Malaika by Foday Mannah

Published in the anthology “Dating Games” edited by Deana Luchia, 2015.

Because they assaulted her toes and left her limping for days afterwards, Malaika put on the shoes last. She was not enamoured by their colour either, but could not say so at the risk of offending Mama. The shoes had been sent by Mama’s sister, Aunty Florence who lived in an area of green grass and straight grey roads in America. They had arrived in a massive yellow and red DHL box, and had been accompanied by her sister Sowo’s cloudy wedding dress, garish mauve outfits for the maids of honour, and a wad of pictures of Aunt Florence with family. The shoes were one of four pairs sent for Sowo’s day, and were to be specifically worn at the loud evening reception. Handwritten instructions had been included in the box, dictating which outfits rhymed with which shoes. After the evening of revelry and convoluted speeches Sowo had left Mama’s house to the accompaniment of loud gumbay music and the felicitations of friends and relatives.

That was four years ago. Sowo’s husband worked for a German NGO responsible for waste management and environmental hygiene. She rarely visited these days; when she did she arrived in her husband’s sleek blue Range Rover, pungent perfume in her wake, and expensive handbags welded to her shoulder. The light in Sowo’s eyes when she left Mama’s house had been replaced by a nagging worry. Her stomach was yet to swell with child, and her husband’s relatives had started to query as to whether their son had married a fellow man who would remain flat and fruitless. Malaika would listen from the veranda as Sowo cried with Mama on these visits, pleading for a remedy.

The shoes were one of the few remnants of Sowo, and had been abandoned at different cardinal points of their then shared bedroom. Malaika had found the right one marooned underneath a hump of ugly net curtains, whilst the left one had been wedged between the scuffed foot of the low bed and the spirogyra green wall.

She had first worn the shoes to her university interview, remembering how the dull ache seemed to disappear as she answered the grey professor’s questions on the Treaty of Versailles. After that, the shoes were taken to church and other worthy occasions. Though she hated them, their American origins dictated a certain amount of respect and esteem. She also reasoned that if she wore them more, they would stretch.

The rest of her outfit seemed incongruous, and refused to collaborate with her bare feet as she stood in front of the smeared full-length mirror. She had chosen a flowing blue Nigerian lace gown that reached to her ankles. The neck and sleeves of the garment were punctuated by gold string embroidery that swirled in elegant whorls. As she studied her form, she thought of how she had always been flatter than Sowo, a fact that she had once abhorred especially when as playing children, neighbourhood boys had often sent her back home with leaking eyes, with taunts that likened her to a mosquito.

She had been faster than most of the boys when they raced, and their jibes were the riposte for the fact that her pace mangled their masculinity. Sowo walked with a wobble even back then, and the young rascals showed their admiration for her gait and what they called her backwheel, especially when she wore shorts. Malaika had remained flat and had remained running, to Mama’s disapproval.

“You continue to run and your legs will become stiff like the trunk of a cotton tree! I cannot understand how a grown girl like you can be happy running! You went to university to read books and speak Englsih with a hiss. Now you are finished with the book learning, you still run. No husband will throw his eyes on a girl who is flat and stiff. Why not try to be softer and try to get a bit more flesh?”

Malaika would listen to Mama, and mumble something about Merlene Ottey, before disappearing into her room to escape the grinding voice. The nagging had ebbed as she had grown, although the disapproval these days was conveyed through looks rather than tirades.

Her eyes not leaving the mirror, Malaika sniffed her outfit, her brow furrowing at the faint mustiness that emanated from the blue folds. It had been a while since she’d worn fancy clothes sin final year had been a period of dissertations and jeans. Moving over to the bed that was still heaped with clothes that had failed the audition for this occasion, she delved into her Kente cloth handbag in search of the bottle of perfume he had brought her on his last visit. He had said that he’d bought it at the airport in Cairo. She had only allowed herself the luxury of the bottle once when her roommate had invited her to the Kala Selina Sorority dinner. Moving back to the mirror, she administered three squirts to her left and right side, the liquid leaving dark splotches which evaporated almost immediately. She knew her lips needed lipstick, but refused to apply any, as she always thought it affected her ability to bite and chew.

