Thursday, September 18, 2008


The path wound over the burnt earth, the black cotton soil, through random fields of yam and cassava, past mud huts sheltered by manyara hedges.

Suddenly Daudi stopped. "What's wrong?" asked the young woman beside him.

"There are two men ahead," he replied, stooping to the ground for a rock. Hussein followed suit, and together they advanced with their arms in the air. An immense granite boulder materialized out of the darkness.

"Usiku," cried Daudi. When there was no answer, he yelled the warning again, and this time a faint sound slithered down from the top of the boulder. Daudi and Hussein drew back their arms threateningly.

"Mchana," replied a grudging voice above their heads.

Daudi and Hussein dropped their rocks and guided her safely forward.

"I don't understand," she said. "What just happened?"

"Usiku means night," explained Daudi. "If you meet someone whom you suspect of wrong doing, you say that to him. If he means no harm, he will answer mchana, which means afternoon. If he means evil, he will say usiku, or nothing at all."

The young woman was incredulous. "But what's to prevent him from saying mchana and then knocking you over the head when you're not looking."

Daudi sounded puzzled. "I have never heard of such a thing happening."