Literary Zone

Short Story: Mud House-Thatch Roof

28 January 2008 at 23:16 | 1069 views

Mud House - Thatch Roof

By Bakar Mansaray, Toronto.

Episode 1

The story of the boy, Bai Maro, began during a period of mild tropical weather when most flowers and plants were in bloom, and insects, birds and animals were reproducing. It was a period of renaissance for both flora and fauna. It was also the advent of the rainy season and the year was 1955 in the bustling colonial West African city of Freetown. The city itself was made up mainly of tribal, religious and youth associations like “Ambazgèda”, “Yankady” and “Jolley” where migrants from the provinces could find a common identity. The people in these associations, mostly youths, were in search of work, business, or schooling. The majority were poor, unemployed and suffered tribal and colonial discrimination. Not uncommonly though, migrants in some of these associations ended up being so-called antagonists to colonial rule. Apparently, the situation was rife enough for the strikes and riots of 1955. It was within such a social melee that Bai Maro was born at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown.

Forty-eight hours in labour pain found his mother singing:

“My Lord delivers Daniel, why can’t you deliver me....”

Few days later, Bai Maro was brought home to the mud house with thatched roof of his paternal grand-parents in the Fourah Bay community found in the east of town. Whilst the hospital was the largest and well-equipped in the country, the mud with thatch-roofed house in which his parents were also living was rented by his grand-parents, Pa Sama and Ma Hawa. By then, Pa Sama was the Susu tribal chief in Freetown, and incidentally, he was also a Moslem head, a healer and soothsayer. When Bai Maro was born, an unusual circumstance was that a mango tree in their compound bore fruits in abundance that was enough to serve the guests invited to his naming ceremony.

By tradition, this ceremony was normally held seven days after child-birth during when the Moslem call to prayers was recited into his right ear and the name Bai Maro was given to him. A full-grown healthy ram was slaughtered and the meat shared among the guests. As a sign of respect, the throat of the ram went to the knife-wielding man who cut the animal’s throat. One hind leg went to his paternal family and the other to his maternal family. Loaves of freshly-baked bread, ginger beer, mineral or soft drinks, Wolof rice, porridge, sweets, and other food-stuffs were shared among guest in an atmosphere of sweet-smelling “churai” or incense, performing Susu praise-singers or griots, musicians and dancers called Jelebahs.

Bai Maro’s mother, Aminata Turay, was a beautiful woman, dark in complexion, short in height and stocky in shape. She was born within the twenties and gave birth to Bai Maro when she was within her thirties. She was almost asked out of her marital home for not reproducing a child earlier. Her father-in-law, Pa Sama, saved her from this awkward situation by predicting and prophesizing to the family that Bai Maro’s mother would ultimately deliver a baby-boy. Since the delivery of Bai Maro, Aminata never miscarried let alone became pregnant again. Aminata was raised as a Christian by her mother and as a Moslem by her father. She became reclusive and partially isolated herself from public for decades after experiencing a change in skin pigmentation, locally called “Gbèneh”. In her late sixties, Aminata died from heart attack in the early nineties.

Aminata’s father was called Koifur and her mother was Jeneba. Koifur was of medium height and heavily-built, and Jeneba was short and petite. Jeneba was from the village of Four Mile in the Waterloo region of Sierra Leone. It was claimed that she died at the age of 103 years. Koifur, who lived in Freetown with his family, was a prosperous trader of goods who later became bankrupt after pledging his house for a loan he ended up being unable to pay. This house was placed on public auction while Bai Maro’s maternal family was still staying in it. In other words, whilst the auctioneer’s bell was tolling, Bai Maro’s mother and family were packing their belongings to vacate the premises. Family members, relatives and friends, were weeping and wailing but that couldn’t stop the auctioneers and buyers from pursuing their goal.

