Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world. Magic and its many mysteries were a presence that hovered about constantly, giving me my earliest memory as a boythe time my father saved me from certain death and became the hero he is today. I was six years old, playing in the road, when a group of herd boys approached, singing and dancing. This was in Masitala village near the city of Kasungu, where my family lived on a farm. The herd boys worked for a nearby farmer who kept many cows. They explained how theyd been tending their herd that morning and discovered a giant sack in the road. When they opened it up, they found it filled with bubble gum. Can you imagine such a treasure? I cant tell you how much I loved bubble gum. Should we give some to this boy? one asked. I didnt move or breathe. There were dead leaves in my hair. Eh, why not? said another. Just look at him. One of the boys reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of gumballs, one for every color, and dropped them into my hands. I stuffed them all in my mouth. As the boys left, I felt the sweet juice roll down my chin and soak my shirt. The following day, I was playing under the mango tree when a trader on a bicycle stopped to chat with my father. He said that while on his way to the market the previous morning, hed dropped one of his bags. By the time hed realized what had happened and circled back, someone had taken it. The bag was filled with bubble gum, he said. Some fellow traders had told him about the herd boys passing out gum in the villages, and this made him very angry. For two days hed been riding his bicycle throughout the district looking for the boys. He then issued a chilling threat. Ive gone to see the singanga, and whoever ate that gum will soon be sorry. The singanga was the witch doctor. Id swallowed the gum long before. Now the sweet, lingering memory of it soured into poison on my tongue. I began to sweat; my heart was beating fast. Without anyone seeing, I ran into the blue gum grove behind my house, leaned against a tree, and tried to make myself clean. I spit and hocked, shoved my finger into my throat, anything to rid my body of the curse. I came up dry. A bit of saliva colored the leaves at my feet, so I covered them with dirt. But then, as if a dark cloud had passed over the sun, I felt the great eye of the wizard watching me through the trees. Id eaten his juju and now his darkness owned me. That night, the witches would come for me in my bed. Theyd take me aboard their planes and force me to fight, leaving me for dead along the magic battlefields. And as my soul drifted alone and forsaken above the clouds, my body would be cold by morning. A fear of death swept over me like a fever. I began crying so hard I couldnt move my legs. The tears ran hot down my face, and as they did, the smell of poison filled my nose. It was everywhere inside me. I fl ed the forest as fast as possible , trying to get away from the giant magic eye. I ran all the way home to where my father sat against the house, plucking a pile of maize. I wanted to throw my body under his, so he could protect me from the devil. It was me, I said, the tears drowning my words. I ate the stolen gum. I dont want to die, Papa. Dont let them take me! My father looked at me for a second, then shook his head. It was you, eh? he said, then kind of smiled. Didnt he realize I was done for? Well, he said, and rose from the chair. His knees popped whenever he stood. My father was a big man. Dont worry. Ill find this trader and explain. Im sure we can work out something. That afternoon, my father walked eight kilometers to a place called Masaka where the trader lived. He told the man what had happened, about the herd boys coming by and giving me the stolen gum. Then without question, my father paid the man for his entire bag, which amounted to a full weeks pay. That evening after supper, my life having been saved, I asked my father about the curse, and if hed truly believed I was finished. He straightened his face and became very serious. Oh yes, we were just in time, he said, then started laughing in that way that made me so happy, his big chest heaving and causing the wooden chair to squeal. William, who knows what was in store for you? Me as a young boy standing with my father in Masitala village. To me, he was the biggest and strongest man in the world.
