A Reason to Die

 

The glitter of metal flashed in the air as a group of disheveled men approached a primary school building in a village in Africa. Some of the men were dressed in military fatigue while others donned regular civilian clothes. They called themselves ‘The Revolution’. Other folks called them African Rebels.

          The children in the classrooms screamed as various doors were kicked in. And while the teachers were told to lie down, boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 15 were escorted in a row towards the forest, never to be heard of again.

 

Somewhere in New York City

 

          A red sports car recklessly sped down Wall Street in lower Manhattan, and headed for the highway towards Hudson River. The white man behind the wheel gunned the throttle, laughed and tried to grope at the woman in the passenger seat.

          “Stop it Gary!” The woman said jokingly with an African accent. He was drunk and she was tipsy. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and leaned forward to steal a kiss. She slapped his face and then hit him with a powerful elbow on the chest. He reeled back in pain and almost puked. “Quit with all that karate crap!” he yelled. “You need to stop taking those defense classes!”

          She laughed and then kissed him softly on the cheek. “Oh, am sorry baby, did I hurt you?”

          She placed her lips gently on his and heard a moan escape his lips. She quickly pushed him away.

          “Oh come on Kuntazo,” the man complained. “Why do you keep on rejecting me? It’s been four months since we started dating!”

          “So what?” she asked. “And it will be a year if you keep acting like this Gary. I don’t trust you.”

          “That was the old me Kuntazo. I’m a changed man.” He would say anything to get into her pants and they both knew it. He leaned forward for another kiss and somewhere at the back of her mind, she made a conscious decision to let him in.

          Under a pale moon in New York City, they kissed and jumped into the back seat of the car. The clothes flew off and they made passionate love. And half an hour later, and back on the road, she did not regret her decision.

          They arrived at her apartment and made love again on the white carpet before crawling their way into bed.

          “Kuntazo?” he called, arms wrapped around her.

          “Yes honey.”

          “How come I never made a move on you when we were in college?”

          “You were too busy chasing promiscuous girls,” she replied blatantly.

          “And you were too busy in the library.” He sat up. “I used to think that you were stuck up, but now I know better. You are not like the other girls.” And he meant every word too.

          His words warmed her heart and she felt herself floating on a cloud of bliss.

          “Gary?” she called. “I love you very much.” It was too soon, but she didn’t care.There was no reply. She did not know whether he had heard her or whether he was pretending to be asleep.

  

An hour later and unable to sleep, Kuntazo grabbed her cell phone and walked over to the balcony. The time was midnight in New York City, early morning in Africa. She dialed her mum’s number. 

          “Hi mum, how are you doing?”

          There was static on the line. She disconnected and dialed again and this time the line was clear.

          “Kuntazo!” her mum’s voice came loud and frantic from across the Atlantic Ocean. “They took her!”

          “Took who?” She was suddenly very alert.

          “They took your daughter! They took Andie!” Her mum was crying.

          Kuntazo didn’t understand what she was saying. “Mum, who took my daughter?”

          She heard her mum inhale deeply and draw inner strength. “The rebels stormed her school and abducted all the children. Oh God, what is the world coming to?”

          Kuntazo couldn’t believe her ears nor could she digest the full implication of the news.

          Gone? Gone where? For so many nights she had dreamt of her daughter and woken up in the middle of the night to stare at the photographs mailed from Africa. Andie had grown into a beautiful girl, a copy of the mum and Kuntazo had longed for the day when they would be reunited. And now suddenly, with the breaking news, she realized that she would probably never see her again. The rebels had abducted thousands of children in Africa: the boys were turned into young soldiers, the girls into child slaves.

          “Mum?” Kuntazo said solemnly as she quickly made up her mind. “I’m coming home.” And then she hanged up the phone and sat in the darkness, trying to understand what had happened.

         

          “You didn’t tell me that you had a daughter?” An accusing voice from the balcony door made her jump. It was Gary and he had overheard the whole conversation.

          “Gary! I thought you were asleep?”

          He stepped into the balcony and repeated the question. “You didn’t tell me that you had a daughter.”

          “I was going to. I just wasn’t ready yet.” Her voice was full of panic.

          “Oh ya. When exactly were you going to be ready? After the wedding?” He cursed and walked back into the bedroom. “You women are all the same. And I thought that you were different.”

          She followed him inside and felt the energy ebb from her body. She didn’t want to argue with him. “My daughter is missing Gary,” she said softly. “I have to go to Africa and find her.”

          But he was too consumed with his own rage. “I don’t care! That’s your problem. You lied to me. You deceived me!” He struggled into his pants and searched for the car keys.

          She picked up the keys from the floor and handed them to him. They had fought before but she had never seen him this angry. “Please Gary,” she said in a desperate voice. “I was going to tell you at the right time. Please don’t call me a liar!”

          “Goodbye Kuntazo and good luck finding your daughter. I’m not letting another woman ruin my life!” He grabbed the keys and stormed through the door. She stared at the door for a long time and winced at the sound of a car squealing tires.

 

          It took a week to organize for the trip: air tickets and immigration papers to Africa. The hardest part was shopping. Kuntazo strolled around the mall and grabbed a couple of jeans and tops. She struggled not to look at the kids’ section, as she knew that it would only make her cry. She had planned for this trip many years ago but those plans had involved a lot of shopping for a little girl.

