A frightful foreboding filled the room as Adira stood before her mother. Her cheeks were ruby red with anger, and her mother’s skin was glowing in the sunset’s scarlet lights. Both women held onto their waists and leaned forward as if bracing themselves against the other’s attack. While watching the two squaring off, one would be forgiven for thinking that a woman was being embattled by her twin sister, for Adira resembled her mother in every way, from temple to temper. And as they shook their heads at each other in violent argument, their long, black locks swayed as though they were at the cusp of combat. 

A solemn tear betrayed her balance, but Adira let it roll down her cheek. She kept her gaze fixed upon her mother, ignoring her father who seemed to be a mere ornament on the wall. Her fiery eyes, ablaze with resolve, shed the only light that now filled the room. The sun had long set, but neither she nor the twain could break away from the moment to light a lamp. Her mother, oh her poor soul, was now already wounded to silence, after being told that she was loved no longer. Adira’s words had pushed a hot knife into her mother’s heart, and the sharpness of her words had twisted the knife. Her mother had now sunk onto the floor, and her lovely face, now etched with anguish, had aged a decade in an hour. Her husband, whose aid she had always relied upon, only quivered helplessly by her side. He wanted to intervene, but this was a fight that he could not win.

“Please…don’t do this…please…” Adira’s father wept, his voice shaking with sorrow. Tears streamed down his face as he begged his daughter.

“Why… Why?” Adira’s mother mourned, burying her face in her hands. Her voice, full of grief and heavy with heartache, lingered in the room. Not many things have the power to bring both parents to tears, but nothing can prepare anyone for the impending death of one’s child. 

Outside, Gasira pressed her ear onto the door. Aasir, who was more interested in spectacle than in narrative, peered through the curtains and watched everything unfold. They witnessed their childhood friend seal her fate, albeit with far more calamity than they had hoped. 

Aasir was an orphan. As Onsongo the madman would say, he was “the child of many fathers and many mothers”, who survived his childhood merely through the benevolence of others. And now, as a young adult, Aasir was on his own, answering only to himself and to his gods, if he had any. 

Gasira, who was called Sira by her sweet friends, was a little older than Aasir and still had her mother. Sira had lost her father long before he could teach her how to walk or toss a ball, and she had since been taught all these things by her mother. Sira was raised in poverty, with great sacrifice and difficulty, but her mother’s love kept her from feeling the sting of scarcity. Her mother always believed in her wholeheartedly. And now, 26 years after her father’s death, ’Sira had finally grown into the woman her father would have wanted her to become.  Her mother raised her well, and now she was ready: ready for life, ready to face the universe.

Sira was silly but clever to the cusp of genius. She was tenacious but tender-hearted. She was also strong, possessing a will that could never be broken, but she was sensitive too. Had Sira proclaimed that she wanted to wrestle with the sun, her mother would have sent her to battle with a full belly and a parting embrace, certain that her Sira would return victorious. And so when she had told her mother that she wanted to take the safari, her mother said farewell and asked her to return for supper before the chapatis get cold.  

Poor Adira was not as lucky, for she was the prisoner of her family’s fortunes. Life gives us some things and denies others  in equal measure. It was whispered across these lands that her parents, both who were renowned practitioners of commerce, had lost their son to the safari. And to whom else would they bequeath their great riches but her, their only heir? To watch Adira, their surviving child, fling herself towards the same fate that took away their son! It was beyond intolerable. It awakened feelings that they had prayed to forget. Yet it seemed that their gods were deaf, for Adira wanted what she wanted. A good parent, you may agree, wants their children to be happy and free and to feel loved. But, what if their happiness brings great sorrow? What if their freedom brings torment? Neither Onsongo the madman, the keeper of books, nor the enlightened elders of this land can resolve this dilemma. And so whenever a mother tries to shield her children from this terrible, turbulent world, she inevitably thrusts them straight towards it. 

Adira’s eyes narrowed as she glared at her mother. Her arms had returned to her waist, and a fierce scorn fell upon her face.  

“I am leaving. With your blessing or without it.”

Her mother’s eyes fell to the floor, heavy with tears.

“I… We… we do not want to lose you. Not like…not like….” her father muttered.

“I am not my brother!” 

And with that, she sprung over her helpless mother and sped for the door, kicking it open with all her might. Sira, who was not afforded a warning, was struck by the door squarely in the ear as it came off its hinges and was flung face-first into the ground. Without as much as a glance, Adira leapt over Sira as well and fled into the night. 

