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.
THE WAR GAMES
The Askia’s chambers were spacious, with the same mud uniformity that was the theme definition of the whole palace. The emperor himself could easily be missed in the expanse of the room, with very dull orange candle lights emanating from alcoves dug out in the thick mud walls. On the floor he was sitting, several papers, mostly containing the espionage reports in the Maghreb, surrounded him. He read the report until he lost count of the number of times he did so. Sometimes he read because he wished some information about the enemy and its military might would be different from what he read before, and hence extract a clue on how to get an advantage over the enemy. The more he read the more he realized that the enemy was still formidable, and confirmed the gravity of this war they were facing.
The trend of things at the capital of the empire was not encouraging, to aggravate his worry further. So far recruitment has not been going on well. Panic had caused people to start leaving the city, buying and carting as much food as they could afford. The price of food itself escalated overnight, creating more problems atop the ones the city was suffering. It was almost worse than during the calamity times. Only few caravans came in, most chose to circumvent the city on hearing the rumour of the war. If it continued like that it would only spell disaster should the war come to the city. Siege would not be among the options left to them, unless General Hamma’s campaign in the east worked miracles. He wanted the general back from these campaigns badly. He was helpless and pessimistic at the moment, only Hamma’s success in the east could make him feel better.
“Wa alaikumus salam.” Askia Ishaq Muhammadu raised his head from the paper he was looking at, without remembering seeing the words, as his mind took salvos upon salvos of thought volleys to acknowledge the young girl that just entered.
Karima looked at her father and easily guessed his state of mind. She went to a straw mat at the far and dark corner of the room. She could only knew it have existed because she was familiar with the room. She put down the load of food in the earthenware containers she was carrying.
“I brought you some food, father.”She returned back to where he was sitting and kneeled.
“Thank you, my dear, though I don’t think I feel any hunger.”
The emperor looked at Karima, marvelling at her manners considering her small age. She was only thirteen, yet she conducted, dressed and presented herself like an adult woman. He returned to staring at the papers in front of him, hoping to give his daughter an impression that he was deep in study and would be glad to be left alone, while actually he felt he needed someone to talk to. It pained him that this little angel of his daughter would have to witness the ugliness of war; it wouldn’t be fair to give her a hint of his pain.
Karima might not have been familiar with what was happening, but she understood her father as a man with more worries underneath the calm façade. Since her mother died, the emperor did marry more than four wives again, hoping to have sons but, as Allah will have it, she was the only one he had up to that moment. The Askia dragged on with his life, dedicated to running the vast empire under him; the issue of having a son was not a major matter for him.
Karima became her father’s closest companion at home. The wives and concubines he kept in the harem hardly see him during other times aside bedtime, and even that was not frequent as it should be, neither did he discuss any issues with them nor gave them any priority within the spheres of his attention. But his daughter would always be around him when he is at home in his chambers. They would spend ample time talking, most of the times he talked to her like he was addressing one of his subjects, telling her things he believed she had no way of understanding. Sometimes he thought, he shouldn’t be telling a little girl such issues as government and administration, but Karima never complained. In fact, she liked nothing better than being in her father’s company.
During their time spent together, he taught her a lot of things, helped her with her lessons, told her stories about her mother and his life in the universities and foreign lands he visited. She learnt to read and write well, and her Arabic was fluent enough to converse with. These days however, it seldom happened; sometimes not even her presence could uplift the emperor’s spirits. He contemplated the burden of running an empire like Songhai on a girl like Karima – grown up or not, and decided his decisions concerning making her an empress someday needed rethinking.
“But you are hungry father, because you have not eaten since yesterday.” Yesterday she left him alone, though she would rather talk to him, when she understood that he wanted it so, but what happened was that he left his food alone also. Today she would want to try to make him eat. She wanted to soothe her father’s pain by telling him soothing words, but she knew that the problem was beyond what soothing words can do. If only he would talk to her. It was about the war, she knew that much.
“Not eating will not solve your problems, you know that. You also need your strength, otherwise even those papers you are reading will not be making sense to you. Our Qura’nic teacher told us to always eat and rest fully before we start studying, to enable our brains capture the lesson quickly.”
