As Tennen squatted to fan the fire, she saw a group of men coming down a footpath at the fringes of the village. Dressed in raffia skirts, and naked from the waist up, each of them carried a machete. It was early morning, a few hours before sunrise.
Tennen was fourteen years of age. Her mother and most of the villagers would whisper to her that it would not be long before she went to the Sande Bush, where girls of her age were circumcised in order to get them ready for marriage. Already, some of the young women who had been to the Sande Bush would often show Tennen tribal scars around their waits, which ran almost down to their buttocks. These scars, together with a number of colorful beads worn round the waist, she was told, were used to entice men and heighten the potential of a village girl marrying earlier, especially as she wore nothing but a piece of cloth round her waist, and revealing her bare breasts.
But this going round the village half-naked had been in olden times. Young women now wore their beads and tribal scars under their clothing, to be seen only by their husbands.
Once, a group of three men and a woman who had been educated in the city came back to the village with some white people who wanted to build a school. It was from these people the villagers learned that some of their customs, including going to the Sande Bush, was bad. The white people had brought along a dummy, which had the crude semblance of a woman’s genitals. With the aid of a knife, they had shown the villagers that cutting a woman’s genitals, as was done in the Sande Bush, disregarded the rights of the woman, especially if she did not choose to be circumcised. But the villagers had laughed and walked away.
But that did not stop the white people, and they had gone about the villages distributing tracts and staging dramas. These the villagers could hardly ignore. Soon some of them began to think that perhaps there was something wrong with their customs. Not long after, some of the young women refused to go to the Sande Bush.
One of these young women was Tennen. Though she had not told anyone, she felt an almost primeval fear of the Sande Bush, and had vowed never to go there. But just how she would prevent this, she did not know herself. Already, the chief and elders were leading people off to the Sande Bush by force, and there was nothing she could do about it.
But much as Tennen had been influenced by the white people and the villagers who had been educated in the city, so had she also been persuaded by the stories which she heard from a few of the young women who had been initiated into the Sande Society. These told how they were tied tight, gagged, dragged and beaten if they so much as raise their voices in protest of the crude, sometimes dull and tainted instruments that were being used to prod, stab, and cut their privates, of how they bled profusely and how a few of them had become barren.
Now fanning the fire as she did each morning to heat water for her parents, Tennen shuddered when she saw the men in raffia skirts. Maybe they are going to Satta, she thought. ‘I heard somebody say yesterday that Satta was going to the Sande Bush. 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?’
The men in raffia skirts entered the village, the edges of their machetes glistening dully in the moonlight. Many of the villagers had since woken up. Some were heading off to the market with the previous day’s harvest, some performing their domestic tasks, while others were preparing to go to their farms.
The crowing of cocks, which had since broken the stillness of the morning, could be heard at random.
Tennen rose and went into the house to fetch a bucket. But when she came back, the men in raffia skirts were standing in front of the house. She screamed, dropped the bucket, and stood trembling. The men, their bodies painted with chalk, smiled at her. Then one of them said:
“Where is your father?”
The man was powerfully built and Tennen knew him to be the village blacksmith, Mr. Kemokai. But trembling and frightened as she was, she could say nothing.
“I said where is your father?” said the blacksmith, and tightened his grip on his machete.
“He’s inside the house,” Tennen said finally, her voice shaky.
“Go and call him,” the blacksmith said.
Tennen ran into the house and soon came out with her father, followed by her mother. Tennen’s father, Mr. Kollie, was tall and thin, but sinewy, with a narrow face, thin lips and bushy eyebrows. His wife, Kebbeh, was a short, plumb woman of thirty. Tennen’s parents were hard working, and had not only the largest rice farm in all the villages, but also ran a goat shed from which they sometimes contributed a goat during the festivals of the planting and harvest seasons. Tennen’s parents saw the men standing there with machetes in front of their house, knew why they had come, and were so angry they could hardly speak.
