By Seedy Fofanah
Nights in the villages were extremely interesting and enjoyable especially when every inch of the land was generously lit by the ever-silent but gliding graceful moon. Night is meant for people to get to relax and take stock of the day’s activities after a long day’s toil. It is also a time when the family assembles for important discussions. The night reunites the family and fills the natural regular void that is necessarily created by the ever constant demands of life: food, clothing and shelter. Regardless of the fact that the nature of village children never yielded to such natural calls. So we never cared to take any respite from the night. As the saying goes, children will always be children: innocent, ungrateful, mischievous and adventurous. I think to a very large extent, these are what define every child of every clime without exception.
My childhood was heavily infested with these natural attributes. Almost invariably, our nights were spent on one activity or another. However, one activity that stood out above all else is the popular “Hide and Seek” game. As the name suggests, it requires a group to hide and task one person to search and locate the group. Everyone except one would run and hide under bushes and other remote locations. Before he started the search, he would ask if everyone had properly hidden themselves before the searcher had moved. He would say “Badi badooyeh, N’ghanaa bangh”. Then in chorus, the group would respond “Haneedaay” (No don’t come) or “Haadaay” (Yes you can come). Their response would depend on their readiness or not whether they were ready or not. When the search began, the first person touched by hand would have to be the next person to search the rest. The game required a lot of running, chasing and mirthful laughing before anyone would be caught. Everyone needed energy and agility to leap, dodge dive and escape the outstretched hands of the pursuer. We would do “Hide and Seek” with girls at the village “Bantaba”. During this game, many funny things happen. You know boys are just…anyway. This was my favourite childhood game. It was something I relished and cherished. Sometimes, the game may go for hours before everyone would get tired and then go back to their house to sleep feeling exhausted after having attained happiness.
Early next morning, we would be asked to wake up, observe prayers and journey to the farmland to chase the birds from eating our coos. Without failing, daily, my father would stand at our door, shouting “Seedy, it is morning. Get up, observe prayers, mount the donkey and gallop to the farm.” We would be out at the farm until sunset — sometimes as late as after “Maghrib” prayers. We would then trek back home. Wednesdays and Thursdays were always very special days for us since we don’t attend the local “Madarassa” for the evening Quranic sessions. Also, we didn’t have to fetch firewood from a distant forest. So the arrival of those two days would always bring along special feeling of rest, relaxation and freedom; freedom to do a lot of our own activities without being instructed or supervised by adults. This was also a time of great mischief, treachery, and merry making.
I hated farming due to its never-ending tedious work. What made it worse was that my father was, unarguably, the most ambitious and enterprising farmer in our entire region. As a subsistence farmer, he mainly cultivated groundnuts and millet. He would however sell large quantity of the groundnut to pay our school fees, buy us clothes and cater for other basic necessities of his large family. Beans and maize were also crops that he grew, though these were mostly intercropped. Because there were simply many mouths to fill, we had to work very hard to produce enough to ensure that the daily rations were never in short supply. Interestingly though, the task of food sustenance for our ever-swelling family was not carried out by my father and his younger brothers alone.
The women too — I mean our mothers — also toiled to compliment my father’s efforts. Unlike my father, my mother practiced mono cropping, growing rice in several hectares during the rainy season. Land for anything in those days, not least for farming was nowhere near inadequate. We could practice mixed farming on the same farmlands. As a matter of fact, the yields were, year after year, very good. Rice was always in abundance so my father didn’t have to buy imported rice from the shops. (Baara maano” (locally-cultivated rice) was valued much higher than the imported rice. In fact, it was a widely-held view that imported rice smelled akward and therefore, it was not popularly consumed.
The traditional African woman is very inventive and resourceful as evidenced by her capability to cook variety of diets. My mother too knew very well how to prepare several diets. Apart from rice varieties, she would cook traditional diets such as “Nyelagho” made out of grinded corn or millet and groundnut soup. She would also make Teeya kere sato (porridge made from pounded rice and groundnut) for breakfast. As kids, we enjoyed dough (munko) made from pounded rice. All you need is pounded rice, water and sugar to prepare dough. Traditionally, munko is offered as charity to kids who often pray after being served around Maghrib prayers. Mostly, children would assemble in one compound or at a “Bantaba” to receive the “munko”. This was an old traditional practice observed in Kanni Kunda village well before I was born and it was being practiced by the women, especially when there was drought in the community. The elderly women in the village would gather in one compound and cook different types of diets and assemble at “Bukarabee” Shrine, eat the dishes, dancing and singing “Mama nso jiyo la, jiyo kana leh” (Allah give us rains, the rains are coming). After some hours, the women would return to Zam Zam well located in the west edge of Kanni-kunda. They would circle around Zam Zam singing and dancing. Sometimes, the women’s ritual would take them to go from one compound to another, chanting “God help us with rain water. Don’t look at our sins though”. They would utter these supplications in a loud voice with small children trailing them.
Another interesting life of a village boy is to fetch firewoods for the night recitation of the Qur’an. With scriptures inscribed on wood boards (wala), we gathered around fireplace locally called Karanta to recite the chapters we had earlier been taught. Anyone who defaulted in fetching firewoods would get severe lashes by instructors. But the punishment for such defaulters was always so severe that people dared to not go to the Karanta empty handsdf ft. I witnessed one encounter between one of our instructors and a colleague of mine who refused to fetch firewood as was routinely required. Unfortunately, he could not give any genuine reason for his failure to bring firewood and had to be stretched on a table properly restrained by four muscular boys and given several nice whips on his back. As he was whipped, he wriggled to extricate himself without success but succeeded very well in yelling out his lungs and helplessly announcing to everyone in that vicinity he was being flogged for negligence of duty. As if that was not enough, the following day he was asked to bring two times the size of the bundle that each was required to bring. Would you have defaulted like my friend did?
These evening sessions started immediately after the “Maghrib” prayer. We took it in turns to light the wood in a designated place at one corner of the compound. When the fire was lit, we would sit in a circle around it. We never used seats of any kind. We always sat on mats made from animal skins mostly of goats and sheep and place our slates on our laps with our legs crossed one on top of another. The light from the burning wood illuminated our slates well enough for us to see and recite the inscriptions of the verses from the Quran. The fire was never given any time to dim let alone die out. To keep it burning brightly, we regularly added few sticks from the numerous bundles that we always provided and piled close to the palm frond-fence of the compound. The pieces of stick would burn, crackle and surrender themselves to the conquering blaze which would occasionally burst into flames thus brightly illuminating the whole vicinity. We would recite at the top of our voices each trying to outshout the others in a rather competitive yet gracious and impressive way.
In the midst of all this, the “oustas”, otherwise the Quranic teacher would come to us asking each to recite the verses that were assigned for each to memorize that day. The “oustas” always had a companion which was a “flying-whip” made of leather. He regularly clutched this in his right hand. Standing over you, he would take your slate and ask you to recite what you were assigned to memorize during the day. If you failed that oral test, he would swing the whip from the ground and up into the air, it would fly. Then it would come, flying down on your back “whack”. With a suppressed yell of pain, you would wriggle and scratch the spot where the whip landed, all happening simultaneously. In some cases, you would be forced to wipe a tear from your cheeks. The dread of being massaged by the flying whip, kept us all on our toes such that anyone would hardly fail the oral test at night. We would sometimes, on our own, sing the verses enthusiastically not just because we were required to know them, but also we enjoyed it. To be honest with you, we hardly faltered in our endeavours.