Mbambe raised a hand to his brow to shield his eyes as he insipidly gazed around him. The sun was relentless. It beat down on his bare body with intensity akin to fire. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face even as he tried to wipe them with his palm. His skin was burnt like cinder in the heat. All around him, the Namib Desert stretched. Arid and desolate it was a hard mistress. But to Mbambe and his tribe, the Kaoka people, it was home. The only one they had ever known.
Tired and with his strength depleted, Mbambe ran his tongue over his cracked, dusty lips. He was parched. His throat was dry, crying out for even the teeniest bit of moisture. He looked around but for as far as his eyes could see, there was no water to be seen. The landscape was dotted with Nara plants clustered atop small sand dunes but they too were few and far between. They offered little shade or moisture to suck. What he needed was a Welwitschia plant so that he could break open a leaf and suck the moisture from that to slake his rabid thirst. But, there were none in this stretch of the desert. Finding one would be a miracle. He would just have to bear the thirst and plough on in his quest.
Thirst was not a new sensation for Mbambe. He was used to it and in fact he, much like all the dwellers of the desert, could subsist on very little water. But there was a difference between ‘very little water’ and ‘no water’.
The last few years had been hard on his tribe. Nomadic and pastoral in nature the tribe had called the desert home always. In the early days the desert had not been so unforgiving. Even though she predated the Chilean Atacama, she had still held a scattering of oases that had been spread throughout the expanse. Mbambe’s tribe and many others had flourished on the banks of these oases and raised cattle and other livestock. Their lives had been rich with food then. They had prospered and grown in number.
Alas! The scenario had changed drastically in the last century. Slowly the oases had started drying up. With each oasis that dried up, the tribe had moved away to find a new one. But, in the last decade, it had become difficult for the primitive people to find more oases. The poor uneducated people failed to understand reasons for the drying up of the oases. They had no knowledge of global warming or of climactic phenomenon. They chalked up the loss to god’s anger thinking they must have or their actions must have somehow angered their gods. As always in inclement times such as the ones they faced now, they turned to their gods for deliverance from this state.
Like his father, his grandfather, and generations before them, Mbambe was a warrior and hunter for his tribe. It was his job, like it had been his ancestors’, to scour the desolate vastness of the desert in search of new oases, food and water sources for the tribe. Mbambe had grown up listening to tales of valour and bravery. His family had excelled at this duty for as far back as the lore went. The responsibility had been recently handed to sixteen year old Mbambe by his terminally ill father.
On his deathbed, his father, the chief of the tribe, had extracted a promise from Mbambe. ‘Promise me son that you will honour the family legacy and make our forefathers proud. You have to deliver. You have to find a new home for our people. Show them that you can lead and protect them after me. Promise me son.’
How could Mbambe refuse? So, he had promised his dying father. This was his legacy, his role within his tribe. They were all depending on him. So, he had to succeed. His family’s honour depended on his success. But so far, even after a hard ten day’s search, Mbambe had not found a new oasis, just some Nara dunes.
‘Mukuru…have mercy. My people are dying,’ he pleaded as he fell on his knees, clasped his hands together and prayed to the patron God. ‘There is no water to be had. Our oasis has dried up. We have lost half of our cattle and livestock. Nearly one fourth of our people are dead. My father is gone. Have mercy O great Mukuru, have mercy.’
Mbambe sobbed but in the oppressive heat even the tears refused to come. They had dried up much like his hopes were drying up. Dispirited and dehydrated, he retreated into the shadow of the nearest Nara dune. He picked off a few spiny leaves and chewed on them for some succour.
In the distance something shimmered.
‘Probably just another mirage,’ he thought listlessly. Mirages were not uncommon in the desert. They could entice a thirsty traveller with the lure of water only to dash the hopes as you neared. Suddenly he felt a wave of dizziness descend. His head swam and he slumped to the ground in a faint.
When he came to, he found himself in a small thatched hut. A man was squatting next to him. In the dim light that permeated the hut, he looked quite fearsome. Tall and wiry, he seemed old even though he was not bent. His wizened face looked like it had weathered many seasons. Covered in otjize*, his skin shimmered red gold as it caught the rays of the sun that was spilling in through the crags in the thatched roof. His hair was fashioned backwards into a horn shaped braid. He was bare bodied except for a loin cloth made of sheep skin, draped around his groin. His chest was adorned with beaded necklaces. They clinked as he shifted on his haunches. A huge lion’s fang hung from a black thread and rested midway to his navel. His face was painted in shades of red, black and ash. He smiled a toothless smile, as Mbambe came awake.
‘Mukuru…you heard me,’ mumbled Mbambe and fell to the man’s feet in obeisance.
The old man cackled at that. His entire body shook and he clutched a hand to his tummy in an effort to rein in his mirth.
‘Ha, ha, ha…I am not Mukuru,’ he said finally.
‘I am Opuwu. I am a shaman, an itinerant mendicant,’ he replied proudly.
‘Oh, a shaman,’ Mbambe said disappointed. ‘Then you cannot help me.’
