The village where I come from, the next, and the next have no donkeys. Actually, you can count the number of donkeys in our County in the fingers of one hand. The County is too hilly for those beasts of burden. It’s also too cold in some places. Thirdly, the locals, who are mainly descended from some fierce Mau Mau, are not known for their benevolence to our dumb friends. Thus donkeys, in their asinine wisdom, give my County a wide a berth.
So back in the day, this adventurous soul from our village bought a donkey. A big fully grown female one with flap-like ears and flaring nostrils. The thing carried herself like a prima donna in the village lanes. Like an asinine slay queen, she sneered at other lesser mortals like cows and goats. Why? She was well aware that her ancestors had carried the Messiah in his triumphant entry to Bethlehem. The donkey’s owner argued that his donkey learned this story after she chewed on a Bible and the gospel sunk in into her donkey brain. Due to her novelty, she commanded some higher ranking in the village food chain. Thus the donkey sometimes feasted on dainties that other animals could only dream of.
The villagers, in their own wisdom, nicknamed the donkey’s owner Balaam-the character in the Bible who owned an obstinate donkey. Well, this Balaam fellow didn’t deserve that name. It was said that when he was young, his mother shaved him and forgot to dispose of the hair. An eagle picked the hairs and built a nest with them. In our place, when such a thing happened, the nuts in one’s head went loose. Thus Balaam was the unstable type, always teetering between normalcy and madness. But there was a method to his madness. One of them was the donkey idea which no one had ever thought of before.
Whatever business Balaam did with his donkey was a matter of heated village discourse. The local women brigade swore that those sacks that the donkey hauled to the market were not full of nappier grass. Deeper inside was concealed a very unchristian herb that was known to make people laugh sheepishly. The donkey, they added, would sometimes chew the potent herb, and thus if you got closer to her you could hear her silent laughter. The shrub was also responsible for the donkey’s sometimes randy behavior. But she could be excused for that. There was no he-donkey around to whisper to her some amorous donkey gibberish at those times of the month. She was a woman, you know.
Despite that, the Mothers Union members always allocated a moment of prayer for Balaam’s donkey in their Sunday programme.
The Mothers Union didn’t pray for Balaam’s donkey because they loved it but for another reason altogether. The village was the hiding place of alcoholism. While the women were being filled with the Holy Spirit in the local church, their husbands and sons would be imbibing all manner of banned spirits at the village shebeen.
The shebeen was an eternal one-room affair that had defied time, curses, and prayers. Like a heathen totem to hedonism, it stood at the center of the market facing the church, challenging it to a moral duel. Their doors were diametrically opposed, and so were their duties. But their short-term roles were the same-gratifying needs that couldn’t be met at home. So the shebeen forever faced the church, beckoning at her like wicked Jezebel, daring her to imbibe of her cloying nectarines and stagger down the primrose path to damnation.
When the men had their fill, their throats would be filled with song and their knees with jelly. Some would sleep right at the gate of the church on a Saturday night. Maybe to spite their mothers and wives who worshipped there. There was this mechanic fellow who would always confuse the church gate for his home. In his drunken wisdom, he would hang his threadbare Azzaro shirt on the fence. His overalls would be his pillow. The skies would be his blanket. Sunday school kids would find him there fast asleep, his tattered boxers doing a losing job in trying to shelter his unshaved dirty dignity from their curious eyes.
It is sights like that demanded the services of Balaam and his donkey. Being a hilly area, a taxi would be too expensive and untenable for the duty at hand. Balaam would be hastily called, and in a jiffy, he would be there with his trusted strong beast. The long-suffering wife would point to the sleeping man as if he was leperous.Balaam, on the other hand, would exercise maximum leverage of the situation.
He would ask matter of factly. Balaam prided himself in being the only person in the County, apart from Dr.Gikonyo Kiano, who could speak Cambridge English. And do complex Carey Francis math too. Well, it was said that he repeated class 2 so many times until his lot reached class 8. Then, in his wisdom, he graduated himself, never to go back to school again. But that didn’t deter him from speaking Queen’s English.
’Mbauni. ’The woman would reply.
Mbauni was a corruption of a pound. It was a lot of money then, enough to buy a kid goat. Balaam would immediately feign annoyance, speak English to his animal, and pretend to go home.
‘See you when you see me’, Balaam would say with a tone of finality.
He was never lacking in one-liners borrowed from yellow movies and seedy cheap novels. It would take the coaxing of an aunty, a distant grandmother and some extra coins to coax Balaam to take the drunken man home.
‘Quite Easily Done!’
He would say as he rode off with the still drunk man now snoring atop the back of his donkey.
Thus the relationship between Balaam and village women was symbiotic. He could continue with his trade of ferrying some illegal herb as long as he was available to rescue them from the shame that was their men on Sunday mornings. The rumour that Balaam would sometimes be seen leaving some of the women’s homes when the husbands were away could also be tolerated. Is it not written forgive they neighbor? Doesn’t the Holy book ask us not to judge?
One day, Balaam’s donkey disappeared-pap. Nowhere to be seen. There was a two-paragraph announcement about it during the church service. Balaam, who was last seen in the church during his baptism, attended church for the first time since the death of Mzee Jomo. He was heard praying loudest like someone possessed. The service had to be lengthened to accommodate additional prayers for his donkey.
‘Lord, we also pray for the recovery of goods of undisclosed value that Balaam’s donkey was carrying. If this happens, honor and glory shall be unto you’….intoned the parish vicar.
‘Ameeeeen.’ For the first time in years, Balaam gave offerings to the Lord. Earnestly.
Some slow days passed; Balaam’s donkey was not back. Then other donkey week passed, then a donkey month. Hope was slowly turning to despair. The Mother’s Union members would ask him to be patient for God would one day answer their prayers. ‘God can never be rushed, ‘they told him.
One evening, Balaam decided to rush God. The church had not helped him so far, so, its nemesis would do. With a freshly sharpened machete, he stormed the village shebeen. His eyes were redder than raspberries. Drunks there tried to make small talk with him. A murderous wave of the machete implied he was not interested. Veins crisscrossed his face, threatening to burst at any moment. Well, his face normally looked like a map to every dirty shebeen in the location, but tonight it was even fiercer.
‘Listen!’ His voice was tremulous, yet firm. Balaam was blessed with a booming Old Testament voice, so when he spoke, people listened. Or drunks listened.
The hush that befell the shebeen was audible. Most drunks, who whizzed like old Fiat lorries after years of smoking kianjumbi-the locally rolled tobacco-had to stifle many a cough.
‘If I don’t get my donkey by tomorrow sunset, then….’ he trailed off, his voice breaking. Some drunks whose brakes were loose felt some warm wetness on their pants.
‘Just ask what I did to the other village when they stole my donkey.’
With that he strode into the night, his machete glistening in the moonlight. The following morning, he woke up to the baying of his donkey tethered to the ancient avocado tree in his compound.
‘So, what did you do to the other village when they stole your donkey?’
Some brave toothless drunk asked Balaam later that day.
‘I walked home.’