by Damon L. Fordham
Sierra Leone, West Africa. 1807.
Near the edge of the beach along the Atlantic Ocean, young Ahmad raced his older brother Sayid along the sands of the Savannah. After an afternoon of racing and playing, the boys went to the hut where they lived to feast upon some rice that was prepared by their grandmother, who was stooped and bent over with advanced age. They watched as the old woman pounded the rice with a pounding stick into a hollowed out log turned upright. After this, she placed the rice into a fanner basket to sift before preparing it for cooking.
Suddenly, their ears noticed the sound of drumming and other forms of music playing in the distance.
"What's that?" asked Ahmad.
"That's the griot coming," replied Sayid.
"What's a griot?" inquired the younger sibling.
"Don't you know anything?" taunted Sayid.
Their grandmother immediately stopped preparing the rice and turned sharply upon the elder of the two boys. "Sayid, do not belittle your brother. It is your place to explain such things to him."
"Yes, grandmother," sighed the older boy as he received his portion of the rice. "But instead of telling him, may I take Ahmad to see the griot for himself after we are finished with the meal?"
Ahmad looked with eager anticipation toward their grandmother as the older woman calmly replied, "You may, but beware of the thieves."
After the boys completed their meal, they left their hut and Ahmad followed Sayid with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The young boy's sense of excitement increased as they walked deeper into the wilderness. His heart pounded as the sound of bongo drums appeared in the distance. He reached out to hold his older brother's hand, but Sayid quickly jerked it away. "Stop being such a baby," he said in response.
As the wilderness grew thicker as they traveled, the bongo drums grew louder and the sound of stringed instruments began to appear in the distance. Ahmad soon noticed that more people from the village gathered toward the same direction that the two brothers were headed. Ahmad's eyes grew wider and his heart pounded harder as they approached a plain behind some bushes where hundreds of villagers had gathered and the sound of the instruments were closer than before. The younger boy noticed that Sayid did not seem to share his growing sense of adventure, as the older boy had a better idea of what to expect.
Ahmad was now shaking with eagerness as the villagers parted a path in the plain for the group of drummers that led the approaching precession. Sayid moved his younger brother closer to the front so that the child could get a better view of the proceedings. The drummers were followed by a group of beautiful female dancers, who chanted, swayed their bodies in time to the beat, and sang while the players of koras (stringed instruments that resembled European harps) came behind the dancers. The colorful costumes of these musicians and dancers set Ahmad's imagination afire and increased his anxiousness for what was to come.
Finally, the stringed musicians were followed by a lone and fascinating figure. There stood an erect but older man apparently in his fifties with a coal-black complexion, a white robe covering all but his feet and head, and a trancelike expression on his face. The musicians continued to play and the dancers continued to dance as the crowd cheered the presence of the strange, solitary figure. Sayid was as pleased as the rest of the crowd, but Ahmad was frozen with fear and wonder as the man raised one hand to quite the gathering.
"That's the griot," explained Sayid to his brother.
After the crowd was silenced to his liking, the griot began, "Brothers and sisters, I am Jali Hakim (which loosely translated into "wise storyteller" in English), the griot of our nation and keeper of the flame of its wisdom. Many people ask why do I travel from village to village as I do. The following tale shall answer that question."
The crowd gathered closer to Jali Hakim. The griot spoke as if he was entranced. His eyes rolled upward and he appeared to pay no attention to the gathering, only to his own thoughts, while the crowd was spellbound by the man's charisma and gave him their undivided attention as he commenced with his tale.
"You see my people, there was once a spider who possessed a gourd that was filled with wisdom. He wanted to have more of that wisdom than anyone else, so he took the wisdom gourd and tried to climb a tree with it to place in his web. Tried as he might, he could not carry the gourd and climb at the same time, so he missed his grip and dropped the gourd. The guard hit the ground with a loud bang, and the spider cried because everyone in the village came to get some of the wisdom that spilled from the gourd."
"As the spider cried over his loss," continued the griot as he gestured to illustrate this tale, "an older spider crawled to him and said, 'Fear not, for the village is better this way. You see, it is better for many to have wisdom instead of just one."
Ahmad gazed in amazement as the gathering eagerly awaited the griot's conclusion. Jali Hakim waited a few minutes for his message to penetrate the audience.
"My people, it does no good for me to be the only one to possess the wisdom of my fathers, for if anything should happen to me, that wisdom would die with me and do you no good. It is much better for me to share what I know, so that wisdom could benefit us all."
The villagers thought for a moment and nodded among each other in assent.
