Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Masquerade Songs!

I stretched out my right hand, rather hesitantly, to turn the cold water tap but then let it freeze midway. The picture in my mind of shivers rocking through my body at contact with the shower water left me undecided to take the plunge into this miniature waterfall. The option of turning the hot water tap was none the better as an electricity outage earlier meant that the heater was of no use to me when I needed it the most. Mustering all the courage in me, I jumped into this controlled downpour, skipping as I did, to shake off the cold water induced shivering. A familiar yet unexpected hum suddenly seemed to well up inside of me. I ignored it at first but it grew in audibility, striking a chord in me. It resonated of an experience from my past. It aroused a sense of nostalgia. In that bathroom moment, I was literally transported back in time to Luukwo village.
The sound of pigeons cooing outside, cocks crowing in turns, a mother hen clucking, subdued by the chirping of her chicks, and the distant squealing of a pig fight indicated that it was daybreak already and everyone was up and about their business. It must be a beautiful day, I concluded. Well maybe for them but surely not for me. I tried to justify my condition as I laid there in bed, my body sore and my hands achy. The blisters on my hands had made me to detest the hard and physical aspects of the life of a village farmer. And don't even mention the early wake-ups and long bicycle rides to the farm! "Is this what they do daily?”, I questioned.
It was the summer holidays, the 3-months long vacation for schoolers of all categories. And I was holidaying at my uncle's, Kunguni. My parents had sent us there to brush up our Goemai language and also pick up some farming skills. I don't get to visit the village quite often. So although it was a welcome holiday stay for me, I was becoming uncomfortable with some realities of life there.
"Homsuk, goe yo tai ba? Mu shin leti." ("Homsuk, are you still sleeping? We are running late"), Kunguni inquired as he gently pushed open the door to my room.
I was surprised. Could he read people's mind? Did he know what I was grumbling about?
My auntie joined him, "Homsuk, ta gi puet a? Goe yo goe shin kalashi dai gu yok ki." ("Good morning Homsuk! Get up and have some breakfast before you set out.").
Even that, the bait of breakfast, didn’t seem so enticing to me. I pretended to be deep asleep and oblivious of their voices as Uncle Kunguni called out a second time.
I could hear the husky laughter of his voice, resigned to their inability to persuade me out of bed.
"Lami, nyet ni. Ni nee purr" ("Lami, leave him! He must be very tired")
Uncle Kunguni, a tall, slender, kind-hearted gentleman, is a likable person who made us feel at home. His wife Lami, my paternal aunt, is my Dad's younger sister. Their house had become for us our place of residence whenever we visited. And so they left my room and not long after, I heard the squeaky, rusty sound of Kunguni's bicycle moving, suggesting he was on his way to the farm alone this time without my company. I breathed a sigh of relief.
How did my eagerness to go to the farm so suddenly changed to unwillingness, and even cover up, not to do so? Surprisingly, the previous day I had gotten up early, dressed up in my farm gear - a boy's shorts and a wrapper tied diagonally across my shoulder, providing an airy cover for my torso - and had sat down with my new hoe in hand waiting for breakfast to be served. I had watched as Aunt Lami prepared breakfast of madidi (a type of millet mash wrapped in banana leaves) served with whole-cooked okra soup garnished with freshly smoked fish. I remembered that as we left for the farmland, two corked calabash gourds filled with mu-es and kuna (local alcoholic and non-alcoholic brew respectively) were tied in place on the luggage carrier on Kunguni's bicycle. Also suspended on the carrier were our two hoes, one for him and the other for me.
I had sat on a cushion on the bicycle's crossbar, my legs hanging sideways in the air and my hands holding onto the inner handlebar for support and balance. As we navigated our way through the narrow pathway, we met several other farmers walking and chatting animatedly en route to their farmlands, their farming implements resting on their shoulders. Kunguni would slow down and exchange pleasantries with them and we would continue our ride.
Lush greenery of trees, shrubs and herbs adorned the landscape as far as the eye could see. Inter-spaced between maize, millet and guinea corn fields, were locust bean (dorowa), mango and palm trees, distributed around.The seeming silence on the pathway amplified the bicycle's pedaling sound. Once in a while, the alarm call of birds on surrounding trees broke the monotony of our bicycle rhythm.
I was not only amazed but also amused to see several palm wine tappers perched on the upper trunk of the palm trees, their backs resting against twines tied round the trees as they replaced filled gourds of wine with empty ones. My amusement was rewarded by Kunguni asking one of the palm wine tappers to take one of the gourds to his house, offering to pay him later. I looked forward to having a sip of that sweet palm wine.