Just the day before yesterday, they had had a meeting with the village chief and elders. The meeting had not gone very well. Tennen’s parents had not taken kindly to the way in which they had been spoken to by the chief and elders, who had made demands which were near impossible. But Kollie had sat quietly throughout the meeting with a calm composure that belied his anger at these people who were trying to extort things from him by means of the Sande Society. He knew that many of the rules and obligations had been invented for selfish ends, and that initiation into either the Poro or Sande Societies was now no longer a matter of traditional kinship, but of vanity.
“You’ll bring tomorrow to the Sande Bush a male and a female goat, the biggest and fattest of all the goats in your shed,” the village chief said.
“That shall be done,” said Kebbeh.
“You’ll bring also a bolt of country cloth, five large containers of palm oil, four bags of parboiled rice, a carton of bath soap, as well as everything needed for your daughter’s initiation.”
“Everything shall be done.”
“Last of all, you are required to pay three hundred fifty American dollars, and to each of the medicine men – I think there are four in the Sande Bush – you will give a plot of land.”
“That, too, shall be done without fail.”
“We can no longer ignore what is happening among us,” the village chief said, and brought down his wooden staff heavily on the floor. “Our young people no longer show any respect for our custom, and would sooner desecrate an ancestral shrine than they can begin to suck at the breasts of their mothers.”
With that, Kollie and his wife had been dismissed from the meeting.
They had sold a few of their goats, some cash crops, and rice seeds. At last, having accumulated the three hundred and fifty American dollars, along with the other expenses which they had been ordered to pay, they took all this to the chief and elders. It was then agreed that the blacksmith and a few other men would come early in the morning of the following day to lead Tennen to the Sande Bush. But after what Kollie and his wife had gone through to meet the ceremony obligations they were not pleased at seeing these men with machetes so early in the morning.
“Have we broken a law that you should come to our house so early in the morning with machetes?” Kebbeh said.
“Nobody said you have broken a law,” the blacksmith said. “We are here early in the morning because our custom says so.”
“Well then come and take our daughter,” Tennen’s father said, grinding his teeth.
“No! Father!” Tennen screamed.
“Go with them, Tennen,” her mother said. “It’s our custom. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“I do not care about customs,” Tennen said with defiance, “and nobody will force me.” Her mother tried to plead with her, but she turned away from her and ran into the house.
But suddenly gnashing his teeth and waving his machete, the blacksmith, followed by three others, dashed into the house. Seconds later, Tennen could be heard yelling and screaming at the top of her voice amid a clatter of pots and cooking utensils. Then her voice was muffled. A moment later, the blacksmith, carrying the girl across his shoulder, came out of the house with the others. Tennen’s mouth and hands were tied. She struggled and tried to break free, but the blacksmith held her firmly. Then the traditional men, waving their machetes and gnashing their teeth, began to run out of the village.
They did not stop until they were some distance from the outskirts of the village. As they ran, the last man behind would suddenly stop in his tracks and, as though he thought someone was in pursuit, stand gnashing his teeth and gripping his machete so tight the veins stood out on his arm. And then he would continue running until he reached and overtook the others. Despite their ages – most of them were in their fifties and sixties – the men ran with the agility of a monkey. The blacksmith seemed to carry no more than a feather across his shoulder.
At last, they reached a hillock overlooking a river and came to a stop. The blacksmith laid the girl down on the grass, and the traditional men seated themselves. They were deep in the forest. The voices of birds and animals, distant and nearby, could be heard all about.
The place in which the initiation ceremony would take place, a number of thatched huts surrounded by a high bamboo wall barely visible through the foliage, was just across the river. If strangers to the forest happened to stumble upon these thatched huts or were so foolhardy as to think they could discover them, they immediately became invisible. There was a lot of silence surrounding these huts. For a long time they had inspired fear and awe. A man or woman initiated into the Poro or Sande Society was sworn to such secrecy that any mention of whatever took place within those bamboo walls could lead to instant death. At least, that was what the villagers had been led to believe.
A canoe rowed by an old man came often to ferry people across the river. Thus the blacksmith and the others sat waiting. It was believed that this old man bore no allegiance to anyone, that he and the canoe were ghosts, and that he roamed the river in search of passengers whom he charged nothing, a duty which seemed to earn him some kind of pleasure. But this old man had a sad and illusive air, so the story went, and neither smiled nor spoke to anybody.