My father was strong and feared no magic, but he knew all the stories. On nights when there was no moon, wed light a lamp and gather in our living room. My sisters and I would sit at my fathers feet, and hed explain the ways of the world, how magic had been with us from the beginning. In a land of poor farmers, there were too many troubles for God and man alone. To compensate for this imbalance, he said, magic existed as a third and powerful force. Magic wasnt something you could see, like a tree, or a woman carrying water. Instead, it was a force invisible and strong like the wind, or a spiders web spun across the trail. Magic existed in story, and one of our favorites was of Chief Mwase and the Battle of Kasungu. In the early nineteenth century, and even today, the Chewa people were the rulers of the central plains. Wed fl ed there many generations before from the highlands of southern Congo during a time of great war and sickness, and settled where the soil was reddish black and fertile as the days were long. During this time, just northwest of our village, a ferocious black rhino began wreaking terror across the land. He was bigger than a three-ton lorry, with horns the length of my fathers arms and points as sharp as daggers. Back then, the villagers and animals shared the same watering hole, and the rhino would submerge himself in the shallows and wait. Those visiting the spring were mostly women and young girls like my mother and sisters. As they dipped their pails into the water, the rhino would attack, stabbing and stomping them with its mighty hooves, until there was nothing left but bloody rags. Over a period of months, the feared black rhino had killed over a hundred people. One afternoon, a young girl from the royal Chewa family was stomped to death at the spring. When the chief heard about this, he became very angry and decided to act. He gathered his elders and warriors to make a plan. This thing is a real menace, the chief said. How can we get rid of it? There were many ideas, but none seemed to impress the chief. Finally one of his assistants stood up. I know this man in Lilongwe, he said. Hes not a chief, but he owns one of the azungus guns, and hes very good at magic. Im certain his magical calculations are strong enough to defeat this black rhino. This man was Mwase Chiphaudzu, whose magic was so superior he was renowned across the kingdom. Mwase was a magic hunter. His very name meant killer grass because he was able to disguise himself as a cluster of reeds in the fields, allowing him to ambush his prey. The chiefs people traveled a hundred kilometers to Lilongwe and summoned Mwase, who agreed to assist his brothers in Kasungu . One morning, Mwase arrived at the watering hole well before the sun. He stood in the tall grass near the shores and sprinkled magic water over his body and rifle. Both of them vanished, becoming only music in the breeze. Minutes later, the black rhino thundered over the hill and made his way toward the spring. As he plunged his heavy body into the shallows, Mwase crept behind him and put a bullet into his skull. The rhino crumpled dead. The celebrations began immediately. For three days, villagers from across the district feasted on the meat of the terrible beast that had taken so many lives. During the height of the festivities, the chief took Mwase to the top of the highest hill and looked down where the Chewa ruled. This hill was Mwala wa Nyenje, meaning The Rock of the Edible Flies, named after the cliffs at its summit and the fat delicious flies that lived in its trees. Standing atop the Rock of the Edible Flies, the chief pointed down to a giant swath of green earth and turned to Mwase. Because you killed that horrible and most feared beast, I have a prize for you, he said. I hereby grant you power over this side of the mountain and all thats visible from its peak. Go get your people and make this your home. This is now your rule. So Mwase returned to Lilongwe and got his family, and before long, hed established a thriving empire. His farmland produced abundant maize and vegetables that fed the entire region. His people were strong, and his warriors were powerful and feared. But around this time, a great chaos erupted in the Zulu kingdom of South Africa. The army of the Zulu king, Shaka, began a bloody campaign to conquer the land surrounding his kingdom, and this path of terror and destruction caused millions to flee. One such group was the Ngoni. The Ngoni people marched north for many months and finally stopped in Chewa territory, where the soil was moist and fertile. But because they were constantly on the move, hunger visited them often. When this happened, they would travel farther north and ask for help from Chief Mwase, who always assisted them with maize and goats. One day, after accepting another of Mwases handouts, the Ngoni chiefs sat down and said, How can we always have this kind of food? Someone replied, Eliminate the Chewa. The Ngoni were led by Chief Nawambe, whose plan was to capture the Rock of the Edible Flies and all the land visible from its peak. However, the Ngoni did not know how magical Chief Mwase was. One morning, the Ngoni came up the mountain dressed in animal skins, holding massive shields in one hand and spears in the other. But of course, Chief Mwases warriors had spotted them from miles away. By the time the Ngoni reached the hill, the Chewa warriors had disguised themselves as green grass and slayed the intruders with knives and spears. The last man to die was Chief Nawambe. For this reason, the mountain was changed from the Rock of the Edible Flies to Nguru ya Nawambe, which means simply The Deadly Defeat of Nawambe. This same hill now casts a long shadow over the city of Kasungu, just near my village. These stories had been passed down from generation to generation, with my father having learned them from my grandpa. My fathers father was so old he couldnt remember when he was born. His skin was so dry and wrinkled, his feet looked like they were chiseled from stone. His overcoat and trousers seemed older than he was, the way they were patched and hung on his body like the bark of an ancient tree. He rolled fat cigars from maize husks and field tobacco, and his eyes were red from kachaso, a maize liquor so strong it left weaker men blind. Grandpa visited us once or twice a month. Whenever he emerged from the edge of the trees in his long coat and hat, a trail of smoke rising from his lips, it was as if the forest itself had taken legs and walked. The stories Grandpa told were from a different time and place. When he was youngbefore the government maize and tobacco estates arrived and cleared most of our treesthe forests were so dense a traveler could lose his sense of time and direction in them. Here the invisible world hovered closer to the ground, mixing with the darkness in the groves. The forest was home to many wild beasts, such as antelope, elephant, and wildebeest, as well as hyenas, lions, and leopards, adding even more to the danger.