Sandwiched by green land as we pedaled on, we finally arrived at my uncle’s farm after what seemed like an unending ride. I couldn't wait to get off the crossbar. The jumpy ride had stiffened my behind and made it feel sore. A long stretch of rows of stalks of maize, followed by those of millet and then guinea corn (sorghum) greeted us as Uncle manoeuvred to a halt under a mango tree. Massaging my buttocks, I had a ‘wow’ moment trying to process the cereal splendour standing before us in their majesty.
Supposing there was a beauty contest of some sorts among these cereals who would the winner be? I imagined. Would it be the long flappy leafy maize stalk or the tall and moderately flappy leafy millet or the short flappy leafy sorghum plant? What about if their stalks represented houses to live in, which house would I choose to live in? I took another quick view of the farmland and seemed to like the maize plant as my preferred house. If the tassel was the roof, the stalk the storeyed floors, and the leaves the balconies, then the ears of corn would be the different rooms to live in I reasoned. The corn plant had several rooms to accommodate more people unlike the millet and sorghum stalks which were like single-room apartments with many people living in them, I pictured in my mind.
As I wondered about these, I helped place our beverage calabashes on the ground. Kunguni rested the bicycle against the mango tree.
"Mu swa la ham!" ("Let's have a drink!"), he said and grabbed his gourd of mu-es, shook it a bit and poured a generous amount into his cone-shaped calabash cup. He gulped the content at a go and almost immediately he cleared his throat, exclaiming a "haaa" satisfaction in acknowledgement of the quench of his thirst and his readiness to attend to the business ahead.
I didn't feel like drinking my kuna yet.
Kunguni picked the bigger of the two hoes and handed me the smaller one.
"Naa hen de la fer pei dei gu shin yi zak" ("Watch me root out the weeds and do the same"), he instructed.
I watched as the hoe-head hit the surface of the ridge, clearing the grass and weeds around the bottom of the corn stalk and avoiding the prop roots. He then gathered the grass and weeds, shook off the dirt-earth and released them into the furrow.
"Oh I can do that!", I thought aloud and applied my hoe-head to the surface of the neighbouring ridge, in the process snapping off two of the corn's prop roots.
"Aah, aah, aah! Gi shin ka hankali" ("Go gently!"), Kunguni cautioned me laughing huskily.
He took the hoe and showed me how to hold it and move it across the surface of the ridge. After a couple of misses, I got the technique. I was keen to put to practice my newly acquired skills, so I took off my covering wrapper, laid it under the mango tree and started weeding out the grasses in the neighbouring ridge, repeatedly looking up to assess how much progress I was making.
Kunguni was already five ridges away from me, singing and whistling as the distance between us widened even more.
"Ho Homsuk" ("Well done, Homsuk!"), he called out to encourage me.
Moving my index finger, laid against one corner of my forehead and releasing it into the air at the other corner, I cleared the sweat that was running down my face. I was beginning to enjoy this farm tending and observed that I had now covered five ridges myself while Kunguni was almost at the end of the corn field.
A loud scream broke our routine. I took off instinctively meandering through the stalks of corn, falling down and hurriedly getting up.
"Anmo, anmo? Anmo Homsuk?" (What's it? What's it, Homsuk?), Kunguni inquired running towards me as I, gripped by fear, did towards him, anxiety and concern written all over his face.
Gasping for breath, I pointed in the direction of the mango tree revealing a snake in hot pursuit of a bush rat.
"Uhhhhh!", Kunguni exclaimed in the typical Goemai way and busted into laughter remarking, "I was worried you had injured your foot with the hoe."
It was as if, to him, seeing a snake was not a big deal.
He held my hand and we walked towards the mango tree. The snake had disappeared into the grass around. There we stood disorganized, for different reasons, by hysteria: I so driven by the approach of the snake, Kunguni by the suddenness of my screaming and ensuing confusion surrounding my running through the stalks of maize, falling down and getting up. United by the solidarity of our situation and shared emotions, we sat down under the mango tree to rest.
"Do you know that snakes are a rare sighting here! Our pigs have eaten most of them.", Kunguni reassured me.
I listened as he explained that pigs were immune to snake poison unlike to scorpion's.
We took our gourds and drank to cool off our excited adrenaline.
Although I felt safe with Kunguni, I was still restless and unsettled. The picture of the snake chasing the rat towards my direction kept flashing in my mind. My kuna tasted differently. After listening to more stories about Kunguni's encounters with snakes, I was pleased when he asked us to leave for home instead sensing my lingering restlessness.
"Homsuk, baka tashi har yanzu ba? Lafiyan ka kuwa?" ("Homsuk, are you still not awake? Are you alright?").
The sound of Auntie Lami's voice pieced through my thoughts and reminded me I still had not got out of bed since their unsuccessful attempt earlier to persuade me to go to the farm.
With no other excuse to use as a cover-up and hunger pangs biting at me, I got out of bed and stepped out of the room.

To be continued!

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