This is the first in a series of stories that highlight new world concerns but in an olde world setting.
Kwumbo entered the ring of light, his huge muscles accentuated in the glow of the fire. He frowned at the assembled tribe. “Where is Majeka?”
The shamen stood on the other side of the flames, his huge gluttonous belly threatening to send him headfirst into the blaze. “I am here.”
Kwumbo sighed; this was going to be tough. He prayed to the mighty Stoiplens as much as was required to appease the fanatical shamen, but wasn’t altogether convinced that the deity was useful to the tribe’s continuing survival in the harsh badlands of the Okoko desert. Still, religion did serve a useful purpose in controlling the highly-volatile Masaka people. “My fellow tribesmen,” he said, “raise your arms to the mightly Stoiplens and pay homage.” The clan did so with a harsh bark. “I come to you with terrible news. This season’s crops have failed and our food stores are almost depleted. We are on the brink of starvation.” There was a murmur around the fire. Kwumbo adjusted his ceremonious bandolier nervously and waited for the noise to die down before adding, “Stoiplens has forsaken us.”
“Blasphemy!” cried Majeka, skaing his voodoo stick. “The benevolent Stoiplens has gifted us with the means to make good crops!”
“Then why has he ruined them with 40 days of rain?” shouted someone.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The shamen paced around the fire, giving Kwumbo an evil glare as he passed. “There is a witch amongst us!” Some of the villagers cried out and leapt to their feet, some trying to settle bad blood by immediately offering their enemies as the witch.
Kwumbo smashed the huge gong behind him with his fist. “Be quiet, all of you! There is a solution to our misery and our inevitable demise. The crops in the forbidden fields have flourished. We must eat these.”
“No!” cried Majeka, confronting Kwumbo face-on. “Those crops are forbidden by Stoiplens!
“We can’t eat the crops,” argued Kwumbo, “even if it means facing death by starvation?”
Kwumbo turned to the silent tribe. “Let’s be sensible – our religion is useful as a guideline to bringing up our children properly and how to live peacefully with each other. But this is serious. We’re risking our very survival based on some very sketchy stories about a god who made us from the dandruff from his head on a particularly windy day. It might be fun to pretend that there’s a real reason those fields are forbidden, but they’re just the same as the other fields. You’re choosing survival over unproven belief. Why shouldn’t we harvest the crops from these fields?”
“Because those who consume the crops will immediately turn into gigantic lizards with eight eyes and no sense of smell!” Some villagers shouted their blind agreement with Majeka, brainwashed by the agonising eight-hour praying sessions that Majeka insisted were mandatory.
“But the cattle graze in those fields, and we eat the cattle, so isn’t the cattle tainted with hellspawn too?” Some villagers agreed with Kwumbo this time; it was a verbal tennis match between the chief and the shamen. “Shouldn’t we all be walking around with fire blazing out of our fingernails and a tail coming out of our left eye?”
Majeka’s eyes darted around desperately. He knew he was losing some of his parish, and wasn’t used to (or prepared for) being questioned about the finer points of his religion. “The, uh, cattle’s purity removes the seed of hell from the tainted crops making it safe for us to consume their flesh.” He narrowed his eyes at Kwumbo. “Maybe some of us have been tainted with hellspawn already.”
“If that were true, I would be green and vomiting lava, wouldn’t I?” Kwumbo picked up a stick and drew a line between the tribe, dissecting the fire right through the middle. “Here’s the deal; since we have no food for the coming winter months, I am starting a new tribe. One of the new things about my new tribe is that we eat from the forbidden fields. The other tribe, the old tribe, can follow whatever Majeka says about invisible beings telling us what not to eat, and starve as a result.”
“Devil worshippers!” cried Majeka. “You’re starting a witch’s coven, not a tribe!”
“Two can play at the making things up game,” said Kwumbo quietly to Majeka, then said aloud, “My tribe is so pure that we eat from the field without fear of being tainted.”
“Impossible! Prove it!” said the shamen.
“If you wish.” He walked into the darkness and returned with a tuber. “This Carange is from the forbidden field. Witness me as I eat this and do not turn into a fire-breathing devil!” The tribe held their breath as they watched the chief eat the vegetable. After five minutes, he spread his arms. “See? Untainted. Now who’s with me?” There were nervous glances, peer pressure holding people in their place. Majeka paced around the group, shoving those who were wavering back into place. Only a few people were convinced enough to dodge the shamen and make it to Kwumbo’s side.
Majeka laughed. “Fine, go and live in your own excrement, devil worshippers. We will prevail with the eternal love of Stoiplens.” He shepherded the old tribe members to the opposite side of the line. Kwumbo sighed; he just lost a good number of people.
Weeks later, Kwumbo looked over the fire, a huge blanket around his shoulders to shelter him from the bitter winter wind. In the old side of the village, only a few hardcore Stoiplens followers were alive, too weak to do anything other than shiver in their huts, the dead simply left to rot where they dropped. The surprisingly well-nourished Majeka glowered at Kwumbo from the other side of the fire. “Well,” said Kwumbo, “praise to Stoiplens that he was able to bring unnecessary death to his loyal followers.”
“They died in the light of the lord, rather than living at the foot of the devil,” Majeka spat.
“You look surprisingly well,” said Kwumbo, “I wonder whether you were able to get more than your fair share of the food? Does Stoiplen hand out more food to fat shamens?”
He shook his staff angrily at Kwumbo’s chuckling tribesmen. “I’m departing this rotting village, to spread the light of the great one to a more worthy tribe. May you rot in your mother.” He turned and disappeared into the darkness.
“Go, you parasite,” called Kwumbo. “With the gifts you and your deity bring, who needs the devil?”