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Dango Mkandawire



Dango Mkandawire

Mkandawire is a Malawi national, living and working in Malawi. He has just finished his degree in Economics and Statistics from the University of South Africa.


 Voice of the Gods


Man in a word has no nature; what he has ... is history.
    Jose Ortega y Gasset

Limumba sits on the ground. His head is a pendulum swaying from left to right, trying to make sense of the blurry world that is before him. In this place, with all the strange things happening around him, he is ushered violently and prematurely out of the hopes and imaginations that characterise childhood. For the first time he feels the cold recognition of reality that adults are accustomed to, due to frequent disappointment. He is lost. His childhood is lost forever in this wretched place, distorted and consumed within opium smoke. He will never again see the world as a benevolent playground. The very grass he played on now seems like little demonic hands trying to pull him down to his grave. The clouds above him that once seemed to form benign shapes like trees and horses now seem like giant hammers about to fall towards the earth and crush him beneath their weight. It is the end of his childhood.

Banu, whose presence completely overshadows all the other men like an eclipse, looks on at the new recruits realising that if the winds of fate had changed their course, even he may have been one of those taken in the night all those years ago. This is not a practice he admires. The chief of their ranks, Kapoto, is standing over them, reaching down and tying their arms with the Nswati insignia armband.

‘Who is in charge?’ Banu asks.

Kapoto steps forward and bows before pointing to a man at the other end of the room, who rushes across and bows in turn, ‘My name is Yosefe.’ He says timidly.

‘What happened to the ancient agreement? One person died during your raid!’

Banu warns them of the consequences if there was ever another incident like this again. Just before he leaves, he connects a vicious kick to the jaw of Yosefe sending him rolling on the ground. He turns his back and walks towards the door warning them that if he hears any disturbances, even the rustling of leaves, from the Lobodo within the next month he would personally accompany his army into their territory and remind them exactly why Chiholo has never been conquered in its history.

It is the night before journeying to the Kings Palace for the Chaka Celebrations and there is much speculation, rumour and fear. It is that annual season for recruitment into the Gulu that has everyone both hopeful and anxious.

The Gulu is one but it has three horns. The Army or Kali, the Orators and the Prophets. The Army and the Orators work in close contact. They form an inseparable bond because for a warrior to fight effectively he must have a strong sense of history: who he is, where he comes from and why he is fighting. Every soldier has his own Orator. The Prophets, existing in the framework of the priesthood operate independently.

The women are seated around a fire and Naledi speaks up so that all the other women, especially the younger ones, can learn from her. With seven children all male, she has been to the event more times than anyone else. ‘When you arrive there, they will blow a horn to signal the beginning of the examinations. All the boys stand in a single line. A senior Gulu Prophet whispers a question into their ears and they answer likewise, whispering back into his ear. Depending on the answer, he sifts them into three groups that will take three different tests.’

‘Excuse me Naledi,’ a young woman interjects. ‘If I might ask, what was the question that the boys were asked last year?’

Naledi smiles and sips her herbal tea, ‘Last year’s question was the trickiest in recent times. He asked them, of the senses which was the most important?’ Naledi pauses, soaking in the attention of all the wide-eyed women who are attentively gathering as much information as they can from a woman who already had three children in the Gulu. ‘If he said that sight was the most important he had failed.’

The women look at each other in confusion.

‘Isn’t sight the most important? That seems a little obvious,’ a woman says.

‘Not necessarily. Remember that these boys are being screened to see who is worthy to represent the soul of our people. Nothing can be taken at face value. If he said he didn’t know, he would have gone on to take the trails of the Kali. A few of them said that all the senses are equal. They were selected to take the trials of the Prophets. The number of boys chosen to represent the priesthood is usually very few. If he said that hearing was the most important he would go on to take the trials of the Orators. Any other response was seen as a failure and that was the end of it for those less fortunate.’

