Chapter 1: The Flinging of the Potent Puddle
In the year Thabo came of age, a total of sixty-one boys from the four villages of Kwazi sought initiation into the ranks of full warriors. Only full warriors could marry and legally have children. To become a Kwazi warrior two hurdles must be crossed: the Antelope Run, and the ritual circumcision. For the Antelope Run the young men went out in groups of six with a Kwazi-approved dibia or witchdoctor.
On the appointed day Thabo and the five other boys in his group assembled at the dibia’s hut. The dibia’s name was Zokwunye, and his hut was the cleanest hut in the village despite the figurines and various oddments suspended seemingly from every tree in the compound. The dibia lived alone, was highly respected in his craft. The six boys on his doorstep that afternoon avoided looking in the direction of the chalk-festooned mud wall at the back yard, which harbored the paraphernalia of healing and strange effigies. Like the high priest Tabansi’s hut, the dibia’s hut invited awe.
The dibia, short and wiry, sporting a scruffy Vandyke beard appeared at the doorway. The boys promptly bent an obeisant knee each with the words, “Excellent dibia.”
The dibia nodded approvingly. “Excellent warriors in the making, every one of you. May the loins which sprung you spring more of the same. Are we ready for the hunt?”
“We are fully ready, great dibia,” the boys chorused.
“Nothing detains us then. We leave immediately.”
The dibia apportioned out the assegais and other equipment. He hefted onto his own back a leather bag filled with poison-tipped arrows, taking care to cover the lethal tips with two thick goatskin spreads. The two bows were distributed among the boys, as were the two dane guns (flintlocks), although the latter were only to be used in an emergency and was not standard equipment for the Antelope Run. Thabo had the task of carrying the bongo drums.
The party made its way into the bush as the afternoon sun turned into a furnace. Walking at a steady pace and surprisingly agile for a man in his late fifties, the dibia led the boys into the thickening jungle, whose foliage provided some protection from the sun. The forbidding tree masts, the strange twitter of dozens of unseen creatures, common sounds of the jungle, enveloped them. Not many words were spoken. The afternoon became late afternoon. The sweat which had pooled on their faces and beneath their armpits, began to evaporate. The irritable dampness gradually gave way the relief of dry, cool skin as the afternoon dwindled. The human walk averages three to four miles an hour, and as evening bore on them the party had travelled nearly fifteen miles south. Stretches of plain appeared oftener as the jungle retreated. The evening had been chosen with care, for the moon appeared early, and as night crept in, it was like day. The young warriors all carried their assegais and hunting knives, and also water gourds tied by string to their midsections. They drank sparingly from this gourd, hoarding their supply as the need for water would increase fourfold with the next day’s activities. As the night became truly felt, the sheer vastness of the veldt opened around them, airy and consoling, yet spiced with danger. Strong animal spoors proliferated, and the crescent moon leant breathtaking splendor to the beauty of the great plains.
They pitched camp for the night. They built two fires, boiled yam and sweet potatoes, and made red stew with pepper and tomatoes. The old man took his share first, and the others helped themselves. They carried no meat, nor did they crave it, as the smell would have attracted carnivorous wildlife to their campsite. The temperature had fallen to just short of cold, and afterwards the young warriors and the dibia gathered around the campfire. The old man broke kolanut, selected a modest piece for himself, before handing the rest to Dagwudu, one of the young warriors, to distribute. The dibia extracted his tiny snuff bottle, and using his index finger tipped a measure of the harsh powder into each nostril.
The sound of molars crunching kolanut crackled around the campfire. But the boys had only taken small pieces of the kolanut. They knew it improved alertness and also prevented sleep, and they needed to sleep well in preparation for the Antelope Run the next day. But refusing kolanut, especially when offered by a respected elder, was a social boo-boo.
The old man said, “I cannot share my snuff with you. But after you become initiated warriors and the foreskin has been lifted from your loins, you may inhale snuff all you wish. The kolanut you may have, for even our women chew it.”