Mto Mkuu”, the Great River, is everything to us. Just as your mothers bless their children with the names of your gods, so do our mothers name their children after it. When our liquors invigorate our men, they proclaim that their strengths spring from Mto Mkuu’s waters, and their queens, in clamorous crowing about their charms, often claim that their calamitous curves mirror its meanderings. Ah, what a common vanity it is for people to proclaim their proximity to greatness. 

The villages from the North boast that their tongues gave Mto Mkuu its glorious name, while those that bide downstream –  where Mto Mkuu roars with great tempest – believe that the river is more than just its waters. They say that the great river is a testament to the divine presence of gods in this world. The enlightened elders who rule this land, who we are told can summon rains, teleport, and dispel diseases, insist that Mto Mkuu is not merely named after the gods, but that it IS a god, a living breathing god. Within it, they maintain, hides a sacred power full of knowledge and wisdom, far beyond what our myths, legends and prophecies have ever conjured.  Of that, we from the East do not dispute loudly, but only in whispers. 

Mto Mkuu cuts through our ancient land Songhai like a fracture in the earth’s crust. It begins its majestic flow in the North, from the peaks of the Oldoinyo Oibor, the mountain of caravans. Starting its descent from the snowy peaks of the mount like ribbons of pure crystals, its waters borrow from nature many hues as the river finds its way downhill. At first, the crystal clear mixture of melt and spring water shimmers like sapphire, reflecting the brilliant blue of the gemstones in its bed. As the tributaries meander shallowly between the rocks, merging and swelling, their hues turn red and green with algae, nourished by the rich minerals the waters have gathered. At the first waterfall, where it plunges over eight hundred metres, the waters  turn to foam, before settling into their usual crystal clear shades again. But eventually, after weaving through wetlands, plummeting into sinkholes, curving through cave systems, flowing through our farmlands and donning all the shades of the trees, leaves, rocks and flowers, the waters finally wear the colour of the earth itself, a deep and impenetrable brown that conceals cod and crocodile alike. Mto Mkuu keeps this colour as it plunges far into the horizon. 

Mto Mkuu is a source of strength for us all. It nourishes our crops and sustains us, feeding in some way all the beasts that roam this land. When the gods have been unkind and have cast a tragedy upon us, it is by Mto Mkuu that our tribesmen must gather and offer their prayers. And when the gods have been gracious and have blessed our men with wives or their wives with children, it is by its waters that we must assemble and rejoice. Mto Mkuu has always been here for us.

It is for these reasons, and maybe because of some foolishness, our love of spectacle or some other hidden purpose, that someone must have decreed long ago that Mto Mkuu must perform one more function: it must select our chosen ones, the elders of tomorrow. And  for centuries, when boys and girls reached the age of reason, they were visited by the choice of a lifetime: to take the safari and risk it all, and pray to be selected by Mto Mkuu to become an elder.  For many mothers and fathers, it is far better for one’s child to find purpose in common labours, plodding on the plough and tilling some corn and sugarcane, or trying their hand in artistry or invention, than to face the perils of the river.  And so as mothers nurse their babies and soothe them to sleep, and as fathers hold their hands in the ways of the land, both would whisper words of caution to their children: do not take the Safari, do not take it! A dead child, no matter how glorious and noble their death, is no worthy replacement for a living one. Mto Mkuu’s waters are ravenous and unforgiving. It is a beast with a  taste for human flesh. Of every thousand who embark on the Safari, less than five ever return. And for almost all of them, their bodies are never recovered, and empty coffins are buried by their people instead. 

Onsongo the madman had called this tradition a terrible madness. But long ago, before the age of enlightened elders, tribalism and corruption had murdered the will of the people in broad daylight. Neither chiefs nor kings could bring it back to life, and for a thousand moons, Mto Mkuu ran dry, and our lands were choked by bloodshed as warriors, gods, kings and messiahs rose and fell. I do not know – but perhaps Onsongo the madman or the elders may know – who cleared the corpses from our farms, dulled the daggers of war and restored the great river’s waters. And since the war of a thousand moons, our people have gladly welcomed this terrible madness, a madness that has prevailed for millennia to this day. 

