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A Secret With Endimbaekena: Growing up in Sierra Leone

Karamoh Kabba, November 15, 2006

A street vendor in Sierra Leone, holding cakes in a tray on her head. (Photo: Georges Gobet / AFP-Getty Images)

When it rains, it pours: and this year, it has been pouring on and off throughout the rainy season, in mid August, when it rains for seven days and seven nights on end. It has been six days since the seven-days rain began.

Food is in short supply, but not for the orchard in our backyard. Abounded by nutrients from the showers, it blooms with greenish and glossy leaves beneath films of dew that shed decaying red, brown, and black leaves that drench in dripping drains and carpet the orchard floor along the path from my mother's house.

Green fruits hang heavy on the trees on both sides of a narrow path. Seedless mangoes and guavas with seeds as tough as tiny ball bearings. Beneath the belly of the hill 50 yards down the road, my mother's rice meadow is chubby with milky fillings, struggling to blossom on swampland previously excavated for diamonds.

Yesterday's rain was a combination of torrential downpour, showers, and drizzles. A pall of darkness from overhanging clouds reigned over the orchard in a weather condition that was as gloomy as the prospect for the next meal.

Yet we are imbued with anticipation for a prosperous upcoming dry season when the blooming orchard and rice meadow will swap their pale or green fruits for red or yellow produce.

Sefadu is a densely populated metropolis of Kono district, with over 100,000 residents. My family lives on its southern edge. Downtown is flamboyantly lively around the clock. Daytime traders move helter-skelter along its sidewalks in search of good deals. Like pollinating flowers, wealthy merchants hoist double steel gates that display merchandise-crammed supermarkets on both sides of its main road. Diamond dealers line up plush cars in driveways and drive rugged trucks on parkways. A mushroom of theaters and nightclubs aglow with neon lights in the evenings is a typical Sefadu nightlife scene.

Many residents here are diamond miners, but for some reason I do not know, my parents have little or no interest in diamond mining. This city suburb has become an attractive settlement for them, where even the previously excavated diamond fields are barely suitable for swampland rice cultivation. The constant blasting of granite for diamonds at two kimberlite dikes not too far down the road is a constant menace. We will run for our lives three miles, three times a day sometimes, as the dynamite from the twin dikes are set off in open-air blasting. We cannot afford to take chances any more since a rock killed our neighbor's daughter three years ago.

For now, we depend on imported rice, which is also in short supply. We ate the only meal of the day late last night and I found it difficult to sleep because of a stomachache. It was one of those days that my mother barely makes it through — her daily struggle to provide us our daily bread. We often eat about two hours earlier, which gives me time for some activities before bedtime.

Tomorrow will be the seventh day of the seven-days rain. Last night's rain was the heaviest. The sound of raindrops on the leaves of the orchard floor was soothing. It brought some succor that relieved my stomachache, which I got from sleeping too soon after eating too heavy, too late. The gentle muddle of all three types of rain on our corrugated zinc roof was comforting. It was like a ballad from smooth voices of traditional instruments: drums, ago-goes, kaylanes, and batas. I would barter my stomachache for a sound sleep throughout the night in this mix of what sounded like traditional tunes on the roof and the soothing raindrops in the orchard floor.

I felt a slap on my back from my mother's bare hand that woke me up. Not only was I late for school, I had also urinated in my uniform shorts.

"Who says you could sleep in your uniform pants?" she asked.

I jumped down from my bunk bed, crossed my right hand over my shoulder blades down to my upper spine. I thrust my chest out, rubbed the spot, screamed with excruciating pain so loud that the rest of my eleven siblings lined up outside to look on in great fear. My mother's anger often trickles down on the entire family. At times like this, she recalls everyone's previous mischief and beats everyone at once in frustration, often leaving in her wake a pandemonium of crying children.

Her belligerence does not interfere with her knack to turn a penny into two pennies. She is always in a hurry to do something or to go somewhere and has very little time for us. She has no room for petulance. It has been a difficult situation for me, especially when I see other children having playtime with their parents during P.T.A. meetings, which my mother has no time for.

My father is just here; he comes in and goes out again. I do not quite understand his role in the family. If he contributes to our welfare, I do not know how. All that is visible is my mother's actions: she haggles in the marketplace with wholesalers to make ends meet, hoes the garden, weeds the rice meadow, cooks our meal, or simply cleans the house.

"I thought you had your prayday (Ramadan) suit on yesterday when you left for the concert? How did you end up urinating in your uniform? Bane neh! Maobally."

Whack! Whack! Her hands came down on my jaw right and left in quick succession. My jaw had been left vulnerable to her anger as I rubbed my back in pain from the first slap.

"You are going to school regardless, in these wet trousers. Hurry-up!" she said. When she turned around, my siblings galloped away in fear.

The prayday gown she took out for me to wear to the school concert yesterday was not appropriate for the occasion, but I had to go anyway because the concert was mandatory.

She keeps the gown in her trunk for special days like yesterday. I actually have no other decent clothes. I have only one uniform that I wear Monday through Friday before she washes it on the weekend. It is always very shabby by the end of the school year. Though, it is the coolest set of clothes I have. I have much more self-confidence when I wear my uniform, unlike the well-kept prayday gown that is not so cool.

