Some of us are fine sitting on the small steps to our small jobs. I was always fine with it. You could find me on the doorsteps to Malkia Boutique on any given day save Sunday. But that rainy Dar morning I strayed somewhat. You could find me asleep inside. I was on the floor, on my stomach, with my cheek on the uneven tile. It was lousiness even for me. But nothing about it said unnatural things were coming. Things like dead eyes back to life, or raw meat invading the shop. All I felt was tired.
It was busy sleep. Many dreams formed that hour. I saw mountains collapse on a horizon. I saw my reflection in a mirror, sitting down, but it wouldn’t move with me when I stood. I saw my grandfather again, alive as ever. He said city life was rotting the lot of us.
My fingers had been clawing my scalp, yet I only woke when Witness came in shouting. I hadn’t heard her park outside the shop, and now she stood over me like a soldier. Had it been afternoon, when she usually stopped in, I would have been on the alert. Flipping from my stomach, I sat up reviving. I looked up at her and the flaming hair swinging around from her back. A majority of her wigs were impossible. This one, the color of mabuyu sweets, she had worn since the start of the week.
“This is how you sell my things?”
I told her that medicine for my pain made me sleep, that I was still on it since my incident the other week. It wasn’t the truth, I was independently tired, and no customer had come in all morning. But I reached out my arms for help standing up, glad for the visible bandages.
“Is lying under the fan how you represent the shop?” she said instead. “Shall I bring you a bed sheet?”
Sleep was all I wanted in the daytime. Rainy season blocked my rest at night. My mother claimed the situation was bigger than that. She told me rain did this to people marked for something. Restlessness and daytime dreams, she said, these meant there was a duty I was missing. It was best for our lot, according to her, to be around those who didn’t need much. That was why she left for the village.
“They’re backwards in the village,” I had said as she left. “They hack witches to death in the village.”
“Too bad for witches,” was her reply. I had thought she would say they didn’t exist. But I tuned away from her talk the way I always did. She could have upcountry. What I needed was relief.
Witness relented and reached down to me. She still had her sunglasses on. They stayed on, even in the dim little shop, and I was glad to see me moving in her lenses. My hands held on long for the coolness of her skin. She was still air-conditioned from the car. A puff of her perfume blew into me, reminding me of my inadequacy. And there was the slim, checkered dress from the back rack. The one I tried on in secret but my shape couldn’t fill.
“You have nothing to say? And please work on your appearance, so shabby.”
My braids looked tired and I was musty. All I could manage lately was getting to the shop. None of my other efforts matched Malkia, not my jeans or top or rubber slippers. But who was Witness to talk about anything, when I had seen her eyes two times?
“My arms still hurt,” I told her. “But I’ve come to work every day. At least that’s something.”
She paid no attention and kept releasing. Her mood had been ruined before me, I learned, after finishing her tasks downtown. She had returned to where she parked on Lumumba Street, and she found her car without side mirrors. No one nearby had seen a thing, even the street parking attendant who came for his fee. The mirrors had her plate numbers etched in, so Witness had phoned the man who drove her taxi around. He was on the way to a yard across town to look for young men to buy them back from.
“Driving here without them confused me,” Witness said. “All the way from town. Imagine.”
“So what?” I said to myself. She thought little of my own goings on foot. Had she forgotten that my bandages were her doing? The week before, she had phoned to make me stay after hours. Someone in her circles needed a dress for a wedding. It was a chance to fix up my sales, she said. I reminded Witness that I always left before dark. I had two separate buses to take. Yet there I was at seven when the customer arrived. I had stayed, so at least that was something. She had looked royal in her first try, a long yellow gown. Yet from quarter past seven to quarter past eight, I cinched and zipped and lifted things up for three cheap dresses that squeezed her. After that, she left with nothing.
On my walk home from bus two, a motorcycle had slowed down beside me. A man riding passenger got a handful of my bag strap. I went down thinking of how this only happened to whites. My body bumped along for four or five meters while I held my face up from the ground. My phone and a week’s fare were safe in my bra, my shop keys deep in my pocket. What they got was baby powder and a sweaty handkerchief. It served them right, and I wished them harm—by luck I had on jeans, but my arms got bruised and bloodied.
Witness had not paid me for the tetanus shot. Yet there she stood in the shop in her heels, talking about my luck.
“How nice to have nothing to do,” she said. “I wish I had your life. How do you even you lie down here? Please sweep. And wipe the window. Tidy up.”
If only they had also scratched the car, I was thinking, then I remembered my mother in the window on the bus.