And so, whosoever wishes to receive the trust of the people in leadership must walk away from everything they once knew, and brave the Safari. First, they must climb to the peaks of Oldoinyo Oibor and declare before the people that they are Strong to Serve. And then, under the watchful eyes of the elders, they must walk the complete length of Mto Mkuu, from the source to the sea, with the soles of their feet never leaving its waters nor touching the river’s bank. If by their skills, cunning, strength, or genius, or perhaps I must say by some stroke of good fortune, they conquer Mto Mkuu and reach the sea with their hearts still beating in their chests, then they deserve, by right and not by their nobility, the divine blessing to rule these lands as enlightened elders. 

Conquering the Safari is a testament to your nature. Routing its rapids reveals that you can study and surmount great forces. It shows that you can bend nature to your will, and when prudence demands it, let nature take its course. Surviving the venoms, poisons, and predators shows that you are endowed with sufficient knowledge of the land to help its people. And by enduring its entire length, it demonstrates that you possess a mind resilient to adversity, a mind that cannot be swayed even by the most violent storms. These chosen ones, who chose themselves to conquer the great river – or be spared by it – must surely be the best of us, strong in body, mind and character, who would serve their fellows faithfully, and safeguard the sanctity of our lands and its peoples. 

From the marketplace to the vineyards, Onsongo the madman proclaims to all who are willing to listen that there’s no greater tyrant than fate. He bemoans that we have allowed this tyrant to protect us from the corrupt and the cruel, the devious and the despotic, the malicious and the malevolent, the narcissistic and the sadistic, and the tribalistic and the tyrannical, but for us, it is not a tyrantthat safeguards us, but Mto Mkuu.  And so, as the people across these lands have done for thousands of generations, every a hundred full moons, whether it is still or wailing goes the weather, the old and the young, the brave and the spiritless, the rational and the misguided, the passionate and the dispassionate, all would gather before the first light at the highest waters of the Oldoinyo Oibor. For many of them, and often for all of them, if they do not turn back and return to their homesteads before Mto Mkuu unleashes its wrath upon them, this would be the final epoch of their lives, and oh, what a glorious way it must be to die!

For Aasir, Sira and Adira, life is not worth living while in fear of death. The trio believe Onsongo the madman wholeheartedly when says that the enlightened elders possess not merely a much coveted political power but also all the great and ancient secrets of this land. When they were little, barely older than 10 harvests, they had seen the enlightened elders soaring through the skies like bats in the night as they played behind Sira’s house. Aasir too recounts that as he wandered across the fields as a young boy, he could spot an elder or two talking to trees as one converses with little children. While that is not unusual, he says he overheard the trees talking back. Sira’s father also often told her that the elders could ascend the Oldoinyo Oibor to its highest peak with a single step, but she had never seen any of the elders do it. Regardless, Adira believed.

The three friends knew that to the ignorant, science is indistinguishable from magic. Their curious minds hungered for knowledge, and the Safari was their chance to acquire it, all of it, together. They had given themselves to the pursuit of knowledge as sailors give themselves to the sea, and the Safari was the sea that they needed to cross. And for what? Many had wondered. Ah, but why else but to reach into the sky and touch the stars? To peer into the beginning of time, and watch how the end will unfold. To uncover the secrets of all creation, and shape the future. This is the power of the elders, a power granted not by might or divinity but by knowledge, a knowledge so great that only the chosen ones of Mto Mkuu were allowed a glimpse of it. 

Onsongo the madman, the Keeper of Books, teaches that many warriors, kings, and messiahs have coveted the powers of the enlightened elders. Many have waged wars to conquer them, and have raised both swords and witchcraft in conquest. With arms obtained from across the sea, and armies manned by slaves and free men alike, many have marched across Songhai. But no blade was ever sharp enough, no army was ever great enough, and no king was ever noble enough, to disturb the slumber of a single elder. Everyone remembers what happened to Muthama, whose story is taught to children as the one-man war. 

Muthama was the prideful son of a southern king from a distant land. He rolled his army of mercenaries across this land about two thousand moons ago. It is written that in the light of day, his army of 500,000 men trampled across the rice fields as children were chasing locusts and their mothers were tilling the land. The books say that Muthama had brought the war of the thousand moons with him and that he yearned for blood. But before he could torch a single hut or wreck a single barn, his army was halted by a single elder, no taller than a prepubescent boy. The elder, who remains nameless and faceless in our recorded history, is written to have been carrying a small beaded calabash of goat’s milk. As Onsongo the madman often recounts to all who care to listen, Muthama ordered his marksmen to fire their large cannons at the elder who had refused to give way. The army’s projectiles missed, but one struck the elder’s calabash. But before a single drop of milk could wet the earth, the elder had drenched the earth with Muthama’s blood and disarmed the entire army by turning their weapons and artillery into flowers. He then led the mercenaries back to whence they came without spilling another drop of blood, and no armies have rolled across Songhai ever since. In the one-man war, a single elder, no taller than a boy – and perhaps no older – had outnumbered five hundred thousand. Such is an elder’s power.

