An Orange for Me In A Nameless Country
The muddy, garbage strewn market place was crowded with celebrating marketers and street kids looking to snatch a fruit or two from the unattended stands. Everyone was too elated to pay much attention to eight year old Kaya, the daughter of Mama Vala who sold the best tomatoes in this section of the market, who was about to make her move on an unwary fruit seller’s stand.
It wouldn’t be hard to get trampled on today, especially for a tiny girl like Kaya. The disorderly horde of people was celebrating the reelection of their preferred political party headed by President Trickster. Not that Kaya cared, of course, she was only eight and these matters did not mean a thing to her. Plus, her full attention was on a heap of juicy-looking, globular oranges on Mr. Banda’s rickety old fruit stand. Unlike most of the people in the market, Mr. Banda had fervently supported the opposition and was crushed when the final result was announced. Now, he sat idly behind his stand, watching the celebrations or chatting with other opposition supporters, no doubt consoling each other by proclaiming amongst themselves that the elections had been rigged. Generally, not many people in market cared if the elections had been rigged or not. As a matter of fact, a prodigious number of people didn’t even cast their votes.
No matter, Kaya didn’t care about all that grown up nonsense. All this talk of elections and rigging and development didn’t mean a speck to her. Although, she did find it rather funny how a significant number of characters in the marketplace, who had before the elections declared for the opposition, were now draped in banners and painted bodily in the colors of the winning party. An hour ago her mother had asked Old Man Dingo, once a stalwart supporter of the opposition, why he was celebrating even more licentiously than those who had voted for the winning party. Old man Dingo smiled his toothless, drunkard smile and said:
‘Mama, I don’t care as long as I eat and drink!’
Mr. Banda was not paying much attention to his stand. He was chatting somberly with another man, shaking their heads and spitting on the ground from time to time. Kaya’s opportunity revealed itself when Mr. Banda got up to greet another grave looking man. He turned his back on his stand and Kaya darted for it.
The oranges were placed about an inch from the edge of the stand. Kaya snatched one as quickly as she could but not quickly enough. Mr. Banda’s friend yelled in alarm making Mr. Banda whirl around in time to grab Kaya roughly by the shoulder. She jerked, kicked and punched but Mr. Banda’s grip was unyielding. In a last attempt at freedom she bit his left forearm, digging her teeth into his flesh. Mr. Banda screamed and let go of Kaya’s bony shoulder. She sprinted away with her prize, triumphant. Mr. Banda was cursing while his friends laughed and cheered. With all the commotion around there was no way Mr. Banda was going to risk chasing her, unless he was willing to leave his stand to the mercy of more food snatchers.
Phase two of Kaya’s plan was to look for a safe place to eat the orange.
Kaya pushed the fat orange down into the pocket of her ratty dress; she didn’t want it to be snatched from her by scavengers. A quiet alley would be the ideal place to get some time alone.
The first alley she entered was full of drunken men. A man called Simbeya was there, singing songs and making the loudest noise. Simbeya had been retrenched from the mines last year. Kaya didn’t know what the word retrenched meant, but she didn’t think it was a very good word because Simbeya had gone mad, completely mental; he had threatened to kill President Trickster and all his ministers. He had also said that the president and his cabinet did nothing but steal money and milk the country of all its wealth without distributing it to the people. For one thing Kaya didn’t understand how a cabinet could steal money, isn’t that where cups and plates are kept? Plus wasn’t milking exclusively for cows? But now Mr. Simbeya was celebrating. It was probably because the President’s campaign had visited the market five days ago to hand out several barrels of beer and bundles of blue and white sweaters, urging market folk to vote for them. Simbeya forgot about all his hatred for the government the moment the warm, pungent beer touched his darkened, chapped lips. Now he was tipsily claiming he had been the president’s man from the very beginning. Kaya found it very funny. But she didn’t have time for that; she had to find a place to eat her orange.
