. They conferred. Simaloi`s mother favored a warrior from a “cattle talks” family. This idea did not go down well with her husband. He knew he would be more proud if Simaloi married the son of a fellow struggler, Ndukus father.
He talked to his wife with an angry voice. “Which family was the first to come with Simaloi in their hearts?”
“Ndukus’ family,” she humbly answered.
“So be it.”
“But their marriage proposal gift was a token! A bead necklace! It ‘s not worth anything!” the mother exclaimed.
“A token is a virtue. Again I say it should be,” the father bellowed. And he stormed thus avoiding spillovers from confrontation.
The following morning Ndukus family was summoned. They were told to bring three cows as the first part of the dowry. This would cordon off Simaloi and her family from other suitors. There could be no proposals from others.
Dowry payments have no definite end. Close an eye and they turn a catch. However, within three years, Ndukus family had paid most of twenty cattle. He was attentive and quick to errands for Simaloi’s parents and he proved his honesty to the entire enkang’.
It was all part of the dowry.
Simaloi’s parents were heart-warmed by flawless dowry payments. They stayed happy and ready for their daughter to be married off at any moment.
One evening, Ndukus with a friend went to fetch Simaloi. They found her playing hide and seek with other youngsters. She knew the warriors. Their enkang` was not far from hers. Her playmates teased her that Ndukus had come for her… and the following day she would have her baby… and other unripe jokes. She giggled over the flattery. She didn’t understand what was happening. She did not even cry as she was being taken away. She looked forward to returning soon to play with her brothers and sisters.
Ndukus` family was happy, too. Everything was going according to Maasai tradition. Simaloi was young enough that she could easily be molded into a strong wife who would be dependent on her husband’s guidance and decisions.
Ndukus then commenced married life with Simaloi. Since they didn’t have a child yet, they lived in his parents’ enkang` and his parents’ authority reined. There was no open quarreling between them, at least for that time being.
Suddenly, life transformed the immature tenderness of Simaloi. Her young pleasing face grew striking and the world responded with a sudden little whistling of amazement. She flew into a beautiful adulthood. Warriors could not resist and were blatant. When beauty is ordained in Heaven, earthly souls are left gasping.
As a teenager, at a time when lust usually eclipses virtue, fortune knocked and fate bolted. Simaloi, rather than becoming gripped in vices, found her heart in singing and dancing at festivals so quickly and totally and to such an extend that all other enchantments dulled by comparison.
Her blossoming age and natural radiance was an obvious focus in Maasai festivals. She easily learned to sing with great relish and style. Her voice was flawless. It was rich too, with the tones of a pigeon in heat!
Simaloi’s regular attendance to festivals began to irritate Ndukus. His displeasure grew more when he heard that the warriors competed to dance with her.
Simaloi was socially splendid. Ndukus acknowledged this. Her singing and dancing moved everybody. Except him! Enkai yaai – my God, kindle my heart. He begged inwardly. “Light me up! Why am I not excited for her?”
Every time Simaloi went to sing and dance, Ndukus’s mind became unsettled. He thought so much about her that the aim of his mind blurred. His heart pumped anger. It burdened him as a warrior that Simaloi out-shown him. But warriors are expected not to succumb to trivial ills, not to mention fate from woman relations. Never!
One night as they lay together, Simaloi told Ndukus about the festival she had attended during the daytime. She was exuberant about the warriors’ and ladies’ prettification in scanty attires. She cautioned him that only the conquered heart, one which experienced the dream-like beauty of the festivals, could understand.
Ndukus listened to her last word. He did not reply. His heart was as if it was swarmed by angels. Simaloi slowly fell into swoon on his chest and slept. It was Ndukus longest night. He could have counted the winks.
Two weeks then passed.
Simaloi asked Ndukus for company to the festival. Ndukus knew how to dance but had a poor singing voice. It was an insignificant matter, but not in festivals and especially not in his own mind.
Ndukus took time to respond. Though his tortured mind was far from agreeing, he knew he needed to understand.
Ndukus dressed by strapping a new warrior’s short leather skirt with a belt to his waist. On the belt was a long pink scabbard and in it a gleaming machete. He rubbed the skirt with fresh slurry of brown ochre. Then he applied the oily slurry to the hair braids that hung in three cones at the back of his neck and to a flat braid strapped down with a shining icon on his forehead.
Save for this hair braids, his head and face were completely shaved. His head, his face, and the rest of his body were stripped with brown lines made from ochre. To add a touch of viciousness, he darkened the areas around his eyes and ears.
After finishing his bodywork and admiring himself in various postures, his heart became content. He had addressed fierceness and elegance, the secrets of being appealing. Finally he strapped bracelets of colorful beads and shining bangles to his legs, arms, and neck, He pulled tight the foot sandal leather strap around his heel.
“Find me gone Simaloi,” he gaily shouted as he took his gleaming bladed spear.
“I am ready too and coming,” she shouted back from the hut.
Soon, they walked abreast of each other, away past the enkang` perimeter. She walked singing softly. The melodies wafted into the air and reached his ears as subtle and distantly intoxicating sounds. Ndukus felt he was not walking as normal. He was somehow hovering, but firm, not staggering, an effect akin to dream walking. He stole a look at Simaloi. It was only the sweetness of the song that was cheating him.
Pleasure from the song made their walk brief. At the festival grounds, Ndukus stayed a distance from the dancing circular column. But Simaloi joined in.
