The Griot’s Daughter

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It’s finally dawn and cowardice curls at my feet like a serpent. We are shadows with the night. Before we all start lifting our weaponized hands, we are still sons of women, not animals. We have been loved and nurtured but we have also, ironically, I must add, been prepared for this moment when we stand at the very precipice of violence and possible death. And we are proud of it.
Except me, of course. I’m scared.
Rege’s silhouette rises as a mature anthill before us. His back is as wide as an old bull’s thigh. He’s only 23 years old, barely able to fit into manhood himself, but already hardened and coming with his own legend. He’s our leader tonight as he has been a leader of many other men for many other raids before. We fan behind him, the bitter cold and the tension hardening our nipples. Of course, we are shirtless and young and wide-eyed, staring at the sleeping village before us. Our hearts beat furiously together as we wait for the first sign of grey light.
Standing next to me, to my right, is a boy not much older than me. I’m 15. I have three younger brothers and one older sister who got married last harvest. I know the boy standing to my left; Yego. We were circumcised together by River Chida many moons ago. We understand pain, comradeship and fear. I can hear his breathing and I’m so close to him I can see the little plumes of mist rising from his mouth when he breathes out. All around me, about 30 boys, we stand motionless as we wait for fate and glory.
Before we set off at sunset, my mother came to the hut where my brothers and I sleep. I was lying down on the mat, already geared; face painted, biceps wound in sisal, my spear resting against the mud wall. I was emptying fear off me, quieting the noise inside my bones, or what in many years lactose intolerant city dwellers would call meditation. She never spoke a word to me, mother, but the way she looked at me conveyed her confirmation. She knew I wasn’t a warrior. Your mother always knows who her child is. I was too tender. I gave lambs names. I nursed cursed puppies back to life. I gazed at sunrise. I loved oral poetry. I had no business throwing a spear. My mother knew this and spoke of it with her stoic silence. And as the loud horn of war sounded for us young killers to gather in the field for the village medicine man to spray our faces with holy water from his mouth, and rub special dust through the raw incisions above our navels, mother turned away from my door, leaving me to my destiny.
And so, in a long windy single file, we trudged along under the starless sky. Rege seemed to know all the valleys and hills by some innate compass; after which shadowy tree to turn, at which part of the river to cross, which trees to avoid walking under as they teemed with leopards, here, at the fork of the road, do we turn right or left? He – also a celebrated tracker – knew it all by heart. When we started off we sung songs of triumph, then as the night wore on we settled into the traditional humming sound of war. Most of our voices, only recently broken, hummed gutturally, an organised cacophony of battle. After hours and hours of walking, we settled in silence with only our feet finding their own synchrony, and making their own music, the soundtrack of fate. We rested twice; once huddled together at the edge of what seemed like an open field with a soft thick carpet of grass,
and the second time on a hill overlooking a swampy area from where we heard hippos clear their throats. At a thin stream, we scooped water with our palms to quench our thirst, as the frogs suddenly settled in silence.
The scout – a stout boy with the wide face of a man – comes back and we gather in a tight circle around him. He explains the layout of the village. “The cows are all in the middle of the boma, so no surprises there,” he whispers loudly. “There are five soldiers on duty, four of them are asleep.” The boy, who we call Mudho, because of his ability to blend with darkness, speaks fast retrieving every single detail from his memory. Rege listens raptly, his head cocked slightly to one side. Our spears all point skyward like a sharp forest of pine.
“How many cattle?” Rege asks.
“Three hundred? Maybe more?” Mudho says. He has a slight lisp, so it sounds like, “thii handyeth.” I don’t know how nobody is giggling because I want to giggle. This is how you know I’m not a warrior.
“How many huts?”
“Thathy thee.”
“What?”
“Thathy thee.”
“The f*k you sayin’ Mudho?” Rege hisses in irritation.
“He means thirty three,” a voice says in the circle.
Rege shakes his head. “Okay, boys, I don’t have to flog a dead donkey here, do I? This is the moment. For those of you who this is their first time, remember that if you stand you die, so you keep moving, you…stop biting your nails, Rwot!” he raises his voice at me. Now you know my name, Rwot. I don’t know what it means, but my grandfather told me it might mean the paws of a cat. That nobody sees me coming.
