NOV 6, 2022
As the fragments of light seeped through the curtains, Banou lay on her bed in dread. The tiny room that had become her new home felt like a prison she could not leave. Normally buoyant, that was a morning she would have preferred to remain indoors, but this challenge, the first she was morally opposed to, needed to be addressed. She obstinately prepared herself and wore her most comfortable faded stonewash jeans, with a loose white t-shirt. She plumped her carefully coiffured afro before she headed out to the cafe next door where she drank a cup of tea. Her jittery stomach could barely hold anything else. She looked at the tiny watch that beckoned her to head towards the guillotine that the bicycle shop had become. Every step ferried her with deep regret, but her need for this to work out was far greater. She would have to tough it out.
Her measured steps as she paced in a circle round the corner from the shop, cigarette in hand with small aromatic clouds of smoke hanging over her head, got heavier with every passing moment. She could hear the mellow 'Ba Yemba Ba Congo' as Mzee Tembo's voice rose above Franklin Boukaka's in an atrocious mimic. As the hand swept ten, Mapacha walked out of the shop with a small tan pouch in his hand. He saw her and approached her temporary circuitous prison.
"Tough day huh? It's not that bad."
Her eyes pierced Mapacha's. "Tough day? This is the worst."
"Listen, once you recover from the shock, it will be like second nature."
She blinked back her tears.
"You guys are asking me to become a killer. I'm not this. I'm not cut out like you guys."
Mapacha was uncertain. When Abril cried, he usually ignored her, but he could not help but try to comfort Banou.
"Nobody is asking you to kill, and it is unlikely you ever will. But it is better to know how to use a gun than get caught when you could have saved yourself and others. We have selected this path, and it is not without its risks. Nothing comes easy."
She regretted it for a moment. Did he have to confront her like that?
"Nothing comes easy," she muttered as she wiped the lone tear that slid down her cheek.
They heard the door close and Mzee Tembo lock it, as he whistled."Ola Banou!" he heartily greeted her. His excitement at the thought that he would fire guns would have been contagious, as were the other prospects of the day.
"Hi!" It was barely a whimper."
It is a good day on the island is it not?"
At that moment, she detested his cheeriness. "Yes."
"Come! Come! Let us go."
Mapacha slid into the passenger seat as Mzee Tembo started the Peugeot. The engine idled roughly for a moment as the oil rose, and lead it to a soft putter. Mzee Tembo tuned the radio as he sought that one radio channel that played his favourite tunes. The rhumba started, and he shifted to first, slowly turned the car and with expert efficiency mated with his tender touch, drove onto the coastal highway. Over the twenty minutes it took to get to their destination, he whistled above the throbbing weave of the Peugeot.
Mapacha recognised the desolated quarry as the abandoned training ground the military had used when he was still in boot camp. The army had finally built a professional range on base, but this was where training happened for thousands of soldiers back then. Mzee Tembo picked a shaded spot and parked his car before they all clambered out. He breathed in deeply, as he took in every moment.
"This is where we used to do practice shooting before the professional range opened," he explained to Banou.
She truly did not care.
"OK. Let's go. Mapacha set the targets."
Mapacha knew this entire range, where every rock was and where every path led. As he walked towards the beach, Mzee Tembo picked something from the boot of the car. He set the coconuts up on the far end of the range, collected some more and set them further down. On the other end, Banou and Mzee Tembo stood at the crudely made table. In reality, it was a pile of rocks carefully stacked together, then covered by the half-sawn trunks tied together with sisal ropes.
Mzee Tembo unzipped the leather pouch and pulled out the two guns. The moment drew his sentiment out.
"Banou, errr, you know, we did not start off well, but now, we have been forced to be a 'family' by circumstances. So this gun, I give it to you. It's yours. I removed the serial number so if you lose it, it won't come back to haunt me. Don't lose it."
