East of Lake Turkana, Kenya, Africa – 2028
Sweat dripped from the leader’s face as he looked back to the range of mountains behind them. The chasing group were hidden from his gaze.
The group of men wound their way in single file along the grassless and barren shores of Lake Turkana. Running in a northerly direction, they followed an old path that had been used by fishermen and herders for generations. Their pace was at a steady lope, like the jackal that once roamed the grasslands. There was a determined urgency in the men’s gait. Each man focused on the sandaled heels of his comrade in front of him, all of them following the lead of the tall, dreadlocked man who ran up front. The heavy and tattered backpacks they all carried swayed rhythmically in time with each footfall on the dusty red ground. Machine guns, pistols, axes and their trademark machetes added to their burden.
The leader glanced behind them again, scanning the mountainous horizon for any signs of movement. As the sun approached its zenith, Chilemba Wangai eventually slowed up his pace and came to rest under a lone acacia tree beside the dusty path. The long laboured breaths of his men showed him that they were grateful for the opportunity to rest and have a drink of water, which they all sipped cautiously from their water bags. Not a precious drop could be wasted.
‘Fellow warriors of the Njenga Mungiki gang. Gather around quickly for we can only rest for a few minutes,’ Chilemba said, breathing deeply as his men approached. With a casual flick, he tossed his dreadlocks over his lean muscled shoulder and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. His brown t-shirt was soaked through and stained from where the backpack had been in contact with his body.
The men squatted down on their haunches in front of him, as was their custom, glistening beads of sweat running down their faces and dripping down onto the parched soil. They all took long, deep breaths, cooling their bodies down as fast as they could. The shimmering heat haze that rose from the barren landscape closed in on them, oppressing any cooling breeze.
‘Dudu Njenga, our fallen father, would have been proud of this fierce pace, my warriors,’ he said, looking at the rag-tag bunch of men squatting around him who all wore different lengths of khaki pants, sleeveless shirts and tyre tread homemade sandals. Chilemba glanced up at the rocky escarpment they had just descended from. Still, nothing moved. He hoped his men didn’t notice his concern. He locked eyes with one of the runners sitting across from him. One who knew his soul as well as he did. One who knew the danger that followed them.
Chilemba looked around at the proud marauders he led, all of them staring intensely at him, waiting for their next instructions, waiting for him to take the lead again. He rubbed at the itching poultice that covered the grenade shrapnel wound on his forearm. The pain was intense, but he wouldn’t let it show.
‘Men, our two comrades who volunteered to wait behind to observe the mangy hyenas who chase us and want to send us to meet with our forefathers, should have caught up by now. I fear that they have perished,’ Chilemba said.
‘Jackson Bayo. Brother, do we wait for the others?’ Chilemba enquired of his second in command. The man squatting across from him was shorter than Chilemba but more muscular and wore the scars of battle across his face. He clenched his jaw out of habit while he thought.
‘Brother, the men tracking us are getting closer, and I agree, our cadres might have been killed. If we keep stopping, sooner or later we will be caught. It is your decision that we will listen to, and obey.’
‘We will head out and stop only once more today, and then we will assume that they have been captured or made their way to Ethiopia,’ Chilemba said.
One of the other Mungiki members said. ‘We agree with your decision, Chilemba. We will follow where you lead.’
‘Jackson, take the lead,’ Chilemba said, pointing north with his outstretched hand. All the men rose slowly, adjusted their backpacks and slipped their machine guns over their shoulders.
‘Forward,’ shouted Jackson. He jogged along the path, and in unison, all the men followed and slipped in behind one another. Within a few paces, they were in the perfect rhythm again, and Chilemba fell in at the rear of the group, smiling fondly at the thought of his ever serious friend up front.
With the monotony of the barren landscape continuing, Jackson eventually shouted from the front of the column, and the men rapidly came to halt. The rocky floor of the valley went on for as far as the eye could see and they were stood at a junction in the dusty path. Jackson turned to Chilemba.
‘Which way, brother?’ Jackson called.
Chilemba briefly looked down both dirt paths, and then said. ‘Head up into the mountains, the other path goes to Lake Chew Bahir. We can hope that they think we have gone south.’
The tired group of men started their slog up the winding path. The landscape resembled a plateau on an alien planet, the narrow dusty path winding through areas of large rounded boulders and splintered scree that littered the valley sides, forcing the men to stick to the stony path. They moved through the midday heat without stopping, as the path continued relentlessly upwards through the valleys. Legs and lungs burned from the strain of climbing towards the heights of Ethiopia.
The occasional dead acacia tree and clumps of small lifeless shrubs became more prevalent as they moved onto a higher plateau. Small dust devils whipped up in the gusting wind and Chilemba could not remember when last he had felt the refreshing sensation of raindrops washing down his skin.
