PodCastle 780: The Captive River
The Captive River
By C.T. Muchemwa
It was Siba’s eighteenth birthday, but instead of having a party to celebrate, she was standing by the Zambezi River in a thin, white, cotton slip, shivering despite the hot October sun. It was Commitment Day, the day she would be given to Nyami Nyami, the River God, to be his concubine.
Nearby stood four Basilwizi singing a doleful song, their voices shrill in the still, stifling air. The women looked sinister in their long white robes and headscarves. Around their necks, they wore wooden statues of Nyami Nyami, the signs that they were the chief servants of the River God. Basilwizi oversaw all religious ceremonies of the BaTonga people, including today’s. Every year, in the peak of the dry season, they took a girl to the River God’s lair to appease him before the rainy season. They had done so since the dam wall was completed in 1957, separating Nyami Nyami from his wife, Mweembe; if they didn’t, Nyami Nyami would abduct girls. It was better to sacrifice them willingly than to have the people of Kariba investigating their disappearance. This was the fate that life had given Siba when she was named one of the Chosen as a baby, to die after serving as Nyami Nyami’s concubine.
But the bold will find a way to subvert their fate.
Basilwizi did not know that Siba was more than one of the Chosen. She was Basilwizi like them with her own magical powers, powers she would use to carry out her Banene’s plan. Buried in the dam wall was one of Nyami Nyami’s discarded fangs, placed there by Basilwizi when the wall was built after bargaining with the Rhodesians. Its magic strengthened the wall so that Nyami Nyami couldn’t bring it down. Siba was to remove the fang and help Nyami Nyami bring down the wall. And the BaTonga could finally return to live by the River that gives life.
Chief Basilwizi Chibuno raised her right hand and said, “It is time.” She was a tall, thin woman with a permanent scowl that made you self-consciously straighten your clothes. Basilwizi rubbed white powder that sparkled in the light all over Siba’s body, the crushed remains of one of Nyami Nyami’s fangs. Its magic would allow her to breathe underwater.
Chief Basilwizi Chibuno turned to Siba and said, “This is not the fate you would have chosen for yourself, but the Almighty gives as much as He takes. You must swear by the Almighty and by the Zambezi that gives life that you will be brave and that you will do all you can to protect the River.”
In a whisper, Siba pushed the words beyond the growing lump in her throat. “I swear by the Almighty and by the Zambezi that gives life that I will always protect the River.”
Then Basilwizi and Siba walked into the water until it was around their waists and dove in.
In the past, when Siba dove into the River with Basilwizi, her skin would erupt in goosebumps because the water was so cold. But today, the water was warm. Too warm. They pulled deeper and deeper into the dark waters of the River, and Basilwizi kept Siba surrounded. In front of her, Chief Basilwizi Chibuno led the way, her rod-thin body surging forward. To Siba’s right was Basilwizi Mayaba. It was Mayaba who came to Siba’s grandmother’s house when she was seven to begin preparations for her to fulfill her role as one of the Chosen. That was the first time they told her she was being raised to be Nyami Nyami’s concubine. To her left was Basilwizi Malambo, Mayaba’s twin sister. And behind Siba was Basilwizi Chileleko, the only one to listen with compassion when Siba admitted she was afraid.
The Basilwizi guard of honour was supposed to make Siba feel safe. Instead, she felt trapped. There was no turning back now. Once they arrived at the bottom of the River, they began to swim towards Nyami Nyami’s rock. Siba never liked these swims at the bottom of the lake. They felt so eerie. There were no fish down here, and the ghostly-white, long-dead petrified trees made the lake floor feel like a graveyard. But today, the emptiness was even more alarming. Something was wrong. None of the magical creatures that lived in the lake were visible. There were no njuzu swimming towards their hunting grounds, no snakeheads, not even a flaming tigerfish grinning menacingly. Siba shivered despite the warmth of the water. As they approached the cave entrance, the water churned faster and faster, tugging at Basilwizi’s robes. Siba’s heart began to beat quicker as they swam right into the heart of the whirlpool. A second later, they were past the maelstrom and in the brightness of Nyami Nyami’s cave. They were blinded by the light momentarily, but as their eyes adjusted, they began to comprehend what they saw. Siba’s heart dropped. Before them was a perfect coil of thin brittle white bones with a large tiger-fish head that had gleaming fangs drooping on the floor, all that remained of the River God. Chibuno swam closer. She swam over his head, round and round in total disbelief. Nyami Nyami was dead. Siba was shaking uncontrollably. How could this be? How could a God die?
