Big Saturday Read: A vultures’ feast
I'm currently away from my usual station but I hope this will fill the slot well in the absence of your usual BSR! I wrote this story some nine years ago. I suspect it is still relevant today as it was then, depending on your interpretation. It is not your typical BSR, but one that I hope will be worth your time and intriguing enough to exercise your imagination. There you go:
Machekecha was a man of many talents though the one gift that did more to raise his reputation and notoriety across the community was his legendary hunting prowess. Machekecha was a hunter without equal.
At the early age of 18, Machekecha had managed to fight and kill a lion all on his own. That feat earned him the title of Murigashumba, the one who felled a lion, the King of the Jungle. He was known to kill deadly snakes with his bare hands.
At this time, when Machekecha was in the autumn of his life, he was surprisingly fitter than most men who were years younger than him. He was approaching his eighth decade on earth, although the accuracy of his date of birth was still a matter of doubt. No-one knew exactly when he was born and the colonial birth registration officer had simply picked a date and year on the basis of general claims that Machekecha had been born during the year of the locusts. It was the year when drought visited the land after the unusual attacks of large swarms of locusts across the country.
For his age, Machekecha was fit and strong. He was lean, tall and gangly and only the white hair on his small head gave some indication that he had been a long-term resident of this world. He had five wives, having recently taken a young girl who was presently expecting his twenty-seventh issue.
He could still out-compete younger men and few dared to challenge him at his game. Villagers spoke in hushed tones, saying that he had a powerful charm bequeathed to him by his grandfather, himself a legendary warrior and hunter.
Others went further and suggested that he had zvikwambo, little goblins that did all the work for him. Other men swore that when he was at work he transformed mysteriously into a strange animal; that he roared like a lion and even the birds stopped singing in his presence. These rumours were fuelled by Machekecha’s odd habits: He always hunted by himself and it was his custom to capture a live chicken and eat it raw on the night before the hunting trip.
Whenever he went on a hunting expedition, villagers were sure he would return with big game, where others would struggle to catch a single hare.
On this particular day after scouring the forest, Machekecha encountered a large kudu. This was a rare moment. It had been a long time since he last caught a kudu. There were too many hunters nowadays. He relished the opportunity to bring home one of the biggest of them all.
He took a position behind the think bush so that he could hit his target more accurately. But just as he was taking aim with his bow and arrow, he was startled by the sudden fall of the giant kudu. However, it was too late to stop the shot so his arrow landed on the underside of the kudu’s fallen body. As he stood up abruptly to inspect what had just happened, he found himself face to face with a young man standing on the other side of the fallen kudu.
They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, as if they had both encountered a strange object from another universe. The young man was short and stout, with large, muscular hands. For a man his size, his shoulders were broad and looked strong. He had large eyes whose glare was sharp and piercing. Machekecha was startled by the young man’s quiet confidence.
The young man spoke first. He was gentle and respectful.
“Good evening, Baba!” he called out to Machekecha, trying to break the ice. There was a pause as Machekecha did not answer the greeting.
So the young man continued, “Shall we not thank the ancestors for blessing us at this hour? Do they not say sango rinopa waneta – that, the forest is a testing lady. She only gives to the hard-working and patient ones? I am tired, Baba, I have been searching all day and this is what the good forest has provided”. There was a hint of excitement in his voce as he spoke but he was calm. He was trying hard trying to get a conversation going between them but Machekecha remained unmoved.
Instead of returning the greeting, Machekecha asked in stern voice, “Who are you, young man?” He fixed his eyes on the young man the way a head-teacher glares harshly at a naughty pupil caught in the act. He continued quickly before giving the young fellow the chance to account for his identity, ‘Who are you to intrude into the work and lands of the elders?’, he demanded.
