President By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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List of special words (Glossary)
A month has gone by since His Excellency, the President celebrated the Independence Day at McCarthy Square, and threw a lavish party at State House for members of his cabinet. Now it is the turn of the children of the various primary schools in, and around Banjul.
On this hot Wednesday morning, they are gathered in McCarthy Square, well decorated with brightly coloured balloons and art works which they had made in their various schools. Unlike the president who celebrated only the Independence Day, the children will celebrate not only the Independence Day, but the Commonwealth Day as well.
As Amat watched the hustle and bustle from his place outside the perimeter fence of McCarthy Square, he thought he heard a siren wailing in the distance. He strained his ears to make sure. And he was right. The president, this year played by a boy from Albion Primary School was on his way. Other school children raced after his presidential convoy.
“Good morning, your Excellency, sir,” a schoolgirl from Mohammedan School, dressed in beautiful boubou saluted the president as soon as his convoy drew to a halt at the presidential stand. She was playing the role of the vice-president. Soon, other dignitaries came saluting the president. They included the Chief of Army Staff, the Chief of Police, Commissioners, Imams and Bishops. Pupils from various schools played the roles of these dignitaries.
“How wonderful it’s to be a president,” Amat thought from where he sat, perched on the fence, like a bird. Sighting a place on the fence where a burglary rod had broken off, Amat limped to it and tried to squeeze his lean body through.
“Boy, where on earth do you think you are going?” a soldier who had suddenly appeared from nowhere barked. This soldier was not a fake, and carried a long, black gun.
“Just trying to get a better view, sir,” Amat replied, afraid.
“No, you are not,” the soldier shouted, slinging down his gun. “Go away, you talibé. No one wants beggars like you around here.”
Sadly, Amat struggled to climb down and then, limped away with head bowed. Hot tears blinded him, making it difficult for him to see clearly. He did not wipe them. It was like this every year. Because he was a disabled talibé, and looked dirty, no one saw anything good in him.
“It is not my fault that I am disabled,” Amat told himself. “Neither is it my fault that I have to beg for alms to stay alive. But I must make better my situation, that I promise myself!”
Amat had a dream that he had been nursing.
Later that afternoon when the children’s event was over, and the McCarthy Square was empty of people, except of talibés like him, Amat revealed his dream to Sule.
“Ha, ha, ha,” Sule laughed, exposing brown, shovel-like teeth, which had particles of green, unripe guava lodged everywhere. “You? You want to be a president?”
“But you don’t even know the kind of president I mean-”
“I don’t care,” Sule interrupted, shouting.
“Anyway, what is wrong if I want to become a president?” Amat challenged hotly.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Sule spied Amat’s thin left leg.
“Ha, ha, ha.”
Because of the wind, Sule’s ringing voice could be heard at the other end of McCarthy Square. Soon Abdou and Jeng came running, with their bŕttus hanging on leather ropes around their necks. They kicked dusts with their bare feet. Dirty, brown sweat rolled down their dusty faces into their mouths, eyes and nostrils. Abdou wiped them with the back of both hands, while Jeng made do with his dirty, torn shirt.
“Sule, what are you laughing for?” Abdou stammered, without waiting to catch his breath. Abdou was thirteen years, and the oldest of the group.
“We heard your laughter from over there,” Jeng added. He was breathing fast hard, with his mouth open.
“This here,” Sule said, pointing to Amat, “says he wants to be a president.”
For a while, they stood silently, staring at each other first, and then at Amat’s thin left leg. They imagined how impossible it would be for Amat, a disabled boy to become a president. They immediately burst out laughing.
“Ha, ha, ha.”
“Ho, ho, ho.”
“Hi, hi, hi.”
Soon, they were rolling and tumbling on the dusty ground. They raised brown dust and some of the groundnuts they had received as alms spilled from their bŕttus.
“But what’s bad if I like to be a president?” Amat demanded after all the laughter and rolling on the dust had died down.
“You? An ordinary talibé like us?” Abdou said. “You can never become a president.”
“Yes, all you’ll ever do in your life is beg and beg. That’s our life and you know it.” Sule added. “To be a president, you must be educated.”
“Your parents are dead, like us. Who’ll send you to school?”
With this last question from Jeng, the boys rose from the dust.
“We’re off. Soon it’ll be nightfall. And you know our master,” Sule said.
“You keep dreaming,” Jeng taunted. “I’ve never seen a president with one leg before.”
