One could therefore imagine the stir it caused when, one early Tuesday morning, Mallam Sile’s wife showed up at Samadu’s house to collect a tea debt he owed them. Prior to that, Abeeba had tried amicably to collect the money Samadu owed them, which was 80 cedis. After her third futile attempt, Abeeba had suggested to Sile that they use force to retrieve the money. But Sile had quickly cautioned his wife: “Stay out of that boy’s way, he is dangerous. And if he has decided not to pay, please let him keep the amount. He would be the loser in the end.”
“But, Mallam, it is an insult what he is doing,” Abeeba had argued. “I think people to whom we have been generous should only be generous in return. I am getting fed up with their ways, and the sooner the folks here know that even the toad gets sick of filling his belly with the same dirty pond water everyday, the better!” Though Sile was taken aback by his wife’s vehemence, he had decided to allow the matter to die.
When Abeeba arrived at Samadu’s house, a number of housewives and young women were busily doing their morning chores in and around the compound. She greeted them politely and asked to be shown to the tough guy’s door. The women’s initial response was to turn Abeeba away, as they feared that Samadu would humiliate her once he came out of his room. But Abeeba insisted that she must see the tough guy. Seeing the fire in her eyes, the housewives reluctantly directed the tea-seller’s wife to Samadu’s room, located in the boys’ quarters of the house.
The usual tactic boys used when fighting girls was to try and strip them of the wrapper around their waist, knowing that they would be reluctant to keep fighting half-naked. But Abeeba had come prepared: She wore a sleeveless ready-to-fight shirt and a pair of tight-fitting khaki shorts, and for the first time ever left her ubiquitous veil at home.
“You rogue, if you call yourself a man come out and pay your debt,” Abeeba shouted, as she pounded her fist at the door.
“Who do you think you are? Ruining my sleep because of some useless 80 cedis?” screamed Samadu from behind the door.
“The money may be useless, but it is certainly worthier than you, and that’s why you haven’t been able to pay. You rubbish heap of a man!” responded Abeeba. Her voice was coarse and full of menace. The veins on her neck stood erect, like those dervish fighters at the annual wrestling contest. Her eyes looked hard and brutish, and she moved her head in rapid movements as if she was having a fit of some sort.
One of the onlookers, a famished-looking housewife, pleaded with the tea-seller’s wife, “Go back to your house, woman. Don’t fight this boy; he would disgrace you in public.” Another woman added in the background, “What kind of a woman thinks she can fight a man? Be careful o!” Abeeba didn’t pay any attention to the women’s admonitions, which she considered useless babble.
Abeeba grabbed the door knob and tried to force it open. Then a loud bang was heard from the room. Abeeba retreated and waited for Samadu to emerge from the room.
A few seconds later the door swung open, and Samadu stormed out, his face clearly showing the anger and red malice that was in his heart. “No one gets away with insulting me. No one!” he screamed. His right cheek was smeared with dried drool, and whitish mucus gathered at the ends of his eyes. “You ugly elephant-woman. After I am done with you today, you’ll learn a lesson or two about why women don’t grow beards!” he shouted.
“Haa, you teach me a lesson? You?” screamed Abeeba. “I too will educate you about the need to have money in your pocket before you flag the candy man!” She immediately lunged at Samadu.
The women placed their palms on their breasts, shaking their bodies in dread of what was about to happen. “Where are the men on the Street? Come and separate the fight, o! Men, come out o!” they shouted. The children in the compound, though freshly aroused from sleep, jumped excitedly as if in a ritual. Half of them called out Piri pirin pi, while the other half responded, Wen son! as they chanted and cheered for Samadu.
Samadu knew immediately that if he engaged Abeeba in a wrestling match, she would use her bulky mass to force him to the ground. His strategy, therefore, was to throw punches and kicks from a safe distance, thereby avoiding direct contact with her. But soon after the fight erupted he realised that Abeeba was a lot quicker than he had presumed, as she managed to dodge the first five punches he had thrown at her. He threw a sixth punch and missed. He stumbled on his left foot when he tried to connect the seventh blow, and he landed within a foot of Abeeba.
With a blinding quickness she seized Samadu by the sleeping wrapper tied around his neck and began to punch him. The crowd’s exuberance was dimmed by this unexpected turn of events. No sound was heard anywhere as Abeeba continued her attack on the tough guy.
