The Chronicler's Tale
By Dan Akinlolu (South Africa)
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THE CHRONICLER’S TALE
It happened during the World War at a small village in Dogon, Mali, about fifty kilometers to Timbuktu. Those years, Timbuktu witnessed a boom in salt trade, it was the major export via the river and the desert merchants coming from Niamey and Djibouti have had to reconsider their route, because export was faster using the river than Sahara desert. People came far and wide to trade in salt and millet.
Colonel Françoise was the senior officer who was transferred from Libya to take charge of the Regiment de Tiralleur in Dogon. It wasn’t really a large camp but because they needed more of non-combatants to sort out the daily chores, indigenes were then conscripted to support in the war front somewhere in North Africa. The Germans were under a heavy pressure in their protectorate and fortunately, other neighbouring European colonies considered the use of allied force as a major strategy to drive them out, with sincere persuasion to the French colony to comply. It was obvious they were running short of soldiers in the war front to achieve this.
That morning, our camp commandant- Captain Frida, delivered a message that was addressed to Colonel Françoise from Allied Military Base in Libya that the non-combatants in our camp should be ready to undergo certain elementary trainings, to as well blur the line between the soldiers and non-soldiers thus the next platoon to be dispatched would be more of militant indigenes.
There was no way I could escape the torturous military drills as an orderly to Colonel Françoise but I took an excuse in my role as an interpreter between the locals and Colonel who couldn’t speak or understand Mandika dialect. It was an art that drew me to the heart of my people to understand their doubt and uncertainty about the World War and why should they be conscripted to fight in a war that wasn’t started by them.
Two times, riot broke out in the market at Merino village, just about eight hundred meters from the regiment. It was to protest that it was wrong to forcefully conscript anyone into a war he knows nothing about.
Colonel Françoise, a slim, bespectacled monsieur had sent for me in the stable where I was tending his horse and had asked me to leave whatever I was doing to attend to a more serious situation in Merino. I was excited, I felt recognised by colonel.
It took time to persuade my people and to explain to the angry mob (in my local dialect) that the World War was actually war of the world and that their contribution would be recognised upon their return from the battle.
“Why would someone start something he couldn’t stop?” an old peasant asked me. He looked worn out.
“I don’t know.” I replied non-chalantly. The hunchback bard, Dana Jalo, emerged from the crowd, heaving his huge bulky frame towards me. He was smelling of sweat and tobacco, he actually was chewing his tobacco in the midst of protest.
“Why don’t you know?” he asked.
“I don’t know because…I just don’t know.” I replied indignantly. The crowd burst into laughter as if I was a baby still learning to suck at its mother’s breasts. I wondered why I should talk about what I didn’t know. It was not hiding my ignorance about the war. My comment wasn’t to generate laughter but to indicate that not everything had reasons; war or feud sometimes started without any apparent reason though they are essential part of life.
“You are a soldier, right?” the griot asked again. His dental formula was a set of certain crooked teeth.
“How much are you paid?” he requested.
He observably was looking through me. Dana Jalo’s question punctured my ego and I was sure he would report my case to his Royal Majesty in Timbuktu. I felt awkward.
“Nothing…I was paid nothing.” I retorted, almost regretting I addressed the crowd. I thought the old bard would laugh again.
“You see,” he turned around to the silent stricken crowd. Dana Jalo wasn’t in a good mood; he actually had a large mental capacity to recall historical events without reference to any book than the oracular corpus from the fraternity. At least that was a major disparity between Dana Jalo and myself. He was learned through tradition. I studied in the classroom, he learned from his father and his father from his grand father.
“An artiste without money,” he resumed his speech,
“…is like a flower without stem or like a child who soiled his hand but never know what to do with it.” Dana Jalo said and awkwardly shuffled himself through the dusty crowd. They made way for him while he walked through them, shaking his head sadly and muttering incomprehensible utterances.
I didn’t understand what he meant. I couldn’t explain if he was suggesting that I should ask Colonel Françoise and Captain Frida to put me on a pay roll not just as an orderly but also as an individual who knows the way of wisdom; or that I should be punished for working as a volunteer when I was to be a bard.
I never knew who won between Dana Jalo and myself, but he seemingly commanded a certain amount of respect because the entire crowd dispersed afterward, making it appeared like Colonel Françoise had belittle him by sending a mere orderly to address and mediate on his behalf.
