Black and white are just colours... red, sometimes, is something else (a love story)
Un nuovo bellissimo racconto in inglese ci fa scoprire una storia affascinante ambientata in Africa, in cui i colori sono protagonisti; soprattutto il rosso
di John Ayers
Africa. The teachers left. The civil war, the cutting and the killing, continued for another 30 years. The American ‘Peace Corps’, the British V.S.O., we, the ‘do-gooders’ had done a good job. We had taught the brightest children, with our modern education, to want more from life. We had brought democracy and taught that it was everyone’s right to have more. But we hadn’t brought peace. Perhaps we hadn’t thought enough about this ‘more’. Supposing that this ‘more’ means them coming to us and asking for it. Will there ever be enough of it to satisfy everyone?
Kailahun 1966. The sun is high in the great hot bowl of the blue sky. In all the atmosphere there is a goldenness. On a hill nearby a tree grows toward the sky, silver grey and slender. The blue of the sky is so intense that the sky appears close and the tree seems to be cut out of the same flat plane as the sky. The hillside itself is scarred brown for a large area along the side where a rice farm is being prepared. The undergrowth has been set alight and burnt, all the waste has been dragged away and now only a few tree trunks, too big to be carried away, remain. The hillside is earth-coloured and a figure the colour of the earth is working there. Taut, the body is bowed from the hips, legs set a little apart, only the top half of the body moves. She sways upwards rhythmically, and down, to chop into the earth with a machete. If we were closer we would see the sweat glistening on your black muscles, Fatu, but from here we see only what seems to be part of the hillside moving.
Walking on down the hill away from the greens and browns of the hill-side and into the yellows and browns of the town I feel the hot sun on my head, my hair is hot even. The warmth is pulsating through me. I feel powerful striding, with my bag over my shoulder, along the dirt road. On either side of me are one storey corrugated iron roofed buildings, walls of dried mud, and almost all have a little store in front, a nook in the wall which sells sardines, bicycle inner tubes, powdered milk, condensed milk, matches, maybe a bicycle wheel, a sack of sugar. Children wave or grab my hand as I pass. If they are dirty they are the colour of dry earth, dusty, if they are clean then they are the colour of wet earth.
Later in the day I come to you. You are sitting on the steps of the porch playing with the children (twin daughters that once you promised would be my wives) You are black. Your skin gleams and glistens and the light glances from your blackness. I feel anaemic next to you. I look at your face. Your eyes, faintly blue eye-shadowed, are gentle and at ease. The line from your shoulders to your neck, past the lines of your cheek-bone, to the glint of a gold earring, is beautiful and dignified. Your nose is straight, accentuating the dignity. Your lips, a darker colour than mine, are full and curved in a way that is ready to smile. And over it all is drawn like a mask the burnt brown colour of your skin. What can I learn from your eyes when behind them, behind the smooth forehead, you are thinking in a language that is quite different to mine…. A wholly different structure of thought lies there…
“How are you?”
“ Thank God”
I had lent Mr. Sheku, the husband, £50. Everything seemed to be going wrong for the poor fellow. He was a tax collector by profession and in the morning he would set off smartly at about the same time as me, he toward the District Council, me out along the mud road toward the school. Suddenly in October he was missing for a week. Fatu was there, and the children, each bright early morning as I stepped from my door to go round the house to the latrine. Fatu would be sitting by her front door, changing one of the twins and would call a greeting, or I would call it, or sometimes we would both hesitate and then both call the first words together, and she would smile her slow smile. Little Sheku would run over and grab me round the knees, grinning toothlessly while his second teeth were growing, mumbling, “Ow the body?” and I would mumble back “I well.” But Mr. Sheku, dapper and small in white shirt and tight striped trousers, was not there to provide unity to the group. Eventually he re-appeared looking worried. He was accused of embezzling £175 of the tax money. Of course he said that he was being framed by the big men. By the end he had said it so often that he probably believed it. And the end was a long way off, for the case dragged through the months. Mr. Sheku was increasingly absent, away on long journeys in search of the money, journeys which everyone knew would be fruitless. Difficult times for Fatu and that smiling chuckle of delight in the world all but disappeared. But she still would be sitting there on her low stool by the door, calling greetings, smiling. Smiling even at the policemen who came; and then ignoring them. Her business was with her children, and the problems of feeding them and clothing them when she had no money and no husband.
