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fenceposts: Fiction: Worthless People
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Fiction: Worthless People

Worthless People

Brad glanced at his two friends as they stood at the edge of the African rainforest that would be their home for the next few days. Between the guarded gate of the boarding school and the forest’s edge they had divested themselves of all things western. From here on they would speak only in Swahili, their first language.

The boarding school was made up of the children of foreign workers in Africa. Most of the students were there temporarily while their parents did short-term relief work. These students had little understanding of the Africa that they – often reluctantly – lived in. The three boys belonged to a much smaller group of students who had spent most or all of their lives in Africa.

The American teachers found many of these young “white” Africans painfully challenging. They resisted the value of learning about things like Richard Nixon’s resignation as President on the other side of the world. For them, no education compared to what they learned around the village fires from African tribal elders. They knew very little of the outside world that their parents called home, but they understood more about Africa than their parents ever could.

“Ready?” Brad asked. Scott and Dave nodded. “We will head first for mossy rock and forage for materials for our hunting weapons there.”

This hunting trip would be a new experience for Brad. Scott and Dave told him that when they made the trip, they took no tools or weapons except one knife apiece. They explained that they would find the materials and build hunting weapons as they went through the forest. Brad had never heard of anyone doing this before, but his friends’ confidence seemed convincing, and Brad could not back down from the challenge. Scott and Brad brought large hunting knives, but Dave brought only a four-inch curved-blade knife on a leather strap around his neck. Brad stared in disbelief at the small piece of metal that seemed to have little hunting or defensive value. Scott eagerly told him that a blacksmith in the northern desert had given it to Dave as a gift. With that little tool, he said, Dave could build all his weapons and traps.

To Brad, his two companions seemed like exact opposites in almost every way. Scott was taller than the other junior high students. The constant sparkle of humor in his eyes and his broad, contagious smile won him a wide range of friends at school. He garnered the top scores in class, to the enthusiastic commendations of the teachers. His athletic abilities did not go unnoticed by the coaches who had him already playing on the high school football team (or as the American’s called it, soccer). The grown-ups often punctuated their praise with the most important endorsement the school offered: “This one is going to make it just fine in America.” Scott, meanwhile, had never been to the America that his missionary parents called home.

On weekends during school, the three skilled hunters had taken day-hunts with their bows or rifles in the woods near the school, and Brad knew that Scott had one weakness: he had a hard time sitting still. Scott was the best shot with the gun, but too often scared the prey away with his impatience. At times it took the combined efforts of both Brad and Dave to keep him still. In the rainforest, African hunters learn the “walk of the leopard,” a high-stepping, flat-footed stride which allows one to walk noiselessly up on prey. Brad and Dave could do the leopard walk for miles at a time, but Scott tended to get distracted and would predictably snap a twig or rustle leaves at just the wrong time.

As they stepped into the rainforest canopy, Brad took the lead. They had decided that his tracking skills were best and he should go first. Scott could use the bow better than the other two so he would stick close behind Brad. Dave would follow along making and repairing the hunting weapons.

“Hey Dave, are you doing okay?” Brad asked. The scuffling figure rounded a corner several trees behind Scott and waved to let Brad know he was fine.

In contrast to Scott, Dave’s short slight build accompanied a slow and awkwardly limping step that appeared painful at times. He could run barely faster than he could walk and his running stride had a ridiculous wobble that made him the brunt of constant ill humor from the other students. His wild, curly, reddish-black hair demonstrated a resolute determination to remain a stranger to both brush and comb. The tangled mop punctuated the angst his teachers felt in their desperation to tame the beast before letting him loose in America. “This one will never make it,” was the mantra that followed him at school. He never really passed subjects, teachers just sent him to the next level hoping someone else would have better luck with him. Dave stayed quiet and alone at school. He did not seem to mind that he had few friends and cared even less what reputation he garnered with his teachers. His parent lived in Africa as foreign aid workers.

