Collecting Sumba’s Spirit

We are on our way to collect Sumba’s spirit from where we found his body a year ago. We are going because Mma still sees herself giving birth to him by a river, still bathes him, still responds whenever Sumba calls her name even when the sun is right at the centre. Mma’s encounters with Sumba have turned our house into a madman’s den. She refuses to separate the living from the dead. Some days she forgets to milk the cows, to feed the chicken and to cook for us and it appears one of these days, she is going to cook herself like queens of anthills do. The other day she burnt down our hut and said it was Sumba’s doing. Mma sometimes cooks stones and leaves the beans in the basket. The oracle said Sumba was still wandering around the world of the living and we needed to make him rest. Who knows? the oracle had said. Perhaps he will come to kill you all. Baba has agreed to this sojourn because mma’s problem is everyone’s problem and Sumba’s blood flows in all our veins.

Sumba has appeared to all of us but I don’t know why to Mma, his appearance is tempestuous. To me his presence is soothing like mint leaves on a wound. I was beginning to think that Sumba didn’t like me as much as everyone claimed because he took a long time before showing himself to me. He’d appeared to Baba twice and his apparition bled from the eyes. Baba gets overwhelmed and we know he has seen Sumba when he wakes up and pulls out the grass crawling across Sumba’s grave. 

“Baba, what did he say to you last night?” I asked him one evening as we ate potatoes and crushed peanuts.

Mma looked up and her eyes glinted in the final embers of a dying fire. Under that light, I saw the damage that was Sumba’s death on her skin; how it sagged and lost its glow. It was as though so many years had piled on her, yet she wasn’t that old —  it was said my father married her before her first blood and he was four generations ahead of her. Things women spoke in the market without caring who was listening! Mma wiped her tears and nose.

“He was like a diseased cow. The water and blood kept flowing and flowing and I begged him to tell me what to do. But you know how your brother is.” 

My parents sometimes forgot and talked as though Sumba had gone to Kakoi to sell his sisal ropes and poles and he’d return to us. 

“How many times does a heart break, my husband? Is it not enough that he died? Now he refuses to guide us on what he wants.” Mma’s voice was thin.  

We stared at Baba to let us in some more. He grunted and swallowed a big piece of potato. 

“I cannot know that. I am a mere mortal like you.” He spoke through the mouthful. 

“I want my baby to rest,” said Mma.

As if by cue, Sumba came to me that night. We were on top of the grey rock that people said underneath it was the passage to the other world. Sumba told me to face the east, towards Kakoi and not look him in the eye; he faced west, towards Kuvasalli. 

“All I feel is cold,” Sumba said. “Cold. Cold.”

“Son of my mother, is there no sun?”

“Do you know where the sun goes when night sets in?”

“To the other world.”

“Wrong. It extinguishes itself and when morning comes, it powers itself. It is a rebirth of some sort. Such is the same with life.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you know where dead people, like me and our ancestors go?”

“To the other world?”

“Wrong. They stay on because there is no other world. I think it is unfair, that you rid us and we become homeless.”

I was tempted to turn and look him in the eyes and tell him he could come back in whatever form. I wouldn’t cast him. But then he started sobbing and I started sobbing too.


Mma is the head of the queue and is carrying the cooking pots and a knife; Baba is carrying hot ash and firewood and I, maize flour and a live chicken that is quiet as though resigned to its fate. We file past some women in the sugarcane farm and they raise their heads and stare at us, but none of them says anything. Their faces are already glistening in the mid-morning sun and the ground seems to be cooking itself. We pass the men playing ajua by a roadside shade which belongs to a trader that sells hides. The men argue over who will play next and no one is willing to play against the winner—a balding man with a loud laugh who is telling them that he will finish them all in seconds. Kofia, a distant relative of ours, reluctantly agrees to play next and that is the moment they notice us filing past them. They stand up and bow their heads and my father acknowledges with a nod.

As we pass the grassy route leading to grazing fields across Sikhu river that we use every morning, I imagine Sumba with his long legs, jumping over the grass and us behind him like little ants. I hear his laughter, rushing through the grass, whispering, leaping out, hushing. Sumba was laughter itself. He took laughter, seemed to hold it, curl it and hurl it. His laughter was melodic. He was wind, swift, present, and smooth. He was air, present, and oh how flirtingly he seemed to control it. He was a wonder, my brother. Every time young women swooned around me, I knew they wanted me to put in a good word for them. Sumba’s body seemed to be sculpted by the best sculptor there was in the world. From what I heard from the older boys, his manhood robbed them of succulent girls. I began understanding why he breezed through life as though he had a secret only known to him. 

“Do you know why termites will fly out today?” he asked me one day as we sat down in the shade, watching our livestock graze. 

