On the day she passed away, my gaze subtly drifted towards the cloth sack she used to tie around her waist. This well-worn sack, adorned with a long string, accompanied her two layers of lapper—a soft cotton one underneath a harder woven wrapper. The loss of someone so dear was unfathomable. Overwhelmed by grief, tears eluded me. In a moment of crippling pain I clandestinely claimed the sack from her bedroom floor. Though I recognized the impropriety, the irresistible allure of its concealed contents prevailed. Later, my cousin Funeh expressed a desire to take it home, unwittingly mirroring the sentiment behind my covert acquisition. Disregarding her request, I clung to the sack as if it held the very essence of my existence.
“I don’t need her clothes or personal items,” I reassured myself, “just this.” It wasn’t a lapper, not a boubou, just a simple sack that had gracefully adorned her waist for as long as I could remember. I had admired it on her waist when she took out colanuts to chew or her prayer beads to while away time. She also kept money there. In fact, I later found a few coins, and a cowrie shell in the sack in addition to her prayer beads and a small bottle of cologne.
I always knew this day would come, yet I hadn’t expected that nothing would change. The birds would still sing, and the world would look and smell the same. I did not anticipate this. Keeping the old sack felt like preserving a piece of my history. Uncharacteristically, I chose to be its guardian.
Back at home, I hung it carefully around a hanger in my wardrobe, savoring a deep breath of her cologne. The familiar scent enveloped me, a fragrant time machine transporting me to a happier era—the times when my grandparents were alive. I could almost hear her laughter, see her radiant smile, and, in particular, relive a tender memory from my early childhood. I must have been no older than five, perhaps even six years old. The details are hazy, but that scent brought forth a vivid recollection—a cherished fragment of my past…
Dusk had descended, painting the horizon with an amber glow, as my grandfather gracefully rose from the raffia palm leaf sling stretched between two trees—a makeshift haven where my younger cousin Mariama and I often lounged in his absence. The sun, akin to a colossal ball of fire, dipped toward the horizon, casting a warm hue across the landscape.
With a plastic kettle cradled in his hand, a vessel reserved exclusively for his ablutions, my grandfather, fondly called Maama Gorkor, embarked on a leisurely stroll toward a familiar patch beneath the embracing branches of the orange tree. This specific spot, strategically located near the main gate, unfolded as a tranquil enclave leading to the veranda of our linear mud house.
As he carefully set the plastic kettle on the ground, Maama Gorkor leaned over the veranda’s edge. His signal to his two wives was subtle yet profound—a raising of his hands to his shoulders. Seated on raffia mats meticulously arranged on the bare floor of their shared sitting room, just adjacent to the veranda, the wives acknowledged the unspoken cue. It was the moment to prepare for the approaching twilight prayer, an event steeped in a palpable sense of sacred anticipation.
The call to prayer echoed through the air, carried by the voice of Neneh Fatmatta, who declared, “It is time for prayer.” Her voice traversed the walls, reaching the adjoining rooms. A shared understanding permeated the porous walls of our household, and a synchronized preparation for the imminent prayer unfolded. My gaze traced both Neneh Fatmatta and Neneh Hawa, my two grannies, as they initiated their ablutions under different trees in the expansive compound.
My focus fixed on Neneh Hawa, whose approach to the ablution ritual was marked by a distinct style. She initiated the process with an audible ‘Bismillah’. Beginning with her right hand, which she meticulously washed from the fingertips to her wrist, repeating the process three times to ensure every part of her hand was touched by the water. The same actions were then performed with her left hand, also repeated three times. She took water into her right hand and rinsed her mouth three times, ensuring a thorough cleanse. Next, she sniffed water into her nose, blowing it out, repeating this step three times.
Moving on to her face, she washed every part from ear to ear and from the top of her forehead to the bottom of her chin, repeating the sequence three times. She then transitioned to her arms, which she washed from her fingertips to the elbow for both right and left arms, again repeating the process three times.
I observed intently as she moved her wet hands from the top of her forehead to the back of her head and then from the back of her head to the forehead. My gaze was fixed on the black mop of hair adorned with intricately woven talismans against her light-skin complexion. I marveled at the precision of her actions, fascinated by what I considered her unique technique. Using her wet hands, she employed her index fingers to clean the inside of her ears and her thumbs to clean the area behind them, executing thorough circular motions. This step was performed only once.
