By Seedy S. Fofanah, Former Lecturer
University of the Gambia
Being born and growing up in a relatively rustic big village was something I had never chosen but would probably have opted for that had I had the opportunity to do so. In any case, that was my beginning as nature would have it. The place of my birth and the place of birth of my parents is Kanni Kunda.
It is a rural village located 120 miles east of the capital, Banjul, in the Lower River Region of the Gambia. My village was founded by a renowned Islamic scholar by the name Mama Yorro Saidykhan whose ancestors came from Futa in Guinea Conakry.
The village has a massively rich history and according to my grandfather, the original founder of the village forbad anyone beating a drum in the village. From the historical facts, if anyone beat the drum inside the village, would see a monstrous fire in the whole village burning down everything in the village. Ever since those days to date, the villagers have always equally forbidden any drum beating in the village. All activities of drumming are carried outside the village. The village is well known within the Jarra region and its vicinities.
I grew up in the village like a normal African child. I can vividly remember in those days, we used to go for hunting in the bush with our dogs and to hunt rodents and other commonly available wild animals for bush meat. If our dogs killed any animal, we would happily come home with the carcasses of the animals. Our commonest preys used to be rabbits and squirrels as they were easily found and easily scared out of their hideouts.
Rabbits would normally hide themselves in under growths out of where the slightest noise, such as a mouth whistle, would send them fleeing and racing at supersonic speeds for their dear lives. So while we hunted, someone would catch sight of one type of animal or another and would yell out, “It is there. Look at it beyond the tree.” All of a sudden, a frantic would begin. Generally, our dogs too were not second fiddles to our preys, even rabbits, in terms of swiftness and pace. These dogs would then give a ferocious chase even before we would say “shoo‟.
Catching a rabbit in flight was always difficult and exhausting for both us and our ever-ready dogs. But however difficult it was, our dogs usually eventually caught them. We would hunt sometimes for most of the day. So at sun set before darkness would creep in and envelop the bushes and every other thing, we would make a homeward bound with the carcasses of rabbits, rats, porcupines, squirrels and on rare occasions, fowls. We would make holes through their necks and insert a strong stick such that they would be hanging on either end of the stick. We would then sling the stick on our shoulders and bounce home triumphantly but tediously. Our shirts were always soaked in blood dripping from the gaping holes on our victims‟ necks left by the sharp blades of our knives.
These hunting adventures were always a big test of our strength and stamina as young rural boys growing up full of mischief but also determination; determination to prove that we were worth every inch of our flesh. Teenagers as us were supposed to be adventurous and out-pouring with activities such as hunting. So we never relented in this and many other masculine-related activities. Upon arrival at home, curious little boys and girls would crowd around us brimming with excitement and eagerness to admire us and feed their inquisitive eyes on our victims.
While some of them would cowardly stand at a distance away from the heap of the carcasses of the animals, daring ones would squat or sit close to them and admire them further. In fact, they would even hold their tails and drag them and playfully chase and threaten the cowards who would always make the best use of their legs as soon as they smelt any mischief from their colleagues. After taking some respite and rejuvenation from bowls of rice and jars of cold water, we would set ourselves on the carcasses to skin them.
Apart from water, the only ingredient we would normally need was salt to cook the meat. On very rare occasions, we roasted. Roasting was what we usually did when we were in the bush and felt hungry. Friends and siblings would be invited to join us for a big feast. We would put the meat in big plates and sit around them and reward ourselves bounteously for being very good hunters.
Nights in the villages were extremely interesting and enjoyable especially when every inch of the land was generously lit by the ever-silent but gliding graceful moon. Nights are meant for people to get home after a long day’s toil to relax, rest and take stock of the day’s activities.
It is also a time when the family comes together again after hours apart during the day. It is a time that the family reunites and fills the natural regular void that is necessarily created by the ever constant demands of life such as food, clothing and shelter.
Regardless, the nature of children such as we, were never yielded to such natural calls. So we never cared to take any respite from the night. But you know children will always be children; innocent, ungrateful, mischievous and adventurous. I think to a very large extent, these are what define every child of every clime without exception.
As it were therefore, my childhood was heavily infested with these natural attributes. Almost invariably, our nights were spent on either one activity or the other. However, one that stood out above all else was a popular game called “Hide and Seek”. As the name suggests, it requires a group hiding and one tasked to search and locate wherever the group might be hiding. Everyone except one would run and hide under bushes and other remote locations. Before he would start, he would need to ask if they have properly hidden themselves for him to move. He would say “Badi badooyeh, N‟ghanaa bangh”. Then in chorus, the group would respond “Haneedaay” (No don’t come.) or “Haadaay” (Yes you can come). Their response would depend on whether they were ready or not. When the search began, the first person to be touched by hand would have to be the next person to search the rest. But I can tell you, it took a lot of running, chasing and mirthful laughing before anyone would be caught.
Everyone needed energy and agility to leap, dodge dive and escape the outstretched hands of the pursuer. We would do “Hide and Seek” with girls at the village “Bantaba”. During this game, many things happen. You know boys are just…anyway. This was my favourite childhood game. It was something I relished and cherished. Sometimes, the game may go for hours before everyone would get tired and then go back to their house to sleep feeling exhausted but happy.
Early next morning, my father would wake us up and ask us to go to the farmland and chase the birds. Without failing, daily, he would stand at our door and shout, “Seedy, it is morning. Get up and pray. As soon as you are ready, mount the donkey and gallop to the farm.” We would be out there at the farm until sunset and sometimes as late as “Maghrib” prayers. There and then, we would trek back home. Wednesdays and Thursdays were always very special days for us within the week. We were always happy every week on Wednesdays and Thursdays because those were the days on which we didn’t have to go to school.
