Excerpts from Word In The Belly Of The Word (Finah Misa Kule)

Excerpts from Word In The Belly Of The Word (Finah Misa Kule)




By Kewulay Kamara

I must have been about ten years old in 1964 when a blue Opel truck appeared in the town of Kabala in Northeast Sierra Leone where I was going to school. Most of the trucks, especially if they were commercial, had and still have the name of the person who owns it, and their place of residence painted on the vehicle. The owner’s name, Karifa Finah Kamara, was written on the truck. But there was something more on the truck. On this blue Opel truck, the owner put down: "Karifa Finah Kamara, "Ferensola."

Ferensola was the original, mythic land of the Kuronko people. In this Colonial era in Kabala, the sign made people begin to remember what Ferensola was at a time before colonialism. They began to take some pride in being Kuronko.

Years later, in 1984, in the library of the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research, while conducting research on the economic history of Sierra Leone, I came across two articles in the 1932 and 1933 issues of the journal, Sierra Leone Studies. The articles treated the customs of the Kuranko, a Mandeng people who occupy the stretch of the land surrounding the Loma Mountains, the watershed of the river known as the Joliba in present day Guinea, the great River Niger. Although Africans authored most of the articles in this British colonial journal, this particular one caught my attention in a special way. It seemed to have been written by someone who knew my family. To my surprise, the by-line read Karifa Kamara.

Karifa Kamara – the Secretary of the Koinadugu District Council headquartered in Kabala, where I attended both primary and secondary schools.  I knew him well. He was a cousin of my father, Kaerta Sana; we would say he was my father’s brother. On my father’s visits to Kabala, he spent much time both in Karifa’s office and at his home on Fayama Lane, named after his father, Fayama, who had built his home and a few multi-purpose houses which were then occupied by Lebanese merchants selling haberdashery, clothing, home and farming tools at the center of Kabala.  Karifa was educated in the prestigious government Bo School for Boys, established by the colonial government to train the sons of local chiefs who, regardless of their education and intellect, served as lower level functionaries under John Bull, the expatriate white man in the British administrative hierarchy. Many of them were so well trained, they were known as Farafina Tubabu, Black White Men.  Some considered this epitaph a high compliment.  Being white seemed to be their aspiration. They wore Western clothes and spoke the Queen’s English verbosely, often using the most obscure vocabulary and arcane diction.

Opposing this lifestyle, Kuranko traditionalists became unenthusiastic about schooling for their children, but this was not the case with Karifa Kamara. In public he always shunned the Western dress that would have been expected of him and appeared in a flowing, three-piece boubou. However, he wore a watch with the letters of Karifa Kamara replacing the numbers as if adapting the chronometer of contemporary life to his culture. Most mornings and evenings he could be seen, big and round, rolling from home to office and office to home.

I accompanied my father on his visits to Karifa Kamara during non-school hours. Though I do not recall much of their conversation, as I often waited outside the office door, I still recall the stories my father told about him. 

The brothers (cousins) were close friends. While Karifa Kamara received a western education and Kaerta Sana, my father, was a marabout, mystic, or Muslim holy man and teacher, they both valued education. Kaerta Sana, whose father did not send him to a western school, practiced Finaya, the way of the Finah. He was based in our village, in Dankawalie, where he taught the Koran and practiced farming, along with many crafts and trades. 

Karifa Kamara had a very different literary life. Sana deepened Karifa’s understanding of Finaya and Karifa impressed upon Sana an appreciation for western education as a new reality.  Kaerta Sana enrolled me in a primary school in Kabala. However, he did not put me in care of his brother or any immediate relative—he had many relatives in Kabala, including my namesake. Instead he put me in the care of a friend, Kanko Mory Kandeh, a tailor who could also teach me the Koran in the mornings and evenings while I attended the Kabala District Council School during the day.

