Friday, May 17, 2013

The Rain, the Boy, and the Lion by Bradford Philen

Deep in the mangrove forests of rural Senegal, Gorgui tells his son a story about the mystical powers of his Great-Great Uncle Malang, in Bradford Philen's unique African fairytale.

On Wednesday it rained all day throughout the entire country of Senegal. It was a shivering, but wondrous rain. Mali recorded no precipitation, except for in villages like Ambidédi, Satadougou, and Faléa that lay near the border with Senegal and the rivers that divide the two countries. It was the same in Guinea and Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau and in The Gambia, Senegal's little brother. No rain. Yet a heavy cloud sat over Senegal. For a Wednesday in March this was unusual. Marvelous. The rains came in late June, but never in March. It was clearly an act of Allah, God, the Creator. In Dakar it was proclaimed the "day that Macky Sall cleaned the streets." Sall, elected the new President just two days earlier, must have prayed for the rain, the people charged, to rid the streets of the mayhem. There had been eleven dead in less than a month: all victims of the political protests.

The same rain muddled Omar. Some 400km south of Dakar on île de Karabane, deep in the delta of the Casamance River, he had never felt such a callous rain. It usually came down in months like July and August, late in the afternoon, when the Earth's heat begged for the showers. Omar didn't go to school on that Wednesday in March. It was too cold. He sat with his father Gorgui, who smiled at the sugary smell of the rain diluting the air that usually reeked of salt. They poured cup after cup of Café Touba to stay warm.



On Thursday the sun arrived again and the day passed with an almost exaggerated energy of rebirth. It was a new day and the people spoke of the rain as if it had transformed life. Sanguinity. Refreshing, rekindling the radiance of life. Allahu Akbar. Gorgui watched Omar take the path towards school, his books tucked under his arm. He knew his son wouldn't come directly home, rather he'd chase classmates and cousins through the surrounding mangrove trees, and they'd hunt small birds with their hand-carved slingshots.

By nine o'clock in the evening the island had been dark for several hours. There was no electricity on the island and only a few small solar panels provided dim lighting. With vigor the moon shone on the flat, sandy pathways through the serene island. Sand grains sparkled like diamonds. City lights would swallow the moon, but Karabane was no city; the moon provoked on-lookers and night owls.

Gorgui's house smelled heavily of Thiouraye, the dark and moist incense that lay lumped in a calabash filled to the brim with smoky-grey ash. At Omar's bedside, wax mounded like lava on the candleholder. Shadows played on the plainly painted and cracked walls. Gorgui had mastered the technique to reuse candle wax. It was an amalgamation of colors; turquoise, like the surrounding waters, was his son's favorite.

"Paap, tell me a story," Omar begged his father.

"Night time is for bats, not small boys like you," Gorgui said, his voice almost resentful towards his blood, to whom he held little physical resemblance.

"But, benn rekk, Pape," Omar said, pleading.

"Pouty," Gorgui snapped. "Don't cry like that. You sound like a jiigen."

"Gorgui," Coumba, Gorgui's wife, called from the next room. She was preparing for Isha'. She sat on her knees on the green prayer mat. A blue shawl caressed her head and she stroked the black prayer beads, one by one, counting the 99 names of Allah. She prayed alone, which is how she preferred to pray, before her husband and sons.

"Soxnassy, lo begg?"

"Gorgui, tell your son a story," she said once. She only had to say it once; Gorgui knew.

"It's late, sama dom," Gorgui said to his son Omar, just seven years old. Omar was Gorgui's youngest boy, eighth child, and last, Gorgui vowed, but Yaay Coumba wasn't so sure. She wanted one more female in a house full of testosterone.

Omar was a sensitive boy; too sensitive, some said. He cried often and wanted to always be near Gorgui, his light-hearted but stern as an ox father. Gorgui attested it was Coumba's want for a girl that made Omar that way. But he still loved him, as he loved all of his boys.

"Kaye, come on, Paap, I'll go with you to Fajr tomorrow," Omar promised.

"Don't say that unless you mean it," Gorgui said. "You know what they say if you miss Fajr, don't you?"

