The California sycamore in the meadow of the Topanga canyon hilltop rustled as if it had just spoken. Nya Okatsa’s back remained molded against the wizened tree trunk as the sudden jerk from Malik’s head in the cradle of her crossed legs belied the nonchalant sprawl of the rest of his six-foot frame on their picnic blanket. He squinted upwards, his eyes sorting through the noonday sun and shadow as the overhead canopy settled from the agitated mid-July gust that had just blown. Seeing the coy arch of Nya’s brows within her silhouette, Malik broke into a broad grin – unfazed by her confession that she’d been a tree-whisperer from birth.
“With a name as sacred as Nyabingi, you would have to be a tree-whisperer… at the very least.” Malik’s baritone crooned smooth like the dark caramel tones of his skin warmed by the feel of Nya fingering through the short curls of his hair. An aspiring master drummer from the House of Nangwiro, he was bound by his calling, tradition and training to know every detail possible about the natural resources and spiritual properties of the instruments his hands gave heartbeat and voice to. “Why would your grandfather have kept that meaning from you?” he probed, remembering Nya’s startled reaction to the nyabingi in his drum collection when she learned for the first time that her name also belonged to one of Africa’s big drums.
“Kuka wanted me to discover my story… in my own time and way,” Nya sighed nostalgically. “He always called me kukhu – meaning ‘grandmother’ – and filled me with all kinds of stories about his kukhu Nyabingi’s love of dance…”
“Livin’ large in you, huh?” Malik gently prompted, drawing Nya’s eyes back from the ocean where they’d wandered with her voice. Echoing through the winding canyon walls of the world below, the roar of motorbikes answered the cooing of a nearby mourning dove. Nya smiled recalling the magic Malik’s rhythms had conjured into her dance at the Venice drum circle – a few beach communities south and across the Pacific Coast Highway from here.
They’d become inseparable in the weeks since then. The haunting Malik’s drumming had drawn from Nya’s depths into her dance moves now felt compelled to rearticulate its truth in words. Malik had listened as if to his own truth as Nya explained kuka’s account of her ‘choice’ to enter the world at the revered ancestral site in western Kenya known as the ‘mother tree,’ so-called because this was where kukhu Nyabingi – her namesake – had crossed over several years prior. The mysterious confluence surrounding Nya’s birth would forever complicate her relationships in life – particularly with her mother.
“Fifteen-years-old with two years of high-school left… Ready to go home at the end of my workday as an office temp during vacation…” Nya recollected a tinge bitterly. “I skipped across the sidewalk and reached for the passenger door of the family car, a-a-and…” Over twenty years later she still felt the weight of her arm, suspended hopelessly as her mother suddenly drove off with a look that said everything and nothing. Nya wished the sidewalk would swallow her, but it instead became a gallery of pity and horror from anonymous witnesses to the harsh reminder that her original sin – ‘choosing’ a different maternal allegiance – made her unwelcome in this lifetime.
“MJ’s I’ll Be There just kept playing over and over in my mind,” Nya smiled, recalling how the words lifted every step of her two-hour walk through the dusty smog of Nairobi’s rush-hour traffic from down-town, even with the uncertainty of finding an open door at their Spring Valley home.
“And you held tight to that powerful call since your Kenya High School years…”
“Mmmh, maybe up until ten years ago,” Nya interjected, reminding Malik about when and why her academic quest in America had derailed. “I was completely numb to graduating with my masters in ethnomusicology.” Her kuka’s death in 1983 remained a daily source of grief. “Then Thriller hit… like a monster…”
“I’m here!” Malik asserted, sitting up to face Nya as her voice broke. She’d already explained this part of her story to him. “I’m so sorry you did time in a culturally-inept institution that doesn’t understand how our spiritual mediums are chosen… how our healers and shamans are born… how a being as magnificent as yours and a consortium as complementary as ours is even plausible…”
“Ubuntu?” Nya asked, her voice thin. Ten years later, Thriller still troubled Nya’s mind with doubts about the cultural calling she’d willingly followed and sworn her allegiance afresh to during that long lonely walk between downtown Nairobi and Spring Valley.
“Ubuntu – I am, because we are,” Malik affirmed, unequivocally placing their cultural pact back into circulation. Nya felt her atrophy dissipating as he squeezed her hands in his, just like during their drum circle when his rhythmic command became the beat of her wings. Though Nya clearly didn’t blame him as he did himself for his absence during her times of need, Malik wanted her to know what he’d only begun to prove – that the cultural powers she wielded within the great beyond could be entrusted to his custodianship as her master drummer. “If the master teaches what is error, the disciple’s submission is slavery… If he teaches truth, this submission is ennoblement.”
