Straightening out Baba aJoe

The children sleep in the kitchen/sitting room section and that is not unusual, at least they have a roof over their heads. Baba aJoe makes his money somehow but he has no specific work place. Again this is nothing to raise any eyebrows about because nearly everyone has to do some acrobatics in this section of the city to put food on the table. The unusual thing about Baba aJoe was that his idea of a father ended with him barking orders and his family falling all over to attend to him. He was one man I knew who never dipped in his pocket for his family unless his ‘good mind’ had deserted him. Once or twice a month he would come home loaded and Mai Joe lived for these moments. She would carefully go through Baba aJoe’s pockets and take the best she could. Come morning, you would see her being chased down the street but no matter how much Baba aJoe beat her she would not surrender the money. She and the children had to survive somehow and this was the only way. This particular Saturday afternoon, I was just lazing around listening to my Afro Jazzy, music most of my neighbours find pretty dull. I like it for the simple reason that I would look sophisticated and different. Yes, in my heart sometimes I admit it is rather too lay back for people in the ghetto but I appreciate that on an afternoon like this it would soon send me to sleep. This is a noisy place what with children out in full force screaming at each other playing all sorts of games. As I listened to my jazzy calmly waiting for that moment my eyes would close, something flew through my window smashing the windowpane and landing a few centimeters from my antique black and white 14’inch TV. Peering through the window I caught a glimpse of Joe’s dusty feet as he disappeared behind his family door, he had kicked the ball. Already about seven boys were gathered around my window expectantly waiting for me to say something. A typical scenario, the offender would run away while the rest of the group rushed over to make a statement. “We told him not to make such long kicks.” That was also clich’ and if you asked honestly, no such precautionary statements were ever made. When everything was fine and the game was flowing, everybody was just kicking the ball as far as they could muster. I picked the ball, a heavy makeshift ball made out of plastics. In my mind I was recalling some of the statements I always hear about African soccer players who have made it. “From the dusty streets of Harare, Soweto, Luanda, Younde, Lusaka . . . to the green solid turf of St James Park.” Maybe Joe would one day find his way into these football grounds but at the moment he was in trouble, he had to replace the window. It was up to Joe’s parents or his mother rather, to replace the broken window. She would go through her husband’s pockets and get it but come morning you would see her running down the street, Baba aJoe wilding a stick in hot pursuit. The children were still waiting expectantly. I knew they were waiting for me to send them over to Joe’s mother. “Who kicked the ball?” “Joe!” “We told him not to kick it in this direction!” “We wanted to go and play on the other side but Joe refused!” “He insisted on kicking the long balls!” “He is always very . . .” The accusations were endless, exactly how ghetto kids deal with a problem. They are quick to absolve themselves while carefully nailing one of their own. I then asked them if they could be witnesses. They agreed and I gave them a piece of paper to write their names on. They wanted to know if they could go and tell Joe’s mother now but I told them to wait for the landlady, besides I wanted to talk to Joe’s mother myself. They were not amused. I had taken away the climax of the drama. They wanted to see their friend going through the grill or even the mother making a nuisance of herself by trying to wriggle out. Normally this would be accompanied by an exchange of some really harsh words or even degenerating into a physical fight. This was what the kids were waiting for. Joe’s mother had done it on several occasions to buy time. A fight would defer the payment to some future date. Meanwhile she would be praying for the day that Baba aJoe would come home loaded. She would get the money and a beating afterwards but she didn’t mind. I talked to my landlady about the broken window and she wanted to go straight to Ma Joe’s house but I carefully persuaded her not to rush things. She had to think about Ma Joe’s situation. She didn’t have the money besides the kid was not playing alone. “What are you trying to say? Do you want to pay for the window?” I wish I had the money but I didn’t. “Maybe all the children involved should pay.” She looked at me like I was very stupid. “I have their names right here and it could help in discouraging the kids from playing too close to the windows.” She saw the logic and in no time the mathematics were done and the mothers approached. I congratulated myself but locked my door as the quarrel began. The women were furious, who was changing the rules. I didn’t hear Ma Joe’s voice but I knew she was there. My landlady said she was changing the rules for her house at least. They all grumbled but paid. Still Ma Joe could not afford this one. I heard her asking for time. The following day was Sunday and as I stepped out, Bible in hand, ready to go for my weekly dosage of the Gospel, I almost fell as Ma Joe came flying across the yard towards my door. She stopped behind me, gripping my shoulders, taking oxygen in gulps. I was still trying to figure out what was going on when I came face to face with Baba aJoe. He was bare footed and had only a pair of trousers on. He wanted me out of the way I could tell but when I stared at him he stopped, not that I was trying to be a hero for the second time but because I simply had no where to run. “She is a thief, I caught her going through my pockets!” Obviously he expected me to step aside and watch him thrash his wife like he always did. “I think we should call the police.” I said fishing out my huge old cellular phone. I dialed. He never guessed there was no airtime and I didn’t know the number for the police. “For what?” He was beginning to loose confidence. “She is a thief.” “She is my wife!” We already had a respectable number of spectators, they laughed. “Yes she is but a thief!” I shot back. “Are you crazy? She was going through my pockets!” I didn’t need to explain it to him but he could see it. He had walked in open eyed. “Okay, she is not a thief but she wanted to take my money!” “Your child broke the window here and we need money to replace it.” My landlady came forward capitalizing on the situation. “Is that why she needed the money?” This was really stupid but we all pretended it was very normal. He pulled a wad of cash and counted some handing it to the landlady. “Is that enough?” “We need more for rent, food and other things.” I said extending my hand. He handed over the whole pile. “Ma Joe, do we have to do this in public?” She didn’t answer. She was busy counting her loot. The crowd cheered.

April 2006
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