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The Quest

By Ben Molapo (South Africa)

Bernard Makotoko Molapo, often referred to as Ben Molapo in most of his by-lines, is a print media practitioner and the author of The Child of South Africa’s Labour Reserve. The Quest is his second novel. Molapo obtained media studies from the London School of Journalism, BA degree in communication science and development administration studies from the University of South Africa. Post-graduate-diploma in media management studies from Rhodes University and BA Honours degree in Creative Writing from the University of Witswatersrand.


The Quest
Ben Molapo genre: fiction (5,000 words)

The Coffee village was situated between the two valleys, on top of a plateau which its surface laid flat like it had been flattened with a straight plank. On the western and eastern side of the plateau ran the two streams that met about eighty-seven kilometres south of the Coffee village, and formed Kanana river. The banks of the streams were lined up on the sides with huge willow trees. The residents that lived within these ridges and valleys of these two tributaries of the Kanana river had a litany of legends that were often passed on orally from generation to generation by elders in the community.

On the eastern side deep down into the valley lay a stretch of corn fields that ran along the baseline of the stream. The soil was fertile, among the corn fields there was chief Makoa’s field, which by its sheer size reflected its chiefly proportion in comparison to the rest of other corn fields, on the northern edges of it there was a huge lake surrounded by reeds. The lake was the pillar of strength for Makoa and his people. It was revered because of the spiritual powers that resided inside it. For the people of Coffee village the mist that could be observed in the early hours of the morning around the lake also signified the magical powers of the gods that resided in the lake and among the reeds.

Although the water in the stream was always crystal clean, once it ran into the lake, the colour changed to greenish, even at a close inspection, one could hardly see the bottom of the lake. This sight in itself explained the mystical reality of the powers that resided in the lake. No one ventured into the lake except for those who were spiritually enlightened

. These were the people who had a special calling, the diviners and faith healers who were permitted to get into the lake to speak to the spirits of the ancestors whom the villagers believed, were residing in the lake. Those who were called to the vocation of diviners and faith healers would submerge themselves into the lake, as part of ritual ceremony to appease the spirit of ancestors at the graduation stage of their training and later receive the final instructions from the gods of Makoa’s people.

Each novice called to be a diviner and faith healer would go through the initiation rite under the strict supervision of a revered faith healer and diviner. Part of the training included a complete surrender of oneself to the spirits, denouncing worldly possessions and behaviour which by village standards was ungodly; like drinking alcohol and having sex. Each of the novices undergoing this training, as the legend in the village has it, would discard any family ties and talked only with and through her/his spiritual instructor for a period that stretched from six months to a year, depending on demands from the gods of the individual called to the vocation.

Towards the end of the training, a ceremony, which included the slaughtering of a cow and a celebration would be conducted at the home of the novice aspiring to be a diviner. This ritual would be conducted a night before the novice set out to meet the ancestors in the lake. The ceremony consisted of a night vigil of songs, dance, accompanied by the clapping of hands and the beating of drums that would last throughout the night. At the dawn the proceedings would head to the east down the valley, until the crowds accompanying the diviner novice arrived at the lake. From the village to the lake the crowd would quietly leave in solemn procession, headed by a group of diviners walking in front of them, among whom silently walking like a sheep to be sacrificed, would be the diviner novice waiting to be graduated.

Upon their arrival at the lake, the hype of singing, drum-beating, clapping of hands and hysterical dancing by the group of veteran diviners would resume marking the highlight of the occasion. A graduating novice head still bowed down from the moment the solemn journey started right up to the lake, would maintain the same composure, despite the frantic singing and dancing near the lake. As the crowd approached the lake, only the novice and other diviners would come close to the edges of the lake, the rest of the crowd would continue singing, clapping hands and beating drums from a reasonable distance. At the height of hysteria the graduating diviner would go into the lake and come out at sun rise. It was believed that once the novice was submerged inside the lake, the gods would take him or her deep down to the bottom of the lake on a dry ground, where the novice would receive healing powers and divining knowledge.

The legend has it that it was here, inside the lake that the revered powers resided. The powers that gave chief Makoa and his subjects strength over other tribes. It was also believed that women came here among the reeds surrounding the lake next to the chief’s field to collect babies. And each time there was a new born baby in any of the homesteads in chief Makoa’s village two reeds were placed on the roof of the entrance of a hut where the woman who gave birth stayed. The reeds had meaning that conspicuously made a declaration, that this particular homestead has a new born. So, men were not allowed to enter the hut and a woman that gave birth was in seclusion inside that particular hut for four weeks, visited only by other women of the village. The legendary tales of why men were barred from entering such huts were many.

