Mallam Atta Market
Limah abruptly lifted her head from the sticky valley of Charles’s chest, stretching to light the wick.
“My time up already?”
Limah ignored him, hurriedly reaching for her T-shirt and skirt. Self-consciously, she checked that her head tie was still in place before bending to hand him his uniform and boots. The flame made shadow ghouls of the rubber soles.
“Do you think I will steal your shoes from your feet?” she half teased, noting his name crudely etched on their inner tongues. Charles thought everyone was out to take something from him. She handed him the boots now, needing him out so she could return the stall to her friend Asana. “I know you have to go back. And I have to clean this place.”
He wore his rifle like a handbag before retrieving a five-cedi bill. He held the flaccid note over her head. “You said she’s raised the price?”
“From thirty to fifty thousand.” The Bank of Ghana had moved the decimal point four places over ten years ago because carrying fistfuls of cash, sometimes sacks, in the tens of thousands for groceries or taxi fare had become unwieldy and dangerous. But for Limah, and everyone else who worked in the market, the currency redenomination might as well have never happened. It hadn’t changed the cedi’s value or stemmed inflation.
“Nothing free in Ghana,” Charles said, almost wistful as he handed her the limp legal tender.
“No. Nothing.” Limah loosened the padlock at the door, but still Charles lingered.
“I worry about you here, alone.” He adjusted his beret. The two chevron stripes on his navy shirt’s shoulder band, indicating he was a corporal, were urine yellow in the wick’s light.
“Didn’t you all catch the rapist?”
“Is there only one?” He shrugged. “You may see me tomorrow night. Munhwɛ is recording a program here with that comedian Ahmed Razak. The MP has requested extra police presence.”
She thought of whom she could leave Adama with so she could make more money with Charles. Asana usually watched her son, but tonight her friend wasn’t able to. Adama was with Limah’s fellow kayayei in the storage sheds outside the market, but Limah didn’t like this arrangement: the kayayei were watching the owners’ goods they would pile onto their heads and sell at the market during the day, and watching for armed robbers and rapists with the same eyes that monitored her son. But if she kept making an extra fifty thousand a week—forty after she paid Asana—she could start renting her own stall.
The thought softened the edges of her impatience. “The Munhwɛ people were here all day giving out flyers for a competition,” she said. “They say the prize is a car and a date with Ahmed Razak.”
Charles punched diagonal lines into the air and twisted the toe of his boot like he was extinguishing a cigarette, mimicking the azonto dance Razak opened his variety show with. His rifle swayed with the movement. “I hope you’re not entering the contest when you have your own Ahmed Razak right here.”
She laughed at his poor attempt at azonto, ushering him out. “They want only fat girls to enter. The show is called Am I Your Size?”
“Heavyweights make the best champions.” It was only Charles’s height that made his massive paunch describable as a boxer’s build. “Let me hear the lock.”
Limah closed the door and the padlock’s shackle, calculating how long it would take Charles to exit the market before she could return the stall key to Asana and get back to Adama.
Limah and Asana had an arrangement. On the nights she met Charles, Asana sublet Limah the stall for ten thousand, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. But it was the eve of National Sanitation Day and Auntie Muni, Asana’s landlord, would be in early to make a show of cleaning for the Accra Metropolitan Assembly inspectors. They had agreed Limah should be out no later than 3 a.m. this time.
Limah quickly folded Asana’s thin foam mattress and pushed it under Auntie Muni’s counter. Then she gathered her pan and the stiff disk of folded cloth she used when carrying it, loaded with customer purchases, on her head. Again, she touched her head tie, feeling through the yellow polyester for the thinning spot in the middle of her pate, remembering how thick her hair had been before she came to Accra last year to kaya.
Checking for the knife she carried in her handbag—the one she had started sleeping with when Joy FM reported that a rapist was targeting kayayei—she unlocked the stall again. Briskly, she stepped out, her senses sharpened to any presence or sound beyond the ambient snarling of dogs in combat and scampering rats.