“Do you want us to give you time to keep your nails clean?” He asks me. “Are your cuticles going to get in the way of this raid?”
“No.”
“Do you perhaps also want to run a comb through your hair, just in case?”
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, my face burning. Everybody is now looking my way.
“First group, the cattle.” Rege having adequately embarrassed me proceeds. “Second group, the main huts where the boys sleep. Third group; gather all the women and children. For the newcomers, no raping. I repeat, we don’t rape women. Tie them up and move them east, towards those hills, proceed with them until you find a big Ongowang tree. Fourth group; kill all men and boys. That includes babies. Burn everything to the ground.”
“Will we have time?” a voice asked.
“Who’s that?” Rege growled.
“It is I, Nyakonyolo,” the voice said.
“Will we have time for what?”
“To check the gender of these babies? Why don’t we just kill them? It will save us time.”
“How long does it take to check the gender of a baby, Nyakonyolo?” Rege demanded.
“I…I was just thinking that perhaps we don’t – ”
“How many raids have you been to, Nyakonyolo?”
“Uhm, two.”
“I have been to 23 raids,” Rege said. “You are a warrior, you follow my orders. So leave the thinking to me. OK?”
“Clear,” Nyakonyolo said.
“All babies under 3 years die this morning. We won’t have time to babysit on our way back,” Rege said. “Everything we have learnt, everything we have been brings us to this moment. Glory is within reach. Respect awaits us. So does death for some of us but death is an honour. May the gods of Jaak and Juong be with us. Let’s get blood on the tips of our spears, gentlemen.”
***
I would never have imagined how it would feel to kill a man. I thought there would be some sort of a darkening to that spirituality, something that sits heavy on your soul like a rock. I later marveled how colourless and undramatic it was, and how the drabness of it all evoked not deep soul searching but a surprising listlessness. Maybe it was the swiftness at which it all transpired.
We brought chaos to this village at dawn, the men just waking up to the reality of our invasion, bewildered and shocked by it. Roofs caught fire and it made huts look like they had worn red fiery hats that were smoking into the slowly yielding darkness. Naked women ran out of these huts, clutching their babies against their bosoms. Men, caught on the wrong foot, scrambled desperately for their weapons, often meeting their death before they could raise them. Blood curdling screams rent the air. We kicked in doors made of sticks, dragged little boys outside and impaled them to the ground. We dragged women out by their hair as they begged in a language, that though we didn’t understand, we knew in our hearts, now filled with the soot of savagery.
It was well choreographed mayhem. The warriors in charge of driving out the cattle herded them out. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, stampeded from their kraal in a cloud of dust. The rest herded the women and girls in a different direction. A rendezvous had been planned many kilometres from this village where we would all gather to briefly lick our wounds but also take stock. Even though the sun had risen sufficiently for one to see the marks on one’s palms, the sky was quickly getting black from the smoke of the burning grass thatched houses. To mean, it felt like dusk again.
I foolishly hoped that I wouldn’t have to hurt anyone. The spear suddenly felt heavy in my hands as we marauded and screamed that war cry, our veins now popping out of our necks with adrenaline, fear and madness. We were now possessed by blood and death. We felt it crawl in our veins. Our hearts were no longer the hearts of sons, of brothers, of uncles, of the boys our mothers served yams and dried meat. We had become barbarians.
I cornered him at sunrise. He was darting between two huts, one hand holding the hand of one of his daughters, the other holding a short knife they called the Bamana. It was a lethal weapon that they could throw with precision at your throat. These men never missed. Legend has it that when a boy was born, his grandfather placed a Bamana in his tiny hands and he grew with it like you would your own limb. If they plunged it through your heart, you’d be dead before you hit the ground. It was a formidable weapon, and an even more lethal one in their hands.
But there we were at the crossroads of life and death. I didn’t give him a chance to fully register my presence, or to react to it, when he finally saw me, approaching to his left side, the side that had his daughter who must have been six years old – my own sister’s age. This immediately presented a conundrum for him because he would have to turn his daughter away from me in order to use his knife. Which meant I had more time and luck than him. He twisted but it was too late. I drove my Bakuba through him. He – about my age – looked shocked, even disbelieving. I saw fresh blood sip between his teeth, then he was falling, still holding his daughter’s hand, dragging her down with him.