“When reflections around you get corrupted, you’re growing. A season is trying to come.”
“Safe travels,” I had said. Everything she talked about just sounded like a lot.
Witness was only stopping in for cash. She was on her way to see about our shipment. Every few months, she traveled to China, to a city I couldn’t pronounce. Her buys from April had just come in. She was going to meet her new inside man in Dar who promised nice contacts for clearing.
“Dar rain never knows what it wants,” Witness said. Outside, it had stopped coming down. I followed her to her car made for young women, with its soft slopes, two doors and dark windows. I told her we needed units for the electricity meter, what was left wouldn’t last the coming weekend. She said she’d come back, and as her window slid up, she told me Mama Angel was coming. Mama Angel needed a dress for a sendoff. I was to switch on the air conditioner when she got there. The thought made me feel embarrassed already, as I often was for this mama. The style at Malkia was young for her, but she did what it took to get in our things. If she couldn’t, her tailor was at the top of the street.
I had made Mama Angel unhappy before, when I brought out a very good shawl. She had been looking at herself in a strapless gown. Her bosom was covered but it began far below her neck, leaving a long wide drop in between. When she waved away the shawl, I told her good advice was part of our service.
“You people call this a boutique?” she had said. “Using words you don’t even know.” She pulled up the top of the dress. “I’ve been out,” she continued, meaning abroad. “A boutique is something high class.” Her arms gestured at the racks and the display case. She asked if I knew of high class.
Witness pulled out and almost steered into a car that was driving by from behind. Back inside, I followed orders. There were three days of dust and red strands to sweep. When I got it all, I wiped the window in front of the stand with the yellow gown. I tidied the racks and the wall shelves. I rearranged the bracelets in the display case. I tried on the bracelets in the display case, the ones that fit over my bandages. I toyed with some rings, all of them too big, and thought of putting one in my pocket. My sister, who I lived with and who had male hands, was always asking for rings. I had siphoned two for her in my fifteen months of work. It was trickier to do than she had gratitude for.
When the lights went off and the fan slowed to a stop, I went out to my steps and watched the traffic. Just a few shops dragged out small generators. Not everyone could afford the diesel. As far as my eye could see, it was the pharmacy down to the left, the tire shop across the street, and the mobile money agent five shops up. The roadside began to hum a bit.
Nasma from the salon on our right stepped out. “These power issues,” she said, wiping her forehead. “We have people with wet hair in there.” Nasma had more good cheer than anyone I knew, so I patted the space to my side. She knelt over me, gathering my braids to the crown of my head and letting them drop to my shoulders. She gathered them again and dropped them again, continuing like this while we talked about Witness. We discussed her car, her hairdos, her movements about town. She was always our most covered subject.
“Who pays for her life?” Nasma asked. That question always felt fresh to us. The ladies at the salon were sure that Witness had a man high up. Maybe even a member of parliament. I thought she just had many things happening. Beyond the shop and the taxi, she could be hired to plan parties.
Nasma thought Witness looked pregnant. “Her complexion is changing,” Nasma said, buzzing. “All over her body she’s different.”
I listened and scratched the skin around my bandages. I would know any of it better than Nasma. Witness was a cousin, we shared relatives up the lines, distant enough that she could treat me however. So I would have known if there was scandal. She had, though, been in the gossip papers once. For jumping onstage at a concert. I had laughed at the photos of her dancing low. The day before that, she had told me to get serious in life. I had asked for an advance to buy a new-model phone like Nasma’s. “These are your priorities?” she had said. She asked me what I wanted to make of myself but I didn’t know what to tell her.
“Are you hearing me or are you dozing again?” Nasma was say- ing. “I said if you buy your own hair, I’ll sort you out, no charge.” Nasma always did my braids, and for little pay anyhow. She would find pockets of time, sometimes over days, always when our bosses weren’t in. If it were going to cost me I would have looked for the money. She had a touch that didn’t kill my tender scalp.
Bonge came to the steps with his plastic bag of kitenge cloths. These ones had just come from Ghana. They spilled out the bag the way Bonge spilled out of his shirt. But he warned that they’d sell by the end of the day, that no prices came close to his. How, he asked, could a place called Malkia not carry proud pieces like these? This was what women wanted, he said, not just white person clothes from China. Nasma beamed, reaching for the bag. She held up each print one by one. Her exclamations stretched her pink cheeks. Then I told Bonge, as I always did, to come back when Witness was in.
“You’re also supposed to advise her,” he said. “And why don’t you buy one and have a dress made? Wearing jeans all the time, like all you modern girls. If you dressed like this you’d be married.”
