from Zarma: Yennendi

Michel Faleme

Artwork by Jiin Choi

Book I

The last day

Yennendi looked at the sun, which that day shone with a particular brightness. He knew this was the last time that he would be able to admire its beauty. It seemed as hot and as huge as the sun in his native land. It burned with a particular golden brilliance, as if it had come to greet and accompany this man who truly belonged in its orbit. Yennendi turned his head towards the east and gazed far beyond the Levant, into the remote distance, beyond the horizon to the land that had witnessed his birth. The governor gave an imperceptible nod and the officer in charge of the execution, the youngest son of a good family, youthful, inexperienced, and visibly intimidated by the etiquette of cruelty, gave an order to the two executioners in a faltering and trembling voice. The chief executioner, dressed entirely in red, took up the heavy axe with its curved blades, while his assistant, dressed in the same colour, grasped hold of a long iron bar, which he supported on his leg. The tremendous hubbub and clamour of a frenzied crowd crying out in fury at the killing of the Negro gave way to an oppressive and profound silence. The executioner’s assistant, head covered in a hood, swung the hefty iron bar above his head. His gesture revealed that his long apprenticeship in the art of killing a man was complete and that today this execution signalled his formal induction into the sordid brotherhood. The other man waited, gripping the axe in readiness for the order to perform his deadly task. The birds had ceased chirruping and singing. The few wispy clouds dotted in the sky like so many islands in an archipelago suspended their never-ending nomadic journey. The delicate breath of the trade wind, bringer of sweet whispered words and poetry from the ocean, ceased caressing the pink, yellow, and white hibiscus flowers and the shimmering red and gold canna lilies. Yet a few moments before, they had been swaying with sensuous pleasure at the seductive murmurs of the master of the airs. The dappled light of the leaves on the palm, coconut, and mango trees around the market square suddenly clicked off, extinguishing the silver and emerald brilliance reflected from the sun’s rays. The shadow of death spread its vast pterodactyl’s wings over the square and the crowd. A small group of solemn, dark-skinned men and women inhaled its predatory stench as they observed the scene in silence with no visible emotion. Their garb—worn frock coats and faded baggy dresses cut in coarse homespun material, some ripped and revealing an occasional breast—and their bare feet marked them out as carriage drivers, lady’s companions, or servants on large plantations. In the total silence that reigned, all life suspended in time, Yennendi’s hoarse but powerful voice made itself heard. He began singing in his native tongue, a deep and warlike dirge that expressed all the pride and dignity of his people. It was a beautiful and melancholic song of farewell, the song that the warriors of his tribe would sing at the height of battle in homage to those who would die in victory or in defeat. Yennendi sang in defiance of this barbarous people, so pale in colour, so reddened from sunburn, so thirsty for the blood and the suffering of others as if it were their very nourishment. Yennendi sang with the pride, dignity, and courage of the warrior that he had always been, the courage of a man who had not been cowed. He told them that he, Seyni Djermakoye Sonni, known as Yennendi, was not afraid of death and showed them that a true Zarma warrior knew how to die. An icy shudder ran through the enraged crowd, intoxicated with hatred and horror. They were stunned, mesmerised by, and almost admiring of a man who dared defy the atrocious death that would gorge on his life like a vampire thirsting for blood.

