About the book
It is about a town on the edge of the diamond field of Sierra Leone, blessed but at the same time cursed by the jewel. Adama the central character and her husband Silakeh made a stop in the town on their way to Kono and the transit stop become a home. Tragedy struck - the death of Silakeh in a mining accident. Adama must now navigate the socio-cultural nuances of her adopted community as a single mother with deep convictions rooted in the Muslim faith of her upbringing. War descended upon the town, transforming it into an epicentre of physical and psychological destruction; a once prosperous town became derelict. The struggle to rebuild the remains of their lives is at the core of the novel.
Available from August 15, 2015 from www.africanbookscollective.com
About the author
Oumar Farouk Sesay was resident playwright of Bai Bureh Theatre in the hay days during the 1980s. Several of his plays were performed in the then City Hall which won him accolades amongst his peers. He wrote for local and international newspapers and has been published in anthologies of Sierra Leonean poets. His poems have been translated into German and Spanish.
Read Chapter One...
After years of frolicking on the fringes of life, after years of roaming in forlorn places, after years of chasing dreams, after years of looking for the essence of my existence, I decided to return to Masingbi; a town located on the eaves of the diamondiferous Kono land, only to find the permanence of change buffeting the town in a whirlwind. It seemed change had already left a scar on the town; It seemed time had chewed the town and spat it out like morning spittle on the landscape. It seemed time had stamped the spittle in a twist with the heel of its feet like we used to stamp on our spittle as children when we wanted to mime obscenities without words. It seemed after the devastation of the decade old war; the town stood bare on the edge of history like a throw back from a cruel past in a less compassionate moment of human epoch; the once elegant houses were now old and decrepit, like the inmates living in them. The structural integrity of the houses had yielded to the tyranny of time just like some of the inmates. It seemed time had painted a portrait of dereliction on the landscape. The deformity of form was visible; old houses, mostly made from mud, slouched to the ground in a dust to dust ritual.
People clung to their houses as if they had made a suicide pact with them. Mud houses, pockmarked by burnt and broken masonry left behind by the war, scarred the town like the telltale signs of the war victims. I did not have to wonder about the spirit of those victims; there was no escaping them; their wrinkled faces told the story of the fall of a community, of lost hope, of shattered dreams, of pain and of crushed souls.
There were many other stories: Everywhere people were dying after their hopes and dreams had been destroyed.In a way, it was as if tragedy and comedy were contending for a storyteller like competing actors in a theatre of the absurd. I say so because much of this town?s history is wrapped in high drama.
Somehow, it felt as though there was a singing of the soul of the town that yearned for ears to hear it; something about the story of the survivors of that drama, written on the faces of so many people here. As I watched them go by I flicked through their faces as though they were pages of a rare manuscript for a story to tell. I found it on the face of Adama.
She had appeared suddenly, one of the many survivors, and I noticed her immediately perhaps because she had once been the belle of the town. She had wrinkles on her face; lines that said something about the gully in her heart and home. In so many ways, her face was like a palimpsest, with scrolls of text written on top of each other, robbed off and re-written.
In a way, Adama?s story was inextricably bound to that of the town. One could almost call it a pact; something dating back to the days of the discovery of diamonds in the neighboring Konoland in the early thirties. A tide of people from all over the world had flooded in the direction of Kono in search of diamonds. The geographical proximity of Masingbi to Kono made it a hub for migrants: the human tidal wave amassed in Masingbi before surging into many tributaries, to merge with the diamondiferous Sewa River.
The town of Masingbi, originally a village eked out of a forest by a nomadic farmer and his wife, curiously named by oral historians as Patena and Namaraf, grew into a cosmopolitan centre, with immigrants coming from countries like Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal and as far as the Middle East.
It became a waterfall for the confluence of several human tides that had been deflected by the rocks of security scrutinizing the entrance to Konoland. Lured by anticipations of a get- rich quick exploit, some of those migrants eventually settled in the town; while others, as soon as they had amassed some wealth, moved on.
Not surprisingly, there was soon some tension within the cosmopolitan mix, fired by the competition for the income generated from the diamond industry. Moreover, the heat and boiling tension amongst so many nationalities soon changed the elemental make-up of the town, giving rise to a new culture of tolerance premised on the respect of the otherness of others. Nonetheless, the new culture maintained some elements of the old, just like the rocks dotting the town had maintained elements of the rocks they metamorphosed from.