The fateful night was full of sensations. The cold full moon rose into the sky and illuminated the way as thousands matched up the mount towards its highest waters. For the lovers of spectacle, song, dance and liquor were shared aplenty, if not in celebration of the safari, at least to keep the twilight chills at bay. But there was little merriment for the dozens who had offered themselves to the safari. These chosen ones were marked by clay upon their faces, beads on their necks, feathers on their heads and blood-red ribbons fastened around their wrists. They led the way in silence, in the company of the elders. 

The youngest amongst them was a 12-year-old boy. He clung onto Sira’s hand and looked up at her as a little brother would. How sad, she thought, that he chose this. How sad that he abandoned his childhood, whatever it must have been. “What was he running away from?” She wondered. What could have convinced the little lad to abandon the warmth of a loving home? Maybe, like Aasir, he was also the son of many fathers?  But didn’t he know the perils that lie ahead? Was he never told that to face the safari is to face death? In the end, she figured that whatever brought the boy here must have been the same thing that brought her here too: the desire of the human soul to reach for something greater than itself. 

As the slopes grew steeper and the frosty unforgiving winds picked up, so did the crowds grow thinner. The adrenaline pumping through their veins suppressed the gelid winds and their fearful devotion to an old tradition kept them from turning back. The elders followed them closely like ghosts but kept a suspicious silence like mobsters at a victim’s funeral. The little boy shivered and his teeth chattered, but he steadied his step and held on until they reached the highest waters.

Not more than seven elders now stood before the chosen ones. As is their habit, never do they assemble in large numbers.  Despite often being out of sight, the elders are never far away. They watch this land from the shadows, preferring to remain undisturbed unless summoned by a calamity. Without a word, one of them stepped forward. His dark skin seemed to absorb the moonlight, concealing his face in darkness, and all that the chosen ones could see were those bright, bulbous eyes and his crimson shroud. He whispered a word, looking dead into Aasir’s eyes, and with a gentle wave of the hand, poured an iridescent liquid from his beaded calabash into the waters. A faint glow stirred therein, but it faded away as quickly as it had emerged. The elder then whispered, “Safari njema”, and drifted back into the woods.  And without disturbing a single leaf, the other elders vanished as well. It was time for the great river to do its divine work.

For the foolish, the descent began with an aggressive sprint. With a fierce fire in his eyes, the little boy released Sira’s hand and burst forward with all his might, cutting through the pack at top speed. Perhaps he imagined that this was his chance to grab an advantage and prove himself. The others were not far behind him, picking up speed, but it seemed like the lad was not about to let his lead slip away. And just before Sira burst after him, Aasir grabbed her hand and offered, “Save your strength.” 

Screams and heavy footsteps slamming onto the waters broke the silence of the night as the chosen flung themselves downhill. Soon, the noise faded away into the distance, and quiet fell all around. The friends, who naturally let Sira be their leader, were not in a hurry. “This is not about being first,” Aasir voiced. Sira nodded. They started their safari with a walk, feeling the water wet their feet. Sira reached into her bag and extracted a few leaves, giving each one a leaf to chew. “They will keep you alert,” she chuckled. “Is this…?” “Yes! I bought some for us.” Sira interrupted, perhaps to keep Adira from mentioning the forbidden tree by name. “If you don’t want to survive, then give it back. More for me.” Sira may not have been the strongest amongst the chosen, nor the fastest, but no one doubted the sharpness of her mind. The others steadied their pace and ran behind her, increasing their speed in her stead and letting their feet land where hers had departed. 