          In the fitting room at the mall and half dressed, Kuntazo’s courage failed her and she sat on the bench and cried for the daughter she had neglected. She wished for someone to talk to, but Gary wasn’t returning her calls and so with a sigh, she called her former Hopkins University Professor and explained the situation. They approached the topic from different angles and analyzed the situation like two professionals and she felt better afterwards.

          “I need some supplies,” she added and the professor gave her a contact number. Being a foreigner in America and far away from home, the Professor had been like a father to her.

         

          She called Gary again, but he didn’t pick up the call. She hanged up and hurried along to pick up her supplies.

 

          On Friday morning, departure day, Kuntazo struggled with her two bags, tripped on the pavement outside her apartment and fell. The bags cushioned her fall and she didn’t get a single scratch. The taxi driver found her crying on the pavement next to her bags, the picture of her daughter in her hands.

          “How old is she?” the driver asked as he picked up her bags and loaded them into the trunk.

          “Eight years old.”

          It wasn’t just her daughter but also her boyfriend. She was alone at a time when she needed him most. She needed to draw strength from someone as she embarked on her journey to the unknown.

          “British Airways,” she told the cab driver as they pulled into the airport. “Thank you,” she added as she jumped out.

          The International terminal was the most tearful part of the airport. Goodbyes and halos were between folks who hadn’t seen each other in a while or as they say, absence makes the heart fonder. The flight was for 2pm and at exactly 1pm, Kuntazo was an emotional wreck as she scanned the flight monitor. Flight 780: On Time, the screen read.

She searched around for Gary but there was no sign of him. She had hoped to see him one more time… just one more time would have been enough closure for her: to know where they stood, to know whether he loved her. Kuntazo sighed. If she didn’t go in now, then she would never make it through the security line on time.

          “Can I help you ma’am?” The ticket agent asked.

          But Kuntazo’s mind was too far away, emotions flowing from thoughts. Thoughts of love lost… love broken, a bleak future.                “Ma’am?” the agent repeated and Kuntazo turned and walked over the window. She couldn’t do it.

        

“It’s too dangerous to go to Africa,” a voice behind said and she turned around and threw her arms around him.

          “Gary! Thank you so much for coming.” She was glowing.

          He smiled although she could tell that he wasn’t fully back. “It’s too dangerous for you Kuntazo. They are killing each other over there.” He sounded serious.

          “I will be okay honey. Don’t believe everything you see on CNN.”

          “Are you saying that CNN is lying?” He wrinkled his forehead.

          “No.” She shook her head and fished for the right words. “Have you seen those photos of hungry half naked kids on TV?”

          “Yes I have, what’s your point?”

          “Well, I was born and brought up in Africa. Do I look like those kids?” Pause. “My point is this. CNN creates a stereotype way of thinking about Africa. The news of a war torn and starving Africa sells on TV and improves ratings.”

          “Are you saying that those hungry kids don’t exist or shouldn’t be shown on TV?” Gary was loosening up and getting deep into the debate.

          “No,” Kuntazo replied. “Show those kids yes. But if you only show one side of Africa on TV, then the people around the world will never know who we really are and it widens the margin of divide between our worlds. It’s been over a hundred years since the white man set foot on the black continent. Many years later, we do wear clothes: we speak English and French and we are computer literate. It’s not the same Africa Gary.”

          They hugged each other when they realized that time was not on their side. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth,” she said remorsefully and he raised her face by the chin and looked into her eyes.

          “You take care of yourself Kuntazo. And when you come back, we will figure out something. I love you, okay?”

          “Okay. I love you too Gary. You are my strength.”

          They kissed and she boarded the plane feeling a lot better.

 

          The flight would take approximately eight hours to London and then another eight to Africa and Kuntazo settled down for the arduous trip. A part of her was scared. It had been ten years: ten years since she had set foot on the African land. She couldn’t wait to see the sunset in Africa.

          “Where are you going?” The white man seated next to her asked.

          “Narudi nyumbani,” she replied jokingly.

          “What does that mean?”

          “It means that am going home,” she explained. “I’m going to meet my daughter for the first time.” She was trying to stay positive. Her daughter was still alive.

          The man looked puzzled and so she elaborated. “She was born in America while I was attending college. I sent her home to my mother to allow me a chance to finish classes.” Destiny had led them to different paths.

          “And you say you haven’t seen her in seven years? That’s a long time, ha?” It was hard for the man to not sound accusing.

          “I know. I’m a bad mother. I put my career before my child.”

          “What did you study?” The man groped for neutral ground.

          “I did medicine at HopkinsUniversity.”

          “Thee… Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland?” he whistled.

          “Yep. The one and only University.”

          It hadn’t been an easy ten years. Her social life had been completely cut off and she hadn’t had time for boys or family. The days had blurred into each other, the thoughts of her daughter and Africa, nothing but a speck in the far distance. Her career had been unblemished and her devotion to work had turned into a cancer.

          They say that the world is two-thirds water with the Pacific Ocean getting the glutton’s share. It’s easier to believe this after flying for sixteen hours above an endless blue of water. Kuntazo watched one movie after another, listened to music, read a book, filled crossword puzzles… then watched another movie.