Then I was standing over them, his daughter screaming in terror. I momentarily looked into his eyes as they became blank, like the glassy eyes of a slaughtered goat. “If you stand you die,” I remembered Rege’s words and I cast one quick look at his daughter and off I ran towards one of our own who was wrestling with one of their own. After that, I drove my spear into many bodies, boys not any older than me.
*** The first time I saw her she was walking towards the stoop of a hill, a long-necked pot of water balanced on her head. Following behind her was a mangy sad-looking dog with a brown coat and a white strip around its eyes. It was just after the locust invasion, I recall because the farmland was still gnarled and bereft from that calamity. The landscape looked regretful, like it had used a bad barber. She had the smallest waist I had ever seen on a torso. It seemed unnatural how her breasts refused to move even when she was in motion – they were defiant breasts.
“Forget it,” Yar, my friend told me, following my eyes. “She’s beyond you.”
“Who is she?” I asked him.
“Nomvula.” Yar said, a blade of grass sticking out from the corner of his mouth.
“Nomvula,” I repeated. “After the rain, like a rainbow.”
Yar groaned and looked at the cattle grazing in the field below, heads bowed, snatching at grass with their lips.
“Never seen her before,” I said.
“Because when was the last time you saw a diamond?”
“Before today, you mean?”
I watched her disappear behind the hill.
“She’s the daughter of Shango,” Yar said.
I turned to look at him. “The Griot?”
Yar nodded. “Uh huh.”
I gave a low slow whistle.
Our griot was called Shango. Skinny with a white mane and wooden face. He had two wives and four daughters, three who had been married off at some ridiculous amount of 18 heads of cattle, several goats, palm oil and – rumor had it – copper. Shango was revered in my village as griots were in other villages. They were the keepers of oral history of the village, the respected village storytellers and entertainers. They had great memories, transferring lore from one generation to the next, through stories, poems and songs. They often played kora while telling these stories. As we say, ‘when a griot dies, it’s like an entire library is burning to the ground.’
“You see why you don’t stand a chance?” Yar pressed on. “You are merely the son of a blacksmith.”
The following evening I told my father about this girl because she had stuck on my mind like a tick on an udder. Of course he knew her but being a blacksmith his ambition and vision wasn’t any far from his own shadow. He had settled for his trade. He was comfortable living his small life, dreaming his small dreams and making knives and yokes.
He looked at me and shook his head sadly. “A fish and a bird may fall in love but the two cannot build a home together,” he said as we sat around a dinner of bowls of groundnut sauce and steamed cassava. “She is the daughter of a griot. You will have to go to ten raids to marry her, besides her suitors wind all the way down to River Ar.” I stared into the crackling fire, refusing to look up into the resignation in his eyes. “Besides, Rege – the chief’s son – has shown interest in her.”
“He has?” I said looking up. His cheeks looked sunken in the half-light of the fire. He suddenly looked older. He nodded.
“But Rege already has two wives,” I said, hating how whiny I sounded.
“He’s our chief warrior,” he said. “He can have as many wives as he desires.”
When he saw how dejected I looked he added, “My son, love is like rice; plant it elsewhere and it grows.”
Silence filled the room only broken by the sound of chewing mouths. My siblings sat in the corner eating in silence.
“Your father is right,” mother eventually spoke up. “To love one who never loves you is like rain falling in the forest.”
“I will go for the next raid,” I eventually declared after a long pause. “And I will get my share of cattle. Then I will marry her.”
My father just shook his head.
“How will you do that?” mother asked. “We aren’t born in the family of warriors. We are blacksmiths”
“We can be many things, besides,” I added, “warriors are made, they are not born.”
***
And there, at the raid dwindled in our favour, the bodies of our enemy, as of some of our own, strewn all over, huts no longer huts but charred structures, I saw Rege. He was walking past a half-burning granary. He was holding, half dragging one of our injured warriors. I knew this was my chance, if I could ever get a chance with Nomvula.
So, I shifted by Bakuba on the other hand, and I approached Rege from his blindside…