As they galloped downhill, Sira passed more leaves around. They recounted their childhood memories of watching others taking the Safari. Adira remembered the much larger crowds that used to gather along Mto Mkuu. She remembered tossing flowers into the waters with their fellow girls and cheering the chosen on as they drifted past. Aasir recounted aiming round stones at the bobbing heads in the waters and weaving through the crowds when an adult chased after him. And as they shared these memories, they reminded each other of the perils that lie ahead. Back then, the Safari meant little to them. It was merely another holiday from school, a chance for some choice mischief and revelry. But with hindsight, they acknowledged that the Safari was a bizarre ritual. It was a strange, protracted funeral where the people came to watch their fellows’ blood spill into the great river, mauled by the beasts that roam the brown waters, sliced by the jagged rocks that dot the river bead, paralysed by the poisonous plants that grow within and the venomous snakes that lurked beneath the surface and drowned by the treacherous currents that often drag large boats into the rocks. But all the chosen must do is survive, and survive they will, or so they all hoped.

As the first rays of the sun kissed the peak of the mount, Sira found herself lost in the scant memories of her dear father. She recalled his smile as he tossed her little frame into the sky and caught it, to the utter horror of her mother. She remembered swinging on his large arm as they walked back from the market, climbing onto his back as if she were scaling a massive tree, and feeling his warm embrace whenever he bid her goodbye. She remembered the sound of her father’s laughter echoing through the house, and the way his eyes would light up as he recounted the stories of his youth, about quitting the safari long before reaching the crocodile-infested waters. Perhaps she too may make her father’s choice and turn back. Perhaps she may return to the life she had left behind. She was but a little girl when he was taken away from her by a sudden malady, but she was joyful that every sensation that he had ever given her seemed to have never faded away. 

As the years had gone by, Sira tried to fill the void left by her father’s absence by drowning in her mother’s arms and finding strength and purpose in her own pursuits. It was after her father’s death that she picked up the bow, and soon bested even the hunters from the eastern plains. But no matter how hard she tried, leaping from archery to combat, from painting to poetry, the ache of missing her father never waned. And on this day, with the weight of the world heavy upon her shoulders, Sira finds herself discharging herself into another distraction, while longing for one more chance to sit by his father’s side, to bask in his love and feel the warmth of his embrace.  

Sira envied Adira, who had a father waiting for her at home. She also envied Aasir, who having not enjoyed the luxury of a father’s presence, had nothing to miss or long for. It is better to never be loved, she thought, than to be loved and have it taken away. Aasir, in some way, had been spared from the sharpest agonies of life. Despite the tragedies that were cast unto him, he learned to find strength within himself long before he could crawl, without a father to rub tonic into a wound, or a mother to kiss the pain away. Aasir accepted the cruelties of life even before they visited him. As he stumbled and faltered all alone, he discovered the resilience that comes with being forced to forge one’s own path in the world. Aasir simply moved forward, laying his head wherever he was wanted, and walking away from where he was not. And now here he was, strong and stalwart, cutting through the safari with great resolve, and soaring above the waters like an Emperor dragonfly. 

As they approached the waterfall, ’Sira gave the signal. They accelerated to full speed, cutting through the wind with majestic strides. They could feel the cool mist spraying up against their skin and hear the thunderous cascading waters echoing all around. But here, hesitation is death. There is no time to gauge the depth of the drop or the strength of the winds, no pause to assess the danger. Speed is all that counts. Speed is what will look Hades in the eye and declare, “Not today!”  

The rush of the fall is dizzying, and it seems to take forever. You try to stay focused, to keep your limbs under control before impact, but your mind refuses to be leashed, for it knows that the end is near. The water punches hard, taking the breath out of your lungs, but at least its frigid embrace dulls the pain. And so in a few seconds, Sira broke through the surface and called their names, praying that they had not crushed into the rocks, or blacked out on impact. On hearring their voices, she kicked her legs about, checking if she could still feel them. “Keep moving!”, she ordered, but sunk back under the surface. A cold chill ran through her spine as she spotted the red-ribboned shadows below, their marble eyes staring back. She searched for the little boy, and summoning all her courage, she nudged their broken, twisted limbs about, to see whether they concealed the little boy. “I hope you did not die here, not like this,” she wished. Suddenly, she felt a touch on her arm. It was Aasir, pointing to the surface. 

The sun had now risen above the horizon, casting a warm glow over the land. The waters were still and calm, with only a gentle ripple breaking the surface as the chosen drifted past. The leaves rustled softly in the breeze, and the sounds of the villages merged with the songs of the birds into a lovely melody of life. The air was cool and fresh, scented by the flowers that grow along the banks. As Sira drifted on, she savoured this moment of complete tranquillity, for it was as if the world was holding its breath in awe of the beauty all around. She felt a deep connection to the waters and felt like it was a living being, carrying her on its back towards some unknown place.