Suddenly Jackson’s clenched fist shot up into the air, no order came from his lips. Everyone stopped immediately. Chilemba felt his gut tighten, and his hand dropped down to his machete. All of the men went down onto one knee, instinctively reaching down to slip the safeties off their machine guns. They waited in silence as Chilemba made his way to the front, he knelt beside Jackson, who pointed down to the floor of the valley.
Nestled amongst a clump of dead acacia trees was a small rural village. Eight huts were positioned in a semi-circle around a central fire and a much larger dwelling. All had blackened grass roofs that shimmered in the sun while traditional white painted patterns and markings adorned the mud-covered walls, which were instrumental in keeping the occupants cool in the scorching African sun.
‘Any movement down there?’ Chilemba asked.
Jackson shook his head, eyes trained on the nearby valley walls. ‘I see no movement anywhere, it seems deserted,’ he said.
‘The path takes us right through the middle of it. We cannot go around it either. We will lose too much time,’ Chilemba said.
Jackson nodded. ‘It will also be risky to go through the village because this narrow path will mean we cannot fan out or flank it from either side. We will be easy targets. It is very risky, my brother.’
Chilemba sat studying the small innocuous village. The livestock paddock was empty, so the men and boys could be out looking for grazing, and the woman might be fetching water or firewood. It would still have left the elders and young children, running around. There was no gentle spiral of smoke from the open fire, or puff of smoke from a hastily extinguished one either.
‘It is deserted, I can feel it,’ Chilemba said.
Jackson looked at his friend and nodded. ’I trust your instincts as my own, brother.’
As one person, they rose from their haunches, repositioned their weapons and made their way down into the silent valley.
With their senses heightened, they walked into the small village and spread out to walk between the small round huts. The smooth hardened floor around the blackened central fireplace and semicircle of huts was baked solid by the sun, and would usually have been swept clean each day by the women. A layer of dust had been blown down from the valley wall, with small acacia leaves pushed up against the mud steps in front of the open doorways. The residents had long since left their homes and no personal possessions were left behind, indicating that the tribe had simply moved on to better things. Chilemba let off a short, sharp whistle and gestured to all the men to join him in front of the large main hut.
‘Sit, everyone. We’ll rest for fifteen minutes,’ Chilemba said. ‘We will wait this one final time and see if our scouts can catch up with news.’
‘Will the gang follow us into Ethiopia?’ one of the men asked.
‘If they are part of a bigger gang, they might give up and return home, but if it is only a small roving gang, then they will follow us across the border,’ Chilemba replied.
‘Should we not wait for them to catch up and settle this?’ asked Jackson.
‘This is not the place to stage an ambush, Jackson. If we can find such a place, we will fight. We don’t have enough ammunition for a frontal attack. We need to lie in ambush,’ Chilemba said.
‘Like the puff adder,’ one of the men replied.
Chilemba smiled. ‘Like the puff adder.’
‘Remember how we used to set ambushes for the hyenas that raided our goat herds at home? So we shall wait for the best opportunity to kill this chasing pack,’ Jackson said.
‘I remember with great fondness those youthful, carefree days we had shared before Dudu Njenga kidnapped us to serve in his army,’ Chilemba said.
‘We became men very quickly, brother,’ Jackson replied.
‘You became a man a long time before that, Jackson. The day you took your spear and ran it through the leopard that was on top of me, tearing at my flesh. The whole village hailed your coming of age.’
‘This is true. Those were terrible wounds, my brother.’
‘All have long healed thanks to you and the kind missionaries who helped raise us. I still owe you a life debt.’
‘Which you will settle when you get the chance, brother.’
‘That I will. Maybe when we are clear of this dry place, I will find you a nice fat wife to tend your fire and your bed,’ Chilemba said.
The group sat on their haunches in front of the scraped-out fireplace and ate dried fish and wild cabbage out of a small plastic container. The gusting wind had died down in the village, and there was silence on the valley floor.
One of the other men nearest to Chilemba asked. ‘From Lake Chew Bahir, are we to progress straight to Addis Ababa? What happens when we get there? I hear that it is a difficult city to live and work in.’
Chilemba was silent for a while before turning to Jackson, who answered for him. ‘We have been running for nearly nine years now and have nothing to show for it, our families are most likely murdered, our country is no longer able to provide for her children, our future is dark and dangerous.’ All the men looked down at the dry soil beneath their feet, nodding in silent acknowledgement.
‘After Dudu was killed, Chilemba and I started talking about leaving our beloved Africa for the shores of the abundant Europe. The white missionaries told us so much about it. A place where fields are green, rain falls in abundance every day, and a man can raise and feed many cattle. A great place to raise a family.’
The sound of scree and falling rocks broke the reverie, and they all swung their weapons in the direction of the path that led into the village. Stumbling towards them were two figures. One of the men, who had his bloodied arm around the taller man’s shoulder, had blood stains all over the front his green shirt, and he dragged his left foot, using his AK47 as a walking stick.
