Itsandra was a tiny, picturesque fishing village set on the edge of an African Island. It sat on a spectacular island, flanked by the aquamarine sea and dotted with bright green banana groves. The frothy waves merged with the pristine white sands to demarcate the dense jungles from the playful sea. The sweet smell of the bright yellow Ylang Ylang flowers permeated the island during the seasons and became the soul smell of the place.
The tribals who lived on the Island were the gentle and sweet-tempered Chezanis. Fishing and farming were their occupations. The Chezanis lived by their tenets that had been inculcated into their lives since times immemorial. Their lifestyles were simple but their traditions and religious ceremonies were rich with elaborate rituals.
Their two main Gods were Ogo the evil and Ojo the good. One of their important annual festivals was called Mokote, which was a confrontation between Ojo and Ogo. People wearing masks danced wildly to drum beats, keeping time to the feisty incantations. They went around an effigy that represented Ogo. The elaborate rituals involved a choreography that orchestrated the triumph of virtue over evil. Or Ojo over Ogo. Finally, the high priest wearing the Ojo mask would do a ceremonial and symbolic killing of the Ogo by thrusting a spear, deep into the effigy.
The dancers would throw flaming torches on the figure and watch Ogo turn into a ball of fire and burn up.
People rejoiced over the slaying of the malevolent Ogo and the triumph of the benevolent Ojo. There would be berry wine drinking and feasting over fish and ox that would go on till midnight.
The Chezanis had sets of decrees and laws, governing their discords. The deciding authorities for all disputes were the village headman and the high priest.
Because their life was simple and their livelihood, not very competitive, the majority of the quarrels that came up for judgment involved Love: The most complicated relationship of all.
A large thatched hut, set in the middle of the village was their courtroom. The morning breeze from the sea rustled through it on this clear day.
The High Priest and the village headman had donned their ceremonial caps made of colorful feathers and sat on the high chairs placed prominently. Their seats were engraved with imposing tribal artwork.
Chiamaka and Malaika stood on one side of the judges and Kimoni on the other. All three of them were seventeen years old. Both sides had presented their cases and everyone was waiting for the judgment.
Chiamaka was tall and well built, his ebony-colored skin glinting in the sunlight. Malaika was a stunning-looking girl. She was tall and lissome with a voluptuous figure. Caramel-colored frizzy hair framed her chiseled face.
Kimoni was short and squat with a bulbous nose and angry pouting lips.
The subdued chattering in the courtroom fell to silence as the judges prepared to pass the judgment.
The village Highpriest spoke in an imposing voice.
“The Chezani’s court book is very permissive about love and lovemaking. We usually look on with fond indulgence when two young people fall in love or explore their sexuality. When such a relationship results in babies we have the extended families to take care of them. Having babies is encouraged by our rule book because more kids mean more hands to work. More fishermen to bring in the food and more gentle female hands to nurture.”
He paused and looked at the villagers gathered in the courtroom.
“But we have a clause that if the two young people in love happen to be close cousins then such a union is not encouraged. Because our ancestors have noted that some children born of such a union are impaired and are born deformed. However, in a closed community like ours, it is not practical to follow this rule to the T. So we only look at this clause when a villager accuses a pair that they are cousins and cannot pursue their love and courtship.”
The Priest paused and turned towards the headman signaling for him to continue.
The headman took a sip of water from the coconut husk placed near him and delivered the verdict.
“Kimoni has accused Chiamaka and Malaika of being cousins and has produced evidence in the form of relatives’ verbal testimonies. The court has talked to all the relatives and finds that Chiamaka is indeed, a very distant cousin of Malaika. The court does feel this does not warrant their forcible separation. But keeping the island guidelines in mind, and going by the book, this court instructs Chiamaka and Malaika to break up. They cannot meet or talk to each other unless accompanied by adults. They are forbidden from meeting privately. If they are seen to be disobeying the court’s order the judges can make sure that Chiamaka’s fishing rights will be withheld. Both he and Malaika will become outcastes and they can also be imprisoned in separate cells.”