"However, my people," continued the griot, "I have another tale to share that is a warning of things to come for you."
His audience leaned closer to hear the storyteller's message.
"Many seasons ago, there was a hare that had a dispute with his wife. The wife thus left the rabbit and he became lonesome and longed for company, for he was very old and his children had their own children who needed their care. Therefore, he went through the forest looking for someone who needed a friend and a place to stay."
"He went first to the lion, and the lion refused, as he had a home of his own. He went to the antelope, but the antelope had a home of his own. The rabbit then went to the monkey, but the monkey also had a home of his own. He even went to the giraffe, but the giraffe too had a home of his own. Finally, he asked another group of animals who would be willing to stay with him. Someone mentioned a snake, but added that there was a reason why no one else would have the snake in their home."
Ahmad was in awe of all that he was seeing and hearing. However, while the crowd was transfixed on the griot, Ahmad noticed that a drummer that stood near the griot who bore a strong physical resemblance to the elderly storyteller, appeared to be the only person present who seemed to look upon the wise older man with any sign of disapproval.
The griot looked upward continued his story. "The hare was so lonesome for company that he ignored the advice of the other animals and asked the snake if he would come and stay with him. The snake agreed. The next day, the rabbit thanked the serpent for his company and began to roast some food over his fire to thank him for his companionship. Suddenly, the snake jumped up and began to eat all of the rabbit's food. When the hare stood up to protest this act, the snake bit the rabbit on the leg with his fangs. As the rabbit lay dying from the snake's poison, he asked, 'why, Brother Snake, must you act this way when I have treated you so kindly?' The snake hissed and replied, 'You should have known when you brought me into your home that I was a snake.'"
Ahmad, Sayid, and the rest of the villagers were stunned by the eloquence of this tale as the griot concluded his story. "People, take this as a warning. We live in treacherous times and there are many thieves among us. Be wise in your choice of whom you trust for they could also be snakes in disguise."
The villagers shouted their approval of the tale of the wise storyteller. The drummers, dancers, and stringed musicians began another procession to lead the charismatic griot away from this village to the next gathering. As Sayid and the other villagers left to return to their respective huts, Ahmad turned around to watch the procession leave and noticed the drummer who resembled the wise sage glaring at the griot with a hateful expression on his face.
As the boys walked home though the forest, Ahmad asked Sayid, "How does the griot get to be so wise?"
The older boy casually answered, "You know how in some families, fathers who are fishermen, hunters, or whatever they do teach their sons to do the same thing? Griots are the same way. Usually, the fathers who are griots teach their sons a lot of stories and they pass them down through the generations."
Ahmad's eyes were wide with imagination at hearing this. "I wish our father were a griot. I could listen to such stories all day."
Sayid shook his head. "Our father does quite well as a hunter. With his skills, we will never go hungry, so you must be thankful. Besides, you cannot eat stories."
Ahmad looked disillusioned as the boys returned to their hut.
The next day, the boys' father came to the grandmother's home. He had joined some friends on a hunting expedition and was returning to take his sons back to their mother's hut. The boys gleefully embraced their father has he greeted the grandmother and began to take them home. The brothers excitedly told their father of the griot's visit, but the father responded with an expression of sadness instead of sharing their enthusiasm as they expected.
"Father," asked Sayid, "what is the matter? We want to see the griot again when he comes back to the village."
The parent grimly shook his head, "I am sorry boys, but you will never see the griot again."
"Why not?" asked Ahmad.
Their father sighed and explained, "He is gone forever. The thieves raided his dancers and musicians as they were going to another village, and took the griot, too."
"Where did the thieves take him?" inquired Sayid.
"This is why we always tell you boys to watch out for the thieves and others who you do not know. They take people over to a place called Bunce Island, where they are said to go across the water somewhere and no one ever sees them again."
"Why do they do this, father?" asked Ahmad.
"I have no idea. Let us go home."
Meanwhile, Jali Hakim was being led away with his musicians and dancers in chains as their captors marched them toward Bunce Island. The storyteller bore his burden with dignity when he turned to notice the only musician who had not been captured-his brother Sosso, who Ahmad recognized earlier as the man who gave a hateful gaze toward the griot, was standing next to a captor who was placing pieces of gold in his hand.
"Sosso," cried the wise sage, "how could you do this to your own brother?"
Sosso smiled wickedly and replied, "Remember the story you told yesterday about the snake?"
"Yes, but why do you ask?"
Sosso handled the gold coins and responded with a ghastly glare, "You should listen to your own stories."
From the upcoming novel American Storyteller-A Novel of Folklore