Sapeurs by Samuel Kolawole

God had prepared all the gifts in a basket and then He went to all the countries of the world. When he got to Congo he was completely tired. He said, “Let me give them everything that is left in the basket.

Unknown

 

Pepe’s mind turned to Herverence when he spotted two miners drag Horeb out of the collapsed tunnel. He elbowed his way through the crowd clustered around the wounded body. They were covering their noses with handkerchiefs as a haze of smoke blurred the air. Pepe’s chest heaved with panic as he struggled to burst out of the throng along with the other men and children working in the Tchonka mine. His eyes stung and the smoke made him cough. 

Horeb was covered in dust. His right leg was crushed and his scalp peeled back. A piece of cloth hung loosely around his shattered left leg in a futile attempt to hold it together. The miners, who seemed confused about what to do, lifted his upper body and shook him vigorously, trying to keep him conscious. Horeb screamed in pain. He moaned and muttered about water. They dragged Horeb into the truck before Pepe could get close enough. Pepe’s heart thumped as the truck sped off, his palms slippery with sweat. He wondered if Horeb was going to die. What about Herverence? She worked at the shed selling bread to the miners. Would she have known about her father’s accident by now? She would need someone to look after her. Thirteen year old Pepe decided he would be the someone.

“Ok, boys, work must go on, said Don’t Mention, the fixer. “We have mouths to feed.” A gangling individual, he was wearing a torn T shirt caked in mud and a pair of bulbous shorts. Don’t Mention was a Sapeur, so when he was not at work he was dressed in suits of different colours like the other members of the Society of Ambianceurs and Persons of Elegance. Pepe and the other miners turned to stare at Don’t Mention, not knowing what to say. 

“Will you do what I asked you to do?” he said.

The men and children slowly picked up their shovels, sacks and plastic mesh bags and moved back to their stations. The women went back to their cookstoves to finish preparing the lunch time meal of beans for the Tchonka workers.

“Speed up you useless pigs!”

Pepe could not help but notice the bobbing movement of the lump on his throat as he screamed. Don’t Mention looked like he’d got a mango stuck in his gullet. If Pepe didn’t know better, he would have concluded that Don’t Mention’s goitrous throat was punishment from the gods for the wickedness in his eyes. But Didier, the boy who ferried the sacks from the pits to the washing site, also had a tiny swelling on his throat. Francois, the tunnel supervisor who fought for the Mai Mai militia when he was Pepe’s age, flinched without any reason at all. The sinews along his scrawny neck stuck out every time he flinched, as though his veins bore an immense burden imposed by his face.    

Pepe knew it was a matter of time before he caught his own disease from the mines. That did not bother him. His father used to tell him that dying was inevitable and something must bring death to a man’s doorstep. His parents were hacked down like trees on their way to the farm three years ago. A militia group had been prowling the forest.  

Pepe continued working, but his mind swirled with worry.  He straddled a log of wood that lay across the lip of the shaft that was 40 meters deep, fetching bucketsful of clay which contained coltan, cobalt or whatever the Good Lord had deposited there. He hoisted the cable out of the pit, bracing his feet in wet clay.  He dragged the rope as fast as he could and filled the jute sacks held out by other boys waiting in line. He worked so fast that the rope made his palms red and sore. Pepe worked till his mouth was dry and a rhythmic throbbing brewed in his forehead.

“Is that how to fetch?” Don’t Mention said. “You are as smart as the bottom of your feet.”

The fixer was not a man of patience and demanded that his boys work like a well-oiled machine or risk a blow to the head. Horeb’s accident was not an excuse to slow down he said. Pepe always tried to work like a well-oiled machine, but Don’t Mention berated Pepe anytime he got tired, scattering flecks of spit with every word, making excessive hand gestures.

“I promise you, you will die of hunger. That is what your laziness will do to you! Laziness will kill you before any war does.”

A blow landed on the back of Pepe’s head, but he steeled himself against the pain. In his moments of despair and suffering, he consoled himself with thoughts of Herverence. 