From across the square, another voice echoed out in response to his song. The voice of a woman. She was in the crowd among the onlookers who had come to witness his torment. From the depths of her miserable servitude, the woman had somehow found the courage to express her support for the man who still had the strength to resist the governor and the colony. Yennendi recognised the woman’s voice: it was Assia’s. She who was formerly known as Lisette on this earth. She was a woman from a well-known clan in his own land. Her rounded belly revealed that she was pregnant. She sang in the language of his people, reminding him of the ceremonial processions in honour of Dongo, the god of rain. The voice accompanied and reassured him as he readied himself to undertake his long journey to the hereafter. As he listened, his mind conjured up his mother’s face superimposed on the woman’s. As if he were about to get to his feet one last time, he stretched out his head that was lashed to the large wheel on which he was shackled and turned to look in the woman’s direction in an attempt to pick her out in the crowd. Although he could not see her, he smiled at her and thanked her with a silent nod. Suddenly the voice was brutally drowned out by the gurgling of a broken jaw. By order of the chief executioner, the young assistant, death’s apprentice, administered a blow of indescribable violence to Yennendi’s chest to silence him. Yennendi’s body jerked and bucked like a horse. The pain was so intense that he could not hold back the tears and it forced from him a sound that resembled the cry of a wild beast, a sound that contained all his long-suppressed rage and suffering. The local dignitaries, plantocracy, and colonial officials seated in the front row were filled with horror at this howl from the Maroon under torture. The women, terror-stricken, fainted. Others placed their crisp handkerchiefs in front of their mouths to repress the mounting nausea as they closed their eyes to avoid looking at the unspeakable horror of the spectacle of their own barbarity. The blanc-pays in the crowd, civil servants, traders, artisans, foremen, boatswains, deckhands, and three-year conscripts, cried out in voices of dread mixed with emotion, despite the excitement of the Negro’s execution. Yennendi, his thorax shattered, struggling to draw the last remnants of breath from his broken chest, clenched the iron chains with his shackled fists to avoid surrendering to the unbearable pain. He began singing again in a voice stifled by the strips of flesh and blood filling his mouth. At that instant a heavy rumbling like a volcano awakening could be heard. The amassed onlookers anxiously looked up at the Soufrière, fearing another fit of rage from the powerful volcano with its perpetually smoking fumarole. So many times in past decades it had sounded the death knell for countless of the island’s inhabitants, slaves, and settlers. The earth shook. But it was not the forces emerging from the burning forges of Vulcan making it tremble, it was the sound of countless feet stamping on the ground. It was as if the Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse, aroused by the stench of death, had come to reap their harvest of damned souls. Distant at first, then louder and louder, the rumbling was accompanied by a clamour of voices from an undetectable source. The sound was muted and deep at the same time, as if emerging from caves in the earth and the back yards of the town, driven by the feet and the voices of an army of dark-skinned paupers on the move. Hundreds of thousands of men and women were emerging from the seediest, most insalubrious districts of town in which they eked out a living, or descending from the surrounding hills like molten lava from the Soufrière erupting. In perfect harmony, they were singing a kind of lament filled with emotion, power, revolt, and fury. The nuances of tones and sounds made it possible to discern the origins of these peoples who formed the servile mass of those who had been deported from their country of birth or born here, heirs to perpetual servitude. The mass of freed slaves, Negroes for hire, fugitives, rebel Negros, bossales, and black Creoles, able-bodied or wounded, all headed towards the town’s main square. The melancholic lament from a spider-conch shell, brandished by a fisherman who had once belonged to the Bozo tribe that lived along the banks of the Djoliba in Sundiata Keita’s old Mandinka Empire. Handcrafted flutes that responded to Yennendi’s song were accompanied by a chorus of all the women in the procession, a wild seemingly unruly rabble. The rhythmic click of castanets made from scrap metal gave an almost military air to the horde of Negroes on the move. Fear began to take hold. A drumroll from the tam-tams, strictly forbidden, the sound of the ka, escorted the man who was preparing to embark on his last journey. It was a vast crowd of Negroes from the fields who, defying the officers’ whip and the masters’ orders, seized this one moment in their lives to escape their hereditary burden of servitude and stand tall. Abandoning hoes and dabas, machetes and bill hooks, they had quit the sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and indigo plantations to come and pay homage to the great Negro that was about to die. Negro housemaids had abandoned their kitchen utensils, drivers their horses and carriages. Carters had jumped down from their carts laden with sugarcane and left the mills to head for the outskirts of town, which were out of bounds to them. The skilled Negro workers had laid down their tools in the workshops. They all came to salute and bid farewell to the man who, for a short instant in their impoverished lives as humiliated and damned beasts of burden and whores, had given them dignity. Across the hills, dwellings, plantations, and districts, the sound of the ka summoned each and every Negro in Basse-Terre and Grand-Terre to support and accompany the Hamite as he returned to the land of his ancestors to take his place in his country’s pantheon of deities and spirits. The sound of the ka beaten by calloused and worn hands rose steadily and rhythmically, the beats and off-beats reaching first the ears then the throat before spreading through the body and inducing a state of trance. Rising to a crescendo, the music became increasingly frenzied, pushing aside rational thought, causing those who heard it to lose control of their very being, engulfed in the force and power of the rhythm. It was even said that ungovernable Maroons and savages, living on the mountain tops or in the depths of the virgin forests, made their way down to the centre of Basse-Terre to witness the death throes of the man who had led them to freedom and who had promised to take them home. The Békés, officers and soldiers, the militia and the blanc-pays, the dogs, the horses and all the two-legged and four-legged creatures in the colony were seized with a nervous tension, uncontrollable fear churning in their guts and stomachs. The panicked crowd began dispersing in all directions, overturning stalls and tables, discarding shoes and clothes, trampling underfoot fruit and children with neither consideration nor distinction. Some were unable to hold back the fear-induced spewing at the sudden appearance of so many Negroes, Negresses, and picaninnies invading the town like a colony of driver ants on the move. The soldiers and militia immediately deployed and took up positions at the entrances to the central square, scene of the torture of this male Negro, untameable bossale, who for a time had disrupted the colony’s promising destiny.

