Updated: Dec 28, 2019
The drums rumbled through the city; each beat striking Changa in his chest like a club. The people crowding around him mourned in various ways; some clutched their heads and moaned while others covered their tear-stained faces. They all reacted to the scene taking place before them, the execution of their kabaka, Mfumu. Changa tried to look away but the woman holding him pulled his hands away from his face. Changa closed his eyes then winced as the woman slapped his cheek.
“Open your eyes, boy!” she said. “You must see this. You must remember this.”
“I don’t want to!” Changa cried.
The woman’s grip eased for a moment upon hearing Changa’s words.
“You must,” she said, her lips close to his ear. “He’s your baba.”
Mfumu Diop knelt on the packed dirt, his bloody hands tied behind his back. Changa could barely recognize baba, his face swollen and bruised. A warrior gripped the rope tied around his neck, pulling the cord tight. Changa looked beyond baba to see mama and his sisters on their knees as well, their wailing cutting through the constant drumming to reach his ears. They were flanked by more masked warriors armed with short swords and spears. Changa’s eyes then focused on the towering muscular man standing beside baba, the execution sword gripped in his hands. The man wore a mask similar to the warriors, except the mask seemed alive on his face, shifting with expression. His upper body was festooned with gris-gris, his lower body covered by a bark kilt that fell to his calves. He paced beside baba, looking down at him like a hunter admiring freshly fallen game. Changa’s fear and sorrow slowly slipped from his mind, replaced by anger and hate.
The woman holding him spoke again, seeming to sense the change in his mood.
“Yes, Changa. Remember this. Usenge the sorcerer. Usenge the betrayer. Usenge the usurper. Usenge the murderer.”
“Usenge the murderer,” Changa whispered.
Usenge shook the execution sword over his head.
“The ancestors have chosen!” he said. “Only the strongest can rule, and I am the strongest!”
The sorcerer gripped the sword hilt with both hands. Changa’s body went stiff as baba managed to turn his head. His eyes met Changa’s, and then his lips moved. Changa heard baba’s words in his head.
Usenge grunted as he brought down the sword. As the iron blade cut into baba’s neck, Changa cried out.
Mfumu’s body slumped headless into the ground. Usenge twisted toward the crowd where Changa and the woman hid.
“The boy!” Usenge said. “Find him!”
People surrounding Changa looked down at him, hopeful expressions on their faces. They pressed close to him as Usenge’s men advanced. A large man with a scarred face knelt before him.
“You are the true kabaka now. You must live to take your baba’s place.”
He looked up to the woman.
“Get him out of here, Livanga. He has seen what he needs to see. We will do what we can.”
“Thank you, Enyama.” Livanga touched the man’s chest. “We will meet again among the ancestors.”
Armed men and women surged by Changa and Livanga. As Usenge’s warriors pushed their way into the crowd, Livanga wrapped her arms around Changa then backed away until they reached the edge of the bush.
“No!” Changa said. “I must avenge baba! I must save mamma and my sisters!”
“Not this day, Changa.”
Livanga dragged Changa into the bush as the crowd erupted into violence. Changa tried to break away from the woman but her grip was too strong. He went limp, hoping his weight would force her to stop. Instead she dragged him, his legs scraping against the dirt and shrubs. He finally gave in, clambering to his feet then running alone as well as he could.
They ran until darkness, or at least Livanga did. Changa’s legs gave out hours before. Livanga picked him up then continued running. It was well into darkness before the woman stood still.
“We are here,” she said.
The destination was a thicket of trees and bushes on the slope of a steep hill. Livanga placed the weary Changa down on a mat of straw then sat beside him. Changa watched her as she took a deep breath then lay on her back.
“Sleep,” she commanded.
Changa didn’t obey. He cried, the image of baba’s beheaded body and his weeping mamma and sisters haunting him. When he finally sat up he looked upon Livanga. She was awake as well, sobbing as quiet as she could. Seeing his aunt mourn comforted him; it was good to know that he was not the only person saddened by baba’s murder. He lay down again, this time succumbing to fatigue.
When he woke Livanga squatted beside him, pounding bananas and peanuts together in a small bowl. She looked up at him, her face solemn.
“We will stay here as long as we can,” she said. “When we are ready we will go to the east. Your uncle will take you in and train you.”