Scott and Dave had grown up together in a little African village named Kagawe. Three times a year at the trimester school breaks, they would walk through the rainforest hunting as they made their way to their village. They never took what their parents considered the “safe route,” a long looping road that connected Kagawe to the school. Brad was excited that they had invited him to go with them this time. His Canadian parents taught in an African school among the Wavuvi over two hundred miles east of the school. Brad’s parents had arranged with Borman, the pilot, to fly him home from Kagawe, later in the week, so he could go on this hunt with Scott and Dave.

“Hey Scott, it seems like this will be a pretty tough walk for us, we have a long way to go. Do you think that Dave is strong enough to keep up with us all the way there?” Brad asked when Dave was far enough behind not to hear their conversations.

“Don’t ask that again, ever,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t even think of wandering this deep into the Kulima rainforests without Dave watching my back and you’d be a fool if you ever tried it. Dave is better in these woods than you or I will ever be.”

Brad realized that this was the first time he had ever heard anger in Scott’s voice, “Sorry,” he said “Not another word.”

Brad wondered what lay beneath Dave’s stoic exterior. He never seemed to laugh or smile. Scott and some of African maintenance workers at the school said that Dave had unusual connections with African elders in the area and stories were told about him around the village fires, but the stone-faced skinny runt that Brad knew at school gave no indication of the stories that surrounded him outside the campus.

“Hey, let’s stop a little,” Scott said.

Brad knew that Scott wanted them to wait for Dave to catch up a little. Scott showed great patience with his friend and never seemed to mind when he and Brad would wait for Dave while he rested or needed to catch up. Despite his limitations, Dave demonstrated good hunting skills with a rifle, but he lacked the strength to use a bow. Instead, the smaller boy built bows for Scott and Brad to use — and proudly display in their dorm room. Brad had never seen better quality hunting bows. Scott bragged often about Dave, even claiming that Dave’s trapping skills were the best in Africa. Brad found it odd that a popular and chatty guy, bragged so much about his feeble, out-cast friend. If it were not for Scott, Brad knew that he never would have tried to get to know Dave.
Source image by Alexandra Mitchell
They arrived at the mossy rock. It was as deep into the Kulima rainforest as Brad had ever been. The big rock sat on top of a hill. It provided a natural lookout over the deep emerald green treetops with their shimmering mist rising from the wet forest floor.

“We should stop here and make the weapons before we go any further in,” Scott said.

All three hunters began to collect wattle branches for Dave’s traps, and to look for mahogany branches for Brad and Scott’s bows and arrows. Soon Scott and Brad each stood with a small handful of useful items while Dave staggered slightly under an armful of gathered treasures.

Scott looked at Brad who shook his head in amazement.

“I told you so, and you haven’t seen anything yet.”

They found a fallen log in a clearing. Without a word, Dave showed his friends the skill of making tightly wound string for their bows by rubbing and twisting long strips of vine across the log.

“This is so cool, Dave,” Scott said grinning widely as he watched his friend go to work. He was excited that Brad agreed to go with him. Scott really wanted someone from school to know his little friend the same way that he did. A trip like this offered the best time to see Dave’s skills.

Scott and Dave’s birthdays were within one month of each other and they had experienced much of Africa together. Together they had sat at the feet of the Kulima elders, made friends with the same Kulima children, and always hunted together. Scott had the advantage of size and strength. Many thought that Scott was the smart one of the two, but Scott knew a side of Dave that others did not often see. His little friend had a deep and connected understanding of the rainforest that surrounded them. Scott could give the scientific and African names for all the plants and trees in the forest; Dave did not know or care about their names, but he knew how to use them to his advantage. Dave would say that an animal’s best advantage is its instincts, but the humans’ advantage is in their creativity.

“See Brad, we will use these vine strings for our bows until we get our first animal. Then Dave will replace them with braided gut or skin to make the bows stronger.”
While his friends worked on the bow-strings, Dave took out his odd little knife and began to scrape and shape two long branches into hunting bows. He handed one nearly completed bow to each of them to finish up with their oversized knives while he began work on a trap.