Ndukus later joined the circle. In the middle, a tall and slender warrior faced a woman of lesser height and they wriggled their bodies, very gently, up and down along with the music. Beside them was another warrior, in a noble stance, singing lyrics to the dancers. To accompany the singer and in time with the couple’s dancing, the entire semi-circle heaved up in unison and stamped their feet down with a heavy thud magnified by the warriors deep grunting chorus and by high-pitched melodies from the women. Ndukus likewise heaved up and down in rhythm with the rest, swirling his braids as he moved. But he did not take his eyes off the couple at the center.
The woman wore a large ream of colorful beads that circled her neck like a platter and covered her entire shoulders and chest. She wore nothing else from her waist up. Her shaved, statuesque ebony head was blackened and shined with sunrays. Below each eye were two vertical black marks. The area around her eyes was shaded black.
As she slowly turned round in her dancing extravaganza, her back showed brown and black lines like a zebra. The lines meshed and swirled into her arm-pits in such a way as to exaggerate her breasts. She wore a long beaded brown leather skirt girded at the waist by a large beaded belt. At the bottom, the skirt was rounded and lightly scalloped. The front was gaped wide at the bottom but the gap narrowed as it went upwards. It exposed the thighs but sternly cutting off expectations. Like the warrior, she adorned herself with beaded bracelets and bangles on her legs, arms, and neck.
This was the first big festival Ndukus attended in the company of his wife Simaloi. He thought of the dancing couple, joyous and free and wished they could be himself and Simaloi. The warrior at the center sprung to his heels, up, onto his toes and ejected his body upwards. Before gliding down to full footing, he majestically jerked his head slightly back. The cumulative action flung his hair swirls into the air. They slammed back on his shoulder blades as he eases himself down with a slight knee bending.
The dancing game continued and Ndukus watched with attraction. The warrior tried to out-dance the woman. The woman heaved up rhythmically, playing the beads ream with her shoulders and her head copying the motion of the springing warrior. She rhythmically hunched up her shoulders just enough to make the ream dance up and down on her breasts. With a big leap upwards she could make the ream swing off her body and leave her chest.
The warrior heaved high to entice the woman into his dancing pattern. His tactic was to cut the dancing pattern just right so he could see the sights of her chest. A slight kneeling movement allowed him an upward angle. A good spring on her part moved the ream away from her chest. The music’s lyrics and the liveliness of the festival gave an added wallop.
The warrior smiled broadly and any other woman would have responded. But the smile was in vain, a trivial trick. The woman did not at all yield to any appeal by the warrior. She danced well as if transported by the general joy of every dancer. Thus the center couple looked only like grown woman counseling a wayward adolescent.
At last the warrior gave up. He cleared his throat in a noble way of accepting defeat. He jumped back into the dancing circle and left her alone in the center. She went on dancing, rotating as she faced the circular line of warriors. At last, she danced towards the leading singer. She showed her appreciation by tossing her cheek his way and then bit his heart with a tempting wink.
Ndukus` eyes never left the woman. As she joined the line, he made sure not to loose her among the other dancers.
During a break, Ndukus walked to see the woman. Others were talking with her. The woman noticed him. Her face creased with a broad smile. Not believing his eyes, he triple checked. The woman was his wife, Simaloi!
Her perfect dancing had stunned him. The modesty she improvised could only be termed as beautiful. And to jealousy ridden Ndukus, it tied him in plain confusion. First a knot weighted his heart and then he became very angry. Then he tried to come to his senses. He had a momentary flash that Simaloi was simply a graceful creature. He wondered if other warriors were as excited as he was. A streak of pride rose slowly, subduing the anger. He looked at her. Again and again. She was talking to the warrior she had danced with. Ndukus picked up his spear and leaned on it, as any retiring celebrity would do.
Suddenly, as if he was bewitched, he felt abandoned and lonely. He wanted Simaloi to come to him so that all the dancers could see she belonged to him. He again watched the crowd and tried to pinpoint Simaloi. But she was swallowed up. It was at this moment a witty warrior, at the top of his voice, broke the recess by reciting a poem.
Dear celebrants, my Maasai fellows,
Let us enlivened the day,
Not forgetting that,
Our kindness is found in milk,
Our audacity comes from meat,
Our resilience develops from wailing frontiers,
Where we get our strength from attacking others,
We are in Heaven on earth,
It’s only for the privileged!
I salute you the elders!
Women, I greet you all!
The young, how are you?
What at all to be hindrance,
To acquaint this shining figure of mine,
To the magnificence of who collected here,
And narrate the happiness, bitterness and the pains,
And so seldom it will be,
For cattle takes my many days away,
And from them, I am happy, bitter and angry.
Hold on! I am Sesekwan,
Singing to you that,
A spill of blood,
Is a trademark of our steppes,
As it was evidenced,
At the heckling hill that camouflaged us the mighty,
As we swarmed triumphantly,
Onto hundreds of foes,
Who on hearing the hill quaking,
Gave-up by lying on their backs.
My beloved hill, bear the name,
You are now Heckling hill,
And you will be known so forever.
Hold your breath,
Wait for me to finish!
I am the blood of Seneti of Loostet, the hilarious family,
That could only belong to Iltaarasero clan,
That breeds those without hatred, envy or grudges.
After the first recitation, there quickly followed a poem by a second warrior and then a third. Competition was fierce.
Before the third finished, a voice, which wailed as if it had been held back for some time, implored, in a fresh poem, the third poet to spare his remaining breath, for he was gasping and his children’s mother should not be husbandless.
