"Madame Dei Rossi, do you remember Sierra Leone? Do you remember Manor Junction? Is there anything that you remember?” A long period of silence passed before the small, silver-haired woman motioned to speak. The rouge on her lips gave her aged face an elegant look. It was also a look of deep sadness and haunting regret. She stared intently into the distance, as if someone familiar, someone she loved, had appeared in her mind’s eye.
“Papa was born Seydou, but they called him Samuel at school. The country people called him Pa Seydou. Only the British addressed him as Father Samuel. Mummy died when Mimi was nine months old and, afterwards, Auntie Sira came to live with us. Papa was the pride and joy of the Church Missionary Society. They believed they did fine work by sculpting an Anglican priest out of native soil. He was the youngest son of a fankama from Matopi who fathered so many children that when Reverend C.K. Lumley borrowed Papa for an experiment, no one made a fuss, but for his young mother. Three men had trouble restraining her that dry season, when they carried Papa off to the Mission School in Fallangia. At age five, Papa could recite psalms as if they were nursery songs. The ‘Barnabas Babe’ was what the missionaries called him. They came in droves just to see the golden child. The missionaries said Papa held the Lord’s light within him, that he was destined for good works, having been born with a patch of grey hair on his widow’s peak.
“Our house was not our house. It was Church property. To supplement Papa’s small, small pension, the Church allowed us to live there. I remember it well: whitewashed hacienda made of fine, strong stone. From the upstairs veranda, you could see the red dirt road that passed in front of it and the palm oil plantation that went on forever like a carpet of seaweed. Two giant palm trees flanked the house on each side like sentinels. What a pretty picture it made. Our house was built by Pa Fernandes, a Luso-African slaver whom the British drove to ruin following the Act of 1811. They said Pa Fernandes flung himself off the roof at the break of dawn. They said his mother went mad, that she carefully gathered what was left of her son, packed his parts in a palm-wine barrel, and sent it to the Chief Justice of the Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown. They said the palm-wine was delivered minutes before the judge sat down for supper. Like all Englishmen, the Chief Justice had a habit of assuming the country people were grateful for his presence, and had sent him a gift, a tribute, according to their custom. With a tumbler in hand, they said the Chief Justice insisted on opening the palm-wine barrel himself.
“We did not have any neighbours; just the impassable forest behind us, and the palm oil plantation in front. The backyard had patches of razor grass like a head going bald. I remember the split-rail fence which held off the bush bush dem. It seemed strange to me that
purple bougainvillea was growing all over it. It was as if the Lord himself was showering us with beauty in that forgotten corner of earth. I remember the small garden of tomatoes and aubergines. They looked like holiday ornaments hanging off their curly, green vines. Alusine, the Limba houseboy, chopped firewood and boiled water twice a day for our baths. He always had the most peculiar expression when he slaughtered country fowls, as if he was trained in the art of killing. His people sent him to Papa to learn English, to absorb our civilized ways.
“Our house had many furnishings and odd objects. The British habit was to leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs when they changed posts. They disliked moving cross-country with their entire households, as that attracted crowds of country people who watched their processions as entertainment. The claw-foot tub us girls used for washing was left behind by the Church family who were there before us. They left their things in nearly every room, those people. When night came, we went around the house to cover every looking glass with a bed sheet. We started doing so after Mimi, then aged five, said a woman’s silhouette appeared nightly, with arms outstretched, as if beckoning for her to come.
“Things were never the same again after Ishmael went to war.”
* * *
“Bom dia. Sou o Ishmael. Moro na Manor Junction. Como estás?” Ishmael furrowed his brows in full concentration.
“You are straining yourself. Papa is not going to let you go,” said Mimi in a taunting manner.
“The karamoko of Manor Junction!” Mimi shrieked and exploded into a fit of giggles. “The karamoko,” she repeated, enjoying the sound of the consonants dancing off her tongue. Fatima was outside by the water well. She was washing the mangoes she had bought that morning at the market. She heard her siblings’ voices through the kitchen window.
“The karamoko of Manor Junction!” Mimi’s shrieks became rhythmic squeals.
“Lef, non? Mimi, behave yourself,” said Ishmael.
Mimi muffled her squeals as if someone had covered her mouth with a hand.
“When I return as a decorated war hero,” Ishmael added, “maybe, just maybe, I may teach you Portuguese; and whatever German cries of begging I can beat out of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.”
Fatima knew her brother well. She was absolutely sure that Ishmael had flashed Mimi his signature smirk as he said those words. Ishmael secretly enjoyed being teased for his bookish ways by his sisters.
“Alright, karamoko,” said Mimi.
