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Didn’t he realize I was done for?
“Well,” he said, and rose from the chair. His knees popped whenever he stood. My father was a big man. “Don’t worry. I’ll find this trader and explain. I’m sure we can work out something.”
That afternoon, my father walked eight kilometers to a place called Masaka where the trader lived. He told the man what had happened, about the herd boys coming by and giving me the stolen gum. Then without question, my father paid the man for his entire bag, which amounted to a full week’s pay.
That evening after supper, my life having been saved, I asked my father about the curse, and if he’d truly believed I was finished. He straightened his face and became very serious.
“Oh yes, we were just in time,” he said, then started laughing in that way that made me so happy, his big chest heaving and causing the wooden chair to squeal. “William, who knows what was in store for you?”
MY FATHER WAS STRONG and feared no magic, but he knew all the stories. On nights when there was no moon, we’d light a lamp and gather in our living room. My sisters and I would sit at my father’s feet, and he’d explain the ways of the world, how magic had been with us from the beginning. In a land of poor farmers, there were too many troubles for God and man alone. To compensate for this imbalance, he said, magic existed as a third and powerful force. Magic wasn’t something you could see, like a tree, or a woman carrying water. Instead, it was a force invisible and strong like the wind, or a spider’s web spun across the trail. Magic existed in story, and one of our favorites was of Chief Mwase and the Battle of Kasungu.
In the early nineteenth century, and even today, the Chewa people were the rulers of the central plains. We’d fled there many generations before from the highlands of southern Congo during a time of great war and sickness, and settled where the soil was reddish black and fertile as the days were long.
During this time, just northwest of our village, a ferocious black rhino began wreaking terror across the land. He was bigger than a three-ton lorry, with horns the length of my father’s arms and points as sharp as daggers. Back then, the villagers and animals shared the same watering hole, and the rhino would submerge himself in the shallows and wait. Those visiting the spring were mostly women and young girls like my mother and sisters. As they dipped their pails into the water, the rhino would attack, stabbing and stomping them with its mighty hooves, until there was nothing left but bloody rags. Over a period of months, the feared black rhino had killed over a hundred people.
One afternoon, a young girl from the royal Chewa family was stomped to death at the spring. When the chief heard about this, he became very angry and decided to act. He gathered his elders and warriors to make a plan.
“This thing is a real menace,” the chief said. “How can we get rid of it?”
There were many ideas, but none seemed to impress the chief. Finally one of his assistants stood up.
“I know this man in Lilongwe,” he said. “He’s not a chief, but he owns one of the azungu’s guns, and he’s very good at magic. I’m certain his magical calculations are strong enough to defeat this black rhino.”
This man was Mwase Chiphaudzu, whose magic was so superior he was renowned across the kingdom. Mwase was a magic hunter. His very name meant “killer grass” because he was able to disguise himself as a cluster of reeds in the fields, allowing him to ambush his prey. The chief’s people traveled a hundred kilometers to Lilongwe and summoned Mwase, who agreed to assist his brothers in Kasungu.
One morning, Mwase arrived at the watering hole well before the sun. He stood in the tall grass near the shores and sprinkled magic water over his body and rifle. Both of them vanished, becoming only music in the breeze. Minutes later, the black rhino thundered over the hill and made his way toward the spring. As he plunged his heavy body into the shallows, Mwase crept behind him and put a bullet into his skull. The rhino crumpled dead.
The celebrations began immediately. For three days, villagers from across the district feasted on the meat of the terrible beast that had taken so many lives. During the height of the festivities, the chief took Mwase to the top of the highest hill and looked down where the Chewa ruled. This hill was Mwala wa Nyenje, meaning “The Rock of the Edible Flies,” named after the cliffs at its summit and the fat delicious flies that lived in its trees.
Standing atop the Rock of the Edible Flies, the chief pointed down to a giant swath of green earth and turned to Mwase.
“Because you killed that horrible and most feared beast, I have a prize for you,” he said. “I hereby grant you power over this side of the mountain and all that’s visible from its peak. Go get your people and make this your home. This is now your rule.”
So Mwase returned to Lilongwe and got his family, and before long, he’d established a thriving empire. His farmland produced abundant maize and vegetables that fed the entire region. His people were strong, and his warriors were powerful and feared.
