Street Sweepers

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Under the street lamp late that evening two women swept the litter on the asphalt and the sidewalks, heads bowed, hands gripping the handles of their wooden brooms. The older woman was about forty, slim, with a lean face and sharp cheekbones. The younger one was big with child, thinner than the older woman and only seventeen years old. They wore ill-fitting blue overalls with MCC (Monrovia City Council) crudely painted on the backs, head-ties and cheap plastic slippers, their feet dirty and covered with dust.

The young woman stopped sweeping and yawned. She looked at the older one. “Mama, I hungry.” “Myself I hungry, Kema,” her mother said. “But wait small. When we finished sweeping we will buy cold bowl.”

“I tired eating cold bowl,” Kema said, frowning. “The people don’t cook the food good.”

Her mother stopped sweeping and looked at her. “What thing we will do, Kema? The small-small money we get from this sweeping is not enough to cook every day. If we start cooking at the house now, all the money I been saving so you can start selling small-small things and leave this sweeping’ bizness will finish. Then we will go around and start begging people. Do you want that?”

“No mama. But a pregnant woman suppose to eat good food.”

“Yes. But we don’t have enough money now. So bear patient until I save enough money so you can start your small bizness. Myself I will soon start selling something and leave this sweeping bizness; the pay too small. Yet we have to pick up poo-poo every time these people around here throw it on the street,” Bendu said, hissing.

Kema shook her head and sighed.

When they had finished sweeping, they removed the heaps of dirt then threw them into one of the several yellow garbage containers in and around Monrovia. The government had placed them there in an effort to “keep the city clean and green”. But people often ignored the containers. They threw their garbage wherever they could. Especially when the containers became full and the MCC, tasked with keeping the city clean, did not come to remove the garbage soon enough, leaving the air reeked with rotting garbage. Holding their breaths, Kema and her mother turned away from the garbage site and headed for the cold bowl shop.

The cold bowl shop was not actually a shop. It was right in the open, a few yards from the asphalt. It had a tarpaulin overhead to keep the people from the rain, a few long benches and two tables. The people ate on the table between the benches. The shop owner dished out food from the other table. The small girl who helped her did the dishes in two large plastic bowls, set on the ground and filled with dirty dish water. The dishes were never washed clean enough. The woman had to tend to her customers in a hurry; the girl had to do the dishes in a hurry. The plastic bowls were few, the dish water cold, leaving oil clogged to the bowls. If you were not used to eating in such places you often left feeling sick.

Kema and her mother sat among the other customers, a motley crew of carboys, gronna boys, and a bunch of bachelors. The food was red beans with red oil; potato greens with red oil. Kema and her mother opted for potato greens. They bought seventy-five dollars worth, crouched over the food, and ate in a blur like the others, famished and having no time to waste. Then they got up and left, wiping their oily mouths with the back of their hands.

They walked down Lynch Street, past Center Street graveyard, got off the tarmac, and made their way between several houses. They came to a stop at a corrugated house. Kema stood at the rickety wooden door. Her mother checked her overall pockets, found a couple of small keys, and opened the lock on the door. The lock was cheap. Kema often chided her mother about replacing it with a stout one. The neighborhood was teeming with thieves. People’s clothes were often snatched from the lines no soon than they turned their backs. Even so Bendu never changed the lock. After all what did she had in that room?

On the bare floor of the room was a thin, dirty mattress, torn in places and smelling of rat urine. In a corner were two plastic buckets, a large plastic pan filled with cooking utensils and two coal pots. There were a mortar and pestle, a rickety wooden table, and a long bench against a wall of the room. Against another wall was a large aluminum top and a rattan basket where Kema and her mother kept their clothes. That was all they had, a handful of things, and surely not much for a thief to steal.

They leaned their brooms against a wall and got undressed. They went out to the bathroom – a rickety zinc enclosure without a door. They had to put a lappa to the entrance to keep people from looking in on them. When they had finished bathing, they returned to the room, blew out the candle and went to bed.

In the middle of the night Kema sat up on the mattress. She could not sleep. There was pain in her stomach. Was it birth pang? She thought it probably was. She had been six months and three weeks pregnant and knew her child would come anytime now – a premature delivery that the other fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds were having here and there. Another sharp pain made her jerk. She cursed under her breath, reviling against the man who had impregnated her.

Lucky Boy, they called him, had abandoned her a long time ago. He had been a bus driver she met one day on her way from school. He had not accepted her twenty dollar fare when she got off his bus. He gave her his Nokia phone number, said he would like to see her anytime soon. She nodded, smiling. Next time they met she fell in love. Lucky Boy always had money. He started carrying parcels for her and her mother. She started sleeping at his house, a rickety zinc house where Lucky Boy rented a room and paid five liberty a month. Not long afterwards her belly ballooned. She told her mother. They went to Lucky Boy’s house on a Sunday afternoon.

“Lucky Boy my daughter pregnant o,” Bendu said.

The lean, dark young man stood in front of his door and glared at her, hands on his hips. “Whotin you want me to do, Old Ma?”

“Oh Lucky Boy that the way you talking to me? The girl been sleeping with you!”

“Yor daughter got other boyfriends! She can’t sit down one place.”

“Tha lie! Tha you gave her belly.”

“All right, I coming! Just wait for me.”

Moments later Lucky Boy returned from his room with a candle and a box of matches. He lit the candle and stood in front of Kema. He held the flame close to his face. “Tell me if this is the face of the man who gave you belly,” he shouted.

