A Bellyful of Echoesby Raymond Foster
People of the Ndau tribe in Mozambique are probably no more superstitious than anyone else, but their superstition about the aardvark or antbear being seen outside of its burrow in the daytime is more potent than most. With most superstitions you can merely keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best, but this one calls for direct and drastic action. It can set off a whole chain of events ending perhaps in disaster. Does that disaster follow from the incident, or from the reaction to it?
Tamburikai sat on a termite mound
in the afternoon sun and felt
the hard smooth clay hot
beneath his thighs. A
few pale termites had
trekked out of their nest,
wondering who was
sitting on the roof, and
were peering this way
and that, threatening
with their heavy jaws.
The boy teased the ants
with the end of his stick,
raising little barriers of
sand in front of them and
poking them in the rear.
His attention was not
entirely on the ants however.
His family's goats were browsing on the hill close by, and he kept an eye on them. He'd never lost one yet.
Suddenly he became aware of a scratching, scuffling sound. He stopped poking the ants and sat quite still, moving his eyes cautiously until he saw what it was. Some distance away a fat antbear was clawing at one of the mounds, sending lumps of hard clay flying into the bush and spattering among the leaves with a noise like rain.
"Isambane!" Tamburikai whispered the creature's name, astonished. Nobody expected to see isambane during the daytime; antbears are supposed to come out only at night.
Moving as slowly as a chameleon stalking a fly, Tamburikai stretched up until he was sitting tall and straight and the animal came clearly into view over the long grass. If only he could catch it! Isambane is very good to eat: fatty and sweet. It is also large and powerful, and Tamburikai was only a child. But he pictured himself striding home carrying all that meat. He would be famous!
Isambane broke into the termites' nest, its big ears twitching with excitement as it thrust its long pointed snout inside. Then it pulled its head back out of the hole, ears listening over humpy shoulders, the long tongue flicking in and out, swallowing termites.
Just then a termite found Tamburikai and bit him in the behind. He jumped up and the antbear jumped too, peering around in alarm, then started blundering about looking for its burrow. Tamburikai ran after it, rubbing his behind and laughing.
It was easy to see why isambane usually feeds at night. The sun is too bright for its underground eyes. It found the burrow and dived inside, the tip of its thick tail just disappearing as the boy arrived, and he thrust his arm down the hole, shouting. He could hear the heavy creature galloping along the tunnel, shaking the ground with its huge pounding claws.
The afternoon had come alive for Tamburikai. When you have nothing to do all day but tend the goats you usually start daydreaming or fooling about, but now all the bush was full of interest. He bent down to watch a slender black wasp which had caught an enormous mole-cricket and was dragging it through the sand, legs straddling, wings buzzing furiously. Tamburikai liked mole-crickets, but he didn't much fancy eating this one after the wasp had stung it. Its long curved stinger was still sticking out threateningly, and his toes decided to move out of the way to let the giant wasp pass.
Thinking about the chewy mole-cricket had made him hungry for that nutty-fat insect taste, and he ran down the hill through a swarm of mandere, trying to catch the huge brown chafers as they droned through the air. Every now and then one would collide with a twig and fall on its back, legs waving, and Tamburikai would pounce.
What a strange sensation in your hand, all that clawing and scrabbling! It was quite a job to hold them. Whenever he caught one he opened a corner of his cloth pouch and popped it in quickly. The children like to cook mandere beetles themselves in the evening. It's easy: you just pull off their legs and wings and sit them by the fire.
As the sun slanted through the trees and the last of the mandere disappeared into the bush, Tamburikai climbed back up the hill to round up the goats. It was a long way to the village, and you can't hurry goats. If you try, they run away and hide in the bush.
Tamburikai was just about starving by the time he got home. He flopped down on the hard dung floor of the kaia where his mother was stirring a potful of stew.
"I nearly caught isambane today." he said casually. Mai looked at him questioningly, and he went on: "Yes, I chased a huge antbear through the trees. If it hadn't found its burrow when it did, I would have caught it for sure." Mai stopped stirring the stew and stared at him with her mouth slightly open. Tamburikai said it again, louder this time: "I saw isambane this afternoon and chased it. I nearly ..."
Mai dropped the ladle and stood up, backing away in alarm. Tamburikai thought there must be a hyena or something that had crept up behind him, and he looked around quickly, but there was nothing there. So he got up too, and walked towards his mother, but she ran away and started calling out for father, holding her hands out as though to keep him away.
