It was that time of year when the grass had turned yellow and crispy, like someone had bought Wagongo’s small village out of cassava chips freshly fried in sufarias of spitting hot palm oil and thrown them all about the land so that wherever you walked there was a crunching, crackling noise underfoot.
In the distance the heat shimmied off the horizon in waves that jiggled the trunks of the dusty acacia trees and although Wagongo’s eyes couldn’t see that far his body felt wilted, just like the creeper that had determinedly wound its way through the cracks in the walls of his small mud hut.
Creasing his eyes together Wagongo tilts his head upwards and immediately feels giddy at the size of the sky. It roars a color as blue as the flames of a fire made from damp wood, surging outwards without a trace of cloud or puff of wind. Had he been younger and his neck less stiffened he would have picked up on the wheeling vultures circling high up in their lofty kingdom above some poor creature that had succumbed to its thirst and lain down in the blistering hot sand for the very last time.
Wheezing slightly Wagongo pauses for breath and leans against the swollen trunk of his favourite baobab tree. From the doorway of his hut, where he sits each morning and evening sipping on smoky tea, he glances up in the direction of the silver tree standing proudly above the bushes and vines that squabble about her base, her thick, bare branches thrust up into the sky like the arms of a fat woman caught in mid- hallelujah.
The old man had risen early that morning, before the sun had crept its way up above the horizon like a swollen tick eager to gorge upon the earth below and all that it contained. After pulling on a tattered shirt and trousers he had gripped a walking stick with one gnarled hand and lifted a battered, orange jerrycan in the other setting off beneath a sky littered with stars flickering impatiently for their time to rest. Once on the move his muscles had eventually warmed and just as the birds had begun to stir and hop from branch to branch he had reached the banks of the mighty Galana River. It was easier to breathe down there amongst the greenery of the banks as each root, shoot and leaf urged themselves closer to the sluggish brown water.
Before removing his shoes, Wagongo had scanned the swirling current line searching for strange lines of bubbles or the flash of a glinting eyeball, but after several minutes he had felt safe enough to roll up his trousers and waded cautiously out onto a narrow mud flat. The water lapped deliciously around his narrow ankles and he wriggled his toes in delight at the coolness of the mud below. Bending down Wagongo pushed the stubborn jerrycan into the swirling waters where it bobbed about like a badly trained donkey until enough water had gurgled through its mouth and subdued it.
Once the jerrycan was full, Wagongo heaved it up onto the banks with much effort, dispersing a cloud of tiny yellow butterflies that had flocked to drink from the water that seeped up and filled his footsteps. Glancing upstream at the sudden cry of a fish eagle the old man decided he still had time for a quick bathe. He left his clothes hanging on a dead branch and shuffled back down into the water, splashing his wrinkled body and savoring every moment.
By the time he had finished the sun was well above the horizon and Wagongo scolded himself for having dawdled so. His journey back in the heat would be his punishment and with a determined sigh he dressed up and hauled the jerrycan onto his back. Settling it into the sweet spot between his shoulder blades he bade the river goodbye and set off back in the direction of home.
The distance from the Baobab to the entrance of his hut is little more than thirty paces but the eroded path he must take for this final leg is a difficult one. The dust is so thick in places that each footstep creates a miniature whirlwind that rises up as high as his knee, hiding from view the dips and depressions on the surface that have been baked smooth by that merciless sun. Wagongo’s trusty shoes, made from discarded car tires struggle to find grip but with a final wheeze he lumbers his way up the bank and drops the precious jerrycan down in the sparse shade offered by the croton nut tree and wipes his dusty brow, panting.
Carefully, so as not to waste a single drop Wagongo then pours a cup full of the precious water into a blackened sufaria, adding equal measures of milk, a handful of black tea leaves and a heaped spoon of sugar before blowing gently on the coals to heat up his breakfast. While he waits for that to boil he reaches over into a darkened corner and lifts up an old plastic pot whose original contents had long disappeared and twists open the lid with calloused fingers. Cradling it in his hands he notices that it has become very light and chastises himself for having been so greedy. But that doesn’t stop his mouth from watering at the thought of the treasure that lies glittering inside.
Even before the lid twists free, Wagongo smells the honey and within seconds of it being handled a fine aroma fills the air between his hands and nose. Just as his tea begins to splutter and bubble on the fire he dips his hand deep inside the pot and wiggles his finger about in the tacky, golden liquid. Lifting his wrist back up into the air he waits patiently for the sparkling thread that runs off to grow thinner and thinner – Ploooop, ploop, plop. Calculating the timing carefully he then quickly shoves the lucky finger into his mouth and closes his eyes as sweetness floods his mouth and his teeth throb in delight. His tongue quickly pushes down the wave of saliva that threatens to spill over his lips before turning its attention to the lump of wax that has stuck itself to his gums. With a sigh of deep satisfaction he swallows and waits for his brain to make sense of the lingering trail of nectar, herbs and pollen that swirl about his mouth.
