Jomo, a young nomadic man betrothed to a fellow clan’s girl Bonajo and they were to be married during the merriment of reuniting at the designated reunion camp in mountains of central Africa. Unfortunately, a huge war campaign was to prevent that simple thing from happening until after more than three years.
MILK WENT STALE
Bonajo slung her wooden slate on the back as the evening school finally closed. She was worried about what she heard their teacher, Mallam Iro, was discussing with a friend. She wished Marra came to school, perhaps her friend knew more than she heard them say. Marra usually did. She decided to drop at her house first to find out why she didn’t show up at the evening school, and what is generally going on concerning this situation in the city that Mallam Iro was talking about with his friend. Her mother will understand her branching to check on the reason for Marra’s absence, which she hoped was not something bad.
If Marra didn’t know about the issue of the war, she would have a better chance of eaves dropping at Mallam Iro’s conversation with his friend; the girl had capturing ears. The roar of recitation by the pupils wouldn’t have been difficult for her to filter through what she needed to hear from the conversation. Bonajo, on the other hand, continuously lost track of what the two men were saying, as a senior student in charge of their mat occasionally shook his leather whip to call the attention of the slackening students back to their chorused recitation with a louder voice. She was relieved on arriving at Marra’s compound to find out that she was alright.
“I heard Baffa talking about a war in the city too. But I don’t think it is happening like right now.”
Not quite surprisingly, Marra did indeed know something about the war – if she didn’t who else would? Bonajo found the girl eating a sumptuous dinner of wheat meal, baobab leaves powder soup with cow butter. It smelled so nice that when Marra’s mother, Dije, offered Bonajo some, she couldn’t decline, even though she knew she would also have to eat her own meal waiting for her at home. She decided it won’t hurt to try something different, as the saying goes that some soups can only be tasted at a neighbour’s house.
“If the war is not like right now, when is it, then? Bonajo was more worried with the revelation from Marra.”
The girl knew practically everything her father Baffa knew, he happened to be an elder, and is present at all the meetings discussing the clan’s arising matters; and so, whatever comes to his attention it did to Marra’s too. If Marra made a revelation, it is only a matter of time before you started seeing it happen.
“May be it is well after we must have left this camp. May be we will be at the reunion camp when it will begin. My fear is that I heard Mallam Iro’s friend saying that it might be coming soon. He made mention of the border now difficult to pass.”
“Don’t be silly, the war is coming, is not that it’s here already. Who knows, it might be another year or two before it’s finally here. That is what I heard Baffa say. I didn’t hear anything like the border being difficult to pass, though.”
“Ok, that is comforting.” Bonajo looked at the fat glazed surface of Marra’s meal.
“Marra, do you eat this food with this amount of cow butter? No wonder you never stop putting on weight.” Bonajo marvelled at the amount of the fat, her mother would never allow such.
Dije dropped more food in the bowl Marra was eating from.
“If you need more cow butter there is more in the kitchen.” She returned back to the kitchen and left the two girls to eat their food.
“Shut up! Don’t you eat as much or even more? Don’t regard your stick arms as an excuse of not eating much, you do eat hugely, it is just that it never shows. They call your kind ‘eating without putting weight’, sure waste of food.” Marra countered back.
“Whatever, this food is too much for us. About this war, I wish it is not happening now.”
Bonajo stuffed a handful of the wheat meal with the green soup streaking up to her wrist. It tasted so delicious she wanted to fill her belly off and confess to her mother the reason why she wouldn’t have to eat her food.
“You do, of course you do.”
Marra put her left hand on her fat thighs as she dipped the right one inside the food, stopped shovelling down the food.
“Not now that you are expecting to be married this year. Have you got any timidity?”
“I haven’t.” Bonajo licked her fingers and palm.
“The last time I checked you wanted to be married as soon as possible. At least I never talk about my marriage until other people started it for me. But you, shameless you, are always dreaming about when you get married.”
“Really?” Marra was not going to let Bonajo get away with it.
“I guess now it is the same people that started talking about your marriage that are getting worried, thinking that you might not get married at all, because of the danger of the…”
“Shhh!” Bonajo hushed Marra, as Dije passed their mat to a far corner where she spread some clothes. “You don’t need the butter”? Dije asked, as she passed by.
