Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

A Short Story

A twist of the law

By L.D. Sesay

For more than half an hour now, Pa Momodu had been wandering around the waterfront streets of Freetown. Once in a while he would make enquiries about a pair of shoes, a head- tie and so on. He had to think well what to buy to please his two wives and five children. He had every reason to make them, especially the two women, happy. Apart from being hard- working partners, they were very faithful and always ready to share any problem that confronted their husband.

Pa Momodu had heard the million and one stories about villagers being robbed in the streets of Freetown. He had heard enough and was taking no chances. He made sure his produce was bought right in the boat he had travelled with to Freetown. The money, about two hundred leones, he wrapped in a piece of cloth, tied neatly around his middle and then got into his trousers and shirt.

After all this security, he made it duty-bound by feeling the bundle every two to three minutes. Just to make sure. He knew nobody was going to steal that money without dropping him on the ground. Impossible!

Abdul Sampa was the notorious pickpocket of the city's Sawpit area. The twenty-three year old youth was as skillful as he was cunning. He was ten when he ran away from his mother when she caught him stealing meat from the soup reserved for the next day. He found himself in the company of bad boys, mostly pickpockets, getting everything the hard way. For five bad years (as he always said), he was apprenticing under different 'masters.' Bringing all these skills together, he emerged as the area's most qualified pickpocket.

For his skills and fastness in his operations, his companions nicknamed him 'The Boss.' He found no difficulty in fishing out a wallet, purse or bank notes from any pocket no matter where that pocket is situated. In addition to that, he had so many ways of conquering his 'clients.' It was even rumoured that he can take care of locks.

For the past hour, The Boss had been shadowing Pa Momodu, but nothing had happened. He saw all that happened in the boat: how the money had been paid and the position the man hid it. He knew it was quite impossible to reach and that made him angry. He could not sacrifice those long, sixty minutes he had wasted on this man who thought he was sensible. No villager will outplay me, he said loudly to himself. He must do something, and now, before it was too late.

All this time Pa Momodu had no idea about the tail he was wearing. He had nothing to worry about after the security he had applied. He was about to enter one shop when he felt someone holding his hand. He was trying to free himself from the grip of this uninvited companion when the intruder started screaming, above his lungs, calling the police.

In a minute or so over fifty people had gathered around Pa Momodu and the screaming youth. The old man who was surprised at all that he was seeing and hearing, stood looking as if some special form of insanity had struck the young man.

At once a uniformed policeman appeared on the scene. Pa Momodu was worried and would have bolted had people not made a thick human fence around them. The Boss stopped crying, wiped the tears from his face as the law reached them.

"What's going on here?" The policeman asked, directing his question to the old man who replied that he had no idea.

"He is my uncle." Abdul cut in still holding the man's hand. He then went on to explain how he fled from home and came to the city after the death of his father who, he said, was Pa Momodu's elder brother. He never visited home, he explained, since then he had settled in Freetown. And that the old man was now profiting from the plantations his father had left which in reality, he added looking straight into the policeman's eyes, was to be shared equally between them. And right at that moment, he continued his explanation, his uncle had some money which was from his father's plantations. He was therefore asking that they share the money as he was also entitled to it.

The policeman turned to the old man "Is that right?"

"Allah-hu-akbarr." Pa Momodu said, still confused. The whole thing seemed like a dream to him. "I've never seen this young man before. I'm just wondering how someone can tell lies like that."

"You know," the officer said "I cannot decide a case like this in the street. Both of you will come with me to the station."

There was no alternative, the old man had to go. On the way, the policeman, sandwiched by the Boss and the old man in the front while a group of people took the rear arguing noisily over the pending case.

There was no one in the station save the Orderly who was seated in front of the big counter looking over the station diary. On the far left corner of the big room was a table and on the top of it was a piece of board with the legendary 'STATION SERGEANT.' Pasted behind this table was a man who was partly consumed by the pages of the weekly he was struggling to read. The man behind the table dropped the paper immediately he heard the noise outside.

"What's wrong?" he barked as the three men settled behind the big counter. Briefly, the policeman narrated the story. The sergeant chuckled for a moment, crossed his long legs under the table, interlaced his long, bony fingers behind his head and gazed at the two men.

"Alright," the sergeant said at last, "now lets hear your stories."

The Boss was the first to take the floor. If the first explanation to the policeman was a rehearsal, now was the time to put on the complete act. He spoke out methodically with the skills of an experienced actor before the lens of a camera. It was a consummate act and it took effect. The sergeant fell for it all over, hook, line and sinker.

The sergeant turned to the old man "Yes, let's hear your own story."

Pa Momodu would have told them to go to hell and walked out of the place, but he hadn't the guts. Since he was born forty-nine years ago he had never seen the inside of a police station. In the villages, police houses mean unlimited loads of troubles. Fear and anger combined together seized him. He was trembling like a leaf.

"He was not telling the truth." The words seemed to be dragged from his mouth. "I've never seen him before."

The sergeant rose, walked to the counter, his eyes impudently curious as he surveyed the old man. "Do you know," he said, "that thousands of people are roaming the streets of this city, and hundreds coming in every minute? Go to the wharfs and lorry parks and you will agree with me. The question is, why should this boy pick on you?"

The Orderly started to say something but held up when the sergeant turned to him.

"Where is the money?" the sergeant asked the old man.

"I have no money, sir." Was the reply. Then the old man went through the motion of emptying his pockets.