“I do not intrude, Baba. I only seek relish for the family. The children say they are tired of living like goats, surviving on green vegetables. So I thought I would ask the ancestors for some proper relish and this is what they have done for me. That is why I am here, Baba. That is why I am happy now’, replied the young man, in a polite but firm voice, pointing with his index finger to the large kudu on the ground.
As it was getting dark, Machekecha was having difficulty identifying the young man’s expressions[IWH1] . This only served to increase his irritation. He took a few careful steps towards the young man. Then he stopped abruptly when he was a few yards away. He tried to maintain a calm demeanour but his voice betrayed his surprise. “Argh!”, he said, trying to collect himself, before continuing, “It is you! Are you not Furambi’s son? Furambi … erm … that carpenter from Nhangabwe … the one who makes coffins?” He dragged the question as he tried to identify the young man.
‘It is just as you say, Baba. The man you speak of is, indeed, my father’, replied the young man trying to reassure Machekecha but also feeling proud that his father was known for his work with wood. And so he continued,
‘He works with wood, my father. That is what he has done all his life and he is good at it, as you probably know. I chose to pursue animals. They call me Mutsvuku. I do not know why they call me Mutsvuku. Perhaps, it’s because I have fair skin”. He paused and laughed slightly hoping the dose of light comment could thaw the old man’s frosty demeanour.
But Machekecha was not moved. He was clearly a hard taskmaster. His stern eyes never moved away from the young man, whom he now knew was called Mutsvuku and was Furambi, the coffin-maker’s son. He never smiled or gave any hint of friendliness. It was clear that he was annoyed and he was determined to show his displeasure.
“Yes, but do you not know that this is the land of the elders? Who gave you the permission to venture into my lands?” Machekecha demanded again. The voice became louder and the tone got heavier.
‘I come in peace, Baba. I come not to harm you or anyone but to look for relish. I have never, in my life, caught such big game and as I said, my family will be very happy when I return home with this gift from the ancestors’, replied Mutsvuku. He was still firm but polite, not wishing to upset the old man any further. He was not sure why he was so agitated. So he asked, “If I have done any wrong, Baba, I am here to be educated as I too, am your son”.
Machekecha was quick to respond with a flurry of questions. ‘What exactly are you talking about, young boy? When you say you have never caught such a big animal, which animal are you talking about? What is it that you say your ancestors have given you for your family?”
“I mean this kudu, Baba”, Mutsvuku said, pointing to the kudu on the ground. “Do you not see it? I waited for a long time and I was very happy when I finally got it by the neck. Just a single shot! And even though I say so myself, Baba, I think it was a great shot’, he explained, feeling quite proud of his accomplishments.
‘[IWH2] You are a crazy young man haikona? Your head is full of water. It’s full of dreams!’ thundered Machekecha, exploding into loud, hysterical laughter. ‘So you really think the kudu is your catch? You honestly believe that you are the one who got it?’ he asked, eyes still fixed on Mutsvuku. He was glaring at Mutsvuku as if he had caught him doing something very embarrassing.
‘Yes, Baba, it is my catch. I hit it really well. Look at the arrow on the neck’, Mutsvuku was pointing to the arrow stuck on the kudu’s neck.
Machekecha continued to laugh contemptuously at Mutsvuku and then paused to say, ‘Your father must find a n’anga to examine your head, young man! You have a big head eh?! Why do you make such wild claims? Did you not see that I hit the kudu?”
“But, Baba…” Mutsvuku tried to protest, but he was rudely interrupted by Machekecha who said, “Anyway, as I have told you already, you come from so far away in Nhangabwe and these lands are the lands of my ancestors. You have no permission to be hunting in this forest. You kids of today, you do not respect tradition and culture! You just roam around like flies and think you can do whatever you want in other people’s lands? Huh?”
Machekecha was visibly angry as he went on to deliver an unsolicited lecture on culture, respect and tradition to young Mutsvuku. Mutsvuku listened patiently but he remained unmoved.