“Neither me,” Abdou added.
“Hail His Excellency with one leg,” the boys mocked as they ran off.
At times like this when they mocked him because he was disabled, Amat hated Abdou, Sule and Jeng. Flopping down on the ground, he gazed at his thin left leg. Tears filled his eyes. It was an attack of polio when he was a baby that had left him disabled. He didn’t feel anything on that leg. Even if someone puts a hot object on it, like Jeng always did, he didn’t feel the hotness.
“Why did it have to be me?” he cried.
Amat always asked himself this question. But there was never an answer for him anywhere.
“I’ll never be afraid to dream my dreams,” he swore, wiping a tear, which had just escaped from his eyes. “But Sule is right,” he thought after a while. “To be the president, I must be educated. I must go to school. But how?”
Amat took another look at his thin, left leg and felt sorry for himself.
“I cannot earn enough money to go to school by farming. No one will employ me in his farm,” he thought. “And I cannot work as an apprentice for any one. My master will never let me go. Maybe I will start a little trade if I can save enough money. I have been saving part of the money I receive as alms secretly. Yes, that is what I will do, start a trade.”
Amat’s eyes sparkled at this thought.
“I will sell sweets. Surely, I can sell sweets.”
But Amat knew it would not be easy selling sweets. There was one serious obstacle: Jeng, Abdou and Sule. They were ready to steal all his sweets, and the profit he made if he did not hide them properly. But Amat immediately saw the solution to this problem.
“I will hide my sweets in my secret hiding place. And the money I make, I will hide there too.”
Having made up his mind how to earn money with which to get an education, Amat felt better. Evening was approaching fast, he saw. It was time to move on. A lorry’s horn in the distance hurried him along. Picking up his bŕttu, he rose and hurriedly limped away, grudgingly turning over the two small oranges and a handful of fresh groundnuts in his bŕttu. That was all he had received since morning. It was indeed a bad day.
Amat knew his master very well.
“He would deny me dinner if I don’t bring back enough alms to satisfy him. I have been working hard since morning. What I need now is luck.”
Amat was thinking which direction to head to when he sighted a boroom Push-Push. Slim, the boroom Push-Push had thick muscles standing out on his biceps. He wore a jumper and his shirt was tied around his waist. His Push-Push was piled high with several sacks of dried, red Sorrel flowers. Hurrying after the boroom Push-Push was a short, fat man.
“This fat man must be the owner of the dried Sorrel,” Amat thought. “Who knows, he might let me have some for my master’s wife to make fine, sweet wonjo.”
Amat saw that the fat man and his boroom Push-Push were heading towards the ferry terminal. Without wasting time, he limped after them, thinking: “Perhaps the fat man traded across the sea at Barra. Or maybe, he is on his way to one of the towns in the provinces.”
The ferry terminal was crowded with passengers and the air was hot and damp. Everywhere, people talked in loud voices, with laughter ringing out here and there. Hawkers shouted attention to their wares. Wheelbarrows as well as donkey and horse carts made loud noise as they jumped potholes. Far at sea, Johél, which carried passengers from Banjul to Barra, and vice versa was drawing closer. Passengers on it looked like black ants.
Amat watched as the boroom Push-Push set down three of the sacks of Sorrel carelessly on the floor. However, he took great care with the remaining three, setting them down ever so gently and arranging them separately. When he was done, the fat man flashed him a broad smile.
“Thank you!” he said. “Jerejeff.”
Amat knew he was from the province because of the way he spoke his English in bits, mixing it with wolloff. He then peeled out ten shiny, five dalasi notes from a bundle.
“Fifty dalasi,” he said to the boroom Push-Push. “Your money.”
“So much money?” Amat said to himself, his eyes popping out. “Six bags of dried Sorrel flowers can’t be that heavy.”
“Same time and place next week?” the boroom Push-Push asked, turning to go, after counting the money to make sure it was complete. From the corner of his eye, Amat caught the fat man tense up. His small eyes, which now narrowed into slits shifted left and right. When he saw that nobody was paying him any attention, he relaxed.
“Yes, same time and place.”
“Until then,” and the boroom Push-Push stashed the money inside one of his jumper pockets and gave his push-push a shove.
“Jerejeff trop …thank you very much!” the fat man said to the boroom Push-Push’s retreating back.
“Only if this fat man will look my way,” Amat said to himself. When the fat man wouldn’t, Amat limped towards him.
“Uh-huh?” the fat man growled.
