[Issue 10 / August 2014]
The Harmattan was blowing severely. As though in protest against his progress, the cool, dry wind tossed particles of dust into the cracks that decorated the soles of his bare feet. He defied the hostile wind and carried his frail frame forward in a mechanical manner.
He had his tar-dark body draped in a white boubou that also emphasised his pious disposition. The greyed locks meshed in his unkempt hair, swung in rhythmic consonance to the laboured steps he took. A twenty-six-note lamellophone composed of bronze keys arranged in two ranks and encased in a large gourd with dotted snail shells sewn round its rim, dangled across his back. He craved the blunted warmth of the late morning sun, yet an aggressive gust of the wind struck his wrinkled face. His tongue shot reflexively out of his mouth and flicked his lips in desperate defence against potential cracks.
The road ahead was bleak and barely visible. A routine journey he had made countless times before now sapped his withered strength. A wave of fear washed across his heart when it occurred to him he could drop dead if the sharp pain in his febrile chest intensified. Perhaps it was not the wisest move after all that he was stealing away from Chief Sekou Diallo and Kankan, their village, towards Kinga, their nearest sister village. He turned his head slowly and looked back down the road he had covered. The hazy Harmattan had very nearly conquered all visibility but not that which lived in his mind’s eye.
He visualised the face of the gracious chief and heard him chant his name: “Kanté Fasséli, Kanté Fasséli,” in that amusing musical manner which never failed to evoke intense bouts of affectionate laughter from both men each morning. He saw the chief surprised and most certainly panicky at his disappearance.
Kanté Fasséli knew Sekou Diallo would not have anticipated this venture on his part because he was now old and frail. In spite of his frailty, Kanté Fasséli felt this venture was the necessary move that should at least relieve him from his hopelessness in the wake of the distress gale which had swept through Kankan village recently. They seemed to have had no issues with it but Kanté Fasséli could bear it no more. It seared his soul that he ate maize soup every other day from Mama Fanta, the chief’s wife, but gave no cowries in appreciation. It also weighed heavily on the old man’s conscience that they traversed his hut with food and dirty earthenware bowls. Of course he knew it was neither his fault nor theirs. Even as he tried to make meaning of the turn of events, the old man had grown to doubt the sole guilt of that boy whose deeds had generated Kankan’s present predicament.
Initially, Kanté Fasséli was so sure as to pinpoint the fault on the babbler, kola-stained-teethed Mansa Kouyaté. However, he had come to wonder whether the Pied-Piper magniloquence of the boy was really that effective to have caused the exodus of the young men and women from their home. Questions nagged his mind. Why did they and some members of the older generation readily abandon Kankan village as if the boy’s act was only the needed cue? Was that musical instrument the boy had brought to the village really better than the lamellophone? Was the kalimba outmoded? Was he outmoded? He shook his head in firm negation. Kanté Fasséli felt sure he was by no means outmoded as he trudged along on what he thought was a journey of vindication.
The old man lifted up those Bonobo eyes of his and looked shamelessly at the huge baobab trees stripped naked by the merciless wind. He smiled. Kinga was near. Contrary to earlier fear, he had made it after all.
Kinga! The outskirts of the village sent such shivers of nostalgia down his stomach that he felt a momentary pang of bowel movement. If Kanté Fasséli loved another place almost akin to Kankan, It must be Kinga for he felt sure it was here, and not even Kankan, that he was bestowed the ultimate crown of appreciation. Here, his mind’s eye depicted the faces of his fellow minstrels who have just joined the ancestors. He, Konaté Kantara and Baro Famadou thrilled Kinga into demonic frenzy when they performed on one memorable occasion of the village’s annual festival. It was his own cousin, Manfila, who stole the show when he performed unprecedented rhythms on the balafon. Kanté Fasséli had plenty to carry that day: pearl millet, sorghum and a lot more. The young chief of Kinga, Diogo Diabaté, got so impressed with his performance on the lamellophone that he instructed him to bring three Kinga boys along to Kankan for kalimba lessons. The generous chief also overfilled his leather bag with so many cowries that he was left with no other choice than carry the excess in a pocket on his boubou.
