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THE LITTLE HERO

TENDE waited eagerly for his father to finish his evening meal of boiled coco yams and vegetable, an all-year-round Nyiku staple food, but nonetheless his father’s, favourite meal; for Ta-Takwa was never tired of eating it.

 If he started talking at this time, his father might think that he was seeking for attention, an excuse to have a taste of the meal. So he bided his time. He had a problem, an axe to grind with his mother who insulted and ridiculed him. He needed to prove to her that he was a boy, not a girl; and the solution had to be found through his father. The long minutes dragged but eventually completed their turn and his father finished eating. Tende hurriedly cleared the emptied bowl and basket.

               His father pointed to a small calabash behind the open door which Tende grasped with both hands and lowered to the ground between the man’s legs. It was like a re-enacted skit or choreographic display. He went straight to his father’s raffia-fibre bag and dug out the drinking horn and stretched it out to him with both hands. The man took the horn with his left hand, screwed the conical lip with his right palm, rubbed the inner part with his index and middle fingers and then hit the open mouth in his palm to empty it of the dirt he had just dislodged. The concept of invisible bacteria was not part of the local hygiene: dirt was dirt, visible and concrete. What was not seen was not an issue.

            Tende held the calabash with both hands and after filling the horn, waited for his father to gulp it down and hold the horn up again. Realizing that the stuff wasn’t palatable because of the vegetable he had eaten, he searched his pockets for a lobe of cola nut. He threw it in his mouth and the crushing crunch synced with his gulping down of more wine. After the third horn the man belched and motioned to his son to put down the calabash.

            “Father, I will go with you to tap palm wine tomorrow morning.’’ The boy announced courageously, his regard fixed on his father’s face. The man smiled and, holding out his drinking horn to him said:

            ‘’I have not refused you palm wine, my son”

            The young man read in this remark a belittling misunderstanding of his declared will to maturity and productive work.

           ‘’No, father, that’s not the problem; I want to follow you to the raffia bush and practice to hold the tapping knife. You know, as you always remind me, the snake that remains on the same spot contains no fat!”

            “Yes, but I also tell you that all birds do not brood in the same season,” Ta-Takwa returned the young man’s borrowed wit. “You are only five years old, too young to come out in the morning cold. You will catch fever,” the man tried to dissuade his son, but the boy would not give up.

            “What about Aman who follows his father to the bush every morning?” The boy questioned.

            “ Aman is not your age. He was born two Christmases before you,” the man dodged the impetuous remark, but the young man found in this an opening to score a point.

            “But I can beat him; I have beaten him three times.”

            Physically, Tende looked a little bigger than his age, with a protruding stomach and an axe head that carried a bush of unkempt hair. He feared none of his play mates and hated being regarded as a coward, no matter the opponent.

               “And why were you beating him?” The middle-age man’s question was a non sequitur for young Tende knew that might was right, no matter what anyone else would say. Nonetheless he explained: “Because he always insults me that I cannot handle the tapping knife and that I don’t know how to set traps to catch moles.”

            The man now understood the motivation for his son’s request to follow him to the palm bush. It wasn’t the first time the boy was asking to go with him to the bush. He wanted to be a man alright, but it wasn’t yet time. He didn’t know how best to convince the boy to give up the idea.

            “Did you say you beat Aman?”

            “Three times, father,” the boy answered indicating three with three fingers. “You can ask my mother. She witnessed the last fight in which I threw him to the ground and spat into his mouth!”

            “And what did your mother say?”

            “She said that I should never let any boy beat me.”

The man shook his head. His wife was too anxious to see     her son grow into a brave man. But it was wrong for an adult to watch children fight like young bulls for no adequate reason.

            “Listen to me, son,” the father resumed, “do not fight just because you want to please your mother. The viper looks harmless and lies still until you have provoked it several times before it unlocks its fatal venom. Never take pride in hitting anybody, not even when you are insulted. But you may fight to defend yourself if anyone hits you first. Do you hear me?”He held his ear and leaned towards the boy who hurried to say “Yes, father,” but did not stop insisting on following him to the raffia palm bush the following morning.

            “Well, if you want to taste the frost for yourself, I won’t bar you, but only don’t complain when the time comes. It is in order to ensure bright weather (for a celebration) that we consult the rain maker,” the father concluded rather superstitiously.

            Later that night, Tende entered his mother’s hut where he used to sleep and went straight to his bamboo bed without a saying word to his mother. He peered angrily at his mother through the faint glow of the burning coals. The following day, he would make the mother know that he was a man not a woman, he decided. He hardly had any sleep that night as he waited impatiently for dawn.