Adira too felt her agonies melting away. For the first time since she bolted from her home, she shut her eyes, let out a deep sigh, and allowed her lovely lips to curl into a smile. The sounds and smells of nature enveloped her, and she raised her hands above the waters. It was moments like these that made her feel truly alive and free. Sira watched Adira from the corner of her eye and smiled too. But she knew that this moment of peace wouldn’t last forever. But for now, they were happy to just surrender to the flow of the water and appreciate the moment.

As the currents picked up, Adira’s peace and tranquillity were shattered by the realisation of what lay ahead. As they were dragged faster and faster towards the sinkhole, the world around Adira became a blur, the trees and rocks passing by in a rush of colour and motion. It was not the sinkhole that worried her, for it does not drop too deep. In fact, as a little child, she often took the jump into the sinkhole with Aasir and Sira, and wandered through the caverns looking for glowing insects. Her fear was awakened by remembering the oath, that they were sworn to never leave the river’s waters, till they reached the sea. It is easy to climb out of the caverns through the caves, but none of them had ever braved the channels that cut under the submerged rocks, emerging far off on the other side. Sira assured them that many had survived the safari before, but Adira’s terror lingered. Sira fastened a rope loosely around their waists, leaving plenty of slack. And as she often did, she led the way, diving under the rocks.   

As the others followed, Sira’s focus drifted from the currents to the rope. She feared feeling the rope going taught, for if anyone got stuck and lingered under the water too long, she may have to make the dreaded choice of cutting the rope and saving herself. The tunnels seemed to narrow around them as they went further, but every so often, they opened into a small cavern that allowed them to take a breath. Aasir, whose eyes could penetrate through the darkness, said that he saw more red-ribboned shadows drifting past in the tunnels, but he was not sure whether he spotted the little boy. Sira’s heart quickened, but she steadied herself and led them on. She summoned to memory the stories of her father and let the currents guide her through the caverns. The waters know the way, he always said.

As they emerged at last under the midday sun, they found themselves in the warm, brown waters that cut across the plains. It is these quiet, murky waters that fill us all with unease.  Here, a twig touching your leg would make your soul leap clear out of your body in terror, for the touch may be from the snout of a crocodile. The water was murky and impenetrable. Aasir and Adira mumbled little prayers to themselves, summoning all the gods of Songhai and those of foreign lands. They paddled silently, each holding onto their hearts and keeping their eyes peeled. Sira, not prone to prayer but to preparation, extracted a jar of crushed seeds from her bag, and let the powders wash into the water. “Keep your head up,” she commanded, and drifted ahead of the pack. At the edges of the riverbank, just as she feared, she could spot hundreds of beady, reptilian eyes staring back at them. 

Suddenly, a sharp pain gripped her leg. Before she could scream, she was pulled under. She felt the darkness of the depths closing in all around. This was it, the dreaded moment. She pressed her eyes shut to keep the peppers out, but a mouthful of the water already filled her throat when she tried to scream. The beasts had attacked too soon before the peppers had spread across the waters. Before she could reach for her blade, the beast initiated the death roll, twisting with full force, wringing her hip out of her socket and tearing muscle from bone. She tried to bring her knees to her chest and rolled with the beast, holding her breath and fighting to regain control. Maybe the beast would soon stop when the peppers spread. All she needs is a second, to grab her knife and fight back. But the reptile did not relent. As it turned and turned, she felt the strength bleed out of her body and her resolve started to wane. 

“Is this how I go out? Like this?” she cried. Her lungs burned with the need for air but she held on and let the beast roll. “Just a little longer,” she thought. “If I keep rolling, I can save my leg. I will not die here”. But her breath ran out long before her will did, and as the silty waters rushed into her lungs, her father’s face flashed before her eyes, and then everything turned into darkness.  

As the float of crocodiles thinned the numbers of the chosen, many who had endured the Safari thus far chose to quit. They tossed their red ribbons away and fled from the waters. Aasir kept his eyes on Adira. They both knew that Sira was gone, and every second started to feel like their last. Sira’s powders had kept the crocodiles from getting them, but the great river’s perils were far from over. The hippos’ marsh lay ahead, and beyond the marsh would come more terrors:  the rocky rapids, the toxic weeds, the venomous serpents…The thought of giving up began to creep into their minds as they drifted further and further into dangerous waters. The sight of limbs floating past only heightened Adira’s dread. She wanted to swim back to solid ground. She wanted to turn her back on the safari, on Aasir, on everything, and return home. She looked at Aasir and shed a tear, but Aasir had no tear to shed in recompense. All he offered were Sira’s words, “Keep moving!” 

