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Monday, September 21, 2020

The Gift: Merr Sally’s story (or ‘The Anj as a Theory of Democracy’) Part 1

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Understanding came not in the form of a sudden epiphany, but a gradual accretion, individual thoughts gathering over time until they had gained enough mass to acquire new meaning. So it was that in her final year of life she came to see the purpose behind all she had spent it on. 

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To begin: think of the nyangkatang as a foundation, the hard rice grains measured out of bags into bowls, the stones all cast out at the taana, everything remaining thrown into a pot with water, under it a blazing fire. Think of the nyangkatang as our culture and traditions, the history of our People, our story: the Jola queens who ruled with a power that recognised their subjects as its source, and so remained subservient to them; the marabout whose vision hardened and came to gain a worldly weight by crystalising around a new faith, transported across the desert by Arab traders; the independence fighters who, filled with the spirit of freedom, became the latest players in its eternal and ancient opposition against its dark twin tyranny, and at last lifted the yoke of the colonial occupiers from Jolof’s weary shoulders… Think of the nyangkatang as a foundation, upon which the rest of the meal is built: alone it cannot be a meal, yet without it there is no meal.  

The rice grains gain their hardness in water – the nourishing fluid supplied by their parent roots – and in water they lose it, under the firm persuasion of heat from a fire, flames that do not touch the grains but nevertheless exert their influence, bending the grains’ will so that where before each grain had stayed an individual even within a homogenous multitude, after their dealings with the fire they become convinced of the advantages of a unity, softening into each other’s mushy embrace. In this way do the grains come to fulfill their destiny, the energy stored within them – an energy as old as the stars, and of the same provenance – becoming released to take on another form: the fuel for human capacity, human achievements. In this way do the grains become something greater than themselves, even as The Gambia is greater than the sum of her individual citizens… 

Merr Sally had never attended school, never sat behind a desk listening to the admonishments of a teacher. And so much that was obvious and apparent to others had passed her by, even as she acquired the skills necessary for her future roles as wife and mother, house-keeper and child-bearer. By the time she was 12 she knew neither how to read nor write, but was able to bahal a passable maalo, could be entrusted with that part of the meal while her mother took on the sauce, as well as the other odd jobs around the house, tedious but not requiring great skill. 

She was married off as soon as she came of age, one less mouth to feed, one less burden on meagre family resources. Though it was arranged – the first time she set eyes on him was on their wedding day – she had still come to acquire a measure of, if not happiness, at least contentment in his house. But it had not lasted long – she had survived him, left only with the family compound that was part of his inheritance, and their son Ablie, since graduated high school and working at the lands office, an excitable young man filled with political ideas and theories about the state of the country. 

– You know how it is, she had heard him say once to one of his friends as they left her house after a visit: “These merrs do not understand democracy. All they know of are kings and queens, absolute monarchy and inherited power. That is why they all vote for the ruling party without question.”

And where she sat in the saal watching them depart she smiled to herself.  She had lived through the Great War that had rent the world, the toubabs killing each other in the millions, the violence involved so brutal its echoes and reverberations reached even Africa, so many white bodies mown down black bodies had to be shipped in to replace them, men who had previously been good only as slaves now standing in trenches next to men who previously would have bought and owned and used them, the bullets that split open their flesh indiscriminate in its choice of who to bring death to, who to maim, and who to leave unmarked. Her own brother had been shipped out to the British front in North Africa, she herself at the harbour watching him leave, at his side the friend he had played with since he was a child, the one she knew she would grow up to marry with a certainty that had hardened even as she arrived at puberty. Amadou was his name, and when her brother returned he returned alone, Amadou’s body left behind on a foreign battlefield, never to be recovered or given proper burial. This was her first true grief. 

She was there at the first election campaign after Independence, thrilled as any in the crowd as she watched the politicians speak of change, of a future without the toubab and their meddlesome influence. She was there on the first election day in a liberated Gambia, casting her vote and listening to news of the returns on the radio service, as the nation chose its first native leader – a son of Gambia leading the children of Gambia. 

There had been something different about those first elections, something special in the air, the feeling of being part of a historic moment, of being there to witness not the conception or the birth – all the planning and convincing and political parlay that had gone into acquiring the freedom of self-rule – but the ngayntay: the shaving of a lock of hair, the call to prayer whispered in both ears as prelude and guide, the slaughtering of the ram (one life sacrificed as a new one was gained), and finally the announcement of an Independent Gambia, a premature baby no one expected to survive beyond its first year. And yet it had – small as it was, resourceless as it was, it had. 

Think of each of the sauces as a different political party. None of them right or wrong exactly, but each approaching a different form of synergy with the nyangkatang underlying it. Supa an explosion of green and yellow, botched leaves and mottled kaanja; Domoda a brownness that breathes and glistens with an oily fat sheen; each different chu a variation on the same oniony theme, oily baptism by diwtirr or by diwliin; benachin a subversion of the role of the sauce, not sitting atop the rice but subsuming it, changing its colour and becoming one with it; mbahal bu tilim taking this idea to its extreme, not  colouring the grains but staining them, marking them with an odour that announces the cooking of mbahal to everyone in the vicinity. 

