Three excerpts from The Beggar’s Dance, a novel (CreateSpace 2015)
Africa 1977. Age 11.
I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.
Mama yangu, my mother, frowns at me, squinting with intense effort. “Stop dreaming, you maskini boy.” The anger in her voice reminds me that I am a maskini, a beggar, and I am not allowed to dream.
“Slouch and sit like a maskini, Juma,” she whispers when an expensive car approaches the parking spot. Mama likes us begging on the footpath next to the ice cream parlour, a paradise for Muzungu, European children, where their reality becomes my dream. Mama tells me, dreams waste our time and poison our souls. Dreams do not feed us. Seated against the wall of the ice cream parlour, I cup my palm and wait in anticipation. Coins drop, though not enough for a meal. Mama is still hopeful.
Children gather outside and lick different flavours of ice cream cones. They are lost in joyful conversation and laughter. Some of them sing to the music playing inside the parlour. I do not understand the words, but the voice is almost magical, the magic that I see through the eyes of these privileged children.
Once again, I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.
I wrap Mama’s kanga over her shoulder to comfort her from the shivers. Every so often, I hear her teeth chatter, or a grunt whenever she jolts. I hold on tight to her so that she does not move towards the edge. In the middle of the night, her body breaks into sweat. I feel the heat from her burning body as it touches mine, as though I am standing next to the charcoal pit at the barbeque vendors’ spot. Ignoring the discomfort, I hang on tight. What else can I do? It is too dangerous to find help at this hour. This has been the longest night of my life.
As soon as it is dawn, I ask Mama to climb down. It takes her a long time to hang her body over the container. She loses her grip and drops hard to the ground. I stretch her body and massage her legs and hands to relieve the pain. After a while, with much effort she manages to crawl to the front of the parlour.
I run to the bay and wait for the morning ferry to arrive. I am hoping that Samuel will be able to help us. He has refused to talk to me for the last two seasons. Every time we came across each other, he looked the other way. So many times when I tried to say hello, he snubbed me and walked away. I know he is still my friend and he will help me when he finds out how seriously sick Mama is.
Samuel finally arrives. I rush to him and grab his arm. “Hey! How dare you,” he says and pushes me away.
“Mama is very sick, Samuel. Help us, please,” I say.
He makes an aggressive stop. “You betray our friendship and now you decide to come to me for help?” He kicks at the stone by his foot so that he won’t have to look at me.
“Please, my friend, help us. I don’t know anyone else.” My voice trembles. I run towards the parlour and do not give him a chance to say no. He follows me.
“Mama,” I call her in a soft voice. “Samuel is with us, he will help.” Her body is limp, and she is unable to talk. I touch her forehead with my palm; the fever is still high. “What shall we do?” I ask Samuel.
“You have to take her to the government hospital. It is the only free hospital, but that is too far, brother,” Samuel says. “The taxi will be costly. You may not be able to afford it.” I untie a knot from the edge of Mama’s kanga where she saves her begged money and hand it over to Samuel. “What is this? This will not even get you beyond two streets.” He drops the coins on the ground in disgust.
“Help me, please!” I plead.
“I do not have space in my heart to pity people like you. You should have joined my partnership and you could have saved your mother.”
I kneel and touch his ankles, begging him to help us. “I will pay you back.” Samuel pulls his foot away from my hands and walks away without a word. “Samuel! Samuel!” I call out after him as he disappears in the distance.
“I will be fine, my son,” Mama manages to say with barely any strength in her voice. “Let me stay here for the day.” She crunches her body further and goes to sleep.
“You need to see a doctor. I will find you help, Mama,” I assure her.
I knock on the front door of the church. I know it is closed at this time of the day, but I will take my chances. To be sure, I check the side door, knock and call out to anyone. “Help! Help!” There is not a soul in the building. I am sure God is. After all, it is God’s house. But God does not help me.
I was in love with Josephine the first time I saw her. My heart skipped a beat and then it beat faster than normal. I gave it a thump with my fist and sat on the path admiring this seventeen-year-old beauty. I clearly remember her wearing a white dress with a thick leather belt tightly wrapped around her waist—shiny black—which made her hips look fuller. Her smooth skin did not need any makeup; her beauty shone through without it. Everything about her was perfect—except for the sadness in her smile. She stood at the corner all by herself, away from the other night ladies. I was not sure why no one talked to her, so I introduced myself to make her feel more welcome on the street.
Her pimp showed up unexpectedly and stood right in front of my face. “She is very expensive, you shitty little bastard,” he said. His coarse voice and big, red, drunken eyes scared me so much that I stepped back at once. Josephine ran to the other side of the pole, almost tripping even though the path was clear. She stuck her fingers in her mouth, biting her nails, and swayed her upper body forward and backward. I realized right away that I had got her into trouble. The pimp pointed his finger at me. “You want to have some fun there, boy? There are plenty of men interested in young boys too.” He stomped heavily towards Josephine and slapped her. What surprised me was that Josephine had no expression on her face—she showed no emotion at all. One slap, two slaps, she stood there, accustomed to it all.
Every time I witnessed those slaps, I thought of the man who tortured me and was prepared to pull out my testicles. Would I have become accustomed to the pain and beating if I had let him? If so, then maybe I would not have needed to give them the Keshavjis’ name. But there I was, at fifteen, back on the streets, a pathetic beggar. I was weak, a boy without courage, who could not even stand up for Josephine. Or was I selfish? The last thing I needed was another problem added to my life—the pimp.
Knowing what he was capable of doing to me, I kept my distance and stayed in a lit area. He was ruthless and carried a knife, which I am sure he would not have hesitated to use. Josephine ignored me when he was around. Once in a while, she would glance at me. She knew I was watching her all the time, but not even once did we exchange a smile.
One night the pimp passed out on the street drunk, his big, muscular body lifeless. The night ladies and their customers dragged him to the back of the parking lot and dumped him by the trash. I was tempted to break a bottle of beer on his head. No one would have known. Then again, I had sinned enough, I had wronged enough. God had given me a second chance; there would not be a third, so I left the scene. Was I wrong to make such a decision? I regretted it at times, especially whenever I saw Josephine suffer. But then it also made me work harder to get out of the street life, which was the only way to save Josephine too.
Later that night, I knocked on Josephine’s door once her customer had left. I told her about the pimp getting dumped by the trash. She burst into hysterical laughter. What a change in her mood; I was not expecting such a reaction. I thought she might run to tend to him, out of fear or because she really did care for him, but instead she kept laughing. She was happy, happy to know that he had suffered. Then she let me in the room. That was the night Josephine and I became secret friends.
We spoke of Dada Zakiya. Josephine loved her, even though they had never met. “She is a goddess,” Josephine would say.
I told her about Samuel, how selfish he had always been and how I got myself into bad situations with him. “You are lucky,” she said. “At least he is gone. Look at me. I am still stuck with the devil.”
—The Beggar’s Dance available on Amazon—
Farida Somjee is an award-winning Canadian author and novelist. Her novel, The Beggar’s Dance, won the Whistler Independent Book Awards (2017) for best fiction. She was born in Mbeya, Tanzania, and grew up in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. Many of her childhood memories resonate with her and come across in her writing. She moved to Canada in her late teens with twenty dollars in her pocket, a lot of dreams and God on her side. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.