But around this time, a great chaos erupted in the Zulu kingdom of South Africa. The army of the Zulu king, Shaka, began a bloody campaign to conquer the land surrounding his kingdom, and this path of terror and destruction caused millions to flee. One such group was the Ngoni.
The Ngoni people marched north for many months and finally stopped in Chewa territory, where the soil was moist and fertile. But because they were constantly on the move, hunger visited them often. When this happened, they would travel farther north and ask for help from Chief Mwase, who always assisted them with maize and goats. One day, after accepting another of Mwase’s handouts, the Ngoni chiefs sat down and said, “How can we always have this kind of food?”
Someone replied, “Eliminate the Chewa.”
The Ngoni were led by Chief Nawambe, whose plan was to capture the Rock of the Edible Flies and all the land visible from its peak. However, the Ngoni did not know how magical Chief Mwase was.
One morning, the Ngoni came up the mountain dressed in animal skins, holding massive shields in one hand and spears in the other. But of course, Chief Mwase’s warriors had spotted them from miles away. By the time the Ngoni reached the hill, the Chewa warriors had disguised themselves as green grass and slayed the intruders with knives and spears. The last man to die was Chief Nawambe. For this reason, the mountain was changed from the Rock of the Edible Flies to Nguru ya Nawambe, which means simply “The Deadly Defeat of Nawambe.” This same hill now casts a long shadow over the city of Kasungu, just near my village.
THESE STORIES HAD BEEN passed down from generation to generation, with my father having learned them from my grandpa. My father’s father was so old he couldn’t remember when he was born. His skin was so dry and wrinkled, his feet looked like they were chiseled from stone. His overcoat and trousers seemed older than he was, the way they were patched and hung on his body like the bark of an ancient tree. He rolled fat cigars from maize husks and field tobacco, and his eyes were red from kachaso, a maize liquor so strong it left weaker men blind.
Grandpa visited us once or twice a month. Whenever he emerged from the edge of the trees in his long coat and hat, a trail of smoke rising from his lips, it was as if the forest itself had taken legs and walked.
The stories Grandpa told were from a different time and place. When he was young—before the government maize and tobacco estates arrived and cleared most of our trees—the forests were so dense a traveler could lose his sense of time and direction in them. Here the invisible world hovered closer to the ground, mixing with the darkness in the groves. The forest was home to many wild beasts, such as antelope, elephant, and wildebeest, as well as hyenas, lions, and leopards, adding even more to the danger.
When Grandpa was a boy, his grandmother was attacked by a lion. She was working in her fields at the forest’s edge, scaring away some monkeys, when a female lion came upon her. Villagers heard her cries and quickly sounded the drum—not the fast, rhythmic beat for dances or ceremonies, but something slow and serious. They call this emergency beat the musadabwe, meaning, “Don’t ask questions, just come!” It’s like dialing 911, but instead of police, you’re calling other villagers.
By the time Grandpa and others arrived with their spears and bows and arrows, it was too late. They saw the lion—its body the size of a cow—drag his grandmother into the thorny trees, then toss her body into the bush like a mouse. It then turned and faced its challengers, let out a terrible roar, and disappeared with its kill. The poor woman’s body was never recovered.
Grandpa says that once a lion gets a taste for human blood, it won’t stop until it’s eaten an entire village. So the next morning someone notified the British authorities, who still controlled our country. They sent soldiers into the forest and shot the lion. Its body was then displayed in the village square for all to see.
Not long after, Grandpa was hunting alone in the forest and came upon a man who’d been bitten by a cobra. The snake had been hiding in the trees and struck the man’s head as he passed. His skin quickly turned gray, and minutes later, he was dead. Grandpa alerted the nearest village, who arrived with their witch doctor. The wizard placed one foot atop the dead man’s chest and tossed some medicines into the forest. Seconds later, the moist ground came alive as hundreds of cobra slithered out from the shadows and gathered around the corpse, hypnotized by the spell.
The wizard crouched on the dead man’s chest and drank a cup of magic porridge, which flowed through his feet and into the lifeless body. The dead man’s fingers began to move, then his hands.
“Let me up,” he said, then stood and faced the army of serpents.