Changa said nothing. He took the bowl offered to him then ate slowly. He was not hungry but he knew he needed to eat.
“Why did Usenge kill baba?” Changa asked.
“Usenge is the servant of the Ndoki,” Livanga said. “Together they defy the will of the ancestors. They are strong now, but one day you will be stronger.”
“Baba was the strongest man I knew yet Usenge killed him,” Changa said.
Livanga placed her bowl down. “Your baba was a great warrior and kabaka. His only weakness was that he was too kind to those he considered friends. He overlooked the weakness of those he loved.”
Changa stopped eating. “Baba loved Usenge?”
Livanga nodded. “They were once close friends, almost like brothers. But as the ancestors showed Mfumu favor Usenge’s resentment grew. We all saw it and tried to warn your baba but he was blind to it. When the elders chose your baba to be kabaka Usenge’s resentment became hate. He went into the bush and sought power from another source.”
“If baba loved Usenge so much, why did I not know of him?”
“Usenge fled long before you were born,” Livanga said. “We thought the bush had taken him. If only that had been true. The Ndoki found him first.”
Changa shivered upon the mention of the Ndoki. As a child the stories of the wayward sorcerers wearing the skin of gorillas frightened him the most; to learn they were real almost caused him to whimper.
Livanga placed a hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
“Don’t worry, Changa. Once we get to your uncle you will be safe. Usenge’s power does not extend beyond Kongo.”
She reached into a dark place in their hut then extracted a braided leather bag.
“This is for you,” she said.
Changa took the bag then opened it. He smiled upon seeing the contents. Baba’s throwing knives were inside.
“Your mamma gave them to me,” Livanga said. “These knives were made by your great grandfather Caungula. He was a great kabaka and powerful blacksmith. They possess great power. If Mfumu had used them Usenge would be a bitter memory.”
Changa took a knife from the bag, inspecting the blades.
“I will use them,” he said. “I will kill Usenge with them. This I promise.”
Livanga smiled. “You must learn how to use them first, young shumba. Finish your food. We’ll begin your training today.”
They finished their meal then stepped into the midmorning sun. The morning mist had lifted from the bush, leaving the foliage cool and damp. Livanga guided Changa to a small clearing. She looked about before finding a thick tree at the edge of the clearing. She tore a strip of cloth from a blanket then pinned the fabric to the tree with a small knife.
“You will hit the cloth with the knife,” she said.
“I don’t need to practice,” Changa said. “I can throw a knife.”
“The knives you throw are hunting knives,” Livanga said. “These are warrior knives. It takes a different technique to handle them.”
Changa hefted the knife. It was heavier than those he was used to but that just meant he would have to throw in harder. He pulled back then let the knife fly. It hit the ground. Changa looked at Livanga in shock and Livanga smile back.
“Like I said, it takes a different technique.”
She retrieved the knife then returned to Changa. She threw the knife with a grunt; the blade stuck in the tree close to the cloth. She began walking to the tree, Changa following with his mouth agape.
“Every knife had its own balance,” she said. “The only way you can discover it is to throw it. Once you discover its pitch, you can concentrate on throwing it with accuracy, then with power.”
“How did you learn to throw, aunt?” Changa asked.
“I wasn’t always your mamma’s servant,” Livanga said. “Now try again.”
Changa tried again, and again, and again. Livanga made him throw the knives the remainder of the day, only stopping to eat and rest. He slept soundly that night, the horrible dream of baba’s death brief yet still intense. When he woke the next day, his arms were sore.
“You will throw again today,” Livanga said as they finish their meal.
Changa moaned. “My arm is sore!”
“Do you think Usenge will care if your arms hurt? He will kill you anyway.”
The sorcerer’s name sent a surge of anger and energy through his small frame. He put down his bowl then grabbed the knife bag. The knife fell as it did the day before.
“I’m no better than yesterday!” he said.
Livanga touched his shoulder.
“How do you eat an elephant?” she asked. “One bite at a time,” Changa answered.
“Your meal has just begun.”
That night Changa stared into the sky at the stars. He tried to distract himself by seeking the constellations the teachers taught him, but he saw the faces of his mamma and sisters, Bunzi, Kifunji. They were all gone; baba was dead, mama and his sisters claimed as Usenge’s wives. He pounded his fist against the ground, fighting the tears forcing their way out of his eyes then running down his cheeks. He sat up then wiped them away.