Askia dropped the paper he was (not) reading, and turned to face his daughter. In another two months and a half she would turn fourteen, yet she was already a responsible young woman in her wording and manners. She had the beauty of her mother; soft brownish butter complexion, with a slender figure, perfectly formed facial features carrying full lips and almond shaped, long eye-lashes. She was properly wearing her veil, looking beautiful, young and decent. He couldn’t utter a word, and just stared at the girl.
Karima rose from the kneeling position, seeing that her father didn’t categorically tell her to leave him alone, sat next to him and used that opportunity to continue her persuasion. At least he was looking at her and not pretending to be reading the bulky papers that he wouldn’t allow her to tidy yesterday. “Father, what exactly is worrying you besides the fact that the war is inevitable? Are you afraid that we don’t stand a chance of winning?”
Askia just smiled and looked away at the burning candle in the alcove above his head. The soft orange light falling on his white gown and the muddy walls of the interior stood still, not flickering, as if aware of the emperor’s intense gaze. “My child, you are too young to understand the intricacies of government and war. Though several times I told you of things concerning that, I wasn’t expecting you to understand and I am afraid when it comes to war you simply cannot begin to understand its complications.” He looked back at her again, the candlelight on her face deepened her skin tone and made her appear older than her age. She was looking at him attentively waiting for the answers to her question, as if challenging him to try and make her understand. Askia decided he could perhaps talk to this serious woman.
“Victory in a war is sometimes unpredictable, but many times the odds of winning can be obvious right from the beginning.” The emperor adds, hoping that the girl would at least appear satisfied and drop the subject.
“Then you think we don’t stand a chance of winning.” She said, matter-of-factly.
She was a brilliant and inquisitive child, and will not be put off easily, Askia thought. If he could spend a whole day receiving bad news concerning their woeful preparations and situations in the city and environs, it won’t hurt more than to explain it to this innocent girl, whom he came to enjoy talking to on other subjects. It might take his mind off his worries briefly.
“As you know, victory comes from Allah, Karima dear.”
The Emperor cleared his through and began explanation.
“But in our case, in the situation of this war, we are at the disadvantaged side. To begin with the enemy has more sophisticated weapons that we have ever heard of. Then, as you are aware of the calamities of famine and disease that befell our empire up until last year, the pandemic and drought had weakened people’s morale enough to discourage their full engagement to support our efforts in preparing for the war. For example, in the villages and cities under this empire reports have been reaching us that the mobilization campaigns were not faring well. These are the reports.”
He pointed to the papers in front of him dejectedly.
“People have not fully recovered from all the calamities they went through, as can be reasonably understood”, he continued.
“Now that we come to believe that our only chance against the staking odds of this powerful enemy is multitude, we are not getting the average response from young men across the empire. In fact, they are migrating out, taking the food with them.”
Both of them kept silent long after Askia reached the end of his explanation. Apparently, he was drenched in the reality of the challenges ahead once again, like it has just dawned on him with the recount.
Askia was not sure he heard her say something. He wasn’t expecting her to say anything, but rather listened and most likely ended up being confused at the end.
“You have to force young men to recruit, you also have to close borders, if people must leave they must not take a certain amount of the food they are carrying, and their young men companion cannot be allowed passage. You don’t have to wait for the average response, you have to enforce it. I believe desperate times call for desperate measures as you told me several times. Like the other time when you ordered to stop the slave trade in the city, in an effort to stop the spreading of the disease that befell the slave tribe.”
Askia was the one confused at the end.
“Yes, but why?” Was all he could say.
“Of course you know why. Multitude is our only chance as you made mentioned, and you need food to feed that multitude, don’t you? So I guess if our chance is that singular we ought to get it, at all costs.”
Karima’s innocence make the gravity of what she was suggesting looked simple and easy, but it was not. At all costs! Askia had to laugh, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Bring me that food, please.”
“Yes, father” Karima was almost ecstatic her father’s appetite returned, and had even found a reason to laugh. Her veil flew like a kite on a windy day, as she made her flight to the other end of the room to fetch the food. The veil landed on Askia’s laps as his gaze followed its owner with an intense look. She is only a child, he agonized silently.
General Hamma had considerably lost weight since he last saw him, Askia did not fail to notice. And that was a little less than a month when he left for the east. He also needed serious bathing and barbing. With all that, he was the most endearing sight to the emperor.
