The Wages of Plunder
By Dipita Kwa (Cameroon)
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The Wages of Plunder
Whenever his pockets were dry of money, especially when a weekend was around the corner and the strong memories of nightclub ambience in Tiko and Limbe were beckoning seductively at him, Edimo, the twenty-four-year-old president of Mukunda Vigilant Youth Group must do something. Usually, he organized his group to carry out raids of stray goats and pigs throughout the village of Mukunda. Goats were caught, tied, and locked up in a room built for that purpose at the chief’s palace. Edimo kept the keys and often secretly released some of the animals after receiving money from their owners. This was not the customary fine that went into the council’s coffers. It was his money.
Whenever he organised these raids and killed pigs, they were carried to the palace. Their owners paid five thousand francs to claim the carcass but if they did not show up two hours after the kill, the animal was slaughtered, part of the meat auctioned and the rest shared among the raiders.
In order then to guarantee a fruitful raid this morning, Edimo or Devil as his named signified and one of his friends, Fosi, had gone round the village when everyone else was still asleep, sneaking into compounds and quietly letting out animals from their pens.
At exactly six o’clock, young men armed with ropes, sharp machetes and spears were let loose over the village. Breeders were plucked from their beds as they heard their animals crying when caught and looped ropes thrown around their necks. Pigs squealed as spears went through their hearts. People begged, wept, and cursed. But nothing could be done. Those whose protests could make a mark were benefiting from this activity and therefore found no reason to speak out. The chief himself was one of them.
Today, Edimo was working with Mukete. Mukete was the group’s Financial Secretary. He was supposed to be recording the kill and catch during each raid and present a report to the Council at the end of the month. He had a notebook in his jeans pocket for that purpose.
‘Hurry here with that spear,’ Edimo shouted at him.
Mukete stood as though he was deaf.
‘Be quick before it goes away,’ Edimo shouted again, guardedly watching the huge sow lying beside a kitchen door, suckling its young.
Presently, Mukete looked up at the sky. Dark clouds were steadily gathering. He wished to be in the safety of his room before it began to rain.
‘Let’s close. I’m tired,’ he said. ‘Besides, can’t you see that the pig is right beside its owner’s kitchen?’
‘Am I blind?’ Edimo asked, glaring at him. ‘What do you know about stray animals?’
At this moment, Mukete saw the owner of the pig, Tiako’s mother with the hunchback and a bad leg, hopping painfully from the kitchen. He retreated to the fence of hedges separating the compound from the road. He had no business being in this woman’s compound at this moment, he told himself.
‘What is wrong, my son?’
Thank God she did not address the question to him, Mukete thought.
Edimo’s frown deepened.
‘Give me that spear!’ he shouted at Mukete.
The woman suddenly understood what Edimo was up to.
‘But my son, what has Bema done?’ she asked. ‘I make sure she eats well so that she doesn’t go out looking for trouble. And you know that they are my only companion, my magi and salt …’
‘That’s why I want to kill it,’ Edimo spat out. ‘What do some of you take us for, Mami Tiako? Since we started working, five months ago, we’ve been unable to kill any of your pigs or catch even one of your goats. So you think we waste our time running around Mukunda like mad people?’
‘My son, please...’ The woman went down on her knees and clasped Edimo’s ankles in supplication.
Edimo shoved her away with a kick of his leg. The woman lost her balance and went rolling on the dust. He ran to the fence and snatched the spear from Mukete’s hand.
‘Please, don’t do it,’ Mukete whispered and attempted to hold his hand. Edimo pushed him aside and strode back to the where the sow was grunting happily with its eyes closed, unaware of the case being pleaded on its life.
‘Please…’ the woman cried as Edimo lifted the spear. But nothing could stop Edimo. The sow squealed in agony as the spear went through its heart. All the piglets scurried into the kitchen for safety. With one swift strike of his machete, Edimo severed the pigs head from its body.
‘It doesn’t surprise me that you took after your father,’ the woman sobbed. ‘It is a big shame and a cause for weeping that even you didn’t turn out to be the lone light in Jembe’s house of darkness.’
‘It is your home that is buried in darkness, old witch!’ Edimo retorted.
Mukete gasped, turned and left the compound.
‘Come and carry it,’ he heard Edimo calling after him.
‘Take it and eat it,’ he heard the woman saying to Edimo. ‘Maybe you will grow to live longer than myself.’
‘Did I ever tell you that I intended to live as old as you?’ Edimo asked sharply, grabbed the carcass by the hind legs and dragged it away from the compound.
‘A generation of pain!’ the widow quacked as she picked herself up with difficulty. She wiped the dust from her kaba and went back into the kitchen.
Mukete sat on the grass across the road and watched and asked himself what Edimo had in him that enabled him to manipulate people into carrying out his wishes or supporting him in his honourable crimes. When they were still in primary school, Edimo was the teachers’ favourite although he hardly passed any subjects other than Physical Education and Handwork. At 9, he was always the oldest boy in Class 2 and a terror to two-thirds of the school population. Whenever a class was sent out to work in a teacher’s farm, Edimo was made the leader. With a crooked guava branch in his hand, he ensured that the farm was properly hoed or weeded by the younger pupils while he and Fosi combed the nearby farms for fruits to eat.
