Murder in the Cassava Patch

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Murder in the Cassava Patch
Author Bai T. Moore
Country Liberia
Language English
Genre Crime fiction
Publisher Ducor Publishing House, Monrovia
Publication date
1968
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 64

Based on a true story,[1] Bai T. Moore's Murder in the Cassava Patch is Liberia's best-known novel. Published by Ducor Publishing House (Monrovia) in 1968, it remains required reading for every Liberian high school student, and is widely regarded as the one real Liberian literary classic [2] in a very small literary tradition.[3]

Plot introduction[edit]

This novelette (less than 16 thousand words, divided into three chapters) deals with the relationship between Gortokai, a young Liberian man, and Tene, the girl he hopes to marry. We learn on the first page that Tene has been murdered most horribly, and that Gortokai is in jail for it. The story promises "to piece together all the circumstances leading to the violent storm which nearly tore off the roofs from many houses in the Dewoin country one bright Sunday morning in the year 1957."[4] The story begins in the fictional village of Bendabli, off the Monrovia-Bomi Hills road, but the action is quite wide-ranging, ranging from Gbarpolu County in the west as far as Gbarnga and Sanniquellie in the north, while places such as Bomi Hills and Firestone feature offstage as the source of the hard currency that proves such a lure to young girls such as Tene and her sister.

Taking the form of a first person narrative, with a narrator (Gortokai himself) who is fairly unreliable, the novelette makes use of Liberian English and Liberian customs, and deals particularly with how those customs came under pressure in the 1940s and 1950s as young Liberians adapted to the prospect of material advancement offered by the western world. As an indigenous Liberian who had been educated in a US university, Moore was well-placed to explore the tension between these worlds, but he does so in a way that is critical both of materialism and of traditional local culture.

Plot summary[edit]

Gortokai's origins[edit]

Gortokai's real father was a slave who had originally been a contract laborer on Fernando Po. The laborer returns to Liberia disillusioned with his work, and finds himself bartered as a slave between various owners. Until the very end of the book, it remains unclear quite how or why this slave's child (Gortokai) came to be fostered by a family from Bendabli.

Gortokai is accordingly raised by old man Joma and his wife Sombo Karn, alongside their daughters Tene and Kema. According to Gortokai, he is unaware that he is not his parents' "real" son until Tene herself tells him during a game of "Mama and Papa": "...suddenly Tene came up to me and asked me to hold her tight in the waist. I shivered and recoiled. Gortokai, can't you see that we are not brother and sister? It's a secret Mama told me."

Gortokai describes himself as his foster family's main source of support: farming rice, making oil from palm nuts, setting traps for crayfish, hunting meat, and so on. He also takes short-term bush-cutting contracts to earn money for the family's tobacco, salt and annual hut tax.

His engagement to Tene[edit]

When he decides to marry, Gortokai sets his hopes on Tene, and asks her older sister Kema to intercede on his behalf. She agrees, but this also introduces the tricky question of the dowry - which in Liberia's case, the prospective groom is required to pay the bride's parents. In addition to the question of potential incest, the acceptable size of the dowry is the subject of further speculation for the village gossips. On being assured (by Kema) that Tene really loves him, Gortokai agrees to pay "the full forty dollars that is required for all virgins".

To earn the money, Gortokai takes a job clearing a rubber farm faraway in Suehn. Having spent most of his first pay check on presents which he sends to the two girls, he hears nothing from them by way of thanks. Despondent, he injures his toe with his machete, and uses his convalescence as an opportunity to invite Tene to visit him.

Tene and her sister belatedly arrive in Suehn, blaming others for not delivering messages to them, and bringing Gortokai gifts of country bread and fried chicken. Gortokai's employer, whose wife calls Gortokai their "stranger son" (a Liberian term referring to the informal "adoption" of a non-blood relative) throws a party for the two girls at which they drink fifteen dollars' worth of rum. The following morning, Tene both invites, and coyly rejects, Gortokai's advances. Nevertheless, Gortokai presents her with a pair of gold earrings, and she repays him with a "rare" compliment: "Kai, I love you. You are so thoughtful."

Before the two girls leave Suehn, Gortokai gives Kema $23 towards the dowry - a dowry which has now risen to forty dollars, plus three dollars for various ritual niceties, plus two sets of clothes for Tene's parents.