“Mallam, I am sorry you didn’t have time to rest before you are dragged here, I am sure you will understand.” Askia addressed the general with eagerness he was not making an effort of hiding. The court was airy as always, and it was also full today. Hamma, with his ten escorts, contributed to overcrowding the exotic courtroom, with melange of men sweat, horse smell and exotic perfumes worn by the court subjects. Nobody really cared for the smell of the sweaty horse riders; Hamma’s eastern mission was easily regarded as the fate of the whole empire in the war.
“May Allah’s guidance be on your way, I have no complaints at all.” Hamma replied, and then pointed in Shamaki- Dauda’s way, at a similarly tired and dishevelled figure among the men sitting crossed legged on the carpeted sandy floor of the court. “This is Shamaki-Dauda; he is an emissary from the Kano city.” Hamma introduced him to the emperor.
“Mallam Shamaki you are most welcome to the capital, though I am sorry it had to be under these circumstances, and I also apologize for not allowing you resting time, we are normally hospitable people.” Askia offered apologetically.
“May Allah extend your reign, thank you, you are most kind, and I want your highness to know that we share your ordeal, and are willing to render help until we exhaust our capability.”
This pleased Askia and it showed on his face. Wazir Gabda, on his side was not impressed. If art of deceptive words is his expertise then he should be able to recognize one coming from elsewhere.
“The king of Kano would want an official signature from the emperor that the term for his alliance will be total independence from the empire.” Hamma continued, remembering Jano’s comment on the slyness of Shamaki, which he successfully proved true with his sweet tongue.
Wazir hissed silently. Talk of rendering help until exhaustion.
“He shall have it.” Askia said.
“If that is all, please somebody be kind and take Shamaki to guest rooms and make sure that he is comfortable. Tomorrow you will have the signature and you can leave anytime you want.”
“Allah’s victory shall come your way,” Shamaki said and took a final bow before following the servant assigned to take him to his guess rooms. He appeared like his favourite part of a show had just been cut prematurely.
What is with him and hospitality, Hamma asked himself.
“That was good news,” Askia said when he was sure that Shamaki was not within sight. “Though, I should know what we are getting from the alliance first.”
“Eight hundred men; each with iron tipped spears, two hundred and fifty horses and as much food as we need.” Hamma narrated, reading the glossy ink words from a small paper, “with a bonus of leather horse items and riding boots.” He added.
“That is not bad.” Askia was content. “He sure can have my signature for that.”
“Where are these men coming from?” Wazir Gabda asked incredulously.
General Hamma eyed the Wazir, who without doubt has no idea what it was like to carry out this mission, as he seats among women eating the freshest and choicest food, while they were out there blistering his behind from one kingdom to another, making all kinds of negotiations, including pleading, and in some cases lying, to secure alliances. And now here they were, the Wazir wanted to know everything, as if he had any rights to, as if what he was asking even mattered at the time.“Kano and Gobir, I am sure I said that.”
“Are they soldiers or are we taking slaves and giving them independence? That would be a one-sided benefit in this bargain, don’t you think, general?”
Curse you! Hamma thought. “I was not shown those, so I cannot be sure what they are.” He suppressed all anger.
“It doesn’t matter.” The emperor interjected. “Of course they won’t hand us their sons and finest soldiers, not in that number, I guess. Am I right, general?”
Hamma thought it better to have this discussion now and avoid future accusations from the likes of the Wazir.
“I think that would be true, your highness, that will leave us with training them in time to make them useful in the field. But I believe our strategy does not rest in the fighting skill of our soldiers as we all know that we are up against a mysterious weapon, the wisdom lays in the multitude and strategic attack to overwhelm the enemy.”
“Which I am sure you can handle all that, general.” Askia finished. “How did it go with the Gobirawa?”
“The Gobir King wanted to have the emperor’s relatives and some Songhai folk relocated to the Gobir land, for leverage.”
“They wanted hostages, is that what you mean?” Gabda came in again.
Hamma said nothing.
“It seems so.” Askia agreed. “What do we get from them?”
“Seven hundred men, each with iron tipped spears, hundred horses, leather horse items and no food.” Hamma read from the paper again.
