I don’t normally believe in anything supernatural. But life has a way of shaking up your beliefs sometimes.
We were looking at a bonfire in the Samburuland, sitting on a log in the woods, eating the goat slaughtered for our arrival. In front of us, morani were dancing. I had no idea people could jump that high. Samburu girls were dressed colorfully, their beads elegant, their young men partially wrapped in shukas, hair long, spears in hands, a deep sound coming out of their throats and serving as a beat to the song, ululating in between the lines, endless energy in their voices and moves.
We had just gotten back from a mini safari ride to the Olentile lodge, and without stopping by the manyatta to drop my things, I went straight to the bonfire. After the dancing was over, about five people left. The rest were sitting quietly by the fire, talking, listening to another kind of music; the type Soila had on her iPod. My stomach started feeling funny, so I said good night and left to the manyatta. I searched my bag for the phone to set the alarm, hoping my battery was still alive… But there was no phone, nor my wallet. Panic. My camera was in place, but the ridiculously cheap phone and the crappy looking wallet were gone. The money wasn’t so much of a tragedy; what made me choke on tears was the absence of my phone, that ugly thing that had all of my contacts in it. I dashed back to the fire and pulled Soila, my Kenyan sister, to the side. The two of us pointed torch lights into the grass nearby. Immediately, we saw the wallet. I grabbed it and turned it inside out. The $20 bill was still there, but all of the shillings were gone. We searched around again but there was nothing. Everything after that was like a very strange dream.
My host mom is standing in the middle of the clearing, in a spot that was bubbling with dancers and singers just an hour ago. She’s talking in a very low voice in Kimaasai, fuming with anger. All looks are on her, dead silence around, no one questions her, no one moves. A few boys get up and get running.
“They will go get the people who left,” my host dad tells me.
“But it’s so late and far, and the elephants are out there…” I start.
“She is angry” he tells me, pointing at mom.
“I can see that,” I whisper.
“No, you don’t even imagine how angry she is. She is putting a curse on them.”
The place filled up with people holding torches, searching, and some being searched; lots of questions asked, and suspicions shared. By then I wished I never told anyone. “They will produce your things by morning, and if they don’t, someone will die.” I shook at that thought. Who would die? How? What if they are innocent? Even if they are not, you don’t just kill someone for a minor crime. I don’t want to live with that! The boys finally came back with the people they fetched. The chief came too; apparently he walked a long way when he heard about the situation.
And that’s when the really crazy things started. First, the chief said, “We’ll stop the rain, because it’s interfering with the conversation,” and the rain stopped momentarily. I didn’t know what to think of that, but it wasn’t the weirdest thing that happened that night.
The chief talked calmly and slowly, and although I couldn’t understand him, I read wisdom in his voice. A few minutes into his speech, my host mom gave me a quick pat on the shoulder. “Run, quick, bring some water of yours and a coin if you have one,” she said. “I don’t know about the coin…” I started. “Just find one,” she said, urgency in her voice. So I ran, went through my things and found one in a pocket somewhere. They poured the water into a grass and dropped the coin into it. The chief did some kind of ritual over the glass, and passed it down the circle. Everyone would take one sip. Even I did. It was only fair. The water was cursed, I was told. So it was a bit weird to drink it (besides the fact that at least 20 other people drank from that glass before me, with a dirty coin inside). It tasted funny, didn’t it, my host dad whispered. Yeah, I said.
“What you should do now is go to bed,” my host mom told me. “Things will be here by morning; don’t think about it at all.”
It must have been late, or my mind was too tired to think, or both, because I passed out in a second. I might have dreamed of the cursed water or the rain that never came, but as soon as I got out from under the mosquito net in the morning, my host dad met me at the entry to the manyatta and put a phone into my hand. My phone.
“Er,” was all I could say, shocked.
“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling. “The money will come, too. It’s on its way.”
And it did. Everything, up to the last shilling. I had no words. A little meeting was held by the fire, and Simon translated that they were very proud of their community for uncovering the crime overnight. The person knew he would die if he didn’t come clean, he told me. The curse always works. They need these kinds of curses in every police department, I thought.
“It was one of the warriors,” they told me. “His head is not well. Normal people don’t steal here. They are going to beat him to death.” I protested vigorously, and calmed down when someone said they would take him to the police instead.
It wasn’t the end of the story. I still didn’t believe in all that “magic” stuff. The guy came forward because he was scared. It’s the notion of the curse, not the curse itself, that had worked. But then something else happened.
We were loading our things into a matatu when the chief came up and talked to us in Samburu. As we drove away, Soila translated it for me. He said when we leave, he will open the sky for the rain to start again over their land, since it was forcefully stopped before. He also said that since we drank the cursed water, the blessing now needed to come upon us. He said before we reach Nairobi, it would rain on us. It struck me when we were passing the debris of the demolished Nakumatt on the Thika road just north of Nairobi. I saw raindrops on the windshield. Soila and I both looked at each other in awe. Maybe, just maybe, there are powers in this world that have no logical explanation after all.