A fictional memoir. Kena Nchango is the daughter of a shaman, living in an area that sees much change.
My name is Kena Nchango. I am something like 70 years old – there is no written record of my birth, so I could be out by a few years either way. I was born in a small village in the Rift Valley, in East Africa. My parents had three children, of which I was the second. We were a very small family by the standards of the day; most couples would have between eight and twelve offspring during their lifetime, although only three or four would survive long enough to become adults.
Life was at its easiest when I was the youngest. My brother Twana, who is two years older than I am, carried me on his back until I was old enough to walk myself. It was the normal thing; the youngest was carried by the next youngest, until the youngest one was ready to walk. As soon as I could walk, Twana started helping my father in the field, where he grew our food. Later, when Labi was born, my father explained that I would have to carry the baby, as Twana had carried me, until he was able to walk himself. After my mother stopped breast-feeding Labi, it became my job to carry him wherever he needed to go. Once he was strong enough to walk, he could not walk long journeys. I still had to carry him some of the time, so he could rest his legs. That was OK, though; he wasn’t heavy.
My father was a shaman – I didn’t know at the time exactly what that meant, but I knew it made him very important. A lot of people wanted to talk to him about their problems, and he helped them. People were always very nice to Twana and me, and to Labi, too. They spoke to us nicely, and sometimes brought small gifts for us. Some of the people asked us to speak well of them to our father, which we always did anyway; there was no need to speak badly of anyone in our village. They were all nice people, as far as we children were concerned.
A new man came into the village one week. He was rather like the twins and other people with white skin – ghosts, my father called them; he told us they were made white by evil spirits and that they brought bad luck, which is why they had to live far away from normal people. This one looked different, though. For one, his hair was the colour of a lion’s mane, not white like the ghosts’, and his eyes were kind of greeny-brown, not pink. My father said he was a ‘white man’. I had never seen one before, but I could see why he would call him that. He was talking to everyone in the village – shouting at them, more like – he stood on a box in the middle of the village and spoke, in a very animated way, about how one very good man, a long, long time ago, helped a lot of people and talked to the people about a spirit called God, who was somehow three spirits but only one. I stopped, with Labi, and listened for a while.
The white man said there is only one God. That made me laugh at the time. How, I thought, could just one spirit, on his own, do all the things the spirits are expected to do every day, guard every village and field, and fight off evil spirits? I didn’t understand the part about him being three but only one, either. It just didn’t make sense to me. The white man said that this very good man was sacrificed when he was not very old, and that his death was enough to make everybody okay with God, so nobody should be punished for whatever they did wrong, ever. I left then, I couldn’t listen to this any longer. My father had told me a lot about the old ways, and I knew for a fact, that if you did bad, you were gonna be punished. We knew all about sacrifices, too. We sacrificed chickens and goats on special occasions, and sometimes we sacrificed ghosts to what my Daddy called ‘appease the spirits’ (makes me shudder now, when I think about it), but I never heard anybody say before that one sacrifice would be enough, and would never need doing again.
It was a nice thought, though, and if it had been true, it would have helped a lot of people. But it would have meant that our traditional ways were not true. My father couldn’t have remained a shaman, and people wouldn’t have had to be nice to us. I wasn’t going to make Labi listen to what that man was saying. Labi was not yet two years old. He might have believed that man’s stories. I was five – far too old to trust in his fairy tales.
As I walked away, the white man shouted after me: “Little girl,” he said.
“Me?” I replied.
“Yes, you, little girl. Do you think it right, that one of your tender years should be saddled with the burden of carrying your younger sibling?”
I didn’t really understand any of that. Sounded like grown-ups’ talk to me. “Dunno what you mean,” I said.
“I mean that your brother is too much of a weight to be placed on your young shoulders. He is too heavy for you to carry.”
“It’s what we do,” I replied, “what we’ve always done. When I was too little to walk, my big brother carried me. Now I am bigger, and my little brother is too young to walk, I carry him.”
“But surely,” he said, “it is your parents’ responsibility to carry the young ones.”
“If they did that,” I replied, “who would tend the fields? Who would make sure we have food to eat? Besides, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” Then I walked away. The man wasn’t making any sense to me. I didn’t know how things were done where he came from but I surely knew how things were done where I came from.
I carried Labi back to our hut as fast as I could. My parents were inside, talking with Twana.
“Mummy, Daddy,” I said, excitedly, “that white man is in the village again, talking about his three-one spirit. He said it’s not right I should carry Labi. He said you should carry him. I told him your work is in the field, and my work is carrying Labi. Did I do wrong?”
“You did exactly right, little Kena,” my father said, “he is talking about white man’s religion. It might work well for them, but will it keep the lion at bay, make the fields produce more food or stop the baboon stealing it all? I don’t think so. He does not understand the power of the spirits, for good and for ill. Our ways have always served us, Kena, and they always will.”
I shall never forget that conversation. My father’s world view was so simplistic and traditional, but it was all set to change.
