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The herd wakes me, hungry again and baying for grass, green and juicy. They huddle round the basher, lowing and groaning. Their rolling backsides butt up against the bent branches. Their snot-dripping snouts nose into gaps between the hide-roof and branch-walls. One snorts right over my face. Hot, stale breath clouds over me; spittle rains onto my cheeks and into my eyes. I sit up and rub my face on my robe. Next to me Shahuri continues to snore. It’s his turn to do the milking. I reach over and shake his smooth black shoulder. He grunts like a hog and tries to roll away from my shaking hand. I slap his leg.
[private]“It’s light, get up.”
He sits and rubs sleep from his eyes.
I crawl out of the basher. The cows have closed us in during the night. The cold keeps them near the fire. The thorn corral is really for the lions. They’d gorge on the herd given the chance. On me and Shahuri as well. I keep the AK47 for them. For the Nyangatom too. Thieving bastards.
I push tan flanks out of the way. Gentle slaps and sharper prods with my stick if they are stubborn. Squatting over the dead grey ash, I poke around in the embers hoping to find something glowing. I told Shahuri to build it up more last night. If he wants fire he can get his arse out here and get busy with the sticks. I find the faintest breath of heat from right in the fire’s heart. Two handfuls of dry grass, the morsel of heat clutched between them and three soft blows. The grass flares up fiercely as Shahuri emerges from the basher. I feed more grass to the flames.
“Good fire, eh?” he says, “Which cow you want me to milk, Aratula?”
“That one.” I point out one with hanging udders. He takes up the basin and starts pulling on the teats, his fuzzy black head buried in her tan side.
While he’s making himself useful I dismantle the basher. Crushed and crumpled grass shows where our bodies slept. I take up my bow and draw an arrow from the quiver. The arrow is tipped with flint. The point is sharp. Sunlight winks off it. There is no flight. The bow is the length of my forearm, the wood is kalochi, the same as for my prized Donga fighting stick.
My Donga fight was many years ago.
“Give Aratula the Donga.”
“He’s too little still to hold it up.”
“He must start soon.”
“Not too soon.”
“Not too late or he will never be a champion, never win a sagine. Never be granted his own herd. Never find a wife. Give him the stick.”
The long thin pole, its tip shaped like a manhood, the prize for wielding it hardest, was placed in little Aratula’s hands. He held it straight. It reached over his head and up to the sky. He held it still and firm.
“See, I tell you, woman, he’s a natural. Look how he holds it so strong, like he was born with it in his hands. He will be a great champion,” his father said.
Aratula didn’t understand why but he knew his father was happy with him as long as he could hold onto this stick that was twice his size. He squeezed his fists tightly around the smooth wood, felt sweat seeping out between his fingers and his hands slipping down. He ran one hand over the other, up the shaft of the stick, as high as he could reach. He kept them running up; they kept sliding down.
“Like this, Aratula,” his father said, laughing. He took the stick and raised it over his head. He thrashed it down on the grass at Aratula’s feet, whipping and slashing brittle blades until the grass was decimated and the earth scarred. “Only you must aim for your opponent Try to hit him here,” his father touched the stick to Aratula’s head, “or here,” his shoulder, “or here,” his arm, his leg, his side, his back, “but hard, hard as you can.” His father held the stick out to Aratula. He knelt down in front of the boy, making himself only one head taller than his son. He nodded encouragement.
Aratula raised the stick. It slid from his sweaty palms and speared the ground behind him.
“Too little, yet,” his mother said wisely as she turned back to their hut.
His father clicked his tongue in annoyance. He retrieved the stick.
“You must learn quick-quick, Aratula. If you don’t others who do will knock you on your backside,” he warned.
Aratula took his grip again. He raised the stick, not so far back this time, and brought it down with a crack, onto his father’s shoulder.
“OW! Well done, Aratula.” His father patted him on the head and grinned broadly showing a mouthful of crooked white teeth through his fleshy pink lips.
Shahuri has got the milking done at last. He passes me the bowl. I drink the warm earthy liquid: grass-juice. Den, who has been off looking for snakes, bounds over. He licks my hand hungrily.
“Yes, yes, your turn.” I jam my heel into the dry earth and hollow out a delve for the last of the milk. He laps it wolfishly. Shahuri drops down beside him and tries to shove his face into the milky hole too. Den growls.
“What are you doing?”
“You give the dog too much. I’m still hungry,” he complains.
“Den will have your ears for breakfast if you try to take his milk,” I warn, “Let’s do the bleeding. That’ll fill your belly.”
We take a cow, one of my favourites, a little way from the rest of the herd. She comes easily, willingly. Shahuri tethers her to a thorn bush and tightens the tourniquet around her neck. Blood pools in her vein, throbbing to be released. I take the bow and arrow with its flint point and fire it into her neck. Blood arcs out and splashes into the waiting milk bowl. We let the bowl fill half way. Then Shahuri undoes the tourniquet and I squeeze the nick closed with my fingers until its clots seal. We thank her and turn her loose. With one low moo she signals she accepts our thanks and rejoins her fellows.
