We heard them all. We listened as they whispered. They narrated in the morning; during the day; late in the afternoon; early in the evening; and deep into the night. We enjoyed their stories while we watched moving stars at nightfall. In the evening when all the goats and cows were back home, we gathered around the fireplace to listen, holding our chins with expectations. Life in the savanna was always like a narrative. Each soul had a story; every spirit was a story. It did not matter whether you were tall or short; big or small; rich or poor; introvert or extrovert. There was always a moment for a story. Well, lots of storytelling moments. Throughout the day. Every day of the week. During both dry and rainy seasons. Under trees and on trees; inside and outside the house. We never fancied missing a jiffy.
Stories were told in the green fields, under the tall acacia trees. We listened to their stories as monkeys sat high on the canopy, looking down with pride. They listened too. Sometimes we sat on low-bending tree trunks at the top of the hill while we watched our animals grazing down below. At other times we strolled down the river, through long winding footpaths, and around big dams and lakes. We enjoyed passing time, listening to sweet sounds of crickets, grasshoppers and birds. They too had their stories to narrate. The sun would sometimes scorch, and we would find a tall shady tree and sit peacefully underneath it. With our feet bent, and sometimes holding hands, we sang. We sang the songs we heard from the stories. Then we gradually toned down as one of us turned the song into a story.
Each story carried a peculiar melody. We listened carefully. Nobody had the audacity to interrupt. Our hearts and minds were affixed to the themes. Every story was a lesson. It was a moment of reflection and contemplation for everyone, regardless of age or gender. All of us, male and female; girl and boy; young and old; gathered for the taste of a story. Narratives always soothed our minds. They made us forget the hundreds of cows stolen by bandits, tens of goats eaten by hyenas, and the chicken grabbed by vultures.
There were few narrators, but the listeners were many. I was one of them. Everyone wanted to hear a story; but the audience also wanted to tell their own stories. Many of us had a story to tell. I did. I wanted to retell the story of my sister who died two weeks after birth. I wanted to speak about how my heart palpitated without rhythm one early morning when I did not find my sister on the bed. While my elder sister and I were looking after our goats on the hills one day, I felt like telling the story. I started singing,
Why did you leave us,
Sister why did you leave us?
I cannot wait for a day to pass,
Without leaving a curse,
To whomever took you away from us,
To a place we can’t reach by bus.
Why did you leave us?
But the days still go by,
And everyone’s sorrow’s still high.
We wish we could fly,
To be with you wherever you lie,
Yet no one wants to try,
But today I want to try,
I will die.
With that song, my story was told. Sometimes stories are long. But I like them short. I do not want to listen to a lifetime story. I want to live each day per story. I prefer listening to the story of a minute; sometimes a day. I will collect all my stories one day, and put them in an album. Everyone will do the same on their deathbed. As you die, you will recall all the big moments of your life; oftentimes with nostalgia. You will wish your old days could be renewed. We will all do. Everyone will desire to rewind time – to correct their mistakes and relive their good days. The two weeks of joy with my younger sister was all I wanted to reverse, but it was impossible. The crusade of our goats would not allow me to go back in time. Moreover, the disappearance of the sun from the sky reminded me that the day’s story must end there and then.
No story goes from the grazing fields to the fireplace. There would be another story for the night, told by another narrator. For the meantime, Jemuge and I had to catch up with the animals. We ought to take them back safe and whole. She held my hands, gazed at me gloomily, and started crying. I sobbed too. After a short while, we started smiling as we bowled down the hill on our buttocks, like all savanna kids do, still holding hands. Only kids who lived in the savanna during the 90’s can understand the feeling of sliding downhill on one’s bottom. It erased all sorrow and brought joy to a saddened heart. It worked well if you closed your eyes and trusted the gods, or your innocence. Such experience supersedes the savanna’s art and skill of removing dirt from the ear using a feather, which is also a spectacular tourism of one’s body. This is all for savanna boys and girls.
