Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The scorching heat from the sun was unbearable, the blue sky cloudless, the few green leaved acacia trees distantly dotted around far away from the over trodden narrow path, making it difficult to even entertain the thought of going to seek shade from under them. The twenty kilometer journey was proving to be near impossible for the three ladies walking one behind the other on this path.
They were all in their forties, the youngest and less talkative being anything between forty and forty two. Madhuve, the oldest, was doing much of the talking. She was tall, dark, a bit heavy around the waist, with chilling eyes that twinkled when she stared at you; you could tell that during her young age days, she had been a very strong woman. Masivanda, the second oldest, spoke here and there, mostly just nodding her head in agreement with Madhuve. She walked with a slight limp, and, according to her, she had tripped and fallen while running away from an angry charging bull from their village. She was slender, good looking and avoided looking people in the eye for reasons best known to herself. Stembile was the youngest. She was light in complexion and very beautiful. Her body and curves left many men drooling, some even walked into walls, trees and sometimes ditches while staring at her. She barely spoke, just listened to the others talk, occasionally laughing at something funny said by Madhuve. They were all married.
They had started this journey just before sunrise and hoped to arrive at their destination before sunset, but as they looked at the horizon ahead of them, with the sun just a few moments from touching it, they knew they would not make it today. They were going to attend a passover; a church event that happened once every year. The church leaders this time had decided to hold it very far from their village, but since they were devoted christians, they could not miss it.
The heat of the day had caused them to use up all their water and they knew that sooner or later they would have to find some. Since this was in the rural area, homesteads were within a few kilometers from each other and villagers did not mind sharing their water, or even food. It was also going to be a moonless night and walking in the dark, without seeing where one's foot was going, would not be a good idea. Snakes hunt at night and you don't want to step on one, especially puff adders that tend to just freeze when they sense danger. Hyenas, even though presumed timid, were talked about a lot in these villages. They were nocturnal because of the enmity between them and humans, and staring back at one, on a pitch black night like this one would be a terrifying experience. The ladies would have to find a home to seek shelter for the night and proceed the next morning. They could also use a hot meal, and, knocking on someone's door, way before dinner, was the wise thing to do, otherwise they would only be given somewhere to sleep for the night, a thought that was not pleasant at all.
As they walked on, hoping to set foot in a village soon, they listened to songs from the evening birds, that seemed to celebrate yet another day lived amid near misses from slingshot yielding village boys; yes, having stiff porridge (sadza) accompanied by a roasted bird was an achievement, a complete meal in every boy's dream. With one small roasted bird, two to three boys could finish two kgs of parlenta (sadza).
"Wait a minute," Madhuve said, excitedly, stopping, and, signalling the others to do the same. "I think I heard something, like people singing. Doesn't sound too far away."
"I hear them too." Masivanda spoke, her head craned to one side as if to catch the sound waves. "Sounds like some funeral songs. Oh yes, it's coming from over there, by that hill." She was pointing at what seemed like a glowing fire about two or so kilometers to their left.
The darkness was getting thicker and they could hear their own footsteps quite clearly. All birds had stopped singing and all that could be heard were frogs making their loud croaking noises; the males' deep loud distinctive croaks could be heard coming from different spots as they tried harder and harder to lure the females over for some romantic moments. A few fireflies could be seen floating all around them.
Now, when Masivanda mentioned the funeral, she and Madhuve exchanged glances that filled Stembile with fear. She had never seen anything like it. Their eyes had glowed for a moment and their long tongues had simultaneously slid out of their mouths and given their lips a chilling swab. Braving herself, Stembile started walking. "Maybe we can go over there and ask for shelter and food, am sure there must be a path brunching off this one not far ahead of us, oh yes, there it is." She increased her pace, her heart pounding. She hoped the other two could not hear it. All she wanted was not to be with these two alone in this darkness. She had no idea what was wrong with them but a cold stream of sweat running down the small of her back told her there was something sinister about them. All the stories she had heard in the village of ghosts and witches, and had brushed aside as mare myths, started flooding her head. Her mind was racing as she remembered Madhuve's response to her food statement.
"Yes, food! Funerals have lots of food, particularly meat. Yes, meat, am craving meat tonight, bloody raw..." Masivanda had given her a nasty nudge, stopping her in mid sentence. She had noticed Stembile 's terrified look. "Shut up." She had loudly whispered to her.
As they drew nearer to the home, they were relieved to see a lot of people, some singing and dancing to a rhythmic traditional drum bit that somebody, whoever that was, surely knew how to put together. This was happening around one big fire while some others just sat around another small one, chatting in low tones.