Limah had walked the length of Mallam Atta Market so many times in the last year, she could do it in her sleep. Daily, she shadowed aging madams huffing in the heat, and spry young ones who seemed to stop short at every stall, almost capsizing her pan. Often, she carried for house help dispatched by their madams, some auditioning for a bigger role with insults they believed their bosses would hurl, most drifting too slowly through the rush, shove, and side step of the market, glad to be working remotely. Occasionally, tourists looking for places to stage their vacation selfies gave her a gratuity for carting their personal items on her head. Foreigners tipped the best. Once, one had pressed a ten-cedi note into her hand—one hundred thousand! She was lucky to get more than two thousand from anyone else. With about ten customers a day, she averaged seventy to one hundred thousand a week, most of it going to food, phone credit, and her family back home. Since she had been seeing Charles consistently these past four months, Limah had been able to count on an extra twenty thousand—now forty thousand.
As she turned the corner, the Adomi Street exit in sight, Limah remembered she had forgotten to blow out the wick. She sucked her teeth and turned back, doubling her pace. When she reached the corner stall, a hand snaked out.
“You don’t rent this stall.”
When Limah realized it was Charles who had ambushed her, she had already sunk all but the hilt of her knife into the flesh under his chevrons. With his strong arm, he yanked her by her headscarf. Limah felt the scallop-edged polyester slip past her shoulders as her heart made an uneven rhythm of her breath.
“I saw you last week, and the week before. You switch places with the one who rents it.”
Watching Charles pull the knife out of his arm with a pained gurgle, she felt exhausted by her lie. In the beginning, she had hoped their relationship could progress beyond these market nights, but now she realized she had just been deceiving herself.
Blood spurted from his bicep, surprising them both. “I want the money I’ve been giving you these last four months. Every pesewa.”
Quickly, she inserted the key and yanked the padlock open, pulling him inside. The flame gyrated with the oxygen the opened door brought in.
Limah went for the Dettol behind the counter. The bottle held just a splash. She dragged down one of the many pieces of lace packed on the shelf that lined the wall, tore it free from its plastic casing, and soaked a corner of it with the antiseptic. The chemical stench filled the stall.
Charles whimpered as he struggled to unbutton his shirt. His right sleeve was now dripping rivulets of blood. Limah handed him the Dettol-soaked lace with shaking hands and watched him hurl it across the stall. The wick flickered dangerously.
“I have to go to hospital,” he said with the weary sobriety of a child forced to admit misbehavior.
His blood was everywhere. All over his hands. On his trousers. Fat drops on his boots. Smears on Limah’s T-shirt and the scarf that had been on her head. The cracked tile floor, a poor man’s mosaic, was slippery with it.
“Help me up!” Charles barked.
Limah was a petite girl, slim and slight. The flame watched her futile attempts to hoist him. “Help me help you up!” she ordered finally, both of them alarmed when he couldn’t. Then he slumped, his weight pinning her to the ground. She wriggled out from under him, her foot knocking the wick in the process.
She gasped at the sudden blackness and the silence that followed, only her breath and heartbeat in her ears.
“Limah!” Asana whispered sharply. Ah! Limah knew she had to be out before Auntie Muni came. She tapped the metal door insistently, pulling out her phone.
“The number you have dialed has been switched off,” reported the British woman who had won the contract to voice all such messages. “Please try again later.”
It was almost 4 a.m. In an hour, Auntie Muni would be at the market or close.
Banging now, Asana wondered with mounting anxiety whether her friend had forgotten to drop off the key before heading to collect her son. She only had one and had given it to Limah.
Asana sank to the cement incline that rose into the stall. Seething, she rehearsed the curses she would hurl at Limah, and the cluelessness she would perform if Auntie Muni came to meet her locked out.
She rented the stall from Auntie Muni for thirty thousand a week. She only had use of it at night, to sleep in when the market closed. As part of their rental agreement, Asana cleaned the stall before she left in the morning, had her bath at the market shower, and then returned to sell Special Ice water for Auntie Muni, getting five pesewas for every thirty-pesewa sachet she sold, on top of the 2,500 a day Auntie Muni paid her.