Morning prayer was a non-negotiable in Gorgui's home. All his boys - so long as they were circumcised, a rite of passage that came after the 160th moon for every boy in the surrounding island villages, some Muslim, some Christian, some Animistic - walked together to the lone mosque on Karabane every morning at the call to prayer. Omar was restless, but fearful for his turn at manhood.

"No," Omar's voice trailed.

"Satan will pee in your ear," Gorgui said, right eye marred and glossy with turquoise. Omar laughed, mimicking his father, and envisioned for a moment what Satan might look like and how it might feel when the devil peed in his ear. They heard Coumba's soft prayer whispers in the next room and her slow, deliberate movements of prostration.

Gorgui rubbed his son's arms fast, like he was trying to strike fire. He thought about the stories he had heard and retold. Some had been told to him as a boy by his father and grandfather. Some he heard from griots and imams. Some he caught on RTS, the local radio station that waved with static, always static, through to the island from Ziguinchor, the regional capital. He absorbed the stories told by the Toubabs, who ventured to the island to escape the hustle and bustle of Dakar. Stories were born while out fishing and harvesting oysters on the narrow routes of the delta lined by mangroves.

"Maa ne, one story," Gorgui gave in. "Sama dom, one story. Benn rekk!"

"Jerejef waye," Omar said.

Gorgui, the light-hearted but stern, watched his son smile. "This story is a true one. It's about your Great-Great Uncle Malang Gaye. You don't know him, but he looks after you here in the delta. His work is all around."

"Was he a fisherman, like you, father?"


"No, son."

"Was he a builder?"

"Deedit, sama dom."

"Was he an imam, like grandfather?"

"Deedit, sama dom."

"Was he a teacher?"

"No, son. He was your Great-Great Uncle Malang Gaye."

"But, what did he do, Paap?" Omar was anxious.

"Son, a man is not defined by his deeds, but by his heart. Your Great-Great Uncle Malang was an artist, but in his heart he was a prophet."

Gorgui heard the crane that operated on the barge on the northern coast of the island, just some fifty meters from their home. A substantial pier was being constructed. Le Bateau Aline Sitoe Diatta, the only ferry that navigated the waters of the Atlantic from Dakar to the Casamance and back, would disembark on the island in two more years, bringing business and increased tourism. Construction of the pier was mostly met with jubilation and sighs of relief. "Prosperity will come with happiness," many villagers claimed. Gorgui's father and his Great Uncle Malang Gaye, the artist, both deceased, were the loudest and staunchest opponents to the développement, as it was called. "You have to be careful with what you think you must have," Amadou and Malang claimed. "The pier will be a burden first and foremost and our sacred traditions of life will be challenged," they said, shouted even. Their voice wasn't enough.

"What's a prophet, sama paap?" Omar said.

"He is a seer and a witness. He speaks to us through our Heavenly Creator."

"Allah?"

"Waaw, Allahu akbar, sama dom. Alhumdulilah."

"What's the story about?"

Outside in the open air the frogs belched, seducing the moon.

"Be patient, son. This story begins with Uncle Malang's birth. A mysterious one. He is the only known male ever born on île de Garab, the island of one tree and no mangroves.

"When your Great-Great Uncle was a boy, much like you - petite and shy and afraid to fight - he ran from his chores. He was a soft boy. He hated fetching the water from the well because his arms grew tired quickly and his neck tightened, like the ropes used to anchor the pirogues on the thousands of inlets of the great Casamance. His head hurt often and collecting shells was the only remedy that gave him solace from the pain.

"Malang was never swift-of-foot enough to catch the chickens for reer that scattered through the soft soils of our land, our homes, and our passageways. The other children laughed at him as he dove to the ground, flailing to catch the chickens. But, he did have a favorite chore."

Omar's eyes began to fade, though his father's story had just begun. Yet another one of Omar's shortcomings, Gorgui thought: he could never stay up with the zeal that his older brothers could, playing and laughing and singing deep into the night. Such a soft boy.