Dagwudu said, “Excellent dibia, we do not crave for snuff. But thee willing, we crave a story.”
“Any story, great dibia.”
“Well, where shall I begin?”
“Begin at the beginning, excellent dibia.” The boys laughed
“Very well.” The dibia paused to replenish his flared nostrils with the acrid snuff. “Let me recall to your young minds an incident of not many years ago. Concerning the death of Udanga, an elder in the third village. How did he die? I shall retell it.”
He spat out the kolanut he was chewing and threw in another piece. “Udanga went hunting with his flintlock . . . one of those damnable thunderbolt devices which are good for felling antelope and other four-footed beasts. They don’t really test a hunter’s true ability, and so you yourselves will not be using thunderbolt devices for tomorrow’s hunt. Udanga encountered a herd of Cape buffaloes and was stupid enough to shoot one of them. Udanga was a bad shot and hit the buffalo’s flank. They are big animals as you know, and weigh over a ton each, and while the herd scattered the buffalo that Udanga had shot in the flank did not run away. It grunted its displeasure at the thing of lead lodged in its flesh, and charged Udanga who had caused it.
“It takes ages to reload a flintlock thunderbolt device for another shot, and Udanga did not have the time with an enraged Cape buffalo bearing down on him. His assegai was useless – it would splinter like softwood just touching the thick buffalo hide. The only escape was a nearby tree and Udanga dropped his thunderbolt device and scrambled up the tree. The buffalo was so enraged it charged the tree with Udanga on it several times. It was a big tree and did not topple. The buffalo, bleeding from its flank wound, and not satisfied with the way the fight had gone, sat down to wait for Udanga to descend from the tree. He –”
“Could a buffalo sit down?” asked one boy.
“It sat on its haunches.” The dibia reflected. “You interrupted me. Where was I?”
“The Cape buffalo sat down to wait for Udanga to descend from the tree.”
“Ah, yes. The buffalo waited and waited. Day became night and night became day, yet Udanga did not come down from the tree. The buffalo too did not depart its vigil. Udanga knew that if he descended the tree, the buffalo would kill him. So he stayed up in the tree, waiting for the wound on the buffalo to slowly kill it, and hoping that a lion pride or a pack of wild dogs would find the wounded animal first and make a quick meal of it. But it was not so, and on the second day of waiting, the buffalo lowered his hind legs and moved his bowels a short distance from the base of the tree. It was a huge deposit, and the beast then circled his deposit and then stopped and urinated on the whole mess, forming a very potent puddle. After completing this procedure, the buffalo turned around facing the wind and parallel to the tree. It then lowered its hind legs a bit—it was a strange posture—and suddenly whipped his tail. You know how cows whip their tails to chase off flies—it whipped its tail into the mess which had come from his bowels plus the added ingredient of his urine. The puddle spattered everywhere, and some of it landed on Udanga up in the tree. And because it was a potent puddle, Udanga fell to scratching frantically, especially from the ingredient in the buffalo’s urine. The itching was unbearable. Like fire ants eating every inch of the body simultaneously. Udanga lost his balance as he fought to scratch himself everywhere at once, and fell from the tree just as the buffalo had calculated. Falling from the tree did not kill Udanga, the branch he was on was not very high. But the buffalo did, goring him and stomping on him with its big feet, snuffing the life out of Udanga.
“Is that the end of my tail? No. The buffalo, when it was satisfied that Udanga was dead, left the scene and tried to rejoin the herd it had left nearly two days earlier. It did not get very far in its wounded state before it was spotted by a pack of hyenas. The hyenas pulled it down quickly, and as you know hyenas have the strongest teeth and jawbone of any predator. The third village which had organized a search party found Udanga’s mutilated body by noticing the circling vultures in the sky. They found his thunderbolt device, and not far from it the fresh skeleton of the buffalo. It was deduced that the marks on Udanga’s body could only have been made by an animal the size of the buffalo. Another mystery was why Udanga’s body, which had lain nearly an entire afternoon beside the tree, was not stripped by hyenas or vultures. We shall never know.”