In the next alley she found Shady B, a dreadfully skinny youth with cracked lips and bloodshot eyes. The skin right below Shady B’s nostrils was inflamed and disgusting, as if two armies of fleas had warred there. Kaya didn’t like Shay B, whenever he wasn’t haggling with customers over prices for his DVD’s, he was smoking or sniffing glue. Kaya turned around to continue her search but was stopped when Shady B said:
‘Ah, ah, is that Kaya I see? And is that an orange in her pocket?’
Kaya tried to run but Shady B agilely dipped his hand into her pocket and pulled out the orange.
‘Give that back!’ she yelled. Shady B stretched his hand above his head well out of Kaya’s reach.
‘Calm down, calm down,’ said Shady B, lifting the orange even higher above his head as Kaya jumped fruitlessly to reach it. ‘I’ll make you a trade; give me this orange and in exchange I’ll give you a free DVD. That sounds like a great idea doesn’t it?’
‘NO!’ Kaya kicked him in the groin. He screamed in pain and fell backward, letting go of the orange which rolled to the back of alley.
Kaya ran for it but stopped when someone yelled, ‘Ey, what’s going on here?’
It was Big Gun, the menacing policeman who patrolled the market. Big Gun was a broad shouldered mammoth with a permanent scowl on his face. A large gun was slung across his shoulder, a big foreboding gun. Big Gun was a good policeman, or so Kaya had heard from her mother. Once he had caught men brewing beer illegally in a small warehouse in the east section of the market. Mama Vala had said that Big Gun had handled the situation reasonably by charging the men a small sum of money which went directly to him. The men still brewed in the warehouse. Big Gun even bought some occasionally. All they had to do was pay a small sum of money to him on a monthly basis and everything was fine. That’s how a policeman was supposed to handle issues, or so said Mrs. Vala. But Kaya didn’t care, all she wanted, all she really wanted was her Orange which was lying in a puddle made by leaking pipe a few feet down the alley.
‘Eh…eh, everything’s fine here, Big Gun,’ said Shady B, dusting himself as he got up. ‘Everything is fine.’
Big Gun looked from Kaya to Shady B, squinting his eyes as if looking for something microscopic, then turned his attention to the rows of DVD’s that Kaya hadn’t noticed earlier laid out on the ground next to the right wall. ‘Do you have anything good?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Shady B, taking his wistful gaze away from the orange, ‘I got new stock just this morning.’
‘The ones you gave me last time had poor quality.’
Shady B coughed, ‘There’s a reason they’re called pirated movies.’
‘You think I don’t know that?’ snapped Big Gun, flaring up.
Shady B shrunk, ‘No, no, no. I was just saying, I didn’t mean anything by it.’
Kaya watched them while slowly edging back to her orange. She didn’t know what a pirated movie was; her family couldn’t afford a T.V let alone a DVD player. Maybe pirated movies were movies about pirates. She wondered why a policeman would want movies about pirates. Shouldn’t a policeman watch movies about policemen?
When Kaya reached the orange she slowly bent down to pick it up. It was all covered in muck and stank like a sewer. Still, it was what’s on the inside that mattered. She put it back into her pocket and walked out of the alley, leaving Big Gun and Shady B to their transactions.
The crowd had only gotten thicker in the time she spent in the alley facing off Shady B. It was nearly midmorning and you couldn’t walk without brushing your body against someone else, Kaya couldn’t walk without bumping into someone else’s mid or lower section every few seconds.
Her efforts to find a quiet alley proved futile, she decided to quickly eat her orange in public. No sooner had she taken her orange out of her pocket than it was knocked out of her hand by someone who bumped into her as they made their way hastily down the street. The orange fell to the ground and rolled over to the right but was then kicked by someone in the crowd to the left. Kaya tried to catch it but it was continuously jostled by the crowd who had no idea that they were kicking around Kaya’s prize. It rolled from leg to leg until finally an old woman stepped and tripped on it; as she fell on her back the orange loped high into the air above several heads. It travelled in a two second arch before landing in the back of a small canopied truck that was parked on the side of the road.
