THE TRIBAL HEART

He could hear the screaming women despite having his volume fully turned up. They ran around from one hut to the other, hands over their heads, their lungs working overtime to announce:

“WOOIII! AMEKUFA! WOOIII!”

“Do they have to do that?” he asked his cousin, Jayden, who was equally disturbed by the scene.

“I don’t know, Mike,” he replied, “I don’t even know why we’re here anyway.”

“You’re here,” their father said with a stern voice, “to honour your grandparents. They thought the world of the two of you, and it would be a shame if you didn’t show up to this ceremony.”

“Why would it be a shame?”

“It is important to come as a family. The many times I’ve been here for council meetings, the elders always ask me ‘Mulamwa, where are your boys?’, and I always cover for you. This time, you have to be there.”

“Much as I understand that,” Jayden started, “I still do not understand why those women have to scream like they’re demon-possessed.” With that, the father pulled them both to the side, walked them to the stream just a few meters outside the homestead gate, and sat them down.

“Boys, this is your tribe. These are your people, and those are your customs. It has been this way long before my time, and it will continue to be so long after your own. It is important to familiarize yourself with the ways of your people, and not just ape what you see and hear from TV.”

“So, on the day that you or Mum pass on, will I be expected to do the same? I could just bring a microphone and speak normally. Saves time and vocal chords,” Mike spoke, eliciting hearty laughter from his cousin, and a slight chuckle from his stone-faced father.

“Don’t worry, boys. After tonight, you will take a keen interest in the ways of our people. I guarantee it,” he said, leading them back to the homestead. He walked on ahead to greet the elders while they hang back a bit. They saw three young boys playing with a ball made out of plastic papers.

“Look at them,” Jayden started.

“Why can’t they just use a normal ball?” Mike asked.

Kujeni!” one of the boys shouted, motioning them to join them. The two looked at each other for a while before they reluctantly sauntered over to them. The boy kicked the ball to Mike, who juggled it expertly for a few seconds before passing it to Jayden, who fell as soon as his foot reached out for it. all laughed at the spectacle as he stood back up.

“Wait and see,” the 12-year-old said, taking a few steps back to kick it, only to slip at the last minute, foot kicking the air above him and his back landing on the mud, serving as entertainment for the kids.

“These Nairobi children,” one of them said, “don’t even know how to play outside.”

“What do you mean?” Mike said, rolling the ball towards him, juggling it a bit then flicking it in the air, balancing it on his neck and flicking it high again, lifting his foot to catch it right as it landed on it. The others clapped for him, very impressed with his football skills.

“Those are fancy moves. They don’t do that in matches,” the boy went on, itching for a match.

“You’re sure? Let me show you,” Mike said, “come for it then.” As the boy ran towards mike, the others helped Jayden up.

“Are you okay?” one asked.

“Yes, I just slipped.”

“You don’t play?”

“No. I’m more into basketball.”

“Ah, like Kobe Bryant?” the other asked.

“Well, yes. NBA 2K.”

The two looked at each other in wonder, then back at him, asking in unison:

“What’s that?”

“A video game.”

“Oh, you guys have video games?”

“Not many. I only play after I finish my homework.”

“So you don’t go outside? Is that why you’re this fat?” the other asked him, both laughing at him. he awkwardly laughed, tucking in his protruding stomach.

“I can play!” he said defiantly.

“Then show us. Let’s race from here to the gate,” one said, lining up. Jayden did the same as the other boy counted down.

“3, 2, 1, GO!” 

Their father watched the children playing with a smile on his face before the elders invited him to sit with them underneath their mango tree, where they drank busaa as they addressed him.

Mulamwa, those boys of yours are still not versed with our way of life?”

“That’s why I brought them here. I want them to start by knowing their peers, who will then teach them slowly by slowly.”

“There is another way to do so,” one elder murmured as the rest nodded in agreement.

“No!” the father stated, shaking a bit, “I mean, not yet. We don’t have to resort to that. They can start slowly by slowly, of their own free will.”

“I wish that was applied to us as well,” the same elder said, “but we simply do not have the luxury of the same.”