Linale reaches out for a stick and kindles the fire, squinting as she looks into the flames. ‘Anyway,’ continues, Naledi, ‘the three sets of boys are then given a series of unique tests. If they succeed, they are admitted into the Gulu.’

The women look at Naledi with a mixture of admiration and envy. Some of them feel that she knows something that the rest don’t – but how could she? The tests are a national event, conducted before everyone, with a great many number of people from all strata of society represented. It is one of the few times that all the families and clans can stand side by side with the same ambitions and possibilities for their children.

‘Excuse me Naledi but I heard that the tests change every year,’ says another woman.

‘Yes they do. Every year they are different but they have the same underlying concept: Excellence. If you want your child to pass he must be nothing short of brilliant.’




Chiholo is designed in concentric circles with the King and the wealthiest of its denizens living in the centre of the community. Here one finds the Royal Family and all the other dignitaries involved in government. Council members and elders can be seen strolling in the summer sun conversing one with another as their children run around playing and laughing, stomachs bulging not with kwashiorkor but with meat and milk.

This is not the case everywhere. As one moves further from the centre one moves further and further away from prosperity and even further and further away from something more valuable than prosperity - dignity. A man is preparing his son for the event that may be his only opportunity in life. He is trying his best not to cripple his son’s performance with this weighty truth. He sits him down underneath a mango tree, whose leaves, drained of health and colour, are now a pale yellow stained with spots of green.

‘Listen son, tomorrow we will go to the main village, into the presence of other clans. You must remember all the rules concerning our kind. You must not look anyone in the eyes – unless he’s from our clan. You know how to recognise our clan don’t you?’

‘Yes papa. I know.’ Limumba answers sadly. He has never really understood, or accepted, why they are treated the way they are. ‘We must always look downwards and cross our arms with our hands under our armpits.’

‘That is correct.’

‘We must not even let our shadows touch other clan members.’

‘And if other clansmen unknowingly come close to you, what do you do?’

‘I will warn them quickly of my presence.’

Wanu nods, he looks at his son intently, ‘Don’t worry. This is the way of the world. Do your best tomorrow, and do not fear because other boys are from the Lions Head or Hawks Eye Clans. Like I told you before, the examinations are open to all of Chiholo, even we who live on the fringe. This is your chance not only to become a normal citizen but a dignified one. Do your best. Now get some rest.

‘Yes papa.’

Limumba walks on the sun-scorched earth devoid of grass and looking like the veins of a leaf with lines stretching forth from nowhere and headed everywhere. This patch of land has not seen rain in months. Wanu watches his son head towards Kondi, his mother in their hut. She pats him on the back for working so hard and diligently.


Every year, before the Chaka Celebrations, an elegantly dressed emissary travels the land announcing the time of the examination. He travels on foot with a boy in his early-to-mid teens walking behind him, ringing a bell and encouraging all to attend. The boy trailing him is very interesting indeed. Children (with that innocence that makes them ask whatever their minds ponder) exclaim in loud voices, ‘Mother what happened to him?’ He has unusually long arms, legs that are not in proportion to the rest of his body, and his ribs are exceptionally long. You might describe him as awkward, or just intriguing; never beautiful. For although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the act of beholding does require an eye in the first place; and functioning eyes tend to converge on the same images of splendour.

He walks bare-chested, exposing his ribs that stretch out from his spine like curved spears. This boy is one of the Nswati. All that people know about them is that their voices are laced with the harps of angels. They have a peculiar mix of male and female voices and seem to alternate between both and combine them howsoever they wish. Hearing only the voice, one would not know whether a man, woman or child was speaking. An adult female voice cannot match it in flexibility and sweetness, and an adult male voice cannot match it in range. It is extraordinary indeed and as soon as the boy sings, the otherwise awkwardness of his physique is now transfigured into a sort of celestial presence.

A man called Wanu, whose shoulders are crushed by a burden which he has identified as his very life, stands at the sidelines looking at the peculiar figure walking past him. He wonders what kind of life he leads. He turns to his neighbour, a fellow Choka Clansman who is wearing a cloth around his face and his whole body. ’What happened to him?

