Mushonga regarded his frail, ageing body in the cracked rectangular mirror that Kukunda had purchased in the kikomera and found himself wondering when the hands of men had started making things like mirrors. He observed the deep, innumerable furrows on his brow and down his cheeks and raised his hand to feel the cotton-white beard on his chin. His hair had all gone many years ago, leaving the smoothest, brownest landscape on the top of his head. At least he still had his sight, he was grateful for that.
When did men start making these things, he wondered. He knew that the baharabu brought most of the exotic items to the markets in Nyamayenje and Ikunuro, but he couldn’t figure out how even a mind as crafty as the Arabs’, or even the bajungu he had heard of, could envision such a trinket and then bring it into being.
Vanity, he thought to himself, Man is obsessed with his visage.
He remembered the first time he had held a mirror all those decades ago. He must have been about ten or eleven, he reckoned. Matsiko had given it to him saying “keep it for me”, which was his way of saying he was giving it to Mushonga permanently. It had broken along the diagonal, leaving two triangular pieces, the smaller of which – naturally – Matsiko had given to him.
“What is it?” Mushonga had asked.
“Endeberwamu,” Matsiko said. “They come from far away. They are not made from Kigezi.”
Mushonga scratched his bare belly and examined the glass. It was grey on one side and showed his face on the other. “Maama uses it to tie her hair every morning,” Matsiko continued. Mushonga was very intrigued by it but when he took it home later that day his older sister Kebirungi took it from him, saying she had more use for it than he did, and compensated him with a cowrie-shell medallion that their father had given her. He had had no complaints – and actually felt like he had cheated her – and wore that medallion proudly for the remainder of his life.
He was now touching the medallion hanging around his neck and observing himself in the mirror on the wall when Kukunda came in and broke his reverie. “Porridge is ready,” she said curtly and walked promptly back out.
She’s still angry with me, he thought.
“Mutungi is a big man now,” he said to her, his words halting her just outside the threshold of the hut. “He will be fine. I was younger than that the first time I went to hunt alone.”
“These are not the old times, Musha,” she retorted, “times have changed. If anything happens to him, you did it to him.”
“If he does as I taught him nothing will happen to him,” he said but she was no longer at the entrance.
He sighed and slowly trudged out of the hut, steadying his old frame with the walking stick he held in his right hand. Outside it was late afternoon, but the sky was darker than usual because of a big nimbus cloud that was moving in from the South.
He sat on the only stool in the compound that was a clearing surrounded by a tripod of huts. Opposite him, in the kitchen hut, Kukunda and Kobusingye, his second wife, carefully manoeuvred the huge pot of millet porridge off the hearth and onto the floor. Mushonga cleared his throat and called for his children. He had been blessed with eight – four for each wife. His oldest daughters, Turamye and Kenyonyozi, had been married off a few years back. With Mutungi out on his first solo hunt, only his four other daughters: Murungi, Twine, Keneema and Karabyo were nearby, two of them threshing sorghum behind the kitchen hut and the other two milking the goats on the hillside above him.
They responded, and arrived one by one onto the compound, with Kamushonga, his youngest son, reluctantly emerging from the large hut on his left. He motioned for them to sit down and they sat facing him in a semi-circle. He waited for Kukunda and Kobusingye to bring the porridge before he spoke. Kukunda was pouring a helping of the hot, brown viscous liquid into the bowl at his feet when he began:
“Baana mwe, did I ever tell you the story of a girl I once knew? She was called Kentaro.”
He saw Kukunda falter a moment with the porridge she was pouring, spilling a bit of it onto the earth, and he smiled inwardly. This slight fidgeting was a sign he had got her attention. Kukunda always listened when Mushonga talked about her older sister. Her own memories of her were murky at best, having lost her before she was four years old.
“She was a beautiful girl I once loved,” Mushonga continued, “a long time ago when I was still a very young man.”
Mushonga’s own memories of that time had not faded in the least, and as he began to recollect things long hoarded and never forgotten, each face came back to him as clear as his own in Kukunda’s cracked mirror.
The flat, grassy plains of Karisizo, back then, were a welcome relief from the hilly terrain of the surrounding Rukiga territory in the northern part of Kigezi. Here it always seemed to be sunny, with cattle grazing everywhere you looked. Mushonga and Matsiko came here every day of the week, tending the cattle of an opulent Muhima man called Mitaaji. In return for their work, Mitaaji gave them pots of milk from his own cows, as well as sizeable cuts of fresh meat to take back to their homesteads. Such supplements were always welcomed with glee in households where involuntary vegetarianism was the status quo.