With thin wattle branches that would bend in half without breaking, he wove a flattened basket. He added a freshly made vine-string around the outer edge and laid his trap on the ground to test it. He envisioned a small animal crossing over the basket and pulled the string which snapped the basket shut around the would-be prey. Scott and Brad laughed at Dave’s feigned conquest, to which he bowed slightly and came over to help them finish their tasks. Armed and ready, the boys slipped back into the shadows of the trees and began to work their way deeper into the woods in the general direction of Kagawe.

Whenever Brad and Scott got too far ahead, they sat and waited. Scott had known Dave his whole life, but never knew exactly what caused his friend’s limitations.
“Some sort of birth defect,” Scott’s mother told him once. “Your friend has bad legs and a bad heart.” But Dave never wanted to talk about it, never complained, and asked Scott to never defend or try to protect him at school. Scott respected that.
And the Kulima people said that Dave hunted better than their best hunters. They admired him even more because he did not use a bow or spear to hunt. Scott grinned to himself as he watched Brad checking tracks and looking for sign of prey ahead of him. He wondered how long it would take before Brad would understand Dave the way that he did.

Even better than Brad, Scott knew that Dave never laughed and almost never smiled. Once he overheard his missionary parents calling Dave’s father “a ticking time-bomb.” Back at school Scott looked up some of the other words that he had heard his father use, “molestation” was one, and “incest.” An African asks few questions, but Scott became very protective of his best friend after that.

Dave watched his companions walking far ahead and thought of a chief who lived not too far from the school, a leader of the Sujaa people, named Lenana. The old man once told him that humans have been given two eyes. One is the eye of the predator and the other is the eye of the prey. In order to live well in the world one must learn to see with both eyes. The predator looks too closely for the prey and misses the predator, and the prey looks too closely for the predator and misses the prey. Dave watched as his friends focused like predators looking for signs of prey and walking past the silent stares of both predator and prey.

They walked directly under a colobus monkey perched on a low branch just above their head. The monkey, dressed in deep black with a mask of white whiskers around its face, cocked its head in bemusement as the two hunters passed. As Dave approached, he waved slightly to the monkey. The colobus seemed insulted by the gesture and scrambled, crashing up the tree. Dave smiled within his stoic exterior as his two friends whirled around bows drawn trying to see what fiend or foe had escaped their notice.

“Colobus,” Dave said casually pointing over their heads. “Meat is no good.” His slightly embarrassed companions turned back to the hunt.

Dave always waited to let his friend make the first kill.

Several times that day, Dave saw a dark movement off to the side of his companions. The movement never showed a shape, but he felt certain it belonged to a man rather than an animal. He held his hand with an open palm pointed up and outward, showing a sign of peace to let the stranger know that he had been detected and that Dave had no ill intent. He did not see a return sign, but still felt no danger, so he continued to follow his friends.

Suddenly, Brad held his hand straight up, a sign that he had detected something. Scott stopped behind him and armed his bow with one of the arrows that Dave had made. Brad also took out an arrow and waited for Dave to catch up.

Without a word, Scott pointed to a small worn path in the underbrush not more than eight inches tall. He flapped his hands indicating a bird, cupped his hands slightly in a shape to indicate the size of a large chicken. He flipped up eight fingers indicating a small flock. Dave had already noticed the guinea fowl trail and nodded.

Taking charge, Brad pointed to Scott and then to the path entrance. Scott crouched down with an excited grin and prepared to shoot any fowl that might come up the trail. Brad looked at Dave and pointed in a circular motion to the right of the brush. Dave immediately began a leopard walk and circled to the exit path on the other side of the thicket. He carefully laid out his braided trap on the trail and waited.
Brad gave everybody time to set up and circled to the left with a drawn bow. He then turned and began a leopard walk straight toward the hiding gaggle of fowl. A thwap broke the silence, echoed by the panicked clucks and screeches of the fowl. Dave heard a thud and knew that one of the birds had been hit. He listened as the birds scurried up their tiny trail toward Scott.
Colobus Monkey
A second thwap followed by more screeches immediately echoed by Scott shouting, “I got one!”

