I have often wondered what it was about me that caused my father to hate me so. My stepmother would comfort me, rocking me from side to side when his cruelty towards me overflowed and sing songs that made me stare at the heavens through dry eyes wishing for better things. Was it my mother, whom no one ever spoke about, and whom I had never known, lost in the past or was it my limp that rendered me mostly ineffective on his sprawling farm? One night, my drunken uncle, balancing a gourd of millet brew gathered us young ones round the harmattan defying fire and told this fable. It was the time of the millet season when only the pleasant and light tasks remained. The millet heads were cut, threshed and the precious grains were safely behind bars in barns. Only the dry stalks remained unbowed, unviolated, waiting to be gathered up for thatching roofs and fuelling fire and then for entertaining the young ones.
Maghan Jaba and his younger wife Jebele were in his furthest farm beyond the banks of the Great River when straightening up to wipe her brow with the back of her hand, Jebele saw the nomad. From afar, from the north, across the arid expanse of yellowing Savannah grass, she saw specks of white cattle being led by a tall gangling figure. She knew who it was at once, Yaro, the dashing arrogant and sometimes obnoxious Fulani youth who kept his father, Ardo’s cows. As he drew closer she noticed the new necklace of charms that the boy had plaited into his hair. Yaro like most pastoralists was modish.
“What is it?” Maghan Jaba asked with some irritation, straightening up, but immediately he saw the incoming cattle his forehead creased into a frown. Tension between the Ajarugwai homesteaders and the pastoralists rose and ebbed with the time of the year and now that the crucial harvest was in, tension was at a record low. Maghan Jaba still smarted from an incident when another of Ardo’s children drove fifteen steers into his four-month-old farm. Ardo had of course apologized and even appeased Maghan Jaba with a four-year-old bull, but the subtle insults of Yaro made the peace offering hard to swallow.
“Ho over there.” Hailed Yaro disrespectfully over the distance. Maghan Jaba’s back curved menacingly. The Fulani were so rude, so uncivilized.
“Yes” he answered tightly.
“A good day Lord Maghan Jaba if one is not burdened by cumbersome tasks.” The boy teased, leaning on his staff and producing a reed windpipe, lifted a leg and tucked it beneath the other knee.
“Just do not allow your beasts into my farm, I am yet to clear my corn stalk.”
“I wonder how many cows it will cost to trample your precious stalk underfoot.” The boy said, laughing.
Maghan Jaba seethed. Where in the world had the youth learned the art of provocation?
“Come closer and find out” he answered, his voice having acquired an exacting edge, then a surprised formless sound as he watched stupefied the boy drive his lead cow into the farm.
“What are you doing?” Jebele screeched.
“You heard what Lord Maghan Jaba said my lady.”
Maghan Jaba fondled the handle of the knife tucked under his garment. He had fought men for less, but not a sniveling twenty rain old the age of his first child Tmali. His anger bubbled from the nether depths of his soul in a dark miasma. He clenched his teeth.
“Yaro, I am warning you.”
Later, Maghan Jaba and Jebele would try to recall what happened, but when Maghan Jaba gathered his senses, he was holding down Yaro, as life ebbed out of the boy.
“We killed him” Jebele whispered, shocked. The world of the farm was silent as if even the insects stopped their endless toil to observe the breach.
Maghan Jaba was a member of the Ruwaye, the warrior clan and they had been taught that there would be days like this so in his spirit he was prepared. He dragged the body into a dense grove and began to work feverishly. Soon the body was buried and his cattle now masterless, drifted slowly back home.
Later in the evening, having warned Jebele to keep her mouth shut, Maghan Jaba sat alone in his inner chamber watching the flames crackle over a dry wood fire licking at a bush rat. Zuja his friend walked in and sat down quietly. Maghan Jaba watched his friend quietly as he settled down noisily, drawing his leather cloak closer about him and extending a careful finger poked at the bush rat.
“It has been a good harvest Maghan Jaba.” He said sagely.
“Yes, Zuja, they are so fat this year.”
They remained quiet for a while before Maghan Jaba the younger by some two rains said.