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139 Comments
    1. This story takes you to a whole new world. Because… “Son, to love one who never loves you is like rain falling in the forest.” Was there ever a time anyone spoke like this 🙂

      Slowly I’m becoming defiant of these premature endings, just like Nomvula’s breasts.

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  1. Wait, wait, wait… I know I haven’t been around for most of the year here (hey that rhymes) but has it come to this? Killing babies? That’s some dark stuff and I write a lot of dark stuff so I should know.
    That’s some King Herod kind of stuff. Some baby Moses stuff.
    I don’t even know if I hope the raid went well because I’m conflicted – the raiders seem like the protagonists of this story so, do I cheer them on? Do I hope they die from that shady dust in their bellies? I don’t know.

    Maybe I just need some caffeine in me to finish this (if I ever finish this). Killing babies? Damn!

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    1. It just shows Biko has been reading the Bible. Old Testament Macabre is what the likes of GRR Martin and Gillian Flynn feed off.

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    2. Killing babies in war I guess is justified, maybe that’s why my folks say that war is not porridge. In many books/stories of revenge there is always that flashback of a killing and a baby that was not killed, then that baby exacting their revenge usually with glee.

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    3. More so like how in the wild, when a lion or leopard wants to take over a certain yard, he kills the babies sired by the former male. He starts a fresh by siring his own cubs. I think as humans, we have that animal instinct. Ask yourself, how would you take it if your wife sired with a different man?

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  2. That’s love for you… Makes you kill your chief warrior. And yeah… “We can be many things, besides,… warriors are made, they are not born.”
    Sounds like an old folklore, reminds me of the stories I used to be tolk when I was young

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  3. Biko . You always leave us in suspense.
    Reading this felt like reading something by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
    I’m hoping Rege died and you got to marry that girl Nomvula with the defiant breasts. I don’t like Rege, he sounds like a snob and full of himself.
    But Biko I thought you were an ass guy. You’re allowed to change preferences? Okay, as you were.

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    1. With breasts as defying as those? I would change preferences, albeit temporarily. Ass guys are not just ass guys you might see a pretty pretty face, or a perfect height/figure ratio or a smile like the rising sun.

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  4. Love is like rice, plant it elsewhere and it grows.

    This is my take today. I don’t need no more reading or lecture on love. I’m good to go. I’m not a clown, I can’t hold onto vanity forever. Thank you Biko.

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  5. This read takes you to a whole new world. Because, “Son, to love one who never loves you is like rain falling in the forest.” Was there ever a time anyone talked like this? 🙂

    Slowly becoming defiant to these heartbreaking endings, just like Nomvula’s breasts.

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  6. Raid. Memories are here. Demostrated how well a community is prepared to tuckle surpises. Duty men were NEVER allowed to sleep even a wink! That was a weakness!

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  7. And just like that, you snuffed the lofe out of Rege, for the hourglass Nomvula. Fortune favours the brave, I guess….