The governor watched panic-stricken as the swarming mass of Negroes reached the edges of the main square. The deafening sound of the ka thundered out across the town centre. Expert hands, which had forgotten nothing of their homeland, beat out the rhythm on the stretched hides of the tam-tams. The rhythmic, penetrating music grabbed the guts. The colonial ladies were terrified. Some, entering a sudden trance, arms and legs trembling jerkily in all directions, dropped heavily to the ground, their bodies twisted by violent jolts. Others were petrified by fear, loosened sphincters causing them to soil themselves without even realising. The clergymen on their knees, gazes turned heavenwards, were making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and breasts in the face of this diabolical darkness that was gaining ground in this town consecrated to the Virgin Mary and the blonde, blue-eyed son of the Almighty Maker. Panic started sweeping through the troops, some of whose trembling hands anarchically, and with no order to do so, pulled the trigger of their muskets or rifles without hitting any of the targets, still too far off.

Tears poured down the face of the man who had once been so handsome. This face with its graceful features was now utterly broken. His body had been assaulted by all manner of agonies. He had endured hours and days of never-ending torture. His superb body, muscular despite the deprivations, bore the marks of the carnivorous pleasures enjoyed by sadistic torturers, men whose perversity was deeply entrenched, experts in the art of mutilating human beings. There was no time to execute the sentence handed down by the royal court, which decreed that the body be broken by blows from an iron bar, quartered and beheaded. There was no time to scatter his body chopped into tiny pieces to the four cardinal points of the colony. The governor gave another hand signal and the officer, attempting to bark a brisk order, stammered out the command to execute in a frightened, stumbling voice. The axe fell with utter precision on the base of the neck, breaking and shattering the bones with a sinister crack and crushing the arteries and veins in a dull muffled thud of soft flesh. The eyes of the condemned man rolled in their sockets. Yennendi felt the life gently drain from his body. It had finally arrived, this death that he had so yearned for and desired. He had been waiting for it ever since he had been captured and brutally separated from his homeland and family. He felt its kiss of fire and ice suck from him what remained of his life force. Death, before lifting him from the wheel of torture and bearing him off in its arms, showed him one last time the important episodes in his life. Superimposed images flashed before him in all directions before rearranging themselves in the correct order into a space where time no longer counted. He saw the forest where he had created a quilombo of Maroons, a village where he lived free for a time with a handful of unrepentant bossales and rebellious Creoles. He saw all the battles fought by the Maroon resistance in the depths of the virgin forest and on the twin peaks above Petit-Bourg, known locally as “the breasts” because of their shape. He saw himself running across the slopes of the volcano whose white fumaroles, one sensed, remained the domain of the gods of the Caribs, this copper-coloured race with whom he had become acquainted. These proud, untamed people who preferred to die rather than be reduced to a state of servitude.

Before his head rolled on to the ground, he saw, as if in a dream, the life that he had lived. He knew that very soon he would once again be among his people, and that his mother, the fiery Kadidjatou, would welcome him back into the bosom of the family. Zaago, his father, a Bonkoyni of the principality of Dosso in the kingdom of Zarmaganda, would also be there, smiling with arms outstretched. He could clearly see the face of his father, a Khoyze, a prince descended from the Sonni, one of the most illustrious and noble Songhai families in the kingdom. His journey would take him back to his beloved younger brother, Issa Adama, the son of his father’s second wife, the Fula captive named Penda. Issa had become a Burkine, a free man, by the grace of his father. He was handsome with copper-coloured skin, fine features, large almond-shaped eyes, and a narrow Fula waist inherited from his mother. He resembled a Wodaabe, the Fula cattle herds who remained stubbornly attached to Islam. He also saw his sister, Fanti, born from the same belly as him, very dark-skinned with the elegant features that made her a beauty the likes of which had never been seen in the entire kingdom and beyond. Her rebelliousness equalled her beauty. She had a fiery and wilful temperament, and dreamt of being an Amazon. A superb horsewoman and bad cook, she wielded the sabre and sword with dexterity, was incapable of serving a millet beer without spilling it everywhere, and lived free despite the secular traditions of female submission to the husband; she abstained from relationships with boys to maintain the strength required to pursue her goal. How many young Burkines were thus rejected? They all wanted to die for her or accomplish some feat or other to increase their standing in her eyes and be worthy of asking for her hand in marriage and entering an alliance with one of the most prominent families in the kingdom. But most of all, Yennendi would finally see the woman who was waiting for him above all other. The woman that he loved and had not had time to take as his wife, the beautiful and passionate Maïmouna, daughter of Saliou Bakary of Tillabéry. The sweet memories of his meeting with Maïmouna brought to the surface images from the time of their engagement. Tillabéry, the Tuaregs, the caravan, his fame and prestige. Maïmouna was there too, arms outstretched, her eyes shining with love for the man who had been so deprived of it. In his mind’s eye, he saw the moment that he had first become aware of her body and her presence on this earth. He also saw himself, Seyni Djermakoye Sonni, known as Yennendi, standing before that ageless old man who had once been a captive. As far back as he travelled in his country of birth, from the time he had learnt to walk then run, this old man who belonged to the family of his mother, Kadidjatou, daughter of Adama Hamidou Maïga, Kwarakoyes from the small town of Sassalé, had always been there. He had been tutor to his mother and his uncles. Old Karamoko, a man without age, possessor of knowledge that seemingly even the most eminent Songhai scholars did not possess. It was said that he had once been a teacher in the most prestigious schools in the Mandé region and that he had exercised his talents in the universities in the cities of Djenné, Gao and Timbuktu. Yes, old Karamoko, a man without age. Yennendi’s mother would always scold him severely whenever he was disrespectful to the old man. It was even said that Karamoko had witnessed the forces of the Spanish renegade and the Moroccans invading the Empire before he fled with his family to be later captured by first the Fula, then the Tuaregs of the Kel-ilargen clan who had raided as far afield as Anzourou country. His loved ones were scattered to the four winds and he was bought by Yennendi’s mother’s family who were accompanying the Askias, the last reigning royal family, as they travelled towards the south-east and Zarmaganda. It was there that they took the name Zarma. It was said that old Karamoko had been there throughout. It was on these lands that the Sonni family, descendants of the great Ali Ber Sonni, was welcomed by his mother’s family. All these images passed before him.