But the bowls used the same, and so also the kudu passed around, each new day bringing a new anj, even as each new election cycle brings a new time of choosing for a new electorate, the numbers eating and voting increased – by babies freshly weaned off ogi taking their place around the bowl, and teenagers recently come into their adulthood becoming enfranchised – and shrunk by the dead, no longer able to participate in either anj or political process, buried and prayed over, their last benachin given out as sarah. Yet though there be two eaters or twenty, a hundred voters or a million, the circle always closed with no gaps left in it, its circumference shrinking and expanding as necessary, but never broken, never left open, circumscribing all in it within its protection, the family compound and the nation state, waa kerr gi and waa dayka bi. 

In ’94, Merr Sally was a changed woman, living under different circumstances and in a different time: older now, no longer dreaming. Or perhaps with her dreams changed, become more practical – at home mouths to feed: an anj to cook, a house to tender to, against the encroachments of weather and of time. And beyond the compound itself the country, the zest and unlimited potential of Independence long since worn off, the nation at peace but also in a state of stagnation: the premature baby falsifying all the doctors’ doom-laden predictions, living and surviving beyond the estimates of even the most optimistic ones, yet with its development halted at a particular mental age, a child that could walk and talk now but showed no signs of achieving anything beyond this. 

A rainy Friday it was, the day of the coup, large clouds overhead that shed water from their dark underbellies without pause, as if in final answer to sacrifices offered during a long, desperate drought. Rumours of the coming of the soldiers preceding them, swirling and changing as the day progressed. A general rushed to the bitik as soon as the word “coup” was first heard, stocking up on vital items. Buckets and paans to be filled with water, in anticipation of a coming outage, a shutting-off of the supply pipes. And then after that the streets emptied, all in their homes laying low, waiting for – what? A repeat of ’81? Spilt blood and broken bones, shots heard through the night, open looting and theft and hoarding? The future a game of dice. The ones who would survive, to remember, and the ones who would die, perhaps remembered – all so arbitrary. God in one of His strange moods. 

She had heard Ablie and his friends speak of the old days with nostalgia, of how much better the country had been, how much more democratic: the government not violating human rights, its head not exercising his power with such impunity. And she knew, too, that there would be others in the next generation, under the next government, who would speak of July’s Revolution with a certain wistfulness, a certain longing. Such is the way of memory, to make of the receding past a narrative playing to the ego’s wants and desires for closure, a betterness upon which to base its dreams. The past safe and always so, concluded and unchanging, open to interpretation, to mythologising – all danger and sorrow lying in the present. 

And on the television news: the leader laying claim to the land as his and his alone, to do with as he saw fit. Ablie’s circle had grown livid at the proclamation, pointing to it as a prime example of all that was wrong with the current State. And in defense of their anger they spoke of democracy and the rule of law, of tax payers and what they were owed. But Merr Sally’s thoughts led her back only in the direction of the anj, her final and ultimate preoccupation. 

Think: Who owns the anj? Who among you will claim possession of it, under a Jolof tisbaar sky, otherworldly call of muezzin set against worldly call of hunger? 

Is it the one who provides, the one whose sweat is exchanged for dalasi, or whatever the currency of the day is? All day long he labours at whatever task is set him, waking early to make his way to his place of occupation, not returning until after taakusaan. But look closer, for it is not sweat that the provider is really selling but time: time spent not tending a fire, nurturing its growth in a furrnoe, gradually weaning it off cardboard and bits of candlestick into an appetite for coal and wood, time spent not picking stones out of the day’s apportioned rice, not spent heating the oil to chissing point, not spent performing the myriad other tasks involved in the taming of the rice and the oil and the vegetables and animal flesh into a palatable form. And so without the preparer of what worth is the provider’s trade? Will the family feed on overused bank notes and chew on tulaalibarr coins? In place of wonjor and jinjarr will they melt handfuls of taraansu and drink of it until their thirst is satiated? 

Who owns the anj then – is it the preparer? She it is who takes the things that are provided – rice and canned tomatoes and cooking oil imported from foreign lands, netetu and gaija haggled over at an outdoor market, jahatu borrowed from a neighbour – and fashions of them something edible. She practises her daily alchemy in near obscurity, like the shade-providing tree unthanked and unappreciated, noticed only in her absence, in the tardiness of the anj or its too-saltedness. She too sweats, performing at her labour, the sweat of the ones who wield fire as part of their daily occupation, their office ceiling the wide skies, their temperature control the skittish clouds flitting across the face of the relentless Sun, the breezes that pick up and die again. But in the absence of provisions, of what use are her cooking arts? Will she create a fire from nothing, replacing wood and coal with perseverance and diligence? What would she feed it at its birth, the little fireling, in the absence of melted-down candles and hariti mata? Without the recipe’s ingredients would her magic work on water alone, boiling away towards no greater purpose than its own evaporation, food only for the clouds?

Who owns the anj then, if not the preparer? Is it the lunch eaters, the ones who come at the call – anj pareh na! – to take their positions around the bowl? They are the end goal towards which all effort is made, on the parts of both provider and preparer, food importer and wage payer. And their numbers include both provider and preparer, in their new roles as consumers. Without them all the painstaking labor involved in the anj would be for nothing, plates of maalo left to rot, or thrown out for the neighbourhood cats to fight over, or collected by pig keepers as food for their wards, halal feed to fatten up non-halal swine. But can they earn money merely by consuming, receive payment for filling up their bellies, which can be used for the next day’s anj? Is their consumption of the food reversible, so that at the end the plates fill up once more, ready to be eaten again for the next day’s anj?

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