‘We cannot say for sure. There are many rumours.’

‘Such as?’




A lonely man tills the ground with sweat covering his brow. He knows that a bad harvest is likely, and that his family may starve. He doesn’t mind the suffering; but the sight of his wife cooking ever-smaller portions and his young son pining for more food crushes him. Months ago they were at the examinations and Limumba was not picked. It was not his fate to escape his father’s horrid life. It was the same with Wanu when he was young. He too had failed. This series of bad, misfortunate events have somehow opened a gate that was previously shut in his memory. He remembers himself as a child, also tugging on the skirt of his mother asking for more milk. He remembers the anguish in her eyes as she told him there would be no more milk. He lived a difficult childhood and still bears, in his small frame, the consequences of malnutrition. A short man with abnormally large hands disproportionate to his forearms, he digs the earth begging for rain from the sky and fertility from the earth. He is repeating a cycle that seems unbreakable. Wanu is now considering forcefully breaking that cycle, but at a price.

That evening the three sit in silence on a mat as they eat their few potatoes and last eggs. A sight he has seen before but has never become used to, unfolds before him.

‘Ma can I have some more potatoes?’The boy asks, rubbing his abdomen. Wanu looks at his son with grief in his heart remembering what his mother said about kwashiorkor. What a contradictive cruelty the disease is; a hungry stomach being paraded to the world inside a bulging tummy.

‘I am sorry Limumba we have no more. You will have to wait until tomorrow,’ Kondi says, holding back a stream of tears. She has literally watched her son waste away over the last few months. Wanu has seen enough. He can no longer bear this. In that moment he swears in his heart, never again. After Kondi puts her son to sleep, she returns to her husband’s side and he brings up a discussion that they both knew was pending.

‘We are not going to survive for much longer,’ Wanu begins.

‘I know,’ Kondi replies. She has suffered for so long, she believes it is her lot in life.

‘There is still one thing we can do to give Limumba a better life.’

He says these words with no contentment and this worries Kondi.

‘What? She asks cautiously, leaning towards him.

Wanu, looks at her intently, searching her face as though he had never seen her before,

‘We could give our son away to the Lobodo.’

Kondi cannot believe what she has just heard. She sits back in her chair and just stares at the man she married. There were other suitors and in an instant she remembers them all.

‘What are you saying? Have we stooped so low as to allow our only son to descend into such a state? Is it not bad enough that he is part of this clan? At least let his heart remain pure and not defiled by the ways of the Lobodo. How can you suggest our son become part of people who shun daylight and conduct their trade under the cloak of night?’

Wanu had known that she would react that way. It’s the very reason he had postponed this conversation until the very last minute. Only after a very long pause does he respond,

‘Better with them than with us. What good is it if he stays here Kondi? What can we give him now? What have we given him in the past? Nothing! If he goes there he will at least have some kind of chance in this hostile world. We both know those examinations were the only hope.’

Ah, this word hope. It keeps coming up. She thought that she had given up on it but she hadn’t. Not entirely. She realises that there was in fact only one hope that she embraced and clutched tightly - the hope that they would always be together even in the face of doom. This last dashed hope crushes her and she breaks down sobbing loud enough for Limumba to hear. He doesn’t turn around though. He is just old enough to understand that he mustn’t interfere in whatever his parents are discussing.

‘Four days ... we have enough food for just four days,’ Kondi says bleakly, realising that there are no other options to explore.

‘I will be back early tomorrow morning. Do not wait up for me.’ Wanu rises and enters the night, walking briskly towards the dense shrubbery. He cannot believe it has come to this. He looks around in the dim moonlight at the area that he and his fathers have lived in for countless generations. It hasn’t changed at all. If he could somehow miraculously summon his ancestors from the grave and take them on a tour of the land, there would be nothing new to show them. As he goes, he spots someone whose whole body is covered in brown sackcloth from head to toe, walking briskly towards him. He recognises that attire and what it means. ‘Is your face fully covered?’