No-one from our village had ever been further than the next village, half a day’s walk away. Why would anyone choose to go anywhere from where they couldn’t return before dark? Beyond the village, with its protective charms and signals that would sound whenever a large animal approached, there was no refuge; nowhere to shelter from the rains or from the animals that roam the plains. By day, the large predators: lion, cheetah and others, were competition for food. Our hunters had to be sure that they were not about when they did their work. At night, we were likely to become their prey. Not many of our people were brave enough, or silly enough, to want to be away from the safety of the village at night.
Then, when I was about twelve, the road building started. Mighty machines appeared over the horizon, roaring and snorting and growling like so many mechanical lions. As if possessed by malevolent spirits they progressed slowly toward us, making their fearful noises accompanied by shouts from the men directing them. From time to time a flying machine would approach from beyond the machines and swoop low over them, seeming to control them as a goat-herd controls his animals. Their onward march was unstoppable. All day, every day, they cut into the plains, flattening every undulation, felling trees and replacing the sweet, fragrant soil with something the white men called sub-base. The Africans working with them were not of our people. They spoke our common language and looked like us, but that’s where the similarity ended. They, and the white men, brought trinkets and gifts; pretty things we had never seen before; and offered them in exchange for sex with our women and girls. Many of our women and girls accepted these gifts and joined with the men.
“Do not be tempted by their trinkets,” my father insisted, “to give in to their demands, as some of the village women and girls are doing, is not good. It is displeasing to the spirits, and will risk bringing on our village, a curse that will take many generations to heal.”
“What will this curse be like, Daddy?” I asked, “and how can it be healed?”
“These are things that we can’t know, Kena, because they are in the future. We can know only in very general terms what is to come. We can’t know details.”
I refused all of their offers – and I had a lot, I don’t mind telling you. I was one of the prettiest girls in the village and many of the road people wanted to enjoy my fruits, as they put it. My mother told me that the operation I had when I was young – a horrible operation, the pain of which I can still remember – would protect me and my reputation until I was married. At the time I believed her, and I had relations with no man. When I did have sex, some years later, it was so painful, that I never tried it again. Nor did I ever want to.
History showed that my father was right about the curse, although not in the way he had thought. At the time, some of the girls who had been with the road men started to suffer from diseases we had not seen before, diseases that caused lesions and weeping in areas linked with those activities. My father said that his was the curse he had foretold. Almost ten years later, many of the women and girls, and some of the people they had enjoyed since those days, started to suffer from all manner of ailments. A visiting doctor and his team did some tests and said that it was HIV; that many of the people suffering from it would die, that their death would be most unpleasant, and that there was nothing even the best, most modern medicine could do to help. That outbreak of HIV in our village can be traced back to that time. As curses go, HIV is a big one, and one that still plagues us. Too many children are left without parents. Too many babies are born cursed by this dreadful disease, and destined to live short lives; lives filled with suffering.
But the road was built. Over a period of several months, three waves of leviathans passed our village; three groups of men enjoying the embraces of our young women; three periods of serious disruption to our ancient, isolated, peaceful way of life. The road passed alongside the village, not right through it, but the disruption to our lifestyle was complete.
Vehicles started to pass close to our homes, and we were suddenly visible to people of all sorts who would never have seen us before. People travelling the road; tourists, they were called; liked to stop and look around. Some stayed for a while and made drawings or even paintings of our homes, while others had less time and simply walked around the village, talking to our people and taking photographs of them and of our huts. My father built a shed near the road, from where he sold traditional jewellery and clothing items made by a few of the village women. Large numbers of tourists were keen to buy these items and suddenly, the village was making money; something that had never happened before.
A bus travelled the length of the road; anyone could ride on it to the nearest big town, then ride another one back again. Twana, Labi and I took turns, two of us at a time, to take the bus to town and to buy various things that my father instructed, mostly seeds and fertilisers, using the money he had collected by selling things from his hut, and from the tourists for permission to take photographs or to make drawings or paintings.
Things didn’t change very much from that for quite a long time. We all helped tend the crops, father had his work as shaman and mother joined the other women in making jewellery and clothing. Later, when we three were in our twenties and our parents were reaching the age where they would soon have to stop working and take on the role of village elders, more men arrived and started to build houses on the other side of the road; houses with electricity, water and drainage like we had seen in the big town. Pipes and wires galore ran along the roadside between the towns. The houses even had things they called ‘phones’, which the people living there could use to talk to people in other towns; some say even in other countries. We wondered why anyone would want to do that, but nonetheless started to covet the ability, as well as some of the other luxuries these people enjoyed. The money we were receiving from the tourists was growing and very little of it was being spent. We tried to retain our ancient, agrarian way of life; it is what the tourists wanted to see and were prepared to pay for.