African funerals can be so much fun; people just do not sit or stand around looking sad and all, they break into song and dance; they share jokes, with some even imitating the deceased's behavior while they were still alive. The only time everyone is really sad and concerned is when they have just heard the news, or a few moments after someone's death; a few minutes after that, it is time to comfort and get the close members of the family to divert their attention from mourning all the time.
Even none relatives attend funerals and am sure most of them just for the entertainment, plus, of course, meat. On almost every funeral, a cow is slain and this does not happen often in any African village. Meat is eaten at very important functions only, such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries, memorials, and, on Christmas day. It is very common for a group of African women going to a funeral to be chatting excitedly, laughing, doing hi fives until they are close to the home, when suddenly they give off a cacophony of wails, screams and sobs, with some even going an extra mile by staggering and finally collapsing, falling short of passing out.
A dog barked at them from somewhere behind the main house, but a small teenage boy silenced it with some kind of a whistle tune.
"May we be welcome in your home, Papa?" Masivanda politely spoke, clapping her hands together, a thing villagers do as a sign of respect when entering someone's yard. An old man of around seventy years had appeared from the direction of what seemed like a chicken run and noticed them.
"Sure." The white haired old man responded, approaching them. "You are welcome. It's not a very pleasant day of course with the funeral and all but, as you can see, there is lots of people here from all over, please feel free to join."
He showed them where to sit. A young lady offered them some food and water and they accepted without hesitation. They told them their story and that they where happy to finally sit comfortably for the first time since before sunrise. Soft moans could be heard coming from one of the round huts surrounding the fire, and, Stembile could not hold back her own tears as she felt the pain the mourners felt.
An elderly lady sitting close to them started sobbing too, uncontrollably. She spoke with a shaking voice that was filled with emotion. "He was only twenty, oh Lord, why why why?"
Two young ladies wearing sarongs came up to her and put their arms around her shoulders, murmuring soft words of comfort. Her sobs subsided but the pain could still be seen in her eyes, and this was too much to take for Stembile who was using the color of her dress to wipe her own tears. She looked at her friends. They did not seem a bit moved by what was going on and she had to fight hard to clear her memory of what she had, or thought she had seen early on. She got into some small talk with the other ladies who were sitting by the fire. At least the home owners were happy to offer them accommodation for the night. What did not stop bothering Stembile was how her two friends kept looking at each other in a weird way, glancing at their wrist watches as if they were worried about time. Their minds seemed so far away from here, and, at this point, she knew she should not have come on this journey. Regrettably, it was too late.
As the night wore on, the singing and dancing intensified- beautiful round-assed middle aged women displayed their worldly possessions without fear or remorse, in the most entertaining erotic of ways. They took turns entering center stage to outperform each other, their hips and waistlines vibrating in a way no one had ever seen before. This was their one of very few chances to show off their moves without fear of being judged, demonized or condemned by the so-called holier than holy. At funerals anything went and if you had a problem with it, you were free to up and leave, no one cared a brass farthing. At some point, Stembile was tempted to join in but shyness got the best of her. While contemplating this, she had not noticed Madhuve and Masivanda getting up and disappearing into the dark behind one of the huts. Suddenly anxious, she looked around, her eyes searching all around the fire but to no avail. She wanted to ask one of the ladies there to help her look for her friends but realized she may have just been overreacting. What if they had just gone to answer the call of nature? What if they had gone to retire in one of the houses? Not wanting to embarrass herself, she settled back down and diverted her attention back to the entertainment. A few moments later, when she instinctively turned her head towards where her friends had been, her heart skipped a bit. They were back, sitting there, staring at her with glaring eyes that seemed to speak a horrifying language. They had that, 'what the hell' look in them that sent shivers down her spine. It was as if they had never left. She couldn't hold their stare, instead, she decided it was time to go to bed.
She rose and went into one of the huts closest to the fire. A lot of other women lay on their sides on the floor; a few were snoring and someone mumbled something in their sleep. She found herself a small gape enough to wiggle her slim body in and was fast asleep in no time at all; last thing she remembered was her praying silently to God that those two would not follow her here.
As if Stembile's departure from the fire had been their queue, Madhuve and Masivanda exchanged knowing looks, then Madhuve surreptitiously opened her small hand bag, reached in and took out something that looked like a small woolen sachet, stuffed with a substance only known to themselves. She looked around to make sure none were watching before casually tossing it into the fire. A tiny spiral of smoke rose from the burning sachet into the air and disappeared without anyone noticing.
