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Friday, December 1, 2023

Memory of the Jaybaleh

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What He Remembers

It is the night of the jaybaleh, and you are alone with your new wife.

The marriage is a beginning, for you, the first of a possible four, if you so wish – a loophole that lets you flirt with other women even without marital intent.

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You’re not a virgin, of course. You’ve always been encouraged to play the field, to bring home the latest girl you’re dating, as older relatives make jokes. You’re the bandi of the family, they say chuckling, the nyemeh one; the playboy who changes women like he changes shirts. Your Uncle Matarr, too, was renowned for his skill with the ladies; you’ve surely taken after him.

They mock your cousin, the nerdy one, for his lack of success with women: keep being this bookish, they tell him, and you will never bring us a wife, to take over from your mother, whose back is breaking with housework. You are young – this is your time. What’re you, they ask him laughing, a goarr jigain? Do you want to stay alone your whole life?

Your love for her is a jealously possessive thing – the mere thought of her with another man drives you into a blind rage, makes you lash out at her and say hurtful things. You watch her interactions with her male friends – people she’s known since she was a child – closely for any hint of impropriety.

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Even though you yourself wander often, and happily share with your guy friends tales of extramarital conquest, greatly exaggerated.

You see no contradiction in this.

As you undress her she lies looking up at you, an expression on her face that you struggle to interpret, until you understand: it is desire, hidden behind the veil of natural russ that all Gambian girls wear.

As you take off her clothes, she breathes deeply, in and out, in and out. Wanting you, shivering with anticipation…

And then she is only in her panties, and you begin at her neck, leaving a trail of kisses behind as you descend, down, down, until you reach her midriff, and slide them off.

And then she’s naked, and you’re inside her…

What you feel is a pure and unadulterated pleasure, one that builds and builds within you until your whole being is focused only on climax. But you understand the role you must play tonight, the one you’ve been prepared for your whole life: her husband, to possess her; her first, to deflower her; and your soil, to sow your seed.

You close your eyes as her grip around your neck tightens; in the dark there is only you and the pleasure now, as it washes over your body in ripples.

And then you open them again, the better to see her face and the effect you are having. Her eyes are closed, too, and you can feel her tremble; and then open again, looking past yours at the ceiling, as she becomes lost in the same pleasure you are, unable to meet your gaze, her fingernails digging into your skin. And then she cannot keep silent anymore, moaning with an intensity that makes you smile and abandon all thought but the attainment of climax, your whole being yearning for relief.

And then it is over.

You lie behind her, wrap your arms around her tight, and in a gentle voice whisper: how was that?

She breathes in deeply, trying to catch her breath, recover from the gift you’ve given her tonight. It was great – you’re so good! she replies and you feel a surge of manliness, as you hold her close and fall into a contented sleep that lasts all night…

And then the next morning: the white sheet, a dollop of blood at its center, where your bodies fused, for a time… the final expression of your manhood – the end of the journey that began when you went through the haraf and lived as a njuli.

Your father calls to congratulate you, a pride in his voice you don’t hear often, and ask you to come over. When you get there your uncles are waiting, and you strut about the house, the man of the hour.

They laugh and joke about it. In your swagger they find proof; in your conquest they find reassurance. You have not broken the link, you have found a girl who did not bring shame upon your family.

This is the source of their pride.

What She Remembers

It is the night of the jaybaleh, and you are alone with your new husband.

The marriage is an ending, for you: the end of the possibility of anything but friendship with other men going forward.

You’re a virgin, of course. All your life you’ve been warned; all your life your mother has expressed doubt that you will not disgrace her on your wedding night. You’re the bandi of the family, they say, shaking their heads, the nyemeh one – of course you’ll give yourself up to a man before you are married. Your Aunty Ngoneh, too, was this wayward – everyone was shocked when her husband found her intact.

They mock your cousin, a nerd who wears thick glasses and is not at all “feminine”; no man will ever love you, or take you off our hands, they tell her. No one in their right mind would ask for your uncles’ numbers. You do not take care of yourself, or dress like a girl. You cannot cook, and even suck at wahaaleh at the maarseh. What do you want, they ask her, to be alone your whole life?

Your love for him is a wide and expansive thing: it encompasses not just him but his whole extended family and all his friends, male and female. His rivals your  rivals, his enemies your enemies. And it is a love not tainted by any jealousy: you love him, and you trust him – and that is enough.

You have strict lines drawn now, between your male friends and yourself. You know of his jealousy and its accompanying rage, and try your utmost not to do anything that will provoke it.

In this way you remove all possibility of contradiction.

As he undresses you, you lie stiffly on the bed looking up at him. On his face is an expression you’ve never seen in a man’s face before, making you feel suddenly self-conscious; as if you had spent your whole life modestly covered, only to be made naked beneath a spotlight, in front of a crowd.

You breath deeply, in and out, in and out, to help you calm down. You shiver, and it is not even cold.

He takes it as a signal and bringing his face close begins to kiss you as he undoes your shirt buttons.

It takes all your strength not to shrink away, what you’re feeling now far from what you felt when all you were allowed to do was make out. He kisses his way down from your neck to your midriff, his lips cold and moist against your skin, as you close your eyes; he gets to your panties, and slides them off.

And then you are naked, and he is inside you, and the darkness behind your closed eyes is set ablaze…

Once, as a girl riding a bike, you crashed into a tree, your legs closing instinctively around the seat as it rammed hard upwards, into your pubis, eliciting a scream that brought your mother running. For days you stayed in bed, in severe pain, your mother tending to you.

That feels like a scratch, compared to what you’re feeling now. It is as if you are being rend in two. The pain begins at your center and radiates outward – you feel a pressure building in your stomach that feels like it will make you fold in on yourself…

What you feel is the opposite of pleasure in every way. But you understand the role you must play tonight, the one you’ve been prepared for your whole life: his wife, to be taken; his soil, to be sowed with his seed; your first, that he might hold his head high.

And so you bite down hard on your lower lip. Your arms are around his neck now, your fingernails digging into his skin as you seek something – anything – to hold on to so you can navigate your pain. He takes this as a sign that you desire more, brings his forehead down to rest on yours, his movements become even more frantic; even as the pain finally takes over your whole body, so you cannot keep your mouth closed tight anymore, your gasps of pain synchronized with his increasingly feverish movement…

And then it is over.

He rolls over and collapses on the bed, spent. He hugs you from behind, holds you close; from his position he cannot see the wetness on your cheeks, the pained expression still on your face.

How was that, he asks, a smile in his voice.

It takes all the willpower you have left to modulate your voice, stifle a sniff and say, softly, it was great – you’re really good. You can feel the pride surge in his chest, and soon he is fast sleep, his snores a flurry of air on your neck; his body heat making you feel flustered; but you don’t want to wake him – so you stay in his embrace, your only companions through the night your pain and the sound of his snores.

And then the next morning: the white sheet, a dollop of blood at its center, where your bodies fused, for a time… the proof of your chastity; the evidence to be presented to your mother. The final stage of your womanhood, and the journey that began when you saw your first period, and informed her of it.

She calls, the pride in her voice making you feel warm where you sit, as she thanks you for not embarrassing her, and apologizes for having doubted you. She invites you over to the house, where your aunties have heard the good news and are already waiting.

When you get there, you limp about, your stomach clenching and unclenching, your steps labored, each one accompanied by a wince. They laugh and joke about it. In your pain they find proof; in your discomfort they find reassurance. You have done what was required of you. You have not broken the link, nor brought shame upon your family.

This is the source of their pride.

The author, a native of Banjul is an IT engineer, social commentator.

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