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Jambo Paulo - Jambo Mykoli: 30 - Saidia Maskini

Continuing his enthralling account of growing up in East Africa, Kersi Rustomji recalls alms seekers who camde to the house.

‘Saidia maskini mama, saidia, helps the poor mother, help,’ called out the alms seekers as they came to the house. On a work table in the backcourt sat a bowl with a hundred one cent pieces, a shilling worth. Each poor received a cent and at times some food and they drank from the garden tap. Most of the alms seekers were aged skinny women, accompanied by little girls, holding a tin or a basket in which to collect the alms.

Strangely enough, these women did not look, or seem miserable or strife ridden, as they were always jovial and full of chatter. Often they gave news of the parts they came from. From them I learned, where and what fruits were ready for picking, where the fishing was good along the lake, or of animal markets to be held, and other gossip.

All these women wore a black wrap-around tucked under the arms, and had a variety of beads around their necks or upper arms. They also wore amulets, charms, and even Christian crosses, but whether they practiced the faith, nobody could tell. Among one of these groups was an old blind lady, who carried a long walking stick. She had a small, toothless wrinkled face and had a tinkling laugh. Always jovial and happy, never did I see her serious or bland faced, as a few other women. When she sat on the ground to rest, I would sneak behind her, slide away her stick, and hide it. Then after the alms or food as she groped for her stick, I stood aside watching.

Not finding it she clapped her hands and call out, ‘Ho, ho, ho, mutoto yangu. Wapi fimbo yangu eh? Ho, ho, ho, my child. Where is my stick, eh?’ As I denied any knowledge of it she laughed, pointed a finger at me and clapped hands as she called out, ‘Ah, una machezo mingi, wewe, mutoto yangu. Very playful you are, my son.’ After some bantering and teasing, I handed her the stick and occasionally slipped her an extra cent. Every time she clasped me by the face, ruffled my hair and called out blessings, while mum castigated me for playing with her, touched by her unclean hands. My parents did have some biases. I was quite sad when one Friday she did not turn up. She had died.

The only man who came to our house for alms was a short blind man, who was dressed in fairly good but old clothes. He lived in a church compound beyond Makongoro, the place of the crested cranes, at Mbviru mission, and came to town on Fridays to get his share. He always dressed in a clean but soil-ingrained shirt, tucked in dirt darkened khaki trousers, a similar coat, and always wore shoes, no matter how old or cracked. In contrast to the other poor, he was much cleaner. He was a Christian. He wore a cross around the neck and carried a rosary in his coat pocket, together with a small bottle of snuff. His shirtfront was stained brown by the snuff, for after wiping it off his hands he rubbed them on the shirtfront, to remove the residue.

His name was Josefu, Swahili for Joseph, and he was blind. While he did not have gray hair, he was balding and was full of cheer with a rather cherubic face. Unlike the others, Josefu was allowed inside the back courtyard, where he sat on a small wooden stool, his walking stick within reach. As soon as he sat, he asked for a glass of water. He then rinsed his hands and face, pulled out his rosary, knelt in front of the stool and prayed. Apart from the money, Josefu also got a mug of tea but he never drank it until after his prayers. Josefu was a keen soccer fan and naturally, he supported Mbviru, the mission team, whereas I was a Railway fan.

The mission people took him to the various matches where we often met. Hence, as he drank his tea we had a great banter about the matches, and I teased him a great deal whenever Mbviru lost. I also played tricks on him, like sidling his walking stick away from his side, or giving him a cucumber saying it was a banana, and watching him as he felt, it and held it out saying no it was not. Once I put dry chilli powder on his hand, told him it was tamutamu, something sweet. As soon as he put it in his mouth, he realized what it was, and he spat it out calling, maji, maji, water, water. Soon as mum heard of it, she scolded me and made me apologize to him. Sheepishly I approached him and apologized, but he was not angry at all. He clasped me with an arm and patted my head and repeatedly said, ‘Hapana fikiri, mtoto yangu, don’t worry my son.’ When mum told him not to be soft with me, he replied that, he was my babu, grandfather, and allowed to have fun with him.

Meeting Josefu at a soccer match was a bit of a problem, because as his mates concentrated on the match, Josefu always tried to corral somebody to give him a running commentary. While he listened keenly to the comments around him he had to know all the details, and of course also the names of the scorers but more importantly he wanted to know how many chenga, dodges, were made before the goal was scored. This was a bit awkward especially if the goal involved long passes. Then while he accepted the fact of a goal thus scored, to him, it was not the real thing, nor was a goal from a corner kick. All such goals were mbure, no good. The only worthwhile goals were those scored after a great deal of dodging, beating the opponents, and then shot in the net.

His most pleasing aspect was that he always smiled and laughed a great deal, and never did I see him unhappy except on one occasion. This was on the second day of the death of our youngest brother, Farok. All the town people knew of it, and the word had reached the mission too. Even though it was not a Friday, Josefu had quietly come into the backcourt, and kneeling was saying his prayers, twirling his rosary. There were tears running down his cheeks.

When we had to leave Mwanza, I was very saddened to miss Josefu and all the alms seekers, who came to our house, as I told them of our departure.

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