On these days, we didn’t have to attend the local “Madarassa” for the evening Quranic sessions. Also, we didn’t have to fetch firewood from a distant forest. So the arrival of those two days would always bring along a special feeling; a feeling of rest, relaxation and freedom; freedom to do a lot of our own activities without being instructed or supervised by adults. This was also a time of great mischief, treachery, and merry making.
In those days, I hated farming and almost everything about it. This was because there was always plenty of work to do both at home and at the farms. What made it worse was that my father was unarguably the most ambitious and the most enterprising farmer in our entire region. He mainly cultivated groundnuts and millet mostly for the consumption of the family though. He would however sell a good quantity of the groundnut as he needed money to pay our school fees, buy us clothes and cater for other basic necessities for members of his large family since he was polygamous. Beans and maize were also crops that he grew and these were mostly intercropped. Because there were simply many mouths to fill, we had to work very hard to produce enough to ensure that the daily rations were never in short. Interestingly though, the task of food sustenance for our ever-swelling family was not carried out by my father and his younger brothers alone.
The women too; I mean our mothers, also toiled complimentarily to my father. But very much unlike my father, they practiced mono cropping for they grew only rice especially during the wet season. They too would cultivate several acres of fertile land. Land for anything in those days, not least for farming was nowhere near inadequate. In fact, we could practice mixed farming which ensured that our farmlands for whatever crops never ran out of fertility. As a matter of fact, the yields were, year after year, very good. Rice was always in abundance so my father didn‟t used to buy imported rice from the shops. “Baara maano” (locally-cultivated rice) was valued much higher than the imported rice. In fact, it was a widely-held view that imported rice smelled and therefore, it was not popularly consumed.
The traditional African woman is very inventive and resourceful and she is thus capable of preparing various diets. My mother knew very well how to prepare rice into various diets. She could prepare rice into traditional diets like “Nyelagho”. This requires grinding the grains into very fine particles almost to the status of powder. Anyway, it is a delicacy usually prepared from millet and it is best eaten with groundnut soup. Also, a form of porridge locally called “Tiya
kereh satoo” mostly taken as breakfast is another diet that is prepared from rice. Rice can also be thoroughly pounded into fine powder out of which “Munnkoo” is prepared. You only need water to prepare “Munnko”.
These and many others were diets that my mother did use to prepare and we always made great feasts out of them. The “Munnkoo” was particularly popular with children. Generally, women did use to prepare it and offer it as charity as tradition demanded though. Women usually did this in the evening immediately after the “Maghrib” prayers in the village. Mostly, children would assemble in one compound or at a “Bantaba” to receive the “Munnkoo” as it is locally called in Mandinka language. This was an old traditional practice observed in Kanni Kunda village well before I was born and it was being practiced by the women especially when there was drought in the community.
The elderly women in the village would gather in one compound and cook different types of diets and go to a place locally known as “Bukarabee” and eat the dishes that they cooked. They would then dance, sing and then pray to God to help them with rain water. They would also come to the village in the centre of which was a local well called “Zam Zam”. At this well, the women would drum, dance and go around the well several times before they would rest. Sometimes, they would move from one compound to another drumming and dancing saying, “God help us with rain water. Don‟t look at our sins though”. They would utter these supplications in a loud voice with small children trailing them.
In the evening, they would ask us to go and fetch firewood for the local evening recitation of the Quran in the compound. This Quranic session was called “Karantaa” in Mandinka. Anyone who defaulted in this would have to yield himself to several lashes administered by our instructors. But the punishment for such defaulters was always so severe that anyone hardly dared to not fetch firewood. I witnessed one encounter between one of our instructors and a colleague of mine who refused to fetch firewood as was routinely required. Unfortunately, he could not give any genuine reason for his failure to bring firewood and had to be stretched on a table properly restrained by four muscular boys and given several nice whips on his back. As he was whipped, he wriggled to extricate himself without success but succeeded very well in yelling out his lungs and helplessly announcing to everyone in that vicinity he was being flogged for negligence of
duty. As if that was not enough, the following day he was asked to bring two times the size of the bundle that each was required to bring. Would you have defaulted like my friend did?
These evening sessions started immediately after the “Maghrib” prayer. We took it in turns to light the wood in a designated place at one corner of the compound. When the fire was lit, we would sit in a circle around it. We never used seats of any kind. We always sat on mats made from animal skins mostly of goats and sheep and place our slates on our laps with our legs crossed one on top of another. The light from the burning wood illuminated our slates well enough for us to see and recite the inscriptions of the verses from the Quran. The fire was never given any time to dim let alone die out. To keep it burning brightly, we regularly added few sticks from the numerous bundles that we always provided and piled close to the palm frondfence of the compound. The pieces of stick would burn, crackle and surrender themselves to the conquering blaze which would occasionally burst into flames thus brightly illuminating the whole vicinity. We would recite at the top of our voices each trying to outshout the others in a rather competitive yet gracious and impressive way.
In the midst of all this, the “oustazz”, otherwise the Quranic teacher would come to us asking each to recite the verses that were assigned for each to memorize that day. The “oustazz” always had a companion which was a “flying-whip” made of leather. He regularly clutched this in his right hand. Standing over you, he would take your slate and ask you to recite what you were assigned to memorize during the day. If you failed that oral test, he would swing the whip from the ground and up into the air, it would fly. Then it would come, flying down on your back “whack”. With a suppressed yell of pain, you would wriggle and scratch the spot where the whip landed, all happening simultaneously. In some cases, you would be forced to wipe a tear from your cheeks. The dread of being massaged by the flying whip, kept us all on our toes such that anyone would hardly fail the oral test at night. We would sometimes, on our own, sing the verses enthusiastically not just because we were required to know them, but also we enjoyed it. To be honest with you, we hardly faltered in our endeavours.
To be continued