The arrangement was a luxury Asana worked hard to keep so she wouldn’t have to return to sleeping outside, praying away rain, armed robbers, and rapists. The ten thousand she took from Limah each week enabled her to save some of the roughly 200,000 (twenty cedis in the new money) she earned weekly selling for Auntie Muni. She planned to buy her own Special Ice carton and bring her junior sister from their uncle’s farm in Yendi to sell for her until she could one day own a market stall.
But every week, Limah did something to risk Auntie Muni finding out that Asana let her use the stall to sleep with her police officer. She always seemed to forget something—a scarf, a still-smoking mosquito coil, a condom wrapper—and she always left later than their agreed upon 4 a.m., giving Asana little time to clean up after her. This week, she had not only told Limah to leave at three, but made an excuse not to watch Adama, hoping Limah would finish early to pick him up. Asana regretted this now, realizing she had no guarantee Limah would come straight back to her.
Ready to pound the metal door again, she heard a rustle coming from inside. Her pocket vibrated. She hissed Limah’s name into her phone. “Open for me.”
Asana listened for the metallic slide of the unlocking door and pushed her way in. Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, she turned toward the sound of two distinct ragged breaths, suddenly afraid she had entered a trap.
“Limah? Gom beni?” she asked in their native Dagbani, hoping the rapist or armed robber who might be holding her friend hostage couldn’t understand.
“I am fine.” Limah’s voice shook.
“Why are you in the dark?” Asana’s eyes still adjusting, she moved toward Limah’s voice and tripped. Scrimmaging to her elbows, Asana turned to see what had made her fall. It hadn’t been Limah’s selling pan or some other discarded object. Whatever it was had the mass of an animal. A big one. Like one of the cows the men in Yendi used to pool money to buy and kill for Eid. She pulled herself up, yanking her phone from her pocket.
“Charles,” Limah explained as Asana directed the device’s light to the body.
Asana gasped. There was a lifeless police officer in Auntie Muni’s stall, and there was blood. She put her hands on her head.
“I thought he was an attacker.”
Asana nodded understanding. There wasn’t a female among them who didn’t know the fear that came with night. Whether guarding the wares they sold in the storage sheds, or asleep on the roadside just outside Mal’ Atta, they lived with the paranoia of attacks past and recent. Even those who could pay to sleep in padlocked market stalls were vulnerable to armed robbers and rapists who knew they might be inside, easily overpowered.
“We have to get him out of here before Auntie Muni comes.”
“He’s too heavy.” Limah’s voice was thin with despair. “We should call the police.”
“And tell them what? You thought your married officer was an attacker so you killed him?” Asana turned her phone’s light on Limah. Her friend sat defeated, the swatch of fabric she had earlier worn wrapped around her hair now draped around her shoulders and streaked with blood, the balding circle of scalp she was so self-conscious about, exposed. “A police officer is dead. It will be your word—a kayayo—against his family’s desire to bury him honorably, his wife’s embarrassment, and his fellow officers’ fear of crackdown when it’s discovered he was with you instead of at his checkpoint. No. We have to remove him and clean this place before the market opens.”
More afraid of what Auntie Muni might do to her than the police, Asana turned her phone around, the light searing her eyes. 3:57 a.m. The market opened at 6 a.m., but proprietors would start arriving by 5 a.m.
“The AMA inspectors will be here,” she reminded Limah. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly often dispatched officials for surprise sanitation checks, but it being National Sanitation Day, they would be in the market in numbers. “And no telling when the Munhwɛ people will start coming. We have to do it now.”
“We could take him to the hospital.”
“Do you have 150,000 for a taxi to Korle Bu?” Asana sucked her teeth. “He’s already dead. Start cleaning up. I’m going to find us some help to clear the body.”
Muni accidentally kicked a short stack of plastic buckets as she turned the corner on the path to her stall.
