Munthali – the author
Mbuya, for that is what Right Honourable Lekani Mubwalo was fondly known, jumped over a gully with difficulty. A briefcase dangled from his right hand. A tall well-built soldier in his mid thirties, wearing a camouflage with armoury and brandishing an assault rifle, followed closely behind Mbuya.
The two fled to the far east—walking across vast lands bearing thick forests, mountains and hills, plains and valleys, rivers and streams, marshes and swamps. Thus far, they had walked through a plain. Climbed and descended a hill. Then crossed a river.
They went on, jumping over more gullies. There was a dense forest ahead.
Ageing Mbuya, also tall but fairly slim, dragged himself ahead of the soldier through high shrubs, his left hand swaying tree branches and leaves obscuring his view. The black sports shoes on his feet stumbled against rocks or slashed through thick grass. Dark grey golf t-shirt and sports trouser clung to his frail body.
Mbuya and soldier went on. The vast jungle stretched out far beyond, with its end nowhere in sight.
The two went further east. Mbuya stopped abruptly in a moment of deep thought. Where were they going? He imagined the danger lurking in the faint hollows between those tall trees and shrubs. Nevertheless, amid the intermittent singing of the birds and the incessant chirping of the crickets, they trode through the woods. Yellowish streaks of the late afternoon sun shone through tiny spaces between tree branches and leaves.
The feet of Mbuya and soldier shuffled loudly, betraying the silence of the two. There were sounds of wild creatures slithering through bushes or climbing trees. Bats flew while zigzagging, whizzing past the two.
Mbuya shrugged off a huge butterfly perched on his left shoulder. Some tiny insects flew and buzzed close to his blinking eyelids, almost forcing them to shut. He whisked the insects away furiously.
The journey continued through the deep confines of the forest. Wild beasts roared nearby or far away, their sounds loud and clear in the stillness and calmness of the jungle, multiplying shivers of fear in the bodies of the two.
At the end of the forest, they descended and then walked through a valley with green grass and shrubs, stretching eastwards along the foot of a bare mountain. Mbuya sighed. He wiped from his forehead and eyes clogs of sweat with the back of his left palm. Then he stopped and gazed back over his right shoulder, sizing up the oncoming soldier, quizzically. He enquired, for the umpteenth time, of the particulars of the strange young man in uniform who had let him flee and then, guarding and guiding him. Still, the soldier did not respond.
Time fast approached towards dawn. Mbuya emerged from a room with his wife to the surprising sight of their two little grand children and a few close relatives only. The white rooms and corridors and the red carpets were suddenly rid of rogue protocol and security assistants and other staff. Even Mbuya’s closest and most trusted personal bodyguard and assistant was, apparently, nowhere to be seen.
The house was a not so imposing but uniquely designed white castle, which resembled a mosque. Mbuya swerved a white curtain draping the large glass door on the western wall of a lounge and peered outside. The lit compound—a beautiful scenery of green short grass, well-trimmed flowers and cypress pines—was eerily quiet. All the guards and labourers had disappeared.
As Mbuya stared through the glass, he heard the main gate further west open forcefully, triggering an unpleasant rumbling sound. Then he saw hordes of armed men in military regalia hiding in the flowers and under the cypress pines. Others hurried to the back.
Mbuya knew quite well that things were falling apart in the country. There were violent mass protests against the regime with events heading hastily towards a possible military intervention. But what Mbuya did not know was that he had been marked out for assassination. He hardly knew that the president and his powerful close allies hated him, for they believed he was behind the protests. Mbuya had no knowledge that the president and his trusted inner henchmen feared that if the army would take over the government, which was highly likely in a matter of a few days, they would later hand over power to him. The president and his lieutenants never wanted that. They would rather go to hell with Mbuya or send him there earlier enough.
Sited on a couch facing the glass door, Mbuya and his wife felt irrelevant, helpless and vulnerable. That moment was a surprising and humiliating encounter the two had never ever imagined would occur to them in their very high profile public life. The sobbing grandchildren and fearful relatives sat on the carpet at the feet of their Mbuya, looking up to him for a miracle blockage to what appeared could be the beginning of their new life in captivity.
Staring through the glass door, Mbuya saw the silhouette of a thick commandant advancing with some of his men. The commandant hoisted a riffle across his chest. When they reached the balcony, the commandant ordered his men to stop there. Then he hit the glass door hard with the barrel of the gun, instantly breaking it into pieces. He stepped in and reached out to the fidgeting Mbuya.
