A Tale of Rotten Eggs

Note from the author: The excerpt below is not from Héléna and the Missing Papaya. This is adult Abou reminiscing about events from his childhood.

The boys

For the first two weeks of my ninth summer, I went to sleep at night and woke up in the morning to the image of Nguida pulling out rotten eggs from a tattered fedora, throwing them at Papa’s store sign and yelling: “You’re a thief, Aboubacar Mbaye!” One morning, my friend Kirikou and I sat on the front porch to Papa’s store, hatching various entrepreneurial schemes, when I confessed:

“I don’t know how I’m going to make enough money to repay Nguida.”

Kirikou swiveled on the stool on which he was sitting, and removed from his mouth the end of the twig on which he had been chewing.

“ I see what you’re doing, Kirikou Diop!” I hopped from my stool and jumped up and down while pointing at Kirikou’s mouth. “You, trickster! You’ve been collecting spit in the guise of cleaning your teeth!”

Kirikou turned to me, his eyes beaming with glee. He motioned me to follow him off the cement porch. Our ashy sandaled feet landed in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust. We both knew the ritual: we lined up with our backs to Papa’s store and waited for a lull in the flow of shoppers and merchants. Women in colorful wrappers and scarves, and others in dark abayas sat at their produce stalls, little outposts made of wooden beams and thatched hay roofs. A herder was coming down the street, maneuvering three goats with a long stick. He poked and prodded them at various intervals to keep them on a trajectory that only he could see.

“After the goats,” I told Kirikou, who still kept his mouth shut. As soon as the herdsman and his animals had cleared the way, Kirikou and I released two jets of saliva into the dust.

“I won! I won!” Kirikou danced as I used my feet to measure how far each of us had scored.

“Yeah, you won,” I conceded. “But you cheated.”

WahWah…” Kirikou said, rubbing his balled up fists over his closed eyes. “You’re just a sore loser.”

I did not respond. I was looking behind Kirikou at Mr. Diallo, the tailor whose shop was next to Papa’s.

“Kirikou,” I whispered, tugging at my friend’s Djampa shirt, “look at Dada Diallo!”

Kirikou turned and glanced towards the tailor who was sitting at his shop’s entrance with his chin in his hand.

“What should I look for?” Kirikou asked after a few seconds.

“Look at Dada Diallo, and then look at the street.”

Kirikou obeyed, bouncing his eyes back and forth between the tailor and the bustling street for a minute.

“I still don’t get it,” he admitted. “Just tell me what you’re thinking.”

“He has no customers!!! That’s what it is! It is 11:00 in the morning, and the market is busy but his store is empty and he is sitting idle. An idle tailor!!!”

“Hmmm,” Kirikou said, shaking his head in agreement. “Yes, no one is coming to buy the clothes he has made and he is not sewing new clothes. Business must be bad.”

“Yes! And that’s where we come in!” I said with a wide grin.

Kirikou shifted from one leg to the other, put both hands into his shorts pockets and hunched his back.

“The failed business affair with Nguida was different, OK?” I said, brimming with conviction. “Science failed us, not business skills.”

“Haa…Abou, science, business skills, promises, nonsense! Whatever it is, he’s going to make you feel guilty about the eggs and bully you until you get his money back.” Kirikou paused and then added: “I don’t know why you agreed to repay him. Now you can’t break your word!”

“He ambushed me in front of my dad’s store!” I grumbled. “He was going to cause me trouble if I did not promise to reimburse his money.”

“What about business risks? Huh?” Kirikou asked. “There is zero guarantee that things will work out. As long as everyone was honest, no one should be blamed.”

“Yeah, try reasoning with a mad boy with rotten eggs. I reminded him that he had agreed to the business risks, but he was too angry to listen.”

Kirikou frowned and looked down. Using the tip of his sandals, he drew random symbols in the dust while I remained quiet. After a moment, he looked up and said:

“Let’s run whatever idea you have through Dada Mbaye before we approach Dada Diallo.”

