Sat Beneath the Baobab Tree, a short story by Nick Adigu Burke

Sat Beneath the Baobab Tree

Sat Beneath the Baobab Tree

written by: Nick Adigu Burke


“Our legends. They are not mythology, as the enemy laughs. They are as real, but as mystical as the baobab tree. Unfathomable, unless you’re sat beneath her sky-bound tendrils,” Cheelo’s late grandfather, Miyoba, a Batonga elder, used to say.

“It is true, Sekuru. I believe you,” Cheelo frowned, and gazed upon the slate-blue waters of Lake Kariba.
In his distant gaze, he held sadness in one eye, and joy in the other.

In joy, he recalled his grandfather and his wise and stoic counsel, and too, the great fortitude he’d shown throughout his turbulent life. The other eye, wept with heartbreak, a mournful precipitation for his own bitter loss: his late wife, Chennai, who the remorseless lake, snatched, three years prior, when a monstrous wave capsized the rowboat, they’d celebrated their wedding anniversary from.

With heavy heart, Cheelo sprawled on the lake’s red sandbank, then grimaced in installments, as he levered off his sandals, to medicate his blistered feet in Kariba’s cool waters.

In pleasured pain, he shut his eyes to the World, and in the warmth of the dawn sun, opened his spirit to remembrance.

Through his scorched mind, his late wife drifted, as though the most cooling of mists; and with a voice as mournful as the Nyanga breeze, his heart cried after her, “Chennai. Chennai, please, I beg, come home to me.” In the haze of those thoughts, Chennai turned and smiled, and how he missed the curves of her mouth, and the stars of heaven, those joyous lips placed in her eyes. And boy, did he miss the curves of her womanhood too: those Earthly contours that warm a man’s blood to the heights of Rapture.

From her soft lips, whispers breezed: all the tenderness he loved to hear, in slow dance, in a sensual Jerusarema with his soul. But how he ached; how he wept, to feel the warm caresses that would twin those whispers.

Soon, Chennai softened into a different thought, as though a Nomadic angel compelled to the gates of Heaven.

The voice of his Sekuru, his late grandfather, suffused Chennai’s absence. A deep, noble reverberation, which retold the tragedy of the Zambezi river god, Nyami-Nyami.

‘So, Cheelo, for thousands of years, our Batonga forefathers, farmed these fertile lands of the Zambezi Valley, and filled their fishnets in the abundant river? A cherished, civilised existence, blessed and nurtured by our great protector, Nyami-Nyami, and his consort, Kitapo, who together, lived upon an island rock in the Kariba gorge.

‘The deities, when not traversing the length and breadth of the river, to bless our people, basked on their rock, entwined in a fertile embrace. Nyami-Nyami’s fish head, in rest, upon Kitapo’s, and his snake’s body, gently wrapped around her mermaid’s tale.

‘On bountiful days, the pair shared the sunniest smiles, ignited by the beauty of the river-scape, and their indomitable love for one another.

‘By sunrise, they bathed in the river’s tranquil waters, and by afternoon, distended their hearts with the twit and shrill of birdsong: kingfisher, bee-eaters, sunbirds, jacana, and hundreds more, in choral harmony.

‘However, in the winter of 1951, unbeknown to Nyami-Nyami and Kitapo, the dream that enwrapped them, began to unravel. That is when the white-man encroached upon our ancient lands, with their ambitious designs to build a great dam across the Zambezi, to feed hydroelectricity to their gluttonous colonies to the north and south.

‘In 1955, thirty years before the day of your birth. Cheelo, the dam’s groundwork began!

‘Nyami-Nyami and Kitapo, preoccupied by their utopian dream, were blind to the beast that preyed upon our sacred traditions. Both deities were absent from their rock: Nyami-Nyami had swam upstream, to bless our people, and likewise, Kitapo had swam downstream, to bless our kin, there.

‘In his prolonged absence, the waters of the Zambezi, as is their way, spoke to Nyami-Nyami in mournful distress, petrified of the destruction at hand.

‘Through vibrational waves, he listened hard; heard the anguish of the river-scape, heard the roar of fires and the devilish growls of machinery, brutalise the land … slaughterers to all he had ever loved, all he had ever known.

‘His eyes swelled and swirled, as though whirlpools, and his lips curled in rocky vexation. He lashed his tail upon the water, and in howls of fury, left our people upstream.

