Mayeso Grace Mazengera: The Khungu Between Us

Jun 18, 2021 | Blog | 4 comments

There was one rule every member of the tribal lands had to obey- never cross the river after dark. Children born in the grasslands knew this rule. From infancy we were taught of the dangers that lurked beyond the tranquil Khungu. It gave us water for the farms and a source of electricity for our homes, but it served more importantly as a border between us, the Kuda clans and the brutality beyond the river. I can still hear grandfather’s hoarse voice telling us of the horrors beyond its banks. He told us stories of the dreaded Balbino, a name too taboo to be spoken in the open. The pale ones. Children of the moon. The night hunters. Dealers of death. The plague of the savanna. They were the embodiment of every sun kissed child’s worst nightmare.

For many generations, we have been guardians. The watchdogs firmly planted between the rest of the tribes and the whispers of the abominations that existed in the dark forests on the other side of the riverbanks. My father is head of our clan, like my grandfather before him. In my twenty third year, before I could ascend and be officially recognised as heir to the guardianship, I was subjected to the test of truth. The ancestors would prove my claim to take over after my father true by allowing me to survive beyond the river in isolation for two moons. Each heir is tasked with retrieving a bloom from the flower of truth that only grew from a sacred spring found in the heart of the land beyond the Khungu. My forefathers had prevailed, I would too.

The rite had its own rules. No maps, I would have to trust that the stars would guide me. No food, the land would provide for me. No water, the springs would soothe me. My time had come, the truth would be revealed.

The sun’s rays were waning as I made my lone trek on the very land I had once been forbidden to traverse. My childhood fantasies of adventures on the other side of the river did not prepare me for the heaviness in the pit of my stomach. I could feel the sweat rolling down my lower back, where my shirt was not yet matted against my skin in the humidity of the dense forest. The terrain changed from the familiar into primal. It was vacant of any signs of humanity, I knew better. I raised my right hand to my neck and my fingers wrapped around the cold circular surface of the pendant

hanging around it. My fingers caressed the tribal markings I had learnt were a prayer of protection taught by my ancestors. It had been my father’s parting gift as he sent me across the river, passed on to him from his father before him. My lips formed the words of the plea as a moved forward. The moss covered trunks towered over the landscape, eliminating any visibility of the topography ahead.

Only the rhythmic melodies of the crickets and the distant sounds of the running water remained unbroken except for my own laboured breathing. As the orange light finally disappeared to make way for the silver light from the night sky, I held my backpack closer. My fingers clenched around the straps for purchase as I walked on. The warm air I had grown accustomed to morphed into a lighter form of itself, the heaviness in my throat replaced by a cool and sharp breeze.

The pleasant bouquet of sweet fragrances had me breathing lighter and walking steadier than I had in the hours since I had begun my journey. Perhaps it was the ambrosial scents that wafted around me or the cool air against my skin after a long day under the harsh sun. Maybe it was the way the moonlight danced and teased the dew glistened leaves and explosion of colorful plants almost artistically spread across the forest floor. I blame the soft grass that muffled my foot falls for never realizing I was being followed.

The slight tug on my backpack had me twisting around to face the intruder. No stories or warning, no songs or prayers could have prepared me for creature, no man, that stood well above me. Cold dread arrested my feet, my mouth opened but my throat refused to cooperate.

He was too quiet, too still. A pit of quicksand ready to drag me in. With the starlight, I could make out his features. His eyes glowed. The balbino was pale. I wondered if that meant there was no pigment in his skin. His hair shimmered under the celestial light forming a halo around his head. Even in stillness, he looked dangerous. His eyes silently appraised mw. The ethereal glow of his paleness had me wondering if it was because it had never been touched by the sun whereas mine was a dark brown and tanned by years of exposure to its harshness. This was a Balbino. I knew in my bones I was going to die. It was this thought that seemed to loosen my limbs once more from my shocked daze and I remember scrambling away as he lunged for me. Then darkness.

I wasn’t dead. The stabbing pain attacking my right temple was proof of that… So, I wasn’t dead, granted I could be having a waking delusion but none the less I was mostly alive. I took a few breaths to slow my mind as I made sense of my surroundings without moving too much. The air smelled clinical, like grandmother’s healing room. The rabbit hopping inside my chest refused to slow down, no matter how positive the feedback I was getting from my surroundings.

There was a sound like a moan. It was me; I was unconsciously groaning. The room became silent. In my muddled state, I had ignored the voices around me. I wasn’t dead, I told myself, at least not yet. I took single daring breathe then opened my eyes.