It was a woman’s voice rising above the crowd and what a rare nerve that was. Women didn’t involve themselves in men’s duels, especially when they concerned poetry. Everyone became silent. Aside from the woman’s poem, all that could be heard was a brooding serenity.
Ndukus moved closer. He did not see her clearly, as he wanted. He pushed further but instinctively stopped when he sensed the need for total silence. The voice was profoundly audible. The poem recalled the best of Whistling Thorns past and its space in Maasai history. It named the poor but wise, the men and women, and spelled their deeds and the landscape in which they dwelled.
The poem did not have much boasting or self-priding, those simplicities which in strange ways invoke and sustain greatness. Suddenly, the rhythm jolted and emotions pulsed. The recitation slowed to a cushioned end. This could have gone well for a warrior but for a woman it was a great test, an affront to the entire warriors’ regiment.
Simaloi was the one reciting the poem, as every experienced warrior expected.
The climax, accelerated by Simaloi, transformed a few warriors without adequate resilience. So wild were some of their emotions that they quivered, their bodies convulsing, and sprawled on the ground and made agonizing noises.
Ndukus almost cried as he fought overpowering sensations. To keep his honor, he decided to walk slowly towards his enkang`, but he was fully agitated. Thus after the ceremony, Simaloi did not see Ndukus. She later found him standing, leaning on his spear in front of enkang`s main entrance. His mind was far away.
“Congratulations! Wonderful woman,” he spoke to her coldly while looking away.
She looked at him in dismay.
“Isn’t singing enough for you? Now you’re reciting poems more of a man! You have gone too far!” he reproached her. She looked at him not clearly understanding the anger.
“I know how to recite. Whom have I wronged?” she answered calmly.
Ndukus looked at Simaloi. She waited for his response. His face furrowed and cleared. After a while, the awkwardness of the reproach forced him to move away rather sheepishly, to see his grazing cattle.
From that day they did not go dancing together. Ndukus never again attended big singing and dancing festivals. He dreaded exposing weaknesses inside his heart. He tried to think of ways he could restrain Simaloi. It was difficult, for Simaloi so easily and quickly became the Whistling Thorn idol. She had firmly stamped her individuality on the festival.
Still, Simaloi adequately provided the expected normal matrimonial life to Ndukus. In the eyes of elders, her respect and loyalty was noble.
As life in Whistling Thorns rolled by, Simaloi’s fame spread to other plains as far away as the Serengeti, Kisongo, Naperera, and Kitwai. Travelers passing Whistling Thorns looked for Simaloi. Young herders rejoiced with her songs under acacia shadows. Winds blew swiftly the sound of her melodies over the plains. It was said that singing her lyrics harnessed unnatural powers. Some tried to escape from their families to become perpetual singers. Fame enriches life. It creates gossip for entertainment. But the pious frown on hearing just a little while evil hearts tilt their heads for more.
Ndukus was perplexed because of Simaloi’s popularity. In his heart, he loved Simaloi, but he never told her. “Does Simaloi understand this? Why am I not possessed of the happiness, the radiance that everybody absorbs from her? Is she blind to this fact? Can’t she see my need to share her kismet! She is so happy with other warriors, but plays indifferent to me. Yet she is my wife!”
He thought, as he lay next to her at night, what he could do. But, as the birds chirped at dawn, he didn’t have a clear mind.
The nights with Simaloi became no longer appealing. The strain reduced Ndukus to a dreamer. The luster of happiness slowly dissipated.
Days rolled by taking along happiness and illuminating Ndukus quietness. He was continuously, progressively overpowered and fell prey to melancholy. The elders of Whistling Thorns noticed. The community thought he had a strange illness. When one evening he failed to return home, everybody concluded he was out of his mind. His family, lead by Simaloi, were on the verge of mourning. They only refrained because of believing that crying accelerates the end of those who may not be quite dead.
There was a small chance Ndukus was still alive and lost somewhere.
After three weeks, Ndukus was reported to have been seen wandering. He was alone in an openness inhabited by lone hyena. Strange! The hyena, a fool pretending to be foolish, was providing company to Ndukus while waiting for his death.
Some people approached Ndukus and asked about him. He solemnly replied that he was looking for something. Something he wanted to know.
His previous life and the respectful way in which he answered left no doubt, to the community mouthpieces, about the importance of the cause he was pursuing. It was so because one cannot appear wise and be mad.
Against all predictions, Ndukus came back. People accepted him, but cautiously. He spoke only with Simaloi and only cordially. He described to her his pilgrimage. Simaloi did not understand. She thought Enkai, the god of the Maasai, gave men chores that women ought not to know. His face was stamped with loneliness.
Then one evening, after he brought the cattle into the enkang’s enclosure, he went into the hut and asked Simaloi to give him cow’s milk. Simaloi was surprised. It was un-common for Ndukus to come inside before the milking was done.
After he finished drinking, he said to her, “Enkai blessed me. I have you, cattle, and a herd of goats.” He stopped to think. “I need then to have my own enkang`, don’t you think so?”
“One I love, do you need to ask me?” she replied. Quick anger shot to his throat. He did not see why she couldn’t appreciate his thinking.
“A son cannot be an elder in his father’s care. I want to move away and find my own self”
“Which lands will you move us to?” she asked him.
We might loose everything in our hearts, she thought to herself.
The next morning he told his parents about his intentions. The idea did not surprise them. Growing up means having your own plans, his father told him. It is wise to know their meaning though, he further added. “When do you start?”
“I can’t wait another night,” Ndukus told his father.
“How far will you go, son?” his father queried. But Ndukus did not have an answer.
