I love elderly people; they relate wonderful tales of yore. They are also mirrors, in whose eyes I see my reflection not too distant away; I am, after all, over the fifty hump and rapidly accelerating down. They can also be crabby and vicious at times, some of them. Take Mullah Mchungu for example, who is sitting across me at my home porch, enjoying balmy weather and puffing away at an Indian beedi, like a taxed locomotive taking on a steep mountainside, his menacing walking cane laid nicely nearby. I have heard rumors he has used the cane for more reasons than walking or support, but I have been spared, alhamd’Allah. Thus far. I know uncontrollable coughs and inevitable phlegm will follow the beedi, so I have placed a used peanut can discreetly nearby, just in case. I can’t have Mullah spewing his chesty discards all over my immaculately trimmed lawn; why, Bruce, the lawnmower would have fits if he found out.
Mullah Mchungu, from Dar es Sallam, is visiting his son here in Sanford. Regardless of our many differences, I make it a point to invite the Mullah home and we talk; this gives me fodder to chew on what old age may mean for me. Poor guy, he’s had a nasty scare from the tragedy of the collapsed building in Dar; his apartment is but a short distance from Ground Zero. We chitchat a bit about the terrible tragedy over tea and snacks. He says he’s still traumatized by the incident; why, he could easily have been walking under the collapsing debris had it not been a Good Friday, a holiday.
I guess Allah still wants me living with the burdens of my sins haunting me some more, he says.
Ow Mullah, I say in consolation, insha’Allah, Allah will forgive your sins, He is Most Merciful.
I am not so sure, Kisukaali, he says, my sins may not be easily forgivable.
There is a far away look of pain and remorse on his face that jolts me a bit; surely the Mullah couldn’t have done anything unforgivable by Allah, the Most Forgiving? But I am intrigued as well.
Really Mullah, I doubt it, I say, hoping this will prompt him to talk.
Mullah Mchungu goes quiet and very still, as if napping siting. He has done this before, always making me uncomfortable; what to do in this situation? But he deeply sighs, opens his eyes and regards me with teary eyes of age.
Kisukaali, I have a lot of wrongs to right before I die and I don’t know how. And I am so confused by advice I get from our ulemas on how to go about doing it...
I tense immediately, ya Allah, what now? Why is Mullah unloading burdens on me even ulemas can’t help? I am not sure I want to hear more but say nothing, wait for him to continue.
Let me tell you my story, young man, he says.
I perk up and bare teeth; why, he just paid me a compliment. He continues.
I was born in Kilwa, Tanzania a long, long time ago. I knew your family, your Dad especially; you look a lot like him. Your family had a duka across from ours in Kilwa. You were not born then, but I know all your elder siblings.
I did not have a formal education, only alef, baa, taa for Quraan from a grumpy old Mullah who took pleasure in thumping me for minutest of errors and ka, kha, gha for Gujarati from a grumpier Hindu lady who took even greater pleasure in pinching my underarms, for no reason at all!
I laugh at the depiction but the Mullah is not amused; unsmiling, he regards me solemnly. I shut up quickly, least he decides to use the cane to express his displeasure. He continues after making it known he will tolerate no interruptions.
My father owned a duka selling food rations and knickknacks, cigarettes and lawalawa and soap, you know how those dukas were? Shop in the front, dim and dingy house at the back?
I nod eagerly; we had a similar setup back in Tanga, Tanzania on bara bara kumi na mbili. Mullah pauses, exhorts a hefty pull of phlegm from deep recesses of his lungs and scouts for a suitable spot for disposal. Alarmed, I frantically point at the makeshift spittoon by his side, under his chair; thankfully, it is used. I relax.
My parents had two African boys who worked at the duka and a maid who cleaned the house and helped my mother cook. My father was a great namaazi, forever praying, he installed this virtue in me, alhamd’Allah. But he was extremely hard on the two African boys, Jooma and Hassani, who worked at the shop. The boys, not more than fourteen, fifteen perhaps, worked from sunup to past magreeb, seven days a week, all year round. The only days they got off were Aashoora and half day of Eid ul Fitr. Father paid them next to nothing, I’m not sure he paid them anything monetarily. Yes, they ate at home; chai and dry bread in the morning, ugaali and maharage or mchicha for lunch and leftovers from our lunch for dinner. Some dried fish; discards from meat we cleaned and an egg now and then were the only source of protein they consumed. Father paid for a new khanzu for them during Ramadhan, the rest of their clothes were hand-me-downs from my elder brothers.