Love medicine to keep Tene faithful[edit]

Joining Suehn's palm wine circle, Gortokai is dismayed to hear their gossip about Kema. He is told that she is a well-known drunkard with creative ways at inventing strong cocktails. He suspects, but is afraid to ask, that there must also be some unsavoury information about Tene also. His fellow palm wine drinkers convince him that he must buy some powerful love medicine in order to ensure that Tene stays faithful to him.

Gortokai accordingly visits a country doctor by the name of Bleng. Bleng uses magic to tell Gortokai that Tene's affections are divided, and explains that the remedy will be strong love medicine. Naturally, this will cost a lot of money, but Bleng has further peculiar requirements: "For instance, I need right away, a braid of Tene's hair, a piece of her garment, three of her toe nails, a piece of otter skin, particularly from the breast section, some gun powder and other odds and ends. But some of these I believe I can get locally. The immediate needs are the hair, nails and garment."

Although he has some misgivings (having heard rumors that Bleng too is a drunkard, whose powers are on the wane), Gortokai is keen to produce both the money and the necessary snippets of Tene's hair, nails, and clothes. At the same time, he receives a message that his stepfather is seriously ill, and decides to return to Bendabli.

Arriving early at the village, he decides to conceal himself in order to spy on Tene and perhaps steal a lock of her hair. However, he also overhears a conversation between Tene and her family in which it is clear that Tene believes that "a girl should be given a chance to look around before she decides on one man". She also describes her recent visit to Bomi Hills, where it is clear that she has had several amorous adventures, and is no longer "the same beautiful little girl" she used to be.

That night, Gortokai steals into Tene and Kema's shared room, with a view to taking some of Tene's hair, nails, and clothes. With great difficulty, he achieves this (pretending to be a rat as he cuts her toenails in the dark) but not before the girls have raised the alarm at the intruder in their room. Miraculously, he manages to escape without being identified.

Forgetting about his dying stepfather, he returns swiftly to Suehn, where he gives the ingredients to Bleng, along with ten silver dollars for the powerful love medicine. Bleng tells him to put this powder in Tene's food - and so he returns to Bendabli to carry this out.

Tene marries a man from Bomi Hills[edit]

He is received without enthusiasm, and is told that the girls were recently attacked by a "heart man" who crept into their room one night. He carries out Bleng's medicinal instructions, but Tene nevertheless elopes with a lover to Bomi Hills, two months pregnant.

Although he feels like setting the village on fire, he decides instead to travel first to Monrovia, then to Tapeta, and on to Sanniquellie. On his travels, he learns more about the complicated relationships that people have in modern-day Liberia.

Gortokai and Tene settle in Bendabli[edit]

After several months, he returns to Monrovia, and is surprised to hear that Tene herself is now in the capital, where she is selling gari or farina on the street. It's a year since Gortokai has seen her, and she looks different - both darker and poorer. She has a young baby now, but has left her husband and has returned to her parents' house in Bendabli. For the first time, they sleep together, and Tene no longer resists his advances.

They return to Bendabli to find their family house in a state of disrepair and Joma and his wife too old and sick to do much about it. Gortokai sets to putting things right. He is promised Tene as his wife, and lives with her and accepts her child as his own. He repairs the house and plants a large vegetable garden.

However, after four months in Bendabli, Gortokai again receives bad news over a glass of cane juice. This time he hears that Kema is planning to move Tene and her parents to Firestone. The old couple deny this. Tene is receiving expensive gifts from a man in Firestone whom Kema wants her to marry, but she denies receiving these gifts, claiming she made the money by selling gari.

Gortokai's revenge[edit]

The tragedy comes to a head when Kema returns from Firestone, demanding strong liquor and smelling of expensive perfume. Gortokai eavesdrops on her conversation with Tene, in which it is clear that they have little respect for "this deformed-nose Kai of ours", whose father was once sold as a slave into Lofa County. Kema invites Tene to come and join her with the moneyed workers of the Firestone plantation.

The following morning, Gortokai takes a knife and cuts up a parcel of expensive clothes which he has intercepted, and scatters the pieces around town. He also asks Tene to prepare for him some domboy (mashed cassava), telling her ominously: "I like to plan everything I do ahead of time." When Tene goes to the cassava patch to prepare the domboy, she finds Gortokai waiting for her.