Koifur, Bai Maro’s maternal grand-father, was also known to be a soothsayer practicing “Jinnah Musa” which was a way of telling people’s fortune. The ceremony involved the person who wanted to know his or her future bowing over a bowl of water, and covered with a white cloth. It is believed that this person would become hallucinated from images in the bowl of water and incarnations from Koifur who would later interpret the ceremony to the person. Koifur died in his mid-eighties, broken-hearted in the house of the father-in-law of his daugther, Aminata.

The names and sex of the immediate family members of Bai Maro’s mother were Borbor, the eldest child, a son; Bintu, a daugther; Aminata, Bai Maro’s mother, and lastly, Chernor, a son. They were all carrying the surname, Turay. Borbor, like all the other children, except Bintu, was short in height and stocky in built. They were all dark in complexion. Bintu was taller, heavily-built and known to be gallant and strong. She could fight men, and became a “Soway” or leader in the women’s secret society. However, she died at an early age.

Borbor was given the greatest opportunity in schooling apparently at the detriment of the others because he was the first son and a brilliant person. He attended the Methodist Boys High School in Freetown, worked at the Connaught Hospital, and later became a medical doctor in the United States of America. As a child, he lost his little pinky finger on the left hand when it was accidentally smashed by somebody with a pestle against a mortar whilst they were pounding rice. He converted to Christianity, naturalized as an American, and called himself Joe. He spent the rest of his life in America with his wife, Pat, their daughter, Nancy, three sons, Theo, Magnus and James. In his days as a young man, Joe wasn’t enthusiastic in bonding the family relationship between his American-born children and his African relatives. It was only at the ripe age of eighty-six years old that he realized the impact of the separation of his children from their African relatives. Although Joe was always excited and nostalgic about his trips to Africa, yet his children in America discouraged him from making such trips or visits. As for himself, visiting was like going back home after a long trip of a prodigal son. As for his children, such visits were unsafe and needless. In other words, there was no bondage among brethrens. The children didn’t get to know the good side of their relatives. As such, they couldn’t see the psychological importance of their fathers’ visits to Africa.

Aminata’s youngest brother, Chernor, had a fair amount of secondary schooling, at least more than his sister. He attended the Prince of Wales in Freetown, worked as a clerk for a Syrian trader, and later as a book-keeper for a transportation company. He became a prosperous and generous person in the diamond-mining district of Kono. He joined secret societies like the “Hunting”, “Orgeh”, and “Gèlèdeh”. Later in his life, Chernor became bankrupt like his late father and died of heart attack. He was survived by over a dozen children and five wives.

Bai Maro’s mother, Aminata, was born at the village of Four Mile near Waterloo in Sierra Leone’s western region. She grew up in this village with her mother and later with her elder sister Bintu in Bauya, a provincial railway station town. Aminata told stories of how as a young girl, she used to baby-sit Didi, the son of Bintu. Aminata detested the idea of carrying Didi all day long instead of going to school. As a child, like most African girls of her age in the early 1930s, her daily chores were arduous. Most common were chores like fetching drinking and cooking water, firewood, washing the dishes, sweeping, and food preparation. Formal primary schooling was pursued infrequently. It was only when she joined her parents in Freetown that she was able to continue regular schooling at the Methodist Girls High School. She fervently practised athletics during her school days winning many racing contests. Aminata’s schooling was cut short after just one year in secondary school because her parents couldn’t afford her school fees. Instead, her parents decided to finance their sons’ schooling as was customary at that time. Aminata ended up married to Tejany, Bai Maro’s father, and became a dedicated house-wife and seamstress doing petty trade.