‘Yes my lord. All is proper. All is right.’

Yet more evidence of the deceit and cruelty of humanity, where sub-castes form even lower sub-castes in an endless spiral like the rings on a cone. The man diverts from Wanu’s path and Wanu himself abandons his initial trajectory, avoiding the path that was taken by the mysterious man. This is not the time to be involved in unnecessary cleansing, he thinks. Even though Wanu is of a despised clan there is a more despised group within the clan who cannot even be seen and must cover themselves at all times.

He hadn’t eaten enough to placate the wounded beast now growling in his abdomen and with all this walking he is growing weak and flaccid. He leans against a tree and rubs his hand along the rough bark. He is now in Lobodo territory. Anything can happen now. He says a short prayer and walks another twenty minutes before he encounters the very thing he feared and yet was searching for. A dirty hand with blisters all across it grips him from behind, and he feels the cold point of a blade in his back.

‘Either you have lost your way or you have lost your mind,’ says his attacker, roughly, ‘either way, you are lost!’

Wanu has heard of the Lobodo’s standard question when they catch anyone in their territory, but fear empties his mind. Just as his assailant tenses to plunge the blade into him, he finally blurts, ‘I have lost my mind!’

The blade is slowly withdrawn. If he had delayed, or said he had lost his way, he would have been dead. Wanu slowly turns around and faces a most frightening figure.

It is early morning and Wanu rises with the first light. He moves heavily, as though his joints were made of coarse stone and his heart was pumping glue. He looks at his wife who was still fast asleep. He wakes his son who stares up at his father with beady eyes that have little bags underneath them. Wanu puts his index finger over his lips. The boy has slept very little overnight. He had that wretched species of sleep that is interrupted every few moments by phantoms stood guard in the dark, refusing the mind passage into the world of dreams. His father tells him to fold the only other piece of clothing that he owned into a grass satchel. The boy humbly obeys, packing his meagre estate, wondering what was happening.

Now outside, they walk through the small barren field that was once their source of nourishment, which had failed them this time around. He glances up at his father whose face is immobile. They walk for a short while until they reach a denser thicket. Limumba spots a snake slithering past.
‘Listen son, you are to walk straight through until you reach the river. No matter what, you are not to turn back. Do not even look behind your shoulder!’

Limumba is teary-eyed, ‘What about mama?’

‘Don’t worry about her! We will meet you by the river... now get going!’

Limumba turns towards the shrubbery and edges into the foliage, heart pounding with fear and anxiety. His father watches as the forest swallows his only son; the only thing he had ever produced that he was proud of. He calls out one last time ‘Limumba remember... we will meet you on the other side!’ He turns around and heads home. He watches birds fly in formation, flocks circling the clouds, and he wonders why life couldn’t be that simple for him. He clenches his fists with an inner rage and self-loathing that on this day has reached a crescendo. ‘Even birds have made a better living than I,’ he mutters, dragging himself through the grass. His legs are heavy like tree stumps, making every step an uprooting effort.

He pauses and considers the path that leads home. It is no more home of course. His home was a trinity of three souls. What is now left is a hollow structure of brick and stones – a house. He turns away from the path, a broken man. He will never see Kondi again. He can no longer bear trying, and always failing, always worrying for both of them, always feeling inadequate and unworthy. And Kondi thinks that the Lobodo are merely bandits and Limumba was being given away to common thieves. Over the years, he has told her so many half-truths, but this last one he cannot live with.

Meanwhile his son walks on obediently through the forest. He is tempted to return home but he remembers his father’s stern words - and his assurance that his parents would be waiting for him at the other side. Limumba presses through the barely discernible path, using his small frame and youthful agility to squeeze between the spaces and avoid the branches, twigs and thorns that are around him on every side. The boy notices that the landscape here is a little different from what he has left behind him. He sees strange markings and images on a lot of the trees and as he goes and a terrible sense of danger grips him. None of this feels right. Suddenly he is lifted into the air and the world is spinning before him. He finds himself suspended in the arms of a man who is sitting on a low branch. The boy screams and struggles with all his might to free himself, to no avail. A blade slides across his cheek making a shallow wound.