"Let him don't waste your time, sergeant," Abdul Sampa said knowing that he was going to throw the last straw to break his opponent's back. "I told you he is my uncle, I know his tricks. The money must be around his middle in a piece of cloth. If it is not there, then I am lying."

With reluctance, Pa Momodu surrendered the money which he took from the position indicated by the Boss. Even the little doubt the sergeant was expressing quickly vanished. He now came to the conclusion that the old man had been lying all the time.

"You mean you cheat the dead?"

The sergeant barked, throwing the old advancing footsteps and the man a sceptical look.

Pa Momodu held the half part of his money and stood looking at nothing in particular, lost in thought. What was he going to say to his family when he reached home?

"Yes, this is cheating your dead brother who expected you to treat his son as your own after his death. Why do you think he left the plantations to you for?" Before the old man could utter a word of protest the authority signalled him to keep quiet by showing him the palm of his hand.

"This action proved that you were lying all the time. I will now share this money between both of you."

He then counted the money and shared it equally between them. The Boss took his share and proceeded counting, grinning from ear to ear.

"Thank you very much, sir," he said. He switched on a boyish smile and added rather carelessly, "I have known today that the police are our saviours.

Pa Momodu held the half part of his money and stood looking at nothing in particular, lost in thought. What was he going to say to his family when he reached home? It dawned on him that no one in the whole village, not even his eldest son, Sheka was going to pay any more attention to his future series of advice. Well, what is the 'Pa' before his name worth without advising those who are giving him such honour? But who will listen if it is understood that the adviser cannot even take care of himself? He shivered at the thought.

The village was full of foolish questions. But were they foolish? Then his mind ran back when the naughty girl had looked right into his eyes and asked: Papa, did you beat Sheka for going after women? Yes, he had answered the little girl curtly. But that was not the end, the girl wanted to know more. But Papa, she said and turned to look at his another and step-mother, you have two women here. Will someone beat you because of them? He had gently pushed the little girl away to avoid her endless probes. That was a little too much for him. Now, he thought as he stood holding the half part of his money, what questions will the little girl fire at him after learning of his stupidity? Unanswered questions kept pouring into his mind like an August rain.

The old man woke up from his day dreaming when he heard the Boss taking leave. He proceeded to talk, putting weight into each word.

"I have one request to make, sir," he called the authority over the counter. The man who, for the past hour or so had acted as their Judge and whose verdict was going to deprive him half part of his hard-earned cash. "I still say this young man is no relative to me, but you have decided, you are the law and the law must be obeyed. Alright, You have heard for yourself when the complainant said he left the village a long time ago. As you can see now, I am getting old and very soon cannot afford the strength to work in the farm anymore." He paused to look at the faces in the big room. "My request is, I would very much like to travel with my nephew who will from now on help to take care of the plantations instead of wasting his time here in the city."

Abdul Sampa at once saw where the whole thing was leading to. Turning to the sergeant he said with an unsteady voice "No, I'm not going with him."

The sergeant thought for some seconds, said, "Well, there is a point in the old man's request, eh?" turning to his two junior men who nodded in response. Facing the Boss, the sergeant said, "You can't expect your uncle to kill himself working in the plantations while you sit here with folded hands and expect an equal share at the end of each calendar. Even your late father would never have tolerated that if he were alive. The road is clear, you must travel with your uncle."

The Boss saw the law now turning against him. He knew no argument was going to change the authority's mind. He didn't expect this sudden change of mind. His only alternative was to save his neck - He turned to run, but the old man to bolt. was ready for him. He felt a vice-like hand grab the back of his neck, spun him round and a bunch of folded fives descended on his head like a sledge- hammer. He felt his knees could no longer carry his weight. Something happened in his head and his whole world seemed to be thrown into complete darkness. The last thing he felt was being forced on the cold cement floor. Using the same piece of cloth he had previously used to keep his money, Pa Momodu braced the waterfront boss. He turned to the sergeant with a question look.

"It's alright," the authority said as he turned to his table, sending the words behind him as he moved.

"He is your nephew and you have found him today. Do I have to tell you what to do?" The old man hustled the almost lifeless body out of the police station into the boot of a hired taxi which immediately sped away.

Abdul Sampa opened his eyes as the boot of the taxi was opened. He knew that the game was up and was afraid. With sobs, he pleaded to his supposed uncle asking him to take his money and let him go free. Without the least care, he was dragged from the boot. Even passers-by stopped to stare inquisitively at Abdul Sampa with his hands neatly tied behind his back and Pa Momodu with an air of triumph closely behind, descending the high steps of the A. Genet Wharf.

In the boat, the old man narrated the whole story to his co-travellers who praised the Lord for delivering their brother from the city's lazy youth. "They hate to work, but they want to live good. This is their problem." One woman commented.

Said another, "They want us to work for them and they come and eat." Before the boat sailed out the Boss had done all he could crying and begging, but all fell on deaf ears. The old man waited when the boat was far out at sea when he took another rope and tied the prisoner's feet. That was the time it dawned on the waterfront boss of his captor's intention. He struggled and shouted but there was nothing to save him. He was powerless. The old man then searched him thoroughly, making sure that nothing was left in his pockets. Pa Momodu raised the helpless Abdul Sampa and placed him on the edge of the boat.

"Go and ask your father to show you your real uncle. I am not." And with these words he pushed him over. Within seconds, Abdul Sampa was swallowed by the blue waters of the great Atlantic taking with him all the fastness, all the skills and cunning which earned him the name of Boss of the waterfront.

talking drums 1985-01-21 what hope for Africa's growing millions