The Child Who Survives

Today's poignant and haunting story comes from a sociologist in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Mohamed Gibril Sesay is a published poet and he currently teaches at Fourah Bay College. He has also served as a consultant with the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in development roles on behalf of the government of Sierra Leone.

What do we do? The child’s mother just died. Her father also just died, and she sits in the middle of the square crying. 

In normal times mothers would have rushed to pick her up, hug her, change her nappies, give her food, breastfeed her. Fathers, in the absence of mothers, would have in some deep voice asked her to stop the tears, and with patience running out would have hollered instructions left and right to people around to pick up the little child. Sisters, in the absence of fathers, would have sung lullabies, tickled her, prepared pap to give her. Brothers would have, in the absence of sisters, taken her off the ground and rushed to find sisters to prepare pap and sing lullabies. Aunties would have, in the absence of sisters and brothers, come forward to hug and caress her, to sing unto her songs her mother would have sung, and prepare pap in the same way that mother would have prepared it. And if they too were new mothers, they would have breast fed her in the same ways they breast fed their own children.

But these are not normal times.

So now, alone, the child wails, mucus running down her nose, hands flailing in the wind, buttocks going up and down, like they were gearing her up for takeoff unto some absent hands.

The experiencing of this child is fermenting into wine that we drink to bury the sorrow of the experiencing. We are all drunkards of the rotting scenes and sins.

Night is come, the moon undresses itself, revealing the fullness of its brightness, and we are drawn unto the madness, drinking the nudity of its light at the town square. Our people say the full moon excites madness; our moon is full.  And look at me, look at us, writing and singing stupid songs in memory of our fallen compassion. The square is agog with the songs of the wake:

This pain cannot be touched
For touching it brings death
The mourner cannot be hugged
For hugging brings death
The chief has laid bare the curse
At the square of the town
He who buries the dead
Exhumes his own death

The moon is gone now, we hear ambulances howling like deranged owls, ‘way am way am, way am,’ which in our language means where is he? Where is she?

The child is still at the square, her hands flailing in the wind, like candle flame flicking in the opening in defiance of gushing wind. Is the child a candle burning itself out, brightening the place with its dying, revealing fears in our soul we did not know were there before the candle started burning and casting its sad luminousness? Or is the child a symbol of our pyrrhic survival, the one to carry forward the emerging mutations of our genes, the carrier of the dominant memes fashioned out of experiences of this uncommon moment?

The candle speaks its light into the ear of our hidden narratives; inter-connecting rhizomes of our lives pushed deep underground by the soul-slides of this uncommon year. And our brains, encased in the darkness of the skull, light up with a weird understanding of the fears lurking in the corners of the sepulchers of our lives.

Chapter Two

River Ebola has burst its banks; and we are the lives down stream that it washes away unto the Atlantic of death.

They said monkeys, cousins to one Charles Darwin, started the gnawing of the walls of the dam; and then bats attacked the embankments, the reverberation of their millions of sonar creating crevices through which the virus-infested waters broke free to drown the mother, father, sister, and brother of the child now crying at the intersection of our confusion.

They told us that people upstream ate some bush meat that they should not have eaten, and their belly swelled with the curse of our cousins the apes. The meat could not be digested, flatulence of uncommon sounds took hold of populations, the stench suffocating families to death, and pushing fumes of dangerous carbon dioxides to heights and levels too dangerous for planes to take off or land, for the skies were darkened, much like it was during the volcanic ash that spewed out of some land north of England.

Chapter Three

The child’s father was blind and handsome, and lived alone at the edge of the town, near where forest and town-clearing met. A dangerous border area, leading some to question whether this blind and handsome man was really a being of the settlement - wuni-kipayt - or was he perhaps a crossbreed, half spirit of the wild, half sedentary human, physically blind, but spiritually deep seeing and communing with spirits benevolent and spirits malevolent?