During the colonial era, the rulers and subjects of Africa lost their sovereignty. They were taxed. Their rulers lost much of their influence and power to the indirect rule of British colonial order. They became instruments of British colonial rule. The courts of these “traditional rulers” could not support the Jali and Finah who once depended on the social surplus extracted from their subjects in the form of taxes of various sorts and obligatory labor. For some members, especially musicians and poets—the Jali and the Finah—could no longer be sustained by allegiance to one court. They became entertainers, offering praises for a penny. In fact, when I first came to Kabala as a schoolboy, that was exactly what I did. I went around town with a cousin begging for pennies until Kanko Mory prohibited me from doing so. I never understood why until much later. The prestige of the oral traditions had been so debased in the new urban areas that some were ashamed to identify with them.  Yet with Karifa Finah Kamara, here was a literate and prominent Finah, celebrating Finaya; a respected public official declaring his Finah identity much like the words of Lamban, the Jali song in praise of the Lasiri, Jali and Finah.  Here is one of many versions:

Siya (way)

To everyone a Siya
The One who created nobility
Created Jaliya (way of the Jali)
The one who created Mansaya (sovereignty)
created Finaya

There is no big Finah
There is no small Finah
Only the empty hand is the cause
To turn a small Jali into a big Jali
Turn full hand is the cause

Everyone belongs to Siya
Jali belongs in Siya
Finah belongs in Siya

I have seen Jali
I have seen Jali merchants
They never disown Jaliya
Jaliya is not empty

I have seen Finah
I have seen Finah warriors
They never disown Finaya
Finaya is not empty

My father and uncle shared a love of the ancient myths and stories. I was about 14 years old when my father took a walk with me from Dankawalie to Tumania.  It was the deep rainy season, the sun never smiled, but when it did shine through the mist, my father was ready. He would start writing with a reed pen on parchment in Arabic script.  He was writing down the ancient story of Finah Misa Kule, and the legendary events in our long family history, going back before the days of prophet Muhammed.  He was concerned that his children and the other young people in the finah clan were starting to lose interest in the ancient stories.  

My father, Kaerta Sana, died in my tenth year of schooling. Karifa Finah assumed the role of father for me, but then passed away himself during the month of June 1971. Through the open window of my classroom I watched the funeral procession pass, carrying his body in its white linen shroud under the patchy blue and white sky against the green Wara Wara Yagala hills overlooking Kabala. I could not join the procession, knowing how proud he was that I was at that moment taking the last General College Entrance (GCE) examination just before leaving for the USA for further schooling.

And there I was, in graduate school in the U.S., reading his writings, of which, as I learned later, even his own children were not aware. Reading these articles triggered memories in me of Kaerta Sana. Most of his and my grandfather’s generation did not trust the colonial education in Africa. Growing up, it was not uncommon to hear an elder lament, “If you send your child to school, just say goodbye to him. He will no longer be your child. He will be a White man. He will have no respect for your values and customs.” This meant that Western education deprived pupils of respect for their ancestors, their origin, their culture, their story, their dignity. 

My own education was a combination of the two.

*   *   *

Shortly after I discovered Uncle Karifa’s magazine articles, a telegram arrived announcing that my mother, Yelka Marah, had departed the land of the living. I remembered her send-off advice to me. She emphasized that I should not forget my father and his tradition saying, “In Kuranko, Finaya is most noble.” My mind went to the stories he wrote, and I was determined to learn them.

After the fortieth day memorial services for Yelka Marah, I inquired about the manuscript on which my father had written down the ancient stories. Sartan Lanesani was surprised to learn that I knew about it and was interested in it. He pulled it from his bedroom—a bundle of loose paper in sheepskin. He offered it for me to take, saying, he knew it by heart anyway. Seeing the precious aging brown bundle of paper, I asked him to record the stories into a Sony transistor radio cassette recorder, so he could keep the manuscript as a family heirloom. That decision turned out to be a mistake on my part; because of events that unfolded in Sierra Leone, the manuscript would have been safer with me. Anyway we arranged a reading, but we were all so tired from staying up all night the three previous nights, that some of us passed out after one session. We postponed the rest of the reading for another visit. This was in April, 1985.