Malaika’s expressive eyes pooled up in sudden tears and Chimaka looked crestfallen. They instinctively moved towards each other as if defying the court orders. They turned their hate-filled eyes on Kimoni.
Kimoni was the son of the village mask maker, Rajabu.
Chiamaka, Malaika and he were childhood buddies. They had swung from trees, swam the seas, and waited on the shore together for their fathers to come home on their boats loaded with fish. Their mothers had fed them Cassava Ugali, sitting side by side, at the community hall. They went to the same school.
As they entered their teens, their childhood friendship transformed into a competitive relationship. Malaika had changed from a gawky teenager to stunning beauty. Almost everyone in their class was in love with her. Kimoni and Chiamaka who had had a good friendship with each other became rivals for her affection.
Soon Kimoni realized that his gauche carriage and gross looks were no match to Chiamaka’s glamour and elegance.
He had watched with pent-up rage as both his best friends fell deeply in love. They had started avoiding him and secretly meet up together. He had seen their intimacy grow with time. He became outrageously jealous of them. He simmered with resentment at their growing closeness.
One day as he sat at home, he heard his mom and her friends gossip about the fact that Chimaka and Malaika were distant cousins. Despite his family discouraging him, he appealed to the courts that they cannot be allowed to continue with their romance.
It was the evening of the judgment. Kimoni had been following the pair of them, trying to keep tabs on them. He suddenly realized that they had disappeared.
He got back home and sat alone on the beach, outside their hut, watching the sea. The raging waves were reflecting the storming anger within him.
He suddenly remembered the cove on the island, that had these small caves set deep in the hills. This secret cove had fuelled their childhood adventures. They had played truant from their families hiding in these caves.
The cove was set on the opposite side of the island. It lay a few miles from Itsandra, their village. It was accessed by walking across dense forests or more easily by swimming along the coast.
He knew they must be there, together. Away from his prying eyes. His jealousy burned him up. He was determined to find them in a compromising position and inform the court
Kimoni reached the cove, swimming against the currents.
He waited hidden behind the clump of coconut trees that abounded the cove. He saw them come out of the cave, hands around each other. He could see from their body language that they had been making love inside the cave. His anger brimming up, he scooted around stealthily till he could hear them speak.
Malaika held Chiamaka’s hand and spoke passionately “I can’t live without you Chiam. I’d rather die!”
Chiamaka took her chin in his hands, looked into her eyes, and said “Don’t worry *Mpenzi Wangu. Nothing in the world is going to divide us or undo our love. I have made arrangements.”
Malaika looked up at him questioningly.
Chiamaka replied, “Let’s run away. Do you remember Elimu? My cousin, who lives on the mainland? I had sent him a message through a friend and he has replied. Saturday, early morning at 4 AM, he is bringing a boat around to this cove. I will be here by 3. You pack a few dresses and meet me here by 3.30 AM. Elimu will take us to the mainland by boat. We can stay hidden for a while at his house. Later, I can find a job there and we can live together. Forever and ever.” He looked deeply into her eyes. His hands found hers and clutched at them with passion.
Malaika let out a stifled sob. “All our troubles are because of Kimoni. If he had minded his own business we could have continued to live happily with our families. No one else has any objection to our love.”
Chiamaka patted her head and said with quiet loathing, “Kimoni’s end is going to be at my hands. I have sworn that I will come back and kill him with my bare hands. But first I want to keep you safe. Come, *Mpenzi Sana, let me take you home safely. I can walk with you till we reach the village border.”
Kimoni waited till they climbed the hill and then swam back home, kicking at the water viciously, fuming at his erstwhile friends.
Back home, he lay on the straw mat thinking furiously. He knew there was no use complaining to the court. The village headman had tried to discourage him when he went with the first complaint. The elders were not going to stop the pair of lovers.