“No, this suffices.” Bonajo answered.
“Don’t you hush me! I thought you said you have no shame.” Marra ignored Bonajo’s desperate acts of pretence.
“OK, OK, will you please stop it? Bonajo raised her hand to halt Marra, knowing that if she was not stopped she will wrench an avalanche of chatter and Dije will know what they were talking about and she will be embarrassed profoundly for that.
“Why didn’t you come to the evening school today, by the way?” She changed the subject.
“I was listening to Baffa talking to his friend, I didn’t even know it was late and before then I had to help mother with grinding the wheat, she was not feeling well to do it. God, I wish in my husband’s house I don’t have to bend over the grinding stone like that all the time.”
Then she confessed. “To be honest, mostly I was listening to Baffa and Mallam Jume discussing stuffs, including this war thing and other things such as Mallam Jume’s persistent matrimonial problems; that wife of his is a witch of a woman.”
Bonajo was dumbfounded.
“You are a gossiping sort. Do Baffa know that you all the time sponge whatever he was discussing with other people?”
“You have to ask him that. And yes, I am the same gossiping sort that you brought your hypocritical behind to me to find out what is going on. It is a good thing I have patronage from the likes of you.”
Marra scooped the last bite and started licking her fingers.
“Admit it, if my gossips haven’t delighted you several times.”
“OK, I yield. You’re an important gossiper that I can’t do without.”
Bonajo shifted nervously, her right hand still stained from the meal, as she waited for Marra to finish so they can help one another wash hands. Dije dropped a gourd containing water for the hand washing, and entered the hut.
“Seriously do you think we can leave before the war arrives?” Bonajo whispered, making sure that Marra’s mother would not hear her.
“Glad tidings for you, we are leaving in three days’ time. So I heard Baffa told Mallam Jume. It is like they held some meetings and decided the earlier we leave this camp the better is our chances of avoiding the war. I also heard that the emperor wanted young men to recruit into the military, and apparently our elders didn’t approve of their sons fighting in the army. That combined, consolidated the decision of an early departure.”
“It makes sense.” Bonajo washed her hands as Marra poured water from the gourd.
“War has never been our way of life. It’s better if we leave.”
Marra rolled her eyes. “God, do I need to be reminded of how eager you are to get married?” She handed over the gourd to Bonajo and began washing her own hands.
“Marra, give me a break. Bonajo feigned vehemence. Is it a sin to talk about one’s marriage? To hell with it, I am not shy, I want to be married to the most eligible bachelor, and I thank Allah for that. Why do you always make reference to that whenever I say something?”
She dropped the gourd, snatched her slate and walked to Dije’s hut.
“I will be going now.”
Dije answered from inside. “OK, Bonajo, greet your mother for me.”
Marra was running to catch up, as Bonajo cut a corner behind the thatched fencing that gave privacy to Marra’s compound. Even running this little distance made her panted. She hated her weight, may be that is why she hadn’t gotten a suitor yet. Bonajo was taller, slimmer and beautiful, little wonder she was getting married ahead of her. She need to stop eating too much of that cow butter, if it was what it takes, because surely her weight is somewhat related to her huge eating. She knew Bonajo was right when she commented on the amount of food she ate. Bonajo stopped, her wooden slate hugged to her chest.
“Please Marra, its already late, go back and rest, we can talk tomorrow.”
“It is just that I wish I was getting married too.” Marra’s voice was sullen and lacked the normal sting.
Bonajo release the slate in one hand and put the other on Marra’s shoulder. She could see the hurt in her eyes. “You are over tasking yourself with all this thoughts. She softened her voice also. Marriage is like death when it’s time comes you can’t avoid it. Otherwise you can’t make it come by simple wishes.”
“If I was not fat and I was as beautiful as you are, I am sure the timing would have been fast for come”. Marra was about to begin sobbing.
“It is not true.” Bonajo had never seen Marra like this before. “Did Jomo pick me? No. he didn’t even know if I resemble an undernourished goat. We were matched together by our elders. That is our ways, Marra. When your time comes your parents will match you up with your future husband. Isn’t it that easy? Baffa is a respectable man in our clan; many influential men within the clan would want their sons to take Baffa’s super gossiping daughter for a wife.”
