Her name was Yei Fomba, but she was commonly known as Dabuteh, a sobriquet from her father, a humorous man who was fond of calling his children by nicknames he gave them according to their character or temperament. As a little girl, she was known for her joyous disposition when her mother’s cooking pot used to be more than half-full of rice, and thus, the name, ‘Dabuteh’, meaning half a pot full. ‘Half a pot full’ was an indication that rice would be sufficient for everyone on a given day. But those were the only days, in the confines of her parents that she enjoyed childhood.
Dabuteh was born into a family of over forty children, of which nine were siblings from the same mother. But she called her father’s remaining seven wives ‘mother’ and they treated her as such without qualms. Her mother had lost a child at birth whose twin sister had also died of chickenpox two years later. Her mother had told her that her twin had called her in the heavens and that was that. Of her six siblings, a boy and five girls, five were sent to school to learn the white man’s language. Her eldest sister had married and had gone away to a distant land. She was the only one left to help her mother with domestic work and petty trading that helped pay school fees for her school-going siblings.
She lived in a town called Gbamendo, in a big compound situated along the main motor road leading to a prosperous trading town called Kwendu. At thirteen, she was ready for initiation into the Bondo Society. Most of her sisters were recent or old Bondo initiates, a ritual that marked their rite of passage into womanhood. Between ten and thirteen is the prime time for Bondo initiation. It was now her turn for the female circumcision ritual. But her father was waiting for a man who would shoulder the expense, and who would ultimately become her husband. Men who were ready for new wives often earmarked their brides at such a tender age. Although she was a beautiful little girl, she had a hard time attracting a prospective husband. Normally, a man would have earmarked her by now. Her father encouraged her to dress like a young woman who was ready for the Bondo ritual and a husband. She ran around the compound bare-chested, with her virgin breasts exposed. She wore beads of various colors and shapes around her neck and waist. Instead of the ordinary underwear she was used to wearing, her parents bought a new lapa and underwear for her that she wrapped around constantly knotting and unknotting, flashing her new underwear at putative bachelors or married men who were poised for new brides. Her mother regularly treated her to the best corn-roll braids. She also insisted on neatness. Sometimes, she reminded her that, “no man wants a dirty woman.”
It was a bright dry season Juma (Friday) and everything was ros√ÉÀÜ – the tropical sun was right overhead, the rice farms were ready for harvest, the seasonal fruits were ripe, banana leaves were defoliating, exposing ripe bananas from their stems. All together, food was plentiful. The women stood outside in the sun to watch their shadows. They knew it was midday when their shadows appeared beneath their feet – an appropriate time to catch tilapias and bullfrogs in their repose. Young women like Dabuteh were glad that they could follow the older women to fish. In the process they learned the art of fishing to make delectable fresh-water fish soup for their future husbands. The older women were filled with excitement that fresh fish and bullfrogs would be part of the diet for their husbands in the evening. They moved helter-skelter to look for their fishing nets and baskets.
Dabuteh had fastened her little fishing basket onto her head-tie and part of the oval wooden frame of her little fishing net under her armpit. She came close to her father and said in a subtle voice, “Father, I am going fishing with my mothers,” mesmerized by the presence of two men who were talking to him. They were adorned in huge white gowns and headscarves – looking like ghosts. Her father was also dressed in his Juma prayer gown, ready to go to the local mosque for prayers. This was the only time he could be found at home, or else, he would have been on his farm. The men had stopped in front of their compound to perform Juma prayers before they were to proceed on their long journey home.
“Fetch some water for Kai (Mr.) Alhaji, her father commanded with an unusual show of authority intended to impress his strangers.
“But father, my mothers are leaving me behind,” she answered.
“Do as I say! And besides, you are not going anywhere today,” her father stated firmly.
In a somber mood, she turned around with her head buried in her chest, biting on the beads around her neck, and fetched water for the strangers.
“Dabuteh!” Her father shouted again.
“Naamu, (Yes Sir) father!” she answered from her mother’s room where she had laid down and buried her face in a pillow, weeping in disappointment for being deprived of going fishing. She wiped her face to conceal traces of disappointment before she came running. She stood arms akimbo with her virgin nipples pointing straight at the strangers and waited for whatever further instructions her father might have had.
