“The Lessons of Salt and Honey” by Mohammed Yunus

F21 saltandhoney


A father whose hair is as grey as the ashes of an ebony tree and has skin as rough as a carved cardamom decides to buy a goat at the weekly market place in order to impart wisdom to his children, who are now fully grown. He chooses a charcoal black goat with horns the colour of a new moon. The goat haltingly follows the man, who drags it with a rope; its sharp horns poke at the bushes that flank the mud path. On some nights, the youthful moon seems to poke the surface of a seemingly shrunken sky.

Not only did the father share the lyrical honey and verbal salt with his children when they were young, but he also strove to make them understand how important these two essential foods were to life. The old man, eyes calm, steady and ageless as a carved rock, had gently dictated the preparation of these two foods. His hands, intimately familiar with the vicissitudes of life – its cries, disappointments, yearnings, and errors, had eloquently conveyed the whys, whats, and what nots of the importance in life of the salt and honey. Like the salt and honey, the old man once told his sons that happiness and sadness are like twin-brothers. And these two foods stand for these two faces of life. The old man added it is how one handles happiness and sadness that exalts or lowers one’s social station in life.

Today, the old man, with the aid of the goat, wants to test how well his sons learned the importance of salt and honey, and how to season the deeds and victuals of life.

The old man leads the goat to the place of sacrifice, a verdant spot of lash green tall grass whose blades are marked with the striking pigmentation that attests to the many previous sprinklings of goat’s lives that had been drunk by this sacred earth. With the strength and swiftness of a falcon, the old man receives the life of the goat as the jets of its spurting life-waters bore into the soft earth. The ground, like a spider entrapping a prey, swallows the blood in.

The old man summons his sons who are tall and now have their wisdom in their heads. He asks the uterus-opener, “If I give you a piece of a good meat, how would you eat it?”

The uterus-opener speaks, “Father, I will eat all the flesh and leave the bone clean.” He continues, “Just as the planter sows the seed on the earth, and the crop be it corn or whatever grows, in the end he harvests what he has invested so much time and energy upon.”

“Very well,” responds the father.

The father turns to the second son, him of hair twisted into the semblance of worms. He asks him the question he has already asked of the other sons. This is how the second son replies, “I would pick all the flesh off the bone. I would leave the bone as white as midday.” He of twisted worms continues, “Just as a careful farmer properly prepares the ground ensuring it’s clear of weeds before planting seed, I would prepare the bone like the farmer prepares his field.”

The snake-like veins on the old man’s face move his faint smile, a smile reminiscent of this light lightening of the monsoon rains. The old man turns to the last son, the uterus-closer. This son’s thoughts wander like uncertain clouds, anxious that his brothers have said all that can be said. Finally, with his thoughts marshaled like red ants ready to attack, he begins, “I will gnaw every trace of flesh and sinew off the bones and leave them looking like they have never been covered with meat. To subdue the bone, so it submits my rites of thanksgiving to the lessons of salt and honey, I will sing a sad melody to the bone. The melody will say to the bone:

     Hardest of the hard
     Reveal your softness to
     One who sings tribute
     To the elephant
     To the Calabash of secret love and experience
     He who sings to you
     Will one day be like you
     Be soft so succumb today
     I’ll be like you tomorrow

As it is pressed against the skin of the ancient rock, it bursts into a song in response to the uterus-sealer:

     Oh sealer of the uterus
     O giver of thanks
     Grind on O grind on
     Stubborn though I may be
     Yet submit I to the elephant
     He who has filled us
     With the secrets of dusts
     And the clouds.

By now the bone will be so white, clean and shiny as to reflect one’s image. It would be ready for me to pulverize into powder, which I would boil into soup to drain it to the dregs to slake my hunger. I will doze off with satiation and dream together with the crocodiles of the submarine visions of the bones of the goats our father slaughtered for us to eat with salt and honey.”

The snake like demons of discouragement that have gnawed inside the old man for many years are vanquished by his son’s reply. He feels very light within. He sees himself in his mind’s eye walking nimbly and purposefully like a woman whose arms are held high to balance the bowl of plantains as she makes her way to the market place to dispose of a prime harvest. He sits thus, rapt in this image as the sun creeps closer and closer still to the edge of the world.

Tafsiri ya Kiswahili “Somo la Chumvi na Asali” na Mohamed Yunus Rafiq


Mohamed Yunus Rafiq is a Tanzanian writer and independent documentary maker. Prior to his career in film and creative writing, he worked in development and youth issues for over ten years in Tanzania. He is a co-author of a poetry collection, Landscape of the Heart and he is currently working on his first novel in Kiswahili and English. Rafiq is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Brown University. He currently lives in Bagamoyo, Tanzania with his family.