A few moments later, one by one, people around the fire started yawning and falling asleep. The singing and dancing around the other fire started to slowly subside until every single one of the singers and dancers could not keep their eyes open. Within a few minutes, silence replaced all the noise and only a few hee, hees from an awl somewhere in the trees nearby could be heard amid the snoring all over the yard. A happy black smith lapwing flew overhead, letting you a loud clack clack sound, before disappearing into the dark. For Madhuve and Masivanda, it was time to act. They had four hours before sunrise and that was more than enough time. They both seemed to transform into super humans that could float just above the ground. They went into the hut in which Stembile was sleeping, found her and stood above her.
Madhuve leaned over, slapped Stembile lightly on the face and when she snapped her eyes open, recognizing them, Madhuve waved her open hand three times from side to side above her face and suddenly, Stembile found herself getting up and, following them outside with a blank look about her face. She had been hypnotized by Madhuve's hand and started to enjoy their company as they floated in the direction of the termite mound, behind which a fresh grave awaited them.
Stembile would later remember feeling light headed and amazed by the fact that she could just float through the air, her feet barely touching the ground; how it felt so cool to be able to see all the way across the fields as if a big light had been switched on and placed over the whole area; how, like a helicopter, she had the lift, drop, forward thrust and reverse without using her feet, just her invisible wings.
At the grave site were several graves, some of them very old with only an old granite tombstone sticking up, probably belonging to some ancestors, and a couple of others could have been anything between one and many years old. They were not interested in those ones, their sights were on the freshly built one, one without a tombstone yet. While Stembile watched in ewe, Madhuve pulled out from under her dress, some kind of a leather whip, went to stand at the head of the grave and gave it a hard smack, while mumbling some words Stembile memorized. Masivanda stood by the foot of the grave, whistling softly, her eyes sparkling. The top of the grave opened up like sliding doors and revealed nothing but chilling darkness inside. Performing some kind of a ritual dance, with their arms flailing, Madhuve and Masivanda circled the grave twice before Madhuve walked up to Stembile and handed her the whip.
In an echoing, hoarse voice, she said. "You wait out here and stand guard, just before light, do what I just did to open the restaurant up, so we can come out. Understood?"
Stembile just nodded, a distant tingling sensation crawling up the back of her neck into the back of her head. The two disappeared into the grave and it closed up again. Later, Stembile would vaguely recall going to sit on the grave, burying her head between her drawn up knees, before everything went blank.
Early morning birds singing woke her up with a start, wondering where she was. The rising sun's rays blinded her and she had to hold her open hand just above the eyes to see a big crowd of astonished people staring at her from a good thirty yards away, their eyes wide with horror. She looked around herself and shot to her feet, stepping away from the grave. The people staring at her were angry but also confused. They were saying something she could not make out. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Her knees buckled and she collapsed on to the ground, suddenly aware of what was going on. She had been sitting on a grave, for how long, she had no idea; why, she could not comprehend. The crowd slowly and cautiously approached her. Terror gripped her as she watched them edge closer and closer through her long braids that hung loosely over her eyes. Some were carrying long whips, some knobkerries and some, long curly ropes. This told her they had seen her a while back, gone back to gang up and come back to deliver mob justice. It is customary in many African tribes to visit a fresh grave early the next day just to make sure it has not been tempered with. How could she get out of this, how had she gotten here in the first place? All these unanswered questions flooded her head as she tried to recall.
The crowd stopped about ten yards away and one elder came closer and stood above her. He was not carrying any weapon but his eyes were red with anger. His chest was rising and falling as he struggled to rein in his rage. Stembile recognized him. She had seen him before. Wait a minute, from last night. He was the elder that had welcomed them.. them. What, them? She and who? Then, suddenly her memory came back, and so did her voice and sanity. The funeral, the food, drinks, the song and dance, the fire. Where were her friends, Madhuve and Masivanda? Had these people hurt them in some way? Was this a man-eating tribe? She could not bear the thought of being devoured alive by these hungry looking people. She had to run away from here. She felt cornered like a wounded animal. Her only weapon maybe anger.
Then on top of her voice, she screamed, "Where are my friends! Where are they?" She was now up on her feet, looking around frantically.
The old man 's anger immediately turned into concern. With a soft voice that was barely audible, he spoke.
"Young lady, are you okay? Do you understand where you are and how you got here?"
"I am okay," she screamed, stomping her feet against the hard ground. "Where are my friends, what did you do to them? " She broke down and started sobbing loudly through short deep breaths.
