Chapter 2: Mo’destee Vert
1789 – Baila Village, Senegambia
The line of mud huts in Baila ran in a semi-circle facing north. Behind them were fields of squash, watermelon, millet, and yams. On the other side of the walled compound were pigs, chickens, and goats. Near the banks of the river was a rice field. The village operated like a well-oiled machine. Everything was set to maximize space and provide for the villagers.
Mo’destee took the family’s water container and headed towards the village pump to fill it. When it was empty she could carry it on her head without touching it, balanced perfectly. When it was full, she held it only so it didn’t slosh. Eventually she would learn to walk without the bob so it would stay put like it did when she carried fruit or eggs on her head. They were easier, the lighter weight not shifting like the water jug.
She heard the smack of his feet before she saw him at her side. Jabari snatched the empty container from her head and held it high. Half-heartily she jumped for it, then pouted and started stomping towards the pump, knowing he would follow. He did. Jabari gracefully slid the vessel under the spigot and began to pump the handle.
“You don’t have to do that for me,” she said, watching the water splash and begin to fill.
“I know, but I thought I’d practice being your man.”
“My man’s not going to go fetch water,” she said with a smirk and moved to take over the pump handle. She looked at the new tattoo running the length of his chest and realized it had a lot more detail to it than she had noticed the night before. He saw her looking and flexed his chest muscles. She turned away, embarrassed to have been caught admiring him.
Jabari’s arm slid around her waist and he leaned in and kissed her. It was such a surprise, her back stiffened and her eyes grew wide. His arm was tight around her and she didn’t think she could get away if she wanted to, which she didn’t. He pulled away from her and laughed. “Don’t make fun of me,” she frowned.
“Let’s try this again,” he said smoothly and brought his hand to her face. “You’re beautiful, little Mo and I love you.”
Sparks ignited in her stomach and radiated to her heart, and lower. Their eyes met and he moved in close to her. She felt her breath catch in her mouth as he bent in and placed his lips on hers. It began tender, sweet, and before she knew it, she was leaning into him, kissing him back, devouring his tongue, her breasts pressed against his bare chest. His hand reached down under her rump and lifted her, her legs automatically encircling his waist.
“What’cha kids doin’?” A voice interrupted their passion and Jabari practically dropped Mo’destee. It was Emem, Jabari’s brother. “We need your help for the meal preparation,” he said with a grin.
Mo’destee’s face grew hot; she couldn’t look at Jabari or his brother. She looked at the water pump as if she had never seen it before.
“See you around, my wife,” Jabari said with a wink and followed his brother back towards the main circle where the nighttime meal was being prepped. Her knees nearly buckled and her head swam. She looked at the half-filled pot. Pumping the handled twice, she reached her hand into the flow and cooled her face with it.
The vessel of water didn’t seem as heavy on her way back. She practiced walking without holding it, feeling the movement of the water over the top of her. The women of Afrika carried everything on their heads except their children. Most of the receptacles had an indentation for their skulls to make it easier. It was another one of their ways. Tying a baby on their backs with a sarong of fabric was also everyday practice. At that moment, she missed the weight of Emeka tied to her back, and again thought of the day she would have Jabari’s child.
Before the meal that night, Mo’destee took a bright swath of fabric and tied it around her forehead, covering her hair. Her mother looked at her and turned away, a smile playing across her face. The head wrap was a sign of womanhood and little Mo noticed her mother subconsciously reached up and felt hers.
“Does it look right?” Mo’destee asked her mother.
“You look beautiful,” she replied, beaming at her daughter.
“Merci,” she said, practicing the new language.
Throughout the dinner, little Mo moved around the circle of her people with Emeka tied to her back, looking for Jabari. She didn’t see him nor his brothers but she saw his father talking and eating with her father. Her eyes moved from face to face, seeking out Jabari’s mother; she would ask her where the boys were this evening. An arm grabbed hers from behind. She sensed it was her man and smiled radiant and full-toothed as she turned. It was Jabari’s mother, standing tall and looking flawless.
“Have you seen Jabari?” she asked with no expression.
“Earlier, when I got water. He went with Emem.”
Without speaking, she nodded and moved deeper into the throngs of people, seeking her mate.
“Everything in order?” Fanta asked as she untied Emeka and took him from little Mo’s back.
“Jabari’s mom was looking for him and his brothers. I don’t see them here.” It would be highly improbable for anyone of the village to miss the nightly meal without a good reason. Illness, death in the family, or injury would count as a cause for absence, but then the whole village would know why you were missing.
Mo’destee’s eyes continued to search the crowd. She caught Mambo staring at her. The older woman made the sign of apology. “I’m sorry,” she said silently. Worry knitted little Mo’s face as Jabari’s father brought the concern to the attention of the villagers.
“It seems our sons are missing,” he boomed, more lighthearted than Mo’destee would have expected. “My beautiful wife and I would like to believe they are just playing somewhere and have lost track of the time,” he filled his lungs with air, emotion cracking his placid face. “But we all know Babafemi, Emem, and Jabari are too old for those types of tricks and wouldn’t miss a meal if their lives depended on it.” His attempt at humor led to silent tears streaking down their mother’s stoic face.
“Let’s go to Dakar and get them back!” GB came to life, jumping up to stand beside his old friend.
