Salia Koroma: Nightmares & Witches In A Land Of Magic
Here is the second instalment of Jinna Mango Feh.
Off-centre, surreal, are just two among so many synonyms one could use to characterise the tale that unfolds in Salia Koroma’s Jinna Mango Feh. As he so often does in his ballads, Salia gives a quick bird’s eye view of the narrative landscape he wants his listeners to traverse with him. In the first instalment of the ballad, we saw Salia take the wrong turn (and it’s always the left turn) into Banda country. In laying the groundwork for that fateful detour and the bizarre nature of the story he was about to tell, Salia told his audience to:
Behold the outlandish things that have befallen me:
A ‘kpokpo’ tree has taken root on a palm tree;
A noble’s foot (print) has appeared on a termite hill;
Hair has all but grown on my tongue;
Behold a toad-viper bring forth a python.
This is how Salia leads us into the tale of his sojourn in Banda. Where is Banda, or more importantly, what is Banda? Is it an actual geographical space? Is it a place that only a fabulist can conjure up, a ‘country’ whose area is circumscribed only by an active imagination? On the one hand, Banda is a physical, geographical area. But there also exists the Banda of popular lore.
It is mainly with the Banda of the popular imagination that Salia’s ballad choses to engage. Here Banda is a place of powerful medicine, enchantments and witchcraft. The portrait of the witches of Banda ( this vast coven represented by one woman) sketched by Salia can be distilled to these essentials:
-Erotic enchantment and the death of the man who falls under the spell
-The embodiment of the witch as a hybrid python-fruit bat-owl
-Metamorphoses and shape-shifting
-Apprenticeship in witchcraft for the young
-Fear of being exposed
Salia falls completely under the erotic charm of a certain Miatta Jamba; for the smitten Salia this Miatta woman is the most beautiful in the world. In hopes of consummating this budding relationship, he follows her to her home village. But she lodges him by himself; at this point it should be clear to our man that he won’t be sleeping with this woman. She’s brought him to her village to feed on his soul. The witch assumes the form of a hybrid python-fruit bat, intending to ‘swallow’ the essence of the sleeping victim. Had that happened, upon waking up he’d have been an empty shell, wasting away over time and eventually dying.
What Miatta doesn’t know is that Salia isn’t a naïve youth who takes things and people at face value. He isn’t what her previous victims had doubtless been. Salia has guile; throughout the night he matches his wiles against the woman’s witchcraft. We also see Miatta initiating her children into the necromantic arts.
How should we take this story of the trip through the villages of Banda? Reality or pure fiction? As Salia tales go this is a particularly tall one, entertaining but still straining against the ordinary confines of reality. But then, is it necessary to decide one way or the other? Maybe we should note and concentrate on the dreamlike nature of Salia’s sojourn. Everything is finely balanced here if we care to pay attention. Salia enters a strange village at twilight, tired and hungry, and then almost immediately goes to bed. At dusk, that brief moment in time when day fights its losing battle against the coming night, everything is neatly calibrated, the familiar world begins to take on an alien aspect. Dosing off is the sleep/wakefulness equivalence of dusk. In that strange midland between wakefulness and sleep which everyone sometimes travels through, an amorphous anxiety sometimes possesses the spirit. Time and space are dislocated; life and death are in the balance, with death holding the prospect of winning out.
So shouldn’t we read this story as Salia, in a strange place, articulating these terrors, exorcising through art the oppressive distress that accompanied a particular rainy season nightfall?