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Sunday, October 1, 2023

A Krio engagement and other stories by Nana Grey Johnson

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry


The wicked earth

It was a day just like many before it—the sand in the courtyard scorched my feet. The dry air burned my throat. I took refuge from the sun in my father’s mud-brick house, which was the coolest of all the hot places in our compound. The cracks in the hard soil on our farm were even wider now. The wider they became, the more hopelessly the village baked in the sun, squatted among its desiccated bushes, and dried up farms beyond which the ashen bones of our livestock lay where they fell in their last procession. Like ghostly fingers, their bare, white bones pointed nowhere where there would be even a tiny blade of green grass. 

My mother, Mba, was on the edge of despair. She ate quietly through the late morning breakfast and watched my sister, Hawa, and I lick up the last drops of mono from the bowl she had set out in front of us. The coos porridge was always good, especially when my mother laced it ever so delicately with salt (when she ran out of sugar to put in it). She wished she had more food in the house so that we could eat well, grow up strong, and do well at school. But with the drought now running into its fourth year, Baba’s buntungo was not a happy place to look—the grain store stood empty; my father’s reserve had run out, and he had no money to pay for the tinned foods at the market in the big village up the road.

Hawa took away the empty bowl when we finished eating. I finished spreading a mat in the shade under the tree as my other friend had asked when I heard a familiar sound of bells tinkling out on the street. I ran to the gate. My father emerged from behind a cloud of dust, pulling his donkey along; it was the one left after he sold the first when Mba needed to replace a few rusted corrugated iron sheets on the roof.

“Asalaam, aleikum, Baba,” I said, and I relieved him of the cloth and wire reins.

He gave no answer but let me guide the animal through the compound gate. If my father did not answer my greeting, there was something terribly wrong. I was not the problem at all; in fact, he was probably angry on our behalf and sad in his heart that he was unable to give us more than he was providing. He was returning from the market where he had gone earlier with the four bags of groundnuts tethered to the sides of the donkey. That was all he was able to eke out of his farm.

“Did you sell anything, Baba?” I asked him.

“Yes, I sold one or two things,” he replied, leading the way across the compound. “But we are no better than we were before.”

Hawa came up to greet Baba and went back to the mat under the tree where Mba had laid out the cotton buds; they were going to be pressed into fine threads for a paign wrapper my mother was decorating in preparation for the wedding of a cousin of ours. My sister was not much younger than I was. There were only twelve moons between us—months, that is! She loved it when people asked if we were twins. No matter what she said, she was not thirteen years old yet, and I was already thirteen years old! Or, as my grandmother would have said, I was already thirteen rains old! Counting moons and rains was the old way of noting the passage of time in the village, but in our household we had to be careful with the way we used the word—rain! That was one sore word in my father’s house.

When lunch was ready in the late afternoon, Mba placed the bowl of food on a mat in the middle of the parlour. Like the day before and the day before that, lunch was of boiled rice, fried kono-kono fish in a thick durang sauce. She had managed to garnish the bowl with a few small vegetables she scrounged from the bushes around the house.

Mba filled a small calabash with water and brought it to Baba to wash his hands. I washed next—I was the next man in the house, was I not? Hawa held the calabash for Mba to wash her hands before she washed hers. My father had always asked the women to wash their hands first; but my mother was not one to break any old rule. She insisted that the men washed first. We ate silently. The hard times had robbed us of our conversation. My father was not fussy about us talking during meals, even though when my grandmother was around, she used to insist that children must never talk while they eat.

“God should have made us all as small as ants so we would not need to eat so much,” Hawa said, catching my eye first before testing the silence.

“Quiet,” Mba admonished, slapping the back of my Hawa’s hand in the bowl and scattering rice grains. “I’ve told you to know the place and time for some of your silly jokes.”

My father picked a grain which had landed on his forearm and dropped it in his mouth. My mother apologised to him. Everyone knew Hawa had a sense of humour that was not unlike my late grandmothers after whom she was named. Hawa could make people laugh even in their most grieved moments.

“What she said is not that bad,” Baba said. “She is beginning to understand the real connection between four years of no rain and hunger. If we were smaller, we would eat less.”