The country boy reached home safe and sound, all animals accounted for. I never messed with this duty. I always try to avoid imagining what our father would do to us if we ever lost a goat. One day I saw him tying my brother Kiptoo to a tree, his buttocks facing outwards, only because of a trivial matter. Half-naked, Kiptoo persevered Dad’s beating as well as brutal bites of an army of ants. Once he was done, father left as he cursed, as if he wanted his poor child to rot against the tree. Perhaps it was a way of giving back to nature the nutrients that we have always eroded through our farming activities. Maybe it was a hard way of teaching a lesson. Sometimes you could not even know what lesson your parents were trying to teach you. It was sometimes difficult to tell when you have done wrong. So you always apologized, even for doing nothing. Thinking of it now, I believe these savanna parents were forewarning us before we could even think of disobeying them.
When I reached home that evening, I was exhausted. Everyone was, except mum who never got tired – at least as far as I can remember. Mother used to do all chores – they say African women do household tasks. Well, during my entire childhood my mother performed domestic chores, local chores, regional chores, national chores, international chores, and all the chores that father would not execute. He climbed trees to cut branches for the cows; worked on the farm from planting to harvesting; cooked all meals; washed everything except the things that the children could wash; swept the loafing shed and the cowshed; and went to grind the millet. She always filled everyone’s belly, including the animals. Yet her own belly seldom got a fill. Mother solved everyone’s problems, yet no one lifted a finger to solve her problems. She never got weary. She has never gotten tired of helping. If she was to tell a story, that would be her story. But mother never narrated a story. All her stories were told by others. She spoke through actions, and we reported in words and writing, as I do now.
Although my mother does not tell her own stories by word of mouth, she has multiple stories nonetheless. That night, she told me a sweet story in a dream. She also dreamed the same story in her sleep. I felt her dream. We shared the dreams – between mother and her son. We slept in the kitchen – five of us. Mother, three of my elder siblings, and I. The other five siblings slept in their own house. Dad slept in the store. In the middle of the night, I could hear mum speaking. I listened. I always paid attention to stories. We were sitting under a sycamore tree waiting for the cows to finish the food we had gathered for them. Then she started narrating her story.
“Far in the east, at a place never inhabited by human, there lived a gigantic creature. He had no name, no relatives, and no companion. Our forefathers named it Chemosi for posterity. This enormous being was half human and half animal. He walked on two feet like a man, but had a long tail like a monkey. He fed on both plants and animals, and lived in a cave deep inside the forest. With his big body, he had no challenger, and no competitor for food. Whatever he wanted, he got it. His fist was the size of a drum, and his head was not enough to penetrate any door. Chemosi also had a finger as tall as a tree branch. His teeth were sharp, curled and tall. He could swallow a goat alive, and strangled an elephant with one hand. Human beings and all animals feared Chemosi, so he claimed the entire village for himself.”
The storyteller stopped shortly to catch a breadth and recollect her thoughts. I got a chance to take a sip of water and adjust my sitting position. A mosquito whizzed close to my ear. I rubbed it away and urged my mother to continue with the story. She picked a piece of grass, inserted it between her canine and premolar teeth, and continued.
“In the same forest, before the coming of the monster, there lived a male baby monkey together with his family members of five. The baby monkey was named Kutku. In another part of the forest, a female baby monkey called Potpo lived amongst six family members. Now, Kutku loved Potpo. They would meet every day deep inside the forest to play as their parents looked for food. They jumped from one tree to another, picked food, and ate together. They literally kissed each other. The two lovers would sit on a canopy and talk like adult monkeys for hours. Only darkness would separate them in the evening as each family went to their home in a different part of the forest. This lovey-dovey affair lasted only six months before Chemosi arrived. Kutku was three years old, while Potpo was one and a half years old when the big boss arrived. Chemosi arrived at night and dispersed all animals in different directions. Kutku and his family went to the west, while Potpo and her family went towards the east.”