The sound of his horn at the gate broke her reverie, and she moved to the window that overlooked their compound. Aaron, the round night watchman already had the stern metal gate open, a wide grin almost rupturing his face. The vehicle inched into the compound backside first, its reverse lights illuminating the dull red dust. He had chosen this time the black Nissan Patrol with matching tinted windows and ugly furrowed wheels. The vehicle arriving bum first  meant that he had come bearing gifts for her and Mama. His presence usually permeated the whole area, and neighbours would amble outside their doors, pretending to be occupied in the specifics of day to day existence, whilst actually hoping to catch a glimpse of the soldier man in smart uniform, or hear his stories about the war up-line.

Switching the engine off, he leapt out of the vehicle, a tight smile smeared across his face. He was in full camouflage gear, a smart black beret parked at a jaunty angle on his head. His boots caught the dying evening sun as he strutted, their blackness in harmony with the dark Ray-Ban glasses that concealed his eyes. From the window above, Malaika saw his lips move as he spoke to Aaron, gesticulating towards the vehicle. Hurrying forward, Aaron opened the boot, the black lid rising in an elegant arc, before his head and shoulders disappeared into the recesses. He hauled out three sacks of Burma rice, a net bag of onions, three cartoons of raw fish and a gallon-pan of cooking oil. Two crates of Star Beer were added to the neat pile that rested by the wheels of the vehicle.

Mama had by this time emerged from the house to greet him, her head encased in a bright green head-tie, her teeth exposed in appreciation. Taking this as a cue, Malaika moved from the window to climb into the shoes. She wedged her toes into the blue tightness, growing in height and elegance.

She remembered Mama’s approval after his first visit due to the fact he had brought gifts. “This is a good man who God has sent you. Do you see how our prayers have been answered?” She had then paused to pat the bags of flour that had been deposited in the yard on that occasion. “I am alone with you girl children since your father died, but God has helped me. Sowo is married and is comfortable, and you now also have a strong man who has come out for you! I dreamt last week about fish and the sun shining, and knew benefits were coming our way. Hold this man with two hands please, Malaika my child. Forget about these plenty books and this business of running like a deer in the bush. Where did you meet this good man? Describe the luck and fortune that brought this man your way.”

“The Students’ Union organised a rag parade to raise funds for war displaced Mama. He came up to campus as the government’s representative to thank us. I served him cold beer in the canteen afterwards, and he said he wanted to take me out for something to eat. He is a soldier though and girls who follow them get a bad name. Since they seized power, all they do is crash big cars they do not know how to drive, whilst having multiple girls on the go!” Mama had shaken her head at her daughter’s reply, mumbling something about having to share the house with her until she was an old woman.

The soldier-man had continued to bring gifts on regular occasions, and at times stayed to chat and to eat Mama’s cooking. He had never taken Malaika out though, as had been promised at their initial canteen meeting. Until two days ago when he had phoned whilst away on another trip. Mama had answered the phone, and had yelled for her daughter’s presence. Malaika had abandoned the raw fish she had been ridding of scales with a weak knife and hurried to her mother’s voice. Mama, with exposed teeth, had passed her the phone as if it were a new born baby. Though far away, his voice had filled the room. “I’m back in Freetown tomorrow flying with Air Brussels. I will take you out for food on Tuesday evening to celebrate your birthday. I hear they serve fine food at Stop Press Restaurant.” After offering his short and sharp suggestions for her birthday he had dripped a few more comments about aeroplanes and foreign countries before hanging up.

