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A tale of the Water Devil and the women cooking her bidding
This week’s SEA piece is Kasila’s Dream, a hypnotizing short story by Foday Mannah. This story was shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, and first published at wasafiri.org by Wasafiri, the magazine for international contemporary writing. Foday shared it with us in response to our request for SEA contributions, and we were immediately enchanted; we’re therefore extremely grateful to the Wasafiri editors and Foday for making syndication to our audience possible. - IV & ZJ
Only an impotent man tries to cook food under water – Mama’s Proverb
The first time Halima heard about Kasila’s Dream was after her father drowned.
Her father had been an esteemed fisherman, his dexterity with the nets forming the foundation for the family’s al fresco cookery shop, a collection of bamboo benches arranged around low tables underneath a mango tree in the dusty expanse in front of their pan-body house.
The village showed little surprise at the drowning, since it was known that Kasila, the Water Devil, swallowed two males every rainy season in return for the fish the village had access to.
On Mama’s instructions, Halima sat on a rattan mat in the mango tree’s shade during the week of mourning. Between serving food to those who had flocked to offer condolences, Mama reprimanded her daughter for excessive crying. “Embrace courage and wipe that snot from your face Halima! It is the will of the spirits that your papa was swallowed by Kasila this year!”
Choosing an afternoon of long shadows after the week of mourning, Mama boiled lemon grass, black tumblers, and monkey apples in a squat pot. She then cracked open a young coconut, adding the water from within the brown shell to the bubbling mixture. After emptying the pot into a wide calabash to cool, Mama offered Halima a cup of the fruit concoction to drink. She then washed her daughter’s face and hands with the rest of the mixture.
“This water grows intelligence and will fill your head with the knowledge of food needed to enter Kasila’s Dream. Never forget that you walk in the legacy of powerful women whose hands control the embers that glow beneath pots!”
Halima took the responsibility of preparing for Kasila’s Dream very seriously. On Saturday mornings, she would accompany Mama to the distance-flung Sababu Market, a sprawling space which convened under thatch baffas erected at a junction where roads to the surrounding villages met. Before departing, Mama would explain the nuances of the market to her daughter.
“You must remember that most food traders have false tongues that produce sweet talk. They cannot be trusted to speak clean truth; therefore, you must examine what they sell to you with the sharp eyes of a night bird.”
They would travel to the market on the back of a spluttering okada, Halima wedged between Mama and the driver, a rag of a man whose smell was a collage of sweat, roll-up cigarettes, and gasoline.
Halima loved the market, a pulsing arena featuring a vibrant collection of confident hawkers who spoke the language of food in lucid colour. They would bellow for attention, thrusting samples of their merchandise into the faces of customers: breadfruit and pawpaws bigger than Halima’s head; slim fingers of okra bound with strips cut from dried banana leaves; miniature plastic packets of ogiri and kaindah, advertised as being able to lift the flavour of any sauce.
Mesmerised, Halima would inhale the market whilst listening as Mama switched tongues to haggle with the traders, seamlessly adapting to the languages they spoke.
“These big peppers are not fresh and have termites living inside their stomachs – surely you cannot charge me full price for them Kortor Manso!”
“But this is not real red palm oil Aunty Rugi; it has the rogue colour of the masankay brand that is no good for frying fish!”
Mama would prepare food for the cookery shop in the mornings. Halima would rise also, her first responsibility being fetching water from the river in the company of a gaggle of other children. She would then spend time observing Mama’s interactions with the pots, studying the intricacies of each recipe. Possessing the slight frame of a termite, Halima was shielded from the heavy kitchen tasks like pounding native rice in the big mortar or chopping stout logs into firewood. She would instead occupy herself with assignments commensurate to her size, such as using a pint-bottle as a makeshift rolling pin to grind groundnuts into paste for stew.
As her skills progressed, Halima graduated to adding ingredients, flitting amongst the pots which were erected on multiple stone tripods in a corner of their yard. Mama would keep a roving eye on her daughter, gently explaining the significance of the food they prepared.