At seventeen, the two young men had developed into very different individuals, with Matsiko now a tall, strapping, boisterous youth bursting with teenage testosterone, and Mushonga growing into a slim-bodied, lanky lad with an affinity for solitude. The childhood plays and scuffles between them long over, Matsiko now pursued his adrenaline rushes in impromptu wrestling matches held with the other young herdsmen that came to graze their cattle in the plains. Though he was always enthusiastic about these mostly harmless shows of strength, he never won a single one. It was after yet another resounding defeat that Mushonga suggested he find a new hobby.
“You will be killed accidentally one day,” Mushonga said.
“And you will grow breasts one day,” Matsiko countered.
“Who is that with Kamate?” Mushonga asked, pointing at the two feminine figures approaching in the distance.
“That is Kentaro,” Matsiko said, “She’s my sister.”
Kamate was Mitaaji’s youngest daughter and brought them lunch every day when the sun was high and hot. She was a chubby, dark-skinned girl with milk-white teeth and the typically Hima traits of wide hips and bell legs. She was smitten with Matsiko and he often joked that Mitaaji actually knew nothing of these lunches she brought them. Mushonga didn’t care whence the food came, he was just glad it was there. Sustenance was a godsend in the heat of these plains.
The two girls greeted them and as they settled down to eat beneath a large Teak tree on the periphery of the plains Matsiko wasted no time showering Kamate with sweet nothings, which she ate up like a thirsty bee on nectar. When they had started eating, Matsiko suddenly said, “Kentaro, this is Mushonga. You two have heard a lot about each other but this is the first time you are meeting…unless I’m mistaken.” He followed up the last sentence with a furtive wink at Mushonga.
Kentaro and Mushonga exchanged greetings and for the first time Mushonga took in all her features: She was a petite girl, sixteen years old, with a tender-looking yellowness that made you want to touch her. Her kishaato, which she wore in two pieces – a short piece around her bosom and a longer one from her waist to just below her knees – was a peculiar ochre-ish colour, as opposed to the dark tan of the skins the other girls wore, and Matsiko later told him that it was made from the hide of an impala, rather than cow hide. Later on at the height of their companionship Mushonga would nickname her kagabi – little impala.
Though there was an initial mutual intrigue between them, it took Mushonga a few days to feel completely comfortable discoursing with Kentaro, given that he, unlike Matsiko, felt out of his depth interacting with the opposite gender, with the natural exception of those he shared blood with. Indeed, Matsiko and Kamate had already stirred up a heated romance and occasionally commingled behind the Teak tree after the midday meals.
It was on one of these afternoons, with Matsiko having requested a few minutes of privacy for himself and the visibly embarrassed Kamate behind the tree, that Mushonga took Kentaro around the plains, showing her the different herds and whistling a greeting to every herdsman, showing her the distant Muhavura mountains in the South and telling her scarcely believable stories about the spirits and goblins that sheltered there. He took her throughout his own herd, pointing out all the cattle by name, with her feigning eager interest in every word he said. They got to the middle of the herd where a large white cow with deep speckles of brown was grazing.
“This one is pretty!” she said, running her dainty yellow palm across the freckled hide.
“You like it?” he asked.
“I love it! What is it called?”
“Kentaro,” he said and she stared at him with two almost-luminous deer eyes.
“No,” he laughed, humoured by her simple-mindedness. She smiled back at him, unsheathing the most brilliant diastema between her front teeth, and lightly smacked him on the arm. The brief body contact was very stimulating for Mushonga and, not knowing how else to proceed, he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to his side. She readily acquiesced to his tug, sliding her tiny arm around his waist in response. They stood like that, motionless, for a length of time he could not remember, with her head resting against him, above them the hot sun moving westward over the plains and all around them the innumerable cattle grazing, braying and mooing, the air redolent with the smell of dung and the sound of herdsmen whistling and calling to each other heard in the distance. It was then that he felt the first inklings in him of what he would later define as affection.
“Aren’t you worried of getting Kamate pregnant?” Mushonga asked Matsiko one hot day as they were cooling off under the Teak.