“Who told this story?” I interrupted curiously. “Kombo,” she said. As far as we knew, Mzee Kombo was the oldest and the only living narrator of original stories and myths in our village. I reached for a tree branch to stretch my muscles as mother chased away a cow who was harming a small calf with her sharp hones. The fight for pasture was common in the savanna, and the young animals always suffered the most. Mama continued with her story as I resumed my position.
“In the west, Kutku and his family settled at the inhabited village of Eldume in the Maasai land. To the east, Potpo found residence in the deserted forest of Eldorois, at the border between Tugen land and Maasai land. They lived happily in the two separate locations, albeit lonely and without love. Potpo the girly monkey cried every evening. No one in her family suspected her loneliness. On the other hand, Kutku sat for long hours under tall forest trees, thinking about Potpo. Each one of them felt as though a part of their heart had left with the other. Sometimes Kutku would be so lost in deep thoughts that Gorillas and Lions attacked him unaware. His father came to his rescue twice, and his sister warned him countless times with loud squeaks. The state of solitude and desperation continued for three years. Then they came of age. Each one of them was ready to start a family, and occasionally mated with suitors. Nonetheless, they never forgot each other. They had albums of memories in their heads, but none of them spoke about those memories with their respective family members. They did not even dare disclose the romantic affair to any of their suitors. So they constantly fought against their own thoughts.
“One day, a great war occurred. In this part of the savanna, communities often fought over water and pasture during dry seasons. Following a three-year drought, nothing remained in the grasslands of the Maasai community. All trees and dams also ran dry in the Tugen land. The only remaining place with water and pasture was a no-man’s land – the forest of Eldorois where Potpo had found a new home. Tugen herders met head-on with Maasai warriors deep inside the forest where the only river with water was found. When communities often met in this situation, there was no negotiation. Young fighters would exchange arrows, machetes, and spears. They butchered one another brutally until a winner was found who would claim the grazing land.
It was a messy experience for Potpo who was caught in the middle of this bewildering skirmish. She hopped and jumped from one tree to another, alongside her family members. Some of them were killed, but Potpo, her mother and one brother survived. When the ordeal was finished, and the Tugen tribe had claimed Eldorois River and its environs, Potpo was adopted by a Tugen family. She was separated from her mother and brother, and taken to Mocho, a dry village hundred miles away. Life was difficult at Mocho. Most trees had been cut down to allow for farming. The few remaining plants were dry. There was no place for Potpo to play, and no monkey to play with. However, Susana always fed and played with her. Susana was the last born daughter of Mzee Kemei, the renowned Tugen warrior who captured and brought the monkey to Susana.
“A few Maasai Morans who endured the raids of Eldorois River escaped through a gorge in the forest. They got the help of a senior Tugen herder in their narrow escape. When later discovered, the Good Samaritan herder was beheaded in front of hundreds of witnesses in Mocho village.
“Susana cried when he saw Mzee Kotut being assassinated. She curdled her new pet, decrying the brutal punishment of ‘disloyal’ members of her community. Before his death, Mzee Kotut had been a good friend and storyteller to Susana. She always visited him in his old shanty house, located by the shores of Elmolo River. They would sit under a tree outside the old man’s house, and talk and laugh endlessly.
Susana enjoyed the man’s stories, which were wittingly tailored to comfort her. The little girl never enjoyed good parentage since her mother died a few years ago through the same practice of beheading. Susana’s mother, Carolina, had rescued and helped a slave girl, Cecilia Mading, to escape sexual slavery. During a raid in Pokot land two years earlier, a Tugen warrior had captured a Pokot woman for herself. For about six months, the 12-year-old girl served as a sex slave to her captor. Feeling sorry for the girl, Carolina aided her escape. She smeared charcoal all over Cecilia Mading’s body until she turned black, dressed her with a sack, and put her inside a lorry ferrying charcoal to Marigat town. When she was discovered, Carolina faced the same fate that overtook anyone who betrayed the community – execution by a machete.
