Augustine Kanjia’s incredible journey continues … Part 43: More Hopes, Less Success

I had prayed for my grandmother to start preparing to pay my school fees in time, but she was also compounded with several problems. Besides having to foot all the bills, she’d recently had a death in the family.

Augustine Kanjia

My brother’s choice of high school for me was a setback.

Duran Kanjia was one of the many children Pa Kanjia had from his many wives. He was the third child of the family and I was the last, having been born a few months after our father suddenly died in 1963. Duran was in the military since I was a little child. He had earned no promotions, and I was now in the seventh grade. He was simple and did not care.

He had just returned from Daru, Sierra Leone, where he was stationed. He was clearly a strategist but lacked follow-through. I loved him in his uniform and his love for his people. But I think our father’s death may have deterred him from continuing his education.

Duran was home with us on vacation. He did not care whether he had money. He put off everything to the future. “When I return to Daru I will send some money for that purpose or this purpose,” he would say to requests for help. Even when I was needy, especially for my school, Duran did not give a cent.

My grandmother at first was happy that he had come to our home in Motema, and so she called on him to help. He postponed the talks for two weeks — which was the deadline for paying the full amount of school and exam fees my grandmother had been trying scrape together.

Augustine’s last chapter: One Problem Opens the Door for More Problems  Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

Augustine Kanjia’s incredible journey continues … Part 42: One Problem Opens the Door … For More Problems

Our parents were supposed to choose a high school for us.

With my father dead and mother remarried in another village, I had my grandmother, who was uneducated and didn’t know much about school. She depended on me for most information.

I had started writing letters for her since the fifth grade. She respected what I wrote and got responses from what we sent. She had a special way of dictating her letters. She would call me into her room and explain everything to me in our local language, Kono. She would not allow me to take notes.

I managed to memorize all she would say — my first letter was understood and there was a positive response. I feared my English may not have been anything to write home about, but my spelling was great.

She was boastful about me in the market or in cars on her way to see her family for food. Grade 7 brought out the good, bad and ugly in me.

We were given the documents needed to be filled out for our choices of high schools all over the country. The forms were distributed to everyone in the class, except for me. My exam and school fees were yet to be paid.

My grandmother was away, but she was still grappling with how we would pay my school and exams fees, and keep me in school. We were given a month to pay all that we owed. Life was critical at this point.

Augustine’s last chapter: Major Problems Won’t Dissuade Me  Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

Augustine Kanjia

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 41: Major Problems Won’t Dissuade Me

The whistle blew. Komba Bottom ran toward the ball. I knew where it was going. I stood there, and the ball came with a vehement speed. I stretched my arms and punched the ball with my two hands. My right hand then broke.

Augustine Kanjia

The house issue had just started settling down. We were getting ready to live in our new home even though it was incomplete.

My grandmother wanted us to be there, but I was not happy because the house had a lot of work yet to finish and the family’s “omole,” or moonshine, production had ceased due to the police getting wise. We were trapped and handicapped. It was not a pleasant situation for the family.

My uncles, though, were anxious to return, especially Aiah James so he could have a room to bring his girls. He was well supported by his mom, “Sobba Peppeh” — my grandmother — because he was the youngest of her four children.

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I remember when my uncle had come from Pakidu, their home village. He was big and looked older than he was. He was not fit for an elementary school. I was in Grade 1 when he arrived. He had no skill in anything and was unwilling to learn. He was sent to a school in another town called Yengema. He was the biggest at the United Methodist Church School. But people understood his situation.

My grandmother took much interest in my education, but she did not trust, at first, that I’d been assigned to the right class. The trend in the school in those days was for children to go through three levels — the A, B, C — of the first grade to enable younger children to mature before they reached Grade 2.

I was quite young, younger than many if not all. I was only tall. The method of placing students could not always be done by age because some of the children had no birth certificate. My grandmother had kept mine in our iron suitcase, old fashion. Acceptance in those days was based on two factors: birth certificate, and by putting your hand over your head to try to touch your ear. If you could, then you qualified to attend school. I was a tall boy. My hands overlapped my ear, so I qualified to be part of the school.