“She can’t get pregnant,” Matsiko said assuredly.
“How do you know?”
Matsiko laughed and patted his friend on the knee. “Me and Kamate haven’t just started,” he said, to Mushonga’s astonishment. “We’ve been up and down close to a year now and nothing.”
“You’re lucky,” Mushonga said, “I hear the Kisiizi falls are a horrid place.”
“They are,” Matsiko replied, “My uncle’s daughter was thrown over when she got pregnant by the witch doctor’s son, two weeks before she was supposed to be betrothed to a man from Nyarushanje.”
“My mother says one of my aunts too was thrown down the falls before I was born,” Mushonga said.
“You know they make the girl’s brother do the pushing? It’s the culture. My cousin Ruyooka threw his own sister off the cliff!”
They paused a moment then, both lost in their own imaginations of the fabled waterfalls. Mushonga did not know why the culture demanded that girls who got pregnant before marriage be punished this way, throwing them headlong down Kisiizi, but he reckoned the ancestors had their reasons. Always trust the wisdom of the ancestors, his father always said. It was Matsiko who broke the silence.
“Is there anything I should know about you and Kentaro?” he asked, taking Mushonga by surprise.
Mushonga sighed. “Well…” he began, but he shied halfway and Matsiko patted him reassuringly on the belly. One young man’s gesture of understanding to another. Say no more, he seemed to say. Mushonga was silent a while, and then the realisation hit him suddenly like a burst of light.
“We could be brothers-in-law this time next year,” he said to a now half-asleep Matsiko.
Matsiko sighed sleepily. “Imagine that,” he said.
It happened on a cloudy day about two months later, in the month of the enzigye. Kentaro had brought Mushonga a sizeable helping of the delectable locusts that came with the rains, roasted on open fire and carried in pumpkin leaves. After crunching his way to a full belly they leaned against the Teak and bathed in the cool breeze of the darkening weather.
“I’m going to get it for you,” Mushonga said abruptly.
“Get what for me?” Kentaro asked, lifting her face from his bosom where she had buried it and looking up at him.
“That cow you liked.”
“But Musha, what will you buy it with?”
“Wait and see. In fact, I just might add a few more cows, throw some goats in there and come give your father a visit.”
She flashed that glorious diastema and looked away quickly, attempting, he guessed, to hide her glee at what he had just hinted at. She cleared her throat and looked back up at him.
“You couldn’t afford me,” she said with a grin.
He laughed and pulled her in closer and in that moment he felt a warmth pass between them, one that he had felt before only in fleeting moments while holding her hand or playing with her hair or tickling her. It was a warmth that felt more sentimental than physical, but now it swelled into an almost tangible heat that made his blood rush. She seemed to feel it too as her embrace around him tightened and her face snuggled deeper into his chest and when it seemed the warmth had grown and swelled to simmering, precipitous heights, Mushonga did the only thing that felt like the sole natural progression to this inner urge: he took Kentaro by the hand and led her behind the Teak.
“You’re certain?” Mushonga asked. She shook her head.
“No,” she said, “but I think so.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No,” she replied, and then, considering, added, “My aunt might suspect it. She has been looking at me strangely all week.”
Mushonga could see the terror written on her face. Her eyes were red and pudgy and he knew she had been crying all along her way to Karisizo. He was frightened as well, knowing full well the repercussions if Kentaro was indeed with child.
“Musha, what are we going to do?” She wiped her eyes.
“We must go.”
“To Nyamayenje. My sister Kebirungi is married there. We will live with her for a while as we build our own home. It is the only way. Do you understand?”
She nodded hesitantly.
“We will meet here tomorrow at midday. Come with all your valuables.”
She nodded weakly again, buried her head in her hands and wept afresh.
If Mushonga had known better, he would have got hold of her and taken her to Nyamayenje that very day, but the laws of nature do not operate thus. As it turned out, Kentaro’s paternal aunt had made her suspicions known to her father, a severe man called Rwomukyeeya, who had promptly brought in the witch doctor to confirm their fears.
The next morning, by the time Mushonga arose from his bed, news had spread throughout the entire village that Rwomukyeeya’s daughter had conceived twins out of wedlock, and had thus brought the worst of curses upon all their heads. Mushonga rushed out of the house, dressed only in his undergarments, and ran as fast as he could to Rwomukyeeya’s compound, not knowing what he could do, but knowing he had to do something.