The story of Kwede who went to visit one of his wives during her period of seclusion was a tale that sent chills down the spine of young men aspiring to be drafted into the chief’s regiment as part of Makoa’s warriors.

This is how the story goes: the chief had summoned his warriors to his royal kraal in preparation for the raid on the Matebele tribe that lived far east of the Makoa territory. The Matebele were known to be stubborn, and often war engagements with them were a prolonged exercise.

Many of Makoa’s warriors and advisers felt the war was unnecessary and would bring untold suffering after years of relative stability. Makoa listened to his subjects but he could not swallow his pride over the fact that Mthikhulu, the chief of the Matebele had raided and captured his cattle, sheep and women three years ago, and he wanted to avenge these actions of sabotage.

“Yes, it is all fine now. Our crop yields have increased and our cattle and sheep have multiplied. The people of Coffee and its surrounding region of Kanana have experienced a relatively peaceful life and now Mthimkhulu has to be taught a lesson. No one, humiliates Makoa and gets away with it,” the chief warned his people in a public gathering. Deliberations over the raid of the Mthikhulu people went on for almost half of a day with the chief gradually winning the argument.

Key to the argument of those that were against the war was that Mthikhulu himself had shown signs of remorse. He had sent thirty heads of cattle to Makoa as a sign of tribute but more so to establish a cordial relationship because among the women that were captured during his raid was Thandeka, Makoa’s sister, a tall girl whose radiant face made her noticeable among other women. It was upon her arrival at Mtimkhulu’s royal house with the rest of the women that her presence caught Mtimkhulu’s attention.

He selected her among these new arrivals to become one of his wives. Thandeka, was royalty and conducted herself in a dignified manner and it was said that it was because of her mannerisms that Mtimkhulu loved her even more, and confided some of his plans to her. The year had hardly passed after the Mtimkhulu’s raid on Makoa, Thandeka had pressed upon Mtimkhulu to do the right thing, in order to avert the continuation of any hostility between the Matebele and her people.

“If you really love me, you have to send my brother a token of respect, as a sign of appreciation that you are now living with me as one of your wives, not a captured concubine,” Thandeka had pressed upon Mthimkhulu.

Mtimkhulu wasted no time and sent twenty of his men with thirty cattle, ten of those as a gift to Makoa himself and the other twenty as a payment to Thandeka’s family for (lobal) ,bride-price to signify Mtimkhulu’s commitment to Thandeka through marriage.

The chief then reminded his subjects, “remember we were nipped in the bud by these events, two years ago. You, were ready for action my people to take on the Matabele and to avenge for the pain they inflicted on us and unexpectedly we received Mtimkhulu’s men, sent by him to apologise to us. It was hard but we accepted his cattle as a sign of regret for what he did.

“You wanted to kill his messengers because the wounds Mtimkhulu inflicted on us were still fresh but I stopped you because my sister had sent a message to me stating that she was well received by Matebele people and Mtimkhulu had grown to love her and she now loved him too. Thandeka appealed to me not to go to war but to accept Mtimkhulu’s gifts as a sign of apology.

“My sister’s appeal was strong enough for me to humanly consider her feelings but Mtimkhulu is a man and he must not use a woman to buttress his faults with me. He has to account for his deeds and the time to do that is now,” Makoa concluded his address to the people.

Thereafter, all his warriors were summoned to the royal kraal to camp for a month, practising war drills and sharpening their spears. The thrilling war songs from then until the day when the warriors set out to go and attack, would be heard in the evenings in the village, with women ululating in appreciation and to instil confidence, determination and bravery in the minds of the men.

The chief slaughtered a bull to feed his warriors for the duration of the camp. Their meals were complimented with food that would be brought from the homesteads of the warriors by young men, who had just gone through initiation to manhood in the previous harvest season and were themselves ready to be drafted into the chief’s regiment in the next harvest season. The blood of the slaughtered bull mixed with herbal remedies was sprinkled over the warriors at the start of the camp to confer strength and bravery on the warriors.

From this point there would be no turning back by each of the warriors summoned. They lived, talked and thought of nothing but the enemy and strategies for overcoming the enemy in war.

During the camp women were not allowed anywhere near the royal kraal until the war was over, and the warriors themselves were strictly forbidden from having any sexual intercourse for the duration of the camp. Deviation from these strictly observed rules during the war preparation, was believed would cast a bad spell on both the individual breaching the conduct and on the entire regiment.

