Gassabano, the young initiate

Translated by Ferdinanda Van Gennip
Excerpted from Le dernier roi faiseur de pluie (Sudbury: Prise de parole, 2003).

By undertaking my initiation himself, my father was consciously violating the rule that prohibited him from doing so. He had not been introduced to the secrets of agrarian royalty by his father. That task fell to the seers: to pass on the mysteries to the young prince. When the prince’s initiation was complete, his father would be invited to abdicate and to put an end to his days. In this way, the old king explicitly ceded his place to a younger and more vigorous leader, more capable of guaranteeing that the women, the flocks and the fields would be fertile, ensuring fullness and abundance of life in the agrarian kingdom.

But in the latter part of Dagano’s reign, the clairvoyants of the Kibondo had already deserted him: won over by the pastoral kings or, in some cases, converted to the religion of the Pink Faces. Courageously, the last rainmaker king performed the duties of his “ministers” as well as his own.

Normally I should not even have been able to see him: tradition demanded that the heir to the drum – the talisman and emblem of the kingdom – be raised far away from his father and that their paths never cross. And more serious yet: I should never have been his heir, since tradition did not permit the offspring of a foreign queen to inherit the drum. Malinda, my mother, although she was the “senior queen,” was not originally from our kingdom. She came from the distant empire of Manamba, a word which in our language means “world’s end.”

But Dagano realized times had changed. It was late in the nineteenth century and the Pink Faces had invaded all known parts of the earth. This, he felt, freed him to adapt the rules of succession.

He already knew that he belonged to an era that was lost forever.

I was barely twelve when he brought me to his castle in the mists, built into the side of the Simbi volcano, more than two thousand metres above sea level. I thought he had summoned me for a simple visit, but I quickly realized that this visit signified the end of my boyhood. Dagano had decided to make me his companion in seclusion in the large wind-wrapped hut. For two long years I was cut off from the world, a captive of the tropical thunderstorms unleashed by the massive cloud banks that rode the Indian Ocean’s trade winds. There, where the torrential rains are born, there, where life begins, Dagano initiated me into the age-old secrets.

I still wonder why he went to the trouble of transferring power to me, as initiation can mean only that. He already knew that he belonged to an era that was lost forever. But I was too young to think of asking him the question. I accepted that I should memorize the magic formulas he taught me, eagerly anticipating the day when, every two weeks, he would send me to the banana orchard plateau to deliver messages to my mother, who would then convey them to the people. When Dagano told me that my initiation was complete and that I would be leaving the silence of Mount Simbi for good, I was overjoyed. I was anxious to be with friends my own age again.

On the day itself, however, as I descended the steep path along the side of the sacred mountain, I did not feel as light as on my previous descents. A vague malaise tormented me. I could not determine the meaning of the message I had to deliver to my mother, “Today Dagano will drink mead.” This coded sentence was somehow absurd and scandalous. It was my father himself who had taught me that, from the day of his investiture, the king of the drum was never to touch a fermented drink. I knew that mead was a more noble drink than beer or sorgho, more valued than banana wine or palm wine, more appreciated even than milk. Milk – for the herdsmen at least – was a common commodity, but mead was a luxury. That was why the farming clans, on whom the pastoral kings relied for honey mead, had considerable power in the courts, where it was not proscribed.

But what could it mean when this man, under the strictest of taboos against alcohol, for that was one of the numerous rules of purity imposed on the agrarian kings, had made a decision to consume honey mead? For my father, consuming mead was tantamount to irreversible contamination and thus, to losing his right to be king of the drum. Only a pure king could bend the heavens to his will to guarantee the farmers their daily sustenance. Only a pure king could make it rain and make the sun shine at the right times. Only a pure king could curse the grasshoppers and caterpillars that ravaged the fields and plunged the people into famine. Only a holy king could, in desperate circumstances, when all other means had failed, offer his own blood to the spirits and to the ancestors to force an end to the calamities besetting his people. So, what did my father mean by these words which announced that he was going to commit the irreparable by consuming mead?

