Northern Tanzania, 1909.
“Maji! Maji!! Kill the Germans!”
These were the chants of a large group of warriors of the Nehenge tribe of Northern Tanzania as they marched through the turf plains that led to Umensere, the capital of the neighbouring Kekwe tribe. It was a dark, moonless night but there was little in the way of darkness as the dozens of burning torches held aloft by the marching men sufficiently illuminated the grassy plain on which they trode.
It did not take a careful observer to notice that these men, armed with stabbing spears and metallic shields, were excited about something. It was obvious from their spirited dancing and the pounding of their spear butts on the floor.
A German reverend father who had seen this armed procession from a respectable distance had scribbled in his diary:
“…dreadful and most terrifying. These men seem to be animated by a most unusual morale…”
The rationale behind the spirited display of the Nehenge militia was that the warriors and in fact, every of the Nehenge men had taken Maji, the holy bottled water that was said to be powerful enough to liquefy German bullets. The medicine was an ingenious invention of a local prophet who had supposedly seen a vision from the gods in which he was tasked with liberating the people of Tanzania from the vice-like grip of their German overlords.
Presently, the warriors set about scaling the acclivitous terrain that stood between them and the Kekwe lands. A new chant broke out among the men.
“Maji or whiteman? Which is stronger?”
“What shall we do to the Germans?”
“We shall cut their throats!”
One of the warriors, a well built veteran by the name Selemani Tekujile soon caught himself absently shaking his head at the irony of the new war chorus. They were going to Kekwe not to fight the Germans there, but to punish the locals for refusing Maji. According to eye witness accounts, the Kekwe chief had tested a rifle on one of the messengers who brought Maji to his village and had promptly hung the other when Maji failed to save his compatriot’s head from being blown to pieces by a single shot of the firearm.
Tekujile thought it wise of the Kekwe chief to have attempted a test on the efficacy before throwing men into field but the Nehenge chief considered the act sacrilegous.
“How can they say they tested the messengers of the gods? Isn’t that an abomination?” Chief Mambu said oft-times to himself.
As the warriors progressed deeper into woods, Tekujile let his mind wander to the previous week when Omari Njala and his assistant hongos arrived at Nehenge with bottes of Maji. There and then, Nehenge’s problems began.
Omari was a fine specimen of a man. Dark and tall with graceful movements and fine airs, he was dressed in white flowing robes that stopped at his ankle. His voice as he preached about Maji was soft yet firm.
The Nehenge tribesmen marvelled at the eloquence of his speech as he told them that Maji was only the first of many great things to come and that after the Germans have been evacuated, the great god of the sky would appear among them and do wonders.
“You have to choose between freedom and slavery, between your gods and the German God. Your brothers in Ngoni have already decided. Posterity will never forget our generation if we can purge our fatherland of these vile white men.”
Like everyone, Tekujile thought Omari a good orator but he didn’t buy the divine message. He searched the faces of people around, looking for a tinge of doubt or uncertainty somewhere in order to assuage his troubled mind that he was not the only one who smelled a rat.
Sometime that evening, Chief Mambu called an emergency council meeting. There in the chief’s court, eight men of utmost importance in the tribe sat on stools to deliberate on the issue of Maji.
Tekujile was there only by fate. The commander of the army who should be there had gone for his father-in-law’s burial in the neighbouring town. The second in command was ill from sleeping sickness. Tekujile was the third in command which was the reason for his presence there.
“This meeting is almost not necessary. But we need to do things the right way,” Chief Mambu said. “Let us mortals speak and leave with the gods the final say.”
“The Maji is the answer to our questions,” one of the councilmen said. “For years we have asked questions on how to go about purging our land of the white beasts and now we have the answer. Let us not waste time.”
Another councilman scratched his chin as he spoke, “We are not cowards. The Ngoni, Ngindo, Mshope have swung into action. Why do we dither?”
Tekujile sat there like a wooden sculpture, unable to contribute to the matter because he was there in another person’s stead. The custom of the land demanded that he only listened and take a report of whatever was said back to the council member he was representing. He could only watch as the men all took turns praising the Maji and giving their support. In the end, the Chief turned to the old staggering priest and asked him for the mind of the gods.
“The gods say the land will be rid of German someday. But they do not say if this will be caused by Maji or not. As it is, the great beings have left the decision in our hands.”
