Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Mancala (a story)

Tasie scanned the dry earth before him and began to worry. The rains would soon come and he had no seed to bury under God's perfect soil. His father would not understand how he could have lost the only money they had to buy new seed. Seed was hard to come by but money was even more rare. It had felt foreign in his pocket, weighing him down on one side like an unbalanced yoke. He'd have preferred to carry unequal buckets of water over the precious currency that his father had entrusted to his care. But Tasie was 14 years old now, a man according to all tribal traditions, and purchasing seed was a rite of passage he had failed at miserably.

Last year his cousin Yuki reached manhood and was given the same task to perform, among the many other rites of his age. The celebrations went on for days after Yuki brought home enough seed for half the village let alone his immediate kin. They had been able to grow squash that year, a food not consumed by their family for nearly a generation. Yuki was a hero.

Tasie's father said only one thing to him when he handed over the seed money. "My son can do better."

He walked proudly to the market that day, waving to his friends and uncles as he went, seeing the hope in their eyes as he strutted. He believed his father's words for he had achieved greater things than his cousin on many occasions before despite Yuki's seniority. Tasie was better at hoops than his older cousin. He could pick more beans in the same amount of time. His dung beetles raced faster and he could pronounce English words better than almost anyone. To say he and his cousin were rivals was a gross understatement of fact. They were more than that; they were enemies too.

Tasie could see the village in the distance, some miles away yet across the Mara. Sparse tree clusters provided the only shade between him and home. It was near peak day so he sought out the densest of the trees to wait out the heat and gather his thoughts. He needed to prepare for his father's reaction, which would undoubtedly be severe. At best his punishment would be restrictions, he would never be allowed to marry and have children. After all, his inability to provide was profoundly obvious. At worst banishment; stripped of all tribal recognition, nearly naked, he would be turned out of his village to fend for himself among the lions. He would be labeled 'hyena', a scavenger not even good enough to be eaten.

Tasie sunk to the dirt, leaning his back against the soft bark of a Marula tree and began to cry. His eyes darkened and a trickle of water cut a path down his dusty face. "I am not a man," he lamented as he cried. "I am not a man." He repeated this over and over until heat and exhaustion took hold and he fell into a deep and troubled sleep. He dreamt he stood in front of a mountain of seeds; his joy overwhelmed him as he ran toward it. As he neared he heard laughing and saw his friends pointing at him. Their brilliant smiles dug into his soul as he realized they were mocking him, strutting exaggeratedly beside him. But each time Tasie pointed to his seed mountain, trying to show them his success, their laughter grew louder. He stopped running and tried to talk to them but they would not listen. Suddenly the images of his friends dissolved and he was surrounded by hyenas. They circled his carcass, waiting to consume him once his heart ceased its beating. The sound of the hyenas was very loud in his ears and he tried to scream but no sound came.

Tasie's eyes snapped open from the nightmare. He was lying on the ground looking up into the eyes of his cousin, Yuki.

"Cousin," Yuki said, "What are you doing? Where are the seeds?"

Tasie was too disoriented to reply. The sun had moved his shade away and his face was no longer protected. It hurt to squint his eyes. It hurt to think about his predicament. Why did it have to be Yuki who came to find him?

Tasie sprang to his feet, ignoring the helping hand proffered by his cousin. He dug his feet into the dust and held up two clenched fists. "Stay back!" he shouted, and for a moment he wondered where the circle of hyenas had gone. Yuki's eyebrows touched the sky and a big grin spread across his face. Yuki was not only a year older, he was much bigger than Tasie. His shoulders were so broad that hugging him would only be possible if you had orangutan arms. He towered over Tasie. Even Yuki's teeth were bigger and when he spoke it was like distant thunder.

"Where is your seed, cousin?"

Tasie shook his head as if to shake away the unpleasant memory.

"The money, then."

Tasie continued to move his head left and right but tipped it forward in shame. Yuki was the winner now. Tasie was nothing. Yuki looked at the sun, gauging its position then looked around the entire horizon. Tasie was certain that Yuki intended to do him harm and was checking for a witness. Yuki's heavy gaze came to rest on his small cousin.

"Come." Yuki began to walk east, away from the village. Tasie did not follow. "COME!"