The maid at the back of our house fared a little better, from my kinder, softer mother. She worked like a horse as well, mind you. Woke up early, made tea, swept the baraaza, cleaned the house, bathroom and the stinking hole at the back, ensured there was enough hot water for everybody’s bath, water boiled on a charcoal burner mind you, helped make breakfast, cleaned dishes, made beds, washed clothes, hung them dry, ironed them, helped in the kitchen, cut this, chopped that, fetched this, brought that, bought potatoes, onions, meat... from the market across the street and any other chore we could think of. Or invent. Yet Mariyaamu found time to smile and joke and hum and laugh at my mischiefs and sang beautifully with a clear voice as she dried her thick, curly black hair after bathing, using an elongated pronged wooden comb. Since I was the youngest in the family, she mothered me, feeding me regularly and bathing me daily until I was about ten or so; she was very attached and fond of me.
Jooma and Hassani used toilets outside the house, I still don’t know where. Mariyaamu was allowed to use ours, but not during peak times and never, ever share the same soaps, either for bathing or general cleanup. Yet, we had no problem she using her muscle and our soap washing our clothes.
Mullah Mchungu asks for another cup of chai, which I bring. He drinks it noisily then lights up another beedi and pollutes my porch. Predictable hacking and hawking follow, the peanut can spittoon gets further populated.
Years pass and I become an angoota chaap adult. My parents are recalled to their Maker, may Allah forgive their shortfalls. My siblings, two brothers move away from Kilwa for greener pastures in Dar es Sallam where they make a fortune in magendo business, my sister gets married and moves to Canada and I get to keep the shop and make a decent living, also in magendo business, but at a much smaller scale. Nyerere’s policy of ujamaa had ruined the country but created superb opportunities for rich Asians and others with money to make colossal amount of money in hoarding commodities and selling at highly inflated prices later.
I inherited the two African boys and Mariyaamu. Later, all three found spouses from their distant villages. Mariyaamu got pregnant and decided to move back to her village and till their small shamba with her new family. Both Jooma and Hassani wanted to move to bigger cities with better prospects, so we parted company as well. I had been accumulating many sins by stealing from my employees for many years by this time, a habit acquired from my father.
Mullah must have seen me start at this revelation, but he ignored me and continued talking.
By law, we had to pay our employees a minimum wage, you see. Yet I paid them much less, much, much less for the hours they labored for me. But I made them sign, angootha chaap of course, as received all dues. Then I did another terrible wrong. I gave them three next to nothing when they resigned, although they were entitled to compensation for years they worked for my family and I; by law, by rights, humanitarian and Islamic. Not that I could not afford it, no! I didn’t because it was the norm in my community. Africans were ghoolas, kaalas, ghaghas, unworthy of honor or dignity or self-respect; benefits for which we cry foul if denied and are ready to sue in a flash in this country. One after another, in a span of a month, they said kweheri and left; I replaced them easily. I was never to meet any of them again.
Mullah’s eyes are even tearier now; voice thick with emotion and pain. I am perplexed for action, conflicting emotions of repulsion and sympathy creating indecision for me. A sob escapes Mullah’s lips; he pleads.
If only I can somehow mitigate my sins, Kisukaali. The ulema tell me I can pray for forgiveness from Allah and pay Radde Mazaalim as repentance, and I have done this, but I am not content, my heart is restless. If only I can kiss the hands of Mariyaamu that fed and cleaned me. If only I can locate Jooma and Hassani and ask for their pardon, pay my debts, more even, open a business for them, educate their children. How am I to right this terrible wrong, Kisukaali?
Baraaza – Courtyard.
Bara bara kumi na mbili – Street number twelve.
Duka – Small shop.
Ghaghas - Derogatory term for a Black person.
Ghoolas – Derogatory term for a Black person.
Kaalas - Derogatory term for a Black person.
Khanzu – A loose robe worn (mostly) by Muslim men.
Kweheri – Goodbye.
Lawalawa – Candy.
Magendo – Illicit.
Maharage – Bean curry.
Mchicha – Spinach curry.
Nyerere – Tanzania’s founding president.
Shamba – Farm.
Ugaali – Inexpensive cornmeal gruel.
Ujamaa – Collective.
Angootha chaap – Thumbprint