Marra was noticeably relieved, she even smiled. “I guess you are right.”
“Of course I am.”Bonajo was happy to see that her friend was feeling better.
“OK, undernourished goat, go home before they start looking for you.” Marra laughed very loud, as she fisted Bonajo at the middle of her back.
She shouted and ran back to her compound, as Banajo chased her, complaining that she had no legal right to serve her a ‘home reward’, because she didn’t attend school.
More people than supposed were attempting to leave town, general Hamma soon realized. The council meeting did discuss about the worsening situation of the campaign in the capital. The development is nothing to blow a clarion about. Pandemonium was about the closest it comes to the truth of describing conditions of the forced recruitment project. Men were not co-operating, those forced into cantonments deserted at the slightest chance they could find. However, though expensive, there was enough food within the capital as a result of more exportation by unscrupulous merchants to profit from the situation.
During the general’s first meeting with the commander in charge of the city security, Toure Alkemi, Hamma listened to the man as he updated him on the conditions of things in the Djenne cantonment, most particularly. As Djenne was a couple of miles away from the capital, it made a strategic location for sprouting a camp responsible for the city’s security. The flourishing town was located at the lips of the long winding river Niger that run through the whole empire and reached the extremes of the Hausa lands before vanishing into the forest kingdoms. The river would be an easy means of transporting reinforcement and supplies from the east for the purpose of the city’s defence. Besides, the Caravans through the Sahara from the north will soon be scarce; the river would be their only means of getting supplies fast and effectively.
“It also meant that the barracks in the capital and it’s environ had not been very busy lately.”
Toure explained why they had to stop any activity within or near the capital to avoid causing panic.
“Wazir Gabda is of the opinion that a house that is not calm is never productive.”
“I believe he invented that.” Hamma joked. It was not worst than it could be, he reassured lieutenant Toure.
“Now is time to take the campaign to its final level. We will have another camp near the capital for home defence – a final line of defence. The security at the border will be squeezed tighter. Activities of recruitment in the capital will resume also, let them panic like chickens. This house is far from calm and is better if everyone knows that now, and contributes towards finding that calm, than wait until the enemy weapon is placed on their noses.” Hamma finalized with Toure.
During this brief exchange of wordings in a form of a hasty meeting, general Hamma recommended the decision of sprouting another military camp in Djenne, to make it two, though he also realized that his eastern campaign was going to be the only easy aspect of this war, here, he needed to apply some unkind measures. He knew that the city people will be hard to handle. He prayed they come to their senses or so to help him. God, he would see to it before it was too late for them to do that on their own. He told Kungeri Djallo, the commander in charge of city defence directives, of the need to establish another cantonment in Timbuktu also.
“General, a camp in Timbuktu will further worsen the situation. People wouldn’t want to be presented with the reality of war.” Kungeri too openly pointed out to Hamma that the danger of alarming the capital was all they had been avoiding.
“Orders have changed.” Hamma patiently explained.
“We are not the ones who brought the war”. He said sternly. “They should blame the enemy. All we are doing is trying to protect their lives and properties.”
A cantonment in Timbuktu and Gao, under commander Kungeri, materialized the following weeks. The location in Timbuktu was strategic for defending the capital, Gao, from any offensive of the expected Sahara route the enemy would most likely take, and was located by the river side; another advantage for receiving supplies and reinforcement. The Gao cantonment would be the last strong hold for the capital. Securing the Niger River is of paramount importance as it passes through Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu. It would be the life vein of the war organism.
As was feared, panic gripped the capital following concretization of force recruitment, prohibition of food exportation and establishment of cantonments. Many young men that tried to flee the capital were nabbed at the border and returned straight to the camps in Timbuktu. Although food was available and the runners of the camp were trying their best to please the forced recruits, it was not solving all problems. There were still attempts for desertion, but overall the trainers were doing a good job to minimize such occurrences. For Hamma, the condition of things was satisfactory for all that was available. The last place to raise another camp was Tessalit – deep in the heart of the unforgiving desert, at the mouth of the enemy’s entrance.
“Why do we need another camp? And in the Tessalit desert, of all places?”
