Set in two neighbourhoods, Zongo Street in West Africa and on the streets of New York City, the stories give a modern twist to African folklore and myths. The stories, although fictional, are based on Mohammed Ali's experiences living in the neighbourhood of Zongo, located in the city of Kumasi. Uwargida shares a folklore tale to the community children. The story begins with Baadiya, a woman mocked for being infertile.
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He was popularly known as mai tea , or the tea seller. Along with fried eggs and white butter bread, Mallam Sile carried all kinds of beverages: regular black tea, Japanese green tea, Milo, Bournvita, cocoa drink, instant coffee. The tea shop had no windows. It was built of wawa , a cheap wood easily infested by termites. The floor was uncemented, and heaps of dust rose in the air whenever a customer walked in. Sile protected his merchandise from the dust by keeping everything in plastic bags.
There was a tall chair behind the chop box for Sile, but he never used it, preferring instead to stand on his feet even when the shop was empty. There were also three benches that were meant to be used only by those who bought tea, though the idle gossips who crowded the shop and never spent any money occupied the seats most of the time.
Instead, he used kerosene lanterns, three of which hung from the low wooden ceiling. Sile kept a small radio in the shop, and whenever he had no customers he listened, in meditative silence, to the English programs on GBC 2, as though he understood what was being said. Some came to the shop just to meet their loved ones.
But nothing said or even whispered in the shop escaped his sharp ears. Mallam Sile was a loner, without kin on the street or anywhere else in the city. He was born in Nanpugu, a small border town in the north.
Within a week of his arrival in the city, Sile landed a job as a house servant. Although his monthly wages were meagre, he sent a portion of them home to his ailing parents, who lived like paupers in their drought-stricken village.
They were found clinging tightly to each other, as if one of them had seen what was coming and had grabbed onto the other so that they could go together. He was sad to lose them, of course, but he saw it as a well-deserved rest for them, as they both had been ill and bedridden for many months. With his parents deceased, Sile suddenly found himself with more money in his hands.
Sile kept every pesewa he earned, and two years later he was able to use his savings to open a tea business. It was the first of such establishments on Zongo Street, and would remain the only one for many years to come.
Mallam Sile was short—so short, in fact, that many claimed he was a Pygmy. He stood exactly five feet one inch tall. Yet he refused to go to the hospital and condemned any form of medication, traditional or Western.
The wrinkles on his dark forehead and the moistness of his soft, squinted eyes gave him the appearance of a sage, one who had lived through and conquered many adversities in his life.
His smile, which stretched from one wrinkled cheek to the other, baring his kola-stained teeth, radiated strength, wisdom, and self-confidence. Sile wore the same outfit every day: a white polyester djellabah and its matching wando , a loose pair of slacks that tied with strings at the waist. He had eight of these suits, and wore a different one each day of the week. Also, his head was perpetually shaved, and he was never without his white embroidered Mecca hat—worn by highly devout Muslims as a reflection of their submission to Allah.
An unusual birth defect that caused the tea seller to grow an additional toe on each foot had made it impossible for him to find footwear that fit him properly; special slippers were made for him by Anaba the cobbler, who used discarded car tires for the soles of the shoes he made. At forty-six, Mallam Sile was still a virgin. Eventually, Sile resigned himself to his lack of success with women.
He was convinced that he would die a virgin. Yet late at night, after all the customers, idlers, and rumormongers had left the shop to seek refuge in their shanties and on their bug-ridden grass mattresses, Sile could be heard singing love songs, hoping that a woman somewhere would respond to his passionate cries:. And only the man with the sharpest knife Can cut through.
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. They look at the size of your heart. All I know is: my heart is aching. Oh, oh, oh! My heart is aching for you. But still the rascals derided him.
The tea seller pinned the useless bills to the walls of his shop 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. To cool off the hot tea for his customers, Sile poured the contents of one mug into another, raising one over the other. The rascals would push Sile in the middle of this process, causing the hot liquid to spill all over his arms.
The tea seller was never angered by such pranks. He merely grinned and, without saying a word, wiped off the spilled tea and continued to serve his customers.
