(Adapted from the Legend of Ndateh and Khandiou)
The villagers were subdued as they moved singly or in small groups towards their various homes. They spoke in hushed tones and their eyes darted hither and thither. Back in the main square, a few stools littered the open space, forgotten by their owners as they made for the comfort and quiet of their abodes as soon as the last of the Elders had spoken. The village of Mbassu had just witnessed the revival of an ancestral law: any young lady who failed the virginity test on her wedding night will be shot to death. Mothers walked with creased brows, each wondering if her daughter’s wedding night would eventually lead to a morning of sorrow, when they wouldn’t even be allowed to mourn in public. Fathers let out low grunts, hands finding a preoccupation in the counting of prayer beads even as their minds wandered to that place of shame if their daughters failed the test. It was equally a test for them all… to determine the success of their parenthood and their status in the eyes of their peers.
The light from the setting sun shone on two figures, their fingers laced together as their feet added to the light patter that could be heard on the dusty path. Maram and Begay had been best friends since childhood. Despite the major differences in their characters, they remained true to each other. Where Begay was docile and was hardly seen at village functions, Maram was very outgoing and was the favorite for most guys. Sometimes, she would desert Begay and opt to go to the wells or the farms alone, having made plans to meet up with Majaga, Samba or Njogu. Fallen tree stumps, tall shrubs and isolated huts became rendezvous spots where the men proclaimed her beauty and wove their way into her heart, at least for that moment. The air between them was taut, as Maram’s adventures were no secret to them. Their worry was too heavy for words, their tongues numbed by the reality they faced. Each had a wish of her own. Begay remained hopeful that her friend was still a virgin, that she had only played along with their male friends and that she was wise enough to save her chastity for her wedding night. Maram, knowing better, prayed for a lesser humiliation…that of never being sought for marriage.
As fate would have it, only two weeks after the proclamation at the square, their last hopes were dashed. Girane, a son of the village, sent his uncles to Maram’s home, bearing cola-nuts to ask that she become a part of their family. The elders, believing in hastening all good deeds, set the wedding date for the next day. In a state of panic, Maram sought out her friend, tears streaming down her face as her nose caught a whiff of death, only hours away.
-Begay, I don’t know what to do. I shall either leave this village or commit suicide.
– Suicide? Why would you think that way, when we should be preparing for your wedding?
-Begay, you wouldn’t understand. If I stay alive in this village on my wedding night, that bullet will surely be fired through me in the morning.
Begay was stunned! She recalled the many times she had advised Maram to desist from her ways, reminding her that her beauty could eventually become the source of great pain. She recalled one of their recent conversations…
_Goor nyi denyui jel aye khotu bouteille, sampa ko chi yornu ndawu haleh yu jigeen nyi teh ku chi defut ndanka, ding chi jaar. Su borbaa, lan lenyor wakh ndeye ak baaye? Lan la waa deka bi di wakh?
– Lolu yomba naa tontu. Su borbaa, Baaye neh du dega, Yaaye dal di neh aye joww la. Waa deka bi nak nyor laa balel khotu bouteille yi bamu set wech, ngai fecha beh cha tenn ba teh dara dula chi feka.
-Huh! Mangeh nyaan Yalla dimbaleh nyu ba nyu aanda beh cha tenn ba teh dara banj nyor dall. Ndah elek du agne, du rerr waye lou meuta saayda la
Maram’s sobs brought her back to the present and the weight in her heart got even heavier. She had to do something. She had to save her friend’s life and guard her dignity and that of her family.
–Maram, I shall never let any harm come to you. I know just what to do. Tomorrow night after Bajen has performed all the rites for the jebaleh and prepared you for your husband, find an excuse to come into the bathroom. I shall be there waiting for you.
-What do you plan to do Begay? There’s no way out of this problem.
-Just trust me. Do as I say and we shall sort this out together.That bullet will never hit you as long as I’m alive.