When he finished his work, Pepe hurried to the shed to collect his earnings. The shed was about 1 km north of the mining area. Pepe’s back and joints were aching, his body caked in mud. He walked with Didier and the other boys who had propped their sacks on rickety bicycles as they trudged through the mud. He walked past the washing site where he used to work. It was a long, narrow stream filled with women and their children who worked alongside them. He looked at the empty shed where Herverance sold bread. 

How could Pepe forget when his eyes veered toward Herverence the first time she came to the washing site, balancing a basin filled with fresh rolls of bread on her head. The way she swayed her body and walked with her slightly bowed legs. She kept coming, and his eyes kept veering towards her. Sometimes he watched her out of the corner of his eyes while he worked, careful not to anger the supervisors. Other times he could watch her freely. He watched as she set her basin down, a slight smile on her lips. She always smiled. He watched her politely fend off the male workers’ advances. He watched her duck into the shed drenched in rain, her face blanched, her silken shirt clinging to her body, revealing the outline of her brassiere. One of the miners tried to grope her. She swatted his hands away with a smile and moved to the next buyer. In a way, she reminded him of his mother, who commanded the respect and admiration of neighbours even though she hawked vegetables.

Pepe got to the shed together with the boys who transported the precious stones, washed clean of mud and dirt. There, an overseer weighed and inspected their goods. They received tallies, and lined up in front of a cashier, a Chinese fellow with a sour face. The mine workers were the last to receive money, so Pepe waited. He smoked and looked around while he waited. He watched as the line grew shorter. The cashier licked his thumb each time he flipped the pages of the big ledger on his table. His grey T-shirt stretched tight across his bulging belly. 

The Chinese man worked quickly. He worked with precision. He scanned their faces and skimmed through the ledger before counting off their money from the heap of cash on the table. 

Pepe received his miserly wage of two hundred francs, tucked it deep into his pocket and went to get omelets and toast from a roadside food cart. When he was done eating, he smoked. By the time he got to the Shantytown, it was almost dark. His head still hurt and his whole body ached, but the food made things a little better. 

When Pepe got to the shelter, he sat on the dusty ground and leaned against the shelter wall. Outside, candles lined the dusty road with road side cafeterias and petty traders displaying bread and sweets and soft drinks. Drunk men lurched past. Beside the shelter, a loud noise boomed from the video centre, a building with old Bruce Lee and Bollywood movie posters pasted upon its walls. A mural depicting a white lady with blonde hair fondling her oddly large bosoms, lips pursed in pleasure, covered one side of the building. The video centre functioned as an arcade for games during the day, showed Bollywood movies in the evenings, and blue films late on Fridays. Blue film evenings were the most expensive evening, and they’d close the doors and turn down the lights. Street boys with no money often gathered outside the building just to listen to the deep moaning floating out of the building.   

Pepe let his gaze slide across the streets toward the wooden house where Herverence lived with her father, Horeb. Horeb’s house looked empty. Was Horeb recuperating in the hospital? Had he survived the accident?  Surely, Herverence must be with her father if he was in the hospital. Pepe went into the shelter. 

In the shelter’s verandah, Aristote and Emmanuel played draughts with bottle tops while Freddie, Hermus, Faustin and Nathan huddled around.. They threw a glance at him and continued with the game.

“There was an accident in the mines today,” Pepe said. “Herverence’s father was badly wounded.” They looked away from the bottle tops. 

“May God help us,” Freddie said 

“How did it happen?” asked Fustin. 

“The mines is a dangerous place to work I tell you,” Nathan added.

Aristote eyed Pepe suspiciously. “What business do you have with that family?,” he said. “I know you want to sleep with Herverence. I have seen the way you look at her.” Aristote was the heftiest boy in the shelter and an ex-combatant in the civil war. Pepe wasn’t so fond of him. 

“My business is none of your business,” Pepe snapped back. He threw him a look of irritation before breezing into the room they all shared. He walked over a jigsaw of gnawed mattresses and mats. Clothes hung on the walls and the worm-eaten door didn’t close properly. The smell of unwashed armpits and piss permeated the empty room. Pepe glanced back at the door, and in one swift movement, jumped out through the window into the backyard. He walked down a bush path to the banana tree where he unearthed a wooden safe and slipped what was left from his earnings safely inside. When he had gathered enough money he would do something to impress Herverence. He had saved over two thousand francs the past four months. 

