by Frank Scozzari
The crowd surged forward, pushing Kisamo further into the street. Though he tried to hold them back with his arms out-stretched like a giant eagle, the mass of humanity, too much even for his strength, slowly drove him further toward the gun barrels leveled at him.
“Patience my brothers!” he cried. “We must give him time!”
“Kufu! Kufu!” the young students shouted, waving their machetes high in the air. “Kill them! Kill them!”
Across the way, the police and government supporters stood ready for the rush. President Moi’s contingent included soldiers and businessman alike, and their wives and mistresses as well. Everyone who had gained from the regime, were now prepared to defend it. And they had the luxury of military behind them, with a huge armada of armored vehicles, policemen decked out in riot gear, and rows of riflemen compliments of the loyalist army.
Many of the buildings had been lit afire and the flames were reaching high into the night sky and bellowing smoke. Through it, Kisamo could see the Kenyan flag waving above the government building; the shield and crossed-spears upon it represented the defense of freedom, and the stripes of green and red, symbolized nature’s balance and the blood shed for Kenya’s independence.
It was the great irony, Kisamo thought. After many years of fighting for their sovereignty, they were fighting again now.
It had been a dozen years or more since President Moi’s regime had taken power. It had taken that long for the tentacles of corruption to stretch across the land. It had begun with taxation, increasing annually until it exceeded even the taxes of the British before them, and it was not assessed to assist the common people, but to support the lavish lifestyle of those in power. Protests were followed by new laws summarily issued to keep the impoverished broke and compliant. Initially, the student demonstrators were regarded as a small menace that needed to be stamped out, a tsetse fly on the back of an elephant. But the wave of discontent swept across Kenya and reached a boiling point. In recent months, student protests were met with police brutality. Death squads began pulling political dissidents from their homes in the middle of the night. Some disappeared and were never to be seen again. And now there was talk of public executions for ‘treason’ for the brave leaders who dared to speak of human rights, or resistance. Among them was the revered politician, Koigi wa Wamwere.
Thirty-two years had passed since their independence and here they were still fighting for freedom! Even worse, Kisamo thought… Fighting among ourselves! Fighting among friends! Kenyan shedding Kenyan blood!
Across the way, Colonel Gawi, standing gloriously in full military uniform, looked like a cockatoo with a million colorful medals pinned to his chest. Once a great leader, Kisamo thought, he had been poisoned by greed and power. He had placed personal gain above his principals. And there was Major C, friend and patriotic no longer. It was the way, Kisamo thought, the way of history. Those who gain most in a country’s rise, have the most to loose, and those who led courageously in a Nation’s beginning, fall in its collapse.
The students began to chant in Swahili: “We are lions in the jungle! We are not afraid! We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”
From the other side, someone yelled back: “We are lion hunters!”
Kisamo looked up through the haze and the beams military flood lamps, his attention not upon the armada across the street but west to the distant horizon where vaguely he could see the dark outline of the great mountain, Kilimanjaro. There was nothing, no light.
“Patience my brothers! We need time!”
A bottle flew over Kisamo’s head and crashed on the pavement just yards in front of the soldiers, bursting into flames. Another bottle zinged across the street crashing into one of the police armored vehicles, lighting it into a fireball. Just as quickly, something soared back from the other side, hitting a young man in the chest. He fell to the pavement moaning.
“Free Koigi!” one student shouted. “Death to Moi,” another screamed.
“Please brothers!” Kisamo cried. “Give him time!”
The crowd, foaming like a yeast in a giant skillet about to spill out, surged wildly now. The hatred that had been building for years and was about to overflow into the street and there was nothing Kisamo could do to stop it. All which had been won, was about to be lost, Kisamo thought. The soul of Kenya was about to die.
He looked once more to the dark mountaintop. There was nothing; only the outline of the great mountain.
Sorry, my friend. It is too late.
