“There are two Kumbas, one with a mother, and one without a mother”, grandma says, playing with my hair.
“How can someone not have a mother, grandma?”, I ask, lifting my head from her lap to look at her.
“When their mother is dead!”, she snaps, “now listen…”
There are two Kumbas, with and without a mother. Kumba-with-a-mother is taken care of, she is fed until she is fat, her cheeks full and rosy. She is bought all the toys she wants and, later, all the pretty dresses a girl could desire. Every year, a lavish party is thrown for her birthday, with all the town invited, and the festivities last for days, and are talked about for months afterwards. She is loved, and everywhere she goes people give her sweets, and talk about how pretty she is, for such a young girl, what a fine woman she will make one day.
But Kumba-without-a-mother is the opposite. She is thin and sickly, her skin dry and white, she is the one who does all the housework, runs all the errands. She wakes earlier than everyone every morning, and goes to bed later than everyone. She has a dry hacking cough she got from the dawn chill, and for this reason her step-mother makes her eat from a separate bowl, and drink from a separate cup, sitting on the floor of the dirty kitchen, sharing her food with the rats and cockroaches…
“Why didn’t she tell her father, grandma?”
“Because her father was a foolish man, caught under the spell of his new wife, and would not have believed her. Now hush – let me finish!”
So Kumba-without-a-mother suffered. People in the town frowned when she passed, at the state of her clothes, and other children would not play with her. Kumba-with-a-mother was spiteful and full of malice, and knew that her mother would always take her side. And so she was cruel to Kumba-without, ruining work she had done, dirtying floors she had cleaned, creasing up clothes she had ironed, all so she would get a beating when her father came home. Kumba-with would hide and watch her yell, and afterwards when she went past would laugh and jeer, following her around the house and singing mocking songs.
“Last time Dad beat me, Astou laughed Grandma. But I laugh when Dad beats her too – it’s so funny when she runs around the living room and Dad follows her with a belt. But her mother always buys us sweets afterwards…”
“Hrmph! Is this a story about you and your stepsister, or the two Kumbas? Hmmm?”
“The two Kumbas, grandma”
“And who’s telling it, hmmm?”
“Good. Now lay your head down here again, and let me finish”
So Kumba-without-a-mother continued to suffer, at the hands of her wicked stepmother and sister. At night she would lie and dream of a time when her mother had been alive, when she would take her to see her grandma. What fun they had then, she smiled to remember, her grandma buying her sweets from the shop and laying her head down in her lap, playing with her hair and telling her stories. But then her mother had died, and Kumba-with-a-mother and her mother had come to live in their house, and things had changed. She had been forbidden from visiting her grandma anymore, and her father would not listen when she went to him. She had no one to tell about her misery.
But her mother up in heaven had not forgotten about her. One day, after she had finished cooking, Kumba-with-a-mother sneaked into the kitchen and poured the whole jar-ful of salt into her rice, completely ruining it. Kumba-without-a-mother got the worst beating of her life that day – her father beat her so hard it felt as if her whole body was on fire. She… what is it child?
“Grandma – Astou must have heard this story, because when she put salt in Dad’s food. She denied it and Dad beat us both until we were sore. Because he said he didn’t know which one did it”.
“Yes, when it was obvious only your step-sister was rude and untrained enough to do such a thing. Hrmph! Now listen…”
That night Kumba-without-a-mother cried harder than she ever had before. When she finally went to sleep, she dreamt she was with her mother, standing at the gates to a beautiful house, and her mother was smiling. Please come home, mother, Kumba-without-a-mother pleaded, please – I want you back. But her mother only smiled, and nodded, and held up her hand. Then from the folds of her dress she gave Kumba-without-a-mother a small white bottle.
She spoke to her, and though her lips did not move, Kumba-without-a-mother heard all her mother said, as if in her head. Put this in the food you cook tomorrow, her mother told her, pointing at the white bottle, the smile still set on her face, let them all eat – but you go hungry. If you do this, I shall return to you. But we have only this one chance, so make sure you do exactly what I say. Then the dream faded, and Kumba-without-a-mother sank once more into a deep sleep.
When she woke up the next morning at dawn, the bottle was there, lying next to her pillow. She took it and quickly hid it in the folds of her malaan, her heart beating excitedly. That afternoon, after she had cooked lunch, she opened the bottle and poured its contents into the jollof rice. The bottle contained a liquid, which was slightly yellow, like urine, but which had no smell. She did this right before she served, and then she dished out the jollof rice into the serving bowls, and carried them inside to her waiting father, and his cruel new wife and her daughter.
“Why did you stop, grandma?”
“What happened next? Did she get her own mother back?”
Hmmm-hmmm? Oh – yes, yes she did. Do you miss your mother, child?
“Hmmm… yes. Sometimes”
Would you have used the magic liquid in the white bottle, to get her back?
“Unhnhh… Yes, grandma”.
Good. Your mother would be proud. Here – take this bottle.
“What is it, grandma?”
It is the magic liquid.
“How did you get it, grandma?”
Never you mind that. Can you put this in the food without anyone seeing you?
“Yes grandma. My stepmother goes to watch TV whilst the rice is boiling”
Good. You must hide the bottle. Don’t show it to anyone.
Especially your stepsister. If you tell anyone, the magic won’t work. And remember not to eat any of the food. Tell them you don’t feel hungry – here, hide it in your pocket.
“My mother will come back? We’ll come visit you, grandma”
Yes. But only if you do exactly what I said, you hear?
Good. No grandchild of mine will be raised by someone not of my blood.