In the heavy weeks leading to Tabaski the streets began to sigh. Korite and the month of fasting were over. Late September winds whirled along the rocky coastlines of Dakar. Sultry swells struck the shores. The summer days slightly shortened, but the sun and stars still shone bright. The newest boubous designs and styles decorated boutique windows. Mbalax danced from neighborhoods to markets. It was time to prepare for Tabaski. Pockets, purses, and billfolds lightened. Sacrificial lambs lined medians and sidewalks throughout Medina, Fas, Fann, Mamelles, and Ngor. Rams were preferable first, of course, just as it was during Abraham’s great sacrifice. An ewe or goat would suffice, though, if they must, or if it was too difficult. If the CFA, the moneys, was not enough.
The sacrifice echoed throughout the city. How much would one give? Take? Ana xaalis bi, sama xarit, where is the money, my friend? There was no pressure, though, or so it seemed. It was a point of conversation in passing a friend, a brother, a sister, an uncle, or an aunt. Deedit, sama xarit, amuma taye, no, my friend, I don’t have today. Ba suba, inch’Allah, tomorrow, God willing. Inch’Allah. It wasn’t begging or a gesture or an expression, rather, it was a statement of faith and fortitude. Inch’Allah. God willing, I can trust you, my brother, my sister. We are one. Inch’Allah. God willing. Everyone had something, but no one could sacrifice all.
“Añ, añ, añ,” lunch, the naked man repeated. Chiseled torso, sagging genitalia, sharp shoulders, tethered and torn dreadlocks, he was impervious to the muggy winds. He was naked because he wants to be, Ibrahima thought; Ibou noticed the crouching man had a tent made of plastic bags and full of garments and rags, a grocery cart, and an extensive collection of empty Kirene bottles tied together at the mouth. He could cover himself if he were sane. The man wandered, though, unabashed and unbothered, along Rue de Corniche, known in town as La Corniche, between the old French military grounds and the beach road shoulder that fell 50 meters to the sea. Shunned again and again, the naked man was harmless, crazy, helpless. This man, mum dafa dof la, Ibou thought, but he gave him alms – a mango, a banana, and 250 CFA – anyways. He needs it, Ibou thought. The man looked at it a moment and went back to his rant, añ, añ, añ. Ibou continued walking along the Corniche towards the Ndiaga Ndiaye stop, just at the roundabout parallel to Oukam road.
Sacrifice. Ibrahima didn’t want too, or at least that is what he told himself just before the act, but, once, only once, he had forced himself on a woman. It wasn’t my fault, I had to, Ibou told himself late at night until he finally recreated what actually happened. He had to sacrifice and bury his innocence. He purged his consciousness of the act; he was remorseless. First of all, he knew who she was, Ibou told himself, but more importantly, for a slight moment, when he was on top of her, his loins banging her stiff body, she submitted like a lover would. Her body was taut, but then it loosened and she moaned. Ibou mistook her prolonged breath for an orgasm, so he kissed her neck and took his time lifting himself off her detached body on the unpaved road in Ngor village. Maybe she loves me. That is what he thought. In fact, she blew out the last sliver of lingering hope. Having left her 50,000 CFA, Ibou was convinced he had granted her not one but two favors that night on the motionless road where streetlights were as sparse as trees in the desert. She neither reported Ibou to the police, nor told anyone. Ibou knew she wouldn’t, so he was fearless. That night moved quietly from his mind, like a stray dog wandering from corner to corner.
Had Flemy known what Ibou did on that moonless night, with the starry sky so still and full it felt like velvet, he would have scolded, beaten, or, worse even, abandoned Ibou. Their crime was strictly for financial gain. “It’s the maids who hold the money,” Flemy had explained. “Men carry little money. What’s more, they earn it sporadically – as laborers moving from one day job to the next. It’s only the intouchables who drive fast cars and hold visas in their pressed suits who hold the real money. The intouchables and the maids. We have to target the maids, the women, the moneys, the CFA.”
“Yeah, but they’re women,” Ibou said, words lingering.
“And they’re the most vulnerable,” Flemy, with the lopsided forehead, said. He had rehearsed his explanation many times. “Can you rob a man?” His argument was valid. Ibou had neither the physique nor the tenacity to truly threaten any man.
Angel, Flemy’s cousin in Parcel, was a maid for a Portuguese family who lived in the coveted Almadies neighborhood where self-worth was determined by the size of the pool. “There are probably two maids for every house in that area,” she revealed. The 25th was her payday, but that was only by request. “Maids, nannies, and housekeeps are usually paid the last day of every month,” Angel said. She wasn’t in on it, though.