“And neither do we have the time,” another elder spoke, tapping his staff on the ground as he went on.

“With each passing day, our people’s roots are removed from our lineage by the imperialists. They came here, rubbished our way of life as sorcery while promoting what is ‘good’ in their eyes.”

“Kuka, that isn’t…”

“Don’t tell me I’m being rude! You know that I’m saying the truth. I saw my father die at the hands of these people, and you want me to defend them? Never! Look at your sons and tell me: doesn’t it bother you that their biggest source of education comes from a talking wall?”

“It does bother me.”

“Do they even know how to speak their language? Of course, they do not.”

“They’re learning,” the father tried defending.

“No. We gave you time, and clearly, you have failed. It’s time we take matters into our own hands.”

“Wazee, please…” the father tried pleading, bowing in reverence, but the others agreed with the embittered man.

“I’m sorry, my son. He’s right. We’re losing our heritage to modernism, and if we don’t do something, our culture will never see the light of day.”

“Is there another way?” the father asked, his voice cracking. One elder encouraged him with a pat on the shoulder, easing him to sit next to them as he said.

“You know there isn’t. If it bothers you so much, then we will make it a painless one. For your sake.”

The father merely nodded as one elder stood up, stating with finality.

“It is settled: when the fire is strong, the ceremony shall commence…”  

The boys were then summoned by the elders to their grandfather’s hut to pay their respects. Slowly, they sauntered into the rectangular mud hut, lit by an opening on the right and one next to the door behind them.

They saw a group of people gathered around two people seated in the centre: one was wearing a flowing white dress with a veil covering her face while the other had an old brown suit with a wide-brimmed hat covering his head. 

“Come now, don’t be shy,” one man said. Jayden gulped as Mike held his hand, sweaty to the touch.

“Today, young men,” one elder demanded, pushing them forward. They regained their balance and walked to the two in the centre.

“I swear I’m never coming back here when I get older,” Mike whispered.

“Me too. This is creepy,” Jayden went. 

Mike walked over to the man while Jayden went over to the lady.

“Why are they seated?” Mike asked.

“He was our elder, young man,” a voice said, “it is customary to lay the elders of the community in such a manner,”

“Oh,” was all Jayden could say as he examined his grandmother, sitting in peace. In his heart, he was kind of glad that she seemed at peace, because the only memory he had of her was on the bed, grimacing in pain as she struggled to smile when her grandchildren came to see her.

Mike did his best to hide the tear that came from him when he finally realized that the man who taught him how to tie his shoelaces was no more. he reached out to straighten his hat because the people who put him like that had done it wrong.

“There,” he spoke in a soft voice, sniffling. The smile that always greeted him as a child was no more, the bright wrinkled face that welcomed him was now grey and ashen, and he simply couldn’t take it anymore. he shot out of the room, Jayden following him close behind. He saw Mike wipe the tears away quickly and breathe heavily to regain his composure before anyone else saw him.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Jayden asked his cousin, watching him mumble something before speaking audibly.

“Yeah. I didn’t think I’d feel this bad to see them go.”

“At least they’re at peace. You remember when…”

“I know, Jayden, I know,” Mike interrupted, burying his head between his knees. Jayden didn’t bother pushing the topic any further, as he knew his cousin didn’t handle emotional upset well.

“Boys!” the father’s stern voice startled them.

“You ran out of there? Why would you do that?”

“Sorry Dad,” Mike went, “it was just hard to look at her. I didn’t want to cry.” The father shook his head and comforted him with a smile.

“It’s okay, I understand,” the father said, his tone softer.

“I didn’t want to look weak. You always said men shouldn’t cry.”

“I understand that, Michael.”

“I know we didn’t really spend a lot of time with them, but it’s still sad to see them like that.”

“Yeah,” Jayden added, “at least she’s not in pain anymore.”

“And now, Kuka doesn’t have to complain about his leg anymore,” Mike added, “can I get his walking cane then?”

The father laughed as he nodded.

