Rice harvesting was at its peak, and all the women were busy trying to get their rice from the fields. I was already nine months old in my mother’s stomach. Then on one Thursday afternoon, just before sunset, as narrated by my grandmother, my mother gave birth to me. “I heard a groan under the baobab tree that stood at the foot of the rice fields. I rushed there to find out what was happening, and not to my surprise, I was welcomed by the crying of a beautiful baby.” my grandmother Jankey said.
“It was in the evening and the rain cloud was quickly covering the sky. Everyone was in a hurry to get home.” She added. Jankey always smile pleasingly anytime she told me about how I came into this world. I was born there, under the baobab tree. The tree that would also became the symbolic tree whose roots would be soaked with the blood of my legs, the blood of my womanhood.
Despite my birth in the bush surrounded by hidden creatures around the rice fields, in an atmosphere that monotonously smelled of wet clay and rice paddy, with the rhythm less sounds of weaver birds gradually yielding to the choirs of pond frogs as they assumed their nocturnal chorus, I was born healthy according to the medical record that was produced in my name a month later.
I was named Fatou, a common name that almost all first female child of couples bear. But I was also given a nick name of course by Jankey. She name me after the rice field in which I was born.
I grew up to become an obedient and respectful young girl. This won’t surprise anyone who knew my grandmother. Jankey was basically my mother. She raised me after my mother died when I was just about six months old. I didn’t know my mother and I still try to imagine how she looked, but my imagination was only limited to the black and white Polaroid pictures of her that grandma kept.
They were three. In one of them, she was sitting on a stool beside a cooking fire. Her face was clouded with the smoke from the fire and the steam from the cooking pot. “She was cooking breakfast.” My grandmother said. “Porridge.” she emphasized. “That’s all we had and some times we eat it without sugar because your father could not afford to buy sugar.” I started to wander in my imagination about what I can do in the future to avoid such kind of life for me and my family, but I interrupted my mind before it strayed too far so I could focus on the picture that I was looking at, my mother’s photo. From this picture I could feel how disturbed she was by the smoke in her face. Her eyes were partially closed as if she was trying to avoid something from getting in them.
In the second picture, she was standing with a baby in her back. That baby was not me but I always tried to imagine myself in his position in my effort to build some conscious connection with my mother. In this photo, I could see that my mother was a tall lady, a physical structure that I inherited from her. That picture also confirmed that my beauty that everyone talks about was sourced in her. The lady whose smile, I imagined would touch deeper into the hearts of people. She is fair in complexion with a long neck, wide face and big eyes.
The third picture of her that I had was the least I liked. In this one, she was in the same rice field in which I was welcomed into this world. She was harvesting rice and she got in one hand, the left hand, a bundle of rice, and in the other hand, the right hand, a knife which she used to harvest the rice. None of these pictures were my favorite because they told me the hardship that my parents went through and I could not do anything about it because I was still not born.
At the age of five, I and three other children of the same age were one early morning taken away while asleep, just to woke up at the same place where I was born. There under the baobab tree, we were given water to wash off our faces and then we were initiated into the womanhood, “the tradition.” As the elderly women carried out their operation, we shed tears and blood to the roots of the tree whose leaves shook not to the wind that was still, but perhaps to the intensity of pain they noticed in our voices.
Few months later, we were welcomed back into the community in a well organized traditional festivity that involves the whole village in one way or the other. We were dressed neat and nice with a lot of decorations around our necks, hands and legs. The atmosphere was full of sounds, of drums and flutes and clapping, all giving flavor to the melodious voices of the village griots. Whose successive songs were either preaching or warning of our responsibilities as young women. I did not understand what they really meant till later in my life. At some points, we were gathered in the center of the compound where the initiator lived for a traditional prayer and other procedures that I cannot remember. After that the rest of the day was joyous. the elders, women especially continued to dance for the rest of the day while I and my friends play and runabout to everywhere that I could not go for two month since my initiation.
While growing up, I became a very stubborn girl that was always in trouble. Fighter here today and squabble there tomorrow was all I do. Mostly over childish issues, most of which would not be a big deal should I take a little bite of my lips. But no, I got a big mouth and also was proud. Perhaps this was because everyone said I am beautiful or maybe I was stubborn because I had the immunity of a “Bayewo” (a child whose mother died when she is young). Everyone tried to avoid tormenting me and hence I got away with a lot of things. But also having the grandmother I had, I had a reason for being stubborn.
Unfortunately my temper was sky-earth different from my mother’s. That’s what everyone said to me. “I don’t know who you got it from but not your mother. She does not talk; she was quite and always smiling.” I remember one lady told me.
My grandmother’s protection, in which I basked, did not last long. Two years after I was “taken into the bush” (that is the term for the total process of circumcision), she died. Since her death, I was taken care of by my step mother. She too was equally protective of me like my grandmother.
Now that I was sixteen years old, I began to worry that my people would give my hand in marriage to someone without letting me finish school. “My father is complacent so he could be easily convinced by his brothers to letting that old man who always called me his wife to marry Me.” that is what I sometimes thought.
It was in times like this, when I was dreadful, that I longed for my mother. She would stand for me I know. But in her absence, they could talk each other into giving my hand in marriage to one of their sons.
on one Wednesday afternoon, after watering the onion and the okra and lettuce beds that I and my step mother work on in the village garden, I went home and found there two men sitting on a straw mat with my father talking politics. None of them went to a formal school but still they know more about politics than many of the young ones that keep shouting during campaigns. These are respected village elders and they are always supporting the same party and the same candidate. Except for one time when my father supported a different party for some reason.
