This story takes place sometime in the nineteen twenties. It is about a young fisherman named Idris who lived in a village on the east bank of the Chari River between the city of Fort Lamy a little ways to the south and Lake Chad much farther to the north. A member of the Bagirmi tribe, his family was poor because his father had lost an arm. They depended on Idris who was an excellent fisherman. His best friend Moussa came from a wealthier family. In fact Moussa’s family was distantly related to Sultan Moustapha of the Bagirmi Tribe. Most days, especially in the dry season when the river was shallow everywhere but in the very center, Idriss and Moussa would go out on the river in a fine pirogue that belonged to Moussa’s father Aboubakar and try to net or spear fish in the shallows. Aboubakar spent his days tending his herds of cattle and goats and riding his handsome horse. Idris’s family owned an old leaky pirouge that he used only in Moussa’s absence, for fear of it sinking. Their prize catch was the large capitaine (a.k.a. Nile perch) so highly valued by nasaras (white people, mostly French), who lived in Fort Lamy. One large capitaine would sell for enough money to feed a family for a week, maybe two.
It had been the Bagirmi Tribe that had appealed to the French for help against the Arabic slave raiders. We sometimes think of slave raiders as small gangs of outlaws, but in those days some commanded what amounted to small armies. In fact in Idris’s day many of the older Bagirmi women had plugs in their lips intended to make them unattractive to the raiders. Idris was happy that girls no longer had to do that. A few years before Idris was born, a combined and badly outnumbered but better armed French and Bagirmi force had defeated Rabah, the last and greatest of the slave raiders, at Kousseri, a small town on the Cameroonian side of the river across from the eventual Chadian capital city of Fort Lamy, named after the commanding French officer who had died heroically in that battle. Many years later it would be renamed N’Djamena following Chad’s independence from France. Idris’s father had lost his arm at Kousseri, and from then on could only fish with line from the river bank. In addition to his father’s arm, the price of that victory had been that the French settled in to govern that vast area known as The Chad, the last significant area in Africa to be colonized. And now the Bagirmi were less than they once were, just one of many tribes, but they no longer had to worry about slavers. Whether things were better or worse under the French was something the old men argued about over millet beer.
Fishing on the Chari was dangerous. Hippos would sometimes overturn pirogues and kill fishermen. Drowning when the river was flooding was always a danger, for very few people knew how to swim. It is easy to learn to swim in a nice swimming pool or a safe little lake or pond, but not so easy in swift rivers or in ponds infested with poisonous snakes. And once in a while a large crocodile would slip down the river from the endless reeds on Lake Chad or the seasonal swamps and ponds on the west side of the river in Cameroon. In fact the west bank of the river was a favorite place to fish. Lines on paper drawn by nasaras didn’t mean much to the Bagirmi. Also Idris and Moussa were always on the lookout for the river people, not that they saw them often. In fact Idris had seen one only twice in his life. The river people looked something like nasaras, with their pale skin and long flowing blonde hair. They also had angled emerald-colored eyes, many small pointed teeth, gills, narrow heads, and webbed hands and feet. That they were seen so rarely was thought to be due to the magical powers that some thought they possessed. No nasara had ever seen one, at least as far as anyone knew. They doubted that the river people existed at all, believing them to be folk legends. But then no nasaras spent days on end searching the river for fish. Seeing one of the river people was considered to be an omen of some sort, whether good or bad was a matter of debate, probably because hippo attacks sometimes followed sightings. Some thought that the hippos were like cattle to the river people.
Now Idris thought more deeply about the river people and things in general than Moussa and the other young men in his village. Except for their long blonde hair everything about the river people seemed designed for swift movement in water. That bothered him, so one day he asked Hussein about it, the wisest old man he knew. Hussein said he didn’t know for sure, but the hair could just be vanity. He’d seen many a strutting bird and preening animal, so why not river people? However he then asked Idris to think about how few times river people had been spotted. Hussein smiled and said that with the sun shining down and his hair fanning out above him as he sat on the sandy river bottom, a river person might be pretty hard to see. Also since the river wasn’t deep all year long, often Idris had wondered where the river people lived. Moussa’s father believed that they lived in cavelike villages under the banks of the river, although no one had ever seen such a village. Others said that they lived under the reed mats floating in Lake Chad and only came down on occasion, which is what the members of the Kanembou Tribe around Lake Chad claimed, but then the Kamembous were known for telling tall tales. Anyway no one knew for certain, not even old Hussein.
