The caravans could come at dawn. The caravans could come when the sun was highest in the sky. The caravans could come when midnight had cloaked everything in velvety blue. The only sure thing was that the Sokoto caravans would come well before the end of the dry season. But now, that had changed. For weeks, Aminah and the rest of Botu were not even sure the caravans would come at all. Even though rain clouds had not yet emptied, lightning lit up the sky in the distance and thunder boomed. The grass had already started to grow tall. And there was talk of horsemen getting closer. Horsemen who razed everything to the ground. Horsemen who scared off the caravansary. Horsemen who stole people. It wasn’t a good sign. Aminah’s father needed to go to Jenne to sell his shoes. Aminah’s family needed to sell their food.
A week before the rains started, Aminah heard the thumping of drums just as she was about to prepare the evening meal. She dropped the onions in her hands, thanked Otienu that misfortune had been averted, and hurriedly made for her twin sisters in her mother’s hut. The girls rushed to join a throng of their village sisters and brothers belting out songs of welcome. She could barely hear their own songs, drowned out as they were by the caravan’s drums. Aminah and the twins squeezed themselves through tiny gaps to move closer to the front.
Camels and their riders filed by, moving almost in tandem with the beat of the drums, followed by women balancing enormous cloud-shaped bundles on their heads. They were trailed by donkeys saddled with sky-high loads, then porters, pitiful-looking men and women burdened with baskets and pans, wearing nothing but strips of cloth covering their private parts. Hassana, the elder twin, flapped her arm excitedly at a figure in the distance that appeared to float above everyone else in the procession. The madugu! Aminah’s heart twitched with excitement. The madugu, a majestic figure riding a gigantic horse, lifted his hand to salute the crowd. It was as if he moved and the ground shook. It was what he wore. It was his horse, his dance, the fact that he’d seen places in the world none of them had. It was his power. He was the highlight of the caravans. At the end of the procession, boys in rags, banging on calabashes, collected money from those who would give it to them. They left her feeling sad. On seeing the beggars, the crowd moved forward to stay in line with the madugu, as if just by looking at him, his majesty would rub off on them. The air was thick with the smell of caged rain, an herby livestock odor, spices, soups boiling. As a pink evening light began to stroke the sky, the excitement of the crowd mounted.
“Make way for the head of Botu, make way for Obado,” said a voice that could only belong to Eeyah, Aminah’s grandmother. Eeyah and her group of griottes had surrounded Obado, so he was hard to see. Aminah pictured his smock billowing about his torso, his hat askance, his expression serious, his short arms swinging with self-importance. When Obado emerged, he was wearing a smock but no hat. He set himself a few paces ahead of everyone, the large leather pouch slung across the paunch of his small body announcing that he was there to collect money.
The madugu rode his horse towards Obado to begin negotiations on the caravan toll. The toll exacted from the Sokoto caravan was more than all the other caravans combined. It was also the most difficult to negotiate. Once, the caravan stayed in Botu for more than a week because the madugu and Obado couldn’t come to an agreement.
The madugu—his robes a rich blend of blue and violet, his head turbaned in white, his dark skin glistening—swayed left and right with each drumbeat, and his balled fist appeared to grind the air above his head each time his horse strode forward. Aminah wondered what it was like to wield such power. It made him comfortable in his body in a way Obado was not. But it made sense: he was in charge of thousands of travelers. Botu held only a few hundred people.
When the madugu jumped off his horse and stood before Obado, Botu’s father—the man people went to, to keep the peace—looked like a mere child. The drumming thrummed to a climax and then dwindled.
The two men embraced and the madugu bent over to speak to Obado, while signaling for his men to get the caravan settled in the zongo. Together they made for Obado’s house, trailed by Eeyah and her griottes, whose high-pitched voices sang the madugu and Obado’s praises.
Aminah dragged the twins home. Na would be annoyed that the girls hadn’t already cooked and started selling to the caravans.