"Omar," Gorgui growled, waiting impatiently for this boy to become a young man.

"Naam?" Omar said.

"Yaa ngi neelaw?"

"Deedit, sama paap, I'm not sleeping. Tell me more."

In truth, Omar was already dreaming, but he was still, just, a boy. Gorgui reminisced about his kin Malang, the artist.

"His favorite chore was to gather the firewood. He liked to touch the moist mangrove branches that burned quickly. He liked the smell of the bark and the colorful ripe green and brown residue that it left on his hands and arms. He rolled the sticky sap of the limbs. He also enjoyed the time he had to gather the wood. Twice a week he had all afternoon to explore the island, as far as his small feet would take him, in search of the twigs, branches, and limbs that would light the fire for reer and then ndekki the next morning. It was then that he found wild flowers and short grasses and weeds and made his magic.

"After Malang returned from gathering the wood, and his mother found nothing else for him to do, he'd take his flora and pound it until it became juicy. He tasted it. Bitter. He smeared it. Green, Yellow, Rose, and Violet. He added water and played with it as a farmer does the rich soil. On a broken plank of wood, once reserved for building a pirogue, Malang took his magic powders and paints and drew a sunset with a tree on the horizon. The sun sang loud and bright as always. But, the tree was hardly ordinary. It had a thick trunk that rose to the sky, like a beam of light. At the top it had wild branches that crossed in every direction and carried long fruit that only monkeys could reach. Malang had never seen that tree before, but he knew it, like a boy knows his father. He always thought of it.

"Later that night Malang showed his mother, who was, at first, appalled that he would use a perfectly good piece of plank wood to play, but then she noticed the drawing.

"'Did you revisit Garab isle?' she asked anxiously.

"'Deedit, sama yaay,' Malang said. He was confused.

"'Where did you see that tree?' she said.

"'I don't know, sama yaay, I see it everywhere.'

"'But there are no trees like that anywhere near here.'

"'I see them every day,' Malang confessed.

"Malang was confused, as was his mother. She was certain that her son had never gone far enough in the deep waterways of the delta to see a Baobab. She had only ever seen one - on Garab island, where she gave birth to her son.

"Malang's mother praised her son for his work and asked him what else he was going to draw. He said he didn't know and only thought of the tree and the horizon. On that night, here on Karabane, on this island, the first Baobab was born." Gorgui's voice softened. The frogs still cried outside and the flow of the brackish water stroked the shores of Karabane.

Gorgui picked up his sleeping son and wrapped him in the bed covers. His body was cool and his breath juddered.

"Did Malang make more Baobabs, Paap?" Omar asked.

Gorgui was sure that Omar had fallen to his dreams. "Yes, sama dom," he said. "He drew many more Baobabs."

Omar hugged the blankets close and closed his eyes, but still listened to his father's story.

"And sometimes those trees didn't come to life, but they often did. The people were surprised by the Baobabs. They had been told that the soil was too poor. The Toubabs said it. They all said it. But the trees flourished and grew - as did Malang. Only his mother and his brother Lamine knew his secret. Malang's mother tried to hide his paintings, but he continued to make them with the same colors and in the same style.

"When Malang turned thirteen - and reached 160 moons - and had become a man, he drew a new tree. This one was even taller than the Baobab. The limbs and branches were more free. They could stretch even farther than the tree's height. The roots controlled the soil. They stood great and commanding. They rose steadily, like the high mountains of the Fouta Djallon, where our people come from. He drew the mighty Kapok, and on that day, the first Kapok tree burgeoned here on our island. Now, there are many, but since Malang's death, no new trees have grown. His trees have only aged and nurtured our people and our land."

Eyes still shut, Omar asked, "Did anyone ever know Uncle Malang was the creator?"

"No, sama dom. He wasn't the Creator. He was touched by the Creator. Allah was and is the creator. Allah gave him the gift and Malang discovered and nurtured it."

"No one ever found out, did they?"

"They did, son. They did.