Basilwizi did not walk Siba home. In fact, their manner suggested that they wanted nothing more to do with her now that Nyami Nyami was gone. So, they sent her on her way. As Siba slowly made her way home, she thought about how dry and clean Nyami Nyami’s bones had been. How long had he been gone? And why hadn’t she felt anything? Shouldn’t the world shake when a God dies?
The path to Banene’s house in Mahombekombe was lit by small fires in every yard. A grey cloud of smoke sat above the neighbourhood, rising from the multitude of open fires over which women were cooking. Banene’s yard was the only one with no fire — the house was enshrouded in darkness. As it always did these days, Siba’s heart sank as she entered the two-room house. Outside, people were laughing, and it made the silence inside louder. She lit a candle and hurriedly switched on her solar-powered radio. It had been three months since her grandmother died, but Siba still had moments when she thought she might see Banene sitting in her dilapidated brown sofa crocheting, or outside by the stoep, watching her neighbours walk by as she mumbled in chiTonga, “One day, you will get rid of these settlers, Siba, and BaTonga will be able to come home again.”
Siba poured some water into a mug. She held her hand over the cup, spoke a command in old chiTonga, and the water began to steam. As she added a tea bag to the water, Siba wondered what Banene would have said if she’d found out that Nyami Nyami was dead. Since Siba was three, Banene had told her she would one day grow up to free her people. As a baby, Basilwizi had taken Siba to the River, where she passed the test and was marked as one of the Chosen. But a few years later, Siba started to show magical ability and Banene made a choice. She would not tell Basilwizi that Siba was actually one of them, a Basilwizi with the power to control water. Instead, Banene decided that Siba would be the one to bring down the wall. Banene hid Siba’s powers and let Basilwizi prepare her to be a concubine. Meanwhile at home, she honed her powers. There was a reason why a Basilwizi couldn’t be Nyami Nyami’s concubine. She would have too much power. She might use those powers to help Nyami Nyami bring down the wall. And that was exactly what Banene was banking on. But what good was it now?
Siba walked over to the cabinet on the other side of the wall and began rummaging in the drawers until she found what she was looking for. It was a thick counter book in which she had written all the things that Banene had taught her in preparation for joining Nyami Nyami. In the beginning were spells. In the middle, Banene had made Siba write over and over again what she would do once she met Nyami Nyami until she was word perfect. Banene drew from her own experience as Basilwizi when she was a young woman. But, always the overachiever, Banene had also written a set of hypothetical situations in the back to help Siba prepare for the unexpected. Siba flipped through them over and over until she had to accept that the one thing Banene never thought to prepare for was the death of the River God. Siba sighed and shut the book. She would have to look elsewhere. She whispered to the silence, “Banene, I swear by the Almighty and by the Zambezi that gives life, that I will protect the River.”
When the township had finally fallen silent, Siba slipped out of the house and started to walk back to the River. In her pocket was a small packet of Nyami Nyami’s fang dust. Banene’s supply was almost gone. When she reached the River’s edge, she hesitated. This would be her first time entering the water without Basilwizi or Banene. She steeled herself, covered herself in the fang dust, and dove in, down to the floor where there resided creatures so old they had become myths. Down at the bottom, she approached a familiar large, petrified baobab tree. A light was emanating from within, but guarding the entrance were two muscular njuzu. As Siba approached, they barred the entrance with their spears as their fish tails flipped aggressively her way.
Siba said, “May I see Mambo Junza?” The njuzu did not reply. They continued to stare at her with stern scowls on their faces. Much to her dismay, more njuzu began to swim out of the tree and they began circling around her, closer and closer. “Please, I am Bama. I am the Mother of the River. I just want to see Junza. Please.”