He only said, after that lengthy sermon, “But I too am a son of this land, Baba. I know and respect you as a legend in this land. I would do anything to be your hunting apprentice. But over the years, I have been told that you hunt alone. I would have tried but I was discouraged. But these lands, Baba and I do not mean any disrespect to you; these lands are also my ancestors’ lands and this kudu lying here, I swear on my grandmother’s grave, that this kudu lying here is mine. And if you permit me to say so, Baba, you too in your heart do know that this kudu is mine.”
Machekecha was taken aback by the steadiness and maturity exuded by the young man standing in front of him. He had never encountered a young person with such resolve. For a moment, he silently admired him. He saw in the young man, traces of himself in his younger days – strong-willed and calm.
He wanted to continue his lecture but that attempt was suddenly interrupted by a sound of movement behind the bushes. This startled both of them. protagonists.[IWH3] They forgot each other’s presence for a brief moment, as their attention was drawn to the intruder whom they both couldn’t see. They got their spears ready as they thought it could be a predator and at that point they were united against potential danger. There was silence and it scared them both.
“Who is there?” bellowed Machekecha as he readied his spear in the direction from which the shuffling sound had emanated.
“It is I” came a voice from behind the bushes.
“I said, who are you?! Who are you to answer in that manner when elders speak to you? Do you not come from a home where there is a father and mother who taught you manners? Are you a wild animal?” shouted Machekecha, who was clearly not satisfied with this briefest and vaguest of answers.
“Ask that fellow in front of you! He should know who I am. We come from the same hut”, replied the voice from behind the leaves.
‘Do not waste my time, you foolish idiot!’ thundered Machekecha, clearly annoyed by the arrogance of the person bearing the unwelcome voice.
‘As I said, iwe Mdhara, ask Mutsvuku! He knows who I am and why I am here. I have listened to your argument and I am surprised that the two of you should be fighting over something that is not yours”, the voice continued.
‘Do not talk nonsense! Come out in the open and reveal yourself or I will do to you what I did to that kudu!’ Machekecha demanded as he took steps towards the bush. He was not sure but he did not want Mutsvuku to take the initiative.
Then the man bearing the voice crept out of the bush and faced Machekecha and Mutsvuku.
“Argh! It’s you Magija!” said Mutsvuku, displaying rather unconvincing surprise.
‘Please Mutsvuku, why do you pretend so much?” said Magija, looking at him. “You act surprised as if we were not together all day? Did you think I would go home empty-handed? You thought you could carry the whole forest and all the animals on your own?” asked Magija.
He was of short build, darker in complexion, with a head that tilted sharply to one side. They said he has landed awkwardly on the floor at birth. The younger children mockingly called him Musoro Chingwa, because they said his head looked like a loaf of bread. He had very large eyes and unkempt hair. He was an arrogant young man.
Magija and Mutsvuku came from the same village. Apparently, they had set out that morning to hunt together. However, after a fruitless search through the forest, they had argued and decided to go their separate ways. Now they were meeting again face to face, except that now there was Machekecha and a lifeless kudu lying on the ground.
“Why then do you say we are squabbling over something that belongs to neither of us?” asked Machekecha, who had been listening intently as Magija explained his presence.
“That’s because I have been chasing this kudu all afternoon. I hit it on the leg but I ran out of arrows. This man you see here, Mutsvuku, is a selfish man. He has too much ambition and thinks he knows everything. When he left he took all the arrows, spears and the dogs. I was left with nothing. So when I wounded the kudu I decided to chase it. I knew it would eventually get tired and I would catch it. So I have been running after it, using the trail of the blood from the wound. Do you not see the bruises on my feet and legs? I have endured much pain and suffering to get this prize”, Mutsvuku explained, pointing to the kudu.