Within seconds he feels energized and pouring his tea into a battered metal cup he sets it aside to cool a little before returning the honey jar to its special place. Today he must visit his friends the bees and make sure that they have all they need to survive this heat and dry, for without his attention he knew they would leave.
Banishing such thoughts quickly so as not to spoil his morning, the old man leans back against a half empty sack of cowpeas and sips his tea, watching a scruffy looking mongrel slink past into the shade of a nearby bush where it flops down panting and immediately begins to scratch a swollen pink belly.
Any traces of the morning cool have disappeared by the time Wagongo finishes his tea and all the birds, mice, dung beetles, and grasshoppers he had seen on his walk earlier have fallen silent, disappearing below ground or up amongst the shady branches of the few trees that remain. The land and all the life it contains enters its mid morning trance surrendering to its fiery master that blisters high up in its cloudless empire. But the old man knows he can not afford the same rest and before his legs have time to swell and stiffen he pulls himself upwards, grabs a small, sharp panga from its sheath and heads back out towards the silver baobab. Slipping down the steep bank he then turns right and pushes his way past the drooping stalks of his maize plants. Circling a barren patch of soil he notices that the last of his potatoes have dried up and stooping down he digs up a few of their tiny roots with the panga and places them in a neat pile on the edge of the path. He then makes his way over to a cluster of desert melons that lie swathed in blankets of thick, red dust and picks out the largest of the spikey balls. Stooping down he carefully lops off its stalk and cradling it in one arm moves off to survey the lop-sided wire fence that runs around his dusty shamba. He spends a few minutes brushing off a termite nest that has stealthily crept up one of the stakes before continuing on to the furthest corner of the field where his beehives sit solid and defiant atop their posts.
There are seven of them in total, painted bright yellow and arranged in a higgledy-piggledy pattern. Drawing closer the old man shields his eyes as the sun catches off the battered metal skirt he has fixed around the mid section of each post; a deterrent for the honey badgers whose dagger sharp claws and thirst for honey will tear apart an entire hive leaving behind nothing but a pile of colored splinters and a set of guilty paw prints. Hanging just above each hive he has also fixed a thatched shade of woven grasses held in place by some rusted wire and a few old sticks collected from an abandoned shamba nearby. This structure is equally important, for without it the sun would burn down onto the mabati roof and cook the bees alive.
Sometimes he misses the company of the cows, goats and sheep his family had once kept in the past but at times like this, when the sun rises early and the rains fall late he is grateful that the bees are so independent. They didn’t need much water, pasture or expensive dawa to keep the ticks off and he knew that the honey and wax that he collects and occasionally sells at market would provide him with enough to survive off.
At that point his foot catches a tree stump, disguised in a cloak of dirt that interrupts a daydream involving a mug of warm, frothing milk and the gentle lowing of cows at dusk. Cracking open his dusty lips in irritation he glances up and taking in the fuzz of activity around each hive concludes that all is well amongst his colonies. The bees are busy at work – as they had been since the first ray of sun hit the horizon and warmed the air, but he also knows that they will soon be forced to forage closer to home – or to cluster around the entrance of their hives where they will sit out the midday heat. Here they will arrange themselves, backs turned towards the dark cavity of the nest and take it in turns to beat their wings ventilating their home and keeping their beloved queen comfortable. Wagongo was glad he had washed earlier that morning as he has learned that bees detest strong smells and feeling confident he crouches down and deftly slices the desert melon into small, neat slices. Shimmering liquid runs through his fingers, quickly sinking into the ground and several large siafu ants close to his left shoe wave their antennae’s excitably and begin to move in. Cradling the melon against his chest Wagongo rises and slowly steps towards the closest hive. Approaching it from behind he carefully – so as not to dislodge the hive or make too loud a noise, pushes the dribbling slice along the roof. He then moves around the side and watches for several seconds as the bees zip about oblivious to their new delivery.
After a short while a bee, sensing the smell of perfumed liquid hovers delicately above the pale green flesh, her wings blurred in flight. Intrigued she lands and Wagongo draws in closer to watch her tiny, dark tongue make contact with the melons dew-dropped surface. He imagines the liquid running down her throat into her honey stomach, which he recalls as a translucent sack the size of small mosquito bite. Smiling to himself Wagongo recalls the time his father; the greatest beekeepers in village history had picked up a fallen bee and patiently explained it to him one morning using a blade of dry grass to point out the various parts of a bee’s body.
After the melon bee has taken her fill she disappears off the edge of the hive and Wagongo waits in knowing anticipation. Although he doesn’t speak their language nor understand much of their world he knows that there something magical taking place inside the wooden box. He knows that the bee that he has just seen drinking from the melon will be excited by her discovery and eager to tell her sisters where they too can find such abundance. Wagongo’s father had taught his young son that bee’s dance when they have a story to tell, much like the older women in his village when they gather together for a special harambee. He had never seen it happen- the bees dance that is, for all that takes place in the darkness of the hive but he remembers clearly the evening, just before the rainy season had burst upon their fields when his father had drawn him in close and explained how it was that bees spoke to one another. Closing his eyes at the memory, Wagongo imagines himself as a young boy, face lit by the leaping flames, held spellbound as he was taught that the bee will use the speed of her dance and her body position in relation to the sun to describe where a particular food source can be found. Those wishing to follow her directions will watch until they have translated the dancers delicate movements into a clear map before setting off on their own mission.
