Sidi lay on the grass-filled mattress feeling angry and disgusted with a tradition he had come face to face with again. Light shone through the window and the morning felt very warm; the thatch hut had not helped to ease the heat. He took off his under vest and went to the petite window held up by a piece of stick. Feeling coolness from the light breeze of the fresh water river behind his compound, he told himself, “This is better than discussion with Papa and uncle.”
Sidi had woken up early that morning and gone out for a jog in white shorts and under vest. He had also gone to the river, where he had a cold swim and was greeted by the women carrying bundles of empty 5-gallon cans. Yes. It was their role to fetch water for their families, walking 5 to 6 miles to the lower part of the village, where a well had been dug by a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Sidi returned from the river to sit with his uncle and father under the “Palaver hut.” He remembered it well—the family courthouse where co-wives in argument sat to explain their side of a story supported by their witnesses. Clashes happened often while Sidi was growing up in the village. The hut’s thatch roof sat on poles over an open space surrounded by a low, finely moulded mud wall raised upwards to about two feet.
Sidi, his father, and uncle ate Korjor together. If a child washes his hands well he could eat with kings and leaders. In the city, Freetown, Sidi ate with government officials and other senior people in society. It pleased his father and uncle to eat with him too. His brother’s wife, Marie, had prepared the chicken stew. His brother had travelled to Kono to mine diamonds. He sometimes stayed for a couple of months and, when luck smiled on him, he would bring back money and lots of food to be shared among the family.
Uncle was having the last of the chicken thighs trying to suck out all the marrow from the bone. In between he said, “Marie knows how to cook!”
“Yes,” nodded Papa. “I pity her that her stupid husband has to go for so long leaving behind such a beautiful girl.”
“But Papa, it is their lives you know, leave them to run their family as they wish,” Sidi said.
Uncle then added, “Brother, leave Sidi. City life and education has confused his brain. Don’t she have feelings too? Do you know what your brother is doing in Kono?”
Sidi shook his head as he washed his hands in a white plastic bowl.
“Eh, you Sidi!”
“Yes, Papa,” he answered.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“How do you mean, Sir?”
“Since you came I have not seen you go into Marie’s hut.”
“To do what, Papa?”
“Have you forgotten tradition? Don’t you know your brother’s wife is your wife too? And especially now that your brother is not around, you should be performing his duty as a husband?”
Mouth wide open, Sid turned to his uncle for support. His uncle, who had also washed his hands, stretched his right hand forward to shake on the idea as he bobbed in agreement. Sidi recoiled.
Uncle pulled a stick from the broom, sharpened it to a toothpick and said, “Brother is absolutely right. I can’t agree with him more. This was why all of you contributed to pay her bride price. She is ours forever, don’t you think so?”
Sidi ignored the question and with a straight face firmly said, “Well my fathers, I am sorry to disappoint you but I have my wife and kids in Freetown. Besides, I did not contribute to Marie’s bride price for her to be used as a tool. She could be your property but she’s not mine and will never be.”
His father replied, “Ok ok, if that’s your opinion. You are a big person now. I can’t force you. I am an old man. And nobody has questioned your family status. I only wished to remind you about our traditions. Besides, girls are furniture! Didn’t you see how much I invested in the education of you my boys?” Papa asked laughing, and then sucked to remove pieces of meat stuck between his neatly set teeth.
“I always knew my daughters would end up being some man’s property that was why I encouraged your mothers to teach them how to be good wives, initiate them into the Bondo society and off they went. Whether you accept it or not my son, what is clear is no matter how big a cow is, it is meant for soup. Women are the soup that they are meant for.” He laughed and Uncle joined in too but Sidi did not.
Sidi was amazed at the consistency of the two men’s nature. Maybe the campaign for equality and the progress of women had not reached the village, he mumbled to himself.
Wagging his finger at Sidi, Uncle scolded, “You think you have grown up. You are talking nya nya nya nya, but an okra tree will never grow taller than its owner. You are still our child and you will always be.”