“In return of the emperor’s relatives? Now, what is our assurance of the safety of these hostages? Have we any” Gabda ignored the readout.
Hamma ignored him again.
“Not bad also…” Askia said. “Considering the fact that Kano’s farms will supply us with a great deal of food, seven hundred men from Gobir is a good one.”
“If we give our fifty the number they are offering will be slightly lower than what it is, or even more considering who we are sending.” Gabda argued.
“Mallam Gabda, we are not in a position where we have several options. I am sure we can do the hostage agreement, can’t we?” The emperor was apparently losing patience with Gabda’s ridiculous attempts to display wisdom without success.
Thank you, Hamma thought. He could easily guess that not much has been happening in the city and within; apparently he was the only good news since the mobilization began. With the Wazir now handled properly by the emperor he hoped to get it done with, and escape the neat courtroom he and his entourage were so looking out of place in.
“And the Tuareg?” He continued.
“Yes, yes, I almost forgot those.”
Askia was keen to find out about how it went with Agadez, that part was a crucial aspect in their war plan, as explained by General Hamma when he was leaving for the east. The emperor could sense that, it too was a success.
“What are the desert people’s demands?”
“Though, they didn’t agree to make any alliance, however, they will train our soldiers in desert fight, they will also lend us mercenaries to commandeer the trained desert fighters.”
“I thought we don’t need skilled fighters.” It was Gabda making a speedy comeback.
The emperor, fractionally disappointed, asked. “What do you think about that, general?”
“To answer the Wazir’s question first, these desert fighters will strategically lay an ambush in the desert route where we expect the enemy to use. With their desert training they will stand a chance of surprising the enemy, and hopefully overwhelm it while still stuck in the desert and far away from our cities and their home. This will be our first stage of defensive. So, even if the few soldiers to be trained in Agadez aren’t the bulk body of our army, they will give them opportunity to handle the enemy better. And training these few will not be cumbersome, compared to the bulkiness of the army we hope to create.”
Hamma paused to swallow.
“It’s the best we can ever hope to get from the Tuaregs, knowing that they don’t get involved with external politics. It’s a rare luck that they want to help. Besides, they are not demanding for anything.”
Askia’s face returned to its satisfactory mood.
“Mallam Hamma you have done spectacularly well, but then I never doubted you would be anything less. Now go and rest fully, we have a lot of things to discuss. I will call the council meeting tomorrow so we can discuss the city security, as well as recruitment in the environs, which you will find out is not as fancy as I would like to admit.”
“Yes my emperor, I agree the next priority is the city security. With the east giving us supplies and backings, and the desert providing a first stage of defence, there is the need to make the city and environs impregnable.”
The emperor nodded in total agreement and contentment. Hamma sounded sage for someone who just arrived from more than a three day journey on a horse back.
“You should know that we are undertaking force recruitments since the last three days, it appeared like a bad idea, but then nothing was working with the previous strategies.”
“It is causing more panic than when the news of the war broke.” Gabda chipped in.
“I personally would rather it is stopped. With general Hamma’s success in the east I don’t think we need that.”
It appeared like the Wazir was finally joining camp of applauding Hamma’s success to please the emperor. “It will continue as such.” Hamma didn’t look one inch in Gabda’s way. He wasn’t playing any politics, he was organizing a war. Gabda can do his games and tricks with whosoever wished to play it with him. He was not going to sing the emperor songs to please him, he would tell him the truth as he believed it.
“Why?” The emperor was curious. Wazir Gabda was bludgeoned.
“Whoever brought the idea had the solution for the crisis the city is facing. We need to save food and we need to have soldiers near the city for its protection. Though we might have enough in the east how long will it take before we can get a formidable reinforcement in urgent circumstances? It’s a war we are fighting not just for ourselves. We are protecting people’s way of life, it is a little price to ask them to contribute. In the face of a large enemy, we are not going to watch them do as they wish, and weaken our stand as a result.”
The emperor smiled brilliantly, my Karima did it, he thought. Gabda sulked further.
“General thank you, we will discuss more of that tomorrow. Now please go and take your rest.”
“May Allah’s protection be with you.”Hamma stood up energetically, without any sign of tiredness.
We stand a chance. Askia thought happily at Hamma’s retreating broad shoulder.