“All the food we sell in this cookery shop is revealed to us by Kasila through dreams, and is built on a foundation of fish. The hippopotamus and the crocodile have no fixed identity and wish to live both in the water and on land; the leopard rips out the impala’s throat on the ground and then carries the carcass into trees. The fish though is a creature of pride that does not cultivate confusion; it stays in the water where it swims with grace and elegance. And so only the purest of ingredients are allowed to swim in the same pot with them!”
As the meals drew to simmering conclusions, Halima would put on her uniform and undertake the two mile walk to the local primary school.
Halima only spent six years at the primary school.
Her class five teacher, a hassled man who wore the same ash-coloured safari suit every day, followed her back to her house at the end of the school year to point out to Mama that her daughter would be receiving double-promotion.
Mama, who had just finished serving boiled bananas and fried tilapias to a collection of local court messengers, presented the teacher with a plate of bonga fish and bulgur. The teacher attacked the meal with gusto, whilst explaining what double promotion entailed.
“Halima has a strong brain in her head, and I am recommending that she jumps over class six and proceeds straight to class seven. She will then attempt the selective entrance exams which will take her directly to secondary school. After marking her shining schoolwork, I have realised that to get her to sit in class six would be a waste of time – it would be like asking a frog to pass a swimming test!”
Halima took to the work of class seven like a red ant to spilled sugar. As a means of augmenting her knowledge in preparation for Kasila’s Dream, she began writing the food Mama prepared in a narrow exercise book. Every evening, after she had washed the utensils and swept the cookery shop with a frayed broom, she would dedicate time to collating the recipes, her face furrowed as she struggled to think of compromise spellings for the ingredients that did not have English names.
Yebeh – dried herrings with boiled sweet potatoes, cassava and yams.
Acheke – snapper fish with garri fried in coconut oil, mixed with, jiblox, peppers and onions.
At the end of the class seven school year, Halima received a big scholarship to the prestigious Annie Walsh School in the capital city, Freetown.
When Mama got news of her daughter’s success, she danced and ululated across the cookery shop, the diners cheering and clapping in solidarity.
The following day, for the first time in over a decade, Mama did not sell food; instead she and Halima caught a crowded poda poda into the nearby town of Blama. Using a week’s ingredient money, Mama instead purchased important items her daughter needed for boarding school, including stationery, a pair of brown shoes, and green material for her new uniform.
As Halima waited for her head to be filled with Kasila’s Dream, letter reading became a key function she performed in the cookery shop. The few villagers who were lucky enough to have relatives who had travelled overseas often received blue airmail letters festooned with fascinating stamps, which they would bring to Halima when she returned during the holidays. The villagers somehow believed that her extensive boarding school education endowed her with a deep knowledge, which was essential for an understanding and appreciation of things that happened in white countries.
The letter reading sessions soon became public affairs, with people understanding the importance of sharing private news of life overseas with the rest of the village. Even those who could not afford food attended, positioning themselves on the margins of the cookery shop, the cadence of Halima’s voice animating the letters, casting whatever news they bore in an alluring light.
Halima, who had by this time acquired the curves of adolescence whilst also inheriting Mama’s regal height and deep copper complexion, would gauge the mood and rhythm of the cookery shop. She would then lean against the trunk of the mango tree, striving to maintain the clipped English accent of the nun who taught her Shakespeare. She would pause periodically to translate the words into the languages of the village, her eyes level with the owner of the letter, her voice, however, strong enough to carry across the cookery shop.
Mr Sullay, a local hunter who traded in bush meat, was one of the first to bring a letter.
“Your son has got a new job cleaning trains on the London Underground,” Halima explained. “He has also met a good woman whose name is Meltina. She hails from Makeni, and your son would like you to go to her people on his behalf to declare an intention of marriage by presenting them with kola nuts.”
Another letter-reading session saw Halima break news to Mama Sondima about her husband who had travelled to Canada five years previously.
“Pa Sondima says the snow on the ground in the winter lies higher than a giant anthill. He says he will send money for the boys’ school fees before the rains start in August. He says he now works in the kitchens of a big conference centre where they cook for thousands of people. He says he cries every day because he has to throw away huge amounts of leftover food.”
