1950s in Uganda, East Africa.
Two Bahima herd boys: Zachye and his younger brother Stanley
Stanley moved through the milling cattle and men. Smoke from the small fires burning around the kraal drifted into the dimming sky; as if it was the smoke that darkened it. Soon the milking commenced, with each milker shouting ‘Shi!’ and then the name of a cow.
Stanley and Zachye tend their father’s cattle in the rich grasslands of Kaaro Karungi in East Africa just as their forefathers have done for centuries.
But the old ways are about to be challenged.
Stanley dreamt that his calf had fallen into an ant-bear hole and that he could not lift her out on his own. She was lowing pitiably. He called to Zachye for help, but as Zachye approached hairs sprung from his neck and he turned into a lion (as some men are said to do) and came at him. He woke just as he smelt the animal’s fetid breath, hot on his face. He sought comfort in listening to his mother’s soft snoring, and then turned to confirm that his brother slept peacefully by his side. But Zachye’s bed was empty.
Two British school friends: Michael and Simon
Michael, aged seven, knelt beside his bed in boarding school at lights out, on a prayer mat made by himself in handwork. … Simon also knelt beside his bed, but he was reading Tintin, Destination Moon. Michael felt a little sad for Simon, that he had not let Jesus into his heart, but he also felt a little sad for himself that he was not reading Tintin.
Michael is cocooned in love and lives in a ravishing landscape. Although his family are not well off by expatriate standards, as a child of white Britons he is privileged in comparison to the indigenous population.
But the Kingdom of Heaven is about to be breached.
Stanley walked across a shallow valley to reach the diviner’s kraal. To avoid detection he took a track less frequented and set out during abantu baza omu birago, when the men and boys were resting from the heat of the day. Only those who had a petition came to the diviner’s hut, and like all other children Stanley had always kept away. He did not know how he would be received or whether harm would come from his approach, for there were many restrictions, taboos and rituals that he had not yet learnt.
As he drew close he felt an increasing pressure in his stomach. A tight copse of small, twisted trees and overgrown thicket, like the giant hairball of some monstrous hyena, marked the location of the diviner’s kraal. The copse emitted a carcass-like odour. Animal horns, and black and bronze feathers, hung from a branch as a warning to passers by that the air was viscid with ghosts and spirits. Beside the copse a tall conical hut made entirely of grass hissed in the sun. A fence of thorns surrounded the kraal, but this was only a rudimentary barrier as the diviner had charms that gave protection and warned away animals.
Stanley stopped the length of a late afternoon shadow away, not knowing how to approach. But the diviner had prescience, for he emerged from his dwelling and stood looking at Stanley. Today he wore a simple white robe and a single band of leather around his head.
‘I see you’re well, or do I look on the ghost?’ The diviner’s voice was quiet and low but hinted at suppressed power, like the sound of distant thunder.
‘I’m well, sir,’ Stanley said, his voice thin and squeaky.
‘You may come near.’
Stanley kept his head down and came closer. The diviner motioned him to sit on the earth while he took the stool by the entrance of his dwelling and sat down.
‘What is your request?’
Stanley could not answer although he had rehearsed it. He sat silent.
If you have nothing to say then you must take your leave.’
Stanley spoke, but not the words he had rehearsed. ‘Can a diviner teach a boy like me to read the auguries?’
The charms hanging from the tree moved, although there was no breeze. The hem of the diviner’s robe rippled.
‘These secrets are taught by fathers to their sons.’
‘Oh! My father cannot teach me for he’s not a diviner.’
‘Then you cannot learn to read the auguries.’
That seemed to be the end of the matter, but shortly the diviner spoke again. ‘There is another way. Some see visions to receive their secrets.’
‘I’d like that,’ Stanley said, glancing up at the diviner, who held a thin grey bone in one hand while he ran the fingers of the other up and down its shaft.
The diviner started tapping the bone and Stanley waited eagerly for him to speak again. ‘It’s not for me to give you visions. But maybe Ruhanga will grant these to you.’
Stanley imagined himself sitting on his bed in the dead of night, with Zachye snoring unaware, as a man in a white kumzu came and whispered the secrets of the spirits to him. But there was another matter.
‘Unfortunately, sir, I’m going to school.’
The diviner’s bone snapped in two, although it rested in the palm of his hand.
We’re the cavalry
The long Citroën DS, with its shark-like bonnet, sped out of town, pedestrians and animals running before it like a bow wave, throwing themselves out and away at the last second. Mr and Mrs Adams sat in the front, not talking to each other, while Michael and Simon sat in the back grinning out of the windows. Mr Adams never slowed down, as if he were in a vicious presidential cavalcade. A woman screamed, ‘We’re saved!’ as she pulled her young child from the vehicle’s path.
‘We’re the cavalry, you’re the infantry; we ride, you walk,’ Mr Adams chuckled, and then added grimly, ‘They’ll learn.’
They caught up with a bus, crabbing its laden way, trailing a smelly cloud of exhaust and dust. Mr Adams shifted himself to see past. Michael became anxious, worried that they hadn’t prayed for safety – his family never set off on a journey without asking for protection, and it was always given. As his father prayed he imagined God’s hand holding their Anglia like a Dinky car and guiding it along the road. God could flick obstacles out of their way if necessary or slow them down at junctions if he saw a drunk coming the other way. He wondered what would happen if his father tried to throw off God’s hand by out-accelerating him or taking an unexpected turn. But now he was in a car travelling at speed without any request for God’s help.
‘Can’t we just drop back a bit? One can never be late for a picnic,’ Mrs Adams said, closing her window and placing a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. But Mr Adams was already accelerating out of the dust and the car was swooshing down the side of the bus. Michael could see three hens and a cockerel ahead on the side of the road. He was sure their little eyes widened in terror. They stretched out their necks and started out for the other side of the road. Then Michael saw the child. He looked a younger version of his friend Tomasi and was running after the chickens – towards the road. Michael barely had time to think out the whole thought: the little boy’s family has only got those four chickens and he wants to save them.
Michael heard Mr Adams spit ‘Damn it’ as he floored the accelerator and swerved this way and that. Mrs Adams had covered her eyes with her handkerchief and sat rigid, her head bowed. There was a dull thud and Michael and Simon turned, open-mouthed, to look behind. Their own dust cloud billowed out, already hiding the bus and the road, but on its peripheries red, black and bronze feathers turned in the hot sun like the glowing ashes from a fire.
‘Stop, Henry! You’ve hit the kid,’ Mrs Adams screamed.