The idea hit him, suddenly. He would kill Chiamaka. Secretly! No one would know. Malaika would be sad for a while. But he would be with her helping her get over him. He would make her realize how much he loved her. He would make her fall in love with himself.
Mokote was fast approaching. Rajabu, the mask maker had to finish making the Ojo Mask. He sat outside their hut, painstakingly and lovingly coloring it as the evening sun was setting. Thick lips pouting with concentration and forehead glistening with sweat, he bent over the mask. He used ochres and whites and gold- the colors signifying prosperity, purity, and wealth. As his hands deftly painted the mask, outlining the features with finesse, his lips muttered an ancient prayer invoking OJO to grant godliness to the one who wears it. These were not the common masks that were sold to the tourists. This was the ceremonial mask worn by the high priest for the Mokote festival to kill OGO, the evil God.
Rajabu had faith that as long as the man wore the mask and personified God, he would imbibe the divine qualities that he had endowed on the mask. Human attributes like avarice, greed, pettiness, and jealousy would recede from his mind.
For the brief time he wore the mask, he would be God!
He worked on the mask with piety and reverence.
Kimoni sat on the doorstep of the hut and watched his dad paint the masks. His mind was elsewhere. Today was Thursday. He had to do something by tonight if he wanted to make sure Malaika and Chiamaka were torn asunder. He wanted the hatred in Malaika’s eyes to be replaced by love. Dare he do it? Could he kill Chiamaka?
He remembered Chiamaka’s determination to kill him and his mind was made up.
His dad had finished painting those infernal masks and hung them to dry. The special Ojo Mask was placed, reverently on a rock, where it would catch the sun for the whole of next day and dry.
It was already 2 AM going by the stars and the moon. He would swim straight to the island. Chiamaka would be waiting there eagerly for his precious love. Kimoni would take him by surprise, force him into the ocean and hold him tightly underwater till he stopped struggling. Then he would tow him deeper and leave him there to be tugged away by the sea.
When Malaika realized he was not coming, she would panic and decide to return home. Later, he would go to her offering his sympathy and slowly inveigle his way into her heart.
As he left home, he had a sudden thought. What if Elimu or some early fishermen see him killing Chaimaka? He would have to take care not to be identified. Absently he picked up the Ojo mask from the rock. He would wear it and no one would identify him.
His natation fuelled by a quiet fury, he soon reached a spot slightly ahead of the cove. He walked the distance towards where Chaimaka would be waiting, the mask hanging from his wet hands and dripping seawater.
There was Chiamaka. Sitting on the rock very near to the sea edge, with an excited smile on his face. He would walk stealthily from behind and take him by surprise. Kimoni put on the mask and waited for the moon to go behind the clouds.
That’s when it happened. All the rancor he had been holding against his friend slowly leached out of his soul. The cobwebs of jealousy and rage disappeared and his mind became clear. Dispassionately, he thought about what would happen after he killed Chiamaka. Would Malaika ever forget Chiamaka? He thought about how her eyes would light up whenever she looked at him.
He suddenly understood that the choice was purely Malaika’s. She had every right to choose whom she wanted to be with. The fact that she was in love with Chiamaka was in no way supposed to be an insult to him.
Could he bear to see her sorrow and despair? Wasn’t true love about making your partner happy, even if it made you sad? He decided he was not going to interfere in their lives any longer. Let them live a life of love and happiness wherever they chose.
He slowly edged away, slid into the sea, and swam back home. He was sad but at peace with his decision.
He reached home as the dawn was breaking. He replaced the mask and went into the hut and lay down on his mat.
When he woke up, his dad was finishing the incantations with the words, “Revered OJO, may the wearer of this mask be forever good, like you!”
Mpenzi Wangu: My love
Mpenzi Sana: My dearmost
Natation: Another word for swimming. The only other synonym.
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