It was a privilege to have stood to represent Colonel Françoise, but most important was my experience of confronting the most prestigious of the king’s panegyric poet- Dana Jalo. I was young and ambitious, he was old but experienced. I had wished to have told Dana Jalo that big things in life wouldn’t necessarily have to start with money. Besides, the greatest invention started as an idea. Though I was suppose to be trained in the way of the griot or bard but I refused because I wanted the college after which I volunteered to join the army. Everyone waged hostilities against me especially that I desire to visit England. Colonel Françoise had promised, that if I was dutiful and committed enough, going to England wouldn’t be a problem since I was learned in English and French like him, which was uncharacteristic of any traditional bard, then he would have no problem sponsoring my trip after the war.
It was wonderful to have Colonel Françoise in charge of the regiment; he knew what it takes to run a small camp of inexperience recruits through corporal trainings.
I had to devise excuses that colonel Françoise sent me on an errand to discuss his displeasure about certain issues with the traditional rulers in Bamako, since Colonel Françoise believed the Emperor was very limited in his monarchical influence and power. It was more of modern military tactics supersede traditional rulership. The guards knew I was lying to leave the barrack to escape the gruesome military drill to visit Salima my girlfriend but they couldn’t stop me.
Salima too warned me severely that I would lose my honour if I keep telling lies; whether I liked it or not, to be a griot was something I had in my blood especially that my late father was the chief-diviner. I tried to convince her that I was indifferent about it. Moreover, if l I lied, I did it because I loved her.
She was living with her sixty-seven year old Uncle who never knew the exact date of his birth except that he was born in a tobacco farm. He was a popular tobacco farmer who had survived a drought by selling his two donkeys and one camel and re-start his trade again at Gao. Salima’s uncle migrated from Niane, from upper valley near the gold field to live with the river people in Gao, besides, the river facilitated his tobacco trade.
To Salima, it was the love her uncle had for her that made him sell the innocent donkeys and the camel otherwise he could have lived in the North. She told me the story over and over, and that once I pay her bride price (which I wasn’t sure I could afford), I must also assist her uncle with some money.
Her attitude imposed a certain threat on my plan since it was as much better to chase my dream. I’ve always believed there was no end in pursuing money. I assumed if I followed my goal tirelessly, money would come along. But Salima was gradually losing interest in my too long ambition. She was beginning to see another man behind my back, who I believed was richer and from the same tribe with her Uncle. He was Musa-the gravedigger, an old friend turned rival. He was seeking Salima’s hand in marriage because he could afford it.
* * *
I was surprised when the recruits told me that Colonel Françoise made mention of Musa in a dialogue with Captain Frida with such prestige. It was unusual of Colonel to refer to such an individual, that I knew like my second skin, in the course of a serious dialogue. I watched the two officers from the kitchen window, adjacent to Colonel Françoise’s restroom while I was preparing snacks and something to drink. They were seated in the balcony, basking in the evening breeze to recount major issues of the day and to confirm that one Professor from England would arrive for a visit. I was curious to find out what the visit was all about.
The following day, Colonel Françoise asked me to see him in his office. I washed myself thoroughly in the open backyard, combed my hair and rubbed the sweet-smelling pomade I took from Salima over my skin. I looked decent enough to stand in his presence.
I walked up to Colonel’s office. It was a narrow wooden office with a small window and a table fan with plenty of medals and trophy hung on a panel near the door. He was less busy in the afternoon because most officers were on parade ground. The wind from north was blowing an unforgiving hot pressure from Sahara desert towards the regiment.
Colonel Françoise was going through a file, there was a huge pile of local and foreign newspapers by the typewriter, and the gramophone was blaring an opera in French. He was a man of few words, a gentleman to the core, with a neatly crafted uniform and his spectacle hanging delicately on the bridge of his nose. He looked up, he was reading from a sheet of paper while I appeared at the threshold. I saluted,
“Come in.” he ordered in French.
He didn’t discriminate. I marched towards his table and almost knocked it over. I stamped my feet and saluted again. There was something local and humorous about my presence which made him chuckle, then removed his specs from his face and wiped it clean with a handkerchief. Colonel Françoise was getting used to the mad heat. I was told in England or France there was no desert, it was only about snow and cold.
“Any message from your king and his traditional council?” he asked, his face was pink and moist.
“Nothing Sir!” I shouted, saluted and remained stiff, looking straight ahead. I was warned to never look straight at any senior officer whenever they address us. It was a punishable offence.
Colonel Françoise giggled again; he thought I was too serious, making a mockery of military ethics.
“It’s alright,” he said on a friendly note and put the letter on the table.
He leant back on his chair and sat comfortably, he stared at me. He appeared to be in deep thought for a moment.
“I want you to accompany Captain Frida to welcome Professor Kimberly.” he said and waved me out.