Malaika thought back on this conversation as she emerged into the yard.  Aaron was by this time busy transferring the brought gifts into Mama’s house. He started with the bags of Burma rice, hoisting them to his head before loping up the stairs in a jerky half-run. Mama was by the soldier’s side, deep in chat. Her smile brightened further as she caught sight of her daughter. “We have just been talking about you. The captain says Togo was very progressive and the war will be over soon. Do you see what he has brought you this time?” she exclaimed, sweeping her hands in the direction of the stacked goods. The soldier turned at Mama’s words to study Malaika as she approached, his facial expression not changing. Removing his glasses, he spat into the dust.

“Blue suits you,” he clipped, taking a couple of steps towards her. “So has the birthday been good?”

“It’s been fine really. I was sleeping indoors for most of the day after running this morning. The sound of the children singing as they carried water from the stream woke me. How are you? Has Mama been clogging your ears with my gossip?”

“We have been talking politics and his travels,” Mama offered, her eyes dancing with enthusiasm. “You must be on your way now. Enjoy yourselves and may God travel with you.” She then turned and headed up the stairs to the house. Although her back was turned, Malaika could feel her smile through the back of her head as she disappeared into the house.

The drive to Stop Press had been pleasant and uneventful; the vehicle’s aggressive air-condition consuming Malaika’s nervous perspiration. He had at intervals tossed questions at her to do with her life after university and whether she missed student days. She in turn had enquired about the peace talks which had been dominating the headlines. The military government had sent a delegation of fifty to nearby Togo to sign a peace accord with the rebels who had taken over huge swathes of the country, burning settlements and murdering innocents in their wake. There had been extensive coverage of the talks on national television, and Mama had smiled every time the camera focused on him during the talks. She would clap whilst mumbling something about future sons in law who would make her star shine.

“So were the Togo talks progressive and can we now sleep soundly at night without worrying about gunfire?” she had ventured, raising her voice above the Bob Marley tune that hissed from the concealed speakers. He had smiled, lowered the volume, before replying.

“Togo was interesting. A nice little country like ours, but miles ahead with development. Street lights on every corner, no rubbish heaps visible, and nobody queuing in the sun for petrol. Civilian politicians ruined this country. But we shall straighten things before the elections next year.”

“Well we all danced in the street and painted murals when you came to power. Our eyes are on you to make the country flow again,” Malaika smiled.

“We are getting there in inches,” the soldier replied. “The frustration lies with silly journalists who accuse us of stealing diamonds and driving big cars.”

“Cars like this you mean?” she ventured with a half-smile, patting her dark leather seat. The soldier did not reply, instead busying himself with switching CDs.

The drive to the Lumley Beach was fluid and smooth, the only interruption occurring on Beach Road itself, which had been allocated new speed bumps, in an attempt to bring a halt to a spate of horrific road accidents. Being a Tuesday evening, the beach was in lazy mode devoid of the noise and activity of the weekends.

Stop Press’ car park was brimming, and the man in uniform had to coax the large vehicle twice around the illuminated building before managing to find a slender space between a plush white Mercedes Benz, and the restaurant’s mini bus. The minibus had all its windows rolled down, the driver reclined shirtless on the front seat, his mouth open in slumber. As the soldier removed the key from the ignition, Malaika slipped her shoes back on before alighting. The soldier stayed in the vehicle, his hands searching for something in the glove compartment. Eventually satisfied he hopped from the vehicle clutching a dull teal file, and strolled round to join her.

As if from under the car, a small boy of no more than ten materialised into view and broke into a broad smile, revealing yellow teeth. He was wearing a pair of giant khaki shorts that came to just beneath his knees, whilst his feet were bare and caked in dry red mud. His outfit was completed by a filthy football jersey which Malaika recognised as the colours of Ajax. The garment was way too large for the child’s wee frame, and billowed like a loose Islamic gown.

