Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Short Story

Prince of Struggle

by Mohammed Alhassan

On this fine afternoon, the sun's hot rays pierced the sweating skins of the victims intolerably and made them feel miserable. Those who could not bear the intensity of the heat peeled off their clothing. Some people took refuge under huge baobab trees providing shade and comfort from the oppressive sun.

Under this tree sat three women. A number of naked children sang and danced in the sun. A Peugeot Caravan came slowly towards them, leaving behind its trail of dust. It stopped by the family house and three men got out majestically and with an air of importance. One man carried a brush and another an empty milo tin full of red oil paint. The third man held nothing. He was the boss.

Without saying anything to the people sitting under the baobab tree, the three men advanced towards the cluster of huts. The nude children gathered round the vehicle and looked at their dirty faces in the shining white coated metal. The women under the tree looked apprehensively at the men, wondering what their mission was. Their heartbeats increased with the advance of three. It seemed as if they were counting the days of the women under the tree.

When the three men got to the cluster of huts, the one with the brush dipped it into the paint and made two broad and frightening criss-cross marks on the wall nearer to the gate. The third one acknowledged their work with a nod. From there they advanced towards the baobab tree. They wanted to make a similar mark on the baobab tree. The one with the brush looked at the tree and took two steps back.

The baobab tree was the biggest one in that vicinity. Around it were a number of earth mounds nicely decorated with feathers of dead birds and the clotted blood of sacrificed animals. Each mound had a history of its own. There were four big mounds and three small ones in all and each one represented a generation of the clan. The children in the family could sit on them and play. It did not frighten them because the sounds were their pro- tectors and their only source of security in an insecure world; how could they fear them?

On the middle part of the huge tree was tied a long dirty bandage whose whiteness had vanished with age and use - and had turned brownish. The man with the brush signalled to the woman nearest him to remove the bandage so that he could mark the tree. The first woman looked questioningly at the second and the second at the third. The man with brush ignored the women and looked at his friends. They were also unsure of what to do.

The third man boldly took the brush from its holder and advanced towards the tree, but his audacity did not go far. He dipped the brush aggressively into the paint and stooped low and made a similar mark on the lower part of the tree. When he finished he handed the brush back to its original holder. Without saying. anything to the women they got back into their car and drove off.

When they had left, the women began to wonder what the sign meant. The children went near and stared at it. Some of them touched it and got paint on their fingers and their mothers chided them for tampering with the mark.

If modernisation meant the mass ejection of peasants from their lands and the construction of huge skyscrapers to suit the elite class, then the peasants would prefer to be left alone. But who is a peasant in the new order imposed from above?

Zaare was a village on the outskirts of the capital city. It was not thickly populated but was fairly large. The capital city was being invaded by the wave of modernization which they said came from far. And Zaare being on the fringes of the city was affected.

As part of the attempt to transform the land to suit the demands of its builders and designers, Zaare had been mapped out for invasion. Half of it had already been swallowed by the construction of an irrigation dam whose significance was nothing but a mirage to the people.

A few years later, the remaining section was again mapped up for demolition so that the site could be used as a Residential area for medical officers and other bureaucrats who would print "Beware of Dogs" signs on their gates. Officers from the Lands Department and the valuation office came to evaluate the houses and to pay their owners some compensation. That was how Zaare became a household word in the surrounding village. They all wanted change, but not the type that the people of Zaare had. They would do without development rather than suffer the fate of Zaare. If modernisation meant the mass ejection of peasants from their lands and the construction of huge sky- scrapers to suit the elite class, then the peasants would prefer to be left alone. But who is a peasant in the new order imposed from above?

"I thought I heard the sound of a vehicle in front of the house," Narog said, half statement, half question, as he approached his wives.

None of them volunteered a reply to his question. His face was oily and puffed up with sleep. As watchman at the village primary school, he had to catch some sleep in the day. It was in his sleep that he heard the sound of a vehicle. He could not tell whether it was a mere dream or a reality. No car had ever come that far, but why that particular car, he soliloquised. He went near his wives, bent down and pulled up some grass to allow the millet to grow and dragged himself sluggishly towards them.

"We need rain today else we're doomed," he said to himself. He yawned and stretched his arms carelessly. "Our forefathers must be merciful; how can our crops and cattle die before our very eyes?" Still no contributions from his wives. So he turned back and walked to- wards the compound from where he had emerged.

At first he thought his eyes were blurred and that was why he was seeing red marks on the wall. But as he got nearer, it became clear to him that it was no optical illusion but a real mark. It was broad and looked familiar to him. Yes, those marks, he had seen them somewhere. He had seen them and thought perhaps they were some of the designs that city dwellers add to the beauty of their surroundings. Yes, it was a month ago.

He had gone to Bolga to cash his cheque of twelve cedis being his pension. He had seen two men in overalls. One held a brush and the other a bucket of the stuff city dwellers use to polish their walls. These two men were making the signs on walls but unlike the one on his wall, they added some writing to the mark. It looked beautiful to the eye. Or could it be the sign that could drive away that mysterious old woman?

Sometime ago, it was rumoured that a goddess (some said the devil) was going round calling people to join her cult. She would come to your house at dawn and shout your name and if you ever respond that would be your end instant death, since one could not join the goddess cult alive. The only thing that could save people was for them to make signs of the cross on their doors and walls to frighten that old woman away.

But those signs were made with the white dry clay schoolboys use in writing but not paint. But why was he worried? If the boys from Bolga cold extend that rascally behaviour to Zaare, it was their own problem. However, they were lucky that he did not see them. For how could they make marks on his wall without his permission?