‘Any more noise from you and that cut will be much deeper and that pain will be much greater.’

Limumba freezes, fearful for his life.

‘Is your name Limumba?’

‘Yes it is.’

The assailant positions him on the branch across him and studies him carefully, ‘How old are you?’

‘I am ten years old,’ says the boy, his voice cracking.

The man shakes his head. He sighs, ‘Let’s hope they will take you.’

The bandit’s body is covered in scars and tattoos. His face is adorned with paint. His only clothing covers his groin and he points his blade at Limumba threateningly. He jumps down from the branch and at his gesture, the boy follows. ‘Where is your father?’ he demands.

‘He will meet me at the river,’ the boy replies tearfully.

The man laughs. He squats so that he can look him in the eye. ‘Listen, young man, you’ll never see your father again! But don’t worry; you don’t have to fear me, yet. Your father has chosen an option for you that we did not have. Personally I would rather be a thief! The dagger is my brother! But you, you will join the Gulu but not as an Orator, Prophet or soldier. You took the exams, didn’t you?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Well, I will take you to them, but you will never be one of them. They will not take you without the alteration, and you will never be the same again.’




The illustrious Orators. Their order commands the most admiration within the Gulu. They are the purest expression of the soul of the nation. The Army represents the body, the Orators represent the mind and the Prophets represent the spirit. Families of all castes across the land look at their sons and hope that they will be chosen to stand as a living representative of the soul of the people. There are ranks within the orators. Firstly there is the group called Mwana. Here you are required to memorise the history and culture of your people. Just know the words in the story, poem, genealogy or what have you and your duty is done. If you succeed you rise up the ranks. That is of course if you are worthy of that level. There are 1205 Mwana Orators.

Secondly, there is the Mfana. Here not only do you memorise the words but you have to recite and mimic them in the same tone and sense of urgency that they were taught. If your teacher took a deep breath at some point before he said something you do exactly the same. If your teacher spoke in a deep voice or accelerated the pace of his speech you do the same at that point. If you succeed you rise up the ranks. That is of course if you are worthy of that level. There are 326 Mfana Orators. The next jump in rank is momentous.

Thirdly there are the Dolo. Here you not only recite the story, you not only say it in the same manner and with the same delivery but you combine all this with various movements and dances at various junctions in your narration. The movements have to be so precise that during your training you narrate in front of a mirror with your teacher reprimanding you for minor offences such as smiling too wide or raising arms too high. Accent is important. Diction is paramount. Orators spend many years perfecting a particular accent and different narrations may require different accents and even the same story could require a skilled Orator to alternate between accents and sometimes even languages. This is the highest level. Dolo level Orators can speak up to twelve languages fluently and they concern themselves with matters relating to kings and nations. It is for the masters. They are called Captains of the Spoken Word. There are very few of them. The greatest in the land is given the title of Sekulu; a man who no one can look in the eye because when The Sekulu looks at you he sees you, your fathers, their names, their deeds and very movements, everything. Time does not exist for him. The past is as the present and vice versa and the future doesn’t exist to him not because he is divine but simply because of one reason – he does not know it and that which he does not know, or rather cannot know, does not exist. The history of the people lives in him and he is the physical manifestation of that history. The history of this people is so rich and extensive it stretches back to the very creation where the gods shaped the world by speech.

