Eager spectators crowded the bulwark of the Sada, packing the merchant dhow from stern to bow. Those that couldn’t find room on the deck hung from mast ropes and sat on the bulwark. Their eyes focused on two bare-chested men circling each other, their brown skin glistening with sweat. The taller man lumbered from side to side, his huge arms swaying as he tried to keep pace with his shorter opponent. He possessed a wide chest and a wider stomach sitting on legs that resembled thick tree trunks. His short curled hair atop his head contrasted with the voluminous beard grazing his chest with each frustrating turn of his head.
The other man moved with martial grace, his body a chiseled muscular form. His smooth face and bald head told of his youth, but his deep brown eyes revealed experience beyond his years. He observed his opponent with the skill of a man used to such encounters, a man whose battles in his past usually ended in death. Luckily for the big man, this was not such an encounter.
“Stand still, Changa!” the big man bellowed. “How do you expect me to give you a hug if you keep flittering like a moth?”
The spectators laughed and Changa grinned. “I’m no fool, Yusef. Those arms were meant to hug tembos, not men, and certainly not women.”
Yusef lunged at Changa. Changa dodged to his left, slapping Yusef across the forehead with an open right hand. The big man stopped just short of plowing into the crowd of terrified bahari.
“Damn you, kibwana!” Yusef yelled. “Stand still! From Mogadishu to Mombasa they call you Mbogo, The Bull. All I see is a skittish calf.”
Changa laughed at the insult. He planted his feet, resting his hands at his waist.
“Come then. Let’s see if your clumsy hands can crush this little calf.”
The two inched towards each other, their arms extended. Their fingers touched then intertwined as they began a test of strength as old as time.
“Hah!” Yusef shouted. He immediately pressed down on Changa, tightening his great hands around Changa’s. A normal man would have crumbled under the massive man’s weight; a strong man would have buckled in seconds. Changa stood still, the only indication of exertion the rippling muscles under his taunt black skin. Yusef pressed harder and Changa remained unmoved. The giant lost his humor; he clenched his teeth and pressed harder, his arms shaking with effort. Changa remained unmoved. Every man on the dhow fell silent to the amazing test of strength playing out before them. None doubted Changa’s strength, but this display went far beyond their imagining.
While Yusef and the others interpreted Changa’s silence as an unbelievable show of poise, the opposite was true. Changa concentrated with every pound of his muscle, fighting back Yusef’s onslaught. He was lapping at the brink of his endurance, waiting the right moment. He looked into his opponent’s face and determined the time was right.
Changa collapsed. A triumphant grin emerged through Yusef’s beard until he realized Changa wasn’t falling; he was rolling. He was too committed to pull back. Pain shot from his belly to his back as Changa drove his feet into Yusef. The big man was airborne, Changa’s face replaced by sails, seagulls and sky. His brief flight ended amidst a crowd of hands, feet, bodies and groans as he crash landed among the unfortunate baharia on the deck.
“Mbogo!” the uninjured spectators cheered. Changa rolled to his feet then sauntered to Yusef and the pile of hapless victims beneath him.
“You were right,” Changa said as he massaged his sore arms and shoulders “You are stronger than me.”
“Are you done playing, Changa?” Kasim, the dhow captain walked between the two. The Sada sailors scurried to their chores at the sight of their captain, the others dispersing to their duties at the docks.
Changa looked down at Yusef, extending his hand. “Are we done?”
Yusef took Changa’s hand and Changa pulled him up to a sitting position.
“Yes, we are done…Mbogo,” he conceded, a defeated tone in his voice.
Kasim nodded. “Good. Belay wants to see you right away.”
Changa’s mood shifted from victorious to serious. He hurried below and washed himself, donned his cotton shirt and proceeded to the warehouse containing Belay’s office. The merchant sat hunched over his desk as always, studying his counting books.
“Bwana, you sent for me?” Changa asked.
Belay looked up, greeting Changa with a broad grin.
“Yes, Changa. Please, sit down.”
Belay leaned back in his chair and massaged his forehead.
“I don’t understand why Allah punishes me. I pray, I am a fair and honest man and I give alms to the poor. Instead of blessing me he brings me troubles.”
“It is never more than you can handle,” Changa said.
“So you say,” Belay sighed. “Do you know Mustafa the goat herder?”
“I’m sure you know of his daughter, Yasmine.”
Changa answered with a smile. In a city known for its beautiful women Yasmine stood out like a diamond among gems. Not a single man in Mombassa, Changa included, would hesitate to accumulate a generous lobola if he knew she favored him.
Changa’s scowl answered Belay’s question. “Mustafa barges in my office this morning demanding to see me. Being the Muslim that I am, I allowed him an audience despite his rudeness. He sat where you sit now and stated that Yasmine was missing and Narigisi was to blame.”
Changa’s face and he shifted in his seat. Narigisi was Belay’s eldest son, as different from his father as oil and water. He was a vain and selfish man with the spirit of Shaitan.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Belay said. “You think Mustafa is right. I think so, too, but I could not say so in front of him. I told him I would look into the matter and you know what he did? He jumped to his feet and slammed his fist on my desk! He demanded that I either return his daughter or pay him twice the lobola offered by her suitors.”
Changa’s mind focused on Yasmine, a familiar, uncomfortable feeling rising in his chest.
“I have seen Narigisi courting Yasmine,” he said. “She did not seem pleased with his attention.”
Belay stood. “We will visit him immediately and get to the bottom of this.”
Changa stood as well. “If we go to see Naragisi we’ll need men.”
Belay rubbed his forehead again. “Yes, that’s true. Will you see to it?”