          Africa. The world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent. Some folks call it the cradle of life as evidenced by the discovery of the earliest hominids and their ancestors.

          The Airport in Africa was a quick reminder of what Kuntazo had left behind. The lines were long, the air hot and humid, ventilation poor and filled with the smell of cheap deodorants. Sweat clung to her skin and smooched up her makeup. Her bones were cramped up and she longed for a bath and the softness of a mattress. 

          “Dr. Kuntazo?” The custom’s official called.

          “Yes please?” She took a step forward to the window.

          “What brings you to Africa?” The man was staring at her passport.

          “Narudi nyumbani,” she replied calmly and the man nodded and stamped the documents.

          “Only thirty years old, and already a doctor, I’m impressed.”

          “Thank you.”

          Getting her luggage out was another story. “Your bag is full of knives Dr, Kuntazo. This is not acceptable.”

          She pulled out her practice license. “They are disposable surgery knives. I’m heading north,” she explained.

          “You are going to the rebel zone?” The man looked shocked.

          “Yes,” she replied as she tucked back her license. “People need help there.”

          They let her through and she deeply inhaled the African air as she stepped outside the building. It smelled like rain, grass dust… it smelled different.

          Her mum and brother were waiting outside and together they hired a Nissan and headed towards the city. A billboard sign of a native man chasing after a cheetah whizzed by.

          “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect her,” her mother cried. “We heard it on the radio that the rebels had stormed her school and by the time we got there, she was gone!”

          She took her mum’s hand and squeezed it. She had missed her. She had missed being fussed over. “She’s alive mum. I can feel it.”

          They stopped in the capital city and bought food supplies and bottled water.

          “Why are you buying water my child? We have water at home you know?” her mum questioned and Kuntazo laughed.

          “No had feelings mum, but I don’t trust the water in Africa.” As a doctor, she knew how delicate the stomach was.

          Kuntazo looked out the car window as they left the city and headed North. It was as exactly as she had left it ten years ago. Maybe, the roads were nicer but that was it. Some parts of the city were very glamorous, others, not so attractive. The beauty of Africa lay beyond the concrete world: where the Ocean slapped against jagged rocks on natural beaches, climbing Mt.Kilimanjaro, dancing with the gazelles in the savannah … learning the culture and traditions of the people.

          The people in the city looked the same as ten years ago: the marginalized and the wealthy mingling on the streets, always in a hurry to get somewhere: their feet covered with dirt, their faces sweaty from the heat. But they smiled, and they laughed… and they looked very happy.

          There was no sign of war here in the city. So much for CNN blowing up everything. People went about their business as normal: the hawkers yelled, the pickpockets perfected their skills… the smell of French fries and exhaust smoke filled the air. The government had already been overthrown twice in the last ten years and folks were used to the drill… the switch of power between the big boys… the human rights abuses that lasted for a small duration of time right before the clock of time hit a reset button and everything went back to normal.

          The Nissan headed north towards the mountains and two hours later, Kuntazo looked outside the window and saw a burning church and charred bodies on the ground. A sense of anticipation filled her body as she watched the beautiful mountains approach. They were getting closer to her village and here the air smelled fresh.

          Half an hour later, the Nissan was pulled over by government soldiers at a checkpoint and thoroughly searched. The passengers were questioned about their trip and forced to produce evidence of their purpose of visit. Not many folks ventured in that direction.

          “We live there,” Kuntazo’s mum explained as she handed over her identity card, which showed place of birth.

          The car glided along and conversation trickled down as mushrooms of smoke appeared in the distant mountains.

          “I want to see it,” Kuntazo suddenly said and her words brought a deadly silence in the car.

          “My daughter, you should get some rest first and then tomorrow I will take you there.”

          Kuntazo shook her head. “I want to see it now.” She leaned forward and handed the driver a hundred dollar bill.

          “George Washington himself,” the driver chuckled, as he looked the bill over.

          They arrived at the school half an hour later and Kuntazo jumped out before the Nissan came to a complete stop. The rebels had burned the school down and all that was left was a depressing mountain of black rubbles. Kuntazo bent down, picked up a dirty doll and stared at it for a long time. An eerie silence clung to the air and stifled their breathing.

          “We have to go now,” the driver said nervously as he stared at the ominous trees. “We have to go now Dr. Kuntazo!” The wind whooshed and the shadows moved in the trees.

          They got back into the car and sped back towards Kuntazo’s village. That night, the jet lag and fatigue took over and Kuntazo slept like a child.

 

          The following day, she reported to the local clinic and offered to volunteer. Once again she was forced to flash out her credentials, which she did with pleasure. “Dr. Kuntazo, JohnsHopkinsUniversity, UnitesStates of America,” she said in a firm tone. The local doctors were very impressed, as they all knew through their many studies that Ben Carson, an American neurosurgeon at JohnsHopkinsUniversity had pioneered a successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the head. They wondered why a doctor of such credentials would volunteer in such a small clinic.

          To Kuntazo it was very simple. First, this was her village and second, the proximity of the clinic to the forest. Most of the wounded were rebels pretending to be innocent victims. As a doctor, she had sworn to serve all patients and not discriminate. But in return, she wanted something.

