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Last Man left hapless as bees, El Nino ruin village

By Makau Kitata

The roof of our village church hugs the branches of the Ithembo, our traditional shrine, where our ancestors worshiped. Once upon a time, under that muumo tree was an ever-green grove, with a clean water spring. When you looked in you saw somersaulting grains of sand filtering the cool water. Below it was a flat sandy pitch where we played football. On the lower side, you saw bare-chested sand harvesters and their mounds of soil. Rickety Isuzu trucks lined up to ferry it away. 

My grandmother once told me, “Last Man, you people say you are going to church. What is the difference between what you do and what we did before they built the church?”

It is a stone house with an iron sheet roof, Grandma. You used to go to the bush,” I replied.

Those who built that church were careful not to cut down the shrine,” she observed. “But you worship your God in the house and forget that it is under the shrine. Aha!”

That afternoon as we played football, I got thirsty and walked to the well. Dreamily, I watched the clean water as it filtered through grains of sand. Cupping my palms, I scooped a handful, cool as a drink stored in an earthen pot.

A bee landed on my hand. I shook it off with a gentle shrug. It left a honeyed smell on my sweaty hand. Other bees made circles around me and left. I dipped my hand into the water spring again and cleaned it, right under their hive.

Coming back to join my friends, I eyed my cousin’s goats tethered in the bushes.

How dare you tie your goats at the shrine?” I wondered aloud when I rejoined the play.

Three goats will not finish the grove. Besides, goats run a lot and I need to play too,” he replied.

I lost interest as sand harvesters dug up holes and scooped white sand for sale. They were the new village bandits. Together with the dare-devil Isuzu truck drivers, they threatened to bring death to any creature that ever stood in their way.

As the sun got hotter in the early afternoon, the bees started landing on the backs of the goats and stinging. At first, the goats vibrated their skin and continued nibbling at the shrubs under the muumo tree. Suddenly, as though obeying a command, the entire swarm descended on the goats. Soon it was a buzz dance as the goats stretched their tethers to escape.

We stopped playing and watched – first excited, then alarmed as the bleating of the goats turned to babbling for life. A sand harvester ran to the goats, striking the rope with his shovel while running off. The strikes did not even cut a thread from the ropes. 

The entire village gathered to watch. We forgot the goats as the villagers went into a man-bee hide-and-seek. Then I told my cousin to cover himself in a sack and cut the ropes with a knife.

Down he went for the first trip, merely scratching at the ropes. One bee drove its sting through the sack and stung his buttocks. He fled back. With tree branches from the sacred grove, we smudged the bees on his sack-covered back.

Then the bees focused on him as he made a second try. A blanket of bees hovered over his head. Unable to bear the stings, cousin Sombe cast off all his clothes and ran towards us, naked.

 A sand harvester raised his shovel, ready to strike him dead as he ran towards him down the field. Then he turned his run towards the village women.

Do I run from the bees or this naked man?” screamed the women as they took off towards the bushes. That phrase became a folk song in our village.

As this feisty afternoon village dance quickly turned into evening, the wind was blowing and clouds gathering, unnoticed. The sun got cooler, and the bees relented. Then the first El Nino in our memory landed in our village.

The earth started moving from the hole the sand harvesters had created. Like an advancing bulldozer, it crept towards the church and the shrine. Sods of soil as big as a house broke and spun in the deluge. In time, we sadly watched our playing field drop into the new river, sod by sod, as the spring melted away, grain by grain.

As the gusty wind slapped the rain, our clothes and skin became one. We ran to hide under the edges of the church. The muumo tree branches were swinging and screeching fiercely on the iron sheets. But the soil kept shifting in front of us and exposing rocks. A new village of gullies and boulders was peeling under our feet.

When the rain calmed down, we stared at a deep gully between our home and the church veranda we were sheltering in. Gone were the green grove, the well, and the playing field. Only the muumo tree remained with its roots anchored in the now exposed granite rocks – the church walls now part of a brand-new cliff in the village.

 We later heard that the river spat out the dead goats several villages downstream, bloated and smashed up. When villagers tried to nudge their dogs to eat the river offering, the animals ran away squirming after sniffing the free meat that no man or beast wanted to eat.

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