Knowledge is Power

Submitted into Contest #135 in response to: Write a story where fortune doesn’t favor the brave.... view prompt

15 comments

Historical Fiction Black Sad

1375

Ibrahim Bakir dipped the slender tip of his qualm into the sooty black inkwell. Despite the afternoon sun radiating through the open windows, the ageing scribe’s eyes strained with fatigue.

All around him, the sights and sounds of the Great Kingdom of Mali blended into a cacophony of shrieks, bleats and yells. Arabic market sellers bartered their goods in a guttural resonance whilst travelling nomads from the southern tribes of Niger and Niani communicated in the clicking tones of Yorùbá. 

Hordes of students bustled through the square from the grand University of Sankore. The towering building housed twenty-five thousand intellectuals, each pursuing various fields of academia including mathematics, law and astronomy.

Ibrahim desperately sought a break from the endless monotony of scribe work, but he had made a promise to leave something behind for his grandchildren to treasure, long after he became dust in the sand. This modest collection of traditional folk tales would be a joy for any child to listen to.

The old man chuckled softly as he penned the last few words of the collection. The final story featured a small child who used the wisdom of an elephant to outsmart the trickster Wokolu. 

A warm, musky fragrance drew his attention back to the window. 

Outside, a Bambera woman hollered sonorously, rounding her animals together for the long walk back to her village. Her richly-coloured cotton bogolan wafted in the light summer breeze as an entourage of bleating goats obediently stumbled behind her.

The setting sun now dipped towards the horizon, under a haze of coppery golds and burnt ochres. Placing the sheepskin parchment near the window to dry, Ibrahim laid back on his wooden stool and sighed softly. As the cool night air drifted into the small abode, his heavy eyelids drooped shut. 

Within moments, the elderly grandfather was fast asleep.

***

2012

Zahra Haïdara’s eyes shot open. 

Dawn broke over the horizon, peeking in through the cracks in the small mud house. Next to her slept her three younger siblings, whilst Baba and Mama snored softly on the other side of the compact dwelling. 

The eleven-year-old lay still for a few moments, gazing at the piles of manuscripts that were stacked in what little space remained around the house. Although her parents could not afford for her to attend school, Baba fiercely prized the value of education. Since Zahra was a little girl, his small accumulation of manuscripts had grown into an expansive collection. 

Each night, under the light of the flickering oil lamp, Baba read stories of vibrant histories, celestial stars and complex equations. The small girl’s mind was enthralled to learn of a time when Mali was more than a dusty wasteland permeating with terror and famine. 

Some of the stories she understood more than others, but the young girl was always content to fall asleep listening to the gratifying tones of Baba passing on his most treasured knowledge.

Zahra shifted gently under the blankets, careful not to wake the others. 

Reaching for a leather-bound manuscript that lay on the top of the nearest pile, the adolescent seated herself just outside the front door, using the faint morning light to illuminate the black, flowery script. Her slight fingers slowly traced along the page, almost as if she was absorbing the magic that radiated from the yellowed parchment. 

This was her favourite collection of stories that Baba had read to her. Each fable taught her of the richness of West African virtues that made her proud to belong to a nation of strong-willed individuals and fearless animals. Some of the stories featured the mischievous spider Anansi who sought to acquire all the knowledge in the world. Others emphasised the courageousness of the Lion, the fierceness of the Leopard and the humility of the Camel.

Zahra’s favourite story was The Elephant and The Wokolu. 

Each night she begged Baba to repeat it until she learned every exquisite word by heart. In between chores, she would recount the story to her little brother and sisters, watching as their faces grew enraptured with glee. 

The fable told of a little boy who was being tormented by the invisible dwarven creature named The Wokolu. Every evening, the trickster would steal the child’s food and disappear without a trace. 

At first, the boy tried to capture the creature by force, wildly grabbing the empty air, but this led to no avail. After a few days without food, the ravenous cries of the child’s small stomach led him to seek the advice of wise Elephant. Elephant told the boy to wait until the creature had laid his hands on the food, before pouring millet flour over its unseen body. The boy did as Elephant suggested, and soon he was able to capture the dusty creature and banish it far away from his village. 

Baba said the moral of the story was that wisdom always outsmarted force. 

The morning sun gently rose into the indigo sky, illuminating the sandy plains. The dawn chorus erupted into a melody performed by desert sparrows, firefinches and red crowned woodpeckers. 

Gently closing her eyes, Zahra leaned back against the wall, basking in the comforting warmth of the sun’s rays. 

In the distance, an acrid smell wafted towards her.

Realisation dawned upon the small girl, and she leapt up in panic. She turned and raced into the mud house screaming “FIRE! FIRE!”

Mama immediately grabbed the three younger children in her arms, whilst Baba ran out of the house and surveyed the village. He returned with a sombre look on his face.

Addressing the older woman, Baba spoke in hushed tones.

“The militants are here. You must run Mariam,” he murmured shakily.

Mama frowned and whispered back, tears brimming in her eyes.

“Are you not coming?”

Baba shook his head and pointed to the walls that surrounded them. 

“I must protect the manuscripts. They cannot destroy them!”

Mama opened her mouth to protest, but the fierce look on Baba’s face stopped her. With a doleful resignation, she gathered her children and made to run out of the house. 

“STOP!” Zahra cried, tugging on Baba’s leg with the sheer determination only a child could muster.