          “How does that feel?” she asked an amputee. There were the short sleeve and the long sleeve amputees as the rebels called them. The clinic floor was covered in dry blood, the air smelled of antiseptic. She treated machete cuts and bullet wounds… the harsh realities of war. “Do you know where you were when you were attacked?” she asked.

          “Across the river doctor.” A grim reply.

          “How far across?”

          “Five miles, maybe six.”

          For two whole weeks, Kuntazo went home and marked out a map. Every time she treated a patient, she questioned them and marked her map. It was easy to weed out the liars from those who spoke the truth. The truth came easier for those in greater pain. At the end of two weeks, she finally saw what she wanted… a pattern on the map.

          She excused herself from the hospital for an indefinite period of time and that night, in the quiet of her room, wrote her will. As a doctor, she was not a stranger to death and had lost a few patients. It was the people she left behind that worried her: her mum, her brother.

          The following day at dawn, she scribbled a note and left the will on the kitchen table: and with the audacity of a devoted mother, slipped into the forest.

          She had grown up in these forests and her father had hunted here. The key was the mountains to the west, which acted as a navigation guide. She would be okay as long as she kept the mountains in sight. The problem was the vines and creepers, snakes and rebels.

          The morning dew clung to her brown boots and soaked her blue jeans as she trudged through the thick mountain terrain. The bag pack on her back got heavier by the minute, sweat dripped down her face as the sun rose higher. At noon, she crossed the river and hugged the bushes, staying away from the not so thick parts of the forest. The vegetation got thicker as she got deeper into the jungle.

          Noises, laughter. The first sight of rebels.

          There were five of them enjoying a happy smoke, rifles casually swung over their shoulders. Kuntazo easily walked around them and continued on her forlorn quest. In the afternoon, she drunk some water and ate from her bag, taking note to ration the meals since there was no knowing what lay ahead.

          Suddenly, a voice.

          “Stop!”

          She turned and saw two rebels. It was too late. She cursed and tried to run but they had already seen her. In a moment of desperation, she dropped under the bushes and prayed that they would miss her and run on. These were the wrong rebels: they killed, raped, plundered and had no idea why they were fighting. These were the scum of scum and she wanted nothing to do with them.

          “She must be here somewhere,” a man’s voice said. “She can’t be far.”

          The men pulled out their machetes and started hacking the bushes, heading straight towards her. She looked around desperately for an escape but there was none. She had gotten careless, and now she was cornered.

          Suddenly, she stood up and stepped into the open. The men stopped and locked eyes with her…appraised her… her green jacket, the calm expression on her face. And before they could react or speak, she took off her hat and let her long black hair catch the wind. The men’s jaws dropped and just as quickly, evil smiles covered their faces.

          The first man pointed a machete at her. “On the ground woman, now!” He was the bigger of the two and Kuntazo grimaced and dropped to her knees. She raised both her hands in the air to show that she was not carrying, and the men seemed to like this. They couldn’t believe their luck.

          “Hurry up Lieutenant, I will wait,” the second rebel said as he turned to search for a boulder to sit on.

          “This won’t take long,” the lieutenant replied as he dropped his rifle and pushed Kuntazo on her back.

          She searched his waist belt with her eyes and saw the pistol. She didn’t know it but she was breathing hard.

          “What’s a pretty thing like you doing alone in the jungle?” The man tore her jacket open and groped around her chest. She cringed and waited, but did not close her eyes. And then she heard it and she knew that she had him: the groans and moans … the weakness of men… the power of a woman.

Kuntanzo glanced around the big man and saw the second rebel settling down on the grass, the rifle casually leaning against his shoulder. It was now or never! As fast as a bullet, she pulled out a surgery knife from her side pocket and stuck it into the man’s neck.

          The man’s eyes widened and stared at her in shock, blood appeared on his white teeth and spasm rocked his body.

          “What in the world…” It was the second rebel desperately trying to line up his rifle for a kill shot. Kuntazo pulled out the pistol from the dead man’s waist belt and fired once. The shot rung through the forest and birds flittered away. The rebel fell dead to the ground, rifle still clutched in his hands. Thank God for the second amendment that allowed Americans to bear arms.

          Her bones rattled like a leaf in the wind and her lips quivered in shock at what had happened. There was blood on her black t-shirt, but it wasn’t hers. She pushed the dead man off, grabbed her bag and headed for the river. Somebody must have heard the shot.

          An hour later and wearing nothing but a training bra and panties, Kuntazo submerged herself in the river and tried her best to scrub off the blood from her hands. She had seen people die before at the hospital, but she had never taken a life. It felt surreal. It felt like…like nothing! But she knew that the memories would come back to haunt her later. At the moment, she had to stay strong for her daughter.

That night, and not wanting to risk a fire, Kuntazo slept cold. There was only one way to describe the climate in the mountains: winter every night and summer every day.

          By noon the following day, Kuntazo was in too deep in the forest, in areas that government soldiers had only managed to drop bombs. Sending troops in these parts of the jungle was a risk that no politician wanted to sign on… be responsible for.

