It is said that in the coastal lands of Kenya walked a giant from the royal house of the Shaka Mashah (a name inherited from the Persians). His name was Fumo Liyongo (or Liongo). A marksman archer, poet and warrior believed to have existed between the 9th and 13th centuries, Fumo Liongo possessed a rare gift of immortality like the fabled Luanda Magere among the Luo community of Kenya Nyanza.
As the eldest son of the Shah of Shaka (an ancient settlement at the Kenya coast), he was earmarked to succeed his father as king but having been born to a mother regarded as an inferior wife, he could not ascend to the throne and thus his brother, Shah Mringwari, became the new leader even despite Liongo possessing much better leadership traits than Mringwari.
His extraordinary stature and strength, his courage, his skill with the bow, and his poetical talents have been celebrated through generations in song and story. Locals tell of one time when Liongo left Shaka in the morning and walked to Gana and back (a distance normally covered in four days each way) in one day. Liongo finally moved out of Shaka and settled in Pate at the invitation of the Sultan of Pate.
The story as captured from ancient poetry tells of a day Galla traders arrived in Pate and heard about Liongo from the Sultan of Pate who talked of his remarkableness that their curiosity to see him was aroused. The sultan sent for Liongo who arrived the following day after setting out for Pate (the journey from shaka to Pate would normally take 4 days). When the Galla saw the giant of a man that he was, they asked the Sultan to allow Liongo to become one of their princes, to marry one of their daughters with the hope that a son of his may bring glory to the Galla people.
The sultan raised this issue with Liongo who accepted the offer on certain conditions that are not yet known and took a Galla woman for a wife who later bore him a son who grew to be like the father in size and fairness. Liongo did not go back with the Galla traders. It would seem he continued living in Pate until enmity with the Sutlan (probably stirred up by his brother, Mringwari) forced him to flee to the forest to live among the Wasanye and Wadahalo forest folk.
But now he was a wanted man by the Sultan and soon even the people of the forest heard of the bounty on Liongo’s head (one hundred silver dollars) and they attempted severally to capture him without success. Liongo did not trust the Wasanye and Wadahalo anymore and so he left the forest and went back to Shaka. Here he met his son and mother (it would seem his Galla wife went back to be among her people) shortly before being captured by his brother’s men and put in prison after his feet were secured with a chain and a post between them and fetters placed on his hands.
There was a lot of debate in the land on what to do with Liongo but finally Mringwari decided he must be put to death. Some even suggested that he be sent to the battle front to meet his death in fetters like Uriah of the bible but Mringwari thought this was too risky a move because like Goliath of Bath, no one would dare challenge Liongo in the battlefield – fetters or no fetters! When Mringwari finally decided that Liongo must be put to death, he sent a slave-lad to ask him what his last wish on earth would be. Liongo replied that he wished to have a gungu dance performed where he could see and hear it. This was granted.
It is said that Liongo set out to composing a poem which he taught Saada, a slave-maid sent by his mother every day to bring him food in prison (the warriors who guarded him ate most of it). The poem is a popular song to this day and goes something like this: O thou handmaid Saada, list my words to-day! Haste thee to my mother, tell her what I say. Bid her bake for me a cake of chaff and bran, I pray, And hide therein an iron file to cut my bonds away, File to free my fettered feet, swiftly as I may; Forth I'll glide like serpent's child, silently to slay.
Saada recited the poem to the mother who got the hidden message. It is not clear why the guards never realized that it was a hidden message in song but some theories say they were too busy devouring the food that Saada used to come with to realize that Liongo was using poetry to convey a strategy of his prison break to the mother. On the day he escaped from prison, the mother had followed his instructions to the letter. When Saada arrived at the prison as usual, she had some nicely cooked food and a cake of chaff and bran which the guards threw at Liongo while keeping the tasty food to themselves.
But unknown to them, the cake had all the tools Liongo needed for an escape. On the day he was to be put to death, there was an unusually full orchestra with horns, trumpets, cymbals (matoazi), gongs (tasa), and the complete set of drums. Liongo himself led the singing. When the band was playing its loudest he began filing at his fetters, the sound being quite inaudible amid the din. When the performers paused he stopped filing and lifted up his voice again. He gradually cut through his foot-shackles and his handcuffs, and when he was free, he rose up, burst the door and seized the two guards knocking their heads together, and throwing them down dead.
The crowd scattered and Liongo took to the woods, after going outside the town to take leave of his mother, none daring to stay him. Here he led an outlaw's life, raiding towns and plundering travellers, and Mringwari was at his wits' end to compass his destruction. At last Manu Liongo, Liongo's son (some say it was his sister’s son) was gained over and induced to flush out the secret of Liongo's charmed life, since it had been discovered by this time that neither spear nor arrow could wound him. The lad sought out his father, and greeted him with a great show of affection; but Liongo was not deceived. He made no difficulty, however, about revealing the secret-perhaps he felt that his time had come and that it was useless to fight against destiny.
So the great Liongo revealed the secret that made him invincible; “That which can slay me is a copper nail driven into the navel. From any other weapon than this I can take no hurt." Armed with this valuable information, the son headed back to Pate where he shared his newly-acquired secret with Mringwari (Mringwari, it seems, was now living in exile in Pate). Mringwari, on receiving the information, at once sent for a craftsman and ordered him to make a copper spike of the kind required. Meanwhile Manu was lavishing in a 10-day banquet set before him by Mringwari to show his gratitude for a job well done.
After the merry making and celebration, the youth set off for Shaka with a promise of greatness and marriage upon his return to accomplish the heinous task that lay ahead of him – that of being his father’ slayer. But he stayed with his father for a month. It is not clear why he took that long - whether the opportunity to accomplish his mission did not present itself or a guilty-conscious momentarily got the best of him but this made Mringwari grow impatient. On the fateful day when Liongo succumbed to the treachery of his son, he had just come back from a day-long tiring hunt and he was unusually sleepy.
The son grabbed the opportunity and approached his farther and stabbed him in the navel with the copper nail. Liongo started up in the death-pang and, seizing his bow and arrows, walked out of the house and out of the town. When he had reached a spot half-way between the city gate and the well at which the folk went to draw water his strength failed him: he sank on one knee, fitted an arrow to the string, drew it to the head, and so he died, with his face towards the well. The townsfolk could see him kneeling there, and did not know that he was dead.
For three days neither man nor woman dared to venture near the well. They used the water stored for ablutions in the tank outside the mosque; when that was exhausted there was great distress in the town. The elders of the people went to Liongo's mother and asked her to intercede with her son. "If she goes to him he will be sorry for her."
She consented, and went out, accompanied by the principal men, chanting verses (perhaps some of his own poems) "with the purpose of soothing him." Gazing at him from a distance, she addressed him with piteous entreaties, but when they came nearer and saw that he was dead she would not believe it. "He cannot be killed; he is angry, and therefore he does not speak; he is brooding over his wrongs in his own mind and refuses to hear me!" So she wailed; but when he fell over they knew that he was dead indeed.
They came near and looked at the body, and drew out the copper needle which had killed him, and carried him into the town, and waked and buried him. And there he lies to this day, near Kipini by the sea. Of the son, what the father had foretold would happen to him came to pass. Mringwari threw him out of town calling him an enemy of God. He tried to go back to his kinsmen in Galla but they too kicked him out.
His own mother, it is said, cast him off. He retreated to a life of solitude where he ultimately succumbed to a wasting, unknown disease. “My son, I know how you have been instructed and how you will be deceived in your turn. Those who are making use of you now will laugh you to scorn, and you will bitterly regret your doings”