I grew up in Darsilameh, a small semi-island village in Foñi. The farthest compound in the village is a stone’s throw from the swamps, which is a stone’s throw from the river. Put simply, the last compound is two stones’ throw from the river, if that makes any sense. What I am trying to say is that the river is very close to residences. For any coastal or riverside settlement, a basic trait is that residents are usually good at swimming. That is not entirely true about my village. As kids, we were allowed to do anything but go anywhere near the river. We would hunt squirrels and rabbits in the bush. We would get dirty in the swamps and play football on the floodplain. We would scour the bushes for fruits and trap birds. We could do everything but there was no swimming in the memo. As a community built on respect for elders and their orders, we wouldn’t ask any questions. If we wanted to do anything we were forbidden to do, it had to be done without their knowledge and we too perfectly utilised secrecy of the boys’ club. As we grew up and things started making sense, not allowing us to swim in the river was not among the sensible ones. Therefore, despite the apparent threat of beating, we would sneak out in small groups and scatter across the river bank. We would play football in the mud, chase crabs, fish and swim while the elders were busy chatting at vous. In secret, most of us learned how to swim, paddle a canoe and lay net but at a cost. There’s a public beating style our elders perfected called “sabaro”, not forbearance or smoking. This is how it goes: If you upset a group of elders and all of them want to kick your butt, a few of your own colleagues would be ordered to stretch you like a dead frog. One or two would grab your legs and the same number would grab your hands. Then you would be stretched and at the mercy of the whip. Those that you upset would pick a stick and start flogging you. Your shoulders, your back, your butt would become a drum to whoever had the cane. If you’re unlucky to be stretched by those who didn’t like you or were holding a grudge against you—after the beating—you would be dropped like a hot potato. On several occasions, I was both a victim of the beating and a perpetrator of the dropping. But neither the beating nor the dropping was even remotely close to how it felt having everyone in the area witnessing your humiliation. Some elders would even do it in style; one would pick a kettle of water and sprinkle it on you so that your body gets well-moistened first before the beating exercise starts. For days after, there would be cane marks all over your body and you would struggle to even sit comfortably on your butt. If that practice had continued, many of our elders would be serving time in prison. There was a general commitment to doing that to us whenever we went to swim and the elders justified the restrictions with a story handed to us from the early settlers. The village had excellent storytellers whose houses we frequented as kids. After dinner, we would all roll in and gather around mostly a female narrator. It’s not the typical fireside storytelling but the lessons were remarkable. Myths and legends were usually embedded into those stories, including why we must not go to the river. We were told that the river killed every seven years and because we were kids and couldn’t keep count, the safest thing to do was to stay away from it altogether. Kids are more scared to die than elders, so we obeyed for a while. When I grew up and started reading, I realized that story was probably meant to scare us because for the river to claim one soul every seven years on the clock could only mean that something happened years ago and the villagers had some kind of deal with a river god/goddess like we normally see in Nigerian movies. Knowing that village and what it stood for, I quickly dismissed it as just a legend like many others we have in our folklore: Sona Mariama; a folktale about a young girl becoming bride of the king despite the odds. Ninki-nanka; a mysterious animal with varying descriptions and having a precious stone on its head which emerges from swamps on moonlit nights. Legends and myths sometimes contain valuable lessons and insights into the past but, most of the time, the stories are only meant to instil fear in us, like that of my village river’s taste for blood.
One such legend is the roaming cattle. This legend is not in the past; it’s here with us. It’s a living legend. If you do frequent roads in Senegambia, Turntable, Sukuta and the surroundings, you must have already noticed a strange herd of cattle causing nuisance. It’s not strange to see stray animals on Gambian roads. In fact, the animals are more frequent road users than humans; a pack of horny dogs getting stuck on the road, a drove of baying donkeys chasing each other or a flock of majestic sheep flaunting like models on runway. The only thing animals in The Gambia don’t do is pay road tax; maybe we should start thinking about it. But what is definitely strange is having a group of ownerless animals that we are all scared of touching.
According to the legend, the owner of the cattle put some kind of a spell on them before he died. The spell is such that if you touch them or want to take ownership of them, you will die and follow him to the afterlife. I’m certain he would throw a few punches at you. The legend also states that one of his sons died when he sacrificed a bull from the herd on his [dad’s] 40th day charity. All these stories, true or not, strike fear in people to avoid the marauding cattle as much as possible. The cattle keep roaming on major roads; from Coastal Road to Airport Junction, even on beaches sometimes. The last time I saw them, the number actually increased. It’s either some other cattle that felt no longer safe in other herds have joined them for protection or they themselves have been busy mating; multiplying the untouchable group. It’s been a subject of discussion for long now, from WhatsApp forums to newspaper articles. Even the Anti-Crime, as good as they have been at raiding and arresting human criminals, have stayed away from these animal criminals. The police issued statements before vowing to “crack down” on stray animals roaming major highways. I haven’t seen them crack down on this well-organised ownerless group of animals.
My grandfather, the venerable Muhammad Faadil, was the only person I knew who had a flock of goats and a herd of cattle just for consumption. We ate their meat and drank their milk; we didn’t sell them. Once we depopulated the cattle with our insatiable taste for meat, he would send a pickup truck to Abuko abattoir to restock. He’s passed away in 2009 and I haven’t eaten that much meat since Babili Mansa abandoned us in Foñi. I have had enough of constantly eating chicken because 1kg of beef is now D350; a kilogram so small that you can eat all of it at once. So, with a straight face, I am daring those roaming cattle to enter my territory in Manduar. If they come even close to Brikama, cursed or not, then we will all finally have peace on the roads because I’ll start eating them until there is none remaining. I will depopulate them like we did my grandpa’s herd of cattle and nothing will happen to me, except long life and more meat-eating. And, judging on the number of people that buys chicken in Brikama, I might be joined by others for the feast. I am waiting!