          Finally, in the evening the following day and with the help of the map she had sketched, Kuntazo saw what she had been looking for, five boys dressed in ragged military fatigue, smoking weed.

          She watched the child soldiers and listened to them talk from the cover of the trees, and then she stepped out and watched them fumble for their weapons.

          “Hi boys,” she greeted with raised hands. They all looked to be around the age of fifteen: eyes glazed, war scars on their bodies.

          Drugged and all, it took a while for the boys to recover from their initial shock before one of them stepped forward and pointed a rifle at her. “Down on your knees woman, now!”

          She quickly obeyed, hands still in the air. “You boys are wounded. I’m a doctor, I can help,” she said calmly.

          The boy lowered his rifle, pulled out a shiny hunting knife and placed it on her throat. “These are war scars,” he said proudly. “They remind us of the people we have killed. We do not need a doctor. Who are you and what are you doing here? Are you a government spy?”

          Kuntazo watched the knife with fearful eyes. “My name is Dr. Kuntazo,” she said as she tried her best not to show fear. “Your leg is infected son. You will lose it if I don’t treat it. What’s your name again?”

          This infuriated the boy and the knife shook dangerously in his hand. “It’s my leg and I will do what I want with it!” And then suddenly, he winked at her and she stared in confusion.

          “Check her bag!” the boy yelled to his friends.

          It was like watching a bunch of kids trying to be tough in the neighborhood. Only that these kids had guns and had killed more than once.

          “Medicine and knives Captain,” one of the boys called.

          Suddenly, two men appeared from the cover of the trees and Kuntazo knew that she was out of luck. These men looked different. Their uniform was new and crisp. Their shoulders were a wall of decorative badges and Kuntazo knew that she had infiltrated where no other had - the heart of the rebel hold.

          “Stand up Doctor,” the men ordered and she realized that they had been watching and listening. “You work for the UN or the Red Cross?”

          “No,” she replied. “I grew up in these forests. I’m a doctor from KunditaVillage. I’m here to help the children.”

          “Is that right?” One man scoffed. “We will see about this. Let’s go.” They pushed her ahead and one man turned to the boys. “Good job soldiers. Keep your eyes open.”

          The boys struggled to salute as most of them were high on drugs.

          The walk through the trees took hours and conversation was minimal. It was dusk when the party of three arrived at a camp by the caves. And here, Kuntazo was astonished to see little children playing and women preparing meals by the fire. The huts were made of mud but the roofs were a solid green that was invisible from the sky. The village looked normal.

          “Ekumbe?” One soldier called to a woman. “Take care of her!”

          Ekumbe walked over, gently took Kuntazo’s hand and led her into a hut where she was bathed, clothed and fed.

          “Do not be afraid,” Ekumbe said reassuringly in the native language. “If they wanted to kill you, they would have done it already.”

          Later on, Kuntazo lay on a bed of straw and closed her eyes to sleep. She had done it! She had penetrated the rebel strong hold. A part of her was elated and yet the other part was conscious of the fact that the highway only led in one direction. There was only one way she could go home… dead! The rebels would never let her live to tell.

          A lion roared in the night and an elephant trumpeted nearby. The sound of the river meandering around the forest cut a serene ambiance in the jungle and soothed her to sleep.

 

          “Wake up Dr. Kuntazo.” A hand was shaking her up. She opened her eyes groggily and saw the silhouette of a man. “We have to go now,” the man continued. “The Commander wants to see you.”

          They gave her a moment to wash her face before she stepped out into the chilly night. The time was probably midnight and a few soldiers sat around the bon fires in muted conversation. The smell of roast meat filled the air.

          They led her to a dark cave in the corner of the village, nudged her inside and closed the door behind her. A murky bulb was the only source of light in the room. She tried to adjust her eyes to the darkness and in the process felt her body stiffen with fear. The smell of Cuban cigar in the air alerted her to another presence. There was something else in the dark room: a tangible malevolence that made her want to turn and run. Not without my daughter. The thought cut across her mind and quickly reminded her of her quest. She took in a deep breath and waited for the imminent torture that was about to happen. It had to come to this… it had to come to this.

          “Take off your clothes please,” a deep voice commanded.

          She couldn’t tell from which direction it was coming from but slowly she obeyed. She reluctantly took off her t-shirt and jeans and hugged herself as a cold draft blew through the cracks on the wall.

          “The bra and the panties too,” the voice continued although this time, she detected a hint of excitement that confirmed human emotions. She took off her remaining clothes and stood stuck naked in the center of the dimly lit room. The silence stretched out for a long time and the sound of hard breathing filled the room.

          “What’s a beautiful Doctor like you doing in my jungle?” A hateful voice.

          “I work at the clinic in the village. I want to help my people.” She tried to ignore the fact that she was naked.

          “Get on the bed and lie on your back,” the voice ordered and she obeyed. The last thing she wanted was to be the star of a beheading video. She watched the shadows in fear as perspiration trickled down her face.

          He took his time to get to her. The moves of a jungle lion, the patience of a hunter. His hands were big and calloused on her skin as he groped her. She wanted to close her eyes and shut her mind down, but she couldn’t.

          She felt his ragged beard on her cheeks, the square jaw, but every time she thought that she was about to see his face, she couldn’t. The light teased around his head and totally protected his identity.

