Authors: Ishmael Beah
Tags: #Adult, #Non-fiction, #War, #Biography, #History
By nine o’clock in the morning the food was ready. Everyone dressed up in his or her finest clothing. The women were especially elegant in their beautiful patterned cotton skirts, dresses, shirts, and
—a big cotton cloth that women wrap around their waist—and extravagant head wraps. Everyone was in high spirits and ready to commence the ceremony that was to last until noon.
“The imam arrived late,” said my grandmother. A large metal tray containing
(rice paste), kola nuts lined on the side, and water in a calabash was handed over to him, and after settling himself on a stool in the middle of the yard, and rolling up the sleeves of his white gown, he mixed the
and separated it into several carefully molded portions, each topped with a kola nut. The imam then proceeded to read several suras from the Quran. After the prayer he sprinkled some water on the ground to invite the spirits of the ancestors.
The imam waved to my mother, motioning her to bring me to him. It was my first time outside in the open. My mother knelt before the imam and presented me to him. He rubbed some of the water from the calabash on my forehead and recited more prayers, followed by the proclamation of my name. “Ishmael he shall be called,” he said, and everyone clapped. Women started singing and dancing. My mother passed me to my father, who raised me high above the crowd before passing me around to be held by everyone present. I had become a member of the community and was now owned and cared for by all.
The food was brought out on humongous plates. The elders started to feast first, all eating from one plate. The men did the same, then the boys, before the women and girls had their share. Singing and dancing followed the feast. While the jubilation was going on, I was placed in the hands and care of older women who couldn’t dance much anymore. They held me, smiled at me, and called me “little husband.” They started telling me stories about the community. Whenever I gave them a smile, they remarked, “He loves stories. Well, you came to the right place.”
I smiled a bit, as I could visualize my grandmother’s happy face at the end of this story. Some of my traveling companions were snoring as the late-night breeze caused my eyes to become heavy.
When we woke up the next morning, all the smoked meat was gone. We started blaming each other. Kanei inspected Musa’s lips. Musa became angry, and they started throwing blows at each other. I was about to part them when Saidu pointed to the tattered bag at the edge of the verandah.
“This is the bag, right?” he said, pointing to its chewed edges. “This was not done by any of us. See, the bag is still tied.” He showed it to us. “Something else ate the meat, and whatever ate this meat is still around somewhere.” He picked up a stick and began walking toward the bushes.
“You see, it wasn’t me.” Musa pushed Kanei out of his way as he joined Saidu.
“It is some kind of animal,” Moriba said, inspecting the prints the creature’s feet had left on the ground. Some of us looked around the village while others followed the tracks of the creature down the path to the river. We were about to give up looking when Saidu shouted from behind the storage house in the village:
“I found the thief and he is angry.”
We ran to see what it was. It was a dog munching on the last bit of the smoked meat. Upon seeing us, it began barking and guarding the meat with its hind legs.
“You bad dog. That is ours.” Alhaji took the stick from Saidu and started chasing the animal. The dog still held on to the last bit of meat as it disappeared among the bushes. With a shake of the head, Saidu picked up the gallon of water and started heading down the path. We all followed him, Alhaji still holding the stick.
That afternoon we began rummaging the bushes for whatever fruit looked edible. We didn’t converse much as we walked.
In the evening we stopped to rest along the path.
“I should have killed that dog,” Alhaji said slowly, as he rolled on his back.
“Why?” I asked.
“Yes. Why? What good would it have done?” Moriba sat up.
“I just wanted to kill it because it ate the only food we had,” Alhaji angrily replied.
“It would have made good meat,” Musa said.
“I don’t think so. Plus, it would have been difficult to prepare it, anyway.” I turned to Musa, who was lying on his back next to me.
“You guys disgust me just thinking about something like that.” Jumah spat.
“Well.” Musa stood up.
“He is going to tell another story.” Alhaji sighed.