“Of course, bwana.”
Changa returned to the dhow burdened with concern. Men gathered about him as soon as he boarded.
“Bashiri, Zakwani and Tayari, get your weapons,” he announced. “We are to escort Bwana Belay to his son’s house.”
The chosen men hurried below deck with huge grins on their faces. Escort duty was extra pay. Going with Changa meant they had a good chance of returning. Changa noticed Yusef sulking across the ship, still smarting from his recent defeat.
“Yusef,” he called out. “Get your gear. You’re coming, too.”
The big man smiled like a child. “Of course, Changa, of course!”
The men met Belay at the warehouse. Belay climbed on his wagon and they set out for the mainland. After a brief stop in the country town to gather supplies they set out for the bush. Naragisi’s difference from his father went beyond personalities. Unlike most Swahili Naragisi despised the stone town, preferring life in the hinterlands. They reached his estate by daybreak the next day, the massive two story house rising over the otherwise flat landscape. An expansive shamba filled with hundreds of Zebu cattle surrounded his elaborate home, the estate protected by Samburu warriors. Instead of the normal thorn bush palisade Naragisi had constructed a stone wall six feet high. Four stone gates allowed entrance, one at each point of the compass, each protected by a Samburu village. Changa and the others met no opposition until they reached the gate. Four Samburu guarded the gate, tall lean men with iron tipped spears and swords that flared out like fans at the tip. A red cloak fell from one shoulder, covering their bodies to the knees. A black beaded belt gathered the cloak about their waists and held the wooden scabbards for their swords and daggers. Each warrior held a broad leaf shield of cowhide, the pattern of Naragisi painted on each one.
The guards shifted as Changa approached them.
“Habare,” Changa said.
“Umzuri,” the guards replied.
“Bwana Belay wishes to see his son.”
“That is not possible,” the warrior replied. “Bwana Naragisi is not to be disturbed.”
Suspicion emerged in Changa’s thoughts, confirmed by the look in Belay’s eyes.
“Must I remind you where your master’s wealth originates?” Belay said.
The Samburu guards shifted their stances. “Our master’s wealth resides within his walls,” the warrior sneered. “Golden metal has no value here.”
Changa’s sword sprang from its sheath before the guards could react, it’s tip pressed into the warrior’s chin.
“Is your master’s wealth worth your life?”
The warrior opened the gate and stepped aside. The Mombassans crossed the wide expanse to the door of Naragisi’s home. A servant girl dressed in a colorful kanga and beaded braids met them at the entrance.
“Welcome, baba,” she said respectfully. “Your son is grateful you have come to visit him. Please follow me to the veranda.”
The girl led them to a huge courtyard, the stone floor covered by an enormous and expensive Persian rug. An elaborate table was set before them. Belay sat at the table; Changa, Yusef and the others remained standing behind him.
Naragisi entered accompanied by a dozen Samburu warriors. He dressed simply, white pants and long shirt with a caramel vest. A small turban hugged his head held together by an amber broach. He smiled at his father as he cut a glance at Changa.
“Baba, welcome!” he said. “I am so glad you came to visit me so unexpectedly.”
“I have no time for your deception, Naragisi,” Belay retorted. “Mustafa the goat herder came to my warehouse today, claiming you had something to do with Yasmine’s disappearance. Do you?”
Naragisi sat at the table, taking time to prepare a cup of chai.
“He is Yasmine’s father, is he not?”
Belay’s small hands clenched. “Yes he is.”
“Hmm.” Naragisi sipped his tea. “Yes and no.”
“What do you mean yes and no?”
“Yes, father, I am responsible for Yasmine’s disappearance, but not in the way you suspect.”
Changa’s hand went to his sword and Naragisi’s guards responded by stepping forward, their spears lowered.
Belay raised his hand. “I didn’t come here for violence. I came here for answers.”
“It’s no secret I wanted Yasmine,” Naragisi admitted. “I waited for her to arrive at the market every day and gave her gifts and kind words. It was more than any woman of her station deserved no matter how beautiful she is. She should have been grateful.”
Naragisi paused to sip his tea again. A frown marred his face.
“I finally explained to her my intentions and she laughed. She laughed at me! I wanted to strike her down and I would have if I didn’t cherish her beauty so much. I decided to show her what being my wife meant. I arranged to have her brought here.”
“You had her kidnapped,” Changa said.
“No one gave you permission to speak, mtwana,” Naragisi growled.
“Keep your insults!” Belay barked. “Who did you hire?”
Naragisi leaned back on his cushion and raised his teacup, staring at Changa.
Belay sighed, closed his eyes and hung his head. Changa fought a surge of anger as he struggled to keep his hand from his sword.
“I really thought Wal would bring her to me,” Naragisi continued. “We have conducted business before.”
“Wasaki deals with the highest bidder,” Changa said. “He must have received a better offer.”
“You keep speaking as if it matters,” Naragisi commented.
Changa was about to answer when Belay raised his hand.
“Enough!” Belay stood. “I’ll deal with you latter, Naragisi.”
Belay exited the room and the others followed. Changa hesitated; watching Naragisi and his men to make sure Belay’s departure was safe. He turned to leave.
“Changa,” Naragisi called out.
Changa turned slowly and was met by Naragisi’s cold eyes.
“My father is a mwungwana. He’s well respected for his intelligence, generosity and piety. Your status in Mombasa is depends on him.”
“I know this,” Changa snapped. “You’re wasting your words and my time.”
Naragisi’s eyes narrowed. “My father will not live forever.”
Changa smirked. “Neither will you.”
To read more, pick up your copy of Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology