Yesterday, Baba called us. Of course, Baba always calls us. If a father doesn’t call his children, what kind of a father is he? So, he calls us to say, “Go, fetch water for me”, or “Your mothers have brought the food over. Come let’s eat”, or to say, “Go and run this errand.” But this was another type of calling: this calling gathered us all the children, and we are many. Maybe we are 14, but I have never counted us. It is bad to count people who are still breathing; only the dead are counted.
As well as calling us, he called Uncle Salif, Uncle Brahima and the many other uncles we have. He also called some people who are not our real uncles, because when we came to sit down on the mats that had been laid down in front of his compound by our sisters, I saw that Sékou and Kamagaté were sitting on the mat with Baba and chewing their kola nuts with grave looks on their face. As if the matter demanded that one’s face be set like that.
Sékou and Kamagaté are not from our family, even if you go far back. But they are old, and they have position in this village. Kamagaté speaks really good French – nobody knows what he used to do – but even the prefect is scared of him. Some people even say that Sékou is scared of him too and that is why Kamagaté is like a kind of an adviser to him. Sékou is our dougoutigui. People say that he would have been chosen by ADO to be one of the chiefs at the Chamber of the Chiefs and Kings of Côte d’Ivoire. But Mandinani is far from Odienné, and Odienné itself is very far from Abidjan, so Sékou had to remain the dougoutigui of Mandinani. Had things been different, he would be one of the people whispering into the ears of the president today. As it is, he needs to sit in on a shoe matter.
It is because of people like Sékou and Kamagaté that even though we children would have rather liked to be kicking a ball at the public place now, or even be having a swimming session at the marigot, we were sitting down here and keeping very quiet. Because the hour wasn’t for playing. Even Uncle Mory was here. Uncle Mory, who lives all the way in Sinématiali and who told Baba that he’d cycled two full days to be here.
“But I had to be here!” He’d said and looked around at the other uncles who’d come to welcome him, as if the hardship of cycling for two full days was nothing compared to the gravity of the matter for which he had been called.
Uncle Mory was now curing his teeth with a toothpick and from the way he’d gathered the sides of his threadbare boubou around him, nobody could be mistaken that he intended to conduct this matter. And although the judgment hadn’t fallen, everyone knew how he intended to go with it. Already, when he arrived the day before, he’d refused to drink the water my mother brought, so in the end, it was Ma fitini who had to bring the water and prepare the evening meal. And it hadn’t been a necessary matter to consult with the karamoko-tchè to know that she wasn’t happy. Ma fitini was the kind of wife who knew that as the last wife, she was there to be pampered and not be put upon.
We sat to attention when Uncle Mory cleared his throat.
“M’fa,” he looked to Sékou and Kamagaté, who despite clearly being dôgôs, deserved the title of “Fathers” because of their positions in the village. “My brother Moussa here sent me news a week ago to tell me about what our son Karim did.” He nodded before folding his legs and sitting up straight.
He stared at each of us and even though my eyes weren’t on my brothers, I knew that they also adjusted their postures. I kept my face as expressionless as possible.
“Where’s Karim?” He barked, and made us jump.
“We … we haven’t seen him. Since yesterday.” Mohamed, who had become the eldest in the absence of Karim, said.
“Then he has gone to the person who taught him such wickedness.” Baba answered in a voice that seemed satisfied, and that scared me.
Karim was my older brother. He was more of mine than the others because we came from the same womb. When this matter happened last week and Baba told him to leave because such a cursed child could not be his, I begged Karim not to listen to our father.
“You know what he’s like. Just say sorry, Karim.”
He’d turned those fiery eyes towards me and although I knew that he was in the right, I still replied, “For buying the shoes like that.”
“If I hadn’t bought those shoes, you know that I would never have had the chance to have had them.”
His eyes had trailed towards the shoes and a smile had crossed his lips. He’d sat on the mattress we shared and picked up the shoes.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
The shoes that caused our mother to be called a feckless woman who couldn’t teach her children good manners, the shoes that caused us to run to our father’s compound only to see that the reason why he’d let out that piercing scream wasn’t because he was dying, but because Karim had done an unforgivable thing.
“Whose house do you live in? Who feeds you in this house? You now have your own money!!!” Baba had shouted, before adding, “Leave my house. Leave! I couldn’t have fathered such a cursed child.”
Karim hadn’t said a word. Instead, he’d made a way among us and walked towards his hut.
“But what happened, our Baba?” Ma fitini wailed, even though what happened was there for even a blind man to see, and the matter wasn’t that serious to warrant the wailing tone of Ma fitini.
I don’t think that Baba gave an answer to her question. In any case, I left Baba’s compound and went to meet Karim in the hut we shared next to our mother’s.
“It is a beautiful pair of shoes.” I sat down next to him and took the trainers.
They were a pair of Hi-Top trainers. Navy blue. Karim had wanted those shoes ever since he saw them on the feet of that census official.
