by Levi Keidel
A Diviner Determines Adultery
It is not important that I tell you all the affairs of my childhood. My forefathers would eat the pieces of cassava mush they needed, and throw the rest into the high grass for the spirits to eat. And so, I will share with you only the pieces of my childhood which later revealed themselves to be important, and will discard the rest. I will build my words around two affairs: the troubles of an uncle, and the kindheartedness of my father.
The man and woman who live together for many days know that their hut roof covers many things. Generally one roof is sufficient. But the affair between my father's youngest brother Beya and his wife Ndaya became too strong for their hut roof to cover. When sufficient days passed, their problem troubled the whole village, and ended at the feet of my father.
Beya and Ndaya were married for three years. They had no children. To any man among us, this is shame. The heritage which remains on earth after him is his offspring. As the fathers say, "A bird rises into the sky and leaves its cry; a man goes into the ground and leaves his child." The family fathers were following tribal customs one after another to resolve the problem. Then one evening, arguing split the house roof. People saw Beya leave, his fists clenched, his face black as night. He went across the village to the home of a friend he had grown up with whose name was Kanda. There was a fight. Kanda's cheek was cut.
The following morning, when the sun began to warm the earth, Leta, our old and respected chief, the son of Katombe, called a meeting of the tribal council. Their meeting place was beneath a large tree at one end of the long open space between the footpath of bypassers, and the first row of village houses. Chief Leta took his place on a chair by the tree. His two servants stood behind the chair, their arms folded, their bare chests showing their strength. Members of the tribal council were clan leaders. Elders from the families of Beya, Ndaya and Kanda, also were present. Sitting on low stools, they stretched in a straight line on each side of the chief, as a taut bow-string leaves each side of the finger pulling it. Across the ends, like a bow, gathered the people, all of them, some sitting, some standing, as milling bees drawn by honey. My uncle Beya, his wife Ndaya, and Kanda were guarded at a distance where they could not hear.
Chief Leta spoke to a servant. He left, and brought Beya. The people became quiet. The chief spoke:
"Beya, we hear that you and Kanda fought last night. What was the affair?"
"He is committing adultery with my wife."
The words hit people's hearts like a heavy stone.
"Such an accusation is no light matter. You know the penalty for such evil."
"I know it."
"What evidence do you have to show that Kanda is guilty?"
"In past weeks my wife has been sending to his hut gifts of freshly-cooked cassava mush. Three days ago when I came from my field at evening, I caught him leaving my hut. Last evening I found he had brought her the gift of a freshly-killed partridge."
Village women looked at one another, their mouths open in amazement.
"Have you seen any other sign which shows you that your wife desires other men?"
"Yes. Those days of each month when she is unclean after the custom of women, she stays in the high-grass hut prepared for such women, as is the tradition of our ancestors. But for two months, when the days of her uncleanness are past, she has come to live in my house again without offering me cooked white meat to show that she is pure."
"Have you seen anything else?"
There was silence. Then slowly the face of Beya darkened, his anger wanting to boil.
"Once we were arguing because she has born me no children. She offended me. She said it was my fault that she could not bear. I was not as other men. I did not have strength to make her conceive."
People burned their eyes on Beya. Fingers tapped cheeks in wonder.
"Has there been any other sign?"
Father's brother Beya was made to stand to one side. The servant brought Kanda. Black medicine had dried his cheek wound.
"Why did fighting appear at your house last night?"
"Beya accused me of ruining his wife."
"Do you have friendship with Ndaya his wife?"
"Only the friendship of persons."
"You have never known her in any other way?"
"I have never had it in my heart to do such a thing."
"You are lying!" Beya jabbed toward him with a finger. "Before I married her you said that if you had sufficient bride price you would steal her from me!"
"Hush! You finished your words," clan leaders together rebuked him.
Leta raised his hand to quiet the people, then spoke.
"Is it true that Ndaya has been sending cooked food to your house?"
"For what reason?"
"Sickness has been plaguing my wife these past weeks. Sometimes she cannot cook. She and Ndaya have been friends since childhood. Ndaya is not happy for us to sit in hunger. She sends us food."
"Were you in the hut of Ndaya the evening of three days ago?"
Kanda looked far away, remembering. "On that day my wife was ill in bed. She asked that I return Ndaya's cooking pot. I did not enter the hut. I gave it to her at the door."
"Have you sent Ndaya a gift of meat?"
"Do you know anything about a freshly-killed partridge?"
"Yes. Yesterday morning Ndaya sent us word that she would cook the evening meal for us. I was in the high grass during the afternoon, and found that one of my snares had caught a partridge. I brought it to Ndaya to cook for us for supper."
There was a pause.
"Now what about the words of Beya? Did you tell him you would steal his bride?"
"Perhaps I did. But how do boys talk with one another when they see a pretty girl?"
When it was agreed that there were no more questions, Kanda was made to stand to one side opposite Beya. The servant brought my aunt, Ndaya.
"Are you the friend of Kanda?" the chief asked.
"We have been friends since our childhood."
"Do you have friendship with him of any other kind?"
"Is it true that you have been sending cooked food to his house?"
"Yes. Why should I not? His wife is my good friend. She has been ill. Should I leave them sit in hunger?"
"Has Kanda ever come to see you when your husband was not at home?"
"He came three days ago; but that was to return my cooking pot."
"Has Kanda brought you meat?"
"Yes. Last evening he brought me a partridge to cook for them."
There was a pause for thinking.
"Ndaya, if you have been cooking for your friends these many times, how is it that you have not told your husband?"
She licked her lips preparing her words.
"He doesn't know how his scoldings eat out the heart of his wife; to him his words are like birds having taken flight."
"Have you ever said anything to your husband that would show him you desire the love of another man?"