“Yes sir!” I shouted, saluted, stiffened and marched out militantly. Obey first before complaining.
I stood outside perplexed. My fear was confirmed. I initially dismissed it as a rumour when Salima told me that the diviner prophesied that a white man would come all the way from England to visit Musa-the grave digger.
How did Musa put himself on the world map especially during the world war? Why would professor risk his life because of a common village man who couldn’t even spell his own name? I was angry and curious at something I couldn’t explain.
I felt a surge of jealousy flushing through me; it was actually mixed with hatred. The only thing hanging me to Salima was the ambition that one day, I would be the first to visit England and then ask her to join me in the course of time. And we would visit places I read about while in college like the Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. I told her we would breed a family that could speak all the languages in the world, but Musa was frustrating my prospect with his absurdity. He was really an opponent who could sweep her off with his fame and money.
We were two different individuals motivated by two different purposes. I appeared to be driven by dream, than by money. Musa on the other hand operated with absurdity and bizarre philosophy. Just as magic and religion are poles apart so also Musa and I were a total contrast. Magic compels power of nature to obey it, because it had the technical know-how; religion persuades nature through prayer and sacrifice to make things happen which may not even occur due to one reason or another. I was more of the religion and Musa was more of the magic.
Musa lives in the third house by the left on Dianne road, it was the only painted house with corrugated sheets and massive compound that was shaded by a Baobab tree. Every passer-by admired it. Musa was a successful gravedigger and undertaker who had many apprentice working for him and he was also good at making designer coffins. He was full of eccentrics, so much that he was referred to as death’s best friend while he often tell his maids, servants and professional mourners, that when man was born he had the seed of death underneath his skin. Infact Musa went about arguing that it was wrong to accuse death of killing people.
Musa admitted to me, (when we were good acquaintance and brooding about what to do with rest our lives than to become rich and relevant in the society), that a man had come to him wearing a brim straw-hat and riding on fly infested donkey when he was smoking his pipe under a Baobab tree. The man had told him that his fame and wealth was to prove to everyone that death was just an agent of circumstance; and that the word “circumstance” could have represented any object or predicate ranging from deliberated poison to mishaps but the ultimate of them was fear.
“Fear,” he’d said, “was the murderer. Fear kills not death.”
I thought Musa was insane since that wasn’t enough to make a fool become rich. Then he wanted us to start a graveyard dealings together, and go about the customary court and the king’s palace in Bamako spreading the good news about death not been the killer. I told him if he wanted to get mad, he should perform it alone, it wasn’t necessary to include me. I stick to going to the college. That was the crack in our friendship.
To my surprise, Musa was adamant in his orientation. I marvelled at his bravery when he confronted the traditional judiciary and local tribunal with his theory. His face became popular in the newspapers while the pressmen and medical students from the teaching hospital far away in town asked him to explain his conjecture that death wouldn’t kill, it was only lust, sloth, envy and greed that execute.
Musa would then take them round his house and rooms as if it was a kind of museum and national gallery, showing them dry scapula bones of envious men and cracked skulls of greedy women. Then the audience was impressed and expressed their satisfaction with a loud thundering ovation. The medical students were forced to deliberate that it wasn’t worth going to college since Musa started life by skinning bush rats and yet he knew anatomy and forensic medicine more than their lecturers. In any case Musa-the gravedigger understood their academic curriculum and deserved the honour to be included in the syllabus for students’ clinical training.
It sounded silly and illogical to me but Musa carved his ambition with greed, and king konnate invited him along with some spiritualist to a fraternity feast, (though I learnt that the king himself was sick of a certain disease which he alleged that medical science wouldn’t cure as compared to local herbs mix with human kidney). Musa grew richer from the arrangement as I got to find out from a gossip that the king wasn’t actually sick but had a sinister deal with Musa.
* * *
Captain Frida came up to my bunk to call me for the trip; I was seated on the lower bed, polishing my weather-beaten boots when he appeared by the door. The rest of the recruits scampered about the dormitory. From nowhere, someone shouted,
Everyone froze at stiff posture.
Captain Frida shouted my name. I dashed out; I knew it was time to pick up Professor Kimberly. There were two other corporals, including Mutabi my good friend. It was Mutabi who told me that a man was not a monkey because he was born in a monkey cage, the he only become one when he stayed long in the cage. He was wearing an improvised uniform with a wooden gun.
Mutabi never knew how to shoot a gun but he could kill fowl with bare hands for soup. The Captain’s caught up with him for recruitment and he had to learn how to shoot a real gun but it was taking him more time. Mutabi was a “secret man” who “knows his way” in making things to happen without anyone suspecting him. He’d once told me that he knew what to mix together to make a man go mad and walk in rags from Dogon to France and I wished he’d done that for the Germans.