          He mounted and rode her hard… up the rocky hills and down the cliff… her body jerked and jolted. She was like a wild horse that he wanted to break, and it hurt badly. She felt her insides tear open, and along with it, her virtues relinquished. And when she couldn’t take it any more, she screamed. 

And then he was gone, like a thief in the night, leaving her broken and wounded, dried up tears on her face, her whole body shaking, her teeth chattering. This was darkness in the world at its peak. Life is not a fairy tale my child. Her mother’s voice.

      

Sacrifice: definition simplified: giving up something valued.

 

          A few minutes later, and after painfully putting on her clothes, Kuntazo staggered out of the cave and inhaled deeply as the cool night air brushed against her face. The young Captain found her sitting outside an hour later with a grave expression.

          “Here,” the boy said as she handed her a smoke. She grabbed the weed and took a long drag. Three puffs later, she felt a lot better.

          “Why did you wink at me?” she asked the boy as she passed the smoke back.

          “You don’t remember me?” he asked with a grin. “Koko. I’m Koko from the village!”

          Kuntazo looked up in surprise. “Koko? The last time I saw you, you were like five years old!”

          “Yes.” Koko sounded excited. “Everybody in the village used to talk about you. Said that you were a big doctor in America. We used to show your pictures in school and the teachers told us that if we studied hard then we would be like you.”

          Kuntazo shook her head in disbelief. Small world. She looked around and motioned for Captain to move closer. And then she whispered into his ears. “Did you know my daughter?”

          His eyes lit up. “Yes, everybody knew her.” Koko beamed. “She was the smartest kid in her class.” And then fear and realization crept into the boy’s face. “Is that why you are here?”

          She nodded and watched him, waited for a sign of betrayal. But it did not come.

          “I will look for her Dr. Kuntazo. I will find her for you. I promise.” Captain clenched a fist and she believed him.  

          “You got some more of that?” She asked, pointing at the weed and struggling to master a smile.

          “Yes, follow me.”

          They walked over to a campfire and joined four other boys. The smoke was passed on from mouth to mouth and soon, Kuntazo was too high to remember the horrors of what had just happened.

          “Why do you guys kill and amputate?” she asked carelessly.

          “We do it for the Commander,” one boy replied.

          “Aren’t you afraid to die?”

          “Cowards die a thousand times, but the valiant only die once,” one boy brazenly said. It was the weed talking.

          “Do you know who said that?” Kuntazo asked between smokes.

          “No. Who?”

          “It was Nelson Mandela quoting William Shakespeare. Do you guys like Mandela?”

          “Yes. We fight like Mandela, for freedom, for our country.”

          Kuntazo wasn’t sure that the boys knew what they were fighting for but she also understood that they were too young and too high to accept logic. She gave it a rest and called it a night.

          “Captain?” she said as she walked away. “Find my bag and bring it to me. I want to see you boys tomorrow. I have to take a look at those wounds.”

          “Yes ma’am,” the boys intoned.

 

          The days ahead weren’t as bad as Kuntazo had anticipated. She set up shop and rebel soldiers lined up for treatment. She could tell that they appreciated her presence and respected her practice. She treated cuts, wounds and burns, up to and including minor surgery. The nights were not so pleasant but that was a price that she was willing to pay. She still hadn’t seen the man’s face but from the talk around the camp knew who he was. The American soldiers had been looking for him for years with no luck. They complained of his ability to sneak across borders and chided other African countries for giving him shelter. And here she was, a woman in the presence of evil: a man responsible for the deaths, amputations and abductions of thousands of children. What the American intelligence and African forces hadn’t been able to do for years, a woman had done it in weeks. Where to go from here was the question.

 

          One day and two months later, Koko the young Captain brought her the much awaited news. “They are being transferred here!” he whispered into her ear.

          “Who?”

          “The girls. Your daughter is one of them. I saw her with my own eyes.”

          She couldn’t believe her luck. There were nights when she had doubted and despaired… wanted to give up… felt like she was falling into an endless abyss. But now, every tribulation she had gone through paled as the trumpets of victory prematurely sounded in her head. Call it serendipity or God… whatever the reason; it empowered her to entertain the first possibility of liberty.

          The girls arrived the following week and were assigned to the various men: to serve them in every way possible.

 

          She found her washing clothes and the two stared at each other like strangers… a defining moment for both of them, and one that they would never forget.

          “You are very beautiful,” Kuntazo said as she looked around to make sure that the conversation was private.

          “I thought you were in America,” she replied looking confused. At the age of eight, she looked grown and blossomed and Kuntazo wondered what the men had done to her. She was too young for sex.

          “I came for you Andie. They called me in America and told me that you had gone missing. I came to find you.” She wiped a tear that had found its way down her face. Her daughter was the very image of her: the nose, the eyes. They could have hugged but that would have looked suspicious. Kuntazo didn’t want the soldiers to know that she was her daughter, her every reason for being there.

          “I dreamt of the day that I would meet you,” Andie said. “But it was never like this.”

          It was time to wrap up the conversation.

          “Andie?” Kuntazo said in a solemn tone. “Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, when I come for you. You understand?”

