As chief, father had insisted on living in a regular hut—a simple thatch of a clay-mud mixture, completed by firm stands.
Our reed roofing kept us warm through cold nights and held more secrets of smokey stretches of the day—when the hut would stuff with smoke, our breathing spaces being through the one tiny window, whose height was discouraging, or the open door, which was only effective at proximity.
No special treatment—father had insisted. It was okay; we were, and life was perfect.
But our Kumwe and Kekwe communities warred every after-harvest. Our plentiful wheat barns invited trouble, as much as Kekwe’s fat cattle invited comeback raids.
Tembo, our old man, had managed little success with talks.
He was lesser of words yet fragile at heart. Every time our village was hit, and we lost more than wheat—women, children, and good men—he would enter an eternal period of brooding, speaking little to nothing, and seeking answers beyond the clouds.
One fateful harvest season, just after packing up our barns with wheat, our village received the usual uninvited guests. They swept off plenty of what they could find unguarded, and with them, at least a dozen men, women, and children.
Tembo would, in the night, exit our hut to seek answers from the heavens.
I remember peering at him through the spaces of our tiny window, my feet weakly supported by his hand-crafted stool.
I remember hearing his gasp as he rubbed his face and looked up with surprise to the falling drops—the drops of death. Tembo had rushed back in. How sad that even then, we couldn’t tell it was no ordinary rain.
Tembo mentioned how impossible such heavy rain should have been, considering our weather pattern, which predicted a longer stretch of dry months.
The rain poured on for the second day; on the third, all hell broke loose.
We were lucky to live in a highland area, so we had no chances of floods. But floods would have been much merciful—our rain was not.
Anyone who entered the rain, or washed in or consumed its waters, returned with their skins charred, or lay, their tummies burning, and if they looked up to the sky like Tembo did, they would go blind.
Something was wrong with the rain, the water.
As soon as word went round, nobody dared leave the sanctuary of their homes. The victims of direct contact to the waters or direct contact to the flesh of the afflicted were no more by sunrise; by sunset, every hut that had lost someone had to dispose of their bodies through their open doors.
Days spun to more, and on the seventh, I got fed up. With my tiny feet, I stood up to my old man.
“Tembo,” I said, “I will stop the rain.”
My old man showed me no signs of doubt; a simple grin and a nod and an inquiry.
I gave it a thought. I sat on the floor before Tembo and gave it a good thought. How? Had I not thought of it?
I was well aware that the sky did not heed to commands, and whatever had poisoned its waters may as well choose to stay forever—until we were all history.
I wouldn’t let that happen, either.
“I know,” I said, rising and disappearing into his inner chambers.
I heard his chuckle, followed by an indistinct chat. Moments later, I dashed out of the chambers, with Tembo’s hide shield over my head—it was large and heavy; it covered my tiny body through the back to my toes; I dressed my toes in giant boots.
I knew I would be alright and wouldn’t allow Tembo the chance to say no. I dashed out.
The raindrops did not get to me or through the hide. I didn’t hear anything behind me and prayed so hard that nobody followed. Knowing my old man’s value for every life, I was sure nobody would, at some point.
I kept walking, and night came. I stopped under a tree. I found a dry spot, cuddled up, and slept.
Morning came, and it rained even heavier. I rose and walked on. By evening, I would be at the gates of Kekwe.
You can imagine my surprise when, for miles approaching our rival community, I walked through desert-dry land, with not a sign of rain for months.
Only a distance away, it rained literal death. I kept walking and would soon spot warriors. Nobody cared about a tiny child, dragging massive boots, with a hide over his head, anyway.
I walked through and didn’t know then that I would be the only survivor of the greatest massacre of our living history.