They were silent for a while.
“It is all right. Explore the land first before you move into it.”
They parted. That night he confided to Simaloi he would go to explore the land. She sobbed all night. Ndukus did not sleep, either. Early in the morning he visited his parents hut to bid them farewell and ask their blessing.
“Where is Simaloi!” her mother asked him.
“Mother, you know her well…,” he started complaining but was cut short.
“Never, my little son. For better or worse she is still your wife. Now say her ails.”
He told them that she cried all night. Ndukus mother knew. She spoke; “Simaloi might have been blessed. Young pregnancies are torturous. What a resemblance of your father you have now.”
His father drew a long breath. He also gave his mind, “Son, postpone your journey and tomorrow, take her along with you.”
“What!” his mother exclaimed, “Age has taken toll on your mind for sure!”
She looked at Ndukus while complaining; “I have not even finished saying…”
His father hissed at her to shut up.
“My age make me see the future through the experience of the past. Sweat a little today to bring on brightness tomorrow. Humility will bring a couple together and make them more intimate. Son, sleep well tonight and rest for your tomorrow `s journey.” He added after a brief recollection, “I can clearly see. Your wandering wasn’t a loss. It had a meaning. It gave you experience.”
The conversation ended that way. Ndukus had nothing to say to his father or his mother. He thought as he went to attend his grazing cattle that, whatever may come along the journey, his father’s words were warm and prospect.
Ndukus and Simaloi were ready for a journey at the end of which the destination was full of new dreams.
That night, Ndukus prepared a trip meal; cow fat mixed with fat crisps and roasted steaks. To carry it, he used a short round hollowed piece of wood with a lid of hard leather. Simaloi prepared a short narrow-mouthed calabash and filled it with milk. This would be enough food for the next three or four days.
At early dawn, evil omens still in arrest, they sneaked through their enkang` fence. Soon, they were alone in the open savannah. Ndukus carried a spear bundled with a club with sharpened ends. Behind him Simaloi walked, not hurriedly. Her leather skirt lashed soundly at her lower legs. She carried her calabash on her back and a wooden tin in her hand.
As the sun showed from its deepness, they approached a gully. On the other side appeared an old traveling man. The old man greeted them and, after a quick exchange of news, went on. Ndukus halted for a while as if interrupted on his way. He told Simaloi they should abort the journey and restart on the day to come. He knew the first encounter of the day with only a single soul is a bad omen. They returned home.
The second day went well. They walked beyond the distance within which they will find ill luck. They met two hyenas who were in a vain vigil watching a delivering giraffe. What a pity. Simaloi thought. They walked on and on.
She was not happy going away from the people she knew; her parents and the warriors with whom she charmed. She knew she would miss the warm plains whizzing in the evening wind. All of her songs celebrated the past and the dynamics of home and of the Whistling Thorns people.
Simaloi had heard from songs about Serengeti plains: an un-inhabitable land populated by a fascinating mélange of animals. She had heard of Lengai; a rock mountain that often spits fire. A fire and smoke fountain! She had heard about the boundless waters of Lake Emakat; a kingdom to wonderful big birds; the flamingoes. Again she heard about Ngorongoro; once the tallest mountain but sunk and created a crater land.
She clicked her tongue and shook head in disbelief. She gasped as she thought of it. All seemed to her fairy than true.
She continuously prayed; Ooh Enkai, my God, let my wish come true, for I want to see and feel these places. It is no wonder, she went on thinking, that warriors from these lands were arrogant. Being bred, hardened and cleansed by niceties of such splendid landscapes, what more can one ask of Enkai? The pleasure from such thoughts made her not notice her own exhaustion.
Soon the sun became hot and slowed their paces. Even Ndukus stopped talking. Simaloi felt the burning sun, but was distracted by her great expectations of seeing the lands of Maasai legends.
“Can you still feel or smell Whistling Thorns!” Ndukus asked Simaloi. She didn’t catch the words. She looked at his face. Hers was wet.
Now walking at a slow pace than before, they arrived at the base of the slopes of an endless escarpment. It had sparse foliage but also groups of gazelles and buffaloes. The animals took notice of the new arrivals, but ignored them and resumed grazing.
Ndukus knew Simaloi must be tired. But somehow he wanted her to give a straight answer. However, whenever he asked she replied; how far are we going? He kept quite.
Ultimately he gave in and said, “If this place is safe for gazelles, it should be for us, too. Let us rest.” He selected a lonely acacia, searched the foliage and the surrounding growth. He then told Simaloi to sit. While in that brief rest, each in turn, gulped milk straight from the calabash.
“In the olden times gazelles were women goats, do you know that?” Ndukus joked.
“And buffaloes were men’s cattle and they will be again if you don’t pay attention to your herd. They will go back to the wild,” she replied looking at him.
Their eyes met and Simaloi smiled. Her eyelids closed lazily leaving an impression on him.
Ndukus` heart twinkled with childhood joy. He looked confused. He managed to pull himself together and told her they should start walking again. He helped her to stand up. For that action she frowned and looked down.
They silently scaled the escarpment to the top.
The air at the top was gentle with breeze and strange odor. Alas! There, ahead and below lay a vast basin filled with water. Simaloi gave out a little cry of amazement. Through all the ages, it had been there silently hiding from Whistling Thorns! Ndukus stood motionless. As they watched, in the distance white birds on thin yellow legs crowded the waters. Others merrily glided over the flocks with their talons clenched. Satisfied with the pleasure of the surprise, they descended down the grasslands to the lakeshore.