I offered to lend £25 on the tacit understanding that I would not get it back. But Mr. Sheku begged that he needed £50. It was so simple. With this amount he would raise a loan of £200 with a lending agent. The £50 was the agent’s fee and with the £200 he would pay back the money to the Council and still have £25 to pay me. A perfect scheme. My extra £25 must come back within a week I warned. Mr. Sheku disappeared. Intermittently he re-appeared. He couldn’t get a loan; the money was with his brother; he was going north to try a new source. I stormed, I threatened. I demanded my £25. He promised, he entreated, he went. Angry days!
Four weeks later his much postponed case came irrevocably to court. With a weeping and wailing the crowd swept back to our house. He is fined £50 and they have put him in prison. Well, I thought, at least my £50 is going to be of some use. Where is my £50 I demand of the brother. It is with the lawyer, he has promised to bring it when he can. When he can! Why not now? A baffled silence. Have you got a paper from the lawyer? The paper arrives. I read it with a sinking feeling; a receipt for legal charges. They know it too. Brown figures, gaily clad, scatter from the house in search of another £50. I walk slowly up to the little Court House with its corrugated iron roof. Is there nothing I can do about this? I ask the tubby man who is sitting on a table outside the Court. His eyes wrinkle with concerned humour, he swings his bare legs beneath his great baggy shorts. Nothing. So much for the local politician. I wander on through the trees. The flowers flare at me, red-bellied. The police chief has a fine house. He is resting on the grass playing with his little boy. A big black man about the shape of De Gaulle if you can imagine De Gaulle in only a voluminous pair of shorts. You could perhaps try the magistrate, he wonders.
I walk quietly away back down the hill, away from the heights, back down towards the little town, the mud-walled houses. The sun is setting behind me. It sheds a gentle light. It’s a quiet evening. The small boy at my heels walks quietly. He’s just there for the company. Fatu is there when I get back. She is sitting on the stool by her door. They have got the extra money I learn, but Mr. Sheku must stay in jail tonight, and the money can be paid tomorrow. I sit on the stone steps of the verandah at the far end from Fatu. The sun is still setting and there is a goldeness in the air. I smile at Fatu, a wry smile. I wonder if she understands it. Is there a word in her language which has the same meaning? Is there a smile in her language which is the smile of failure? She smiles back, a bashful smile. I want to tousle her hair with my hand, ruefully. But her hair is tightly braided, close to her head. Anyway, I don’t move. And dusk falls quickly.
So much happened in the world in those years. Cuban crisis, Kennedy killed, another Kennedy killed, Martin Luther King killed. The world did not really notice that in Sierra Leone a genuinely democratic election was held. One of the first in what we called ‘under-developed’ countries. Almost everyone voted; a thumb print was the generally accepted method of identification. The result, as can so easily happen, was 50% vote to one party, members of the same tribe, and 50% to the other. Even an established democracy has difficulty handling this sort of result. Accusations of corruption flew, and eventually the military stepped in; the generals and the colonels with their British Sandhurst education. But the NCO’s, (the non commissioned officers) had also been to school, my school and others like it, the best and brightest boys and girls from the villages had been sent with such high hopes to the local secondary schools and many of the boys had joined the army. So they took over and blood began to be spilt. There is a strange violence to red blood against a black skin and the violence spread through the small towns and into the villages and then into the forests and by then it was out of control and knives were being used.
Fatu had’t been to school. I think she didn’t know about the ‘wanting more from life’ that the schoolboys in the gang had learned. But when they came she knew she had to defend her daughters. And so she was cut to pieces. There was an ancient blood lust in the air. First an arm and then a leg, that was how it was done. Clumsily done because they had learned to use their hands to write and turn over pages of books and were not good with a machete.
Red blood flowed over her black skin; so much red blood.
“How are you?”