The hint of a smile was frozen on his decapitated head. No doubt put there by the memories. His spirit and soul detached themselves from his battered, tortured, and deformed body. Discarding it like a tattered old rag in among the acacia thorns gave him a feeling akin to joy. His spirit was taking him home. Nothing hurt any more, he felt no pain and, in all truthfulness, cared nothing for the crowd of onlookers who had come to witness his torment on this day, the day of his execution. In the name of the King, the governor had declared it a holiday in honour of the Negro’s execution. Yennendi was proud of everything that he had accomplished in his short life. He had defied a king and led the colony’s subservient population to rebel for honour and dignity.

His soul hovered above the body that had sheltered it for less than thirty rains. He looked dispassionately at the envelope that had served as a receptacle for his spirit all that time. Less than thirty rains during which he had known joy with his loved ones and misfortunes since his capture. He watched the slaves stream on to the market square laying waste to everything in their path, seizing fleeing blanc-pays who were commending their souls to God before their lives were extinguished at the vengeful hands of dark-skinned men overwhelmed by hatred. The soldiers were firing indiscriminately, sending many slaves to their ancestors. Yennendi observed the scene of that final rebellion for a moment. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in their contorted death masks, were harvesting damned souls, leaving consternation and desolation in their wake.

Yennendi took flight towards the east, like a great eagle soaring ever higher in the sky. His soul journeyed towards his country of birth. He flew over the island of Karukera, the name given to this country by its copper-skinned natives. He rapidly reached the sea, the steel-blue sea that had so frightened him several years before that he had not had the courage to slide beneath its waves like so many men, women, and children who had glimpsed into their future. They had seen what would become of their bodies and souls and had chosen to die rather than live life like zombies, gradually devoured by poverty, suffering and despair. He was flying swiftly away, leaving behind all his misfortunes and pain on this land that had never been his. He was leaving behind him a people of boundless cruelty, who spewed out lies and treachery with their long sticks that spat fire and who deftly wielded their cat o’ nine tails. He left behind him many different peoples, who like him had been deported from their villages and ancestral lands. The men and women he had met when he journeyed through the kingdoms that bordered Zarmaganda or with whom he had shared the misery of slavery. He left behind him his companions in servitude of all races. Gursis, Mamprusis, and Mossis. Hausas, Baribas, and Akan. Ewe, Mande, Soninke, and Senufo. Pula and their brothers the Woodabe, Tekrur, and Sosso. Mina, Fon, Igbo, Yoruba, and many others whose presence on earth he had discovered, and who came from distant lands that he had not known existed before he was deported. He had become acquainted with them as companions on the slave chain during the great crossing or as hoeing companions in the plantations, peoples such as the Moudong, Bamileke, Bamoun, and Bassa. The Fang, Bateke, and Mwene. Peoples from the Congo and Angola, the Bakongo, Balubas, Bangala, Kibundu, and Chokwe from even farther afield, the coastal peoples from Sofala and Zandji country. He left behind him the woman whose voice had given him the courage to face his destiny and conquer death. He was going home to the land of his birth to be among his loved ones and take his place in the great courtyard of his father’s windi. He would once again be seated among his people’s wise men and elders. He would finally be reunited with his sweet fiancée, marry, and father a lineage as was written and would be accomplished.

translated from the French by Andrea Reece