His wife, the child’s mother lived in the center of town, a market woman, and independent. She once fled from the fate of having the blind and handsome man as her husband and roamed the 149 kingdoms of our land in search of love. But the more she searched the more she realized that though she wanted her culture’s respect as a wife, she did not want a man to see her nakedness. She got hooked unto this idea of not allowing any to see her nakedness when she heard a preacher’s story of the saintly women of old who attained sainthood by allowing none to see their nakedness; not even their husbands. Nakedness, she heard, was an indicator of evil.

That was how Adam and Eve knew they had sinned. To refuse the indicator was to refuse that which was indicated, preached the preacher, a man with a sweat-plated tonsure; and who wore garbs so clean she wondered whether they could serve as detergents for the cleaning of dirty clothes.

She visited her blind and handsome man when she wanted, and the blind and handsome man did not care. He was an uncommon husband, this blind and handsome man, a singer of baiti, those religious songs of the night before burials and other occasions to commemorate the dead, but which were as much occasions for romantic and other intrigues as they were for hagiographic accounts of those dead men and women who aligned their lives as close as possible to those of the heroes and heroines of the faith.

Women swooned at the voices of the men of baiti, carried unto shores of secret longings by the cadences of the narratives. A rather foolish man of baiti once said that the voices of the men of baiti carried both God-calls and sex-calls; and it was no fault of theirs if some persons heard more of the sex-calls than of the God-calls.

Chapter Four

The very first night the child’s mother heard the baiti-voice of the blind and handsome man, her ears stood still. Her heart danced, and her loins quivered a quivering so sweet she gripped her between-thighs because she thought the sounds of the quivering could be heard by others.

She turned to a friend standing near her and asked, ‘did you hear that?’

The friend replied, ‘what, the great voice of the blind and handsome man of baiti?’

The child’s mother answered, ‘yes, but did you hear something more, did you hear any sound coming from any other place?’

The friend looked at the child’s mother the look of a person concerned about the mental state of a friend, ‘what, are you hearing voices?’

‘Yes,’ the child’s mother answered, ‘it’s like a thousand angels are sweetly singing inside me. My soul is revving, it is moving fast along the runways of the song, it is taking off, and it is withdrawing my feet unto itself, like those planes do… ’

‘Shut up,’ the friend thundered, ‘you are embarrassing yourself!’

The friend’s exasperated shout as she said ‘shut up’ got everyone turning towards them, including the blind and handsome man of baiti.

‘What’s the matter?’ the blind and handsome man of baiti asked. ‘

My sister loves your voice, and I also think she loves more than your voice,’ the friend answered.

‘Where is she?’ the blind and handsome man of baiti asked again, ‘place my hands in her hands’.

The friend did as she was told. The blind and handsome man of baiti asked the quivering woman whose hands he was now holding, ‘is it true?’

‘I don’t know,’ she replied, and with that she yanked out her hands from the grip of the blind and handsome man of baiti and ran out of the gathering, hands tucked within her legs like she was naked and running for cover.

There and then the blind and handsome man of baiti sang a song of deep love to the fleeing woman:

Where are you running to, love?
The road of love may take you round the world
But ends at the exact spot of its beginning
From birth I knew
That with you I will exhume
The light of my sight
From the depths of the dark
Come back my love
And with the might of our fun
Let’s exhume my sun
From the deep of the night
You are my sun
Hidden in the dark of your flight
 I will exhume your flight
To reclaim my sun

Chapter Five

The blind and handsome man of baiti was known throughout the land for the insights of his songs and the sweetness of his voice. His dirges would even make the dead smile. His lines were sinews of strength for mourners to lean on; they were insights that restored sight to people blinded by the grief of loss. But alas, when this blind and handsome man of baiti died of the Ebola virus, there was none to sing songs of hope; there was none to hold on tight his child crying at the middle of the square, her hands flailing, buttocks going up and down, like they were gearing her up for takeoff unto some absent hands.

The colleagues of the blind and handsome man of baiti shook their heads; songs that could have been voiced to honor his death were fermenting inside them into wines so strong that they were knocked off their senses. They later suffered hangovers of pyrexia that made their bodies very hot, so very hot that the new thermometers of illness pronounced them dangers to society that should be isolated and checked for Ebola.