Kanté Fasséli cupped his hand on the same pocket of his flowing dress in a wishful attempt to feel the mound that was many, many moons ago. He then retrieved the only cowry left in there and shook his head in bitterness.
“I give this home my greetings!” the old man called as he gingerly approached a compound.
“Is somebody here?”
In the manner of a tortoise’s head emerging from its shell, somebody’s head peeked through the beaded curtain of the main hut’s entrance.
“Papa Fasséli!” Chief Diabaté called out his name with flair that kind of echoed Chief Diallo’s mornings calls.
Diogo Diabaté liked Kanté Fasséli for the particular reasons that he never indulged in elaborate compliments and unnecessary talk like other elders did. The old man feigned happiness as the chief broke a kola nut and handed him his share after they had sat down. He sloped his head backwards, threw it straight back to his left molars, crashed with two bites and swallowed quickly. This perfected way of ingesting kola nut was the secret that had kept the front rows of the old man’s teeth white like he wanted them to be always.
“Where is everybody?” he asked the chief while he wiped trickles of fluid from his nostrils.
“Papa Fasséli, do you ask of . . . you don’t know what has happened!”
Kanté Fasséli was surprised at the outburst from the chief. He had asked the question just to initiate conversation since he had presumed the villagers were gone to draw water with their bigger barrels at this time from the yonder river that mysteriously insulated itself against the proboscis of the Harmattan.
“The people of this village have left for Konakry,” the chief declared as he pointed a finger in the direction where he supposed Konakry was.
“It’s only a handful of folks left. The rest are all gone.”
When he heard Konakry, Kanté Fasséli’s mind shot straight to that boy of his village. Mansa Kouyaté had caused much anxiety when his disappearance was drawn to the village’s attention. Perhaps Kanté Fasséli was much more worried than any other Kankan villager was because the boy had shown more promising proficiency on the kalimba than all the others. The boy would become Kalimba King of the sister villages in the imminence of his departure to the ancestors. Or so he thought until the boy reappeared about three moons later.
Dressed in unfamiliar, flashy clothes, Mansa Kouyaté swanked and swaggered about the village with an alien instrument clutched in his arms. The base was carved in the finest curves and bent inwards in the middle of both sides. A deftly designed handle extended, stretched and held several strings from it.
The old man, particularly relieved by the boy’s return, thought Mansa Kouyaté carried a strange gleam to himself; a gleam far removed from the dreariness he exuded prior to his disappearance from the village. Most of the villagers gravitated to him. Those of his age group pushed to draw information on the origin of his dress and the instrument he carried. He claimed it was a musical instrument that was better than the kalimba. He had acquired it from a white person in this exciting place called Konakry where bright-light-laced buildings stood tall upon buildings and where, unlike the way it prevailed in the villages, water traveled from a lake through tubes laid underground to homes. He strummed the instrument and prophesied to the naked ear of Kanté Fasséli: “The day I master this instrument, nobody would want to listen to the old man and his bogus kalimba anymore. Soon, you all shall come with me to Konakry so you watch me and the white person perform.”
Mansa Kouyaté was the worst epidemic that ever struck Kankan village. After a few days, he left the village again with most of the young men and women, as if by sorcery. Those who were not inclined to follow immediately did so sooner than later. Kanté Fasséli lost all his students of the kalimba who doubled as his farm helpers to that baboon of a boy. But for Chief Diallo and Mama Fanta who performed the chores of his deceased wife and son, things would have been unspeakably harsh for him.
For how long was he supposed to be a burden?
Chief Diabaté tapped him out of his head.
“I’ll show you something.”
The chief entered his hut and brought a queer, square box. Kanté Fasséli scrutinised it for quite a time. It was unlike anything he had ever set eyes on before.
“And this?” he asked.
“This was presented to me as a gift by a white person who paid here a visit. It is wonderful. He promised to come back from Konakry and put electric in and it will talk and sing as if you have been put in it,” the chief replied.