“Who left these here?” she asked the small girl sweeping in front of the first shop in the row. Even though it wasn’t her stall, the AMA inspectors would use such infractions to threaten to fine the owner—a pretext for negotiating lesser levies that would bypass the city’s coffers for their own pockets. Where the inspectors started, they would linger. “Clear them now.”
“Yes, Auntie Muni.”
In front of her stall, Muni parted her bag’s leather-band-and-gold-link handles to rummage for her keys. She dug past her phone, her face-powder compact, blotting papers, a handkerchief, a Munhwɛ TV flyer, P.K chewing gum wrappers, and magazine perfume strips she collected, always on the hunt for a new scent. Finally, she found her wallet, pulling out the keys that dangled from the ring attached to the zipper.
Muni tugged at the padlock and latched the heavy spinach-green metal door to the loop that moored it to the cement wall. She sniffed compulsively, as she did every morning. To her surprise, her shop smelled good. Fresh even.
Her kayayo and tenant Asana did a good job cleaning the stall, but there was a smell about the girl that always lingered. None of Muni’s customers had yet complained about an unpleasant musk, and most of her lace was sheathed in plastic, but she worried nonetheless that the girl’s raw odor would pique a sensitive nose like hers or seep into her stock.
This morning, though, the place had a lemony antiseptic smell to it. The shelves looked neater, too.
Tank u, ma dear. Outdid urself. D shop is luking gr8, she texted Asana, using the shorthand her son, Abdul, messaged her with.
Abdul and his sister would be coming soon to help her man the shop. She had seen on the Munhwɛ TV flyer that the area MP and his wife, Alice, were planning to welcome Ahmed Razak to the market. Alice had become something of a friend during her husband’s campaign, meeting regularly with the market shopkeepers to rally their support. Even after his win, Alice always dropped by Muni’s stall and picked up a few yards of lace when she was at Mal’ Atta. Muni looked forward to showing her the new pieces that had come in.
Abdul and Mariama were supposed to be at the market by 7 a.m., but Asana and the other girls were to report before 6 a.m. to account for yesterday’s sales and refill their pans with the supplies they’d be selling. She unlocked the stall’s back door, which led to her small storeroom and the deep freezer inside. She switched on the generator.
The power supply had been out for two straight half days, but the cakes of frosty ice in the freezer had kept the water cold enough. The same couldn’t be said for the ice cream and frozen yogurt. She felt the plastic sachets of FanIce and FanYogo mixed in with the small water packets and frowned at their mushiness.
As Muni walked away, she noticed a plastic soap bottle on the floor. Instead of the syrupy green Fairy liquid the label advertised, there was a watery yellow solution inside. It was too pale to be urine, she decided, tentatively raising it to her nose. The pungent odor of ammonia and lemons induced her gag reflex. This was the scent that had greeted her when she opened her stall. She recognized it now as the cleaning fluid the market butchers used to disinfect meat, and the oddly pleasing fragrance that clung to Ibrahim. She arched her eyeliner-traced eyebrows and blinked away tears as she jumped to conclusions. Of course Ibrahim would want to be with someone his own age, she told herself. Aside from the way she smelled, Asana was a pretty girl.
“Auntie Muni?” The little girl who had been sweeping interrupted her thoughts.
“Yes, my dear?” She put the bottle down, covering her hurt with a smile.
“I have removed the buckets.”
But what if it was Mr. Selifu? Muni asked herself, blooming with hope that Asana’s visitor had been Ibrahim’s boss instead. Resolving to ask Asana point-blank if she had broken their agreement by bringing a man into her stall, Muni dug in her bag and gave the girl the five-pesewa coin she was angling for. She followed the child out to see if Asana or any of her other kayayei were coming. The market would be open in twenty minutes.
Morning light was diluting the sky, and now, as far down the row as Muni could see, small girls were sweeping. The sound of the dried-reed brooms swiping rock-studded earth and cement was almost orchestral, accompanied by the creaks of traders dragging wood tables and benches into arrangement, and shopkeepers freeing heavy metal doors from their locks. The shrill of a loudspeaker suddenly disrupted this market symphony—a prelude to the more guttural beats of transaction that would come when the shops opened.