Chapter Six

A son of our town brought the disease by staying with the blind man. This son of our town caught the disease in another place, and feverish and sweating, he came to the land of his buried navel to seek refuge from death. But he knew search parties were out for the feverish and the weak. So he went to the house of the blind and handsome man of baiti who could not see his fevers.

The blind and handsome man of baiti hosted him; a hosting that infected him; an infection that also infected his wife; a wife’s infection that also infected the other children; deaths upon deaths in our town.

The corpses were taken away, and the ones not yet dead but sweating with illness were taken to the Ebola treatment center at the square of our town, including this child.

The girl survived unto a world that was losing its practiced ways of showing empathy; a world where old ways of mourning abruptly ended before new ones were born.

Like ill-buried relatives neither with us and nor with the dead, everybody was stranded in the inhuman desert in-between the new and the old, searching for oasis of understanding to perch their thirst for a new humanity.

The wife of the blind and handsome got the sentence of death as she covered the shame of her husband. He was vomiting all over, the feces and vomitus and piss of diarrhea all over him. His thrashing with pain on the floor, twisting like earthworm on salt, had gotten all his clothes off him as he died.

The morality of the land warranted that she covered the shame of her husband before she called others. She should soutoura her husband before others came, before strangers came and announced the nature of his death to the whole world. No, a shitting and vomiting husband should not be the image that people remember about her husband.

Was it not said that the state of death was the state most remembered about most people. Was it not why her people always prayed, may the end be beautiful?

But the government said they must not cover the shame of their people; the doctors said they must not bury their dead. But the woman chose to cover the shame in defiance of the state, in defiance of the doctors, in defiance of the virus that commanded a different morality. Was she a candle waving like mad in the night, cutting the flesh of the night in an attempt to kill it? But the night heals itself, medicating the lambent wounds with its bandages of fog.

A college educated cousin of the child’s mother, in the story telling contest we usually held at the town square, told us a story about a woman of old called Antigone, who defied the King’s command not to cover the shame of her brother.

‘No’ she had cried, and on pain of death covered the shame of her brother.

The other day the preacher instructed that members of his congregation should not be involved in the covering of the shame of unbelievers. He hollered, ‘the musk of the mosque are not for those who lived in the nakedness of their fallen nature; the prayers for our dead are not for those who tore their clothes of faith and lived nude in the free alleys of human sins; they lived their lives without soutoura, they should not be buried with soutoura.’

She had seen the pain of so many people who could not soutoura their people as they lay weakened by the ravages of this new terror.  She saw guilt in their eyes; she saw discomfiture in their gait; she heard about the terror in their dreams about the dead crying out aloud; and of some dead taking revenge so dreadful that they were declared as actions outside the limits of revenge; and the acts were therefore acts of witches and evil men still bent on enacting evil on men and women, just like they did when they were alive.

And as such the corpses of these witches and evil men should be exhumed and cut into a hundred pieces to end their malevolence. But those cuttings brought in their own deaths, for the blood of the Ebola dead were the most dangerous poisons known to the skins of humans. These were poisons that sought out human orifices, of which there were so many amongst the men and women of the land. Orifices natural and orifices manmade - like on the hands of the stone miner cut a thousand times cutting stones for the new mansions of the land; like the hands of women cut a thousand times cutting onions and vegetable for the soup of wife-beating husbands; like the unshod toes of children cut a thousand times on the stony fields of urban football; like the hands of the child at the square, cutting her palms on the stones of the opening as they flail in the wind, buttocks going up and down, like they were gearing her up for takeoff unto some absent hands.

Chapter Seven

As the child’s mother lay in hospital in the early days of her infection by the fluids of the blind and handsome man of baiti, she retraced her flight away from her love for this great singer.

She fled the town of her navel, but whenever she saw a blind man, of which they were many, her heart quivered; whenever she saw an handsome man, of which there were many, her legs weakened; and she saw images of the blind and handsome man whenever she heard songs, of which they were many in the lands of our nation, from the loud speakers of town squares to the sweet verses of playing children, from singing steps of mothers dancing to the news of their children’s achievements to the mournful songs of sisters beating their breasts to messages of death in their home towns.