For an answer, Amat extended his bŕttu. The fat man immediately untied one of the first three bags. The others that the boroom Push-Push had set down ever so gently still lay separately. From time to time, the fat man’s eyes swept over them, and then scanned the surroundings. Amat thought the man’s behaviour was queer.
The man had large hands. A giant silver ring adorned the middle finger of his right hand. Only two helpings and Amat’s bŕttu was overflowing with bright, red Sorrel flowers. Amat thought of the quantity of sweet, wonjo that would be made from this lot and his small Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
“Thank you sir,” he cried gratefully. “Allah will bless you.”
Amat turned to walk away.
“Kai, kai …come, come,” the fat man called, as his eyes scanned the surrounding again.
Dipping his hand into his pocket, he brought out several silver coins of different sizes. He selected two and gave them to Amat.
“You’re much too kind, sir” Amat cried, not believing his good luck. He clutched the money tightly, afraid to open his palm lest the money vanished.
“You, like me son,” the fat man said. “Goodbye!”
Happily, Amat limped away as the loud, ‘poooh’, ‘poooh’, of Johél announced its arrival, starting a flurry of activities as anxious passengers prepared to embark as others disembarked. Down the road, Amat opened his palm by releasing his fingers one after the other. And his eyes nearly popped out.
“One dalasi and fifty bututs!” he cried and his heart sang with joy.
All Amat’s life, no one had given him this much money. Not even on Tobaski or Koriteh days when people were kindest.
“I will keep the dalasi for my sweet business and declare the fifty bututs to my master,” he told himself.
Apart from his generous giving, Amat liked the way the fat man had treated him, like a human being. Amat smiled. He felt he belonged. It was a long time since he felt this good with himself.
But as Amat marched home, something tugged at his mind. Where and when was this, ‘Same time and place’ he heard the fat man and the boroom Push-Push talk about? And why did the fat man keep casting his eyes about, as if he was in danger? Or was he?
“If ever this good man is in trouble,” Amat vowed, “I will do anything, I mean, anything in my power to save him.”
Amat’s master, Serigne Jobe was a marabout. He had a large compound with three houses in Lasso Wharf. Two of these were made of mud and had thatched roofs. Mats made of cow and goatskins were spread on their floors. Here Amat and his fellow talibés slept, all twenty-three of them.
In the centre of the compound was a small mosque. Mostly, Serigne Jobe could be seen here counting his praying beads. Serigne Jobe had become rich in the last few years. He was now the owner of several canoes and boats, which he rented out. Every Friday, after the Jumat prayers, he went to the river and seaside to collect his wages.
As Amat entered into the large compound, he sighted Sule, Abdou and Jeng. They were fetching water from the well. They saw him and began pointing and laughing. Amat remembered how they had mocked him at McCarthy Square and his heart boiled.
Amat froze. It was his master’s voice, deep and harsh.
“Master,” he answered meekly.
“Come here this minute, quick!”
Serigne Jobe had no patience with anybody, and didn’t care if that person was disabled or not. Limping, Amat rushed towards his master’s voice, wondering what crime he had committed.
“What’s this I hear, that you wish to be a president?” Serigne Jobe roared, counting a praying bead at the same time.
Amat bit his lower lip as anger rose up in his heart. Sule, Abdou and Jeng had told on him.
“Answer me boy,” Serigne Jobe barked.
Looking at Amat who had his head bowed, Serigne Jobe wished he had a son like him. Even though he would not accept it openly, he knew Amat was determined to succeed in life. There was a special sparkle he saw in the boy’s eyes. None of his other followers had it. The truth was that secretly, Serigne Jobe was afraid that Amat would be more successful than him.
“Answer me boy,” Serigne Jobe barked again.
“Well, I just… well…”
There was a tightness in Amat’s voice as the right answer failed to form in his mind. Serigne Jobe smiled cunningly, revealing a golden tooth.
“Now listen, and listen well,” he said after a long pause. “Insh’ Allah, I wish all my followers well. You wish to be a president, fine. But I’ll not encourage you to start thinking impossible things. If I do, I’ll be failing in my duties.
“You want to be a president, ha! The way I see it, you’re being greedy. An orphan like you? Have you forgotten you’re disabled? How can you, a disabled orphan ever become anything? Remove such thoughts from your mind, because to be the president you want, you must go to school. I don’t have money.