The commandant stretched out a hand, grabbed an arm of the unresisting Mbuya, pulled him up from the couch and dragged him to a door on the far right. The two disappeared behind that door. Mbuya’s family dashed and vanished behind a door on the far left. The men on the balcony peeped through the broken glass with great expectation. The instruction was either to assassinate the vice president right in the house or elsewhere. But the commander was taking long to reappear from that door, prompting the waiting men to force themselves in. They were then joined by other teams in a frantic and futile hunt for Mbuya and the commandant.
At midmorning, somewhere in the sprawling capital city, a tall gentleman donning a camouflage and a matching cap and black thick boots, walked briskly out to a graveled quadrangle at the back of a building. He was the head of a secret militia group executing special interests of the president and his close allies. Some of his men, looking tired from the night’s failed mission, had been waiting for him at the quadrangle. By that time, news of an invasion into the vice president’s compound and his subsequent escape—foiling an attempt at his life—had spread widely, sparking distress, pain and anger among his sympathizers.
The moment the men had seen their master arriving, they organized themselves quickly, stood to attention and saluted. The boss, foaming and frothing with anger, had brought them the message that the president and his allies were not happy that they failed to assassinate the vice president last night. Such failing, he told his attentive men, had devastating repercussions. They were, therefore, still required to accomplish their mission.
“Henceforth it has been ordered that we must hunt for the vice president and the rebel commandant and kill the two within the next few hours. Preliminary intelligence suggest they are in the wilderness in the far east, with an intention to cross over the border, maybe two or three days later!” the boss had barked while stomping on the ground and pointing to the east.
Without even the slightest clue about the route Mbuya and the rebel commandant had taken and the distance the two covered, scores of armed militia men had, by mid afternoon, massed at the edge of the vast eastern lands and then spread to different directions in small groups. Commanders of the groups communicated to each other using military devices as they edged deeper into the wilderness.
They went on, advancing steadily and paying great attention to any sound or slight movement. They knew they had to be careful enough, for the hunted rebel commandant had been a decorated soldier with exceptionally dangerous skills, capable of killing most of them. They also bore in mind that those trenches, forests, swamps, marshes and rivers were home to some of the deadliest beasts, including huge venomous snakes. In fact, they also dreaded entirely missing their catch, for that meant committing an unforgivable sin by their stone-hearted masters, which could result in severest punishment.
“Politics is a dirty game indeed. It’s actually evil,” the soldier spoke, sadly.
He sat down, leaning his back against a tree trunk and his legs spread out in front like a pregnant woman. Mbuya lay down on his back, the back of his head placed against the briefcase. The first night on their journey had fallen and was well-lit by the moon’s light. A fire was burning beside them. They were at the foot of the bare mountain, looking across the valley with green grass and shrubs.
“You’re right, especially when you consider my situation,” Mbuya remarked.
“Exactly what I mean. All of a sudden, you and the president have become sworn enemies that the latter wants to eliminate you. Too bad”.
The soldier spoke while maintaining his gaze across the valley as if it bore something important on which their lives depended on.
“And why could all those staff in the palace, who presented themselves before you as loyal servants, desert you just like that?” he asked Mbuya.
“It’s bad politics as you’ve rightly said. However, I don’t blame most of those workers for I believe they’re innocent kids caught up in the thick of things, trying hard to save their lives, bread and butter”.
“But why has the president suddenly become hostile towards you?” the soldier wanted to know.
“Paranoia, insecurity, greed, jealous, gossip and an insatiable appetite for power characterize lives of politicians especially those surrounding the president. They’re always in a competition of seeking the attention of the president, trying hard to impress him while soiling others so he favours them more than anyone else. They live looking back over their shoulders suspecting that someone is stalking them to grab their positions and ill gotten wealth. It’s sad”.
The soldier turned his face away from the valley and cast his eyes on Mbuya, eying him with pity.
“Perhaps it’s time you considered resigning and rid yourself of this curse of politics so your enemies stop pursuing you,” the soldier advised.
Mbuya shook his head in protest.
“No. It would be cowardice of the highest order for me to resign particularly now. That would mean yielding to the wishes of my enemies. A politician in my predicament must never do such a thing. It’s betraying the people who have trust in me, hoping that I would lead the nation as president one day”.
“But I think you must resign. Our lives are in danger here with our enemies certainly after us,” the soldier insisted.
“It’s already too late to resign now. But don’t worry, son. God will take us through. We must surrender our lives and destiny in his able hands,” Mbuya assured, still lying on his back and staring up.
