By Seedy Fofanah
Growing up in the village as a boy in those days was very challenging. You were made as busy as a honey bee. Apart from taking your diurnal and nocturnal Quranic lessons, you were required to do many things. If you were not at school taking your lessons, you must be at the farm tending the crops, scaring away the monkeys and rodents or doing some other farm activity. Being at home never made you less useful or busy either. There were simply too many errands and chores to be carried out both indoor and outdoor. You would have to be sent to the shop to buy something or be sent to another person in another compound which could be a distant one. Because mobiles did not exist then in our part of the world, every piece of message or information was mostly delivered by way of mouth and sometimes by letter. There was not the luxury of taking a mobile to communicate someone somewhere to deliver a message either by text or voice.
Communication then and now are quite different for it is much easier now. Messages to be delivered within the same village or from one village to a nearby one were done invariably by casual errand boys. So I was no exception to this sort of activity-packed life. The girls too had their own chores to do. Most often than not, whatever they had to do, had to be done within the periphery of the compound. Helping with the cooking, assisting our mothers or our older sisters, fetching water, laundry, sweeping the rooms and the forecourts were the exclusive preserve of our sisters. Growing up, I learnt, without being consciously taught, that boys and girls had to carry out separate roles and responsibilities. Regardless, there were times and instances when we overlapped but in an unconscious way. But as a child, I did not have these thoughts and feelings in my consciousness. I am only able to write about them today upon hindsight.
Being in an extended family, meant that I lived with various relatives such as siblings, cousins, nephews, aunts and grannies. Such a multilayered family set up as was ours, gives room for a lot of variety of different activities of the daily routine throughout one’s life. It drives away the boredom and monotony that one usually finds in a nuclear family. So I was lucky to have grown in an extended family in which I interacted with everyone in a very natural way. I was absolutely fond of everyone but most especially my grandmother. My grandmother was my closest and best friend within the family. I always enjoyed being with her and I have to confess that this was mutual. We never grew tired of being in each other’s company. Our friendship and companionship was of a mutual benefit but I was the greater beneficiary of the two. At every meal time, she would keep me food in her room from her own share so that anytime I complained of hunger, she would readily go to her room and bring out food for me to eat. So I never stayed hungry between meal times. In fact, sometimes instead of eating with the rest of the children, she would ask my mother to add my share to hers when dishing for either lunch, dinner or breakfast. And as we ate, I would observe that she would eat sparingly while urging me to eat. “Fill your hand with the rice. Take the fish; it’s all for you. Don’t leave anything in the bowl. Otherwise you will feel hungry very soon.” She would say these with a great deal of care in her tone. “M’ma I’m full. I can’t take anymore.” I would sometimes say. Occasionally, she would give me water to drink lest I got choked by food. M’ma’s care for me knew no boundaries.
M’ma, as I always referred to my grandmother, was always at loggerheads with anyone who dared lay a finger on me. She would pour curses and invectives on anyone who gave me the slightest trouble or provocation. Both my father and mother were not even beyond the rough edge of her tongue. This was what earned me the nick name “Mabally”, a Mandinka word meaning untouchable. Nobody dared hurt me. To be quite honest, I was absolutely untouchable. “M’ma” simply pampered and spoiled me.
Suntukung, as that was my grandmother’s actual name, was a very assiduous farmer. She cultivated rice like the other women in our community and usually had a good harvest. She had rice fields located several miles from our village. She had to go that far because that was where the best soils for rice were available. She did every farming activity on her rice all by herself except the harvesting. When the rice was mature and ripe, my mother, together with the rest of the women in our compound, would be joined by the women in our neighbourhood to help grandma harvest her rice. These women would come in large numbers and descend on the rice field. The alacrity and the sheer numbers of these women were such that before the sun disappeared in the western horizon, there would not be a single grain left hanging on a rice stalk.
The secret of her success in farming, precisely, rice cultivation, was her commitment and dedication to her farms. I remember, she would usually wake me up early morning for us to leave for the farms. Walking on the road to the rice fields was always a difficult thing due to the nature of the roads. Apart from having to walk for more than an hour to get there, we always had to negotiate with the footpaths carefully otherwise we would never get there at all. The footpaths were narrow and snaked along beneath bushes and tree branches that hung obstructively over. If there was rain the previous night, the ground would become slippery and in some cases, waterlogged. So we were ever careful and vigilant to make sure we placed our feet on the right place to avoid slipping off and falling to the ground or being stuck in the mud. The overhanging branches too did not make it any easier for us to trek the roads. We always carried a bowl of hot porridge and a gallon of water. So we did not have to be mindful of only the slippery roads but also the tree branches lest they pulled our load off our heads.
Invariably, Grandma was always concerned about my safety on those footpaths. Thus, as we walked along, she would give me directions regarding where I should place a foot and where I should not. As we walked she would say to me, “Walk slowly. Otherwise you will fall off. The ground is wet and slippery.” But hard as we tried, there were instances when either she or I or indeed both of us would fall victim of whatever obstacle we tried to avoid. Today, I can only imagine how distressed Grandma used to be anytime I fell off or lost my bowl of hot porridge to an overhanging tree branch or a slippery foot tract.
Aside from the holy Quranic education I had to seek, there was also western education. This was not anything peculiar to me. Most of my contemporaries had to juggle the two. Learning the holy Quran was a religious obligation that no parent ever failed to put his children to. Seeking western education on the other hand, was seen as a means to an end; getting educated, getting a good job and living a good life. Therefore, I became enrolled into the primary school in 1984 when I was 6 years old; the age considered to be the most apt to start primary school. So I started primary school and went through the system like every other boy or girl in my village. The name of my school was Kanni Kunda Primary School. It was one of the biggest and the few primary schools in our region at that time. This was not the least surprising because we had several feeder villages including Sankuya, Karantaba and Soma. Although some of these villages were relatively far from my mine, the inhabitants there had no choice but to send their children to my village. The desire for western education was not in any way lacking among the people. Thus, they exercised a great deal of endurance in trekking to and from my village in search of knowledge.
My first day in school did not put me through any nervousness or panicky situation because I was not actually new in that environment. Our compound and the school were in close proximity such that a shout from either place would be heard by anyone in the other. Naturally, before I was enrolled there, I used to go to the school frequently for one thing or another. My greatest pull-factor though was the feeding programme that was available. The school provided meals for the students twice a day; breakfast in the morning and lunch in the afternoon. Each time they cooked, the air would be pervaded by the sweet smelling of cooking oil in big cooking pots. The aroma would then be wafted by the wind across the whole vicinity to the delight of my eager nose. I would then sniff the air like a dog trying to locate some animal. The aroma was always preceded by the pleasantly sizzling noise of either fish or meat being fried. This always made me salivate and I never offered any resistance to such a tantalizing aromatic flavour.
So I would hurriedly go to the school and make for the kitchen straight. The chief cook then, Mbaa Musukuta, who fondly called me her husband, was my best friend there. Whenever food was ready, she would give me a full plate. “My husband is here. Come on, your plate is ready.” She would utter these remarks to me, as soon as I arrived. Ah, I wish you know what feasts I always made of those plates! And let me ask you now. Could I suppress an appetite so whetted and so nourished? In any case, after eating, I would leisurely saunter and amble around the school campus without uttering any thanks to my wife. But reminiscing over that today, I wonder whether I was an ungrateful little boy or a child who was yet to learn to appreciate and express gratitude for being offered something. May be it is the former. May be it is the latter. Anyway, I became known to all the teachers and most of the students. It was not just that, I also knew the physical environment very well. Consequently, by the time I was enrolled, I had virtually no problems in settling down as a student.