Under the street lamp late that evening two women swept the trash on the tarmac road, their heads bowed and hands gripping the handles of their wooden brooms. The older woman was about forty years of age, thin and slender, with a lean face and hollow cheeks. The younger woman was even thinner than the older one was, and big with child. They wore ill-fitting blue overalls, MCC (Monrovia City Corporation) crudely painted on the backs, head-ties and shower slippers, their feet dirty and covered with dust.
The young woman stopped sweeping and, stretching out her arms, yawned heavily. She looked at the older woman. “Mama I hungry.”
“Myself I hungry too Kema,” her mother said. “But wait small. When we fini sweepin we will buy cold bowl.”
“I tired eatin cold bowl,” Kema said, frowning. “The people don’t cook the food good.”
Her mother stopped sweeping then looked at her disapprovingly. “What you wan us to do, Kema? The small-small money we get from this sweepin na enough to cook every day. If we start cookin at the house na, all the money I been saving so you can start selling small-small tin and go to school will fini.
Then we will go round beggin for help. Da wa you wan us to do?”
“No Ma. But pregnant woman supposed to eat good food,” she said with a laugh.
“Yes, but you’re a poor Liberian girl, Kema, and must learn patience,” her mother said, smiling. “You know we have to save money and must not be at this sweeping business forever. The pay na nathin. And we have to pick up poopoo every time the people round here poopoo in plastics and send them on de street,” Bendu said angrily, hissing her teeth.
When they had finished sweeping, they removed the heaps of trash 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 Monrovia Clean and Green.” But people often ignored the containers and threw litter anywhere. When the containers were full and the MCC, tasked with keeping the city clean, did not come to remove the trash soon enough, the air was left reeking with refuse. Holding their breaths, Kema and her mother turned away from the garbage site and headed for a cold-bowl shop nearby.
The cold-bowl shop was not actually a shop. It was right in the open, a few yards from the tarmac road, and had a tarpaulin overhead to keep the people out of the rain. There were two wooden benches and tables. The people ate on the table between the benches. The shop owner, a fat but lively woman of about fifty, dished out food from the next table. The small girl who served as a dishwasher did the dishes in two large plastic bowls, set on the ground and filled with soapy dish water. The dishes were never washed clean enough. The woman had to tend to customers as quickly as she could; the small girl had to do the dishes in a hurry, leaving oil scum on the bowls.
Kema and her mother, Bendu, sat among the other customers, a motley group of carboys, yanna boys, bachelors, and folks who sold assorted goods along the streets. The food was red beans with red oil and rice. Kema and her mother bought seventy-five dollars’ worth of it, crouched over the food, and ate in a blur like the others, famished and having no time to spare. Then they got up and left, wiping their oily mouths with the back of their hands.
They walked down Lynch and Center streets, got off the tarmac road, and made their way between several houses, many of them makeshift buildings occupying every inch of land available. They came to a stop at a corrugated shack. Kema stood at the rickety wooden door. Her mother checked her overall pockets, found a couple of small keys, and opened the cheap padlock, which Kema would often chide Bendu about replacing with a stouter one, at the door. The neighborhood teemed with thieves. People’s clothes and sometimes food cooking on the fire, were often snatched no sooner than they could turn their backs. Even so Bendu never changed the lock. What did she have in that room?
On the bare floor of the room were a thin, dirty mattress, torn in places and smelling of rats’ 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 wooden bench against one wall of the room. Against another wall were 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.
Leaning their wooden brooms against the wall, they got undressed and 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. 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 suddenly on the mattress. She hadn’t been able to sleep all night because her stomach hurt. Was it birth pangs? She thought it was. She had been six months and three weeks pregnant and knew her child would come anytime soon — a premature delivery that the other fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds had right and left. Another sharp pain struck like an iron fist in her stomach. She cursed under her breath, reviling against the man who had impregnated her.
Lucky Boy, they called him, had abandoned her a few months earlier. He had been a bus driver she met one day on her way from school. He hadn’t accepted her twenty dollar fare when she got off his bus. He had given 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 cash on him. He started carrying parcels for her and her mother. She started sleeping at his place, a rickety corrugated shack in Buzzy Quarter, where Lucky Boy rented a room and paid 300 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 the doorway and glared at her, hands on his hips. “Wuhtin you wan me to do old ma?”
“Oh Lucky Boy that the way you can talk to me, after you fini pregnant my daughter, eh?”
“Who pregnant your daughter, me?”
“Da you de girl been sleepin with.”
“Okay, ask her about the men who take her to the nightclubs, get her drunk and do anythin they wan do with her.”
“So you tellin me my daughter da prostitute?”
