Dastaan – Part 2

Husseinali Datoo


There was an example of an old person with a traditional long coat, who carried a large uncovered tray of naan bread on his head as a street hawker in the month of Ramadhan and shouted “Naan Gharam” through the streets to solicit buyers. The black wooly cap on his head which had lost its original circular shape and stiffness cushioned the load.

And there was yet another old person also with a traditional long coat who sold roasted groundnuts and gram (“daria”) in his cart. He would push the cart to an Indian boy’s school n the morning and later in the evening station it near the community’s mosque. A few acquaintances, also poor, would purchase some nuts costing about five or ten cents on one or two days’ credit and take home for the family to add to the scant meal. 100 cents were equal to one African shilling.

And yet another person, also aged, sold a few dozen of eggs, retail, at a public Sokoni baraza (market) and would take back home any unsold ones to add to the following day’s lot for sale.

Of particular benevolent interest should have been this person who was old and seemed reclusive or shy in his nature. He didn’t talk much. He displayed on a public baraza in a narrow street a few used English books of out-dated editions on serious subjects for sale.

Raised barazas were built of cement along the exterior walls of the houses to protect their foundation and plinth. They were convenient for members of the public to sit on for rest, chat or for seeping hot black coffee sold by the hawkers.

After about every one or two hours, this person would go into an almost instinctive motion of laboriously dusting these few old books and re-arranging the display as if to expect a change in his luck in sale or sympathy. There were those who thought they had no reason to want to know whether he was there or not and therefore they did not notice him or his books although they saw him and his books regularly – so regularly that his presence ceased to register in their mind – like he did not exist.

And there were women too who included mostly widows. They tried to eke out their living honourably. Among them, were those who had funds for only a scanty display of few retail items of vegetables for the day on the raised concrete baraza fronting their one room ground floor residence and would cook as the day’s meal if any items were unsold and could wilt, or those who visited homes to sell fancy items such as plastic bangles and hairpins, and those who served as domestic help during the wedding occasions.

Decent Tip

There was an aged widow with the eyesight dimmed and yet, for hopefully a decent tip, she would undertake errands like conveying messages from women to other women as telephones were not common then or accept assignments to purchase the requested items from the homes of other women engaged in petty retail sales.

And one more example. This old person was jovial with a likeable personality. He yearned for company to talk to because he was partially blind in both eyes. He sat in the premises which used to be his family’s shop in the same house in which he and his family still lived. And yet he proudly did a labour job for gain – for a living – of removing betel nuts (sopari) from husk. He developed stooping shoulders by squatting too long on the floor and keeping stretching his hands around him to have a feel of the things he was working on.

It is possible that it was the untreated cataract (motya) that brought about his blindness and that the elusive (hard to find) surgery cost of a couple of hundred East African shillings seemed more precious to others to part with than his eye-sight.

And then there was this young person who looked older than his age. He for his living moved about in the streets with a bell in his hand and shouted loudly business advertisements. He would hire a caual labourer to carry for him a big bill-board during his rounds.

His small daughter would be seen half running bare foot behind him as she had lost her mother and there was no one else at home to take care of her while he was at work, until later a kind family took her custody, raised her up and got her married, as in the meantime her father got bed-ridden and then got also “freedom” from the grinding poverty. He may have asked after he died: “Was there life before death?”

The same family took in and brought up another orphan girl, incidentally of the same name, and then got her married within the family.

The women whose symptoms of mental restlessness were diagnosed as an effect of jadoo (witchcraft) by a traditional healer (maalim) never knew that they were in fact, suffering from acute depression which was brought about by their life of poverty characterized by worries, desperation, uncertainties and miseries. It is believed that incidents of suicide as a quick relief would have been likely if there had been no Islamic condemnation of it and the consequent condemnation of the soul – only to lose the good of the next world too.

And there was this poor man who could laugh at himself and feel real good when he related to his friend, also poor, his vulnerability to anxiety over the monthly household debts as experienced by him the other night.

He said he could not remain in suspense any longer over the extent of the financial deficit he would face himself in at the end of that month only three days away. So he got down that night to making a list of the pressing household debts he must pay but then he had no nerve to make a total of the list.

A sudden fear gripped him that the deficit could perhaps be larger than he had hopefully thought and the figure would disturb his sleep that night. Besides, the room’s dim light was anything but of help for a cheer up. The total figure, whatever it was, had to wait for the next day when the sun was up and bright and he could pretend being strong-willed.

Like it happens with many poor families, the food for the evening is not sufficient for the entire family, and yet there is later a small portion left. This is because each member discreetly takes a lesser share to let others have slightly more. The family is poor in fixing a meal but not in feasting compassion for each other. Compassion from a poor to another poor is relatively more prominent.

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