It was rumoured that Kwede went to visit one of his wives during the camp. One of Kwede’s wives, the closest to him had a baby a week after Kwede joined the warrior’s camp. Initially Kwede was hesitant to take part in the war and was among the vocal ones of those who during the chief’s imbiso (public meeting) about the war, were against the attack on Matebele of Mtimkhulu. However, when the call for the warriors to be in camp was made, Kwede joined the camp and went through the induction given to warriors for the duration of four weeks before they were set out. Yet, when the news about his wife having a baby reached him at the camp, Kwede broke the rules of the camp and sneaked out to see his wife, only a night before Makoa’s men were to fight Mtimhulu and his people.

Unfortunately that was the last time that Kwede was seen again by his family. Makoa’s regiment travelled a day and a night and camped a few miles from Mtimkhulu’s village before launching their raid at the crack of the dawn. Mtimkhulu and his people were caught unaware and suffered heavy causalities. He was easily subdued and by the late noon, the battle field had shifted west of Tugela river, with most of the villages on the west where the Mtimkhulu royal palace was located up in smoke. The destruction of Mtimkhulu was clinical but there were a few pockets of resistance from Mtimkhulu’s men who had taken the battle to the hill sides near the river. Majority of Mtimkhulu’s people went into hiding among bushes on the hill sides. By late evening Makoa’s warriors were beginning to retreat, making their way westwards towards Kanana valley with their loots.

They were satisfied that Mtimkhulu had been dealt a great blow. However, a few of Makoa’s men had gone back to the villages to scavenge for whatever remaining loot they could find. On their way to join the rest of the regiment, they were ambushed. Kwede was among them and he was the only one killed in the resulting skirmish. His three wives were widowed and his story was a reminder in the legend of the village, of what a warrior should and should not do according to the dictates of the customs and ritual practices of Makoa’s land.

Life continued at Coffee village, Makoa was satisfied that he had finally revenged and humiliated Mtimkhulu. Meanwhile Thandeka whose homestead was ransacked by her brother’s people found no peace living among Matebele people. The tribe had to reconstruct its life again and in the process Thandeka was scorned at and despised by many. One year and six months later the Matebeles were moving on, but with great difficulty.

Thandeka sent a message to her brother, telling him that she was greatly disappointed by his men’s attack on her homestead. Although Mtimkhulus and the rest of the Matebele tribe were reconstructing their lives, the situation had changed and in particular her own life had changed for the worse.

“You have taken away the respect and dignified treatment that the Mtimkhulus and his subjects used to show me. If it was possible I would leave this place to come back home but I have two sons that I have to bring up as Mtimkhulus obeying and observing the dictates of Matebeles’ culture and customs. They are your own blood and by attacking the Mtimkhulus, you inflicted pain on me and my children too. When two years passed after accepting the cattle from Mtimkhulus, I thought my appeal to you to cease the hostility had sunk into your head but it had not.” The message was delivered to Makoa from his sister Thandeka.

Makoa’s respond to her was arrogant and reflected a man full of pride. Although his messengers to Thandeka in Mtimkhulu’s kraal carried with them fifteen sheep and five sacks of grain transported on donkeys back, it was in his reply to her that his arrogance was reflected.

“Tell Mtimkhulu that if his people are starving, I am more than ready to supply him with food. Here are some sheep to boost your kraal and feed your children. I will continue supporting you each year after harvest, if you convince Mtimkhulu to come and work for me; in that way there will be no more fights among our people. I am doing this for you because you are now living with Matebele, and if it was not for that I would have come again to finish off Mtimkhulu and his people,” Makoa said to his sister.

It would have been like rubbing salt on a wound if Thandeka had conveyed the details of the message from her brother. So she kept these words to herself and told Mtimkhulu that her brother had heard about their struggles and had sent food and sheep to boost their food supplies. To Makoa she sent no detailed reply except to thank him for the stock, he had sent. She told him; “your gifts were well received and for my two sons, the sheep will forever remain a reminder that they have the uncle who cared for them.” Throughout the year and in the years to come, Thandeka saw her role as the balancing act.

