The hills loomed in front of us as we followed our brother on a narrow dirt road. The clouds shifted to expose a blazing sun that hurt our skin and killed the leaves. Our village was located deep in the hills where vehicles were rarely seen. Nderitu looked thoughtful and kept looking over his shoulders making sure that we weren’t being followed. Behind him, Wairimu took the steps with ease and breathed softly through young lungs. I brought the rear struggling to keep pace with my older siblings, but feeling very secure in their hands. Hope is a dangerous thing, my father used to say, and I cautioned myself against it.
"Stop!" Nderitu suddenly said, one hand raised in the air. We stopped and looked at him for further clarification. "Something's wrong," he added.
I listened and heard nothing. Maybe that was the problem, the air was too silent.
"Get off the road! Now!" Nderitu suddenly yelled.
We jumped into the bushes head first and lay hidden behind thick leaves. Immediately, the sound of engines filled the air, and with it a sense of dread. Without looking we knew they were soldiers and I didn't want to be captured and taken back to the convent. It wasn't so much about what was wrong with going to Nairobi. It had a lot more to do with going home, to a place where our hearts belonged.
Two Lorries roared into view and suddenly came to an abrupt stop in a cloud of dust. The back door opened with a creak and soldiers dressed in brown khaki shorts, puttees and short pill box hats, carrying rifles jumped down. I used my hands to keep the dense brushes off my face and peer ahead. I had seen home guards before, but I had never seen black soldiers until now. These were the King African Rifle soldiers, a hard trained regiment raised from the native inhabitants. Some of these soldiers had fought in World War two and now performed internal security functions for the colonial British. A white soldier wearing blue uniform also stepped down from the front of the lorry and joined them. He seemed to be giving instructions and they responded sharply.
The back door on the second lorry dropped, and around twenty home guards stepped down. They wore grey shirts and brown shorts, and looked around with weary eyes. I could see they were not armed and looked uncomfortable without their weapons. In their midst, I noticed one of them holding a small native boy's hand. The boy looked to be Nderitu's age and looked very tiny amongst the men.
In broad daylight, and under the instructions of the white man, the black African soldiers suddenly raised their rifles and shot the home guards killing them instantly. I gasped and watched in utter disbelief as one guard after another fell. First came the shot and then the thud as the body hit ground. Beside me, Nderitu motioned for us to stay very silent, and I struggled to muffle my cries. The little boy stood alone surrounded by fallen bodies. He was crying as the black soldiers lowered their rifles. Complete silence followed and with it came a new dread. We feared our breathing was too loud. Suddenly, the white soldier raised a revolver and shot the boy in the head. One bullet was all it took and the boy's knees buckled. Even the black soldiers looked shocked. The white soldier grinned and lit a cigarette. His eyes moved from the dead boy to the soldiers and then straight into the bushes where we were hiding. I shuddered and felt real fear course through my body.
"No witnesses," the white soldier said in a commanding voice.
"Yes sir!" the soldiers replied.
The bodies of the dead home guards were thrown into a nearby ditch and the boy was tossed in last. The soldiers jumped back on the lorry and roared away. We sat in the bushes for a long time unable to believe what we had just seen.
"Nderitu," Wairimu said. "Why are Africans killing Africans?"
Nderitu stood up and wiped the dust off his clothes. "It's the same reason why our father was killed. Some of the home guards are suspected to be Mau Mau or working with Mau Mau."
It was morally wrong in every way for my people to kill each other. One day the white man would return to his country and we would have to live together. It was a divide and rule tactic used by the British. The more we fought against each other, the further we moved from our object eventually loosing track of the very thing we were fighting for.
We deviated away from the main road and cut through people’s homesteads and properties. It took a long time to clear our minds off the horrors we had just seen although we would never forget. Along the way we met half naked children playing on the grass and old women axing firewood for storage and cooking. Life in these scattered homesteads seemed to go on just fine; not the best dream, but a dream none the less.
I wanted to ask Nderitu what had happened at Mathari Boys and why he didn’t want to live there anymore, but I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words. Nderitu’s distant expression was enough to let me know that this was not the time and place. He was happy to be with us but he looked more focused on keeping us safe. The truth though was that we all wanted to go home for the same reason, to be a family again, and nothing else mattered. The only problem was that we had waited and thought about this day for so long that we didn’t know what to say to each other. Finding a balance from the pain of separation was not going to be easy.
“Slow down Nderitu,” Wairimu said after half an hour. “We still have daylight on our side.”
Nderitu slowed down and sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was walking fast.”
We could all see that something was bothering him, something beyond what we were doing – seeking our freedom. Nderitu laughed and smiled less, compared to when our father was alive.
“Is everything okay Nderitu?” I asked, trying to see things from his perspective. Maybe we had forced him to leave. Maybe he wanted to stay at the orphanage for reasons beyond our knowledge. A part of him was somewhere we couldn't reach and it made me ache for my brother.
Nderitu caught the worried look in my eyes and squeezed my shoulders. “Look at us,” he said with a big smile. “Together again.”
“We are free,” Wairimu said as we all paused for a group hug. “Tomorrow will be a good day.”
“Yes,”Nderitu agreed with a nod. “Dad used to say that there is nothing more important than family. You have to remember that he’s not gone. He now lives in us, in the way we talk and smile, in the way we carry ourselves. We carry his name and must make him proud.”
I liked what Nderitu was saying. It helped with moving on: to find love after pain, the knowledge that our dad was not really gone. He was always there, in our waking and sleeping thoughts, in the breeze that freshened the air and banged doors. Our father had paved way for us to follow and carry his name.
We continued walking and eating strawberries along the way, until familiar hills appeared with mud-and-wattle huts scattered along the hill tops. I recognized a rugged school at the bottom of the hill and smiled. The sight rejuvenated us and gave new life to our tired legs. Most of our childhood memories had been forged on these hills, playing or herding goats.
