A simple love story of courage, adventure and loyalty, depicted at the time when one of the most civilized empires in West Africa, Songhai Empire, fell. By Bashir Kabir
THE REUNION CAMP
The air was chilly and strong at the top of the plateau that was carved out flat amongst the numerous undulating mountains, forming the only sight up to the vanishing point. It was a beautiful sight to behold, but also a very difficult one to live in. It was not easy to reach the top unless you know the safe tracks and had years of experience, born out of practice. When the winds reached certain strength at that height, it was almost impossible to stay outside any kind of shelter, of any sort. In the unfriendly weather, you had to be built for it to be able to survive. It seldom happens, but the top of the plateau was far more beautiful a sight during these months, than in most of the months of the year in many other places. The few times it was agreeable, it was stunningly beautiful; the greens were breath taking, the temperature was comfortable and everything else was spectacular.
Today was not one of those days though. Jomo hissed as the loose flaps of his tent kept wagging to and fro, threatening to tear off the main pillars. He wished the ugly winds left soon. There would be until perhaps seven weeks before the winds abate. He cursed the adverse weather and threw some twigs inside the meagre fire that was burning with great effort, against the bullying wind invading from outside. It was not a huge fire, it was just something he hoped would keep the cold at bay, but the wind that continued to make its way into the tent was fighting tooth and nail to stop that from happening. The Spartan tent made mainly of animal skin and some dried leaves was not doing much to prevent the fire from being extinguished.
“I hate this kind of winds!” Jomo let out, more to the merciful heavens than to his tent companion, as the weak fire finally gave up the fight to the persistent wind.
The tent was suddenly plunged into total darkness, the victorious wind outside kept howling in a mockery of the two miserable tent dwellers. Jomo had difficulty seeing his tent mate, who was sitting directly opposite him. His companion, a childhood friend and a kinsman, Mandano, didn’t seem to be bothered with his friend’s travails. He broke out in the darkness with a loud laughter and Mandano, together with the winds, seemed to team up against Jomo.
Mandano knew that it was not the weather that was making Jomo angry and cranky, but rather the fact that they had been at the top of the plateau since the last three weeks, and had been hoping that another clan member join them soon. No one came yet. For Mandano, it was ok. The plateau was green with forage and mosquitoes free; their cows were in good state of health. He could stay here for as long as it takes. The unfriendly weather was not peculiar – he has seen many such adverse weathers – rain, haze and stuff. As for Jomo, he too was familiar with such nature’s inconveniences; any seasoned young nomad of his age and experience ought to know that. It was the anxiety that the main clan hadn’t joined them on time, which was supposed to be almost two weeks ago according to his calculations, that was eating him. Mandano was not sure Jomo knew the equations that would warrant his calculations to be reliable. There was never any such thing as a precise time when the main clan or any individual arrives. Mandano tried to reason with him; if their kinsmen found fortune and decided to stay a little longer so that their cattle would feed well and wealth flow as a result, they wouldn’t mind dragging their feet to reach the reunion camp. Merriment could always wait.
Jomo dismissed that as nonsense. They never delay to reach the reunion camp once it was time. After all everyone had the whole year to seek whatever green fortunes they were looking for from Futa Djallon to Gembu. Nonetheless Mandano might have a point. He knew his people well enough to vouch on that against his wish. Looking on the brighter side, if what Mandano imagined was true, that would mean having a lot of wealth from the cattle this season. With good feed, milk would flow from the cattle’s udder endlessly, and so would be the cow butter. Guinea fowls would fill the cattle camps with eggs everywhere. It was the kind of season every nomad prayed for. Unfortunate disasters that lowered mlk and butter production within the last five years occurred in form of diseases and droughts. This plagued some areas, resulting in pasture shortages. Bandits also robbed many nomads of their belongings, or rustle their cattle. It was such a nightmare, but now things have changed, and this year is the first to indicate so.
Jomo wanted to believe it was a good reason to want to savour this abundance wherever their clans’ people might have found it, but in spite of all that he wished they were here soon. He was slightly relieved at that thought, though. He didn’t know why he was so worried, when apparently there wasn’t any cause for alarm. All that he was supposed to worry about had been over by now.
“What are you thinking of, Bull-Horn?”
Mandano asked his friend, using his childhood nickname, knowing very well what the answer would be. Jomo glared at him.
“Are you mocking me?”
He turned back to playing with the twigs that were scattered all over the small space of the tent interior, his eyes beginning to familiarize with the darkness. Now, this was a true reason to be cranky. How could they be talking to themselves through the media of darkness when actually, without the unfavourable wind, they could afford some light?
“Come on, Bull-Horn! What you should be thinking of is what she looks like.” Mandano suggested, his intention of putting Jomo in tight spot of timidity manifesting with each riposte of the almost one sided conversation the two friends were having.