She roamed the land running away from her fate of love. But wherever she went, there were these sights and sounds that brought back the blind and handsome man of baiti to her heart, mind and soul. And then she heard the sermon of the preacher extolling the virtues of women who did not expose their nakedness, and she said to herself that the blind and handsome man would also be good for practicing the art of virtue in a rather amusing way: she would combine her culture’s insistence on women being wives with the preachy virtues about women whose nakedness no one saw.

Chapter Eight

One day she had what some funny people would call a “privileged conversation” with that foolish man of baiti, the one that once said that their baiti songs carried at the same time both God-calls and sex-calls.

‘Why are you married to my blind friend?’ the foolish man of baiti asked.

She replied, ‘because I do not want my husband to see my nakedness.’

‘Well you should do it at night as tradition recommends.’

‘My husband has a permanent night, so day and night are no different to him.’

‘You are a funny woman,’ the foolish man of baiti stated, ‘who told you that your man needs the light of day or the moonlight of night to see?

Any person with imagination can see the nakedness of any other person with just a little effort. That man is a man of great imagination; you hide your nakedness in vain. You hide it in vain from me or from any other person who is true to the mischievous imaginations of the truly human.’
These remembrances were morphine as the child’s mother lay in bed at the Ebola Treatment Center.

But remembrances, however joyous, could be overcome by the intense pains of the moment; imaginations, however intense, could fall prey to the dolor of the fallen.

On the third day of their being brought to the Ebola Treatment center, which was also the third day of the death of the blind and handsome man of baiti, their eldest child, a daughter died; and on the seventh day, their second eldest child, a son died.

Her descendants were being wiped out; there was only one left, the last one, the one still breastfeeding, though the breastfeeding had been stopped by the nurses and doctors of the center.

Then the thought entered her head. Were the children dying because no one performed the third and seventh day rituals of the death of the blind and handsome man of baiti?

In the pain of her illness these thoughts of vengeful spirits wreaking havoc because their bodies had been buried like rats without ceremony tormented her. She became very afraid, not only for her own life, but also for that of her last child. Would she die on the fortieth day of her father’s death? She directed this question to the foolish man of baiti who had been brought into the treatment center earlier in the day feverish with the disease.

Between bouts of cough the foolish man of baiti answered, ‘this child will live beyond the fortieth day of her father’s death. Don’t you see she is the only one here jolly with life even though they say she has the disease? This child will defeat this disease, and my friend’s spirits, however enraged he is, will not stop the continuation of his own very bloodline by killing this child.’

The woman died on the twenty-first day of her being brought to the treatment center, which was also the twenty-first day of the death of the blind and handsome man of bayti.

Had he lived to see that woman die, the foolish man of baiti, the one who talked about God-calls and sex-calls would have chorused that her twenty one days of life after the death of her husband were twenty one gun salute to the life of the blind and handsome man of baiti, a fitting honor to a soldier of the word.

Or perhaps he would have said that all were stupid superstitious practices, all this talk of soutoura, gun salute, international aid, national service, patriotic sacrifice, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, were clothes cast over the primal nudity of humanity that any person of mischievous imagination could see through; and in seeing through, would, if brave, cultivate the inner-laughter, soul-kicks and loin-thrills that make bearable the plunks of existence.

On the twenty-first day of her father’s death, which was also the first day of her mother’s death, the child was declared Ebola free, but there was at yet no one to take her home.  A journalist took pictures of the child, and got the story to the world about the only surviving child of the family of the market woman and the blind and handsome man of baiti.

The child is the candle that speaks its light into the ear of our hidden narratives; inter-connecting rhizomes of our lives pushed deep underground by the soul-slides of this uncommon year.

Mohamed Gibril Sesay is the author of a new novel titled This Side of Nothingness, which will be published by Sierra Leone Writers Series in 2015. 


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