"Malang's brother, your Great-Great Grandfather Lamine, saw him paint and looked at his finished works with wonder. He knew Malang had a gift. When Malang became a man and was at the age to marry, Lamine told Malang he should share his gift. Lamine loved his brother and loved his work. Lamine told Malang he should go to the city to share his talents. Malang loved his older brother Lamine and always took his advice. Malang wasn't sure, though, about Dakar, the big city. Malang longed for the quiet nights here on Karabane where the wind whistles and tells stories, where the drummers play until everyone sleeps, where the oysters can be plucked with ease from the mangrove trees, where the people don't want, but pray to Allah and the spirits of the delta to protect them from the evil of the world.

"'But, you have a talent that must be shared with others,' Lamine told Malang.

"'Why do people want to see these trees - always just trees?'

"'It is God who has given you this talent, and to Him the praise will go. It is right for you to share, and this is a good time for you. You haven't a wife or children. You're still young and able to move. Karabane will always be here,' Lamine pushed.

"Malang took many nights to consider his wise brother's suggestion and he finally agreed that he should go. His mother was sad, but she understood. Malang had a gift," Gorgui said.

"Will I ever go to Dakar, Paap?" Omar's eyelids slightly opened and his eyes found his father.

"You will go, my son, insh' Allah," Gorgui said. "One day, sama dom, you will go. But, listen to my story."

Omar's eyelids locked again. So soft, but his heart heard.

"Malang took the long trip to Dakar. He traveled by pirogue, by horse and carriage, by foot, and finally by train from Thies to Dakar. It was a two-week journey. Malang packed light. He only carried a small bag of clothes, some of the flowers and grasses he used to make his magic, and a small blue pouch that he kept close to his heart to rid his path of the evil spirits. When Malang arrived to Dakar he found the most beautiful Mosques he had ever seen. They were as tall as the trees he had drawn and seen in his sleep. The city was loud and chaotic. People bustled through the dusty streets with haste and worry.

"Malang stayed with a distant cousin in Fas and very soon learned the ways of the city. He painted at night, sometimes until the sun rose. He painted on wood, but also on canvas, cloth, even paper. He soon found that there were others like him, but none that he knew had his gift. Many of the other artists were interested only in the foreign man, whose skin was like chalk, and who refused to speak the languages heard in the streets of Fas. Malang never created for them. He created only because it was his gift.

"'Sama gaye, but the Toubabs will pay much for your work,' the other artists told Malang.

"'What will they do with it?' Malang said.

"'Whatever they want, but you will become the more wise, for sure,' the other artists declared.

"'How come?' Malang prodded.

"'Because money makes you wise. It gives you the power to have.'

"Malang had never heard these truths before. He had only created because it was his gift. He prayed to Allah and tightly held the small blue pouch that he kept close to his heart. He decided he would never sell his art. The other artists were angry with Malang. They coveted his work and envied Malang's gift.

"'Let us sell it for you,' the other artists insisted.

"'Profit without work is not good,' Malang replied.

"They detested his stubborn attitude. One afternoon while Malang was out finding new flowers to pound for his magic atop the hill of Mamelles where a Baobab grew, a group of the rogue artists broke into Malang's room and stole his paintings. They scattered and broke the small calabashes that held Malang's paint.

"When Malang returned he was neither angry nor surprised. He held tight the small blue pouch by his heart and thought of the salty and sticky air of Karabane, here. His home. He left the next day, never to return to the city." Omar had long been asleep. There was no question about it; he snored. The candlelight made its final flickers and in the distance dogs howled at the full moon, silencing the night frogs. Gorgui didn't finish the story. He'd save it for another night. Gorgui thought often of his Great Uncle Malang.



When Malang returned to Karabane, he never drew the Baobab or the Kapok tree again. He was interested in only happiness and sorrow. He was consumed by the power of emotion and pain. Death. Birth. War. Dance. Greed. Love. Violence. His art was abstract, and Malang gradually gained the reputation of being different, strange, pas normal, gnang.