“And even if I had, I’ve better things to do with it, not send you, a disabled boy who isn’t even my child to school. So stop dreaming about impossible things or you’ll end up disappointed with life. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master,” Amat replied, sad and disappointed at the way his holy master, whom he respected so much, had spoken.
“And what did you bring today?”
“I’ve lots of dried Sorrel flowers, groundnut and some oranges. I also have fifty bututs.”
Searching his pocket, Amat handed the money over.
“Al hamdulilahi! We give thanks to Allah!” Serigne Jobe smiled, touching the money on his forehead. It then disappeared inside one pocket of his white Xaftan. “Take the other items to my senior wife in the backhouse.”
As soon as Amat left his master, Sule, Abdou, Jeng and several others began mocking him. The news of his ambition had spread everywhere like harmattan fire.
“Hail, Mr. President.”
“Can a disabled become anything important in life?”
The mocking was endless. Having been scolded by his master, Amat had no courage to defend his ambition. As he went about his business that evening, Amat wondered if his master was right.
“Perhaps I am fooling myself,” he thought sadly. “Maybe I should forget this whole idea of starting a sweet business and continue living as I always have.”
But something in Amat refused to surrender.
After dinner, the talibés gathered in the middle of the compound to watch a black and white television set, which Serigne Jobe operated with a car battery. Seated on the dusty ground, they watched one advert after another on GRTS. Then the announcer came on air with a Public Service announcement.
“It has come to the attention of the Department of State for Natural Resources that certain persons are invading Bijol Island, home of wildlife such as turtles and migratory water birds. These people go to steal the eggs of these wildlife. If this act continues, this country will lose its range of beautiful birds and reptiles.
“These wildlife serve as attraction for tourists. Our nation depends on tourism for important development projects. Citizens are urged to be on the look out. Any person seen trading in eggs of wildlife should be reported to the nearest police station.”
“What would any person want with ordinary eggs?” Amat wondered. “Bijol Island? That was far away in Western Division. The thieves wouldn’t come all the way to Banjul with their stolen eggs.”
Sitting not far away from Serigne Jobe, Amat heard him mutter, “this is a bad development,” and turned to watch him with curiosity.
Amat then allowed himself a smile. He knew his master had no interest whatsoever in eggs, whether of domestic birds or wildlife. Immediately, Amat forgot everything about the announcement as the announcer arranged some papers in front of him and announced the next programme. It was a documentary on the president.
Amat got very excited. But he immediately realized that none of his fellow talibés was listening to the TV anymore. Instead, angry hands secretly pinched, and punched him from every corner. Someone grabbed his thin, left leg and pulled it angrily. It hurt him very much. He wanted to cry out from the pains, but stopped himself just in time.
“Is it a crime to want to be a president?” he wondered sadly.
Two and a half months have gone by since Amat made his wish to become president known. In that time, he was yet to save enough money to start his sweet selling business.
“Maybe I was wrong having such a dream after all.”
This was what was in his mind as he sat alone at the top of his favourite ferry, one of several abandoned in a disused jetty on Bund Road. In one old locker in one of the ferry’s cabin was his secret hiding place. Moments before, he had counted his money. He hadn’t even saved a quarter of fifty dalasi, which a packet of the brand of sweet he preferred to sell cost.
Bund road was a lonely road. Only trucks from the Banjul Port used it. Along its whole length ran the River Gambia on its way to the sea.
From where he sat, Amat had a good view of everything going on around him. The tide was low and several water birds, including two huge pelicans were on the riverbank, feeding. For several minutes, he sat pondering his future as he gazed into the distance. And from an abandoned boathouse further down to his right, he suddenly saw a wheelbarrow man emerge. His wheelbarrow was piled high. Then he sighted a man following behind the wheelbarrow man.
However, Amat lost interest in both men as an old, smoky lorry carrying over three hundred bags of cement came crawling past. Its noise disturbed the quietness of the surrounding, frightening the pelicans away. It was several minutes before Amat could breathe fresh air again.
Meanwhile, the wheelbarrow man and his escort had come close enough for Amat to get a better look at them. The escort wore a blue, long-sleeved shirt over a three-quarter baggy trouser and was waving his hands about as he talked.
“I’ve seen this man before,” Amat said to himself. “And the wheelbarrow man too.”
He watched them disappear behind a cluster of mango trees.
“It can’t be fresh fish they are carrying,” he thought. “Fishermen didn’t carry fresh fish covered completely in sacks. And from the way the wheelbarrow man avoided potholes, whatever he was carrying was delicate.”
