NOV 15, 2022
The following morning, Mapacha scrubbed his skin till it became raw. He could not get enough of the hot water shower. It was the best he had experienced, and it possessed a virtually inexhaustible water supply. He wore a loose shirt and blue denim city sweepers before he headed out. The others had just settled in their seats at the cafe across the road when he got there.
"Ola!" He greeted them.
They all greeted him back. Mapacha sat next to Banou. The waitress approached their table and stated to them what was ready.
"Porridge." Mzee Tembo requested.
Banou preferred a fruit salad with juice, while Mapacha went for tea and plantain. Gwafa pulled out a cigarette as he requested a cup of black coffee.
"OK. Let's review. We can do this job in three or four days once we get a beat of it, OK?" Mzee Tembo explained. "So this is how it will go. Gwafa, you and Mapacha sit on the residence and watch who walks in and out during the day. Mark the time, cars, number of passengers, that sort of thing. Banou and I will follow the Minister wherever he goes. I will do the driving, and Banou will do the foot surveillance when she can. Is this OK with all of you?"Banou was unpleased by this arrangement. "Who do I get to do the foot surveillance? That is a lot of work under the sun."
"Because you are invisible. If you dress like a local woman here and casually approach your day, nobody will bat an eye at you. If he is in a government office, select an adjacent cafe that gives you a proper view of the gate and have a snack or drink or something. Then when it is time to go, I will pick you up and we merely follow him. Easy work."
Unconvinced, she daggered him with her eyes though deep inside she knew he was right. Besides, the outcome of this job was far too lucrative. She munched on her fruits as she listened to the guys discuss other parts of the plan. When they all finished, Mapacha called the waitress and paid the bill. He had slowly warmed up to the idea of having spending money and needed to contribute.
"OK. I will be back." Banou said dejectedly as she walked out of the cafe. They waited for another fifteen minutes before she returned. The gallery that was her outfit was impressive. She wore a loose-fitting brown frock, with spirals printed all over it. It revealed her shoulders. She felt vulnerable and exposed. To cool herself and conceal her face, she had picked up a wand fan made from straw. To the average onlooker, she was just an ordinary girl in the city.
"Aren't you going to conceal your hair?" Mzee Tembo asked.
Banou hissed a glimpse that shut him up. That was not a topic to discuss, so he dropped it. Gwafa tried to conceal his smile at their exchange. Banou was not taking hostages, including Mzee Tembo.
"OK. Let's go," he said.
He led the way to the Renault, jumped in and headed towards the Minister's home. They attempted to locate a comfortable spot to watch the residence but the only reasonable place that made sense was the Hotel du Parc. It was a fair distance away from the residence but still within view. Gwafa regretted not carrying field glasses, but it would have looked suspicious to peer outwards from a restaurant with them anyway. They would have to tough it out.
"Wait here," he informed them, as he headed into the hotel.
He came back with a folded map and spread it on the bonnet of the car.
"Banou, Tembo, this is crucial. We are currently right here." he pointed to a position on the map.
Mzee Tembo took his pen from his breast pocket and drew a point on it.
"The guy's office is over here."
Mzee Tembo drew another point.
"Drive slowly, don't be in a rush, we don't want to arouse attention."
"Yes. Yes." Mzee Tembo said as he brushed him off. He had been eager to drive this 'other' French car, to see if he had been proper to overlook it over his 404. He eyed the instrument cluster and caught sight of the speedometer.
"180 eh?" he teased Gwafa with a playful twinkle in his eye.
Gwafa walked away with a faux shrug on his shoulders.
Banou splayed the map on her lap as they headed to The Minister's office. He was bound to turn up there at some point. For her, navigating the roads was easy. Around Abidjan, the signage was well-developed. The roads were not busy so for Mzee Tembo this was an enjoyable drive.