As a popular song the young sang during the memorial commemorations says, a foreboding sense of loss was in the air. Sierra Leone had politically deteriorated after 1985, culminating in a civil war that lasted from 1992 to 2002. In 1998,  the village where I grew up, Dankawalie, was razed. I received word that my brothers and sisters were nowhere to be found, Yelka Foday, who was now tailoring in Dakar, Senegal, joined me on a trip to Dankawalie. And yes, on the way, we saw village after village charred. So was Dankawalie. We found the villagers—our family—living in the ashes of their homes.

Everyone was elated to see us. Our presence meant they were not forgotten by the outside world. That is the sentiment they expressed the most.  But despite their elation, they were visibly traumatized. We were traumatized. Everyone had a story to tell and was desperate to tell it, as if their lives depended on it. Sometimes they all spoke at once, as if time was running out. Perhaps it was because they knew we had not come to stay, so they felt they should get their story in to share to the outside world. We walked, and they talked.

When we reached our father’s compound, or what was left of it, I began to realize that the small scraps I saw on the ground, some burned on the edges, were in fact our father’s manuscript lying in the ashes. I realized that more than living lives were lost. Our father’s manuscript of thousand-year-old stories and perhaps with ways of thinking, coping and being laid in the ashes.

Ashes of my father’s manuscript

Upon my return to New York I began to search for ways to return and record the stories from surviving family members. After the war, survivors were rapidly dying from hunger, disease and heartbreak for the ways of life left in its wake. By this time I had long been storytelling and organizing performances in New York.

In 1995, I organized Dankarafule, A Tribute to Papa Ladji Camara at Symphony Space in Manhattan, for which I received archiving support from Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. That event got me an invitation to participate in a group of West Africans to present performances by artists from that region. At one of these events, Badenya 1998, a tribute for Almamy Samory Turay, organized by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, I met Steve Zeitlin, writer and folklorist, founder/director of City Lore, an arts-presenting organization. Steve and I now address each other as “Friend And Close Associate.”

In 1999 he asked me to present the Epic of Sunjata at the international People’s Poetry Gathering with a group of Jali musicians, organized in collaboration with Poets House and Bowery Poetry Club. I also participated in many other events organized by City Lore. I took the opportunity to inform him about our father’s manuscript. Steve was moved.

In the spring of 2004, two years after the war, City Lore gave me a travel grant to Sierra Leone to begin recording, and created many opportunities for me to tell the stories in radio and television studios, classrooms and on stage. The work of reconstructing the oral legacy presented began here. Many more years of fundraising, mostly by City Lore, supported many more trips, three of them with audio/visual crews. We interviewed both the young and old, men and women. We recorded ceremonies and rituals during which the stories were formally told to the accompaniment of music. The resulting documentary, In Search of Finah Misa Kule: The Story of a People who Live by the Word, is the centerpiece of this book.

In the course of my many trips to Dankawalie in search of the epic/story cycle of Finah Misa Kule, the Dankawalie Descendants Association in Freetown, many of whom attended elementary school in Dankawalie, asked me to help build a secondary school there. School age children sent to Kabala to pursue secondary education had to live with relatives or strangers. They had to bring their own board from Dankawalie and would sometimes have to pay for their rooms too. Being away from their immediate family was a burden,as they often had no supervision and pregnancy and dropout rates were high. The economic burden on their families back home was two-fold: they had to pay for school fees and other expenses at the same time that they lost the contribution of their children to the daily family work. 

It was only after the fifth year of Dankawalie Secondary School’s existence, that the sweet irony dawned on me. Our father, who saw the need for western education and witnessed his own child suffering through it, helped build a primary school in his village so no other children of Dankawalie would go through what yours truly went through. Now, with help from my family and friends, in and out of the country, I helped build a secondary school in Dankawalie.