“I look after your car fine boss man. I’ll keep my eyes wide open like a night bird and nobody will tamper with your car. Even if you eat and drink in there for twenty hours, I’ll be here when you return!” As he spoke, the child hopped from one foot to another in a gleeful sort of dance. Smiling, Malaika dug into her Kente cloth bag in search of a thousand Leone note to give to the child. The soldier beat her to it though, a five thousand note appearing in his hand. He passed the note to the child who genuflected with glee. “You are righteous people and my eyes will not leave your car tonight! Even an ant or a fly will not be allowed to touch this motor car.” Infected by the child’s enthusiasm, the soldier and Malaika laughed as they climbed the stairs to the restaurant, the doors of which were opened by a narrow man in a dull green safari suit.

The restaurant was busy for a Tuesday evening as it was a hot spot for civil servants and other senior service men who thought they were superior because they wore ties and spoke big English. The establishment was owned by a journalist named Pious. He was editor of The Tablet newspaper, and had frequently thrown dirt into the eyes of the military government with his searing articles on corruption and a lack of accountability. His latest article had questioned the need to take as many as fifty people to sign a peace deal in Togo. Surely the money poured into plane tickets, accommodation and per diem could have been directed towards failing schools and decrepit hospitals, the front page editorial had queried.

A waitress with fried hair wearing a white shirt and a black skirt showed them to a Formica topped table in the middle of which rested green, white and blue plastic flowers. Malaika’s eyes lifted when she noticed that the waitress’ skirt had a provocative slit that trailed almost the entire length of her leg. She had positioned them next to a wide window through which they could see the greying sand, angry waves and fishermen stripped to their waists hauling nets into shore. The waitress hovered with a fixed smile as they settled into their seats.

“So what will boss man drink today? Bitter Lemon like the last time?” She spoke with a slight Northern accent, her teeth flashing in familiarity.

“Today I’ll change my mind and have a bottle of Guinness Stout. A very very cold bottle would be good this time. The last time I drank here, it was as if the drinks were boiled in your kitchen. Way too warm. And what do you want to drink Malaika?”

“Fanta would be good for me, please.”

“Are you not drinking something more potent today?  One whole birthday and you drink weak Fanta?” As he spoke he removed his dark glasses, rubbing his eyes as they grew accustomed to the lights. “And you know what Fanta stands for: Foolish Africans Never Take Alcohol!” He laughed at his own joke, Malaika joining in as she remembered childhood games which involved creating backronyms for almost anything. “And you know why I drink Guinness? The letters say it all really: Grumbling Unnecessarily Is Nonsense, Now Enjoy Sweet Stout.”

They bandied examples back and forth, relaxing in each other’s company. The waitress with the high-slit skirt returned after five minutes, balancing their drinks on a narrow Coca-Cola tray the orange and deep brown of their chosen beverages creating a nice contrast. Appearing flustered by their conviviality, the waitress quietly enquired what they would like to eat. Malaika asked for groundnut stew with white rice, whilst the soldier settled for a club sandwich. Her shoes were again by this time abandoned upside down underneath the table and she remembered how Mama had once admonished her about this bad habit. “A pretty face does not hide the smell of sweaty feet,” she had hissed.

Their meals arrived soon and they ate in a jovial mood, three pints of Guinness relaxing the soldier-man further. There plates cleared, he then turned his attention to the teal file which had remained undisturbed on the table as they ate. Reaching inside, he extracted a stack of what Malaika recognised as newspapers. He spread them across the table, the headlines facing upwards.  She read them as she sipped her second pint of Fanta, raising her eyes upon noticing that he had placed a squat black pistol on their table. Feeling slightly concerned rather than intimidated, she continued reading. This one was a copy of The Tablet and she could tell from the smudged yellow paper, that it was a photocopy rather than an original. This did nothing to soften the blistering nature of the prose; the headline read “The Lines Become Blurred: So-bels and the Fall of Kono” in loud bold black letters:

