Celebrating East African Writing!
Your Bossman gives you his SUV. He says he wants a new ride for his wedding ceremony. Something suitable for his status so he tells you to go to the only cybercafé in town, the one owned by Ali, his buddy (they call friends buddy in America). The one you use for foreign contacts and money transfers. He tells you to print photographs of exotic cars from the internet. The internet café is cement building ridden with bullet holes and the inside is stuffy and crowded with so much people, there is hardly enough legroom- clammy faced men sitting before gigantic monitors, clicking away as half a dozen perspiring others bends over them, e mails, chat messages and account details flipping back and forth. Two ceiling fans rotate at fast speed to blow the heat away but their efforts are not meeting with any degree of success. Soft Indian music wafts from one of the PC’s, barely audible in the noise.
You cleave a path through the throng and locate Ali, a bulbous individual wearing a stripped robe in a cubicle in the room corner, who smiles at you in a familiar way , says “Maalin wanaagsan.” and asks you how his friend his doing. You tell him want you want and in a few minutes he produces several printout pages and slips them into a used envelope. Ali chats with you for a few more minutes the state of the country before giving you the envelope. He wipes his face and the length of his arms with a towelette as he speaks. You listen and try to contribute, although you hate talking about the country. You are tired of the madness in the country and you are unapologetic about it. That’s why you left in the first place before things went wrong.
When you return Bossman spreads the printouts on the floor and admires them for a long time, flashing his khat ruined teeth before picking the biggest vehicle, a Lincoln navigator. He says big vehicles are for big people and dials his car dealer with his SAMSUNG camera phone taken from a stack of handsets beside him. He gives instruction to his car leaders in a voice so loud voice that you can hear from the next house. He then begins to talk about how people used to despise him in the past, when was a fisherman managing to survive in the war. How after foreigners harvested their fishes and polluted the waters with toxic wastes he turned into begging but bounced back. How now everyone seems to know him or trace their ancestry to his. How he was made for life at sea. He brags “is there any Somali who can earn a million dollars for any business? We get millions of dollars at one go, on trip is enough, one trip”. He then looks at his big golden wristwatch strapped on his hairy right hand and says he’s late for an appointment with some you don’t know.
It’s Thursday and you still have to shop for wedding things because Bossman insists that you look like a prince. You are not a prince. You are his accountant, his negotiator and his translator. You are always dressed in suit, always carrying a silly briefcase about. You are also his personal errand boy. He is not paying you for serving in these different capacities. You had tried to explain why he should pay you more money for your work but he had called you a goat and had threatened to fire you. So you had kept your mouth shut. You hate Bossman because he has all the dollars and gives you so little. But then your job is more important to you than your feelings. How many people drive an SUV and get a regular salary? You made more money in the states even as a cab driver with the tips and all. Life was generally better then but you would rather not think about it.
Your Bossman gives you money to buy wedding things. You want to cut cost so you can keep the rest of the money in your pocket but things are so bloody expensive in the market. You hate going to the market, because of the dust and the blazing sun and the animal dung but then you have to look like a prince. You could have sent your woman but you don’t have one. Women won’t talk to any man these days if he is not a pirate. You swallowed your pride a long time ago though you can’t stop thinking you have swung too low by talking to the girls here. Even at that the worst of them makes you feel like shit. When you told one of the girls who you work for to see if she might be impressed, she said something about you not being man enough. You fume and talk about how American girls, superior to Somalia girls as they are would do anything to have you. She says everybody claims to have gone to America these days and walks out on you.
The market seethes with beggars, tireless vendors intoning their litanies and touting their goods on wheelbarrows, in their hands and on their heads, women carrying baskets, piggybacking theirs infants, braying donkeys with drooping heads and ears like papaya leaves, drifting dirty white cows with frothing mouths and camel-like humps. You try to locate the special shops where clothes are hung and cha is served but the vendors outside won’t let you in easily. They run over themselves to get your attention. They shout in your ears and thrust their second hand wares at you, almost shoving them into your mouth. They tell you to buy things you don’t need and try to convince you that you need them. You manage to slip into one of those special shops. It’s a charcoal colored, shell ravaged two storey cement building refurbished within and powered by a noisy, exhaust belching generator close to it. Your hear hum of the air conditioners. You feel its air on your skin, fanning out the heat on to your body as you enter. Your shoes sink into the fluffy rug, tickling your toes. The shopkeeper, a reed of an individual with sharp goatee dressed in white robe approaches you with a welcoming smile. He reeks of cheap perfume. When you complain about the prices of their goods, the shopkeeper says something about pirates paying in dollars and how they do not haggle and sometimes leave change behind. You visit three other shops before you give up then you buy from the first shop you visited. You wonder why people think everyone is a buccaneer and therefore dig out gold from their backyard. You stop wondering and go home.