Curiosity got the better part of Amat.
“I must find out what they are carrying.”
Climbing down, he traced their steps. A dried red flower on their track caught his attention. He picked and crushed it absentmindedly between his fingertips.
Suddenly, he noticed what he was crushing and cried out:
“I knew it. I have seen those two men before.”
He took another look at the old boathouse, and the crushed Sorrel flowers between his fingertips.
“Surely that’s no place for a provincial trader to be storing his goods.”
It was the short, fat man who had shown him kindness and his borom push-push!
“Same time and place next week?”
Clearly, Amat recalled how uneasy the fat man had been at this question.
Amat was deep in thought.
“There is more to this than just dried Sorrel flowers!”
“Vrooom, vrooom, vrooom.”
Surprised, Amat looked up, just in time to see a man disappear out of sight with an outboard engine boat from the boathouse. Amat looked around him. Not a single soul was in sight. And it was getting dark.
“I must find out what is going on in that abandoned boathouse.”
The abandoned boathouse looked totally deserted. Amat tiptoed to a window by the left side. It was partly open but too high for him to look through. He thought of jumping. His thin, left leg wouldn’t let him. And what if somebody was inside, waiting for the man who had left with the boat to return? Bending low, he limped to the back.
It had a metal door, which was closed. A dugout canoe, tied to a big stone rocked gently on the water, like a leaf. Amat saw another window, this time wide open. Right under it were three old tyres, placed one on top the other. He stepped into the cold water and made his way towards them. Halfway, he heard low voices. His heart began to beat faster.
Slowly, he crept forward. He began to sweat despite the cool wind. Getting to the tyres, he managed to perch on them. Bringing his head up slowly, he looked through the window.
It was a small, bare room! Three men were seated on the floor, backing the window. All he could see was the faint outline of their bodies and the fact that they were dressed similarly in overalls, like roadside mechanics. He bent low, so as not to be seen. Clearly, the men’s discussion floated over to him.
“This business is now dangerous. The police are looking for us,” one of the men said in a low, weak voice.
“Forget it Jatta,” a second man with a harsh voice told him. “We can never get caught, I, Ebrima, am assuring you. Who’ll suspect we’ve anything hidden inside those sacks of dry Sorrel flowers?”
“Besides, Fatty, has been trading in Sorrel for several years. Everyone knows him,” said a third voice, “Also, we always bribe the customs at Amdalai border post. They never search Fatty.”
“All the same, I am not happy,” Jatta complained. “The owner of the boat and canoe told me he would withdraw them. He heard the announcement too.”
“We’ll pay him more,” the third voice said. He talked slowly, but Amat could feel the authority in his voice.
“But, Bojang, you have forgotten the boroom push-push?” Jatta whined. “He has been acting funny since that public service announcement on the TV.”
“Don’t bother about him,” the slow, talking Bojang said. ”If he talks, he’s dead!”
The egg thieves of Bijol Island! Fear suddenly seized Amat as he sensed danger. His heartbeat doubled and his mouth went dry. He began to shake with fear. Suddenly, he missed a foot. In the struggle to maintain balance, the tyres he was perching on collapsed under him, making a large noise and sending him flying into the river and splashing about.
“What was that noise?” Jatta whispered, quickly standing up. He drew a dagger from one pocket of his overalls and torchlight from another.
“A cat, maybe,” Ebrima said.
“I had better check to make sure.”
Amat was steadily crawling back to the window when he saw a hand holding a torchlight approach the window.
Immediately, he disappeared under the water, holding his breath. He swallowed some water. It tasted salty. Jatta remained by the window for what seemed a long time. He shined his torchlight everywhere. For a moment, Amat felt the light on his back and was thankful his shirt was brown, the same as the river water.
After a while, Amat badly needed to breath. He began to rise up from the water, knowing fully well what it meant if he were seen. Just as his head was coming out of the water, the torchlight shone in his face. His heart stopped beating. But luckily, Jatta was no longer looking. His hand withdrew into the boathouse. Instantly, the light went out, throwing everywhere into darkness. Amat sighed with relief. He began breathing again. Just as he began to crawl out of the water a second time, the quietness of the night was shattered by the loud noise of an approaching outboard engine boat.
“The man who left earlier is coming back. Surely, that boat must have searchlight,” Amat cried. “I must run away. But I can’t run fast enough. They will surely kill me if they see me.”
