The plains of Northern Bahr-al-Ghazal, South Sudan stretch from the edge of the world, until they are swallowed by the sky. It’s a land of grass in the winter and water in the summer, when the floodwaters from Central Africa arrive. This land was given to the mighty gazelles, to grow strong and run free, their rapier like horns standing proud against the sky.
The gazelles have coats that shimmer in the sunlight, with black and white markings that could almost be war-paint, on their handsome faces. A big black stripe runs from the top of their head to their nose, with smaller stripes running up across their eyes.
Their horns are long, twisted blades, where each twist of the horn marking the successful completion of a challenge. Gazelles love nothing more to run. They run against each other. They race the shadows of eagles as it moves across the grass. They race the wind and if there is nothing to race, they run for the sheer pleasure of feeling powerful and alive.
The gazelles share the plains with the men of the Muonyjang. The Muonyjang are tall and graceful, with spears and long oval shields, which are painted in black and white stripes, out of respect for the gazelles. The men of the Muonyjang wear long red robes wrapped around their bodies, belted at the waist. They are great hunters and fisherman, taking special pride in protecting the gazelle from lions and other predators.
Amongst the Muonyjang of Bahr-al-Ghaza there was one man who moved apart from the hunters. He was called Koc bith, which means ‘Master of the fishing spear’. From an early age he was known for his wisdom, his healing powers and his ability to see the future by listening to the wind in the grass, or by watching the flickering evening fire. He was also the greatest fishermen amongst the Muonyjang.
The hunters said that he wasn’t a great fisherman, but that the fish to stop him from being angry with them, jumped onto the tip of his spear whenever he put it into the water.
The Master of the Fishing Spear, who spent his days on the plains watching the gazelle, his long legs moving effortlessly through the grass, shadowing them as they ran, was worried. For the past few days, the gazelle had not been running as usual. They stood with their faces pointed to the North, moving closer together in a great herd, which grew larger every day.
Around the evening fire, he discussed this with the hunters who didn’t have answers as to the strange behaviour of the gazelle. They decided that a group of hunters should go North to see if they could find anything strange or different. The Master of the Fishing Spear, covered his body in white clay, using his fingers to trace the lines of the gazelle in the clay, and the swirls that tied his body to his spirit ancestors. Then, in the flickering firelight they began to dance, asking for guidance and blessing on their journey.
As the stars began to fade from the night sky with the approaching dawn, the hunters moved off towards the North, uncertain of where they were going, or what they were looking for. The horns of the gazelle glimmered in the rising sun in harmony with the spear tips of the hunters and the Master of the Fishing Spear knew that in their journey they were joined by the spirits of the gazelles.
Long days of travel brought them no closer to knowing what had disturbed the gazelle, until one day as they were about to stop at the end of the day, they passed through into emptiness. One moment they were surrounded by lush bush, and the next the ground stretched away with nothing growing or living. A desert. Bewildered they stood on the edge of the bare ground which went from horizon to horizon, on their left and right and in front of them as far as they could see. Only the wind seemed to be alive, playing with spirals of dust.
The Master of the Fishing Spear moved away from where the hunters camped, sitting silently, sending his thoughts out on the wind to see if he could find any answers to what they had found. In the morning he sat with the hunters, dividing them into three teams. Two he sent North, two he sent East and four he sent to the West, as it was from the west that he felt a disturbance.
The hunters ran until the first one could go no further. He drank water water he needed, giving the rest to the second hunter who continued until he too could go no further. He then turned and started slowly back to where he left the Master of the Fishing Spear. Long after the sun had set, the first of the hunters came into the light of the fire. He had seen nothing but bare ground as far as he could see. During the night the remaining hunters from the North and the east arrived, all reporting that the earth was dead. Of the hunters who had gone west there was no sign.
Once the hunters had recovered, the Master of the Fishing Spear selected the strongest of the hunters to accompany him to the west to look for those who had not returned. The remainder he sent back to warn the villages to harvest and store as much food as possible as he was. Certain that whatever had caused the earth to die was on its way to the plains.