Kaya rushed after the orange, jumping into the truck. The back was full of closed crates and weird white sticks that she didn’t pay attention to; all she cared about was her orange. Remarkably the orange had landed on top of a stack of moldy old crates. She climbed the stack and snatched the orange. When she got down she kissed the orange despite the dirt and overwhelming stench around it.
She had a mind to leave the truck at that point but she heard a man yelling, his voice drawing closer. She hurriedly hid behind a small tower of crates. Before she knew it the canopy’s door shut with a mechanical crunch and the engine raved to life. Panic filled Kaya; she moved to the door but was knocked down when the truck began to reverse. This was going horribly. All she wanted to do was eat her orange in peace.
The truck was underway, moving slowly, trying to maneuver its way through the sea of people. Kaya had never been in a car before and she was not enjoying her first ride. It brought her a queasy, fearful feeling. She moved to the door but had no idea how to open it.
Defeated she moved to the back of the truck, behind the furthest stack of crates; \it was the most convenient place, well out of the vision of whoever opened the truck when they stopped. Out of curiosity she looked at those peculiar white sticks. She discovered that they were in fact not sticks, not like any she had ever seen anyway. They were long and bone-white, a few inches thick and several inches long with an elegant curve. There were four bundles and each bundle had twenty of the elongated white sticks. Kaya quickly lost interest in the sticks. All she wanted to do was eat her orange, but she couldn’t, not with the car moving and making her woozy.
After about five minutes the truck was moving faster. She peaked through the small circular window to see that the truck had made its way onto a clear two-way lane. Five minutes more and the truck slowly came to a halt. Kaya hadn’t noticed it before but there was a rectangular window in the middle of the wall that separated the front from the back. Kaya knelt and looked through it: there was a road block up ahead, she saw through the windshield. All she could see of the driver was a shiny bald head and skinny long fingers wrapped around the steering wheel.
The driver roared a curse and slapped the steering wheel. Kaya got down just in time, for the man turned his head. Kaya leaned against the side but she was still able to see his face even though he couldn’t see her. He had a terrified look, beads of sweat were forming on his forehead.
The vehicle slowly made progress up the road and finally approached the policemen. Kaya couldn’t see, but she knew.
A policeman’s deep voice asked the bald driver a question, the driver replied, stuttering. Their words were almost inaudible but Kaya was able to distinguish a few: ‘License……road tax….open the back of the truck and step outside.’
The driver protested, yelling so loud and too fast that he was fumbling over his words. The policeman shouted even louder, ‘OPEN THE TRUCK OR WE’LL ARREST YOU.’
It took a dozen curses and twice as many threats from the policeman to get the driver to get out of the truck. Kaya made sure she was well hidden behind the crates before the door opened.
Someone jumped in, she thought, because the truck swayed slightly. Then all at once hell broke loose: The person in the truck, it was the policeman, began to shout angrily at the driver. He was talking rapidly.
‘Ey, Bernard,’ said the policeman, ‘arrest this man for illegal possession of ivory.’
‘Ah, Boss, please,’ said the driver, pleadingly, ‘we can sort this out.’
‘Don’t you know it is a crime to possess ivory in Africa even if you have a license?’
‘It doesn’t have to be illegal,’ said the driver, lowering his voice, ‘I can…you know, give you a little-er-incentive if you let me go.’
‘Hmph,’ was the only sound the policeman made.
‘How much incentive are we you talking about?’ said a voice she hadn’t heard till now, it must have been Bernard.
‘A thousand each,’ the driver sounded more confident.
‘Three thousand,’ said the first policeman said firmly.
‘Deal,’ the driver declared happily.
The driver ran over to the front of the truck, opened the door, grabbed something and returned to the back. For four minutes Kaya heard the sound of paper rubbing paper. When it was done the first policeman sounded happy and wished the driver a safe journey. The driver got into the car and drove past the road block.
Obviously the driver had gotten through the road block by giving those policemen some papers, Kaya thought. But she didn’t care, all she wanted was to get off the stupid truck and eat her orange.