Aminah watched a glob of shea butter liquefy into a golden yellow oil, her mind on the caravan. She thought of the madugu. Eeyah once told her that he had twenty wives and was still searching. When she’d told her friends, they started conspiring to set themselves in his path. To be a twenty-first wife. What was admirable about that? Aminah preferred the idea of traveling on a camel or horse with a sack full of shoes, doing the kind of work Baba did. Making something with one’s hands and then traveling far to sell it. The oil bubbled and spurted and cast its nuttiness into the air. Aminah rested her head on her palm and stared at the oil. No woman in Botu made shoes. They all worked the land. She needed to talk to Baba. What if she made shoes?
A knock hit the back of her head, giving her a slight shock. It had to be Na, who couldn’t stand Aminah’s daydreaming. Or Eeyah, who took pleasure in startling her. Aminah turned and met Issa-Na’s cold gaze. The woman’s eyes were piercingly white, her hair plaited with thread and styled cone-like above her head. Prickly. Images of porcupines seeped into Aminah’s mind whenever Issa-Na appeared. There was a woman in second place and bitter about it. She was all the proof Aminah needed that being a twenty-first wife was not desirable.
Aminah looked at her stepmother who was mother to Issa, her only brother. She arranged her face to look as respectful as possible.
“You’re going to burn the maasa,” said Issa-Na. “There’s nothing worse than burned maasa.”
The woman was right. The shea oil was boiling in black bubbles at the edges of the pot. Aminah took the pot off the fire. Issa-Na turned on her heel and left the kitchen before Aminah could thank her for her counsel.
Aminah returned the pot to the fire, scooped out balls of the rice and millet paste and lowered them into the oil, excitement building in her chest. The maasa turned golden brown. One never knew what the caravans brought. Into a big brass basin, she piled a large pot of millet porridge, honey, sour cow’s milk and several calabash half spheres cupped together. She put the maasa on a smaller tray, then carried her basin outside, where Na, slightly obscured by the steam rising from a large pot, churned her tuo. Na’s tuo was popular because it was fluffy. The family secret was to sprinkle rice flour into the millet paste.
Na called her over. “Did I see that woman hit you?” Aminah nodded slowly. The knock had only startled her;
it wasn’t that painful. And as mean as Issa-Na was to her, she didn’t want her to get into trouble. “The oil was burning.” “Next time don’t give her a reason to touch you,” said Na.
Na said that because Issa-Na’s skin was lighter than theirs, she generally got her way. Na said a long time ago something had poisoned people into thinking the lighter you were, the better you were. She said Issa-Na looked uncooked, that in a perfect world, Aminah would be considered more beautiful than Issa-Na. Then Na said, “But you can’t eat beauty.”
She stared at Issa-Na’s hut, then returned her gaze to Aminah. “Why are you still here? The caravan people are hungry. Fast, fast!”
Aminah dragged the twins out of the compound. The girls greeted old ladies who thought themselves too old to take part in the activities but didn’t want to miss out on any gossip, so set up their stools close to the zongo.
In the evening light, the tents of the zongo were already standing tall and comfortable, as if they’d always belonged on Aminah’s people’s lands. Others were still taking shape as men of the caravan and men from Botu sliced at patches of tall grass. People carried sand from the water hole and used it to shape blocks; some women were snapping off branches while others braided grass to form walls. The zongo had turned into a fair. Fires crackled, drums beat. The air smelled of smoke, meat and alcohol. Aminah wanted to do Na proud by selling off all they’d brought, but when she arrived, every available sitting place was filled with sellers. They had no choice but to walk around peddling their food. Aminah distributed it, handing Hassana the maasa, and the younger twin, Husseina, the sour milk. She carried the porridge.
“Maasakokodanono,” sang the twins who had inherited Eeyah’s musical tongue. “Maasakokodanono.”
