Don't kill the messenger...

Friday October 08 2021
short story

Wahuria watched as they came closer, poking at the dry underbrush, their darting eyes glittering with hunger. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Wahuria had survived the relentless heat, thirst, hunger and despair in the month and a half that she’d been trekking through a seemingly endless plain.

Now, just as she hoped she was getting close to her destination, she found herself cowering, half buried under the roots of an ancient baobab tree, as a ferocious looking gang of men searched the surrounding scrubland for her.

They didn’t yet know what they were looking for, only that their spotter, a large hawk which now lay dead on a bush, had spotted something around here and they were determined to find out what it was. It hadn’t rained in seven years, not a drop, and everyone was as desperate as the earth was desolate.

Wahuria watched as they came closer, poking at the dry underbrush, their darting eyes glittering with hunger. Her attention was fixed on the nearest man to her who was kicking vigorously at a sparse bush, a gruff looking man marked with scars who seemed to be their leader, when suddenly, someone exclaimed behind her and she was yanked out from under the baobab’s roots.

“Look here!” the man was triumphant, holding a kicking and writhing Wahuria by her left ankle.

Immediately, they all swarmed around her and Wahuria found herself in the middle of a dense circle that threw her into shadow as faces peered down at her.


“Move!” a deep, hoarse voice commanded, and Wahuria was basked in bright, scorching sunlight as the circle parted and the excitable men hushed in unison, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Shading her eyes with her hand, Wahuria swallowed dryly. She was too beaten down by her journey to lie. She was done fighting and it was sort of a relief to know her end was near, and so she sighed, lowered her arm, squinted into the curious faces before her and spoke steadily.

“I come from the east,” there were murmurs but their leader raised one finger, silencing them, “My people live in the hills,” she breathed unevenly in the suffocating midday heat, “I was sent to find the Kata people,” gasps from most of the men cut her off and now their intimidating leader crouched down so that he was at eye level with her, and she stuttered in fear, “I…I have a message for their chief…my uncle.”

The gruff looking man, Sila, leader of the Kata tribe’s few remaining warriors, cocked his head as he stared at the wild looking woman, trying to find some resemblance between her and their old chief, but all he could see was that the tired eyes before him held no semblance of a lie. And so he gave an abrupt sharp shout and his men all scrambled onto their horses, one of them hoisting Wahuria uncomfortably across the back of his, and they galloped off in a cloud of choking dust.

Everyone in the village had gathered under a large shade made of lightly woven sisal and strung up on four tall poles to form an easy to move makeshift structure. They were always having to move these days, following the course of a dying river, pitching camp wherever it was deepest. They had come to hear and see the chief’s apparent niece deliver a message from her people in the mountains; which they could see as dark purple shadows lining the eastern horizon, clearest in the pale light of dawn.

“…you must banish the tree cutters from your land,” Wahuria was saying, “We have seen the devastation from higher up and the green earth is turning brown,” there were murmurs and nods of agreement, after all, they’d noticed it themselves.

“But they assure us that for every tree cut, they plant a seedling,” her uncle begun, his voice clear despite his frail frame, “I have witnessed them planting myself! I have made sure…”

“Yes uncle,” Wahuria interrupted tentatively, her uncle’s temper was as legendary as her fathers and she didn’t want it aroused, “But a seedling cannot do what a tree does,” she raised her voice as he opened his mouth to cut in, “Who can guarantee the next 20 or so years for these seedlings to mature into trees?” she paused, noting that she seemed to have convinced everyone but the stubborn old man, “Uncle,” a smile touched her lips, “If I were to trade you a whole nursery of babies for your band of warriors, would you agree?” laughter accompanied her as she pressed on, “A seedling is not yet a tree, stop trading what you have for what could be.”

There was silence as she finished. A hot wind swirled dust around their feet and rustled at dry tufts of grass baked almost solid by the sun.

Who could deny that since they’d turned their trees into timber, life had only become harder, the plains a harsher place to live. The river had started drying up too. Once, it was able to swallow a tall man to his shoulders and now, little children waded in its depths.

The villager’s murmurs slowly become clamours to heed Wahuria’s message. Sila, breaking all protocol to show his support, walked over and stood behind her, and the rest of the village followed suit. If they had any say, and now they realised that they did, things were going to be different. If they protected the same nature that sustained them, maybe they would have a chance.