Because of her role, and her determined attitude to see her children and those of the two tribes growing up without wars, peace prevailed for years until the present day. However, the legendary tale of hostility between these two tribes informed feelings of mistrust and suspicion that the descendents of the two tribes came to treat each other with. These stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes were fostered through folktales in the villages. Remarks like: “You are just like the Matebeles, stubborn cowards or, “You are like Makoa’s people arrogant and pompous,” could be heard coming from the mouths of children. Time and again some elders of the tribe warned Makoa against waging war, not only with the Mtimkhulus but also with other clans from who, Makoa would demand cattle or ransom for peace.

Meanwhile Makoa was aging and he had fortified himself with wealth and an aura of being unchallengeable. His people including many of his close advisers drifted away from him, avoiding any social engagement with him. His own son, the heir apparent from his first wife, was not living anywhere near him and did not care to listen to him. Apart from the dislike of his father, the son had a reputation of being a drunkard and a womanise and in the minds of the people, had no moral campus to assume the leadership of the community. Makoa, himself was also aware of his heir’s juvenile behaviour throughout his teenage years right into his adulthood. The only child he could confide in and relate to well, was his eldest daughter, Ntsebo.

However, being female the culture and the tradition of the Makoas did not permit her to reign, or assume being heir to her father’s chieftainship. Despite the fact that on a number of occasions Ntsebo would step in and convey the wishes and the dictates of her father to the tribesmen and elders, when Makoa eventually became infirm to do so himself, she could not be declared the ruler after him.

Realising the dilemma that his reign was faced with, Makoa devised a plan. Among his head men was Raboqa, who had remained a loyal adviser to him, even after many had deserted him. Raboqa had a son, who Makoa had admired and found to be a respectable young man. One day he summoned Raboqa who headed a cluster of villages laying west of the Coffee valley, as Makoa’s right hand man.

“I have called you here to discuss the future of our families and that of the whole tribe,” Makoa said.

“I am listening your royal highness, and anything you say, I will do,” Raboqa replied.

“I have thought hard about this and for a long time. Your son, Theko is a fine young man,” the chief said.

“Yes, yes, my lord, he has so far shown nothing that made me to doubt his character. I trust him,” Raboqa said.

“I know that already. I trust him too. What I called you here for is very important,” the chief said.

“I am listening, my lord,” said Raboqa.

“I want Theko and Ntsebo to work together in strengthening the administration of my place. To begin to takeover some of the duties from me,” Makoa said. “My lord as you can see, I am no longer a young man and most of the duties that are required of me for your people, Theko has taken over and does them on our behalf. Is there anything more that you want him to do, more than what he has already been doing?” Raboqa inquired.

“You are not hearing me well. What I am saying to you is that Theko must move to the royal kraal. But before that can be done I want your family to talk and Theko and Ntsebo must have a union,” the chief said.

“You mean marriage between the two?” Raboqa asked with a surprised look in his face.

“Yes, you heard well,” the chief said.

“Yoh! This is a big thing for me. However, I will ask Theko and his mother, and find out what their views are about what you are asking me,” Raboqa said.

“Listen to me Raboqa! And you listen very carefully. You don’t bring women into men’s affairs. You are the head of your own family, and here we are talking man to man. What does Theko’s mother have to do with this? All you have to do is to tell Theko that I intend to do him a big favour,” the chief said.

“ I understand my lord. However, it was his mother who a few days ago told me that Theko is courting one of the girls from the east. I mean a daughter from Mtimkhulu’s family,” Raboqa explained.

“No! Never! That will not happen. I have a plan and Theko is central to that plan for the success of Coffee village, after I have joined my ancestors. I have not much time left. Now, go and talk to your son and tell him that I say to him, Ntsebo is here and I want him to begin to recognise her more than anyone else. You hear me?” the chief said with his voice reflecting heightened tension.

“Yes, yes, my lord. I heard you loud and clear,” Raboqa said.

“Now, go and do what you are supposed to do as a head of your family,” the chief commanded Raboqa.

Raboqa left the royal kraal, deep in thought and not knowing how he would convince his son. He thought the best strategy was to get to Theko through his mother. After all Theko’s mother had never really warmed up to the news that her son was seeing a girl from the Mtimkhulu clan. She knew that any such union would set her family on a collusion course with chief Makoa. It did not really take him long to convince the family that what the chief commanded him to do was the right thing.

Theko’s mother warmed to the idea and took it upon herself to make her son see the opportunity and prestige it entailed. Theko promised to think about the chief’s plan but expressed the concern that Ntsebo had never at any time given him showed any indication that she might be interested in him. This greatly worried him, because he also knew for a fact that his heart lay with someone else. He felt he could not sacrifice the wishes of many people over his own individual interests. He accepted and told his father that he would talk to Ntsebo but cautioned it would be hard to persuade Ntsebo to accept him. The family assured him that if he failed to win the girl over, they would do everything in their power to help him to convince her otherwise.

