The Spirit of Basatomba
After a few minutes of mental emptiness, a sharp burning sensation began to creep all over my skin. A heat wave was pushing down on me, burning my flesh like a flame.
Initially I came to peace with the fact that I was probably dead and most likely gone to Hell, but that thought lasted just a brief moment and disappeared as soon as I realized I had to pee.
I peeled my eyelids open and the sunlight knifed through my eyes into the back of my head. I blinked a few times and the images started to come together.
That's when I saw a silhouette hovering above me, blocking the sky. An electrified chill passed through my spine so fast, I actually peed in my pants.
It wasn't the silhouette itself that terrified me; it was that lower lip, a fleshy loop hanging low by the corners of the mouth, swinging like a jump rope.
She put her hands on my shoulders and lowered her head. Her lower lip brushed against my face and everything went dark.
My next memory is a breeze of hot air waving over my face. I opened my eyes and looked up-- no light, just a straw hut above my head and a few leaves hanging from the roof. I turned my head to the right and saw an old man waving a yellow leaf above me. I opened my mouth but he pressed his finger over my lips. He took a clay jar and put it near my mouth. I gulped the stale water as though it was life itself, and I suddenly remembered fainting in front of a woman.
I felt red in the face and wanted to say something but the old man got up and left the hut through a bead curtain. I tried to get up but my head was a led block and my feet bags of sand.
Another man entered the hut, his entire body painted with a rainbow of white and red. His oxen-sized shoulders could barely fit through the hut's opening and his head almost touched the ceiling. His skin was darker than kalamata olives and his body paint was obnoxiously symmetrical.
He approached my cot and squatted next to me. He lowered his face and gave me a wide, toothy grin.
"What's going on, Mzungu?" he said with a perfect African accent. "Got lost in the jungle, want to be eaten by panthers, eh, Mzungu?" He nodded and tapped me on the shoulder.
I grabbed his extended hand and pushed myself up on my elbows. The man continued to smile and his green eyes smiled as well.
I took a long breath. "Hi, where am I... exactly?"
"He, he, Mzungu, you're far, far away. Far away, Mzungu--"
"My name is actually Devin, Devin Stokes--"
"Yes, I know, I know, Mzungu. I've seen your papers--"
"Here, here, let's go, you must eat, Mzungu."
He pulled me up on my feet and for a moment I thought my bones were replaced with spiked rubber sticks. My whole body was a giant cold sore and my chest was an open torch. The man held me by my shoulders and walked me slowly toward the exit of the hut.
"So, where were you going, Mzungu Devin?"
"I... I was going down the Omo River... a safari, from Adis Ababa--"
"Ha-ha," the man laughed with his whole body, "Ethiopian guides are unreliable, Mzungu, didn't you read that in your little guide?"
I shook my head because I did read that, at least a few times.
We stepped out of the hut and the light hit me again, this time not as strong. The sun was halfway down, behind a pointy mountain peak. In front of me was a crowd of tribesmen gathered in a circle, observing me with an uncanny scientific curiosity.
I scanned the silent crowd from one end to the other and was impressed with the artistic quality of their body paint and floral arrangements looking as if they grew straight out of their heads and chests.
The man who helped me raised one hand and addressed the crowd. I heard 'Mzungu' mentioned a few times, and my name as well, to my delight. He looked at me and squeezed my arm with one hand and placed the other on his chest.
"Mzungu, I am Aztoga, and this is the Kari tribe. And that--" he pointed to a woman in the crowd, "is who you should thank for being alive."
My eyes stopped on her bare breasts for probably way too long, but eventually I looked up and recognized the face that scared me earlier. This time her lip no longer hanged like a loop; it was filled with a plate lip, about ten inches in diameter, painted red.
I smiled and tried to make a sign of gratitude but came up with an awkward combination of a cross, a bow, hands in prayer, nod of the head, neither one mentioned in my guide. The response was a look of surprise and a few wrinkled brows.
An older tribe member approached Aztoga and said something, probably in one of the Gurage dialects, totally foreign to me. Aztoga turned to me and said:
"He asks if pale face will stay the night."
Pale face. I guess that's accurate. Pale face with red dots and antelope hair-- that would've been a bit much.
"I told him you would," Aztoga added, "since we don't let people wander alone in the jungle, do we? So, you will go with him to be purified."
Aztoga nodded. "Yes, you must go with the priest, before the sun sets."