I would not have undertaken any of this without our father’s inculcation of appreciation and respect of our traditional legacy and openness to try and adapt to change, and changing circumstances, because “the world will not remain the same,” but “a traveller who does not know his origin, cannot know his destiny,” and  “the crazed is uncanny, the crazed does not know tomorrow. He is lost.”  Interestingly, Sartan Lanesani, became the primary source of much of the received word. Did our father know this was to be? Did he craft his son’s destiny so he would play a role in the preservation and transmission of his legacy, or was it divined? It all seemed to work as if planned – my brother and I twin-ing to bring the words of the Finah forward.


Finah Misa Kule

We’ve gathered in the name of Allah
May we disperse in the name of Allah.
Let it be.

We had a day of peace,
May we have a night of peace.
Let it be

We have gathered in peace.
May we separate in peace.
Let it be.

May those who traveled far in good health
meet those who receive them in good health.
Let it be.

May good agency of the highest order
come our way.
Let it be.

May we be saved from serious illness.
Let it be.

May we be granted protection from misfortune.
Let it be.

May kinship gain strength and multiply.
Let it be.

May our kinship be sweet and prosperous.
Let it be.

May peace and prosperity cover the earth.
Let it be.

May evil never replace good in our mouth.
Let it be.



In Search of Fina Misa Kule
A Poetic Invocation

Listen, listen!

In the presence of those
Who cannot bear to hear
Nothing of value is said.

Long, long ago
Whenever people gathered,
Before any man spoke,
Before any woman spoke
A Fina was called to bless the occasion.

The One
Who created the heavens and the earth
For love, sent the Messenger
To prostrate himself on the earth
In awe and wonder
As he delivered the message
That humility is nobility.

The Prophet prayed
For his elderly hosts in Makka,
Descendants of Misa Kule,
To bear a child of their own.
The child they begat, the Prophet named
Fisana, most noble.
From Fisana
Came the humble—the noble—line
Of Fina Misa Kule.

You are not a Fina because you lie
You are not a Fina because you slash
You are not a Fina because you kill
You are a Fina because
When the people want a word said
But the word is too hard to say,
Fina, say it! the people cry,
And the Fina says it
In humility and nobility.

Oh, you Fina!
Scion of Fina Kurya Mory
Indisputable Kamara
Irrefutable Kamara
The rock of your voice strikes
A bolt of light!
So great are the deeds of your ancestors,
Never left behind!

So lower your own voice
And listen to the people’s voices.
Join those on the straight way.
Advise those who go astray.

Lower the tempers,
For war does no justice,
War does not console.

But without war
How can we tell bad from good?
Without war
How can we know peace?

Oh, you Fina!
When you venture out, my son,
Remember yourself.
Be humble.
Let someone else’s mother
Be your mother.
Let someone else’s father
Be your father
Though they may not be old enough.
The humble earth is our resting place,
The noble sky covers us all.

In this world the air we breathe can deceive
Earth is our resting place.
Fine clothes can deceive
Earth is our resting place.
Abundance can deceive
Earth is our resting place.

The fool is uncanny.
The fool does not know tomorrow;
Dawn begins at dusk.

Sing the song of freedom
For the world will not remain the same.
What sitting does not solve,
Walking will resolve.
What dreaming does not solve,
Waking will resolve.

Words do not rot.
Words do not rust.
A name is not borrowed.
A name is earned.

These words I utter, I learned
From my ancestor
The one who gave life/word
To save his brother and so to save Ferensola,
The land of twins,
The place of word and deed,
Where what is said is done
And what is done is said.


Talɛ: The Great Lembe

The division is the heart of the word.
What does it mean?
Let us begin
From where it all started.

Long, long, ago,
during the reign of Mansa[1] Kema,
strife and turmoil covered the land.
To find the root cause
and save their world
the elders joined heads.
They devised a solution and approached Mansa Kema.
Their solution holds up even today.
The elders
with their wise counsel advised:

This world is kept balanced
between the horns of a great bull
that stands on a mighty fish
in a vast sea.
Every time the bull stamps
just to shake off the flies,
the earth trembles;

when the fish shakes
disaster descends.
Our world is in turmoil

The solution is the division.
To bring balance to the world
we must divide and order the people
so everyone is assigned a space
with special authority
and a position of respect in society.