‘You dare insult a learned shaman?’ Opuwu’s voice rose a notch in indignation.
Immediately contrite, Mbambe proffered an olive branch by apologizing. Nobody ever dared to insult or challenge the shamans. They were legendary mystics who guided tribes and angering one of them could bring great misfortunes. Mbambe’s tribe could not afford any more misfortunes then the ones already heaped on them.
‘I apologize, O great shaman. I fear the desolation of the desert is reflecting in my thoughts. Please forgive me.’
The shaman laid a hand on Mbambe shoulder.
‘Rise,’ he said, ‘Sit with me and tell me child what brings you here, to the middle of nowhere.’
‘I am scouting for water O great shaman. My people are dying. Even our shaman is dead. My father, the chief is also dead. Our oasis has dried up and our tribe will be forever gone if I do not find water to sustain us and our livestock.’
‘Hmm…That is indeed a grave predicament,’ replied the shaman. ‘But, I fear there is no water in these parts. The gods seem angry with your tribe if they have taken even your shaman. You have possibly taken more than was intended from the land. You have plundered it. Your avarice has angered the gods.’
‘O great shaman, help me,’ sobbed Mbambe as he heard the ominous words.
‘Do not fear O child. I shall pray with you, for you and your people. You have invoked the wrath of the gods. Now, you must appease them. I will help,’ said the shaman handing Mbambe a foul smelling paste. ‘Eat this and rest before we begin with the prayers. Gather your strength. You will need it for the quest that lies ahead. This quest is both your destiny and your deliverance.’
Confused and yet grateful to receive help, Mbambe licked the paste and slipped into a peaceful sleep. When he awoke hours later, he felt strong and rested. The sun was setting. The sky was painted red and orange in the dying rays. The veil of heat had lifted and the desert was rapidly cooling. It never ceased to amaze him how the desert changed from day to night. It was almost magical.
He exited the hut. Outside, Opuwu, dressed in his full ceremonial attire, was stoking an Okurowu*. A hat made of feathers adorned his head. A stack of dried Nara stalks were heaped on one side, ready to be added to the fire. He was chanting, the age old chant to invoke the spirits of the ancestors to heed the plea of the people. Mbambe stood transfixed. He had never seen a shaman conduct the sacred ceremony. He realized it was quite an honour for him because the ceremony was reserved for the chief of the tribe’s eyes only.
Unmindful of his presence, Opuwu danced around the fire chanting and ululating. He periodically beat upon a drum that he held in one hand as he called to the ancestors to carry the message up to the gods in heaven.
‘O great ancestors hear our words and carry our plea to Mukuru,’ he chanted. ‘We have sinned. We understand the error of our ways. We took more than what was intended. Deliver us, O great ones. Guide us and bestow upon us your blessings once again. Carry our message to the gods. O great Mukuru, forgive us. Save us Mukuru. Save us and bless us. Keep us in your favour.’
Over and over Opuwu chanted, dancing around the fire till at long last, after a few hours, he fell silent. In meditative contemplation he sat by the smouldering embers and beckoned to Mbambe.
Mbambe approached warily. ‘Now we wait child for the embers to cool. In the ash shall be visible the path we must take to reach our goal. That will show us the direction of our quest.’
Mbambe squatted close to the shaman and waited as the embers cooled. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, just before the sun was to rise, the shaman reached a hand in and picked up a fist full of ash. Raising his fist high above his head, he let the ash fall to the ground. As it trickled out of his fist and fell, some of the ash billowed out and blew west.
‘There! See that child,’ Opuwu exclaimed, ‘That is where we must go if we are to deliver your people from their misfortune.’
‘I don’t understand. There is nothing there but more desert,’ said Mbambe fighting back his disappointment.
‘Hah! Nothing but desert, you say. Ignorant child, in the west is the great sea, not the desert. The world we live in comprises of five elements. All of the elements namely, air, water, soil, ether and fire, working together, create harmony in the world. But if even one of the elements is out of sync with the others, then it angers the gods and creates disharmony. Our gods are angry with you and your people so they have taken away an important element, water. We must now go to the source of water and journey west in our quest to bring it back to your people. This quest is the penance you must pay to the gods for using the resource judiciously. This quest is how you must atone for your sin and make the gods favour you once again. Only then can your people be saved,’ saying so Opuwu picked up his wooden staff and started walking westward.
Caught unawares, Mbambe stood agape for a few seconds before scrambling behind the shaman. He had no idea that the gods had been so angry. His father had never told him that.
‘Thank god I met the shaman. Now I am sure to find a solution for my people,’ he thought to himself as he trotted beside Opuwu.
They walked at a steady pace for a few hours. At noon, they squatted under the shade of a few Nara bushes and ate a simple meal of millet bread. Then they commenced their journey again. They walked west undeterred for a couple of days, only stopping to rest and gather their strength. On the second day, they caught sight of a Welwitschia plant.