The women under the tree saw their husband looking pensively at the mark. They found it difficult to decipher his reactions from his face since it still maintained its sleepy, puffy look. The man took a rag and tried to clean the mark but it would not go. It was dry and had become part of the wall. He took a step towards his house, turned back as if to say something to the women, hesitated for a moment and walked into the house.


"Where is Narog?" the shabbily dressed man asked some children as he approached them. It was almost dusk and the sun was retreating unwillingly, slowly but surely into its shell. The colour of the sun was now dull red and had lost its piercing rays. This added to the stillness of the leaves and plants conspired to produce a dull evening.

"He is preparing to go to work," one child answered.

"I mean where is he?"

"He is in the house," the child said, feeling irritated at the numerous questions. Narog had heard his neighbour's enquiries about him whilst he was dressing hurriedly to begin his three mile walk to the village primary school. Before he could climb over the wall into the yard, his neighbour was already in view.

"Have you heard the news? They are saying I have to move so that they can build bungalows for black-white-men," Tia told Narog.

"I do not understand you. Who says you should move?"

"That is what governor says. I have to go, but where to is my headache," Tia said trying to illicit sympathy from his neighbour.

"I mean how did you get the message?" Narog asked, looking confused.

"My brother, the world has changed a lot. In the days gone by, any time our leaders wanted us to do something they would call us and talk us into agreeing with them. But these days they communicate with us on papers and walls. And yet they expect those of us without the white man's vision to obey. I came home to see a bold mark in red on my wall. and you know what that means?

"We should pack away in three days or trouble for me and my family. If we refuse the government's dogs will drive us out like a herd of cattle. My brother, that is the news. Why should they treat us as if we are animals or slaves who own nothing and deserve no respect? We might be poor but as people of this land we deserve some respect! Even the white man did not do that to us when we wanted our land. Now our own people kick us about. What did Nkrumah say? Freedom! Freedom! And we shouted back. Is that what freedom means? Oh! I am finished."

The mention of the mark started ringing bells in Narog's ears. A mark. In red. He had seen a similar mark on his own wall. Dragging his friend after him, Narog took him outside and there it was. The mark that had frightened Tia out of his wits. He nearly collapsed at the sight of it, but on the other hand, he was happy that he was going to share his predicament with Narog, a trusted friend and neighbour.

"Ahaa! Mba! That is it. It is all over the place. In Bolga, Zaare, Vea, Kongo and the rest," Tia said agitatedly.

"I do not understand this, but hold on till I come back tomorrow, then we can discuss this issue again. I have to go," saying this Narog got into the house and came out holding a torch-light with a bow and arrow slung over his shoulder. He walked away briskly without saying anything to his neighbour who was mesmerized by the mark on the wall.

Narog, though a night watchman, could at times steal some sleep. But on this night, he had been wide awake. If it was true that they were going to be herded like sheep out of their own land, where would he go with his three wives, his children and their worldly possessions?

Returning from work the following morning Narog stopped over to see his friend Tia. He wanted to hear the details from him. Tia had told him of an impending catastrophe. But what was it? When he got there Tia had gone to the Naba's palace so he continued.

A crowd of elders had gathered in front of the Naba's palace when Narog got there. What had brought them together was the fact that they all had a common problem.

A few minutes after Narog had arrived, the Naba came out. When he was comfortably seated, he addressed his people.

"Morning, elders of the land. I have heard of the troubles of the time. In fact, I was informed of this earlier but I did not know that they would ask some of us to move away at the height of the farming season. This means that we have to do something. But to be frank, I'm at a loss as to what we can do. This does not mean that I have lost control of the situation. No, far from that. But you all ought to understand that the Naba no longer has power, and the Tendana is also in a similar situation. So, I will suggest that we send a Delegation to them to intercede on our behalf."

Members of the proposed delegation were chosen by the Naba. Someone insisted that Narog be included but the Naba explained that his house wasn't affected so there was no point burdening him.

"Naba, I also have that sign on my wall, that means, I have also been earmarked for destruction; me and my family," Narog said.

"But I was told that houses from the big culvert after the school are not to be affected. Okay, I will find out," the Naba said and the meeting ended. But before they dispersed, Narog was made a member of the delegation.

The following day was Bolga Market day so it was easy to get a truck. They got to Bolga quite early and called upon Dr Zukat.

Dr Zukat was from Zaare. He had, in fact, been born and bred there. He was one of the few who took advantage of the missionary education and the opportunities available in the C.P.P. era so it was not surprising that he became a qualified medical officer working in the capital.

Dr Zukat had steadily risen from a Medical Doctor to the much enviable status of a Regional Medical Officer in a few years. It was, therefore, not surprising that the people of Zaare made him their obvious choice in the quest for a saviour and one upon whom they could pour their sorrows.

The delegation arrived at 8 am and waited till Il am, even though they had been told the Doctor would report at eight, he came at 11am. The leader of the delegation got up and walked to the Receptionist and told her they wanted to see the Doctor.

After surveying the old man from head to toe she pulled out a form and threw it to him. He could neither read, nor write so he simply stared at the paper. The telephone on the desk rang and she picked up the receiver. "Yes, Julie here!"

The person on the other end said something and she giggled. "Yes, at Black Star."

"Sure you will come?" the voice at the other end asked.

"Are you going to pick me up?"

"Okay, I will wait at the entrance for you... She put down the receiver.

To be continued

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