Fatima entered the house through the back door by the kitchen. The door swung open like a boomerang and its loose mosquito net blew in the breeze. “Maïmouna McCauley, have you washed this morning? You look chaka chaka. Go wash.”
Mimi ran to hug at her sister’s middle before skipping up the sprawling stone steps, passing a large oil painting of their mother. Khadija Diabaté was a beautiful woman. Her four children inherited her honey-colored eyes.
Ishmael glanced at the mangoes in the calabash which his sister placed on the parlor table; and returned his attention to his Baedeker’s Portuguese Conversation.
“I love mango season. I bought fresh, fresh ones today,” said Fatima.
“Mango season is delicious season,” said Ishmael, in the manner of someone who did not want conversation, and was slightly annoyed that one was being forced upon him. Ishmael snapped shut his Baedeker’s and shuffled upstairs to the veranda, where the breeze was always cool, and an agitated mind could breathe. The only McCauley boy was long and lean with mosquito legs. He had the coffee complexion of his mother and a head full of silky, peppercorn curls. He was a Sahelian prince out of tune in the muggy tropics.
“Can you talk some sense into your brother?” Safi had entered the room with no one noticing, thwarting Ishmael’s attempt to leave the parlor without a confrontation.
“De bigfool. He is going to join the West African Frontier Force!”
Ishmael crossed his arms, readying himself for an admonition. But Fatima busied herself with arranging the mangoes in the calabash, even though they did not need arranging.
Safiatou was the third McCauley child. That Saturday morning, she was dressed in blue, with her wooly hair piled up high in a big knot, a red hibiscus tucked behind one ear, giving her the look of a Caribbean girl. Safi often took to forest excursions, alone, returning before nightfall with a jute bag overflowing with herbs and flowers. “Sisi, he wants to involve himself in the White man’s palaver.” Safi’s voice grew louder and more desperate as she made her case. “Sisi, can you imagine? We have a crazeman for a brother. He…”
“Safi, please? It is too early for your commotion.”
Ishmael looked surprised and motioned as if he wanted to speak, but desisted, and quietly headed for the upstairs veranda.
Four hours passed and, like a fumigant, the mid-afternoon quiet erased the tense energies of the earlier morning. Fatima went upstairs to the veranda with a tray of tea and two slices of soda-cake.
“No, just resting my eyes.” Ishmael smirked and sat up slowly, sending his Baedeker’s, which rested upturned on one knee, falling to the floor. He picked it up absent-mindedly and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He took from the tray one of the cakes and a cup of tea. “Thank you, Sisi.”
“Did I tell you about the mix-up box-up I saw on Blama Road this morning?” Fatima slapped her knee as she said this. In the McCauley household, a knee slap announced the beginning of a wild and wonderful story.
“Right by the roundabout, a plasas mammy buckled a policeman. She had him by the scruff of his neck and the poor man looked confused.” Fatima started laughing, first slowly, and then violently, with one hand placed on her belly, as if to quiet the flood of joy erupting from within her.
“Ah dey tell you. The plasas mammy buckled the man!”
Ishmael chuckled quietly as he sipped his tea. The fog of sleep departed from his face to reveal a handsome mien, made more innocent-looking by big eyes that were encircled on all sides by
“I asked one busybody about the palaver. Apparently, the policeman owed the plasas mammy some money. He been trust plasas but noh wan pay.”
“Manor Junction. Small town of big dramas” added Ishmael. A quiet fell between them as each took in the sight of the palm oil plantation.
“Manor Junction. Small town of big dramas,” echoed Fatima, after a short while. The tone of her voice had thrown off its earlier joy to pick up the heavy bag of dread.
“Sisi, I know you don’t agree with my decision.”
Fatima looked at her little brother with a pained expression.
“Safi is wrong. I am not going on some foolish ‘King and Country’ errand. This war is going to change everything. This is the war to end all wars. No matter what happens in the end, I don’t see how the British will continue with Empire, unquestioned, after we Africans have died for their
Fatima bristled at the word “died.” Ishmael noticed, and immediately regretted using such an inconsiderate word. He reached over to hold his sister’s hand. “When it’s all ended, I am going up to Fourah Bay College.”
“Hmmph. Then you will be called to the cloth, then. All they teach there is Theology.”
Ishmael sat up in an erect manner and made a grave expression, while adjusting an imaginary monocle. “Behold Father McCauley the Younger, who was begotten by Father McCauley the Elder. My lords, a new dynasty.”
Fatima began a silent laugh, which grew louder as she clutched
“Watch the Oxford dons form a queue,” said Ishmael with his signature smirk. Both laughed conspiratorially and restored the uncomplicated joy of happier days before the outside world came bearing harsh realities.
