The Lost People (extract)
“I may be ugly, but I have a mouth, and today I will use it to tell father about you because you are ruining his reputation! And you are a bad influence on Quteh!”
The log hit the grain pot with a dull thud, spilling the grain. “Aba . . . Aba, if you tell . . .”
“There is father!” Aba shouted triumphantly, jumping to her feet.
Their father came running into the compound and stopped in front of them. He was beside himself with excitement. “Where is your mother? Tell her to come here!”
“You called for me, my lord,” the woman said as she emerged out of the house and stood in the doorway.
“Good news, woman! I have heard good news at the market down at the sea! The merchants say we are going on a trading expedition to Hazabi. That in itself is good news but there is more. The queen has decided that Hazabi is in need of another royal wife!”
“That is good news, my . . .”
“Don’t interrupt me! The queen has sent scouts to search for the most beautiful girls. All the young girls in this town have been summoned to the governor’s hall at dawn!”
“The governor has pretty daughters; surely one of them will be chosen.”
“Foolish woman! Don’t you know the beauty of your own daughter? Let me tell you, woman, the ruler of Hazabi is a very wealthy man! His dowry will ensure the girl’s family lives in luxury forever!”
The girls gasped in surprise.
“No,” the woman said. “Nkqeshe will not go to the governor’s hall because she has been promised to the governor himself. You will go with Aba.”
Her husband laughed at her naivety. “No, Aba will remain here with you. Besides, the governor must give Nkqeshe away if she is chosen or else he will be branded a traitor. The gods have remembered us!” He proceeded to execute a small dance around the two bewildered girls. “Come wife! Let us dance to the mercy of the gods!”
The bewildered woman left the doorway, and went to stand near Aba. Nkqeshe picked another pot and began walking away.
“Where are you going, beloved child?”
“To the sea. We need more water.”
The trading expedition had little to do getting a royal wife for Hazabi.
“The additions to the new palace strained the vaults,” Eina told the councilors. “There is no gold left, only the lands. Even the tributes and taxes have not helped since all the revenue is rewarded the hardworking subjects of the kingdom.”
An uncomfortable silence followed her words. Every man knew that payments were being made to the commanders and a few councilors to ensure that Nkissi ruled smoothly.
“We can demand more tribute from the satellite states,” said Kagweh.
“We doubled their tribute for three seasons after Minga’s death,” Nharo replied. “If we demand for more there will be trouble.”
“If there is trouble we will quell it.”
“What will we pay the soldier’s with?”
“We will go on an expedition in one of the satellite states or even the northern states,” Nkissi said. “It must be a state that can still sustain itself after we have visited.”
“Hatsa is rich in copper ore and has strong young men in excess of its needs,” Qaha suggested. “We can find market for both in the northern states.”
Kagweh looked at him contemptuously. “Why take a long and unnecessary road when there are gold mines in Hazabi? We can also get cheap iron ore from the traders there. We need the iron more than we need gold.”
“As always, you are right, Kagweh, but we must take something to Hazabi in return. What can we give Hazabi when they have everything in abundance? That is why I suggested Hatsa; they will be grateful for whatever we throw their way.”
“We will give Hazabi the best of the livestock at the vaults; we can even take Ndjame a wife, fiery enough to dull his treacherous senses!”
The men smiled at Kagweh’s last remark. It was widely known that so far, Ndjame’s greatest conquests had been made in his bed.
“Qaha, you will scout the kingdom for a suitable girl.” When Qaha bowed his head, Nkissi continued, “Khoe, you will go and inform Ndjame of our intentions. Go with strong young men; we do not want to give the wrong impression.”
Nkqeshe stood at the entrance of the compound watching Quteh, who, sitting in the doorway of his father’s house, was sharpening a spearhead on a stone. His forehead was creased in concentration as he passed the spearhead swiftly across his palm. It drew blood. Cursing loudly, he stood up to enter the house and saw her.
Smiling, he walked towards her, cleaning his palm on his loin cloth. “If the moon comes out, I am going fishing with my father. With this sharp spear I will have a big catch, enough for us and your father’s household.”
She did not smile; her face was drawn and haggard. “Have you heard the news about the scouts?”
His face fell. “Yes.”
Without warning, Nkqeshe dissolved into hysterical tears. “I have to go to the governor’s house! Eh . . . eh . . . Quteh, why us? Why me?”
She was inconsolable. He soothed her, telling her that she wasn’t beautiful enough to be taken to the city, and even if she were, there would be better girls to take to Hazabi and within a short time she would return to him.
The first hour of the day found father and daughter in the governor’s reception hall huddled in their robes to keep off the chill of the dawn. There were many other young girls there with their male relatives, all excited. The scouts had already begun their search. With flaming torches held high, they peered into each girl’s face. The girls, whenever torchlight neared them, showed themselves to their best advantage.
Nkqeshe’s eyes were swollen and she had difficulty keeping them open. Her head was bent and her body sagged against her father’s. Every now and then, a sob escaped from the dark veil covering her head. When the scout stood in front of her, her father pushed her to stand straight and removed the veil.
The man took one look at Nkqeshe and shouted in excitement. “I have found her! I have found the girl!”
The other scouts rushed to where he stood and stared at Nkqeshe. The excited chatter in the hall died down as everyone moved nearer to see the girl. Nkqeshe sagged again, leaning on her father, as the men shamelessly probed her body with their eyes and hands, looking for flaws.
“Why are her eyes swollen?” the scout directed his question at her father. “Is she suffering from a crippling disease that she has to lean on you for support? How dare you present a diseased girl to us?”
“She is not diseased!” Nkqeshe’s father planted his hands firmly on her shoulders, and forced her to stand on her own. “Her eyes will go down and clear soon. She has only been crying.”
“Excitement! There was no doubt that she was going to be chosen.”
“She is very beautiful,” the man mused. “And ripe. The hips are large which is good because Ndjame wears out his women quickly.”
“I am not a virgin!” Nkqeshe blurted out.
A shocked silence fell on the hall.
“I am not pure,” she continued in a broken voice as tears started rolling down her cheeks. “I have been touched by another man.”
“Man, can you give us your assurance that your daughter is a virgin? Think carefully before you say anything for if it is discovered that she is not a virgin, the punishment will be swift and lethal.”
Nkqeshe’s father was angry, both with the scouts and his mad daughter. “You are as stupid as your mother!” he shouted. “Of course she is a virgin! She is better behaved than all these girls! She is only scared at the prospect of marriage, but which virgin is not?”
Considering this for a while, the scout decided that he was right, although why the girl was sobbing puzzled him. She was only going to be initiated into the pleasures of life. He sighed; women were a mystery. “Alert the governor that we have found a girl,” he said to the scouts. “We will travel to the next town at the fourth hour of the day.”
Oblivious to the envious looks the other girls threw at her as they left the hall, Nkqeshe bowed her head and the tears flowed fast.
Her family was allowed to bid their farewells. They were in a joyous mood, conjuring up all kinds of wealth that Ndjame would put at their disposal if Nkqeshe should become his wife. Her brother and lover were the only ones who saw the tears shining in her eyes. Quteh’s throat bobbed so fast, up and down, betraying the impotent rage that was threatening to consume him.