Gwafa and Mapacha walked through the hotel's gaping door which was surrounded by numerous rows of enormous silver stars that reminded both of them of the American flag. They ended up outside under the Calao Bar awning, which offered them a reasonably decent view. It was still quite a bit of a distance, but they maintained a general view of the happenings of the residence. Gwafa ordered two cups of coffee as he placed a fresh pack of cigarettes on the table. Even before he had struck a match, an ashtray was carefully placed between him and Mapacha. Over the next couple of hours, they altered, as they watched the gate from the distance. Mapacha was quite inquisitive about Abidjan. As far as he knew and had experienced from Josephine, Africa's rise was muted by the colonial powers eager to continue their plunder with partnerships from corrupt regimes. A Western-looking leader would have found themselves at the core of a heated debate, though one that looked at Socialist components would have been struck down as a Communist.
"Meddling," Gwafa explained to Mapacha. "They do it in Algeria too. They need this continent to struggle. If these people become smart, then the colonialists are done for. You know, the CIA, they even organise coups. Can you believe that?"
This barely made sense to Mapacha. A brother turning on a brother over the influence of an outsider? He motioned to the waitress, and they ordered lunch. Whatever the outcome of this job, Mapacha found himself with many holes in his knowledge.
They covertly recorded the wine-red Citroen DS that left the Minister's residence and the compact pickup that delivered a package later on. There did not seem to be pedestrian traffic, though this was not a considerable surprise. Mapacha scribbled the notes on his pad that he had brought from the hotel and put them away as they enjoyed their chips and fish.
On the road, Banou plotted a course towards Plateau and about half an hour later they ended up round the Presidential Palace. Often considered opulent, it was cheekily referred to as the Ivorian 'Versailles'. The Minister's office, within what was considered the administrative centre was set at the corner of two intersections. On the rooftop, a national flag fluttered as it chased the breeze. A tall wrought-iron fence surrounded the building, and they witnessed guards slowly patrol the complex.
"Important guy eh?" Banou asked.
"Well, he is not even a senior minister, but, the government has attempted to centralise all their services, for efficiency."
She shrugged it off. They could not hang round the place for long as it would have appeared suspicious. Subsequently, they drove round till they found a busy intersection that offered them a reasonably decent view of the offices. Banou felt her stomach grumble while her watch prompted her that it was lunchtime. She popped out of the car and walked to the other side of the intersection where she spotted a snack bar. She returned with a small bag carrying two bottles of Orangina and two helpings of Alloco stuffed in plastic bags. In the small Renault, surrounded by humidity, they slowly enjoyed their impromptu lunch. Around 2 PM the black Mercedes drove past them as its brilliant flag billowed loudly. It exhibited itself in distinct Ministerial regalia.
"Here we go." Mzee Tembo said cheerfully as he rubbed his palms in anticipation. With one smooth twist, he fired up the Renault and whirled it across the boulevard. He heard a traffic officer blowing a whistle at him, for the blatant illegal U-turn he had just performed. He slowed down and peeked through the rearview where he saw a furious policeman signal him away. Without a thought, he drove off in pursuit of the Mercedes. They followed it to an upmarket restaurant.
"OK. Banou. You are up. You have enough money?"
She sneered at him. Finally, Mzee Tembo was concerned about money after he had stuck her with the bill so often. With no answer in mind, she glided out of the passenger seat and sashayed into the restaurant. Mzee Tembo stood outside the car and stretched his bones, weary from being cooked up in the small car. Though it was a hardy vehicle, it had failed to awe him. The Minister's lunch took about an hour, and he rapidly walked out, jumped into the Mercedes and they drove away. Banou was not far behind him, as she carefully made her way to the Renault. Her lips glistened in the sun and she smelt of fried food. Mzee Tembo correctly turned the Renault, this time cautious of another policeman, before he trailed the Mercedes in the distance. It made its way back to the Presidential complex. As before, he parked the car where they had stopped earlier. They did not notice the policeman that had whistled at them earlier as he approached them.