All things considered, it would have been a touching father-daughter moment, except he was not a doting father and she was at best an errant daughter, and this moment was marking her formal entry into armed crime. With quavering palms, she lifted the Model 49. Though it seemed minuscule, it felt weighty in her petite palm. She held it by the butt and cautiously inspected it.
"First rule. Always assume a gun is loaded. The second rule is don't point it at something you don't intend to shoot. The third rule, only put your finger on the trigger when you are certain you want to shoot. Finally, make sure you know what is behind the target. Clear?"
"Mapacha, where is your gun?"
Mapacha pulled his Model 649 from the pouch. The burnished stainless steel glinted in the sunlight. Mzee Tembo looked at it appreciatively and recognised that Mapacha had serviced and polished it that morning. There was barely a scratch on the frame. He handed Mapacha a box of .38 special ammunition.
"Let's show her how it's done."
Mapacha did not touch the box of ammunition and instead took his stance. He spread his legs and slowly squeezed the trigger, and let off a successive volley of five rounds. Three found their mark. Banou jolted every single time the gun went off.
"Practice! Practice Mapacha. You are getting rusty." Mzee Tembo chided him.
"It's been a while boss." Mapacha was surprised he had struck anything at all.
It had been years since he had fired a gun, and this wasn't exactly how he wanted to resume this activity, moreover in this fashion.
"No excuses Mapacha."He emptied the cylinder as he finally opened the box of ammunition and loaded five more shells. Mzee Tembo aimed at the remaining coconuts and with fanatical zeal fired his five and squarely hit five coconuts. He smiled and licked his lips with tremendous satisfaction as picked up Banou's Model 49. His trained fingers loaded it and discharged three more shots and precisely hit more coconuts. Banou weary from the jolts had covered her ears.
"Banou, you are up." Mzee Tembo notified her.
"Let me add more coconuts boss," Mapacha offered.
He walked down the range arranged fifteen coconuts at various distances went to the beach and picked up more coconuts that he lay in a large stack. As he walked back towards the table, he watched as Mzee Tembo deep in his element instructed Banou on how to handle her 'new' gun.
"OK Banou. Now point it at the closest coconut. Make sure the sight is at the centre of the coconut."
She struggled to focus but finally, she saw what he meant."Yes, I can see it.""Now, spread your legs, loosen your muscles, take a deep breath and gently squeeze the trigger.
"Mzee Tembo's thick moist palms wrapped round hers as she took a deep breath and gently squeezed the trigger. She heard the click, and then the gun fired loudly. The sound forced a squeal out of her and she nearly dropped the gun.
"No. I don't like this!" she protested.
"Again," Mzee Tembo ordered her, a bit more sternly.
This time she fired, once, twice, thrice and finally, the mechanics registered as she loosened up. The deafening sound was unbearable, but she was getting the hang of it.
"Is there a way to make it not so loud?" she asked Mzee Tembo.
"No. It's a gun Banou. This is how they work."
The next three hours were a cacophony of blasts as they practised. Eventually, the loud roar of the revolver became tolerable and her jolts slowly subsided. She watched Mapacha practice and finally his rhythm seemed back. His success inspired her confidence and soon, she hit three coconuts square. Though she would never dare admit it to Mzee Tembo, she had started enjoying the whole prospect of firing guns. She felt that her skittishness with the revolver was finally tamed.
The pitiless African sun eventually became unbearable, and they were forced to call it a day.
"Good shooting Banou," Mapacha commended her.
She smiled appreciatively at the compliment. Mzee Tembo fussed over her tiny errors, but her good mood was not going to be shot down, given that a few hours ago, she did not want anything to do with this in the first place.
They entered the car, and Mzee Tembo sped back towards Josephine. He swept into 'government row' and parked in front of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
"Leave the hardware in the boot and let's go."
