Mama knocked me on my forehead with her clenched knuckles before pushing me away shouting a long curse. “Idiot! Your hands itch too much! Are you mad? Eh! Five hundred shillings! Five hundred precious shillings!” Her palms widened and her mouth remained open, clearly disgusted as she counted five out with her fingers. She sighed. “Jumai,
the next time you touch Rabi’s slippers, I will break your head!”
I began crying and placed my hands on my forehead to soothe the spot that stung as if a stone had hit me.
Papa was too busy counting his cows, inspecting their udders, and admiring their fat buttocks. Lately all he did was count his herd. His cattle were growing in number from the trade he made with the desert travelers. Some of them stopped by our hut and bought gallons of tasty kuno, sour milk, for their long, long journey. In return, Papa bought female cows with the money and made our bull produce his calves.
Most recently, Papa had added six cows to his herd. A tall skinny man named Sankara had brought the cows for Papa when he came to ask permission to make Rabi, my second sister, his wife. Sankara had also brought a chest filled with lace garments, purple silk, brass jewels, silver trinkets, and a pair of fancy slippers for Rabi. It was these slippers—the ones with the glittery woven straps—that I had taken from Rabi’s trunk and given to Binta, our eldest sister. When Mama found out she knocked me on my forehead and rebuked me.
Time had passed and I was still crying. Papa came closer and sat beside me with a gourd. He poured some milk into a cup and said, “Take, Jumai. Drink milk; stop crying.” I pushed his hand away. Papa turned to Mama, who was drying kichi grain on a straw mat spread under the fiery sun. “Kadiatou, he won’t stop crying. Make him stop.”
Mama returned to the shed; she lifted me onto her lap and began singing.
Rise up sun and play with Jumai,
Rise up dust, come play with Jumai,
Beautiful Jumai is waiting for you,
Baby boy Jumai is ready to play.
Mama pulled me closer and continued singing, but I wouldn’t stop crying. The tears poured out as I kept remembering something I overheard Papa say.
Yesterday while Diallo, our older brother, helped Papa put fresh fronds on our roof, I heard Papa tell him that Mama had decided to leave Binta behind for good. She would not make the journey with us to Kibaha. Kibaha was the grassland region our family relocated to for seven months during the start of the drought season in Handeni. It was a three-day trek from Handeni and our journey was mostly by donkey. We crossed long stretches of slippery hot sand and climbed over tall dunes for kilometers upon kilometers. Sometimes our family stopped for a night rest underneath weak trees that barely survived the tormenting sun. Sometimes we fought against sand storms in the desert. However, when we finally arrived in Kibaha, it was the perfect graze land for our herd. The mountains were safe for Binta and me to play hide-and-seek, and at night we lay underneath the midnight blue sky watching the stars. Our family always came back to Handeni to make trade with the desert travelers and replenish for the dry season.
Papa told Diallo he was afraid Binta would not survive traveling across the desert and Mama agreed that she was of no use since she couldn’t withstand the heat. After I heard Papa say this, I became worried. I did not want my sister to be left behind. Our migration would take place early the next day following Rabi’s wedding feast.
I loved Binta more than my own mother. She was my favorite sister even though she was too pale, like the color of our white cows. Her delicate skin peeled easily from the slightest ray of sun and she had scaly patches of red skin on her arms and legs from working outside. When the weather was blazing she struggled to keep her eyes open. Even though the soles of her feet were scalded from the boiling sands of Handeni, Binta limped and always came along when I asked her to play with me. She wasn’t like Rabi, who was always engrossed with her girl mates and constantly fussing. “Jumai, you are a little boy. No time to play with little boys.” I thought giving Binta Rabi’s new slippers would help protect her feet and make her feel better, but now my actions had gotten me into trouble.
I stopped crying and walked away from Mama to the corner of our hut where Binta was sitting. She had been watching silently the whole time. Binta was always in her own world; she never spoke up, even when Mama constantly quarreled. “Binta, you’re too slow! Get it done fast! Binta, hurry! Binta, faster, faster!” Binta never responded or cursed Mama. She kept silent as if her tongue had been glued to the bottom of her mouth.
Instead, my sister looked after our hut. In the morning she made millet soup for us and always filled my bowl until my stomach was full. When afternoon came, she did not roam the market with her girl mates like Rabi; she sat under the sun keeping the birds away from Mama’s kichi grain. At night, while we gathered around an open fire roasting palm kernels, she loved to look out into the dark sky and hum. All she did was hum. She had the sweetest voice.
Papa always said Binta was born with the spirit of a bird. He told us her colorless skin and white hair, her calmness, and her soft voice were all given to her by Mother-god and when the time was right Binta would gain her wings and fly away.