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  8. Your mother always knows who her child is… She knew I cant run
    I agree that a fish and a bird may fall in love but the two cannot build a home together and love is like rice; plant it elsewhere and it grows…but we can sometimes force it to happen.. Hehe

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  9. This does not have Biko’s touch…or am no longer good at detecting Biko’s hand in his work. All the same, we appreciate your consistent even during these pandemic times.

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  10. It’s a woke syonika artistic expression, I love how you have coined African rendition in this tale. You’re just outta this world Biks

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  11. Awsome read. Love at first sight, beautiful! I chose to ignore the killing part, so disturbing……will wait for part 2 of the story

  12. What happened to Rege? Did the narrator marry his dream girl. Biko you can’t leave us like this. Awesome piece as always

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  13. Methinks Biko should invite budding writers and fans to write a continuation to this story; imagine how it could spin off into different plots like rivulets of a thundering waterfall.

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  14. Lactose intolerant, City.
    Okay.
    Alternate universe?
    I am confused. Is this based in the past or is this fantasy?
    Very confused.

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  15. “My son, love is like rice; plant it elsewhere and it grows.”..
    This was a hard one to read… I kept drifting off

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  16. Ah Biko..Biiiiiko, why you do this!! You left us at the peak! This story has taken me back to when i was young and innocent when such stories of folklore would regal me. For a moment, I forgot all of my present adult worries dont even remind me of Corona and became that little girl again. I miss my childhood.

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  17. Wooow, I couldnt stop till the end. But disappointed by the suspense. And yees a fish and a bird may fall in love but the two cannot build a home together

  18. What did he do… I am curious to know what happens next. Will he kill Rege? Will he be forgiven for killing his own if he kills Rege?

    Also I like this part “She never spoke a word to me, mother, but the way she looked at me conveyed her confirmation. She knew I wasn’t a warrior. Your mother always knows who her child is. I was too tender. I gave lambs names. I nursed cursed puppies back to life. I gazed at sunrise. I loved oral poetry. I had no business throwing a spear. My mother knew this and spoke of it with her stoic silence.”

    A great story

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  19. Don’t know why this really took me back to one of my favourite books: Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of a Modern World

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  20. Am glad and happy for the fresh dose of script.I’m sure you have taken most of us by surprise. We didn’t expect this kind of story. ‘normal’ can be boring.

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  21. Afroversion of the Theban plays.
    Give this to @back2basics and let them put the raw African vigour and colour on stage…

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  22. Someone help me find my way out. I am lost, I can’t find my way back and more worse I am not pretty sure where I am. But why Biko? This ain’t fair…I hope there is a part two coming soon, haha!

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  23. This is quite fresh… A sure stretch of artistic brilliance. Sometimes we don’t find the stories and forget that we are the stories. I like where your imagination took you. Dark places, tough to read though in some parts but I will take it. Sounded like one of those pieces you would never have a proper end to..

    Surprise us at times.

    What have you been reading/watching lately….Felt like was reading your mind

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  24. You must be the son of Chinua…i look forward to the next penning….i guess it will be in the war…field.

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  25. This had me tickled AF
    I don’t know how nobody is giggling because I want to giggle. This is how you know I’m not a warrior.
    “How many huts?”
    “Thathy thee.”
    “What?”
    “Thathy thee.”
    “The f*k you sayin’ Mudho?” Rege hisses in irritation.
    “He means thirty three,” a voice says in the circle.

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  26. Lots of comments indicate that guys kept drifting off, me included…is that ADD showing or the story did not flow well..?

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  27. What about Rege’s 4 wives? His brother must have become one overwhelmed lover! Since they planted their rice there…..

  28. A read that reminds me of life in west pokot. Where any day, anytime people can start fighting for cattle. There’s always tension. This stuff is so real.

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  29. Sounds more of a fairy tale with a rating of R (restricted to < 18)…
    A bit disturbing with children killings. Bring more real stories Biko please.

  30. Wow! Nice article. Brings back memories of stories I heard from my grandfather about how they raided villages to get wives.