That space we shall call "lembe."

This is our agreement.
If you agree, we will proceed.

Mansa Kema perceived the wisdom
in the council of the elders

Wise counsel says,
a leader must be in front,
facing the challenge
while pulling the masses
by the string of authority,
not whipping from behind,
which reaches only so far.

He agreed to the dispensation, “Great Lembe”
which he called Talɛ.

As leader, Mansa Kema was obliged
to start the division with his own family.

Mansa Kema had two sons:
Kule the elder
and Saramba the younger.

Two Kuranko elders in Dankawalie Village

The council of elders chose Saramba, the charismatic,
to succeed his father as sovereign.
No one would prefer to have his eldest child passed over,
but for the good of the people,
Mansa Kema accepted.

So Saramba, the charismatic, became sovereign.
Kule, the elder, the wise, was obliged
to defer to his younger.
Fisa-ma[2] must sacrifice for fisa-mante.
The stronger must sacrifice for the weaker.
It would be the children of Saramba
who would rule Mandeng.

Kule became Mansa Kule,[3]
Voice of the Sovereign.
In time Mansa Kule became Misa Kule.

Misa Kule and Saramba!
One inherited the word,
the other inherited the deed.
They became twins.
Their domain became Ferensola—
the land of the twins.

Kumɛ Kɔntɔ Kumɛ

Word in the Belly of the Word

Kumɛ lɔn bɛl yɛ le
ko lɔn bɛl yɛ la.

Kumɛ tɔnkɔn sawa le
Kumɛ sigi diyɛ sawa le.

Kumɛ fɔl kumɛ
Wole kumɛ dabirɛ kumɛ la.

Kumɛ butɛmɛ kumɛ
wole kumɛ a kɔntɔ kumɛ la.

Kumɛ ban kumɛ
wole kumɛ kuŋduŋ kumɛ la.

Kumɛ dabira kumɛ
wole fɔl kumɛ la.

Kumɛ kɔntɔ kumɛ
wole bi kumɛ la.

Kumɛ kuŋduŋ kumɛ
wole sinaŋ kumɛ la.

Kɔni kumɛ a bɛrɛ le
kan kelaŋ la.

Fɔl mɔkɔ ya kumɛ lɔŋ
Fɔlɔ lasirenu ko:

Miŋ bi fɔla
wole kɛla.
Miŋ bi kɛla
wole fɔla.

Kumɛ! A kɛ le
a fɔi la.
Kumɛ! A fɔi le
a kɛ la.

Ignorance of the word
is ignorance of wisdom.

The word has three aspects.
It has three spaces.

The introduction of the word
is the beginning of the word.

The body of the word
is the word in the belly of the word.

The conclusion of the word
is the word that caps the word.

The beginning of the word
is the word of yesterday.

The word in the belly of the word
is the word of today.

The word that caps the word
is the word of tomorrow.

But the word in essence
is the word of unity.

The ancients knew the word.
The ancient griots say:

What is said
will be done.
What is done
will be said.

The act of the word
is the saying.
The saying of the word
is the doing.

Words Do Not Die

Names are words.
Words do not die,
words do not rust;

A name is not borrowed
but earned in sacrifice.

Sacrifice is rewarding,
like the joy that follows pain.

A child rises from his mother’s milk
to stand full in her joy.

So the son of Mama Kerta Gibateh
stood present as a Finaba

his words drinking water
fresh as the morning dew.

Coming in words,
living in words.

Words do not die
and do not rust.

One word brought forth the world
for the love of the lover,

a Fina, born of faith,
in the center of the gathering
to utter the word of unity.

[1] Sovereign
[2] Fisamante-ye in Kuranko means that in any given situation the one in the stronger position must sacrifice for the one in the weaker position. Elders are in a better social position than their younger relatives; therefore, when it comes to sharing, the younger are offered the better portion. Parents forego for their children; older siblings forego for younger siblings.
[3] Kule means voice. It also means leopard, the symbol of royalty.