“It’s okay. I’ll miss…so much. It’ll be over soon,” he said, hugging the two boys. Jayden seemed to pull away from him before he let them go. They watched him walk back to the hut, where he merely nodded to one of the elders.

“Jayden…”

“Mike, did you see how those freaks were looking at us? It was not normal, you guy. It wasn’t normal at all.”

“Jayden…”

“What is it?” he asked his cousin, whose eyes were widened, mouth agape gasping for air.

“I saw her – I saw – I swear I saw – ”

“What is it?” he asked him again. Mike looked around, then leaned into his cousin’s ear.

“Jayden, he – he looked at me,” he muttered, his hand on his cousin’s shoulders, trembling.

“Mike, there’s no way that could have happened.”

“I swear, Jayden. I swear he opened his eyes.”

“That’s not possible!”

“I know what I saw….”

“Maybe you’re actually sad, you know? I read somewhere that having strong feelings makes you see stuff you shouldn’t see.”

“Really?”

“I don’t know where exactly, but I think it’s true. It was online,” he went on. These words seemed to reassure Mike as he regained his composure.

“Maybe you’re right, man. Maybe,” he said calmly, exhaling with relief.

“Did you hear what your Dad said?”

“About us walking out? Don’t worry you guy, he said he understood…”

“No, when he hugged us.”

“That he’ll miss them so much?”

“Oh, okay. I thought I heard my own things,” Jayden said as the two walked out the gate to the river, the words Jayden heard still ringing in his mind:

‘I’ll miss you so much.’

That night, the two were sent to bed at around 8, given that they would be travelling early in the morning. Mike could still remember how the other children laughed at him and Jayden, calling them names like ‘Cerelac babies’.

Kwani how late do they sleep around here?” Jayden asked as he climbed into the bed.

“I don’t know. Probably late, given their only entertainment are crickets,” Mike quipped, tossing the cover over himself furiously.

“Wow. They got to you?”

“I don’t get it,” Mike said, sitting up, “we try to be nice to them, but they’re nothing but rude to us, and people let them get away with it.”

“And when we’re even a bit mean to them…”

“No more video games for a week, no TV. It isn’t fair. Are we the ones who chose to live in the city?”

“Ai, bro. Relax man, don’t take it to heart.”

“It isn’t fair, Jayden. I swear I’m never coming back here again,” he said as he lay down, leaving his cousin to take the paraffin lamp outside before they slept. He tried going online to meet his pals, but the phone was as dead as a doornail, so he tried forcing himself to sleep, but the drumming outside kept him awake for two more hours. Mike, however, dozed off as soon as his head hit the pillow and being the heavy sleeper he was, he couldn’t be bothered by what was going on outside.

Mike’s nasal snoring or the revelry outside? The option basically chose itself. He put on his slippers and tiptoed outside, worried that his dad might hear him. As he opened the door, the sight of a large bonfire with people dancing around it excited him for a moment, so much so that he almost joined in the celebrations.

“Wow,” was all he managed to say as he saw his peers, both boys and girls immerse themselves fully in the night. 

“Disco matanga!” he heard one squeal as she ran across him to her friends. On his right, where his uncle’s house stood were other boys playing some form of a game, right ahead of him were the dancers in tune with the flames, and on his right were other children chatting the night away. He then considered himself, standing on the verandah in his pajamas while his peers let loose.

‘Maybe there’s something here after all,’ he thought as he walked onto the grass. He stood before the tongues of fire reaching up to the sky above him, admiring its orange fury for a while. He then saw some boys poke it and chase one another with flaming sticks, pretending that they were weapons. They were actually dangerous, but still; it must be nice.

He then trudged past them and went to his grandfather’s house, where they were from viewing the bodies. The elders were engrossed in their discussions, so they didn’t notice him enter the hut, where a lady sat at the right corner next to the window in silence and solitude, rocking her chair.

“Sorry,” he said as he proceeded to walk out, but something stopped him. A strange feeling in his gut. He turned to the room and noticed the other body was missing. In fact, she seemed to be the only one in that room. 

“Excuse me, madam?” he asked, though the gut feeling kept telling him to go back to bed. The lady didn’t answer and kept rocking her chair, humming to an unknown tune.