“The diamond mining town of Kono fell to rebel forces late yesterday, leaving terrified civilians fleeing for their lives. Eyewitnesses have reported that the town was overrun and pillaged by individuals attired in government issue military camouflage. There is therefore increasing suspicion that government soldiers are currently preying on the very defenceless civilians they are supposed to protect. In a country where children cry with air in their stomachs as they struggle for food, we have government ministers spending millions on four-wheel drive vehicles and the construction of personal mansions. The irony now facing our society speaks of soldiers who prefer the comfort and relaxation of cities rather than committing to ending the internecine war that continues to ravage our country. Last week’s so-called Peace Talks saw them take a fifty man delegation to Togo. Fifty! And you wonder why there’s no one left to protect the country…”

Malaika smiled at the term “so-bel” which had been gaining increased currency in urban street talk. A fusion of the words “soldier” and “rebel” had been coined by a popular blind radio comedian named Attila, and the populace had embraced it warmly.

“I would not let these upset you,” she smiled, raising her bottle to her lips for a final sip. “Today’s papers will keep company in dustbins tomorrow.”

“It is no joking matter Malaika,” he spat back. “Your university colleagues think because they know two-by-four education, they can just write shit and nonsense about us soldiers.” The bottles of Guinness had left him with smouldering eyes, and he shook slightly as he spoke. “Did the last government not have idiots with Phds, chartered accountants and ex-university lecturers? Where did that leave our economy?”

“You are upset and are allowing paper talk to fluster you,” Malaika replied, her feet blindly searching for her shoes under the table. Eventually finding them, she rose to her feet. “I’m just visiting the toilet. I’ll be back soon.” She followed a green and yellow hand-painted sign that pointed out where to go.

The toilet had a high window propped open with a rusty metal bar, but was still dominated by an overpowering smell of camphor and carbolic. As she settled on the seat she could hear a mixture of car horns and the swishing of waves through the window.

His mood had switched so suddenly and she had excused herself to the toilet mainly as a means of diffusing the building tension. Why did he seem so against education?

Climbing the ramp back to the main restaurant space, she from a distance noticed that their table was empty. The teal file with the scattered newspapers was still visible, as were their empty bottles. The restaurant’s general hubbub from earlier on had diminished to an eerie hush. Moving further into the room, she noticed that all the diners were focused on a table at the far side of the room. She noticed the dark splotches of his uniform as towered over a table where all were seated. His pistol hung loosely from his right hand, whilst the yellow paper from earlier on was clutched in his left. Malaika inched forward, proximity eventually making her privy to the conversation.

“So you think you and your paper can write anything you want about the government? You think freedom of speech means that bedbugs like you can use your computers to publish lies and misinformation?” The entire table was speechless, fear having sucked away the power to reply. Malaika recognised Pious the editor of The Tablet, at the head of the table. He was wearing a grey shirt that had been soaked through with sweat. The rest of the table was occupied by men in shirts and ties, who Malaika recognised as journalists from an assortment of publications.

In one fluid movement, the soldier-man dropped the yellow paper and picked up a bottle that rested next to a plate of smoked fish. The bottle swung in an arc before exploding on Pious’ head. The editor screamed, his hands rising to his head as he toppled over. The soldier was already moving, striding towards the exit. From the car park, the sounds of an angry door slamming carried through the hushed restaurant, followed by the squealing of wheels. Only then did the room find its voice, the patrons rushing to assist Pious like red ants attracted to spilt sugar.

Turning her back on the bedlam, Malaika walked in a whisper from the room. The car park was still brightly illuminated, although fewer cars were now visible. The mini bus driver continued to sleep in his vehicle, his mouth even wider open than before. In the space where the soldier’s vehicle had been parked, stood the child with the giant shorts and the dirty football top, a perplexed look on his face. His face creased into relief on seeing Malaika. She reached into her bag and passed on a thousand Leone note. The child grinned, before ambling out of the park, singing Malaika’s praises.

The taxi home had been a contradiction; expensive but dirty. She had knocked on Mama’s gate with her fingernails, Aaron the night watchman arriving half asleep to let her in. She undressed in the dark, before slipping under her country cloth. She lay listening to the rhythmic throbbing of the generator. Tomorrow she would run again. And Mama would ask about her good man again.

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