“Is this e-Makat?” Simaloi asked Ndukus who replied; “It must be.” He had visited vast waters as a young boy but at that moment was different. He was not entirely sure but answering so let him be at ease with himself. The grass gave a cracking sound and ash floated from the ground when trodden upon. The air was hot. Ndukus halted to search the proper direction of travel.
The lake horizon was hardly visible. In the distance he saw groups of animals moving. Also with strained vision, he saw, very far away, gray cycles of enkang’s with little dark huts. Wind blew lime into their nostrils and their eyes itched. They increased their paces and heat retarded; yet strangely, they did not sweat.
“Are you tired,” Ndukus playfully asked. She answered that she did not know. They walked, almost dragging their feet, towards the first enkang` they could see. Though there was still time to travel, Ndukus thought it wise to save energy and build endurance gradually. They requested a night stay there.
On that fist night, nothing much could be said. They were tired. Yet, they were not actually in a family enkang`. It was a manyatta full of warriors bloated by feasting and reciting poems all night. The manyatta’s boys were well fed, too. They amused themselves by passing bad air in the other boys’ hut. They did it loudly and skillfully, too. But neither the slightest of the slightest sound nor any odor from the boys distracted the flawless enjoyment of the warriors. If it had, the boys knew they would have been subjected to severe punishment.
When morning came, Ndukus and Simaloi were given information about the path leading away from the manyatta and the lake to the mountain of Gelai, an area with no enkang.’
At dawn they woke and, as usual, stole away to avoid any bad omens. Just out of the perimeter fence they saw someone squatting with his hands to the skies. They hesitated, because he could have been a bad omen. The man, whoever he was, did not look at them. They heard him saying a blessing for them, saying let their journey be led by Enkai.
Herds of wild animals coming for water slowed them occasionally. Nevertheless, the morning air refreshed their walking. Soon, before the sun became unfriendly, the bushy slopes of Gelai Mountain welcomed and swallowed them.
They climbed ridges and walked down into valleys, some with water flowing and many dry. In one of the dry ones, Simaloi tripped and stubbed her toe. She whimpered a little, as one does when irritations ride to the brink. “Ooh me, I am dead!” - was a concealed call for tender care. Ndukus shouldered her to high ground. He applied the liquid squeezed from a tuber he dug and, at the same time, pressured the toe to ease the pain. Simaloi hissed and tightened her lips. Though her toe hurt, she exaggerated a little; which was a strong enchantment. Ndukus hugged her and she closed her eyes on his chest.
A strange attack of happiness, of baffling joy, surged through Ndukus. It held him temporarily in suspension as he held Simaloi. He wondered about the power of such little things Simaloi was doing. Afterwards she gently pulled herself away. He suddenly thought that his blind traveling might be a wrongdoing. Might it not be a good idea to return home, to Whistling Thorns?
No! He ruled it out. He has to show Simaloi somehow that he is a worthy husband. Better than any other man she had known.
While waiting for Simaloi’s pain to subside, Ndukus wandered upstream. He viewed the lower part of the mountain and, further away, the brackish plains dotted with Acacia trees. To the east, the direction of their journey, not far by eyes but distant by judgment, a trail of smoke coiled up into the air.
In un-inhabited lands, smoke arouses sensations. As they walked towards it through the bush, Simaloi was in peace because Ndukus was there. Ndukus was powered by the dream of stumbling upon a milestone. They reached the tree-filled gorge where the smoke was rising. They came to a beautiful overlook. Ndukus asked Simaloi to stay in wait there. He told her he was tracing the smoke to find out who lit the fire. After all, they needed food.
He walked cautiously, bending low when necessary and sometimes crawling, with his spear in a good grip in his hand. The aroma of the barbequed meat told him he was close. He stopped and checked the clearance. He adjusted his spear to defend against a surprise attack. Then he sung at the top voice.
“Who are you, for I am Ndukus, son of Mesuji, of Mailoya family, to the Mollel clan crossing the bush with children!”
There was no reply.
He opened his mouth to sing again. He was not lucky. From behind, cracked a rich deep voice, also in rhythmic tone.
“We are the warriors, the mighty ones who perfected where humans can be hit so the motherly liquid gushes out. The Loita breed!”
Right away, even before the words were finished, Ndukus froze. The readiness he had perfected to protect and even attack was suddenly crushed. He wondered how the stranger had snuck up on him. He wondered about his own defenseless posture. What might the stranger do to Simaloi, if he found her? Ndukus summed it all up with a resigned sigh and a limp body.
He understood his predicament, but he regained his composure. He contemplated whether to turn abruptly or playfully. But each act was ugly and open for interpretation as an attack. And the response to that could be anything.
But soon he got angry and his warrior’s bravery overtook him. Portraying confidence, he slowly turned.
The stranger he faced was a tall and big-bodied warrior. He had been fed on more than a normal breast! Shrewd looking, sleek and with unkempt pigtail hair weavings. He wore only a short leather skirt. Belted to his waist was a long scabbard. His hand gripped the machete’s hilt.
“Where are the children?” the warrior rumbled.
“A lady. True, Only one lady,” Ndukus replied. He spoke with a low, dim shaking voice.
The warrior screamed, “How you dare bring women to a sacred rendezvous. You are a warrior!”
He went on; “Don’t move, not even your toe. I will come back soon. Say yes, warrior!!”
Ndukus did not finish saying yes before the warrior disappeared into the thickset bush. After a while he re-appeared in the same manner he vanished. He held a piece of tree bark filled with fat crisps and cooked bowels.