After a brief pause, he continued, “And now I find my kudu is here and the two of you making claims and counter-claims over it. In fact, gentlemen, this kudu is mine. You are no more that michekadzafa – it was already gone by the time you wasted your arrows! Just another mile I would have caught up with it. So you see, machinda that’s why I say the kudu is mine. And now you know”
When Magija finished, Mutsvuku and Machekecha burst into laughter. It was the collective laughter of two old friends meeting for the first time in years. They seemed to unite, for that moment, in contempt of Magija, the young upstart who was making a big claim at their expense.
However, remembering they were not on the same side, the arguments resumed. They quickly rediscovered that they were not on the same wavelength. And that now there were three claimants, a circumstance which prompted Mutsvuku to remark that with the way it was going, the whole district would be laying claims to the kudu. “Someone can come here right now and say, ‘O, I saw this kudu last week, so it’s mine too!”, he said, laughing derisively at Magija’s claim.
They haggled all night and by dawn, they decided it was best to ask for help.
“‘I have an idea”, said Magija, “Why don’t we find someone to judge who amongst us deserves this kudu? We will all present our stories and let a neutral person pass judgment”. They all agreed that this was the best way to solve their conflict. So they tried to find an arbitrator to help them.
They saw a tall man walking near where they were gathered. They saw that it was Sinyoro, from the village nearby. He was walking briskly, clearly focussed on his journey when he was startled by Machekecha’s loud call. Sinyoro happened to be a well-respected man from the neighbouring village. Sinyoro was told of the men’s problem and he agreed to help. He was known to be a fair man but he and Machekecha were of the same generation. Mutsvuku was not sure but he agreed to give him a chance.
Sinyoro listened to each of the men’s stories.
He then said, “I have heard everything you said. I respect all your opinions. It is hard to make judgement for one without upsetting the others. None of you will be happy and this could go on and on until this meat goes to waste. You all seem to have made an effort and this is what your ancestors have given to you” He paused, whilst he assessed the men’s faces. His voice was clam, slow and assured. He spoke like a judge, pronouncing every syllable and making sure he had their attention. After a long pause he continued,
“Maybe the ancestors decided to give something to all of you, seeing as it is that the forests are dry these days. There are few animals now and perhaps the gods are saying you must work together and share. I therefore propose that you share this animal. Everyone will get something and your families will be happy.”
He reminded them that, in any event, what they had done was illegal. The Chief had decreed that kudu were protected animals and should no longer be hunted. It was therefore, best for them to resolve the matter privately and they could do this easily if they shared the meat. Any public dispute would not only embarrass them but also put them into big trouble with the chief.
At first, the three men found it hard to accept. Machekecha was especially unhappy with the judgment. He had always been known to be an expert hunter who did things his way. How could the whole village know that he had not caught the kudu by himself? How could he share his catch, in his own land, with these young upstarts? He found it hard to accept the decision.
Mutsvuku wanted a fair share – he was not going to settle for crumbs. He was convinced that it was his catch and there was no need to share with anyone.
Magija knew that his claim was the weakest and he was happy to at least get something. He wanted his own share, however little, to acknowledge his contribution to the catch.
Eventually, they agreed to share as suggested by Sinyoro. They asked him to do the sharing. But Sinyoro said he had delayed his journey for too long. He was going to see his in-laws in Maware. It was a long journey and he was already late. He advised that as Machekecha was the eldest of the three, he should do the sharing. Mutsvuku and Magija were concerned about giving Machekecha the power to do the sharing. They thought he would be biased. The three men thanked Sinyoro and offered him the head of the kudu. Sinyoro politely declined, explaining that he was on a long journey and he had no capacity for a heavy load.
Machekecha then took out his knives and declared that it was better to start skinning the kudu and share the meat. Mutsvuku was not happy that Machekecha was doing the sharing. So he asked again, “Who is going to do the sharing?”
“Did you not hear what the judge said? I will do the sharing. I am the eldest here, am I not?” said Machekecha, with some authority. “Plus this is my land”, he added emphatically.