“Lectric?” asked Kanté Fasséli.
“Electric,” the chief answered with a wry grin that exposed all his kola-stained teeth.
“I’ll show you how electric will get here.”
He asked Kanté Fasséli to follow him inside. The chief pointed to a far corner. Arranged on a bamboo bed which had since been disused for its original intent were great stacks of a strange rope that have been wound in a series of coils. The chief beckoned and he followed him out of the compound. Diogo Diabaté flung his left arm around the old man’s shoulder and pointed the other towards the road to Pangwe village. Kanté Fasséli saw very tall poles mounted in precise arrangement along the roadside where several species of trees used to be.
“They will put and join the ropes on the poles and electric will travel along to the box. It will come alive. Then it will play music and also talk the white person’s language,” the chief claimed with an enthused countenance.
Diogo Diabaté looked at Kanté Fasséli’s face and thought the old man sought further comprehension.
“Pangwe villagers have electric,” explained the chief further.
“It was there that I first heard the white person’s box sing. The people of Pangwe will stop using kernel shell lamps soon since electric gives -”
“Papa Diabaté, I am leaving for Kankan now,” interrupted the old man.
“Oh, so soon!”
“Yes, so soon.”
“Let me see you off then.”
“Thank you but that wouldn’t be necessary.”
“Good bye then.’ Hope I see you again soon.”
As soon as Diogo Diabaté disappeared into his compound, Kanté Fasséli started towards Pangwe village. Stoked actually by heightened insecurity, he trod quickly with little regard to the hazards of the dense haze that engulfed him. He used the scant saliva in his mouth to slake his throat at the expense of his lips so several places of them cracked in consequence. The sharp pain crawled up his chest and checked his hurried movement. Even then, he soon grew short of breath and crumpled under one of those shadeless baobab trees along the roadside in a daze of fear and fury.
Kanté Fasséli felt angry and disappointed in Diogo Diabaté because he thought the chief had just replicated Mansa Kouyaté’s foolishness. He had expected the chief to formally call for a performance first, show appreciation in cowries like he had always done in the past and then dilate on the negative tide that had swept the villagers away. Instead, the chief too had chosen to adulate a mere, queer box acquired from some stranger over him and his instrument. Well, he would take a rest and resume to Pangwe. Surely, there must be one or two people who would seek and appreciate his performance despite the presence of a stranger’s queer box that could also sing like him.
He cupped his face in his hands and leaned against the base of the tree in dejection. He attended to the kalimba and blew away the fine dust that had stealthily settled on its vital parts. He noodled and lulled in the familiar sounds of his lifetime companion…
He must have slept for quite a while because at the time he awoke, the sun had crossed over to the other side of the sky where it reposed. It did not alarm him since he knew there was enough daylight to cover his journey ahead. He rose wearily and carried on at a pace measured carefully against the potential agitation of the sharp pain in his chest.
The sound of applause drifted to his ears as he approached the coned huts of the village. He saw children and a number of grown-ups huddled about a kind of kindled object that was situated on the upper wall of the first outer hut. The grown-ups trickled into the compound and the dirty children followed as if on cue. Kanté Fasséli saw an onion shape emit the brightest light he had ever seen at close quarters. When he pressed forward for a better view, the onion extinguished its light as if aware of his intrusive presence. He looked instinctively at the figure that advanced from the compound and he heard himself whisper: “The white person!” He also recognised the box the stranger carried: a twin of Chief Diabaté’s gift. The white person turned left and walked past the giant, old baobab tree in apparent oblivion of the old man’s presence. Kanté Fasséli thought he would have taken the white person for the rumoured ghost that haunted the villages if he had met the stranger without prior information of his presence.