“Give me this many years,” Nasma said, holding up two fingers. “I’ll be someone’s wife.” She patted her chest.
Bonge laughed. “You maybe. Not this one.”
“So? She shouldn’t be. She’s not ripe.”
“Yes she is, back where I’m from. Little sister, isn’t that right?”
“I suppose,” I said, and looked through the bag.
Mama Angel arrived in her huge high car. She spent two minutes parking it badly. Bonge was on her before she could climb down, and they bartered over the loudest prints. She bought two of them and then heaved herself out, looking to the steps at me and Nasma.
“My dear, stop bleaching,” she said to Nasma, whose hand rose quickly to her cheek. “I’ll be in tomorrow,” Mama Angel went on. “To set my hair for a sendoff.” Then she turned to me, and already I felt weary. She was tiresome to manage without Witness. It was Witness who had words for her uncertainties.
“Tell us your secret,” Witness would say. “No one could guess you have a daughter in Form Six. Do people think Angel is your sister?” I would be sent to the kiosk to buy them sodas while they shared health and beauty schemes. They talked oils, herbs and spices, where to buy them, where to rub them.
This time the shop was too hot for Mama Angel, who made more sweat than any woman. There wasn’t even time for a soda. She couldn’t bare to stay and wrestle any clothes, so she picked out a high pair of shoes. I also sold her an evening bag, so at least that was something. Mama Angel did not trouble herself with receipts, so I kept ten thousand shillings for me. I locked the shop door and walked up to Masika Grill.
On the way back, I dropped off chips mayai for Nasma. She was busy relaxing hair and willing back the power. The ladies and I talked about Witness’s wig. Then I went out to my steps with my two fried plantains and two skewers’ worth of beef. It had been several days since I ate a real lunch, so it didn’t take long to sedate me. My head began to fall back against the door. I was in and out of dozing, trying to focus on the traffic. Then my eyes closed and I saw a flame. I opened them to look at the traffic again, then they fell shut and there was fire. It was back and forth like this for however long, as the fire grew full and wider.
I woke in time for Witness not to see me, the greasy foil still in my lap. She had stopped her car up at the mobile money agent, where she was probably buying electricity. Sometimes I did wonder how she managed. Our sales were modest on the average day, and she was always in battle with the taxman.
“Mama Angel bought things,” I said when she reached. “How about the China shipment?”
“The goods come out on the weekend,” she said. She would need me on Sunday for inventory, which would earn me extra and maybe lunch.
Witness went inside and I stayed on the steps while listening to her curse the power cut.
Roars came sounding over the generators and traffic. They came from down beyond the pharmacy, beyond even the butcher, from the top of the dirt road to the church. I stood up on my highest step. Witness came and stood beside me. The crowd and their noises were growing. It could only mean a fight or a beating. We heard shouts of “thief,” and I was off.
A young man was surrounded, a bit down the dirt road, shielding his head with his arms. Punches and kicks met elsewhere on his body while he was jostled around. He was an agile one, and spirited. Somehow he stumbled from the bulk of the crowd and in my general direction. I didn’t want to involve my arms in any way, so instead I kicked him in the kneecap. As he tripped and stumbled lower, there was Witness beside me, bringing down a fist on his back.
The crowd closed in and I moved out. “What did he steal?” I asked no one.
“He stole money from the church office,” one man said. “We heard shouts as he was sneaking out.”
“Hold him properly,” said another who was rolling along a tire. “Who here has some petrol?”
“Forgive me!” the young man said. “I live a hard life.” That was all he could manage.
“Who here doesn’t struggle? We work for our little money.”
I looked at Witness still in there. I saw the sunglasses knocked from her face. She stopped to pick them up, but not before they were stepped on. Then she turned and left looking startled. Her eyes were something like my grandfather’s.
The thinking in the crowd began to split. Some cheered as the tire passed over his head. Others said leave him, it was enough.
“He loitered on this road for weeks,” said a man. “As if he was one of us, joining us under the tree.”
“The whole time he was just surveying,” said a woman. “Small things have gone missing in our shops. Now he has dared at the church.”
“Then we wait for the police,” said the pacifiers.
“They don’t bother themselves,” the agitators said. “We have to be the law.”
My thoughts went to Witness and her punching. I thought I saw the beginnings of tears. We were sisters in justice, yet she was crying? She might have left before me, but only after I saw how she powered up.