“Take it,” the warrior ordered.
“Run!” he screamed at Ndukus. Ndukus walked away with food. The humiliation nearly tumbled him.
Then the warrior shouted, “Halt!” As shrewdly and contemptuously as possible, the warrior asked, “Warrior, in the bush of Gelai, what did you see?”
Ndukus instinctively replied, “I saw nothing.”
The warrior looked at Ndukus, his face cleared of viciousness. He tilted the head to size up Ndukus and asked once more, “Who is the lady in your company?”
“My sister,” Ndukus replied hurriedly.
“Go with Enkai, warrior. Get out of the bush fast before any feminine impressions disease me.”
The warrior suddenly changed again and stared at Ndukus threateningly. Ndukus walked away, angry for giving in to a demeaning confrontation. He thought about how he lied about Simaloi instead of holding up his honor as her husband. What a shame it would have been if Simaloi had wandered onto the scene. Ndukus spirits dipped from low to lower. He wondered of what he was actually doing.
He walked with his head down. Ndukus knew the warriors were devouring loot. As a warrior of honor, he had to abide by his words. After all, he had eaten some and was thus an accomplice.
He found Simaloi standing alert and worried. She wanted to speak. He put a finger across her mouth. “Shhhh! Quiet! As quick as our legs allows, let’s get out of here. Fast!”
They hurried, breathing harder from worry than exercise. Later they found themselves in long plains towered over in the distance by the mountain of Ketumbeine.
The second evening found them at the flooding plain called Broad Crossing directly below Ketumbeine Mountain. The enkang’ at Broad Crossing, which had held a festival the day before, hosted their stay. People still milled about here and there, from one hut to another. Many were pretending to go merrily so as to render the entire affair the warmth it required. But the other side of it was the playing of the game of enkang’s: we know you hid delicacies for later use with your close relatives. Part with a little for us just for the sake of it. The greed and pretension always makes festivals merry.
At night, Ndukus was furnished with important information about his traveling route. The path leading east, the direction his mind was leading him, divided into two after half a day’s travel. One path turns left, the other to the right. The left one led towards a long Rift Valley, but had been blocked by a lion so well that it was completely impassable. The other, to the right, went to Ng`aruka. It was long and ended at Lake Manyara, the area of the Ir-Mang`ati and Il-Tatwa tribes.
“Son,” they warned him, “the beast is on a rampage somewhere along the left path. It is better that you follow the right one, considering your female companion of course.”
Good advice for a normal mind.
Ndukus used a lot of the nighttime to reflect. He knew there were flaws. He also believed problems would give him meaning to his journey.
With regard to Simaloi, she has not talked about Whistling Thorns for the whole day. She kept quiet and only thought of the unknown wonders of the place they were heading to.
This is indeed the right time to think well. Ndukus thought.
Risk taking is a jolly adventure. In Ndukus’ mind, it served two purposes; justification and allurement. Both were magnetic.
In the back of his mind, however, lurked the knowledge of a visible death. If he took the left path, the lion could eat both of them. At the end of the right path lived the tribes who despised the Maasai. He didn’t consider the right path. The left led a better way.
Ndukus grilled himself. Is this God’s way to test my life? Can I kill the beast? What an endurance that would be: a life and death duel. What will be Simaloi’s response? She will appreciate my noble service to her. Certainly! Then I give a cry of joy for my daring. Again, the beast has shaken the rift valley community, what praise I’ll get if I kill it? Unimaginable praise! And honor, too!
It was a suiting conviction to travel towards the lion and avoid the tribes. Though still haunted by a little timidity, Ndukus thought that testing the beast was preordained.
While Ndukus was embroiled with these nutty strategies, poor Simaloi had no idea of the imminent danger ahead.
The morning arrived. Elders invoked a blessing upon them with mead and milk. They departed when the sun rose. As they traveled Ndukus recalled the elders’ words. “Don’t count the brave, courageous, valiant, gallant, and whoever else you can name who have gone before you. None ever returned after attempting this cursed route. The lion has turned into a ghost and the ghost has turned them into food.” The mammoth figure of the lion flashed though his mind and stirred him.
Ndukus geared by pessimistic outcomes, traveled like one with a gait, a spectacle of an over-decorated warrior. Simaloi tugged behind. They passed through dry, dusty plains, their heels occasionally followed by a little trail of the dust. They arrived at the edge of the escarpment and struggled to the bottom of the Rift Valley, where gazelles, elands and dik-diks eked life out of dry branches. They climbed up the other side to the top. On the edge, Ndukus stopped. He looked ahead. The plains rolled away and naked. In the distance, a hill jutted from the terrain. Its top had bush. He shook his head in disagreement. That is a cursed hill. There stays the beast. His presumption was dead right.
They walked until they arrived close to the hill. At the slopes of the hill, an unpleasant odor hurled itself at them. A decomposing corpse lay next to the route. Simaloi made a disagreeing sound with her nose. Moving ahead, they saw flies scouting what was left of a warrior’s head and head gear. Two other skulls with protruding white teeth lay tossed a little bit down from where they stood.
Simaloi gasped and squeezed her nose to cut off the stench. Ndukus noticed. He told her they should take a rest at the tree in front of them. They drank all the milk Simaloi was carrying. As they drank, Ndukus didn’t take his eyes from the top of the hill. Not much time elapsed before he noticed something moving out of the brush. He knew it was the evil beast. He stood up gently to get a better view and then took in a long breath. Then, he humbly turned his eyes to the skies and mumbled a few words.