“What will be your advice, old one?”
The priest replied. “Caution. Let us not rush things.”
“Right,” Chief Mambu said with a vigorous nod. “We shall wait for a week then we shall attack the German garrison here, after which we will join the allied forces to sweep out the white man out of our homestead forever!”
At the end of the proceedings, Tekujile staggered out of the meeting place with a dampened spirit. He had expected this but still there had been that slight hope that the meeting would come out different. But that hope was dashed now.
In his hut where he stayed alone since he had long lost his parents and he had no longer had a wife of his own, he met his friend and fellow warrior, Bechangaa waiting.
“How did it go?”
“Bad. Very bad. They have accepted Maji.”
“Why? That is good. Come on Selemani, if this compulsory cotton growing suits you, not everyone is okay with it.”
“I hate nothing more than being forced to farm, my friend. But my fear is that if Maji fails, which I’m sure it will, the disunity it will cause among our people will be so great that the whiteman may end of ruling us forever.”
“Let it fail first. Did you not hear what Maji has achieved for the Ngoni? They attacked the Boma in their village. If the governor had not taken to his heel, he would have been killed. All the whitemen and their sisters in the monastery ran away.”
“I fail to see what Maji has done. It is the men who picked up courage to do what they should have long done.”
“And the confidence came from where? Maji.”
The conversation wore on until Bechangaa decided to leave as his wife would be waiting.
“Selemani, when shall you get a new wife?”
“I don’t know. Maybe when I am no longer a warrior. Right now, war is my wife.”
Bekuwaa smiled. “I shall be back tomorrow if it please the gods.”
It did not please the gods, for they allowed an event to happen such that Bechangaa’s social visit was rendered impossible.
The next morning, it was announced by the crier that the Nehenge were declaring war on the Kekwe and Behe people. The reason being that both tribes turned their back on Maji and killed the two hongos that carried the holy water there. One of the hongo was Omari’s brother.
By noon, the army was gathered at the village square and the commander hastily recalled from Ndi. Tekujile morosely took his place among the troops as the chief ordered that bottles of Maji be distributed among the men. After the Maji-taking ceremony, the troops started for Behe and on getting there, they launched a ferocious attack on the village. It was a bloody and deathly attack. Houses were burnt and men slaughtered in scores.
Tekujile was more of an observer in the battle, he only attacked when threatened. He watched as his people vented their fury against the Germans on their neighbours. He caught one of the men dragging a girl that looked barely eleven behind a barn. Tekujile had seen many rapes before, but this one made him wince. He ran behind the barn and saw the despicable soldier tearing away the little girl’s raffia skirt.
“Stop that!” Tekujile roared. His voice was sufficiently audible over the din.
The soldier paused, irritated at being disturb. “The commander said we can do what we want.”
“I don’t care what Jumbe said, leave the girl right now or I’ll run you through,” Tekujile roared, wielding his spear threateningly.
The soldier pulled himself upright, a sibilant whisper escaping his lips as he curtly swept past his superior. For a moment, Tekujile considered taking out the man but he restrained himself knowing that the action would do more harm than good.
“What is your name?” Tekujile asked as he knelt beside the girl. She stared back at him unspeaking.
Tekujile produced an amulet from his pack. “If any of my men come near you, just wave this at him, you hear?”
The little girl nodded, her eyes full of gratitude.
Tekujile left her to resume fighting in self defence. Hours later, the enemy troops were completely crushed and the Nehenge troops withdrew with captives and loot, no doubt satisfied with the punishment they have meted out to their errant neighbours.
The next day, news of the Nehenge exploits reached the other rebel tribes and they sent a conflated troop to support them in punishing the Kekwe. So the allied rebel forces under the spiritual guidance of the great Maji bearer, Omari, left their base and presently, they were only a few metres away from the Kekwe settlement.
Tekujile’s musing was halted by a sudden command by Commander Jumbe.
“Halt march! We shall camp here tonight, in the morn we shall attack the Kekwe.”
“Ye!” The men chorused.
Was Jumbe mad? Tekujile reasoned. Why did he ask them to stop? They were going to lose their surprise factor.
In the hastily constructed camp, Tekujile sat in a corner of his shed, sharpening his spear absently. He was angry because when he returned to the spot he left the girl, she was nowhere to be found.