‘On his return to these banks, Nyami-Nyami feared to believe his tearful eyes. Hoped they were mistaken, or tricked, by the lucidity of dreams. It was no dream, however. His homeland, as he knew it, was gone forever!

‘Through bitter tears he watched the white-men, butchers, in great number, accompanied by a horde of foreign and local helpers. The whole landscape of the Zambezi Valley had been scarred and scorched beyond any hope of salvation. Gone, the birdsong orchestra, drowned beneath the wave of industry. Gone too, the trees that marvelled their reflections in the water – the beautiful mukula and baobab, uprooted in place of iron and concrete. Our Batonga kin was uprooted too, sixty-thousand, diaspora, removed from the lands we had called home for generations, dismantled and displaced in unfamiliar realms. And more importantly, to Nyami-Nyami, his wife, Kitapo, had been incarcerated in the Kafue River, beyond the dam wall. Such grief. Such heartbreak.

‘Fire ran wild, in Nyami-Nyami’s blood, and In fury, he relentlessly smashed his fists into the dam wall. Such a tumult that a monumental flood, the largest in documented history reared high and fierce from the water. But for all his godly power, and the eighty-seven drowned workers, the wall cracked, but would not breach.

‘Nyami-Nyami plunged back into the depths, and for the first time, wished his immortality would fade like a shadow in the Chinhoyi Caves. He wept, in mournful knowledge that he would never see his beloved wife again. And for thirty days and nights, a great storm battered the gorge.’

A tear left its wet print upon Cheelo’s cheek. He felt the deity’s sorrow, a sad mutuality, forged by the loss of his own wife, Chennai.

He coughed the splinters of heartbreak from his throat, and addressed the waters.

“We are kindred, you and I, Nyami-Nyami. I feel your almighty torment, and you feel mine, of this I am certain. We are bonded in death, twinned in grief. Please, I beg. I will do whatever, endure, whatever, to behold my Chennai, again.

“God of the Zambezi, you are the protector of our people. You fill our bellies when famine strikes. Famine has now stricken me, so I beg again, please feed me, satiate my heart with Chennai’s return. Please Nyami-Nyami, please, bring home my Chennai.”

Cheelo stared at the lake and watched the wind, brush white breakers upon the water, each hoary disturbance a hint, to Nyami-Nyami’s emergence, but each crest, and each trough, a liar: the one he sought, forever evasive.

In a daze, his thoughts drifted like the nomadic Doma. He recalled the heart-to-heart, with his Love, on the eve of her tragic death.
With sunbeam smiles, they agreed, that it had been the power of love, and love, only, that had sailed them into one another’s arms. The twisted hand of fate, perhaps?! But no! It was love, they were certain. What other force could’ve brought them to Harare, to the Meikles Hotel, to meet on the stairwell, for Chennai to drop her purse and for Cheelo to hand it to her. What other force, stirs eyes to lock on one another’s, and widen with infatuation. What other force, stirs hearts to murmur in romantic tongues, and fastens minds with unbreakable bonds. Fate can do much, but love does all that fate can do, but more. A creator of intensity, an emotion, not even the most agile of minds can escape.

“Nyami-Nyami, where are you?!” Cheelo pleaded, his cries making specters of the dawn time mists.

“Please. Nyami-Nyami, why don’t you hear me? I beg you, ” Cheelo whimpered. Then, with his shirt-sleeve, wiped the tears that had blurred his eyes.

“You don’t listen,” he wearily repeated and threw a mouthful of tumbwa down his throat, his face a grimace, as that fiery moonshine scorched down to his belly.

For the rest of the morning and well into afternoon, Cheelo sat at the water’s edge, with eyes stuck on the lake, desperate for his wife, or Nyami-Nyami, or for a sign, at least, that his prayers had been heard. But as the shadows grew in the sunset, so did Cheelo’s desperation.

In his demise, he thought himself a lost soul, in heavy trudge, alone in the endless Namib desert, in search of a single grain of salt – an abject desperation that tortured him.

He concluded, if his pleas were never to be answered, then a crocodile must snatch him from Kariba’s banks, to spin him to the depths of death, to cast him from the life that aggrieved him.