One day a group of men who arrived in big cars wearing white overcoats from a faraway place calling themselves ‘doctors’, said to Papa, “Your daughter has no pigment, you must protect her from the harsh sun.” We were afraid and Binta sobbed when she heard what the doctors had said.
Papa said to her, “You are beautiful like the kizingzing that greets us in the morning.” The kizingzing was a tiny white bird with smooth feathers and a curved black beak. It always perched on the grain spread under the sun and Mama hated it. It was both a beautiful and ugly bird. It made long chirps like a chorister, but had tiny red eyes that frightened me. Whenever Papa spoke to Binta about flying away when she gained her wings, I always looked to the ground and begged Mother-god in a prayer to keep my sister. I didn’t understand what Papa meant, but I never wanted to lose her.
I calmed down and entered our hut as Rabi and her group of girlfriends returned. They settled outside and remained chatty. Rabi was the loudest, showing off the heap of gifts she had received from her suitor. Rabi was sixteen and her dark brown skin the color of mud attracted fine men from all corners of Handeni. Most of the men were cattle breeders, but the richer ones came from a long line of jewelry traders; men who sold gold and brass only the richest families could afford. When Sankara came with his family to seek Rabi’s hand in marriage, Papa did not hesitate. He said Sankara—who was twenty-eight—wasn’t too old. Papa was pleased that Rabi would be Sankara’s first and only wife. Sankara paid the bride-price requested and Papa gained six cows while Sankara was a happy man. The feast of marriage to join Rabi and Sankara was a day away, but my excitement had been stolen now that I knew Binta wouldn’t be crossing the desert with us.
As Rabi and her friends put on kajal and drew henna designs on their hands, more guests arrived to celebrate. Soon the front of our hut had turned into a mini marketplace with people everywhere. Papa and Diallo took turns serving our guests kuno and fresh palm wine. On the other side, Mama and her friends laughed cheerfully and practiced their best dance moves.
As the moon emerged over our heads, Papa requested more drinks be served. He called on Keba, the flute player, to entertain guests. Keba was a one-man show, always ready to perform. He pulled out his bamboo flute and began playing different melodies. Guests quieted down and everyone turned to listen. Keba played with his eyes shut and his mouth cemented to the tip of his instrument. His chest rose and his cheeks expanded as he released a long, soft, soothing harmony. Even Binta, who sat alone in the corner, sang along. Her face softened and I knew she was enjoying Keba’s performance when she began to hum. She joined in clapping for Keba, who played for the rest of the night until the front of our hut was empty.
The next day, Mumba arrived with new straw beds for Papa’s herd. Together, they stacked the straw against the wall. Mumba was Papa’s good friend who always complained about the burden of having five sons. Whenever Papa asked about the wellbeing of his family, Mumba always had something to complain about. Papa and Mumba talked as I helped move bundles of straw into our makeshift storage. Papa questioned him about the state of his household and when Mumba complained Papa kindly replied, “Maybe Kezack and Audu, your two eldest, can ease the burden by taking on wives?”
Mumba gave a quick laugh, but then his face fell. “That will happen, but only when the size of my herd multiplies.”
Papa nodded and he and Mumba went on to talk about the migration. Papa seemed proud as he spoke of Sankara, the smooth-faced, thin man from Handeni who had come to marry Rabi.
Mumba told Papa, “I long to see the day when my son Kezack will return on a donkey with a fine bride, and maybe Audu would be next, followed by the twins, Shagari and Sanusi. And lastly Saikou—but that one is still a baby; he has many long years ahead.”
Papa laughed and turned his face to me. “Jumai, have you heard what my friend is saying? He’s right. Don’t forget Shagari and Sanusi are seven years old—same age as you. Start preparing now.”
I knew Papa was teasing me because Mumba was laughing hard and beating his stomach, but I didn’t find anything funny. Why did I need a bride when I had my sister Binta to prepare millet soup for me, to sing to me, to play with me when I needed a friend? If all brides were like Rabi, then I knew no bride would ever take Binta’s place.
We continued working hard. The sun rose and the air on our skin felt muggy and thick. Tiny beads of sweat covered Mumba’s face, drizzling onto his neck and chest as he tried to mop it all off. Soon Mumba was nearly out of breath. He rested his hands on his knees and turned to me. “Jumai, go fill the gourd with cool water and bring it to us.”
Papa smiled and I went off fetching the gourd.
On my way back, Papa and his friend were still talking. This time the laughter in their voices was gone. I leaned against the wall and overheard their conversation. It seemed Papa was telling his friend a secret. Papa was speaking to Mumba seriously. “I tell you, no man ever gets up and hands off his daughter. Never! A suitor must work hard for his bride. But here I am offering you Binta. Take her; she cooks, she takes care of the hut. I know she will make a good wife for Kezack.”
