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FICTION:Mallam Sile

Eventually, Sile resigned himself to his lack of success with women and was even convinced he would die a virgin. Yet late at night, Sile…

Eventually, Sile resigned himself to his lack of success with women and was even convinced he would die a virgin. Yet late at night, Sile would be heard singing love songs, hoping that a woman somewhere would respond to his passionate cries.

A beautiful woman, they say,

Is like an elephant’s meat.

And only the man with the sharpest knife

Can cut through.

That’s what they say.

Young girl, I have no knife,

I am not a hunter of meat,

And I am not savage.

I am only looking for love.

This is what I say.

Up North where I am from,

Young girls are not what they are here.

Up North where I am from,

People don’t judge you by your knife.

They look at the size of your heart.

Young girl, I don’t know what you look like.

I don’t know where to look for you.

I don’t even know who you are, young girl.

All I know is: my heart is aching.

Oh, Oh, Oh! My heart is aching for you.

Sile’s voice rang with melancholy when he sang his songs. But, still, the rascals derided him. “When at all are you going to give up, Sile?” they would say. “Can’t you see that no woman would marry you?”

“I have given up on them long, long ago”, he would reply, “but I am never going to give up on myself!”

“You keep fooling yourself,” they would tell him, laughing.

The rascal’s mocking of Sile didn’t end just there. Knowing he didn’t see properly, they used fake or banned cedi notes to purchase tea from Mallam Sile at night. The tea-seller pinned the useless currency notes on the wall as if they were good luck charms. He believed that it was hunger—and not mischief—that had led the rascals to cheat him. And since he considered it “inhuman to refuse a hungry person food,” Mallam Sile allowed them to get away with their frauds.

When Sile cooled off hot tea for customers, he poured the contents of one mug into another, raising one over the other. The rascals would push Sile’s arms in the middle of this process, causing the hot beverage to spill all over his arms. The tea-seller was never angered by such pranks. He merely grinned and flashed his cola-stained teeth, and without saying a word, continued to serve his customers.

The rascals did even worse things to the poor tea-seller. They blew out the lanterns in the shop, so as to steal bread and Milo while he tried to rekindle the light. He forgave that and many other pranks as they occurred, effectively ridding his heart of any ill-feelings. He waved his short arms to anyone who walked passed his shop front. “How are the Heavens with you, Boy?” he would shout in greeting. Sile called everyone Boy, including women and older people, and he hardly said a sentence without referring to the Heavens.

He prided himself on his hard work, and smiled anytime he looked in the mirror and saw his dwarfish appearance and ailing eyes. A few months before the death of his parents, he had come to the conclusion that if Allah had created him any different than how he was, he wouldn’t have been Mallam Sile—an individual Sile’s heart, soul, and spirit had grown to accept and respect. This created an inner peace within him that made it possible for him to not only tolerate the ill treatment meted out to him by the Street’s rascals, but to also forgive them for their actions.

One sunny afternoon during the dry season, Mallam Sile was seen atop the roof of his shack with hammers, saws, pincers, and all kinds of building tools. He tarried there all day long like a lizard, and by dusk he had dismantled all the aluminium roofing-sheets that had once sheltered him and his business. He resumed work early the following morning, and before Azafar, the first of the two afternoon prayers at one-thirty, Sile had no place to call either home or teashop.

After La-asar, the second afternoon worship at three-thirty, Mallam Sile moved his personal belongings and all his tea paraphernalia to a room in the servant-quarters of the chief’s palace. The room was arranged for him by the chief’s Wazeer, or right hand man, who was sympathetic to the tea-seller.

During the next two days, Mallam Sile ordered plywood and odum boards, a superior wood than the wawa used for the old shop. He also ordered a few bags of cement and push-truckloads of sand and stones, and immediately began building a new shack—a much bigger one this time.

The street folks were shocked by Sile’s new building and wondered where he got the money to embark on such a big enterprise. And even though he had not spoken to anyone about his plans, rumour still carried that Sile was constructing a mini-market store to rub shoulders with Alhaji Saifa, the owner of the Street’s provision store. Though Sile categorically denied the rumour, it rapidly gained ground on the Street, eventually creating bad blood between Sile and Alhaji Saifa.

It took three days for Mallam Sile to complete work on the new shop’s foundation, and it took an additional three weeks for him to erect the wooden walls and the aluminium roofing sheets. While Sile was busy at work, passers-by would call out, “How is the provision store coming?” or “Mai-tea, how is the mansion coming?” Sile would reply simply: “It is coming well, Boy. It will be completed soon, Insha Allah.” He would grin his usual wide grin and wave his short hairy arms, and then return to his work.