“Susana was very young by then, but she later learned that her father approved Carolina’s beheading. Mzee Kemei was so obsessed with authority and fame that he could not save his own wife from the culturally sanctioned practice of guillotining. To worsen Susana’s frustration, Mzee Kemei married another wife, who was also kidnapped in another tribal raid five years beforehand. The stepmother, out of her own frustration, mistreated Susana immensely. She forced her to work like a donkey, insulted her at every possible instance, and extremely brutalized her when she disobeyed. Susana was left with a permanent mark on her left shoulder, which always reminded her of the vicious philosophy of her community. Mzee Kemei was sometimes sorry for her daughter, so she brought her a monkey during the raid of Eldorois River to be her companion. Potpo turned out to be her best friend, the only one of such kind after the beheading of Mzee Kotut.
“Deep inside the Maasai land, Kutku and his family were scattered during the long drought. Two members of the family were killed by Maasai Morans who entered the Eldume forest with their livestock. Kutku and his sister escaped through the Maasai Mountain, before descending two hundred miles to Lake Baringo. When they came face to face with the lake, they were attacked by crocodiles while trying to drink water at Midday. Kutku’s sister was swallowed by the sea reptiles, leaving Kutku to wander alone in the vast and dry human world.
Kutku walked a safe distance around the lake, looking for a place to rest. He came to a halt when he saw a black road with four-wheeled creatures. Kutku had never seen a vehicle before; there was no such thing in the Maasai land. After examining his new discovery closely, the monkey noted that there were living human beings inside the moving creature. He wondered how human beings could survive after being swallowed. However, he had troubles of his own. He had to go. Where? Nowhere. He just kept going, hoping. For several months, he wandered among human populations, going out to hunt for food at night and hiding in the bush during the day.
“One day, Susana learned from her late mother’s old friend that Cecilia Mading was hawking tomatoes at an open-air market in Marigat town. She trekked twenty miles to visit her, accompanied by Potpo. To reach Marigat on time, they had to take a shorter route through the bush. Crossing the savannah was dangerous, but they obliviously took the risk.
“Deep inside the scrubland, they saw a monkey hiding inside a cave. It was Kutku. Potpo was happy to see a fellow monkey, but she did not realize that it was her ex-boyfriend. Kutku looked weary and emaciated. His bones looked like they were about to pop out of his body. He also looked somnolent with watery eyes. Kutku noticed Potpo, and felt extremely excited. They hugged for a while, then started talking in a monkey language. It was monkey business as usual. A different forest, under a different situation, but the same old love story.
“Susana watched in expedition rather than admiration. She loved Potpo, but she was almost certain that the monkey was home to his family. Without Potpo realizing, Susana slipped through the thick woods. She travelled alone, sobbing through a dark and dangerous forest. Once or twice, she was soundly scared by roaring lions and jittering birds. She almost gave up, but the determination to meet Cecilia Mading gave her extra muscles. She pushed hard, walked a little faster, and gained a little more courage.”
“Did her persistence pay?” I became impatient. Mother just looked at me sternly as if to say, “Stop interrupting.” I smiled and looked away as mama continued to narrate Mr. Kombo’s story.
“She finally reached Marigat market, but she did not find Cecilia Mading in there. She looked everywhere in Marigat town, but there was no sight of her.
“Cecilia Mading sat calmly with her boyfriend in a savvy restaurant at Kabasis. They had planned for this outing for so long. Kamau had been saving from her small business of selling second-hand clothes at Marigat town. He planned to use his savings to take his girlfriend out on a date. Cecilia Mading had told her all the torments she went through in the hands of Tugen slave masters. He had cried with sympathy, held her tightly on his shoulders, and fell in love with her. Eight months had passed, and Kamau had saved enough money to take the girl of her dreams to a fancy restaurant at Kabasis.
“Susana was late. It would soon be dark, and Cecilia and Mading would spend their first night together at Kabasis. Yet Susana was unaware of such plans. She looked at her watch. It was 7 P.M., and traders were switching off the lights in their stalls. Feeling exhausted, she rested her back on her bag, and suddenly fell asleep.