“Soumaila, I’ll get myself those shoes.” He’d said that evening as we lay on our mattress, waiting for sleep to come.
“They look like expensive shoes.” I’d said.
The expense hadn’t really been my concern; Karim was a hard-worker who knew what he wanted. When he’d had enough of school, he told Baba that he wanted his own plot of land to work on and Baba had given it to him. But own plot of land or not, we were still living in our father’s compound and no money could be our own. Even the little money we earned from weeding the village teachers’ allotments had to be put into Baba’s hands, who would then give us a bit, take a bit for himself, before sharing the rest among our mothers. So when Karim told me two weeks after the census official had left with his shoes that said trainers cost 15,000, I had known that there was no way on this earth of God that Karim would get those shoes. 15,000 on a pair of shoes! What kind of work would pay him that sort of money, especially as the harvesting season was over? And how would he stand in front of Baba and say that he wanted a pair of shoes that cost 15,000. Safroulaye! The price of a 50 kg bag of rice!
That’s why God says not to covet. Karim weeded out the teachers’ allotments. He planted up yam tubs for them. He looked after the prefect’s herd of cows. He worked on the prefect’s house as a bricklayer and when the money added up, he took a trip to Odienné and bought the shoes before telling Baba, “Here is what I earned.” He only presented the shoes and 25,000 and that is the reason why Baba shouted and that is the reason why Uncle Mory refused to drink our mother’s water and eat her food. That’s why we are all sitting in the dust here instead of kicking a ball in it.
Uncle Mory looked at Baba before shaking his head.
“He has gone to the person who taught him such wickedness. Isn’t that person still here?”
“Ah, Mory! When the mouth has spoken, it must also listen to the ears.” Sékou said.
“A child who is still living in his father’s compound and telling his father how to spend his own money, should such wickedness not be cut down at the root?”
“It is a pair of shoes…”
“A pair of shoes that cost 15,000!”
“No woman, and especially no first wife, has ever been repudiated for such a matter.” Kamagaté said.
I have heard it said by the old people in our village that Kamagaté speaks like a white man. Maybe they meant this way of getting straight to the point. Because all this not eating our mother’s food, all this “I can’t have fathered such a cursed child” talk, all this talk about wickedness, aren’t all these things about repudiating my mother?
Tears filled my eyes but I tightened my heart. If those tears were to fall, wouldn’t people say that my mother was definitely wicked? Giving birth to a man who cries! Had I undergone circumcision or not?
Uncle Mory turned sharply to face Kamagaté, maybe because he’d said out loud what he’d been thinking, or maybe because it was looking like the repudiation of my mother wouldn’t be the appropriate punishment. Kamagaté kept his eyes straight ahead, only turning them towards the entrance of the compound, and we all did the same, when the girly voice of Ma tènin asked, “Who died for this compound to be so quiet?”
Ma tènin is old, very old. She stoops, so that shows how old she is, but if you close your eyes and listen to her, you will think that she is a young woman. She came to where we were all sitting down, but my heart leapt more when I saw that she was accompanied by Karim, wearing his trainers.
When I couldn’t see him anywhere after our conversation and saw that the trainers had gone missing, I thought that Karim had really left and fear entered my heart. If he really had to leave and make a life somewhere else, then let him do it with Baba’s blessings. But like that! Even when my mother told me that he would come back, my heart still didn’t find peace. But here he was.
“Tènin, men are gathering.” Uncle Mory said.
Everyone called Ma tènin, tènin. She was so old that even old men called her auntie.
“Mory, don’t you know that if a woman lives long enough, she is but a woman for a short period of her life. Or is it because I don’t have that thing that is dangling between your legs?”
We laughed. Kamagaté smiled. Sékou reached for his throat. Baba rolled his eyes before throwing us a look to be quiet. Tènin smiled before lowering herself down and sitting on the mat next to the men. Ma fitini arrived with a bowl of water for Ma tènin.
“Thank you, my daughter.”
Uncle Mory folded and unfolded his legs. Baba went back to having his head bowed. Sékou fingered his prayer beads and Kamagaté started tracing some figures in the dust. They waited for Ma tènin to finish the water and say that she had quenched her thirst before Baba asked the news.
“I should be asking you the news, dôgô. Aren’t you the one throwing your eldest son out over a pair of shoes?”
“We are sorting out the matter, tènin.” Uncle Mory said.
“What matter is there to sort out?” Ma tènin frowned. “Karim worked and bought his shoes. Did he ask you for the money? Hein, Moussa? Did he lie about the shoes? Is it money you don’t have that you are calling your own flesh and blood cursed over a pair of shoes? Are we talking about shoes or is there something else?”
“Just shoes, tènin.” Baba said.
Ma tènin shrugged then and looked at the old men before looking over at us.
“Go and kick a football,” Kamagaté said, and we scrambled to our feet.
Hopefully, we would get a game in before the call for the evening meal comes.