The next night, after all the festivities, Maram was ushered into the bathroom and bathed as was usually done for all brides. Her Bajen showered prayers on her, laced with praises of her ancestors. Launching into the traditional lehmou, she dressed her in white cloths and led her into her new room, where a raffia mat draped in equally white sheets lay prepared. Looking at her for the last time, she encouraged her to stop crying. “Bul joye. Denka naala sa ligayu ndeye ak baaye. Denka naala Yonent bi. Denka naala Yalla.” Maram used that moment to return to the bathroom. Upon confirming that all the required rites were performed, Begay set to execute her plan. She asked Maram to hand over her white cloths and beads in exchange for her own clothes, and then wait for her. After much hesitation, they changed into each other’s clothes and Begay went into the bedroom, leaving Maram speechless. She was to spend the night disguised as Maram, sleep with her husband and save her friend’s life with her own chastity.
Before sunrise, Begay slipped out of bed and hurried to the bathroom, suppressing the pains she felt and aiming solely to get to the end of her plan with success. She retrieved her clothes and handed Maram the white wrappers, revealing the red stain of pride and purity. She swore her to secrecy and they vowed never to utter a word about what had happened that night. Back in her own hut, Begay crawled unto her mat and just as she shut her eyes to sleep, she heard a voice calling out to her.
–Begay! Begay! Let all your worries disappear. You are pure of heart and body! You shall be a virgin twice! Dinga dorn ndaww nyaari yorn.
A month later, it was her own wedding night. Despite the sacrifice she had made and the doubts she had in the veracity of the strange voice’s proclamation, Begay remained very calm. Through the interrogations with her own Bajen, she never let out their secret and urged this latter to remain confident, as she shall never bring shame upon her family. Night fell and she went through her own rites. Maram lay worried, her thoughts on the news that would reach the villagers’ ears the next morning.
At the crack of dawn, Begay heard her husband’s voice calling out to Bajen.
–Bajen! Kontaan naa. All I ever wished for has come to pass. Begay has made me proud and whatever you ask of me, I shall give.
-Alhadoulilahi Rabb’il al amin. Begay has made me proud. Suma dorm ji waacha na. Dormi Samba Linguere, kuko tekk chi leket, mu def cha lako warr. Suma dorm ji labaan na!
The two friends had both escaped death. The years passed and they gave birth to beautiful daughters, who grew up to perpetuate their mothers’ friendship. The two became inseparable and were the mini Maram and Begay.
(20 years later)
It was the rainy season, but the village was as dry as the Sahara. The farmland cracked from the heat of the sun, the waters in the wells dried up and with them, the hopes of the villagers evaporated. In Maram’s home, things were not so bad. She had enough to feed her family and offer some to Begay, who was not as fortunate. As the days went by, her generosity and loyalty to her friend started to waver. One hot afternoon, Njillan, Begay’s daughter returned home with her empty buckets, confirming that there would be nothing to eat that day. Begay sent her to Ya Maram’s home, after much hesitation from Njillan, who felt they had asked for help one time too many. Reluctantly, she walked the dusty path and met Maram seated in the middle of her courtyard, picking pebbles from her rice. Her daughter, Ndebou, stood beside her, pounding coos for that night’s dinner. She greeted her cheerfully and sat next to her, already helping with her task.
-Asalamu aleikum Ya Maram. Mother sent me to ask if you had any rice you could lend out to us until we can sort ourselves out. There’s nothing to eat at home.
-Eh, get up. Go back and tell your mother that I’ve got nothing for you. Nit mun naa deka chi nyaan rek? Jogal dem wah sa yaye neh suma tehn bi wow na!
Embarrassed, she returned to her mother and explained what had happened. Begay was shocked and insisted that Njillan go back there with a message. The sun was unbearable, but she took her usual shortcut and upon reaching Maram’s home, she paused for a second and delivered her mother’ message.
– Ya Maram! Ya Maram! Ya Maram! Suma yaaye neh, tehn bi guenon nafeh wow, mu roht, rohtal la. Once, the wells were drier than they are now, but she fetched enough for the both of you!
Upon hearing those words, Maram’s mind got filled with images of her wedding night and the sacrifice Begay made to save her life. She turned to Njillan with her own message to Begay.
-Sor demeh wahal sa yaaye neh, howma ban tehn lenyor wahati. Waaye tehn bi, boromam dem na. We shall talk of the owner of my well no more.
With that, she ran out screaming and plunged into the well. This time, even Begay’s friendship and selflessness could not save her from the clutches of death.