SEVEN POTS OF STONES
Death was a solution. It was what we ate in the night, in turns, some even jumped the queue. It stopped us from wandering through the woods in search of nuts or the juice from jerrin- a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches. It was the only thing that quenched our hunger. And we waited in the night sitting all alone, cold in our houses. Death was no longer an accident. It came too slowly, knocking on our doors, with outstretched arms. It was no longer shy.
Nana Zainobe sat at the room’s corner, with Abdoulaye in her arms, close to her breast. She only had a thin scarf around him- he was five and waning. The room smelled of dust and death. She could no longer cry. It was useless and she felt she would waste the little water she had in her. She tried to make him suckle but he could not. Her breast flapped against her thin chest each time it slipped from Abdoulaye’s mouth. And she put it back into his mouth. It was all she had left and I saw the empty look in her eyes and how she wished her breasts were full again so she could give us all to suckle.
I am the boy sitting at the doorstep with one leg outside and the other in, so I could turn my head to whichever one brought solace from the other’s woes. I was the one who ate the last nut three days ago, from the white sack which was now lying empty at the opposite corner of the hut, sinking in the dust. Nana Zainobe had sold our last goat because we had nothing to cook it with. She had bought a sack of nuts instead and we all ate three seeds each, three times a day and then twice a day and then once a day until it finished three days ago. Abdoulaye was not my only brother. I had three more and they tried to sleep in another corner of the hut but hunger would not let them.
I had watched all the goats die under my guard. Death had made me a poor shepherd. I saw the goats fall into the sands like broken twigs falling off dry trees. And they laid there in the sands, unmoving, until the winds blew away their papery hides and later buried their bleached bones. It was the last one Nana quickly sold to Baba Sherriff although he was unwilling to buy a skinny goat; she had to fall on her face, and begged him to accept it. I was there beside her, with a tear in my eye. Hunger already forced the edges of my lips down and made it effortless. At that moment, he was God whom we worshiped to show us more mercy. When Baba Sherriff finally accepted the goat, he felt he was doing us a favour rather than completing a bargain and we had to fall again to worship him for buying our goat. She used the money to buy a sack of nuts and we ate it little by little till we had nothing left.
Baba had been killed in the war. He had joined because he felt he would have food to send home to us while he fought but Mamadou, his friend, had returned to tell us about his death; his blood soaked Jellabiyad as all the proof we could see, his only part that was left and the only part we buried. Mamadou said he did not die from the enemy’s gunshot, but from the sound of it, before he was later fed with more bullets when he blew his cover. Baba was no fighter and he had told me he did not understand why despite the famine, the drought and their offspring; hunger, which the earth had thrown at us, some still found money to buy bullets instead of bread; some still found time hunting other heads and pouring more blood into the earth that had forsaken them. Baba was just a shepherd and he planted wheat too before the drought ate them, and the sun baked the soil to swallow its wilting stalks. And when the soil refused the roots their home, and the clouds refused to bathe the earth, the crops failed and the flocks waned away. So when he heard that the soldiers had access to food, he decided to fight in the war and I could remember Nana tugging at his Jellabiyad as he made away. He said he could not sit and watch his family die one after the other, while he poured sand over each of them and waited for the next one; it made him cry; it made him helpless and feeble; it made him less a man.
The winds wailed as they swept the sands. The fields were unyielding and there were only a few dead trees standing. Many of the tress had bones of children and goats pooled at their feet. No one visited them except the vultures that tore off the last of their skins and I saw them curse each time they bit into the tasteless thin skins that barely brought delight to their tongues.
The morning had just turned noon and days before, we would have been trooping out of Halima’s shed where she taught Science and English language. But the children began to leave, one after the other, and sat at Mallam Sagir’s evening Quranic and Arabic class instead. They said science did not teach them how to kill death and there was no use sitting all day staring at Halima’s mouth and waiting for her to teach them what chemical reactions they had to make with sands to turn them into grains of rice and make the twigs into meat. Mallam Sagir did not teach them how to kill death too. He only fed them with hope and it was all that mattered. He told them how manna fell from the sky for the Children of Israel when they had suffered hunger and he told them that all they had to do was believe and the storm would soon be over. That was all he said to them before and after each Quran session and that was what kept them at his place for a longer time. Hope is not a small thing. It is the only right thing that a man can hold on to when there is nothing left. When all hope is lost, all is gone, and even the brightest summer would appear bleak as winter’s night, dark as Hades’ haven. It is hope that makes a drop of water seem like an ocean.