Music has always been the mistress of words and to complete the perfection of oratory, someone discovered many years ago that a boy at a young age, between seven and ten years old, once he is ‘denied his manhood’ can be trained lyrically to possess the most beautiful of voices. He sings with the voice of the gods. As his voice transcends beauty there is also another change. As the child grows, his limbs and neck elongate abnormally like the branches of a tree growing tall and slender like a snake, his face remains smooth like a child’s his whole life. The boy approaches a corrupted apotheosis year by year in a failed attempt to fully resemble the gods he is mimicking. Thus the Nswati were formed - deformed musicians with perfect artistry. Their precarious place in the Gulu is to play instruments providing music and the voices of gods in narrations. Even though they are a part of the overall setup they are nevertheless shunned. They live in separate quarters and eat different food and only come into contact with Orators during training and performances.

No parent voluntarily gives their child over to the Nswati for one reason: it was believed that since the boys have cheated nature and spoken with the voices of gods, in the afterlife they will be punished for a season for their impiety. Their judgement begins right here on earth, because they have short life expectancies. To provide recruits to the group, the Orators had a secret, long-standing agreement with a settlement of bandits who live on the outskirts of the land to make sure that every year at least a certain number must be ‘provided’ to the Gulu the night before the Chaka Celebrations. In exchange for this, the Gulu tolerated their banditry in Chiholo – on a limited scale – without retaliation from the Kali whose duty, ironically, it was to protect the people. It has been said that there has never been anything pure under the sun and that is why the Prophets, the third horn of the Gulu, look away from the earth and close their eyes consumed by mantras, meditations and prayers.

‘Yosefe, can’t you do anything right? We needed only three boys, why have you brought nine?’

The bandit shrugs, ‘You can make your choice, we will take care of the rest.’

The Orator walks across to the boys and looks down at their terrified faces. He studies them carefully, then he hums the first line of a popular folksong. ‘Sing it,’ he says gently. He listens only a few moments before moving from lad to lad. For the watching lobodo, there is nothing to choose between the terrified voices, but the Orator’s ears are more finely tuned and he does not hesitate over his choice. He points out the boys to be initiated into the Nswati and turns away. As the chosen are led away to a nearby hut, another bandit whispers in Yosefe’s ear. Yosefe pulls one of the rejected boys towards the Orator.

‘This boy was given to us by his father. He is the only one who wasn’t kidnapped. Could you take him also or swap him for one you have already picked?

‘What do you mean?’

Yosefe explains Limumba’s circumstances in more detail. The Orator looks at the boy curiously as if probing his soul. He shakes his head slowly. ‘I have made my choice. We only asked only for three and we do not need an additional one.’

‘We promised his father that...’

‘That,’ says the Orator, ‘is your problem;’

He begins to turn away and Yosefe pulls the boy violently to his side and reaches for his dagger.

‘What are you doing?’ shouts the Orator.

‘You don’t want him, his father doesn’t want him, and we certainly don’t want him either,’ said Yosefe brusquely, ‘After all it is for you that this annual abomination happens.’ They look on as the boy screams for his life, ‘Quiet boy! Don’t blame me, blame society, blame the Orators, blame the gods if you must, but never blame the Lobodo. We promised your father to send you to the Gulu, but they have rejected you for the second time, so this is my only choice,’ with a swift movement of the wrist he unsheathes his dagger and thrusts it towards the boy’s throat.

‘Wait... wait,’ the Orator cuts in hastily. ‘One more boy wouldn’t be a great burden ... we will take him as well and reduce the quota by one for next year. How old did you say he was?’

‘Ten,’ says Yosefe, sheathing his dagger. His gamble has worked. He could have initiated Limumba into banditry like the other rejects, but they had promised his father.

Yosefe leads everyone to a hut in which a small fire burns. Some men are smoking opium, with sharpened tools laid across a table. The other boys are also here. There is a tub filled with warm water and all the boys are told to undress and sit inside it. They are then given opium pipes to inhale. First they experience light-headedness and then dizziness. Using their thumbs, the men press both sides of the boys’ necks tightly at the veins and soon they are unconscious.

The boys are carried out of the tub and laid one after the other on the table, loins now conditioned for the cut, on the brink of becoming gods.

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