Together, they checked the fangs of every cobra in attendance, searching for the one that had killed the man. Usually, the wizard would quickly cut off the head of the guilty snake, but this time, the dead man took pity and allowed the cobra to live. For his services, the wizard was paid three British pounds. My grandpa saw this with his own eyes.
When my father was a young man, he often went hunting with his father. Even then, the forest was so dangerous that hunters observed a sacred ritual before their outings. Hunts were usually initiated by one man, the mwini chisokole, or owner of the hunt, who called together all the willing men from the surrounding villages. The owner decided where and when the hunt would take place, and in the event of a kill, he’d receive the choicest portion of the meat, usually the hindquarter. Grandpa was often this person.
On the night before the hunt, the leader wasn’t allowed to sleep with his wife, not even in the same room. The purpose was to keep the man’s focus and attention as sharp as possible, and to guarantee a solid night’s rest. Losing focus made you careless in the forest, and worst of all, left you open to bewitching. That night, sleeping alone at a neighbor’s house, or in a separate hut with his sons, the leader would boil a pot of red maize mixed with certain roots and medicines, which he’d distribute the following morning to each hunter in the party. This was part of the magic, because everyone believed this protected them from danger.
Before setting out, the hunters also instructed their wives to stay indoors until the hunt was over, preferably lying in bed and sleeping. They thought this would cause the animals to sleep as well, allowing the hunters to sneak up on them with ease.
WALKING THROUGH THE FOREST as a boy, I didn’t worry so much about cobras or lions, since most of them had vanished. But other dangers were waiting in the forests that remained, and along the quiet, empty fields where the ghosts of trees seemed to whisper their sadness. Walking there alone, one of my greatest fears was the Gule Wamkulu.
The Gule Wamkulu were a secret gang of dancers. They performed at the chief’s request at funerals and initiation ceremonies, when many Chewa boys become men. The Gule Wamkulu were said to be the spirits of our dead ancestors, resurrected from the afterworld and sent to roam the earth. No longer human, they shared the skin of animals, and their faces resembled the beasts of hell—twisted devil birds and demons howling in fright.
When the Gule Wamkulu performed, you dared to watch only from a distance. Often they appeared from the bush walking on stilts, towering above the crowd and screaming in different tongues. Once, I even saw one of them climb a blue gum pole while upside down, like a spider. And when they danced, one thousand men seemed to inhabit their bodies, each moving in the opposite direction.
When the Gule Wamkulu weren’t performing, they traveled the forests and marshes looking for young boys to take back to the graveyards. What happened to you there, I never wanted to know. It was bad luck to even speak about the Gule Wamkulu. And God help you if you were ever caught doubting them, saying, “Look at their hands, they have five fingers like me. These guys are not real.” Doing this would surely get you bewitched, and since the Gule Wamkulu answered only to the chief, there’d be no one to defend you. When they appeared in the village, every woman and child dropped what they were doing and ran.
Once when I was very young, a magic dancer appeared in our courtyard, strutting like a cock and hissing like a snake. His head was wrapped in a flour sack with a black hole for a mouth and a long trunk for a nose. My mother and father were in the fields, so my sisters and I ran for the trees, only to watch this passing ghost steal one of our chickens.
(Donkeys are the only creatures not afraid of Gule Wamkulu. If the donkey sees one of these dancers, it will chase them into the bush and kick them with its mighty legs. Don’t ask me why, but the donkey is very brave.)
I tried to be courageous like my friend the donkey whenever I walked through the forest. But witches and wizards never reveal their identity, so you never know where their traps lie waiting. In these places where they practice, their potent magic takes on many shapes. Men with bald heads, twenty feet tall, are said to appear on the roads outside of Ntchisi, a few at first, then dozens all around. Ghost trucks drive the same roads at night, coming on fast with their bright lights flashing and engines revving loud. But as the lights pass by, no truck is attached. No tire marks are left on the road, and if you’re driving a car, your engine will die until morning.
Magic hyenas wander the villages at night, snatching several goats at once in their razor jaws and delivering them to the doorsteps of wizards. Magic lions are sent to kill delinquent debtors, and snakes the size of tractors can lie in wait for you in your fields.