I glanced at the sun and then at the old man. He grinned back and one single tooth sparkled in the sunlight.
Go on a safari, my friends said. It's fun. You'll have a blast. One last crazy trip before the wedding.
I guess I got what I was looking for.
The crowd moved sideways, allowing us to pass. I reluctantly followed the old man and my stomach squeezed in a ball at the sight of the tribes-men's spears and arrows. I was happy their eyes bore no anger, but an intrigued, curious stare. The lip plates and the heavy earrings, stretching their earlobes beyond the shoulders, were slightly disturbing, but still not as disturbing as the deep cuts in their skin, filled with colored paint.
As we walked toward the old man's hut, the crowd murmured behind us.
I looked back and the leader waved at me. I felt a boost of confidence and kept going.
The priest's hut was larger than the others, covered with colorful feathers and leopard skins. I followed the priest inside and I almost choked from the thick incense smoke rising out of a dozen burning pots. On the left side of the hut I saw a boy, fourteen or fifteen I thought, waving a leaf fan over one of the pots.
The priest stopped in the center of the room, mumbled something and then slapped his hands together. "Katumbo!"
The boy rose and skipped closer. He looked at me with his black eyes like two shiny marbles. He had a perfect silk skin and short hair. At this age his skin was unadorned and he still carried a certain innocence in his eyes, a wandering, questioning curiosity.
"Good day," he said loudly, struggling to enunciate each syllable.
"Hello, young man," I said, my voice loaded with surprise. I extended my hand.
The boy wrinkled his forehead and put his hands behind his back. I smiled with embarrassment and cleared my throat.
"I'm sorry," I said and put my hands in my pockets. "You speak English, I see?"
The boy nodded. "Yes, learned it from the British mission."
"Oh, great. Do you know why I am here?"
"Purify, we need to remove the bad spirit, the spirit of the man--"
I leaned forward. "The spirit of the man?"
The old priest mumbled something else and sat down next to the burning pots. He sprinkled a fist of colored sands, and the fire sparkled rainbows.
"We need to pass a part of the spirit of Basatomba onto you." The boy waved his hand around.
That's when I noticed the inside of the hut was covered with cut-outs of animal skin. Teeth, horns and claws hung from the ceiling on multicolor threads and feathers were fletched everywhere.
"Basatoma?" I said in a low voice, panning my eyes over the animal skins.
"The first animal, Basatomba. He carries the purest spirit and without it, man destroys the animal."
I paused for a moment, and I shook my head. "Destroy the animal? I... I wouldn't. I don't even kill bugs--"
"We cannot have men that lack the pure spirit," the boy said and took my hand in his hand. "I am Katumbo, please sit."
I sat down and agreed to have the spirit of Basatomba bestowed upon me, whatever that meant. They had me drink from a cup filled with something that tasted like dirty laundry water, then the priest proceeded to massage my skin with white paint, and sprinkle his colorful sands over me. He chanted and danced, while the boy drummed a slow-cadenced rhythm on a wooden box. The smoke started to get to me-- my eyes were itchy, and my lungs more congested than in a Texan bar.
The ceremony ended abruptly and the priest got up and left without a word. I looked around, a bit surprised. The boy put the drum down and came to me.
I followed the boy outside the hut, looking forward to some clean air. By this time, the village was back to its normal routine. Children ran through the sand, animals walked around freely. I saw a cheetah and a leopard dashing between two huts and my heart jumped. I squeezed Katumbo's hand, but the boy chuckled.
"No worry, Mzungu. Animals know the spirit of Basatomba. They won't hurt you."
The leopard turned its head toward me for a moment, then continued to walk. I could have sworn I saw it smile, but I knew it must have been an illusion.
The knot in my stomach was getting thicker and heavier.
"So... so," I said, "the animals just don't hurt you, is that what it is?"
"No, Mzungu, they know. That's why we needed to purify you. See, that one over there," the boy pointed to the leopard disappearing between trees, "that one is Lahoto, and the other is Surina."
My head was spinning. I took a deep breath trying to get a grip on what was going on. "So, you also name all the animals, and know their names... How is that even possible?"
"We believe that all people were animals once," Katumbo said, "And now they are people, so people have to treat the animals just like they treat themselves."
I was genuinely impressed, and I wished I could get a bit of this child's mind and bring it back home with me.
"For example," he continued, "I was a tiger."
