maskThe Spirit’s Tale  is a non-politically-correct African fantasy. The author insists that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the corrupt kleptocracies of the present day, but this subtlety has escaped several otherwise-perceptive publishers. In a previous avatar, it won the Sanlam Literary Award. Here’s how it opens . . .


The man who had known January did not sleep well, that night in the forest. The croaking of bullfrogs woke him once, and later an owl hooted. There were nightmares, too. When he finally awoke just before dawn, it was to the immediate knowledge of why he was there, stiff and aching, wrapped in a thin blanket on the damp ground. He had come to hear a dead man speak.

He smelled wood smoke in the mist, among the trunks of the msasa trees, and saw a small group of his companions huddled round a new-lit fire. Stifling his coughs, the man who had known January rose awkwardly and shook out his blanket. Wrapping it round himself, he shuffled across to the fire, where they made room for him. As the men sat silently round the crackling twigs, the sky began to pale behind Maiguru’s mountain and the night-sounds of the forest gave way to bird song. Minutes before, the sun had reached up from the Indian Ocean. Now light struck the eastern escarpment of the African plateau and spilled out over the central watershed.

Light touched the sacred mountain where Maiguru waited; a bald dome looming above the spring greenery of the valley. The sunlight gleamed on sheets of moisture, seeping from cracked granite layers. This water looked like snail-trails on a pebble to the pilgrims in the forest, as they gazed at the mountain. They were all stirring by now. Several fires burned and there was a low murmur of conversation. More than a hundred pilgrims were camped within sight of the sacred hill, in a mood of suppressed excitement as they prepared for the climax of their journey. Gaudy city clothes were changed for lengths of ritual black cotton, and shoes were left outside the sacred precinct. The pilgrims came unshod, with gifts for Maiguru in their hands. They brought the gift of music as well; two drummers began to tune their antique instruments, smearing the tall cracked barrels with pungent cow dung to bring out the tone.

Experimental taps on these drums echoed out of the valley mist, and Maiguru heard the distant throbbing as she sat by the mouth of her cave. The shrivelled octogenarian had taken to living on the mountain the previous spring, choosing a rock overhang as her only shelter. She refused to answer her kinfolk when they pleaded with her to come home. In the end her younger sister Ambuya went up to live with Maiguru and look after her, for she would not come down from the mountain. 

Ambuya remembered how it began; her sister had started to talk gibberish and demand gifts. Eventually certain people had brought black cloth for the old woman, and she had asked for snuff. One day, wrapped in black cloth, she had taken snuff and entered into a trance. As she spoke prophecies, her kin had begun to realise that she belonged to them no longer – a spirit possessed her. Ambuya had remained on the mountain to please the spirit by serving as her sister’s acolyte. She guided those who came seeking advice, and accepted gifts on behalf of Maiguru and her spirit.

Ambuya came out of the cave and set off to meet the pilgrims, leaning on a stick. She was in her seventies, and longed for the day when the spirit would let her go home and live in a house again. She picked her way carefully among the lichened boulders that littered the slope of the hill, hoping that this was the day when the spirit would be satisfied. It had been hard on the mountain; she had endured the winter nights of waiting while the spirit demanded a suitable audience, yet few pilgrims came. But this day more than a hundred people had come to listen to the words of the ghost.

The air is thick with ghosts in those parts; the landscape crawls with them. They inhabit mountains, trees, rivers, caves and the bodies of animals. They can possess birds, baboons, crocodiles and lions. But the ghosts, whether evil or benign, always seek a human host in the end, so that they can speak out loud to the living. Then the dead foretell the future and voice their grievances; they make demands and give advice.

Ambuya sat down to rest and wait for the visitors on a flat rock, at a point where the stone slope curved downwards, dipping sharply into dense greenery. She contemplated the ghost’s purpose; he could have important advice to pass on – or he could have been the victim of injustice during his time on earth, and be bent on revenge.

The man who had known January was also thinking about vengeance. Cold water flowed round his ankles as he forded a stream with the column of pilgrims. He did not want to face the dead man on the mountain, but he could not turn back. For he was the only one who could identify January’s authentic voice. The others, who had come in numbers on an arduous journey to establish the truth of the matter, were relying on him. He felt a chill in the pit of his stomach, knowing the awful secrets that would be spilled, if the ghost were truly January.