The currents were growing stronger, and the rocky rapids soon came into view. With Sira gone, Aasir couldn’t help but wonder who would be the next to succumb to the dangers of Mto Mkuu. Without Sira, they were truly alone. Aasir looked up into the sky and saw ghostly shadows like bats swooping past, obscuring the sun. He knew that those were not bats, those were the elders. They are never too far away, always watching.  The rapids seemed to mock him, tossing him about like a twig. The water roared around him, a deafening cacophony of sound that drowned out his thoughts. He was at the mercy of the rushing currents. He spread his arms to brace himself against the jagged rocks jutting out of the surface, but they only broke his fingers and almost snapped his wrist. The odds seemed stacked against them because, without Sira, the odds truly were. Only Sira would know what to do. She would extract some item from her little bag that would make these travails go away, or offer some advice that would keep them alive. But Sira was no more. And so as the pain flooded through his body, he absorbed every blow with fading determination. There was no other way but forward, he must keep moving. 

Aasir fought against the flow, using all his strength to fight against the relentless tug of the water. The river was rough, but he pushed through its choppy waters. All he could feel was the growing exhaustion and the strength of the currents pulling him downstream. His muscles strained with every stroke. His body was too numb to feel the pain of shattered ribs and broken fingers. 

Aasir had been toiling for hours, and everything had started taking its toll. Although he pushed on, guarding his head against the rocks with his swollen arms, he wondered how long he had left until his fierce determination waned. The rocks seemed to mock him as he struggled to keep his head above the water. He knew that he couldn’t give up, not now. He was the bird that sang in calm or storm, a soul undisturbed by pleasure or pain. He wondered what Sira would have advised, and with a sudden realisation, he decided to fight no longer. The currents always win, even against the strongest men. Ho he let himself go and allowed the waters to fling him wherever they must.

When calm returned to the waters, Aasir cast his eyes about. He saw children running along the riverbank, following him, their faces alight with excitement. They cheered him on and tossed flowers and food at him. The sun was still high in the sky, and the air was alive with the sound of their celebration. He looked behind, searching for Adira, but realised that he was all alone. As the children danced and shouted, their voices rising and falling in time with the pulse of the drums, he was overcome with a deep feeling of loneliness. In mere moments, both of his best friends had been taken from him. Mto Mkuu had swallowed them whole, and it bayed for his blood too. 

For the first time in many moons, Aasir felt lonely. A deep coldness drilled into his chest, unlike anything he had ever felt before. Is this what loss feels like, he thought. His mind wandered far across time, and he imagined the adversities that could have befallen some cromagnon man, trapped in an unrelenting ice age on this land some aeons ago. He imagined himself as this ancient man, swimming through a gelid tarpit while fleeing from a gang of starving smilodons. “Was the ancient man’s terror worse than this? Surely it must be worse than this,” he thought. “I did this to myself. I chose this.” 

Aasir wondered what could have prepared him for the auguries of Mto Mkuu. Was a difficult life not enough? Since Sira failed, did he really stand a chance? Would he ever survive to taste the salty waters of the sea? He looked at the children’s faces as they gathered all around. Their expressions seemed to mirror the wild and reckless energy of the river. To them, he was merely another spectacle, another source of momentary entertainment, or perhaps a beacon of what may lie ahead of them in some far, distant future that they need not worry about. With the power long drained from his limbs, only buoyancy kept him afloat, and so he let himself get washed away downstream, away from the eyes of the children.

As he drifted towards the marsh, Aasir felt his mind slipping away. The sun was starting to set and had cast a vast crimson blanket across the sky. He closed his eyes for the bloody crimson reminded him of what carnage lay behind. He paddled through the putrid, marshy waters with weak strokes. Every muscle in his body that was not numbed by pain ached with fatigue, and he could barely control his limbs. The water was a dark, dirty brown, and it seemed to stretch on forever. He felt like a small, wounded fish in a vast shark-infested ocean. When he opened his eyes, he found himself drifting through a school of hippos, and surrounded by the toxic plants that Sira said lay ahead. Hopelessness and despair washed over him. He felt his heart pounding heavily in his chest. He closed his eyes again and waited for death. 