“Peace to you Zuja and all of yours.”
“And peace to you and yours Maghan Jaba. Did you have a good day?”
“I fear not.”
“Your wives again?” Zuja smiled slyly.
“I would have wished. I killed that mannerless boy Yaro today.”
Zuja drew a sharp breath and deftly turned the bush rat over. Maghan Jaba watched him intently.
“You were alone?”
“No, Jebele was with me.”
“This is not good news.” Zuja said shortly.
They remained silent for a long while until the sharp tang of burning meat aroused Maghan Jaba who plunging his hand into the fire, brought out the bushrat and deposited it into a calabash, soon forgotten.
“I know I must check my anger.”
“Self control flees when that boy approaches. Throw out your digger behind the house and come with me.”
A little while later, the two men walked out of the house and into the night. Maghan Jaba did not return home till when it was about time for the cock to crow, but that night he slept well.
It was now two moons since Yaro’s cattle returned home without him. It was also the season when one was cautious with his substance. Maghan Jaba returned un-looked for early one day to find a hunting dog eating a huge piece of sun dried meat. Jebele! She had left her private barn open again and soon she would be demanding for provisions from the general barn. Palpable anger seethed from him as he sat down and waited for her to come in from the stream. Truly, as evening time came, Jebele walked into the homestead balancing a huge earthenware pot accompanied by her son the cripple. The way he eyed them, everyone in the household knew some one was in trouble. As soon as she put down the pot she came and knelt by his side and offered him a drink.
“Are you the careless woman that allowed dogs to raid her barn?” he spat the words at her the words rolling off his tongue like venom. He saw her stiffen at the rebuke then her face hardened in defiance.
“Is it not Lord Maghan Jaba that has refused to fix the lock to my barn?”
“You dare to exchange words with me?”
In a flash Maghan Jaba was up and silenced her with a slap across the mouth and another and another and soon her wail sailed forth.
“Wa yo he wants to kill me like he killed the Fulani boy Yaro! Save me.”
And because the village gossip happened to live next door, Ardo heard and the next day accompanied by the policing Local authority, and several aggressive herdsmen he was at Maghan Jaba’s door.
“Where is my son Maghan Jaba?” the Fulani patriarch demanded, barely controlling his anger.
“Your son? I do not understand.”
Ardo would have done something rash or desperate if the law officer had not interfered.
“Lord Maghan Jaba, every body in the village knows what transpired between you and your wife Jebele yesterday.”
“Then perhaps you had better ask her.”
“With your permission?”
“But of course”
Soon a still unrepentant Jebele led a strange mixed multitude, Maghan Jaba, Zuja and several Ajarugwai elders on one hand, Ardo, the law officer and the Fulani on the other hand towards the Great River. Soon Jebele located a recently disturbed portion of earth and asked them to begin to dig. Several Fulani men began to dig at a furious pace and before long struck something solid. Only the law officer, distance and then again the Ajarugwai weapons saved Maghan Jaba from instant death. But as they unearthed that which they had struck, they discovered it was but a slim tree trunk the height and thickness of a man. Almost immediately the emotions that had built up ebbed and metamorphosed into inexplicable ones. Ardo’s mouth hung stupidly as he stared from Maghan Jaba past Zuja to Jebele. The law officer, an elderly man of some vision was perplexed.
“Is this where your husband buried the boy?” he queried.
Her forehead was creased in a sweat. She could only nod.
“Dig deeper” the man ordered. To no avail. By now Jebele was wringing her hands in anguish, only Maghan Jaba, Zuja and the law officer remained emotion less.
“When it was evident that nothing else could be discovered in the pit, the law officer turned to Maghan Jaba.
“What is the meaning of this tree trunk?”
“It is the custom among my clan to bury such a trunk in your farm, so your produce will be as big as it is.”
It was apparent that Ardo was not satisfied with the answer but his fury was impotent. The law officer turned to him
“It is my judgement that you seek your son from this woman.” Then turning to Maghan Jaba he said. “Go, your wisdom has justified you. May your children and their children show the same wisdom.”
I began to smile, then I remembered, Jebele was my mother’s name.