He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth — the Lord God Almighty is his name.—Amos 4:13, niv
In the darkness two bodies joined and gave birth to a million offspring.
The millions became a civilization. They were many, yet they were one in purpose—to exist for their ancestors, to build for them. Without the power of the ancestors, they died.
The queen lived in the center of the village, guarded by a swarming horde of soldier termites that lived for her, even died for her. Her mate, the king, accompanied her. When the two united, a city mound sprung into life. When the two died, the hill lay fallow and lifeless.
The queen and king never saw light yet thrived and produced offspring. They ruled the hill from the center of the mound and related to their millions of forces in ways no human ever communicated. Month after month the hill accumulated grain on grain and gave the termites high ground to escape the seasonal floods that turned the passages below into watery graves.
Years had passed since the hill began as a single grain. Porter termites carried billions of grains of sand and smudges of clay that combined with secretions of the builder termites to plaster the rising hill city. The civilization rose to twelve feet high, like a miniature Tower of Babel under the shade of the umbrella tree. The sun evaporated water that had beaded on blades of elephant grass. Atop the spreading tree, egrets warbled then swooped in formation like a band of angels to earth. A dozen egrets seem tied together like a marionette and glowed white against a backdrop of charcoal-colored cumulus clouds. A legion of winged termites escaped the mound, and the egrets snatched the insects as they flitted above the steaming ground.
A foreign object sliced the earth and laid open one then another tunnel in the side of the termite mound.
Tenwa Ndaala gripped the thick wooden handle of his hoe and rained down thunderous blows on the termite mound. He had reached puberty, the age a Soga boy leaves his father’s house and builds a hut with his own hands. Tenwa broke the mound to build his hut because the termites had already discovered the perfect mix of sand and clay for his own house. He would use that soil to pack inside a grid of poles and sticks to shape his first hut.
Tenwa’s hoe opened the earth and each hole revealed a new world of termites to him. Could the termites see Tenwa’s village between Lake Kyoga and Lake Victoria? Could they see the sun above Kalogo village? Could they hear the rushing of the Nile river below Tenwa’s village? They did care about water—the inside of the mound was moist. Could their antennae know the scent of coffee blossoms or passion fruit that covered the land? Could they hear him laugh as he chopped with the hoe and watched the termites scramble? The soldier termites were too harried to notice Tenwa. They darted to the center of the hill to defend their queen. The builder termites seemed to want no part of Tenwa’s world either—they packed more grains of soil to fill the breach.
For Tenwa, the earth was an escape to another life away from his father, Isab, and the beatings he and his brothers and sisters and mother had endured.
Tenwa built his hut to prove he was a man but mostly because he hated his father.
With each blow to the termite mound, Tenwa imagined himself striking Isab. A thousand chips off the mound could never repay all the wounds Isab had inflicted upon Tenwa.
Tenwa’s Soga tribe and Balangira clan had taught him logic that seemed simple enough, yet he still did not know his place in it: God made soil and from that soil He made man, then he flew far away and left the earth in care of lesser gods Kintu, Nalubale, and Waitambogwe. With soil, man builds his house. Termites eat that house and it crumbles. As the house crumbles, so does man. Man returns to soil.
He feared his father, who could carry a one-hundred-kilogram sack of corn on his shoulders, more than he feared stepping on a cobra on a path at night. He woke each day anticipating that his father might beat him whenever he wished with whatever tool he held in his hand. Isab was the only one in his family, his four wives and nineteen children included, who wore shoes. Isab used the heel of his shoe to beat his wives and children, especially Tenwa.
Tenwa had a twin brother named Waiswa. When they were born, their mother, Nabi, favored Tenwa and thought Waiswa had a demon. Isab thought the opposite. Tenwa escaped the womb first and received the traditional name for the oldest twin. Waiswa came, it seemed to Nabi, hours later and received the name Waiswa, the ritual name for a younger twin.
When the twins were six years old, their sister died from sleeping sickness. That year Waiswa had also suffered sleeping sickness and a coma. Isab nearly buried the boy alive, but Tenwa saved his brother’s life when he felt a weak breath against the palm of his hand. Instead of burying him, they waited until the seventh day, when Waiswa woke up duller than before. He had returned from the dead, but he was never the same.
Tenwa always used his wits against his brother to keep power over him and feel the tingling in his head when he was more clever and favored by Nabi. He knew what villagers said about Waiswa, and Tenwa was glad it wasn’t him who they thought was cursed: when a child was born with a defect or became sickly, the neighbors and family wondered who cursed them, who bewitched the mother or father so that this could happen. Who had cursed Waiswa was always in dispute. The boys were never quite settled or welcome in Isab’s home from the time of the sickness till the time they were teenagers. So for Tenwa and his brother, Waiswa, the rite of becoming a man—building their own huts—was a mix of bodily transformation and hate.
“Why—you—hate—Father?” Waiswa said in the same halting tempo he’d spoken with since surviving sleeping sickness. They were nearly finished chopping the hill.
“Father—hated—me—first,” Tenwa said, hitting the ground once for each word out of his mouth.
“Does beating mean he hates you?” Waiswa said.
“Do all fathers beat their sons?”
“I—” Waiswa closed his eyes and concentrated on speaking. I—don’t know. Eh! Fathers feed their sons, right? At least Father feeds us.”
“What? Fool! Mother feeds us from pots—eh! She fed us by her two breasts—one of us on each side!” Tenwa said. He grabbed his bare sweating chest and opened his eyes wide. Waiswa laughed and fell off the chunk of the mound he’d been sitting on.
