Boletilemang Gabokgatlhe – Nyalala
Nyalala, an evergreen forest lies snuggled and almost hidden within three hills. From afar, the hills look like two gigantic adults and a child frantically circling the forest. The people of Jibui swear that far from being a mirage, it is true that the three hills are in constant motion. The elders claim that the three hills are the guardians of Nyalala, the ears and the eyes of the forest.
Nyalala is never mentioned in loud voices lest the Gods become agitated. From a tender age, children are taught about Nyalala and never to point or stare at it. Those who transgress can count on losing their sight or limbs and at worst, the forest is known to use its magical power to suck and swallow transgressors.
Nobody is known to have entered Nyalala and come out alive except my brother Ngala. Like all the people of Jibui, he was taught about Nyalala from infancy. All children were shown the boundary of Nyalala and sternly warned, “If cattle cross the boundary, never attempt to follow them. If the Gods want them, it’s their right. Fear and respect Nyalala, and Nyalala will do you no harm.”
The elders profess that Nyalala has not always been out of bounds. It was not always encircled by the three mountains. The story they tell is that, a very long time ago when the king of the Baka passed away, there was a bloody struggle for succession. According to the laws of the tribe, the rightful heir was the youngest son from the last wife of the King. Since the youngest son was hardly a month old, the eldest son was supposed to act as regent until the youngest came out of age.
This however was not to be. During the instalment ceremony, the eldest son was supposed to step on the skin of a lion but to the horror of the tribe, he draped the skin on his shoulders, thereby declaring himself the King.
The tribe swiftly broke into two camps. The youngest son and his mother were smuggled out of the village by their supporters. The self-declared King unleashed a reign of terror on the villagers. Those who did not support him or were suspected of sympathising with the rightful heir were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to die in Nyalala.
Fear invaded the tribe until one mid-day out of the blues a thunderous roar was heard from Nyalala. Lightning struck the usurper, his wife and their only son. Killing them on the spot. When the people looked at Nyalala, they were amazed to see that three gigantic hills had sprouted and somehow were circling the forest in a frantic and melancholic manner. The Gods had reclaimed the forest from the abuse of mere mortals. From that day, nobody would enter Nyalala and come out alive except my young brother Ngala.
What my brother encountered in Nyalala probably will remain forever a mystery. He has never talked about the incident. In fact, he does not recall ever going there. As usual on that fateful day, he had gone herding cattle with his age mates. The boys were a disciplined bunch, having not lost even a single cow in their first year of herding.
Their record made the one I had set with my age mates an embarrassment to the tribe. We had lost the whole herd on our first day of herding. We had mistaken a stray donkey for a lion and had hastily beaten a retreat leaving the cattle to fend themselves. The elders had chided us saying that if it would have been a lion the herd would have been the first to scatter.
Usually the herd boys brought the cattle back when the sun was about to set. Their shrill whistles would be heard long before the first cattle emerged from the forest. On this fateful day, we were surprised to see the boys emerging from the forest in an uncharacteristic marathon race.
When they reached the compound, one by one they collapsed from exhaustion. Straight away, I recognised that Ngala was missing.
“Where is Ngala?”
“… Nya… Nyala…la….” the eldest boy struggled.
“What! Bring water for the boys quick!” shouted my father who had just come out from the hut.
After drinking some water, the eldest boy haltingly told us what had happened. Apparently our bull wandered away from the other cattle when they were about to drive them. My brother who was not prepared to lose one of his cattle went after it. The bull started running away passing the giant baobab tree, which marked the boundary of Nyalala.
The other boys shouted for my brother to stop. The bull had passed the boundary and therefore, there was nothing that could be done. To their horror my brother also went past the baobab in a dead run. Within a short time, the bull, with my brother in earnest pursuit disappeared into the forest.
That night the tribe congregated at our cattle post to share in our grief. The village traditional doctor arrived at midnight dressed in his usual attire of animal skins. Instead of proceeding to my father to be briefed about our mishap, as it was customary, he stood in the centre and let out a spine chilling laughter.
“Ha! Ha! Haa…! You short sighted people…. ha … ha…haa… celebrate!”
The whole compound went silent. The doctor was a highly respected person in the village and his laughter and outburst were uncharacteristic of him.
“What’s wrong with you doctor, are you mad or something?” the King who was sitting next to my father enquired with a strong but quivering voice.
“Ha! Ha! Haa! Dry those tears and join me! Haa! Dry those tears and join me..Ha! ha! haa…!”
The doctor started singing and dancing. After what seemed like an hour of hypnosis, the doctor abruptly stopped his act and sat down.
“Let me share with you the good news, because although you have eyes you can’t see.”
“I wish to inform you that, come tomorrow I’ll have an apprentice. I’ll present him before this gathering first thing in the morning. My own assistant, who shall take over when I finally depart from this world, doesn’t that call for celebration?”
Without any doubt, the information was of importance to the tribe. The problem was that the time and place were not right for such dramatic presentations. My family had just lost a son to Nyalala forest.
“Go away from my compound doctor!” my father ordered.
He left the compound laughing all the way telling the people to dry their tears. The villagers were left whispering their confusion.
He arrived early the following morning. Under his armpit were folded clothes made of animal skin that would fit boy. Without wasting much time, he sought permission from my father and the king to address the tribe.
“Thank you Baka. I shall not be long. The gods have chosen and I’m here to present the chosen one. These are his apparels. From today he is no longer a boy but my apprentice I present to you Ngala!”
There was confusion. The doctor was mad for sure, I concluded. Nobody entered Nyalala and came out alive.
“Look at Nyalala you short sighted lot and believe!”
From Nyalala my brother emerged driving our bull with several cows. “Remember, your future doctor shall never recall what happened. The gods have erased his memories from yesterday up to the time when I will dress him in these clothes. The cattle he is driving are for his family. A doctor does not need any wealth.”
What we had witnessed was a confirmation of the power of the