I was the last to leave Halima’s class. She was a slender and tall woman and she wore a white scarf always. Even the drought could not snatch her beauty that brought me to always attend her class. Her lips were yet to break like most of us and I felt she was growing to be a strong knowledgeable woman. She always knocked the doors to the different huts and ushered the children to come to her shed where she taught science, using charcoal to draw illustrations on the brown board. I wanted to see her talk to me every time so I asked several questions in her class. I found solace in her voice and I was encapsulated in its awesomeness that her words blew my hunger away. I wished I would sit all day and listen to everything she had to say; anything she had to say. She was in her last teenage year and I was in my third. Whatever it was called, I felt I harboured more affection for her than I did any other person. And that was what made me sit at the doorstep and watch her from our hut. When our eyes met, she smiled. But I felt she was merely happy at seeing her inquisitive student, the only one who seemed to pay attention to her equations. She even said I could make it into the university at Mogadishu. I watched her grow leaner every time and I remembered saving some of my nuts for her when I had them. When I gave them to her that evening and she asked why I did so, I lied and told her it was because she was a great teacher and then I slipped away before my legs gave way.
The hope Mallam Sagir fed us was gradually wearing off and though we still believed, we were tired of waiting until Adamu came home one day to tell us that the food supplies were coming. The joy of the news almost raised the dead ones. Our hope was finally springing fruits. Mallam Sagir was happier. Not only was he hungry too, the news made more students pour into his class.
Adamu did not say when the supplies would reach us, so we waited. Each morning, several children slid into the streets gazing at the distance, some into the sky and there were more children at the doorsteps. But the evenings rolled into mornings and the mornings into evenings, and there was no truck in sight. The hunger pangs struck more and those who doubted the news were first to die, followed by those who would have died anyway, as the men who buried them said. When Mallam Sagir saw that our hopes were dying, he taught us about faith. And there was it. Faith is the oil in hope’s lamp; it was what kept it burning. Mallam Sagir thought us to remain resolute in our faith and strengthen our belief that everything would be fine. Then he talked to us about Abraham who waited several decades for a son and got it when all hope was lost. So he said that when hope is dying, our faith must be reignited; that when the lamp is dying, we must pour in more oil.
When Adamu reappeared several weeks later, he said our food had being delayed by the rebels and some of the volunteers taken hostage. That night, we slept again hungry and some were dead by the morning. It grew worse when he said some of the hostages were later killed. We could not cry. We just sat in the open, gazed at the sky and poured more oil into our lamp of hope. Some children had already begun to chew their lips and some, their tongues. And those that ran out of oil were dead in the morning.
It was three days now that I last ate anything. I did not know what sustained me but I did not lie flat on the mat like my siblings and I did not try to take turns with Abdoulaye who was being brought to suckle at Nana Zainobe’s breast. I just kept shifting my gaze from inside the hut to the outside of it. A part of me wanted Halima to come out of her hut so I could catch a glimpse of her and soothe my heart and take the pains off my stomach. But she did not and I could imagine her lying on her mat in her hut, covered with a thin sheet and hoping to come out in the night because she said less energy was lost at night. Adamu said that if the volunteers came, they would have come that day and said that if they did not, they were probably all slaughtered. So we all watched the sun roll across the sky and announce its exit as the night was ushered in. Nana Zainobe clasped her hands against her forehead and I knew what went through her mind. She was gradually losing her mind and if Abdoulaye died on the morning, it would be the third she had to sink into the ground. There was nothing more gruesome than a mother watching her children die in her arms wishing she could give her life in exchange for theirs. Then she walked outside and waited with us as the sun disappeared, hoping earnestly to hear the screeches of braking Lorries pregnant with food supplies. She had grown extremely feeble and was a shadow of the beautiful cheerful woman who danced at the zar during the community festivals that enlivened our rer. Everyone began to withdraw into their huts as the night took over but Nana Zainobe did not. She went into the hut and picked up the white sack and said to me.
“I’m going to find food. We will have a feast tomorrow. Tell your brothers that. Especially Abdoulaye, sing it to his ears that he will eat wheat tomorrow, he must not die”.