Back in the quarters he remained a tyrant. Mukete recalled one Saturday evening when they were playing football on the road beside the church and Edimo matched up to them.
‘I want to play,’ he had said in his deep voice.
Everyone pretended not to have heard him and went on with the match. Then Edimo had strolled in, caught the ball and walked away with it to their house. The owner of the ball, Kalou, ran to his mother for intervention.
‘Get out from here, daughter of a whore,’ Edimo’s father, Mandengue, had shouted at the woman.
The woman had been lucky that Mandengue was sober that evening after a crippling hangover from last night’s drinking. If he had been in his high moments, a machete would certainly have been brought out to make his point understood.
‘Next time tell your son that Edimo is the leader of the children of this quarter,’ Mandengue had commanded. ‘Every child must obey him. Is it not so Big Edi?’ he had asked Edimo who was puffing at his elbow like a wrestling champion. Then he had gone ahead to insult the woman, starting from her husband’s ancestors to the last living baby in her house.
Edimo had owned that ball and gone ahead with his bullying, receiving his father’s backing all along.
Mukete now saw the woman whose pig had just been killed come out of the kitchen holding a hoe and a calabash blackened by soot. She stooped and began scraping the blood-soaked earth into the calabash. Then, like a priest at consecration, she held up the calabash facing the direction of the rising sun.
‘Bad luck! Bad luck! Bad luck!’ the widow chanted. ‘Take almighty sun, this sacrifice of spilled blood. Crush that heartless leech – that seed of thorns. May he fail today, fall, faint, and fade away.’
She sprinkled the content of the calabash in the air.
Mukete flinched and most earnestly wished again that he had never left his bed early that morning. It was almost like the dream that had tormented him last night. He heard the woman calling on the sun to pour avenging salt of justice on that leech that has just sucked out the blood of her only source of livelihood.
His heart sank down to his navel.
He bowed his head. He had always avoided Edimo, preferring to play hopscotch with the girls during break time back in their school days rather than joining any group of boys with Edimo among to hunt birds or tangerines. As a grown up, he had shun the youth group like yaws. He didn’t see any value it added to the community. But his invalid father had urged him to join saying it was like undermining authority.
‘The fine you will be asked to pay before my grave is dug will be too high for you to pay my son,’ Mukete’s father had said to him three years ago, a few weeks after the old man fell from a palm tree and broke his spinal column. ‘You need to belong to the community in other to have a rounded life. You are one of the few sons of this village who knows the pen and your intelligence will be of great service to the Council.’
Looking back at these three past years, Mukete couldn’t see any positive contribution he had made to Mukunda. Edimo didn’t give room for suggestions which he considered rude opposition to his person and his group.
Now he could feel Edimo’s gaze on him.
‘Let him not dare utter a word to me,’ Mukete thought.
‘Boy, is this how you will be working?’ Edimo asked.
Mukete bolted to his feet, his heart pounding against his ribs with rage.
‘What work?’ he shouted. ‘Is this what you call work? Let’s be realistic, Edimo. If you weren’t raised from the income from the sale of animals, know that I was. Our parents keep these animals to help themselves and some of us in difficult moments. I know this doesn’t matter to you. Among other things you have never learnt to raise a hen, so you can’t feel the pain of losing an animal you have come to love like a member of your family. The way you just destroyed Mama Tiako’s Bema, really makes me sad to see that you are still the same Edimo you were eleven years ago.’
‘Don’t try to make me feel guilty for doing my job,’ Edimo countered. ‘Anyway, do you know when I last tasted good pork? More than three weeks ago.’ And he began to laugh self-righteously.
‘So that is the reason for killing that poor woman’s pig, even when she begged you not to? Because you haven’t eaten pork for weeks!’ Mukete said, looking surprised and deeply disgusted. ‘You are a heartless villain – a real devil.’
‘What did you just say?’ Edimo asked, wiping the pig’s blood from his hands as though trying to hide the truth of Mukete’s pronouncement.
‘I hate this work, every thing about it.’
‘Like what precisely?’ Edimo challenged, wearing one of those evil grins that made Mukete’s stomach churn.
‘Since you can’t distinguish between right and wrong,’ Mukete said, ‘I will innumerate the recent miseries you have inflicted on the people you were born to serve: last Friday Ngunjo and his wife quarrelled under the roof of their house over their son who refused to fetch water and you had them dragged out and chained to a tree like dogs for disturbing the peace of the village. You left them to be eaten by mosquitoes throughout the night. Because they didn’t have three crates of beer and eight thousand francs to give to the Council, you made them suffer. The other day – I think it was on Tuesday – we confiscated all the yams Fosi had stolen from that widow’s farm. What did you do with them? You waited for the heat to die down and then connived with that same thief, Fosi, to sell the yams overnight. You had my neighbour Lotin, a man old enough to be your grandfather, flogged because he was too drunk to find his way home.