Bai Maro’s father, Tejany, was a tall, slim and handsome fellow with lots of courage in life. Slightly lighter in complexion which he must have inherited from his father, Pa Sama, Tejany always wished to die peacefully and he did. Pa Sama, the tribal chief, religious leader, healer and soothsayer, was known to possess rare healing powers. He would heal people from such common diseases as malaria and yellow-fever to much more complex ones like madness. His knowledge and penmanship of the holy Quran was revered by many. He would write verses from the Quran onto wooden tablets called “Wala” which were washed off from the tablets onto a bowl and then drained into a bottle for drinking and rubbing. This healing portion was called “Han thru”, and there was a case when such portion was sent overseas in view of healing a mad African resident of England. These Quranic verses were written on paper by Pa Sama which was then rapped with leather and worn as a talisman. As a form of protection from diseases and evil spirits, during Bai Maro’s infancy and childhood, he wore a talisman containing these written verses, his first cranial hair as an infant, and part of his umbilical cord gleaned during child-birth.

Bai Maro’s paternal grand-father Pa Sama was born in Menika within the Bullom area of Sierra Leone. He was born to a migrant Quranic scholar from Guinea who decided to settle in Bullom. Assuming that Pa Sama was thirty years old when he born Tejany in the mid-twenties, he could have been born in the late eighteen hundreds, and his father, Musa, could have been born in mid-eighteen hundred when he too was also in his 30s. Ultimately, Pa Sama continued to be spurred by the migratory drive across the Sierra Leone River from Bullom to Freetown East where he settled in the Fourah Bay community and won respect among the Oku people. He was given one of their daughters, Hawa, for marriage.

Hawa was a dark in complexion, tall, and heavily-built woman. She had two other sisters, named Musu and Sal. They were the only three children in their family and Hawa was the only one to have given birth to a child, named Tejany. Hawa was a fish-monger like her sister Musu, and in the 1950s and early 1960s, they were traders at the King Jimmy Market and Dove Court Market in Freetown. Musu and Sal never had any children. Musu was married to Pa Koroma, and she became a prosperous fish-monger. She had two houses, a wooden and corrugated iron sheet two-storey structure, and another a corrugated iron sheet adjoining.

Bai Maro’s paternal aunts were named Isatu, Dora, and Yabu, and they were born by three different wives. Isatu, the eldest, and Dora were fair in complexion and tall women. Their brother of the same mother was named Foday, a very tall fellow who was residing in Bullom like Dora. Yabu too was tall yet dark in complexion, and she was of the same mother as Kekuda, Bai Maro’s younger brother. Their mother, Tity, tall and dark in complexion, was the third wife of Pa Sama. Kekuda too was one of the tallest persons in their family.

Bai Maro’s family were fervent Moslems, and torch-bearers of the Susu culture. Every year before commencement of the rainy season, the family will meet at Pa Sama’s mud house with thatched roof in Freetown. This occasion was used to discuss family issues, and to renovate the house. Fresh mud was plastered onto cracks on the walls, and cow dung was mixed with water and rubbed on the walls. The thatched roof, made of bamboo leaves, was usually changed by Pa Momodu, who was having a big “bosin” or over-grown testicles. As tribal chief of the Susu people in Freetown, Pa Sama had three drums or “tambalèh’ in the house. They were of three different sizes, large, medium, and small. A particular drum was struck depending on the importance of an occasion, whether a child naming ceremony “komojaday” or “pulnado”, a marriage or funeral ceremony. As such, none of these types of occasion will occur within the community without the knowledge of the tribal chief, Pa Sama.

Bai Maro’s father, Tejany, was born within the Fourah Bay community of Freetown in the year 1926. He grew up in the same community, and attended the Islamia Primary School at Magazine Cut. As a boy, he was trouble-some, played truancy, and spent most of his time fishing and swimming in the waters of Fourah Bay, Mu Wharf, and Magazine Wharf. He was unable to acquire secondary education neither to study the Quran very well. In his boyhood days, during the British colonial rule in Sierra Leone, he hid himself inside a cargo steamer bound for Southampton, United Kingdom. However, he was caught on board the ship, given some beatings by workers at the Queen Elizabeth the Second Quay in Freetown, and sent home to his parents. Once upon a time, he was playing cricket in the street by the Bishop Johnson Memorial Secondary School on Lower Savage Square, which was a police barracks by then, when he accidentally smashed the windshield on the car of the British colonial police commissioner. This “John Bull”, as all white men were called, was known to be a disciplinarian, and he launched a man-hunt to apprehend Tejany who went into hiding. He was hidden in the house of a medicine-man who used the knuckle on his hand to strike Tejany’s head every time he passed by his hiding place. As he grew up to become a young adult, he took life more seriously. He owned a canoe for fishing and bartering goods with sailors on ships coming from overseas and a pellet gun for hunting birds.