Sidi realized there was little he could do to change the minds of the old men. His father had been village orator for over five decades; he had inherited the title from Sidi’s grandfather. His uncle was town crier and a praise singer.
Sidi tried to change the topic with talk about the upcoming harvest and bush meats. After a few minutes, the discussion died away so Sidi decided to retire.
Back in his hut, his imagination took him back over four decades.
His mother and co-wives and his sisters were always the first to wake up, an hour or two before Subha (fajr) prayers. He heard them every morning as they pounded rice for breakfast. They would pound and fan the rice on the winnower, repeating this process until the husk is removed. They would then wash the rice in the big gourd, which they got from the Calabash tree on the Harmattan day Sidi was born.
That day, the gourd had been emptied of the fruit inside and allowed to dry for a fortnight to give it the familiar golden brown look. The size of the gourd had been linked to greatness for Sidi. ‘This boy is going to be a great man; the calabash says it all,’ Sidi’s grandpa Sorie predicted.
The process of rice washing is repeated to remove stones and other particles. Most times, the older women would say how the washing should be done and where to throw out the used water. It is believed if a woman walks where the rice water had been thrown she would develop fungus on her nails.
The women would cook rice, sauce or soup for the men to have breakfast on coming back from the mosque. They would clean the compound and prepare the Palaver hut, where benches would be put in a circle or sometimes a mat unfolded on the floor where the men would sit and eat.
The women would then go to the farms with babies strapped to their backs and pickaxes, hoes or spades hung over their shoulders. They would also carry a big bowl or bucket with items for the children and pots and pans for lunch or dinner to be prepared at the farm.
Sidi also remembered one day when he was ten years old and had pretended to be ill. He had stayed with his grandma Salay at home and played Six Cup with other boys that day as well. Just about mid day he saw one of the men in the village hurriedly come home with what looked like anger all over his face.
‘Where is Nyama?’ he had asked Sidi’s grandma repeatedly.
‘Check the yard, she was there pounding rice but was complaining stomach pain so I don’t know,’ Sidi’s grandma said.
Sidi observed Nyama come with her baby to grandma Salay to look after and she had gone with the man into her hut.
The hut is normally a ‘sacred’ place to women. The only people who went in were husbands and kids. But this man had gone in there with Nyama. Later, Sidi overheard Nyama weep bitterly as she explained to grandma Salay what had happened.
The man was Nyama’s husband’s older brother. His wife Rama was ill and had gone to live with her mother until she got better. His second wife was breastfeeding. So the man had come to get a share of his property. Nyama, who had just been married for a year, had pleaded with him that she had cramps and that her period was due. The man slapped her and threw her lappa on the floor.
Tradition insisted Nyama could not refuse or report the matter to the elders.
Grandma Salay consoled Nyama and explained that was the custom.
‘You are young and have a choice. Some of us did not,’ Grandma had said smiling with an empty mouth. Age and decades of chewing kola nuts had left the old woman toothless.
Grandma Salay asked Nyama, ‘How long would you continue? Move away, go to the city, and take your child with you. It would be hard for a while but as long as you have life; you have hope.’
Nyama jiggled in support of the advice. Few months later, Nyama left the village and Sidi could not remember what followed afterwards.
Sidi remembered though how at night he had seen his uncles enter his mother’s and step mother’s huts, especially when he had gone out to pee. He had also seen his mother cry many times.
Whenever he asked, his mother would tell him ‘I am fine, my son,’ smiling in between tears and taking one edge of her lappa to wipe the tears that rolled down her cheeks.
Once his mother had asked him, ‘If I tell you why I cried would you help?’
‘Yes Mama,’ he had answered.
‘Now listen, I want you to grow up and be a good boy. Go to school, study very hard and look after your sisters.’ His mother had said.
Sidi had gone on to study medicine and now works as a doctor at the Children’s hospital in Freetown. But Sidi’s hope for change was like a mirage. Then he decided.
‘I want the world to know this is what women are going through in my little village. It’s like taboo to talk about the evil of it. I will go to Freetown, speak with women campaigners and let them know what is happening here.’