“Selemani, are you there?” someone called from outside.
“Who seeks him?”
“It is Bechangaa,” the warrior announced as he walked in with a maiden in his tow. “I’m not staying. I only brought her for you. She is one of the finest captives we brought.”
Tekujile looked at the maiden but all he could think of was the little girl he ultimately failed to protect.
“Take her away,” he muttered.
“I won’t,” Bechangaa said. “It’s been two years since your wife left. I’m sure you have certain yearnings that need to be attended to.”
Before Tekujile could protest, Bechangaa had vanished.
“Sit over there. Don’t worry, I won’t touch you,” Tekujile said and he thought he saw of a flash of disappointment on the maiden’s comely face.
Tekujile resumed sharpening his spear, slowly running a short iron bar over the spearhead until he heard something that sounded like a rustling of clothes. Curiously, he looked up and what he saw made a low gasp escape his throat. Before his own eyes, the maiden was bare from shoulder to waist. Her breasts were full and rounded and the erection of her nipples was illuminated by the oil lamp at the centre of the room, causing the warrior’s eyes to dilate with lustful wonder. In the next moment, Tekujile found himself entangled with the supple maiden and much later, when he rolled off her, with his waist smarting and his groin throbbing, he muttered to himself, “I don’t even know her name.”
“We are not cowards who sneak up to their opponents in the back. We are men of valour and that is why we have given the Kekwe the chance to get their arms together,” Jumbe said.
“Ye!” The men cheered.
Tekujile allowed himself a discreet sneer at the witless blather Jumbe just spewed.
Was it a coincidence that they had sneaked up to the war-loving Behe tribe but they were now giving the Kekwe, who were mostly farmers, time to prepare?
“Right now, we shall go into that village,” Jumbe said, indicating Kekwe with a sweep of his hands. “And we shall teach those men that Maji is supreme. You either accept or die with the whiteman. Maji!”
“Maji!” The warriors roared.
The men swooped on the Kekwe lands, meeting no real resistance until they got to the village square where they got a shocker. At the square, they met a long line of fifty German military personnel armed with rifles. Apparently, the Kekwe people had sent to their colonial masters for help.
“Maji! Maji!! Kill the Germans!” the men started chanting.
“Stop this craziness or we will open fire,” the head of the German troops, Captain Guntzen, warned through a native interpreter.
The men ignored the warning, of course. They chanted more loudly, delighted that they finally have their chance to pit their powers against the hated white men. Having reached the limits of his patience, Captain Guntzen bade his officers to open fire.
Ironically, it was the great Omari who first caught a bullet in his gut. His face contorted with pains as hot lead tore through his entrails. He clutched his bleeding stomach for a few moments before he dropped to the ground dead. With each passing moment, the German fusillade made more men drop to the floor like sweat off a labourer’s forehead in the sun. Clearly, Maji had failed.
The stark failure of Maji knocked the confidence out of the rebels and they scattered in all directions except the side from which the German guns blazed. Bechangaa found himself running in a zig-zag manner as he tried to avoid getting knocked down by the fiery missiles which were killing warriors to his right and left. He scrambled on till he found cover behind a hut and he quickly evaluated the injuries he picked in the course of his escape; a bruised knee and a swollen ankle. Not bad.
Driven by a strange curiosity, Bechangaa peeped from behind the hut he was hiding and saw something that astounded him. While all the warriors were busy hiding their heads from the fury of the German guns, his friend Tekujile was running towards the Germans!
At the behest of Captain Guntzen, all the firearms were now directed at the lone native charging at them with his spear. The guns blazed away but the warrior didn’t stop approaching. When he was only a few yards away from the line of shooting officers, he took a side-step forward and hurled his spear with what seemed like the last of his strength. As it cut through the air, the spear made a swishing sound that was swallowed by the roaring guns on the opposite side.
A gasp of wonder escaped Bechangaa’s lips as the spear sank in Captain Guntzen’s forehead. Bechangaa paid little heed to Tekujile who collapsed as soon as the spear left his grip, to the ground which was already littered with the body of his kinsmen. What intrigued the hiding warrior was the bright red fluid that spurted from the whiteman’s head as the spearhead tore his scalp.
Whites also bleed red.
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