There once lived a young man in a distant land, in distant times, in unfamiliar climes. The land was called Kua. The young man was a gentle soul; never hurting anything or anyone, for any reason. In a homestead where violence reigned – roosters fought all day for hens; dogs fought cats; bulls fought each other off the backs of hefty heifers and the men in the chiefdom earned their honour by fighting and killing their rivals – actual and imaginary, the young man lived by one dictum: No need to hurt. That, my friend, is how everybody knew him.
Before long, he was a teen-aged prodigy, doing the most amazing things in the neighbourhood. He gave up living his own life for the sake of the folks around him. He helped timid little children cross busy thoroughfares and intimidated big bullies off scared weaklings they wanted to torment. He built huts for the helpless aged, fetched water and fuel wood for pregnant mothers, roamed the Kua neighbourhood looking out for the wounded and ailing to take them to the local medical facility… He never settled if he wasn’t serving one person or another.
Many people talked about this young man, whose name was Selima. Selima’s name was on the lips of all Kua wives whose husbands beat them regularly, saying, ‘Why can’t you be like Selima?’ It was on the lips of recuperating patients who, when their herbs spilled or tablets dropped off their capped hands as they took their medication, involuntarily swore, ‘Oh Selima!’ His name was on the lips of parents whose daughters had started ripening, or were beginning to get wild. Then such parents would say, ‘Is there a fine young man like Selima in all of Kua? Selima would be the perfect suitor for a girl like our Nautar!’
Selima, unfortunately, was not looking to marry; or even thinking about women. He was content to live a life of service, retiring to bed every night worn out, but with a satisfied soul. Thoughts of people who might have died, but lived because he was on sight to help them, made him smile benignly in the dark of solemn nights. Memories of girls he had saved from the wrath of their fathers who wanted to murder them to save the families’ honour after those girls were caught ‘doing bad things’ out in the grasslands where herdsmen took their cattle to feed, made him turn from one weary side to another aching one, thinking, ‘One more soul saved!’
Many a young woman would finish helping with the house chores at home in the early evening, when the sun was disarmed of its fiery arrows in a fierce battle that left the sky bloodied and, after bathing and oiling themselves carefully, and hot-combing their hair like ancient princesses, amble away from home, only whispering to their pre-teen brother or adolescent half-sister, ‘I am going to catch Selima’s eye.’ That, my friend, was a target that spread across Kua’s breadths and lengths like an epidemic that only affected maidens. Soon, mothers learnt that whenever their daughters left home in the evenings, it was to catch a whiff of Selima. The mothers didn’t fight the habit and, when the fathers learnt of it, they didn’t devise a vaccine against the pandemic.
One day, at the time when a chiefdom about five chiefdoms away was struck by a severe illness, killing off many working residents, an elderly man from that chiefdom came to settle in Kua. Nobody had known him before, yet when he arrived in the village with a family of five sons, three daughters and one ageing, ailing wife, he somehow caught everybody’s attention. It was Kua tradition never to sell land to strangers, but when one arrived in their midst, they put their heads and hands together to help them settle. That is what they did for the elderly man. He settled in, him and his family.
That was how things changed in Kua! That is when a blessing became a curse.
One of the elderly man’s daughters was a serious case of an ascetic. From when she woke up – and she was a remarkable early riser – she took long walks through the village, headed to nowhere in particular, to do no specific thing, walking past the sun’s zenith, till her nimble legs ached. She would then find a tree shade or a big shrub and sit there, ruminating over the universe’s phenomena. She would leave home with the dawn and return on the back of the dark. Many times passersby thought her asleep; a few feared her dead, for when she was in one of these restful trances, she seemed to have ceased breathing. But she was awake, and alive, and sober, communing with things nobody could believe or imagine!
It was during one such time that Selima found her, sprawled out on the grass, a big, black-and-brown snake reclining by her side, unperturbed. Selima was alarmed. Walking on tiptoe so he wouldn’t disturb the lethal serpent, Selima went to break a branch to hit the ancient foe of Eve’s descendants with. The snake, however, was more alert than Selima had suspected. When it heard the branch break, it got into offensive mood and attacked. The only victim – mistaken for a foe – the snake had access to, was the ascetic.
It struck once…
…and slithered away rapidly!
Selima saw it go. He literally jumped the bush to where the ascetic lay, a shocked look in her eyes and a kind of defiant scowl on her lips… Breathing, but only barely. Selima lifted the rapidly degenerating body, becoming heavier by the minute due to its inability to support itself, and ran with it towards the health centre…
News travels fast, and before Selima heard the doctor’s words of failure, and supported himself on the wall which he nearly crushed into, the elderly gentleman had arrived, followed by a sizeable crowd, asking, ‘What happened to my girl? What has happened to Mzee’s daughter? Where was she? What? When? Where? Why? Really, why?
Why did it have to be Selima? Why just when he was on site? For, though the elderly man told Selima it was okay, he didn’t cause the ascetic’s death, Selima had only one person to blame for his first failure to save a life: himself. So he walked away, back to the area where the whole episode had taken place. He knew that if he walked the area long and carefully enough, he would find the offending serpent. He would fight it. He would kill it.
Indeed he found it. Indeed he fought it and, as the ancient curse had been pronounced in Eden, the serpent struck Selima’s heel, and Selima crushed its head. There, out in the wild, both lay, heroes of their pride; victims of a curse. Lifeless.
Bob G. Kisiki is a writer and worship leader. He is currently the Literacy Coordinator on the USAID/Uganda School Health and Reading Programme. Prior to that, he worked at Fountain Publishers and New Vision.
He has written and published three novels: The Kind Gang (Fountain Publishers, 2001), Gobah and the Killer Healers and The Rainbow’s End (Cook Communication, 2009). The Kind Gang is available in bookshops in Kampala, but the other two can only be got from the author.