Poor Folk

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Ever since she had come home from the market and sat cooking, the children had watched her so eagerly it seemed as if they would eat her. Just as she finished and set the pots down from the fire, they came crowding around her, pushing and hollering.

“Stop pushing him Lamie,” Binta said.

“Dat him push me first,” Lamie said, glaring at his little brother.

“Dat lie,” Tamba said, sucking his thumb. “Dat you push me first.”

“You lie,” Lamie said.

“It all right now, these children,” Binta said. “De food ready. Yor will soon eat. No pushing.”

“Mama I hungry,” said Finda, weeping and clinging to her mother’s lappa.

“I comin’,” Binta said, dishing up quickly.

Moments later the children sat sprawled on the floor, eating with their bare hands. Within seconds they had finished, and sat licking the bowls with their fingers, as if the food had only titillated their craving.

Binta sat and watched them and tears came to her eyes.

And she thought of their father, who had abandoned her for a younger woman, right after she got pregnant with Tamba, the youngest of their four children. She had gone to fetch food from the market and returned to find him boarding his personal effects on a taxi.

“Flomo where you goin’?” she asked, surprised.

“I leavin’ you,” he said.

“Whatin’ you say!”

“I get different woman.”

“But Flomo you can’t do dis to me! I get belleh.”

“So what?”

“I can’t feed de children an’ pay de rent; you know I na working.”

“You will start workin’ now, you foolish woman.” He got into the taxi.

She ran to the door and grabbed him by the collar. “You can’t leave me with deh children Flomo! I will na leh you go!”

He laughed and slapped her and pushed his big-bellied woman to the ground and the taxi pulled up and disappeared from view. Binta sat along the asphalt and wept, flailing her hands and feet.

“You crazy woman! Get deh hell from the road!” a cabman shouted, as he sped past missing her by a hair.

Another cabman stuck his head through the window and spat at her furiously. Yet she sat by the tarmac, still weeping, snot running from her nose.

The children came and begged her to go into the house, weeping and pulling at her legs and arms. Finally she got up and left. Tears wouldn’t do her any good and she knew it.

She was startled from her thoughts as Dudu walked into the house, a bag slung over his shoulder.

“Dudu! Mama Dudu’s here! Oh Dudu!” the children chorused, and ran to meet their elder brother, bustling about him.

“Leh me take yor bag,” Lamie said.

“Al’ right,” Dudu said, smiling, and handed the bag to his younger brother.

He was a slim, dark boy of thirteen, with bushy hair and thick brows. He wore an ill-fitting T-shirt and denim shorts patched at the bottoms.

Tamba and Finda put their arms around Dudu. Together they led him to their mother, like a prize they had just won. Binta made a place for him on the bench as he sat and put his arm around her shoulders, they both smiling.

From his bag Dudu took three packs of biscuits and handed them to his siblings. They thanked him and darted out of the house, brandishing their gifts excitedly. Then he gave his mother the four cups of rice, a bottle of palm-oil and dry fish that he had bought from the market.

“Every day you brin’ us somethin’,” Binta said. “Thank you.”

“It al’ right Mama,” Dudu said.
Binta put the things on the table. “How far you go today?” she asked.

“I go Du-port Road an’ ELWA junction. I sell de thin’ to Freeport.”

“You find plenty?”

“No.”

“But dis time they can pay plenty money for it sef?”

“When you carry plenty, you make plenty money. When you carry small you make small money. But to find scrap-iron na easy. Plenty people looking for it.”

“When you tire you mon come home.” Dudu nodded.

Binta handed him his food, in a blue, plastic bowl. “Dat yor ownor food.”

“I al’ right Ma. I fini eatin’.”

“Where place you eat?”

“I eat to de cold bowl shop.”

“I know. But dey say dat you can still be feelin’ hungry even when you eat outside.”

“But I al right Ma,” he said, smiling, and patted his stomach.

Binta sighed. “You jes wan to give yor food to Lamie dem.”

“No Ma,” he said with mocked earnestness.

“Dat lie. I know how you like their bizness,” she said, laughing and stroking his head.

