Family Man was Mama Cynthia’s legacy from a previous relationship and had inherited his mother’s height, dusty complexion, and innate elegance. Although he was in his early twenties, he existed in a sphere above the affairs of his contemporaries and people spoke of him as if he were some deity, omnipotent and beyond reproach. A solid affinity to reggae music had seen him discard his birth name in favor of “Family Man,” a moniker which he had borrowed from a charismatic member of Bob Marley’s band.
The earliest rumors that were carried shoulder-high through the neighborhood were of how Family Man had held his breath for six full minutes whilst lying on his back on the bottom of the local stream when he was only fifteen.
And there was the feat I witnessed myself. I saw him climb right to the top of the huge cotton tree at Allen Town in pursuit of a plastic Wembley football that had become trapped in the branches. The achievement was all the more spectacular given that the tree was rumored to be a haven for snakes, demons, and other malevolent forces. Those of us who saw him ascend the tree that hot afternoon spoke in awe for years after, marveling at the manner he had leaped from branch to branch with the litheness of a leopard.
The adults who witnessed his climb, however, sent word to his mother, pointing out that her son’s brain had broken free from his head and that it was unacceptable for him to tempt dark forces beyond the comprehension of his young age.
Family Man described himself as a serviceman although no one was really sure what service he was involved in. He assumed this title shortly after failing all of his O-level exams. For the youth of the neighborhood, the passing of the O-levels was a massive milestone as it granted them access to the sixth form, a time when school uniform became fashionable and you were finally allowed to transition from shorts and one-piece frocks to long-sleeved shirts, full-length trousers, and swirling skirts.
Family Man’s abject failure in the exams denied him this privilege, a setback which he accepted with dignified nonchalance. These academic limitations did nothing to mar his confidence, especially as his occupation as a serviceman involved extensive traveling. He would disappear up-line into the provinces, at times even visiting neighboring Liberia and Guinea, to be accompanied on his return by riveting stories and pretty women. Our contact in Mama Cynthia’s house was her younger son, Dauda, who was closest to us in age and very popular on account of having access to ripe mangoes which grew on the trees in his mother’s yard.
There was no pattern to Family Man’s return dates. When he arrived, Mama Cynthia would fuss around him and his lady friends, feeding them native country rice and sheep stew. Mama Cynthia’s voice would then carry through the neighborhood, demanding that our friend Dauda abandon whatever he was doing and run home. He would then be dispatched to buy cold drinks for Family Man and his elegant lady friends from the Fula trader who operated out of a cluttered shop opposite the local mosque.
Sated, Family Man would take off his shirt, sit under the mango trees in his mother’s yard, and whilst fanning himself with old newspapers, regale us with stories of his travels, the cadence of his voice illuminating even the most mundane of experiences. Pa Sam, the old karankay shoemaker who himself had delivered the odd impressive travel story in his time, described Family Man’s narrative style as an ability to make even a story of grass being painted green engrossing.
Our football games died whenever Family Man returned, as Dauda’s absence left our teams lopsided and uneven. Abandoning our ball, we would follow our friend to his house, keen to vicariously live the Family Man experience.
“I watched East End Lions play Mighty Blackpool last Sunday,” Family Man revealed on one of his visits. “Great game and the Ghana-man, Simon Awuah, scored an equalizer for the Lions in the last minute. And I sat in Stand 21 amongst the Lions’ supporters. Red everywhere and the noise we made when Awuah equalized was like September rain hammering down on a metal roof!”
As we could only listen to these matches on local radio, or pretend to be the iconic players in our field games, Family Man’s revelation left us in awed silence, none of us daring to interrupt.
On other occasions, Family Man explained movie plots to us. He only went to evening viewings, and had been to several theatres across the country, including the posh Globe Cinema on Syke Street and the Capitol Cinema in faraway Kenema. For us, movies were rare treats we experienced on an old black and white television in Mr Arnold’s front room, a kind man who worked at Water Quay. Cinemas though were hallowed places we visited only on Christmas Day for matinee showings of nativity movies.
It was from Family Man that we heard about the Bollywood classic, Sholay.
“The bad-man in Sholay is Garber Singh who cut off the hands of Sanjeev Kumar, the policeman. He also killed all of Sanjeev’s family by spraying them with gunfire! Then he made the beautiful Hema Malini dance on broken glass! But at the end of the movie, Sanjeev Kumar got special shoes with nails on the bottom and ground Garber’s hands to a pulp!”
When prodded by us as to how the armless Sanjeev Kumar could fight the powerful Garber Singh, Family Man paused to take a swig from his misty bottle of Star Beer before reciting one of the sub-titled lines from the movie: “A snake does not have hands, but it fights!” We all applauded on this occasion, giving appreciation as if Family Man himself had devised the words.