“Go tell Bondu Dahai (the youngest of her father’s wives) that I have strangers. Help her prepare some food for the strangers. When you are done, wait here… I am going to the mosque with Kai Alhaji and I will be back soon.” Her father explained.
Whatever her father had discussed with Alhaji was unknown to her, but Alhaji kept stopping by the house each time he went to Kwendu. He brought with him many gifts, ranging from clothes, food and money. Besides the merchandise Alhaji bought at Kwendu, he was a diamond trader who had amassed considerable wealth. It was not surprising when her parents started arrangements for her initiation into the Bondo society. It turned out to be the grandest Bondo celebration ever held in the township of Gbamendo and its surrounding towns and villages. Alhaji hired the most famous balladeers from far away chiefdoms to celebrate the momentous occasion. He brought cows, goats and sheep to be slaughtered. “I have not seen so many animals bound for the abattoir in a ritual rite of passage celebration,” an old lady told the Soko (Bondo Priestess) in glee.
The initiation rite to join the sacred society began with her mother. She rubbed white clay dissolved in cold water on her. Young Dabuteh endured the chill of the harmattan winds, compounded by the cold water laden clay. Her mother ministered to her to say calm and not frit away for the eternal shame of the family. Older women joined the rite by beckoning her and the other would be initiates to answer the Bondo cry: Ooooohooo! Ooooohooo! They snarled, crawled at the putative initiates and prompted them to repeat the Bondo cry: “Ooooohooo! Ooooohooo!”… no sooner they said, continuing in the preliminary process of rite, Dabuteh and the girls who would be women soon matched to the Bondo Bush resplendent and arraigned for the initiation that was to be marked by the memorable merrymaking and feasting.
“You have attained womanhood now Dabuteh,” her mother said. “Six moons had gone by since the Bondo ritual and you must be well enough to go to your husband’s house,” she continued.
“Yes mommy, I don’t feel anymore pain,” she confirmed her mother’s assumption.
“Today, we are going to escort you to your husband at Temasadu,” her mother said.
The older women of Gbamendo were delighted to be part of the convoy to accompany her to Temasadu. The marriage ceremony which had followed the Bondo initiation six months later was also a topic of gossip in Gbamendo. Every mother wished such good luck for her daughter. Many of them encouraged their children to dress like Dabuteh. In fact, a mother yelled at a lad who came by to see her daughter, “She is not in a hurry to marry. Don’t come back here any more.” It became a renaissance time for neatness and cleanliness for young women in their prime. “Kumba!” another mother called her teenage daughter aloud. “Go take a bathe and come back for a corn-roll braid,” she instructed.
Before Dabuteh arrived at Temasadu, she did not have a clue about the cultural differences that surfaced in the forty-kilometer distance from Gbamendo to Temasadu. Alhaji’s six wives were happy to have a young mate. The youngest of them who was especially happy said, “Welcome… I will show you around. If you have any question about the cooking utensils, let me know. All of them are yours now.” The eldest wife also held her own separate orientation meeting with Dabuteh: “Here, we wake up at dawn for prayers, three times during the day and one time at night. Tomorrow, I will give you your Hijab (veil), ablution kettle, a prayer mat and prayer beads. You will also start taking classes at the madrassa next week.” Before she adjusted to the tradition everything she did looked bad in the eyes of her mates who had abandoned their religion, tradition and culture under similar pressure when they married to Alhaji.
Dabuteh was now called Isata Kallay. Islam was not new to her, but practicing it was very strange. Her father was the first Islamic convert in her family, but did not demand that his family practice the religion. He was a Pommassu, a supreme leader of the Poro secret society for men, who went back and forth between his role in the traditional secret society and the newly adopted religion.