After a quick rest, Ndukus looked away and coldly told Simaloi to climb up the tree shadowing them. To Simaloi, it was a puzzling change of humor. So sudden! And Ndukus’ words were flesh slicing! But she, like many, followed men’s orders as if she were a child.
“Tie yourself as you would tie a buffalo calf to a tree,” he instructed her. “Face away from me. If something goes wrong, as I feel it might, the coming beast shall kill me. If you see that with own eyes, your own heart will kill you. Stay up in the tree until the beast returns to the hilltop, even if it takes days. Take this spear with you. Give it to the baby you’re carrying. If the baby is a girl, she will give to her son, my namesake. Tell him or her I have died defending you.”
Simaloi was quite dumb-founded. She hesitated to climb. Her limbs were weak and her heart throbbed. She stole a look at Ndukus and their eyes met. Ndukus was truly vicious. With difficulty, she heaved her body up and did exactly as instructed.
Ndukus had armor, like all traveling young men in the steppes. He wore textured animal leather on his body upper part and another piece bound to his waist by a belt which held a scabbard. The brown leather had been made sleek by rubbing with a mixture of animal fat and brown ochre. His left hand held a spear. In his right, he held a wooden club with sharpened ends.
He looked up the hill as the lion descended to the clear area. The brown snout, with its centered black tee line was small compared to the bushy mane. Temporarily the lion squatted, hovering. Below, the lion watched what he considered to be pitifully stray souls. He yawned sideways. What a thirst and hunger he had!
Ndukus filled his lungs in slow rhythms. His temper slowed down. “It is your turn today, may Enkai,yaai, my God, hate you!” he cursed the beast.
Ndukus slowly and methodically started to prepare himself. He leaned the spear against the tree. The club, he laid down. He untied the scabbard and placed it on the ground. He also removed the top leather wear, wrapped it around his left arm, and tied it with a belt.
He weighed the club in his left hand. Mocking the coming duel, he thrust it into the air. That done, he put it down. Then he drew his machete from the pink scabbard. It gleamed. Both edges were well sharpened. He tested the sharpness with his index finger. As if that wasn’t enough, he inspected it at an arm’s length. He jumped to mimic an attack and sliced through the air.
He nodded in satisfaction, then searched for raised ground and walked to the top. He stood there and looked thoughtfully at the beast.
The lion came down lazily, with jolting, stiff movements. Sometimes it turned its snout sideways, backward or towards its feet.
Upon the raised spot, Ndukus knelt on one leg, held the club with the wrapped left hand and the machete with his right. Fear chilled him.
He quickly looked up at Simaloi. She was already looking away, as he ordered. A pang of heat surged through his entire body and his heartbeats increased. His eyes clouded. He temporarily shut them and the haze cleared off. But horrible flashes of Simaloi’s face, weeping over his battered body, crept in. He felt his thigh muscles trembling. His palms were wet.
The lion was closer now and still coming. Its mouth was open to show long canines and his tongue was hanging out in the normal attacking expression of large cats.
Ndukus steadied. He focused his entire stare into the lion’s tiny ember eyes.
Suddenly, the lion stopped. It strutted on front legs, roaring, scratching and tormenting the earth to show what Ndukus should expect.
Ndukus stayed firm, almost lifeless, or so it seemed. He did not blink because it’s in that split second when the beast will attack. The lion roared again and frightened Ndukus. But Ndukus did not blink. He coiled himself like a spring ready to launch at any instant. He just waited for the precise moment, a slight lion jump to trigger him. Fear vanished from Ndukus. Strength took hold. Wishes grew to assurance. His ability to kill became certain.
It was so for he knew the next step the lion would take. He remembered his childhood lessons from his elders. The lion is an animal. He is predictable. He has great power in the neck and front legs, but is feeble minded. A human has a great mind and less-sturdy body. I feel agile, Ndukus reassured himself, and know the technique of the lion. I will kill him!
Inwards Ndukus elation showered. He thought of the importance to withstand the lion’s intimidation. What would be Simaloi reaction if he killed the beast? Maybe his tormented love was giving him the bravery to face the lion in a way that those warriors with fat bodies couldn’t. This maze of reflections distracted him so that he did not see the lion leaping like a frog towards him.
In such precarious moments, instincts overtake emotions. Thoughts are left in limbo. Ndukus tossed himself a little sideways to avoid the lion. Alas! The lion, seeing Ndukus had jumped from the spot, tried to re-orient in mid air but its huge weight could only allow him to turn his snout a sudden turn towards where Ndukus landed. This had been just the posture Ndukus prayed for. He jumped forward. With his wrapped left arm stretched out and gripping the club, he throttled it into the lion’s open mouth. The club flew deep into the throat of the lion. Quickly, Ndukus withdrew his arm as the lion’s body passed-by him in the air. The leather wrapped around his arm stuck in its mouth.
It was quick and precise. The lion dropped with a thud, gagging, onto fours. At the same time, Ndukus retreated backwards to avoid getting clawed. He wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid a backhanded slash which threw him through the air like weightless dry leaf. He landed awkwardly and twisted his ankle. He struggled to stand up. No bones were broken, so he vowed soundly that the duel would be his.
The lion struggled to cough up the club and the leather. The magic of the episode momentarily shocked Ndukus and he stood watching. Suddenly he saw the lion turning to him. The duel had not ended! Taking advantage of the lion’s coughing and thrashing, he raced to the back and sliced the tendons of its hind legs. The lion gave out a deep and low moan. For that, tears blinked from Ndukus’ eyes. He sighed deeply to slow his heartbeats. But when he again looked at the lion, a lump shot to the throat and all his body pulsed. Though the lion still struggled with the club, it supported itself by its abdomen and front limbs.