It began to rain again. I hated the smell of petrol, and I didn’t think I wanted to see this. The year before, they lit a thug on my street. For days, only I smelled his flesh on our walls and curtains.
“Stop scrubbing,” my sister had said those nights. “It is all in your head, you’re too sensitive.”
“I can’t sleep,” I had said as the rain came down. I used two tubs of scouring powder. Our living room gleamed.
Nasma arrived in a frenzy. She couldn’t come earlier, there was relaxer in someone’s head. She looked at the red globs and splatter on the ground and joined the pleas for police. The matches wouldn’t light in the rain. The agitators vibrated with frustration.
The downpour thickened, so I returned to the shop. The power was back and the fan was surging. I asked Witness if she was fine, and she handed me her sunglasses. An arm was bent and the bridge was twisted. One lens had a tiny crack.
“If you can fix them you can have them,” she said. “I’ll get new ones.”
It was awkward to look back at her, but when she answered her phone I stared. The man who drove her taxi was calling about the mirrors. They were above street price because the thief had gotten a glimpse of her. “So he was watching me,” she said, her voice lifting.
Outside it was now misting. I went to the steps and fiddled with the glasses. A fuss was traveling up the street from the left. A small group was pushing a cart with a mass in it, drenched in a deep dark red. The agitators followed, taunting at a distance.
“In here,” I shouted when I saw Nasma leading. The salon would have been too crowded.
They carried the mass into Malkia Boutique. “Until the police arrive,” they said. “Just so they don’t light him up.”
“I don’t want a corpse in here!” Witness screamed as I locked the door behind them.
“He’s not dead,” they replied as they lay it on the floor. “Though he likely won’t survive,” they added. The mass filled the air with blood and petrol.
“Will you people pay me if they burn this whole shop?” Witness motioned from one wall to the other. On a closer view, she quieted down. She turned on the noisy, old air conditioner. I went to the back to see about a mop. I wasn’t about to clean yet, but I couldn’t stand to look at it.
The crowd remained on the roadside, smaller but significant. Witness went out and closed the door behind her while I stayed busy in the back. I could see her speak to them from the steps. There was a back and forth I couldn’t hear over the air conditioner, but one after another, they left. She came back in and sat quietly, holding the glasses I’d left on the steps. Nasma and the pacifiers remained on their phones, gushing out details to their people. The bloody mass stirred with no sound. When the call of a siren grew from up the road, Nasma went out to flag them. Two men and a woman in uniform descended with batons from a pick-up.
“I see they didn’t finish,” said one of the men. “I doubt this one will live,” said the woman. They took down names and details from the pacifiers, who helped carry the mass to the truck. I went out to the steps and watched everyone disappear. I stayed and sat as the siren faded. People walking by kept noticing at me.
“You look exactly like a madwoman,” said Witness from inside. I stood when I noticed the blood on my shirt. The breadth of it put a jolt in me. I checked underneath it for wounds, but nothing. The bandages on my arms were still white. I thought I never even touched him.
“Is there a reason you are trying to scare away customers?” Witness said. The glasses, back on her face, sat crooked.
“I don’t want this,” I said as I stepped inside.
“Want what? Please busy yourself with the mop,” she said, dragging it over with the bucket.
“Is it a gift or a curse?”
“What? That it looks like we slaughtered a goat here?”
“I never touched him,” I said, and she stayed quiet. “Not once,” I said, a bit louder.
“Oh, stop it. You kicked him. It’s from that.”
“Maybe. So…for you, is it sunlight?”
“You listen,” she said. “I’ve got my life, I’ve got my business. My affairs are in order. I have no time for nonsense.” She handed me the mop.
“It feels more like a curse.”
“Do you have a problem? If so, please don’t make it mine.” Witness snatched back the mop and dunked it in the bucket. “You need rest, clearly. Talking about nothing. I’ll clean here. You go early and sleep.”
I wasn’t going to refuse that offer. But as I stuffed my shop key in my bra, I wondered if no one felt I could handle this. And as the blood was smeared and swirled off the tile, I thought maybe they themselves couldn’t. Because there I was knowing that the thief might make it. Which, although he was no good, was really something. If he did make it, however, it was sort of by accident. I imagined how, in the future, things might be if I tried.
Diana Nyakyi lives in Dar es Salaam. Her work involves developing, writing, or editing content for organizations both for print and online. Her fiction has appeared in: LossLit Magazine; Kikwetu Journal; My Africa, My City: An Afridiaspora Anthology; and, Street Level: Drawings and Creative Writing Inspired by the Cultural and Architectural Heritage of Dar es Salaam.1