He rapped the butt of his baton sign on the car and caught them by surprise.
"Ça va monsieur."
Mzee Tembo gritted his teeth. Just what he needed, a nosy policeman.
"Eh, sorry officer, I don't speak French. Do you speak English or Portuguese?"
Indignation washed across the policeman's face. Tourists.
"I'm sorry sir, you cannot drive like this here. OK?" he said.
Mzee Tembo allowed a look of age to crowd his face. "I'm sorry officer. We were in a small hurry. My daughter had an appointment, and we did not want to miss it. You know how girls are about time," he replied with a chuckle.
The policeman bent further and peered at Banou with a map on her lap, her shoulder exposed, and her perfect smile flashed at him as her fan wand seductively pushed away the humid air. It was enough to make him blush.
"Oh eh, ça va mademoiselle," he greeted her with a salute and a click of his polished black shoes.
Banou was beside herself, a bit miffed that the humidity had slightly shrunk her afro. She could have utilised it for 'maximum effect'.
"Oh, hello Mr. Officer. It was my fault. My papa was merely following what I was telling him. I hope we did not cause you too much trouble." she said in a tender voice as she fluttered her well-manicured eyelashes.
The officer blushed. "Oh, it's OK. No trouble at all." He saluted them and walked away as he twirled his baton.
Mzee Tembo was impressed, but he needed questions answered, that he had forgotten while he had pursued the Mercedes.
"So, what did he do in there? Lunch?"
"Yeah, he ate with another man. They talked in their local language, but nothing major happened."
The afternoon wait was worse. The humidity seemed to surge and before long, Mzee Tembo lowered the chair and allowed it to consume him, as a deep sleep overcame him. Banou all alone busied herself as she explored the map of Cote d'Ivoire. There was's much else to do.
Slightly after 4 PM, the Minister's car appeared, this time with the flag tucked in its cover. She nudged Mzee Tembo from his sleep.
"Hey, old man, let's go."
He was confounded by her.
"Why do you constantly call me 'old man'?" he asked as he rolled up his chair.
Banou disregarded him and pointed to the Mercedes as it turned down a street. Mzee Tembo started the Renault, drove to the roundabout, turned and was in pursuit of the car. The engine labouriously whined as he mashed through the gears, eager to find the Mercedes they had lost sight of. It wasn't extraordinarily problematic as they caught up with it as it crossed the bridge that led to Port of Abidjan in the Treichville area. Banou tracked their whereabouts on the map and hoped they would not lose their way back.
The Mercedes drove through the gates of the port, saluted by the two guards that manned the entry side of the complex. Mzee Tembo drove slowly and eyed a spot where they could watch the happenings inside the port. The Mercedes parked in front of a large warehouse, and the Minister left the car and entered it alone while he carried a black briefcase. They could only watch from a distance. After a quarter of an hour, he emerged, jumped into the Mercedes and it drove out and was saluted by the guards that manned the gates. Mzee Tembo had tried to read the sign of the warehouse but the car was positioned far away to make anything legible. He drew a small diagram on the back of the map and marked it with an 'X'. The Mercedes went back over the bridge and undertook the circuitous journey to Cocody. After an uneventful journey, the car made its way to the mansion, entered the compound and he walked in with the briefcase. Mzee Tembo dictated all this to Banou who noted it all down.
"Banou, wait there while I go get the others."
She was unkeen on this, but nonetheless, she stood outside with the map. If anyone interrogated her, she would play the lost tourist card. Mzee Tembo drove down to the Hotel du Parc, stopped outside and tooted the horn three times, the prearranged signal with Gwafa and Mapacha. He watched the side mirrors as he waited for them to come out, but nobody came. He hooted again, and a curious hotel guard walked up to him.
"Excuse me," Mzee Tembo said first, "I am waiting for my friends. They asked me to pick them up here."
