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Spoils of the Death Road by Sefi Atta

“Now where did you hear that?”


“Everyone knows.”


That was Binta’s doing. She was like a sandstorm flattening everything in her path when she got her education. She once opened her mouth to say that women should be permitted to lead prayers. She blasphemes regularly like that. Now she’s making my voice hoarse. I cough hard.

“Hassan…says she needs a husband to manhandle her…”

Farouk beckons me to sit. His feet are clean in his flip-flops. Mine are covered in soil. Whenever a car takes the corner too fast over here it raises a cloud of dust. Farouk covers his stall with a cloth until the cloud subsides. He is finicky about tidiness. We have that in common.


Bismillah,” he says, rubbing my shoulder. “No woman needs to be manhandled and that is good news about your friend. I hear you too have good news in your family. Hassan’s wife had a baby boy?”


“Last week.”


“What is his name?”




“Hm. Every baby boy in this town is called Osama.”


“What’s wrong with Osama?”


“Nothing, but you would think the man is our sarki barraki the way we carry on.”


He smokes his cigarette. People name their boys Osama to make sure they will grow up fearless. The real Osama is more revered than our sarki barraki. He is so popular here you can’t find an Osama poster to buy anymore. They’re sold out. What did know-it-all Binta have to say about that? That a thousand Osama posters cannot beautify our mud walls.


Farouk arranges his ware with his free hand. His henna patterns are dark against his fair skin. He sells cigarettes, Bazooka Joe chewing gum, kola nuts and aspirin. He always smells fresh, no matter how hot it gets. In the mornings, he dabs a little perfumed oil behind his ears. He keeps himself cool with a raffia fan. It’s funny about him; he has no hairs on his chin or his chest. I have heard that his mother was a witch because she stunk of urine. She is dead now and Mama said she stunk of urine only because she had an ailment from giving birth to Farouk too young.


The millet farm seems to be whispering to us. We are lucky in these parts. Our crops are safe from desert locusts. They swarm farms further up north and eat up their crops.


A car horn interrupts our silence; it’s a white Peugeot creeping around the corner. The passenger door is dented and a rope keeps it from swinging opening. The driver calls out from his window, “Farouk, you’re an abomination for a man!”


Farouk spreads his fingers. “Me? Curses on you worthless thief bastard!”  

I have never heard him sound so shrill. The Peugeot leaves fumes in the air.

“Why did he say that?” I ask.

Farouk hisses. “Don’t mind him. He’s a lout. He has no job. He’s just come from the Death Road. He heard of the bus crash and rushed over there to look for spoils.”


I recognized the driver. He was one of those who burned the body of the Christian woman. I thought they were devout. So he is a looter? He is not originally from here. He has the facial marks of the Kanuri people. But why call Farouk an abomination? Everyone knows about Farouk. We love Farouk as he is and trust him. Apart from the men in my family, he is the only man I am allowed to be with unaccompanied.


“Here,” he says, handing me a Bazooka Joe. “Now what happened between you and your friend?”


I tear the wrapper open and put the gum into my mouth. I don’t bother with the cartoon inside. It is hard enough to chew and look angry at the same time.



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Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006