I was tired.
I had been running for what seemed to be forever. My flailing limbs were weak with exertion, my chest burned and the sound of rushing blood seemed to flood my ears but I still continued to run. The alternative was worse. I could not land in the hands of slavers.
They had attacked our village with guns and fire last night.
Many of our neighbours had lost their lives in their sleep. And they were the lucky ones. The others, were not as lucky for they had been taken. Taken towards the big river.
I had heard stories of what happened to people that the slavers caught. How they were taken across the big river.. the river of many deaths…surrounded by deep water and powerful currents and how they never returned.
My little village had always been under the protection of Queen Mwongo Matamba and we had been assured that our allegiance would guarantee our safety. Matamba had promised to protect us from slavers. They promised to fight for us. But when we were being decimated and taken as prizes by slavers, the Matamba army was nowhere in sight.
A frisson of fear ran through me as I thought about what could have happened to my parents. In my haste to escape, I had forgotten my parents who were in the neighbouring village. Would they be next? Had they already been taken? Were they on the run like I was… or were they….
My eyes widened at that thought and I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t move. I had to do something. I was Sudika, named after one of the great thunderous twin heroes of our Mbundu people. I couldn’t just ran away in fear. I had to do something. I had to fight the slavers, those monsters just as my namesake did thousands of years ago. I had to save my family. I had to save them.
Just as I begun running in their direction, I noticed a set of bright lights in a distance. They were not from the south where my village was but rather, north. At first I thought these lights could be one of the many hidden villages in the forest but then I realised they were moving… they were moving towards me.
In panic, I turned to the east in an attempt to head towards the village where my family was when I saw another set of lights. I turned west, and there was another there. The only option was to turn south… back to the burning village I just escaped from.
Horror washed over me as I realised I was surrounded. There was nowhere I could escape to that wouldn’t mean a certain type of death…whether by bullet or by losing ownership over my own body.
So I did the only thing I could. I prayed. I prayed to Kianda, the goddess of the sea. Yes, Kianda will save me on that big river. She will deliver me from my fate across the river. But even if my fate was inescapable, I prayed that she will at least grant me a painless reprieve in the bosom of her great depths.
I broke into a cold sweat and broke down to the ground. Tears threatened to trickle across my cheeks as I realised that no amount of running could save me now. Now I was really doomed.The lights were now closer and towering men now surrounded all of the fleeing villagers. Tall dark men. And they were speaking a language very similar to my tongue, Mbundu.
Were our own people now slavers??” I thought with a mix of disgust and shock as i leaned in closer, trying to hear what they were saying . Then my gaze fell on one woman who was at the centre of this group of men, also dressed in warrior cloth. Her body was marked with white paint and her stare was just as menacing as the men she was surrounded by.
She looked… powerful.
She had this aura of authority, of strength that overshadowed the rest. An aura of true power. She wore the most decorated cloth around her waist and had a string of long beads around her neck that danced with every step she made.
The cloth around her waist seemed to teased us with every sway of her hips as if announcing her authority with every step while a decorated spear and arrows peeked from her back. Her waist was bound by a band which hid a dagger at each side of her hips.
This woman was dangerous.
She shouted at the men to bring the other escapees closer. They obeyed swiftly and soon I was surrounded by 20 more people, a few I recognized from my own village. I was still on my knees staring at the group around us as the woman moved closer. Her piercing dark-brown eyes roved over my body lingering on every crevice my body had dared to hide.
I felt exposed.. open and terribly vulnerable.
Then her eyes rested on mine. For a second I thought I saw compassion flash across her eyes. Impossible.. I thought as I shook my head in disbelief. She was must be a warrior. One of those ruthless kinds we always heard about running wild across the Ndongo-Matamba area.
Then she spoke in a voice, soft enough to be compassionate but powerful enough to be respected.
Greetings allies of Matamba Kingdom… I am Queen Ana Nzinga Mbande, The warrior queen and ruler of Ndongo
We all stared at her in shock.
Now it made the familiar tongue I had heard made sense. She was the mighty queen of the nearby kingdom Ndongo… the scheming and ruthless Mbande warrior queen rumoured to have jailed or was it poisoned her brother after he sent her to negotiate a treaty with the Portuguese, which they eventually broke. It wasn’t as if he didn’t deserve it. After all he had sterilised her and killed her only son out of spite, then begged for her help when he lost a battle with the Portuguese.
We had all heard of her, how she had wined and dined with the Portuguese. How she had gotten baptised as Ana Sousa. How she had traded even in slaves with the Europeans and profited. How she had later abandoned her Christian faith for the Jaga warriors from the South Kwanza plateaus when the Portuguese had disappointed her. And how she had further solidified her place with the Jaga by arranging a ritual marriage with the Jaga chief, Kasanje.
But why had she and the Jaga surrounded us. Did they really plan on attacking us?
Queen Nzinga continued
I know most of you are wondering why the Jaga and I are here in the forest with you. First of all , I am no longer with the Jaga. These men are my loyal followers and trusted soldiers. Let’s just say, the Jaga weren’t as reliable and strong as I had anticipated.
You see, we were betrayed and also attacked by the Portuguese. They attacked my home, Ndongo and took some of my people as slaves, breaking our treaty. Soon they will try to enslave Matamba. I came here to ensure they didn’t. They have already began by sending slavers to your village on the outskirts of the Matamba Kingdom.”