“Sisi, you worry too much. Besides, mortalman na natin. Just pray for me when I am gone, will you?”
Fatima and Ishmael swung their interlocked hands back and forth, as young children do in their unwatched hours of play.
* * *
The Mccauleys went to the parlor after a supper of peppeh soup and casada. Each was lost to their own private worlds. Safi was occupied with a pile of pale blue handkerchiefs on her lap, on which she was sewing dandelions with yellow thread. Ishmael was on the thin red rug, his long limbs contoured like a fakir, head bent over his Baedeker’s Portuguese Conversation. Mimi was seated on her Papa’s lap, narrating her day’s misadventures. As if she were an outside spectator, Fatima admired this picture of love and happiness. Admiration quickly turned to dread as she realized how this picture was soon to change. “Una good evening,” said Alusine. He passed around a tray of lemongrass tea for the family; and each uttered a tenki as they took a cup. Like a stagehand, Alusine adjusted several of the kerosene lamps in the parlor, and then disappeared into the shadows of the house.
“Mama Mimi, sing for me.” It suddenly dawned on Fatima that Father Samuel’s nickname for Mimi was odd, even kind of cruel. Mimi never knew her mother. Mimi’s sweet voice—pure and unspoiled by life experience—filled the room, spreading smoothly, as if it were a fairy casting a sleeping spell on a storm-ravaged crew at sea.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
The wall clock struck at midnight. Everyone had gone to bed but for Fatima and her father. “Papa, what was Willoughby’s meeting about?”
Father Samuel sighed as if forced to confess against his will. “The British are recruiting young men to go fight the Germans in
“Ishmael wants to go,” said Fatima.
“He said so.”
“Will you let him?” Under the lulling light of the kerosene lamps, Fatima noticed her father’s age for the first time. He looked small and shrunken like a petrified prune. She grew fearful at the feebleness of the man that was supposed to be their protector.
“Chief Nongowa sent for me the other day; and I went to his compound to see what he wanted.”
“Papa, I hate that man,” said Fatima. She made a disgusted, fed up face as she recalled the reasons for her hatred. Chief Nongowa once told Father Samuel that he did well by siring three daughters. Fatima did not like the tone of his voice when he said so.
Last rainy season, the Native Police Force discovered a headless pregnant woman in a ravine, her belly still round with child, her arms and legs half-eaten by a leopard. No culprit was caught, no suspects were apprehended. There was a conspiracy of silence about the whole thing. Fatima blamed the Paramount Chief because he would not publicly disavow instances of ritual killing in his chiefdom. He said such dictations from the Crown Colony, even if he agreed with them, were an affront to his sovereignty.
Father Samuel upturned his head in a nervous, child-like way and said to his daughter, “Chief Nongowa has asked for your hand
“Wetin?!” Fatima’s voice tore into the night like a knife going down the length of a window curtain. “Papa!”
“Darling, listen. I told him that that is not the plan I have for my daughter—any of my daughters. My own father had multiple wives, so I understand that country mentality. But not for my daughters.”
Fatima noticed her standing self and sat down. She felt the urge to rise again. Her whole body trembled as if electrocuted.
“I cannot stop Ishmael from going to war,” Father Samuel continued. “All I can do is pray that Lord have mercy and bring him back safely. He is a young man determined to test his mettle in the world. We must let him go. We cannot stop him.”
Father Samuel’s voice faded into the background as Fatima fixed her gaze on the dying light in one of the kerosene lamps. She thought if she could will it back to life, she could will anything and make things right.
“As for you, Safi, and Mimi, I am finalizing arrangements for you girls in Madeira. The grandson of an old friend from my London days is the owner of a British hotel there. He has offered a private suite for you girls to occupy until the war is ended.”
Fatima said nothing in reply and stared intently at the last flicker in the kerosene lamp.
“Manor Junction is no longer a safe place for my daughters.”
* * *
The Great War reached Manor Junction later than other parts of West Africa, but when it finally did, it did so with disproportionate harshness. Provisions quickly dried up. Rice was scarce, as was sugar and kerosene. It became the norm for the District Commissioner, Henry Willoughby, to hold weekly meetings with all the influential men in the region. Father Samuel McCauley was always present, as was the Paramount Chief of Nongowa. Henry Willoughby always involved Father Samuel in his dealings with the country people. Even in retirement, the British treated Pa Seydou as their Negro whisperer. The war was now real, but Blama Road continued to be a stage for private and public dramas. Head-kerchiefed market women went about their business selling plasas and peppeh. Charcoal hawkers balanced their heavy bags of black briquettes uneasily on their heads. New war recruits, young men in knee-length khakis and billowy shirts, with their bags criss-crossed at the chest, and Kilmarnock caps on their heads, mingled freely with an indifferent crowd.