Narrow paths separated clumps of tents. The ground was littered with animal bones, shreds of cloth, morsels of half-eaten meals, broken pots, tufts of hair, puddles of liquid. Outside one tent, a woman recognized Aminah and said she’d been looking forward to eating her maasa since her last trip from Kano. She spoke in Hausa, the language of the caravans, not Gurma, the language of Botu. Aminah wondered about Kano. If it was small, like Botu. Or if it was the way Baba described Jenne: a town of clay-coated houses with paths in which one could get lost. A town that hugged two arms of a river. A town with a mosque that reached the skies, large enough to hold thousands of worshippers. Her mind went to other places Baba had visited to sell his shoes: Timbuktu, Salaga. He hadn’t been to Kano.
The woman sighed, snapping Aminah out of her daze. The twins were already wandering off, so she thanked the woman, gathered Hassana and Husseina, and continued weaving around the zongo. Some travelers were selling goods, while others had gone straight to sleep, dirty feet splayed on their mats. At one tent, hundreds of glimmering lights caught Aminah’s attention. It was a stall with mirrors of various sizes, some as tall as she was, others small, just large enough to see one’s face. It wasn’t every day she caught her reflection, and the owner was nowhere in sight, so she set her porridge down and took a quick look in a small silver mirror with an ivory handle carved with flowered vines. On its frame were two fearful-looking lizard-like animals with egg-shaped eyes, scaly bodies, and multiple limbs twisting around each other. She gave in to the lure of the glass. The only times she saw her face were before events in the village. Only Obado’s wife owned a mirror. Every villager would troop outside their hut, fix their hair and face, then move on to the ceremony. Aminah observed her thick eyebrows, the hairs flying in all directions. Her nose was small and expanded slightly when she flared her nostrils. She was about to stick out her tongue, when, through the mirror, she locked eyes with someone behind her. She almost screamed, feeling like her insides were about to leave her body, but her mother had told her never to show fear in public. She turned and faced an old man with hair the color of heavy rain clouds. “I see you like my mirrors,” he said, and in his eyes Aminah recognized her father—a kind man who worked and never stopped. “Sorry …”
“In some places,” he said, “they say if you look too long into a mirror, it will steal your soul. In other places, they say you become vain if you stare at yourself too long. Who is right?”
Aminah checked behind her to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. Someone used to riddles, maybe.
“What do you think?”
Suddenly, she remembered the twins. She’d forgotten they were with her.
“I’m sorry.” She bent to pick up her pot of porridge. If she didn’t find her sisters, what words would she use to tell her parents?
She wound around the zongo three times before coming upon a group of turbaned men sitting around a fire, laughing as if they had no worries. Next to them, the twins sat on a raffia mat before a pile of wooden dolls wrapped with a rainbow of beads and cowries. As she made her way to them, one of the turbaned men stopped talking, fixed his gaze on her, then flung his ringed hand in the air to beckon her. The hairs on her forearms stood up, and she stole a glance at the twins, who were entranced by the dolls. Aminah was certain she could quickly sell to the man and collect her sisters. She was there to sell food, she reasoned, and here was a potential customer. She walked over.
“What are you selling, Beauty?” asked the man. He smiled, and his teeth shone bright white. His eyes, shaded by his turquoise turban, stayed trained on her. He seemed to wear a permanent smirk.
“Maasa, sour milk and millet porridge.”
“My mother makes the best millet porridge. Let’s see how yours compares.”
Aminah set down her pot, but her hand shook so much that the man grabbed her wrist to steady her, and firmly but gently lowered her body to his level.
“Relax,” he whispered. Then shouted: “Who wants to try Beauty’s porridge?”
The men all wanted it. She started serving the one who had waved her over, but he pointed to the others, indicating that she serve his friends first and save him for last. The bonfire heated up everything in her body, speeding up the beat of her heart, oozing beads of sweat from her skin and leaving her heady. She looked over at the twins, still playing with the dolls, and in doing so, spilled porridge on one man’s white robe. As she stared, terrified, at the mess, he mopped at it with another part of his robe and waved her away. She served everyone, took their cowries, and returned to the man in the turquoise turban. As she poured out his bowl of porridge into a calabash, she felt his gaze on her. She handed it to him. “Sit with me, Beauty.”