“Cecilia Mading woke her up at 7 A.M. the following day. She had left Kabasis with her boyfriend at 4 A.M. to reach the market before dawn. As they say, the early bird always catches the worm. They could not afford to leave their business unattended for a second day. But for Susana, all that mattered was seeing Cecilia Mading. So she was overjoyed when they finally met. That was not the case for Cecilia Mading. She frowned when she saw Susana. ‘What are you doing here? Have you come to take me back to slavery? I will kill myself before that happens,” Cecilia Mading shouted agonizingly.
“‘I would not do that, Cecilia,’ Susana assured her. ‘I share the same problems with you as a woman. This is not a question of us versus you. It is not an issue of our tribe versus yours. We are facing a common nemesis as women. This is a battle between women and monkeys on one hand, and men and humans on the other. We are less human than them, at least in their view. It does not matter whether you are a Pokot or a Tugen, you will always be a slave, as long as you are a woman. This is a men-only society, and no woman can express herself on public issues. I tried over my lifetime to get myself heard. I imposed myself upon my father’s will; but I have never afforded a reasonable sense of freedom. I only got a monkey, because my father thought it wise that I have a friend of my own equal authority. Women befit the role of a monkey. We are seen, but never heard. We are part of the society, yet distanced from the society’s core business. I came to check on you and wish you well, not to take you back to the same chains I wish myself out of. In fact, I would be glad if you host me here for eternity, or at least until I die. My step-mother is a ruthless menace, and my dad is mad with power. With my dear friend Potpo gone to her home, I have no place in my own world. I am hoping you could find me a place in yours.”
“Susana’s words softened Cecilia’s heart. Cecilia Mading held her hand and said, “I want to be your friend. Your mother saved my life, and I see her in you. You have replicated her goodness. I will repay her hospitality tenfold if I may. I will ask my boyfriend to talk to his friend Jim, who is a mayor in this town, to give you one of the stalls in this market. Then I’ll entreaty all my networks around here to underwrite your capital. Let us build a new life in this more civilized society. However, we first need to confront our past. I will summon my boyfriend to accompany us to Mocho village. We must provoke the village elders and persuade them to end their nascent culture.”
“Susana agreed, and Kamau joined. The three emancipated friends walked through the bushes, singing songs of freedom.
Women and children of Mocho,
We come to make you free,
By the will or the arrow of Mocho,
We shall make you see,
You will have your share of Mocho
And be equal with men for gee.
It is our moment now Mocho
We rise above the tree
To bring freedom in Mocho
They sang and danced with hope. Their faces showed the happiness of freedom. For once Susana felt like a human. However, she had one thing troubling her mind. She wanted to find Potpo and give her a proper goodbye.
“In the same shrubberies, Potpo waited patiently for Susana. She lamented losing her, though it was not her fault. She was lost in love. The two monkeys had finally reunited, by fate or luck, but this part of the world is not ideal place for them. “Without Susana’s help, we are doomed,” Potpo told Kutku, who agreed. As they waited, they heard people singing. At first, they thought the singers were a group of their human foes. Kutku held Potpo by the hand and said, “Please come with me, I am never leaving you again.” As they dashed into a dark thicket, Potpo stopped. She had noticed Susana’s voice. “That is my friend Susana.” She said. The two monkeys went shrilling towards the direction of the human voices. They finally met Susana and her friends. Potpo was happy, but she was afraid of Kamau and Cecilia Mading. With fear and suspicion, the monkeys stood still like anthills. After a moment of awkward silence, Susana approached Potpo and introduced her to Kamau and Cecilia. They all got acquainted with each other for a while before beginning a match towards Mocho. Together they formed a movement. Two monkeys, two women, and one man started a journey to liberty.