He made for the compound of the hut with the onion light. The children struggled against adults for a place in front of a strange box which displayed light and mobile people! His hypnotized frame went momentarily jelly in sheer disbelief. The kalimba slipped but he managed to save it from the clutches of damage. The shuffle distracted some of the grown-ups. They turned their heads and glanced at him while the others maintained their fixation on the box. Like the onion, the bright, white light it emitted with the people vanished even as he watched. The villagers applauded. Even Bintu, the young girl noted throughout the sister villages for her lethargy, jumped about. They then trickled past him out of the compound, engrossed in excited chatter of Pangwe’s new things. The folks who had once left crucial chores undone and who had postponed schedules at the mere mention of his name had just totally refused to acknowledge his presence!
It was that boy of his village who did. Mansa Kouyaté remained by the box with that alien instrument he immensely adored. With his dilated eyes trained on the old man, he strummed it in a showman vein. Afterwards, he burst out a wild laugh that exposed those kola-stained teeth the old man dreaded. Kanté Fasséli got bewildered at this contumely. He turned and toddled out towards the old tree in utter despair.
Having grown thirsty and hungry to the realm of dizziness, his legs folded underneath him when he reached the tree. He set the kalimba down and plucked the keys impulsively in a bid to soothe the ache of scorn that devoured him. His numb fingers refined a refrain on plaintive notes. The notes invoked vocal accompaniment. He then poured out words of an ancient song along to his melody in a tired, croaky voice that had been seasoned by the harsh effects of the season. His lean, soulful music overwhelmed him so much that final words escaped his vocal folds in aphonic whispers only. He glanced tearfully at the keys and picked a dead leaf that had dropped near the kalimba in the course of his performance. Beads of blood on his left fingertips arrested his attention alarmingly. He had been caught in the fatal situation that obtained to his instrument’s tradition! The elder whose fingers lingered over the kalimba for them to incur bleeding must play no more. Kanté Fasséli drew those bleeding fingers close to his face and wept freely like a little child.
The turn of events seemed to now make meaning to him.
Ungrateful tree. Decadent and deciduous like all those people. She likes to decorate herself with beautiful leaves for her own purpose in time. The leaves . . . they take the sun’s heat and become burned. Then she discards them . . . flings them down like worthless pieces of cowries. Yet she forgets – she forgets these dead leaves fester and fertilise the soil that holds her. They ensure her survival in their worthlessness, don’t they? . . . Yes they do . . .
But Kanté Fasséli did not know that in her story, the massive tree was just a mere victim of the sun’s play; shackled in the complex cycle of the plot that contained her and him. He did not know the sun’s heat that burned the leaves also hardened the soil’s grip on the tree. And he surely did not know that the field-recording-white person had unwittingly immortalised his performance by that contemptible, queer box he carried.
The white person had been transfixed to tears by the moving music that had wafted to his ears. Melody and voice had felt fresh and refreshing in the wicked wind that ate at his skin. He was perplexed by this grieving old man who had performed to no audience but to the wind. His mind sought to make meaning of this unusual scene he had been drawn upon.
He watched the old man as he rose unsteadily with the exotic instrument cradled in his hands. He watched his dark arms as they swayed it away into space. He gasped in horror when it fell to earth and shattered into several large pieces.
It was only then that Kanté Fasséli realised the stranger’s immediate presence. The white person scampered past him to the remains of the instrument. Kanté Fasséli watched the stranger as he attempted to assemble two large pieces back together. After his futile effort, the stranger walked up to the old man with a befuddled countenance. For a brief while, they peered into each other’s eyes in search for answers to the cause of their elicited tears. The white person relieved his right hand of the shattered piece, dug it in a pocket and held out cowries at the old man. Kanté Fasséli blinked only once as he turned about and tottered away from the stranger. The white person watched the forlorn figure of the old man disappear gradually into the haziness of the season as the early evening sun sauntered towards sleep on the far horizon.
Kobby Amoako Bekoe was born and raised in Accra, Ghana and educated at the University of Ghana (BA English), the New York Film Academy, Downtown Community and Television Center (Screenwriting, Filmmaking and Editing) and Blue Data International (Graphic Design). Currently residing and working in New York, Kobby wrote campus life oriented short stories during high school and undergrad days for Accra based newspapers. Now, with a special focus on screenwriting, writes short stories as a pastime.