The Lady of the River by Cherno Omar Barry
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
For several weeks now, Brima Touray has been acting very strangely. He is often absent minded when his clients come to make an order and when they attract his attention, he seems to awaken from a reverie. Brima’s wife, Salimata is very worried. She has been hearing what people have been saying about her husband and it worries her so much. How can some people insinuate that her husband is possessed by witches? Or is he slowly going mad? However much she denies these allegations she still has her lingering doubts. That is why she decided to go see Jabbi. If there could be anyone who can help her out, it can only be Serign Jabbi, fondly called Jabbi. Jabbi’s successes have endued him with an aura of invincibility for he is not like the other marabous. Generally marabous are known for their dishonesty and false prophecies. Jabbi, however, hardly advertises himself. The few who know him have a complete confidence in his divine work. Once Salimata arrives at his place and explains her problem, he instructed her without hesitation to bring her husband to him.
“He will tell us what disturbs him” explains Jabbi.
“Bring Brima to you?” asks a surprised Salimata, “but that is almost impossible. He will refuse outright.”
“He holds the key to this mystery,” tries to explain Jabbi. “Don’t worry. You women can always find a way.”
That was the least thing Salimata expected from Jabbi. How can she convince Brima to come see Jabbi? Yet if Jabbi assures her that Brima is the only one who can pierce this mystery they are all shrouded in, that should be a challenge she should assume. Her fear lies in Brima’s newly developed violence. Even though he is absentminded most of the time, he has developed a tendency of shouting and ranting over insignificant things. Salimata knows her task ahead is difficult but she has leant that the best way to win a man is to invent new seductive means.
She quickly goes to the market, buys the necessary stuff she needs to accomplish her difficult task. One thing Brima likes is domoda. To him, nothing can compare with a well cooked domoda with a little slice of ice-butter, lean meat, a steaming bitter tomato, and crunchy bones. He loves the crunchy bones which he makes no bones about. The bone marrow is a delicacy Brima would be ready to exchange whatever for. Salimata does wonder sometimes if it is not for this that Brima has decided to be a butcher. If only she knew it was the other way round.
Salimata quickly prepares the food, cleans the home and burns sweet smelling and euphoric incense in the bedroom. She has just finished bathing and dressing up when she hears Brima entering the sitting room. She quickly comes to the room and kneels to greet her husband and was answered with a grunt. Brima sits on the sofa with an apparent tiredness. Salimata disappears in the kitchen and comes back with a calabash of lukewarm water and a towel. She sits on the floor beside her husband who seems to succumb to his usual reverie. She slowly and carefully takes off her husband’s ‘jittuma si jakkabi’ sandals. She first puts the right foot in the water and washes it. She does the same for the other foot. At his feet’s contact with the lukewarm water, Brima gives a deep sigh of delight and contentment and his eyelids flicker for an instant before indulging him back to his reverie. Salima quickly wipes the feet and then helps Brima out of his caftan. She lays the dining table and approaching Brima on the sofa, she says,
“Ndijaye, the lunch is served.”
Brima’s eyelids have fluttered for the second time but this time he seems focused. The sweet scent of the domoda has entered his nostrils and has registered the wonderful meal awaiting him. He gets up and approaches the dining table. Salimata was happy to notice a smile on his face. He eats ravenously while Salimata helps in picking the meat and the vegetables which she pushes on his side. Salimata was careful in her selection of the bones and feels satisfied to see Brima munching the bones whiles occasionally tilting his head for a better bite. After the meal she serves him water and a glass of ginger juice. Brima belches loudly, praises his lord and gets up. Salimata accompanies him to the bedroom and quickly clears the table. Brima gets ready for his usual afternoon nap. Just before Brima dozes off, Salimata promptly asks him the burning question.
“Ndijaye, will you accompany me somewhere after your nap?”
“Hmm?” snorts Brima.
“Please accompany me to a relative. I am afraid to go there alone,” lies Salimata. She is afraid Brima would repudiate the request.
“Hmm hm,” was the reply she got before she hears him snoring lightly. She could not tell whether it is a yes or a no.
A little after four in the afternoon, Salimata is already in her best cloths and she has put clean and well ironed cloths on the bed for her husband. Brima has already got up, taken his bath and is dressing.
“Ndijaye, can we go now?”
“To meet my uncle at Dutabulu”
“Dutabulu? Are you crazy?”
“Please. You promised!”
“Me? When did I promise you that?”
“Just before dozing off”
Brima hesitates a bit. One thing he has made his principle, that is never to break his promises. He acquiesces reluctantly.