“What would who looks like?” Jomo asked, feigning to be lost by his friend’s assertion. Could it be the reason why he wanted his clan people to arrive? He also asked himself. What was it he was doing, thinking about something he didn’t even want to admit to himself?
“Your bride, of course, I don’t know what she was called, but Malle said she is quite a sight.” Mandano elaborated, teasingly.
Jomo came to learn that he was betrothed seven weeks ago, when he met Mandano on his way to the reunion location and ever since after, every now and then the latter surfaced on top of the sea of his thoughts, sometimes more often. Mandano told him that he crossed roads with Malle somewhere near Takedda and he told him about the betrothal. Apparently his parents wanted to surprise him, for there was no such issue when he left them two months ago. It was not unusual that he didn’t know, for such is Fulani custom, so Jomo knew that the betrothal had to be true.
“Yes, that is what you said.” Jomo said, trying not to apparently take his kinsman serious. He was not supposed to show any interest about his marriage arrangements; the culture demands so. Acting otherwise would signify a lack of decorum.
Mandano wasn’t about to obey that custom of timidity, but it is for the sake of his friend’s peace of mind, though. “Wait a second; don’t tell me that it was her you are anxious to meet all this time that you become a pot of boiling pap” Mandano probed his tent mate, wishing there was enough light to see the expression on Jomo’s face.
“What? No, look, I am not worried, really. It looks like this year is going to be productive. I mean, look at this plateau, when was the last time it was this green?” Jomo protested and defended himself, at the same time trying not to let his friend see his weakness (or lack of decorum) by obviously showing interest in the betrothal issue.” It is the wind I wish had gone and left us in peace.”
Mandano was not totally wrong, he came to realize. It could only be that he was anxious to find out about this betrothal stuff. The last few years had been very hard for almost everybody in Songhai Empire. Disease outbreak and prolonged famine had caused a lot of grief, not to mention that on several occasions they were attacked and robbed, they lost some people in many skirmishes with farmers. Marriages were not arranged quite often during those years except in a few, quite unavoidable, instances. But now everything changed, with peace and stability taking reign once again. They heard stories from other kinsmen that went far to the Upper Niger River that rain was abundant even in the Maghreb Sahara – the part no nomad would want to take his cattle to. Jomo said so to his friend and thought he was reasoning with him. But Mandano just laughed, seeing how Jomo easily blushed and got defensive at the mentioning of him thinking about his betrothal and vehemently trying to divert attention from the issue at stake, using some elaborations and in-depth analysis of unrelated matters.
Mandano stood up, preparing to go out into the harsh wind.
“Let me go and check on the cattle.” He said, and then with a smallish mocking voice he added,
Jomo seized the water guard sitting next to him and threw it at Mandano’s departing back, admitting his defeat finally.
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The tent was suddenly quiet. Jomo pulled his blanket tightly around him. Torrents of thoughts rushed into his mind as the wind seemed to become more resolved to take its destruction to the next level and pull down the tent, with the departure of Mandano.
What really does she look like? He wondered.
For an eighteen year old, Jomo was a full grown man as it was with his society. He was a Fulani man, a nomad tribe that wander the western and eastern sub-Sahara Songhai empire, along the River Niger and deep into the mountains of central Africa, to graze their animals including mainly cattle, and in some cases sheep, goats, and poultry; and dogs for security purposes, depending on the individual’s wealth and needs. His tribe was thought to have dominated the nomad way of life in the vast empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean, bordering the Moroccan empire, up to the deep mountains at the edge of Tiv lands in the east.
Futa Djallon was as far as a nomad could reach westward. At whatever point a particular clan of the Fulani nomad chose as the departure point, with young men taking sizeable part of their family cattle to different locations of grazing destinations across the savannah of the Songhai, they always reunited at a particular point. They spent the whole year traversing the familiar grazing zones; selling the animal produce including milk, eggs, cow butter and the smaller animals; and buying a few items for their daily needs like salt and metal artefacts, in the cities they come across. But they should always preserve the cattle and breed more in number, unless it is absolutely necessary to sell any. Then, at the end of the year, after navigating most of the empire, they meet at the usual reunion destination for celebrations, including marriages, thanks giving, duel settling and, of course, for giving account of the year’s transactions and wealth, and planning for the next year.
Jomo in his tribe was a fully grown man at the age of eighteen. He was a tall, big boned and strong young man like most of his tribesmen. His complexion is hard to tell at a glance; the constant sun he spent his entire life under reinforced a definite tan to his original colour. The result was a steely chrome black complexion that seemed to radiate grey sheen. As a Fulani man he was every definition of it. He grew his hair and weaved it into two thick cornrows at the side of his head and several smaller beaded ones at the centre. His ears were pierced and adorned with three chains of raw silver rings. A composition of permanent geometric tattoos embellished his strong jaws. Away from the cows, he could be thought of as a hunter.