I thought she was insane. I looked into her eyes and I could see her pain. She was dying too and had not eaten for two weeks. She stopped eating the nuts with us when she discovered it would soon finish and she had no shilling to buy a new stock. I wanted to ask her where she would find wheat but I watched her walk dizzily into the fields, the sack held weakly in her hands. I saw her fall severally when the wind blew at her but she rose each time, her face shifting from the ground to the distance, as she disappeared into the night.
Karim was the first to doubt me when I told him Nana Zainobe had gone to find food. He said I was crazy to try to lie to him. Abdoulaye just laid sick in the corner, certainly unconscious. When I told him food was coming, he shifted just a little and remained still again. The others burned with a new hope. I wanted to doubt that Nana would find food but I silently prayed that she would and each time it crept into my mind that it was barely possible; I fought the thought off immediately. I returned to the doorstep and watched the moon in the sky and still waited for Halima to walk out of her hut.
I was dozing off when I heard clings of the pots. I rose from where I was and walked into the yard. There was Nana playing one last pot on a local stove. There were seven in all and fire burned underneath each of them. I brushed my face down with my palms and slapped myself twice. Nana was cooking! I thought it was impossible and I felt it was something strange. Instead of Alhamdullilahi (Thanks be to God), I said Audhubillahi (I seek refuge against the devil) because I thought I was in a trance caused by evil spirits.
She forced a weak smile and pointed to each of the pots, exhausted.
“One for each of us and the neighbours too; we’d have a feast tomorrow”.
I ran into the hut and told my siblings and when they peeped into the yard, I could see delight creep back into their eyes. She told us to return to the hut. We did not know where the energy came from, but we danced round the hut, holding our arms and raising dust. Abdoulaye smiled for the first time after a long time and moments later, he laughed. The neighbours were confused about what brought excitement into our home that we sang at the top of our voice. Some of the children even came to our hut and danced with us with a burst of energy that seemed to have enveloped us. I could hear some say hunger had driven us mad instead of killing us. And as we danced, I plotted how in the morning, I would smuggle into Halima’s hut a whole pot or at least take my own pot to her hut and while we would sit and eat together, I would watch her smile light up my whole world. As we danced and then fell on our stomach in hilarity, we did not know when sleep overtook us.
It was the noise in the fields that woke us up. I rose up from the mat and the sunshine greeted me. I saw children running across the fields in joy and jubilation. When I stood up to the entrance of our hut, I saw five trucks, guarded by several soldiers and some men and women who wore white overalls trying to talk to the people. Food had come; the wait was over. Then I remembered Nana Zainobe and ran to the yard. She still sat before the stoves but with her head dropped down. She had a rosary in her right hand and she seemed to have fallen asleep praying. A strong wind blew and took off her scarf but she did not try to catch it. I paused where I was and feared the worst as I called her name severally
“Nana! Nana! Help has come, Nana!”
She did not raise her head and when I finally touched her, she fell from the stool and crashed into the ground. She was dead. I shook where I was, shocked and I felt tears creep into my eyes. It was a long time I cried at a person’s death because I saw it too often. I wanted to shout and throw myself on the ground. But I had no strength and all I could do was whimper.
I walked to the pots and lifted the lids one after the other, to see the food she cooked for us but never ate. Under each of the lids I lifted, were several stones lying; in each pot. She had been cooking stones all over the night and maybe praying that when she lifted the lids in the morning, they would have turned into food. She had only fed us the previous night with ignited hope and it was what defeated death in the night and sailed us till the morning. The joy that our wait was over what was ignited our hope and saved many of us, it was what saved Abdoulaye.
I did not know whether it was the smoke from the pots that killed Nana Zainobe or her two week old hunger. Yet more, I could not decipher whether it was insanity that made her leave home and hunt for stones or faith. But I chose faith, as my eyes rolled from the rosary that she still clung in her palms to the seven pots of stones.
HABEEB KOLADE PROFESSOR X
About the Author
Habeeb Kolade also known as Professor X is a creative writer and entrepreneur. He currently works at Ventra Media Group, a British marketing agency. He is the Creative director of Market Ibadan Business Festival, CEO of StrictlyUI and Hermosa Marketing. He works with startups to build their market presence. His facebook ID is Habeeb Professorr X Kolade and you can follow him on twitter at @Habeeb_X.