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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Gift: Merr Sally’s story (or ‘The Anj as a Theory of Democracy’) Part 2

And around the bowl all are equal, at the call, all observe the ritual, from the nation’s leaders to the nation’s beggars, conveyed on their daily journeys by chauffeured Pajeros or by tattered silipaas. The fare may differ – some eat kobo while others eat yaapa; some consume it with fruit juices while others drink only tap water, made lukewarm by the sun-drenched pipes that carry it; some eat it off the finest silverware while others off only cheap plastic bowls stained off-colour by diwtirr, letters missing off the “Made in China” imprint – but all eat the anj, all observe the ritual and obey its demands. It could not be any other way. 

And it is then it happens, the awakening of Merr Sally. She sees all clearly now, and knows at the same time that her newfound knowledge will be of no consequence, that though she feels her thoughts purer than ever, in the end her body will fail her in their communication, that the ones she shares her epiphany with cannot and will not see her as anything more than a dithering merr lost possession of her faculties and her memory, her words incoherent babbling, her thoughts disconnected.  And she feels now more than ever, great regret at never having learnt to read and write, to mark paper with the shape of her thoughts so that another might reproduce them in their own brain. 

But she sees clearly, in a way she never has before. Ablie had told her once of the birth of America, of how it had come into being in the brains and under the pens of founding fathers, men who, informed with knowledge of all that had come before, added to their own experience and understanding, had attempted to create a system that would endure. He had gone into detail, in one of his talkative moods, barely pausing for breath, speaking of a revolution in France, of an empire called Rome that existed before Muhammad, before Jesus, of philosophers and political theorists and poets who had thought deeply and written on the contract between Man and his neighbour, the ties that bind one citizen with another so that they might co-exist to a mutual benefit, in an arrangement that transcended mere animal instinct. 

Most of it had gone over Merr Sally’s head, but the root idea had stuck, of people at a beginning, attempting to create something new, something that would pass the hardest test of all: to outlast time, to get through the ravages of the unforseeable years intact. 

She thinks of the founding of Jollof, beginning with a time before that name even existed, the people of the land divided along tribal lines but with no sense of an overall cohesion, each tribe with its own kingdoms, each with its own  interpretation of the compact between ruler and ruled, between neighbor and neighbor, between man and wife…

She thinks of all the tribes part of one parent tribe, branches off a main tree, all nourished by the same roots, held aloft by the same trunk…

All belonging to an oral culture, its traditions not handed down bound in books, imprisoned by ink on dead paper, immutable and unchanging, but instead stored as living words in living memory, transmitted from one guardian to the next, ever fluid, ever in flux, changing both at the point of giving and the point of receiving, yet still retaining its core, and in this way tackling the problem of time, of survival through the unaccounted-for ages…

Even as the founders of Ablie’s account, the guardians of this oral culture facing such a task, seemingly insurmountable: how to encode the most basic aspects of the culture, the binding forces at its nucleus, so that they would survive the ravages of a future they could not foresee… 

And she sees how: there was no concerted effort, no committee of founders with equal representation from each tribe, all sat down to codify the anj, engaged in debate, even as it had been done in the America of Ablie’s retelling. No, for they had had a different starting vocabulary, the spoken word and all that it entailed: in place of the individual reader alone with a book and her imagination a family of readers gathered around a story teller one well-fed night, who was the book and the author and the story and its interpreter; in place of libraries with ordered and featureless shelves the oldest man and woman in the village, library and librarian both, keepers of history and the cultural narrative, but also keepers of the flame which would light a hundred fires in the minds of the younger ones who listened, each flame a new copy of the cultural memory expressed through the life experience of the one whose mind in which it burnt…

And so they came to their challenge, these people on whose shoulders lay the responsibility of the future of our People,  yet each of them  unknown, unknowable, neither feted nor celebrated,  their individual roles unimportant set against the role of the ritual, so that it came to seem that the idea of the anj emerged from the collective cultural mind itself, permeating across all tribal boundaries, given form and expression regardless of surname or social station, its structure mimicking that of memory: its lessons learnt by rote, repeated daily (and yet with enough variety that they could not just recede into the background, forgotten even as we forget of the beating of our frail hearts until we hear of a death from a heart attack); its importance underscored by the attachment of the ritual to the most basic of human needs, the need for the renewal of the energy we need to live, to love, to move and express our Selves in the world, and so in this way compulsory, all of the People bound without choice to its daily re-enactment; the ritual itself requiring a team effort, from its conception to its final consumption including every single person in the family compound, each by their role in it related to all the others, and beyond them to all else living in their own time…

On the last day of her life Ablie came to see Merr Sally, dropping in unexpected as if something had drawn him there. 

For the length of his break they spoke about inconsequential things, Ablie’s sharing gossip from work as usual, gauging his chances of getting a promotion. Merr Sally listening sympathetically as was her custom. 

And then towards the end the conversation falling into a natural silence. And for a moment she almost opened up, almost told him everything she had come to learn by following the train of her thoughts, on democracy and its relation to the anj, filled with a hope that at the last he might yet understand, and leaving take with him her message, that he might spread it where she could not, put it in a form that could propagate through the new medium of which his generation were so proud, the Internet they spoke about so often and with such delight, though she had never managed to figure out quite what it was. But something stopped her, something kept her silent, just long enough for Ablie to check his watch one more time and rise, announcing he had to be going back to work. 

After he had left she lay alone, through her window the twittering of the robins that fluttered to her yard to feed on the maalo grains she poured out for them every morning, a tradition that had begun when her husband was still alive, Ablie still a boy, and that she had continued even after he had passed on. 

And as she listened to them squabble over the grains it became as if a weight was lifted off her shoulders, and she smiled despite herself. Who was she to think she could explain the culture and its workings to the People. 

Understanding had been granted to her, and that alone was a gift beyond any worth or price, beyond any estimation of value. In the end her days in the outdoor waanj had not been for nothing, had not been hours wasted while the real running of the country went on elsewhere, in board rooms and government offices, in opinion pieces in newspapers and speeches given by important men on television. She would be awarded no orders of the republic, her life celebrated in no long obituaries written by the country’s finest writers. And she saw now that this was fitting, this was right, that those who served the culture could not also serve their egos, that the country was not run and had never been run by men and women whose faces were well-known and whose names came to easy recall, who travelled in open-top cars with people celebrating their passage, whose sacking from jobs and loss at the polls were announced in the news, that even while these people believed that the power lay with them, the real power had a different source entirely, the culture’s ancient interests and decisions effected not by the politicians and government leaders, but by the army of nameless women who toiled in kitchens the land over, who spent their whole lives preparing the anj from which all else was supplied sustenance, carrying out their humble tasks through rain and shine, through nawett and norr, performing their service without any expectation of reward,  until at last their time had ended and new women that they had trained as girls rose  in their stead and to replace them, an unbroken chain that ran as far back as the first frontiers of memory, the first staking out of the land by the first people on these our shores. And she heaved a great sigh, and with a smile answered at last the call of the forefathers. 

When the maid found her body in the morning she was lying in perfect repose, an expression of serenity on her face. The girl screamed once, and then called out. 

The next day she was buried. 

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