The two men came there to ask my hand in marriage for one of their sons, Juka. The one that dropped out of school and now dealt only in “Kali,” I mean marijuana you know. But all that was not a bit worry to me. My concern was about school, I wanted to complete it and get a job and help my parents, and I mean my father and my step mother. Those are my parents because my mother and my grandmother have passed away. I wanted to upgrade their living conditions and mine too with my children when I have them.
I wept to the news that I was getting married, not because I hated the man but because I did not want to live a life of my father or my mother or my grandmother. I cried because that’s all I could do and then I longed for my mother who I never knew. I knew she would understand the meaning of my tears unlike the other people who confused it to tears of joy. I could not do or say anything that would make them change their minds. They already made it and that was final. Until the day that I was taken from my father’s home to my husband’s father’s home, I kept crying but no one could tell.
Ever since I was married, I hoped that things would be better, but no, they were not. My husband was one of those people who have a very strong desire to travel out of the country to some place in Europe or America. But his was an exaggeration. Sometimes he would demonstrate his feeling by refusing to eat at home or have any decent conversation with any one.
On many occasion, he had quarrel with his father, accusing him of not wanting to give him money to go to “Babylon.” this mental state of his confine him and many other youth to nothing more than listening to music all day and smoking weed. This self inflicted state of mind- one of my friends called it “semester mania”- has made my husband and many other youth redundant.
Juka’s blood was saturated with the desire to travel to “Babylon,” and he talks so much about it that I became bored of it. “You’re always talking about going to Babylon and even talk about it in your sleep, but do you think only talking will take you there? No, you have to do something and stop being lazy.” “What can I do?” he charged back. “What do you want me to do? You know how much I tried to convince dad to give me money and he refused.” he added. “Look Juka! You have to be ashamed of yourself for standing here and talking about your father like that. You know you and I are both under the care of you father. If it is left to you we will be begging on the street. Your father’s complains are genuine, you are his elder son, but you are the only one here in this compound who does not look like a son to him. You won’t do any work and are always talking about him with other people as if you are not his blood. That is a shame.” After I delivered these words to him, I found my way to the smoke infested kitchen in which I was cooking, I think lunch.
About a week later, he came home with a different attitude. He was a little affectionate for his own reasons I guessed. Then he told me he was working on something and it went through. To my surprise, he told me that he would be traveling to the capital city to find a job. “How long will you be there?” I couldn’t help asking. He looked at the potholed floor of our room and then the big crack in the wall he was facing just beside the entrance to the room. He then managed with difficulty to look at me for few seconds and then said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. But I hope is not long. I am ready to take responsibility of myself, you and our child so I have to go and find something.” It felt as if I was in a dream. Like the kind of dreams that I used to have about finishing school before I got married. Like the dream of building my father’s house. But just like those dreams, what he just said sounded as dry as the jokes of my late grandmother (she always say what is impossible). “How will you do that when you cannot even help your father here? Who will give you a job with the kind of lazy attitude you have?” those were some of the questions I wanted to asked him in a loud voice but I did not. He was my husband and I was not supposed to raise my voice at him. So I managed to pretend that I was happy for him.
To some point, I was glad that he finally realized that he needed to be responsible. However, I was worried that he might end up being like the many youth whose bone-deep desire to travel to the west forced them to joining the boats that illegally smuggle people to Europe. Many of the young men in those boats never made it to Europe no come back.
After some moment of silence, I finally asked him. “So how are we going to do?” I asked, as if he was the one actually taken care of us. “I know you want to travel so badly but please don’t get in those boats for the shake of our child.” I added. “Ok I won’t and you will both be fine.” He said, looking at me as if that was going to be his last time of seeing me.
Ever since he left, I became lonelier. He was the closest person to me and I missed him. I did not love him when we were married but over time I was able to relatively love him. For the weeks and months that he was away, my tears continued to pour over the loneliness of my life. My mother passed away before I was even a year old. My grandmother who raised me was also gone when I was about seven. And now the man who I was beginning to love was alsogoing to some other place.
With these thoughts in my mind, I put my child to sleep. And as I did, I looked keenly at her and in her face I see beauty and innocence and ignorance of what life is, really. I tried very much not to let her see the tears in my face.
The next morning, I remember, just like the rest of the week, the sun was waking up, as my late grandmother would say, and the sky was clear with no sign of rain and the normal life in the village was gaining momentum. The atmosphere was filled with the sounds made by women pounding coos in their mortars and the air was saturated with smell of dust that gathered as other women swept their yards. These were augmented by the noises made by the children who just assumed their daily duty of playing in the sandy streets of the village. The men were also about their businesses. Every now and then I could hear the ones walking in the alleys shouting a customary greeting to the ones sitting in their homes. I, like many women, was cooking a breakfast in my kitchen and my father-in-law, like most men in his age, was standing by the gate of our compound counting the names of god on the string of beads in his right hand.
This was the perfect time of the day when I feel happy and relaxed for a reason not known to me, and I talk to myself without worrying about anyone hearing me. But this morning was different. I was feeling uneasy and sick. Why? I didn’t know.
After the breakfast was ready, I put some in a bowl and took it to my father-in-law. That was when I was told the news that I already felt in my body for the whole of that morning. It was the news I did not expect. The one that would let everyone finally know that I was crying. For all these times, I cried about my mother and I cried about my grandmother and I cried about not being able to finish school and I also cried for being married to someone I did not love. But in all these times, no one, but me, knew that I was crying. My cries were like crying in the rain, everyone confused my tears for rain water. But now they all knew with certainty that I was crying, to the news that my husband was dead with others at the sea as they try to go to “Babylon” in a boat.