Local lore has it that the largest group of migrants had come from the West African country of Mali.They were mostly Mandingoes, the largest ethnic group, and, for reasons somehow shrouded in mystery, soon became known as Marakas. But the name was not restricted to the Mandingoes; all the other ethnic groups from Mali and Gambia, whose cultures bore a striking similarity to theirs, were also referred to as Marakas by the locals. For the locals, the particular description of a sub-set of the Malian immigrants was universalized, and became a term to describe all the West African migrants. The protest of other groups against the assimilation of their identities, in a vast ocean of ignorance and of cultural diversity fell on deaf ears. After several years of protest, they gave up and the name stuck; as such, all migrants with long robes, gold adorned wives, dealing in the diamond trade, became Marakas to the people of Masingbi.
As time would soon prove, being called aMaraka had a beneficial effect: the level of honesty and fair dealings of some of theMarakas helped in enhancing the image to a brand in the diamond industry in Sierra Leone.
Adama could have been a Mandinka, a Julah or a member of any of the diverse ethnic groups in the tiny town; but to the locals she was a Maraka. She had come to Masingbi in the prime of her youth and was an archetypical African woman: dark, tall, slender, with bulging eyes; and, typically for people of Madingo stock, a pointed nose. Her long strands of hair, plaited backward, revealed a face that looked like a sculptured rock. In those days, the tips of her braids were adorned with gold coins to accentuate her gold ear rings. Her gait and grace had a musicality about it that would have inspired a muse-starved composer to score songs in her honor. But Adama?s poem was never written, her story never told, her song never sung until now, when all that remains is a shadow of her former self. Her life is shaded by shadows cascading on other shadows to create a silhouette. It is in those shaded areas that Adama?s life story got obliterated. It is impossible to see her and her story amongst the contending shadows.
I saw Adama glued to her praying mats as my eyes scalped every layer of the town on my return after the deluge. Her face hoisted a vacant gaze advertising the abyss left in her soul by the war; shockingly, I saw what remained of her in the relic of a derelict town. Back in the old days, this woman being chewed and scarred by time, being written upon by life, being rubbed off and rewritten and re-rubbed like a palimpsest, as if tragedy had ran out of scrolls to pen a literature of lament, was the epitome of beauty.
She had come to this town with her husband Silakeh in the prime of her life. Her beauty and loyalty had contended for top place in the social discourse of the township, and she was to set new standards of obedience and fidelity in a society where morality, if one could call it that was mostly punctuated by the glitz and glamour of the diamond industry.Unlike most migrants whose primary motive for coming to Masingbi was diamond mining Adama had come for love. She had been born into a wealthy family in Mali; at a time and context when wealth was defined as a curious combination of assets, contentment and respect for human values. Adama?s family had wealth with a human face and, as was traditional in those days, she had been expected to marry a man chosen by her family. But she had protested, and ended up with Silakeh, a descendant of a warrior clan in Mali. What the Silakehs lacked in wealth, they made up for in the depth of their character.
?Adama, to have completed your Quranic studies in record time made us proud as a family? The old man spoke in a feeble voice.Adama aknowledged the comment with humility. ?May Allah pour blessing on you like torrent of rain.? Adama responded ?Amin ya Rabi? The old man continued his benediction ?May Allah bless you with children who would reign in this land and beyond.? ?Amin,? Adama responded. ?Speaking of children.?
The old man cleared his voice and spoke in measured tone; ?we have chosen a husband for you and we shall proceed with the marital arrangement now that you have graduated? uncharacteristically. Adama stood up and her voice cut through the decorum of centurieswith a resounding answer; ?No daddy I have a right to choose the person I want to spend my life with and I have choosen Silakeh, my school mate in the Quranic school?. The old man replied with reference to hadith; ?the prophet of Islam on whom peace and blessing is bestowed, said that the heaven is under the feet of our mothers? Adama countered ?It is prominently enshrined in Islamic literature that the consent of the bride is a prime condition in validating a marriage.?
The resolve and the logic from Adama caught the old man by surprise and he struggled to match his thoughts with words. There was silence, soul-piecing silence, sense numbing silence .The old man stood up and paced the forecourt of his compound. Everyone was expecting a tirade of a cosmic proportion. When the old man finally spoke, he spoke in a tired voice, a voice that sounded as if it came from a long journey, a journey from a wasteland where the hacked voices of many women whose voices were silenced long ago roamed like ghost. He spoke as if he was atoning for all the parents who had refused to give a voice to their daughters in such matters. ?Adama! Adama!!? He paused, before he continued. ?I have no objection but to accept your decision to choose a husband for yourself,? he paused again before he concluded. ?You are right, consent is crucial and your happiness is paramount to me.?
After the old man gave his approval, Adama finally married Silakeh--the man of her dreams.