“But we don’t know—” Jabari’s father began.
“Yes, my brother we do.” Sadness clouded his eyes as he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder and turned to speak to the tribe, “Dakar is not that far. We all go at least a dozen times a year.” Jabari’s mother leaned into her husband as GB took center stage. “If we do nothing, then the traders will think we are easy prey. We must go in numbers,” he continued, getting worked up by his own speech. “There is an amount of safety in numbers. Let’s set out tomorrow and confront the evil men that are behind the kidnapping of our sons.”
The crowd roared their agreement. Mo’destee looked at Mambo, who’s attention was on her father. She was shaking her head, face wet with tears. It caused the white dots painted on her face to smear, looking like a sad mask melting down the woman’s face.
Mo’s attention turned back to her dad. She watched as he inspired the other men of the tribe to follow him and Jabari’s parents to the city of Dakar. Recently, the French had begun to colonize it. Things were changing; prisoners had been sold as indentured servants. The new government had begun trade routes with salt and human beings. At first only prisoners were sold. But the number of requests for more human lives began to go up, and traders were doing what they had to so they could meet that demand.
As the crowd began to chant and clap a warrior’s song, Mo’destee got caught up in the emotion of the villagers. She chanted with them, loud, at the top of her lungs, vowing to herself to find Jabari and bring him home for their wedding. Her eyes went back to the darkness to seek Mambo’s. She no longer sat at the fringe of the troop of people, ready for battle. Amina, Mo’destee’s childhood friend, appeared at her side and placed a reassuring arm around her friend. Both girls joined the others in their cry for justice.
The next morning more than half of the original group gathered just before dawn. All were equipped for an eight hour walk into Dakar. Most of the men carried a pouch for water, and the women had plates on their heads loaded with fruit and bread. The children were encouraged to stay behind with the elders and they were each passed off to a responsible person. Tamala stayed behind and took Emeka. Mo’destee, Fanta, and GB walked shoulder to shoulder. Amina, her man, and their parents were also among the crowd.
“We’ll find him,” GB said, his voice wavering as the sun crested over the horizon. The day wore on and heated up. The walk was tedious. Often, they had to form a single line to get through the paths the goats and stray dogs had created.
It was after the mid-day meal when they arrived at the offices of the city government. They began chanting together, “Stop stealing our sons!” and moved as one force towards the building made of mortar and bricks. Before they could breech the doorway, three men appeared with weapons, the one in the middle obviously in charge.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the crowd in French.
“Speak Wolof to us, brother of Afrika,” Jabari’s father spoke up. “We are looking for my three sons.”
“Boys go missing all the time.” He slipped into Wolof effortlessly. “What makes you think we know where they are, mon?” His thick lips were pressed tight, his eyes narrowed.
“Do you think because we are farmers we are stupid?” Jabari’s father answered his question with a question.
“Lion season,” the man said with a shrug to one of the guards, who readily agreed.
“Because we farm, we are imprudent?” Jabari’s father continued without acknowledging the comment. “We have heard the rumors. Men have been sold to the French and the Dutch. I believe if you are not behind this, you know who is. The truth rings in the marrow of my bones.”
“What dishonorable crimes are you accusing me of?” The man spat at Jabari’s father. “Do not come to me when you can’t keep track of your own—”
“I believe you took my sons,” Jabari’s father answered with an edge to his voice, a flash of a ferocious father. Tension formed between them.
GB stepped forward. “My brothers, please, do not fight.” He moved to get between the two men and said tentatively, “Hey, I know you, my budda.” The soldier turned to him. A flash of recognition passed his steely face. “We met at the Mosque last Ramadan. You are a father, I met your sons. If you did not take the sons of Baila perhaps you know what happened to them. I’m asking as a fellow son of Allah for your help.”
The man eyed GB, “Perhaps I do have some information I could pass along to your village.” He motioned for GB to follow him. Jabari’s father followed also. “No, just Mr. Vert,” he said in French and the soldiers blocked the entrance.
No sooner had the heavy wooden door shut behind them than the man turned on GB. He grabbed him and shoved him hard into the wall, “GB Vert, I recognize you, mon, but make no mistake. You don’t know me! You have no idea the way I feed my children, the ways of today’s world. Let me be clear, you take your bush people back to the huts from which you came and never darken my door again! Do you understand?”
“So, you did take Jabari and his brothers,” GB said flatly, showing no fear.
“And got a fine price for them,” the man crowed. “If your son was older I would have snagged him, too.” A flash of anger crossed GB’s face. His nostrils flared as he charged the man, using his height and strength to bring him to the floor.
For a moment, GB had the upper hand, but the military man was trained in combat. “You will regret this!” he roared. Within a minute, GB was face down and subdued. His nose had exploded with blood when the man banged his face into the floor. “Now I’m going to tell you this only one time.” His breath came ragged, in puffs. “You’re going to take your little backwards people back to where you came from and be grateful I don’t wipe your entire village off the face of the earth.” They both stood slowly, eyeing each other.
GB tried to lunge at the man, tried to throw his weight onto him, but the man grabbed him, shoved him against the wall, and held him tight. “Don’t encourage me,” the man hissed, then released GB with a shove. “Go now!”