“Ask your daughter and all the Monrovia girls who wear their fake hair, lipstick and go sleep around.”
“I don’t care! All I know, da you pregnant my daughter and I will make you pay.”
“And before you make me pay, I will show you something.”
Lucky Boy disappeared into his room and returned with a candle and a box of matches. He lit the candle and stood in front of Kema, holding the candle-flame close to his face. “Tell me if this is the face of the man who gave you belly,” he said with a laugh.
His display had brought a crowd of bystanders. The crowd burst out laughing.
“That you gave me belly,” Kema shouted at him.
“All right let’s see if you will get one cent out of me!”
“If you don’t support her I will call the police,” Bendu threatened, knocking the candle from Lucky Boy’s hand.
But when Bendu called the police the next morning, the case became as much as a sieve would hold water. The two police officers and Lucky Boy spoke in hushed tones away from her. They returned to Bendu, told her to go to court. It was not a crime for the police to deal with, they said. But poor Bendu could never go to court and they knew it.
Bendu sat bolt upright when Kema screamed, her voice shattering the quiet of the night.
“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, writhing on the mattress and moaning with clenched teeth. Bendu found the box of matches and lit the lantern. She stared into Kema’s contorted face.
“Let’s go to the hospital quick-quick Kema. You comin born.”
“Mama hurry up before I die!”
Dazed, Bend jumped up off the mattress, unlocked the door, flung it open, and dashed outside. She ran barefoot from one house to another, calling on her neighbors and pounding on their doors.
“My people your come o! My daughter in labor pain! Somebody please give me a wheelbarrow.”
In a moment a small 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 tarmac road 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, like AT in the movies, and a little mouth that wouldn’t shut up. He cried and cried and cried. Kema breast-fed him until she was exhausted. Finally, they went home after a couple of days.
A few relatives came to see the child. Some gave Bendu money; others brought parcels for Kema and the baby. They left, returned one day and another, and finally the visits were over. Bendu dug up the money she had been saving. 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, the baby tied to her back. She was often hungry and tired. She would sit along the sidewalks nursing the child while her mother swept. Late in the evening they would go to the cold-bowl shops as always. Kema would feed the child rice, though he was too young to eat it and often cried.
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.”
The huge woman glared at her. “What happened?”
“Ma you see my daughter over there?” Bendu said, pointing at Kema sitting by the sidewalk.
“What happened to her?”
“She just born.”
The glare became more formidable. But Bendu didn’t care. She had better speak with the woman, or she, her daughter and grandchild would starve to death.
“I wanted to ask you to pay me for five months.”
“What are you talking about, eh?”
“Ma as soon as you pay us for the month the money fini. Me and my daughter na doing nathin but sweepin. I want her to go to the market and start sellin small-small tin.”
The woman held up her palm. “You are not the only person sweeping the street and certainly not the only one who got problems. I myself got problems. Look at those other women. They’ve all got problems. They all need money. The government hardly pays 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 to.”
“Please take me to the city mayor.”
“Go to the city mayor yourself! My office is the street. Period.” The woman turned and walked away, not looking back.
Bendu stared after her in shock, tears streaming down her face.
Their plight went from bad to worse. Their landlord threw them out. They found lodgings in one of the unfinished government buildings, joined a crowd of other poor folks, and went on sweeping.
Then one day Bendu saw the President herself, wearing jeans, gloves, mountain climber boots, and armed with a broom. She had visited the street that morning, as she did on the first Saturday of each month, to help “keep Monrovia 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 stuck out his fist, knocking her in the face. She screamed and fell flat to the ground. A few passersby and onlookers began yelling. The President wheeled around, stunned by the commotion. She looked over the guard’s shoulder and 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, who lay sprawled on the ground, not stirring a limb. She knelt down close to her. “Ma, you all right?’
But Bendu was dead.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2016
About the author: Saah Millimono is the author of Broken Dreams, which was awarded the Short Fiction Prize of the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. He has written for the Daily Observer, the Guardian (UK) and has worked for USAID’s Core Education Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) and the Advancing Youth Project (AYP), both as story consultant and as audio scriptwriter. His first novel Boy Interrupted was awarded 2nd Place for the Kwani Manuscript Project, a one-off writing prize for African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. Presently, he’s pursuing a BA degree in Mass Communication at the African Methodist Episcopal University, in Monrovia. He is currently at work on his second novel, which explores the root causes, some of which were not only the direct result of misrule but also the social disparities and perhaps even prejudices that existed both between the indigenous and Americo-Liberians, which triggered the Liberian Civil War. It is also the overlapping stories of three very different characters caught in the conflict and forced into situations that are as sweeping and heartrending as the war itself.