Finally, one of them spoke, his spear mere inches from Siba’s neck. “How do we know you are who you say you are?” Siba slipped off her shift to show the blood-red tattoo above her left breast, a perfect representation of Nyami Nyami. The njuzu visibly relaxed and bowed.
“Apologies, Bama,” he said. “We cannot be too careful these days. Come with me.” He swam into the hollow of the tree, and Siba followed.
Inside, surrounded by frightened njuzu, lying on a stone chaise throne, flicking lazily his strong tail, was Mambo Junza, the King of the lower lake njuzu. His top half was a sinewy bearded old man with shiny brown skin. His bottom half was the powerful green-bronze body of the bream fish, shimmering in the water.
“Bama,” Junza said, “what took you so long?”
“What do you mean, Mambo? I only found out today that Nyami Nyami is gone.” Mambo Junza frowned but said nothing.
“When did it happen?” Siba said.
“It has been seven days,” Junza said, “and we have been waiting for you.”
Her voice caught in her throat as she asked, “What happened?”
“It is difficult to say. But I think that the wall finally killed him. Each second since that wall began to go up, Nyami Nyami has been trying to bring it down until he finally lost. Do you know the story, Bama? How when they were building the wall, Nyami Nyami sent the River thundering down the gorge and it smashed through the nearly complete wall, leaving the builders distraught.”
“And that’s when the builders bargained with Basilwizi to shore up the wall, wasn’t it?” Siba said.
“A shameful moment. But what matters now is what we do next. What is your plan?”
“My plan? I came down here to find out what your plans were.”
“What plans can I have, Bama?” Junza said. “I only have authority over my own njuzu, no one else. The water has been warming for years now, but since Nyami Nyami died, it’s warmed so much that many of the fish have disappeared in search of cooler waters. And the upper lake njuzu have come down here and attacked us for the few fishing grounds left. We’ve never needed to fight them before, but now there is no Nyami Nyami to keep the balance. I’m afraid that open war will break out soon. You have to do something.”
“But I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I’m not sure what purpose I have in a world in which Nyami Nyami doesn’t exist.”
Junza’s face softened. “I sometimes forget that you are still just a child. But you must put aside your fears. This River needs you. Without Nyami Nyami, it is chaos here. You must find a way to bring down the wall and let Mweembe return so that the River can once again have a Guardian.” Siba’s heart stopped at the sudden recollection of Nyami Nyami’s wife, Mweembe, stuck on the other side of the wall. Did she know her husband was dead?
“But I can’t bring down the wall on my own,” Siba said.
“We will help you,” Junza said.
Siba took in the sea of beseeching eyes staring at her, at the njuzu holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that she would be their saviour. Her mind was screaming. But I just got my life back!
But before she could answer, one of the guards swam into the baobab tree. He said, “The upper njuzu are coming.”
Mambo Junza said, “You have to leave now, Bama.”
“But will you be safe?”
“Please, go now. The River needs you.”
Hurriedly, Siba slipped out of the tree. Once in open water, she cast a spell in old chiTonga. The water around her began to spin, a perfect whirlpool protecting her and propelling her upwards until she reached the surface. As she stroked her way to the River’s edge, she was still unsure how to approach Junza’s appeal, but she knew what she would do next. She would tell Basilwizi what was happening in the River.
When morning came, Siba hurried to Basilwizi’s meeting place, a circle of stones under the shade of a msasa tree on the cliff right above the dam wall. The place was deserted when she arrived, but she knew that Basilwizi must meet today. There were five rocks in the circle, four of them etched with the powers Basilwizi possessed: walking on water, breathing underwater, heating water, and moving water. Completing the circle was an elevated pedestal, upon which was a statue of Nyami Nyami carved from black serpentine rock, glaring down at the wall. Siba sat down on the fifth rock, the one free of etchings. This rock had been blank since Banene had turned her back on Basilwizi over sixty years before. In a different life, Siba would have succeeded Banene and taken up the seat. But that was all lost now. Nyami Nyami was gone.
