Written by Lillian Kithia
I sat cross-legged on the earthen floor opposite grandma. Between us was a three-stone stove on which sat an earthen pot. In the earthen pot, some Irish potatoes, yams and arrow roots simmered into what would be our meal for the night. The crickets chirmed down at the river while the frogs chorused in dull drones. Somewhere outside, my cousin who was helping grandpa roast some green bananas suddenly broke into laughter.
The smoke from the fire stung my eyes, which I now shut tightly, and caused a thin stream of mucus to flow down my nose, but I dared not complain. It was best to avoid grandma’s long speech about how the ways of the city had turned me into a weakling.
“Don’t step on the stones, you little tomboy” grandma roared.
“Alright grandma… now tell me the story,”
My grandmother has lived many years, and in those years she has gathered many tales. Every time I come here, she picks one out at random and gives it to me. Sometimes her stories are funny, especially when she tells me of how she and my grandpa eloped to this beautiful place we now call home. Other times they are paradoxical, and I only get to understand them when I grow older.
Such was the case with the story grandma gave to me that night as she learned back against the wall and stared in the direction of the floating smoke.
Salim and his mother and father lived in the North Eastern province of Kenya, in two spacious Samburu huts eighty kilometers away from the nearest market. Once a month, Salim and his father would ride on the back of their camels to the market where they would purchase perfumes, fabrics of cloths, salt and honey.
They would then travel back to their village and sell the items at the village shopping center. Sometimes they would exchange the items for maize floor and medicine from other traders.
They always travelled together. Father and son. Father would teach son the secrets of life and son would once in a while share funny tales he had picked up from his playmates. Son would listen keenly to father’s counsel and father would laugh at the stories his son told him.
They did this for as long as Salim could remember. As soon as Salim could walk and talk, Salim’s father took him to the market where they bought wares for sale.
One day Salim’s father fell very ill and even after spending a lot of money on medicine he did not feel better. The neighbours came to visit him and brought him food meant for sick people. Diviners and healers gathered around him and watched him helplessly; they then prescribed some herbs that did not get him better.
As a result of the illness, Salim and his father could no longer travel to the market to buy his wares and the family was beginning to run out of money and food to eat. Their neighbors soon tired of visiting Salim’s family and wishing him quickest recovery. Eventually they all stopped visiting.
One night, Salim’s father called Salim to his bedside. He looked at Salim and wondered if he was ready for the assignment he was about to give him. Salim’s father was younger when he started making the trips to the market. But those were different times, and their motivation was different. Even women in his days wanted a hardworking man who could make the long trips to the market. Today, Salim’s age mates want a man who could spend as much time with his wife as possible.
“Father, I have to go, or we will all starve to death.” Salim, reading his father’s thoughts assured him.
“Be very careful my son. Follow no other route but the one I have always led you.” Said Salim’s father.
It was a dangerous journey, and Salim ran the risk of being hijacked by bandits. That night, Salim’s father prayed to his ancestors to protect his son in his journey, but when he slept, he had a very strange dream.
A man came to him and told him that he would never be well again but if he teaches his son well, he will be very rich and his family will always have money to buy his medicine. The man in the dream told him that the dessert pearls would make him a very rich man.
In the morning, Salim woke up before dawn. He ate his breakfast and before he could set off on his way, his father called him. He wanted to speak to him before he left.
Salim’s father had spent the entire night awake. He had thought about the dream, worried about his son’s trip and then thought about the dream some more.
“Salim, I am too sick to go with you to the market, so you must go alone. And on your way back, bring your father some dessert pearls.” Said Salim’s father.
Salim was very scared, but when he thought about what would happen to his family if he did not go, he felt very bad. So he ignored his fear and started on his journey to the market.
Salim got to the market the following day before day break; he bought the perfumes, the fabrics, some honey and medicine for his father. He then started on his way back home and stopped every once in a while to collect a few dessert pearls like his father had requested. He put the pearls in a leather bag and carried on with his return trip.
On the second night of his journey, Salim was very tired. He was also hungry and thirsty and his camel was walking very slowly. Dejected, Salim wondered what he could do.
“If I don’t get rid of some of this luggage, my tired camel will never make it home,” he thought to himself. So he started to go through the pieces of fabric, the perfumes, the salt and medicine, wondering what to throw away.
He thought about his sick father at home and how all these things would help them get money to take care of him; and then an idea came to his mind.
“The pearls. Father needs just a few! Of what use could such pearls be anyway?” So Salim took all the pearls he had collected and threw them away. His luggage was now lighter and he could get home faster. He was only left with two pearls.
It was at the end of the day when Salim got home. Now that the heat had subsided, his father was sitting outside the hut basking in the evening’s sun. Dik-diks and mongooses drew closer to the hut as if to console Salim’s sick father. Salim showed his father all the fabrics and perfumes he had bought. He gave his mother the salt and his father his medicine, but his father wanted to see the pearls.
“Father, the pearls were too heavy. They were getting the camel so tired and slowing us down, but I managed to bring home two pearls” Said Salim.
“My son, why didn’t you listen to me, I told you to bring as many pearls as you could”
“But father, they are only pearls.”
“No Salim. Leave me alone. I need to rest”
Salim’s father took the pearls and put them under his pillow. He then sent Salim to the market to sell all the perfumes and fabrics he had bought.
The next morning Salim was awoken by the voices of his mother and father. They were laughing, half screaming at the top of their voices. He immediately sensed that something was going on and ran to his parents’ hut where he found his mother and father smiling.
“The pearls you brought your father have turned into diamonds my son. You should have brought more. Now we would be rich and we would never have to work again.” Said Salim’s mother
This is where the story that grandmother gave to me normally ends. And the questions remain in my mind. If Salim’s father had told him why the pearls were important to him, would he have picked up more? If Salim had brought more pearls, would they all have turned into diamonds or just the two? On Salim’s next trip to the market, did he pick up some more pearls, and did these pearls turn into diamond? What became of Salim’s father? Did he hate Salim for not following simple instructions? Did Salim hate himself for it? Did Salim’s mother blame him for not making them rich? Well, Questions and no answers.
I’m lying in bed as I write this story. Many stories from grandma fight for attention in my head, but this one has clogged my mind for many months now. It is only recently that it’s possible meaning begun to sip through into my mind. Have I picked all the pearls I could in my way through the dessert called life? Or did I, like Salim, throw away all the pearls of wisdom for perishable material wealth?
© Lillian Kithia 2010
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