One day while Idris and Moussa were fishing, a giant crocodile broke the surface holding a struggling river man in its jaws. Moussa wanted to paddle away, but Idris stood up and threw a spear that pierced the crocodile’s eye. The crocodile released the river man and disappeared beneath the water. Although bleeding violet blood from several wounds, the river man stared at Idris, as if memorizing his features, then he’d nodded once and rolled beneath the water. When the villagers heard the story, they were amazed. No one knew whether it meant good fortune or ill fortune for Idris, but everybody agreed that it had to mean something.
Now it so happened that all the sultan’s daughters had been married off one by one, save for his youngest, a gazelle-eyed beauty named Aisha. Whenever Idris and Moussa encountered Aisha, Idris thought her shy smile drifted his way more than Moussa’s, but perhaps that was wishful thinking. For each daughter in turn the sultan had held a contest to determine the lucky young groom. The first had been a horse race. The second had been the longest crocodile skin. And the third had been a hunt for meat for the bridal feast. A renowned hunter had brought in a magnificent antelope cheval, but the prize had gone to a handsome younger man who had brought in a warthog. Turned out that the Sultan just loved roasted warthog. Who knew? That night at the feast, although his portion was small and not choice, Idris discovered that roasted warthog really is delicious. Later he watched as the daughter in question gave a quick sly wink to her husband to be. For Aisha’s contest the Sultan had decided on the largest capitaine. The suitors were given one week with prizes measured every evening. That gave Idris hope, for everyone knew he was the best fisherman for many miles around. Briefly he wondered if maybe Aisha had had something to do with that.
Over the first five days of the contest Idris and Moussa fished together as usual. Both had caught capitaine, but Idris had caught the largest. It was part of the contest ritual to gut and clean the fish in the late afternoon with all the villagers present. On the sixth morning Idris discovered that Moussa had taken his pirogue out earlier by himself. So Idris took his old pirogue out that day. He didn’t catch anything. In fact Moussa had left in the middle of the night and paddled the ten miles or so against the north flowing current all the way to Fort Lamy. There in the fish market he had spent all his money to purchase the largest capitaine he could find, one larger than the one Idris had caught earlier. He thought Aisha was a fine looking girl, but really for him it was all about marrying the sultan’s daughter. Paddling back with the current was much easier. When he presented the fish there were murmurs because the fish had already been gutted and cleaned. Moussa explained that he had caught the fish early in the morning and was afraid it would spoil laying ungutted in the pirogue all day. Idris was suspicious, but he had no proof.
He decided to go out by himself the next and final day of the contest, his old pirogue notwithstanding. He no longer trusted his friend. He fished vainly all that day and began to despair when suddenly the water around the boat began to roil. That frightened him because that often happened just before a hippo attack. But soon the water on both sides of the pirogue filled with river people. That was frightening too, but there was little he could do about it, so he sat quietly. The river people on one side grabbed the pirogue and held it steady, while the river people on the other side hoisted up and dumped over into the center of the pirogue the largest capitaine that Idris had ever seen, maybe that anybody had ever seen. The fish was so heavy that the pirogue sank down until only a couple inches remained above the water line. It would later measure out at just under six foot and three hundred and sixty pounds. And it was beautiful with silver scintillating scales blue tinged in places and black eyes surrounded by bright yellow eye walls. When he looked back up all but one of the river people had disappeared. Of course it was the one whose life he had saved. The river man smiled. That was a pretty scary too with all those little pointed teeth, but a smile is a smile for all that. Idris smiled back and this time the river man nodded his thanks. Then he turned gracefully and slipped beneath the water.
When Idris returned oh so carefully in his pirogue, he became the toast of the village. The sultan himself came down to gut the fish, quite an honor. Idriss heard some old men mutter that it was the biggest capitaine anyone had caught since the days of their great great grandfathers, which made him smile. In his experience when it came to fish stories, great great grandfathers, great grandfathers, grandfathers, and old men in general were not exactly wedded to the truth. When the sultan sliced the fish’s belly open, a large emerald fell out. After some oohing and ahhing, the sultan announced that much of the money from its sale would be used as a dowry for Aisha. He bought them a plot of land on a hill overlooking the river, with a nice mud brick house that had a real tin roof, and he gave Idris a fine new pirogue. The land behind the house was flat and fertile so Aisha could grow spices and hot peppers and gumbo and ground nuts among other things. In the years that followed, Idris and Aisha had four healthy children. Surprisingly they all had green eyes and just the tiniest bit of webbing between their toes and fingers. They loved the water and were all fine fishermen and fisherwomen. His two girls were strong limbed and fished as well as the two boys. As for Moussa, from that day on he had no luck fishing. He became a herder like his father.
Moral: You know, every great once in a while, just to keep the universe honest, a good deed really does go unpunished.