Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Day the Spirits of the Country Departed: A Fable

You have your Jinay, Old Man Time says, and you have your Religion. Will you not hold on to these?

No, Mother Gambia says, and the word falls like a hammer, thundering through the frail air. I am tired of having only these, and nothing else. I am tired of watching my children… And there is a block in her voice, that stops the sound, and her eyes that are cast down on the ground are filled with a wetness, and she cannot continue, she trails off…

Old Man Time looks at the ground, and strokes his beard. There is a grave frown on his forehead. When he finally speaks the clearing falls silent, the babble of the brook is muted, the birds no longer sing.

Very Well, he says to Mother Gambia. Depart this place now, and go back home. In forty days you will begin to see the changes you desire.

Thank you Father, Mother Gambia says (for that is what he was to her, and she his last daughter, his chaat). And Mother Gambia turned around and limped her way out of that place, on arthritic knees, her kaala falling back down to her ample behind, bent over almost like a hunchback, on her shoulders a great load. And Father Time watched her go, and there was a sadness in his eyes, a pity almost.

The Doma were the first to leave. They met at Haddington on a night when a darkness descended on the country, all the streetlights off, everyone blaming NAWEC, whose generators had mysteriously stopped working (there was talk of sabotage, wires cut in the dead of night - but no one knew the truth). A quiet night, with everyone indoors, as if everyone had reached an unspoken consensus. All was silent until midnight. Then a wind sprang up. Dogs barked. A parliament of owls gathered outside, the night air thick with dread. Troubling dreams visited the sleep of the people, inside the houses: dreams filled with blood and misplaced hearts hanging from trees under the dark aegis of the moon, coal no protection, jahatu no protection, a final reckoning… and then just like that the Doma were gone, and the Sun rose.

The Jinay left after that, on a Saturday. Theirs was a midday departure, from the beach - the wind whipped through the trees, sharp as a knife (young people on the beach playing football ran home with blood on their arms, swearing the wind had cut clean through their clothes). The Jinay arrived in a great host, and their approach could be heard from very far away, and all who heard it ran back indoors and locked themselves into their rooms, for it was a terrible sound (one young man who had been chatting up a girl ran past her into the girl's own house, and was later found under the girl's bed quaking in fear, the edges of his shirt in his mouth). And at the head of the host of Jinay were a thousand Ifrit, their eyes glinting with lightning, and they sang the Jinay marching song, and their voices were full of thunder, and their tone was mournful, for they had grown to love this country, the country of their descent into the World Shaytaan had condemned them to inhabit, and they would rather not have left it. And they all arrived on the beach, and at the hour of the tisbaar there was a great gathering of clouds, and it went dark as if it was timis, and people readied themselves for the coming thunderstorm, which was sure to be big. But the clouds merely dissipated, and the wind stopped cutting, and the heavy presence that had hung from the sky lifted and everyone came out of their rooms and onto the street once more.

Then the kondorong left, and their cousins the coos. The ninki-nanka left; then the ghosts of the streets, the half-people, the sewer-men (who live under the pot-holes in Banjul - sometimes the smoke from their fires rises through the vents in the pot holes at night - people mistake this for steam). And then the beings of the air: the spirits that torment people suffering from the disease of the soul the toubabs mistakenly call epillepsy; the spirits that live in trees, and are the reason why certain leaves will cure certain diseases, if the essence of the spirit is first extracted with fire and water; the spirits that make women unable to bear children for their husbands, leading to much shame and unhappiness; the spirits that poison wells; the spirits that steal away children, in the dead of night, while their parents sleep and the little ones walk the streets as if lost, with no shoes on their feet; the spirits that guard the timis, the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the not-quite-alive (which is why the merr say: do not go out at timis, for these spirits are most powerful then); the spirits that enter into the bodies of girls who wear clothes too exposing, in order to become their lovers (these are the spirits of lust, whose favorite places of dwelling are the nightclubs of the country); these and many other spirits too numerous to recount left, in that time.

And the people did not realize at first what had happened, though in the streets and the back alleys, in the marches and the bantabas, under the shade of the baobab trees, and in the places where the youth gathered to drink attaya, there was a lessening of dread. The darkness seemed less dark, somehow, at night; now when people heard stories of Jinay and old women who transformed at night into fantastic shapes of haunting presence they only laughed, and paid no heed to them.

Old people say much, and the young people of the country had learnt to ignore them, to have their babblings recede into a background they paid no attention to, as they walked the ancient but newly-discovered paths that their lives revealed, rediscovering love, and enmity, and friendship. And the old people have invented a proverb, which they use to warn the young. An old person, they say (always when it is too late, when their advice has fallen on deaf ears and the calamity not been avoided), will lie on the ground and see what a younger one will not see from the tree tops. And this proverb, too, the young have learnt to ignore, for it makes sense only in retrospect, when we evaluate it against our memories.

In any case it was the old people who noticed something wrong first, before anyone else. Nightmares had become a thing of the past, and after a while dreams followed them. People who slept inhabited a space of blankness, and all about them was nothing, not the dreamspace that sleep gives us access to, not even time. And though at first it was peaceful ("Oh how well I sleep these days", one light-mouthed Serahule insomniac was overheard saying over her breakfast of ruye), over time it began to fill people with an unease they could neither explain nor shake off, that followed them like a shadow through the day, a frown on their brows, an impatience, a yearning, like a smoker's need for a cigarette, a fist stuck irrecoverably in a clench.... and from there it progressed. Children stopped crying (and no longer able to cry they lost too the ability to laugh, their eyes filled with an emptiness that made their frustrated parents lash out at them in anger, at their wits' end how to recover some emotion in them, to make them react to something, anything... And they suffered the blows and did not cry, and more than one parent was driven to madness). In the morning the cocks would not crow, but sat hunched as if from the cold, a sickness in their beady eyes...

And then the suicides began. The less said about the suicides the better, for they were a painful time in history. Many were lost: unexpectedly, without warning. Children orphaned, mothers left without their chaats, fathers coming home to fire and blood, to water, to rocks and ropes and, in at least one case, a stake of wood sharpened to a fine, accurate point (and how devastatingly well it did its job).

Mother Gambia is old, Mother Gambia is sick. She has spent her whole life working to ensure a good future for her children. Yet she has never felt as powerless as this, not even that time long ago, when she allowed the toubab to alight onto her shores, thinking them generous and kind, thinking them friends and perhaps even, in time, kinsfolk to her children, joint inhabitants of the given World: peers, equal... Mother Gambia watches her children die, and she weeps, for she is filled with guilt. And so one morning she travels once more to the dwelling of her father.

She wears a red kaala today, embroidered with a pattern of gold that glints when the sunlight falls on it. Her feet are even worse than usual - every step is an effort. She settles on the stump of a tree, opposite where he sits. He has been expecting her - he shows no surprise at her visit. He knows what she has come for.

If it is not too late, her eyes say, and there is a pleading written into her gaze, though she does not get down on her knees her sitting pose is one of supplication, the way her head is bowed speaks of remorse. Old Man Time is not a cruel Father.

It will be lifted, he says, they will all return, if that is what you desire.

And she looks up at him gratefully, and nods her head in relief. She does not dally, after that, for she has not learnt how to spend much time with her father, she is shy of him. She leaves, by the same paths she came. Old Man Time watches her go, and he smiles to himself, and shakes his head. A distance from him she turns and catches him smiling, and there is a quizzical expression on her face. Then she bursts into laughter, and he does too, and the space between them is filled with a lightness.

That night the dreams returned, and the children once more kept their parents up all night with their crying. And all was well, or as well as it had ever been.

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