After Malang's mother's death, only his brother Lamine knew of his gift. Lamine didn't know how it had transformed, but he knew that Allah and the spirits of the Delta were speaking through Malang. Lamine felt sorry for his brother. He was certain that Malang had yet to realize his gift as an adult. He'd find his brother many nights weeping on the shore, caressing the bloated fish that daily washed up from the sea, begging the moon to know what the still eyes of death felt and why the jelly fish stung the other creatures of the world with such fear and potency. Empty palm wine bottles lay around Malang on the cool evening sand, as Lamine scooped him up and carried him to his home where his wife and children waited.



On Friday excitement ensued once again on île de Karabane.

"Did you hear the news about last night?" Gorgui's friend Sane asked.

"Deedit, sama xarit, what happened?" They stopped at Aissatou's boutique for ndambi - local beans on a baguette with pimenté - before heading to their pirogue at the delta's shores.

"Last night a lion reached the island."

"What do you mean reached the island?"

"A small boy saw it in the mangroves on the southern side of the island."

"It must have been a mistake." Gorgui sucked his teeth, doubting Sane's claim.

"No, there were roars heard throughout the night, just past midnight."

"Macky Sall, right? First, the rain, now lions?"

"Sama xarit, even the imam talked about the roars. It's true. The lion has returned."

"Deedit, Man maa teye. There haven't been lions in this region for hundreds of years. Our people have hunted them all. There is no way the lion has returned here."

"Ku roos ak sa bamel, Gorgui, what you say will stay with you until your death. And you call yourself a believer, a follower, a servant of Allah. Allah makes all things possible," Sane grunted and gulped his Café Touba. Extra pimenté and milk.

On the waters, deep in the deltas of the Casamance River, where the shoreline sagged at midday, the men argued back and forth about the lion of the night. Jokes and insults were thrown about as they debated through the rising heat of the afternoon. Though the men talked big and cavernous and threatened one another with their knowledge and wisdom of the deep delta, the spirits were quiet. The waters were silent. The wind calmed. The currents shifted and slowed and the men gazed with curious caution along the shallow shores of the mangrove forests. A man never forgets, nor does he neglect the roar of a lion in the night.

That evening after Gorgui and his family ate reer of rice and fish, and the chatter about the lion subsided, the moon shone brightly again. The workers at the pier took a much needed night off. The air thinned, but the night sat and pondered. It was still and passed slowly. Gorgui was restless and couldn't sleep. He paced the hutted homestead. The roofs of the huts needed new grasses before the rains returned. The light from the moon showed the many Baobab and Kapok trees in the distance. They stood firm and strong. Gorgui thought about his kin Malang and wondered too why the jelly fish stung and why the dolphins jumped through the brackish waters with such joy and why the bees allowed man to take their honey and how the small animal skulls that perched in the trees at the entrance of their village kept away the evil spirits and how the pier would change their life. He wanted to doubt the lion, but knew it could have been true. Maybe it was an omen from Allah, Gorgui pondered.



Gorgui walked towards Omar's hut. Candlelight flickered. Gorgui kneeled and opened the door. He found Omar asleep on the soft mattress, the candle dripping yellow wax. With squinted eyes Gorgui reached for the notebook that lay by Omar's bedside. In the distance there was a screeching yelp and then he heard it. The roar.

He fumbled the notebook and it fell to the ground, leaving open the picture of the lion on the lined paper. There it was. The gold body. The muscular build. The light brown mane filled the page. Teeth gleamed with sharpness and dread. Indeed, the lion had returned.

4 comments:

  1. "Because money makes you wise. It gives you the power to have." Such a perspective. A nicely-done tale of a culture of which many of us have no concept.

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  2. The story reminds me of a saying I saw painted on a rock on Ile de Goree. L'art des gents c'est meiux que l'argent. The art of the people is better than money. Nicely told tale evoking the sense of place--Casamance.

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  3. Very nice, especially liked the use of foreign words where speakers of English won't understand their literal meaning, but because of the context and the way conversations flow we can still work out what they're saying - really enriches the story. Overall it reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman's Anansi stories in "Anansi Boys".

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  4. Strong writing here. I like stories that explore a very different world view and the line "because money makes you wise" jumped out at me, too.

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