“It’s good to cry,” Livanga said.
She sat beside him then draped her arm around his shoulders.
“Try to rest. We must be on our way early tomorrow. Your uncle is waiting for you.”
“Will we practice with the knives?” Changa asked.
“Of course we will.”
Changa drew his legs up to his chest then rested his head on his knees.
Changa and Livanga journeyed five more days before reaching the outskirts of his uncle’s realm. They walked a narrow path bordered by heavy grass, the bush cleared by human hands. Changa carried a knife in each hand, his eyes darting left and right. Livanga walked before him, her sword in her hand.
“We are being watched,” Changa said.
“I know,” Livanga replied. “Your uncle is very cautious. He is wary of Usenge, as he should be. He wants to be sure we are who we appear do to be.”
They reached the midway point on the trail when warriors emerged from the bush with wooden shields and iron tipped spears.
“Put down your knives,” Livanga ordered.
Changa knelt then placed the knives in the grass by his feet. Livanga did the same with her sword. Livanga extended her arms away from her body; Changa repeated the gesture. The warriors rushed in, surrounding them with weapons poised for attack. A tall, lean warrior wearing a leopard headband stepped forward, followed by an elderly woman draped in a leather robe covered with gris-gris. The woman carried a short iron staff which she waved around Livanga, then Changa. She stepped away from them both beside the warrior.
“They are real,” she said.
The warriors relaxed, lowering their weapons. The lead warrior’s stern face transformed to recognition and relief. He extended his arms and Livanga walked into the embrace.
“Sister,” he said. “It is so good to see you.”
“I came as I promised, brother,” Livanga said.
The warrior released Livanga then went to Changa. Changa stepped away; he did not know this man.
“It’s okay, Changa,” Livanga said.
The man squatted before Changa.
“I am your uncle, Ngonga. You are among my people now. You are safe.”
Changa smiled. “Hello, uncle.”
“He looks like Mfumu,” Ngonga said to Livanga.
“He is strong like him, too,” Livanga said.
“He’ll have to be,” Ngonga said.
Ngonga and the old woman took the lead. They continued down the trail, the bush encroaching until the branches brushed Changa’s skin. Then suddenly it dispersed, replaced by an abandoned city.
“What place is this?” Changa asked.
Livanga hesitated before answering. “Nkombo. It used to be our city and my home.”
Changa looked at the crumbling homes with sadness. Grasses sprouted in the once vibrant streets; a stand of trees ruled the central market place.
“Did Usenge drive you away?” he asked.
“In a way,” Livanga said. “When the war turned his way, Ngonga decided the city was not safe. We consulted the ancestors and spirits and they agreed. So we relocated to a place more favorable.”
“Usenge will never come here,” Changa said. “It is too far away.”
“Usenge will go wherever the blood of Mfumu still flows,” Livanga said. “We are still closest to the spirits. As long as we survive the spirits will not choose him. Even the Ndoki cannot change that.”
Changa shuddered. “So he will come for me.”
“He will come for us all,” Livanga said.
They camped in the city overnight then continued their journey at daylight. By noon the bush gave way to a land of open fields and steep hills. Livanga touched Changa’s shoulder for attention then pointed to the tallest hill.
“That is our home now,” she said. “Cilombo.”
Changa smiled. “It is a good name.”
Once they reached the base of the hill Ngonga raised his hand and the party halted.
“Livanga and Changa, moved to the center of the line,” he commanded.
Once they were in place he came to them.
“It’s very important that you remain in place. Step in the footsteps of the person before you. Do not waver. The road to the hillcrest is filled with traps, physical and spiritual. Do you understand?”
Changa nodded and Ngonga repeated his gesture. He returned to the lead then proceeded up the steep hill.
Changa walked up the hill; his eyes focused Livanga’s footfalls. The climb took much longer due to the care required, but they eventually reached the summit. Changa looked up to see not a city but a fortress. A palisade of thick trunks capped with metal spikes surrounded the grass homes inside. Wooden towers rose above the palisades, extending the observation for miles on a clear day. Despite the martial design, Cilombo radiated the mood of a vibrant city. A host of children scurried to meet them as they entered, followed by others with relieved smiles on their faces. Changa received particular attention, with some of the children and adults reaching out to touch him. He moved closer to Livanga, who draped her arm around him.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “You are among family and friends.”
