To all who shall see these presents, yo digo nsala malekun Kongo, malekun va kuenda nsala. Abrikuto warindinga, ‘cucha cuento que yo emboa.

It was during the Second Battle of Fallujah in November of ’04, when we first got introduced to the Palo religion by Corporal of Marines Pancho Abreu, a Black Cuban kid from Miami. Palo means stick, like a section of a tree branch. Pancho’s family had been in the religion since the dawn of the Andilanga, which is the tiempo colonia in Cuba. Most of his forebears were Congo, the rest Carabalí. The first ever tata in his family had scratched his own owner into the religion, a spaniard named Don Francisco Abreu. It happened on El Día de los Magos, when the plantation owners in Matanzas would let the slaves celebrate. Don Francisco was drunk on cognac in his mansion when he heard one of the earliest variations of the Palo rhythm, entered trance possession, and wandered to the old hut where the slaves were singing buenas noches. After that Don Francisco was a neophyte in their cult, and the power dynamic in the sugar plantation evened out quite a bit. That patriarch who scratched Don Pancho into Palo was named Kongo Yambumba. All his descendants have made their living in The Rule of the Congo (Palo) and The Rule of Osha (Santería), the two main cults among the religioso.

Before the Marines came thru Fallujah in November ’04, our fighter jets flew low over the city and as the boom of the planes blew windows out and shattered glass all over the bright desert streets, the pilots dropped white paper warnings that said in Arabic and English for everyone to get the fuck out. So all the alibaba that stayed knew they’d likely die. They boobytrapped buildings, pumped themselves with adrenaline syringes, made barricades in room corners, and waited for their heaven and virgins.

One night after a day of clearing rooms and fighting for our lives, when our platoon had lost five guys in the dusty buildings to the crazed alibaba, Pancho pulled out his nganga, which is a black metal cauldron where the nfumbe lives. He made his case for conversion. “Palo deals with the dead. We deal with death. The nfumbe exist in the death space just on the other side. We deal with the death space just on this side. The nganga smashes the door open and reaches into the other side, where the nfumbe are confused and traumatized. We the religioso snatch the nfumbe, stickum in the cauldron, and make them work for us. . . We need to make a compromiso with the skull and the sticks, so we can not only survive this shitshow, but fucking thrive!”

We were sitting on the floor of a sandbag bunker we’d built on a rooftop in Downtown Fallujah. It was a full moon night and the moonlight shone thru the top of the bunker and bounced off our dusty desert cammies and left us transfigured. Corporal Pancho took the lid off the cauldron and we saw inside for the first time. It had a layer of black earth on the bottom, and the face of a skull sticking out the dirt, and sticks stuck in the earth around the skull that were covered in a glossy red bark. The moonlight beat on the face of the skull and turned it into a silver mask. The sticks were glowing rods. (O Nsambi, how the glare blinded us!) We were spellbound right away, largely because after a day like we’d had, we were super prone to suggestion and hypnosis (and of course, Corporal Pancho understood this at a genetic level). He peeled his nbele from his flak jacket and poured strong otí on it to sanitize it. (His nbele was a razor-sharp Ka-Bar knife that was jet black and reflected no light. It looked like he was wielding a shadow.) He took a big swig of otí and sprayed the cauldron with an expert technique that created a misty orb of liquor particles that shone in the moonlight. Then he passed the otí around. He made a long shallow cut on his arm with the nbele and told us to do the same. Like that we became the five-headed genesis of Malongo Incorporated. Corporal of Marines Pancho Abreu, Sergeant of Marines John Kadric, Lance Corporal Craig Jones, Lance Corporal Billy Flack, and myself.