I thought about Sister Elizabeth and missed her already; her strength and pure heart. She had been there for us when we needed her most and I would never forget her for as long as I lived. I vowed to go back and visit one day, after the dust settled and things got back to normal.
We took a detour away from my father’s homestead and headed towards Wadobi, a few hills over. Water was plentiful in these hills due to the river. There was also good grazing land and fuel wood could be gathered from the edge of the forest. We saw Wadobi village sitting on high ground before we arrived and all of us stopped to exhale. The mud huts were scattered over the hills and it was also why the colonial British hadn't fenced the whole village in. However, there was still a barbed wire fence and trenches between the village and the forest to discourage frequent Mau Mau raids.
To get the Cucu wa Wadobi's homestead, we had to walk through people's gardens and along the way we said hello to familiar faces. The children played in the dirt and ran out of ear range, but the adults walked around with heavy shoulders. I noticed the home guards sitting under a tree eating roast maize and smoking cigarettes. They looked very young and confirmed the colonial British recruitment tactics. The Mau Mau soldiers killed the home guards for betraying their country and the British replaced them with young boys.
Nderitu led the way up a steep path that went through a graveyard. We shuddered at the sight of two wooden crosses that were beginning to rot. The grass around the graves looked tall and undisturbed. We hurried our steps and went through a gate that led into a compound. The red hut with cracked mud walls was hard to miss, but the thatched roofing of dry grass looked spectacular. A second smaller hut appeared to complete the homestead and I figured it to be the kitchen due to its size and black windows. Behind the kitchen, we saw two cows grazing peaceful on green grass and the sight brought forth a homely feeling.
A little girl suddenly came running through the kitchen door and caught us by surprise. She wore a dirt brown dress and smiled from ear to ear. I instantly recognized her and squealed in delight. “Wanjiru!”
“Hello Wanjiru,” Nderitu greeted. Instead of replying, Wanjiru rushed into his arms and they held each other briefly. I wanted to cry at the sight and thought it perfect – coming home to love. Nderitu released the little girl and she hugged Wairimu and I, and by then we were all laughing with joy.
“My goodness! Where did you children come from?” A woman suddenly emerged from the hut with a puzzled expression. She looked old, maybe in her mid-fifties and wore a blue suka over her brown dress. Her body was bent by age and her head was shaved bold making the round earings largely conspicuous. I recognized her. She had visited our home many times, when my father was alive.
“Hello Cucu,” Nderitu greeted. “We are home to stay.”
Cucu looked stunned by the words as she wiped her wet hands against her dress. “I ... I don’t understand,” she said. “Mrs. Susan promised to find good homes for all of you. I told her I could only manage with one baby.”
“We want to stay here Cucu,” Wairimu said in a pleading voice.
“Mrs. Susan didn’t find us good homes,” I added. “We walked all afternoon to get here. We don’t want to be separated. We want to be with our little sister.”
Nderitu took a step forward and spoke in a solemn tone. “Mrs. Susan lied to us. She took us to different homes and broke our hearts. We are the children of Ribiru Cucu. We can’t be separated. Please let us stay here and… we can help around the house and in the gardens. This was our father’s dream before our step-mother took off - to keep us together.”
Cucu looked overwhelmed by our presence. We were the last thing she had expected when she woke up in the morning. A look of defeat clouded her face and the sound of her sigh was victory for us. “Come inside,” she said. “You must be thirsty and hungry.”
We ran over and hugged her, and didn’t want to let go. We had dreaded this moment and had imagined the worst of it. She could have sent us back or worse refused to invite us into her home. She had not said no. "You did the right thing to come here," she added, struggling to process our presence. "If children can't have the love of their parents, they should at least have the love of the relatives."
The evening sun was warm as we entered the hut. She lit a fire and warmed tea for us. In the meantime, she dug her dirty hands into a basket and gave us plums to eat as we waited for dinner. We didn’t realise how hungry we were until we started eating, and then we couldn’t stop. Cucu watched us from the corner of her eye and looked to be facing indecision.
“Are you going to take us to the Chief?” Nderitu finally asked, fatigue beginning to pull down his eye lids. Across the room I noticed the shadows appearing underneath Wairimu's eyes and knew that she too was exhausted.
Cucu met our eyes and then slowly shook her head. “No. Things have changed around here. With the coming of the white man, the chief is now a very powerful man. He's busy collecting wealth and hiding from the Mau Mau who want him dead.”
“That means he has no time for small matters like us?” Nderitu said wistfully, as a roaster crowed outside.
Cucu poured the tea around and sighed back into her seat. “Don't worry about the Chief children. When I took your little sister in, my husband was the one who made the decision to only take one child. I knew your parents very well, and sympathized with you children. I feared the worst when you were taken away.” Tears appeared on Cucu’s wrinkled face as she stared at the fire. “My husband is dead now. You may have passed his grave on your way in. I can’t loose you guys again. This is my second chance to do the right thing. I don’t want to turn at night in my bed wondering whether you are doing okay. I owe it to your parents to keep you safe.”
I couldn’t explain how happy I felt to hear those words. It was at this moment that I finally believed that all good things were possible. We were home, together, as family and God Ngai had answered our prayers.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was loud and made us all jump. Five home guards stormed into the room without an invitation and started searching around with their eyes. One of them grabbed my sister and pushed her against the wall.
"There was a boy with you," one of the guards said. "Where did he go? All boys have to be questioned to find out whether they have taken the Mau Mau oath!"
I shuddered in fear at the words and turned in the direction where Nderitu was seated. There was nobody there but an empty chair. Nderitu had vanished into the thin air.
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
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...