* * *

The next morning was quiet and damp. Mongrels slouched about with swaying tits in search of their stray puppies. Hens pecked for worms. Hens pecked other things that were not worms – used condoms and cigarette butts. The corridors of the shantytown bled water and streamed through the long narrow gutters beside the video centre. 

Pepe sprang up from the mat the moment he awoke, jumped through the window and ran straight to the pit latrine. The other boys had already beaten him to it. They lined up in front of the pit, taking turns to shit. A feeling of discomfort washed over Pepe. He dug his toe into the wet soil to distract himself and when he realized that it was not working, broke into a run. Clutching his cramping belly, he searched for a spot in the bush. When he finally found one, he dropped his shorts and sat on his haunches, sighing with great relief. He wiped sweat from his brow and shifted himself into a more comfortable position. From where he squatted, he could see the dusty road with its roving vendors and children in filthy underwear. Once again his mind went to Herverence. He wondered why the house was still empty. 

After a few moments, Pepe spotted Guy-Guy Nzali, the most prominent Sapeur in the neighborhood, peacocking through the street. He wore a pink suit, a striped shirt, and a yellow bow-tie. Neon-green socks peeked out where his razor-sharp trousers stopped, just above his heels. The children pranced after him. They shrieked as they followed, their faces shining with admiration. Guy-Guy Nzali carried a walking stick and checked the time every now and then, as though he were late for work. Pepe knew he was just flaunting his golden wristwatch. Guy-Guy Nzali sold secondhand tires downtown so he did not work for anybody. He hardly got his hands dirty, so he wore a suit to work every day.

Pepe had always wanted to join the league of Sapeurs. He admired their gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; Pepe wanted to own a pair of Westons and wear bright-coloured suits. Pepe wanted to transform into a snazzy dresser like Papa Wemba so Herverence and the other girls would flock around him. The members of the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People said Holy Jesus was a Sapeur. They said Jesus wore a very expensive tunic.

When he was done, he hitched up his shorts and hurried to the mines. The shed where the Chinese cashier worked was empty. A stack of paper sat on the table, held down by a piece of rock. There were women and children already gathered at the washing site. Pepe got right to work as soon as he got to the mine, but spent the entire time worrying about Herverence and her father. He wished he could tell Herverence that he loved her. He wished he could tell her he had a lot of girls who wanted him, even though it would be a lie. 

Four months ago, he decided to talk to her. He prepared in advance. He played what he wanted to say in his head, how he wanted to say it, but when the time came he faltered. The words he had replayed so often in his mind stuck to his throat. His mouth dried up. His legs turned into stone. He only recovered from the spell when he walked away from her. He planned to talk to her again, but his plans never materialized. From that moment on, he hid his feelings under grins.  

Later that evening, a vehicle stopped in front of Horeb’s empty house. Pepe watched from across the street as the driver of the car retrieved a pair of crutches from the backseat. The driver helped Horeb use them as they moved into the house. Herverence carried a transparent bag of multicolored pills, gauze and a bottle. Although Pepe was relieved that Horeb was alive, he was dismayed to see Horeb’s head wrapped with layers of dressing, red with blood. His crushed left leg had been amputated and the stump bandaged.  Pepe pushed down tears as he watched them go into the house. He brought out a cigarette and matchbook and smoked in silence. His sweet Herverence would be feeling so much pain right now, he thought. She was undeserving of such misfortune.  

When Pepe turned to go into the house, he found Aristote leaning against the wall of the shelter smoking a cigarette.

“I am watching you,” he said.

Pepe gave him the stink eye and walked in. The rest of the boys were asleep. Pepe stumbled in the dark, trying to find an unoccupied spot as he avoided heads and limbs. Hermus farted. He murmured unintelligibly. Pepe curled up in a corner on the mattress, wrinkled his nose at the foul smell, and listened to the crickets fill the night with song. 