With his new bride, Silakeh migrated to Sierra Leone in search of diamonds. As soon as they got there they made what was originally intended to be a transit stop in Masingbi, little realizing that the town would become a home for them.
When diamonds were first discovered in Sierra Leone, the country?s infrastructure was merely made of ailing footpaths and groaning bridges with commuters packed in motorized coffins looking like certified corpses. Yet those coffins were inadequate. This meant that travellers had to make several stops, sometimes even changing the mode of transportation before they got to their final destination. Against this backdrop, Masingbi soon emerged as the most famous transit town in the mad rush to Kono.
The diamond rush would transform Kono - a subsistent economy, with barter systems and human currency into a cash economy replete with all the excesses of capitalism. Kono became a virtual republic, with different economic laws, price mechanism and pseudo passports otherwise known as entry permits. Entry strategies to Kono were planned in Masingbi and executed along the rather porous borders between Kono and Masingbi. The plans ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. There was the case of a would-be diamond prospector being smuggled into Kono by a bus driver whose bus was packed full of women and legitimate passengers except for one. On arrival at the check point, the driver told the passenger to behave like a dumb persons in order to render them exempt from the permit regulations. The linguistically- challenged traveller was unable to comprehend the meaning of the rather brief and on- the -sport evasive strategy of acting like a dumb person. The check-point officer approached the vehicle and requested the entry permits from everybody.
All presented their documents except for theMaraka passenger.
?Yes, man!!? Where is your entry permit to Kono?? The officer growled at the passenger.
The rookie traveller gazed at the officer, cleared his throat and said: ?Me na mumu!? I am dumb!
The officer looked at him in disbelief; the passenger reaffirmed his statement: ?You may ask the driver if you don?t believe that I am dumb?. The desperation to enter Kono was manifested in incidents like this. In most cases, would-be prospectors insulated their families against these hurdles by using Masingbi as a base. This led to the growth of a dual community of wealthy diamond dealers living next to local subsistent farmers in the town.
Rows of mud houses were punctuated by shops displaying the latest electronic products. It was not unusual to find a subsistent farmer?s house built next door to a diamond dealer?s. The town became a showcase of modern and traditional living; a certainty of farming and the uncertainty of mining, excess and moderation. This duality left a blemish on the town that was part of the ethos of the people. Eventually Masingbi became a beehive for the drones of illicit miners called ?sansan? boys, whose nectar was the electronic devices and the safety from police harassment ever present in the designated mining areas. This group of nomadic miners drifted to various lucrative spots in search of diamonds. Their strategy was to scavenge the sometimes discarded gravel or unattended sites of big mining corporations for diamonds. These nomads were officially categorized as illicit miners and constituted the disillusioned and dispossessed youths who drifted aimlessly like logs in the Sewa River.
The sansan boys would later become cannon fodder used by politicians to perpetuate their stay in power. And much later they became an army of disillusioned and disposed youths whose muscles were appropriated to fuel a tragic war. In the mines, they sometimes struck luck and became rich overnight--Masingbi was their Las Vegas. Diluting the Las Vegas image in order to maintain a semblance of sanity became a tall order for the elders of the town. Moral signposts were uprooted and tossed around by sansan boys anytime they came to town with their new found wealth.
Theypurchasedmassive battery-powered tape recorders, and carried them shoulder high in an ostentatious show of wealth. It was normal practice for some women to abandon their husbands for the transient wealth of ?sansan? boys.
Adama was not one of those women, although, with her beauty she could have earned wealth, by smiling at the avalanche of sansan boys and Julahs who swamped the town. Yet she decided to sell her wares of oil, herbs and trinkets to augment her husband?s uncertain resources.
In one such avalanche, a sansan boy approached Adama in the Market place, using the usual bait of flashing money to entice women. ?Adama, how much are you selling all the items on your table,? asked the sansan boy in a boyish voice. ?Well I don?t know because I have never had a reason to sell everything at once,? replied Adama.The sansan boy countered by removing a ward of notes from his bag; ?Today is your lucky day I will buy everything including you.? Adama connected the dots and read the intended insult as she lashed out, ?Nothing is here for sale, not even my wares. Take your kind of business off my table and leave now or else you will live to regret it,? she snarled at him. In a last ploy the sansan boy streached the wad of red currency notes, the highest denomination then, towards Adama. ?This is for you if you cooperate with me; you know what I mean.? Adama pushed his outstreacched hand and the notes fell on the ground, wafted away by the wind in different direction in the crowded Market. At that juncture she screamed, ?Sacrifice!?Passersby scrambled to pick the money, everyone tried to grab what they could get in the belief that the sansan boy was actually throwing his money as sacrifice, a common practice among miners in those days.He tried to explained the true story to the crowd but the estatic crowd lifted him up singing songs of praises for him. He returned to Kono impoverished and narrated the true story to his colleagues. Ever since that incident, the sansan boys delisted Adama from their list of exploits.
