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, naked 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 and her mother and most of the villagers would often say that it would not be long before she was taken to the Sande bush, where girls of her age, or sometimes younger, had something done to their private parts, which afterwards made them ripe and ready for marriage.
Then one day a group of three men and a woman, who had come from the city, came to the village. They said that they worked for an aid organization owned by some white people, whose purpose, among other things, was to show that their customs, including the Sande bush, were bad and that the villagers were dwelling in superstition.
Although the aid workers were banned from spreading their beliefs in the village, the aid workers would on some days gather in the market. There they would distribute tracts and stage dramas. The villagers could hardly ignore the aid workers. Soon some of villages began to think that perhaps there was something wrong with their customs. Not long after, some of the young women, including Sonie herself, began to refuse to go to the Sande bush.
Now, fanning the fire as she did each morning to heat water for her father, Sonie wondered with a shudder who the men in raffia skirts were coming to.
The edges of their machetes glistened in the moonlight, as the men entered the village.
Sonie went into the house, fetch a bucket to pour her father’s bath water, but only to return, drop the bucket, scream at the top of her voice, as she stood trembling in front with the men with the machetes.
“Where is your father?” asked a man who stood in front of the group, powerfully-built, with broad shoulders and thick hair and moustaches. The man was the village’s blacksmith. Choked with fear, Sonie did not answer.
“I said where is your father?” the blacksmith repeated, tightening his grip on his machete.
“He’s inside the house,” Sonie said, her voice trembling.
“Go and call him at once,” the blacksmith said.
Sonie turned and ran into the house and soon came out with her father, followed by her mother Kebbeh, short and plump woman of thirty. Mr. Kollie was tall and thin.
A few days before, they had had a meeting with the village chief and elders. The meeting had not gone very well. Sonie’s parents had not taken kindly to the way in which they had been spoken to by the chief and elders, who made demands which were nearly impossible. Yet Kollie and his wife had sat quietly through the whole meeting with a calm composure that belied his anger. His silent anger was directed at these people who were trying to extort things from him by means of the Sande society, to which they had attached so many laws as to make the Ten Commandments pale in comparison. He knew that many of these rules had been invented for selfish ends; that initiation into either the Poro or Sande Societies was now no longer a matter of traditional kinship but of greed and vanity.
“We can no longer ignore what is happening among us,” the village chief had said at the end of the meeting, hammering his wooden staff heavily on to the floor. “Our young people no longer show any respect to our customs 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.
Getting the money for the initiation ceremony of their daughter had been particularly tasking and Sonie’s parents had begged others to buy from them a few acres of land. 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, smiling broadly.
“Well then come and take away our daughter,” Sonie’s father said, and ground his teeth.
Feeling betrayed Sonie looked up at her father, terrified. “No, father!”
“Go with them, Sonie,” her mother said. “It is our custom and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“I care nothing for customs,” Sonie said with defiance and ran into the house.
For a few moments the men from the Sande bush made no response, as though the young girl’s refusal had caught them by surprise. But suddenly gnashing his teeth and waving his machete, the blacksmith, followed by three others, ran into the house. Seconds later the girl could be heard crying 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. The girl’s parents, who had merely stepped aside as the four men charged into the house, stood by helplessly.
Waving their machetes and gnashing their teeth, the men turned and began to run out of the village.
They did not stop running until they were well on the outskirts of the village. Despite their ages — and most of them were in their fifties or sixties — they ran with the agility of a monkey.
Hanging across the shoulder of the blacksmith was all Sonie could do to let herself be carried away. Her head and stomach hurt, her legs were full of cramps, and being jostled roughly by the running blacksmith had all but left her in a swoon.
The place in which the initiation ceremony would take place was part of a number of thatched huts surrounded by a high bamboo wall, across a 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 would at once become invisible; so that there was no telling them from the forest.
Soon the blacksmith and the others reached the river. Now it was believed that a mysterious old man came often to ferry people across the river, and so the blacksmith and the others sat on the grass, waiting.
“Do you think he will come?” the blacksmith said after a while, turning to look up the river.
“He always come,” another replied. “We need only wait a little longer.”
The blacksmith turned to look at the 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 to our custom.”
“We should have driven those aid workers from the village as quickly as possible,” said a third man.”But we let them stay long enough to influence our children with whatever it is that pleases white people. And what do they know about our customs, these white people who come to this country with their aid work?”
“They know nothing about our customs,” said a fourth man. “But we are to blame because their money is sweet in our mouths.”
There followed a moment of silence. With a sad face each man looked in the distance, as though in that distance their customs and way of life were disappearing forever and they could do nothing other than watch with a sense of total helplessness.
Soon the old man with the canoe appeared. One after the other the men from the Sande bush were taken across the river, from which they made their way into dense undergrowth until they came to the heart of the forest. The blacksmith still carried the girl, who had since fallen unconsciousness, across his shoulder.
At length, they reached the bamboo huts and immediately a group of women with mask and painted faces, speaking in a strange language and looking as if they were possessed, crowded around. Sonie was led into one of the huts and laid on an earthen floor. Then a woman came in with some crude instruments, followed by four other women. She looked to be the head of the others, heavily-built and wore on her face a mask that would have terrified the dead. Carrying a knife in her hand, she bent over the girl lying on the floor.
As if by reflex, Sonie woke up and screamed.