I was active and useful, but I still had to go through the A, B, C of the first class. I succeeded and made a mark in my first grade. I loved the singing, the drawing, and the spellings we did. The school was interesting. The early grades had been exciting, but I started realizing that there was a long way to go.

Augustine’s last chapter: Poverty Strikes Hard as Mother Returns  Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 40: Poverty and Punishment Strike Hard as Mother Returns

My short pants had been torn into pieces. My friends, Sahr Allieu and Emmanuel Gbandeh, could only bow their heads in shame. When Dominic put me down I was forced to run away and go tell my grandmother.

Augustine Kanjia

My school was demanding. We paid for every little thing — and not always with money — even though the Sierra Leonean government had declared primary education free for all.

Parents — or in my case, grandparent — were all forced to pay 30 cents per semester, and then some. The other charges would be for books that were never there, or for the food that was supposed to be free from the U.S. government. It was difficult for me to eat at the school due to the lack of money.

There were loads of competitions in my class. We had spelling, math, civics, current affairs and general knowledge pop quizzes. The teacher, Mr. A.B.S. Bangura, was a tough guy and would know everything happening in the class.

He called me aside one day and asked who pays my school fees. I unfortunately told him, “God pays.” He said I was being sarcastic. I did not mean so, but he was adamant and I had to succumb. He was furious and decided to give me a good beating. I was certainly afraid because my grandmother did not want anyone to beat me, not even my teachers, though it was accepted that children could be beat at school.

Mr. Bangura took me out in front of the class to teach me manners, as he said. I was mounted on somebody’s back and given a good beating, a beating I have always remembered.

Augustine’s last chapter: Skipping School and Fooling the Police  Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 39: Skipping School and Fooling the Police

I removed the omole to the back, behind the outdoor toilet, and put some raw grass on top. One of the policemen during his search came to the toilet area not long after I’d finished hiding the [illicitly made] liquor.

Augustine Kanjia

The family was happy with the “omole” sales. From our illegal brewing, Grannie had earned enough money to start buying building materials for a new home.

She had made the plan, and it was elaborate. She wanted a big house with rooms for each child. I was not counted. She claimed I was the owner of the house. Her intention was to keep me in her room as I grew up. And it was so. I slept on the same bed as my grandmother day in and day out.

I was sometimes ashamed when we discussed matters of home in our writing and composition classes, such as where we slept. I never told the truth, but I scored high marks. I started realizing that writing out of the ordinary and fashioning tall tales can boost one’s writing skills.

There was a big problem with our trade. Police had come to raid our hidden operation when we had just finished our brewing in the bush. No raid saw us that night. It was hot, and I was ready to play with my friends as the moon rose and we trekked back to Motema. My heart was not in brewing, but centered on my school and play that night.

I had a long way home, but something dangerous awaited us.

Augustine’s last chapter: Illicit April Brewing Rains on My Parade  Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 38: Illicit April Brewing Rains on My Parade

These were my early days. I lacked shoes and nice clothes. She promised to get me some. I did not care for material things; I knew Grannie did not have them so there was no big worry.

Augustine Kanjia

It was a crime to brew the local hard liquor “Omole,” but it was working well for us, as my grandmother had started buying corrugated zinc panels for the house.

She wanted us to have nine rooms and a big living room. She had big dreams: All her children with rooms of their own.

I was troubled at school by accusations that I stole 20 cents — everyone thought I was the possible thief, even though, this time, I was innocent. I distracted myself with my job at home, going to the bush to brew our alcohol for sale.

That Sunday evening, the rain was dark, our distance home was far. We had just created a new brewing spot and there was no shelter to cover us. We depended on the big trees for protection. Who would trust any tree in the time of a windstorm? My grandmother would have. She insisted we sit under the trees and wait for the rain and wind to pass.

My uncle, Aiah Bongu, did not like Grannie’s over-protection of me. He thought she was spoiling me, but my grandmother was the only person who understood my problem. I was allergic to certain foods, like peanut butter soup or palm oil. Only my grandmother knew it. She would protect me, which bothered my uncle.