Samadu threw a sharp jab at Abeeba’s stomach and somehow managed to release himself from her grip by deftly undoing the knot of his sleeping cloth. He was topless now, and clad only in a pair of corduroy knickers. He danced his feet, swung his arms, and moved his chest sideways, like true boxers did. The crowd got excited again. “Prin pirin pi, Wein son! Prin pirin pi, Wein son!” they sang.
The harder the crowd cheered for Samadu, the fancier his footwork became. He finally threw a punch that landed on Abeeba’s left shoulder, though she seemed completely unfazed by the blow, as she continued to chase him around the small circle created by the spectators. With all the might he could muster, Samadu threw another fist, but Abeeba had already anticipated it. She dodged, then deftly grabbed Samadu’s wrist and twisted his arm with such force that he didn’t even know when he let out a high-pitched cry, “Wayyo Allah”. The crowd gasped and watched nervously as the tough guy attempted to extricate himself from Abeeba’s tight grip. He tightened all the muscles in his body and moved his head side to side—all in an attempt to foil Abeeba’s move. But her strength was just too much for Samadu.
The crowd booed, “Wooh, ugly rhinoceros.” Then in a sudden, swift movement that many swore later to be as fast as an airplane’s lift-off, Abeeba hurled the tough guy off the ground, then lifted him further up above her head, before dumping him on the ground, like a sack of rice. She jumped quickly on top of him and began to whack him violently.
The women jumped about frantically, like scared antelopes. They shouted, “Where are the men in this house? Men, come out o! There is a fight!”
A few men came running to the scene, followed by many others a minute or so later.
Meanwhile Abeeba continued her offensive. With each punch that landed on Samadu she asked, “Where is our money?”
“I don’t have it, and wouldn’t pay even if I had it!” Samadu responded in an attempt to regain his shattered pride and dignity. The men attempted to pull Abeeba away from her victim, but that turned out to be a difficult task. The men pleaded on Samadu’s behalf and begged Abeeba to let go of her captive.
“I would not release him until he pays us back our money,” she shouted. “And if he doesn’t I’ll drag his ass all the way to the Zongo police station,” she added.
On hearing this, an elderly man who lived in Samadu’s compound ran inside the house; he returned a few minutes later with 80 cedis, which he placed in the outstretched palm of Abeeba’s free hand. She checked to make sure the amount was up to 80 cedis before she finally released Samadu. She gave him a mean, hard look as she walked away.
Mallam Sile was still engaged in his morning zhikr, or meditation, when Abeeba returned to the shack, and of course had no inkling of what had taken place. An hour later, when they were preparing to open the teashop for their customers, Abeeba announced that Samadu had paid the money he owed them. The tea-seller didn’t see the need to ask how that happened. In his naïveté, he concluded that perhaps Samadu had paid the debt because he had either found himself a vocation or had finally been “entered by the love and fear of God.” Abeeba’s announcement confirmed Mallam Sile’s long-standing belief that “every man is capable of goodness just as he is capable of evil,” and that it is only with time and acquired wisdom that people like Samadu would change their bad ways and become good people.
The tea-seller’s belief was further solidified when he ran into Samadu a fortnight later. He was greeted politely by the tough guy, something he had never done before. When Mallam Sile told his wife about the unusual encounter with Samadu, she fought hard to restrain herself from telling him what had actually caused the change in Samadu’s attitude.
Then one night during the fasting month of Ramadan, some two months after the fight, a voice in Mallam Sile’s head asked: “Why is everyone calling my wife the ‘man-checker’? How come people I give credit suddenly pay me on time? Why am I being treated with such respect, even by the worst and most stubborn rascals on the street?” Mallam Sile was lying in bed with his wife at the time these questions popped in his head. In his usual fashion, he didn’t think any further of the questions or even try to answer them. He drew in a deep breath, and began to pray in his heart. He smiled and thanked Allahu-Raheemu, the Merciful One, for curing the street folks of the prejudice they had nursed against him for so long. Mallam Sile also thanked Allah for giving his neighbours the will and the courage to finally accept him just as he was created. He flashed a grin in the darkness and moved closer to his slumbering wife. He buried his small body in her massive, protective frame and soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
This story by Mohammed Naseehu Ali from Ghana first appeared in the short story collection, The Prophet of Zongo, and is one of the five entries shortlisted in the 2008-9 Caine Prize for African Writing
Culled from Msafiri