Mumba laughed and then paused as if he was pondering something. By now I had returned to where Papa and his friend were standing and poured some water into a half calabash. Mumba received the water and gulped it down like he had been thirsty his whole life. He shook his head but did not say a word.
Papa stared at his friend, waiting for a response. Mumba stretched his arms and got back to work. This time he lifted more intensely, as if the water had given him new energy. He mounted four straw beds across his shoulders then stood tall and looked directly at Papa.
“Dikembe, she is no price for my cattle—not even the skinniest or sickliest of my herd.”
He continued working. Papa looked up at Mumba, his eyebrows widened and his jaw began to grind as if his mouth was about to render a curse on his friend, but nothing came out. He looked at me and his face fell to the ground. The way Papa stared at the dirt with his hands on his waist made it clear that he was offended by what his friend had just said. Mumba continued to work in silence while Papa’s face grew longer and his pout became tighter. I wanted to shout a long curse at Mumba. I wanted to remind him that Saikou, his youngest son, had one twisted eye which made him look like Ojuja, the mystical creature that sucked blood out of newborns, but I felt as powerless in that moment as Papa. If he couldn’t defend his daughter, I couldn’t say anything to protect my sister. I threw the straw bed off my back and walked away.
It was a very bright afternoon and Binta was helping Mama and the women who had arrived earlier to prepare food trays for Rabi’s marriage ceremony. As the day turned hotter, Rabi and her friends began singing cheerfully as they decorated their bodies with henna and fine jewelry. I watched Rabi; she was excited to start her new life. I knew she would not miss us or the life she was leaving behind. After all, there was nothing here for her to cherish. The tune and tone of this place were dusty shades of brown, a lingering air of cattle aroma, and grey huts. Rabi had always been a colorful bird, and today on her marriage ceremony she was finally free.
As the clouds thickened, Sankara’s family began to arrive in their caravans. Tall men with thick braids, long noses, smooth painted faces, and dressed in fine robes settled on the mats that awaited them. Some circled our front yard and began playing their Fula drums. My playmates and other children from the distant tents came marching to the sounds. Even Saikou and his twisted eye leaped to the drumbeats of the occasion. In every corner there were jubilant guests, clapping and celebrating with Sankara’s family as they kept the crowd entertained while waiting for Rabi to make her entrance.
I was dressed in a woven robe that matched Papa and Diallo’s outfits. Mama and Binta wore similar matching tunics with beautiful jewels. Although Binta did not decorate her ears with multiple earrings like every other Fula woman present, she was still beautiful in her traditional robe that hid her sunburned legs and her headdress covered the bald patches she had endured from braiding her delicate scalp. She held her smile like all the beautiful women and girls around her. I wished she was this happy all the time.
Rabi’s friends danced in a long parade with their bright garments catching everyone’s attention. At the end of their procession stood Rabi in a red silk robe, covered in the most jewels I had ever seen. She proceeded to sit beside Sankara, who was seated on a mat under a decorated shed. Papa, together with the elders of Sankara’s family, called Mother-god to protect Sankara and Rabi. After the prayer, our elder poured wine into a calabash and drank from it. He shared some more wine with Papa and a few men, and then they talked some more, each time saying Rabi and Sankara’s names. Our elder knelt in front of the couple and locked their hands together. As he did this, he led them to the center of the crowd. Finally, he announced Rabi as Sankara’s new bride. Guests cheered and the marriage feast began.
The drums soared, and Mama and her friends took to their feet and danced around Rabi and Sankara while Papa cheered on. Rabi’s friends joined and so did everyone else. Binta got on her knees and wrapped her arms around Rabi’s shoulders. I joined in embracing Rabi. I knew how much Binta cared for Rabi even though Rabi chose to spend her time apart from us. Diallo joined us on the mat and called a blessing on Rabi and Sankara. I knew this moment with my sisters would be our last time together.
The feast continued with trays of ram slices, large bowls of takai, and heaps of millet cake. Even Mumba and his sons ate and drank while Mumba chatted with Papa like he had never said hurtful words a few hours before that had belittled our family.
It was a bright night; the full moon had come over us hours ago. Many guests stayed on their feet dancing. People who had arrived on camels from afar began to ready their caravans for departure. One by one, they said their thanks and descended into the night.