It was almost an hour later when Basilwizi finally arrived. They were clearly surprised to find Siba there. No one sat down. Chief Basilwizi Chibuno glared at Siba.
“Sibajene,” she said, “what are you doing here?”
“Excuse me, Basilwizi. I mean no offence,” she said, eyes fixed to the ground, “but I went to the River last night, and I must tell you what I learned.”
“You went to see Mambo Junza without us?” said Chibuno. “That was not your place.”
“I know,” Siba said, “but I had to do something.”
Chibuno let out a heavy sigh. “I understand. It’s a difficult time for us all.” It was only now as Basilwizi dragged their feet to their seats that Siba noticed the puffy eyes and sunken cheeks.
They all sat down and Basilwizi began their usual rituals for their meetings. In the centre of the circle, they lit a fire and placed a dish filled with clear water on it. Chibuno dissolved fang dust in the water. The steam created a soundproof bubble around Basilwizi. Only when the steam began to rise from the simmering water did they turn back to Siba.
“Tell us then, Sibajene,” said Chibuno, “what it was you found out.”
Basilwizi listened carefully as Siba explained the current situation underwater and the possibility of war. They gasped at Siba’s description of her near escape. They sighed as she ended her tale, but she didn’t tell them yet about Junza’s solution.
“It’s as we feared,” said Chibuno. “Things are falling apart underwater without the River Guardian.”
“It will soon be chaos on land too,” said Basilwizi Mayaba. “This drought has already stretched endlessly. Where will the rain come from without Nyami Nyami to intercede on our behalf to the Almighty?”
“And don’t forget,” said Basilwizi Chileleko, “that this time, when the hunger truly starts to bite, there won’t be Nyami Nyami to offer the flesh off His back so we can feed our babies.”
Basilwizi continued like this for several minutes. With each new thought of how life would be worse without Nyami Nyami, Basilwizi steadily worked themselves into a state until their voices rang shrilly in the morning air. Siba was disappointed. This was not what she had expected from Basilwizi. She had always believed that Basilwizi were powerful and brave. Yet here they were, frantic over the demise of their God instead of coming up with a plan. She raised her voice to be heard over the furore.
“Maybe,” Siba said, “our time might be better spent thinking about what we can do.”
“What can we do?” said Chibuno. “We are River God servants with no River God.”
“Junza suggested we bring down the wall,” Siba said. “That way Mweembe can come, and she can be the new Guardian.”
Chibuno’s demeanour changed entirely. Her back stiffened, her eyes narrowed, and a familiar scowl returned to her face.
“The wall cannot fall,” she said.
“But what if —”
“I said, the wall cannot fall.”
Siba looked to the other Basilwizi for support but found none. They had all retreated behind the wall of unity.
Chibuno continued, “Anyway, our powers are strong enough to bring down a whole dam wall. How could you bring down the wall with no powers at all, unless you have been hiding them?”
Panic flared in Siba. Did Chibuno know? But Siba pushed down her alarm and hurriedly replied to hide her confusion.“I don’t understand,” Siba said. “Why won’t you do anything?”
“Why are you even here, Sibajene? What do you think you can do? Do you really think being raised to be a concubine means you get to save the day?”
“But Mweembe —”
“Mweembe is on the other side of the wall and cannot help us. Go home, Sibajene.”
“I thought the guilt would have been enough to motivate you to do something.”
“I know what Basilwizi did, Chibuno. I know they made an agreement with the colonisers and placed Nyami Nyami’s fang at the bottom of the wall to make sure that He could never bring it down.” Chibuno looked like she had just been slapped.
“Your grandmother held no secrets, did she?”
“Not from me.”
“And what did she tell you? That the others placed the fang there and she just watched? That she turned her back on her responsibilities to her God and her people because of that bloody fang? Basilwizi always act as one. She was just as responsible as the rest of them. And I don’t even blame them for it. Tell me, would you have done differently when those of us who refused to leave our lands were shot on sight?”
“Like you, I swore by the Almighty and by the Zambezi that gives life that I would always protect the River. I would have trusted Nyami Nyami.”