“Testing,” a man’s voice announced, his breath heavy in the distant microphone. “Munhwɛ TV test.”
Muni pulled her handbag open to retrieve the Munhwɛ flyer. A sinewy young man with a dimpled grin had pressed it into her hand yesterday, on her way to the fifty-pesewa toilets.
“There’s still time to enter, madam,” he had said.
She looked up at him, noting his Munhwɛ TV T-shirt.
“Am I your size?” she flirted, reading the title of the show.
“Fat-ulous,” he answered.
Muni had giggled at his unblinking recitation of Ahmed Razak’s catchphrase.
“You should enter and try for the car.”
She winked at him. “I have cars already.”
The Munhwɛ boy had reminded her of Ibrahim, rangy and brimming with the muscular energy of youth. Now, she tucked the flyer back in her bag, feeling fresh pain at the prospect of her lover having been in her stall, with Asana.
“My guy never show?”
Ken shook his head at his supervisor.
“Those Mal’ Atta girls have Charles under a spell. What kind of chook go for four hours?” Sergeant Duah joked about Charles’s longer-than-usual absence.
The two men were moving the pair of metal barricades that made up their checkpoint on the neighborhood border between Tesano and Abeka. They leaned them against a tree off the road along with the plastic chairs they—really Ken—had been keeping watch in all night.
Ken suppressed a growl. He didn’t care what kind of sex Charles was having, or why he was traveling twenty minutes by road to have it when there were girls much closer to home. He was sick of doing Charles’s job and Sergeant Duah’s, too.
Both men exploited Ken’s freshman rank, one of them usually disappearing for hours from whatever checkpoint they were assigned, or cutting him out of whatever “something small” they coaxed from midnight drivers.
How he longed to report them. But he knew retaliation would be swift. The old guard viewed any attempt at reform by younger officers as a “breach of discipline.”
There were forty-four breaches listed in the Ghana Police Service handbook, but only two were consistently punished. The first: “Disobedience of a lawful order given him by his senior in rank, whether verbally or in writing, or by authorized signal on parade.” The second: “Communicating to any unauthorized person matters connected with the Service without permission from the Senior Police Officer under whom he serves.”
Ken was not so naive that he hadn’t expected some form of hazing on the job. His uncle, now a chief inspector, had prepared him with tales of his first-year constable days. But even if he hadn’t, Ken knew his people. Ghanaians acquired power three ways: money, position, and age. And when they had it, they wielded it with a hammer’s blunt force.
Fitting his helmet over his head, he seated himself behind Duah on the senior officer’s motorcycle. Taking advantage of the relatively open, pre–rush hour Nsawam Road, Duah zipped to their Munhwɛ assignment at Mal’ Atta Market.
When they arrived, Duah stayed on the bike. “I’m coming, eh.”
With gritted teeth, Ken watched Duah rev away, reminding himself that when the new class of academy graduates entered, he would move up a rung. He had received high commendations from his senior officers, and his uncle was friendly with the inspector general of police. He had hope that he would be considered for early promotion. Advancing from constable to lance corporal would mean a little more power and a little less abuse.
He yawned, wiping away a tear of exhaustion as he strode past the sign announcing Mallam Atta Market. Located in Kokomlemle, the central Accra neighborhood built in the early 1950s to accommodate the city’s population spike, Mal’ Atta served 1,800 customers daily, including workers in the now mostly commercial district and residents in neighboring New Town. From fresh vegetables to hair-braiding services, one could find almost anything among the stalls and stands spread across the market’s 57,499 square yards. Stepping over a slim gutter, Ken braced himself as he passed through the entry partition between Mal’ Atta’s cement walls.
When Ken was a child, his mother sold cloth in Kumasi’s Kejetia market. Growing up, he’d felt claustrophobic in the stadium-size crush laureled as West Africa’s largest open-air bazaar. His childhood had been populated by men wielding crates and sacks filled with everything from water sachets to ground millet, and women stationed behind tables topped with pyramids of tomatoes, student math sets, or pans brimming with all manner of powdered condiments—all incessantly haggling.