Musa turned to Alhaji. “Yes, well, not really a story.” He paused and then continued. “My father used to work for these Malaysians, and he told me that they ate dogs. So if Alhaji had killed that dog, I would have loved to try some. So when I see my father again, I can tell him how it tasted. And he will not be angry with me, because I had a good excuse for eating dog meat,” Musa concluded.
We all became quiet, thinking about our own families. Musa had triggered in all of us what we were afraid of thinking.
Musa was home with his father in Mattru Jong when the attack took place. His mother had gone to the market to buy fish for the evening meal. He and his father had run toward the market and found his mother, but as they ran out of town, his mother had somehow been left behind. They realized that she wasn’t with them only after they stopped for a rest at the first village they reached. His father cried and told Musa to stay there while he went to look for his wife. Musa told his father that he wanted to go back down the path with him. “No, my son, stay here and I’ll bring back your mother.” As soon as his father left, the village was attacked and Musa ran away. He had been running ever since.
Alhaji was at the river fetching water when the rebels attacked. He ran home, only to stand in front of the empty house shouting the names of his parents, two brothers, and sister.
Kanei had escaped with his parents, but lost his two sisters and three brothers in the chaos. He and his parents had jumped in a boat along with many others to cross the Jong River. When the boat reached the middle of the river, the rebels on shore began shooting at the people in the boat, and everyone panicked, causing the boat to capsize. Kanei swam to the other side of the river as fast as he could. When he pulled himself ashore, he could see people drowning in the water, screaming as they fought to stay afloat. The rebels laughed at the dying people. He had wept all night as he followed the survivors, who made their way to a village down the river. There, people had told Kanei that his parents had passed through. The hope of finding his family had kept Kanei moving over the months.
Jumah and Moriba lived next to each other. RPGs had destroyed their houses during the attack. They had run toward the wharf to find their parents, who were traders, but their parents were nowhere to be found. They ran to the forest where their families had earlier hidden, but they weren’t there either.
Saidu’s family was unable to leave town during the attack. Along with his parents and three sisters, who were nineteen, seventeen, and fifteen, he hid under the bed during the night. In the morning the rebels broke into the house and found his parents and three sisters. Saidu had climbed to the attic to bring down the remaining rice for their journey, when the rebels stormed in. Saidu sat in the attic, holding his breath and listening to the wailing of his sisters as the rebels raped them. His father shouted at them to stop, and one of the rebels hit him with the butt of his gun. Saidu’s mother cried and apologized to her daughters for having brought them into this world to be victims of such madness. After the rebels had raped the sisters over and over, they bundled the family’s property and made the father and mother carry it. They took the three girls with them.
“To this day, I carry the pain that my sisters and parents felt. When I climbed down after the rebels were gone, I couldn’t stand and my tears froze in my eyes. I felt like my veins were being harshly pulled out of my body. I still feel like that all the time, as I can’t stop thinking about that day. What did my sisters do to anyone?” Saidu said after he was done telling us the story one night in an abandoned village. My teeth became sour as I listened to his story. It was then that I understood why he was so quiet all the time.
“We should keep walking,” Kanei said sadly as he dusted his pants. We had agreed to walk at night. During the day we would search for food and take turns sleeping. At night it felt as if we were walking with the moon. It followed us under thick clouds and waited for us at the other end of dark forest paths. It would disappear with sunrise but return again, hovering on our path, the next night. Its brightness became dull as nights passed. Some nights the sky wept stars that quickly floated and disappeared into the darkness before our wishes could meet them. Under these stars and sky I used to hear stories, but now it seemed as if it was the sky that was telling us a story as its stars fell, violently colliding with each other. The moon hid behind clouds to avoid seeing what was happening.
During the day the sun refused to rise gradually, as it had before. It became bright from the minute it surfaced from behind the clouds, its golden rays darkening my eyes. The clouds in the blue sky sailed violently, destroying each other’s formation.
One afternoon, while we were searching for food in a deserted village, a crow fell out of the sky. It wasn’t dead, but it was unable to fly. We knew this was unusual, but we needed food and anything at that point would do. As we took the feathers off the bird, Moriba asked what day it was. We all thought about it for a while, trying to remember the name of the last day when our lives were normal. Kanei broke the silence.