* * *

Pepe watched Herverence nurse her father slowly back to health. She dressed Horeb’s wound in front of the house every morning before Pepe left for work. Horeb would clutch the ragged armchair in front of the house to have something to help him through the pain. Now thin as a rake, his clothes looked too loose for his dried-up body. Herverence would clean the pus and the surge of dark blood from the dressing on his scalp and he would stiffen his arm, a low moan of pain escaping from his mouth. Pepe’s admiration for Herverence soared. His work in the mines seemed less burdensome now. He toiled in the mud and dust with the hope that one day Herverence would love him the way he loved her. His world dissolved into one single, overwhelming desire. He did not know desire was building in Guy-Guy Nzali as well.

A week after the accident, Guy-Guy Nzali showed up at Horeb’s house bright and early sporting a half-Windsor knot, his hat tilted at an odd angle.  Pepe had seen him waving at Horeb on his way to work. Sometimes he stopped for a brief chat before going on his way, but that did not bother Pepe. On this particular morning, Guy-Guy Nzali came with a bottle of wine and sat with Horeb. Herverence appeared with some tumblers and Guy-Guy Nzali looked up sharply and ran an appraising eye over her as she poured her father a glass of wine. She went back into the house and Horeb sipped his drink quietly. At first, Horeb seemed far away. But he became more cheerful the more he drank from his tumbler. Soon Guy-Guy Nzali and Horeb were cracking jokes and laughing. Guy-Guy cupped his hands about his mouth and leaned in to whisper something to Horeb, who burst into a throaty laugh. Horeb drained his tumbler in a single mouthful. He wiped the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand and licked his lips.

Pepe went to work that morning consumed by jealousy. Guy-Guy Nzali should not be around his girl. He could have any girl he wanted with his jaunty outfits and polished brogues, but Herverence was Pepe’s and Pepe’s alone. His mind hovered away from the mines and only snapped back from his thoughts when he heard Don’t Mention.

“We don’t have all day, you wretch!” 

In the evening, Pepe joined the boys to smoke in front of the shelter.  He inhaled deeply on his joint and then exhaled over and over again trying to push Guy-Guy away from his mind. The boys blew clouds of marijuana smoke over themselves and soon laughter poured out of them in waves.  Hermus picked up a paint lid lying on the ground. Clasping it to his side, he began tapping it with his fingers.  Emmanuel stood up from the metal pail he was sitting on and struck the lid furiously, producing long and sustained notes. The other boys clapped and whistled. The cacophonous beat filled the air until Aristote sprang up and called for silence. He peeled off his hole-ridden T-shirt and said something about how strong he was and how he took seven bullets during the war without dying. To prove his point, he showed the scars and scabs on his arms and torso. He spoke with bloodshot eyes, his mouth saliva-flecked. They all roared with laughter, except Pepe. Pepe’s mind had drifted away. Aristote peered at him and wiped the laughter off his face.  

“Why are you not laughing? You think you are better than all of us here? I am an ex-combatant. I fought gallantly for my country!”

He rose to leave, but Aristote planted himself in Pepe’s way. Pepe shoved him aside, but Aristote reclaimed his position. Pepe cast a gaze of contempt at Aristote. Aristote pushed him, and Pepe staggered. When he regained his balance, he raised a clenched fist. Emmanuel jumped in, restraining him. They pleaded with Aristote not to fight Pepe which angered him even more. Hermus dragged Pepe out of the shelter and Pepe shook off his grip before walking away into the night. 

* * *

Some ten days after the accident, Pepe happened upon Herverence in front of Guy-Guy Nzali’s house. It was just before dusk. He watched as Guy-Guy Nzali slapped her playfully on the shoulders as she stood with her hands on her hips. Guy-Guy Nzali moved close to her and whispered something into her ears that made her smile. He whipped a wad of banknotes out of his pocket, moistened the tip of his finger on his tongue, and counted off some money. This time around, she rolled her eyes and twirled a strand of her hair around a finger.

Pepe walked on as fast as he could, angry and frightened at the same time, a feeling that brought hot sweat to his face. He decided not to go to the shelter. He kept walking, his sense of bearing destabilized. He shoved his hands into his pockets and bowed his head. He couldn’t think of anything else without being assailed by an overwhelming sense of loss, of an ending. The weight of these thoughts became almost unbearable and tears ran down his face, clouding his vision. His body trembled, wracked with bitterness. He stopped walking, wiped tears from his eyes, and bought a packet of cigarettes from a roadside kiosk.  