Smiling at the memory, he keeps his eyes closed and listens intently to the melodic hum of life contained just inches from where he stands. After a while he opens one eye and through the furred outline of his lashes sees proof of what his imagination has just played out, for there are now several bees flittering about the melon – she danced!
Smiling broadly he watches for a while longer until his attention is drawn to the small entrance where the bees land and enter their hive. Several of the recent arrivals have zoomed in with miniature sacks of pollen, like tiny yellow pillows attached to their hind legs. Before they are able to enter each bee must pass a ‘guard’ who confirms, with a brief bump of antennas that they have indeed reached the correct colony. Wagongo knows how important pollen is for the bees and is pleased that they are still able to find some. Glancing around, Wagongo’s eyes see only the plants that hang wrinkled and dry and for the fifth time that day he sighs happily at the wonders that abound in the world around him.
As often happens when he visits the bees, Wagongo suddenly feels very small and insignificant like a tiny smudge on the golden plains that roll, never-ending from beneath his feet and yet he finds this strangely calming. He has lived a long, good life and although he has no wife or children to carry forth his name he wants for nothing else, other than perhaps some rain, a glass of milk and the flowering of the wild basil plants upon which his bees will gorge. But above most things Wagongo has learnt to be patient for he knows that nature will provide him with everything he requires in return for his friendship and patience.
Content with such profound thoughts Wagongo then shuffles a few steps forward to a second hive. He repeats the melon slice experiment but is less inclined to close his eyes as these bees have a different character altogether. They are much darker in colour and cluster around their entrance with an air of bustling efficiency, growing agitated by his human presence almost immediately. The old man knows that each colony of bees, just like each human, dog, goat or butterfly has its own personality and these ones are not the type to meddle with or bother for too long. Wagongo recalls harvesting the butter yellow combs from this hive just 4 months ago and they had been vicious, swarming about his face and chest buzzing angrily, the scent of their anger no match for his smoker that puffed and wheezed steadily throughout the ordeal. Luckily he had selected a night with no moon and as soon as he had removed all but one of the dripping frames from the honey box he had turned and stood for hours beneath an overhanging bush, refueling the dying smoker with dried grass and cow droppings without pause to keep at bay those that sought revenge.
Wagongo moves along past the other hives, sliding the melon into place and watching the bees that dip and zoom about the entrance cavity for clues into their wellbeing and productivity. By this time the sun has reached its highest point in the pale, blistering sky and Wagongo is eager to retreat into the shade of the croton nut tree. He notes that the small watering pots he had hung out for the bees a few days before would need topping up shortly and almost immediately his own tongue feels swollen and dry. At that point the old man decides to leave it at that and returns back towards his home via the tiny pile of potatoes.
The rest of his afternoon passes slowly, in a sort of heat-dazed shuffle. Upon returning to his hut he quenches his need for sweet, hot liquid in testament to his father’s favorite saying “dawa ya moto ni moto” – the medicine of heat, is heat” and sits, legs curled around an open sack of cowpeas. Every few minutes he would lean forward and grab a handful before lifting them into his lap and tossing aside those with weevil holes or signs of rot. He dozes off occasionally, waking up when his legs began to tingle and complain. But in this way the afternoon drifts past slowly.
It was the faintest puff of wind, like a child’s breath that lifts the old man’s chin from his chest and at first he thinks he has dreamt it. His mouth is bone dry and has been clamped together by the dust, as are the corners of his eyes. Some minutes later the maize stalks rustle once again and sitting up a little straighter he peers out and sees for himself the crispy, yellow leaves pushing against one another like impatient villagers jostling in line at market. Awkwardly he pulls one leg over the small pile of peas that he will eat later for dinner and after several attempts manages to lift himself up off the ground.
Feeling his blood rush into his backside and trickle down his legs Wagongo straightens his spindly arms, stretching them high above his head before kicking out a pair of feet that feel wooden and disobedient. At the same time yet another gasp of wind floats past, carrying the dust that falls from the seat of his trousers to the furthest edge of his yard in a shadowed mist of gold.
The afternoon light is beginning to grow much softer and the far away call of birdsong suggest that the time for evening activity is growing closer. For a brief moment everything lies still again, just as it has done for months, but glancing up he catches sight of them wheeling in the air like tea leaves swirling at the bottom of a cup. But it is the sky behind the birds that quickens his heartbeat and stops his breath from leaving his mouth. Blinking rapidly Wagongo stares harder, making sure that he is not behaving foolishly and walking stiffly out into the open he lets his nose feast on the smells of the evening bush and feels his skin prickle at the sight of a gathering storm.