My grandmother was married to a hunter named Kai James.
He was very popular and had married three women altogether. My grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, was a local musician and quite popular, too. There were no recordings of her songs, but my grandmother would have gained a much wider audience in a different time.
She got lots of money, and her mates in marriage grew quite jealous of her. She had already had her four children. My mother, Hannah James, was the second among the four — after Sahr James, and before Tamba Ngainda James and Aiah James. My grandmother was a resilient woman, and quite tenacious and determined. But the jealousy in the house was evident.
Nothing seemed to work in those days, my grandmother would tell me years later. They were far from the police and there were no cars close by, either. Bangayima, one of my grandmother’s fellow wives, was at her throat. She would not go for Kumba’s singing, often creating a scene behind her back. The hatred was apparent. Bangayima would physically confront my grandmother to fight, which was quite a challenge for my grandmother because she preferred dialogue and peace with all whom she met.
Augustine’s last chapter: When things fall apart Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
One day, she went to the creek to fetch some water to cook. Upon her return, Bangayima was waiting for her in what became a fierce fight. It was not a surprise. Bangayima rushed my grandmother and grabbed her with the bucket of water still on her head. She managed to put down the bucket instead of wasting it, with only a slap.
The scuffle started, but my grandmother did not return a punch. She was roughed up and pushed, scolded and slapped several times, but she would not return a thing. She believed in forgiving her enemies and doing good to those who hated her.
She ran from the scene to seek refuge, the other women refusing to help her. Their husband returned home, yet assailed my grandmother as though she was the guilty party among the two.
Nothing seemed to work in those days.
Years laters — I’d not been born then — I felt my grandmother needed my help to fight for her. When she explained to me how she suffered and those who perpetrated the hardships, I cried and told her I would grow up and fight for her by going to the village for vengeance. But her response was the Word of God: “Revenge is mine.” She was religious and loved talking about the Bible and its quotations. She did not oppose other religions, either.
Her love for music grew as she continued earning money to help herself, her family and children. She had enough money to take care of herself even if she were to live on her own in the future. There was a deep problem in their house, as the other two women grew bitter toward her. My grandmother remained patient as the others turned against her, with silence for an answer.
All the women would share the days for cooking for the family. Apparently, each wife had three days to sleep in their husband’s house. There was normally jealousy when it was my grandmother’s turn, and it was a dangerous time for her.
Their problems continued unabated. It was not the other wives’ fault, my grandmother said, it was her own fault because she would not leave, thinking of her four young children. She was right, the children loved their father, too, but their love for their mom was enormous.
My grandmother would pray often and would go to the village church. She was a Methodist. That was the first church that came to their area in the Eastern province of Sierra Leone, away from the center of the provincial capital town of Koidu. There were activities in this area but not where Grannie lived.
My grandmother created her own happiness by gathering her children and other positive children in the village to teach them songs and tell them stories every evening when there was moonlight. The women did not like that. Their husband went hunting when the moon was dark, and he went for weeks on end. He was a strong man and was quite fearless. He killed snakes with his bare hands. Pythons were quite easy for him to kill. He was well known for that.
Pa James returned with lots of dry meat for the family to eat and to sell. He brought them to his farm, where the women and children would transport them to the house. He had come to relax. Everyone was at home in their hut with their children. One night, my grandmother had gone to bed after a bitter exchange.
She dreamt of a black cat perched at the head of the bed. This brought fear to her as she lay alone in the room. She could not scream because her mouth became heavy. The cat rushed her and attacked. She struggled hard to overpower it, but it grabbed her thumb and bit her very hard. The cat’s teeth got stuck in her thumb. She cried loud now, in her sleep she thought, but got no help. She thought to call Jesus’ name aloud, and the cat left her and sat back on the pillow toward the window. She woke up sweating hard, only to see the cat looking at her with eyes opened wide.
Grannie ran away terrified, calling on people to come get rid of the cat. The night was very dark, people were already in bed as there was no electricity. She was in tears and no one came to see her. She thought about her daughter, Hannah, who was now married and living in Motema.
There was no hospital in the village; neither was there any close by. But my grandmother was a native healer, too. She knew leaves that could bring relief to the sick. She was well known for that. She got those medications from her father in a dream. Her father was a chief in another town. She made herself a medication that she put on her thumb and drank some concoction that cured her.
But her thumb was deformed, which she never forgot. It always seemed to be at the center of her stories to me about herself as I grew up.
She packed some of her clothes and decided to move to Motema, where Hannah, my mom, was married to Pa Kanjia, who had come from the Mende land to search for diamonds. He was rich and had followers. Grannie went there without informing anyone. She found her way on foot since cars were not many then.
Hannah was shocked seeing her mom. My dad, Pa Kanjia, tall and a handsome young man then, was above everyone in the town. He did not want to become the chief, but controlled the chiefs. My mom was pregnant with me. It was an opportunity for my grandmother to stay and make Motema her home for my sake.
She had her brother there, who had built a nice house from mud and sticks and pieces of zinc. They were the early houses at that time. Her brother handed the house over to her and never came to ask her for anything. He was a carpenter and a very hard-working man. He was called Tamba Carpenter. My grandmother moved to the house and she had established herself well in Motema. She was ready to raise me up. Her house was just opposite my dad’s big shop. She spent all her time with her daughter. My grandmother was strong and longed to farm.
There was a big swamp at the edge of the town, now surrounded by houses, where she became the first person to ask my dad to use his tractor to level the areas for planting because it was a soft ground. She began her farming in the swamp and did not have to buy food. She soon became the envy of the town. Everyone was looking for a plot to do something small, they would say.
Those who came to town and wanted to build houses asked my grandmother for a plot and she gave it generously with no payment. She said the land was made by God for His children that no one should sell it to another.
It was August 1964, my mom expected to have me. And she said I would be named Augustine if a man, Augusta if a girl, after Saint Augustine of Hippo. She was not lucky to have me in August, I didn’t arrive until September.
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