Augustine’s last chapter: Grandmother’s New Business Opens Old Wounds Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 37: Grandmother’s New Business Opens Old Wounds

The first consignment of hard liquor was ready to drink — more importantly, to sell. People started coming to the house to buy in bulk or by tot. It cost 20 cents (Sierra Leone cents). Back then, money had value, no doubt.

Augustine Kanjia

Life did not seem to be getting any better.

And it was going to get worse: As money problems rose to the surface a school mate’s accusations of stealing led to a dozen lashes for a crime I did not commit.

Three of my uncles were now living with my grandmother and me. Our house was old and rustic; we needed a better one. I was going to Grade 4 then. My friends always laughed at me for the type of house we slept in. It was not so deplorable, but they wanted to keep me thinking I was lower than them. Glad I did not bother with their provocations.

My grandmother had to call an emergency family meeting to discuss the future of the house. We all knew it was time for action. My grandmother was a brave and innovative woman who had put a lot behind her after the difficulties of her marriage.

She depended on her children, but the children were quite poor. Her eldest son worked in the Native Police Administration. These were special village police who answered only to the paramount chiefs of their jurisdiction. My uncle had first become an army man, but was said to have left due to some very hard conditions. He was quite a strong man, but I think it was not for physical strength that men were selected and accepted into the army. He had run away at night to return to Pakidu, Sierra Leone, their father’s hometown, before deciding to join the NPA.

My grandmother was hopeful. My uncle’s full name was Sahr Motatay James. My grandmother called him Sahr Tay. As a boy, I never understood the meaning — but it was simply the short form of Motatay.

Sahr Tay did not adhere to Grannie’s call for a meeting for the house. Ngainda and Aiah were present, though, and good to go. Or so they said then.

The meeting was of importance to everyone because the rainy season was no plaything. We had already put down heavy rocks and tied wires to the edges of the house on all sides. The wires were buried deep to avoid being taken by the wind. We were still not secure.

Augustine’s last chapter: Signs of My Struggle Begin Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 36: Signs of My Struggle Begin

I sometimes wondered as a child how my grandmother made her family survive.

Augustine Kanjia

My uncle hadn’t yet found his first job. Mom had left with my step-dad to live in Bo, the largest town in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. My heart was with my mother. I knew she was striving hard to make us happy, but there were no gifts — or food or money — coming, only messages to Grannie and me.

My grandmother had only one of her three sons living with her, Ngainda. He was young and people expected him to get a good job. He would become a farmer. The road to the farm was quite a distance. It was manual farming and required real man power. He was a perfect fit for the job. His muscles were turgid and feasible.

My grandmother depended on him for a good yield. But the farm was patrolled by many birds that devoured the nursery seed or the ripened rice for harvest. This frustrated him, and he reverted to planting okra.

There was no one at home to take care of me when everyone had gone to the farm. There was no babysitting then. Your parents could leave you in the town and go about their business; they will meet you home in the evening. We feared nothing, like kidnapping or abuse. Everyone was the other’s keeper. But my grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, was never happy leaving me behind. So, I had to miss school several times a year.

Augustine’s last chapter: Family disintegrates, Pa dies Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 35: My Family Disintegrates After Pa Dies

My grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, had arrived in Motema to seek refuge not long before my dad died. It was a very difficult time.

Augustine Kanjia

My father, Pa Kanjia, had married a lot of women because he was a rich man. He had five wives. My mom was the youngest and most beautiful. My dad was aware of it, Grannie would tell me, and so were the other children.

His first wife could not speak Kono, but Mende. The family was large, with each wife having an extended family. People came from far and wide seeking help from my dad. He was happy with that because he stood for people even before his riches.

I remember my grandmother telling me that he had a heart problem, which did not bother him. But she said he was bitten by a dog. Medicine in those days was underdeveloped, so there was no proper diagnosis of the complicated illness. It was in 1963, a couple months before I was born. My dad died in the hospital, shocking the whole community. He had left quite a lot of riches.

Augustine’s last chapter: Back to How It All Started Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale