My grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, had arrived in Motema to seek refuge not long before my dad died. It was a very difficult time.
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.
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As usual, there was no one to properly control those riches.
His first son, Richard, attended the best school, Albert Academy, in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown. This was quite a challenge. Not many people could afford to have their children attend such schools. They were few then, but very tough and good schools. My brother was quite a good man. He was entering 12th grade when our dad died.
He was quick to decide to return home and take over our dad’s riches. That was the expectation of many of dad’s wives, who thought Richard was an educated young man and would bring everyone together. He came with very good English both in writing and speaking.
They all respected him, but he soon started wasting the money, did not maintain the vehicles and farms, and sold the diamonds dad left.
There were hardly any roads from Motema to Freetown as it is today. There was a trail to get through to cities like Kenema and Bo, but that was quite dangerous. Richard quickly applied to the National Diamond Mining Corp. and was employed as a surveyor. This was a trade he plied until his death. I was only a baby, living with my grandmother close by my dad’s house.
Richard eventually took his wife out of our family house after he was given a house closer to the mines by the NDMC, where he was making lot of money. Those who were left in the house included dad’s five wives, Manjia, Abbie, Bondonyah, Sia Gbachior and my mother, Hannah. Manjia, the first wife, had seven children. Abbie was apparently barren, Bondonyah had two, Sia Gbachior had three and Hannah had two then.
My mom’s elder child was killed by one of my dad’s workers. They say he became insane suddenly, took the baby from his crib and flung him on a rock near the house. So, I was protected by my grandmother.
These women needed food to survive and money to pay school fees for their children. Things started changing for the worst.
Everybody had to think twice about returning to their parents’ villages or staying put and fending for themselves. Sia Gbachior, Bondonyah and Hannah decided to stay at first. But Bondonyah got a husband and was maltreated, along with her son, Sahr Henry Kanjia.
Regardless, she left Motema for Koidu, the capital of the Kono district. This is the home of many Sierra Leone diamonds. She settled there with Henry and gave birth to a girl, Marian. Their joy increased and they did not bother to ask Richard for any assistance. He gave to no one. Many were tired of asking him for help. He did not waste time in telling the wives he had no money left from their late husband’s sweat.
I was still small in the cradle and hands of Grannie. Hannah was with us briefly. As a young woman then, she was quick to get another husband for marriage, Pa James Kangama, with whom she had three other children, my brother and sisters. He, too, was rich and his wives hated my mother — her daughter after me was poisoned and killed. She left the house in tears, bearing only one son that she took with her. She moved away from Motema like the other women and children.
Sia Gbachior languished in Motema and was remarried there, too. Her children Lovetta, Mary and Joseph, found it difficult to go to school. Eventually they also separated and went in search of either education or jobs, blaming Richard.
The disintegration was quite difficult for all of us. But I was better. My grandmother was a blessing to my life. Many of my father’s children had died due to poverty. My grandmother was hard working. My other brothers and sisters had gone, and I was alone with my grandmother. She was just starting her new life without her only daughter.
My grandmother’s house was made of sticks and mud. It was old, and there were visible signs of termites infesting the fabric in the house. The zinc was brown and silver. It was quite old. One could see through some areas of the walls when there was moonlight. It was more dangerous when it rained.
I was growing, about 4 years old. That house is among my first memories. I had barely started knowing the differences between men and women, young and old. My life was limited to my house and my village.
Life started on a very tough level for me, though my grandmother was ready to stand up for me through thick and thin. As a child, I thought our house was the best and never knew there were other, better houses. When it rained, though, there was nowhere for us to go.
Heavy winds meant running for us. My grandmother attributed it to a bad omen. She said she had lost her brother when a large branch from one of the imposing cotton trees standing sentry for the village fell on our house. She since decided that we should run away whenever a storm would start.
The whole house would shake vigorously and pieces of zinc would fly in different directions. By the time I was 6, I can remember quite well how we were rescued by running to the safer houses of our townspeople to seek refuge. They knew us for running away from home when it rained.
I knew it was dangerous running when rain fell heavily. My grandmother knew which weather would cause havoc, which had a heavy wind or would be a calm rain. The road to the houses we sought refuge in were rough, too. Tree branches would fly over our heads and some houses we passed by would fall. It was quite a challenge for all of us. But we always made it.
My other brothers from Pa Kanjia were nowhere to be seen. I did not know what was going on with any of them. My grandmother took me to the Catholic primary school in Motema, called Saint Jude’s Primary School. This name was never known by the students. It had one building, with partitions inside for classes. There were some classes that sat outside under some mahogany trees. That was the best school in our area. Many big people had attended the school. Many became teachers and returned to teach in the school, like Samuel Kpakima, Gabriel Senessie, and more.
I was taken to the school to be tested before going to get my uniform. There was no age to place you in a class — they went by size. They said some children were undernourished, so it would be better to place one’s hand over their head; if they could touch their ear this meant they were big enough to attend school.
I was tall and had long limbs, so it was good for me. My hand went over my ear. This brought laughter. My grandmother said I would be quite a tall man, saying I inherited it from my dad. She argued that I should go to a higher class since my hand stretched past my ear. The headmaster said the hand was only an indication that I was ready for school.
My school life started since then, but I could not leave my grandmother. My life was centered around her; I thought letting her go would have been the start of problems for me, since I did not know many of the children. The teacher had a beard, with a stick in his hand. School was fun, but getting my uniform posed a problem. My grandmother had no money then, she was waiting to get some fruits to sell and buy my uniform. I think my present-day school-fee woes started from this point in my life.
My father had died, my mother was gone, and all my brothers and sisters were elsewhere. But life continued unabated, and I had survived the beginning.
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