          Adie looked around in fear and then nodded.

 

          Kuntazo and Koko met a while later and discussed a plan of escape. They would need supplies: food and water, guns and time. The best time to flee would be during the afternoon after she closed down the clinic, because their presence wouldn’t be noticed till dusk.

          That night when Kuntazo was summoned to the mysterious cave, she took comfort in the knowledge that the nightmare would soon be over. Out of the ashes she would rise and rebuild again that which she had lost.

          He mounted her roughly in the same manner as he did every night… a clandestine figure in the shadows. The pain was currently bearable, as her body had adjusted to the ordeal. A few minutes later when he was done, she lay still and waited for him to leave only to be surprised when his questioning voice rose above the silence.

          “I take it that you have met your daughter.” His voice had a hint of deviousness in it. A condescending tone that made her sit up in astonishment.

          “You thought that I wouldn’t know?” he said with a laugh. “I know everything. I have eyes on my back.” His words made her feel impotent and she understood in that instant that her plans were compromised.

          She was now scared, not for herself but for the life of her daughter. “What are you planning to do?” she asked.

          “Me? Oh, nothing! I brought her here as an incentive to you. I want you to establish a clinic here without worrying about her. Can you do that?” His feet were on the ground pacing.

          She followed his voice around the shadows and never once saw his face.

          “Yes,” she replied. “I can do that.” Pause. “Thank you for bringing my daughter here.”

          She could feel his eyes on her: studying her.

          “If you were born a snake,” he asked out of the blues. “Would you rather be a short snake or a long one?”

          “A short one,” she replied without hesitation.

          “Why?”

          “So that I can protect my tail.”

          “I like your answer,” he replied. “The government is a long snake that has stretched itself out too thin. My work is to give power back to the people so that they can control their own destiny.”

          The fear was gone from her bones. “A python has no predators,” she challenged.

          “Oh, but it does if it pushes its boundaries and trespasses,” he replied. “Hunting parties seek it out and shoot it down.” A complacent reply, a man obsessed with his goals.

          She didn’t know what else to say.

          “Do not disappoint me Doctor.” A warning. “Or as the Americans say, I hope you play ball.” An evil chuckle, and then she heard the door slam shut and he was gone. She realized that he had been trying to justify himself and his mission.

          Kuntazo lay on the bed for hours and pretended to be asleep. They didn’t guard her because she couldn’t get far if she tried to escape. All routes were covered with patrol and one call on the walkie was enough to do her in. She thought about her daughter and remembered the first time she had seen her at the hospital: so tiny, so fragile. And she had fallen back on her promise to protect her from the evils of the world. It was time to take a stand and honor her duties as a mother.

          A little after midnight, Kuntazo crept out and searched the grounds for Koko. He was asleep by the fire next to five other boys.

          “Koko?” she whispered urgently into his ears. He opened his eyes, saw her and followed her into the shadows away from the fire. “We have to leave, now!”

          “What about the plan?” He looked confused.

          “Forget the plan, he knows.” She pointed at the cave. “He knows that Andie is my daughter.”

          Koko didn’t need any further explanation and the Captain in him took over. “Wait for me by the trees. I will go fetch her.”

         

          The trio stole their way through the forest and Koko turned out to be the biggest gift from heaven. He knew where the patrols were and helped the trio evade them. Andie looked scared and clung tightly to her mum’s hand. Kuntazo held her like the world depended on it. She had deserted her once; she would never let go again. Their bond was solidified by the ordeal.      

          “This way!” Koko whispered and led them across the river and down the hill, taking precaution to use the flashlight beam only when he had to. Kuntazo noticed the blood on his hands. He must have killed the man of the house when rescuing Andie.

          “There’s a US base half a day’s run from here,” Koko pointed

          “That close?” Kuntazo was surprised.

          “Yes,” Koko replied as he sped down the hill. “They are monitoring the border movements through the jungle with sophisticated gadgets. They are trying to catch the Commander. We shift camp a lot and sometimes we are too close for them to see us.”

          They ran without breaking stride and four hours later and right before dawn, stopped for a water break… warm blood rushed through their heads and made them feel dizzy, the hammering on their chests felt like minor cases of heart attacks.

 

          “I’m scared mum,” Andie said as she snuggled her arms around Kuntazo’s waist.

          “Don’t be honey. Koko here is a Captain and he won’t let anything happen to you.”

          At her words, Koko pulled out a 9mm and checked the bullets. He winked and the little girl smiled. “We are going home Andie,” he said.

          Kuntazo sat under a tree with her daughter in her arms. “We are going to be a family again Andie,” she said.

          “And Koko too?” The little girl asked as her eyes struggled to stay open.

          “Yes. And Koko too.” She felt the tears well up in her eyes. “Andie?” she called. “I want you to remember this.” In case something happens to me. “Your name is Britney Andie and you were born in Baltimore, Maryland. You are an American citizen, but Africa is your homeland.”    “Yes mum,” the girl replied. And then her eyes closed and she succumbed to the fatigue.

          

“She can’t go any farther,” Kuntazo said and Koko agreed.

          “I’ll be right back,” the young captain said as he vanished into the bushes. A minute later, he came back with two long branches and using Kuntazo’s jacket, fashioned out a stretcher on which they air lifted the little girl and continued their journey.