As Fatima walked the length of Blama Road, she bit her bottom lip to stop herself from sobbing. Six months had passed since the Spanish flu killed Auntie Sira. Their Saturday shopping was always an adventure. With arms entangled, the two women laughed like school girls and finished each other’s sentences. Sira Bamba was Father Samuel’s sister born to another mother. She was a lifelong bacheloress and the best dressmaker in Manor Junction. Whenever a salaried clerk proposed marriage, she would scoff at him and say, “Marriage is the biggest racket on womanhood. Beaucoup woman dem dey tap pan sufferness. Clear off pan me.”
Fatima was close to tears until she saw Henry Willoughby strolling across the street. At once she became dry-eyed and quickened her pace to avoid him.
“My dear Fatima, how do you do?”
“Oh, hello, Mr. Willoughby,” said she, with feigned surprise. Willoughby was dressed in military khaki and his hair was brushed in a neat way. He presented as the prototypical Englishman who insisted on sartorial dignity in the sweltering heat. Under the equatorial sun, he lost the look of porcelain fragility particular to men of his nation; and gained a slight bronze to his complexion, becoming more robust-looking, like a Maltese sailor.
“May I join you to your destination?”
Fatima nodded without meeting his eyes.
“It seems the Great War has reached us.”
Fatima said nothing.
Willoughby changed course. “Father Samuel once mentioned you spent some time in Jersey.”
“Yes. I spent a term at Jersey Ladies’ College. Papa had insisted on it.”
“And why was that?”
“Papa knew a Krio family who had had their daughters educated in Jersey some forty years ago. He hoped the Ladies’ College would make a Victorian lady out of me.” Willoughby laughed. His laugh—careless and creaky—changed him into a schoolboy.
“With a name like Fatima, I think that would be rather hard, don’t you think? But then again, you are impeccably refined.” Willoughby smiled as he said so. His tone lacked self-consciousness and it hinted at an invitation for flirtatious banter.
Fatima recoiled with embarrassment. She resented Willoughby’s attempts to erase unspoken boundaries. Auntie Sira forewarned her many times: “To foolish country pikin in peace and private is why the British built the railway.”
The denizens of Blama Road stared at the pair and each had their own private thoughts about what they were seeing. A more knowing person might have thought it untoward for Father Samuel’s first-born to be paraded around like that, in broad daylight, by that Englishman. Fatima stopped abruptly in front of Hassan & Sons in an attempt to shake off Willoughby’s company.
“So kind of you to accompany me, Mr. Willoughby, but I must be going. I have a full day of errands to run!”
“Oh? Alright then,” said he, as if ambushed and was annoyed by the disruption. “Do give Father Samuel my regards and do not hesitate should you want for anything.” As they shook hands goodbye, Willoughby held Fatima’s grip longer than was necessary.
Hassan & Sons was the only general store in Manor Junction. Its Syrian owner, Mr. Hassan, lorded over the cash register seven days a week. Short and rotund and covered in hair, Mr. Hassan moved in small steps with his hands akimbo. The McCauleys took their provisions from him on credit. Father Samuel had not yet paid the £200 owed to him, but Mr. Hassan was in no rush to collect the debt, which grew higher by the week.
“Fatiiima McCauley. Welcome!” Mr. Hassan often sang Fatima’s name in his thick Levantine accent. This irritated Fatima, as it was a gesture at overfamiliarity, which was unwelcomed.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Hassan. We need a few things for the house. Is that alright?”
He nodded enthusiastically. Fatima took from the shelves five boxes of sugar cubes, a can of dried tea leaves, and a six-pack box of scented soap. With her back turned away from him, Mr. Hassan began to survey Fatima’s figure with greedy accuracy. She felt watched and looked over her shoulder, catching him red-handed in his voyeurism. Mr. Hassan quickly looked away and began flipping through a brochure in an unconvincing manner. With measured contempt, Fatima brought the provisions to the register and slammed the basket on the counter. He flinched and began to unpack her shopping.
“How is your father, Fatima? He is well, yes? Your brother Ishmael and the two girls. All well.” Mr. Hassan’s habit was to ask and answer his own questions.
“Yes, all well,” said she in a brusque manner. Fatima watched Mr. Hassan’s thick forearms as he packed the provisions onto a sheet of brown paper and wrapped it with twine. He did it quickly, efficiently, like a factory hand trained to pack and wrap.
