‘Who is there?’
Ras stretched, pushing his legs out of his haphazardly made bed as he lingered on the thought of ignoring his early visitor. Then thinking otherwise, he got up, throwing away his blankets one after the other. He was half asleep even as he sat up and cared little to think that some of the blankets he carelessly threw away landed into bowls that undoubtedly contained leftovers from the previous night’s meal. His wife must have remembered to put the dirty dishes away before she crept to sleep beside him, he thought. He led his hand and felt cold pieces of clothes that had obviously had no contact with his warm body. Fully awake, he remembered everything and swore. Yawning, he rubbed his index finger on his eyelids and indolently opened his left eye to see the owner of the hand that had shaken him to wakefulness.
A stern gaze was locked into his drowsy face. It was the city council security officer.
‘On your feet right now, old man and follow me. You are not supposed to be sleeping here.’
A few passers-by threw detached glances at the elderly street dweller, who now sat on his rags right in the middle of the narrow lane nibbling at the left corner of his lower lip.
‘Now!’ The security officer shouted, roughing him up to his feet by a soiled collar of a shirt. Ras wearily fumbled up, straightening his feeble frame on his frail feet.
‘This is nonsense,’ he mumbled between his teeth, starting to lose his calm.
‘What did you say?’ the security officer had picked the old man’s grumble.
‘I said I have nothing in my belly for your formalities.’
‘I see. You grew a nerve in only a week.’
Ras said nothing. He whimpered as he bent down to pick his belongings which were some pieces of blankets and a rugged bamboo mat on which he slept. These he shoved into an old sisal sack on which he then sat and started opening a large plastic bag that undoubtedly contained everything else he possessed. He was preparing himself for breakfast.
‘Okay, you win,’ the security officer said, leaning to whisper to the old man’s ear. ‘Look here, I need you to do something for me.’
‘Of course you do. And since it appears to be my lucky day, there are things I want as well.’
‘Keep it low! What would you want?’
‘You mean here on the streets? Not much. First, carry me on your shoulders to our café. That would be a thoughtful gesture to my worn-out bones.’
‘Of course I will carry you. To your grave.’
‘Then I am not going anywhere.’
‘I said keep that pathetic voice of yours low.’ The security officer growled, barely parting stiff lips that pressed against each other tightly. ‘What if I told you the list is out?’
In a moment, the security officer and the street dweller were walking towards Sunrise Café. The security officer carrying a heavy plastic bag walked in haste, throwing insolent glances at his companion when the latter was not looking. The street dweller, weighed down by the hefty sack on his back scurried beside him, deep in thought. Once or twice when their eyes met, the security officer gave a reassuring smirk, and then swiftly looked away with a straight face.
The Business District was at the height of all manner of bustle. Most active were street hawkers who made calculated appearances on the city’s crowded lanes to steal attention from buyers behind scrutiny of the city council security men. Occasionally, the men would appear from nowhere and pounce on a few hawkers who they bundled up in a police van that drove them away to be flogged every day. After a week of serious thrashing they would be released with exacting orders never to take their business to the streets again. Most of them however crawled back to peddling their goods right in the heart of the restricted areas, their wounds still sore after only a day or two of offhand nursing from their families.
It was neither time nor season for a street dweller to be seen in the middle of the city. Most of those who spent cold nights in front of shops made sure to take off before the city came to life. A few miles from the centre of the city little groups of street families would be seen sitting or strolling idly along the banks of a once very beautiful river that now swept away most of the city’s filth as it made to join other watercourses. It was a home that they had known for a long time until the government started implementing plans to relocate them to other places. Most of them had already been put on government buses and told they were being taken to a place where houses, schools and hospitals were waiting for them. Only a few of them had fallen for these promised goodies. Some, closest to Ras had also been taken away at gunpoint.
‘About the list…’
‘I am tired of this place. I want to go home.’
‘If you say so. Here we are. Go ahead and order whatever you want’
‘You are not coming in?’
‘No. You are awfully kind but I would rather wait here.’
The security officer threw the plastic bag near the sack that the old man had left when he went inside the café. Then, hands in his pockets, he strolled towards two men and a woman who sat on plastic chairs outside the café, leisurely picking their teeth. One of the men had his head buried in a newspaper and occasionally looked up to explain to the other two the contents of the story he was reading on the front page of the paper.