‘Mukuru listens,’ cried Opuwu letting out a whoop on sighting the plant. The presence of the Welwitschia meant that there was a source of water at hand. The plant was proof. As if revitalized, with renewed fervour, both men hastened their pace and continued on west. The landscape changed as they moved westwards. It was still desolate and arid but there was more vegetation to be seen now. There were more Welwitschia plants to be seen as well.
On the third day, Mbambe spotted something shimmering in the desert. It appeared to be waves of water rolling in the sand, sparkling as they caught the rays of the sun. It was just a small patch around which were clustered a few dots of green.
‘Must be another mirage,’ mumbled Mbambe too tired to even hope. But, Opuwu cackled his toothless laugh. ‘No, it is not a mirage. It is an oasis. Mukuru has listened. He has blessed us. Mukuru is our saviour.’
Mouth agape, in stupefied silence, Mbambe gawked at the shaman. Could it really be true? Was his search really at an end? Had he found water for his tribe? Were they saved now? As if in a trance, he looked from the shaman to the shimmering mirage before setting off in a run towards it. Intent only on the glimmering waves ahead of him, he ran unmindful of the heat or his own physical state.
Finally, he reached it. Yes! The shaman was right. The prayers to Mukuru had worked for it was indeed an oasis but to Mbambe it looked like a piece of heaven. Thirstily he fell to the water and first prostrated his thanks to Mukuru, as was customary. Only then did he cup a handful and slake his thirst, laughing and grinning idiotically as the shaman approached at a more sedate pace. Their thirst quenched, both men sat side by side happy in the knowledge that the God’s had been appeased, that their quest had borne fruit. They did not know what mistake of theirs had made God snatch away a precious element from their lives but in their simplicity they were willing to still atone and make amends for it.
The next morning, before dawn, both men set off back for the interiors to help guide the kaoka’s to the oasis. The journey back, although no less ardours, took less time and in a few days they were at the settlement.
It was dusk when they neared the sparse hutments. A pall of gloom hung over the few huts. There was no hubbub of activity. No children were playing. There were just a handful of people clustered around the communal cooking fire. The number of livestock in the communal pen seemed to have reduced. More animals had probably died due to lack of water. As the two men neared, an old woman stirring a pot on the fire looked up. It was Mbambe’s mother.
‘It’s Mbambe,’ she cried joyously. ‘He has returned. My son, the saviour has returned.’ She leapt up, as fast as her malnourished body would allow and hugged her son to her bare bosom. People spilled out of their huts and came to cluster around the duo, their faces turned to Mbambe in eager anticipation. There was the same unspoken question on each face.
‘We are saved mother,’ said Mbambe. ‘I found water. I found an oasis where we can all live together for a long time.’
A cheer went up at the words. The tribe folk hugged Mbambe and hailed him as their saviour. Overnight the tribe bundled up their meagre possessions, heaped them on the bony backs of their remaining cattle and set off at dawn. The journey was difficult for the old people. The children suffered too in the heat. The tribe had to take frequent breaks to rest and recoup and they lost a few old people enroute but they pressed on nonetheless, undaunted till they reached their destination. They were eager to start their life anew albeit with a few changes so as not to anger the gods a second time.
Today, even though many years have passed since this incident, the Kaoka tribe is still settled in the very oasis discovered by Mbambe and Opuwu. Mbambe was crowned the tribe chief soon after the Kaoka’s settled at the new oasis. Opuwu was unanimously adopted as their shaman. Life returned to normal.
However, the people have adjusted their way of life to honour the gods and to ensure that they treat water with the respect that the element deserves. As penance, the Kaoka women no longer bathe in water. As part of their amends to the gods the tribal women take smoke baths* in order to maintain personal hygiene. Water is used solely for sustenance and as part of ceremonial customs. It is accorded the high esteem that it deserves.
AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story is a work of fiction. The characters and the tribes mentioned are fictitious but the practices mentioned like ‘smoke bath’ are real. The many tribes that call the Namib home consider water to be more of a sacred than a scarce resource. To them it is not just a necessity; it is something that they revere.
I was inspired to write this story because we humans are not just avaricious but also wasteful in our use of water. An element, a life giving force that we take for granted and waste indiscriminately, is really hard to come by for the people of arid regions. And yet, it is these very people who are the most content lot on earth and who have learnt to use the resource most judiciously. Even in the dearth of this resource, they find newer ways to conserve it.
My story is a salute to such people.
otjize – a mixture of butter fat and ochre on their bodies not only as a “sunscreen” to protect against the sun but as an aesthetic as well.
Okurowu – Okurowu means the holy fire. Kept continuously alight, the holy fire represents the ancestors of the villagers, who act as intermediaries to the god, Mukuru.
Smoke bath – The women put some smouldering charcoal into a little bowl of herbs (mostly leaves and little branches of Commiphora trees) and wait for the smoke to ascend. Thereafter, they bow over the smoking bowl and due to the heat they will start perspiring. For a full body wash they cover themselves with a blanket so that the smoke gets trapped underneath the fabric. This is a practice followed by the tribal women of Himba in the Namib Desert.
published first on penmancy