Tamburikai's father came running up carrying his hatchet, wondering what had happened. He started towards the boy but Mai caught his arm, checking him.
"Don't touch him," she said "He's seen isambane in the afternoon and chased it!"
Baba gaped at him like mother had done. "Tamburikai", he said. "Have you seen isambane in the afternoon and chased it?"
"Yes!" Tamburikai was getting a bit scared now.
"Stay where you are and don't move!" Father held up a warning hand and started to run towards the path.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to fetch the doctor," he called over his shoulder. Then he ran back again. "No, don't leave him standing around loose. Put him in the spare hut—its safer!"
They drove him like a goat into the spare hut, closed the door and wedged a piece of wood across to stop him getting out. There in the darkness he sat on the floor, dry-eyed but feeling rather numb. The cloth holding the mandere beetles had come undone, and they were crawling out. One by one they marched across the floor towards the line of fading light beneath the door, passed through the gap and disappeared. Tamburikai watched them go, too upset to stop them.
After a long time he heard his parents' voices again, and the nganga was with them.
"Open the door then. Let's have a look at him."
The door opened. It was quite dark now. He could see out well enough, but they couldn't see him, sitting on the floor in the dark hut. His parents sounded scared as they peered in through the doorway, calling his name.
"Come out," said Father. "The doctor wants to see you."
Tamburikai's misery had turned to anger. "I'm not coming out now. I'm staying here!"
There was silence outside for a moment. Then he heard his father apologize to the nganga. "He always was stubborn," he said quietly. "When he was being born he shouted 'No!'—that's why we called him Tamburik'ai'."
The old witchdoctor had a go then. He thrust his head through the doorway and shouted: "Tamburikai! Can you hear me?"
"My little ears can hear you," said Tamburikai rudely.
"Come out, Tamburikai," said the nganga. "No-one will hurt you. Listen! Isambane is a creature of the night, hunted at night. If you see one by the light of day and follow it, you will follow demons and talk with ghosts. You will bring death and demons and ghosts to the village."
"You must be purged, Tamburikai," said the nganga. "There is only one way: you must go and live on your own in the Nyamwere for three full moons. Only then will the village be safe."
Tamburikai stood up then and walked out of the hut.
"Baba," said the doctor. "Give the boy your hatchet, because your survival depends upon his. He is your future. Mai, give him your cooking pot, because it falls to you to supply the vessel for his life."
Mother brought out an ordinary earthen pot, but the doctor made her fetch her best metal one, which reluctantly she did.
Tamburikai took the things, then said: "How about some meat to go in the pot?"
But the doctor would not let them give him any food. As he left the village he stopped being angry and was close to tears.
The village graveyard lay between the watered lands and the dry Nyamwere— between living people and ghosts—and the nganga followed him as far as this, to make sure he went all the way. Tamburikai's young eyes could see in the dark like a leopard, and he watched the old man groping around and peering into the night. As he passed the graveyard he crouched low and waited until the nganga had gone. Then he let his pride fall away and had a good cry, alone in the darkness.
His first few days in the Nyamwere were days of hardship. Without a fire he could find nothing to eat. Insects are good—but they make you sick if you eat them raw. On the fourth day he felt very weak. And on the fifth day he started to see strange things.
An ostrich with the body of a porcupine came and stood still, staring. But it wasn't an ostrich or a porcupine; it was the soul of a dead man, and Tamburikai knew
his name. Crouching among the stones he held the empty cooking pot between his knees and tapped it with the hatchet, and the shadowy creature came closer and peered inside.
The metallic clinking of hatchet against pot seemed to attract all sorts of halfseen beings, and Tamburika leaned back against a rock, wrapped his legs firmly around the pot and beat out a good rhythm, to try and see them better.
Flat demons that hugged the ground as close as a snail's belly came looping over the stones and gathered round, wondering. But one very fierce demon came right out of the rock and moved towards him, so he stopped beating the pot and struggled to his feet. Then he hooked the hatchet through the handle of the pot and dragged it behind him, rattling and bumping over the stones. He knew he would have to find some food and water before long.
That night there was thunder and lightning, but no rain: it never rains in the Nyamwere. By morning he had come to the very rockiest part, where huge boulders leaned out of the ground like drunken men. There, hidden behind the rocks, a little grove of trees flourished green in the desert.
He smelled smoke, and stared with bleary eyes. There in front of him lay a freshly killed antelope, stretched out among the stones. He looked again, and there, near where lightning had scorched the ground, the dead roots of an old tree smouldered and smoked, wedged between overhanging rocks.
