The dark night was lulled into sleep by circumcision songs. It was now early morning, that hour when darkness is trying to fight a losing war against light. Long-initiated youth and old men had tied iron rattles just beneath their calves and every time they stamped their feet, dust lifted off the ground. Some of the young men had long, double-edged simis and knives but all of us held straight rods. I grasped my regalia awkwardly. Throat constricting, refusing to join the men in song as they let the whole village know that uncircumcised boys would be clipped that day.
“M’Mugambi! M’Mugambi!” I heard a familiar voice shout my name from behind the crowd. It was M’Kanyaru. We belonged to the same age set, circumcised on the same day many years ago.
“What is it M’Kanyaru?”
“Follow me. I need you to see something.”
Sweat flowed from his body like rivers from a mountain. River Thagana was on the left side of his face. Mutonga and Kathita were on the right side and they would both meet Thagana under M’Kanyaru’s chin.
“Why don’t we wait for the circumcision ceremony to end then we can go?”
“Biĩjĩ are circumcised every year.”
“M’Kanyaru, just tell me where we are going.”
“Waacia, there are things that only bear truth when the eyes see them.”
Such words asked for silent contemplation and a banishment of any questions. I pulled away from a crowd, hurrying behind M’Kanyaru. As we cut through the bushes, my mind went back to when he and I had undergone our rite of passage.
I had sat on a bamboo bed in my secluded hut, my gaarũ, with a group of recently circumcised men awaiting my new dawn. There were four of them, three were distant cousins, one was what you’d call a ‘crowd puller’, ‘band leader’, ‘noise-maker’ but mostly ‘troublemaker’.
“Once you get circumcised, the girls will never stop looking for you. They love smooth heads that don’t have hats.”
The ũũkĩ-sipping young men broke into a session of harmonized laughing before sipping more of the honey brew from gourds. As they pushed their unsolicited counsel down my throat, I was trying to understand the significance of the whole event, but I did not seemed to arrive at any logical conclusion.
“And when you get those goodies, be generous and share.”
The sipping and laughter erupted again. The laughing was becoming unbearably monotonous, like a tired old song. Yet all I could do was sip the thick, sour porridge and pretend to be enthused.
“And from today leave the uncircumcised girls to uncircumcised boys. You are now a mũkũrũ, an elder of the Ameru people, chamba.”
The night surrendered to the morning. My advisors finally staggered out as a crowd gathered outside the gaarũ. It was finally time. I was the last mwĩĩjĩ on their checklist. The revellers’ dancing and jumping was full of energy and vigour. The ground trembled under their sinewy legs. At that moment a curious wind sniffed between my legs leaving a cold patch in its wake. It was a sign that my ancestors were thirsting for my blood.
You will wake up a boy then go to sleep a man
You will follow the circumcised to the bushes and come out circumcised
Wash your thing, your time is now
You will wake up a boy then go to sleep a man
You will follow the circumcised to the bushes and come out circumcised
Clean your thing, your time is now
The crowd serenaded us all the way to muthithi o ng’ondu, where all initiates of the Kanjogu clan were circumcised. We sat down.
Soon the carrier of our ancestors’ ways was holding Gitonga’s foreskin between his fingers. In procedural swiftness, he lifted his knife to the skies before bringing it down. The knife knew its duty and performed it well. The crowd exploded in song and dance again. Gitonga’s penis on the other hand sank back in pain, crying blood. He remained stationary; knowing any movement would mean he’d owe the revellers a big billy goat.
The circumciser proceeded without giving Gitonga a second look. His intentions seemed malevolent as he clasped Kinoti’s foreskin between his fingers. As quickly as before, this foreskin was dispatched with and the blade moved for my groin. I was hit by a strong gust of ũũkĩ and marwa. The circumciser was now bent in front of me. The raised hand holding his bloody knife blocked the morning rays from caressing my face. I gulped and clenched the unfortunate tufts of grass around me for strength. Soon my body concentrated all its heat around my loins.
As the crowd danced and my father and grandfather glowed, all I could feel was the fire between my legs. The singing was reaching its highest peak, but the music sounded like it was being sung from ridges away. The blood flowed, and in an act of vengeance summoned all the pain in my body to my phallus. It was on fire. It seethed. But I stared ahead with my head tilted to keep the tears in my eyes and for their stupidity in inventing circumcision, I cursed my ancestors.
The ceremony was about to come to a close with the circumciser’s final act. The dancing had reached a crescendo and a section of the crowd began to demand to be shown the goats to slaughter so that they could chew on their raw stomachs then roast the ribs. That was the moment a lone voice shouted: “He’s been cut! His penis has been chopped off!”
I looked away from the sky and saw Ntubia lying on the ground next to me with blood rushing from the wound between his legs like cow pee. He was screaming for his mother and pleaded with God. But his screams were swallowed by the crowd thirsting for vengeance. I quickly stood up and held my member between my fingers careful not to touch the searing wound. Blood created new paths from my wound and was soon dripping down my thighs. I stumbled forward for a few steps before turning back to find that the circumciser had been stripped of his lion skin. One of the bigger men had locked the circumciser between his veined arms exposing him to the carnivorous crowd.
“Chop off his mũtĩ!”
“Yes! Chop it off!”
“Please don’t cut me. Please don’t cut me, my people!”