Ten minutes later the truck made another halt with the engine still running. Kaya peeped through the rectangular window to see that they had stopped in front of a huge black gate. She looked through the other window and her eyes widened; they were in a beautiful neighborhood with rows of beautiful white houses and nicely trimmed lawns. She knew this place, it was not far from the compound where she lived, although, this place was nothing like her compound.
The black gate swung open and the car made its way inside. Kaya pulled back into her spot behind the crates. She had no idea how she was going to get out of this situation. She wished she had never gotten on the truck in the first place. But then she wouldn’t have retrieved her orange, so it was not a total loss.
The truck parked somewhere and the engine went off. The driver got out called to someone who answered in a rough voice. The back door opened not long after.
Someone, not the driver, whooped with joy. ‘Is this all of it?’ the rough voice inquired.
‘No, Minister, this is just half, we’re expecting the rest from the park in three weeks,’ the driver answered, sounding pleased with himself.
‘You’ve done well. Come and have a drink with me and my friend.’
The men left, their voices drifting further and further away from the truck. When Kaya was sure they were gone she jumped out of the truck, with her orange secure in her pocket, and breathed in deep, the truck had been awfully stuffy compared to open air. Her surroundings were beautiful; to her left was an enormous three-storied house with several balconies and many, many windows. To her right was an evenly cut lawn stretching several feet before it ended at the foot of a low stone fence. Her heart leapt for joy when she saw the black gate several feet in front of her.
Hastily she ran for it, when she was only but ten feet or so away from it, she heard men laughing and jumped into a bush close to the house. The voices were coming from the front of the building, the man called Minister, the driver and another voice. Kaya uttered a curse, her escape was so close and yet she could not reach it without risking getting caught. She got out of her bush, leaned her back against the house and quietly moved toward the edge of the wall she was leaning against. When she reached as far as she could go she reached out her neck as slowly as she could and inspected the situation.
Seated around a round stone table in a handsome garden filled with beautiful flowers was the driver, a man with a very heavy-looking belly and an Asian man all drinking a fizzy brown drink from long glass cups.
‘So as I was saying,’ said the fat man, Kaya concluded that he was the Minister by recognition of his voice, ‘Mr. Huang, imagine the money we would make if we bought cheaper materials for the schools we’re supposed to build.’
‘Yes, yes, we save a rot of muney,’ Kaya fought to stifle a giggle. Mr. Huang talked funny with a scratchy comical voice and he traded in his L for an R.
‘Won’t anyone notice that the equipment isn’t as strong as it should be?’ asked the driver, taking a sip. He looked horribly out of place amongst the Minister and Mr. Huang who were both dressed in smart suits with black shoes shining so bright that it hurt the eyes to look at them where as he was clad simply in greasy red overalls.
‘Nonsense,’ the Minister said pleasantly, ‘last year Mr. Huang and his builders completed a stadium whose materials we bought at quarter the price of what was initially granted, isn’t that so Mr. Huang?’
‘Yes, yes, vely tlue. It be bettest to buy cheaper matolios,’ Mr. Huang cruised through his sentence. Kaya wasn’t a broken English translator but she could have sworn Mr. Huang meant, ‘Yes, yes, very true. It is best to buy cheaper materials.’
‘Hasn’t anyone made inquiries into the matter?’ the driver asked, seeming interested in the topic.
The Minister slurped down his drink, belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, ‘Once in a while they do but people are too busy looking into President Trickster to pay much mind to small business men like Mr.Huang and myself.’
The driver was staring at the Minister reverently.