He lit a cigarette and watched the match burn down until it singed the tip of his thumb and forefinger. He tried to hold his cigarette still and thought of his father. He remembered his father used to smoke from a wooden pipe he’d inherited from his Grandpa. His mother didn’t like it that he smoked. Pepe wondered if things would be different if his parents were alive. Maybe his mother would have wiped away his tears tonight and cooked him rice and cabbage. Maybe his father would have told him to be a man. Maybe he would have told him stories from the time before the wars, before young men like him had learnt to shed blood, before innocence lost its grip. He could never know because they hadn’t lived long enough. They’d left him out in the world to grow on his own like a stubborn grass.  

The more he smoked, the more he felt the anger and sadness leave his body, and in its place came something resolute. An idea struck him and he pondered it for a long time. On his way  back home he stopped by one of the roadside cafeterias and asked for a bottle of kerosene. He offered twice the regular amount for it.

* * *

Pepe woke up several times in the night, his mind busy thinking about what he planned to do. He was not scared – at least not at first. He felt only a general sense of agitation. He snuck into the backyard of Guy-Guy Nzali’s house, his eyes darting to and fro to be sure no one was watching. He hesitated when the time came to sprinkle and splash the house with kerosene, his heart beating so fast he thought he would faint. But he had to carry out the task. He’d made a decision he wasn’t going back on.

In no time, his clothes stank of smoke and his body was covered with grey ash, but he was not done yet. From his backyard, he watched the leaping flames engulf Guy-Guy Nzali’s wooden house. Two passersby  ran to the scene hauling buckets of water, but it was too late. The crackling noise became louder and more ash spewed forth. The door frames, now coal red, came crashing down. Pedestrians and roadside traders gathered around. Horeb scrambled out of his house, leaning heavily on his crutches and screaming for help. Herverence rushed out of the house with a bucket, tossed its contents at the smoldering building, and ran back for more.

Within minutes the wooden house had completely burnt to the ground. The people around slipped into a depressed silence, hands on hips and arms folded across their chests.

Moments later, Guy-Guy Nzali burst wild-eyed onto the scene. He had been at the shop and had somehow forgotten both his shoes and his jacket. His untied tie flapped around his neck. He would have leapt into the fire had he not been restrained by some of the men. Guy-Guy Nzali wailed and threw himself on the ground, thrashing about. Pepe decided he had seen enough. He walked to the bathroom made of corrugated iron sheets, peeled off his clothes, and poured bowls of water on himself.   

Don’t Mention was snarling at a boy when Pepe got to the mines. He waved his hand wildly, his words accompanied by a spray of spittle. Then he grabbed the boy’s ear, tugging it upward. The boy, who wore a pair of rubber flip-flops, his dirty trousers rolled up to the knee, sniffed in tears. When he was done with him, the poor boy ran off weeping. Two other boys approached, groaning under the weight of sacks of the precious stones they had gathered. The boys dropped on to one knee, and quickly threw their burdens down with loud thuds. They crouched on the ground, their hands planted on their knees, their dripping chests heaving hard and fast. Don’t Mention took a visual inventory of the sacks and dismissed them with a flick of his hand. Then he spotted Pepe.

Don’t Mention waited for him to come forward. Pepe bowed his head preparing to receive his volley of words. 

“Do you know what time is it?” he said, glaring at him. “Tell me.” 

“It’s Ten o clock, sir.”

“Ten O clock. When do you report for work? Eight o clock?”

“Yes sir” 

“You will be sorry. I promise you, you will be.  You will not leave this site until I till you to do so today, am I clear? And if what happened today repeats itself you will be in hot water.”

“Yes sir.”

“Now get out of my face you idiot!”

The rest of the day went by in a blur as Pepe could not concentrate. A little lump of fear had lodged itself in his throat.

