The Chronicle Gambia

To Puzzle The Birds Into Silence

They sat under the mango tree, Mbana’s head in between Kaula’s fleshy knees. Kaula’s fingers delicately crafted Mbana’s full, jet black hair into intricate patterns. Her fingers moved quickly, too quickly for one’s eyes to follow for too long. Quick enough to leave you cross eyed if you followed them for too long. Mbana winced slightly as Kaula pulled at a strand of hair which strayed into the wrong section. She lifted a hand unto her head to check how much hair was left unbraided. Kaula’s hand came down upon it with a loud smack. Mbana squealed, but before she had time to protest, Kaula launched into a barrage of admonition. “Aiii! Mbana you donkey of the cursed plains! How many times must I tell you! If you touch your hair while it is being braided, you bring sickness to the braider. Do you want me to die, Mbana? Who will braid your hair if I die? You will be stuck with smelly wrapper Yaggu, is that what you want? Who will help you trap the crabs and cook them with lime and tamarind? You impatient octopus, now you’ve gotten sand all over your hair!!”

Mbana mumbled in defiance, careful that her mumbling was only audible to herself. She sure didn’t want to be stuck with Smelly Wrapper Yaggu. When Yaggu braids your hair, she traps your head between her thighs, and if it happens to be a hairstyle where the braids start from the nape of your neck to the center of your head, you’re forced to bury your head in her wrapper, which is gathered between her thighs. Yaggu’s wrapper is the smelliest thing after fermented locust beans and sun-dried fish. The smell is so distracting that when she braids your hair, you cannot think of anything else but how much you want to get away. Yaggu didn’t seem to notice, and if she did, she just didn’t care. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe she enjoyed tormenting girls and young women who were unfortunate enough to get stuck with their head buried in her wrapper.

Mbana liked to imagine Yaggu waking up in the middle of the night, lighting a fire, placing a large cauldron on the fire where she drops the smelliest possible items: a jar of morning breath, a spoon full of dirt from under long-unclipped toenails, one street cat dead for 3 days, a jar of 2-day old shrimps and old onions – the wrapper always had a hint of old onion smell. Then she imagined that when the concoction was done, Yaggu soaked her wrappers in it, and afterwards hung them to dry without wringing them out.

Kaula was the opposite, she always smelled pleasant, a homey smell which reminded Mbana of freshly baked potatoes. She sometimes caught a whiff very similar to it when she walked by a group of trees at night, only at night, strangely. Kaula’s thighs smelled like baked potatoes floating in the night breeze. It’s not creepy if it’s true.

Kaula also had the most intriguing and often disturbing tales, especially the ones about boys. She was much older than Mbana, but she let her hang around and they did things together, like dig for clams on the river bank and hunt for bird eggs amidst the branches of the Kabaa trees (requires Surviving Snakes 101), but most importantly, she taught her things.

She taught her how to stand leaf-light on the tallest branch of a tree without losing footing; you had to become one with the tree and sway with it as it swayed with the breeze. From the very tops, you could see far beyond the edges of the settlement, all the way to the wild plains. If you were lucky you’d catch sight of a flock of wildebeest, or white rhinoceroses or some other animals of the plain which stray too close to the settlement, strolling towards some stream or waterhole with their playful, inquisitive young in tow. Once, Mbana spotted what she swore was a white Giraffe. Those were a rare sight. But what was wonderful beyond all else was the uninterrupted view one had of the sun, rising and setting into the horizon. Many a time Mbana’s breath caught in her throat as she watched the sky in all its divine glory, as if her soul was afraid that exhaling would disrupt the moment and cause it to be lost forever. In awe, she would stare on until the transition was complete and the many colors of the sky became two; blue and white, or one; when the night evens out.

From the tree tops, you also could spy on people within the settlement. Few knew the secret to Kaula’s seeming omnipresence. If it didn’t happen behind closed doors, Kaula knew about it. It was Kaula who discovered where the items which kept disappearing from the Weaving House were buried, and anonymously revealed the shamefaced thief. It was Kaula who discovered that the offerings left at the Great Tree were not eaten by the spirits of the tree but by Nato and Naba, the notoriously mischievous twins, known for playing evil pranks on people. It was Kaula who found out that Nogayes husband had little meetings with Njoba, the dye-maker’s assistant, at ungodly hours in ungodly places. She also always knew who was about to marry who and who was indebted to who.

She taught Mbana how to extract dye from leaves of the Nyari tree, perfectly separate the varying colours and draw beautiful figures on walls and on soft, new cotton boubous. She taught her how to weaponize the spikes of the porcupine, to sharpen the tips without breaking them, to soak them in venom, concocted to perfection and to throw them with murderous precision.

Theirs was a relationship which baffled many. A relationship which brought to an end a rivalry between their two families which had survived two generations. It was such that when Mbana woke up one morning to find a crimson stain on her bedding, she wasn’t shocked, or terrified as would be expected. She donned fresh clothes, changed the bedclothes and ran off to break the news to Kaula – not her mother, nor her father. Their excited shatter rang through the

serene morning air and puzzled the birds into silence.

Until that morning, two days after they had sat under the mango tree, a day after the Festival of the Shifting Winds ended. The morning when everything changed, when life’s ever wielded dagger ripped deep into blissful innocence.

To be continued

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