Hawa was reassured. I understood that my mother had lost some of her patience as the drought worsened over the years. She was never like that before. She too had nothing worth to bring back to the house from her vegetable garden, where the water in the garden well had turned to mud.

Mba began to show some strands of grey hair she never had before. Her cunning smile disappeared almost completely. My father also changed gradually from a jovial storyteller to a man brooding and snapping over little things, particularly about his grain store that dwindled ever faster. He began eating less and, for a man who loved his sleep, would sit up all night with thoughts.

Under the circumstances, Hawa and I were helpless as to what to do to bring laughter back to the eyes of our mother and father. We did not know how to bring rain; we did not know what to do to reduce the heat of the sun. We watched our parents change as the climate grew worse.

One evening after school was over, Hawa and I went along with my mother to my father’s farm, even if it was simply to help him lighten his burden of wandering through the dead dry stalks of what should have been last season’s millet harvest. On one part of the farm, we were busy ripping up the weeds and uprooting stubbles when my father shocked us with a loud and desperate outburst.

“Look at this earth,” he cried. “Look at this wicked earth!”

Withered tendrils shook in his trembling hands with the brown dust seeping through his fingers and scattering in the hot wind. We were startled beyond belief. We only stared. The words my mother wanted to utter did not come out; she watched him, her brows heavy with the pain of it all. She broke away from her speechlessness and began walking away alone back to the farm shed. She did not like it when my father felt as if he was responsible for the drought or that the crops failed because he did not work hard enough.

My mother could not help her sadness that my father was feeling that he was a failure. If there was anything my mother always protected, it was my father’s sense of pride as a provider, the head of the house and a good farmer. We followed her and sat with her until my father eventually joined us in the shed.

“Don’t feel so bad,” she pleaded with him. “If rain were you’re doing, we would have plenty and enough to make the river rise.”

Her words sometimes consoled my father. At other times they just made no difference to the pain he felt. The scorched earth did not prove to be as considerate towards my father as my mother was. It challenged Baba’s resolve and spurned his strength. Baba’s hoe bounced back against the rocks underneath the flimsy topsoil which scattered about in painful mockery of the man and his endurance. He was still preparing a farm for rains that were already two months overdue.

Dark clouds threatened now and again in the morning but, before long, they drifted away again. Each time they gathered, my father led us to the fields and, each time they disappeared, he led us back home to wait and to hope.

On our way home one evening, Hawa walked behind me at the back of the queue, skillfully balancing a bundle of firewood on her head.

“Why does Baba bother to pray at all if this is what he gets for an answer?” Hawa asked. “Maybe God has forgotten that that there is …”

“Baba says not to argue with God,” I said, cutting her thoughts off.

I noticed she was exceptionally playful and whenever she was that way, I expected her in her bubbling nature to say things that sounded out of the way; things that sometimes led my mother think that Hawa was disrespectful of our father. My mother would not allow Hawa to make our father look foolish for praying so much every day for nothing.

“Don’t allow this dryness to hurt us,” Hawa continued to say, ignoring my every effort to get her to shut up or to change the subject. “Are we not proud that even in these times other people come to borrow from us and to eat with us? I heard an old man say that people might begin to die soon from hunger.”

“Don’t talk of death, Hawa,” Baba said from the front of the queue. “There’s enough around us already.”

Hawa did not speak any louder than she did the first time. She seemed to share my amazement when she pulled Mba and I back a little and whispered to us that the drought might be painful but we should be glad it had sharpened Baba’s ears. Mba smiled as only Hawa could make her. I wished, though, that Hawa would talk and act like a child her age; her mind was almost three times older than she was. Baba should not have named her after his mother; the old people say a name always went with seven characters of its original owner. Perhaps that was why Baba always overlooked Hawa’s craziness with some sympathy or reverence; I could not tell which one.

According to the story my father had told me, at my own naming ceremony, a soothsayer told him that an old woman was already on her way, returning to the family. My father said he had never paid any attention to what the soothsayer had said until Hawa was born so soon after me. There was an identical mark on the top of her left ear, exactly where my grandmother had the mark. My father believed that his mother had come back in the continuous exchange between the spirit and the living worlds. So, he named my sister after his mother. However, left with my mother alone, she would sew up Hawa’s mouth, given the slightest chance.