Someone in the crowd screamed, "Witch! Let's deal with her!" Everyone else joined in and instantly, it was a chorus of, "Whip the witch! Human eater! Whip the witch! Human eater!" They were now surrounding her and raising and waving their weapons, waiting for the old man to give them the thumbs up. The old man did not. Instead, he reached out his hand and carefully led Stembile through the crowd towards a big loquat tree about twenty yards from the grave. He sat her down and gave her enough time to calm down. Someone from the crowd ran up to them, holding some kind of leather whip. "Uncle, uncle," he shouted, "ask her if this is hers."
Stembile gave one look at the whip and before the old man could say anything, she got up and took it out of the man's hand. Suddenly it all started coming back. Her friends' weird looks, the waving hand in her face, the floating to the termite mound, the...she started walking slowly towards the grave, the whip held firmly in both her hands. Everybody's gaze followed her until she stopped at the head of the grave. She raised the whip above her head and paused.. something occurred to her just before she brought it down onto the grave.
Her face twisted into a raging grin as she processed what the two ladies had subjected her to..this humiliation, the embarrassment, the fear. How would the world view her now? A witch from Nengoma Village? How would her family, friends, relatives react to this news? How would her husband regard her upon hearing this?
An avenging spirit was fast engulfing her. She thought deep, tears rolling down her chicks, and, with all her might, she brought the whip down onto the grave and a shattering noise echoed through the hills close by. Nothing happened.
Stembile realized she had forgotten the words Madhuve had spoken while slamming the whip hard against the grave, and, without saying them, the grave would remain closed. She told the chief and his people what had happened until she got to the opening of the grave part, then stopped and, crying softly, she said she could not remember the rest; only that the other two women were definitely down there feeding on the dead young man's body, and since this was taboo in this village, and, digging up a grave for whatever reason was not something allowed, everyone chose to believe her story and agreed to let her go. Back at her village, when she narrated her story, no one believed her, they brushed her aside and advised her to see the village traditional doctor, because, surely, she was losing it.
In Chamba village, where the unthinkable happened, there is talk of people hearing knocking sounds coming from deep in the grave, heard whenever they pass by at night. Nobody has ever had the nerve to stop and listen carefully. Some even claim to have heard pleading voices begging to be let out; it's been twenty years now.
But, hey, that's not what happened. Repeating Madhuve's exact words, Stembile smacked the grave again, circled it twice and all of a sudden, a strong whirlwind came out of nowhere, kicking up debris, sand and dust. Everyone closed their eyes until it passed, and when they opened them, they were horrified by what they saw. Two scary looking women were standing in front of the grave, their lips, hands and dresses covered in blood- some of it trickling down their arms. They just stood there, their eyes almost popping out of their skulls. They seemed powerless, confused, frightened and unable to move. The villagers on the other hand were equally mesmerized. Some collapsed to the ground, some had run off into the hills. Everyone was trembling except for the old man who stared back at the two ladies. He seemed to wait for a particular moment to say something or make a move. The two ladies looked at each other, at their bloody hands and understood. Their faces changed immediately from being horrifying to being afraid, ashamed and vulnerable. Simultaneously, they dropped to their knees and buried their heads in their hands, waiting for what they knew was coming.
Without anyone saying anything, the crowd moved in on them and started whipping them.
Realizing what was happening, and what would happen if he did not stop the crowd, the old men muscled through to the center where the witches lay groaning and screaming in pain and pushed away the crowd, shouting on top of his voice. "Stop stop stop! You gonna kill them and then what? Let's take them to the chief and he will deal with them according to our laws!"
Someone shouted, "kill them, the chief will just pardon them! Kill the witches, kill the human eaters!"
"No no no!" The old man insisted and after a few moments of silence, the crowd dispersed. The three ladies were taken to the chief 's house where they were locked up in a cattle kraal, waiting for elders from their village, whom the chief had sent his aids to summon, to arrive.
The old man, who at this moment could not hold back his tears, approached the kraal and spoke to the ladies with a raspy, trembling voice filled with agony, "You have no shame. I let you into my home, feed you and give you shelter and you pay me back by feeding on my grandson? Really? May the Lord punish you with the most extreme curse imaginable."
He swung around and weakly staggered back to his house.
A few hours later, when their elders arrived, after a long agitated debate, they were released after the two who had actually gone into the grave agreed to pay a fine of ten cows each. Stembile was pardoned since she had just been a victim of circumstances.
Now, I could end this story here. Yes, don't you think it would be a good ending? Something like, Stembile realized she had forgotten the words spoken by Madhuve to open the grave and without saying them, it would not open.
Lesley Mukwacha is an African storyteller who has been leading and guiding international tourists around Africa for over a decade, sharing with them his real life experiences in the safari industry, together with fictitious stories of his around campfires, and, would like to share these stories with the rest of the world. He currently lives in Zimbabwe but moves around a lot throughout Africa.
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