It’s Friday and you also coordinate the weekly distribution of money as part of your job although you are not sure if you are doing that as an accountant, negotiator, translator or a personal assistance or all or either. You work your arse out after jimoh prayers, counting, recording and disbursing cash under the mangoes tree in front of Bossman’s palatial house. The beneficiaries are majorly members of Bossman’s subclan, other people who benefit, if not directly from Bossman’s act of benevolence are mendicants, vendors and pickpockets. They hang around and wait for the money to be collected before they get to work. Neighbors stand in front of their tin-roofed shanties to observe the activities with envy. An armed individual stands with you to ward off trespassers. He doesn’t talk, he looks straight and is smoking cigarette as always. His name is Abdul. That’s all you know about him. People wait in a straight line, the ewer they used for ablutions still hanging in their hands. They are not patiently waiting, they are grumbling and shouting your name and saying something about why Bossman employed you. You scream and perspire and swallow insults. You have a loaf of Anjara tucked in the inner pocket of your jacket but you can eat it because they are breathing down your neck. You go home feeling like dying but you know you have to wake up early the next day. Tomorrow is Bossman’s wedding and you have to look like a prince
It’s Saturday and Bossman is getting married. The nasal call of the muezzin in the wee hours of the day wakes you up but you do not get up from you bed till the crack of dawn. You think of New York. You think of the activities. You think of the straight legged women who are always busy, always going somewhere.
You have an Islamic name but you do not pray five times a day. You do not pray at all. You don’t give a shit about religion. You believe that life is full of inevitable turns of event, which can only be embraced. You have learnt that in a hard way. You believe in simply following the motions of life. You are just a man trying to survive although you don’t know to what end you are trying to stay alive. You don’t care to know. You never really cared about anything since you left the states
You are dressed for the occasion but still tired from yesterday’s work. Your eyes are bleary, edged with rheum but you must be your best, you must play the “prince” Suddenly, you realize that you are almost late and dart off, quick as a genie. You join the fleet of luxurious vehicles going to Bossman’s house for the ceremony on the main road. The cars you see must be about a hundred, not to mention the crazy motorcycles; zigzagging all over the place and you wonder why you do not see them every day. You spot Bossman’s Navigator but it’s tinted so you can’t see him. You drive through the unpaved road that leads to Bossman’s house, the lines of shacks and cement buildings with rusted aluminum roofing, to his imposing edifice on the edge of the town. When you reach your destination, a wave of humanity surges forth before you- men dressed in Ma’awis and jellabiyad-white robes and jackets, women in flowery Jalabeebs and sparkling Guntiinos. Some are dressed in English outfits. You recognize some of them as the wretched-looking clan members who come to collect money from you on Fridays, now dressed like wealthy people. Women are all over the place, roaming about like ants, ready to push for their luck. One of them might be fortunate and go home with a pirate. There are marabous wearing dirty white turbans, prayer beads hanging down their hands, there are clan elders dressed in sarong and embroidered caps and naval officers with overflowing stomachs. There is Idris Mohamed Idris with people following him and a skinny individual with a strange color of beard carrying his cell phones. Idris is a prominent warlord who supplies funds and weaponry for Bossman’s business at sea. He trains the pirates who are mostly fishermen. Knowing your way at sea is not enough you need to know how to fight. When the ransom come Bossman with domed and Idris splits the booty into two
The guests cram the large visitors lounge ceiling hung with crystal chandeliers and murmur and sit on the expensive furniture scattered all over the place. A band flown in from Djibouti, all dressed in caftan is already playing music. When you try to get close to Bossman, a gunman tells you to bog off. You say you are his personal assistance but he doesn’t listen to you so you melt into the crowd. The couple strolls in majestically and takes their seat on two big armchairs in front that look like thrones. Idris is also sitting on a special seat
The bride, a woman you are seeing for the first time is wearing a brightly colored Dirac, aGarbasaar for her head and gold bangles and anklets and earrings and all. Her fingernails are stained with henna and the exposed part of her flesh crawling with traditional tattoo. Her face is painted like one of those dolls used to display clothes in American shops, what’s it called? Yes, a mannequin. Bossman is dressed in a somewhat oversized suit embroidered in gold, his hair and beard trimmed a little. It’s the first time you are seeing him dressed this way. He is laughing and whispering jokes into his bride’s ears. He is obviously happy but you know it will not last. You know very soon everything will become what it used to be. You know the sea will soon beckon to him, like a secret lover.