The soldier shook his head and then, said, incredulously, “If God truly loves us, I don’t think we, in the first place, would be in this situation”.
“Don’t speak like that, son. Believe in the living God of miracles. As we wallow through this wilderness, we must pray to him that he protects us. Grant us strength and wisdom to come out safe,” Mbuya told the soldier, spiritedly.
The soldier shook his head again in apparent disappointment and exasperation.
“I wonder why you now seem to be banking on God. Do you, politicians, also believe in God?”
Mbuya suddenly sat up, visibly irritated by the soldier’s abrupt change of reasoning, questioning and tone.
“Why do you say that?” he asked, perplexed.
“The manner in which you people,” explained the soldier, “hate, insult, eliminate and kill each other in politics and how you maneuver your way to the top, leaves many of us conclude you’re satanists. And you accumulate too much wealth to yourselves, leaving ordinary people to suffer abject poverty. That’s unprecedented gluttony. It’s unfair”.
But Mbuya retorted, “not all of us, politicians, are like that”.
“You’re dirty,” the soldier charged, “you can’t claim to be holy while in politics. The truth is it’s an evil game”.
“Shut up, son,” Mbuya rebuked the soldier, reminding him that he was talking to an elder.
An owl hooted in the giant trees, awakening Mbuya and soldier below from a deep slumber they had fallen into upon feeling drowsy having filled up their stomachs with some roasted bush meat. The two arose startlingly and hurriedly, their hearts pounding. Their hands and legs groped and kicked about. They then stood still, blank and confused, just staring in bewilderment at each other’s visibly shaken silhouettes. Then, they rubbed their eyes, glanced all over and eventually recalled they were in the wilderness, fleeing. They embraced to reassure their togetherness. The owl had now stopped hooting.
Mbuya and soldier then stepped from under the trees to a plain with patches of dry short grass and brown sand. It was the second night on their journey, just after midnight. The dominant light grey moon sailing underneath a clear sky and amidst light red twinkling stars, shone brighter across the vast plain. A fresh breeze blew ceaselessly. It caressed Mbuya and soldier, leaving a reasonable coolness on their bodies. They yawned, stretched and paced about while conversing.
The two cast their eyes further east. In the distant, antelopes gathered. The animals jumped about and chased each other, looking so vivid and beautiful under the moon’s light. Mbuya and soldier sprung towards the creatures beaming with great excitement and a sudden mixed feeling of freedom and fearlessness. Such clearness of the moon and the presence of the active antelopes reminded each one of them of his own very distant past—childhood years replete with a myriad nights of fireside stories, singing, ululating and dancing. That was how each one of them, with their peers back then, had spent their happy nights of moonlight. And that was how the two new friends, fleeing through the wilderness, would spend the remainder of that night of the moonlight.
Then, ahead of Mbuya, the soldier suddenly burst into singing while marching farther as if in a military parade. He stopped the marching abruptly, stood to attention and saluted. He raised his arms high and then brought them down slowly, his hands touching his head, waist, knees and feet. With every move of his arms and hands, he shook his flexible torso vigorously to the left and right and wound up at the center. He repeated that several times, still singing.
He about-turned, marching towards Mbuya. At least four steps before reaching Mbuya, he stopped suddenly to attention and saluted. With a gesture of his fingers, he invited Mbuya to join him in singing and dancing. He was really having fun. Mbuya just watched, awe stricken.
Now, the soldier looked to the sky, his arms and hands raised high again and outstretched. It was a long and intent gaze as if he was begging the moon and the stars to come down, yearning to embrace them in his own arms. As he still stared the sky, he sang and moved his legs calculatedly in slow motion—three steps forth and then three others back, repeatedly.
The soldier, this time, bowed slightly. He let his arms hung loose. His knees bent and legs spread sideways. In that stance, he gyrated while dragging his feet through grass and sand, which enabled him to navigate forth and back. He still sang.
He bowed further. His hung arms now swung forth and back. He gyrated, dragged his feet and navigated while wriggling his entire body.
Still bowed, the soldier now lowered his trunk and placed his hands on the caps of his bent knees. Then he swayed this way or that with slight jumps while thrusting his head to the right and left.
Mbuya was amazed. He wondered who exactly the soldier was. How and where he mastered all that. Mbuya himself had once performed those dances with great passion and zeal like that of the soldier. The young Mubwalo, though working and living in town, visited his home village during holidays and danced under the moon’s clear light.