Then she added
My people have already conquered your weak queen, Queen Mwango Matamba and she didn’t even put up much of a fight. Is that really the kind of ruler you want leading you against the Portuguese? You already understand the power of women. You appreciate the strength and intelligence that women bring to leadership. Even your traditions attest to this with you historically being led by women.
But still in a way, you’re like me… outsiders among your own people. Left to suffer alone at the hands of slavers, almost like bait. Thats how my brother saw me with negotiations. Yes I was a strong warrior but still just a woman. So he like my other African peers undermined my value and capabilities. The White men with the pale skin are no better.
But their blindness, is my strength. They forgot and keep forgetting what you all clearly acknowledge… that my prowess in intelligence, negotiation and manipulation is notoriously powerful.
So let me help you. Let my people help you. Let us make you powerful again. Let us take you off the sidelines.
This war is not just Ndongo’s war. It’s OUR WAR.
We are all at risk. You.. Me… Your family. Everyone.
So join me… and i promise to make you all greater, more profitable and safer than Queen Mwongo ever could.
Her words seemed to echo across the forest, carrying a promise and certainty that we had never come across.
But how could we trust her.. I thought.
Yes! she was a excellent military strategist and negotiator. Yes! she offered sanctuary to both runaway slaves and the Kimbares (Portuguese-trained African soldiers) but she had also set up camp with the Europeans once. First the Portuguese and there were whispers of there being one with the Dutch soon. The Europeans had failed her so she ran to us. The Jaga has disappointed her, so she came to Matamba. Will she just abandon us also, when we also fail her.
Unable to keep quiet any longer, I shouted in anger “Who are you to promise all of this.. Are you better than any of the slavers. Were they not your allies once? Did you not solidify your allegiance with them by being christened Ana de Sousa? Do you not deal in slaves yourself? Did you not worship this pale White god? Yes you protect the escaped slaves but what about the ones you captured in battle? If we had been with our queen when you captured her, will you not be on your way to sell us too!!? What if we can’t give you what you want, what next?? Answer me!”
Just then, one of her men rushed towards me and struck me hard across the face “DON’T YOU DARE TALK TO OUR QUEEN LIKE THAT!!”
I spat the blood from the bruise in my mouth at his bare feet, and stared into his eyes with a brazen defiance.
Queen Nzinga turned towards me and gently touched the man’s shoulder. His scowling expression softened at her touch and he slowly moved away from me.
Then she knelt right in front of me and held my chin. My jaw stiffened as I stared back at her but she didn’t speak. She just looked at me. Her breath was warm on my skin. Her lips a few inches from mine. Her hand firmly holding my face as her thumb brushed across my cheek.Her silence seemed to will my thoughts to obedience. Her body.. Her breath ..Her gaze all commanded obedience from me. I struggled to fight it. To fight this overpowering urge to submit.
Who is this woman.. I thought baffled but somehow amazed.
As if she had read my mind, she drew me closer till we were cheek to cheek. Her slow breath washed over my ears and in a soft whisper she said,
I am who you think I am, Sudika
Do you think I am the goddess Kuanji (Goddess of the Hunt) incarnate? Am I your enslaver or rescuer? Am I the bringer of your freedom or your destruction? You tell me…
One thing is for sure though, I am not one of those pale devils. I am the one they should be afraid of. Why? Because I am their worst nightmare.
She let out a soft laugh.
You see, I am not afraid to lure them in to get what I want. I am not afraid to learn their dance… their rhythm… their religion… their ways… to gain their trust… to show a sign of good faith right before I strike.
These men, Africans, Europeans you name them really undermine me… like you just did. Some say it is because of my gender but you are an ally of Matamba, you should know better. You believe in the tradition of women leaders but limit them. You seem to think just because my brother and all other countless “kings” failed… I surely must.
But thats where you’re mistaken. I am not my brother. I am ruthless. I am dangerous but I know exactly what I want and how to get it. So sorry, if my methods don’t work for you. Sorry if my dancing with the snakes makes you uneasy… but don’t you ever question my integrity.
So yes, maybe you can’t trust me but no one will ever go to the depths I will just to secure the freedom of my people, my kingdom.. for your freedom. I want this war to stop. I want our oppressors to see us as a true, unified Kingdom of Ndongo-Matamba and I want us to be able to reap the benefits that come with it.
If that makes me a bad person, then so be it.”
With that she pulled away and smiled at me mischievously.
I just looked at her, lost in a mix of shock and confusion. Her words and the fact she mentioned my real name all startled me. I never once mentioned it but she just used like she had known me for a long time. I could also feel the deep conviction in her words… the danger in her approach to her European fight. This danger that seemed to promise sweet redemption.
Gently she pulled me to my feet and gestured for me to follow her as she headed deeper into the forest with commanding strides.
And I followed her, confused…
The other captured were still on their knees. Their expressions plagued with unanswerable questions. I shook my head, amazed at how lost I was about what was happening but somewhat excited about where I was heading.
All I knew was that I just had to obey. I wanted to be part of that danger. To reap that sweet absolution. Then I realised that to do so, my life as Sudika, the normal villager would have to end…That I will no longer be able to own myself.. That I will no longer own my service. My fate was forever about to change.
Because my life will now belong to her.
I, Sudika will now belong to this mysteriously dangerous but alluringly intelligent woman.
I looked up towards the glowing moon, covering its nakedness with a sliver 0f cloud, obscured by the towering forest trees and smiled at the thought…
Yes, that suited me just fine.
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