            He heard all the cock-crows and before the birds began their throaty celebration of morning, he was up, slipped out of his mother’s kitchen and pushed into his father’s hut. His father, who had just gotten up, was sitting on his grass mattress bed smoking tobacco. The boy greeted and started searching for an old machete under the bed. His machete now in hand, he picked up the small calabash that his father had emptied the previous night and waited for their departure.

            His dress was a piece of cloth fastened to a twine that went round his waist. The cloth passed between his thighs forming two flaps, one at the back and the other at the front. The rest of him was naked; he wore no shoes.

            “Get some cloth from your mother and tie round your neck or you won’t cope with the cold,” his father commanded after observing the boy’s scanty dressing.

            “No need, I’m alright,” the young man said firmly, shaking his head. He certainly did not want any favour from his mother in his adventure; he did not want her to have a hint that he was going to the raffia palm bush in the first place. Pride filled his little frame as he envisaged himself acting the man, tapping palm wine. Pride does not need much space.

            Some days   back, he had run into trouble with his mother on a matter he didn’t care to remember. His mother had whipped him with the broom and he had run out as usual and, safely positioned at the threshold of the hut, had made faces and stuck out his tongue at the woman, shouting out her names:

            “Ambuchuh Susan… Ambuchuh Susan… Ambuchuh Susan…” But his mother seemed not to have felt his retaliation this time; she only laughed and said, “Shame to you!”

            Tende knew that it was wrong for a child to call his parents by their names. But he did it to his mother, turning her name into a song whenever she beat him. He would shout at her: “You’re not any Mama; you are Susan Ambuchuh – Ambuchuh Susan – Aambuchuh Susan!” He danced to the rhythm of the names, ready to flee into the coffee farm should his mother fling any object at him. He knew and meant to inflict severe insults on his mother by singing out her real names instead of calling her “Mama”. But, when is mother ceased to bother much about the insults, he needed a different shocker for her.

            Under the silent pressure of the young man waiting, his father put on the rubber shoes that he kept under his bed.  Over a torn khaki pair of shorts with multiple patches, he wore a singlet. Coatings of dirt and stains of various substances in the farm had redefined the look of the singlet from grey to dull brown. He brought down his fibre-bag from a wooden nail on the wall and slung it over his right shoulder so that the bag hung under his left armpit. In it assuredly were his drinking horn, a box of matches and some tobacco. He then picked up his machete, the tapping-knife and an empty calabash.

              They set out in silence through the winding paths of Nyiku. It was quite dawn now and Tende could see that his legs were still covered with the dirt and dust of the previous day’s play. He thought in shame of the talkative village women. They meddled in everything. He won’t be surprised if one asked why he hadn’t bathed the previous night. So, while his father set the pace, Tende followed closely, dashing into the shrub bushes time and again to let the dew clean his legs. He kicked the grass with one leg after the other and the bushy path with overhanging dew soaked his feet and legs. Dew also entered his father’s rubber shoes and made a sinister noise: Fiok… fiok… fiok… as he marched on.

          Tende’s ambition to follow him to the bush did not really bother him since that was normal with village children.  Boys always had the curiosity and ambition to take after their father. His son had been insulted and challenged by his play-mate, Aman, which made him eager to show Aman that he was an accomplished man too, Ta-Takwa thought. Aman could not get into his compound and beat up his son, a cock doesn’t crow on another man’s yard stone.  Beating Aman did not seem to have given him full satisfaction. Ta-Takwa didn’t consider that Tende’s problem was not just Aman, but his mother as well; that the boy was looking for an effective means to humble his own mother.

It was enough that he should get to that bush and return; his mother would thereafter be more careful with him. He would make her know him, make her know that he was Tende, his father’s son; not Annie, her daughter.

            He was happy that his father had not announced to her that he was taking him to the raffia bush.  He liked the thought that she would be worried by his absence that early morning,   that she would search all the huts in the neighbourhood, shouting his name in her usually anxious manner: “Tende! Teenndee.” Yes, she would abuse and swear to plug out his popping eyes or split his axe-head anytime he returned. “That serves her right”, he murmured to himself. She had taunted him enough; it was time for him to make her shut her large mouth. He smiled inwardly.

            By this time they were just stepping on the boundary line of Ta-Takwa’s land and he broke the silence, indicating the boundary to his son.

            “This is your mother’s farmyard,” He announced, pointing to the bushy cassava farm.

            “I know,” cut in the boy. “Annie brought me here when mother sent her to harvest cassava.” He was careful to keep out any sign of control his mother exercised over him.

            Annie was his elder sister who was now schooling. She was considered as her mother’s child and Tende as Ta-Takwa’s. Male children followed their fathers while the girls assisted their mothers, a mentoring understanding. Ta-Takwa knew that he had to start training his son to do certain things for him. No masquerade dances without aging. After a brief silence he said, “This is your mother’s farmyard, the boundary of the farm is there at that raffia palm. It marks the boundary of our land on this side. When you grow up and get married, your wife will take over all your mother’s farms”.