The panicked birds switched direction and began charging out of the other side of the brush and over Dave’s trap. Dave let one go by and then sprang the trap, catching a big hen. He quickly grabbed the hen by the legs, broke her neck and reset the trap. The confused flock changed direction and went back up the trail toward Scott and Brad. Dave could hear his friends talking and knew that they did not anticipate the flock coming back toward them. He smiled slightly to himself as he heard the confused flock burst out in front of Scott and Brad who shouted in surprise which turned the frightened flock again back down the trail toward Dave. He once again let several birds go past the trap and then sprang it on a second large bird. He snapped the guinea fowl’s neck and decided that they had enough meat for the evening meal. He wrapped up his trap and walked back to Scott and Brad.

Scott held up a hen with two arrows in it. “Brad shot it first and then I killed it,” he announced with a grin.

Dave smiled his congratulations as he held up his two hens.

“I never believed that trap would work,” Brad said in amazement.

“It will be dark soon,” Dave said, “We should camp and cook these here. Besides we are being followed.”

“Kulima?” Scott asked looking at Dave for any signs of concern.

“He is not a Kulima,” Dave answered with a casual shrug.

All three friends returned to their more comfortable bond of silence. The time for speaking comes when the fire is built and the birds are dressed and cooking. Scott eagerly anticipated the time after a successful hunt. He loved to cook, and Dave loved to let him. But the time of telling stories around the evening fire ranked highest for him. Then his friend Dave really talked. They both knew the stories they had heard from different African campfires and invented new ones of their own. Scott’s excitement grew as he realized this would be Brad’s first time to hear Dave’s stories.

Brad worked quietly, lost in thought on the evening fire. A sudden swishing sound and a loud thwap startled him and he looked up to see an ebony black arrow impaled in a tree two feet above his head.

“Everyone sit!” Dave ordered with rare but urgent authority.

“Why is he shooting at me?” Brad asked with a slight tremble.

“He is not shooting at you,” Dave murmured, “If he was you would be dead. He is a hunter, not a warrior. He is just telling us to be quiet. He will let us know when to move again.”

Dave looked in the direction that the shot had come from and with a raised hand, extended fingers; he waved once across his face, a sign of understanding. Out of the thickets he saw a hand extend in peace and disappear again. Brad and Scott also looked but saw nothing. A flushed excitement enveloped Scott’s face, but each time he tried to speak, Dave motioned him to silence.

Brad stared at the black arrow with a single feather dangling from it. He had never seen anything like it before, and did not like the idea of one being sent in his direction. He remembered what Scott had said about never being in these woods without Dave. He realized how much trust he had suddenly placed in Dave right then, and how terrified he would be if the other boy had not been around to explain things. He looked at the three dead birds on the ground. One of them, significantly damaged with two arrows in it. The other two did not have a scratch on them.
He looked at Dave again and realized that he had just seen him for the first time.

A second swishing sound and thwap exploded in the brush followed by the bellow of a wounded animal. Dave held both his friends in check with an open palm of his hand. Out of the brush exploded a wounded bushbuck with an arrow deeply embedded in its side. The wide-eyed antelope veered past the sitting boys into the darkened brush on the other side of the clearing.

Soon another arrow whistled through the air and landed next to the first one. Dave stood up and began working. Without a word he motioned for his friends to do the same. He waved the peace sign into the thicket and began to build and set traps around the clearing for the night. His friends finished camp and worked on the meal.

Dave stayed away from his friends to avoid questions until after the fire was prepared. His excitement grew as he realized what he had just experienced. He wondered if his friends would understand his excitement.

At last the fire’s flames sizzled as the hens slowly rotated over them on a spit that Scott had constructed. Brad bundled leaves and placed them around the fire for sleeping. The sky’s luster was giving way to the early cloak of darkness that was winding through the trees. Scott and Brad waited by the firelight for Dave to join them.