‘Why don’t you buy spectacles?’ the woman who sat generously in an unbalanced chair said, spitting in a handkerchief after which she returned a toothpick between her lips. She had a white overall wrapped around her waist.
‘What is your problem?’
‘You are trying to shove that paper in your eyes and I am concerned. Anyway, what does the government say about the matter?’
The man ostentatiously tilted his neck to read the paper that he now held loosely above his head. ‘I see the interior ministry saying that the operation kicked off yesterday and they already have some names.’ He swallowed loudly and threw an inviting look at the security officer before proceeding to read the section of the article to the others. The security officer moved closer. He leaned and peering, he read a title that ran across the page.
Drug dealers now turn to street children
A huge lump dropped in the security officer’s stomach again, melting into waves that ran across his body and made his hands tremble. The man with the newspaper went on to read, pausing after each sentence to search the faces of his companions.
‘The ministry now alleges that some of the children interviewed confirmed their participation in the sale of the said drugs, revealing identities of prominent people they are working with.’
Sighing heavily, the man threw the paper at the woman’s lap and addressing no one in particular he said, ‘There. Do you think anything will be done? Never. Such stories that touch people deemed more equal than others are unfortunately destined for nothing more than catchy headlines and puppet commissions of inquiries.’
‘I see you understand a lot of politics,’ the woman said, grabbing the paper.
‘See if there is anything more interesting in there,’ the other man said.
‘The president of America is coming here next Thursday.’
‘To do what?’
‘They say he is coming for bilateral talks.’
‘Whatever that means. No wonder the streets are spotless clean.’
I do. The security officer sighed off his concern, swiftly stepping away from the three as they plunged into a luscious account of the relocation of street families. He was afraid that they had noticed the sweat on his brow. His knees shook uncontrollably too. Walking into Sunrise Café, he made straight to where Ras sat, surrounded by empty tables.
‘We must go now. There is no time to waste.’ Then grabbing him by a collar of the shirt, he dragged him outside after he threw a thousand shilling note at a dazed waiter who stood playing with his mobile phone at the counter. Ras stamped his feet wildly in protest, his mouth too full to utter refusal to leave. Then he sullenly gave in and followed the security officer out of the café. Once they had passed by the two men and a woman who remained fixed at the same spot discussing a newspaper, the security officer turned back sharply.
‘The list is out and I could be on it.’
‘Remember there is also a list on which I wouldn’t be most discontented to emerge at the top,’ Ras said, licking his lips.
Breakfast had been fantastic. A special meal was what he enjoyed most on specific days that the security officer dropped by to subject him to false arrests. The security officer was a crafty man, Ras thought. Whenever they met, the two swept exchanges, spoken and tactically tacit, that were lost on everyone else, including those who possessed a hawk’s agility to pick anything happening in town and therefore never, at least not willingly, allowed anything theatrical to escape their insatiable hunger for drama to fill their empty lives. He would approach as though to arrest him for sleeping on the streets or for some other concocted reason, a quest that never crossed the minds of other security personnel on the streets, thereby crowning himself protagonist in the much sought after austerity in the security department. All the while, however, the security officer keenly ogled the other benefits the habit veiled. A neatly packed bundle of heroine would then subtly cross hands, sometimes slipping beneath the stuff in the dirty sack without the street dweller noticing. But when they parted ways, Ras would meaningfully plunge his hand in the sack and feel the smooth substance. Once a week at least, Ras received the illegal stuff and once a week, the two would meet to share the spoils. The security officer would then vanish into the streets with puffed-up coffers, and Ras would be left behind with an equally swollen stomach picking his teeth in anticipation of the grand prize.
It was at the remote stinky lanes in the Business District, the resting chambers for street families that Ras fell in the arduous task of measuring the heroine into smaller portions for sale. These, he easily distributed among his pals who were mostly lean disheveled boys that went about the streets during the day, snuffling at their gum bottles. The lanes were also occasioned by other passers-by, some who did more than just pass by but fished out bank notes in exchange for the drugs. The drug business was booming and so were the hopes of Ras making it to the list of beneficiaries of the government parcels of land that were meant for the people who had been displaced by violence some ten or so years ago. His security officer had promised.
‘You are on it. You are going home to a sizeable chunk of land you’ve worked so hard to get.’
‘Thank you! What do you mean thank you? You don’t even know what sarcasm is.’
‘You mean that I am the loser here, right? What did you do Ras? I thought we had an agreement.’