Flemy and Ibou trekked to the mosque daily. A time of prayer, peace, and reflection became a time to vent frustrations, to rebel safely in the house of prayer. The indictment of Le Grande Marabout Bethio Thioune, who had as many as a thousand disciples and Talibes, was the talk of many mornings before and after the men fell to their knees in prayer. How could a man of such stature commit treason and murder? It was unreal, like the death of an innocent infant. It was unfathomable, like the miraculous Cheikh Amadou Bamba fleeing the French infantry time and time again. Glossy pictures of Marabout Thioune still hung in the windows of taxis and the local Ndiaga Ndiaye buses. He was still revered.
“What happened to la renaissance africaine?” Flemy asked. “It’s really only a still statue, one that flaunts woman’s flesh, there on the hill in Mamelles, but it’s not real life. It’s more like viva my visa to France! Europe only wants our Drogbas and Eto’o’s. Everyone else is sacrificed for their gain. My people are losing themselves. I will never beg a Toubab,” he said. “Never. It will be the death of me first.”
They targeted the local Ndiaga Ndiaye bus routes. The maids had the moneys, the crisp 10,000 CFA notes, but not the private transportation to travel. Ibou and Flemy took to different neighborhoods, rode the raggedy white buses, full of tired laborers, and they spied like vultures. They watched for the signs: the women whose heads leaned against the window for a quick moment of sleep, the women who held their purses tight and close, the women who said little and avoided eye contact, the women with new weaves and hairstyles, the woman with the new cell phones and credit to burn. They watched and then followed, as far as they needed.
Late in the night, after Flemy and Ibou grabbed, pushed, pulled, and finally filled their pockets with crinkled CFA bills, they met on the boulders by the rank piles of trash strewn along the far reaches of the rocky shore in Ngor Beach to count their loot. “You must be careful, Ibou,” Flemy said. “Remember, you can’t look too long at any one woman. She’ll know you are watching. Just be patient. Find the one with the CFA and you follow her.” The waves crashed upon the rocks and the stillness of the night howled. “Don’t stay too close to her, but when she strays alone, and she will – people drift when they have money and know it – you make your move.” The beach air was brisk, but refreshing.
Ibou responded to Flemy as a boy to his father. His was dead, or so Ibou thought. Flemy, who was eight years Ibou’s senior, wasn’t quite a father figure, but provided the masculine attention Ibou craved. There were certainly men in his life, on every corner and in every mosque, but most wagged a stern and disapproving finger. Elders blamed the youth for the country’s plummet to irrelevance and Ibou was the epitome, the poster child, of their frustration: uneducated, unemployed, desperate, and stagnant. They proclaimed to know what Ibou didn’t.
Ibou scoffed. He felt differently about Flemy. It’s as if Allah Himself sent Flemy to me, Ibou thought. Inch’Allah, they said to one another. Flemy was intense, but yielding, and, to Ibou, Flemy’s knowledge transcended every other man he’d ever met. Robbery was perilous, but Flemy had his rules, too. “Always leave yourself a clear exit and never take all of her money. Leave her at least 10,000 CFA. She’s got to get home and she must eat.”
“And the rest,” Ibou’s voice trailed.
“We’ll count how much we have and pass it along to who needs it,” Flemy said. He said that part many times. “Don’t spend anything until we count it all.”
“Should we really do this?”
“Never ask that question,” Flemy said. Soft eyes sat deep in his eye sockets, but his stare was as broad as his shoulders. “Toubabs. The Toubabs who pay these women next-to-nothing compared to what they themselves make will pay these mbindaan back in full and then some. They’ll feel sorry for them. They’ll pity them. They’ll try to explain it to these women in their western terms and throw around words like développement de la nation and l’extrême pauvreté and masses incontrôlables, but then they will give them more money. That is when the money will come back to them. It is like any international aid,” Flemy said.
Ibou was lost. “So, we should do this?”
“Sama rakk,” little brother, Flemy said. “Listen. Aid comes when they feel sorry for us. Is that right? The wise west and the wretched of the Earth. These maid women will be scared, but they’ll be pitied and taken care of. Twofold.” The night grew darker and their words spread further apart. “But, you can never ask if we should do this. We’re not hurting them. Respect our women,” he said, unabashed. Flemy meant it.
On the last day of every month, from the rocks above Ngor Beach, beneath shooting stars and a pungent breeze, Ibou and Flemy went home with several hundred thousand CFA. They each carried half, but when they returned to Guédiawaye, Flemy delivered cash to the mothers and aunts who struggled. Unemployed and too old to be nannies or maids, they were the forgotten generation of those born when independence was passed along from the French. No insurance, no pension, no promises of tomorrow, but a house full of toddlers to support. Flemy held the weight of his mother’s life work. Like many, Flemy held the weight of the empty promises. His front as a port employee made him gravely popular among the neighbors. They waited and he provided.