Soon, Dave sat facing the fire and his friends on the other side. The moment that all of Africa waits for each day had finally arrived, when the tales flow and voices paint new textures into the old tales of Africa that extend back for thousands of years.

“My friends,” Dave spoke in a low murmur slightly louder than the early evening breeze rustling in the trees overhead. “Today, we have met our first Waduni.”

“Do you mean?” Scott almost shouted, but quieted to Dave’s sudden gesture. Scott watched a quiet excitement growing on his best friends face.

For Dave, this moment seemed to brush away years of physical pain and misunderstanding by the antagonistic western community of which he found himself unable or unwilling to belong.

“What is a Waduni?” Brad asked, “Should we take those arrows? They look amazing!”

“Try to take those arrows and the hunter will not miss your head next time,” Dave answered, flashing Brad a grin that neither Brad nor Scott had ever seen before.

“This is wild!” Scott bubbled, “Tell Brad about the Waduni, Dave, I did not know they still lived around here!”

“You both know the Sujaa are semi-nomadic herders, right?” Dave began as both Scott and Brad nodded. “You probably also know that they believe that their god has given all the cattle on the earth to them. They believe that any cow is stolen if it is in the possession of any people other than the Sujaa. They will raid other tribes with force to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs.”

“I have heard that,” Brad responded, “but what about the Waduni?”

“A good story must last until the fire burns out,” Dave said, “You built a fire that may last all night.”

“I knew I used too much hardwood in that fire.” Brad said with a chuckle.

“In order to be a true Sujaa,” Dave continued, “a man must own cattle in good health. From time to time a man will lose his cattle to disease, sickness, drought or too many predators. The Sujaa believe that one can only lose their cattle because of neglect and irresponsibility. When a man loses his cattle, he is no longer a Sujaa.”

“What happens to such a person?” Brad asked.

“They become a Waduni!” Scott almost shouted in his eagerness for the story to continue.

“For the Sujaa, it is irresponsible and wrong to eat meat from a wild animal,” Dave continued, not swayed by the intrusions of his impatient friends. “For them cattle, goats and sheep are given to man for food. In the mind of a Sujaa, eating any wild meat is disgusting and the result of irresponsibility. The word Waduni means the worthless people. Because the Waduni are considered to be too irresponsible to be called Sujaa, they are forced to be hunters of wild animals.

“The Waduni have no real homeland of their own, they are outcast from the Sujaa community and generally live on the edges surrounding the Sujaa lands. Not long before our births, no Kulima lived in this area. Only the Waduni, chased out of the valley by the Sujaa, lived in these forests. The Kulima moved into this area and they mistakenly think that they too have chased out the Waduni.
“I have had many conversations with the Sujaa Chief Lenana in the valley below. He has told me that the Waduni are still up here. He told me that they are a very proud people, and even though they are worthless to the Sujaa, they are still better than any other people. The chief has told me that the Waduni are the best hunters on earth. Even though the Sujaa disapprove of their worthless people, they are very proud of the great skill of the Waduni hunters. He told me that one never sees a Waduni unless they want to be seen.”

“Do they mind being called Waduni?” Brad asked, “And will we ever see this Waduni?”

Dave broke out into a gleeful smile. “Why don’t you ask him yourself? He is sitting right next to you.”

Both Brad and Scott jumped up in fright and then laughed in embarrassment as they realized that the quiet hunter had come in and sat between them. The hunter pretended to ignore them and kept his eyes on Dave, but his bright white teeth parted slightly in a smile.

“We are Waduni,” the man stated simply, “Your friend has told our story well. We are both worthless people and mighty hunters. But the fire still burns bright; the story cannot end here. Your friend told you that no one can see a Waduni unless they want to be seen. Yet earlier today, your friend saw me, before I wished to be seen. He has the eyes of a Waduni. “

“We have prepared a meal from our hunt.” Dave said, “We would be honored if the Waduni would share with us and if the Waduni is far from the village we would invite you to share our camp for the night. We can learn your name. I would like to hear why the Waduni has shown his face to us. We are white boys and our fathers are not friends of the Waduni.”

