Temfe rested in the shade of a clump of trees near the riverbed, on the edge of the Koriba camp. Miles of walking across the plains had left him weary, his spirits low. Since returning from the morning hunt there had been no sign of his father, no chance to tell him of Kofu and the encounter with the Tenga. Beru would be angry. He would order Temfe to take charge. But how should he do it, when no one listened?
He lay on his back, the blue sky and green leaves above him, lost in his tune, played on the flute carved by his grandfather out of buffalo bone. He began, as always, with a tune for his dead brother, Mbife. Then one for his grandfather, and one for the mother he had never known.
He didn’t hear the footsteps. A shadow passed across the sun, a shout, and water hit his face. He shook it from his eyes and saw Ngoh standing, laughing, holding an ostrich shell. Ngoh dipped the shell back into the trickle of water in the river bed and emptied it over his own head. He laughed, shaking the drops from his hair.
“You’re too lazy,” Ngoh said. “You’d better come, your father wants you, all of us. It sounds serious.”
“He’s getting the men together, by the big tree. Come on, we’ll be late. The old ones have been there all morning, talking. They’re planning something, you’ll see.”
Temfe leapt to his feet but struggled to keep up with Ngoh. “What’s going on?”
“You’re the chief’s son, but the last to know,” Ngoh called back over his shoulder.
Temfe scowled. His friend teased him, but there was truth at the heart of it. His father never consulted him and the hunters didn’t see him as the leader one day. It would pass to someone else. It should have been Mbife, but all that was gone.
Ngoh stopped and waited. Temfe waved his spear at his friend. “Where were you earlier? I couldn’t find you?”
Ngoh gave a crocodile grin. “I was with Aal,” he said.
“Oh.” Temfe felt foolish, but Ngoh started to whistle. “How is she?”
Ngoh roared with laughter,.
“Did you see Yamba?”
“No.” Ngoh stopped, turned, and looked Temfe in the eye. “She wasn’t there. She was probably looking for you.” He roared with laughter again, and strode off.
Temfe scurried to keep up, but they were the last of the men to arrive at the clearing under the big tree.
The tribal elders sat on the old tree trunk. Beru gestured to Temfe to join the throng of hunters, then stood up, and waved his arms for silence.
“Men of the Koriba,” Beru said, “we have talked.” He laid his arms by his side, indicating the other elders. The old men of the tribe had made a decision. It came from all of them, not only Beru. There was no disputing it.
“Our children are hungry,” Beru said. “Our women are thin. We grow weak from lack of meat.”
A mumbling of agreement rippled across the group of tribesmen gathered under the shade of the great tree.
“The rains are late, the prey too few, the river is dry. The old ones have lived long years,” Beru said, gesturing again to the elders, “but never known times so bad. Where are the animals? Where are the rains?”
A shuffling among the men, then a voice from the front of the throng. “The other tribes come onto our lands. They take our prey, take our water.”
Only Kofu would dare speak out of turn.
Beru held up a hand for silence. “Why are the Tenga here? The Walide and the Katolon? Because their own lands are empty. Dry. Their lands have turned to sand and the world has shrunk. When we were young, the rains would come, the lake was full. The world is shrinking, and soon there’ll be nowhere left.”
“Then we fight them,” Kofu said, and a murmur of agreement rumbled among the men behind him.
“The other tribes are our friends,” Beru said. “We’re one people. The world is smaller, because the dry lands come on us from every side. The water holes are dry. The animals are gone. We’ve eaten well, and given no thought to the future.” Beru paused, looking across the faces in front of him. “If we do nothing, we die.”
At the front of the crowd, Kofu stamped his foot with impatience. “Defend our land.” He was taller than any of the men by half a hand, his bearing defiant.
Temfe watched his father’s face, saw anger flicker across it. Kofu was defying the tribe’s leaders, speaking when he should listen. He had never heard anyone give such a challenge to the chief and elders.
“It will do no good,” Beru said. “We might kill every man, woman and child from the other tribes, even our own daughters and sisters who have bonded with their hunters, but still we would starve. The dry lands come closer every year. The rains are later every year, the animals more scarce. Only the hungry mouths increase.”
Beru stepped onto the fallen trunk. It raised him higher than any of them, even Kofu. He looked out across their faces. Temfe felt his father’s eyes look directly into his own.
“We need a new home,” Beru said. He raised a hand to silence the crowd. “We can’t stay.”
Murmuring grew to a babble of voices across the clan.
Ngoh nudged Temfe with his elbow. “We can’t cross the dry lands,” Ngoh whispered.
“We go,” Beru said, his hands held high, his voice raised. “We find a way across the desert or we die. We do this now. The rains don’t come, not this year.”
“There’s no way,” Ngoh hissed down’s Temfe’s ear.
“The young men will go,” Beru said. “They will find a way for the tribe to cross.”
As he finished, a roar of chatter broke out among the tribesmen.
Kofu jabbed his spear into the air. “While we’re gone, who defends our land? Who protects our women, our children? Who keeps the other tribes off our hunting ground?”
“You fear for no reason,” Beru said. “The other tribes have never attacked us.”
Kofu waved his arms to silence the throng. “What of the ancestors? Do we leave them behind? We must stay and defend our home.”
Temfe felt the energy of the tribe moving towards Kofu.
“The ancestors will forgive us,” Beru said. “They don’t want us to stay and die.”
“They want us to defend our land,” Kofu shouted, nodding rapidly as he looked from face to face, demanding agreement.
Beru held up a hand, admonishing Kofu. “You don’t speak for the ancestors,” he said. “When the rains return, we’ll come back. The ancestors will wait.”
The men were uneasy, Temfe could feel it. Ngoh shuffled from foot to foot, staring down at the ground. They were worried. This plan would change their lives, change everything.
Beru gestured to the elders beside him. “We’ve decided. That’s the end of it.”
The hunters fell silent.
“How many will die, trying to find a way across?” Kofu’s voice had grown calmer, but Temfe still heard defiance in it. He knew his father would hear it too.
“Stay behind, if you wish,” Beru said, “with us old men, while the hunters go in bravery. If your heart fails you, we’ll understand.”
Who would refuse to go now and be thought a coward? Kofu’s face contorted in rage.
“When the sun rises tomorrow,” Beru said, “the young men leave. Tonight, the ritual.”
Temfe’s thoughts raced to Yamba. The feast of the full moon, the time of the bonding. They were to be joined. All was set, but now it must wait. What would she say?
Ngoh snorted down his nose. “Aal will be angry.”
“Yamba too,” Temfe said, “but we can blame the elders.” His thoughts had turned to the dry lands and what lay beyond them. He grabbed his friend by the arm. “We’ll find the way across, you and me.”
“It can’t be done,” Ngoh said.
Temfe watched the old men scattering, heard the complaints of the hunters. The tribe would not want to go. The hunters would not try, not hard enough. They would give up too soon.
Temfe felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Beru leant close to his son’s ear. “They will follow you,” he whispered. “You must find the way.”
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