"Huh," I said, "So you actually know what you were before?"
"Of course," the boy said with a chuckle. "You were a bear."
"A bear?" I said and laughed back. "Well, that's a good animal to be, it makes me happy. Thank you."
Katumbo stopped in front of a simple hut. He motioned his head toward it. "You sleep here."
I didn't really feel like being left alone so I let a loud sigh out. "Where... where do you sleep?"
The boy smiled. "I sleep right there," he pointed to a nearby hut. "That is my mother over there, making the fire."
I nodded and watched him run away to his mother. He squatted next to her and started to dig a hole in the ground with a stick.
I woke up the next day with an eerie pain radiating from my stomach throughout my body. It was a sensation similar to the beginning of a cold. My skin was sore, head pounding, and my muscles were pulsating with waves of hot and cold. I blamed it on the weird paint the priest used on me the day before and that nasty drink I ingested.
Katumbo came to my hut with a plate full of fresh fruits.
"Here, Mzungu, this will give you strength. Eat."
"Thank you," I said, "I am not feeling that great today--"
The boy knelt next to my cot and put his palm on my forehead. "The spirit of Basatomba is entering you, Mzungu. You have to accept it."
I wrinkled my brows and gave the boy a questioning gaze. "I'm not sure what that means, but--"
"Eat, eat," the boy interrupted me. "You have to regain your strength. Soon you will leave our village and need your strength to get back."
He was right, in a way. The village, the tribe, the boy, even the priest-- they had a certain familiarity, a special type of warmth that made me feel welcome and at home. I almost forgot that, in fact, I would have to leave them and quite soon. My vacation days were going to end at some point, and being lost in the jungle doesn't count as a valid reason for our human resources department.
"Okay," I said, "I will eat the fruits, but then you have to show me your animals... you know, the ones that won't eat me."
The boy chuckled. "Nobody will eat you, Mzungu, not as long as you are here."
That was encouraging, so I ate the fruits and immediately felt better. The sharp citrus and strong flavor gave me a boost of energy, just like Katumbo had said.
We then walked through the village and I got to see the true Ethiopian life running its course. People seemed uncomfortable to see me walk by and kept a safe distance. On the other hand, the animals had no problem approaching me and sniffing my pants.
"What are they doing?" I said when two baboons almost touched me.
The boy laughed out loud. "They like you, Mzungu, they really like you."
That's what I needed, more monkeys in my life.
At the end of the day I felt weak again, so I retired into my hut a bit early. Despite all the animals, the night was quiet and everything around me felt calm.
I have no clue how long I slept. All I know is I was awakened by a choir of horrific screams. It was as though a horde of barbarians was picketing outside my hut, screaming for their life. I jumped up, stuck my head out of the hut and my heart fell in my feet.
There were least thirty gorillas running among the villagers, grabbing them, squeezing them, stomping them to their deaths. Women and children fled in fear, while the men were trying to defeat the beasts with their spears and arrows.
I saw Katumbo sprinting through the dust, ditching the gorillas, coming straight toward me. He pushed me back inside the hut.
His eyes were wide open and he was out of breath. "You stay here, you stay here, Mzungu!"
"What is happening, why are they attacking?"
"They are others," the boy said, panting.
I could see the fear in his eyes, his chin shivering under heavy breath. He peered through the bead curtain.
"Others?" I said.
"Yes, others, stay here and hide," he said and ran out.
I sat as far into the back of the hut as I could, covered myself with a blanket, ashamed for being afraid, but realistic enough to know I would die in one minute if I'd step outside. So, I stayed there and I listened. I listened to the screams and the laments, I listened to the animal's growls and snarls, and the sounds of spears going through flesh.
Eventually the noise subsided and moments later the turmoil stopped completely, leaving behind only moans and cries. I came out of the hut and felt sick at the sight of the massacre. The gorillas had been defeated, but half of the tribe must've been decimated too. The mothers and wives mourned their men and their children, hugging their broken bodies covered in blood.
I looked toward Katumbo's hut with a knot in my throat. I saw his mother on the ground, covering a body with her body. I ran as fast as I could.
The mother moved sideways and I saw the boy's body. He was alive, but badly injured. Rows of claw-marks carved his body and blood was gushing out like a river. I knelt next to him and held his hand. His eyes moved, his mouth shivered.