When he reached his teens, and his mother made him roam the market for customers, balancing folded fabric stacks on his head, his aversion to market hustle hardened. He couldn’t remember a happier day than when his uncle offered to pay his way through the police academy. Now, as he followed the traffic ambling toward the blaring Munhwɛ TV speakers, he resented his first-year rank all the more.
Mal’ Atta attacked with a slew of sensory assaults. While the morning sun overexposed Vodafone-red and MTN-yellow umbrellas, massive wooden sheds roofed with corrugated-iron sheets made shadowy figures of those transacting inside. Between the sheds and umbrellas, the narrow paths were choked. Suppliers squeezed through, carting boxes or plastic containers. Preachers outfitted with microphones and portable speakers admonished anyone within earshot. Itinerant chickens avoided children free from their caretakers’ backs who were chasing each other in dusty circles, urinating, or shitting within spitting distance of guardians skinning oranges or hacking sugarcane stalks. Patrons punctuated the chaos, rushing, dawdling, picking, poking, bargaining.
Threading through it all: the kayayei.
The mostly teenage kaya girls either balanced on their heads metal “China” pans coated in chipping plastic, weighted with the purchases of patrons they were muling for, or scanned for customers with pouncing eyes. Some worked with babies strapped to their backs with faded cloth. Ken noticed AMA inspectors chatting some kayayei up, grazing them, patting them, blocking their paths.
Maneuvering through the walkways like the reluctant market boy he once was, Ken found the Munhwɛ setup with relative ease. Four rows of pink plastic chairs faced a wooden stage, and the clipboard-wielding woman on it was directing a camera crew into position. Ken moved behind the platform, hoping to find a supervisor to note his punctuality.
He quickened his gait when he saw Inspector Quarcoo. The senior officer was engaged in what looked like a serious discussion with another uniform. Ken slowed his steps, surprised to see Duah with him, holding a pair of boots.
“I found someone on the roadside trying to sell them,” Duah said. He placed the boots on a table and peeled back one tongue, revealing Charles’s name.
“Maybe he gave them to the seller?” Ken said. “Charles is too big for someone to steal them off his feet.” He turned to Inspector Quarcoo to see if he agreed.
“Look at them,” Duah said.
Then Ken saw the blood.
Returning to her stall after a brief walk down the row, Muni dabbed her trickling hairline. A musky odor was aloft, and she knew Asana was now in the tight confines of the storeroom. She used her Munhwɛ flyer to wave away the smell, then dipped her nose in her handbag, inhaling the mingled notes of used perfumed strips.
“You’ve been using the deodorant I gave you?”
Asana looked up from the pan she was hurriedly filling with water sachets. “Yes, Auntie Muni.”
Then why your foul smell? Muni didn’t ask because she wanted to know instead if Asana had entertained Ibrahim in her stall. With impatience, she squinted at her employee and tenant. “Your pan will be too heavy.”
The girl, still packing on her knees, looked up again. “Sorry?”
“Asana, did you have someone in my shop overnight?”
Muni watched Asana spread her arms, fasten each hand on either side of the pan, and raise it to her head in one motion.
“Never, Auntie Muni,” she said almost too coolly. “Please, can I go? I saw that the Munhwɛ people brought bottled water for the crowd, but the sun is growing hot. People will need more.”
“You cleaned this place very well, Asana. You used a different soap. Where did you get it?”
“The butcher? Or one of his assistants?”
“I knew the AMA people would be here this morning so I couldn’t just sweep. I had to scrub. But the Dettol was finished. I’m always seeing Mr. Selifu’s boy scrubbing, so I asked him for some cleaning solution.”
Asana’s eyes bored into Muni’s. “Jonathan.”
Muni watched her kaya girl stagger slightly under the weight of the pan as she reached for the bottle.
“I’ll take it back to him.”