Beneath the miraculous green trees a little spring gushed up among the stones before plunging out of sight again into the parched ground. Tamburikai dragged the pot to the spring and set it to fill while he drank. Then he collected some fine dry twigs from beneath the trees and fanned the smoulder into a blaze.
While the water was heating, he chopped up some antelope meat and set it to stew. Before long, the stewing meat started to smell so delicious he just sat and watched the pot and dribbled until it was ready. It was the best meal of his life. His stomach felt so full he just lay down and belched, and had a good laugh inside, among all that food.
A few days passed, and the laughter inside him kept on. He separated the rest of the meat carefully, fibre from fibre, and hung it up to dry. It doesn't go bad then and you can eat it raw if you want to. He cleaned the skin with his hatchet and rubbed it with ashes from the fire until it was soft enough to use as a blanket. The overhanging rocks made a beautiful cave: a fortress.
As weeks went by Tamburikai sat up in his battlements, fat and lazy, looking out over the Nyamwere. One afternoon as he was listening to the tinkling music of the cool water he thought how nice it would be if he had a lake. So he set to work building up a little dam with rocks and clay, and after several more days the green trees were dipping their leaves into the water.
Now when he wanted to get cool he had a beautiful lake to play in. The antelopes liked his lake too and came there to drink, so by using a strip of hide as a snare he could replenish his larder quite easily. Sometimes, for a change, he went out to collect mole-crickets, taking care to bank up the fire meanwhile with pieces of root.
The full moon came and went three times. He knew they would be expecting him back at the village, but it didn't seem very urgent—he was quite happy where he was. One morning, the old witchdoctor came down the Nyamwere to look for him. Tamburikai lay on top of his castle and watched him poking about among the rocks. The sun was hot and had set all the stones shimmering, and he was squinting around in the glare. His old eyes couldn't see the little wisp of smoke from the fire. He stood there, calling.
"Tamburikai!" The echoes threw the name back at him again and again: "Tamburikai ... 'mburikai ... 'mburikai ..."
Finally the nganga stopped calling, had a last look around, and turned back towards the village. Tamburikai climbed down and followed him at a distance, to make sure he had really gone. Then he went home to his cave and put his dinner on to cook.
One evening as he ate his stew he had a good think. There was only one good reason for going back to the village now: it was time, he reckoned, for the mealies to be harvested, and he really missed having a nice corn-cob to eat. He resolved to sneak down to the village fields that night, and help himself.
As it grew dark he took an antelope skin and ran through the Nyamwere, past the graveyard, and around the edge of the village. Everything was quiet. He couldn't find the mealie fields at first, and he groped around in the dark for some time. And when he finally knew he was in the right place, there was nothing there except a few wispy dry plants rustling around his ankles.
Had he got the seasons wrong, after living on his own for so long? Suddenly he realized why the place seemed so quiet: the tinkling music of the little stream that watered the fields was missing. He crept towards the tall shadows of the grain stores, stark on their supporting poles. Finding one of the trapdoors he reached up and opened it. The store was empty.
He picked his way to the edge of the trees and sat there, resolved to wait until morning. Curiosity was burning him now. He watched as the night drifted away and the village turned from black to orange. People started to emerge, and they all looked strangely old and bent. A child came in sight, hobbling feebly, and paused at the edge of the clearing.
Tamburikai stood up, and the child looked at him with eyes that seemed huge in an ancient face. His body was skin and bone, supported by a gas-bag belly. His lips moved painfully.
"Food ...? Water ...?"
Tamburikai shook his head and turned away quickly, suddenly ashamed of his own plump flesh. It did not seem right to stay.
Near the graveyard an old man sat on the stones, arguing with the empty air. As Tamburikai approached he recognized the old nganga. The man struggled to his feet, a stooping, living skeleton draped with a baboon-skin robe. The red stone he wore on a band around his forehead seemed to reflect his staring bloodshot eyes.
The nganga let out a terrible cry as he recognized the boy. "Ai, Tamburikai! What have you done?" He pawed at the air. "Take them back! Take them back!"
The doctor was plainly out of his mind. Mad people can be dangerous, and there was no point in taking chances. Tamburikai hurried past with a polite greeting:
"Good morning, sir. I hope you are well?"
He kept walking until he had reached his castle, and put his breakfast on to cook. The mealies would just have to wait another year.