The Waduni and the three friends sat quietly for a few moments stealing glances at each other, trying to absorb the details of their new acquaintance. Dave estimated the Waduni to be in his early twenties. He had the chiseled facial features of a Sujaa. He appeared to be well over six feet tall and had the long strong arms and leg muscles that are typical of the Sujaa. Unlike a Sujaa, the hunter had short cropped almost clean shaven hair which seemed odd because usually only Sujaa women wore their hair short. He had no tattoos, no decorative scarring, and no beads. Dave decided that worthless people must not wear any status symbols. For clothing, the hunter had a single skin wrapped over his shoulder. The animal skin had none of the red ochre that the Sujaa usually wear in their hair and on their garments. He wore a simple skin belt with a sheathed knife, and in one hand he carried a shiny ebony bow and a sack filled with shiny black ebony arrows. Most Sujaa are lighter skinned than the Kulima, but this man’s skin seemed very black. Dave decided that it must be some sort of mud or dye to help camouflage his skin during hunting. White teeth and clear eyes stood in sharp contrast to his dark skin. Dave decided he had never seen a more simple and practically dressed African. Dave felt like he had known this man forever, but he still did not even know his name.

The Waduni broke the silence first. “I will tell stories, and I will tell you my name when the time is right and before the fire burns low. But I will tell you first who you are to the Waduni people. My great uncle is Chief Lenana of the Sujaa that you spoke of. My grandfather lost his cattle long ago and my father and I have been Waduni all our lives. But the Sujaa still have some concern even for worthless people.

“The Chief Lenana has sent a message to my father that we should watch for the white boy who hunts without weapons. The Chief said that this white boy does not own cattle and is not worthy to be a Sujaa, but that he is as a Waduni to the white people. My great uncle said we should be honored to have him among the Waduni.

“You are called Dave among the white people,” the Waduni said, “but I know that among the Kulima you are known as he who understands. My great uncle says that among the Sujaa you are called he who listens. Among the Waduni you are now called the hunter without weapons.

“The Waduni is honored to share the fire with the white boy hunters and their white Waduni friend.” The dark skinned hunter paused. “Soon I must get the bushbuck that I shot. I must get it before the leopard comes for it. Then we can eat and share the stories of the firelight and I too would be honored to stay the night with you.”

“You mean you have not tracked it down yet?” Scott asked, “It is almost dark. How will you find it?”

“Your white Waduni friend can answer for me,” the Waduni replied “he also has not yet tracked the bushbuck, but the hunter without weapons also knows already where it lays.

“My father heard that you travel near our village through these forests between the rains. He sent me to look for you to send his greetings. I followed to see if you were the white Waduni. I can now tell my village that I saw with my own eyes how it took two hunters to take down one bird with two weapons, but it took one hunter to take down two birds with no weapon. I have heard no stories of a Waduni doing that before. “

“I am humbled that the father of my Waduni friend would send a greeting,” Dave answered quietly, “But now you will know that the stories told at the fires are bigger than the white boy that sits before you. If you are going to get the bushbuck, you would honor me if you would take these two hunters of the bow with you and show them your ways. Words cannot teach like the feet. “

“Come, hunters of the bow,” the Waduni said standing up with a slight smile, “the hunter without weapons wishes us to leave him alone for a little while.”

Brad stood up and Scott jumped up excitedly and beamed his gratitude to Dave as they both followed the Waduni into the darkness.

Dave gritted his teeth as he slowly stood up while watching his friends disappear. Streaks of pain shot up his legs. Sweat began to pour down his cheeks and a quiet moan escaped his teeth as he straightened his back. Dave ached; he mostly ached in his heart for the strength to hunt with a bow.

He stood quietly looking at the two arrows still lodged in the tree and he nodded quietly to himself.

The hunter without weapons went to check on his traps.
Flower of the African Tulip Tree.

Posted on 08/30/2011 01:00 AM by Titus Daniel Gee

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