The drought was relentless. Some village elders were reduced to offering sheep and goats as sacrifice. A larger number of them prayed behind Imamo Saihou Jawla in the mosque for help with the weather. The Rev. Fr. Momodou Sanneh and his congregation lit candles at the altar in the village church; everyone in the village was enjoined to pray for rain. The kanyaleng society women did the rain dance; they paraded the outskirts of the village in rags, clanging bells and bottle stoppers singing plaintive songs. Their message was common to all—to appease the higher spirits to seed the clouds and for the heavens to release its waters upon Sankali.

After the ceremonies, everyone said that the rains would come. Some said there would, in fact, be a flood. A week passed and nothing came. The sun grew fierce, the earth was drier. The little help with cracked wheat and milk powder that came from the government in the city trickled and almost ceased completely.

I heard Baba telling Mba that some of the young men working in the food distribution failed to account properly for the money and that the police had arrested two of them and a district politician. He said, there was hope from what they heard on the radio that the country was now a member of a large group of countries—about sixteen in number—that had been badly affected by the drought. Baba told Mba that the radio announcer said that membership in this new group meant that our richer neighbours would come to help us with food.

While we waited for whoever the radio said would come to Sankali our dinner we had boiled cassava with thin strips of mutton fried in groundnut oil for dinner. Baba and his two brothers, Kebba Fanding and Ba Foday, slaughtered a sheep from the family herd and shared the mutton among the three households. If nothing changed, they would have to do so again in a month or so. That was a sign of a great emergency when people turned to their family herds like that. Mba ate less to make sure Hawa and I had enough; she also could not ignore them when more desperate neighbours came weeping at our door. I could never understand how my father survived. Baba ate even less than my mother who regularly mentioned her concern to him.

“Look at your eyes sinking to the back of your head, Baba,” she said. “Why don’t you eat a little?”

“I eat,” Baba’s voice was full of pain. “I do well with the dry cassava. You and the children can eat the rice.”

He was certainly on the brink. I knew him well enough. That was how he sounded when he was ready for a big decision. That was how he was feeling before he cursed the wicked earth out on our farm. I could sense he was, as it were, gathering for a storm of his own. 

“You must want to ruin us by your death,” Mba said, restively but always knowing how far to go in chastising my father’s stubbornness. “This earth can eat more, Baba. Do you wish to feed yourself to it before the time?”

My father’s eyes simmered red and tired. His forehead was now a shining black mass. My mother was darker and her skin was scaly and dry, somewhat like the skin of the red-throated lizards which scurried freely among the hot stones in the compound. Slowly, her lustre had disappeared and she was just like the other long-breasted women who went to the village well to draw of the little water that was there at the bottom. She had come back from the well one evening to fetch water and was gently placing the earthen pot where it belonged in the kitchen when Baba startled her again.

“I will make no more sacrifices,” he announced as he emerged from his bedroom. “Four years are enough. I will sell the donkey and that will be that. There are children in this village who do not know what a wet blade of grass looks like. All they see dropping from the sky are pieces of flesh from the beaks of vultures flying towards us after they clean up the dead of the nearby villages. We are next. If prayer and sacrifices did not save them, they will not save us either.”

“Baba, don’t speak like that in front of your child,” Mba said, nearly dropping the clay jar.

I just sat, glued to the bench. Mba followed him into the bedroom pleading with him to remain the man he had always been—one whose faith was steadfast. My heart raced where I sat picking sticks and pebbles from a bowl of uncooked rice. Hawa was not home; she was at the neighbour’s plaiting her hair for school and helping a friend of hers with some of her chores.

I had never seen my father’s spirit sink so low before and mine also sank with his. If I could make it rain, I would have poured barrels and buckets of it enough to drown the clouds themselves. I really wished I could make rain, if only to restore Baba to his fullest strength. While Baba and Mba talked in the room, I rattled pebbles into a metal plate to break the deathly quiet in the parlour. Suddenly, Hawa proved she was better at breaking the silence by bursting into the house through the back door with her hair only half done.

“Rain! Rain!!” she was screaming. “It’s raining!”

“This is the one joke that can get you killed,” I warmed her. “Shut up before Baba hears you.”