Meanwhile, rumours about Theko and Ntsebo marrying started to spread in the village. Ntsebo, herself had noticed her own father’s warm reception of Theko. The old man had begun pairing the two in almost every activity his daughter was supposed to do. At first there was nothing suspicious about this, but as rumours began to do their rounds, she started resenting Theko. By the time, Theko had gathered the courage to convey his intentions, Ntsebo was resentful and planning to escape from the village to go to the big city.

Ntsebo left Coffee village under the pretext that she was going to attend a job interview, saying that she would come back the next day. Weeks and months passed which stretched into a year. After six months of her disappearance she communicated with her father and told him that she had found a job in the city, and that she was not intending to come back home. She expressed her dissatisfaction about his plan to marry her to someone she did not love. And for the first time in that letter she defied her father by accusing him of not being capable of listening to anyone except himself. Makoa was hurt by his daughter’s words but informed the bearers of the news to convey his warmest regards to her. “Tell my daughter my love for her has not changed and I am happy that she is now working. She remains part of me and the large clan of Makoa. I am hoping that towards the end of the year when all of you come back for Christmas break from the city, she will be here with you. And that will be a great reunion and joyous time to celebrate,” he said.

Christmas came and passed Ntsebo did not come back. Makoa whose health was getting more fragile by the day, he was worried. His crown of gold beads, with colourful ostrich feathers which he wore when presiding over the deliberations of the tribe appeared to be heavier on him as days progressed. He used to wear it with pride as a young man, and he wanted to bestow that honour on someone who would carry his legacy forward. There were three items of honour related to his chieftainship that he wanted to pass on to his successor, the crown itself which was supposed to be worn by male successor, the wrist bracelet and the necklace, which Makoa had hoped to give to his daughter.

He sent few young men with Theko to go and look for Ntsebo in the city but news about her father’s plans reached her before hand. She eluded them and went into hiding for weeks until they gave up on her. She knew that they were going to abduct her and that her abduction would lead to her being forcibly made to marry Theko. Makoa’s hopes were fading, his quest becoming a remote possibility day by day and his loneliness took away the pride and arrogance that characterised him during his hey days. Much of his wishes towards the end of his life became just vanity; dashed by his own offspring. He grew up following the dictates of his society but had failed to bring his own children under the same tutelage that shaped him into a hero.

Makoa died shortly after the attempt to bring Tsebo back home had failed. The news about his death reached his daughter and she was moved and saddened but knew the resolution of her clan stand. She knew that once she set her feet on Makoa’s soil, all eyes would be on her to do what her father expected of her; his quest for her to marry Theko. Marrying Theko was not going to happen while she was still breathing and while her feet could still carry her elsewhere - far from her people and their expectations. This was a vow she took in her heart the day she left Coffee village. She did not attend her father’s funeral. She was resolute about not giving in to the dictates and expectation of her clan.

In the city Ntsebo had found new life and joined a religious group of believers of Gogo Morin, revered for her spiritual powers as an intercessor and diviner. “No one enters this place and leaves the same person. This place will change you, and your troubles and afflictions will be a thing of the past, once you come through the gates of this place,’ Gogo Morin’s followers used to say to every new comer that visited the place for prayers and intercessions. Murders, prostitutes, fraudsters and anybody who felt afflicted by his or her sins would go to Morin’s group to mend their ways.

Gogo Morin ran an ecstatic service every evening on Wednesdays that entailed lots of singing, clapping of hands and beating of drums; culminating with her taking the podium to preach to the believers. The believers’ voices would hail out loud and sharp, with thin female voices at their highest pitch and men with heavy voices hoovering along. The converted followers that paid their tithes and regular subscriptions, wore apron like robs over their shoulders, as a sign that they have been strengthened by the prayers of Gogo Morin. The robs made the believers look like flying white doves as they ran around in cycle to the rhythm of drums.

Ntsebo made a total commitment to the group. Soon, and on her own, she rose through the ranks of the group and became one of the trusted aide to Gogo Morin. She never looked back on her life and slowly her thoughts were freed from the expectation and the dictates of her own society’s traditions. Through Gogo Morin she embraced a new life that provided her with countless number of sisters and brothers, more than her own community could ever provide. Her own father’s quest was dashed forever.

Copy-righted to Ben Molapo

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