“A remorseful Mzee Kemei was waiting earnestly for them. It was already over 24 hours since his only child had left without a word. Apart from power as a village elder, Mzee Kemei saw nothing worthwhile in this world other than her daughter. He had romantic affairs with numerous women before, but none gave him a sense of fulfillment. He had led several raids and won many battles, but all of them meant nothing without an heir. Nothing he ever pursued gave him satisfaction. The 24-hour absence of his daughter left a void in his life. He remembered his wife and wondered, ‘Could I have saved her life?’ He did not attend a meeting with village elders that morning as he remained unmoved in deep thoughts. As he meditated, he heard the sound of a song.
Women and children of Mocho,
We come to make you free,
By the will or the arrow of Mocho,
We shall make you see,
You will have your share of Mocho
And be equal with men for gee.
It is our moment now Mocho
We rise above the tree
To bring freedom in Mocho
“Mzee Kemei recognized one of the voices. It was her daughter, Susana. He got mixed feelings of joy and confusion. He was happy that her daughter is back, but wondered what had happened to her. As he peeped through the window, Mzee Kemei saw Susana, Potpo, another monkey, and two other people. She could no longer recognize Cecilia Mading. All of them waved leaves in the air as they sang and danced. When they drew closer, the theme of the song became clear to Mzee Kemei. The song deeply moved him. He started to cry. At least for once in his life he became emotional. He suddenly changed his attitude towards life and approached the five members of the freedom movement. Susana was surprised by her father’s sudden transformation. She hugged him for a while and welcomed his new friends to their home. As they drank tea outside Mzee Kemei’s house, they talked about Cecilia’s life in town, the love story of the two monkeys, and the future of Mocho.
“Susana promised to forgive her father on two conditions. First, he should allow his wife to go back to her community, if she wished to do so. Secondly, Mzee Kemei should join the new freedom movement. Mzee Kemei did not only agree to the terms, but also promised to convince the elders to change the rules on corporal punishment and stop sporadic raids against neighboring communities. With all terms agreed, the six members of the freedom movement matched to the community council chamber, where a meeting was scheduled for the village elders. While
the village elders were deliberating on important issues of the community, they heard the freedom song. The six freedom fighters sang outside the council chamber for two hours without ceasing. The village elders had no choice but to listen.
“As an influential member of the village elders’ council, Mzee Kemei convinced his fellow village elders to abolish harsh punishments, treat women with dignity, and stop heinous tribal attacks. He said, ‘The presence of Potpo in my homestead helped Susana grow both physically and emotionally. She also changed my perspective on most of the issues affecting our community. If monkeys living in the forest can show love to each other and to humans, why can’t we show love to one another? Potpo and Kutku’s love affair has endured several years of disaster. They have been separated by a humongous creature, yet their love withstood the test. Their families were butchered by us, but they are still here with us, begrudging no one for their monstrosities. We owe them, the women, the children and all animals of this community a lot of love. We will pay love with love, and let the world take the course of love. It is a sweet taste of life, and hopefully we will spread the taste to the rest of the Tugen community and the human realm at large.’ His colleagues agreed. They scheduled a meeting to redraft the community’s rules the following day. Susana and Cecilia were incorporated as the first female members of the council of elders in Mocho.”
Mama sighed, it was the end of her story, and the end of my dream too. I turned on my bed and raised my head. Mama was sleeping close to the door. Jemuge was snoring in the middle. I went back to sleep as quickly as I awoke.
One evening, two weeks later, mother was winnowing her millet under a tree outside the homestead. I was making my arrows a few meters away. She asked, “Son, what happened to the two monkeys?” I replied, “I don’t know, it was your story.” She laughed for quite a while and then disputed, “No, it was your story, you narrated it.” I reiterated, “I was only retelling your story.” “My story or your dream?” she interrogated. “Your story in my dream,” I answered. “So is it a story or a dream?” she asked. I said, “A story in a dream.” “Whose story?” “Your story.” “No, our story of love.” “I love you mama.” “I love you back son.” We laughed loudly together as she poured the millet into a handmade basket.