WANI was a household name in Suwayawi village. He was the last remaining of the twelfth generation of the Suwayawi clan. Four generations older than the present village population, Wani showed little evidence of aging.
A village court magistrate spanning unrecorded years of service to the government, his influence reverberated also over neighbouring villages and as wide as the district boundaries.
He was empowered and immortalised by the reputation of his intense local knowledge and was claimed by many as a soul from centuries gone who had returned as a prophet to take care of his people.
Wani was feared and claimed to possess supernatural powers that could turn a person into stone. His presence alone was enough to make one shiver to the bones. Nobody dared go near his house or land.
The sun was high, and beneath the coconut palms life was motionless except for a few birds whistling in nearby bushes. A lone cock at one end of the village indicated the approach of noon. Nature’s way of signalling time.
At the far corner of the village whispers were heard from youthful voices escaping from the boy-house. “Where is that cock cry coming from?”
“Look, they are under the house. Lure them with some coconut and get the fishing hook,” said another.
They were prepared for this. Within minutes the job was done and meat was available. The next thing was to ransack the food gardens for vegetables.
There was a squeak and the wooden door flew open. Billy stepped out. He had lost a bit of weight from the continuous smoking of marijuana and lack of nutrition. His eyes were lazy and he squinted to avoid the intense sun.
The dry season and most of the villagers were preparing new gardens or making sago near the river bank. A few had gone into town and the village truck was not within sight.
Walking backwards scanning the entire village and enjoying his high mood, Billy jumped in fright at the sudden appearance of Wani, the magistrate.
“Where are you coming from, Billy?” Wani asked.
“I was just checking Mande out for some cigarette, but, ah, not around. Must have gone into town.” Billy struggled to get the words across after composing himself.
“Oh, good boy, Billy. You have a marijuana butt with you?”
“Just a little. Enough to take away the heat and bring a jungle breeze. Listen paps, Rebo and I have slaughtered a rooster and we’re looking for vegetables to go with it.”
“Good. I’ll run out of gas by the time this butt is done. If you know where to get vegetables, do so. Leave the consequences to me. Be swift and don’t forget me.”
Night passed and as another day neared evening, Biku hurried to Wani,
“Magistrate, my rooster is missing and my six-month old garden has been ransacked. The prime suspects are Billy and Rebo. I came upon their names on a betel-nut palm. I can show you.”
“No, no. That’s all right grandchild, I’ll gather the village tomorrow and we’ll sort it out. Okay?”
“Thank you magistrate,” Biku walked away trying to control his pounding heart.
The July night became chilly as the Colman lamp hanging a few inches above the head of the magistrate struggled to spill out its light. Five gossips had gathered nearby.
“Good evening grandchildren. You all have some idea about why we’re here. Biku’s rooster is missing and his garden has been ransacked. Billy and Rebo, you are the suspects.
“Can you both step into light? I want you to tell me and every one of us here if this is false and how can you can prove that,” said the magistrate.
“Magistrate,” Billy spoke first. “This is not true as we were at the river swimming and sunbathing all day.
“Mary, Nangu’s daughter, saw us on her way to the garden just after noon that day. Mary can confirm that. Our story speaks for itself.”
“That cannot be,” Biku cut in. “Mary was in town, I saw her. Besides she is not around to testify You two skinny drug-addicts, who sleep all day and whose names were inscribed on the betel-nut palm, who are you trying to fool?”
“Okay, okay, calm down. Let us not point fingers at each other,” the magistrate quickly intervened.
“I am terribly sorry Biku, my grandchild. Seeing with your eyes is one thing, hearing or suspecting is another thing. Mary is not here to confirm what Billy has said.
“Yesterday, I was in the village all day,” the magistrate continued. “There was not a single person in sight. The village was dead.
“I will tell you a story. During my heyday, I went and stayed at Tanguyawi village with some distant relatives.
“I was like many of you young ones, inscribing my name everywhere I went. On riverbank stones, tree bark, palm trees, nearly everywhere where letters could be carved. And it made me feel big.
“However, sometimes I went to places I had never visited and my name was there too. It made me question one of their village boys who told me that they had been carved by my secret admirers. Girls, of course.
“So, what am I saying here? There isn’t enough hard evidence to lay charges against the two suspects. If no one has anything else to say then I’ll declare this gathering closed,” Wani concluded.
“You know, we talk about corruption and white collar crimes in high places,” Biku half-heartedly whispered to his wife as they lay awake in bed going over the events of the past hours.
“What we have just witnessed is unmistakably brown collar crime. Those three collaborated in some way.”