And when the rascals blew out the lanterns in the shop, so as to steal bread and Milo while he was trying to rekindle the light, Sile accepted that, too. He managed to rid his heart of any ill feelings. He prided himself on his hard work, and smiled whenever he looked in the mirror and saw his dwarfish body and ailing eyes, two abnormalities that he had learned to love.
Though in their eyes Sile was only a buffoon. One sunny afternoon during the dry season, Mallam Sile was seen atop the roof of his shack with hammers, saws, pliers, and all kinds of building tools. He lingered there all day long like a stray monkey, and by dusk he had dismantled all the aluminum roofing sheets that had once sheltered him and his business.
He resumed work early the following morning, and by about one-thirty, before azafar , the first of the two afternoon prayers, Sile had no place to call either home or tea shop—he had demolished the shack down to its dusty floor. During the next two days, Mallam Sile ordered plywood and planks of odum , a wood superior to the wawa used for the old shop.
He also ordered a few bags of cement and truckloads of sand and stones, and immediately began building a new shack, much bigger than the first. And though the tea seller denied the rumor, it rapidly spread up and down the street, eventually creating bad blood between Sile and Alhaji Saifa. It will be completed soon, Inshallah. The nearest tea shack was three hundred metres away, on Zerikyi Road—and not only that but the owner of the shack, Abongo, was generally abhorred.
And for good reason. Abongo, also a northerner, was quite unfriendly even to his loyal customers. He maintained a rigid no-credit policy, and made customers pay him even before they were served. No one was an exception to this policy—even if he or she was dying of hunger.
As soon as work on the shop was completed, Sile left for his home town. She was tall and massive, with a face as gloomy as that of someone mourning a dead relative. Like her husband, Abeeba said very little to people in or out of the shop. She, too, grinned and waved her huge arms whenever she greeted people, though, unlike the tea seller, she seemed to have something harder lurking behind her cheerful smile. Abeeba carried herself with the grace and confidence of a lioness, and covered her head and part of her face with an Islamic veil, a practice that had been dropped by most of the married women on Zongo Street.
Among the most talked-about features were the smooth concrete floor and the bright gas lantern that illuminated every corner. The patrons sang songs of praise to the variety of food on the new menu, which included meat pies, brown bread, custard, and Tom Brown, an imported grain porridge. He knew that, despite their praise, and despite the smiles they flashed his way, some customers were at that very moment thinking of ways to cheat him.
While Sile prepared the tea and food, Abeeba served and collected the money. Sile had quickly frowned upon the idea, claiming that it was inhumane to do such a thing. The tea seller and his wife debated the matter for three days before they came to a compromise. Then an encounter between Abeeba and one of the defaulters changed everything. What took place was this: Samadu, the pugnacious sixteen-year-old whose fame had reached every corner of the city, was the tough guy of Zongo Street.
He was of medium height, muscular, and a natural-born athlete. He was also known for having tortured and even killed the livestock of the adults who denounced him. Samadu, of course, was deeply in debt to Mallam Sile—he owed him eighty cedis, about four dollars. Abeeba had tried to collect the debt amicably, but after her third futile attempt she had suggested to Sile that they use force to persuade the boy to pay. If he has decided not to pay, let him keep it.
He will be the loser in the end. 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 every day, the better!
The women tried to turn Abeeba away, as they feared that Samadu would humiliate her in some way. She wore a sleeveless shirt and a pair of tight-fitting khaki shorts, and, for the first time ever, she had left her veil at home.
If you call yourself a man, come out and pay your debt! The veins on her neck stood out, like those of the juju fighters at the annual wrestling contest.
Her eyes moved rapidly inside her head, as though she were having a fit of some sort. Be careful, oh! Just then, a loud bang was heard inside the room.
The door swung open, and Samadu stormed out, his face red with anger. No one! There was a line of dried drool on his right cheek, and whitish mucus had gathered in the corners of his eyes. The women placed their palms on their breasts, and their bodies shook with dread. Come and separate the fight, oh!
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. And if he has decided not to pay, please let him keep the amount. He would be the loser in the end. 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!