“Yes. These birds are circling around the canopies,” I said, chewing a blade of grass.

“Wrong. There won’t be termites today because… look!” Sumba was pointing to a pregnant cloud so low it felt as though we could stone it and it would crack. I wondered about that cloud—if it was edible, tangible, had a smell? Perhaps not. Water didn’t have a smell. And rain came from the clouds. The gods of the skies resided there and raised the lids covering the clouds to let water down to us. “If it rains there won’t be termites. Termites fear water.” Sumba gazed ahead at the range of Nandi hills, tumbling on top of each other, the smaller ones clambering on the bigger hills like their babies.

Now, we have left behind the route and we are crossing Shiyonga’s homestead to get to the spot where people found Sumba’s body. They said there was a snake bite on his ankle and his foot had turned green. The herbalist cut an incision above the bite and pressed out greenish stuff, but Sumba did not stir, for it was too late. Since his death, many others have died at this very spot. A cow horned someone; two men fought over a woman and one crushed the other with a stone, killing him; someone coming from visiting in-laws began frothing at this spot and died here; a woman gave birth and both she and her child died here. It is as if Sumba’s appetite for grabbing the living keeps growing. And perhaps, as people have begun whispering, he’s  become an evil spirit. 

We get to Sumba’s death spot and it is a disgraceful patch that such a fine man should not have died in such a place, with such a creature. The great Sumba, great grandson of a buffalo did not deserve such a pathetic death. I am beginning to understand why his apparition keeps crying. 

All I feel is cold. I can’t feel my legs. 

Everyone sets down their things. Baba and I wander to find three stones, large enough to support the cooking pots. The sun has no mercy on us and Mma is fanning herself after tying up the chicken. In a few minutes, we’ve set up a fire by the roadside, boiled the water, defeathered the chicken and bisected it. As it cooks Mma says to me, “I hope this boy will come and dine with us. Could you please tell him that?” Baba’s eyes are on the whispering tongues of fire and I don’t know what it is, but I pity him; how he is bent as though deliberating on jumping into the fire. Sumba was his eyes and ears and heart. I cannot bring myself to tell him that Sumba told me that he will never be happy if I am not with him. It would surely kill him if both of us, the poles on which his house stands, die. 

It is too quiet here. I have no one to tell stories

Yet I cannot stand the whispers that Sumba is an evil spirit. When the dead demand for the living, the living stop mentioning their names and within a few years, the dead are forgotten. Nobody names their child after them. Nobody venerates them yearly nor tends to their graves. That is why when he appeared to me and said so, I didn’t tell Mma. How she’d wail! The night he came to me, he said, “Even if it was you, how would you feel that one second you are seeing the sun and the next you are in a dark hole, voices all over, but you are lonely and cannot find your brother?”

When the food is ready, we sit there watching the pots waiting for Sumba to leap out any minute and eat with us and we carry his spirit home. We sit there until baba’s emotions engulf him and he begins sobbing, a gesture that captures us by shock. Mma, somehow embarrassed, pulls out the drumsticks and hands over to baba and he pushes it aside to the ground. The silence is palpable and some crows perch on nearby trees, their caws shattering the silence. She hands me another drumstick and at this point, I feel as though she is testing my loyalty to her or baba or Sumba. Deciding that I might die in the sweltering heat and grief and remembering how much Sumba reminded me that the stomach is the most important organ, the meat finds itself in my mouth. The dog that appears from the bush is emaciated and Mma begins wailing. 

“Is this how our ancestors treat you? Ah! Sumba, take my place.”

Baba does not stop sobbing and he is grunting, heaving and I want to pat him but like he used to say when Mma was distraught, grief is personal. The dog attacks the drumstick on the ground and its eyes beg for more. 

That night after visiting his death spot, Sumba came to me again and said, “Tell baba not to cry again. It makes me sad.”

“Have you left now?”

“Yes. But I want to reside with you.”

“You are dead. You need to go.”

“Sons of the great buffalo do not die; they beat time, because they are time itself.”

His words soothe me and in the morning before taking out the livestock to graze, I head to Mma’s hut and tell her, “Sumba said he is timeless.” For the first time since his death, mma’s smile peeps from her sagging skin like the sun behind a stubborn cloud and it finally emerges in its majestic splendour. The crow feet gather rapidly and in her dazzling eyes, I see Sumba.

Gladwell Pamba

Gladwell Pamba lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. Her works explore escapism. She has previously been longlisted for the African Writivism Short Story Prize and won the AFREADA Contest in 2019. Her works appear or are forthcoming in Equipoise Anthology, The Offing, Waxwing Journal, Five South Journal, Kalahari Review, Bakwa and others. Gladwell blogs at and tweets from @GladwellPamba.