In the harmattan season of Halima’s fourteenth year, Mama received the visit from the district’s Paramount Chief. He arrived complete with an entourage of elders, all of them swathed in resplendent traditional ronko outfits. Halima, who was home for the Christmas holidays, scurried to receive the guests, sorting out seating arrangements before serving them food on special glass plates brought out of a padlocked chop-box from under Mama’s bed.
When he was sated, the Paramount Chief spoke, his sedate voice reducing the crowded cookery shop to a hush.
“As you know Mama, the spirits have stopped smiling on our village. Our fishermen return from our river with weak finger-sized fish and dirty crabs which are good only for feeding to stray dogs. Kasila is angry and has decided to put his foot on the throat of the river.” The Paramount Chief paused for a sip of palm wine, murmurs of concurrence from the crowd filling the gap in his speech.
“After putting our ears into the river, the voices of our forefathers have spoken up to us. Our traditions say that the person who enters Kasila’s Dream must be a girl-child who has never been touched by a man. Your daughter, Halima, has always represented sharp intelligence and modesty. She has also been to the white man’s school and speaks their language like a radio. She has also inherited your strong eyes, and therefore has the power to see Kasila. Once appeased by her, he will give permission for his fish to lie in our nets again!”
After the Paramount Chief and his retinue departed, Halima added the special food Mama prepared for them to her exercise book:
Lafidi – Mina fish with wallah rice, palm oil, okra, pepper, eggplant, maggi cubes and kaindah.
Pemahun – Kuta fish with steamed native rice, crain crain, sweet potato leaves, okra and jakato.
Kasila’s Dream climbed into Halima’s head exactly twelve days after the Paramount Chief’s visit. The Water Devil had always been a spectre in her background, the malevolent entity that had swallowed her father when she was a child. Beyond that, she had only ever thought of Kasila when she joined the other children to fetch water from the river. Back then, the embellishments of childhood imagination had seen one of the boys describe Kasila as a thundering presence with a rusty chain as a tongue, used to yank hapless fishermen to the bottom of the river.
However, in the dream, Kasila was a woman with riveting turquoise eyes and hair set in neat corn rows which flowed like dark raffia. She sat at the head of a long table cut from the dark bark of a marula tree, the legs of the table carved in the shape of high elephants. On the table were a collection of ivory trays on ornate place mats made from yellow lace material.
After testing Halima’s food knowledge, Kasila talked her through the new ingredients in the trays, her voice a rich whisper.
Mama rose on the morning of the appeasement ceremony to again wash her daughter’s face and hands. The ablutions complete, she sat Halima on the ground between her knees and arranged her hair into six neat ox-folds. She then wrapped her daughter in a flowing white lappa that swept all the way to the ground.
Halima then, without Mama’s assistance, cooked the meal that had appeared to her in the dream.
Once the food was ready, it was dished into expensive aluminium containers Mama had bought at the Sababu Market from a Wolof trader visiting from Senegal. To maintain the food’s heat, the containers were wrapped like newborn babies in thick country cloths, and were then placed on a bright tray, which Halima carried on her head.
Using a ceremonial canoe adorned with charcoal inscriptions, Mama rowed Halima to the centre of the river where she spoke into the water.
“I draw strength today from your guidance and declare that the person here with me today is my daughter, Halima. She is of me and from me: as a baby, she sucked milk from my chest with her eyes open and slept strapped to my back with her eyes closed. Her hands are today extended towards you with that which you gave to her in a dream.”
Mama then instructed Halima to descend into the dark river, with only her head and hands visible above the water. She then gently placed the tray of food on her daughter’s head.
“Since you have now seen Kasila’s eyes, this water has no power to hurt you. When she accepts that which you have cooked for her, you will swim like a fish back to me.”
Mama then rowed the canoe away, her daughter’s bobbing head a mere dot in the faint distance by the time she reached the shore.
Halima returned to boarding school in the new year. Before departing, she wrote the meal she had cooked for the Water Devil in her exercise book.
Baguda and Aborbor – Catfish and boiled cassava eaten with black-eyed beans cooked in nut oil.
Foday Mannah hails from Sierra Leone and currently lives in Scotland, where he is employed as a teacher of English. His short story, Amie Samba, was shortlisted and published in the 2019 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology.