“Tangu Tangu…,” called out one of the boys in the group. His name was Okayo.
“Eee (yeees),” chorused the rest.
“Nyang’ omaka (the crocodile has clutched me).”
“Eee. Omako ang’oni (Yeees. Which part of you has it clutched)?”
“Omako tienda (it has clutched my leg).”
He then dived into the water and the others too dived looking for him.
“Ayude (I’ve found him)!” shouted another, resurfacing with Okayo on his back. The others rejoiced.
“Tangu, Tangu,” called out another.
“Eee,” chorused the rest, and the game continued. It was the dramatization of an old folklore in which a fishing crew (Tangu) dared the torrent waves and sea beasts to save the life of a boy seized by a crocodile while bathing at the shore of Nam Lolwe, the great lake of the people.
“Hey! Did you hear that?” cautioned Okayo. They all stopped playing and listened. There was nothing, except the sound of birds chirping on trees and the throbbing river wading down the thick forest.
“Does anyone hear that sound? Oboo, do you?” Okayo asked again. All the boys laughed, all except him. “No. I think I heard something, like a croogling sound.”
“It’s the river and the birds, you chicken,” replied Oboo. They laughed again and returned to playing. After some time, a stone about the size of a hunter’s club-head splashed into the water. The boys stopped playing and looked around scared.
“Who did that?” asked Oboo. He was the eldest among the boys.
“It’s from the bush. I told you I heard something, and you called me a coward,” replied Okayo.
“You didn’t splash that into the water to scare us, did you?” pressed Oboo, chucking his rattle out of the cot. He moved closer to Okayo. “I’m asking you, did you just throw that stone into the water to scare us?” Silence. Suddenly, a man clothed in a pair of short and t-shirt and armed to the teeth jetted out of the bush. Two others, a man and a woman, followed him carrying bags.
“It’s the Blue-eyed. Ruuuun!” shouted Oboo. Fear gave them legs. They started running in different directions. Those who were far from the bank dived into the water.
“Stop! Don’t move,” shouted the armed man. The boys did not understand. The man pulled up his gun in position.
“Stop, James! These are just kids,” implored the woman.
“I know, Grace. I’m using rubber bullets,” replied James.
He pulled the trigger.
“Aaaaaaa aaa aaaaaaa,” one of the boys made a loud heart-jerking shrill and fell onto the ground. He had just been shot at the leg. The other boys at the bank turned and met the dreadful sight of their friend sprawling on the ground, writhing in pain, blood gushing out of his left shank. They were shocked, but would not leave him behind, for the sake of friendship and respect for cultural norms. Neither could they proceed with their escape lest they all be like their friend. They gathered around him. They were about twenty in number.
“Aaaaaa uuuush wooooi. Help meeee. I’m dying,” the shot boy cried even more. They also began to cry, gripped by the agony of their friend and seeing that the two men and woman were crossing over to them.
“James, what did you do? See… you made a real shot,” complained Grace when they had drawn closer to the boys.
“Oh! I forgot to change the bullets. Anyway, it’s no big deal. Can’t you see I just shot the leg of the monkey,” replied James, topping it up with laughter. “Hey, kevin. Won’t you give this coon first aid instead of standing over there like a dry post?”
The man referred to opened his bag and removed a first aid kit. He bent down and began the process of pulling out the bullet and dressing the wound.
Oboo stood in front of the boys, leering at James and stretching out his arms backwards as a form of bulwark to his group. Were they going to be manhandled or taken to a camp far away from home? What did the Blue-eyed want from them? Was it now, after so long, wrong to swim in the river? These questions ran through his mind and set him blazing in a formidable apprehension.
In place of the man standing in front of him, he saw a crocodile that had devoured one of his crewmen and was just about to pounce on another, or perhaps the whole crew. He tried to contain himself, but fear and anxiety found their way out through his arms and legs.
