‘No, Griot, not again!’ Samuel laughs, his fleshy hands resting on his great thighs, his body shaking. ‘That is not a story. Every year you do this to me.’
He wipes tears from his eyes, soft folds crinkling his face, and squeezes the salt water from between his fingers.
There are groans and laughter from the others gathered to listen at the overnight camp two days upriver from Calabar: a ripple of explosive babble punctuated by flickering shadows cast by the rebuilt cooking fire. A few stand, stretch and head for the privacy of the trees. One man leans over the fire, grabbing the massive boiling kettle from amidst the coals with hard hands, and pours tea into proffered mugs.
‘Samuel, I know many stories,’ says the man in the ochre-brown boubou and matching kufi skullcap sitting with them on the ground, at the far end of the gathering. ‘What sort of tale would you wish for?’ His voice is lyrical.
‘Oh, but, Father, I love it,’ says a young man sitting alongside Samuel.
‘Of course you do, Peter,’ says the elder. ‘I would have too when I was your age, but they are not proper stories. Griot, you know the stories I mean.’
The man here called Griot – in other places known as Marabout, or Balladeer, or the many other names given to him on his journeys – chuckles, the sound the delight of small pebbles being tumbled in a fast-flowing stream. ‘These are my stories, Samuel, and I have no wish to tell you ones you already know. They are my gift, and I never give the same gift to the same person twice.’
There are many men gathered around the fire. They sit on the packed earth in a semicircle upwind of the flames, focused half between it and the Griot. The breeze is consistent from the south-west, and they have left a small space for the smoke to drift out and into the bracket of palm oil trees surrounding them.
Peter holds out his mug to the man carrying the kettle. He fills it with steaming tea so overly extracted that the tannins have become astringent. Tea which strips the outer layer of a teaspoon even as it recoats it with a dark-bronze patina.
Peter offers the mug to the Griot, who accepts with a grin.
Every year, after harvest, the remaining villages of the southern delta gather their surplus grain, and traders paddle along the network of rivers towards Calabar. There they trade for the printed goods they cannot produce at home. Samuel’s people have always planted and harvested early to beat the other villages to the city and so take advantage of higher prices. They are not a wealthy people, being too small and distant, but they prefer the safety of their isolation to the dangers of the more populated parts of the region.
Their boats are drawn up on the banks just outside the reach of the firelight. The barges, burdened with maize, soya and sorghum, are anchored midstream. It is slow work dragging them to the city.
Insect traps glow on tree trunks, reducing the irritation of mosquitoes. Cooking pots hang, cleaned, over the informal kitchen. Hunger is at bay till morning, and the men pass the evening around the fire as travellers have done for thousands of years.
Unusually, no men guard the riverbanks or the barges from animals or looters. The Griot is here.
This is Peter’s first trip with the men to trade, and he is excited at the newness of the experience, soaking up the laughter and fellowship. He looks up at his father as the man clamps his hand over the youth’s shoulder.
‘I am pleased you are here, Griot.’ He smiles, nostalgia in his voice. ‘I remember when I was this boy’s age. My father taking me on my first journey to Calabar, and you, telling me stories. I cannot say I always understand you, but I always enjoy the way you make me feel.’
He is momentarily silent, feeling the ache in his joints, the stiffness of his fingers. ‘This will be my last journey to the city, and my sons will continue after me.’
‘You are not so old, Samuel.’
‘It has been fifty years, Griot. Fifty years. You may not age, but, for myself, that is my lifetime. Imagine. I have five sons and three daughters. They have granted me eight grandsons and eleven granddaughters. Each year we follow the harvest, you meet us along the way, we reach the city, we trade, we return. Each year continues as before. And now I hand over this cycle to my sons.’ He nods. ‘But you, Griot, you still tell stories of change and there is still nothing new in the world,’ laughing.
Peter remains silent, a clutch of anxiety. Those setting out in the world for the first time have no wish to learn that there is nothing left to be discovered. It is given to youth to wonder at what can be different and age to marvel at how much remains the same.
The Griot, his teeth a white disembodied smile in the darkness, considers carefully.
‘I journey far, Samuel. Would you wish to hear stories of the north, of the struggle there and of the devastation left behind?’
‘No, and I would not tell you. My ways are not to carry burdens from one place only to deposit them in another. There is much suffering, but there is hope also.
‘It was not always that you feared the unknown. There was a time you used to travel with your sisters to Calabar,’ says the Griot. ‘None of your daughters have ever visited the city.’
‘And they never will. The only changes I have seen have not been good ones,’ says Samuel.
The Griot smiles gently. ‘I do not mean you discomfort. You understand, though, my experience is different? The water carving through rock has little to show even for half a century, yet few would say that rivers remain forever unchanged.’
Samuel shivers, wondering again at the nature of the Griot.
A man adds wood to the fire, poking at logs to hone the flames. A stump cracks, splattering a cascade of sparks into the air.
The evening of songs and tales is ending. Tomorrow will be another long day of rowing, and many of the men are preparing to sleep. Others have broken into twos and threes and are continuing to talk.
‘A group of refugees I met two days ago told me of a strange object falling from the sky?’
One of the men towards the back of the gathering grunts, ‘I saw that too.’
Samuel sighs. ‘A few days ago. Space debris falling towards those unfortunates living along the Akwayafe.’
‘Hah, the free villages are wealthy. They can defend themselves,’ says another.
Samuel shakes his head, smiling at his son. ‘I would never wish the attention of the militia on anyone. But, yes, we saw it. What is your interest? You have decided to become a scrap-metal dealer?’ he teases.
‘It is something different, Samuel. Perhaps it will yield a new story?’
Samuel shakes his head, ‘If the space debris is valuable enough, the militia will fight over it, and many of the people of the Akwayafe will be killed. There are more than enough of those stories without you seeking new ones. And, if it is not valuable, there will be no story.’
The Griot smiles again, setting his emptying mug on the ground, and stabs a finger carefully into the soil at his feet. He blows and a cone of soil empties. He reaches to the bottom, finding there a small brown grain. He holds it to the light, resting it on his cupped palm.
‘What do I have in my hand, my son?’ asks the Griot, speaking to Peter.
‘It is a seed, my father,’ he says.
‘Yes, it is. And what sort of seed is it?’
‘I do not know, my father. We would have to wait for it to grow.’
‘Even when it begins to grow, we could not know how strong, how high or how much of its own seed it would produce. We cannot know who will benefit from its shade or its fruit. We could not know if it will be trampled even before it survives its first season. We would have to wait and watch. Every seed gives us something new,’ the Griot’s eyes shining in the firelight.
‘Even though every seed looks just like any other? Like a story, my father,’ and the boy feels the excitement of his discovery.
The Griot smiles and presses the seed into the boy’s hands. He cradles it, stares at it, wraps it carefully and stores it in the pouch at his waist.
The Griot sits back, his strange yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. He reaches behind himself and, pulling his kora towards him, begins to pluck at the strings.
His music rises up into the clarity of the night sky, lifting with the smoke, sprays of sparks and tears of flame.