His display had brought a crowd of bystanders. The crowd laughed.

“Tha you gave me belly,” Kema shouted back.

“All right let’s see if you will get a cent out of me!”

“If you don’t support her I will call the police,” Bendu threatened, knocking the candle from Lucky Boy’s hands.

Lucky Boy laughed. “Go call the police, Ma! Go call the police. They will na do nothing.”

And sure enough, when Bendu called them the next morning, the police did not do a thing. They and Lucky Boy spoke in hushed tones away from her. The police got their bribe. They returned to Bendu. They told her to go to court. It was not a crime for the police do deal with, they said. But poor Bendu could never go to court, and they knew it. That was as far as it got.

Bendu sat bolt upright when her daughter screamed.

“What happened to you, Kema? What happened?” she asked in a frightened voice, reaching for the girl in the darkness.

“My stomach hurting, Ma,” Kema cried, holding tight to her mother’s hand.

“Wait let me light the candle,” Bendu said, groping in the darkness.

Reluctantly, Kema let go of her mother’s hand. She clamped her teeth shut, writhing on the mattress like an injured snake and moaning. Bendu found the box of matches. She opened it and lighted the candle. She stared into the contorted face of her daughter.

“Let’s go to the hospital quick-quick, Kema. You coming born.”

“Mama, hurry up before I die!”

“I coming!”

“Hurry up, Ma!”

Dazed, Bendu rushed to her feet, unlocked the door, flung it open, and came bolting outside like a squirrel that had been smoked out of its hole. She ran barefoot from one house to another, pounding on the doors and screaming at the top of her lungs.

“Help! Somebody please give me a wheelbarrow! My daughter in labor pain! My people yor please help me! I beg yor.”

In a moment a group of neighbors were up and out of their houses. A man brought a wheelbarrow. He and Bendu ran breathless back to her house, followed by another man. They found Kema. She looked dead. They bundled her into the wheelbarrow. The man charged toward the asphalt and sped into the direction of the local clinics, Bendu following him at top speed.

~

In the delivery ward of the George Kpadeh Clinic early that Saturday morning, Kema gave birth to a boy, a stringy little thing slightly bigger than a full grown cat. The baby had big eyes and a little mouth that never shut up. He cried and cried and cried. He sucked at his mother’s breasts and left her exhausted. Finally, they went home after a couple of days.

A few relatives came to the house. Some of them gave Bendu money. Others brought parcels for Kema and the baby. They left, returned one day and another, and eventually the visits were over. Bendu dug up the money she had been saving in a corner of the room. She bought baby things, food, and medicine. She left the house each morning and evening to sweep on the street, after Kema and her baby had eaten and fallen asleep.

Five months later Kema went back to sweeping the streets along with her mother, her baby tied to her back. She was often hungry and tired. She would sit along the sidewalks nursing the baby while her mother swept. Then late in the evening they would go to the cold bowl shops as always. Kema would feed the baby with rice, though he was quite young to eat it and should have been fed milk. But where would the money come from?

One day Bendu went to the woman that the government had put in charge of the street sweepers.

She said, “Hello yah, Ma. Please let me talk to you.”

Bendu was far older than the woman and shouldn’t have called her ‘Ma’, a term used to address older people with respect. This woman was in charge of the money anyway. Why not show her respect?

The huge woman glared at her. “What happened?”

“Ma, you see my daughter over there?” Bendu asked, pointing to Kema sweeping along the sidewalk.

“I see her. What happened to her?”

“She just born.”

The glare became more formidable. Bendu didn’t care. She had better speak to the woman, or she, her daughter and her grandchild would starve to death.

“I wanted to ask you to pay me for five months.”

“What!”

“Ma, as soon as you pay us for the month the money finish. Me and my daughter na doing nothing but sweeping. I want her to go to the market and start selling small-small things. Like that …”

The woman held up her palm. “You are not the only person sweeping the street and certainly not the only one with problems. Myself here got problems. Look at those other women. They’ve all got problems. They all need money. The government hardly gave us enough. Now you come here telling me to prepay you for five months! Well I haven’t got a cent! You can leave the job if you want.”

“Please take me to the city mayor.”

“Go to the city mayor yourself! My office is the street. The city mayor has got hers in that tall brick building over there.” The woman turned and walked away, not looking back.

Bendu stared after her in shock, tears filling her eyes.

Their plight went from bad to worse. Their landlord threw them out of the house. They found lodgings in one of the unfinished government buildings, joined a crowd of other poor folks, and went on sweeping.

One day, Bendu saw the President herself, wearing jeans, gloves, mountain climber boots, and armed with a broom. She had come on the street that Saturday morning to help “keep the city clean and green.” Here comes the President herself! She has got more money and power than the city mayor, Bendu thought, and broke into a run.

She was about ten feet from the President. One of the President’s guards struck out his hand, knocking her in the face. She screamed and fell flat to the ground. Her nose had been broken. A few passersby and onlookers began yelling. The President wheeled around, stunned by the commotion. She looked over the guard’s shoulder. She saw a woman lying on the ground.

“What happened to her?” she asked.

“She was rushing at you,” the guard said, proud of himself. He had been in the right place at the right time.

“Excuse me,” the President said.

The guard stepped back.

The President walked to the woman. She knelt down close to her. “Ma, you all right?’

The woman did not answer. She was dead.

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