Eventually, the romantic carousel that was Family Man’s life came to a standstill, and one of his lady friends became a constant. Like one of Family Man’s sisters, she was also named Khadi, and to avoid confusion, everyone called her Khadi – Easton Street, a nod to her home address. Khadi – Easton Street was light-skinned with obedient hair that flowed down her back. In addition to being a disciple of high-heeled shoes. She was also the custodian of a couple of gold teeth, which flashed when she smiled. Khadi -Easton Street added further lustre to Family Man’s visits, and it was agreed by all that she would make a most illustrious wife. It was rumored that her father was a seaman who traveled to faraway locations, lending her even more sophistication.
Mama Cynthia was delighted with the appearance of Khadi – Easton Street and gushed over her at every opportunity. Our friend Dauda told us that this was because the last of Family Man’s girlfriends, who had been in his life for a reasonable stint, had been Fatmata Bangmin who existed only in name, as none of us children had ever seen her. Legend had it that Fatmata Bangmin, who had short hair like a man, had broken a pint-bottle at a Christmas disco at The Climax NightClub and attacked Family Man for allowing another girl to sit on his lap. He had however managed to escape unscathed.
Family Man for all his mystique occasionally descended into our affairs. This was mostly in relation to the most popular of our friends, a boy named Sinneh, whose father drove a huge Fuso truck into the provinces.
Sinneh, who attended a private school, had been privileged to be across the street at Tower Hill during the state opening of parliament and to mark the occasion, there had been a twenty-one gun salute. The booming cannon had fascinated Sinneh, his excited conclusion being that no country on the planet could triumph over our own if it came to war. We had all disagreed, and in response flung down the names of nations that we believed could destroy ours like an elephant trampling over grass.
Family Man, who had finished narrating his customary travel story, had fallen asleep on the sturdy hammock tethered between a couple of mango trees in his mother’s yard. He must have been listening to us though as he suddenly spoke, his confident voice killing the discordance of our discussion.
“America and Russia are what you call superpowers and they have soldiers and weapons more powerful than anything we can even dream of in Africa. Then you have countries like Britain and France who also have powerful armies. And there is China. These countries make up The Security Council. What Sinneh saw at Tower Hill was probably just an old cannon which cannot do much harm in modern warfare.”
Family Man did not open his eyes as he spoke to us from the hammock that afternoon, and the fact that he was swaying above the ground was strangely appropriate.
And then Sinneh’s father died, his big Fuso truck consumed by a road accident during which his chest was crushed by the steering wheel because he was not wearing a seatbelt. Our friend was left inconsolable, the awkwardness and inexperience of childhood stripping us of the ability to offer any constructive condolences.
Family Man spoke at the funeral though, explaining to the hushed mourners that when a parent died, they had departed this world to open the way for the children they had left behind; Sinneh would therefore henceforth live a life blessed with strong luck and good fortune. The elders who listened to his engaging eulogy nodded in appreciation, marveling at how from the mouth of Family Man, death had been transformed into a concept worth envying, a darkness that pulled hope in its wake.
On his next return, Family Man rescued Small Sallay from certain beating. The child had been busy washing her mother’s only two glass plates, which were brought out of a padlocked chop-box only when important relatives happened to visit. Prone to spells of distraction and carelessness, Small Sallay allowed the plates to slip from her grasp, disintegrating into fragments on the cemented floor. Not waiting for her irate mother to lay hands on her, the child fled from the narrow white-washed adjoining where they lived over to Mama Cynthia’s yard.
Howling like a wounded deer, the child placed herself behind Family Man for protection. The mother stormed into Mama Cynthia’s yard, uttering dark threats as to the nature of the punishment she planned on subjecting her hapless child to. Dangling in her right hand was a slender rattan cane, the sight of which increased her daughter’s wailing.
His voice smooth and steady, Family Man spoke to the heaving mother. “Return home Mama Sallay. Your heart is currently too hot to deal with this child. Let Small Sallay stay here with me for now and I’ll bring her over when your breathing becomes steady again.”
As if under a powerful juju spell, Small Sallay’s mother meekly returned home, leaving her distraught daughter cowering behind Family Man. Lowering himself to the child’s level, Family Man used a frayed handkerchief to wipe a cocktail of snot and tears from Small Sallay’s face before instructing her to go play in the sand under the mango tree.
When rebels jumped the border to spread fear and terror, Family Man’s stories climbed to another dimension.
On his returns, he continued to share his experiences, spilling the things he had seen, words tumbling from his mouth like gushing streams during the rainy season. His stories however lost their lightness, and there were no longer narrations of football matches and movies. Instead, he focused almost exclusively on the horrors unfolding in the provinces, and stories of the mysterious Sanjako Hunters who had been seen for the first time in over a century.