As fear gripped him, Amat sank back into the river, swallowing more salt water, and choking. He felt suddenly frozen. And the tide had risen, he noticed. If he remained longer than necessary in the water, he would surely drown. And then his dream of becoming a president would never come true. He began to cry softly, his tears mixing with the salty water.
Then as the boat drew nearer, Amat realized that no light came on! Either the boat had no light or the boatman didn’t want to use it.
“I am safe,” he cried. “Thank God.”
Raising up his head, he saw the boatman come down after killing the engine. The man made his way towards the boathouse. Metals made loud noises against each other as bolts were drawn back and the back iron door was thrown open. It was then shut again.
With teeth clattering against each other, Amat crept back to the window within seconds.
“How did it go, Dembo?” the slow talking Bojang asked the newcomer.
“Old Fatty has crossed with the last ferry. I saw him leave the terminal on the Johél, “ Dembo said, rushing his words.
“We should be able to make a cool fifty thousand CFA by the time he sells this new stock across the border,” Ebrima cried happily.
All the while the men discussed, they only saw each other’s face from the bright glow of something, which they smoked. It made their eyes shine dangerously and Amat’s stomach churned at its unpleasant smell. Amat was sure it was marijuana. He had heard a lot about it.
“We’ll split up as usual,” Bojang said after a long pause. It was clear he was the leader of the gang. “We should all meet here by 4.00 p.m. next Friday instead of 5.00 p.m.
“The owner of the boat and canoe would be coming for his money. Ebrima and Jatta, go with three baskets instead of two in your next trip to the Island. Dembo and I would be waiting in the usual place. By 3:30 a.m. next Friday, we should be in possession of another batch of eggs. Any questions?”
Moments later, Amat watched Bojang and Dembo jumped into the outboard engine boat while Ebrima and Jatta climbed into the dugout canoe. He waited patiently until he was sure they were gone. Then he crept out of the water, overcome with fear from all what he had just learnt.
Later that night, as he lay among his fellow talibés, Amat realized he was faced with a difficult decision. The fat man who had shown him so much kindness was the one they called Fatty.
“I made a promise to protect him if ever he was in trouble? Are promises not meant to be kept? But I owe my country even more. If I report him and his gang to the police, I’ll be helping my country.”
All around him, boys snored loudly and their stomachs rumbled. Amat thought deep into the night. He didn’t know when he fell asleep.
The Central Police Station was located in Liberation Avenue. Without saying his morning prayers, Amat headed there.
“I only hope the police will listen to me,” he said to himself as he limped along.
It was a cold morning, and his clothes were torn in many places. He met a police Corporal leaning on the reception desk, busy straightening a bent stick of partly smoked cigarette.
“Go away! It’s too early in the morning for begging,” the corporal said.
“Aliu, you don’t know them,” Sergeant Keita, just waking up and stretching himself on a mat added. “Like ducks, these talibés hardly sleep.”
“I haven’t come to beg,” Amat replied angrily.
“Then what have you come for?” Corporal Aliu demanded.
“I know something about the gang.”
“What gang?” Sergeant Keita asked.
“The gang stealing eggs from Bijol Island.”
Both policemen stared at each other.
“You?” Corporal Aliu asked, looking Amat all over.
Amat tried to hide his left leg, but it was no use.
“Yes,” Amat answered stubbornly. “Yes, me.”
“Did you dream it, boy?” Sergeant Keita asked, a faint smile playing on his face as he came closer.
“They meet next Friday,” Amat said. “And I know where and when.”
Both policemen became instantly alert when they saw how serious Amat was. Before he knew it, Amat was rushed to a back room. There, Detective Danso of the Serious Crime Unit questioned him. The questions went on and on. Amat thought it would never end, and began to regret why he had taken the trouble coming to the police.
“So this talibé, how old is he?” His Excellency, the President asked. Dressed in a fine tailored Xaftan, he was seated behind an arc shaped table at State House.
“About twelve, Sir,” Detective Danso replied, stiff as a rod as he stood at attention in the middle of the office. Even though the air conditioner was set at the second to the highest number, sweat still ran down his armpits.
“And you say he’s disabled?”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
Only the ‘burrr’, ‘burrr’, ‘burrr’, sound of the air conditioner could be heard now.
Detective Danso waited.
“And this gang operates every Friday evening?”
“According to the boy, Sir.”
“See that nothing happens to that boy.”
“Every member of this gang must be caught,” His Excellency said, wagging a finger. “
“Get on with the case then.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency sir.”