The bowl is now brimming with frothy red liquid. We sit round it and take turns drinking. The taste is sweet and metallic. We spit out the clots. It clots fast so you must drink with haste. Our teeth and lips are soon stained red and we are filled up with energy. I sprinkle the last few droplets on the ground to encourage the grass to keep growing. The grass here is very old and tired. It is giving up and dying: surrendering the fight to us. But the battle goes on, Suri herdsman and cows versus grass and Nyangatom bastards. And we are ready now.
The day of Aratula’s Donga battle dawned. He had waited so long for this: all his life.
He made ready: the mud paint, red, yellow and blue, daubing the spiral patterns he had practised in the dust behind their hut on his chest and arms, the blue beaded cord that all fighters wore fastened around his neck and, wrapped around his waist, the twine that attached to the end of the Donga stick he had spent weeks carving, polishing and shaping from the most flexible kalochi branch his father could find. He took up his Donga and swished it through the air, naming each parry and thrust, ticking off the movements as they sliced imagined opponents with ease and grace. He would win, Aratula was sure. He would be today’s banzanai.
His mother came out.
“For you.” She held out a woven grass helmet of blue and yellow.
Aratula shook his head.
“Wear it,” she pleaded.
“I don’t need it,” Aratula insisted.
His mother pursed her lips, the tight line scarring her face. Her eyes trembled a little. She put the helmet on the ground at his feet. Her back turned Aratula trampled it flat. The scars of a Donga fight are medals of bravery, for wearing the rest of your life to remind the tribe how you fought and won your sagine, your herd, your wife and your manhood. Later you would be able to tell the stories to your children: this jagged shoulder-scar here I got when I muddled a block and received a sharp blow but I came back at him with a whip to the head that knocked him clean out.
Aratula squatted at the fire, the smooth pads of his backside grazing his heels. He scooped up white ash and circled his eyes with it. He up-ended his mother’s best pot and looked at himself in its shiny interior, scrubbed clean over and over. Inside he met the ghoulish fighter that would strike terror into the hearts of all the others that day. He was ready.
Aratula and all the other contesters for the Donga title made their way in procession to the centre of the village. A large crowd had gathered already, old men, young children, the women of the tribe dressed in robes of mauves, indigoes and turquoises that formed a multi-coloured, manmade grass plain. Some wore hats that bobbed as though carried by the long waving tide of grasses. And growing out of this plain was a forest of Donga sticks, carried in honour of the occasion. Aratula stopped and allowed himself one moment to taste the day on his tongue, a day that was sweet with the wild-honey flavour of victory and triumph.
The elder called the village to order. Last minute spectators rushed to the fighting zone. Aratula stepped into the ring, bowed his head as the elder recited the chant that opened the Donga contest and waited with the whispered taunts of a thousand grass-stalks in his ears to face his first opponent.
The fighters paired up. It was Aratula against Laduhuri first. They faced each other and circled cautiously. They shouted their war cries and edged around each other, swinging their Dongas through the air. Aratula taunted Laduhuri to strike out. Then he did. His parry missed. Aratula struck back, drew first blood with a blow to the shoulder. The crowd cheered. Egged on, he hit again, a blow to the head knocking off the grass helmet Laduhuri’s grandmother had made him. Blood spurted and ran into his eyes. Laduhuri wiped at it with the back of his forearm, blocked two blows, took two more and fell prone and crumpled into the waiting grass. Aratula was declared the day’s first victor.
The whip and crack of Donga sticks hitting and missing their mark filled the air all day until it came down to the last match, Aratula and Barguru. Just as the sun was burning low over the grasslands they lined up for final battle. Aratula saw his father in the crowd, his white slash grin wide and bright in the dying light, a stalk chomped between his teeth. Aratula lashed out. Barguru took wounds to the chest, arm and leg. But he fought hard back, landing blows on Aratula’s head and shoulders. They sparred as the sun sank. Neither would give, neither fell. Aratula thought they would be locked in combat forever; the tribe would have to go back to their business, herding, cooking, eating and sleeping, perhaps for days until one lay dead and the other stood triumphant. Their Dongas slapped and whapped on the ground, on their flesh, cutting through skin, painting each other red. Aratula felt no pain, only the red hot flush of fighting anger. He raised his Donga higher than ever before and rained blows down on Barguru with ferocious speed: crack, crack, crack. Quicker than bullets peeling out of the AK47s the men sometimes fired for target practise, in case of Nyangatom raids on the village. Barguru quivered and shook all over like his body was feeling the stampede of a giant wave of cattle. And fell.