Ngonga led them to the center of Cilombo. The elders sat under the meeting tree awaiting them, twelve men and women wrapped in wool blankets sitting on low stools. Ngonga walked closer to the elders; Changa was about to follow him but Livanga held him back. She eased to her knees then touched her forehead on the ground. Changa repeated the gesture.
Ngonga knelt before the elders. An elder woman stood, shuffling to Ngonga then touching the back of his head with her hand. Ngonga stood.
“Mama Kifunji, the son of Mfumu is among us,” he said.
The woman studied the others until her eyes met Changa’s.
“Come forward,” she said.
Changa stood then went to stand beside Ngonga.
“Changa Diop, the spirits have safely delivered you to us. We are grateful for their blessings. A long road lays ahead for you; one that will call on you to be stronger than you may think you can be. But Ngonga is a blacksmith that forges strong men. He will instill in you the ways of a warrior, and we will teach you what the ancestors will share. Are you ready?”
“I don’t know,” Changa replied.
Mama Kifunji smiled. “That is a wise answer. We shall see.”
Mama Kifunji looked to Ngonga.
“Take him to the others. Begin their training immediately. Usenge grows stronger every day.”
“Yes, mama,” Ngonga answered.
Changa knelt with Ngonga then the two of them returned to the group.
Changa looked up to Ngonga, his face worried.
“Who are these others?” he said.
“You will train with your age-group,” Ngonga said. “We have selected 9 boys who have displayed the skills to fight with you. They will be your brothers in peace and war. You will live and train together until that day you are deemed ready, then you will march together against Usenge. They will be you closest friends, your commanders and your protectors.”
“What if they don’t like me?” Changa asked.
“That is a foolish question,” Ngonga replied. “This is a matter of duty.”
Ngonga led him through the city to the wall opposite the entrance. Another gate loomed before them; Ngonga opened the gate and they entered. A long house occupied the center of the area. There were posts of various widths and heights lined on either side of the compound. Nine boys emerged from the compound single file, led by a young man wearing a red tunic that hung from his left shoulder. The boys and their leader met them at the center of the compound.
“This is Caungula,” Ngonga said. “He is your cousin and your group leader. He will teach you our ways and supervise your training when I am not here.”
Caungula nodded to Changa and he nodded back.
“I assume you’ve had some training,” the young man said.
“Baba taught me wrestling and some sword play. Livanga is teaching me how to throw knives.”
Caungula smiled. “No one throws knives better than Livanga.”
Caungula stepped aside. “These are your brothers. They have been waiting for you. They will follow you to war, but you must prove to them you are worth following. It’s not enough that you are the son of a kabaka. If you wish their respect you must earn it.”
Changa nodded. “I understand.”
“You don’t, but you will,” Caungula said.
Caungula stepped aside and the boys approached Changa one at a time, giving their names.
“Go with your brothers,” Caungula said. “There is food for you. You will rest the remainder of the day. Tomorrow your training begins.”
Changa looked to Livanga with questioning eyes.
“Go ahead, Changa. I will be here tomorrow. I promise.”
Changa smiled then followed the boys to the long house. The inside of the lodge was sparse. Each boy had his own bed and a weapon rack. Wooden spears and swords hung off the racks; to Changa’s disappointment there were no throwing knives. A large iron pot sat over an open fire opposite the entrance, a stew simmering inside. The aroma made Changa’s stomach grumble. He made his way to the pot then filled his bowl. When he sat cross-legged by the pot the other boys crowded around him.
“We are sorry for your loss,” Lusati said.
Changa nodded as he ate. He did not want to talk about the past few days.
“Is Usenge the monster everyone says he is?” Kalei asked. Changa lowered his bowl then closed his eyes. The image of his baba’s beheading filled his mind.
“Yes,” he said.
“Leave him alone,” Kambundu said. “He’s hungry and he’s upset.”
Kambundu moved closer to Changa. “I am your cousin. Ngonga is my father. It is tradition that I am your second but it is your choice. Hopefully as we train I will prove to you that I deserve the position.”