Following the edge where the living stopped, the Master of the Fishing Spear moved west as swiftly using the wind to look far ahead, where he could feel a growing mass of moving darkness and the smell of water. It was here that they found the first hunter. Only his bones, and his spear remained by which they could tell who he was. Across the river, the devastation continued, but the Master of the Fishing Spear knew that the black mass was now moving South.
Using his senses to plot the path of the river, the Master of the Fishing Spear set off to where the river formed a loop, hoping that they could move quickly enough to find the remaining hunters and whatever the black mass was. They ran through the day and the night until they could feel that they were moving with the blackness, which as the sun rose they could see were millions and millions of army ants, devouring everything as they moved. Never had the Master of the Fishing Spear seen anything like it, and there was nothing in his learning that told of such a mass of destruction.
With no sign of the remaining three hunters, they returned to the plains of Bahr-al-Ghazal, where people were rushing all over the place. Only the gazelles stood unmoved, and it was there that the Master of the Fishing Spear went to explain what he had found.
Wreathed in smoke, the Master of the Fishing Spear sent his spirit, with those spirits of the gazelles who had been with him on his journey, to move amongst the antelope so they knew the danger that was approaching. The gazelles grew increasingly agitated and he looked up to see the herds parting to allow three of the biggest animals to move closer to where he was seated. Their long twisted horns, and rapier points, testament to the many challenges they had endured. It was with a shake of their heads that the gazelle let him know that they were unafraid of something as feeble as ants. After all, they were the mighty gazelle who could outrun anything and they would smash the ants under their hooves.
With patience and concern, the spirits of the dead hunters joining him, the Master of the Fishing Spear told them again of the destruction he had seen. The earth, dead. Stripped of anything living. The big gazelles moved away, leaving a few curious youngsters who hadn’t seen the gazelle communicating with the Master of the Fishing Spear before, and one old gazelle. He moved closer to where the Master of the Fishing Spear sat
His spirit strong, he recalled that when he was young he remembered when the ants came killing everything. The gazelle had run and run, thinking they had left the ants far behind them. But when they stopped to rest and eat, the ants had come upon them forcing them to run again, and again, until they could run no more. He didn’t know how he had survived, but his spirit remembered another master of the Fishing Spear who had saved them.
The hunters looked across to where the Master of the Fishing Spear sat with the old gazelle, while the days passed. He did not eat, and did not drink and slowly it was as if he disappeared into the smoke. But when they looked again he was there again. Sitting beneath the branches of an old dead tree, its branches all twisted. They did not remember a tree being there, as firewood was scarce. However, the longer they watched; it too seemed to disappear into the smoke.
With the flood waters still high, and warnings from the hunters who had been watching the mass of ants, it was time to move the village into the swamp, where new houses, surrounded by water, had been built on stilts coated in poison to prevent the ants from getting to them and the safely secured food. On the plains, the gazelle ran and snorted at the approaching ants, while the Master of the Fishing Spear sat amongst a growing number of nervous animals.
Silence greeted a new day. The air was still. With great caution the hunters moved from the islands towards the plain that was stripped of everything living, above which a blanket of smoke hung. There were no gazelle and no sign of the Master of the Fishing Spear. As the smoke cleared, the hunters could see that the plains were covered with dead trees. Some quite small, and others larger with their twisted branches pointed up towards the sky. In one of the largest trees, they found the Master of the Fishing Spear amongst the branches weak from hunger and thirst. Gently they carried him back across the bare earth to the village.
The seasons passed, and slowly life returned to the plains. The grass grew and the hunters could move amongst the dead trees looking for food, mindful of the warning from the master of the Fishing Spear that they were only to use firewood that had fallen to the ground. None of the dead trees were to be touched.
One morning the hunters were woken by thunder across the plains. The gazelle, watched over by the Master of the Fishing Spear, had returned to the plains of Bahr-al-Ghazal. Of the dead trees, there was no sign.
Juba, South Sudan 2013
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October 6, 2015