But she was not there to hear me. She dived past our cane bed and grass mattress, nearly spilling herself over the wooden chair in which I was sitting. She fled towards my parents’ bedroom and stopped dead on her tracks when Baba came out the door.

“Baba, rain,” Hawa said breathlessly.

“Enough of your jesting, now,” Baba said pointing her to the door. “You go right back and finish doing your hair that looks like the house where chickens live.”

“Hawa, it is wicked to play like that,” Mba added, standing behind my father in the doorway.

“Mba, can’t you hear the rain? Look at my arm!” Hawa pleaded.

At last, I could lift myself off the bench. I set my rice bowl on the floor. Baba grabbed Hawa’s arm. Her bare shoulders were wet with the clear drops of water. Baba turned Hawa around slowly like a digger inspecting a rare and ancient find.

“Mba, our ears have lost the sound of rain,” Baba said. “It has been so long since we heard rain that we could not hear it when it falls.”

Strangely, it was when my father said that that I first heard the rain. It was then that Mba realised that there was indeed a rattling on the corrugated iron sheets in the roof. Baba rushed to the window, and we followed him. He parted the batik blinds. Fat drops of water were falling fast, puckering the red soil outside. I could hear the breath rush through my father’s wide nostrils. He swallowed hard and ground his teeth. Unconsciously, he pulled my mother closer to him without moving his enraptured gaze at the dark evening sky.

The wind blew a sudden gust, a soft and forgiving gust and the feel of it was unmistakably that of a raging rainstorm about a mile or so away. Soon, it began to pour. Our neighbours were already running riot out in the streets; we could see some were praying in the rain—the children cupping their hands and drinking what they had gathered.

Still in his tattered farm clothes, Baba walked out into the yard where the soil was voraciously sucking every drop of water that fell. It was as if the earth would never be satisfied. Puddles began to fill around my father’s bare feet; little rivers meandered away to join a big river that was now churning in the middle of the yard towards the gate. With is arms outstretched and his chest heaving, Baba did not close his eyes even though the rain drops stung into them. Such angry thunder and blinding lightening had never before been so welcome. It rained.

The buckets filled up quickly where Mba had placed them under the edge of the roof. When Baba looked down, his feet were lost under the water. He was drenched, wet to the bone; wet enough for him to believe that it was indeed raining. He turned towards us. Mba had kept us sheltering in the doorway of the house to allow him to revel in the ecstasy of rain. I broke away and ran towards him pulling Hawa along with me. He embraced us both inside his big arms and spun around with us like a big happy child with his arms full of playthings.

Mba stepped out into the rain at last. Her feet were quickly engulfed by the swollen river in the yard; she was saying something through the water drops but the thunder would not let us hear her. Whatever it was she was saying, new life had descended upon her. Soaked as she was in our first storm in four years, I could tell despite the rain on her face that she was crying. Or did I just know that she would be in celebration of the restoration of her family?

It rained, and indeed it did—all through the night.


Nana Grey-Johnson has dedicated his life to writing and is both a journalist and a writer. After completing his secondary education in The Gambia, he went to the USA to do a BA (Honours) in Mass Communication at Lewis and Clarke College, and then an MA in Journalism at Stanford University. He devoted himself to journalism from then on: he wrote articles and became editor of several newspapers and magazines. He is a former Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure and presently the Founding Dean of the School of Journalism of the University of The Gambia. In this professional capacity, he established his literary vein, writing short stories and short texts (he would later write novels). Among the books he published are: A Krio engagement and Other Stories (1987; re-edited and reprinted 2008), Children of The Spyglass (1996), The Magic Calabash (1998; also published with MacMillan Publishers), King Pass King (drama) (1988), Max the Cat (2015), The Story of the Newspaper in The Gambia (2004-re-edited and reprinted), and Edward Francis Small: Watchdog of The Gambia (2002:2022), I of Ebony, and many other works. He is the ghost-writer of the book Kairaba by the first President of the Republic of the Gambia. He continues to write and mentor young writers. He also co-authored Mandinka Proverbs & Sayings from the Gambia with Bala Saho and Ebou Sillah. He has been part of the Writers’ past associations and became the Second President of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia. Many of his works are not acknowledged here.

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