Isata Kallay did the laundry and ironing, she cooked and served food, she bathed her mates’ many little children and she dressed them and prepared them for school and madrassa. She gave birth to many children. She always had a newborn and a toddler to care for at the same time. Her knack to toss herself between housework and childcare was almost like magic. She balanced a two-foot-water bucket on her head, a child on her back and fresh vegetables she picked from the garden in her hands. She ran away several times to Gbamendo for various maltreatments. But her parents always encouraged her to return, “A humble wife shall become blessed with successful children,” her father always said. Sometimes, her father actually took her back to Temasadu when she ran away. To encourage her to stay in the marriage, her father asked her younger sister to live with her and help her with the endless domestic work. They both did not only work very hard, but also were sometimes beaten by Alhaji’s other wives when certain things were not done properly. Like on one awful afternoon when a piece of charcoal fell on her mate’s gown and burnt it when she was ironing the laundry. She concealed the burnt side of the gown to postpone the dreaded confrontation for another day, which she knew would inevitably come. But unfortunately, the mate wanted to use the gown that day for a wedding she had been invited to attend.
“Allahwhakbal,” (God is great) she screamed when she noticed the burn. “Did you burn my gown?” she asked.
“Yes, I did by mistake,” Isata Kallay admitted.
The mate grabbed her by her Hijab and dragged her on the ironing table. She forced her head on the hot iron. Luckily for her, the Hijab which was trapped between the hot iron and her face protected her against direct contact with the hot iron. But the mate went on, “Don’t you realize that my gown is worth more than anything you have ever possessed? You deserve to be burnt in punishment,” she screamed as she pressed her head on the hot iron. But Isata Kallay’s sister came in on time to grab the mate by her hair. She pulled her away from Isata Kallay and gave her a severe beating, which led to the eviction of Isata Kallay’s sister from the Alhaji household.
Alhaji was not ready for another wife any time soon to change Isata Kallay’s role in the marriage. She could now see why the wives were so happy when she first came into the family. In spite of the hardship, she had eleven children by Alhaji from giving birth to a new baby every year. Adding salt to injury, financial hardship took a heavy toll on Alhaji’s family. The diamond business went down because Alhaji was not so young and aggressive any more and his children were not used to hard work. Many of them had dropped out of school, a situation that had also threatened her own children’s position as well. But she was determined to ensure that her children stayed in school. Alhaji leaned more towards the alternative inexpensive means of education at the madrassa for his children at the expense of English. But to ensure that her children stayed in school, the petty trading she had learned from her mother came in handy. The problem remained that Alhaji would not let her distill omole, a local gin, because of Islamic values. They battled back and forth, but Dabuteh ended up leaving Temasadu for the town of Koidu where she went about distilling her omole.
Although she did not divorce Alhaji, it was obvious that she was on her own to face life. She could not return to Gbamendo. Her early days in Koidu were full of hardship equal to a human family that had been abandoned in the wilderness. Her hardship doubled. She worked like a jackass – labored under extended relatives who had settled down and built houses in Koidu. They knew her real name, Yei Fomba, by which they called her. Yei Fomba had left some of her teenage children at Temasadu who were merely cared for by Alhaji and his large family. She knew she must do everything possible within her power to fetch them before they perished. Her hands were haggard and her face wrinkled and fatigued due to hard labor. She constantly frowned from hardship and despair; her brow became furrowed from fighting and haggling in the local market with other petty traders over petty cash and customers. She became skinny to the bone in her regular shabby outfits, which were now oversized. The gowns were not desirable any more and the Hijab was discarded. She needed to be strong and swift – she moved hither thither in the local market finding deals on a nearly empty stomach from living on meager food. But her mind was what remained sharp, as she constantly thought of new ways to get out of hardship.
She overcame the odds. She built herself a house in Koidu. She picked up the rest of her children from Temasadu and settled down. She became the most famous omole distiller in Koidu, controlling thirty percent of the omole market in the township. Omole retailers flocked in and out of her house for their supplies. Only then, did Alhaji start to visit her again. Even her mates and their children came to her for help when it got extremely difficult for them at Temasadu, even though they continued to refer to her omole trade as harram (sinful). But their presence only reminded her of the cost of the grand Bondo initiation ceremony – the long years of struggle and her present achievement in a bitter sweet mood.
Pictures for this story were used with the courtesy of among others:
– Peter C. Andersen from http://www.sierra-leone.org/.