I greeted him in Mandike but Captain Frida frowned at me,
“That you fart in the river wouldn’t change the taste of the water.” Mutabi murmured in Mandike under his breath, I chuckled. Captain Frida looked up at us suspiciously. He sensed we were making something out of him. Captain Frida stamped his boot on the wooden platform, and ordered Mutabi to get the station wagon ready.
“Hey! You! Orderly!” he shouted at me,
“What was that all about?” he asked in French. He wasn’t really good in English and Mandike.
“What sir?” I saluted in an awkward position.
“Your friend who couldn’t kill a fowl but called himself a soldier, what was his talk about?” Captain Frida mouthed and searched his breast pocket. He was sure he needed a cigarette. I saluted again like a toy programmed by battery.
“He said I wasn’t good at anything sir!” I lied.
Captain Frida gave a quick loud laughter,
“I can understand, neither here nor there. Is that it?”
“Yes sir! It is a monkey business.”
“I mean monkey business sir!”
“Oh! Monkey business you said. And your people, are they still angry at you?” he asked again, the cigarette delicately stuck to his lips while he struggled to lit it with a small flame from a matchstick.
Captain Frida knew the history of my crisis with the Council of Griot. He knew my late father was the longest serving leader of the fraternity and that I rebelled by going to the college. He always wanted to know more but I didn’t have more to tell him.
“Are you deaf!” he barked and jostled me.
“No sir!” I was afraid.
“Better,” he said and continued sucking at his cigarette. I wasn’t comfortable with him, luckily the utility wagon roared to a halt; Mutabi was inside with the other corporal behind the wheel. It was time to go. I sat in front with Mutabi while Captain Frida commanded the corporal to return to his duty since Mutabi knows the route and had learnt how to drive better than anyone.
With Captain Frida at the back seat, I sat in silence and watched the fascinating hills as we drove past the barrack and moved up North on the dusty, serpentine road. We drove past the village where a witch was stoned to death some months back, and then we came by the river that flowed from the great River Niger. There were young boys bathing half naked in the river; they were excited and splashing water at young girls passing by.
The trip to Sahara border was boring because we drove in silence, and it was dry-hot. Captain Frida was dozing off and occasionally smack himself on the face to wade off the buzzing flies. It was a moment my reflection wavered around my life and what was left of it. Many thought flooded my mind about Musa and why Professor Kimberly, a man of prestige, was coming to visit him and not me. I daydreamed about travelling with Professor back to England but something kept me sad, Musa had every chance to take Salima away. I had sleepless nights worrying over the issue. I felt the hurt and pain when people talked about him in a deifying manner, or whenever I see his face in the newspapers with Salima holding his hand like they were already married. I never knew where the hatred stemmed from, may be from my last experience with Musa. He had humiliated me when I desperately begged him to lend me some money after all I’d swallowed my pride to go to his house. Salima didn’t matter anymore; she was ready to become his third wife and hoping to give him a son. Musa told me since I never believed that death didn’t kill, then I have no business with him, I was nothing but an orderly. That was the utterance that threw me off-balance.
“Is it a crime to be an orderly?” I said aloud to myself. And as if Mutabi knew what was on my mind, he replied,
“Only a monkey stays long in the cage.” Mutabi retorted. I glanced at him and we both said,
“It is a monkey business.”
I smiled with an assurance that I still have him on my side. My confidence re-affirmed. It must be done. It just must be done.
* * *
Professor Kimberly and his secretary (I later got to know her name was Mary) were somewhat interesting people. Mary was very quiet and absorbing, and that drew my attention to her. According to their narration, they’d sneaked out of England, when the war was fierce and had travelled via the desert with a band of Nomads and some Arab merchants to get to where we did pick them up. They laughed loud and happy in the balcony with colonel Françoise and Captain Frida watched in silence but drinking himself crazy. It was a small gathering of old friends and intellectuals. I was in the kitchen with two other cooks making something special for the supper while I eave-drop to confirm why Professor was in town and if he would mention Musa’s name but nothing happened.
I left Colonel’s lodge very late in the night, and it was a hard long day for me. The moon was full in the pale sky while I dragged my staggering tired body towards the dormitory. I could hear their distant chatter still echoing behind me - Colonel’s frequent comment about the war and their bravery and Mary’s enchanting opinion about the regiment. Yes, Mary. She stuck to my memory that I couldn’t get her off my mind. I was thinking about her while I lay down. I wished she would be my wife. I shut my eyes at the thought but soon drifted to the dream world where we got married and flew to England.