“Do you think he will come?” the blacksmith said, turning to look up the river.
“He always does come,” said the village carpenter. “We need only wait a little longer.”
Mr. Kemokia, the blacksmith, turned to look at the young girl lying on the grass beside him. “If we hadn’t used force she would never have come with us. It is a shame that many of our young people no longer show respect for our customs.”
“We should have driven those white people, along with those of our own people who claimed to be educated and civilized, from the village as quickly as possible,” said the carpenter. “But we let them stayed long enough to influence our children. And what do they know about our customs, these white people who come to this country?”
“But even if we had driven them away,” said Tamba, “we still would have had our own children to deal with because most of them have begun to think like the white man.”
“And who could have imagined a time when this would happen,” said Jallah, “especially since we have known nothing but our customs? It has been with us for as long as any of us can remember. Suddenly the white man and a few educated people come, everything falls apart, and our young people are behaving no better than the white man. What if we the old people who hold our customs sacred are dead and it is left to a faithless generation to retain for posterity? Surely everything our ancestors from time in immemorial have held sacred would disappear in an instant, and the land would become so accursed that the ancestors would no longer wish to see our faces, let alone accept our sacrifices.”
“The land is accursed already,” said the blacksmith.
Now, the old man with the canoe was a long time coming. The traditional men began to fall asleep one after the other. The blacksmith was the first, and soon the others followed. They slept so soundly that when the sun rose above the treetops and shone in their faces none of them stirred. The air smelled of green vegetation, the warmth of the forest, and the light breeze that blew in from the river brought with it the smell of the river’s muddy banks. Birds sang in the treetops.
Tennen lay on her back beside the blacksmith, one hand across her face to shield her eyes from the sun. She had woken when the sun came up. But each time she tried to sit up her strength failed her. Her calves felt swollen and burned with a numbness that left her feeling as though paralyzed. She lay listening to the forest sounds.
Then, suddenly, what looked like a log lying beside her caught her attention, and she turned to look at the prostrate form of the blacksmith, his broad back turned towards her. ‘Was he asleep? But why?’ she wondered.
She grunted and sat up with effort, and suddenly couldn’t believe her own eyes. The men had all fallen asleep, laying on their backs, their sides and their stomachs. ‘Why had they all fallen asleep? Must I wake them?’ she wondered. But then it occurred to her that they had been taking her to the Sande Bush, and to wake them would be a terrible mistake. If anything, this was the moment she needed to escape, but to where?
She turned to look at the impenetrable forest, and knew at once she was lost. Then she turned to look at the river, and saw an old man with one eye standing in a canoe, and screamed. The old man regarded the young girl with a kindly expression and even seemed surprised that she was afraid of him.
A brief silence followed. Then the old man said: “Have no fear of me, little one. For generations I have roamed this river. Come, and I will take you to where you are going.”
Reassured by the old man’s voice, Tennen stopped trembling. Slowly she looked up at the old man. Despite his one eye he looked anything but evil. Gaunt, thin and bent over with age, he had a head of white hair and a full, even beard. He was dressed in a sleeveless multicolored gown, which reached down to his feet, and left his arms and shoulders bare. In his right hand he held the canoe’s paddle.
Tennen barely knew how it happened. But the next moment she found she was sitting beside the old man in the canoe. All this while the traditional men lying asleep on the knoll had still not moved, sleeping as though they were rocks.
The canoe had gone round a bend in the river when suddenly Tennen said:
“My dear old man, can you kindly take me back to the village and to my parents?”
“As you wish,” said the old man.
Almost as suddenly as the old man had spoken, Tennen found she was back in the village. In her hand was the bucket for which she had gone into the house. She looked in front of her at the village, and saw that there were some men in raffia skirts going down a footpath past her father’s house. Trembling, she rubbed her eyes and looked again, but the men had disappeared round the bend of another hut. ‘Have I been dreaming?’ she wondered.
“Tennen, have you carried my hot water to the bathroom yet?” she heard her father called from inside the house.
“I’m coming, father,” she said.
She poured hot water into the bucket and took it to the bathing shed.