Changa studied his cousin. He seemed older than the others, taller and broader at the shoulders. He carried the serious countenance of his father, his intense stare making the boy uncomfortable.
“I am not your superior,” Changa finally said. “You have been chosen by the others so I will trust their judgment. They know you far better than I do.”
Kambundu smiled an expression that seemed awkward for his face.
“Rest, cousin,” he said. “My father can be a hard man.”
Changa smiled back. “Like mine.”
“They are brothers.”
The boys laughed and the others smiled.
The following weeks were a blur. Ngonga trained them hard from sunrise to sunset. Changa was so exhausted at the end of the day he barely had time to think of his loss. It was only during the night in his dreams where he remembered his family. He dreamed of his life before Usenge’s uprising, recalling his baba’s strong hands and stern lessons, mama’s soothing voice and the taunts and teases of his sisters that annoyed him then but now he missed so much. Often, he woke in tears and his new brothers comforted him. As Ngonga promised they did their duty, but the struggles of training forged them into true friends.
Changa stood in the circle as his brothers clapped a fast rhythm. Kambundu stood before him holding two stones with a basket of more beside him. Ngonga stood beside his son, his arms folded before his broad chest.
“Are you ready, Changa?” Ngonga said.
“I am,” Changa replied.
“I expect better than yesterday,” Ngonga said.
“You shall receive it,” Changa answered.
Changa twisted with the rhythm, the movements fluid and dancelike. He eyes focused on Kambundu’s hands as he swayed them in time. Then he threw the stones as hard as he could. Changa spun right then ducked left, the stones spinning by. Kambundu threw more stones and Changa dodged them, keeping in time. He lost himself in the beat, his martial dance keeping him clear of the stone. Then the rhythm stopped and he stopped as well. Kambundu stood still, his arms akimbo and his basket empty.
“Excellent,” Ngonga said. “You are ready for the bow.”
Changa straightened, his eyes wide.
“Uncle, I don’t think...”
Ngonga glared at Changa and he fell silent. Kambundu rushed to his side.
“Don’t be nervous. Stay relaxed. The arrows will come faster but you can do it. Focus on baba’s hands and nothing else. Never move back; only side to side.”
Changa nodded as he tried to keep from shaking. Ngonga returned with the short bow, a quiver of arrows hanging from his hip.
“Move away, Kambundu,” he said.
Changa’s brother’s clapped. He swayed from side to side, his eyes locked on Ngonga’s hands. His uncle loaded the bow then pulled back on the bowstring.
The first arrow grazed his chest as he twisted to his right. No sooner had he turned to face his uncle did he let the second arrow fly. Changa twisted again, the arrow flying by, missing him completely. He was about to smile when he saw his uncle aim for his legs.
“Jump!” Kambundu shouted.
Changa jumped, pulling his legs up to his chest. The arrow whizzed under him, but Ngonga was not done. He quickly fired another arrow at Changa. Changa uncoiled his body then arched his back. The arrow sailed over him as he touched the ground with his hands then pulled his feet over to the ground as well. His brothers lost their rhythm as they clapped.
Changa smiled at them then felt sharp pain in his thigh. He jerked his head down; an arrow protruded from his left leg. He gripped the shaft as he fell to the ground. His brothers rushed around him, Kambundu reaching him first.
“Don’t touch it!” his cousin said. “There is a way to remove it so there won’t be damage.”
Ngonga appeared, looking down at Changa in disappointment.
“Distraction causes death,” he said. “That arrow could have been in your chest instead of your leg.”
He looked at Kambundu. “Tend to him.”
“Hosi, Lusati. Help me,” Kambundu ordered. Together they lifted Changa then carried him to his cot in the longhouse.
“Bring me the cleansing water and bandages,” his cousin said. He looked at Changa in sympathy.
“This is going to hurt,” he said.
He slowly turned the arrow and Changa clenched his teeth, holding back the scream threatening to escape his mouth. Kambundu pulled at the arrow twice before finally extracting it. Lusati handed him a gourd; Kambundu doused a cloth with the liquid inside then placed it on Changa’s leg. Changa fought back a cry a second time.
Kambundu grabbed Changa’s hand then placed it on the clo