I heard a scream behind me. I turned and saw Aztoga running toward us. He knelt by Katumbo with tears in his eyes. He hugged the child and yelled to a tribe man.
"Your son?" I asked.
Aztoga nodded and caressed the boy's forehead.
The tribe man returned with the priest. Aztoga spoke to them in their language and they carried the boy to the healer's hut. I wanted to step in, but Aztoga stopped me.
"Return to your hut, Mzungu, and pray for Katumbo."
I left them with their prayers and returned to my hut. The tribe people gathered all the dead gorillas in a pile and prepared to set them on fire, while others carried the bodies of their relatives somewhere into the jungle. A cemetery, I thought at the time.
Three days and three nights I waited to see Katumbo come out of that hut, but every day I saw nothing but healer after healer going in and coming out empty handed. Katumbo's mom refused to eat, withering under my eyes, just wobbling in front of her hut, surrounded by animals. Every now and then she would look toward the pile of sticks and rocks-- Katumbo's playground-- and she would sob.
I tried to get closer to the other tribe members, but I noticed them getting out of my way a lot, looking away, somehow avoiding me. Once again, I thought this was just the heat playing tricks on me, or just them being extra careful with a stranger around them.
The only other person I found speaking English was an old hunter named Lakunda. He mostly stayed in front of his hut, watching his pigs roll in the sand. I saw him smoking from a pipe carved out of a stick, so I thought a gift might warm him up. I gave him my bag of flavored tobacco, one of the last few things I carried with me.
Somehow this cruel heat didn't inspire me to smoke, but Lakunda was very happy to have it.
"I noticed a lot of animals lately," I said after I watched him prepare his smoke.
He looked at me with narrow eyes and nodded slowly. "The spirits return home, Mzungu."
He puffed his pipe and looked away.
He puffed again a few times. "Are you feeling good, white man?" he asked, noticing me scratching my forearms nervously.
"Yeah," I said, "It's this itch I got all over. Must be the food, or the water. Something."
He looked me in the eyes, but didn't say anything.
"Why were the gorillas here, Lakunda? I haven't heard of such behavior before."
"The Rasari tribe," he said in a low voice. "They sent them."
I must've looked really surprised because he smiled back at me.
"You must not stay here for too long, Mzungu," he said after a long breath.
"I know," I responded and peered toward Katumbo's tent. "I just want to make sure he'll be all right."
"He will," Lakunda said, "One way or the other."
"What do you mean?"
Lakunda turned his pipe over and hit it on a rock to empty the tobacco. He got up, pushing his weight against a wooden cane and looked at me with strangely cold eyes. "Go home, Mzungu, go soon."
I watched him walk away and wondered if he was really worried about my wellbeing or if there was something else going on.
On the fourth day, I came out of my hut and saw Katumbo's mom sitting next to the little play area. The sticks and the rocks were gone and a square red blanket took their place.
I approached her and saw her smile. I looked for Katumbo, but didn't see him.
"Katumbo?" I said to her.
She looked at me through her warm eyes and pat a little tiger cub on its head. The tiger was playing on the red blanket, biting on a stick. It looked me right in the eyes and gave me a high-pitched gnarl.
I thought for sure that she had lost her mind, that the loss of her child finally got to her and she had snapped.
I ran to the healer's hut, out of breath. Aztoga was there, talking to the priest.
"Where is Katumbo?" I said.
Aztoga glanced at me for a moment, and then gazed toward the jungle. "He is in a better place now, a different place."
I felt my stomach cringe and everything spun around me.
"Where... where is... where is the cemetery?"
Aztoga lifted one brow. "Cemetery? There are no cemeteries in the jungle, Mzungu."
He motioned his hand around pointing toward the trees. "His spirit is now one with the jungle."
I let a long breath out and withheld my tears.
Aztoga leaned over toward me. "Mzungu," he said, "We welcomed you into our tribe, and we were happy to have you. But I believe it is time for you to return to your people."
I stared at his eyes and saw a harshness in them, something I blamed on the loss of his child. It's not that I didn't want to go already, but his sudden coldness felt a bit strange and off-putting. So, I just nodded and shook his hand.
"You are right," I said, "Thank you for your hospitality. I will go first thing tomorrow."
Aztoga's face stood motionless as he shook my hand back. "We will send you with one of our guides. He will take you to the nearest town."
"It's okay," I said with confidence. "I'll manage--"
He squeezed my hand harder. "You need the guide, Mzungu. You won't find your way out without him. Trust me."