Aratula was the banzanai. The tribesmen gathered him up on their shoulders and paraded him around the village.
We round up the herd and set off in the direction of a waterhole that might have drinkable dregs and decent grazing. We walk slowly. Speed only makes the cows thirstier. And Shahuri complain more.
“Where are we heading, Aratula? Isn’t there some good grass just over that rise? Can’t we stop and rest yet? What’s to eat? Have we any meat left?”
I shrug off his tireless questions. He knows the answers as well as me. He’s young but not stupid. I hope this year he will win the Donga contest, get his own herd and leave me in peace with mine.
We walk until the sun is high. It scorches yellow heat over all the grasslands, turning everything it touches grey and brown. It makes the grass brittle, withers it: defeats it. At the waterhole the sun has beat us to it. There is only a puddle. The cows drink until the ground is parched. Then they lick the earth as if to encourage more water to the surface. There is some shade nearby from a baobab tree. The herd scatters to chew to shreds the cooler, moister grass that lies in its shadow. Shahuri climbs the baobab and drops two fruit at my feet. I split them with my machete and we chew the powdery white flesh inside. It is sweet and sharp. I wish we had water to add to it for a long, clean drink. At least while Shahuri chews he doesn’t talk. I spit baobab seeds and stretch out in the shade. There is no wind today; the grass is silent, sulking. The cows munch it down to the dirt. Shahuri stays hushed up. As soon as he falls asleep he will start to snore. He is never quiet for long. I close my eyes.
“Aratula, Aratula, wake up, man.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Look! Look, Aratula. Over there.” His voice is urgent. I sit up.
“Have you bullets?” he asks.
“Use your stick or wave some fire. Lions hate that. If you act like a warrior they will run off. Be brave, man.”
“No, no. Not a lion,” he hops up and down on one leg, “Nyangatom. Coming our way.” His eyes are wide, the whites like two full moons with dark craters in their middle. His teeth are bared, an animal, fierce with fear.
“Nyangatom? Here? They are a long way from home.”
“Tell them, tell them.” He keeps hopping. If he was so light on his feet in the Donga battles he would win for sure.
There are five of them. Nyangatom bastards. Coming closer. Their herd is a few scraggy cows. They plan a raid. My cows to fill their bellies with meat and blood. My fingers worry an old scar on my forearm. I won my Donga, the first and only one I ever fought in, for the right to this herd. Now I provide for it, get grass and water no matter how far we search, how long we struggle. This herd is mine, the grass in their stomachs I won for them, the milk in their udders is the victory drink, the blood in their veins keeps us fresh for fighting.
“Aratula, what we gonna do, man?” Shahuri is running circles around me like a crazed calf. Den sits calmly, watching and grinning.
“Stop, you’re making me dizzy,” I grab his shoulder, “What we gonna do is nothing.” I tip Den a wink. He barks in agreement.
“Nothing?! You’re mad. Shoot ‘em, shoot the Nyangatom bastards.”
“Shahuri,” I tighten my grip on his shoulder, “what you want me to shoot them with? Baobab seeds? We gonna stand our ground.”
“Let’s leave the herd, run for it. They’ll kill us.”
“I’m not surrendering my herd to them so I can run like bloody impala, to save my hide. That’s disgrace. I’m a banzanai. I won’t run and neither will you.” I dig my fingers into the bones of his shoulder, “It’s time to fight, brother. Try to win, eh?”
They are on us. We stand together, Den, Shahuri and I. I tighten my grip on the seedless AK and call out to them.
The leader laughs. He points at the cows.
“We come for them.”
I shake my head. “Go home.”
He turns to the other Nyangatom and chatters. They caw like crows.
“You will die for your cows and we will take them anyway,” he says.
“I am a sagine champion. These cows are mine. Get your own.” I raise the AK.
“That’s why I’m here,” he replies.
Crack, crack, crack. The clapping of hands. Crack, crack, crack. The stamping of feet. Crack, crack, crack. The beating of dongas. Crack, crack, crack. Something worse, much worse.
The grasses whisper and hush in the stillness that settles. Scattered cows are pulled into a herd, swollen with new members drawn like water from a well into the ranks. The Nyangatom get ready to leave with their prize. A dog howls pitifully. The leader lashed a kick at it.
“So much for your master, the great sagine victor,” he tells the dog. He laughs. All the Nyangatom laugh now. They go for home with their newly fattened herd.
The hard ground in the shade of the baobab tree soaks up their blood, Aratula’s and Shahuri’s, drinking in the life liquid, softening like rusks in milk. Hidden seeds belly up with richness, filling and popping, spilling their germinating guts into the red rivulets, rolling and lolling in contentment. Next year the grasses here will be greener, lusher and sweeter. Where there is blood grass grows verdant and happy. Where there is grass there is life.[/private]