Once inside the ‘gele’ van to Dutabulu, he falls back into his reverie from which he jerks off on rare occasions as if he is slapped. Salimata cannot help noticing, during those brief moments, the fear that engulfs her husband. This moves her a lot and she feels resolved to get to the bottom of his problems. She keeps thinking that her husband is probably jinxed.
Has his family done this after he refuses to marry a second wife despite all their efforts to convince him? Salimata feels guilty though for after five years of marriage she could not give him any offspring. Not that they have not tried all they could to get one. She has accepted to be scanned by doctors to ‘cleanse’ her womb of all impurity. This was a painful experience but she accepted just to bring happiness to his life. She has also drunk in which roots, barks and leaves are soaked, and all other kinds of concoctions. That was before she heard of Jabbi. Jabbi told her outright that neither of the couple has a problem. The problem lies with Allah and when the time is ripe, they will have children. But still, she feels the urge to join the President’s infertility treatment programme. After Brima’s problem is solved, she will surely join the programme. She has even heard some women are already pregnant after several years of infertility.
She knows she owes Brima a lot more than people can guess. She was the daughter of a gendarme who was stationed at Kerr Ayib, at the senegalo-gambian boarder close to Farafenne. Her father was short and thin whiles her mother, commonly called Yaye Sally, was tall, fat and with very large hips. She had hips that could attract attention a hundred meters away particularly when she walks and makes her beads jingle. People use to joke that she was the queen of Tatagen. No doubt everyone wondered what Yaye Sally saw in Alpha Ousman. Yet Alpha seems impervious to these attractions and would in fact brag about being the best womaniser in Farafenne. However, Yaye Sally is unforgiving and extremely jealous. On several occasions, neighbours would hear Alpha screaming and when they come to the rescue, it takes several powerful men to lift Yaye Sally from Alpha. It always presents a lugubrious sight to see Yaye Sally sitting, with all her weight, upon Alpha who is sometimes suffocated and ressembles a toad flattened by a car tyre. It would have been quite a funny sight in different circumstances. One day, Yaye Sally must have stayed a little longer on her husband whose flaying hands seemed to be indicating he was in need of air. It was a little late when people finally broke the living room door to find Alpha dead on the bed. Yaye Sally was arrested and was later said to have committed suicide at the Janjanburrey prisons. Their only daughter, Salimata, was taken in by a distant uncle who seemed to remind her constantly to repent for her sins. Salimata constantly wondered what sins she had to repent for. As she grows to a well-proportionate and beautiful woman, she starts getting undesirable advances from her uncle. This started soon after her sixteenth birthday. The first time, she was in a deep sleep when she was awoken by something pinching her breasts. Upon opening her eyes, she stared on the face of her uncle and screamed with fright. Her uncle scurried off before his wife came to enquire what the matter was. Salimata was unable to explain and she could only attribute her actions to a nightmare. However, the nightmare only began for her. At first, when her uncle gained enough courage to come again another night, he started promising Salimata luxury, riches and anything she wanted if she would only consent. Salimata wanted to be left alone but she had nowhere to go and her uncle’s advances seemed to just have started. His attitude has ignited in her a deep loathing for men. His father was considered a womaniser which she never admitted and here is an uncle, someone directly related to his mother through a polygamous family, desiring her. She felt revolted and started to understand her mother’s reactions. Aunty Sally loved her husband but she hated anything to do with the weakness of his soul.
“Dutabulu, anyone descending here,” squeaks the apprentice.
Salimata makes a sign, helps Brima out and descends. She pays the fare and leads the way to Jabbi’s home. Once there Salimata introduces her husband. Jabbi looks at Brima with piercing eyes which seems to stir Brima to reality.
Jabbi asks Salimata to step out and leave them alone. Once Salimata is out, Jabbi closes the door and draws the curtains rendering the room dark. He lights a two-dalasi candle and looks at Brima, who has been following Jabbi with his eyes throughout the scenario.
Jabbi takes out an Evian bottle containing a concoction and sprinkles some of the dark water on Brima’s head while incanting in Arabic. He gives Brima some of it in a brown plastic cup and asks him to drink which Brima does without question.
“Tell me all about it all” Jabbi commands, “Every bit of it.”
For a while, Brima seems frighten but gradually his eyes become glassy and his head drops on his left side as if he is in a trance. His lips twitch and after several seconds his voice breaks the silence. He narrates the most incredulous and unbelievable tale anyone can ever imagine.