He let go of my hand, turned around, and left me puzzled and confused.
I looked at the priest for some help, but he backed up inside his hut, avoiding my eyes. At the time I thought I was just imagining things.
After a few days through the jungle, with my guide keeping a safe distance from me, I made my way up to a small town called Sawla. As soon as I set foot in the town, the Kari guide disappeared without a word.
I wandered through town for a while and eventually I met an Australian scientific expedition who agreed to take me back to Adis Ababa. We rode in the back of a truck and I told them what has happened to me.
"So, you see," I said, "I had the spirit of Basatomba passed onto me." I smiled and lifted my hands.
"Well," one of them said, "My name is Stew, by the way. I'm not an expert, but I thought Basatomba was not a good spirit. Jess, do you know?"
The blond woman swallowed a slice of orange and smiled at me. "As far as I know, it's supposed to be a bad spirit, a bad omen, something that one wants to cast away."
"Really?" I said, skeptical. "So, what does that mean?"
She shrugged. "How should I know? Probably they thought you'd be a good host."
"For the bad spirit?" I said and shook my head. "I just find it odd that they would give me the wrong side of a myth, especially after they saved my life."
Stew scoffed. "Listen, man, not sure about you, but we are all men of science here, so I can assure you it means nothing."
"You know," Jess said shaking a finger in the air, "These stories have hundreds of versions. And in the end it's all about what the teller believes, just like any other myth."
I couldn't help but think how quickly Aztoga wanted me out of their village. I scratched my arm with anger until it became crimson red.
"Got a rash there?" Jess asked.
"No idea," I said and lifted my forearms. "Maybe something I ate. Water retention, I don't know. I feel bloated and itchy."
Stew chuckled. "It's called the I need to get the heck out of Africa syndrome."
I laughed, but I didn't really mean it.
I left them in Adis Ababa and headed over to my hotel, longing for a hot shower and some coffee. As much as I enjoyed my stay, I was ready to return home. Unlucky for me, the next plane out was in four days, so until then I was stuck in this oven of a city.
The first night I hugged that pillow like a lover, and I snuggled between the fresh sheets, enjoying the cool breeze of the AC unit.
It was about 4AM when I woke up from a nightmare, body all sweaty, mouth heavy and congested. The air smelled wet, and my skin crawled with an sharp itch. I took another shower, and as I came out of the tub I swear I saw a shadow slide against my wall. A little boy, I thought.
"Katumbo?" I screamed and I ran into the room. There was no one there, but I could feel a presence. Something mighty, strong. I looked up and the ceiling seemed to curve down and press upon me.
Over the next two days, I felt worse and worse. Sleepless, uncomfortable and overtaken by paranoia. I asked a few people about the Kari tribe, but they looked at me as if I was talking about ghosts.
I was afraid I got some kind of African fever-- my temperature would oscillate and my eyes were playing tricks on me, and so was my hearing.
"Are you all right, sir?" the busboy asked me when I came down in the lobby. "You don't look so good, sir."
I looked at him through the blur in my eyes and I handed him a twenty. "Just get me to the airport."
If you read so far, you probably figured I had never made it to the airport and I would probably never make it home either. They threw me out of the plane right away and directed me to a hospital, but I knew this wasn't something a hospital or any human could cure.
I went back to the hotel and rented the room for all my money and locked myself inside with a crate of food. By now I can barely use my right hand, so I am sorry if my writing is illegible. Both my hands doubled in size in the last day, claws and hair grew out of them overnight, and my body is covered with thick brown hair. My voice is not my voice anymore. It's a snarl so scary I am afraid to ever try to talk. When I first saw myself in the bathroom mirror, I remembered Katumbo: “You were a bear,” he said.
Basatomba. The bad omen. That's what it was? Nobody heard about the Kari tribe. So who was Katumbo, the little tiger? And who am I now? What am I?
I know it sounds crazy, so I included two pictures with this letter. I took them myself with your Polaroid. I hope you won't remember me like this.
As for what has really happened to me, if I am now nothing but a shell for a bad spirit-- I don't think I'll ever know the truth, but the only way is to try and find the Kari tribe on my own. I must make it, otherwise somebody in this town will surely hunt me down and hang my head on the wall.
I am leaving for the jungle tonight. It's the only way. If you never hear from me again, know I will always love you.