The dibia found a dried parchment of tobacco leaf from his pouch. He bit off a wad which he chewed thoughtfully.
“My sons, if an animal as dumb as a buffalo could outwit a Kwazi warrior, then that warrior deserves to die. If Udanga had not shown fear he might be alive today. Had he confronted the buffalo as it charged, and aimed his assegai at the head where the brain is, one strike would have stopped the buffalo. Keep your eye on the target, the brain box of the animal. Imagination is where the problem lies. In his mind Udanga saw the great horns of the buffalo ripping into his flesh, tearing his innards. He saw a huge beast bearing down on him. So he ran. Up a tree.
“An animal cannot contemplate its own death, because it lacks imagination. True, it has memory, which is why if you hit a dog with a stick, it will remember, and the next time it sees you with a stick it will run away. But imagination, no. An animal’s senses will inform him when an enemy is near, which is the tension of the herd when a lion has been sighted. The animal will run if the enemy comes closer, unless it chooses to fight. But it does not know that the condition of death exists, or that this or that animal could inflict death on another animal. Imagination is the bane of the warrior. It is there, my sons, it can never be entirely suppressed as long as we remain human beings. The true test of the warrior lies in being able to confront an adversary despite what imagination tells you the adversary could do to you. At the time you confront the seemingly impossible, others call it madness. Afterwards they say it is bravery. If you dwell on the possible damage an adversary’s fists, or paws, or fangs could do, you would be paralyzed from fear, and the thing which you had imagined will come to pass. If you fight despite your fear of the other’s ability to do considerable damage to yourself, you have a chance of winning. By fighting back you have already won the first battle, the most important battle – overcoming fear. If you do not fight back, the opponent wins all the rounds. Nothing is left to you except that shame and humiliation. If you do fight back despite your weakness,’ — here it seemed to Thabo that the dibia’s eyes lingered fractionally longer than necessary on him – “and you lose, it would have been a worthy loss, and even in victory the opponent will acknowledge a worthy enemy. You will have gained your own victory, the victory over fear, which is the greatest of all victories, believe me. It is the hardest victory and is the purpose of your apprenticeship as warriors.
“Tomorrow, when you confront the antelopes, most of them will flee from you. The herd move and think as one. But do not underestimate an antelope. A gnu or hartebeest may fight you, trample you to death, gore you, whatever. Avoid the kick from the hind feet which has incapacitated or killed a few runners on the antelope trail. If you show no fear, the antelope, despite its size and superiority over you in fighting strength, will run. You think grass-eaters are docile animals? Think again. The timid gazelle could kick a man to death if that man displays poor hunting technique and approaches too closely. But no fear. All antelopes can outrun all men. The only time you will get close enough to risk being kicked is when the poison has weakened the animal and it is near death. Remember that. Remember especially to laugh at your imagination. Those of you who make it to the circumcision will find that my words are weighted with truth. If you become obsessed with what Odafi’s knife will do to your foreskin, you will never make it to the surgery hut on your own two feet as a warrior should. A warrior able to take Odafi’s knife can take anything. I took it. Am I not here today talking to you? All your fathers and forefathers took the knife. I took the knife, though in my time it was not Odafi, but someone else even meaner, doing the cutting. That is the end of my story.”
“There’s wisdom in thy speech,” a boy said.
“Excellent dibia,” Dagwudu said. “I do not oppose thy great wisdom. And I am sure that thy words issue from the tree of experience. Yet, my heart bursts for want of speaking.”
“But speak, my son.”
“Excellent dibia, I have heard the same story of Udanga from another source. Except that it was a hartebeest instead of a buffalo doing the flinging of the potent puddle.”
Thabo felt constrained to speak. “Excellent dibia, I too have heard the story elsewhere. A lion was the beast instead of a buffalo.”