“You’re awake, good,” said a light melodic voice, reminding me of little bells. There would be no language barrier it seemed. Whether this was a blessing or a curse was yet to be seen.

There was an indistinct shuffle and a large man, because I knew then that the balbino were people, standing over me. It was only then that I realised I must have been in a bed. He eyed me expectantly. I could only nod mutely at the previous statement.

It seemed having made up his mind he ignored my initial flinch and used his muscular arms to assist me into a sitting position. A survey of the room revealed I was in a sick bay. To my dismay, I noticed there were at least six other people in the room with me. Self-conscious, I reached for the familiar warmth of my tribal necklace.

I had travelled to the rocky north and seen the lakes of the east but I had never quite been overwhelmed with the otherness of the other lands. I could not deny they had a lot the same features and curves we found in the kudas only with none of our coloring. I could recognise the same tilt to their lips as many of my friends. Some had the same cheek bone and nose structure as my cousins from the eastern tribes. It was strange, seeing these same features painted in a hue I’d never imagine possible. They did not appear savage. But this could be a trap.

“I hope your trip wasn’t too disorienting,” the same voice from earlier spoke.

I turned my head towards it to face a woman. She was watching me with unmasked amusement and an air of mischief.

She deliberately lifted her hand to her neck. My heart lodged in my throat upon realizing she wore an exact replica of the necklace I was absent mindedly fingering. I knew that my necklace was generations old. Hundreds of years of tradition, and before me, a balbino had its twin.

She was watching, measuring me. There was a familiarity about her. The shape of her eyes much like the shape I had seen in many mirrors over my lifetime. Her petite nose could’ve easily been mistaken for my own. I shook my head to expel the strange notion. The dress she wore was rich with deep blues like the night sky and splattered with gems that glittered like the sky. From all I knew, she was dressed like royalty.

My musings were brought to a halt by a light shuffling that was followed by a quite sniffle. From the motion of her hand it seemed that there was small figure hidden behind her. She saw my line of sight and indulgently brought forth a young child- a kuda child. Skin like ebony a stark contrast to her own. It was eerie to see his facial features were a miniature of her own. I knew in my core that this was her child, but how? They had said the balbino were not even human, they were not like us. It seemed there was much I did not know.

The question must have been etched across my face because she begun to tell me a story. A story of a little village that had been built on the banks of a great river. Of children born with lighter skin than normal who would get ill under the sun. Of a drought that had overtaken the land, and how the rabid in-landers had blamed it on the strange children and had one night abducted one for an evil ritual. The rain had come. A custom established. The men became convinced the gods and ancestors required pale skinned sacrifices to keep them appeased. She spun the story of a child who had survived mutilation by the men and their rituals. Who had run across the river to a neighboring village, called Balbino, and found asylum. How the child had gone back for his kindred and they had all disappeared one moonless night behind the jungle protections of the sacred village. How the men, unyielding, had found a way into Balbino to steal a child when another great drought had occurred. How the pale ones were forced protect themselves from them. That with each passing year less of the old believers would cross the river looking for pale children for their evil. How stories spread of a dangerous tribe of pale men and women who killed those that were known as the kuda, the dark ones, not just in their skin but their souls. She explained, how one day a brave chief had crossed the river to stop the skin wars. He had pledged to stand as guard and leave the balbinos in peace. He had left an emblem given to the balbino chief of old. A necklace whose twin was passed down to the next generation with the truth. To ensure the peace. The lies told to keep this peace. Of how each generation the next Kuda in line as guardian would be sent across the river and told this story so he would ensure nobody would cross the river. Then she told me her story. Of twins born to the Chief of the Kuda clan. A sign from the gods, one pale, one dark. How her own father had stolen her away on the night of her birth and brought her to Balbino for her safety. The hope that perhaps if people could see the same face worn in different skin, the skin wars would finally end.

I looked a face that was too much like my own. That nose that could be mistaken for mine. Those eyes that perfectly mirrored mine. Aware that it had been the Khungu between us all along. I could feel the warm tears anointing my cheeks. My words did not fail me this time.

“Hello sister.”

She smiled.


  1. Jester

    This is masterpiece

    • Jones Longwe

      Didn’t no it was this nice!woww
      Was about to quit reading
      Nice peace

  2. Asinyeka

    Great piece

  3. GiftGrace

    You have a great imagination. I really enjoyed this, found myself hoping it doesnt end. Flawless.


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