Ibou had his guilty pleasures and always spent some of the money. Sometimes, he spent all of the money and claimed he got, or stole, none. Flemy knew Ibou lied, but he was patient with him. Flemy had his secrets, as well. He’d trek to the restaurants flooded with western expats and try to feel their life. Their taste. Their talk. Their smell. He hated them, but wanted their chance.
Flemy’s mother, Adama, took in Ibou around the same time Ibou and Flemy befriended. Ibou had arrived from Guinea. He was a Talibé sent to Dakar by his surviving family to study the Koran. The war left his mother, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles dead. His father fled. Ibou arrived with little direction and little interest in studying anything. He was just a boy and struggled to speak Wolof.
“I’m not like you Senegalese here. I’m short and my last name, even, is from another country. I’ll never be accepted,” Ibou said.
“Sant dëkkul fenn,” the last name doesn’t live anywhere, Flemy said. “You have to learn the ways and the language of the people here. Take my last name – Diop. It’s just a name.”
And Ibou did.
That was years ago. Adama’s bedroom overlooked the dusty pathways of Guédiawaye, the cracked and worn cement of the neighboring houses, and the Dakar Dem Dekk and Ndiaga Ndiaye bus stops.
When Flemy went to jail, Ibou told no one. Adama was apprehensive to ask. She had always believed her son existed in several worlds, some sinister. Others were not as openly intuitive. “Where’s Flemy been,” Bintou, a light-skinned and robust Peul woman, who was a neighbor, asked every day. “I need money and we haven’t seen him.”
“He’s working at the port all this week and staying in Plateau,” Ibou said. Two weeks passed, but the questions didn’t. The women knew, but wouldn’t profess it to Ibou. It was shameful to abandon your duties, your people, the sacrifice. They were silent. They knew the money was dirty. They knew Flemy had no business wearing the pressed jeans and shiny shoes on those evenings he thought he snuck out to the expat world. The women, shadowed in the night light, had seen Flemy. They knew, but were still full of the wretched optimism that didn’t acknowledge their existence. “Inch’Allah,” they said. He’ll come back, they said, but they knew he wouldn’t and they still survived. Inch’Allah.
Ibou was almost ignorant. He hadn’t realized how many people they had reached with their financial quests for the CFA. “Has he sent you money? There’s no food to eat,” the women repeated, voices dry. So Ibou robbed. Flemy wasn’t forgotten, but the women knew he wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. There was hardly access to investigate. The women asked Ibou and Adama; both responded simply, with stuttered silence. Mungi ñew, he’s coming, inch’Allah, Ibou said.
Ibou visited Flemy only once at the downtown Prison Rebeus, located just off the Corniche. Inmates slept twenty, sometimes thirty, to a ten-by-fifteen-foot cell. Family and friends of inmates were responsible for their food. Flemy had made friends with an African American being held on visa violations and theft charges. Flemy told Ibou that Aziz, as the man called himself, had worked as a cook and nanny for a Lebanese chef who was convinced that Aziz was innocent. Every day the chef arrived, carrying shawarma, labneh, humus, fuul, and baba ghanouj. Obviously, Aziz was widely popular. Flemy and Aziz were friends, so Flemy ate, but there was a hierarchy of rules to follow. “Aziz is addicted to drugs,” Flemy whispered to Ibou. “He only provides food for favors.”
“What happened to your hand,” Ibou asked. He could barely see Flemy through the perforated metal that separated them.
“Don’t worry, Maa ngi çi jam,” I am at peace, Flemy said.
Ibou knew his friend was lying. “What’d they do?” Ibou said. He tried to reach out to Flemy through the circular punctures of the metal.
“I’m a thief,” Flemy said. He was tired. “Your mind doesn’t have to wonder far. In here, Allah, the CFA, and the police rule. An example is made of you, on some level, by one of those principles, every day. Sometimes at the same time.”
Ibou slammed his head against the cold, metal barrier. It didn’t move, but echoed. “I’ll get the money,” he said. “I’ll get you out. I promise. When will you see the judge?”
“They don’t tell us anything. It’s the same every day. Tell my mother she is under the feet of God,” but then Ibou interrupted Flemy.
“Taxal, sama xarit,” stop, my friend, Ibou said. “You’ll be out soon, inch’Allah.”
“Inch’Allah,” Flemy said.