‘I pity some of our parents who sacrificed so much to make us better people. Now here we are, nailing them alive in coffins. Even your do-no-good father must be mourning your birth over a cup of palm wine despite his own wickedness.’
‘Shut up! Never you mention my father again,’ Edimo barked. ‘If you didn’t know, I enjoy every moment of my duty to this community. And nothing can stop me. Nothing! If you don’t like what I am doing why then did you leave your room this morning to be running after me? If you no longer want to work, resign. But never talk about my father again otherwise I will break your jaws.’
‘You don’t have to remind me about my resignation,’ Mukete said. ‘I had made up my mind several days ago. Tortoises are feasting on the fishes in my net while I am out here helping a group of leeches to drain the little life left in this village. But before I go, I must tell you one thing; all these curses that people keep heaping on us will surely manifest one day. We can’t escape from them forever unless we change!’
‘The chief will hear this. I promise you he will,’ Edimo said.
Mukete sighed. Under normal circumstances he would have laughed at what he thought was a stupid irony. But presently, he was too worked up with anger even to grin.
‘Who cares? You can tell him I said he is the biggest leech of all. Don’t forget to tell him what Mami Tiako just named us. I think we are really a generation of pain. You, Edimo, and many other youths in this village are a disgrace and pain to your parents. I don’t know why I ever accepted joining your band of thieves in the first place.’
‘I have told you to shut your big mouth otherwise I will shut it for you. And let me remind you, I am President to you. Have you heard?’
Mukete felt the urge to call him Devil as his name implied and to tell him that his father had been a true prophet-of-doom to have given him such a name. But he knew how far Edimo could be pushed. He didn’t want a machete falling on his head or a spear cruising through his ribs as his father had done to Jembe and Njoku.
‘You can keep your threats for another time. I can only advise you to go now and apologize to that woman before it is too late,’ he said instead and started walking away towards the palace to hand back the records book in his jean pocket.
‘You are a fool!’ Edimo murmured and followed him.
At the palace, Edimo discovered that the door to the goat cell had been violently smashed in. Splinters of wood hung awkwardly from what remained of the solid door that Edimo himself had built.
‘This must have been done by a human being – one of the rearers!’ Edimo cried with rage. ‘No goat can break this door.’
He peeped inside expectantly. But all the animals had escaped.
‘Over seventeen goats, all gone! I will teach these people a lesson they will never forget,’ he declared, and then instructed Fosi and two other boys to tie the goats they had just brought in to the guava tree beside the Council Hall and to follow him immediately.
‘We are going back to get all of them,’ he declared, ‘Even if it means breaking into their houses to get the animals, I will do so! And this time, for each goat caught they are going to pay five thousand francs instead of two.’ And he meant it.
Mukete stepped aside quietly as Edimo marched brusquely past him.
Just then another pig was dragged in with the wooden end of a spear sticking out of its side. It was still grunting feebly, with thick blood foaming in its mouth. As it was pulled past Mukete, it suddenly kicked its hind legs frantically, catching its bearers unprepared. They dropped it.
Edimo turned in time to see it running blindly in circles.
‘Cut off its head, you fools!’ he commanded.
Fosi had his machete in the ready and dashed forward to accomplish his president’s command. He dived. The pig veered drunkenly to his left. Fosi missed it by a few inches and fell, bruising his temples on the rough ground. With the agility of an athlete, he was back on his feet. Warm blood trickled down his face which he backhanded as one would backhand sweat.
The pig charged towards Mukete who skipped aside to avoid colliding with the dying animal. At that instant, Edimo too plunged forward like a goalkeeper after a penalty shot. His machete aimed with arching precision at the pig’s head. But he missed it.
Fosi’s machete followed just before Edimo’s reached its mark.
‘Aaaah!’ Edimo screamed and tried to withdraw his arm. But he was a fraction of a second too late. There, on the ground, oozing out blood like a hosepipe pumping water onto a barren field was Edimo’s forearm severed from the elbow by Fosi’s machete.
‘Oh God I’m finished.’ Mukete heard Edimo groaning like a boar.
Mukete looked around to see the expression on Fosi’s face but only saw his back disappearing between the trees behind the Council Hall.
A crowd began to gather.
‘A greedy dog always ends up with a broken mouth and watery eyes,’ someone said.
‘You can never plant plantains and expect to sell plums on market day,’ Lotin the Messenger said as he pushed a thumb full of snuff into his nostrils.
‘And never can a goat give birth to a horse!’ came a loud confirmation from Janjo the Head Gravedigger.
Mukete shook his head sadly and looked up at the sky. The dark rain clouds have been chased away by the fierce rising sun. What was he still doing here? He asked himself. Then he thought of the book in his pocket. He threw it at Edimo and began to walk home. He must hurry to inspect his net before the tortoises finished all the fishes his net must have caught during the night.