Meanwhile as the days and weeks passed, the street folks grew impatient and somewhat angry at the closure of Sile’s shop. The nearest tea shack was 300 metres away, on Zerikyi Road—and the owner of the shack, Abongo, was generally abhorred by the street folks. Abongo, also a Northerner, was quite unfriendly even to his loyal customers. He maintained a rigid NO CREDIT policy at his shop, and had customers pay him before they were even served. No one was an exception to this policy, even if he or she was dying of hunger. And unlike Sile, Abongo didn’t tolerate idlers or loud conversation in his shop. If a customer persisted on chatting, Abongo reached for his mug, poured the content in a plastic basin, and refunded his money to him. He then chased the customer out of the shop, brandishing his bullwhip and cursing after him, “If your mama and papa never teach you manners, I’ll teach you some. I’ll sew those careless lips of yours together, you bastard son of a bastard woman!”

It wasn’t for another three weeks that Mallam Sile’s shop was re-opened. Immediately after work on the shop was completed, Sile had left for his hometown. Soon afterwards, yet another rumour surfaced that the tea-seller had travelled up North to seek black medicine for his bad eyesight.

Sile finally returned one Friday evening, flanked by a stern, fat woman who looked in her late thirties and was three times larger than the tea-seller. The woman, whose name was Abeeba, turned out to be Mallam Sile’s wife. Abeeba was tall and massive, with a face as gloomy as that of someone in mourning. Just like her husband, Abeeba said very little to people in and out of the shop. She, too, grinned and waved her huge arms anytime she greeted people, though unlike the tea-seller, malice seemed to lurk behind Abeeba’s cheerful smile. She carried herself with the grace and confidence of a lioness, and covered her head and parts of her face in an Islamic veil, a practice being dropped by most married women on Zongo Street.

The rascals asked Sile: “From where did you get this elephant? Better not be on her bad side; she’ll sit on you till you sink into the ground.” To this, the tea-seller did not vouchsafe a word.

Exactly one week after Sile’s return from his village, he and his wife opened the doors of their new shop to their customers. Among the most talked about features of the new shop on opening night were the smooth concrete floor and the bright gas lantern that illuminated every corner of the shop. The street folks were equally impressed with the whitewashed odum boards used for the walls. And in a small wooden box behind the counter, Sile and his wife burned tularen mayu, or witches’ lavender, a strong, yet sweet smelling incense that doubled as a jinx-repellent—to drive away bad spirits from the establishment.

On the first night the teashop was so crowded that some customers couldn’t even find a seat on the twelve new metal folding chairs Sile had bought. The patrons sang praise songs to the variety of food on the new menu, which included meat-pie, brown bread, custard, and tom brown, an imported, grain porridge. Some of the patrons even went as far as thanking Sile and his wife for relieving them of “Abongo’s nastiness.” But wise, old Sile, who was as familiar with the street folks’ cynicism as he was with the palm of his hands, merely nodded and grinned his sheepish, innocent grin. He knew that despite the ululations and the numerous smiles being flashed at him, some customers were at that very moment thinking of ways to cheat him. Though unbeknown to both Sile and his future predators, those days of cheating and prank-playing were gone, forever. And it wasn’t that Mallam Sile had suddenly metamorphosed into a mean fellow or anything of that sort. It was, instead, because of Abeeba, whose serious, daunting face, coupled with her gigantic presence, scared off those who carne to the shop with the intention of cheating the tea-seller.

While Sile prepared the tea and other foods on the menu, Abeeba served and collected the money. Prior to the shop’s re-opening, Abeeba had tried to convince her husband that they, too, should adopt Abongo’s NO CREDIT policy. Sile had quickly frowned upon the idea, claiming that it was inhumane to do such a thing. Abeeba had pointed out to Sile that most of those who asked for credit and ended up stiffing him were not “poor and hungry folks”, but cheats who continued to take advantage of his leniency.

The tea-seller and his wife had debated the matter for three days before they carne to a compromise. They agreed to extend credit, but only in special cases and also on condition that the debtor swore by the Koran to pay on time; and that if a debtor didn’t make a payment, he or she would not be given any credit in the future. But hardly had the tea-seller and his wife resumed extending credit to their patrons, when some of them resorted to the old habit of skipping on their payments. However, an encounter between Abeeba and one of the defaulters helped change everything, including the way Sile was treated on the Street.

To be continued

Culled from Msafiri