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  31. I hope you didn’t kill Rege otherwise you’d be an outcast if the other worriors witness and marrying Nomvula could just remain a dream. Maybe after a few more raids, you became stronger and fearless and with many more heads of cattle…..your stature grew…….
    And what did you do about the Griot’s son? He’s still a favourite in marrying her.

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  32. Hot Damn!!! That twist at the ending is a sweet cliffhanger…. Part 2

    Aside from that, the cycle of War is always Ugly and just bad for the conscience of a educated man… Woe to those that justify it.

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  33. How could you….. tell me you didn’t kill Rege…. Do you know this story sounds very much like our politics….

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  34. Aren’t words just beautiful when sequenced in the right way. They drag you off to another world and then dance with your imagination. Brain and mind feel active but the body becomes numb to its current location. You’re submerged into the words becoming tales. It feels like you can stay forever but After you’re immersed in this enchanted dance you’re ejected and you feel this whiplash effect on your soul as it comes crashing back to reality

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  35. ……but raiders of today use AK 47 rifles. Hi ya spears ni ya when bearing in mind that they’re speaking in English ? (Thathee thee)

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  36. “Your father is right,” mother eventually spoke up. “To love one who never loves you is like rain falling in the forest

    That’s another new world!
    I hope part 2 is coming up next, Biko?

  37. More please. Such a fascinating story.
    Warriors are made, not born. Opportunity and chance and fighting, literally, for love.

  38. Didn’t know Biko could handle fiction this well. Let’s get to chapter 2. The suspense is palpable. Can’t wait!

  39. i don’t know….i was just hoping they would abandon they raid,or he would not participate. my heart sunk when he killed the man who was with his daughter.. i just don’t know.

  40. Good thing about suspense endings is that one can finish the rest of the story according to their preference.
    “warriors are made, they are not born”

  41. I expected anything, anything but this. I didn’t quite enjoy last week’s read and I am not feeling this one too much. The title is something though.

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  42. That last paragraph has two mistakes Biko. In one you must have meant ‘as’ and not ‘at’ and in the other its ‘my’ not ‘by’.

    Otherwise, that’s a nice piece as always.

  43. ………….., I saw Rege. He was walking past a half-burning granary. He was holding, half dragging one of our injured warriors. I knew this was my chance, if I could ever get a chance with Nomvula.
    So, I shifted by Bakuba on the other hand, and I approached Rege from his blindside…
    …………..,……………………………………………………………………….
    This reminds me the song by Sammy thuku(RIP)”………let me overrun someone even he be the son of osama,I’ll defend my self before the son of Mary………”

  44. When he saw how dejected I looked he added, “My son, love is like rice; plant it elsewhere and it grows.
    Didn’t we all wanna hear that??
    Is there a part 2 please?????

  45. That’s it?? Does he successfully take Rege’s life or does Rege, having enough experience in war, catch Rwot at the corner of his eye, slap him like a baby and say, “Stay focused boy! I’m not the enemy”?

    If Rwot successfully kills Rege does he automatically become the chief warrior? Does he return home a man, having left as a boy? Does he finally walk to Nomvula’s village, head held high, ready to declare his interest in her and with his villagers escorting him, dancing and beating drums to announce his arrival?

    And even if he presents 100 heads of cattle to the Griot, would Nomvulla willingly go home with Rwot or would she, as defiant as her breasts, spit in his face and refuse to leave the comfort of her father’s homestead?

    I guess we’ll never know.

  46. And Rwot lived happily ever after with the daughter of the Griot… Rege became paralysed and forever hated Rwot though was not sure why as he had suffered amnesia during his last raid. All he remembers is half dragging a wonded soldier and then awaking to find his father, the chief, standing over him with the village medicine man applying some goat dung mixed with crocodile skin powder on a wound on his belly…
    But the killing of babies… Yikes! Biko!