It was too late when he got there. A large throng of livid villagers had filled up and surrounded Rwomukyeeya’s compound and the witch doctor, banging on the tiny drum he carried under his armpit, had already begun the procession to execute Kentaro.
The way to Kisiizi takes a footpath through the Rugozi forest and on a normal day you can hear the rush of the waterfalls from a kilometre away. The upper canopies of the trees are always astir with raucous monkeys and bizarre birds and Mushonga thought for a moment that it wouldn’t have been a bad place to visit on another day.
This was not that day, however, as the noisy throng accompanied the Rwomukyeeyas through the forest right to the edge of the rushing water. Mushonga had manoeuvred his way nearer to the front of the crowd and could now clearly see Kentaro, ushered along by the firm hands of Rwomukyeeya and a visibly reluctant Matsiko, with her mother following close behind, weeping into her loincloth.
Kentaro was sobbing feebly, but as they approached the falls and the roar of the water rose to deafening levels Kentaro began to squirm vigorously in her captors’ hands and just a few metres from the edge of the cliff they were dragging her along, flailing and thrashing.
The crowd was chanting feverishly now, their righteous indignation mutating into a thirst for blood. Kentaro dug her feet into the ground and tried to push herself backward and away from the edge against the push of her father and brother, but they overpowered her and set her firmly on the precipice, looking down at the white suds and whirling foam below. The people shouted curses at the family and Rwomukyeeya, ashamed, gave the order to Matsiko to go ahead with the act, as the culture demanded. Matsiko looked distraught, and Kentaro, amidst her bawling, persistently begged Rwomukyeeya to relent.
In a moment that he would not forget to his dying day, Kentaro turned around and unwittingly looked right at Mushonga, as though she had felt his presence, and when their eyes met she screamed his name with a loud voice that curdled his bone marrow.
“Musha!” she yelled.
Having seen enough, Rwomukyeeya moved brusquely over to where they were standing and whipped a firm right hand across Matsiko’s face, seemingly rousing him and spurring him into action. Matsiko gave Kentaro a hard shove and the look on her face turned from fear to what looked like surprise, and as she reeled over the edge she let out a loud, pitiful shout, shot out her arm, looking for purchase, got hold of Matsiko’s loose kishaato and in the blink of an eye they had both vanished from the precipice, descending soundlessly into the vast, ambient rush and noise and violence below.
Mushonga paused his story at this point, looking up to see the large nimbus cloud pass overhead, allowing the last rays of evening’s sunset to shine through for the final few minutes of day. Around him the children watched him in rapt attention, eagerly awaiting his continuation. But Mushonga never did finish the story. He did not tell them about Kentaro’s mother running mad with grief after losing two children in a single stroke of misfortune, or of Rwomukyeeya hanging himself after the death of his only son and heir. But he did tell them that no other girl had been thrown over since – the elders of the tribe having since decided that perhaps death was not a commensurate punishment for such an offence.
Times have changed, Kukunda had said.
As he looked back down from the gold-streaked sky above him Mutungi entered the compound with a large warthog carcass slung across his shoulders. Mushonga smiled and greeted him.
“Give that pig to your mother so she can see the fruits of hunting,” he said smugly. Kukunda was peeling sweet potatoes just outside the kitchen and Mushonga knew she had used that as a pretext to be within earshot as he narrated her older sister’s story.
“Baana mwe,” he continued, “have I told you the story of the elephant and the drummer?”
“But taata,” Twine interrupted, “you haven’t finished the other story.”
“I will finish it another time,” he said.
“Eyi!” Karabyo cried plaintively.
Kukunda rose to carry the carcass with Mutungi into the kitchen and as she did so she shot a glance at Mushonga, who was already staring at her with a boyish smile on his contoured face. She smiled coyly back at him, flashing a diastema painfully reminiscent of her sister. She looked away, turned her greying head and disappeared into the kitchen with her son. Times have changed, Mushonga thought again. He sighed deeply, looked down at his children and commenced the story of the elephant and the drummer as the sun slowly sunk below the hills.
John Barigye is a budding book freak who loves unconventional creativity. He’s obsessed with dark fantasy and all things horror. Writing is an integral part of who he is as a person and one day he hopes to garner the energy to start and finish his very own novel.
This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @.
Related country: Uganda