“I was sleeping; a very deep and dreamless sleep when I am woken by someone. As I open my eyes, I saw a woman in white standing beside my bed. She seems to exude a silvery light. She stretches her hand to me without a word. I hesitated a bit and then took it. As she pulls, I was lifted from my bed and seemed to be floating. We travelled over Farafenne towards the river. At Bambatenda, she stops for a while to contemplate me. She smiles for the first time and in a sweet melodious voice says to me,
‘I have chosen you as my mate for your kindness and purity. I will offer you a life of luxury but you have to be careful though.’
‘Who are you? And what… what are you?’ I asked in a trembling voice.
She smiles but continues to explain,
‘Once we reach home, I will give you a ring. This ring is magical and it is the key to our everlasting union. There is problem though. We should be quick before my uncle comes back. He is very cruel and he can be very nasty.’
‘But I am married,’ I managed to utter.
‘Keep your wife. She will not disturb our union as she will never know about it.’
“Having said this, she pulled my hand which she had never released. We keep floating again over the river.
‘Hey, I can’t swim!’ I cried out.
“But she was impervious to my cries and continues to pull me. Strangely, we did not sink as we floated on the river. At about the middle of it, she plunges taking me with her. I just had the time to pinch my nose when the water envelops me. After struggling for a while, I release my nose a bit out of desperation for air and, miracle of all miracles, I was able to breath. Down and down we go until, without believing my eyes, I saw lights shining as if in a city. The houses start to take form and she pulls me towards one of them. We arrive in a large hall where we meet several other bright lights. I then saw the lights taking the form of humans. One of them, a woman, approaches us and says,
‘Didn’t I warn you not to bring any human here again?’
‘But I love this one,’ says the lady who brought me.
‘How can you be sure it is this one you love and not the previous one you brought thirty years ago?’ asked another luminous figure.
‘Grandma, this one has purity of heart and soul. He is God fearing and will only bring joy to our family.’
“I was taken aback. They were discussing me as if I was not there. How could this young lady, who brought me, have had another man thirty years back when she hardly looks twenty-five? Who could that man be I asked myself? However these questions presented little interest to these luminous figures who kept discussing me. I tried to pull away my hand but the lady holding it seemed to hold it only tighter.”
‘Give me a last chance with this one, mama!’ pleaded the lady.
‘You will have to arrange that with your uncle. He will be back any moment.’
“That seems to jolt the lady back to reality. She quickly pulls me to a room which is sparsely decorated and equipped. While still holding my hand, she rummages through a cupboard and brings out a ring. It looks liked a diamond ring. She quickly inserts it through the ring finger of my left hand as if tying a marriage between us and for the first time she releases my hand. She then fills a small brief case with new 100 dalasi notes. I could not tell how much that was but it certainly was a huge some of money.”
“She quickly ushers me to the exterior of the city and asks me to close my eyes and reopen them after three seconds. Before I could do that, she kisses me lightly on the lips and floats away. After reopening my eyes, I find myself on the banks of the Bambatenda River. I had the brief case on the left hand when suddenly I see a large powerful whirl wind approaching me. The next thing I feel was a loud slap and a plunge in the river. The briefcase and the ring are gone”
Brima seems out of breath as if explaining this story has taken all his energy away. He raises his eyes for the first time and he notices a glow in Jabbi’s eyes. Jabbi does not seem surprised but amused. Gradually Brima seems to come out of his fugue state. Jabbi will then tell him the most unexpected thing.
“Go home, Brima. Your worries are over. Once you go home, check under the bed on which you sleep.”
Brima seems to have his mind cleared but he hardly understands Jabbi. Once out of Jabbi’s incense polluted room, Salimata greets him and could not help noticing the change in Brima.
Salimata is in high spirits on their way home and she notices that Brima is focused. It seems as if a heavy load has been lifted from their shoulders. Salimata feels very happy, happier than the first day she met Brima.
With her ordeals at her uncle’s house and her incapacity to run away due lack of a place to go to, she started to shrink and grew sickly. She hardly slept during the nights and she dreaded the torment she had to go through with her uncle. This continued for five years. She was lucky she was not pregnant. The fateful day arrived. She has resolved to her fate and her uncle’s visits became frequent. Earlier on that fateful day aunty decided to go to Banjul to buy few things and visit her relatives. Uncle felt in high spirits because he would have the entire house for himself. And Salimata. Alone. So that night he came home early from his ‘damia vous’ to find Salimata preparing dinner. He entered the kitchen and approached Salimata who was cutting onions. Salimata tried to get away from him as he began fumbling her.