Tejany got his first job as a prison officer in the colonial government and was sent to the railway station town of Masanke in the Moyamba District of Sierra Leone. Later, Aminata joined Tejany in this commercial town. As a jailer, Tejany frequently escorted prisoners between Masanke and Freetown on board the trains of the Sierra Leone Railway. It wasn’t uncommon for him to even escort the corpses of prisoners. He told stories of a prisoner, a man, who was condemned to death for murder in a provincial town and brought down to Freetown for execution at the infamous Pademba Road Prison. The man not only went on a hunger strike, but he kept weeping and wailing in his condemned cell saying that he was innocent of the crime for which he was being punished. Ultimately, the man faced death by hanging in the gallows. Unfortunately, just after the death of the man, the prison officials received a telegraphic message stating that another man has confessed to the crime for which the deceased was hanged. Later Tejany resigned as a prison officer after serving the colonial government for ten years. Back in Freetown with Aminata, Bai Maro’s father was employed as a lorry driver by the United African Company (U.A.C.). He drove the Albion and the Leyland trucks, two British auto models that were in style during the 1950s. Seemingly, proud and happy with his job, part of his daily routine involved the transportation of goods to and from the Queen Elizabeth the Second Quay, commonly called Deep Water Quay.

Tejany met Aminata for the first time at the intersection of Kissy Road and Dan Street. He proposed love to Aminata through an intermediary. Aminata accepted and they stay together in common-law marriage for several years in a corrugated iron sheet house with a living room and one bedroom. By then, Tejany was working as a public bus driver for the Road Transport Department situated at Kissy Road. They were only better prepared to get married in the mid-sixties. They moved and lived on the ground floor of a rented two-storey concrete house. It was the first time for Bai Maro’s family to live in a relatively modern house although the house wasn’t “self-contained”. When they first got married, Aminata was running a cookery house at home. The back yard veranda served as the sitting spot for her cookery customers. Like Tejany, she woke up early to start her domestic chores and go to bed late. At night, Bai Maro, his paternal cousin, a girl named Alima, and a maternal cousin, another girl named Marion, used the living room as a bed room, sleeping on beddings spread out on the floor. Bai Maro was the only child of Aminata although he had three younger sisters born by his step-mother. These sisters were leaving with their mother in a separate house in town.

Being their first child and grand-child respectively, one of the first things Bai Maro remembered during his childhood was the much attention given to him by both his parents and paternal grand-parents. Although his family wasn’t rich, yet he was pampered with European-made toys and food. Pa Sama made sure that Bai Maro always had biscuits, sweets, and mineral like Vimto which was his favourite. He remembered being presented a tricycle for his fourth birthday. The children in the neighbourhood would befriend him just to take a ride on his bike which was his greatest possession at that tender age. Some of his favourite toys were toy-cars built from bamboo or wire. In the evenings, Bai Maro would proudly steer his toy-car all around the neighbourhood in company with other little boys. As he grew up, he played “ah comin oh”, a game of hide and seek, and “ah die!” or hop-scotch. Some of his favourite songs were

“Ba, Ba, Black Sheep,
Have you any wool,
Yes Sir, yes Ma, three bags full
One for the Master
One for the day
One for the little boy who lives down the lane”