“You go and sell. I will return it to Mr. Selifu.”
Asana stepped out of the stall into the bright hot chaos, before turning her head gingerly to face her landlady. “Oh, Auntie Muni, I have to go home for a few days. Someone has died.”
Muni hated to lose Asana even for a short while. “Maybe your friend can step in while you’re gone?”
As Asana retreated, Muni’s phone lit up with her son’s picture. “Abdul, where are you?”
Background noise answered.
“Did I tell you and your sister to come here for Munhwɛ TV? Come at once!” She would go to Ibrahim when the children relieved her. She resumed fanning herself as a woman walked into her shop.
“Hello, madam,” Muni sang the greeting, hawking the customer’s hesitation at a diamanté-studded bolt of teal and fuchsia fabric cut into connected leaves. “Swiss lace. Authentic.”
When the woman walked out, Muni took out her phone and opened WhatsApp.
Where r u?! She shook the soap bottle impatiently until her son and daughter startled her.
Muni immediately left the kids to watch the shop, bounding outside. Her hairline sprouted more sweat with the exertion, the trickles streaking her foundation, beading under her chin. She mopped the drops, stopping absently to finger a pack of plastic-wrapped yaki weave dangling from the hair-braiding stall she passed. Her profuse sweating cost her so much in hair and blotting papers, she lamented as she walked on, fluffing her synthetic curls.
She took the long way to Mr. Selifu’s, asking herself why she was so shaken by the prospect of Asana lying; that Ibrahim, not Jonathan, had given her the cleaning solution, and perhaps something more. If Ibrahim had done something with Asana, he was free to. Muni was a married woman with children close to his age. And if he hadn’t done anything with Asana—her heart beat with hope—then it was just as Asana had said.
When she reached the butcher’s, Muni’s eyes immediately sought Ibrahim.
“Mr. Selifu!” She projected for Ibrahim’s benefit.
“Auntie Muni?” The old man looked up from the warped wooden table he was carefully slicing goat flesh on. Ibrahim and Jonathan stood at opposite sides of the table behind him.
It seemed impossible to Muni that Ibrahim was the same age as his fellow apprentice. At seventeen, Jonathan looked like a child playing doctor in his blood-spattered butcher’s coat as he scrubbed a shaved lamb. But Ibrahim made her slick with longing, even under a cloud of flies, hacking at a mountain of meat.
It wasn’t just his nearly two-meter height—tall even for the taller northern people—it was his carriage. He never slouched. Meanwhile, Jonathan stood half-folded into an almost fetal stance, practically begging for permission to exist.
“How can I help you, Auntie Muni?”
She retrieved the bottle from her bag. “I wanted to return the detergent your boy Jonathan loaned my tenant Asana.” Her eyes darted to Ibrahim’s face, to see if he showed any emotion. She exhaled when he didn’t. “I ran out of Dettol and she needed to clean. National Sanitation Day and all.”
Mr. Selifu nodded dismissal, taking the bottle.
“Isn’t that an awful lot of meat you have these boys taking care of, Mr. Selifu?” she said, her eyes still on Ibrahim and the meat he was methodically chopping.
“These days people like smaller cuts. They’re cheaper.” He turned back to his work.
Ibrahim winked at Auntie Muni.
Can I c u 2night? she texted him when she left. Asana has traveled.
Asana squeezed her throat and raised her pitch as she milled through the crowd of onlookers who hadn’t been able to afford tickets to the live episode of Munhwɛ TV’s new reality dating competition, Am I Your Size?
“Pyoooor water!” she cried, passing a group of dusty boys performing an elaborate sideshow of dance moves to beats blaring from the sound system.
“Ma me nsuo mmienu,” a man ordered.
She traded him two sachets for sixty pesewas and called again, her voice wavering slightly as she passed a huddle of police officers. Her eyes nearly jumped from their sockets when she saw Charles’s boots. She locked eyes with one of the policemen, the single jagged stripe on his shoulder conjuring the bloodied stripes on the dead man’s shirt.