Ibou had never seen or heard Flemy reek with such helplessness. After leaving Rebeus, Ibou trekked to the Seydou Sy Mosque, grand, green, and imposing, to pray for strength. He would sacrifice whatever was needed.
It was the 30th. Ibou found her walking along Rue de Meridien in Almadies. The road was paved and sturdy; people supercilious. Mansions closed off by high white walls hid the tenants and homeowners from the veracity of the city, the natives, their language, and their culture. Generators hummed with the smell of burning oil. Ibou rode the neighborhood Ndiaga Ndiaye, crossing streets back and forth for most of the afternoon. Ibou noticed she was fit and trim. She wore a tight, purple and cotton wax print dress with yellow flower lapel designs. Her black leather purse was awkwardly wide and hung just below her armpit.
Ibou watched as she embarked on one of the many Guédiawaye Ndiaga Ndiaye’s. It was a familiar route and bus for Ibou. He sat several rows behind her and just waited. The bus was full – skin-to-skin, boubous to boubous. People sat and stood. There was chatter of Macky Sall, the newly elected president. “He’s only bringing another false hope,” one man said. “He will only be Wade’s puppet, thinking of a foreign world first.” The murmurs continued, but Ibou, thinking of Flemy, only waited and hovered to spot the signs. There she was. She sat. Anxious, but quiet. She had no new hairstyle or cell phone. It was her innocence, her calm, her confidence; Ibou knew.
Ibou watched her finally exit. The bus was almost empty. It was Guédiawaye, Ibou’s borough, but a distant part of the neighborhood that he did not know. Ibou stepped off, too, and waited for the bus to leave. The road was empty and dusty. Clouds covered the night sky, like a blanket. It was humid and rain was sure to fall. Ibou could smell it: the rush of the heat, the coolness of the breeze that was bound to break, the dirty bills. It was late September, but the rains would fall, and Tabaski was still near.
She walked hurriedly from the bus. In the far distance there were a few streetlights and candlelit boutiques. There was laughter in between newsreels and sounds of mbalax blaring from the local radio. Ibou waited until the bus was out of sight and began to jog towards her. He only had a few moments. The sounds of the distance were fast approaching.
Ibou knew the routine well. He’d wait for the darkness and the loneliness. He was a night jogger. There were plenty around the neighborhood. He would stop to ask a mumbled question, and when she hesitated, he’d grab the purse and run. She might yell, but he would outrun her cries. He was swift. He’d feel for the moneys, the bills, throw the purse, and slow his pace. He was just another laborer, traveling home and to the next meal. If there were no moneys, he’d continue his trek until he found it. He had to be patient.
She seemed tired and was clearly unsuspecting. Ibou ran behind her for a moment and then stopped.
“Baal ma,” excuse me, Ibou said. Breathing heavy.
She continued walking.
“Baal ma,” Ibou said again, louder.
She turned. Her look asked what.
“Mane, foo dem,” where are you going, Ibou asked her.
Ibou watched her nod. She didn’t understand. It happened so quickly. Ibou snatched for her purse, but she withdrew. Ibou grabbed her hand and swung her around. She fell to the ground, silent. Ibou collapsed on top of her. She struggled. He let her wiggle. He reached for her purse. She kicked him. She did not make a sound. Body flailing, he grabbed her again. She’s strong, Ibou thought. He was stronger. He pushed her down to the ground again. She kicked him again and began to run away. She tripped and fell on her purse. Ibou ran and tackled her. She squirmed. For a moment, she was on top of him, and then thunder struck. He was on top again and smashed her face in the moist ground. Her purse was at her chest. Ibou knew the rain would come soon. I must hurry, he thought. He tore her dress. The purple wax cloth bled. He felt her tense body and allowed her to mouse. She wriggled and then he felt it. The piercing sharpness.
18 stab wounds dead. Ibou’s body lay there, still. The rain fell hard, like nails. It was only a few weeks until Tabaski. The great sacrifice. She ran away. Ibou’s body soaked under the late September storm-skies.
Adama and Bintou looked at the falling rain. They sat together, waiting for the water to boil for evening attaya.
“Tabaski is coming in a few weeks,” Bintou said.
“Waaw, inch’Allah, it will come,” Adama said.
“Will we sacrifice a goat, a ewe, or a ram this year?”
“A ram, inch’ Allah.”
“Inch’Allah.” The rain got louder. “Flemy, your son, will be here for the holiday?”
“Waaw, inch’Allah, he will be here,” Adama said. She wavered.
“He is on the way home.”
Bradford Philen is the author of the novel Autumn Falls. Several of his short stories have appeared in online and print magazines. He is currently working on a short story collection about the people, places, and cultures of West Africa. He blogs about food and books at http://bradfordphilen.com.