“But we all know the parts of the animal, so why don’t we just agree instead of you making that decision yourself?” asked Mutsvuku, “After all, as agreed we all contributed to the catch. Why can’t we make the decision collectively?”
“That is correct”, weighed in Magija who had been watching from the sidelines as Machekecha and Mutsuku argued over the allocation.
“I think we should agree before we start sharing because there might be problems if one of us takes all the good parts. None of us want to go home holding only the skin or the tail!’ he said, with a laugh.
But Machekecha was adamant.
He said, “Young man, you look at me and you think I am old. You look at me and you think I cannot do this alone. I have been very kind and considerate to agree to share with you what belongs to me. Here, I am saying, I will do the allocation. I will go on and cut the pieces for you and you either take or leave them for the dogs!”
He proceeded to cut up the kudu and allocate the meat.
There was a huge outcry from Mutsvuku and Magija. They felt that Machekecha had given himself the best parts of the kudu. However, they had heard that the old man had strong charms so even if they wanted to start a fight they backed down in fear of the unknown.
Instead, they refused to take their share and declared that Machekecha could not leave with the meat. In any event, they threatened that if he insisted they would report him to the chief for killing a kudu, which was against the decree. The three were united by their illegal act. Eventually, Machekecha agreed to ask for assistance again.
Meanwhile, it had been two days since the kudu had been captured. The meat was beginning to attract large swarms of insects. As the three hunters haggled and argued, they almost forgot what they were arguing over. The growing smell of rotting meat was beginning to attract all kinds of scavengers. Vultures could be seen waiting on the branches of surrounding trees.
Later on, they saw three men, Chimowa walking alongside Huni and Majecha in the distance. All three were distinguished village elders. They called out to the men for help.
As they approached the little gathering, Chimowa who was known to speak his mind commented about the over-powering stench. He was about to ask if all was well when he saw the kudu meat hanging on tree branches and the large swarms of flies that were hovering above. The three men were shocked when they heard that the men who had called them were fighting over the meat, which was already rotting.
They narrated their stories and then Chimowa asked, “So you have been here all this time and you are arguing over meat? And that there is the meat you are fighting over? Do you not see that the meat is going bad already?’ He was pointing to the meat, with a look of astonishment and bewilderment written all over his face. He had one hand on his waist whilst the other slowly caressed his beard. All the while, he was making a sound of surprise, “Siiiii … hey?!” He looked at the three protagonists with a mixture of pity and contempt.
“Varume imi mukati makakwana?” he said, asking after the mental stability of the three. “You are telling me that you have disturbed us on our trip. Three whole men like us, and you ask us to decide what to do with this rotting meat?” he asked.
It was then that Machekecha, Mutsvuku and Magija realised the folly of their argument. Majecha admonished them for their illegal act and Huni weighed in with the view that given the illegality and the state of the meat, none of them deserved a share. Chimowa and his colleagues decided that it was fair that none of them should get a share. They threatened to report the three hunters to the chief.
‘What then do we do then with all the meat?’ asked Magija who was still quite anxious to get his share.
Chimowa said they should leave the meat to the scavengers as none of them deserved it. “Hamuoni magora atouya aya? Regai adye”, Let nature feed, he said, dismissing the three men who stood in silence, as if they could not believe what they were hearing.
Machekecha tried to resist, saying he alone had the power to decide what to do. But Chimowa had one final word for him, saying he, as the eldest should be more ashamed of the foolish way in which they had dealt with the matter. He said, “Nhai Mdhara Machekecha, kana iwewo haunyari fani! Chii chaunoda ipapa? Iyo nyama yaora iyi? You are the leader here and we expect you to help these youngsters but your behaviour is appalling!”
And with that the six men began to walk away. The vultures instantly descended from the tree branches and joined the party. A pack of hyenas came rushing to the scene – it was a real stampede. The scavengers howled, growled and snarled as they fought over the rotting meat. The party had begun in earnest. Up in the sky, more vultures could be seen heading towards the party.