Thinking about it now, Bai Maro could see the imprint and influence of colonialism in the song. His mother, Aminata, had lots of stories and tales to tell. She told them about this young beautiful girl who couldn’t make up her mind in terms of choosing a suitor. She kept refusing every other suitor that approached her until she ended up with the wrong choice, a bush devil. The devil took her away from the village and was never seen again. Most of her stories went with pathetic songs, an atmosphere of sorry, and regret. As such, Bai Maro and the other children were hardly short of bedtime stories that brought night-mares.
In his preschool days, circa November 1960 when he was five years old, Bai Maro remembered the death of Pa Sama, the Chief, the Imam, and the Great. He watched as Pa Sama’s bearer was being carried away through the front door of the house. This was the moment when the mourners wailed and wept most. Food was served and the griots sang songs of praise and funeral dirges. It was a day of sorrow when the rainbow appeared on the sky signifying a day when a very important person would die, according to legend. On that day, Bai Maro was just flabbergasted, amazed, and felt sorry for himself and everybody else. Probably because he was very close to Pa Sama, he had high fever overnight even though, like other close relatives, he washed his hands, face and feet with the left-over portion of the herbs used to wash the corpse. Also, Bai Maro remembered being led by his parents and a City Council Alderman to ‘’Bottom School’’ a primary school which was situated on Davies Street within the Fourah Bay community. That was his first day in kindergarten as a ‘’Catcher’’, meaning a part-time pupil, the days of A, B ... Ab, B, E ... Be, and S, O...So. He must have been lucky and privileged to be introduced into schooling by such a gentleman of an Alderman. When he was a little boy, his favourite food was “Bulgur”, cooked as porridge mixed with milk. Peanuts were another of his favourite food. He first started doing chores around home when he was six years old. By then, he enjoyed sweeping their living room and compound with a broom made from palm fronds. He also helped to wash the dishes and cooking utensils.

The first holidays that he remembered celebrating were Christmas and New Year when with other children, he used to sing and dance to thanks-giving songs like

“Happy New Year me nor die o - tell God tenky for me life o”

Not only was Christmas and Easter celebrated by his family so also were the Moslem holidays like Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Ahda. In particular, as children, even though in an extended family, he looked forward to his parents and relatives for Christmas gifts. While his father would bring a bunch of fireworks, other relatives would bring toys and cookies. Incidentally, on both Christmas and New Year’s Day, there would be a variety of foods to choose from, and lots of music, singing, and dancing. Furthermore, Bai Maro and his family would pay visits to relatives and friends and share dinner with them. Dressed in beautiful and colourful attires, the young men and women in social clubs within the Fourah Bay community would perform traditional dances in open fields, accompanied by musical instruments like “Bata” or drums, “Balangi” or xylophone. The most common dancing social groups were called “Ambazgèda” and “Yankady”. Similarly, Easter holidays were known for not only kite-flying but also for the performance of “Aguda” “Ogougou” or masquerades, organized by young men.

The performance involved dancing and acrobatic displays by these masquerades, each trying to out-perform the other. On the other hand, the celebration of Eid ul Fitr was also time for the annual lantern parade competition in which floats built by competing communities were displayed at night in front of judges sitting outside the Law Court Building in Freetown. This night was commonly called “Wach-net” or “Watch-night” during which most people would be out in the streets late at night trying to get a glimpse of the floats in the parade. In the morning, some people hardly wake up early enough in order to attend the prayers of Eid ul Fitr. The Moslem celebration of Eid ul Ahda was also a time for prayers in which sheep were slaughtered as sacrifice, and the meat given to the needy as charity. The hide of the sheep was dried in the sun and later used as prayer mat. The bladder was given to small boys to make a football. The testicles were considered by many as gourmet, and moreover, the whole celebration was one of feasting. For relatively poor families like that of Bai Maro, it was considered a big day even though they couldn’t afford to slaughter a sheep. They however looked forward to receive pieces of meat from other families who were willing to be charitable.

(To be continued)

© Bakar Mansaray, 2007.

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