I stood at his gate, my uncle’s gate. Ok, there was no gate, just an opening which indicated there should have been a gate. My heart was thumping like Zulu drums. I must have been doing around 8.5 on the Reitcher Scale. He was a weird man, my uncle. They at the local liquor spots called him ‘jungle’! He had a tendency of bashing up fellow drinkers whenever he felt they were stepping out of protocol. His house, his 3 roomed L- shaped house was in the middle of lots of muthanduku and mukinduri trees in a ka mini forest, part of his father’s, my grandfather’s expansive land.
It was made of cypress wood, poorly cut, leaving gaping spaces that rats would check in and out of his house unmonitored. Jungle never seemed to notice this. If he did, he must have considered it artistic.
Jungle loved reading ‘Mine Boy’ and ‘The Concubine’.
I heard him lock his door, a clear sign that it was me against the dark of the night, the ghosts lurking behind those trees, the spirits of the ancestors, millions and millions of them lying in the womb of the earth below me, rising up like smoke, willing me to be the man my community expected me to be. I had to become a man, i had to fight, i had to embrace my fear and face any imminent death with a smile.
I had left the spear and Maasai sword his father, my grandfather had given me. I had left them at home, neatly stacked at the back of my bedroom door. I felt naked without my weapons, i had to be a real man and fight with what i had.
I regretted not coming along with Bosco my dog. I tell you this was a dog with the heart of a tiger. He fed on bones and left over ugali and cow hide and cow ears cut into manageable pieces. The cow hide Uncle Jungle brought from the slaughter house at Dagoretti market.
Bosco never fancied fruits or dessert or brown bread.
He, Jungle used to slaughter cows at the slaughter house. He was an expert at slaughtering things.
By the looks of it, my weapons were limited to the akala i wore on my feet. They had an antenna which i had decorated with Rastafarian coloured beads. Not much of a weapon per se, but they would come in handy if i chose to run for dear life.
The ghosts lurking in the trees were peeping cautiously, waiting for their moment to attack me, perhaps take me by surprise.
I looked right, then left, behind me and straight ahead on the long, narrow path which led back home. Home was at the end of that path, i had left my mother, my brother, my grandmother huddled around the fire roasting maize. Jungle’s father was in his room, listening to Radio BBC and spitting now and then out of the window. Me, i should have been there with them but uncle Jungle wanted me to become a man, not a maize roaster.
I sighed, took a deep breath and did what any sane gentleman would do in that instance. I took off at such surprising speed i awoke the night air from its slumber; my ancestors whistled in astonishment. I swear i saw the ghosts in the trees take off after me. They were flying in between the maize plantations laughing menacingly and i ran on just hoping that nobody i knew saw me do a Usain Bolt down the home stretch.
At the corner to our home i almost crashed into the bourgan vellia fence, navigating it at around 92 kmph; a notch above the speed limit. At last i was safe. I had to take a few minutes to resume normal breathing; i would have hated to be seen as the coward by the women in the family.
This was just one of the many instances i had to prove that i was ready to be a man prior to ‘facing the knife.’ Escorting uncle Jungle to his jungle was meant to make me fearless. On the contrary it transformed me into a Usain Bolter.
There was this one time my grandfather; Uncle Jungle’s dad put me up for night security duty in our homestead. We were losing too many chickens to a couple of mongoose, in our native language called ‘keiho’. I feared this animal, not that i had ever seen it but the picture i had of it in my mind was leopard or jaguar-like; something that would shred a human being to pieces. If i had a choice i would have opted out of it but Jungle’s dad would have none of it.
And if uncle jungle heard that i had chickened out he would make me the laughing stock of the village. The domino effect of such an accusation would be that Suzanna, the girl i had a mad crush on would see me as a 0.5 man. That would have been a tragedy!
I had to do it, for Suzanna, for 1.0 man!
So the day, or rather night came. Mongooses usually attack at kedo 3ish in the AM. Plan was to wake at 2ish and lie in wait till they appeared. You see, i love my sleep. Jungle’s dad on the other hand never slept. He always seemed to be half awake every time. I wonder what else he plotted other than lying in wait for the mongoose.
Now, there we were, huddled together behind the chicken house. He wore his heavy corduroy jacket; i wore an abridged version of the same make. Suddenly we heard some rustling on the other side of the chicken house. The cockerels made a clucking sound, Bosco started barking furiously and i had an overwhelming urge to visit the John. I was pretty certain that was the mongoose. My stomach filled with water. I wanted to run away. I should have called KWS. This was not going well; this was not becoming a man!
Jungle’s dad crept slowly towards the entrance of the chicken house; i followed keeping a safe distant. He was armed with a machete, yours truly had a crowbar. The torch was out of batteries, so i had carried our lantern. A funny lantern this one, had an image of a bat on one side, a huge crack on the other covered shabbily with a piece of carton. It barely provided enough light for hunting scavengers.
It threw fascinating shadows of Jungle’s dad and his corduroy jacket against the dark of the night. I passed the lantern on to him. He stood up, in all his glory, and i dwarfed behind him in all cowardice. Suzanna was out of my mind. I looked back, measuring the distant to the main house. The distant was just about enough for me to make a hurried sprint just in case the mongoose came with mercenaries. If all else failed i would jump into the cow shed, Nyameni’s cowshed. Nyameni was our black heifer. Mongooses never hunt for red meat.
He, my grandfather was all calm, holding the lantern in his left hand, carefully studying the deep shadows all around us. It may have reminded him of the jungles of Madras when he fought for queen and colonizers and glory and money and a good retirement. He had a big nose, i could not see it from behind but i knew it was big. He was sniffing out the mongoose.
What i could clearly discern from my vantage position behind him was his bow legs. Now this fascinated me. I wondered what he would do if the keiho came charging at us. Sure as his corduroy jacket was brown, i was pretty certain the animal would pass right through his legs before he could even say, “Haiyaaaaaa!!”
I chuckled, stifled a bout of laughter. Should that be the case then i would be in deep trouble. I prayed that the Lord may ‘un-bow’ or ‘in-bow’ grandfather’s legs so that the vicious creature would not pass through.
I also prayed that He maketh me into a writer-man; like Chinua Achebe, Kiriamiti or Ngugi Wa Thio’ngo. That was years before i read Binyivanga Wainana’s Discovering Home. These men never lay in wait for mongoose at 3 past midnight!
Anyways, i was guaranteed of becoming a man, with my own thingira next to Nyameni’s shed where i would bring in girls and Muratina and play Bob Marley’s redemption song amid the stench of cow dung among other assorted insects.