From behind, like a flash, one young student broke across the street, wielding a machete. A blast rang out and he dropped flat to the pavement. Another student sprang to his aide and met a similar fate.
As the river of protesters moved forward, Kisamo leaned back into them, pushing with all his might, more than two-hundred-and-twenty-five pounds of brawn and muscle. But like a feather strapped to a styrofoam crucifix, the river carried him helplessly forward. The first volley of shots dropped several students and the crowd temporarily pulled back. But the giant wave, gaining in size and momentum, surged forward once more, spilling into the street and carrying Kisamo with it. The second volley of shots did little to stop them. The screaming students clashed with the wall of soldiers, machetes meeting bayonets.
Thirty miles west, on the steep buttress of Mount Kilimanjaro, the old one, Emmanuel, stood in darkness upon a small outcrop of boulders. He had taken a moment to lean into a strong wind, waiting for it to pass. His eyes, scared and wrinkled with age, stared painfully up the dark ridge into the night sky. He could not see the craggy formation of rocks that marked the rim of the mountaintop. That which he could recognize so clearly in daylight was in blackness now.
“I don’t need my eyes,” he said to himself. “Blindfold me if you want.”
It was true. He had been this way many times before. A thousand times! Since he was fourteen-years-old, for more than fifty years, he had guided parties safely to the top of Africa. He closed his eyes now and he could see it plainly in his head; the tundra crossing at Kibu Hut, the long pumice switchbacks up the buttress’ slope, the waltz through the craggy outcrops, and the narrow ridge trail to the top.
The snow, which now covered the entire spree, shinned white beneath the starlight. Far below, glimmering as if a celestial body onto itself, were the lights and fires of Mombassa. Emmanuel could make out the waving beams of military flood lamps, crossing diagonally in converging patterns. To the north, poured out like a sparkling liquid on the savannah, were other cities; Arusha and Moshi.
Push harder, he thought. I must push harder.
Leaning forward, beneath the weight of his heavy pack with the wind lashing fiercely at his face, he stepped up, and up, and up again, lifting his feet in the methodical baby steps he had always used when climbing the mountain.
But it seems with each step he took, the wind blew more fiercely, biting into his face.
“I am not afraid of you,” Emmanuel said loudly.
With the determination that comes from living long, seeing plenty and surviving much, he pushed forward. It was not self-preservation that drove him, but the preservation of many.
The will of one can be strong, he thought. But the will of many can make the will of one into that of a thousand lions.
Completely covered in his simple village clothing, his head was wrapped in a blue bandanna over which was a heavy wool hood, ragged and tattered from years of use. And there were three layers of clothing over the rest of his body – his legs, torso, and arms, shrouded in wool and cotton with a water-proof parka that covered him entirely so that only his black eyes and black nose peered out. Despite this, he could feel his legs freezing-up, and knew that he must keep them moving else they would stop and die on him.
You are good legs, he thought. You have done me well. What? I have not treated you kindly? He paused to think. Maybe it is true? Okay, I don’t deserve you under me. But I ask of you now, just once more, to carry me forward, not for my sake, but for Kenya.
He had seen Death’s face many times – nature’s death – and had felt its exhilaration. He was not afraid of it. Quite to the contrary, there was a closeness about it that made him feel alive. All that is life in Africa comes from that which is dead, and as one gets closer to death in Africa, one gets closer to life. He had seen men die in the snow. He knew the face of mountain death, and it was not so bad, he thought. It is natural, Nature’s way of taking back; giving to the earth that which it created; to run down a mountainside in a stream; to feed the savannah. Ah! In the arms of the mountain is a good way to go! He had tasted life strongest when death was closest. It was part of the great circle, he knew. All things living go back into dust to feed the new seed of youth.