That whole day, the Bambatenda ferry was under repair and people were travelling in small boats to Yellitenda. Aunty feared water and she swore to never travel by boat. So she reluctantly set for home when the ferry could not be repaired by nightfall. Uncle and Salimata were in a tangle in the kitchen when Aunty entered the compound. As the kitchen was just facing the compound gate, aunty’s first sight was of uncle struggling to squeeze Salimata’s breasts and the latter trying to shove him off. What followed was indescribable. The end matter was, Salimata was considered the harlot that encouraged it all. She was sent off after being humiliated. That night, she was hungry and homeless wandering around the Alhaji Manjai conpound. Then Brima found her. She was crying when he, closing from work and heading for home, approached her and asked her what the matter was. He would propose to lodge her and Salimata would furiously refuse. Her refusal was linked to the bad experience she has had with men but Brima assured her she would be spending the night with his sister. After a little convincing and having nowhere to go, she followed him. He will change her life. A year later, he proposed to marry her. Brima had the difficult job to ask for her hand from her uncle who never cared what happened to her. Salimata has since been protected, pampered and spoilt by Brima. It is in Brima that Salimata understands that there are the bad and the good among men and Brima is an angel among the good.
Once they arrive home, Brima seems excited. He rushes quickly to his bedroom and on his knees, starts feeling under the bed in search of the mysterious object Jabbi told him he would find. As his hand gropes in arcs searching, his fingernails scratch a hard object. He could not tell what it is but as soon as he had a feel of it in his hands, his heartbeat starts to accelerate. He gets a firm grip of the object and pulls. The sight that stood in front of him took his breath out completely. Salimata, who was all along watching the strange behaviour of her husband, gasps when she saw what lay before them.
In the meantime, Jabbi has quickly packed a leopard dry skin, a long counting bead and some incense in his shabby black plastic bag and has headed for the riverside. On his arrival at Bambatenda, it was swarming with commuters to Casamance and the south bank. There was a line of trucks that can be seen from Bereto. The corrugated shops selling cheap imported stuff, the hawkers, the throng of passengers trying to cross the gates, all make quite a confusing noise under a scorching midday sun. As the tide rises, one can see some of these shops slightly flooded with salty dirty water from the mangrove marshes nearby. Jabbi is obviously impervious to his surrounding as he carefully takes a left curve before entering Bambatenda and heads for the mangroves. He keeps walking, his feet splashing in muddy water and excrement, until he arrives at a clearing. He carefully lays the leopard skin on the muddy ground, sits on it, lights some incense and begins incantations while counting the beads furiously. His eyes were closed and the heat of the sun was telling on him when he hears a ruffling noise. He slowly opens his eyes and sees the lady of the river standing in front of him, smiling;
“Why do you summon me Jabbi.” The lady asks.
Jabbi watches her for a while and then says “Why Brima?”
“Brima has everything you do not have. He could have had a chance where you failed.”
“But I needed more!” wailed Jabbi, “But you betrayed me.”
“Me? How dare you? You were lucky my uncle made concessions with you in exchange for the love I willingly gave you.”
Jabbi keeps quite.
“It is thirty years now since last we talked,” continues the lady, “yet you knew how to summon me but you never did.”
“I was afraid of your uncle. He made it clear never to make contact.”
“An in addition he bestowed on you the gift of foresight so you can see the unseen. In exchange for which you were never to see me again. That was what you dared exchange me for.”
“I had no choice!” wails Jabbi looking broken for the first time.
“Then deal with it. As I promise you the last time, whoever succeeded in accepting my love would be rich beyond words. Ironically, you were the one to inform Brima of the briefcase.”
“Give me another chance” pleads Jabbi, “I have been waiting to tell you this all these thirty years.”
“Another chance you will never get, Jabbi, and for summoning me, you will get the full wrath of my uncle.” Says the lady and with a splash, disappears in the water.
Brima’s excitement grew as he scoops a hand full of hundred dalasi bills in his hands. He looks like a child who has received the present of its dream on a Christmas day.
The people of Farafenne of lore would remember how Brima helped the poor and the helpless as he became very rich. Salimata is waiting for twins thanks to the president’s infertility treatment. Jabbi was never heard of. People speculated that he was called back to Mali by his mother but his landlord could still not explain the curious attitude of Jabbi the night Brima and Salimata came to see him. He was crying all night and the next day he was gone. The landlord never bothered to find out where Jabbi went to because the latter had paid a two year rent in advance.