The old-fashioned concrete block rose five floors and was perimetered by a green-hued grill fence. The wide gate was manned by two guards in their short uniforms and armed with stock AKM assault rifles. As Mzee Tembo entered the building, the officers stood at attention and saluted him, and he reciprocated. They entered through the doors with glass panels, and the next set of officers saluted him. Banou was finally getting the message. Mzee Tembo, as ridiculous as he may have appeared, had retained profound influence that he had masked in geniality. They walked up the wide staircase to the first floor, down the hall and entered a small office marked 'Diplomatic Section.' Without bothering to knock, he swung the door open and strode into a surprised secretary's reception.
"Ola Madam," he greeted her. "Is Mateus in?"
Her fluster dissipated as she recognised him. Before she could protest at his blistering rudeness, the inner office door swung open.
"Ola Tembo. Please come in." He ushered the trio into his office. "Have a seat."
"Ah, Tembo it has been far too long. Where have you been? How is your family?"
"Everyone is well Mateus. What about you? How are your people?"
The small talk slowly continued as Banou and Mapacha hushedly watched. Mateus was a bespectacled functionary in the diplomatic section of the ministry. He was popular for his love of Kaunda suits, today, a tan one with black polished shoes. Though he had presented himself as being youthful, the creases on his face as well as the bald spot on his head revealed seniority.
Mzee Tembo introduced Banou and Mapacha.
"These two work for me," he explained."This is Mateus. We were together in the army."
They slowly nodded their acknowledgement as Mzee Tembo finally took his seat.
"Mateus, the day after tomorrow, we have an urgent business trip and these two at the very last minute told me they don't have papers. Perhaps you could assist me and sort them out quickly."
He could see the stubs of greed manifest in Mateus' eyes.
"Tembo, this is extremely last minute. You know, we need to open files and forward their information to CID before we can issue them with travel documents.
"Mzee Tembo was prepared. "Oh, these two already had documents. You should have files on them already." He turned to them. "Give Mateus your documents."
They rifled through their pockets and produced their passports. Mzee Tembo examined them and handed them over to Mateus. As he flipped through the pages, his disappointment bared. The price for rushing this job was instantly reduced. He placed them squarely on his desk.
"This is no problem, sir. Tomorrow is quite possible. Will you two be travelling frequently?"
"Indeed," Mzee Tembo answered for them. "The bicycle industry is booming, and these two are helping me expand to new markets."
"Ah Tembo, you have success on your horizon. This is good news."
Mzee Tembo gave a faux blush. He recognised Mateus' toadying.
"To begin with, we need to take new pictures," he said. "Follow me."
They exited the main office and entered a smaller one with a processing system, a camera and a fingerprint pad. The officer in charge gradually raised his bored eyes and stood as soon as he saw Mateus.
Without no introduction, Mateus snapped orders at him.
"Process these two quickly."
It took twenty minutes for their prints and photographs to be taken. Outside, they could hear Mateus and Mzee Tembo engrossed in chitchat, with the sporadic burst of rumbustious laughter. When they were done they walked and saw as the two giggled at what seemed to be an obscene story.
"Done?" he asked them.
"Yes," Mapacha responded, as he struggled to wipe the fingerprint ink from his hands.
"OK. Come back tomorrow around this time and your passports will be ready."
Mateus escorted them out, and as they made it down the staircase, Mzee Tembo slipped him a brown envelope with a conniving smile.
"Fees, you know."
There was more than that, and Mateus smiled in appreciation.
"Of course. I will take care of everything."
Mateus stood at the foyer and observed them enter the Peugeot and waved as the car reversed from the parking and drove off. He considered the story Mzee Tembo had fed him and knew it was rubbish. Years of intelligence work, his intuition, and the blatant loud smell of gunpowder let him know that something was amiss. However, he chose not to concern himself with the matter. It would not help anyone, least of all himself.
Banou descended to Nsia's to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon on the terrace while Mapacha's afternoon blurred while he assembled bikes. Nsia had smelt the gunpowder smell on Banou and interrogated her, but she had remained tight-lipped because she knew that she would betray the others if her lips slipped.