The guard understood that this was a tourist so he shrugged his shoulders and walked back to his post. Mzee Tembo jumped out of the car, locked the doors and made a beeline to the restaurant. There was no one there. They had left. He returned to the car and drove back to where he had left Banou.
She stared at him in confusion. "Hey, where are the others?"
Mzee Tembo waved his palms in bewilderment. Clearly, something must have happened for Gwafa and Mapacha to abandon their assignment.
Banou did not require a second invitation. She could see the crease of worry on Mzee Tembo's brow.
"Wait, let's drive round the neighbourhood for a minute," she offered.
It seemed logical. They had barely made the second turn before they spotted Gwafa and Mapacha as they leisurely strolled towards the Minister's home. He felt a bit furious with such a blatant change of the plan. The Renault screeched to a halt and his head stuck out of the window with a mask of fury across his face.
"Hey? What is going on? Why did you leave the hotel?"
Gwafa responded, "We were just sitting there playing tourist and one of the waiters started getting curious. A bit too curious. So, when we saw he was watching us, we just paid our bill and left. We have been walking grids since. Don't worry, we saw you when you drove up. We have not lost sight of the place."
"Get in. I think we can wind up for the day," Mzee Tembo said.
They jumped in, and the Renault puttered towards their hotel.
"How did it go on your end?" Mapacha asked.
"The guy did not do much. He just went to lunch and had a meeting with a random guy before going back to the office. He also went to the port and stayed a few minutes before he came home." Banou explained.
"Eh, turn left there Tembo, you are going in the wrong direction," Gwafa said.
Banou had abandoned her navigator's role in lieu of their fascinating stories and forced Mzee Tembo to drive based on memory which, in a new foreign city was terrible. He corrected the turn and eventually, they ended up in their hotel.
"Hey, let's go get something to eat. I'm hungry." Mapacha said. It was rare for Mapacha to belt a complaint, least about food.
"Sure thing, big guy," Gwafa responded. He shepherded them down the street, past the boutique where Banou had picked her frock before they entered a small Burkinabé restaurant. Despite its tiny stature, it heaved with patrons and they struggled to find a table with room on it. The owner recognised them as tourists and after he instructed one of his waiters in an exotic language. Space at a table miraculously appeared. Pleased with himself, he ordered plates to be dished out.
"Wait, no menu?" Banou asked.
Gwafa laughed. "This is not one of those places."
Four steaming plates of Riz Graz with beef were plonked in front of them. Banou cautiously poked at the rice meal and she saw sliced bell peppers, eggplant, some carrots and thickly chopped cabbages. There was also a whiff of garlic and onions. There were beef chunks to boot, which had been prepared with substantial stock. Doubtful, she scooped a spoonful up and the taste enamoured her. Despite its crude appearance, it was well-prepared and very savoury. Mapacha was pleased with this far less complex meal that, despite being exotic to him tasted great. Around him, he could barely understand the raucous voices excitedly conversing in Mooré.
With the meal completed, they were all served Yamaccu while Gwafa enjoyed a more potent glass of Dôlo. They compared notes. Mapacha had counted four guards, two maids and the Minister's wife who had been chauffeured out in the Citroen after which she returned two hours later. Besides all that, the street was empty and the police patrolled every three hours.
Mzee Tembo gave them more detailed information on the warehouse. It was the only thing to note.
"What was the warehouse number?" he prodded Mzee Tembo.
"We couldn't see, but I can point it out to you." He pulled out his sketch and showed it to Gwafa.
"Hey Tembo, on the documents was there any mention of a specific warehouse?"
"No. Nothing. If you remember, everything is stored in the safe."
Gwafa pondered for a moment. The warehouse clearly had to be the point of entry, but the Minister might have been there on official business.
"OK. We might need to check this out."
They chatted for a short while before they broke off and walked back to the hotel. Mapacha eagerly looked forward to a good night's sleep.