At night Dudu lay on his mat staring up at the darkened ceiling, the back of his head resting into his upturned palms. The day had been a hard one, and he was tired. Yet he could not sleep. There were things on his mind, and he was worried.

Soon the rainy season would come, and with it hunger. For days it would rain and he would not be able to earn money for food. Scavenging for scrap-metal during the rainy season was hard and he could picture himself: soaked to the skin, cold and shivering and trying to lift some hefty, scrap-iron on to his shoulder. Once he had gone in the rain, caught cold, and had been ill for more than a fortnight. Although his mother sold charcoal in the market, he could not count on her for food. She hardly earned a day’s meal from her profit. Thankfully he had saved money for a bag of rice already. Soon he would buy a tin of palm-oil to be stowed for the rainy season, along with the rice.

And then there was school. Of his two brothers and sister, only Finda and Lamie and himself had been sent to school. But they were only in primary school when their father suddenly stopped paying their school fees, and left. If only he had the money he would pay their school fees.

And he thought of their house, a rickety, squalid zinc house crawling with rats. During the rainy season rain poured through the roof like water through a sieve. Toting their thin piece of mattress and sparse clothing, he and his siblings, along with their mother, would run to the neighbors’ houses to shelter themselves from the rain. When finally it had stopped, they would return to find the house almost flooded, and dry it with pieces of rags. His father had promised to build a new house but never did. To think of it filled Dudu with rage. And he did not even want to think of his father.

He had abandoned their mother when she was pregnant, leaving her to fend for four small children. Dudu remembered his mother doing laundry to feed them. Once she had been so desperate she had put them in an orphanage. But she had been found out, and they were thrown out of the orphanage. A few relatives had taken them in, saying that they were sorry for her. But they were treated badly by their mother’s relatives and made to work like slaves. Then his mother had sent him to stay with his father, who lived with his fiancée. His father had cursed him and thrown him out of the house.

And he could remember the beatings. Often in the middle of the night, his father would come home drunk and start some quarrel with his mother that would lead into a fight. He would beat her so badly her eyes would be swollen shut, several teeth knocked out of her head. Once, as Dudu sat cowering in a corner with his siblings while his father beat their mother, Dudu had got up and rushed toward his father intending to take a blow meant for his mother. But his father had grabbed him by the collar, as one man to another, and slapped him so hard across the face he saw stars. Then his father dropped him senseless to the floor.

But with his father’s cruelty had come Dudu’s dream: he would be a better man than his father.

~

The crowing of the cocks stirred him from his thoughts. He sat up and wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hand. Yawning and stretching out his arms, he rose and went to the window and looked through a crack in the planks. He could see a few people moving about outside; hear the clanking of a wheelbarrow as a man went down the road near his house, the distant sounds of cars on the tarmac. He turned and went into the kitchen.

On the table he met the things he had brought the day before, in a large, plastic bowl. He removed the rice from the bowl, measured three cups of it into a pot, and went to light the fire.
A few moments later, he had washed the rice and set it on the fire. Soon his siblings would wake up, and they would be hungry. Day break mouth open, Dudu said to himself, smiling. He went to fetch water from the well.

A while later he returned toting the water on his head, then took it into the small zinc enclosure behind the house. Then he went back into the house, returned from his room with a book he had found in a garbage dump, and sat at the kitchen table. He liked to read but couldn’t. His mother liked to read, too. But she was such a poor reader he could not count on her to teach him. She had told him she dropped out of school when she met his father, who had been her sixth grade English teacher, and got pregnant.

Peering down at a poem, Dudu tried to read it. Desperately. Of the more than sixty words of the poem, however, he could understand nothing at all. Disappointed, he shut the book with a sigh, went back into his room, and returned with the book bag he often took when he went to look for scrap-iron.

Moments later Binda came out of the room and sat at the table. “Mornin’,” she said.

“Mornin’ Ma,” he said. “How you sleep?”

“Fine,” she said. “An’ you?”

“Not bad,” he said.

“You goin’ soon dis mornin’?”

“Yes. Me an’ Jallah goin’ Double Bridge dis mornin. He say he see scrap-iron there.”

Double Bridge were the two bridges at Gardnersville, flanking each other over a river that ran across central Monrovia and into the ocean as far as the eye could see.