Kungeri stood over the map Hamma spread on the floor. Loud shouts of orders by the training personnel filled the small mud hut Hamma was using as an office during his supervision in the freshly established Timbuktu cantonment. Soldiers from east will soon populate the barracks in their final preparation to face the enemy. There was a barrack in main Timbuktu city, even before the mighty war campaign, but Hamma decided it was far away from the banks of the Niger River. This one however, was right at the mouth of the big river. The one inland was converted into a war supply store and as a recruiting centre for the few voluntary city young men.
“The Tessalit desert will be fed with the trainees from Agadez. It is a difficult terrain defined by rocky relief of the Ahaggar Mountains, A good location to lay ambush.” Hamma explained to Kungeri, pointing at a line he drew to show the connection between their camps scattered across all over the empire and prospective battle areas.
“Taking the master of the unforgiving sand ocean to have quicker access of the enemy as it crosses over, not to mention easier commuting to Agadez to deploy the desert fighters, makes Tessalit a suitable place to plant our strength.”
“What if the enemy came in through an unexpected route?” Kungeri asked.
Hamma pointed the position of the Maghreb kingdom in the extreme north-western corner of the map.
“Here is the enemy, for it to take a different route from the Sahara it will mean that they would have to make long circle in the mighty ocean using ships and after banking, travel through the jungles and forest to reach us. Do you think it makes sense for them to do that when all they have to do is cross the Sahara that stands in between us, not to mention we know why they are attacking – which is because of the gold and salt mines sitting near their border in the Sahara? Look at the ocean here.”
Hamma pointed at the encircling water, then trace another line from the coast to the empire inland.
“This is the journey they would repeat inland after the arduous sea voyage.”
Kungeri nodded in agreement. “It will be a costly and impractical expedition.”
“Not to mention that it is time consuming and the fact that they are more interested in the mines than anything else. They have a superior weapon; they would believe this whole invasion process will be easy. That ruled out the possibility of employing any tedious strategy such as coming through south, even if that was the best plan. I think they have only the Sahara.” Hamma continued seeing that Kungeri was convinced.
“That is why I am taking this advantage, of knowing to a greater extent where we expect the enemy to deploy, so we can strategize our defensive plans. If we own the Sahara, this powerful weapon the enemy is boosting of will not serve them much good.”
When Kungeri said nothing, Hamma carefully closed the map.
“How many recruits have we so far?”
“Fifty six thousand, the number keeps fluctuating, but we record fewer deserters.” Kungeri answered. We have more than hundred times that number in the east, but the war is here, Hamma thought.
“We need to have not less than a hundred and fifty thousand able, trained and willing young men at the city’s defence, in addition to the desert fighters and reinforcements as they arrive non-ceasing.” As you know this is the city’s protection and, unfortunately, at so close a proximity to the war front that we can’t afford harbouring scared chickens running away at the slightest fright of war coming.”
“There is nothing we can do; we are trying all our best to make them willingly want to fight the war. Obviously, they were already fed with scary stories about a weapon that operates using magic before they got here.” Kungeri’s words hid his exasperation.
“We need to find a means of lecturing senses into their impenetrable heads.”
“Talk to Wazir Gabda about it, I am sure the old cunning fox would know lies, incentives and sweet talks to interest the bunch.”
Hamma was surprised he even suggested that. Giving the devil his due, and every dog has his day, he thought. Kungeri only nodded.
“We have a supply of men from the Hausalands; make sure that there is no more desertion. Set a powerful example to make anyone who wants to desert reconsider. Though we don’t have the problem of sufficient food stuff to feed our men, nonetheless we will soon have more supply of that from the Hausa lands to boost our stores. I am sure people will then want to join the military even if to get fed abundantly, if what I heard about food stuff price hike is true. That may work to our advantage as the blood-sucking merchants continue to raise prices of the dwindling food stuffs. Until then, get busy elevating the number of the recruits to at least double what we have now.”
“I shall try my very best, general.”
“Good. I need to reach Tessalit as soon as possible. It won’t take me more than three days to finish my affairs there and return back here to take charge of things, until the enemy makes a move.”
Kungeri nodded again.
“And…” Hamma looked at Kungeri squarely in the eyes.“The punishment for desertion from now on is death, remember that.”
Read Enemy Circles every Sundays on Memorila.