Themes[edit]

Incest and the age difference between Gortokai and Tene[edit]

There is an obvious suggestion of the taboo of incest in the relationship, beginning with Gortokai and Tene's first game of Mama and Papa. Gortokai claims that Tene makes the first move, and that he himself is initially repulsed by the idea of a sexual relationship with her. Taken at face value, this appears to be a game between children of a similar age, in which Tene is the more knowing child both sexually and literally, in her knowledge of Gortokai's true parentage. Gortokai also appears to accept without question that his being adopted makes the relationship perfectly acceptable. It is worth noting that this view is not shared by everyone in the village: "Some felt that my desire for Tene was immoral, but they could never convince me on what grounds."

Incest is the most obvious reason for the villagers' objection. However, there is also a considerable age difference between Gortokai and Tene, to which he never directly alludes. Gortokai joins the Poro society in the third harvest after the outbreak of the Hitler war, which means late 1942 or early 1943. Thirteen years later (1955-6), he begins to look for a wife, at which point Tene is thirteen years old. In other words, Tene was born at or around the time that Gortokai was in the bush being initiated into the Poro, and he is older than his intended bride by precisely the age he was at the time of his initiation.

One may be initiated in the Poro at quite a young age. However, the internal evidence suggests that this was not the case for Gortokai. His Poro initiation was "something every young man in Dewoin country looks forward to", and he is initiated into the Zowolo - the highest Poro degree achievable. All of this suggests that he could not have been much younger than eleven years old at his Poro graduation, and is probably at least a year or two older than that. This would make him in his mid 20s when he begins to look for a wife. It also means that their game of Mamas and Papas takes place when Tene is a pre-pubescent girl, and Gortokai is in his early 20s. (This is confirmed by Gortokai's remark to Kema that "Your sister's armpits are no longer those of an innocent child... The hairs under there show sign of maturity, I swear to God.")

The murder itself takes place in 1957, when Gortokai would be in his mid-to-late 20s, and Tene would be just fifteen years old. She already has one child to look after and one broken marriage behind her when she is murdered by her much older lover.

Domestic slavery and hypocrisy in Liberia[edit]

While incest or age difference may be a reason for some villagers' dislike of the relationship between Gortokai and Tene, another unspoken reason could be their prejudice against the son of an itinerant indentured worker. Bai T. Moore himself saw the novel's main theme as one of domestic slavery in Liberia.[5] The strength of Moore's writing is in its presentation of an unsentimental view of Liberian life, taking an even-handed view of the inter-generational tension in mid-20th century Liberia. The older generation might be hard-working and hospitable, but they can also be duplicitous and hypocritical. The younger generation might enjoy the freedoms of modern travel and the ability to earn money fast, but they are too much in the thrall of this easy money, and are often snobbish and materialistic. Even Gortokai himself, who presents himself as honest, hard-working, and betrayed by treacherous women, is not quite the paragon he would like his reader to think. (He drinks heavily, tells lies, spies on his lover and eventually murders her, neglects to mention his own romantic affairs, and inflicts injury on himself to avoid work. Although he presents himself as an attractive young man, we do not even learn about his "deformed nose" until the final pages.)

The book presents no simplistic view of domestic slavery, however. The son of an indentured laborer turned slave, Gortokai is accepted as a "son" by one freeborn family and as a "stranger son" by another. Old man Jomo seems willing to accept this slave/son as a potential son-in-law, and Kema seems willing to accept him as a potential brother-in-law - provided the price is right. This greed for money - which is shown by the girls, their parents, and even by characters such as the fortunetelling country doctor - is stronger than any prejudice about indentured workers, and it is also at the heart of the domestic slavery system itself.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ To Thabiti Asukele—On the Passing of Asa Hilliard, Wilson J. Moses Ph. D
  2. ^ J. Kpanneh Doe in The Perspective:"The writing of novels is rather new to the Liberian literary genre. Except for "Murder in the Cassava Patch," a Liberian literary classic, there aren't many others that can be grouped or classified as Liberian literature, or for that matter, constituting a literary tradition."
  3. ^ Essay (translated into French) on The Liberian government and creative fiction by John Victor Singler, originally from Research in African Literatures 2 (4), 1980.
  4. ^ Murder in the Cassava Patch (1968), Moore, Bai T., Ducor Publishing House (Monrovia), page 5
  5. ^ Wilson J. Moses, ibid.

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