“I was taught in error,” Nya conceded, lamenting how impotent her academic programming had been in the cultural theater of her real life.
“Yet here you are, helping me stay woke and on top of my drumming game.”
“That proverb you just quoted has the same familiarity as the rhythms you decipher from inside of me when you drum,” Nya smiled, feeling encouraged. “Our ancients must have had it all figured out… inscribing ciphers for us on the temple walls in Kemet and elsewhere.”
Malik winked. Nya exhaled. The turmoil in her mind began to yield now as it had during the drum circle when she felt herself being recalibrated by some ingenious cultural master code to the dominion of her drummer’s rhythmic language. He just got her. Cradling and rocking Malik’s beats with her body’s savannah-bred sensuality, Nya instinctively understood him through her dance, never missing a conversational beat… shuddering occasionally as their conjoined energies found expression. Release. She’d felt exorcised and radiant as their conversational exchange enraptured the gathered crowd of hundreds.
“You rekindled my drum, Malik.” Nya’s nostalgia for their fateful day together was mixed with a sense of responsibility and gratitude. It seemed her decade of drought was ending.
“Nyabingi-i-i!” he growled, sounding like a warrior whose appetites and instincts were in their own heightened state of awakening, whetted by the uncharted territory they’d traveled into together. Malik left the Sunday circle he’d attended faithfully for years knowing he had nothing more to learn or prove there. So compelling was Nya’s dance that, for the first time ever Malik found himself yielding the control he’d always exercised in his drumming. He allowed her to transport him to a place where he was no longer the drummer, but the drum – being played by the universe.
“Mosi wa Tunya…” Malik then said, carefully pronouncing the words his father and drumming mentor had passed down years ago as a riddle – one of several he’d advised would come clear in its proper time.
“The smoke which thunders,” Nya responded, translating the Bantu name of the falls on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe, as if to complete Malik’s thought.
Nya then reached for the binoculars they’d brought from his SUV and then walked barefoot onto the grass. Squinting as she brought the Pacific horizon into sharper focus through the lens, she interrogated it as one with what lay under the surface of her own melanated skin. Granted it wasn’t the Atlantic hurricane waterway through which their kinfolk had been dragged in chains as stolen chattel. Nevertheless there was something that summoned Nya from such great bodies of water as if it were the language her people cried in. It disturbed her now like the taint that had come upon her undergraduate sojourn in America when she learned how twisted the spirits of southern trees forced to bear Strange Fruit must be.
Mississippi was no longer the playful place-name she’d jumped rope to as a child in Uganda’s Lake Victoria Primary School – “Mississ-M… Mississ-I… Mississ-S-S-I… Mississ-S-S-I… Mississ-P-P-I”… or the other chant they’d skipped to in team rounds – “Down the Miss-iss-i-ppi, if you miss a beat you’re out!” It was the deep wilderness.
“Oh my god!” Nya suddenly exclaimed in a whisper, letting the binoculars fall to her stomach from the strap around her neck. Her eyes blinked hard and fast as her manicured feet trekked slowly back across the blanket.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s gotta be fire,” Malik opined, studying Nya from the sycamore backrest he’d claimed. He could almost hear the wheels churning in her mind as she settled between his upturned knees and slowly munched on a single grape from the bunch in his hand.
“Victoria… Queen of England… Grand-mother of Europe… Hah!” Nya proclaimed with her grandfather’s sneer, except that he would spit thrice after mentioning the colonial queen’s name. “It was like kuka had to clean his mouth out before talking about a real queen! Kuka would do this thing with his arms,” Nya explained imitating him, “and when I’d ask which of kukhu’s dances that was, he’d say ‘I’m training crocodiles’ – just like that!” she giggled, her voice falling to a whisper. “Malik, kukhu Nyabingi must have been a water drummer! The Great Lakes… the Nile River… the falls on the Zambezi… her enchantments included all of these big waters.”
“Mm-hmm… Mosi wa Tunya!” Malik repeated, walking softly as the answer to his father’s riddle began to thunder in his chest from Nya’s revelations.