Baba scooped his eldest daughter up in his arms and hugged her tightly, wiping her tears away with his soft fingers. 

“I love you, binti. Please be strong. Mama needs you to help her.”

Zahra looked up at him, then exhaled deeply. She hesitated before handing Baba her most cherished possession. The older man crouched down and held the leather-bound parchments against his chest.

“I promise I will keep this safe”, he whispered resolutely.

By now, the foul stench of burning had engulfed the village. Thick tendrils of smoke billowed into the windows. Haunting screams sounded all around them, followed by the whip-like crack of gunfire.

Mama tied her two youngest daughters in a sling around her back. She grabbed Moussa with one hand, Zahra with the other and bolted into the plains. Mama’s heart thumped so hard, she thought she would throw up in the sand. Fear spurred her on until they reached a grassy enclave near the southern state of Burkina Faso.

Here they waited, until the sun baked oppressively against their bare skin, prompting them to find shelter. Mama was exhausted from carrying the children, so she meandered at a slower pace with the younger two. Zahra took charge, gripped her brother’s clammy hand, and together they darted back towards the village.

Upon arrival, the children’s worst fears were instantly confirmed. 

The village lay in a blackened heap of destruction and chaos. No birdsong remained. The only sound that could be heard were inconsolable cries of grief.

Without waiting for Mama to catch up, Zahra ran towards the house situated at the eastern edge of the village. She made a silent prayer to Amma, the supreme creator of life, before slowly creeping into the small abode.

Immediately, time froze. 

It was like she was seeing the events of someone else’s life unfold in front of her. Baba lay on the floor, surrounded by reddish stains. 

The entire room was empty. Every manuscript had been taken and smoking piles of ash rested on the floor.

Moussa’s helpless cries brought the small girl out of her shock. She ran towards Baba and tenderly placed a tiny hand on his cheek. 

He was still warm, but the colour was slowly draining from his face. 

Upon feeling her soft touch, Baba smiled weakly and opened his tear-filled eyes.

“The stories are all gone, they took everything!” the little girl wailed, frantically waving at the walls.

Baba gently shook his head and winced as he lifted his arm towards his middle. A rectangular object bulged underneath the cotton fabric. 

Zahra frowned, and helped him slowly pull the object away from his chest. 

As the leather covering grew visible, the adolescent’s eyes lit up.

Elation gripped her soul as she squeezed the collection of stories against her heart. 

Baba placed her small hand into his large palm. Zahra was suddenly uncomfortably aware of the blood that surrounded them. 

Hot tears spilled from her, landing onto Baba’s cheeks.

The older man smiled weakly and squeezed her hand tight. With his last remaining breath, he whispered,

“Keep it safe, binti. Knowledge must always be protected.”

With that, Baba’s chest fell and he closed his eyes for the last time.

February 28, 2022 16:57

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15 comments

Sharon Hancock
01:16 Mar 10, 2022

Beautiful story. Wow such amazing detail and tone. I loved the attention you gave to the children and how important it was to the family to carry on the knowledge. Heartfelt and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

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Sachi Shah
07:31 Mar 10, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind words :)

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Charlie Murphy
19:13 Mar 08, 2022

Great job with the characters and tone!

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Suma Jayachandar
12:10 Mar 07, 2022

Beautifully written, Sachi! The exquisite cultural details and emotional tone are spot on.

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Sachi Shah
13:49 Mar 07, 2022

Thank you :) I always try to make sure I research as best I can within the time restraints

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L.M. Lydon
23:13 Mar 06, 2022

This story is both sad and heartwarming, in a way. We feel the love her parents have for the narrator. You make us care about your characters very much. You also make us feel the weight of history. Well-written!

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Sachi Shah
07:25 Mar 07, 2022

Wow! Thank you so much for your kind words. I am very happy that you could see what I was trying to convey :)

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21:05 Mar 06, 2022

What a sad story. Sachi, is this part of a longer novel. If not, it should be. You are a creative and imaginative writer.

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Sachi Shah
21:07 Mar 06, 2022

Thank you so much :) It is not, but I would love to have the time to write a short novel one day.

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21:13 Mar 06, 2022

One chapter at a time. You should think of writing your stories around your central novel. Then after you write these short stories, they will soon start to make a part of a larger picture. You are a very talented and emotional writer. Perhaps, study on what makes a good middle grade novel. You have a lot of material. And I know they are looking for cultural and historical pieces.

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Sachi Shah
07:51 Mar 07, 2022

This is a great idea! It makes the whole process seem a lot more manageable and approachable. I really appreciate you saying this ❤️ If I ever win credits on here, or save up some money, I will definitely think about seriously writing a novel. Middle grade sounds perfect because I work with children :)

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15:10 Mar 07, 2022

That is great that you work with children. Are you a teacher?

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Sachi Shah
16:07 Mar 07, 2022

No just a nursery practitioner, but I am studying for my degree so I can go for a higher position one day :) I would love for different voices like African/Indian etc to be more prominent in children’s stories

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Mike Panasitti
01:15 Mar 08, 2022

The souls of an Arabic scholar and scribe, and of a young girl, connect through the passion they share for story, despite over 600 years of distance between them. You demonstrate quite clearly, and in a way that rivals Borges' warmest prose, the mystery and magic of written knowledge.

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Sachi Shah
09:02 Mar 08, 2022

Wow! This is the highest compliment. Thank you so much

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