By Saah Millimono

As Sonie squatted to fan the fire she saw, coming down a footpath at the outskirts of the village, a group of men in raffia skirts and bare from the waist up, each of them carrying a machete. It was early morning, a few hours before sunrise, and the full moon had turned the world the color of silver.

Sonie had just turned fourteen years of age. Her mother, and even most of the villagers, would often say that it would not be long before she went to the Sande Bush, where girls of her age, or sometimes younger, had something done to their privates which, afterwards, made them ripe and ready for marriage. And as though to tell how really true this was, young women who had been to the Sande Bush would often show to Sonie tribal scars which were round their waits and ran almost down to their buttocks. These scars, together with an overlapping of colorful waist beads worn round the waist, Sonie was told, heighten the potential of a young woman marrying earlier than her peers, since they fill men with greater craving as they feasted with their eyes on the young women who went bare from the waist up round the villages, swaying their hips as though their buttocks would drop.

But this going round the village half-naked had been in olden times, so that now young women hid their beads and tribal scars under their clothing, to be seen by their husbands only. Sonie had heard that this change was due to the fact that people were becoming more civilized, or at least had taken to a brand of Western civilization which had spread, like fire that eats up a thatched roof, to the villages to defile the rites and customs of the ancestors. But of course Western civilization was not the only threat, because those who had left the villages and been educated in the city did not only come back wanting not as much as to speak their tribal dialects, even, but proclaiming to all and sundry that everybody but themselves was dwelling in darkness and superstition.

Now Sonie, fanning the fire as she did each morning to heat water for her father, wonder with a shudder to whom the men in raffia skirts were coming so early in the morning. Maybe they are going to Satta, she thought, looking up from some bits of firewood which she was pushing into the hearth and towards the men in the distance. I heard somebody say yesterday that Satta was going to the Sande Bush, she said to herself. But if her parents have any sense at all they would not let her go to such a terrible place. What would they do to help her if afterwards she could no longer bare a child? Nothing! They would only sit there and have the poor girl suffer for nothing. Satta could even die like that young woman who caught that bad sickness. And then everybody would have her to blame and say that it should be a warning for those of us who do not want to go to the Sande Bush. But why should people ever want to go to such a place, when all they do is cut you open and leave you to bleed for nothing, as though they have added one drop to your blood? These unspoken thoughts from a relatively uneducated country girl who had all her life lived in the village, however, were not her own but those she had got from the aid workers. In fact, so affected she was by what she had heard from the aid workers that she felt as though a new dawn had just risen on the horizon, filled with splendor and beauty.

The men in raffia skirts, the edges of their machetes glistening dully in the moonlight, entered the village. Many people had since woken up, some making for the market with the harvest of the day before, some performing their domestic tasks, some heading for their farms. The crowing of cocks, which had since broken the stillness of the morning, could be heard at random. The birds in the palm trees had not yet broken into songs but a few could be seen flying past the village, the sky above them slowly turning to light, and heading, doubtless, to the rice farms which were on the outskirts and beyond.

Sonie rose and went into the house to fetch a bucket, in which she could pour her father’s bath water, only to return, drop the bucket, scream at the top of her voice, and as if she had suddenly grown cold all over, stand trembling and rotted to the spot. In front of her stood the men with their machetes, and for the first time the young girl noticed that their bodies were painted with chalk. And she was so terrified that she became as pale as the chalk with which the men had painted themselves.

“Where is your father?” asked a man who stood in front of the group, powerfully-built, with broad shoulders and a mop of thick hair that all but covered his ears.

To be cont’d.


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