"Why would I say something like that? I have even put tshipambu medicine on his food to turn his heart around to desire me. Why would I refuse him?"
"Have you ever accused Beya of not having the strength of men?"
Her face blackened and appeared to harden as stone. "I said those words in anger."
"Is it true that you no longer give him white meat from month to month to show him you are pure?"
Ndaya looked hard at her feet. Her bottom lip protruded with defiance. She said nothing. The judges pondered her words. Chief Leta fixed his eyes upon her as arrows pointed to the heart, and spoke.
"It is the burden of us who are over you to fix up our village troubles so that we may sit in peace. As the elders say, a traveller does not lie to those showing him the way. When the time is sufficient, all evil reveals itself. Speak truth. Though you hide yourself under water to eat stolen peanuts, the floating hulls will betray you. You must tell us your heart."
Ndaya turned her eyes to the ground again and said no more.
The servants took the three away. The tribunal judges and family elders pondered and debated for a long time the words they had heard. Finally it was agreed what must be done. Beya, Kanda and Ndaya were brought. Ndaya was called to stand before the judges. The chief spoke.
"Ndaya, in this palaver there are two affairs which we must deal with: the accusation of adultery, and the shedding of blood in anger. Our tribal elders had one word about unfaithfulness under a hut roof; a woman of light morals is worth no more than ten grasshoppers and a cricket leg. In this matter the burden is ours to establish the truth.
"You say you are innocent. The words of you and Kanda fit as a thread prepared to fit a needle eye. Some among us think that you and Kanda may have prepared these words together beforehand to cover up your evil. Some of your acts in the home do not show that you are innocent. Putting the words of all of you together, we are not able to establish the truth. There is a proverb which says, 'If you want to prove that you have no lice in your hair, shave your head.' If you are innocent, we want to clear your name of this evil. Are you willing to undergo the iron-bracelet truth test?"
Fear struck her face. She looked hard at the ground and pondered. Then slowly her face began to show strength. Finally she said quietly, "Yes."
Our tribal diviner and a helper prepared things quickly. They brought two cooking pots. The smaller one contained medicine made of pounded leaves of a forest plant mixed with cool water. It was placed to one side. The larger pot was partly filled with water. It was placed on a fire. When the water began to boil, enough cassava and corn flour were stirred into it to make a thin mush, almost filling the pot. The diviner was seated. Ndaya was made to stand before him. He placed the boiling pot before him, and spoke.
"Ndaya, the accusation of adultery has split your hut. Your husband says you are guilty. You say you are innocent. What we are about to do will establish the truth."
He unfolded a cloth on the ground beside him, and drew out a bracelet made of black twisted iron.
"What we do now does not begin with us; it began with our forefathers. You will bathe your hand in the pot of divining medicine. I will drop the bracelet into the boiling mush. You will put your hand into the mush, hunt the bracelet, draw it out and drop it into the medicine pot. If you are guilty, the flesh of your hand will come out scalded. If you are innocent, the flesh of your hand will be unharmed. Do you have anything to tell us before I drop the bracelet?"
"No," Ndaya said, staring at the large pot.
The helper made Ndaya kneel before the pots. He put her right hand into the cool-water pot, rubbing onto it the divining medicine. Then she turned toward the boiling pot, waiting. Every eye was fastened to it. The diviner held the bracelet over the pot, looked at Ndaya one more time, then dropped it.
"Reach for it!"
Ndaya's face hardened. She thrust in her hand, searched a moment, pulled out the bracelet, and thrust her hand into the cool medicine pot. The helper washed off her forearm and held it into the air for all to see. It was unharmed. Village women cheered.
After people were quieted, my uncle Beya was called. He looked only at his feet.
"Ndaya has established for us her innocence," the chief said. "It remains for us to deal with the matter of shedding blood in anger. When this affair began to blacken your insides, why did you not bring it to the elders of your clan whose work it is to judge such things? Does this not show disrespect for those over you? The forefathers said, 'Better let anger burn your Adam's apple than spill it upon a brother!' You spilled your anger upon a tribal brother, and wounded him. In this matter, you are guilty.
"You know the penalty handed down to us for such an act: death for death, burn for burn, wound for wound. The ancestral spirits will not restore peace to our village until their law is executed. By this means we will also strengthen our respect one for another."
Leta gestured with his grey beard. His servants bound Beya's hands before him, and laid him on the ground. One servant held him. Kanda was made to sit on a stool beside him. The other servant, with a narrow strip of bamboo, carefully measured the length of Kanda's cheek wound. He laid the bamboo strip on the same place on Beya's cheek. Then with a small stripping knife, he cut the same wound onto the cheek of Beya. Then Beya was released.
Thus the work of the tribunal was finished. It remained to give counsel to those who were wrong. Beya and Ndaya were of one clan. One of their clan leaders spoke.
"Beya, your marriage is not the matter of you alone. You chose this woman, and we gathered her bride price. Your marriage is the concern of all of us. The elders say, 'Choose your wife carefully and stick to her; she's not a piece of cheap cloth you can change at will.' You will pay her a large rooster for the way you have troubled her. The bow and arrow separately can do nothing. They work together. Each respects the work of the other, and thus they feed the tribe. So take your wife Ndaya. Work together with her; and thus build the honor of our tribe.
"Ndaya, marriage is a basket man must use to cross the stream. A careless woman upsets it. Be a woman of wisdom. Curb your tongue from fanning fires. You have chased from our minds the thought that you were unfaithful; do nothing that will make us recall the thought. Return to your hut. Your husband is not an uncircumcised alien. Respect him. Do faithfully the duties of a wife, and sit in peace."
The people looked at one another and nodded their heads.
"Justice has been done today," they said.
Each person went to his hut.
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