Jomo’s people, like many other Fulani tribe had a tight brotherly bond amongst the whole clan. Everybody is related to one another in the clan. It was a strong rule not to marry outside. That way, it was believed the wealth and cultures would be preserved among the clan. Jomo knew that it would soon be time when his uncles would sit down under the shade of a tree and discuss about a suitable girl for him within the clan. He secretly hoped for that date to come soon. Occasionally he imagined who among the girls his uncles would choose for him. If he had belonged to the Bororo tribe, another Fulani group with different cultures and values, getting married would absurdly mean abducting the girl that catches his eyes and fleeing into the bush only to return when they have a baby.
Jomo laughed at that idea. Sitting alone in the dark tent he wondered who she was. He suddenly became curious which only took him back to his anxiety. What is keeping the clan from arriving up to now?
Jomo was so absorbed in his thoughts he didn’t know when he drifted into a deep sleep.
“Wake up Bull-horn, Malle is here!”
Jomo let out a loud yawn. He pushed aside his scanty covering and sat up abruptly, when he realized that he was just told somebody has arrived.
“What! What about the main clan, are they with him?” He asked Mandano eagerly.
“Tsk!” Mandano hissed.
“Will you take it easy or not? Haven’t I only said Malle is here? God, you are beginning to make me despise you.” With that he snatched his guard and left the tent.
Jomo yawned again and crawled out of the tent. He stretched his lean bulk; his bones creaked loudly. He peered down the valley; it was foggy from the top. It was a beautiful morning; the plateau was calm, covered with uniformly distributed luscious meadows that allured the eye with intense greenery. The wind subsided to soft swishing. Healthy white cattle dispersed everywhere, grazing happily. Jomo smiled at the pleasant sight; when the main clan arrives it will be a wonderful time. Not very far away from his and Mandano’s shanty tent was another tent that could pass for a brother to them. Somewhere in the meadow Malle was busy showing Mandano something. He looked up in Jomo’s direction, smiled widely and waved. Jomo waved back. He felt thirsty; he remembered shattering his gourd last night; that will mean drinking bitter water for the next two weeks as a new guard he would be using sets.
He lazily moved in the direction of a fat cow, his hands feeling the soft dewy grasses as he passed. It seemed like a different place from last night. The evil wind was replaced by zephyrs of whispery mountain breezes. The coolness of the grasses on his finger tips multiplied his thirst. He cracked another smile, this time at the thought of his forthcoming marriage in this beautiful setting, and when everybody basks in the glorious wealth the season must have brought.
He stopped near the cow.
“Hey. Good morning gorgeous. Do you like it here?” Jomo said charmingly to the hornless beast scratching its neck. The cow mooed, inclining its head towards the familiar comforting touch.
“Will you do me a favour?” Jomo said mischievously, intending no one to hear the one way conversation.
“See, I am thirsty and I don’t have a gourd, it’s a long story, so I was hoping you will let me take a drink from your… you know, udder.” Jomo explained, enjoying himself at the recollection of last night’s talks with Mandano. He had to be careful with that boy, he read him easily, he thought.
The cow mooed again.
“Hey thanks, that means a lot to me, I owe you big present, girl.” With that he dived under and dug his lip into the beast’s udder.
“Are you going to suck the poor thing dry?”Malle asked, standing at Jomo’s feet, laughing.
Jomo stood up, wiping the dripping milk off his mouth.
“I am relieving the poor thing of this heavy load. Look at these cows; if they are not milked soon they will start exploding milk everywhere.” Jomo said, in defence.
“I hope you plan to sell the milk, not consume it all”. Jomo laughed with him. The two friends japed loudly and bragged about their grazing adventures and experiences for a while.
Then casually, Jomo asked. “So Malle, have you met anybody from the clan on your way here?”
“Not since the last five months when I learned about your betrothal, if that is what you want to know.” Malle said, frankly.
Jomo maintained a dead pan expression. Mandano, the old gossiping cow dung has told him! “Well, it is not what I am asking about, thank you.”
It was just the beginning of a long treacherous adventure of teasing from his friends, Jomo knew It would begin afresh when his other age mates arrived and learned about his engagement. They would try their very best to make his life a living hell. He did the same to many others that got married. It was like a payback culture. It would only do him good if he braced himself and prepare for the inevitable. He promised to device special jests when it’s time for Mandano to get married. He would make sure the boy exile the clan for a long time just to be free of his jests.
To be continued next week, God willing!