“It is a holiday.” He laughed. “You can call it any day you want,” he continued.
“But it is not just a day, it is a strange one. I don’t feel too good about it,” Musa said. “Maybe we shouldn’t eat this bird.”
“Well now, if the falling of this bird is a sign of a curse or bad luck, we are in both. So I am eating every bit of it. You can do as you please.” Kanei began humming.
After Kanei stopped humming, the world became eerily silent. The breeze and the clouds had stopped moving, the trees were still, as if they all awaited something unimaginable.
Sometimes night has a way of speaking to us, but we almost never listen. The night after we ate the bird was too dark. There were no stars in the sky, and as we walked, it seemed as if the darkness was getting thicker. We weren’t on a dense forest path, but we could barely see each other. We held on to one another’s hands. We kept on walking because we couldn’t stop in the middle of nowhere, even though we wanted to. After hours of walking we came upon a bridge made of sticks. The river below was flowing quietly, as if asleep. As we were about to set foot on the bridge, we heard footsteps on the other side, coming toward us. We let go of one another’s hands and hid in the nearby bushes. I was lying with Alhaji, Jumah, and Saidu.
There were three people. They were wearing white shirts. Two of them were about the same height and the third was shorter. They carried cloths under their arms. They too were holding hands, and when they stepped off the bridge around where we lay, they stopped as if they sensed our presence. They mumbled something. It was difficult to hear what they were saying because their voices sounded like bees, as if something was obstructing their noses. After they were done mumbling, the two taller people began pulling the shorter one. One wanted them to go the way we were going and the other insisted that they continue in the opposite direction. Their quarrel caused my heart to begin beating faster, and I was trying hard to make out their faces, but it was too dark. After about a minute, they decided to continue going in the direction we had come from.
It took us a few minutes to rise from under the bushes. Everyone was breathing hard and couldn’t speak. Kanei began whispering our names. When he called out Saidu’s name, Saidu didn’t answer. We searched for him among the bushes. He was lying there quietly. We shook him hard, calling out his name, but he was silent. Alhaji and Jumah began to cry. Kanei and I dragged Saidu onto the path and sat by him. He was just lying there. My hands began trembling uncontrollably as we sat there throughout the night in silence. My head became heavy as I thought about what we were going to do. I do not remember who it was among us that whispered, “Maybe it was the bird that we ate.” Most of my travel companions began to cry, but I couldn’t. I just sat there staring into the night as if searching for something.
There wasn’t a gradual change between night and day. The darkness just swiftly rolled away, letting the sky shine its light on us. We were all sitting in the middle of the path. Saidu was still quiet. His forehead had residues of sweat and his mouth was slightly open. I put my hand by his nose just to see if he was breathing. Everyone stood up, and when I removed my hand, they were all looking at me, as if expecting me to say something.
“I don’t know,” I said.
They all put their hands on their heads. Their faces looked as if they wanted to hear something else, something that we knew could be possible but were afraid to accept.
“What are we going to do now?” Moriba asked.
“We cannot just stand here forever,” Musa remarked.
“We will have to carry him to the next village, however far that might be,” Kanei said slowly. “Help me stand him up,” he continued.
We stood Saidu up, and Kanei carried him on his back across the bridge. The quiet river started flowing loudly through rocks and palm kernels. As soon as we had crossed the bridge, Saidu coughed. Kanei set him down and we all gathered around him. He vomited for a few minutes, and wiping his mouth, he said, “Those were ghosts last night. I know it.”
We all agreed with him.
“I must have fainted after they started speaking.” He tried to get up, and we all aided him.
“I am fine. Let’s go.” He pushed us away.
“You woke from the dead with some attitude,” Musa said.
We all laughed and started walking. My hands began trembling again, I didn’t know why this time. It was a gloomy day and we kept asking Saidu if he was okay all the way to the next village.