“The Sanjako Hunters have climbed out of their society bush and have decided to join the fight against the rebels. They have special eyes that can see into the future and predict the move of every enemy. They wash only at night with powerful herbs in their society bush. Gunshots to them are like throwing dry grass at an elephant. I heard how one of them went to the government hospital in Kenema because he was suffering from malaria. The nurse tried to inject him but the needle broke like a broom straw. With the Sanjako Hunters now at the war front, this conflict will be over very soon. Rebels shit in their trousers and vomit into the dust when they hear that Sanjako Hunters are close by!”
The first sign of the Sanjako Hunters was the presence of a rainbow that had no feet and instead appeared in the sky, encircling the sun. The appearance of the rainbow was met with loud revelry, a highlight being the experienced women of every area covering their heads in bright yellow wraps before streaming outdoors to ululate at the sky. This happened whilst Family Man was away, in that brief October period when the rainy season started to collapse, giving way to the briskness of harmattan, a time when weak dust devils dance across open spaces.
The only food allowed on this day is white rice with palm oil served in wide trays. It is eaten in the open, with people dining in large peer group clusters. Adults drink freshly tapped palm wine from polished gourds, whilst children are allowed Grambai, a smooth concoction made from the juices of wild malombo, and black tumbler fruits.
This year, the morning after the Day of the Footless Rainbow, the bright blood of a bush cow was smeared on Mama Cynthia’s door. This was the second sign.
Family Man returned to see his mother after the bright blood of a bush cow chose him. It was a customary Sunday and he had Khadi – Easton Street in tow, wearing a pair of coal-black jeans and an effervescent floral blouse. Family Man told us no stories on this visit, and instead went into the house with his mother from where we heard the occasional raised voice. Khadi – Easton Street waited under the mango tree delicately sipping a pint of orange Mirinda, which Dauda had been sent to buy as per usual. She had taken a pristine white handkerchief out of her purse and wrapped it around the bottle like a funeral shroud.
Family Man eventually emerged from his mother’s house, smiling at Khadi – Easton Street who rose from her straight-backed chair as if on cue. After whispering something in her ear, Family Man reached into his back pocket and like a street magician produced a sleek black wallet. There must have been about twelve children in Mama Cynthia’s yard that afternoon, and Family Man gave each of us a crisp brown fifty-cent note. Chattering like spotted guinea fowls, we compared our notes after he had left, speculating aloud on how we would spend our unexpected largesse.
After Mama Cynthia made peace with the idea that the signs had chosen her son to join the ranks of the Sanjako Hunters, it was agreed that she would have a sara ceremony during which prayers would be recited for his safe departure. After hanging heads with the elders of the family, a warm Saturday was chosen. On the assigned day, a medium-sized ram was purchased from the cow yard at Wellington and tethered to a tree, the creature bleating through the morning as if aware of its pending demise.
The experienced women of the area who were in Mama Cynthia’s age bracket arrived in the afternoon wearing their ornate yellow head-ties, carrying huge pots, their waists strapped with brooms made from the straw of palm leaves. The pots were to cook Family Man’s farewell meal whilst the brooms would be used to thrust away any dark and bad luck that had the potential to cloud his star.
There was however not to be any alcohol at this gathering as the body of the new recruit had to be kept pure and unblemished. Once the meals were laid out on the ground, a traditional medicine man arrived to perform Family Man’s departure ceremony. The man was an angular specimen clad in an ash-colored billowing gown that reached to his ankles, his shoeless feet covered in light red dust.
After people had eaten and washed their hands, the medicine man moved forward and instructed Family Man to sit on a weak straw mat that had been positioned at his feet. He addressed Family Man by his real name, which we got to learn for the first time: Rasheed. At this point, the ram was untethered and forced onto its side, after which its throat was slit. The blood was collected in a deep calabash and handed to the medicine man, who after lifting the vessel to the sky, brought it back on level with his chest, speaking prayers and incantations into the calabash. The medicine man then dropped to his knees to look into the ground after which he shook a couple of squat herb bottles. After a pause of about a minute, the medicine man’s face broke into a wide smile, a sign to the gathered crowd that Family Man’s path was now clean and clear.
The gathered people cheered and clapped, some of the women breaking into songs of praise for their friend Mama Cynthia, who had been blessed with a son who had been chosen to defend his people against devilish rebels.
The medicine man was then handed a long sharp cutlass, which he used to cut the slain ram into smaller pieces that were wrapped in wide banana leaves and handed as take-away gifts to the important elders who had attended.
When we awoke the following morning, Family Man had departed for the final time and it was as if the whole neighborhood had suffered a strong bereavement.