Ndukus slowly returned to himself. He felt his body was light and his heart floated near his throat. If not for Simaloi’s presence, he would have celebrated like a child. He would have shouted aloud and stripped naked.
So in a halting, sobbing voice, for excess happiness is tearful, he said, “Climb down, my e-Simaai, it is now safe for you. You see I have hamstrung the one hated by Enkai!”
Ndukus did not any longer attach any importance to the suffering lion. Let the lion suffer, for a long, long time, he thought. It would be justice for those the beast had killed.
Simaloi stared at the lion for quite a while. The beast was huge. The muscular arms, the mane, the color and the body sculpture were tremendously fascinating. The struggle to vomit the club was unbearable. Simaloi stood in front of the lion. It furled the mane as if it was charged by electricity. It raised its mouth towards Simaloi and closed its ember eyes. Finally, it rolled down its mane and rested its head on its foot.
Simaloi was deeply touched by the gesture, a portrayal of its feelings, a plea for survival. It was a declaration for help from a fallen valiant.
“My dearest,” she addressed Ndukus, “let’s not leave the lion in agony. Its suffering is indecent. Why should we demean its existence while we have won our passage?”
Ndukus became curious and looked at her and said, “My Simaloi, I have disciplined him. That’s why he is gentle. Do not look into his eyes. The soul is there!” The lion growled, straightened all its limbs and fanned out its claws.
Simaloi walked tensely closer to the lion. She bent to touch the club, but the lion whined and rolled on its back, showing the friendly posture of all cats. Again Simaloi tried. Very timidly, she managed to grab the club. There was a little wrangling and pulling. It might have been the lion’s plan or it could have been the result of pain. The lion quickly rolled over and swept a paw through the air and hauled at Simaloi. She fell down and the club fell out of her hand. Simaloi, shocked, lay limp near the lion’s mouth.
The lion strutted up on its front legs and looked at Ndukus. It stuck out its tongue and slowly licked sides of Simaloi’s mouth. Ndukus stood frozen. His eyes poked out, unbelieving, as he waited for the lion’s next move. But the lion just panted soundly, quietly looking down at his victim.
It glided its tongue again over her face, her mouth, and cleaned her slowly. It licked her neck, arms, and legs. Lions clean their food first.
The lion lowered its mouth to Simaloi’s face. Ndukus was shocked as the lion curled its lips to grab Simaloi’s neck. Ndukus rapidly went for his spear. He waited for the lion to lower its mouth once more so it would not see the spear as it was thrown. Instead, the lion relaxed, leaving Simaloi free.
The lion had done the job on Simaloi tenderly and with perfection and out of gratitude for what she had done.
Ndukus froze again with his spear up and his arm cocked.
Simaloi woke up after a while, looking sideways and stupefied. With all her energy, she jumped away from the lion and ran like one who is haunted.
Ndukus lowered the spear and watched her disappear in the distance. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Fortunately the plains were flat, without camouflage. He followed her and found her seated and crying hysterically. Ndukus could not control himself and started sobbing while holding her. They stayed bundled together like small babies until both their hearts bit normally.
Ndukus cut the lion’s tail off before departing. The lion only growled a sound of incapacitated noble. Simaloi bade farewell to the lion. They traveled away from that hill and they did not speak much.
As they hurried beyond the hill and further away, they heard the lion’s hiccups and roars, but soon they became distant and died out.
After this episode, people of steppes instantly spread information about Ndukus. As he visited numerous enkang’s, he was the envy of the warriors. They celebrated him. Fame became a drug to him and helped him forget his past thoughts of Simaloi.
One day, a festival to honor Ndukus was held near the hill where he took the lion. Simaloi sung her best. As she did, Ndukus used the lion tail to whiz cool air at her. The consequences of envy, hatred and tormenting love, which all collects in such occasions, heated up the warriors so much that they got into a big fight.
It was said four warriors died that day.
Ndukus abandoned the tail on that spot. He rounded up the cattle he had been given as a celebrated warrior and, together with Simaloi, returned to Whistling Thorns. Though not much time elapsed since their departure only four months before, the Whistling Thorn people were nearly indifferent upon the couple’s arrival. They reveled in her legend more than in her physical return. The fairy past of Simaloi was being romanticized. Her presence dented it.
The expedition and its influences on Simaloi were immense. As she commenced singing to her former admirers, not a single verse was without Ndukus’ name and mention of the lion. The humor and passion of her lyrics were obvious. Her inspiration became a bore to admirers. People from where adventures had taken place were amazed to hear this. For them, the episode of Ndukus and the lion was grand and the songs about the adventure were current. And Simaloi was doing it to the best.
But Whistling Thorns had neither hills nor man-eating beasts. In a short time, people lost their admiration of Simaloi. Whenever she came to perform, they asked her to sing as she did in her past time of glory. But her heart was no longer in the past. When pressed, she sang old songs, without emotion and danced with no passion in an unmoving, uninviting way.
This was why Ndukus was able to stay with her all the time: because she could no longer sing or dance the way people loved, the way she had when she had captivated festivals before.
They lived however knowing somewhere, in the vast plains of Maasai, their names and deeds would be spoken of for some time. Their fame was set by many tales they left behind. Having regained the normal life of a husband and wife, they lived on and on and on and enjoyed each other immensely.
And that, my grandpa told me, is the glory of life!