The name of January had been first mentioned more than a year before, and the fame of Maiguru had been growing ever since. For those visitors who came during her first year on the mountain, the voice delivered infallible prophecies of minor events. Pilgrims spread the word about these predictions as well as the ghost’s incessant demand: he wanted to address the descendants of kings. Until the right people climbed the mountain to bring snuff, the spirit would neither confirm nor deny that he was January Beeswax.

That is why such a large party was climbing the mountain, led by the descendants of kings, preceded by sacred music. They had to know the truth. The ghost might be no more than one of Maiguru’s ancestors, some minor tutelary spirit. But if it was indeed January, the Man Who Saved the World, then the messages would be of universal importance. January Beeswax would rank as a great gombwe, a ruling spirit like Chaminuka or Chibebe, an entity with the whole land in his keeping.

The mist had faded as the day warmed; the pilgrims were climbing the mountain single file, on a narrow path made slippery by the copious spring rains of the previous week. They made their way steeply for an hour, using tufts of coarse grass or the rough edges of lichen-spattered slabs for handholds. There was a delay of some minutes while the way forward was blocked by a Gaboon viper lying on the path. The man who had known January did not like this omen. The climb had tired him and he wanted to rest. Then a hawk cut above the climbers and swooped up over the rim of the hill; they saw Ambuya waiting for them on the lip of the granite, an old woman wrapped in black against a blue sky.

The last hour of the journey was easier going, over the bald stone curves of the granite massif. Ambuya led the way in silence, to where the prophetess still sat on her blanket near the cave. She paid no attention as the visitors fanned out to form a semi-circle in front of her. They sat on the ground to show respect, and began to clap hands in a slow rhythm. Maiguru looked up briefly and acknowledged the courtesy by putting her arthritic monkey paws together in reply. Then the medium returned to her own thoughts, failing to show any interest in the gifts which Ambuya was laying out in front of her: mainly bolts of black-dyed cotton cloth and packets of snuff, although some of the visitors had brought manufactured items from the city, including a handsome copper kettle.

Maiguru was empty-minded and biddable when the fit was not upon her. Ambuya led her sister to the low slab of granite which served as a trance throne. She perched the older woman on the rock, facing the semi-circle of pilgrims, with the cave at her back. Then the drums began; they boomed for a short time while the prophetess nodded on her stone. After the drums came sacred music played on mbiras. A dozen musicians sat with their legs crossed at the ankles, resting their backs on a swell of rock, holding large gourd resonators on their laps. Inside the thrumming gourds, the thumbs of the mbira players plucked scales of metal tines wired to hardwood blocks, making music that penetrated everyone there. Another musician jerked a pair of rattles in a staccato triangular pattern; turning his face to the echoing cave, he began to yodel.

The sound rose in waves, till some of the pilgrims began to sway and hum where they sat, in response to the sacred music. But Maiguru still drooled and nodded on her rough throne. A loose mask covered the lower part of her face, and her head was bound in a lopsided black turban that exposed one ear, part of a wrinkled forehead, a pair of bloodshot eyes and two cavernous nostrils in a button nose. From this lolling head came a quavering voice: “Fodya!”

Fodya!” she repeated, calling for snuff, as her acolyte shuffled up beside her with a pouch of powdered tobacco. Maiguru’s nostrils began to quiver. She took two pinches of snuff, then slumped. For a time she appeared to have dozed off, insensible to the sacred music. Then she jerked violently on the throne, and Ambuya moved behind her sister, ready to support her during the oncoming fit. The music played on, and the old woman trembled. The pilgrims could hear her tearing gasps. Then her spine stiffened; she seemed to gain mass. Maiguru’s claw-like hands tightened on her knees.

The head snapped upright. The eyes, now unclouded and wide open, swung round to survey the half-ring of squatting pilgrims. The hands left the knees and clapped three times. Not as women do, crossing cupped palms – but with fingertips touching, like a man. The pilgrims returned the courtesy, including the man who had known January. Sweat shone on his brow, his heart was hammering and his guts had turned to water. As the pilgrims completed their response, a deep grunt of satisfaction came from the mask, startling after the previous quaver.

Then a male voice boomed out of Maiguru’s body. The man who had known January felt his scalp prickle at the sound, which he recognised immediately. Full of authority, this was a voice with a tale to tell – a dead man’s tale.

“I am January Beeswax,” it said. “This is my story.”