The delisting gave her freedom to live life on her terms in Masigbi. Her domestic chores; religious piety and social life were a script directed by an authoritative director who left no room for improvisation. Her life style gave the picture of permanence to the observer. She became part of the agile landmark you would always remember when you thought of the town.
On the threshold of each dawn, she would cross the intersection of roads that met at a right angle nibbled at the edge by unpaved drainages to her spot in the market; to my childhood eyes then, the town was like a huge geometrical pattern designed by a past civilization, replete with park-like spaces. The main street dividing the town terminated at the town cemetery, and the two halves, named Masiaka and ?Eight corners? formed the basis for competition in sport and the annual lantern carnivals.
Adama lived on the Eighth Corner side of the town, on the tip of the dividing line, in a mud house with a rusty corrugated roof. Unlike most houses in the town, Adama?s kitchen was in front of the house. She did her domestic chores in front of her house. A remarkable feature of her house was her substitute praying area; this was a squared twelve feet by ten feet space bordered by logs and stones.
This area served as her holy shrine when she was not able to go to the mosque during her chore-infested days. On the eastward coordinates of the shrine was a small rectangular place topped by a massive rock protruding from the ground. The rock gave Adama?s praying area, otherwise known as washi in the local parlance, a uniqueness that lent the impression that God had participated in the construction of her holy shrine. After prayers, Adama sometimes sat on the rock andwatched as the town folk conducted their daily activities. She spoke an accented dialect of the local language in a manner that amused the locals. In fact, the Themne spoken in Masingbi is dialectically different from the same language spoken in most parts of the country. This variation heightened the linguistic stake for Adama whose Maraka tongue allowed her little freedom in negotiating the dialectical nuances of the language.
Nevertheless, she communicated her thoughts to the community in an entertaining way. She enjoyed the cordiality of the people yet she knew the social barriers that were sacred to the land. She knew that during the harvest season little boys and girls were taken to the enclaves of the Poro or Bondo societies respectively, places where they underwent rites of passage into adulthood.
During that period, she knew it was forbidden to call them the names they had before their initiation. The rite of initiation is a rebirth, a born-again experience for the people, symbolically expressed by a change of name and shaving of head hair. The white and red head ties of women during the harvest season, the rhythmical beating of a drum they call samboray, the staccato beat of a tortoise shell, accompanied by a soul piercing laughter, where the perceptive sound beacons for Adama. She would tactically retreat to her private shell to ensure that she did not cross paths with the locals throughout the initiation season. Her respect for the culture of the people protected her against any attempt to encroach on her personal space for all the years she lived in Masingbi.
Most times, after her morning prayers, Adama would sit in her washi with a distant gaze in her eyes. Projected in that seemingly blank gaze was a montage of images of a life in which the past, present, and the future were frozen in the lenses of her mind. It was as though a monogram of black and white images that had blurred the screen of her life forever was trapped in the silhouette of those frozen images.
Bestriding that screen was the death of her husband Silakeh and that red, grotesque art on the rock of her washi. It was so long ago, yet it seemed like yesterday. If life is about moments, hers was a mosaic of monumental moments; and cresting those moments like an eagle was Silakeh. In the aftermath of Silakeh?s demise, Adama?s mind soon began to reel out the reality of her changed life. She sat on her washi while her mind made the journey to her past, present and future in no chronological order. But, in truth, her mind dashed first to the events leading to Silakeh?s demise.
He had been away but was due to return to Masingbi for the weekend to perform his role as a deputy Imam, in the absence of Baba, the Chief Imam. Adama was preparing Silakeh?s special dish of groundnut soup and the aroma of her cooking sent an olfactory signal of her intentions to her neighbors. Slowly the message meandered through the many nostrils and eventually reached those of her landlady, Nasomayla, who, quite wisely, prepared her response for her favorite tenant.
Nasomayla was the custodian of the traditions of the rite of passage; she was also the eldest daughter of the Paramount chief, yet her humility belied her status in the society and had earned her the respect of everyone. She gave freely of her wealth and knowledge of traditional medicine to the needy.