He would emerge from a distant shack, hurtling towards the expectant patrons in a dance imitating a determined soldier on a military parade. He would hurtle on, often lowering his trunk while saluting and wriggling his entire body. The khaki attire, black boots and improvised police cap, added more drama and entertainment about him. The beating of drums engulfed the atmosphere. He would hurtle on, swinging his arms forth and back.
Excited patrons including those from surrounding villages, more especially children, would then welcome their dancer and form a wide circle around him. They sang for him, clapped their hands and ululated.
Mubwalo would dance on. One other exciting moment was when he bended his trunk backwards while staring up and his arms outstretched. In that stance, he stumped, navigating forth and back. He would then stand straight while shaking his waist and his arms hung halfway.
Till late every night, the village could get engulfed in wild celebration amid a cacophony of sounds of drums, hand-clapping, ululations, singing and loud laughs. Children loved the young Mubwalo. Every time he was in the village, he was their entertainer, celebrity and hero.
But he had suddenly stopped coming to the village. In fact, he never came back, much to the disappointment, sorrow, pain and misery of the children. Nights of moonlight came and went away, silently. Rarely, some children came out to play. In fact, these mostly just wandered about and looked around while shouting or singing the name Mubwalo, yearning that their cherished moonlight dancer—their lord of the moonlight dances—would suddenly emerge to entertain them.
Now ageing, with grey hair and beards, Mbuya—standing frail and weary in the wilderness—wondered if he would ever dance again. The soldier was not relenting. He was inching towards Mbuya again while parading, saluting and shaking his entire body in awesome dancing. Mbuya looked on with great desire. He wished the creator could suddenly reverse time to the past, re-creating him into a young flexible Mubwalo, who would dance again. Nevertheless, he would try. And, indeed, he threw three steps towards the soldier. Then three more. The two met. And the dancing continued.
Mbuya and soldier now stood at least half meter apart, facing each other. They raised their hands slightly above their heads and then pressed their palms against each other’s, their fingers interlocking. Like that, they navigated to either side with slight jumps while shaking their torsos and thrusting their heads to the right and left. They danced determinedly, the boots and shoes on their feet chiseling through grass and sand. They went on dancing, chasing away the night of the moonlight.
Once behind that door, he had walked fast while dragging him through a long corridor heading east, passing by three glass doors on both sides. He turned left into another long corridor and kept towing him between the sparkling white walls. Then he branched east again. He went on hurtling on the red carpet, pulling him. There was a wooden door at the far end on the left. Behind that door, in a faint room filled up with none descript things, he pulled a heavy airtight door and then hurried down a staircase, still dragging him. Ten meters deep, in an empty room, he ushered him into a long underground tunnel heading north. Then he whispered to him to crawl ahead, that he would join him.
He had quickly come back into the tunnel, bringing with him more frightened and whimpering souls. With just one mighty push by his right hand, he had moved away a slab covering the exit of the tunnel. Then, one after another, they all emerged amidst trees and flowers a few meters from their high brick wall fence with barbed wire on top.
The soldier reminisced all that as they were now amid huge rocks, facing an open grassland stretching far east between two mountains covered in forests. One to the north. Another to the south. The light golden sun underneath a whitish sky had sailed higher from the eastern horizon, its fervent rays cooled slightly by constant breezes emanating from trees on the mountains.
Mbuya sat down behind the soldier, leaning his back against a rock. The briefcase, open on his lap, revealed, among others, a jumper, a bible, some banknotes and roasted meat. The soldier sat on a rock, hoisting the riffle across his chest and staring blankly in the east. A pat on his back by Mbuya’s hand awoke him from his reverie. The soldier swung around to face Mbuya, who was looking up at him, smiling as if aware of what had been going on in his mind.
“You’re great, son. I admire your skills both as a soldier and a dancer. I cherish your courage and bravery,” Mbuya told the soldier, sincerely.
The soldier smiled back at Mbuya gleefully. He bowed his head and saluted the embattled vice president in acknowledgement and appreciation of his complements about him. He said nothing. Mbuya continued talking, giving the soldier that glance which showed he owed a lot of respect to him.
“I never knew that was also an escape route. How come you knew about it?” he asked.
The soldier wished he could laugh at Mbuya’s apparent show of cheer blankness and surprise in his expression. But, as a matter of etiquette, he tried hard to suppress that. Then he responded in a tone that was a combination of politeness and seriousness.
“Let’s not discuss that, sir. The most important thing is we managed to escape”.