My mother had just bought me a new uniform at the beginning of this school year: a pair of brown khaki shorts and a blue cotton shirt, tailored to my size by a youthful tailor. I particularly like the shorts, which have a French cut, with straight pockets on the sides, two back pockets, and three splits on each side of the front. It is not very common for a little boy to have a uniform that is so stylish. The shorts fit me so well that I hardly take them off after school. Indeed my mother has beaten me several times for failing to take them off after school. But I am fed up with wearing a gown or a locally weaved set of clothes and a little white hat like a little imam on every special occasion that I go to.

"Here's a banana. Food will be ready by the time you return," she said and sent me off to the concert that evening. I had a banana for breakfast that morning before I left for school. These were green bananas she kept in a cupboard in her room, where they ripened slowly. On days that she does not have ripe bananas in the cupboard, she boils the green ones for us. She alternates bananas with mangoes or guavas. During harvest time in the dry season, she cooks enough rice to save some for us to eat at breakfast before we go to school.

She keeps the bananas in her room so that we will not eat them all at once. But it is good she does that, because our house has many mice burrows. It is a large, seven-room mud brick house with an unfurnished living room that is dusty because it has no paving. The strong smell of ripe bananas and the food crumbs from our late dinners make it vulnerable to mice burrowing. In fact, the mice will eat the food stuck to bottom of our feet while we sleep if we do not wash them properly before bedtime.

My mother cooks outside on a makeshift fireplace, tree large rocks that hold the pot over a log fire. When it rains, she moves the rocks to the veranda where they have been since the seven-days rain began.

As soon as she engaged my elder sister in a discussion that evening, I sneaked back into the house, changed into my school khaki shorts and my sister's V-neck T-shirt, and left for the concert unnoticed. When I returned, I forgot to take the shorts off again. My mind was preoccupied with the conversation I had had with a female student who otherwise would have snubbed me in my little gown and hat. But my mother was too busy with dinnertime to notice who was wearing what.

I ate my late dinner, washed it down with plenty of water, and went to bed watching the ceiling in a mix of great satisfaction about my concert night, pain from my stomachache, and soothing sound from the raindrops and the showers.

In the morning, my mother escorted me halfway down the road in my wet pants, shouting and pushing the back of my head: "Hurry up before you are late."

It was very embarrassing for me to go to school in a uniform that was drenched in my own urine. As soon as she left me alone to complete the rest of the long walk to school, I had another idea. Instead of going to school, I attempted to hang out with some wayward boys in the township. But they did not want me around. They always hang out on the street corners because they do not like to go to school. They gamble, pick pockets, and steal money and food from local merchants. They call me a coward because I do not have the nerve to join in their activities.

It was inconceivable to me to go to school in soiled and stinking pants owing to the provocation I would attract. I have been the butt of provocation for many things, from ragged and dirty uniforms to bare feet to lack of money or food to eat during lunchtime at school. Thus, many students do not want to befriend me, which always attracts provocation upon those who do so. On days that I did not go to school, I would be all alone.

At about 2 p.m., I sat in my usual lookout post on a concrete slab by a building in the Maraka compound. At a corner, at the edge of a cluster of houses, I sat hunched against the wall, patiently looking straight ahead for the women to come out with food remnants. There is always plenty of food here in this overpopulated immigrant community of Gambian diamond traders. The population here is dense, the area congested. The roofs of the houses almost touch each other. The drainage system is shoddy. Overflowing rubbish runs down half-open gutters into a little river called Mwende.

Mwende runs down adjacent to the Maraka compound. I can see the women as they come to empty garbage bins and return to their houses. The stench of food, flooded gutters, and human waste is very strong in the afternoon at the Maraka compound.

I can also smell fresh food from households that were either eating or dishing. At around this same time, every day, a waste truck pulls up to pump out human excrement from a latrine, or some broken pipes are oozing waste, especially those at the back of the buildings, forcefully emitting foul-smelling steam like mini volcanoes.

Besides, the Maraka compound is entirely unlike everything in my own neighborhood, where our bodies feed on their own muscles during the rainy season. Basic human needs, from food to clothing, are plentiful here all year round. Even the food remnants that I am patiently waiting for is sufficient to feed several families a few miles south.

As I pondered why these Maraka immigrants waste so much food while the locals go with empty stomachs, from where I was seated, I saw Endimbaekena, our family dog. Endimbaekena and Fidel were puppies when my brother and I found them at this same place just a few days after they were born. We snatched both puppies away before their mother returned from fending for food in the garbage bins and took them home. The other puppy was hot tempered and we named him Fidel because my brother and I had listened to a European evangelist who had mentioned in his sermon the name of a hot-tempered communist. A carpenter who needed a hot-tempered puppy took Fidel off our hands. I had brought Endimbaekena here once after that and he has since remembered to come back on time, on a daily basis.

He was seated at a visible distance, but too focused to notice me. The acute concentration had overcome even his powerful olfactory sense. We were both looking in the same direction from different angles, in great expectation for the Maraka women to bring forth the food remnants to the trash bins. Many other dogs had also taken strategic positions. They too were waiting patiently for the women. But others growled, snarled, and barked at each other, making a brave dogs' battle spectacle.

From over the rooftops on the opposite side from my position, vultures stretched their wings and let go their crooked-clawed clutch on mango trees close by the garbage bins in this no man's land, then landed on the bins in a single jump to scavenge on the carcasses. They scared away the agama lizards that were feeding there, and the lizards glided up the walls of the buildings in haste.

Each time I cross Endimbaekena's path here, we both walk back home together, bellies full, and my mother expresses great appreciation and love for him. Indeed, she does not know of my secret with Endimbaekena.

*Endimbaekena means "where there's little for survival."

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