“You are both right,” the dibia said. “Neither a hartebeest nor a buffalo has the intelligence to contrive the flinging of the potent puddle with its tail. Any animal large enough fulfils the story so long as it has a tail and knows how to use it. It is a true story and Udanga is dead as you know. The important thing is the lesson we learn from it, even if the lesson entertains us while telling the story.”
“Tell us another story, excellent dibia,” another boy said.
The dibia contemplated. “I do not wish to monopolize our little conference. The floor is open. He that has a tale to tell, let him open his mouth and the words will flow.”
Thabo told a story, his forte, as did another boy. Afterwards the burden again transferred to the old man who had a wealth of experience and spoke with the authority of age. He told of his bravery as a young warrior, later as an apprentice dibia. The oppressive night folded upon them.
Thabo lay on his back, surveying the infinite sky, illumined by remnants of the lustrous moon. The stars dotted the heavens, glistening white sand pebbles on the overarching sea of the universe. Thabo’s ear lay close to the ground. In the distance zebra brayed, and faintly audible was the thud-thud of antelope herds galloping into the moonscape. An owl hooted, a melancholy note of uncertain wavelength. The sound died and was resuscitated, only to fade in windborne bursts with the muffled thunder of the fleeing herd. Thabo listening, prayed for the safety of the herbivorous antelopes from the carnivorous big cats. As if affronted a sudden roar shattered the veldt night’s accord. The answering bellow of another lion rumbled unchallenged across the subdued plains. Thabo winced involuntarily.
The old man, in the middle of a story, broke off to comment on what the young warriors already knew: Simba had killed. Kwazi tribefolk, indeed almost all bush dwellers will make a similar statement despite knowing that in actuality lions only roared only when defining territory, courting, or reasons more abstruse than roaring over a kill. What probably happened was that the lionesses had brought down an antelope, and a pride lion or lions immediately moved in to claim it. The lionesses were roaring disapproval at the pecking order. For the young warriors lying on the ground staring at the stars, or sitting cross-legged before the glowing embers, there was only silent acknowledgement with a nod. As though by common consent each warrior was saving his strength for the next day’s ordeal when every one of them would be pitted against any species of antelope of the old man’s devising.
The cool night breeze caressed Thabo’s face. His entire body felt a carefree synergy with the universe. Contented, his heartbeat slowed to a very low rate. The spirit of the veldt descended, and lifted his soul up, up, flung it elflike, to the elements, the limitless sky. He became a metamorphic avian perched on an invisible pedestal in the nether regions of a giddy sky, neighbor to the moon, first cousin to the stars. Beneath him rolled the pristine beauty of the veldt, the everlasting moonlit plains, filled with exuberant life and floating the spoors of umpteen wildlife. Sometimes the exuberance was chopped by sudden and quite violent death as had just been intuited from the stampede of the herd and the lions bickering for rights to the felled meat. Thabo wondered if the consonance of the night suffered less for it and concluded that such occasions never took away the joys of the free, mysterious veldt.
He thought of the girl Nefrika, as he often did when his thoughts dwelt on gazelles. Not that he needed a mnemonic to precipitate the girl into his vision. Just that Nefrika resembled a gazelle in distinct ways – graceful, lithe, those loose-swinging buttocks and the sloe-eyed oval face whose disturbing beauty enthralled a man while at the same time punishing him. The perception of punishment arose from one’s fear that she may prove difficult to woo, plus the feelings of personal hopelessness which constantly torment an avowed worshipper of female forms. There was even a species of deer – springbok –whose gaudy walk, like a peacock’s, somewhat resembled Nefrika’s. He mulled over Nefrika’s other attributes, and during this prolonged and rather pleasurable amusement, sleep overtook him. Just before he went under, Thabo saw the old man rise and circle the encampment chanting the abracadabra of his strange art, throwing spell-laden water with his fingers as he cursed evil spirits lurking nearby, casting the spells which would protect the group from attack by beasts during the night. The dibia also placed a substance in the fire embers. A sweet-sickly fragrance rose in the profuseness of smoke, and its fragrance would further repel mosquitoes and other pests.
End of extract