Something woke me up. There was a pandemonium in the dormitory. Some of the recruits rushed outside. Then the siren was wailing. An emergency call. I grabbed the edge of my bed and jumped down, still struggling with the sleep that soon eluded me. Already it was dawn.
There was mayhem outside the regiment; the entire town seemed to have woken up to a shocking news- Musa the gravedigger was dead. Old women clutched their wrappers and wailed in loud ululation, young girls rolled on the dusty road. He really died and no one could ascertain if it was of natural cause or not. They couldn’t even find his corpse. Some youths admitted they saw a stranger in a black hood, perhaps the grim reaper, drinking local gin and talking to Musa by the street in the mid night when the owl was hooting.
Whatever it was Musa was gone; in any case he was death’s best friend. Details about Musa’s private life emerged that he had his first born son from an estranged woman in a neighbouring village, some were surprised that Musa left without informing them about it. Many hoped he was coming back to give a detailed account about how he met the woman. Others envied this son who had come to claim his father’s outstanding property and bones credited to his care.
It was a big talk of the town that his Royal Highness declared a week as public holiday in his honour with cultural carnival. I took permission from Colonel Françoise that I have to be at the ceremony though I was curious to see what Musa’s son looked like. Colonel Françoise gave me two days to sort out any traditional rites and also sent his condolence message.
Musa’s house was congested with crowd, bards and dancers for a weeklong entertainment. Salima looked unkempt and tired, seated quietly in a corner and couldn’t look up at me because of the shame. The patriarch had a meeting with the household members including the professional mourners, gravediggers and coffin makers; Musa called them next of kin. The shocking revelation came when the traditional elder announced that Musa only left one instruction in his will that the son should take one thing from the investment and the rest should be transferred to his favourite slave who had worked and served him.
Musa’s son was furious and hurled all sort of abusive words at the elder, the wives went mad and laments at such inconsideration, the crowd roared in anger at the cruel decision thinking it was a joke. Others admitted that if the slave had shown keen interest in Musa’s orthodox profession than the son who went to the college, Musa did well to connect all his property to the servant. The meeting was adjourned to the following day. The slave was excited and jubilant. The crowd dispersed in mixed agreement and suspense.
I went and introduce myself to the lad as his late father’s friend. He really was Musa’s look alike except that he was tall and fair-skin which I assumed was hereditary from his mother.
“A man is not a monkey because he was born in a monkey cage.”
“Who cares about monkey?” the son snarled, still sobbing. He looked groomed and educated.
“Well, it is a monkey business.” I replied then whispered something to his ear.
The following day, I was waiting for Mutabi to meet me for a drink. I haven’t seen him since the day Musa was declared missing. The young boy came rushing towards me; he said his father appeared to him in the dream complaining bitterly that some souls had ambushed him on his way to Paradise for digging their grave too deep, just few feet to hell. So they made it faster to hell. Even their coffins were made with inferior woods and the epitaph was spelt wrongly as: “REIST IN PAFECT PIECES”
The boy alleged that Musa had tried to persuade his assailant that the slave who wrote it had never been to any school. Instead, Musa was made to start his own hell outside the gate to avoid double hell from other souls if they knew he was around.
I smiled but couldn’t make much meaning from his absurd dream,
“Just like his father.” I thought. I walked him to the waiting crowd as the lad mounted the podium,
“Dear villagers, friends and neighbours, you said my father wanted me to choose one thing. And I do just that…” he paused and looked at me. I was in the crowd, I nodded slowly wishing Mutabi was there with me.
“Go ahead and do it quickly!” the slave sneered.
“All I choose is this slave to serve me for the rest of his life which means all his possession will belong to me.”
The slave screamed, everyone murmured, the patriarch nodded at the boy’s college wisdom.
I smiled and glanced around; I was surprised to see Mutabi by my side.
“Well planned.” he said, breathing heavily and smelling of gin.
“What did you do to Musa?” I asked, still unsure of Mutabi’s assignment.
“The secret portion makes people walk miles into the desert.”
“Ah! I didn’t ask you to make him mad! We only planned to kidnap him!”
“What’s the difference? Captain Frida didn’t want us to use the barn so I figure out the best way to prove my concoction is to make him hit the road. I guess he should have trekked as far as Egypt by now.”
I stood speechless and shocked, why would Mutabi make Musa go mad just to sell his mad portions against the Germans? So everyone hated Musa this much including Captain Frida?
“Salima is yours anyway if you still want her back. She helped put it in his food.” Mutabi said.