I learned why only after I conveyed the fatal sentence to my mother, Malinda, the senior queen, who served as intermediary between the invisible king and the agrarian people. It was she who interpreted the messages that my father had me bring to her. And it was she who announced Dagano’s requests or instructions in clear terms to the parties concerned.When I told her that the holy one of Mount Simbi was going to drink mead, she became very still. I watched her summon up every last shred of inner strength to avoid breaking down in tears. When she had regained her composure, she drew me close to her and held me in her arms – to my embarrassment, for I was a grown boy and our mothers were not normally given to expressions of tenderness except towards infants. With deep irony in her voice, she finally spoke.

“This intoxication will last forever. He has fulfilled his mission… and entered the realm of eternal ecstasy.”

“My son, today, Malinda, the foreign queen, becomes the queen mother of the Kibondo, and you become the priest-king of a country that may no longer exist!”

“You mean my father is dead? Is that what it means, drinking mead? Did he commit suicide?”

“No, Gassabano, it was not a common suicide. I cannot say if this will happen to you also. I do not even know if you will ever become king. But even if Dagano is not to have a successor, he will have brought the era of the rainmaker kings to an end in the only way he considered honourable. The granaries are full, the people were well fed throughout his reign.”

“So he is dead!”

“Yes, my son! He has drunk the honey mead – for the first time since becoming king, and the last. This intoxication will last forever. He has fulfilled his mission… and entered the realm of eternal ecstasy.”

“But what did he want from me? Why did he isolate me from the world for two years when he knew he was the last king of the drum?”

“He did not isolate you, Gassabano; he connected you with everything. He made you the bridge between the past and the future, the last of the initiated. You will know both the paths of the ancients and of the future world, which will be governed by the law of the Pink Faces. He taught you about your origins, that you have a history.”

“But why did he have to die like a dog, all alone in that miserable palace? Why did he have to die like a prisoner, only allowed to walk about in his kingdom by night and survey it from a distant mountaintop by day?”

“Watch your tongue, Gassabano! Never say that again! Your father did not die like a dog, but as a true king. A true king must die before barrenness strikes his kingdom. Throughout his entire reign, the land, the females of the small flock, and the women of the Kibondo were all fertile. He was blameless in this and he never knew defeat. He was faithful till the end in his role as guarantor of our fertility. And if you ever dare to speak such madness again, son, a curse will surely befall you. Your father, who during his lifetime was the greatest of men among his people, did not die like a dog!”

“Forgive me, mother. I am overcome with grief. That is what makes me speak this way. For two years I shared his life! Why did he not let me help him in his agony?”

“Because he wanted to savour the splendid moment of encounter with his ancestors without worrying about your tears or your panic. Because he wanted to die as he had lived, without burdening anyone else with responsibilities that were his alone.  He decided to face death as he had faced life, looking it directly in the eye. He did not want to be distracted by you. Nor did he want to frighten you.”

“And now, what am I to do with the initiation he had me go through?”

“That’s not for me to say. You have your whole life to decide that. You have a whole life during which to guard the sacred secrets that now reside with you, and you alone.”


credit: Rachelle Bergeron

credit: Rachelle Bergeron

Melchior Mbonimpa, originally from Burundi, is a multi-award-winning Canadian novelist who has just received the Prix de littérature éclairée du Nord (PLEN) for his sixth novel, Diangombé, l’immortel. Dr. Mbonimpa has also written extensively on politics in Africa and has been the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Sudbury for 12 years. Le dernier roi faiseur de pluie, from which the translated excerpt is taken, also received a PLEN award in 2006.



Ferdinanda Van Gennip usually translates non-fiction but could not resist trying her hand at historical fiction when she found herself mesmerized by this Burundian author’s gripping saga set in the heart of Africa. She is a member of LTAC and lives in Southwestern Ontario where she and her husband enjoy the nearby national and provincial parks, the region's French heritage and BookFest Windsor.