‘Help them,’ Chilemba shouted.
Two of Chilemba’s men ran out to meet the men and helped carry the wounded man into the village. His face was a mask of pain, and he winced every time one of the helping men moved in the slightest. Blood dripped down the front of his shirt and his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
‘Lay him against that hut and get him something for a pillow,’ Chilemba ordered. ‘Get him water, Jackson.’
‘No, brother, do not waste your water on me, my time has come. Water will not help me now,’ the wounded man replied.
Chilemba knelt beside the wounded man and took his hand. ‘Speak, young Chambonda.’
‘There are around thirty men tracking us including three of those mangy London Boys. They are heavily armed and about five kilometres behind us. They were tracking easily on the dusty path,’ he struggled to say, his breathing laboured and the pain evident on his face.
‘How long until they reach us?’ Chilemba asked.
‘About an hour. Leave me ammunition and a grenade and I will hold them off as long as I am able. I cannot travel anymore and will be pleased to take them with me to meet my ancestors,’ he said, grabbing Chilemba’s hand.
Chilemba swallowed hard, and he looked deep into his comrade’s eyes. He unclipped a grenade from his military webbing and pressed it into the man’s bloody hand. ‘Your sacrifice will not be forgotten, brother.’
Chilemba walked away from his men towards the edge of the village, looking up at the spot where their pursuers would come over the ridge. He turned to look at his small group of men.
‘You two! Carry our brother into that hut over there. Make sure he can see the incoming path and has a good view of the filthy hyenas when they fall to his bullets. The rest of you, pack up,’ Chilemba said. ‘We will not waste the time that Chambonda will buy for us.’
Quickly and well-drilled, the men packed without saying a word then moved to the furthest edge of the village. Slipping into running mode, they moved up the other side of the valley, driven by a welcome rest and a new urgency. To make the time count.
The sun had started to throw long shadows across their path, and Chilemba felt the tiredness in his legs. The terrain had thankfully softened, and the narrow path had all but vanished, giving way to large whistling thorn acacias and small shrubs on either side of them. A fine carpet of green grass shoots covered the floor in between the trees, and they sensed that they were through the bad terrain for a while. One of his men shouted something from the back of the group.
He pointed to a grassy area in a thicket of small trees to their right. Hidden by large bushes, was a donkey. Excitement broke out at the sight of a possible meal.
As the group of men slowly approached the little brown animal, it looked up at them with shaggy brown hair covering its eyes, and then carried on eating. When they got near, Chilemba raised his AK47, and a second donkey calmly walked into his line of sight, followed by a few more. Two of them had crude hessian halters on them.
‘There are seven of them,’ Jackson exclaimed. ‘Scout around and see if there is an owner sitting under a tree somewhere.’
The men split up and calmly canvassed the area, and a few minutes later one of the men came running back to Chilemba. ‘We have found the old man. He is dead. It looks like old age took him.’
‘Okay then, leave him where he fell. We will take the animals and use them as a diversion,’ Chilemba said.
‘What do you have in mind, brother?’ Jackson asked.
‘The path has opened up for us because of the open terrain, and the ground is a lot softer, so we can start to anti-track. These animals can help us to create confusion and buy us more time,’ Chilemba said. ‘Tie them up in pairs. Leave the little one to run loose, and hurry, my brothers. The hyenas are near.
‘Jackson, take three men and the donkeys and head west,’ he gestured. ‘Stay on the valley floor for about two kilometres and make as much spoor as possible. Then you must anti-track and head to the top of that west ridge. We will anti-track in an easterly direction from here, and then head up to the East Ridge. Both groups can then turn north, and move onto Chew Bahir.’
Jackson nodded and smiled. ‘We will meet in Chew Bahir, then.’
‘Until then,’ Chilemba replied.
Chilemba turned and headed east, feeling revived to be doing something to thwart the pursuing men. They all followed each other, taking care to walk in one another’s footprints. The two men at the back then masterfully walked backwards and brushed away any sign of the spoor using clumps of local foliage. They didn’t have time to do it properly, and a real seasoned tracker would, on closer inspection, notice the deception, but it would slow them down.
Thirty minutes later, Chilemba walked up to an old barbed wire fence that ran in a northerly direction. He climbed onto it and slowly made his way, hand over hand, foot over foot, along the length of the fence. Although it was rusty, it could still carry a man’s weight, so his men waited their turn and one by one they followed him. Blood wetted their hands from the occasion nick of the old barbs, but they soaked up the pain. Two hundred metres along, Chilemba climbed off, and they started up the side of the valley wall again. He felt the pressure of the day release from his shoulders.
They pressed hard one final time, and as dusk turned to darkness, they crossed the border into Ethiopia.
End of Chapter 1
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