The pieces of the termite hill lay like lava stones shot from a volcano. Tenwa and Waiswa took two days and a thousand blows of their hoe to break the mound into pieces that could be mixed with water and transformed into mud for their houses. They hauled clay jars of water to wet the soil and trudge mud with bare feet. Water spilled down their faces and they quarreled with one another as brothers do.
“Do you really think Father loves to feed us?” Tenwa said.
“No! Father loves banana wine and millet beer more than he loves us,” Tenwa said.
“Have you ever tasted it?”
“Banana wine?” Waiswa said.
“You were sick and they brought the wine to cool your cough, but you were asleep. So—”
“You drank my wine!”
“I shouldn’t have—you coughed all night and by dawn I wanted to beat your head with a club or even a machete.”
“You drank my wine, thief.”
“Call me a thief?” Tenwa pushed Waiswa and he fell back in the mud pit. Waiswa climbed out of the pit like an angry bee, and the brothers wrestled until they had one another in headlocks. They both grew tired at the same time, let go and rested under a mango tree. They were covered in dirt but washed their hands and each bit into a mango.
Tenwa narrowed his eyes, wiped mango juice with the back of his hand and imagined building his hut. Was he constructing his own hut because it was his ancestor’s tradition, or was he building it because he just wanted out of his father’s house?
Tenwa’s father and paternal uncles had built their huts surrounding his grandfather’s house. Now Tenwa and Waiswa were building theirs in the row beside the others. The shade of a sixty-foot-tall mvule tree reached every home at some time during the day. All nineteen of Isab’s children could hold hands and circle the tree, but eighteen would not be enough. The tree was like a giant god, and they believed their ancestors lived in that tree.
The huts were circled close enough to hear every crying baby, each beating at night when Nabi refused to give herself to Isab. Tenwa’s and Waiswa’s huts would be on this rim and the coarse bamboo doors would face inward.
Tenwa grew up inside this cloister. As a youth he ate from his mother’s clay cooking pots and banana leaves spread on the ground. While Isab ate inside the hut, Nabi and the other mamas spread millet bread, potatoes or rice on the banana leaves for the children. Tenwa still depended on Nabi for food and his uncle Mutaka, Isab’s brother, for advice in this confusing part of his life.
Mutaka was a village sage who mostly showed his wisdom by keeping quiet until he had something to say. His wife Senga was a local healer. She had helped save her clan by encouraging them to move away from the lake during the sleeping sickness epidemic. Tenwa was born during that migration. He was raised in all the tribe and clan traditions of the Balangira, a royal clan from which came many of the Soga kings. His second name, Ndaala, meant famine, because he was born during the famine of 1898-1901 in Busoga. Soon after the famine, during the early years of the British colonial protectorate, thirty thousand Soga fell into comas and died of what the Soga called “sleeping sickness.”
The British moved the people away from the lake, where the tsetse flies bit and spread the disease. They organized mission stations and schools. Missionaries set up the Church Missionary Society in Iganga, Kamuli, and Jinja. In 1912, during Semei Kakungulu’s presidency over the Busoga district, young men considered future clan leaders were selected to attend the missionary schools. The Protestant Christian missionaries believed in education and passed this belief on to the Africans, who learned to believe in school as well. A handful of those who were schooled also believed in the “God of the Book” who spoke through men who could read it, mostly in the holy place. But many simply believed in school.
None of Isab’s children had attended these schools. How could a future clan leader come from a drunken father? Tenwa hadn’t really wanted to attend school anyway. And now he wasn’t a child anymore. He was ready to be out of his father’s hut. His own house could not rise fast enough for him.
Tenwa and Waiswa had watched the termite mound accumulate since they were just beginning to speak and greet their elders properly. They had played on the mound, slid down its rain-muddied sides on banana leaves. When the twins were young, Isab told them to go and drum with sticks on a piece of wood to entice and catch the termites. He was afraid they’d again attack and eat the house, with its timbers made from a mvule tree. The boys would extract the termites with their drumming then eat the termites before the insects ate their homes. Many village boys joined them in the fun.
Wood on wood.
The boys beat a piece of mvule wood with two sticks to simulate rain and create panic deep in the hill.
Before the seasonal rains came, the termites ascended up and out to the light to find their mates. If male and female survived the egrets and boys, they mated and became the new king and queen. A new hill would rise above them, and a new civilization would begin underground and move toward the heavens. Otherwise, they fell to the ground and became food for egrets and Kalogo boys.
The termites answered to the sound of drumming and rose from the mound.
The boys called the termites and the termites began their quest for light and sound. For fear of something greater than themselves, they rose. They left the protection of the hill to keep from drowning.
The boys’ hands reached inside and transported the swarm into clay jars. They trapped the termites with rubbery banana leaves and a few were free, flying for brief bursts then dropping to the dust. As they drummed, the village boys chanted, “Better the few termites in the hand than the many flying overhead!”
The beat of the drum drove on.
The boys laughed and drummed and sang their war song of defeating the termites.
“Naise enswa! Naise enswa! Naise enswa!” I killed the termites! I killed the termites! I killed the termites!
The boys killed the termites for more than food. They killed the termites because the termites had been killing their family’s corn and beans, their trees and their fathers’ homes. They killed the termites to bring themselves joy.
And now Tenwa and Waiswa destroyed that same hill to create their new homes. The termite mound for Tenwa had been a refuge from his father’s house, but the hill would soon bring a curse.