“One other thing, Danso. This boy. Bring him to me after everything. I want to be the one to tell him about it. You know what I mean by ‘it’, don’t you?”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
“Very well then.”
“Good day, Sir.”
And Detective Danso left the President’s office. When the stealing at Bijol Island was first reported, the president, who was a lover of birds and wildlife, had asked to be given a daily briefing of the situation.
The dugout canoe sliced through the cold seawater, as it left Bijol Island. Perched on one end of the canoe, like a bird, Jatta paddled soundlessly. From somewhere in the hinterland, a cock crowed, its first for the day.
Jatta’s call, carried by the sea breeze was only a whisper but Ebrima who sat perched on the other end heard it without difficulty. Ebrima paddled swifter and the canoe increased speed.
Quickly, Jatta cast a curious glance over the three baskets lying in the middle of the canoe. Covered with jute bags, they were filled to the brim with the eggs of sea turtles, pelicans, gulls, as well as other water birds, and reptiles. He searched the darkness. In the distance by his right, he saw what he was looking for.
Were he not purposely looking for it, there was no way in the world he would have seen the tiny light spark, which told where Bojang and Dembo waited in the outboard engine boat. Expertly, he steered the canoe in its direction.
“3.30 on the dot! You’re on time,” Dembo whispered in a rushed manner.
“Try and learn to talk slowly,” Jatta replied.
“The way you carry on, one would think you’ve a ripe boil on your buttocks,” Dembo fired back.
“I don’t like this business anymore,” Jatta said.
“Since last week Friday, you’ve been behaving like an old woman,” Bojang scolded Jatta.
It took only a few minutes for the three baskets of eggs to be transferred to the outboard engine boat.
“Are the dried Sorrel flowers ready?” Bojang asked.
“They’re,” Jatta replied, paddling away quickly.
“Remember, 4 o’clock,” Bojang called after him in a low, harsh voice.
Jatta trembled. He had a deep feeling something was wrong. But he didn’t know what.
Detective Danso’s walkie-talkie crackled suddenly.
“Bravo calling Alpha, over.”
Quickly, Detective Danso picked it up.
“Alpha hearing you loud and clear, over.”
The Alpha team was made of Detective Danso who was fully dressed in his battle fatigue, two other plain clothe officers and Amat who had been with the police since last Friday when he made his report. The four Alpha team members were lying flat on their stomachs and hidden in the upper deck of Amat’s favourite ferry in the abandoned jetty.
The Bravo team on the other hand were officers of the Coast Guard. Some of them were hidden in the mangroves along the riverbanks, while others waited in a boat further away.
“Targets sighted on a canoe, approaching boathouse. Two people on board, over.”
“Keep watching them. Will get back to you, over.”
Setting down his walkie-talkie, Detective Danso focused a binocular and looked into it.
“Amat,” he said, handing over the binoculars. “See if you can identify any of the men.”
Even though he had been at the exercise of identifying objects floating across the binoculars all week, Amat still had troubles making his eyes work inside the instrument.
“I couldn’t see their faces,” Amat said after a while. “It was dark.”
Detective Danso’s radio was to crackle one other time. At this second time, through the binoculars, Amat watched as the outboard engine boat arrived.
The two men that had come with it carried three baskets into the boathouse. Watching through another binoculars, Detective Danso saw this. A happy man, he nodded his head slowly several times.
“Say Amat, what do you wish for most in your life?” he asked suddenly.
“To be the president,” Amat replied immediately.
Detective Danso and the other officers looked at each other shook with laughter. Amat couldn’t see what was so funny. They didn’t even know the kind of president he was talking about. He let them laugh.
It wasn’t long after that the Alpha team saw Fatty and the boroom Push-Push walk quickly by. There was a third man with them. Tall, with broad shoulders, he held a praying bead in his right hand, counting it. To Amat, the man’s way of walking was familiar. Then the man looked back. Amat took a sharp breath.
“You okay?” Detective Danso asked, staring at him.
“Yes,” Amat said, breathing fast.
“Yes,” Amat stammered, his brain in confusion. “What was the third man doing here?”
“The third man, he looks like somebody I’ve seen recently. You know him?”
It was too late now.
“Yes,” Amat said staring at the floor.
“But you told us of only the borom Push-Push and the fat man?”
“I didn’t see this third man that day.”
“Then how come you know him?”
Amat wanted to start crying.