I had fallen asleep against Binta’s shoulder. My stomach was heavy and overfilled from ram slices and kuno. The festive sounds of my surroundings woke me. I cleared my eyes and jumped to my feet. After I regained my stamina and knew where I was, I realized the crowd was chanting a cheerful farewell to Rabi and Sankara, who were already fastened on a camel’s back. Rabi sat behind Sankara, her hands wrapped securely around his waist as they got ready to make their departure into their new life. All of Rabi’s belongings had been tied to a different caravan. I staggered through the jubilant bystanders to get to the front. In the midst of the loud cheers, I called out to Rabi, but she was too distracted to notice. She was smiling and looking into Sankara’s face as their camel was led away. Gradually, Sankara’s family began leading their camels away from our hut and the remaining guests marched behind them singing, rejoicing, and beating their drums into the night. Rabi had finally gone. Like a vapor, the crowd had vanished and everything was quiet.
Early the next morning, Papa stood with the rising sun. Stretching out his hands, he gave thanks to Mother-god. Mama joined him, sitting on a mat spread at his feet. She sang a soft and long praise while Papa continued speaking to the sky with his hands lifted in the air. When they were done, he called on Diallo: “Get the herd ready.”
As my brother rallied the cows, Mama began knotting the strings of our sacks to be mounted on our family donkeys. I hadn’t seen Binta since the wedding procession had marched off with Rabi and Sankara late last night. I knew she had not followed them. I took to search for her and when I couldn’t spot her in the tent where she sat every morning making millet soup, I began to sweat.
Papa and Mama were too busy gathering our belongings to notice that I had left my soup sitting cold. I walked past Diallo as he counted our cows; he too barely noticed I had walked past him. When I found Binta, she was sitting inside the thatched house Papa constructed in the far corner to protect us during sand storms. She rested on a stone with her head to the ground, drawing patterns in the sand with a stick. I walked towards her and sat by her feet. Binta didn’t look up to see me. I leaned my head against her knees and rested my hand on her shoulder. I remained silent and watched as she continued tracing the sand with a stick, forming nothing.
Binta turned to me. Her eyes were soft and her lips fell into a frown. My sister took my hand, squeezed it between her palms, and began singing.
Rise up sun and play with Jumai,
Rise up flowers, come play with Jumai,
Beautiful Jumai is waiting for you,
Baby boy Jumai is ready to play,
Her voice echoed quietly, reminding me of the first time she taught me the words to this very song she had created for me when I was a baby. Now even Mama used it to soothe me. Whenever Binta sang, even our cows lifted their heads from their food to listen. This time there were no cows to listen to her sing; just me. I was alone. I felt alone.
I listened to my sister sing with her eyes closed, her emotions deep in the words that reverberated in this empty moment. Every few seconds she would pause to look at me, but I remained strong. I did not cry. I knew if I did, she would wipe my tears with the cleanest part of her dress.
Binta was still singing when I heard Papa calling, then Mama joined in, calling out in her angriest voice. I did not move from Binta’s side, even as Papa’s pounding footsteps entered where we sat.
At once Papa said, “Jumai, get up now!” I felt the ground shake. I stood up, but did not let go of Binta’s hand. Papa drew closer and pulled on my shirt. “Jumai, time to leave now!” He pointed to the door. I dragged Binta by the hand and together we walked to the front of our hut were Diallo stood with our herd ready to depart.
Mama was knotting one last sack to a donkey. I walked to her side and pulled at her long dress. I couldn’t speak. I looked deeply into her eyes, hoping she would reconsider leaving Binta behind. Mama grumbled a few words before sighing in annoyance. I saw her hand move and thought she was going to give me a heavy knock again, but this time she lifted her hands and let them fall between Binta and me, separating us like a sharp machete slicing a piece of flesh. Once again, silence fell. Binta stood motionless and I heard Papa give Diallo orders in words I was too crushed to understand. Then I felt the weight of Diallo’s heavy breath on my face as he lifted me and fastened me to our donkey.
The birds had stopped chirping and everything around me—the humid wind, the clouds, and the sun—were dead. All was silent. One last time, Papa walked to where we all gathered. He lashed his long cane against the ground and with one whip the cows began moving away from our hut and onto the dirt road. They walked in order toward the direction of the familiar Kibaha route.
Papa climbed onto his donkey and fastened himself securely on its back. Mama was already mounted on Papa’s donkey and it started to move. After Diallo ensured he was seated safely, he too began guiding us away from the place I knew. We moved farther and farther away from our hut, and even though I had the freedom to lift my hand and wave goodbye to Binta, it felt as if a thick rope had been used to tie me down.
The first time I looked back, Binta was standing in front of our hut, staring at us as we departed. She did not wave goodbye.
The second time I turned to look, she was squinting, and her eyes were gleaming. I knew she was crying.
When I looked back the third time, all I saw was the horizon growing behind us. I buried my face into Diallo’s back so Papa and Mama would not see me cry.
I knew I would never see my sister again.