But looking down at Mombassa now, he saw the face of urban death. It is different, he knew, that of man killing man, with modern weapons. It is not so natural. It does not leave the body whole, but dismembered, and the spirit dismembered. And he could picture urban death now, death by the hands of men, there beneath the distant military searchlights crisscrossing the sky. He envisioned a scene of bullets flying and men wielding machetes upon men. He saw the face of urban death, uglier than ever; a face dark and hollow with eyes sunken deep within its skull.
“Kufu! You are a powerless relic!” he spoke, knowing his words were not true.
No time to think about death! Time to push harder. Time to reach the top.
But he had let the image of urban death into his head and could not get it out now, and as he pushed forward with the wind screaming at him, an eerie revelation came over him. It seemed each time he looked down at Mombassa, the wind above gusted down upon him, biting at him like a snake. It is the breath of the face? It was Kufu blowing against him? Keeping him from the mountaintop, keeping him from what he must do?
I must move faster. I must find the lion in me to carry this weight.
For a man of sixty-four years his heart was strong, and it was pounding now like an ox. But his aged lungs were failing him, those lungs that had breathed in the cold thin air of the mountain so many years, were wheezing now, stricken with some ailment that Emmanuel could not understand. With each step, going higher, the air becoming thinner, he exerted himself beyond the limits of his physical strength.
It was his Kunica that drove him now; that inner spirit that all men possess but not all men recognize or acknowledge. Over his many years of climbing the mountain he had seen men draw upon it when needed, at that time between life and death. While some simply closed their eyes not knowing it was there, it gave others the spark needed to survive. He had relied on it frequently in the past, using it to match the stamina of men half his age.
Kunica, he thought to himself. You are the size of any elephant!
And now, with the thought of urban death in the cities far below, and with his windpipes vacillating and burning from the cold air, he needed a Kunica the size of many elephants.
He leaned forward into the wind, angling steeply, pushing himself, slowly and methodically ahead. With each upward step, he cut sideways with the edge of his boot into the snow to firm his grip. Closing his eyes, he visualized it – the trail ahead. Not far ahead it goes nearly vertical up the talus slope to the crater rim, and it would steepen again through the rocky crags, and then…
In his mind he saw it clearly, and knew he did not need the light of day or the vision of his eyes to complete his ascent. As he had done so many times before, he calmly, and reassuringly, placed one arm behind him at the base of his lower back, arching himself to open his wind passage, as he continued upward. And he began to sing the song of the mountain: “Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O, Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O. Heaven’s shinning light, highest of mountains, we climb thee so all Africa can see, and thank thee for letting us leave.”
But a fierce wind, coming at him horizontally, turned his face away.
“Be gone Kufu,” he said. “Be gone death. You come back after I reach the top.”
Another strong gust knocked him back two steps and he held himself steady, leaning fully into it until it died back. He sang defiantly: “Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O, Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O.”
In his mind, he hearkened back to his youth when he was as strong as a lion. He had roamed the great savannah with spear and gathering implements. He had taken what he needed, and his family and tribe had never gone without. And early on, he had gained the reputation as a skilled guide on Kilimanjaro, having first labored several years as a porter, carrying upon his head the food and wood and supplies of many foreign climbing parties. His family ate well then. He was thankful for what the mountain had given him, and he was ready to give it all back.
Nearly forty years had past and the mountain had seen the victories of a young man, and the victories of a young Nation, and the weakness and hollowness of the government corruption which followed. Through it all, the mountain had lived, watching down upon them as a loving father watches upon a child stumbling to find its independence and place in the world.
In Mombassa, the face of urban death had unleashed itself upon the young student protesters. Kisamo found himself sprawled in the street with a sharp pain in this side, and blood coming from it. He did not recall having fallen to the pavement. He only remembered himself being driven toward the guns. Flashes of light and the sputtering, popping sound of guns rang out among the screams. Now he laid helpless along side many other young Kenyans, exposed to the militia and their guns.
Twenty yards beyond was the screaming wall of youth. They gathered there like a swarm of wasps, preparing for their final assault.