A touch stirred him up again, startling him into a wild panic. He flung his fists amain, if not to keep this new foe at bay, at least to maim. As he flailed about, fighting with broken fists against the monster that had suddenly besieged him, he felt the sharp sting of salt water in his eyes. Something grabbed him by his waist, and before he could kick at it and free himself, he was yanked out of the sea and lifted into a darkened sky. The sun had now set, but night had fallen within his heart long before it had fallen over Songhai. The vast expanse of Songhai, his homeland, was now outstretched below his feet. He could see the smooth, snowy peak of the great Oldoinyo Oibor, and the winding Mto Mkuu curving across the landscape, all decorated by lights from the fires across the villages.  “Aasir!” a voice bellowed. It was a strong but calm and familiar voice that washed his panic away. “You are hurt. Do not fight. Do not move. You are safe.” 

Before he could turn to see what creature had him in its hands, he saw the sea melt away below his feet, and in its place appeared a vast metallic floor, bedecked by an infinite array of platforms, instruments, machines and mechanical creatures that his mind had never conjured. He was lowered gently onto a silky platform, which felt softer than the bed he once knew. He looked up, and found himself face to face with the old, troubled face of Onsongo the Madman, the keeper of books.   

Aasir wondered whether he was slipping into a vibrant hallucination. “Why was Onsongo the Madman was cloaked in an elder’s shoal?” He wondered.

“Are…you…” Aasir muttered.

“Well, yes. But no. When I am there, I am a teacher. But when I am here, I am an elder.”

The room in which he found himself seemed too big, too unreal. He felt like he was far away from his natural home, surrounded by something new, something foreign, something beyond the Songhai of his birth. Looking up at the vast expanse of the room. He felt like a little ant crawling on the floors of a cathedral. The distant walls also seemed to spin and twist, melting away into a sea of swirling patterns and shapes as if they weren’t even there. A sharp pain kept him from turning his head. But as he looked about with great effort, there she was. But, was it her? The figure looked like her, although it seemed strangely unfamiliar. But Adira was there too, and so was the little boy! An army of green mechanical worms seemed to be drilling into Sira’s leg, fixing the tissues and sinews and turning them anew. And rather than lying on the platform as he did, she seemed to levitate above it, like a feather being kept aloft by the gentle breeze. Her vibrant eyes shone back at him, and in a single smile, she delivered all the warmth and easement that only a dear friend could convey. “Sira!” he yelled, but no voice escaped from his lips. But she waved back. It was her! 

Aasir was not sure what was real and what was not. It was as if his mind was playing tricks on him. Perhaps he was still floating away in Mto Mkuu, lost in a dying dream from which he would never awaken. He struggled to turn his head and look behind him, but nothing could prepare his senses for the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds all around. An army of elders vanished and reappeared all across the room, attending to the red-ribboned chosen who were sprawled about on platforms such as his. Everyone who died in the waters was here. Using mechanisms and contraptions that sparkled like gemstones and seemed to morph on their own, the elders sewed limbs together, reattached gouged eyes, and replaced missing organs. And with a drop of the iridescent liquid into the mouths of the chosen, the elders brought them back to life. As he drowned in awe, he felt something gnawing into his flesh. “Leave it,” muttered Onsongo the Madman, as he started to walk away. The floating worm seemed to restore the function to his hands, and so Aasir let it gnaw away. And before his eyes could drown deeper into this wondrous place, he overheard a loud argument, initiated by Onsongo the Madman as he accosted the elders. 

“Only one survived. The orphan. We can’t keep doing this.” 

“We must!” Bellowed another elder. “There is no other way.” 

“But this is madness! How long will we torture these people? Why can’t we just tell them the truth?” yelled the madman. 

“Only those who can choose to die are ready to know the truth. As we had voted, those who survive can return as elders and guide the people. Those who perish must stay in this world. We cannot disturb the balance, the natural order. After all, we need those who have the heart to die to win this war.”

“But the creatures that rule these lands have never attacked us. Why do we keep preparing for war?”

“When they discover that we are not of this world, of their world, what do you think will happen?”

And without another word, Onsongo’s form melted into the air and disappeared. The elders took into the air and flew towards another corpse, and with their liquids, brought it back to life. Aasir, unable to think or move, only stared into space. He looked at his feet and noticed that the mechanisms were gone and his agonies had been lifted. He also saw that he too had been cloaked in an elder’s shroud. He sobbed and trembled, overwhelmed. He had been touched by the wild, untamed mystery of Mto Mkuu, but from the depths of his heart, he knew that he was not ready

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