            “And what about Annie, will she not have any farms?” The boy inquired.

            “No, not on our land, she will have to farm her crops on her husband’s land. She will take over the farmlands of her husband’s mother. An animal does not graze beyond its tether. As I said, mark this boundary well. I will show you the limit of our land on the other side later.”

            Tende wanted to ask his father what would happen if Annie never got married, why Annie could not own a piece of farmland on her father’s land once married, why she could not work on the farms she and her mother had been tilling for years; but he knew his father would not entertain such questions and so he maintained a wise or baffled silence.

            They entered the raffia bush and started tapping the palms. The boy critically observed his father’s every move, tilt or gesture.

            First Ta-Takwa carefully took away the sticks and leaves sheltering the wine calabash, then, he pulled out the round calabash; into which the wine had dripped overnight. He emptied it carefully into the large calabash that he had brought with him and then placed the round calabash down with the opening facing the ground in order to drain out the dregs.

            “Father, let me be collecting the wine while you tap.”

            “You will break the calabashes, your hands are not yet strong enough,” replied the father.

            “Then let me do the tapping!” the boy insisted.

            “You will destroy my raffia; you don’t know how to do it yet.”

            “And how shall I know it if I don’t try?”

            “I will show you when the time comes,” Ta-Takwa answered brusquely.

             When they came to the raffia that did not produce much wine, Ta-Takwa would remove the round calabash and pass it over to the boy to empty the contents into the large jug. To his astonishment, the boy took all the great care to empty the wine into his own little calabash instead of pouring it in Ta-Takwa’s large container as his father had been doing.

            Ta-Takwa noted this but made no comment. He wondered why the boy had chosen to pour the wine in the little calabash with a very narrow outlet instead of the larger container. Yet the boy did so without spilling any of the wine. Ta-Takwa was visibly satisfied. The boy repeated the exercise a few more times and his little container was almost full.

            He knew what the boy expected next from him– to hand him the knife and show him how to tap the wine from the raffia bush. That was in fact why he had followed him to the bush. He anticipated the boy’s request.

            “Take this knife,” he said, holding out the knife to the boy. He quickly grasped the knife but couldn’t do the job. His father bent over him and directed his grip of the knife with both hands; the right hand held the wooden handle and the left hand directed the iron stem. He clasped the boy’s hands with the knife in the proper manner. He then moved the hand’s from left to right, zigzagging gently, so that the sharp edges of the knife could neatly slash the juicy and tender-most part of the palms without destroying it.

            The tapping done, Ta-Takwa picked up the round calabash used in collecting wine, put some wine in it, shook it, and poured it away to rinse the dregs. Then he handed the calabash to the boy, first, showing him how to fit it so that the wine carefully collected from the palm would not drop to the earth. Tende held the calabash and placed it as demonstrated.

            The last stage was sheltering the collecting calabash properly to keep the ‘eye’ warm and prevent rain from dripping into the wine. He used broad leaves, making sure that the conduit from the ‘eye’ to the collecting calabash was not displaced. After sheltering the round calabash with broad leaves, dry bamboo stumps were used to support the leaves from falling off and the calabash from being displaced.

            They had gone round all the raffia palms that were to be tapped and then the man asked his son to start going back home because he still had to check his traps to see if luck had smiled on him. But the boy would not move. It was obvious that Tende was not yet satisfied. Ta-Takwa took him to the bush hut. There, he made a large fire for him to bask himself.

            “Stay warm here by the fire. If you want to eat corn or cassava or coco yams, harvest some from that farm and roast in the fire. I will be back from checking the traps soon. You may go home when you are warm enough.”

            “Can I not come with you to check…” Tende could not finish his question because he noticed that his father was directing a vicious scowl at him from the corner of his left eye.

He acquiesced and uneasily shut up. In silence, the man pushed the container of wine he had collected to one corner of the shed and walked off. As he disappeared, Tende quickly got up, took a large calabash mug that had been hooked on a stick pinned at a corner of the shed and decanted some wine from the father’s large jug. From this, he filled his own smaller container to the brim.

            Then toting his little jug as if he feared someone would seize it from him, he dashed out of the hut and arrived home as if he had been borne by the wind. The joy, satisfaction, enthusiasm, and anxious anticipation that framed his mind as he hurried home were beyond measure. Just as he had expected, as he approached the compound, he heard his mother shouting Tendee… Tendee…; cursing and swearing, that she would finish him off that morning.

            Tende marched on into the yard with a severe, confident look. He had all the halo of a hunter who had killed a lion after a fierce clash in the forest, returning home with his booty. His little calabash hung on a bamboo about a meter long, slung on his shoulder the way he had seen his father do.

            Story Continues …

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