Tasie shuffled along in Yuki's wake. Before long they neared the market. Yuki brought them to the seed vendor, who eyed the young men suspiciously.

"Wait here." Tasie's feet became bricks and he stopped. Yuki went to the vendor, who crossed his arms tightly as if to repel any reasonable conversation. Yuki spoke, gesturing to his small cousin as he did, but the vendor simply shook his head. Yuki did not back down. He began to yell and gesture wildly about, drawing the attention of other businessmen at the market. The vendor suddenly dropped his arms and Tasie feared for his cousin's life, for although Yuki was big for his age, the vendor was a strong man of 30 years and had arms the size of Tasie's torso. But instead of a fight, the vendor began to laugh.

Yuki motioned for Tasie to come near so he picked up his heavy feet and slowly made his way toward the two men.

"He will play another game of Mancala for a bag of seed."

What? Tasie couldn't believe his ears. How did Yuki know he had lost his money to this vendor over a game of Mancala? That he had risked his own ego for a double or nothing bet? Why was his rival doing this thing for him?

"Well?" The gigantic vendor bellowed. Tasie nodded. It was his only chance for redemption.

In the back of the vendor's hut the wooden Mancala board sat on the ground. The board was the most beautiful one Tasie had ever seen, with carvings all around and a head indicating its strategic importance in decision-making. Tasie had played Mancala with stones from a very young age. His village elders had a board they used for deciding who would lead their people. It was a game of strategy, the winner of which showing superior leadership skills.

The vendor filled each smooth well along both sides of the board with 4 seeds and indicated for Tasie to begin. He knew that being first was a disadvantage but Tasie had an unorthodox way of playing that he hoped would work to his advantage. He pulled four seeds from one of the wells and systematically deposited them in the subsequent wells, picking up the seeds from the fourth well and continued in this manner until he deposited his last seed in an empty well. The vendor chuckled to himself and took his turn accordingly. The object of the game was to move all of the seeds into the collection well at the end of the board. The last one to move the final seed into the collection well was the winner. The boy and the man moved adeptly and with speed. An average game would last no more than 3 minutes.

Tasie had played the first game against the vendor believing only that he would win but he played this game with the full knowledge that he could lose everything. He played with every ounce of strength, energy and cunning that he could muster. When 12 seeds remained in scattered groupings on the board, Tasie realized that the vendor was going to lose. He could not let on that he knew for a less-skilled player could still make a mistake now that would lose him the game. Tasie was smarter than the average player. He would not make a mistake this time.

The vendor took his turn, leaving 9 seeds on the board. Tasie hesitated. The vendor grinned but Tasie was putting on a show of doubt when he really knew exactly what to do. The vendor leaned back.

"Double or nothing again, Boy?"

Tasie's face went hot. He looked over at Yuki who shook his head almost imperceptibly, as if to say 'don't do anything you can't undo'. Tasie scratched his head for the benefit of the vendor.

"I...I guess so."

The vendor let out a belly laugh and Tasie felt spittle land on his cheek. He reached out toward the wrong well and the vendor's pupils dilated. Then he moved his hand to the next well and in 12 seconds neatly claimed the remaining seeds. Yuki came running over to him to view the empty board. The collection well was full. The vendor's eyes drew together in disbelief. He patted the board as if he had missed something. He searched the ground under the board to see if a seed had fallen out of a well, nullifying the game. But all seeds were in the collection well.

Yuki fashioned a yoke by tying one bag from each end of a sturdy branch. Tasie carried his winnings easily across his shoulders, which somehow seemed bigger now. The cousins walked in silence. When they were just outside their village Yuki stopped.

"I must leave you now, cousin."

Tasie set the seeds down. He looked up into Yuki's gentle face. "How...?"

Yuki grinned and kicked up some dust.

"Last year when I was sent to market for seeds the very same thing happened to me. Your father, my uncle, took me back and I played the best Mancala game of my life. Uncle said someday I could return the favour. Now some day you can do the same. But for now you need to take your seeds home."

Tasie watched as his cousin slipped away behind a hut. Just before he disappeared he looked one last time back at his cousin, held his number 1 finger up to his lips and said, "Shhh."

Tasie loaded the seeds onto his shoulders once more. The bags easily held twice as many seeds than his cousin had brought home the previous year. He lifted his chin, began to smile and strutted toward home.
The End

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