He is unmarried. He has no permanent job. But it’s not like he is really bothered. At 30, life may not have many more surprises in store for a man who has grown up in the village, had a stint in the city and seen his life go full circle.
Gumbo, as we fondly called him, has resigned to going through the motions for the rest of his life. But he is one of the few fulltime countryside residents one can trust to run a few private errands.
He is one guy you will send on an errand and be sure to have your message delivered. He does lots of other things. Small chores he does at a small fee. For the moment, that keeps him going.
As a swashbuckling teenager, he was taken by a relative to a rich friend’s home in the city to work as an in-house servant. It was from here that he mastered a good number of chores that many of peers back home can only fumble at.
In his free time – plenty of which he has – Gumbo will do just about anything. From hunting down birds off tree tops using a hand-made catapult, to just bumming around. Sometimes he goes missing for days, only to resurface looking knackered and hungry and disheveled.
He will say he ran into one of his long lost relatives who lives 5 kilometers away and paid him a visit. He will have walked that distance and spent the next couple of days having fun in the guy’s orchard, feasting on pawpaw, passion fruits and apples. It is his way of having adventure.
His head is full of stories. Tales about the great, rich men he had seen and heard of. He ranks everyone in the village from the wealthiest to the poorest. Having a lot of time on his hands also means that he has access to a lot of countryside gossip.
One time he will tell you how neighbor X is running broke, and how another is having the time of his life. He is the guy who breaks the news first if one of the rich neighbors buys a new car.
His classification of the wealthy has two distinct categories; the rich and the filthy rich. Those who live in concrete and brick walled houses are rich. Those who own cars are filthy rich, he says. It is just that simple. Gumbo did not go to school, and has no idea about such complexities like assets and bank balance. He just sees you and sees the value of wealth written on your face.
He looks at you and imagines you carried along some loose change. Money that – according to him – is surplus to your budget and ought to given to him for a pint of gin.
And so he walks up to you with this rehearsed gesture, wearing a wide grin before he breaks into a mischievous giggle. He regurgitates some stale conversation that you had some two years back. He thinks he is good at scheming for his potential prey.
He imagines you will marvel at his great memory. He pictures the kind of impression he is going to strike. You suspect he thinks of himself as some sort of intellectual. So the chat goes on and on. Most times, the duration will depend on the circumstances in which he finds you.
He will join in if he finds you in the middle of some mundane chore. It is one sure way he’ll earn something off you. He will still stick around if he finds you unoccupied. And the idle talk will go on and on until he appears to have run of saliva.
When he rises to say his goodbyes, he does so with one eye on your face and another on your pocket, often letting out a grin if he sees your hand slip into your pocket. The size of the grin will depend on what or rather how much you pull out. Sometimes he will just sulk.
What does he use the money for?
It’s mainly Waragi, a local gin that takes him to the skies in the shortest time possible. That way, he saunters back home a happy man, having spent very little and gotten so much on the night. He sings the blues on his way home. It’s his way of killing boredom.
Often times, his is more of a sermon. A drunken sermon. It is the moment to pour his heart out. On and on he goes, talking just about anyone he interacted with during the course of the week.
It is here that those who are in his bad books will get their bashing. He raps them for being bad friends. Bad, ill-mannered friends who are only stingy at best. He calls them hypocrites who only call him when they need his help, and ditch him when they have been sorted.
You will get honorable mention if you are in his good books. You are accorded a huge chunk of airtime during his raucous 2-kilometer walk back home. Suddenly, everyone in the village knows you are back to the village and you are loaded because you bought him beer.
This is detrimental to you, in a way. The set up in the countryside is such that most middle-class folks normally spend a big chunk of the year working their socks off in the city, often coming back to the countryside homes a couple of times a year.
Each of those trips comes with a lot of baggage and expectation from the folks that will claim to have prayed for your success. You are likely to run into acquaintances with truckloads of gossip, trying to earn your favor. You are certain to meet expectant preteen faces at whose christening you played godfather when they were still runny-nosed, petulant toddlers.
Their parents will have coached them on how to approach and greet their uncles (every potential benefactor is an uncle) and (sometimes) act humble and needy. When Gumbo sings your praises during his evening trek, you are certain to find a good number of these gathered at your doorstep the following morning.
Lumped on the porch with their eyes continuously blinking against the bright morning sun-rays, they sit and wait patiently. When you finally arrive, they give you the kind of piteous look you wish to show your landlord when your rent is due and you have not got your salary yet because the boss forgot to sign the cheque before he left for a month's holiday in Mauritius.
You have to sort them out in a way. It is the usual routine – ask for performance reports for the school going lot and fork out some about $5 for them to buy a few scholastic materials. Off they scatter as soon the “facilitation” has exchanged hands. There is no pretense.
Gumbo doesn’t like the sight of these, for they, sure, are going to eat away a portion of what you should have given him to sing your praises for another couple of days. But he is civil enough not to openly put his chagrin on show. Or rather he is not charged enough to show his angry side. So he lets it slide.
He rarely loses his temper when he is sober. But he will erupt once a drop of liquor has made its way down his throat. He is going to meet a parent of one of those early morning schemers and he will give them a dress down.
He is calculative. He’ll employ his old approach of exchanging pleasantries before running his script. Blackmail. He will tell them how instrumental he was, in securing the $5 their son conned off his boss.
