It was barely dawn, a few birds in the near distance were singing when two strong built men lifted the lion skin that was used as the barrier at the entrance to Chwo’s hut and walked in. He was lifted out of his bed and dragged out into the common grounds within the manyata. There were men with fire torches who had formed a circle and in the middle was the chief seated on a three legged stool with two of his other sons standing on either side of him.
“CHWO”, the chief called out in a deep voice, “the next full moon is only days away and with that, you become a man. But before we will recognize you as such, you have to take the walk of men for twelve moons”. The walk of men was a ritual that every male of the tribe had to undertake in order to be considered a man. It begun with a huge feast of dancing, eating and drink and a few of the old men bestowing their wisdom upon the young as a sendoff ceremony.
As a third son, Chwo had no claim to his father’s chiefdom or wealth. At best, he would be an ambassador (political hostage) to a warring tribe. He was never ambitious for power, nor did he expect much out of a political life, if anything, he had dedicated is first 14 years to training as a warrior/hunter, as was expected of young boys of his tribe, and studying at the nearby mission. To him, the practice of the walk of men was nothing more than a fallacy to evict the young boys so the old men could take advantage and marry off the young girls while the boys their age went out to become men.
However, Chwo loved his father and was always seeking his father’s approval. To him, if Chand and Dewo (his over pampered elder brothers) could do it, how hard could it have been!
The day begun with the traditional slaughter of a bull by Chwo as blood was collected in calabashes and then he was shown how to properly skin the bull. A few jokes about him having never felt the warmth of a woman’s breast from the way he held the knife and his ignorance in pleasuring a woman from the way he was in a harry to skin the cow were shared by the men of the group as they went about the rituals.
By the time the midday sun was directly over the village, the celebrations were well on their way. Honey wine was flowing and the half-covered girls were dancing and jumping around in joyful symbiosis to the drum beats. At this time, his mother pulled him away from the male dominated crowd to her hut where the elderly women of the tribe had gathered. The women started by serving him a spread of his favorite dishes. His hands were washed for him and a stool was pulled out for him for the first time (boys had to sit on mats) as the women took their places around him.
As he begun to eat, it became clear that it was time for “the talk” when his mother excused herself leaving him to the mercy of aunties and grandmothers. His favorite aunty begun by telling him that as he became a man, certain things would now be expected of him. Taking a wife and fathering children were on top of the list of what was expected of him on his return. One of the elderly women then joined in with a question. “What do you know about making babies?” she asked.
He wanted to man up and pretend to be highly skilled, but he knew they would tell he was lying. He swallowed his pride along with the piece of meat in his mouth and admitted his ignorance. To his surprise, there was no outburst of laughter and ridicule. Instead, it was a calming reassuring glance from the ladies as each took turns moving closer to him so she would share her wisdom with him.
Chwo emerged from that hut feeling like a man. He had on a sheepish smile that was a mix of joy and shame, but most of all, he was grateful to the ladies for not treating him like a little boy. He started looking at the girls dancing differently. He had seen them walking around bare chested before, he had even taken baths with them at the river many times, but now he was taking notice of their bouncing orange shaped breasts as they jumped and danced, the brownness of their thighs as they vibrated whenever their feet touched the ground, the roundness of their bums whenever they turned to the sound of the drums and horns, all the things he had never noticed before started to become more interesting to him.
Jal, the village chief, waved out at his son to come sit beside him for the first time in the circle of men. The men of the village started sharing their stories and experience during their own walks of men. Some were pretty interesting, like the story of how Jal had killed a lion on his first hunt, while some sounded made up, like when kwach told the story of how he slept with two of the neighbouring village chief’s daughters at the same time, and others were outright hilarious, especially Nkembo whose nickname came from when he was attacked by a group of monkeys after stealing their mangos and papaya. But they were all cautious in the end, to the dangers out there. He was offered a taste of a brew made from millet which was usually reserved for men of high standing.
Soon the night had come and with it, an escalation of the festivities. A bonfire was lit in the centre of the village, the drums were sounded and the dancing begun. It was a joyous celebrant mood with barbeques, millet brew, cassava gin and banana wine going all round. Men chasing after women like chicken in heat as they talked and postured like peacocks the more the wine made its way to their heads.
By the second morning, it was a party like Chwo had never seen before in his honor with only Chand’s presence visibly missing. Chiefs from other villages and tribes had all joined in and with them came more drinking, dancing and food. It was a collection of different peoples, cultures and dressing that Chwo had not seen since the tribes had united and defeated the grey people from the mountains. Even the Afendi women warrior were in attendance, tall, dark, slender and beautiful yet skilled and ferocious. Chwo knew not to stare at them but he could not help admiring their form, structure with sharp piercing eyes like they could stare you to death.
On the third morning, just before dawn, Jal excused himself to his hut only to return shortly with a knife. It was a double edged blade with the hide of a leopard for a handle and cover. Jal asked his son to brave himself as he heated the knife over the fire and then went on to curved a shape of a lion on his chest so all who he could meet on his journey would know he was a Ja-Koi. When Jal was done with the curving and sprinkling of charmed herbs [mixed with ashes of their ancestors for spiritual guidance] on his son’s chest, he told Chwo as he handed him the knife that for the next year the knife was going to be his best friend, his companion and his protector, it would be his provider of food when he got hungry, but the most important thing Chwo had to remember, NEVER TO LOSE HIS KNIFE.
Chand gave him a piece of cloth made from fine leather (from the bull Chwo had killed) that Chand had been turning for him throughout the festivities and told him he would need it for the cold nights ahead and Dewo handed him a pair of leather sandals that he considered his lucky pair. Then Jamwa, the old wise warrior who had been his war and hunting instructor told him to look up in the sky as he pointed to the biggest star in the skies above and said to Chwo, “after the second rains, where ever you are, turn back and keep walking till the stars around the big star look as they do”. Jal hugged his son as if it he knew it was the last time they would ever meet as the men all said their goodbyes.
As was the custom, Chwo had to leave before the women woke up, it was believed that for one to see his mother’s tears before the walk was bad luck. Without a word of goodbye from his mother, three warriors gently pulled Chwo from the circle and walked him to the edge of the forest. He turned and looked at his village one last time as the sun begun to come out from the mountains in the distance behind it with the sounds of the festival slowly fading away. With a deep heart filled with emotions of sadness for leaving all he had known behind, joy and excitement to the journey and new experiences that awaited him and a sharp alertness to the unknown dangers ahead, he took one deep breath and said to himself as he turned away, “I am ready” and entered the forest.