But the dangers for children are even greater. As I mentioned, these wizards command great armies of children to do their witchcraft, and each night they prowl the villages for fresh recruits. They tempt them with delicious meats, saying it’s the only way to heaven. Once the children devour the tasty morsels, it’s revealed as human flesh. By then it’s too late, for once the wizard’s evil is inside your body, it controls you forever.
In addition to casting spells for curses and revenge, the witches often battle one another. This leads to great confusion in the kingdom of the devil, and this strife leaves many dead and injured, which is why children make the perfect soldiers.
The children pile aboard witch planes that prowl the skies at night, capable of traveling to Zambia and London in a single minute. Witch planes can be anything: a wooden basin, a clay pot, a simple hat. Flying about on magic duty, the children are sent to homes of rival wizards to test their powers. If the child is killed in the process, the wizard can determine the weapon of his enemy and develop something stronger. Other nights, the children visit camps of other witches for competition. Here, mystical soccer matches are played on mysterious fields in places I’ve never heard of, where the cursed children use human heads as balls and compete for great cups of flesh.
AFTER ESCAPING THE BUBBLEGUM vendor, I became terribly afraid of being captured, and I tried to think of ways to protect myself. I knew witches and wizards were allergic to money because the presence of cash is like a rival evil. Any contact with money will snap their spell and revert them back to human form—usually naked. For this reason, people often plaster their walls and bed mats with kwacha notes to protect themselves during the night. If they’re suddenly awoken by a naked man trying to escape, their suspicions are correct.
Another way of protecting yourself is to pray your soul clean each night at the foot of your bed, and I’d done that, too. Homes of the prayerful are concealed from witch planes that fly overhead. It’s like passing through a cloud.
“Papa, please, some kwacha notes for my walls,” I begged my father one afternoon. “I can’t sleep at night.”
My father knew a lot about witchcraft, but he had no place for magic in his own life. To me, this made him seem even stronger. My parents had raised us to be churchgoing Presbyterians who believed God was the best protection. Once you opened your heart to magic, we were taught, you never knew what else you might let inside. We respected the power of juju, even feared it, but my family always trusted our faith would prevail.
My father was mending a fence around the garden and stopped what he was doing. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “In 1979 when I was trading, I was riding in the back of a pickup going to Lilongwe to sell dried fish in the market. Several others were with me. The truck suddenly lost control, pitching us all into the air. When we landed, we saw it rolling straight for us. I said at that moment, ‘I’m dying now. This is my time.’ But just before the truck rolled over my body and crushed me like an ant, it skidded to a stop. I could reach out and touch it. Several people were dead in the grass, but I didn’t have a scratch.”
He turned to face me, making his point.
“After that happened, how can I believe in wizards and charms? A magic man would have tried these things and died. I was saved by the power of God. Respect the wizards, my son, but always remember, with God on your side, they have no power.”
I trusted my father, but wondered how his explanation accounted for Rambo and Chuck Norris, who came to the trading center that summer and created a lot of controversy. These men were appearing in films shown in the local theater, which was really just a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR. For this reason, everyone called it the video show. At night, wonderful and mysterious things began happening in this place, but since I was forbidden to be out after dark, I missed them all. Instead, I relied on the stories I heard from my mates who lived close by and whose parents weren’t so strict. These boys, such as Peter Kamanga, would find me the next day when I arrived.
“Last night I watched the best of all movies,” Peter said. “Rambo jumped from the top of the mountain and was still firing his gun when he landed. Everyone in front of him died and the entire mountain exploded.” He clutched a phantom machine gun and sent a burst of deadly rounds into the maize mill.
“Oh,” I said, “when will they ever show these films during the day? I never see anything.”
The exploits of Rambo and Delta Force became confusing to some, who’d never imagined men escaping entire armies, while still managing to kill so many people. The night Terminator came to the video show was simply shocking. When Peter found me the next morning, he was still in a state.
“William, last night I watched a movie that I still don’t understand,” he said. “This man was shot left, right, and center, yet he still managed to live. His enemies blew off his arms and legs, even his head, yet his eyes were still alive. I’m telling you, this man must be the greatest wizard who ever lived.”
It sounded fantastic. “Do you think these azungu from America have such magic?” I asked. “I don’t believe it.”
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