“Who dis Jallah, an’ wat his age?”

“He my friend. He sell scrap-iron too. He tell me he fifteen.”

“Wat time you know him?”

“Three days now.”

“Dat good boy?”

“I na know Ma.”

Binta fell silent, thinking, It’s dangerous for small children to go near a river, and I have heard that many people have drowned in that one at Double Bridge. But what can I do? Dudu is all I got to help us.

“You monna go near de river,” she told him.

“Al right Ma,” he said, and frowned. Often his mother was like this: fearing for him whenever she could, which left him feeling like a child. How he hated it!

“I will be waitin’ for you. Don stay long oh,” she said. “I wo’ry.”

“Ma don wo’ry,” he said. “I will na stay long.”

She nodded and bit her lip, then threw her arms around him, her eyes wet.

Finda and Lamie and Tamba came into the kitchen and sat around Dudu. They watched him dished up the rice, their mouths watering.

Tamba said, “I wan eat.”

“You na eatin’ anythin’,” Dudu said, “until yor brush yor teeth an’ take bath.”

Tamba groaned.

Finda whimpered.

Lamie yawned.

Binta regarded them with amusement.

Lamie said,” De toothpaste fini.”

“Go look for fire coal,” Dudu told him.

Lamie bent and took a large piece of charcoal from the coal pot, broke it into three pieces, and handed two pieces to Finda and Tamba, keeping the other for himself. Then he filled the calabash with water, and they went outside to clean their teeth.

~

Moments later Dudu led his siblings shivering from the bathroom into the room, where they were greased with palm kernel oil till their bodies shone, and dressed in clean clothes. Then he brought them outside, and they sat at the table and eat their dry rice, savoring the bits of dry bony, beaten pepper, and palm-oil that had made the rice tasty.

Having eaten his share of the food, Dudu said good-bye, and left. Binta and the children stood in the doorway and watched until he had disappeared round a bend in the road.

Dudu met Jallah just as he came down the road from his house.

“Whassup my man?” Jallah said, as he walked toward Dudu.

“Not bad my man,” Dudu said, and extended a hand.

Jallah shook it firmly.

Jallah was a squat, stocky boy with broad shoulders, a red cap jammed on his head. He was dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt that showed his muscles and blue denim shorts that was just as soiled as Dudu’s, their inexpensive plastic slippers so worn their heels touched the ground through holes at the bottoms.

“De scrap-iron near the river?” Dudu asked.

“It na too far from the river,” Jallah said.

“My Ma say I monna go near the river,” Dudu said, feeling a knot in the pit of his stomach.

“Ma man don’t wo’ry,” Jallah said, and slapped his friend on the back. “Myself scared of de water. We will na go near it.”

“Al’ right,” Dudu said, “Leh go.”

~

The scrap-iron, a junk of car parts over-strewn with grass and stuck in the swamp, were just a stone’s throw from the river, and the boys were thrilled. Grunting painfully, they hefted chunks of the metal on to their heads and shoulders and carried it from the marsh to the main road at the bridge. Soon their pile of scrap metal had grown taller than a man, and Dudu and his friend were more excited than ever. The money would be good.

The sun was well up when finally they had finished, their bodies beaded with sweat. From the vendors along the bridge they bought small polythene bags of cold water, drank greedily, and for several minutes sat along the road feeling so tired they could hardly stir a muscle.

Suddenly Dudu remembered that his mother would be worried about him, that he should be home before dusk. He stood up.

“Leh me go find deh push-push,” he said.

“Al’ right,” Jallah said, stretched out his arms and grunted, feeling a cramp in his shoulders.

A few minutes later Dudu was back with an old man and his push-push, several pieces of iron welded together and built like a big wheelbarrow with car tires. Jallah got up.

Dudu said, “He say three hundred dollars from here to Freeport.”

“We sell to Bardnersville junction,” Jallah said, and turned to the old man. “How much to go there?”

“Two fifty,” the old man said.

“Papay we can’t pay dat money,” Dudu said.

“Dat my price,” the old man said impatiently, gripped the handle bars of his push-push, and made as if to leave.