The officer signaled to her with a sharp whistle, but Asana hastened away with tangled legs, pretending she didn’t hear. He ran to catch her and plucked three sachets from her pan.
“Ken, there’s bottled water here,” another uniform called after him.
“Wonim mpaboa yi?” the officer named Ken asked, pointing to the table where the boots rested.
“Do I know boots?” she repeated, dumbly.
“Do you know these boots? There’s a name on them. Charles Gyampoh.”
She swallowed her panic. “No.”
“We know he was seeing a few of you kayayei.”
Asana’s knees trembled as a kayayo coming from Mr. Selifu’s passed them, her pan heavy with meat. Another followed two paces behind.
“I don’t know the boots.”
Walking away, her ears pricked at the officer’s words to his colleagues: “We have to turn this market upside down. Charles is too big to just disappear. It would take several strong men to overpower him or move him somewhere if he is dead. If he died in Mal’ Atta last night, his body is in this market or close by.”
Limah stopped at the butcher’s stall behind the madam who had hired her. The woman momentarily removed the sugarcane cob from her jaw to order oxtail.
When the meat was weighed, wrapped, and placed in Limah’s pan, she announced playfully, “Mr. Selifu, that’s it. You’ve taken all my money.”
The butcher chuckled. “You and your mountains of money? Madam, how can I take all?”
The madam tipped her head at Limah in a let’s go gesture, and resumed sucking the cob she had long drained.
Limah trailed her, her head heavy with meat, yam tubers, tomatoes, onions, ginger, okra, and garden eggs, and her neck straining as Adama drooped with sleep on her back. Her body was ready to drop, but her mind was awake. She could still see Charles’s blood caked under her nails, could still hear Ibrahim chopping him into steaks.
“We can’t let anyone buy this thinking this is goat or cow,” Limah had said.
“I will drop small bits to the floor, add it to the slop people request for their dogs, maybe add some when someone orders a lot of meat,” Ibrahim conceded.
“The main thing is, there will be no body,” Asana had said. “While they are watching Ahmed Razak, while they are giving us meat to kaya, one by one, we—they—will be removing Officer Charles.”
Limah almost dropped her pan when the madam stopped short.
“This Munhwɛ thing is blocking everything. Look at this nonsense.”
A corpulent woman on all fours was onstage. Her buttocks facing the crowd, she jerked to the rhythm the deejay spliced. Ahmed Razak was on his feet on the dais. Praises, insults, and howls erupted through the assembly of two hundred or so packed on the pink chairs, and from those watching from the periphery.
When she finished displaying her gluteal muscle control, lifting and dropping each cheek to the staccato track, the contestant leaned into the microphone and asked coyly, “Am I your size?”
Razak raised two thumbs and the crowd roared. “FAT-ULOUS!”
Limah followed the madam around the stage, passing the public toilets and a man urinating against a wall dripping red with the painted directive, Do Not Urinate Here, by Order of AMA.
It was now 9 a.m. and National Sanitation Day was effectively over, AMA inspectors conceding the mess inherent in human exchange and the special case of the Munhwɛ event. Limah felt discarded water sachets crunch under her chale wote as she stepped gingerly over gutters oozing with runoff from washed hands, cups, and hair.
When they reached the market exit on Adomi Street, Limah motioned for help. Two small girls ran up as she lowered herself carefully so they could lift the pan and put it on the ground. The madam yelled into her phone—”Peter, ah! Where are you?”—as an ancient bottle-green Mercedes slowed in front of them.
Limah and her helpers unloaded into the Benz’s trunk.
When they were done, the madam, now seated in the vehicle, searched her bag. “One for you, you, and you.”
Limah glared at the coin in her hand.
“Hwɛ! You won’t be grateful?” The madam threw her desiccated sugarcane cob through her open window.
Clutching her pan at her side, Limah watched the madam roll up her window, a hairline fracture tracing an arc in the glass that separated them. A small smile surprised Limah as she imagined the madam preparing the meat she’d just bought. She retreated as the car slowly pulled away.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.