“Voila.” He handed Fatima the brown package.
“Could you please make out an invoice, Mr. Hassan? I will give it to Papa.”
“My dear, anything you need, come and take it.” He gestured wildly at the plentiful provisions in his store. Mr. Hassan stocked everything one would need to ensure some modicum of comfort in the most inhospitable climes. French perfume. Scottish whiskey.
British biscuits. American tobacco. Fatima wondered how he managed. The Protectorate and the Crown Colony were both under wartime restrictions. From whom was Mr. Hassan getting his merchandise? She trailed off into her thoughts. Syrianman na criminal dem. They carry out their racketeering across all continents. Mr. Hassan had been talking all the while, with Fatima oblivious to his monologue, until her attention was snapped back to fore by something he said.
“Your father is an old man and your brother is not yet a man. Come take from my store any time.” Fatima furrowed her brow with disbelief.
“That is very kind of you, Mr. Hassan, but…”
He raised his hand to stop her from protesting. “No invoice.”
Fatima was piqued by his audacity. Father Samuel McCauely’s daughter was to be provided for by a traveling salesman. The very thought unnerved her.
“Good day, Mr. Hassan,” said Fatima.
His broad, toothy smile looked foolish and frightening all at once. Mr. Hassan knew the mathematics of the McCauley’s poverty. They lived on prestige, air, and patronage. Father Samuel’s years in the Anglican Church yielded little in terms of income. For all of their fine educations and holidays in London, native clergymen were underpaid in comparison to their British counterparts. When Khadija Diabaté fell ill, Father Samuel spent every shilling of his life savings on her treatment at Hôtel-Dieu on Gorée Island. He was fifty years old when he finally made a bride out of the young daughter of an Islamic cleric from Djenné. Maybe it was her gap-toothed smile, but something about Khadija Diabaté reminded Pa Seydou of his own mother, whom he never saw again, as she died two days after he was carried off to the Mission School in Fallangia. The money dried up; and Khadija Diabaté was brought back to Manor Junction to die. Fatima was ten years old when it happened. That morning, she kept vigil by her mother’s door. The stonewalls of the hacienda amplified the woman’s cries to a dreadful resonance. Dr. Fraser, the Scottish doctor at the palm oil plantation, gave Khadija Diabaté a heavy dose of morphine to ease her pain and make her sleep. She never woke up again.
* * *
“Do you need a moment, Madame Dei Rossi?” The young man stopped writing in his notebook, and shifted awkwardly in his chair.
The old woman took from her purse a pale blue handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. She smiled a melancholic smile and, just as quickly, vexed her face. “Ishmael wrote to me when he first landed in Lourenço Marques. He was glad to have learned some Portuguese, as he was the only one in his squadron who could manage. He wrote about putting to test the fearsome reputation of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He wrote about the terrain—lush and green like Manor Junction—but the earth a richer red, as if soaked with blood. He wrote about the small, small rations of dried meat the African soldiers were fed. It tasted like a monkey’s paw, he said, but not that he would know. We never ate bush meat. He wrote about the bare-chested Kongo girls with chalk-painted faces who waved and smiled at the soldiers in the passing freight cars. The Yoruba boys in his squadron called him ‘Shakespeare’ because he always carried around his journal and wrote diligently. ‘Sisi, war na sumtin...’ was his usual way of ending his letters.
“That Sunday was unusually hot. I told Alusine to open all the windows in the house to let the air in. Mimi and Safi were out in the backyard, skipping rope. Papa was in the parlor reading Concord Times. It was his favorite newspaper. He had it fetched from Freetown every Friday.
“‘Pa Seydou! Pa Seydou!’ I heard someone call out. It was Alusine. I could see him from the upstairs veranda. He was running; actually, I would say he was racing, with a sheet of paper clutched in his hands. In this day and age, a boy like that would have had a fine career in the Olympics. I ran downstairs just as Alusine charged into the parlor.
“‘Pa Seydou, urgent letter!’
“He was panting as he fell at Papa’s feet. Alusine looked so happy, so joyous, and that relieved me. It was a telegram and Papa took it from his hands. He read the message for what seemed like an eternity. Papa’s hands were trembling when he finally passed it to me. I still see those words in my dreams: Ishmael McCauley, killed in action at Mahiwa.”
Rama Santa Mansa is a Sierra Leonean-American writer. She was a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow in Oxford, England, and a Fulbright Scholar in Jerusalem, Israel. Her writing has been published in International Watch, Tablet, and Contemporary And. Rama earned a Master's degree in African Studies from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
© 2020 Rama Santa Mansa