“Trust in Nyami Nyami? Three years in a row, he flooded the River and smashed the wall to pieces, but every single time, they rebuilt it. And those floods, they didn’t just drown the colonisers, they drowned our people too. Times were changing and Basilwizi did what we needed to survive to fight another day.”
“But is this not the day? Is today not the day when we say enough and have Basilwizi undo what they did so that the River will not die?”
Chibuno chuckled, but the sound was drenched in sadness.
“Your words remind us that you are still a child. Your work here is done, Sibajene. Go home. Go live the life you never thought you would have.”
Siba was steaming as she left Basilwizi’s cliff. Yesterday, she wasn’t a child when they needed her to be Nyami Nyami’s concubine. But now that Nyami Nyami was gone, suddenly she was a child again. Yet she was the only one willing to face up to the reality of their situation. With the death of Nyami Nyami, the fate of the River was now tangled up at odds with the fate of the wall. As long as the wall stood, the River had no chance.
Siba stomped down the hill in the general direction of home, clenching and unclenching her fists. She could not believe that Chibuno had dared to disrespect Banene like that, not after all the things that Banene had done to protect the River. But Chibuno was wrong. Banene had not absolved herself for her role in the taming of Nyami Nyami. She took full responsibility. How many times had she told Siba the story? The white men promised us independence. They would take the land, but they wouldn’t force us to change. We could keep our cultures. Our children didn’t have to attend their schools. They would stop luring our sons into jobs in the mines. We didn’t know then that losing the land is the first step in losing it all. They gave it all up, but what did they get in return?
“Nothing,” Siba said out loud. Hearing her own voice startled her out of her trance. She was surprised to find that her feet had carried her all the way to the edge of the River, where she had stood just the day before, convinced that her life was over. She had known since she was a child that her life would cease to be her own when she turned eighteen. She had known she was going “to save the world.” She never had a choice. Not until now. She could do as Chibuno said, couldn’t she? Walk away. Maybe move to Harare and see what life was like in the big city. But even as she said it, the voice in the back of her head reminded her of the promise she had made a million times in this short life of hers. “I swear by the Almighty and by the Zambezi that gives life, that I will always protect the River.” It was the reminder she needed that her life had been forsaken not for Nyami Nyami, not for Basilwizi, not even for Banene, but for the River that gives life. If no one else would save it, she would.
Without a second thought, she pulled out the last of her fang dust and rubbed it all over her body. Then she dove into the water. Again, the River was uncomfortably warm. She was alone as she swam towards the wall, but she kept her guard up, keeping an eye out for the rebel njuzu. So when a group of njuzu suddenly formed behind her, she noticed immediately. She turned abruptly, hand raised — ready to form a whirlpool to aid her escape if necessary. She did not recognise the dozen njuzu warriors glaring at her.
“Why are you following me?” she said.
“Junza sent us to protect you.”
Siba let out a sigh of relief and continued her journey to the wall.
Once at the wall, she began the task of locating the fang. She was at the very base and steadily worked her way from left to right, searching. Suddenly she felt Nyami Nyami’s power, radiating out from the centre of the wall. And she could feel the water pressing on a crack, desperately searching for a way through. She scooped out the sand from around the crack until she touched the top of a capsule. She scooped out more sand with her hands and her heart leapt as her fingers clasped around the cold stone capsule. She pulled it out and looked at it. It contained fang dust. As she cast it aside in disgust, the crack widened. She could feel the water beating even more insistently against the crack. She gathered all her strength, pulling the water around her, and then smashed it into the wall, right at the crack. Over and over, she did it, but she began to tire. Her shoulders burned. Seeing her sagging shoulders, the njuzu began to sing.
Rise, mighty River. Rise.
Come to us through Mweembe.
We are perishing here.
We who used to be happy,
We who used to thrive in this water,
We, the creatures of the River
We are perishing, mighty River. We are perishing.