Similar to the handwashing process, she delicately washed her feet three times. Starting from the toes on her right foot, she washed up to and including her ankle, ensuring every area of the foot, especially between the toes and the back of the ankle, was touched by water. This procedure was repeated three times for the right foot, followed by three times for the left foot.
Upon completing her ablution, Neneh Hawa secured her headscarf, sucked in a small amount of water from her wet hands, spat it out in front of her, and concluded with the recitation of the shahada, “Ash-hadu an la ilaha illal lahu wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan ‘abduhu wa rasuluh.”
I relished the act of observing Neneh Hawa’s ablution, captivated by her overt and expressive gestures in contrast to the more subdued actions of my favorite grandmother, Neneh Fatmatta. Upon the completion of their ablutions, I eagerly hastened to replicate Neneh Hawa’s steps, determined not to miss any nuances. As I concluded my imitation, my uncle, Caw Buba, erupted into laughter, unable to contain himself whenever I completed the ablution procedures. This amusement was particularly pronounced after I mimicked Neneh Hawa’s spitting motion and commenced muttering the same words, even though their meaning eluded me at that tender age.
Ignoring Caw Buba’s laughter, I proceeded to my grandmother Neneh Fatmatta’s bedroom. There, I picked one of her veils, draped it over my head, and confidently joined the rest of the family in prayer. Upon stepping out, my grandfather, Maama Gorkor, was covering his ears, attentively listening for the call to prayer from the muezzin at the village mosque a few hundred meters away. The clarity of the call varied depending on the wind’s direction; today, it was muffled and scarcely audible. Once satisfied that the call had concluded, Maama Gorkor softly uttered a prayer, directing the women to stand close together before leading us in prayer, his gentle and resonant voice filling the twilight air.
We stood together in prayer on the hides of sheep and goats that had been dried and skinned. The peculiar smell, according to my young mind, added to the mystery of prayer and this superbeing called God. Maama Gorkor’s prayer mat was the widest and most colorful, crafted from the hide of a big he-goat. Its distinctive shape and his choreographed movements were a marvel to watch.
Following the Magrib prayer, Maama Gorkor moved his mat from its original position and began to pray a supplementary prayer I later learned was called Nafila. My two grandmothers also exchanged their original prayer positions, each moving to the other’s spot, to engage in individual supplementary prayers.
As we grew older, my younger cousin and I, during our role-play, would undertake the same actions, pretending to be our grandparents. Mariama Jamba, my younger cousin, who shared a very light complexion with Neneh Hawa, and I, dark-skinned like Neneh Fatmatta, assumed the roles of our pseudonyms.
Once the supplementary prayers were completed, the entire family gathered and engaged in light conversation, anticipating the call for the final prayer of the day, the night prayer, also known as Esha. Following the Esha prayer, the responsibility of preparing the family meal fell to the grandmother whose turn it was that night. Usually, it involved reheating the remains of the afternoon dish. However, in the rare occurrence of having visitors, a new meal would be prepared for the evening.
On this particular day etched in my memory, Neneh Fatmatta assumed the role of dishing out the evening meal. We gathered together to enjoy a hearty meal in companionable silence. Following our meal, we convened in the veranda, where I found a comfortable spot on my grandmother Neneh Fatmatta’s lap. As I looked around, I was enveloped by familiar faces, comforting smells, and a profound sense of belonging. In that moment, she gazed into my eyes and broke into a wide smile. I felt loved, protected, and overwhelmed with a profound sense of peace.
Many years later, on the day I retrieved the sack from my late grandmother’s possessions, after she was laid to rest, I couldn’t help but reflect on how this petite woman had given me so much. Despite her modest material means, her richness overflowed, filling my life with grace.
Yesterday, in a dream, she visited the house I’ve built for myself. In the dream, she appeared very old and fragile. As I gently helped her descend the stairs, an overwhelming sense of joy, love, and peace enveloped me—a profound feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time. When I awoke, a broad smile lingered with me throughout the day. I recognize that, in the midst of my daily toil, triumphs, trials, and the small victories, she is here. She sees me.
So, her sack, left behind in my possession, is more than just a sack. Likewise, her prayer beads. Each item holds within it a wealth of memories and a connection to a woman whose impact transcends the temporal boundaries of life and death. There are moments slipping away from my memory, a prospect that scares me. I am driven to document everything—the fragments of a legacy that, with each passing day, continues to shape my journey, infusing it with the enduring essence of her love and wisdom.