“The Brits granted independence to their colonies in Uganda, Kenya, and Rhodesia in the 1960s and ‘80s. Though northern and southern Rhodesia became Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victorian stranglehold on our African goddess consciousness still remains unchecked at the big waters!”
“You’re saying that her spiritual powers remain colonized in our misnaming of these waters?”
“Yes! I just realized why countries surrounding the Great Lakes in Africa’s heartland are referred to in Swahili as Nchi za Maziwa Mkuu. Our traditional consciousness literally testifies that they’re countries of the great ‘milk’!” Nya’s hands squeezed her temples as if to control the bursting of her own dam of parochialism. Anthropologically-trained, she’d overlooked their oral-traditions as the ‘quaint’ rituals of up-country womenfolk, entertaining themselves while fetching river waters in clay pots for their family’s daily needs. “We invoke ‘Victoria’ from our colonized geographies as if she is the matriarchal source of the Nile River – the ‘great milk’ on earth which reflects the Milky Way in the heavens… Aargh!”
“Perhaps it’s the tears of our neglected goddess which causes the Nile’s annual flooding,” Malik gently suggested as his Nyabingi troubled and tried to release these waters in the rhythmic beats, falls, and flows of her great-great grandmother. His lips on Nya’s forehead felt soothing as these latest revelations inundated her mind and spilled down her cheeks. This incremental awakening was mutual for Malik since his deference to the superior consciousness which had presented itself during their drum circle…
“Ma’at,” Nya said, rallying as Malik wiped her cheeks. Goddess of truth, order, and balance, Ma’at was an empowering mantra – a reminder that reparations were at hand…
“Mmhh!” Malik’s baritone purred.
“Hathor… Auset…” she whispered, smiling between his kisses as she held a second and then third finger up.
“Which do you most identify with, queen?” Malik asked, staying on message though his lips were gaming for more.
“I’d have to say all of them,” Nya gushed. “I think that’s how my great-great-grandmother would have me read my story… first as Auset…”
“Uh, you do know that of all the fourteen pieces of her King’s body mutilated, scattered and buried in the wilderness by Set, the one piece that came up missing in Auset’s search was his manhood?!”
“Relax Malik,” Nya giggled as his thighs clenched around her. “Okay then… Let’s first instead consider our goddess whose face and ears in ancient renderings resemble the uterus… womanhood.” Malik’s legs and side-eye yielded as Nya elaborated. “When I first heard I’ll Be There and entered into this cultural pact, it was during the period of my own blossoming womanhood. Kuka blessed my academic journey to America knowing that I would be guided and protected primarily by this goddess of music, dance, fertility, birth, motherhood, children and foreign lands who personifies feminine love and joy. Only he called her kukhu Nyabingi…”
“Right?! Goddess of the Nile Valley Matrix…” Nya responded, enjoying the approval in Malik’s eyes for how she was royally kicking Victoria’s colonial can to the curb. “Little did I understand it then, but now I see how King Ausar could be metaphorical of the Diaspora and the castrating evils committed against him by the adversary – Set, the slave-masters’ god of chaos, violence, the wilderness, foreigners… the same colonial master we fought against on the African continent.”
“Whoah… That’s all kindsa deep!” The uptick of her drummer’s heart beating against her temple as his breath travelled warmly through her corn-rowed hair rendered Nya silent. “So how do the signposts over the past ten years now read to you?”
“1983 was definitely a crossroads,” Nya sighed, grateful for the bonus of meeting executive-banker-by-day Malik Nangwiro in her post-Thriller, non-academic life. Banking was a world where the numbers either added up or they didn’t. She’d needed the intellectual down-time and liked that her teller register didn’t create any philosophical conundrums to be resolved at the end of each workday. “Eos, MJ’s Greek dawn-goddess with her entourage of servile Africans became just one closed door too many for me in ’86…”
“What about our drum circle?” Malik pressed, the tiger-brown palette of his eyes steeled by the full-time commitment he’d since made to his destiny as a master drummer.
“Our Congo Square? Lit, like paisley…!” Nya’s voice caught. Stemming the resurgence of salty libations, her heart settled into the beat his drum had rekindled in her dance. She felt welcomed. “I-I can now look beyond the chaos and see order from my truth – the story and language our family creates, cries and celebrates in – as kuka promised.”
“Ubuntu – We are each other’s salvation,” Malik smiled tenderly as he held steady Nya’s open door.
The sycamore rustled once again. Their cultural shroud was finally lifting.
© Malaika Mutere~Author