It was a lamentation that spoke of the kind of grief and weariness that only a God can comfort. And in the distance, a wild cry reverberated through the water, the answering call of a River Guardian. The ground began to tremble as Mweembe approached, but the njuzu kept singing. They did not miss a note. They kept on singing even when Mweembe smashed into the wall. They kept on singing as she flung her tail against the wall to the beat of the song. And Siba smashed the water into the crack again. Slowly, the crack began to widen as the water strained to find a way through. Still Mweembe and Siba smashed the wall. And when the hole at the bottom of the wall was large enough for Mweembe to fit, they all stopped. They wanted the wall gone, but they needed to control its fall to prevent flooding downstream. Mweembe slid through the hole and the water that came through with her felt cool. The njuzu and Siba stared in wonder at the River Guardian, frolicking in the water, finally home.
As the sun set, Siba found herself sitting on a cliff’s edge, looking down at the dam wall in the distance. It seemed solid, like nothing could bring it down. But she knew that at its bottom, the water was steadily wearing it away, a gentle attrition to set a captive River free. Banene was gone. Nyami Nyami was gone. But tomorrow morning, and every morning, the sun would rise on a resurgent Zambezi reclaiming its former land. And the BaTonga would return to the banks of the River that gives life, to live in communion with the Zambezi as they have always done.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was THE CAPTIVE RIVER by C. T. MUCHEMWA, and it’s her first story on an Escape Artists podcast, but if you enjoyed that, go check her Twitter profile @chidomuchemwa–linked in the show notes–where she has a pinned thread with all her published fiction.
C. T. sent us these notes on THE CAPTIVE RIVER: I have been wanting to write a story about Nyami Nyami since I was eight years old, sitting on a houseboat on Lake Kariba. There is something magical about Kariba, a feeling that there is something lurking just below the surface. You don’t see Nyami Nyami. You feel him. I wanted to write a story that conveyed that feeling of immense power that has been reined in by a dam wall. But the plot came into focus for me when I read “As We Have Always Done” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson which helped me start thinking through what indigeneity looks like in Zimbabwe and how the dam wall was site of conflict between the indigenous way of life and settler ideas of progress. I wanted to think about what happens to a land that loses its people. If the BaTonga are this land’s stewards, what happens when they aren’t there? What dies from neglect? What thrives because there is nothing to balance it out? What wails its loss? What seeks retribution?
Thank you, C. T., for the story and those particularly thoughtful notes. I’m not sure I can have anything significant or meaningful to add to them, in fact–and given the underlying theme of colonial powers speaking for and speaking over the indigenous tribes, perhaps best that this Brit lets those notes speak for themselves. All I will say, then, is that it is a continual privilege and pleasure to present fantasy stories from outside the traditional medieval European milieu, that broaden the genre and–speaking for myself, at least–the minds of anyone who experiences them. Fantasy is the oldest genre, the foundational stories of every culture, the first stories we teach our children: it is threaded throughout all of human history, and we have done ourselves a disservice in the last half-century by pretending it only fit one shape. We have transcended the golden age of fantasy and are reading, now, in a new prismatic age, with so many more voices and viewpoints and cultures and stories. I sincerely believe the genre has never been more vital, in every sense, thanks to stories like these. Thank you to C. T. and all our authors for trusting us with them, and thank you to you, and all our listeners, for hearing them.
About the Author
Chido Muchemwa is a Zimbabwean writer currently living in Canada. Her work has previously appeared in The Baltimore Review, Canthius, Humber Literary Review, Catapult, and Augur amongst other places. She has been shortlisted twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and placed 2nd in the Humber Literary Review’s 2020 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest. She is a 2023 Miles Morland scholar.
About the Narrator
Shingai Njeri Kagunda
Shingai Njeri Kagunda is an Afrofuturist freedom dreamer, Swahili sea lover, and Femme Storyteller among other things, hailing from Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently pursuing a Literary Arts MFA at Brown University. Shingai’s short story “Holding Onto Water” was longlisted for the Nommo Awards 2020 & her flash fiction “Remember Tomorrow in Seasons” was shortlisted for the Fractured Lit Prize 2020. She has been selected as a candidate for the Clarion UCSD Class of 2020/2021. #clarionghostclass. She is also the co-founder of Voodoonauts: an afrofuturist workshop for black writers.
Her novella & This is How to Stay Alive is part of Neon Hemlock’s 2021 Novella Series.