He is scheming for a small percentage of that amount, something close to the equivalent of about 20 cents. Long story short, the unlucky parent forks out the 20 cents, and Gumbo walks away a happy man. The one who does not buy his vibe becomes the subject that evening’s rant.
He only befriends the affluent. The rest are just acquaintances. He keeps a cool circle of families around him, ensuring a regular supply of alms. From worn-out utensils and shoes that have run their course levels to old garments in an average middle income family.
But he is wary of any potential fall-outs. He knows one day he will wake up and he is no longer needed in one of his rich buddies’ homes. So he keeps sourcing for new friends.
“You see that Nelson?” he tells Morgan, son to his latest wealthy buddy. “He was once my good friend when he was younger. His late dad was my good friend too. Those trees he is always cutting down to make charcoal. I planted them with his dad. He was still a young boy. He was too young to understand these things.”
“But he cut off our ties when his dad died. Now he just sells the charcoal and runs to the city to pay fees and have fun with young girls in the city. He cannot even think of buying me a beer. Yet he is feasting on my sweat. Please don’t be like him when you grow old and become rich”, he goes on.
Morgan is a 16-year old high school student who just came back to the village for his second term holidays. He rarely stays in the village, so Gumbo is the only person he easily associates with. Morgan just nods in agreement to Gumbo’s plea. A verbal pact is made.
Gumbo has just made a pact with his newest buddy. Morgan becomes the subject of his blues “jazz session” that evening. That holiday Gumbo takes Morgan to the hilly part of the countryside. Together, they do a tour of all the land on which Morgan’s dad is doing farming. Fragmented as the pieces are, from every valley to hill and back, Morgan is shown every single piece of land his dad owns.
And so it becomes a routine. Every school term break finds Morgan in the village. He looks for Gumbo every once in a while when he gets bored. Morgan knows Gumbo will be itching for something small to keep him going. So he saves a small portion of his pocket money to grease his palm. It’s a pact that will last forever, Gumbo thinks.
Gumbo continues to heap praises on Morgan every time he is excited (read tipsy). Maybe his bar patrons are even jealous of him. His friends at the local bar have never met Morgan. But they have heard of him. They have no idea how he looks like, but they know he is a rich man’s son – which means he has some money of his own.
It’s now two years since the two first became good friends. In the two years, the whole world knows the rich man has a son called Morgan. He doesn’t know he has become a celeb. Morgan is now done with high school, and is enjoying a lot of redundant time in the village. For four long months, he waits for his high school exam results.
March 28th, 2007. Exam results are out, and Morgan has aced his papers. A local daily carries the lead story. Morgan’s name features on page 2, complete with a passport photograph he took when he still had shaggy hair. It doesn’t matter. His peers still recognize him. He has qualified for government scholarship. Everyone is happy for Morgan. His parents are overjoyed. Gumbo is excited.
Even as illiterate as he is, Gumbo knows getting government sponsorship is a good thing. “Morgan is going to university to get a degree. He will become very rich. He is going to buy a car, and when he comes to the village I will always be sitting by the co-drivers'. You people had better treat me with respect or else I will not let you ride in Morgan’s car”, he tells his peers at the local pub.
Morgan goes to University and fortunately gets a job even before he finishes his studies. He becomes a very busy person as he has to juggle between studies and his new-found job. He wants to excel at both. He wants to earn praises from his boss. At the same time, he wants good grades.
For the first time in his life, Christmas finds him in the city. He cannot make it to the village because of a tight work schedule. Gumbo is disappointed his buddy did not come to the village, but “understands” the situation because he was told that studying at University is not easy.
Towards the end of Morgan’s final University year, gossip reaches the village. Morgan got a job and is already working. Gumbo is elated, and braces himself for a mother of all booze binges when Morgan comes to the village. He still remembers the pact the two made 6 years ago. Morgan is now 22, and he, 36.
Christmas time comes and it’s almost the same scenario as the previous year. This time Morgan sneaks in one Friday night, on the Christmas Eve of 2010. Word goes around that Morgan is around, but Gumbo does not take it serious. His buddy cannot come around and not look for him. He will pass by his home on Sunday to confirm the news.
Sunday Morning, 27 December, 2010. Gumbo makes the short trip to Morgan’s home, only to meet his old friend at the gate. Morgan is on phone, so they don’t talk. He waves to him and musters a smile. Gumbo tries to smile back. Morgan is on his way out, and back to the city. Gumbo thinks he must left something “small” for him at home. Morgan did not leave any message for him, he is told.
This is the last time the two see each other. The following morning, Morgan’s phone rings as he is getting ready for work. At the other end of the phone is his mum.
Gumbo is dead!
What?! How? What happened - was he sick?
No. He was last seen at 11PM, in a bar with a couple of friends. He appeared a little pensive. He took several shorts of gin, but he looked fine.
He did not sing the blues that night. He quietly left by himself and went to his mum’s house.
His mum says they exchanged pleasantries and went straight to bed. Normal routine. In the morning he could not be woken up for breakfast. He had died in his sleep.
Morgan recalls the pact. That verbal agreement, made one sweaty afternoon after a trip to the hills, all of six years back. Could his friend have been depressed? Could it have been a case of suicide?
The Pact, Morgan reflects.
He has become another Nelson. The Nelson Gumbo had always told him about. The same Nelson who betrayed Gumbo long before he became friends with Morgan. Guilt sets in.