‘A young reporter from Nigeria tried to pin me down for embezzlement last year,’ the Minister was laughing now, gasping, ‘You know what the funny thing is? More than half the people in this country can’t even spell the word!’ Both Mr. Huang and the driver burst into laughter. ‘The Ignorants is what I like to call them. Just promise not to kick them off the street, let them keep vending, selling their meat, vegetables and fruits on the filthy streets and you’ll have their vote.’ They were laughing so hard that their drinks were slowly leaking out of their noses, ‘Who cares if I steal a bit of money? Certainly not the people in this country! You know…you know,’ he was having difficulty speaking, he kept on giggling as if what he was about to say was the joke of the century, ‘when President Trickster won, there was this woman on the news, a street vendor. She was barefoot, dressed filthily, one of the Ignorants,’ Kaya looked down at her feet, she was barefoot. Did that make her an Ignorant? ‘This woman was asked by the reporter, “Why are you all so excited that President Trickster has won?” and the woman said….the woman said, “Because now we get to keep selling on the street, it doesn’t get any better than this.” Then I thought to myself, if these people want to go on living in poverty then let them, let people like me thrive off their ignorance. They are happy with one meal a day, if they weren’t then they wouldn’t have voted for President Trickster, although I must confess he did rig the election. But still, unlike the Ignorants I am more content with five meals a day.’
‘Did she truly say she was happy to keep selling on the street?’ the Driver laughed, ‘Didn’t President Trickster’s opponent promise to give street vendors loans so that they could start licensed small businesses?’
‘Indeed he did,’ said the Minister, ‘But the thing is that the majority of these people don’t even know what a loan is. So instead of going for the gold in the dark cave they did not know, they went for the feces in the boiling pot they did know.’
Mr. Huang laughed, spilling his drink all over his lap.
‘Gentlemen,’ the Minister glanced at a shiny looking wrist watch, ‘I think the game has begun. Shall we make our way to the T.V room? I got a new sixty inch last week.’
Finally, the men entered the house through way of the front door. Kaya ceased her chance; the small guard house was empty so she was able to scurry out over the fence without much difficulty.
As she walked home she thought about the conversation she had overheard; it was very strange. She hadn’t understood much of it, she was only eight anyway, but regardless it was still rather disturbing. She buried all the disturbing thoughts and smiled, she was free and she was going to eat her orange
On her way home, as she walked through the posh neighborhood, Kaya had gotten a lot of foul looks from rich people dressed fancily. She didn’t mind, though, that’s how it was always.
When she reached her compound, she went into an unfinished two-storied building and made her way up to the top. She sat by a large empty section where a windowpane was supposed to be and dug into her orange. She peeled off the dirty outer layer and hurriedly dug into the juicy citrus fruit. It was heavenly, it was rare and it was finished way before she would have wanted it to.
She sat there, without an orange or any other sort of fruit. Out of boredom she recounted the events of the day; first she remembered Big Gun, a policeman who curiously enjoyed movies about pirates. Then she thought about how the driver had given the policemen three thousand papers each and finally about the Minister and Mr. Huang. The men had talked about buying cheap materials too, for a school they were supposed to build. That was good, wasn’t it? Kaya went to a cheap school. Her mother could not afford an expensive one. She loved her school; she was the best in her class. It would be good to build more cheap schools, that way people could save money.
The Minister had also talked about barefoot people being Ignorants. Kaya only had one pair of shoes, the one she wore to church. She did not like the way he had talked about Ignorants, like they were all stupid and not as smart as he was. Most of what he said about Ignorants was true; Kaya and her mother usually ate one meal a day, two on Christmas and New Year. The minister said he ate five meals a day. That sounded very unhealthy, even though Kaya did not eat healthily herself. But having three meals a day seemed like a good idea.
Sitting there, she stared down at her disorderly compound. Whenever she looked into her future all she saw was this compound, but now it wasn’t what she wanted to see.
She stared at the peels of the orange she had just devoured, was that it? Would she have to steal another orange? She generally did not enjoy stealing, but she had too, her mother couldn’t afford such luxuries. But what if she were able to afford them herself?
The Minister had said that Ignorants only ate once a day, but what if she was not an Ignorant? She didn’t want to go on having a single meal a day forever, she wanted oranges, more and more oranges. From there Kaya decided that she was not going to be an Ignorant anymore. She would work to be like the Minister, only less vulgar and slightly slimmer. She had to get out of the compound and she would do that first by finding out what the word Ignorant meant.