By Sherif Bojang
My father is a chief. Not a ruler of men in the stature of Sanjally Bojang who used wooden oars to break the bollocks of his errant subjects, prod his white stallion to soil the pavements of the Njayens of Banjul and cut open the sikko drums of his opponents with his python skin whips at the Brikama bantaba.
My father is a chief, but he had no power like Abu Kunta who used to tie urchins in the village square and tell his women to throw fish water at them. And certainly, my father does not possess two thousand heads of cattle like Mansa Jalamang Keita.
My father is an ordinary chief, a chief of the jalibalu. Probably you have heard of his name but never had the honour of meeting him. His name is Jali Foda the quintessential jaliba who, a generation before Jimi Hendrix showed the world how to strum the strings of the kora with his teeth.
It was from one of his disciples that Petit Yero learnt to dance the Ambience. It was from another that Alioune Nder learnt how to slap his left knee, gyrate his waist and point to the northern star at the same time. From another, some learnt the moonwalk.
My father, Jali Foda, was the jali. In fact, in the end his tongue grew so big like the Dakarois songster that when he opens his mouth and sings someone’s praises, like Birima, the serenaded falls and dies. So, since our father outgrew himself, it was left to us, his children, to carry out his tradition, for as in the Wyclef song, all seasons cannot be ‘death season’. There has to be merriment in the village and so the jali would not be out of vocation.
Listen to me, in our village there was no anarchy. It was hierarchy. There are four arches and we constitute the fourth arch. There are the chiefs of the chiefs called the mansolu, the royalty. It was for them to decide which virgin’s blood would run down the altar of our temples. It was for them to decide who gets a reprieve on taxes, who builds the scarecrows on the communal farm or who leads our warriors into battle against the neighbouring People of The Boat.
Then there are the priests and the priestesses of the temples, the broad-shouldered warriors and the fatheaded keg carriers and then there are us, the jali.
But we are a curious brood. We all claimed the mantle of our father even though all but one of us looks like him. Our father had no shape, size, colour or smell. Yet, we, his children, are more spectral than the northern lights.
We come in all shapes, sizes and smells. Some of us have painted our plumes a bright yellow, others a dark green, others indigo blue, and yet others crimson. And even as our colours glint in the bright sun, we claim colourlessness and when the townspeople point the finger at us and say: ‘You are green…blue…red!’, we would fume and say we are without colour.
Where Jali Foda was without a fixed cardinal, some of us only see east, some west, some south and others northern southwest.
When the first rains hit the pregnant earth and it is said to us, join the men to till the communal farm, our elders would meet on the road to the sea and issue a declaration stating: “It is not our birthright to till the soil. Rather, we would be watchcats and watchdogs and make sure that at the end of the harvest, the produce of the farms as well as the booty of the wars collected in the past twelve months are equitably distributed.”
The people would till the soil while we beat, stretch and peg the goat skins for our drums under the sun; go into the forests in search of the perfect drum sticks, and chronicle Tilo La Wala, the Acta Diurna, the daily records of our people, on the broad leaves of the tabo tree.
That was the vocation of our father, Jali Foda, his father and his father and so on. That explains why we had the biggest eyes (some say it is beautiful, for crying), the biggest ears (few say it is beautiful, for hearing) and the biggest mouth (all say it is ugly, for shouting and crying) than all the other people.
But there is one thing that strongly amuses me about the children of my father. Though we have the biggest eyes, we could not see the things in our home yet we could see across the sea and beyond the mount. We became the proverbial eye that sees everything except itself.
It would take us a split second to see that the breeches worn by Badara Saja in Kankari Kunda are too big for his slender waist, that he is wearing mismatching socks or even that he wears his moist and smelly socks but we would not see Sankalang Baldeh when he robs our granaries of the food other townspeople gave us and puts the booty on the fat heads of his many children to take home.
And for many long years after our father, Jali Foda, bowed out, the eldest son, Ould Haidala, became our chieftain. Moon after moon, rain after rain under his chieftaincy, nothing happened in Jali Kunda. Yet he refused to go. When they could not do anything his younger brothers, Peter The Creole, The New Citizen and the Grey Asante chief left the village and have not been heard since. But eventually, Ould Haidala was thrown on his back by Ali Ala Horé and lost his chieftaincy.
It was dolce vita, the good life, for the people of Jali Kunda until that day when Mansa Dikay who, we the jali crowned ‘Fount of Peace’, fled across the river and Mansa Appai was enthroned. He said he loved us the jali and wanted us to be the ones he was going to melt in his golden crucible. Merry days followed. But soon afterwards, our elders decided Appai was clearing too many bush paths while the key main road was getting bushier with neglect.
So, in the best tradition of the jali, they began telling him. But Appai was the king and the State and no one was going to tell him what to do, especially the jali. After all, he thinks we do no ‘work’ and are bad, for wasn’t that what Bala The Comedian and Barry The Cat once told him? And so the crackdown in Jali Kunda began.
Everyday by the third crow of the roosters at dawn, Mansa Appai would send his warriors with whips and they would beat up the little jali, lock us in the dens for penitents, call us emasculated men before our women, exile us, poison our wells, break our drumsticks and cut all our kora strings.
And so, most of the jali – Big Ears I, Big Ears II, Savage I, Owner of the Sword, Father of the House and crew fled. Mansa Appai fumed and threatened to cut and cut and cut us into many and varied pieces, follow Jules Verne’s road to the centre of the earth and bury the pieces there, deep down! But like the Gorgon’s head, when one jali falls, two spring up.
And they kept on telling Mansa Appai he has cleared too many paths and the main road was impassible, strewn with too much dirt. He burnt down the baobab under which we used to sit, commissioned a jukebox that is a kora, a xalam, a sabarr built in one to silence the tunes of our songs. But our voices continued to resonate beyond the valley.
Then Mansa Appai summoned the council of his Wise Men and they told him: ‘Great King, parley to the jali, these are an amorphous race. You can do whatever to fight them, but this is one war you can’t win.’ Don’t ask me whether he listened to them.
Note: This is a burlesque of Gambian journalism and was first published in Daily Observer on Friday, 15 October 2000.