“Madam?” he asked again, slowly approaching her. The orange glow from outside faded as he got nearer, being replaced by the silvery touch of the clear moon outside, highlighting the lady in her chair, crossing her wrinkled hands, her white dress brighter as he neared her. The sounds outside were drowned by her creaking chair, louder and louder with each back and forth movement.

“Madam?” his curiosity asked. His heart rapped in his chest as the feeling churned his insides, now screaming two words at him: get out!

Slowly, the rocking stopped. She leaned forward into the moonlight, a maniacal smile forming on her pale visage. He gasped inn horror as he realized who he was looking at, and before he could get a chance to run, she stretched out her hands to embrace him…

The nightmare was all too real for Mike. He woke up in shock, his sheets soaked in sweat and his lungs struggling to breathe. 

“Phew! Just a dream,” he said to himself, “Jayden, are you awake?”

No answer from his cousin. He got out of bed to shake him awake, but realized that he wasn’t there.

“Jayden?” he asked again, “are you in the bathroom?”

No answer. 

He gulped, then tapped his chest as he readied himself to go out.

‘The lamp is right there,’ he thought. He counted to three and rushed out the door to grab the lamp.

“Phew,” he said again, firmly securing it in his hand. His short-lived relief came to a halt when he heard sobbing in the adjacent living room. 

“Who’s there?” he loudly asked, trying to mask his fear.

“Mike, it’s me,” he heard his father say. He sighed again and walked there, the sight of the children around the fire not of concern to him as was the one of his old man lying down on the couch.

“Dad, are you crying?” he asked, shaking his head at his obvious question. Duh!

“I am.”

“Are you sad about Kuka and Kukhu?”

“I had no other choice,” he said, sitting up.

“What do you mean? Their death had nothing to do with you…” Mike spoke, but his father went on.

“It happened to me when I was his age. My father insisted that I know our people’s culture, our traditions. I refused.”

“Dad? What are you…”

“I tried running away, but was caught, and the transfer was still done.”

“Transfer?” Mike asked, his interest fully piqued.

“The only way to keep the heart of the tribe is to keep its soul,” his father said ominously, looking at his son. 

“Dad, you’re kind of scaring me,” Mike said, taking a step back. His father gently squeezed his hand and pulled him back for a hug.

“It’s okay. Everything will be okay, son.”

“I’m sorry you lost your parents, Dad. I am,” Mike said, hugging his father tighter.

“I’m sorry too. For bringing you here. You shouldn’t have come.”

“Yes!” Mike shrieked as he pulled away, “So you admit it?”

“I hope you can forgive me,” his father said somberly as he stood, instructing him:

“Your cousin is in your grandfather’s house. Go to him.”

Mike sprinted out of the house, all too eager to share what he heard with Jayden. The children were now seated around the fire, which had reached over 10 feet high now. He too stopped to admire its size, but remembered his cousin.

“Jayden, you won’t believe what Dad has said,” he started as he walked into the hut, stopping abruptly when he saw a man seated at the left corner, smoking a pipe in silence, enjoying the solitude. Just then, two men came from his left, carrying his grandmother’s body to the coffin at the entrance, on his right. They then went around him and opened up the one behind him, on the other side of the door, then stood still, looking at the man in the corner.

Mike glanced at them, then back at the smoking man, and sensed something was amiss.

“I’ll come back later,” he said, turning to leave.

“Mike,” he heard Jayden’s voice. He turned back to see his cousin holding a lamp, a serious look on his face.

“Jayden?” he asked, the excitement of his Dad’s confession now gone. 

“Mike, it’s good you’re here. I’m glad your father agreed to this.”

“Your father? Why are you talking like this? And who is that smoking? Isn’t that Kuka’s pipe?” Mike inquired. He turned to see one of the men stand guard at the door and some children gather around the windows; something was very wrong here.

“Jayden? We should go. Dad is waiting for us,” Mike said, pulling his cousin’s hand. The boy pulled away, smiling eerily as he said.