“He’s my master,” he said at last, wiping tears from his eyes.
Detective Danso whistled slowly and remembered where he had first met Serigne Jobe. It was last Friday when he had gone to inform him that his disciple, Amat, was in police custody, helping them with an important investigation. Then he switched on his walkie-talkie.
“Alpha calling Bravo, over.”
“Bravo, hearing you loud and clear, over.”
“A group of three men just walked past. Boy has identified them! Over.”
“We can see them approaching boathouse, over.”
“We give them thirty minutes, and then move in, over.”
Jatta, wearing a long face sat staring out through the window of the abandoned boathouse.
“The police, did they by any chance stop you on your way here?” Dembo teased him.
Dembo and Ebrima sorted the eggs from the baskets into a thick mat on the floor. Bojang and Fatty then carefully stuffed them into smaller sacks lined with cotton wool. These smaller sacks would later be carefully placed into larger ones, already lined with dried Sorrel flowers.
Three sacks would be without eggs. The borom Push-Push, leaning against a wall eyed Serigne Jobe’s praying bead, which lay carelessly abandoned on the floor. Serigne Jobe was by a corner, happily counting his wad of money. He would wet his forefinger with spit, count for a while and then smile. Then he would repeat the process.
“Police not problem, at all,” Fatty said, in response to Dembo’s question.
It was the briefest of movements, but Jatta saw it. He rushed towards the window, as if pulled by a powerful magnet. His sudden movement took everyone by surprise.
“What?” Fatty asked, confused.
“What’s the matter with you?” Bojang shouted. “You’re behaving like an old woma-”
Bojang didn’t complete his disapproval because the sound that floated over to them shocked them all:
“You’re surrounded by the Police and Coast Guards.”
Fatty crushed a whole bunch of pelican eggs with one huge foot as he hurriedly stood up. With mouths open, the seven men stared at each other.
“Come out slowly, with your hands in the air,” the megaphone sounded again.
And Jatta fainted!
The next day, the bold headlines in the Daily Observer and other Newspapers read:
‘DISABLED TALIBÉ, 12, RISKS LIFE FOR COUNTRY.’
And Amat became a national hero. Every child on the street wished he were Amat. Parents promised to name the next boy child born to them Amat! His Excellency, the President invited Amat to State House, for a State banquet.
“I want to have a chat with our hero,” His Excellency told the Newspaper and television people. His Excellency’s cabinet members were also invited to the banquet.
In place of his rags, Amat was dressed in a beautiful suit, courtesy of His Excellency. He also sat next to His Excellency in the banquet hall.
Amat ate more food than he had eaten in his lifetime. He had never been so happy. The police and Army band entertained him. After the banquet, His Excellency made a short speech:
“Amat our brave hero, I praise you for your courage and loyalty to your country. Your effort in apprehending those smugglers will help preserve the wildlife of our country. Once again, we are reassured of our earnings from tourism, which is needed for our development.”
Amat beamed, and posed for the TV and Newspaper cameras.
FLASH! FLASH! FLASH!
“In appreciation,” His Excellency went on, “the State is offering you a scholarship, which will enable you to complete school to any level you wish. I am happy to be the one to tell you about it. Seeing also that your master, will be going to prison for sabotaging his own country with his fleet of boats and canoes, the State will now take the responsibility for your upkeep.”
Amat’s heart danced with joy.
Asked what else he would like the State to do for him, Amat asked for something very special:
“Please His Excellency, can I be the President?”
“But I’m the President,” His Excellency said, surprised at such a request. “Besides, you’re not old enough, and will have to wait until you grow up.”
“I know. But for now, the President I want to be is different.”
“What do you mean, ‘different’?” His Excellency asked, not understanding.
“On the day the children of this country celebrate the next Commonwealth and Children’s Independence Day at McCarthy Square, can I be their President?”
“Yes, sir, that. It has always been my dream.”
“You can be their President then.”
And Amat’s face broke out in a large smile. Everyone, including the Cabinet members clapped.
“And my friends, Abdou, Jeng and Sule, …can they stay with me and also get free education like me?”
His Excellency didn’t know whom Abdou, Jeng and Sule were but he was happy to grant Amat’s wish.
“Yes,” he said. “Since you want it so, the State also offers your friend all these things as have been offered you.”
“Thank you, your Excellency for making my dream come true.”
And nothing else mattered to Amat. He knew what primary school he wished to attend. It was Albion, just beside McCarthy Square.