“These naked monkeys…,” said James looking at the boys, and frothing at the mouth. “Oh God… forgive these sinful creatures. Dress them up, Grace. Dress the monkeys.” Grace opened her bag and pulled out a pile of clothes.
“The boys are too many; these won’t be enough,” she said. “Do you want me to go back to the truck, or what are you suggesting?” asked James. “If you don’t mind,” she replied. He looked at her for a moment, then said, “They aren’t your children, I suppose, and tomorrow… is another day, all right?”
“Oh, I wish they were mine,” she mumbled as she turned over the pile of clothes looking for shorts and t-shirts. Then she started clothing them one after the other.
“Eeiish oooo woooi,” the boy moaned as the first-aider pulled the bullet out of his wound.
“Quiet, boy; you will be alright,” he told the boy, placing the bullet on a tissue paper. He washed the wound with spirit and went about bandaging him. “What’s your name?” The boy did not reply, the words fell onto his ears like the sound of a cymbal.
“He is in great pain he won’t even talk to me,” said the first-aider looking at James.
“He told you so? Did you expect it to hear what you’re saying, kevin? You’re such an ass.”
“There’s no need of calling me kevin. We’re either all or no kevins out in this continent.”
“Haha. You’re a working class, George, and I surmise they pay you well for this job… this job of… how do you even call it first-aid-kitting? Haha. We’re all earning, bro. Don’t be pissed off just because I called you a kevin in this dark… Anyway, does being here even change the facts? Hahaha. Once a kevin always a kevin.”
“I think we’re not getting along well, James. I wonder how and why being in the army changed your attitude towards humanity? Next time I’ll prefer going out with someone else.”
“What are you talking about? Are you going to report to Dr. Hobley that I’m stubborn? Hahaha. Go ahead, bro.”
“Not just stubborn, you’re an animal.”
“What! What did you just say? Did you call me an animal?” He moved closer to George.
“Yes, you are. I’m not afraid to tell you, James. In fact even animals have feelings. Look at what you’ve done to this kid.” He stood up and faced him. “You’re an idiot.”
James gave him a clout on the cheek and spat on him, fuming with anger.
George dropped the bottle of spirit he was carrying and turned to James, his eyes red and his breath rapid. He flexed his muscles like a trained fighter and gave James one thunderous blow on his right cheek that sent him flying helplessly like a light piece of paper before dropping onto the ground. The kids stood back in complete awe.
James lay on the ground for some time, shocked by his counterpart’s unexpected burst of energy. He then hoisted himself and sat, peered towards George’s direction, shame nibbling his spine. He rose with full strength and lunged towards him to retaliate, but a carefully planned firm kick from George drove him back to the ground.
The kids began to spectate. Even Grace stood aside, completely taken aback by the revelation of George’s strength. When James stood up again to make his second approach, Grace would not withstand it. He knew the man, he would opt for the gun.
“Hey! Stop! What are you guys doing?” shouted Grace rushing in between them. “This is not right. We have a mission to accomplish.”
“Tell him I’m not an idiot,” said James.
“He needs to know I attended some taekwondo classes as well. Can’t you see what he just did to a little harmless kid? It doesn’t stop here in fact. I’m going to report this to Dr. Hobley.”
“And do you think he’s going to do anything about it?” asked James.
“It’s… it’s OK guys. Stop these silly rantings and fighting. We have to get moving.” She picked up her bag and began to walk away.
“Grace, are we going to leave this kid out here just like this?” asked George.
“What else can we do, dear? I’d love to bring him along with us. But you know it’s not part of our mission and Dr. Hobley and that… and James won’t allow it. You’ve bandaged him properly, allow his friends to take him home.”
“Perhaps Dr. Hobley but not this fool. Ntah!” He packed back his first aid kit and placed it in his bag. They left without saying another word as the boys watched with amazement and relief. The boys lifted up their injured friend and left for home.
This is an excerpt from the historical fiction “The Long-lasting Tree” by Lamittan Minsah published in 2020. Click here to buy a copy from our new bookshop.