“It should have happened when you were younger, but he hid you in the city. It’s a shame we had to threaten to come there for him to agree.”

His voice was monotone, yet his words sounded so familiar, almost as if:

“Why are you talking like Kukhu?” he finally asked as Jayden nodded.

“Smart boy. Let us begin,” he said, taking a step back. 

“Begin what?” Mike asked, tense. He peered back to the man standing at the door, looking down at him, then at the other at the empty coffin, then to the children looking through the windows, and finally to Jayden, who smiled at him before turning to the man smoking. 

Slowly, the man put the pipe down and stood, his bones creaking as he straightened up. He adjusted his wide-brimmed hat, exhaled, then looked at a panic-stricken Mike, who finally recognized him.

“Oh my God, Kuka!” was the last thing that came out of his mouth before his grandfather briskly walked towards him and wrapped his bony hands around his mouth and neck, being helped by the men to carry him to a room next to the hut, where a group of robed men and women waited in a circle.

“Stop! STOP!” Mike managed to scream as he pulled Kuka’s cold hands from his mouth. He was placed on the floor in the centre and tied down, and before he could scream again, one of the robed people raised her hand and he felt his mouth forced shut.

Then, another stood and chanted some words, and he felt his body go numb. He saw his grandfather also being fastened to the floor next to him, right before the robed people stood up and began chanting:

“The heart of the tribe is the soul of its people.”

Over and over they did so, as two of them knelt next to Mike. One pulled out a large, serrated knife that gleamed in the orange glow of the flames, sharpening it as the other one tore his pyjamas to reveal his chest. Then, Mike watched in horror, muffling screams as the knife slowly descended into his chest, groaning in agony as the blade cut his skin.

“No! He’s in pain,” the one cutting him said, withdrawing the knife to give Mike some reprieve. He thought the nightmare was over before he heard the other say:

“Pain will make him panic. The body might shut down. Quickly! Numb him more and keep him alive!”

One of them chanted louder, arms raised to the thatched roof as Mike felt himself go limp. Then, he watched in wide-eyed terror as the knife sliced through him like butter, carving him open as blood spurted out. The same lady waved a hand, and the blood ceased flowing out and every drop found its way back into his body. The man reached into his tiny chest, fumbling for a bit before he carefully pulled out his beating heart.

“Young and strong. Brave and truthful. He’ll defend our tribe to his death,” the other one next to him said as two more people presented another one.

“Old and full of wisdom passed down over generations. The merger of these will be stronger than before,” the other people say. Mike’s eyes bulged out in awe as the two hearts levitated and fused into one bigger heart, amidst louder chanting. The man who took his out then held it gently, placing it into his open chest, whispering in his ear:

“You’ll be one of our best.”

Then, the one who forced his mouth shut waved her hands at him again, sewing his body back together to near perfection, save for the vertical scar that ran down his chest, crossed seven times by the man horizontally across it.

“The seventh generation has received the heart of the first,” he said as the chanting stopped and the celebration started. The two men who carried him in unfastened his grandfather, who had a gaping hole in his chest, and carried him out; meanwhile, the two who operated on him slowly unshackled him, their eyes revering his small body. Yet, his mind flooded with memories he never knew he had.

“The heart of the tribe…” he started as they all recited.

“…is the soul of its people.”

“Good. Thank you for keeping this custom alive,” he addressed them. Jayden joined him, held his hand, and walked out to the screaming children, some of whom he now recognized from centuries ago.

“It’s good to see you all again, friends,” Jayden said as they cheered. 

“With the help of our loyal practitioners, we are united in a new era,” Mike went on, hands behind his back, “as we celebrate, let us not forget why we are here: to keep our heritage alive, safe from the influence of any foreigners. They may not invade with violence, but they do so now with ideology. They write our books and teach our children, but they’ll never have our souls. Once more: the heart of the tribe…”

With one voice, they shouted to the heavens:

“….IS THE SOUL OF THE PEOPLE!”

FACT

Amongst certain groups of the Luhya community of Western Kenya, it is customary to bury the revered and respected people of their tribe in a seated position.

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