By Amran Gaye
Before she was the mother of our wisdom, the inexhaustible source of our proverbs, Wolof Njie was a young woman in love.
How did it happen? But you know that already, dear reader. All our falling-ins are the same, only the details differ: this person here enthralled by a voice, another bewitched by eyelashes. The way his cheeks fall, like softly pressed dumplings; the way hers rise, when she smiles. A whiteness of teeth, a darkness of gum. A disinterested friendliness gradually changing into an indispensability, your memory of the person become white-hot, an urgency that burns inside you and drives you to seek them, for only their presence can put out the fire. Thus you have fallen, and thus Wolof Njie fell.
You are probably thinking: dates. You are thinking Wolof Njie on the beach, you are thinking late-night calls, and rival girls posting on his wall, and changed relationship statuses on Facebook.
But no, teylul, defal ndanka – this was a long time ago, and people did things differently back then.
This is how they meet: as he walks into her village, past the well where she stands beside her bucket waiting her turn. It is dawn, and the women are the only ones awake, teasing each other like chattering birds, the sun not yet risen, the light gentle and the air fresh. She sees him, barely notices him, and turns away again to her bucket. He sees her, and cannot look away – she can feel his gaze as it blows over the back of her neck, airy as a breath.
This is how Wolof Njie remembers it, at least, when their voices are filled with intimacy, as they steal a conversation behind the rice fields. Every evening they come here, trudging through mud and water, away from the village. Why? Because he is a stranger, a Mandinko from another town, and the people of this town do not like them. There have been suggestions of hostilities. He goes about with his gaze lowered, making sure to speak only Wolof. And when people speak up against the Mandinko kingdom she is silent, and she is thoughtful.
And sometimes in the night after she puts her candle out she lies worrying about his safety.
Disaster strikes, of course. What do you think this is, a love story? You think things will end well, for two people so in love with each other? Disaster comes, and it takes the form of a war between their two countries. A disagreement over land, a misfired arrow, the death of a distant relative of the chief. And murder enters into the hearts of the men, and a hardness into the hearts of the women, and both sides bay for blood, no longer human…
And the night of the first attack, the two lovers are to meet. Their favourite place, directly in the path of the attackers. Drums, a chanting, lights in the distance.
He jumps to his feet, she behind him. She holds his shoulders, and trembles.
What is it?, she asks him.
The warriors, he says, the night of the attack must be tonight.
And he takes her hand in his, and he runs off between the trees. They stumble over rocks and twigs. Once she crashes and goes tumbling – he catches her somehow, and they sit in a half-crouch on the sand, his face inches from her, filled with terror, sweating heavily.
Let’s go, he says, hauling her once more to her feet. But the delay has cost them – they have been sighted. There are shouts behind them, the approach changes its direction to theirs.
Pounding hearts, legs of jelly, chests threatening to explode, a sudden need to urinate… She holds his hand and it is slippery and her grip slides off, slowly, making her panic, making her reach to re-grip…. but too dangerous to let go, now… She has never run as hard, she has never been as scared.
Then they take a detour and run past the graveyards, stocked in neat lines, a watchman asleep on the stone slab of one. And then onto the beach. The pursuit has fallen a little behind, they can stop running now, though still it is behind them, they not so much hear it as feel it, a descending dread, a future they do not desire…
And so they stand before the waters. She looks at the moon in the sky watching them, a forlorn lover herself, rejected suitor of the arrogant Sun.
What are we to do? The question in the air, yet they do not speak it. She thinks she can see him shivering in the night chill, though she is not sure. He takes off his shirt and hands it to her.
Here, put this on over yourself, he says, and – pointing in the other direction – run, he says.
She wishes to believe he is only joking. She wishes that he will lose his nerve, and collapse into her arms, and ask her to stay. She wishes to believe this is a nightmare she will wake from, the harsh moonlight a product of her mind, an anticipation of relief…
Go!, he says, giving her a push. Go! They are almost here.
And Wolof Njie turns, and her heart is a molten river that flows too thickly through her frail veins, and seeks to burn through her skin.
And Wolof Njie takes a step from him, and she thinks of pitchforks, and fire.
Wolof Njie takes another step, and she thinks of his brave face in the dark, his handsome lips set as the crowd descend upon him.
She sees him fall, she sees the bodies mount him, she sees him kicked and spat on and dragged, and she thinks her heart has broken, finally, for she can feel nothing, she is a numbness, she is less than air, she is a nothingness that races down the beach and the only things that are alive in her are the tears that stream down her face and are dispensed behind her in a watery spray.
And the moon watches, and the moon is silent.
She was Wolof Njie, of course. We know her through her words, the things she said – such wise words, such words of measured lyricism and depth. She is the greatest writer the Wolof language has ever known, though she never put pen to paper. She is our greatest artist, the one who has had the most effect on our culture.
She never married, she lived alone, she ventured forth only to go to the bitik – and even this no longer, in the end. And though there were angry rumours at first, suspicions that the girl on the beach had been her, they died down, after a while. She lived alone, in her house, and no one knew what she did in there, or what it looked like. She invited no one in, had no friends.
Twenty years passed, all the people who had known her by first name either moved or dead. The village had changed – now there were more Mandinkas than Wolof – in fact so few Wolof she became known as Merr Wolof.
And then one day without warning she opened the gate and came out, blinking in the sunlight. She wore a malaan and on top of it a pullover, a bright and colorful affair made of wool. She carried a lawn chair, which she set down on the pavement near the road.
And there she sat, day after day, a serene expression on her face. And all who passed found themselves drawn to speak with her and then, inexplicably, to tell her their problems. And she would listen carefully, her hands crossed under her chin. And then she would speak, she would advise them, and always the advice she gave was useful, and solved their problems. Her fame spread far and wide, men traveled from faraway lands to visit her, kings and paupers, old men and young girls.
And this is how she lived out the rest of her days, and no one knew anything of her life or her feelings, until one moonlit night she died in her sleep, and was discovered the next morning, and there was widespread mourning.