 

          Morning came and streaks of sunlight penetrated through the tall trees. Suddenly, Koko who was in the lead stopped and craned his neck. They placed the stretcher down and he quickly climbed a tree and looked up the mountain from where they had come.

          “What is it Koko?” Kuntazo called from below.

          “Look into the sky,” he called down. She did and saw numerous birds flying away scared.

          “It’s the rebels,” Koko said as he climbed down. “They found us! What time do you usually open your clinic?”

          “7am.”

          “It’s only 6am. How did they find us so quickly?” It was the wrong question.

          “How far is the American base?” Kuntazo asked in fear.

          “Two hours. Luckily and with God on our side, we can make it! I have seen those guys run.”

They woke up Andie and gave her some water before dashing through the bushes. The backlash of branches whipped their faces and they ignored the pain. Thorns tore at their clothes and Kuntazo tasted blood on her lips. The thought of being recaptured gave her the adrenaline that she needed and with her daughter in her hand, she ran like a wild horse.

          An hour and a half later, the American base came into view below: a star spangled banner flapping in the wind, a helicopter pad, an array of humvees, soldiers half dressed in jungle fatigues.

          “Your gun!” Kuntazo called and Koko handed it over. She fired twice in the air and watched with satisfaction as the US soldiers ran for their weapons. The sound of sirens reached into the trees and armed soldiers headed towards to the exit.

          Two shots whizzed over Kuntazo’s head from behind and she knew that the rebels had arrived.

          “Keep your head down!” Koko yelled as they ran. They couldn’t see the rebels, but an occasional bullet ricocheted from a nearby tree and fuelled up their strides.

          They looked up and saw a troop of almost twenty American soldiers moving towards them in a uniform formation, machine guns raised shoulder high. They could have been shot but the presence of the little girl protected them.

          “We are American citizens!” Kuntazo yelled. “We are American citizens, the rebels are trying to kill us!” She pointed behind her desperately.

          Three marines dashed forward, grabbed them and quickly pulled the trio behind the wall of soldiers. “Stay down!” they yelled.

          With machine guns aimed at the trees, the troops stopped dead and watched for movement. A gust blew through the trees and shadows appeared. Kuntazo watched through the soldiers’ legs and thought she saw the shape of a man. But then it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. The air was rife with tension and not a bird stirred in the trees. Five minutes felt like an eternity.

          The American soldiers were only boys: nineteen and early twenties in terms of age. Kuntazo looked up and saw one boy shake with fear and she didn’t blame him. The rebels were battle hardened mercenaries in their thirties and forties: men who had killed with their bare hands. Despite this, Kuntazo also knew that the marines had superior weapons and greater fighting skills.

          Under the cover of the marines, and following hand signals from the leader, the group slowly backed into the safety of the camp and Kuntazo exhaled when she heard the big gate latch shut behind her. She threw her arms around the children and the trio hugged and cried in relief and disbelief that they were still alive and free. The marines established a perimeter outside the camp and requested back up from the African government.

          “Dr Kuntazo?” A General called. “We are going to have to debrief you when you are ready.”

          “I’m ready now,” she said. She was thinking about the children at the camp.

          She told them about the rebel camp and the man they were looking for although deep inside she knew that most of them would be long gone. She told them about the abducted children and prayed that if anything else, they would be returned to their homes where loving arms awaited. And when she was done, Kuntazo asked to make a long distance phone call.

          The phone rung twice before it was answered. Gary sounded sleepy and she remembered that America was almost ten hours behind on time depending on which state one was calling.

          “Kuntazo? Is it really you? I missed you a bunch. Thought you forgot about me.” He sounded excited.

          “I would never forget about you my love.” Emotions stirred inside her body.

          “Did you find her, your daughter?”

          “Yes. Yes Gary. We were rescued by the US marines.”

          “Oh my gosh!” He sounded scared. “I love you so much Kuntazo. Please come home!” Pause. “When are you coming home?”

          The words sounded strange and Kuntazo played them in her mind. Home? When are you coming home? Had she been gone that long?

          She closed her eyes and somewhere at the back of her mind, she heard the roar of a lion. Yes, she could hear them clearly … the whispers in the jungle…beckoning her… wanting her to be…

          Kuntazo walked over to the door and looked through the glass. She saw Koko and Andie laughing and holding hands. A marine walked over and handed them each a piece of candy.

          “Kuntazo? Are you still there?” Gary sounded desperate.

          “Yes Gary,” she replied.

          “When are you coming home?” he repeated.

          “I’m home Gary. I’m home now,” she said softly. She couldn’t believe her own words. Coming to Africa had changed something inside her and she realized her bigger purpose in life: to give back to that which had made her who she was; to help the marginalized and be that which she was born to be... a doctor, a mother, an African.

The End

 

If I know a song of Africa

Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back

Of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers

Does Africa know a song of me?

Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on

Or the children invent a game in which my name is

Or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel that was like me

Or will the eagles of Ng’ong Hills look out for me?

(Karen Blixen: Out of Africa.)

 

News

Off to AFRICA

 

My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.

 

The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen

 

Contact

 

mrobertto@yahoo.com

Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...