As night descended, Cheelo threw himself on the red sandbank, and sobbed. For the darkness always seemed blacker without love to share it. With heartache streaming in cascade from his eyes, sleep ferried him to the land of dreams.

Cheelo awoke hours later, and when he heard the breeze whisper his name, he thought he still dreamt.

“Cheelo,” the voice drafted by his ear again. He stood, and stumbled, then rubbed his head, as though to conjure the genie of sense.

“Who’s there?” he hissed. “Who calls me?”

“It is I, Nyami-Nyami, God of the Zambezi,” the breathy voice replied.

“You are here?” Cheelo slowly questioned. He then spun in the voice’s direction, desperate to glimpse the deity. But the darkness, too dense, for his eyes to penetrate.

“The one, for whom you sob, resides beneath the waves of the lake,” Nyami-Nyami declared.

“You must gift yourself to the water, for the water to gift you, all that you ache for”

Cheelo shook his head, and drew back with a gasp.

“Do not allow your faith to wander. Do as I say, and your starved heart shall be fed.”

Cheelo ran his hand across his bristled chin, then trudged to the dawdled whoosh and swoosh of the waves.

With a hard stare, and scant emotion, he entered the lake, oblivious, it seemed, to the cold tightening of the water.
When the waves gently pushed at his chest, he idled. He ran his hand across his bristled chin, again, then gave his eyes to the dark sky, then back to the water.

His breath, thickened, as Nyami-Nyami’s words, echoed on the breeze, again.

“Now is time,” the deity affirmed.

Cheelo closed his eyes, as a Leviathan of a wave, roared high, from the lake, and swept him beneath its surface.

Into the black abyss, Cheelo sank, his eyes wide and wild; with bubbles in rumble from his gaped mouth and flared nostrils.

He came to a halt, suspended in the dark lake, his eyes closed, his nostrils at ease, and the bubbles ceased to clarify.

Cheelo’s eyelids flickered open, as though the gloom of absent thought, had been dispersed by a vivid dream.
With eyes, dilated black, the water was no longer dark or mud-clouded, but as bright and penetrable as a Caribbean lagoon. And where he expected asphyxiation, he found the water no hindrance to his lungs.

He peered hard, into the variable blue. A shape! A serpentine form, drew grey, in the distance, but gradually crystallising as it shimmied and swayed close.

Presently he noticed the form wasn’t that, of a singular entity, but rather hundreds of silver scaled fish, swimming in seamless unison. In fluid motion they encircled him, he, the eye of their argentine tranquillity.

They enchanted him, with the shine of their intelligence, burnished in jet eyes. As though each creature held a depth of thought and emotion. He felt a sadness leap from them, and reckoned they could feel his sorrow too.

He gazed, awestruck, as the silver shoal, flashed like starlight in the water.

Around and around, they circled, faster and faster, with each revolution. Soon, a blur, and a mass of bubbles became that shoal, in the midst of which appeared the undeniable tonic of a woman, with shapely hips, and nurturing breasts, and braids that flowed behind slender shoulders.

Cheelo ached, gasped in hopeful wonder, prayed an ardent prayer, to whichever God was close.

“is that my Chennai? Is that my sweetest heaven?” he said, shocked the water did not encumber his words.

The bubbles and fish dispersed, and a smile, spread as though sunlight, across his face. The hunger of his heart satiated, and the words of poets inked their passions upon his gaze.

“It is you, Chennai,” he gasped, again.

“Yes. It is me. Of course, it is,” Chennai giggled, and when she swam to him Cheelo’s eyes feasted upon her beautiful tale of spangled scales.

With a wide smile, she acknowledged his boyish curiosity,”Yes, I am now one, with the lake,” she said, then wrapped her trembling arms around his chest.

“Oh Chennai,” his voice broke. “You are truly beautiful. Even more so, than on the day of our glorious betrothal,” Cheelo whispered into her ear.

“As are you, my Angel. My perfect, perfect Angel,” Chennai replied. Then shimmied away, with a nod of her braided head for Cheelo to follow.

Cheelo shrugged, and Chennai gestured to his lower extremities.

He fixed his eyes down, and stared in wonder at his own fish’s tail – a silver scaled brilliance, spangled in the azure of the water.

They both giggled, and Chennai beckoned Cheelo, again, and he swam, in pursuit; their fishes tails consumed by the blue abyss.

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