“But that was quite smart and clever of you. You acted heroically,” he said, still gazing at the soldier.
The soldier bowed and saluted again in acknowledgement of the complement.
Then he told Mbuya, “My colleagues had placed so much trust in me to lead the mission to assassinate you. And that’s why I fooled them to do whatever I did within those few minutes to the extent of even enabling your wife to take along your briefcase”.
“Really? Thanks,” Mbuya found himself saying, almost aloud.
He smiled again, apparently recalling the soldier’s supper heroic actions that eventually led them out of the palace.
“You took a dangerous risk, son,” he said, concernedly.
“Sure,” replied the soldier .
“But why do all this just for me?” Mbuya asked.
“You’re a good man, sir. You’ve done nothing wrong. You should live”.
“Really? I’m rather not convinced, son. Tell me something else”.
“Believe I did it out of the love for you, sir. You’re a good man,” the soldier insisted.
Both fell silent for a while.
Then a flock of huge wild birds—black or dark grey in colour—emerged from the east, distracting the two. They sat perplexed, watching in awe the birds flying towards west. The birds came quacking, chasing and overtaking each other and summersaulting. They hovered above the two with a deafening noise and went on zigzagging till they became tiny dots against the distant western blue sky.
Mbuya and soldier withdrew their gazes from the sky, still amazed. They looked at each other, their mouths agape and eyebrows raised. It was free, exciting tourism. As they fled, they had also seen giraffes devouring tree tops. Zebras and elephants traversing plains and valleys. Crocodiles and hippos along river banks. Monkeys jumping from one rock to another or one tree to another. They had bewildering encounters as well, one of which was coming face to face with a pride of lions glaring and charging at the two, their jaws wide open. The soldier fired at the lions, killing some of them. The others run away, scared by the sound of the gun, which was very loud.
Three days and two nights of hustling in the wilderness. Mbuya had never imagined he would ever be in such nasty trouble. Life is indeed unpredictable, he noted. Looking to the east, their destination was nigh if only they reached behind those barren hills looming dismally in the far east. They would then completely elude the pursuing militiamen certainly zeroing in on them. The fervent translucent sun, now sailing overhead underneath a blue sky, was about to begin descending towards the western horizon. The two needed to resume walking.
The soldier had still not told Mbuya his particulars. Maybe he would, eventually. But Mbuya no longer stressed over that. He had been safe with the soldier. That was what mattered that far. And he believed he was still safe. The soldier harboured no any sinister motives, that was his deep conviction. He considered the escape from the palace, the hitchhiking and the run to the wilderness. Then the tiresome walking, the compassionate conversations and laughter they have had while they rested, the roasted meat and the moonlight dances. And not forgetting the fears, excitements and hopes they shared. The soldier was, undoubtedly, God sent angel to rescue, guide and guard him.
The militiamen had been unfortunate and their mission ill-fated. They were completely off track, far away from the route Mbuya and soldier had taken. Some of them had been devoured by beasts. Others died after being attacked by bees and bitten by snakes. On their second morning in the wilderness, very few had remained. Injured, tired, mourning, hungry and depressed, there was no reason to proceed. What had further reduced their morale, was the news from the capital that the presidential palace had been surrounded by the military and the president himself placed under house arrest.
Mbuya and soldier finally reached the top of one of the barren hills further east, overlooking a town on the other side of the border. The sun in the distant west, sailing underneath a bluish sky and about to set, had morphed into a huge coin of a mixture of orange and red. Mbuya and soldier began descending the hill, happily trekking towards the town.
“You said I’m a good man. Do you think other people view me like that as well?” Mbuya asked the soldier, looking back over his right shoulder.
“Many people who know you personally, speak of you highly”.
“Does that, therefore, mean I can make a good president if given a chance?”
“Your people centered leadership manifested upon the nation through your service as the vice president. Most people are impressed”.
“Really? Tell me, how do you know that?”
“I move around quite a lot. I know what I’m talking about”.
Typical of many veteran political leaders of his caliber, Mbuya’s face degenerated into a big proud smile of self gratification upon hearing the soldier’s praises of him. He hoped the young man was not flattering him.
Wanangwa Mtawali is a Malawian journalist and short story writer. A product of the Malawi Institute of Journalism, he has had short stories published in Malawi’s main weekend newspapers, The Weekend Nation and The Sunday Times. His stories also appear on authorme.com and africanwriter.com. Wanangwa is based in Lilongwe, Malawi’s Capital City.enjoys writing, reading and taking walks.