The old ways couldn’t survive for ever, though. Twana and Labi both married. Twana married a girl from the village; she was about eight years younger than he, and had not been tainted by contact with the road men. She was from a good household, and remained intact until their wedding celebration. Labi had managed to get a job with the tourist board that promotes our village, as well as a number of other “attractions” around the country. His job took him away for some months for training. Whilst away, Labi met a girl from upcountry, fell in love and eventually married her. Between them, my brothers have given our parents seven grandchildren – much to my parents’ delight. Some of us, my brothers and myself included, used the tourists’ money to buy new homes on the other side of the road, so we could enjoy some of the luxuries they offered, moving to the old village during the day to make more money. Our relationship with our village and its inhabitants changed, subtly at first, but later more radically. Village life and activities ceased to be our way of living, and became our job during the day. Those who chose to remain in the old village, my parents included, kept it authentic. They refused electricity, running water and drainage, and kept to the old ways.
“Our ways, Kena,” my father said to me on one occasion, “have served us well since the time before.”
“The time before what?” I asked.
“The time before our ways started,” he said, “the time before our earliest stories; before the spirits revealed themselves and told us how we should live.” He paused, whether to collect his thoughts or for effect I could never tell. He was very good at his job. “No-one knows how things were before,” he continued, “without spirit guidance and rules to live by, it must have been chaotic, dangerous…”
As often happened when he became wistful, my father disappeared into his thoughts. There would be no talking to him now for an hour or so.
Our new homes had electricity; with that came radio and television. Gradually, as year succeeded year, villagers began to spend less time gathering in the square, talking, and more time by themselves in their new homes, in front of the radio or television. Every house had its own kitchen, with cooking equipment, refrigerator and freezer; communal cooking on an open fire was a thing of the past, symbolically resurrected on special occasions by its modern counterpart – a group barbecue. Young people wanted the new excitement of loud music, dancing and the flashing lights of disco rather than the traditional ways, and life as we knew it was relegated to a performance for the tourists, drawn from memory and augmented by invented scenes and situations designed to provide a more ‘authentic’ experience for the visitors, to extract more money from them. We had completed the transition from traditional tribal people to town-dwellers. There was even a church where many of our people paid homage to the white man’s three-one spirit.
My life now, compared with what it would have been had the road never been built, is easy. I have become a counsellor, helping people with their problems; much as I suppose my father did; except that I have no recourse to spirits or any of their paraphernalia. I did extensive training in the town and have diplomas in many kinds of counselling. People know that when they come to me with their problems, I will help them to discover the solutions themselves. I have no easy answers, no potions or incantations. They also know that whatever they tell me will never pass my lips. I suppose that is part of the reason my service has become so popular and in such demand. People like and trust what I can offer, and they are happy to pay for it. They even seem to like the western light opera that I always have playing quietly in my office, when I have clients. I find it incredibly relaxing, and they seem to agree. I do the same thing in the old village in the afternoons, offering a counselling service to tourists. I don’t know what they expect, but they get the same as our own people do – without the light opera, of course. I have had no complaints, there is a constant stream of them and they pay well. I must be giving them what they need, even if it isn’t what they originally thought they wanted. All in all, I am now very comfortable. My work is not strenuous and my income is more than adequate.
Would I like to go back to the old ways? Sometimes I would – but not often. My brothers often say they would prefer the old, simple life. I think they would miss some of the luxuries they have come to take for granted, but not the financial and social pressures that modern living, particularly with growing children, places upon them. I think they miss some of the tastes, smells and sounds of our traditional life, too. I know I do.
The mothers of our babies now push their young charges in devices called baby buggies. Instead of going to the field to collect food they have grown themselves, they go to the shop to buy what has been grown by other people, sometimes many miles away. Everyone agrees that the food is not as fresh, or as tasty, as that gathered from their own field, but it is much easier, and the cost is affordable. Later in the day, when the tourists start to arrive, the women cross the road to the old village, put the buggies into a hut, change into traditional clothing and go into the square, where they put on their show. They do a good job, too. There is nothing to suggest that they are not just living their lives in public; nothing to indicate that they go home to another place, another life, at the end of the day.
Older children, without the responsibility of carrying their younger siblings, like to spend time with others of their own age, both at school and at play. Play takes place in purpose-built playgrounds with safety-approved equipment; a far cry from running on the plains, climbing camel thorn trees and the other, more hazardous (and therefore more exciting) games of my childhood. They are required to spend some time in the old village, dressed traditionally and taking part in well-choreographed traditional activities for the benefit of the tourists. Many, especially teenagers, resent doing this; they even have to leave their smartphones, tablets and gaming machines at home; but realise that it is these afternoon activities that pay for the ‘modern’ lifestyle they enjoy so much, and so they acquiesce, albeit grudgingly.
Modern life has given us so much. We now have computers in the home that make many aspects of our day-to-day living much easier. We can keep in touch, even when far away, we can take any number of courses, learning new skills and new languages. I have learned, though, that when life gives something with one hand, it often takes something back with the other. My brother keeps telling me that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I think I understand what he means. All of these luxuries have come at a cost. The cost has been our innocence, our closeness to nature, our traditions, our sense of our place in the world and, in a very sad way, our health.
Over the course of the last fifty years, nothing new has managed to replace the close bond between siblings, the bond forged by three or four years of carrying and being carried. It is a thing of the past, like the once-common but long silenced cry of “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”.