The couple is joined by the imam, prayers are said and gifts are given. Food is served- muqmad, dried beef in clarified butter, roasted goat meat and fried chicken spiced with turmeric, coriander, cumin and grilled fish marinated in curry, all served with basmati rice, assorted wine and local liquor. You perfume your hands after the meal and drift about to see if by a stroke of luck one of the girls will talk to you.
Two days after the lavish wedding Bossman is gone again. He comes back with a white couple and a youngster with a Kalashnikov to keep a close eye on them. Your job is to ensure that the couples are taken care of. The negotiations will come later. You are given the things that will help you locate their loved ones but you dump them somewhere-passports, notebooks, directories, a dairy, identification cards and so on and so forth.
Their names are Mr. and Mrs. Gardner. They are old, all wrinkles and folds and the heat of Somalia has made their skin red like pepper. They look nervous and scared even in their sunshades. Mr. Gardner is wearing a flowery dress like the one worn by Americans in Hawaii. Mrs. Gardner is putting on a loose T-shirt with KENYA written on it. They remind you of New York and your days as a cab driver conveying old tourist couples with big cameras and multicolored clothes talking about wanting to see ground zero.
The couple had retired from their good paying jobs in the states and Mr. Gardner had promised to take his wife round the world. So they had used their retirement benefits to buy a yacht, employed a sailor and had been cruising around the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean for much of the last two years. This is the first time you are dealing with American hostages. You have handled French, Italians, Russian even South Africans but not Americans.
The couple demand water and then more water then they ask for food. You go past a row of tea shop on the coast into a small private restaurant and order for what Americans eat. The caterer says he knows exactly what to do and cooks spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted meat. You ask him if he understands what you mean by American food and he tells you how much Americans eat spaghetti. You send a lad to get packets of Benson and Hedges and a bottle of wine and set it before them. The couple eat like hungry dogs and right in the middle of the meal, Mrs. Gardner belches delicately into her clenched fist and says “Excuse me, where is the way to the ladies?” Her husband springs up and says “Pee, she wants to pee” making a gesture with the zip of his trousers, thinking you don’t understand English. You give a nod and tell the guard to take her to the toilet. Mrs. Gardner gives you an embarrassing look but then you also see a flush of relief all over her face. A few moments later Mrs. Gardner is back fuming and haranguing the guard. The guard insisted on accompanying Mrs. Gardner to the lavatory which she found utterly embarrassing-that was the phrase she used “utterly embarrassing”. She is now yelling at you too. She saying things in English that she thinks you don’t understand. The AK47 guy cocks his gun and levels it at her. She seals her lips and continues her meal. A few seconds later she gets up again, and walks hurriedly to the lavatory this time not minding if the guard is following him or not. The couple says little till they get back to the port where they are held hostage
The next day Bossman tells you to make a move so you rummage through their personal stuff with you and scribble out the things you need. Out of curiosity, you read a few pages of Mrs. Gardner’s dairy then close it. It’s leather-bound and voluminous. The leaves are old and crusty like the wrinkles on her skin. You read something about roast beef and sausages
You go back to the rowdy internet café and send an e-mail to begin the negotiations. The ransom money is $2m (£1.22m) to be paid in seven days or the couple would be shot and thrown to the sharks. You add your phone number because you know someone will call. They would panic. They would ask you to reduce your demands. They would threaten you but in the end they will pay. Everything would be over in a week. The money would be parachuted to the shore from a light aircraft, sealed in a wooden container. Electronic transactions have gone out of fashion, shit happens, people can plan tricks. The booty would be carried to the den somewhere in a rocky dry place to be shared like Sallahram. Bossman would be richer. He would perhaps send you to print more pictures from Ali’s place. He would marry more mannequin faced wives.
Or maybe not.
Maybe the deal would go sour. Maybe they would refuse to agree with the terms of payment and say something about alerting the Somalia police and navy. Bossman would get furious and shout at you and everybody that works with him. He would chew sticks upon sticks of khat to keep calm. He would even beat his newly wedded wife to vent his anger but he would still be nervous He would tell you to send a mail to them that the hostages would be meal for sharks to see if that would scare them. He would tell the AK 47 guy to torture the couple a bit and take their pictures then tell you to mail them to their loved ones. They would not bulge and Bossman would decide to slaughter the hostages. But before then you would have showed Mr. and Mrs. Gardner how much of English you speak. You would have told them you know a way of escape if they would get you back to the States.
©Samuel Kolawole 2010
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