‘Yes. And I distributed the stuff carefully among my pals. They are still on the streets and the business is doing just fine. The money is coming in tomorrow.’
‘Great! Only that my name is now on an infamy list and thanks to this coveted acknowledgement, I will be swept away with the rest of the filth as the country prepares to welcome the foreign president. Well done Ras.’
‘What list? You must have seen your name on it to be so sure.’
‘I didn’t see the list. Still classified as authorities investigate, old Ras.’
‘And you are certain about making your way to the government’s classified information? You still have to sweat hard to attain such status.’
‘Just as you worked untiringly to find your way up these streets? Quite some ranks in your pockets there.’
‘Where I come from there is no land anymore. I must secure some for my sons.’
‘Yes, yes you have said that a thousand times. Only that I am not the one who gave your land the legs with which it walked away.’
‘So you know I can kill for this project. Don’t worry. There are bigger fish in the shadow whose stuff rules the market. Look,’ Ras said, setting down the sack and bending to open it. He fished out a dirty newspaper and pointed out a headline. ‘Drug dealers now turn to street children. Children, officer, children! Am I a child?’
‘Wait. So there is…’
‘Yes officer. Enough with flattering yourself. There are others too. They even give at a throw away price.’
‘Fine then. Let’s wait and see.’
“And the people mentioned are prominent. I stand to be corrected but I don’t think you are prominent.’
‘Let’s wait and see.’
‘I’ll start preparing myself to leave this stinking place the day after tomorrow if possible.’
‘Do you really need to prepare yourself?’ The security officer asked, eying the old man’s luggage.
‘More than you can ever imagine.’
‘Is there anything you are hiding from me?’
‘More than you can ever imagine.’
Ras was leaning on a wall of one of the shops downtown reading a newspaper when a bus passed by. Someone on the bus shouted his name as the bus disappeared behind a cloud of dust. Deciding that the bus was one of those transporting the street families, and also well aware that he was a common figure among the street community and so anyone could have called him, he went back to reading his newspaper. There was too much on his mind to give attention to his friends who were being taken away to be constrained in a school to read books. He still couldn’t understand the contents of the news and what they translated to his own welfare.
A day before, when the security officer came to discuss his concern about the government crackdown on the sale of drugs, some street children were randomly picked from the streets and cleaned to entertain the visiting dignitaries. Those who saw it said that the children were crudely swept off to a humanitarian facility where their gum bottles were unceremoniously plucked from their lips. They were then rid of their rags after which they were immersed in warm water and several layers of dirt were scrubbed off their coarse skins. Sweet scented oil was then smeared on their bodies which made them sweat profusely in the hot sun. Ras had sneaked along to the humanitarian facility and watched as clean, second hand clothes slid down the necks of the children who had been street children not long before. A little boy who didn’t get a shirt and pair of shorts had a beautiful pink dress slither down his lean frame as well and with a clean-shaven and oiled head, he looked like a little girl. After they were fed to bursting at the facility which was run by local people with funding by a foreign organization, the children were led to a hall to practice the songs that had been selected to entertain the foreign visitors. They were purposed to perform under the category of rehabilitated street children.
The relocation of the street families wasn’t the issue on his mind though. Essentially, some city council security officers had been arrested for ‘teaming up with street children to sell drugs on the streets’. Some of his friends had been apprehended too and he didn’t know the whereabouts of his security officer. Had he been arrested?
He didn’t want to think that all the cold nights he had spent on the rough slabs of the streets would go down the drain. He had to do something. What if the security officer had lied to him about the list? What if the government had no plans to relocate the internally displaced people on new parcels of land? At this thought his heart sank. It hit Ras that he had set his prospects too high. Sadly, he decided that an extensive rest under the scanty shade at his home in the village was all he needed to admit that he had lost the battle.
A bus halted near him as he bent down grabbing his belongings to go his way and prepare to catch the next bus back to his village. He wanted to run. His efforts to sprint away were trashed by a gunshot in the air that left him motionless, his hands raised above his head. In a short while, he was seated on the bus that had been seen making numerous trips to the government facility for street families. It was the same bus on which street boys who were suspects in the sale of drugs were taken away to help in police investigation.
‘One or two trips and the streets will be clean,’ he heard a man who was seated on the driver’s seat, clad in a city council security officer attire, say. Watching his luggage grow smaller and smaller as the bus slewed out of the Business District, Ras made himself comfortable in his seat and tried to guess where he was being taken.