Jallah held up a palm.”Al’ right, two hundred.”

The papay snorted, frowned, and hesitated.

Dudu and his friend scowled back. They hadn’t much money, and this old man wouldn’t make a killing on them.

“Al’ right leh go,” the push-push man said finally.

Dudu winked at his friend.

Jallah winked back.

They loaded the scrap-iron on to the push-push. The old man took to the road with his burden, pushing it in front of him, his muscles tense.

At quarter to three o’clock they left the scrap-metal yard at Bardnersville junction, Dudu’s bag heavy with the money he had made, Jallah clutching his money in a black, plastic bag. They ate at a cold bowl shop and rode pem-pems, then parted at the fork in the road, waving back at each other.~

Of all the scrap metal he had ever sold in his life, he had never made a considerable sum than what he made that Saturday, along with the money he had already saved for the bag of rice. Now he would send his siblings and himself to school, fix the roof of their house, and buy enough food to store for the rainy season. Surely it had paid never wanting to be like his father, a no-good, wife-battering drunk that had left them all in the lurch.

He had nearly reached his house when he stopped in his tracks, and froze. Was that his mother weeping? He listened, like a dog sensing an intruder. Indeed it was Binta, weeping at the top of her lungs. He broke into a run.

He reached the house and flung the door open, breathless. There, looking as if she had lost everything else in the world, his mother sat sprawled on the floor weeping hysterically. But when she told him what had happened he burst full of rage. His father had had a tragic auto accident and been taken to the hospital. Dudu looked down at his mother and wondered if she had gone mad. His father! How could she care about him! Tears filling his eyes, Dudu ran into his room and slammed the door behind him. His mother had betrayed him.

Dashing himself on to his mat, he spent his rage in uncontrollable sobs until he fell asleep.

He awoke an hour later. The house was quiet. Probably his mother had gone to the hospital along with his siblings. And for what? For a man like his father who was better off dead than alive, Dudu thought with disgust, pounding the floor with his fist. But of course, where was his father’s fiancée? Surely she should have been with him at the hospital so there was no need for his mother. Or had she neglected him? I will be happy if you do it, Dudu said to himself.

Dat de same thin’ Papa do to us, leave Mama an’ me and de children to suffer.

Suddenly he fell quiet and looked out the window at nothing in particular, a thoughtful expression on his face. Then he got up, took his bag and went out of the house.

Outside he found a taxi and headed for John F. Kennedy hospital.
~
Mr. Flomo Fahnbulleh had broken his back in that damned auto accident. But only because he couldn’t pay medical bills he had been left lying on a rickety cot for hours. That darned girlfriend of his, along with a man, had brought him in a wheelbarrow, dumped him at the entrance of the hospital, and disappeared. She had only been there for his money, and since he lost his job she didn’t care about him anymore. At the hospital entrance he had laid for more than an hour, weeping at the top of his lungs and begging for help, until a doctor took pity on him and had him brought into the Emergency Ward. But they hadn’t even yet started an IV on him, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he was dead.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up. Binta! She stood over him, sobbing. And Mr. Fahnbulleh could not believe his own eyes.

Suddenly a doctor entered the ward and headed for Mr. Fahnbulleh, accompanied by four nurses. They stopped at his cot and the doctor looked at Binta and asked, “Is this your husband?”

Binta nodded.

“We’re taking him for surgery,” the doctor said, and motioned at the nurses to hoist Mr. Fahnbulleh from the cot on to a stretcher.

Moments later they had taken him into the O.R., the green double doors swinging behind them.
~

Two weeks later, Dudu’s father had been brought into the house to live along with his mother and siblings. The operation had been successful, but the old man would be confined to a wheelchair. Well he was glad. After all he could have died lying in that ward of the hospital with nobody to care about him. And he was grateful for Binta. His fiancée had never shown up.

But he was puzzled. Somebody had gone to the hospital, paid his medical bills, and listed his own name as the benefactor. But of course he hadn’t a cent in the hospital. And so who had done it? He had asked Binta but she hadn’t a clue.

He would never know that it was Dudu who had saved his life, spending all he earned from selling scrap-iron; a child that he, Flomo, had abandoned.

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