When Adama?s signal reached Nasomayla she wrapped her shawl around her head and walked bare-footed to Adama?s compound. Over the years, Nasomayla had refused to wear shoes despite the protest of her children; she thought that shoes disconnected her from the earth. That primal belief of her earthly origin might not have come from any imported religion like Christianity and Islam, hers was rooted in a belief in humanity She lived a life of righteousness, underpinned by the do- onto- others- as- you wish- others- to ?do- onto- you doctrine, yet she did not believe in the mode of accessing the single God portrayed in Islam and Christianity that her many tenants brought to her world.
She prayed and offered sacrifices to her god; always, her sacrifice was preceded by a litany of names as she gazed skywards, before pouring libation on the earth. At those moments it seemed as though she was establishing a link between a God above and another on earth. Her god and ways were different from the foreign gods that her tenants had brought to her land but none of the tenants surpassed her humanity.
In spite of their different views, she related with them on a humane level. In the spirit of advancing the common bond of humanity, Nasomayla padded her way into Adama?s kitchen:
?How are you today? Nasomayla said in a soft almost inaudible voice.
?I am fine; how about you?? responded Adama. ?Your kitchen broadcast told me he is coming,? remarked Nasomayla jokingly.
Adama covered the steaming pot, wiped her hands on her lappa and proceeded to engage her visitor in social discourse.
?Yes, he is coming to conduct the Friday prayers in the absence of your son- in- law.?
?Oh that is good,? I have a little gift for him, ?Nasomayla, said, and removed a small package of Kola nuts wrapped in leaves from her shawl and gave it to the younger woman.
Adama stooped slightly to collect the gift:
?Thank you ma, but must you be doing this every time Silakeh comes?? she remarked politely.
?That is the least I can do for my best friend.? said the older woman.
The two women chatted briefly and shook hands before Nasomayla disappeared, leaving Adama to finish her cooking.
After leaving Adama pondering over her kindness and the many other similar gestures from her neighbors, she concluded that this bond of humanity was making them forget that they had come from far away to become family. She thought of a story that she had been taught at the Quranic School in Mali, the one about God?s tree of destiny in which every human being on earth was represented by a leaf and every leaf belonged to a branch of the same tree. Irrespective of where you were born you would end up living with people with whom you shared the same branch in God?s tree.
The narrative was a manifestation that God sanctioned migrations; a process that began way before we got to the womb and continue beyond the tomb pausing in the inbetween we called life. ?Even the journey within our minds is migration? Adama mused. ?It was true all humanity belonged to the same tree otherwise what could attempt to explain this affinity to a people whose culture differed so glaringly from mine?? Adama pondered.
She wished Silakeh were here so that they could ponder further on the issue of the many branches of the tree of humanity. Thinking of him brought backemotions she thought were dead long ago in an arid land. Every sinew of her body started sparking like electricity being sent across antiquated power grids. It was as if the electricity that had conjoined their soul decades ago in the cornfields of Mali was back; but this time, the power lines were old, although the spark was visible. She muttered some verses of the Quran to ward off Satan. She couldn?t understand how her power grid that had remained dormant for almost a decade could be fired up with such velocity. She quickly lessened the flame under the soup pot in order to stop the boiling; at the same time hoping that the inferno inside her soulwould go away. She placed some smoldering embers on top of the lid of the rice pot to perfect the steaming process.
The regulation of the fire controlled the cooking but not the cooking inside her. She dashed to the bedroom to calm herself because she thought passersby might see the inferno of lust gushing from her being. She was a dormant volcano about to erupt. Managing a temporary composure, she went back to the kitchen to re-regulate the fire; the food was almost ready but she wanted to serve it hot; as such, the process of readjusting both flames would continue until Silakeh arrived.
Silakeh was a creature of routine; he always sent a message through the driver, Ofoyo, to inform her of his return during the weekend. In the absence of communications infrastructure, the drivers served multiple purposes: as postmen and telephone lines. Among the many drivers that commuted the route between Kono and Masingbi, Ofoyo was the most reliable. Silakeh always used him to commute and valued his reliability.
Perhaps Adama?s mood had been triggered by Silakeh?s request that she prepare some spicily brewed coffee that would act as an aphrodisiac.
It could be that Silakeh was sending a subtle code by requesting that coffee. Whatever it was, his request unleashed a Pandora?s Box of ancient butterflies in his wife and their fluttering was becoming deafening. Over the years,watching Silakeh return from the mines had always satisfied her every urge. The sight of him would penetrate her being and soul. However, that day she wanted something more; something new but old, something old yet new, something that could fulfill both body and soul. She wanted to be held like she was held decades ago when she was a maiden. Strands of lust woven to desire and hung on memory crippled her whole being.