But he was no longer one of their own. Overcome by the spirits of beasts, the rowdy mob was ready to spill blood. That day the circumciser and the circumcised died together.
M’Kanyaru’s feet were restless, never landing on the ground long enough to let a stray thorn penetrate. I soon realized that we were headed towards the homestead of M’Rũbane, a Njũri Ncheke elder. We crossed the knee-deep Karĩĩthi stream and started ascending the small hill towards M’Rubane’s homestead.
Then I heard the shouts:
“Uuui, we are done!”
“Where did they come from? Where do such people live?”
“This is the devil!”
“The devil walks naked. These are the nguũ ntune, the red skins who were killing us in the sea have followed us here.”
“But didn’t Koomenjũe kill all the nguũ ntune?”
Confused, I asked M’Kanyaru what was happening at the homestead. He didn’t answer me but instead led me to a spot where we could see everything. He walked towards the back of a hut to the grains store. He placed his hands on the walls of the store and began climbing to the roof. I followed behind him and lay on the elephant grass thatch.
The first thing I saw was a field of heads. Each head was facing the main hut as if offering prayers to its walls. On following the crowd’s eye-line and the pointing mouths, my sight landed upon a man as pale as the moon. It was like he had drunk too much milk and in turn, his skin had taken on its complexion. He sat down on a stool but wore a large cloth the size of a cow’s hide. It covered his whole body like a black blanket. His long beard was smooth and straight like a goat’s, while his head was covered in thick hair long as a cow’s tail. His eyes were the colour of the sky; I imagined it rained inside his eyeballs.
“Is this a spirit?” I asked M’Kanyaru.
“No. You see that man standing next to him? He can somehow hear his strange language. He said before that he’s a mũchũnkũ, a foreigner”
“But mũchũnkũ is the weed that makes plants give low yields.”
“That’s what he called him.”
“My people,” the translator began, “our visitor would like to say a word.”
The mũchũnkũ used a cane to get to his feet. He was taller than everyone there. He then turned his left hand and hid it behind his back like a dark secret.
“What is he waiting for?” I whispered.
“Maybe he’s looking for words in our eyes.”
When I heard his first words, I thought they were coming from his nose. He was chanting his words the way warriors do before a war when trying to scare the fear inside their stomachs. He released his left hand from his back and started using it as a prop. He would point at us then unite his hands. He then pointed at the sky then tapped his chest using his index finger. He pointed at us one last time then went silent.
“My people, our visitor’s name is Carlingstone. It means bent rock,” said the translator.
“He has said he comes to us with blessings and goodness from God. He has been sent by the son of Mũrungu; Jesus, to talk to us…”
M’Nyagu, a respected village elder stamped his stick to the ground startling the lying dust. “God does not have a son! This man is a big liar!” Pointing his stick at the mũchũnkũ, he added, “Tell him to go back across the seas and mountains. We don’t want him here!”
“This mũchũnkũ is mad! Where did Mũrungu get a wife to bear him a son?” M’Rubane’s wife, who was standing at the front row posed.
From my high point I saw him reach inside his blanket and extract a small white stick. He gingerly placed the stick between his lips and then removed a small thing the size of a stone from within his blanket and took a thin brown stick from within. He rubbed the thin stick against the stone-sized object and it was engulfed by fire from nowhere. That small miracle caught everyone’s eye. It stole the words from their mouths. The mũchũnkũ raised the fiery stick towards his mouth and set the other stick on fire.
“Shhh…I can see.”
The mũchũnkũ was now vomited a cloud of smoke. He had set his mouth on fire.
“Wuuuui! His mouth is burning!”
“He is on fire!”
“Someone put out that fire!”
The previously castigating tongues suddenly became concerned voices. It seemed even love had a chance in a sea of disdain. I felt the growing concern from the crowd slowly embracing me. An idea creeped into my head from my heart. I jumped from the roof and landed on the ground feet first. I quickly opened the grain store and took hold of a gourd that lay on the store’s floor. Leaving the worried voices to speak to my back, I rushed towards Karĩĩthi.
All my thoughts were united in the mission of saving the poor mũchũnkũ who was on fire. My feet joined my thoughts in their intentions. I fetched the water and sprinted up again as water wobbled inside the gourd like a song. As I got nearer, I saw him belch a bigger cloud of smoke. I feared he was in the greatest agony. I decided to throw the water at him; it would get to him faster than my feet would. At the exact second I made that decision, I saw the translator raise his arms apparently stopping me from saving the mũchũnkũ.
From his stained teeth, a lengthy laughter was set free. Once Kaliso was done laughing and the happy tears long soaked in his beard, he looked at me with his sky eyes then beckoned for me using his hand. I walked towards him at a slower pace than my heart suggested. He held out his long hand for me to take and for the fool I was, I did. He gently shoved me closer to him and took me by my shoulders then placed me under his arms like a proud father.
“I have found my first altar boy, my first disciple.”
He looked down at me again. I looked up at his sky eyes and for no reason, I smiled.
Read original story in Ameru as “Mũtungati wa Mbere” By Brian Njagi
Brian Njagi is a 22 year old undergrad student, a copywriter and an actor. He recently published a poetry anthology, Breathing Poetry and also co-founded Story Zetu, a literary blog in 2011. His works have also appeared on Storymoja and Essy Oscar Journal. He writes in Kimeru, Swahili and English and hopes that one day he will find the key to the House of Ideas.
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