“We are lions in the jungle!” the students began to scream. “We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”
With what might he had left, Kisamo tried to get up. But like a punch-drunk boxer, his legs wobbled and he collapsed again. Slowly he lifted his head and tried to look west, searching through the smoke for the outline of the great mountain. He could see only darkness.
We have failed, my friend, he thought. It is the end of life; the end of Kenya.
A tear rolled down his black cheek, glistening in the firelight.
With his light failing, fading into darkness like the darkness that surrounded the mountaintop, he could hear the mounting screams of his youthful companions. Then there was gunfire and he felt a thousand people trampling over him.
The blackness overcame him.
Emanuel labored the last few steps in the snow as the mountaintop gave way. He pulled his arms out from the pack straps and let it drop slowly into the snow.
Arching above him was the big African sky, sparkling with dancing starlight. Mombassa lay off to the southeast. The oscillating military flood lamps were very visible now.
He worked quickly now. Flipping the pack over, he unzipped the large top pockets and lifted out a bundle of flares and two large tin canisters, full of kerosene. There was a huge snow mound just off to the east side of the summit, beneath which he knew he would find the remainder of his fuel. He hurried to the snow pile and began sweeping the snow aside, digging with his hands until the first large beam showed itself. He pulled the beam of wood out from beneath the snow and dragged it to an open space nearby. One by one, he repeated the process, sweeping off the snow, pulling out a beam, speaking to each one as he dragged them from the snow.
“You are good wood, from a strong tree!” And to the next piece… “Ah, my brother, you came all this way to shine on my mountaintop!” And to the next one: “Heavy like the heart of a fallen warrior. You are ready to burn away your sadness and return in a stream of water back down to the savannah!”
He stacked them nearly vertically, end-over-end, in a crisscrossing pattern. Slowly the stack took the form of a huge teepee-shaped pile.
Kisamo awoke facedown in the pavement, dazed and confused, with blood streaming from his nose. Strangely, he realized there was silence, complete silence! Silence like he had only known on the open savannah when hunting alone as a child. Silence in the middle of chaos? At first he thought perhaps he was dead, but the pain in his side told him otherwise. Then he vaguely heard the muted moans of the wounded and could see a young brother lying next to him. He strained to raise his head. What he saw was, at first, unexplainable. Everyone had stopped in the middle of the fight. Both sides were frozen like statues, turned and looking to the West. The student protestors gawked at it. The soldiers pointed into the night sky. Even Colonel Gawi saw it. He was holding an arm toward the mountaintop while at the same time waving off some reserves that were coming from the rear. Along the front line, gun barrels began to spontaneously drop, as well as the machetes of the rebel youth. The reserves saw it too, and seeing how everyone had stopped, realizing now that something had happened, they lowered their guns as well.
There on the mountaintop was a lone beam of light. It shone directly skyward into the heavens like an arrow of light. It had been a tradition for thirty-seven years now, each December on the anniversary of Kenya’s independence from British rule, a fire was lit on the mountaintop; a symbolic light of freedom to commemorate their sovereignty. The beams of wood were routinely carried up the mountain by climbing parties during the dry season and stacked beneath a large tarp, so that by the time the annual Independence Day celebration rolled around there was plenty of wood to light the commemorative torch.
Now, nearly two months early, the fire burned brightly beneath the deep violet-blue, African sky.
Kisamo strained to keep his head up. He peered through the smoke at the vague outline of Mount Kilimanjaro. There he saw it, the lone beam of light firing up from the mountaintop. It could be seen everywhere on the Savannah; far to the west in Arusha; far to the south in Moshi; and to the north and the Serengeti, and to the west of Mombassa. It shone for all the people of Kenya and Tanzania to see.
Kisamo forced out a half smile. Thank you my friend. Then, with the light fading from his eyes, he rested his cheek back down against the warm pavement, and he listened, faintly, as the chant of his young brethren came back: “We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”