It was dark by the time Pepe returned home from work. The sky was overcast. Night was closing in. The air smelled of rain. Herverence came out of the house carrying a cellophane bag and Pepe felt his pulse accelerating. Before she walked past, he decided to speak to her. However, he could not bring himself to express his thoughts. He wanted to ask about Horeb’s wound. He wanted to ask if he could buy her omelets and toast. But the animal fear that gnawed at his guts seemed to have taken his tongue again. Still a smile appeared on her face. It seemed to him that a sort of tenderness overcame her, and there was an awkward moment when she looked into his eyes before quickly shifting her gaze. What was in Pepe’s head was only able to come out after Herverence left, and even then, his words came too quickly to be understood, flowing one into the other under his breath. 

Pepe could not contain his excitement when he got to the shelter. His weak body became energized and he felt courage flow in his veins. Pepe decided it was best to prepare for something big. He reckoned that if he had more money or joined the Society of Ambianceurs and Persons of Elegance, he would attract her attention the way Guy Guy did. The next time he approached her, it would be as a Sapeur. 

Working in the tunnel was the answer. Pepe would grease Don’t Mention’s palms with his savings so the fixer would get him a job in the tunnel. He would brave the treacherous cave, work long hours, and in a week’s time he would be making enough to become a person of importance

Pepe ran to the backyard banana tree and dug out his wooden safe. The sky thundered and rain began to fall. He clutched the safe to his body and ran back to the shelter. He waited under the eaves and listened to the rain drum on the corrugated iron roof.

When he opened the box it was empty. 

He ran back to the backyard when the rain stopped. At first, he thought the money had slipped out of the safe somewhere around the banana tree. After he gave the backyard a thorough search, scraping away wet leaves, uprooting wild grasses, and burrowing into the soil like a rodent, he decided the money was not lost but stolen. It did not take him long to suspect Aristote.

Aristote, the big boy blinded by hubris. Aristote, the bully.  Aristote, who tried to poke his nose into his relationship with Herverence. Aristote, who sometimes watched him from the corner of his eye.

Pepe darted off to a nearby rubbish dump and began a frantic search for a weapon—a rod, a plank, a broken bottle.  His feet made angry, sucking sounds in the clayey soil as he trampled about. He found a stick and marched to the shelter, shouting Aristotle’s name. Aristote sat in front of the house, smoking.

“Where is my money. I know you took it?” 

Aristote did not answer him. He took a drag of his cigarette. The other boys came out the house, a look of surprise on their faces.  Pepe inched close to Aristote and spat in his face then moved back.  The boys gasped in shock. Slowly, Aristote stubbed out his cigarette and got up.  

Pepe sprang about, swinging his stick. Now he would make a public show of his bravery for Herverence to see. People came out of their houses, some peeked their heads through their windows. Pedestrians stopped to watch. The boys surrounded the fighters. Horeb hobbled out and Herverence stood out in the doorway. 

There was no time to waste. Pepe glared at Aristote before he lunged at him with the stick. The ex-combatant moved sideways, the stick narrowly missing him. He planted a tremendous blow on Pepe’s cheek-bone that sent him reeling.  Pepe got up and tried to regain his balance.  He spat out blood.  His eyes found Herverence’s eyes as he looked around, disoriented. She had a terrified look on her face, but it was enough that his eyes found hers. Pepe raised a balled fist at Aristote but couldn’t land the blow.  With one swift movement, Aristote tackled him to the ground with his right leg. He landed with a loud thud, his hand flailing. Blood oozed out of his mouth and nose. He struggled to get up. Aristote delivered two more quick blows then lifted him up and smashed him to the ground. Pepe heard his bones snap as tremendous pains surged through his body. Before darkness encroached, Pepe opened his mouth to say her name but he was not sure what came out.   

 

Contributor Notes

Samuel Kolawole was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared in journals and anthologies within and outside the continent of Africa. His fiction has been supported with fellowships, residencies and scholarships from the Norman Mailer Centre, Prince Claus Fund, International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Clarion West Writers Workshop, Wellstone Centre in the Redwoods California, and Island Institute, Alaska. 

Samuel studied at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and holds a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from Rhodes University, South Africa, graduating with distinction. His novel manuscript Son of a Dog was one of the top three finalists for the Graywolf Prize for Africa.  

He is currently an MFA candidate in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, USA where he was the recipient of the first-ever Emerging Writers Scholarship for the program. He recently completed a collection of short stories and he is working on a novel.