“Kirikou…you don’t know my dad.” I groaned. “I’d rather go to him after we’ve succeeded.”

“And what if we mess up again? Dada Diallo is a reputed businessman, not a boy like Nguida. We don’t want to risk angering a big man! We could end up in even more trouble than we are now. I won’t do it unless Dada Mbaye approves.”

“OK then,” I said, shrugging. “I’ll do it alone.” I set my shoulders squarely, held my head high, and set off with big strides towards Mr. Diallo’s shop. For a moment, it was all silence behind me. Then I heard Kirikou’s sandals flop-flop-flop in the dust as he ran to catch up, and I knew: we were in business.

An Unusual Crime in Bonakombo

Note from the author: The excerpt below is not from Héléna and the Missing Papaya. This is adult Héléna reminiscing about events from her childhood.

In the summer of my ninth year, something very strange happened in Bonakombo, the small neighborhood in Cameroon where my family lived. Back then, most people knew me as Héléna the Detective, the kid who took her notepad everywhere and was always hunting for clues to some quest. I knew everything, or so I thought, and the things I did not know or understand, I sought to find out. I recovered and returned many a missing bauble to its rightful owner, and figured out what had become of vanished fruits and pets. But none of those adventures prepared me for what would happen that summer, and although I did not know it then, I would never be the same again.

A manual sewing machine, exactly as you would expect in Maman's shop

Maman was one to scream at the slightest thing. At the sight of a cockroach strutting to hide behind a pot, she would go “Waaah!” before taking off her sandals to attempt to flatten the creature. With mice or rats behind the cupboard, the scream was more vigorous, “Arghhhhhhh!” She would jump up and down as if trying to hover so the horrible rodent could not run over her feet with its disgusting little paws, and would grab whoever was closest to her at the time and command: “Find the broom, and catch it!” So I had heard plenty of Maman’s screams growing up. But on the day when my fateful investigation began, Maman’s scream was one I had never heard before, tinged with equal parts sorrow and anger. It ascended in the noontime silence, disturbing the torpor that usually enveloped Bonakombo around naptime:


It came from the sewing shop. I rose from the raphia mat on which I had been trying to nap, and ran towards one of the small rooms that adjoined the family home. We were Bamilekes, a tribe reputed for the ability to make Nkap, money. Papa had built three small shops at the back of the family house. He rented out two of them, and Maman’s sewing shop was the third.

Just as I was entering Maman’s shop, I bumped into Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi, the two ladies who lived across the street from our house. They had arrived to the shop fast. Those two were the main operators of the neighborhood’s gossip mill. They took neither leave nor vacation, and their enterprise flourished, constantly churning out bits about other people’s lives.

In the shop, Maman was kneeling on the floor, amidst a pile of various garments. In her hand, she held a bright red dress made of wax print fabric. She was turning the dress upside down and inside out, as if to solve a puzzle that only she could see.

“What is it, non, Mma Tagne?” Mma Ngassa asked Maman.

“Look! See for yourself! Wickedness! Someone destroyed my customers’ orders! My reputation is ruined,” Maman replied, throwing the red dress with the rest of the clothing on the floor, gathering a rough pile, and thrusting it towards Mma Ngassa.

The latter exchanged a quick glance with Mma Noumssi, before reaching for the pile from which what looked like a black suit jacket had fallen.

At that moment, General Essè, who rented one of the shops next to Maman’s sewing shop, walked into the room.

Et c’est…. What is this in the middle of the heat?” He asked no one in particular.

Chu chu chu…” He added, looking at Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi and mimicking their incessant chatter. “You’re adding heat with all that breath…What happened here?”

The two women turned their faces away, embarrassed. General Essè was the only one in the neighborhood who could lambast them to their faces for their talebearings. He was a retired army man. Everyone called him General. Sometimes the older men joked about his “retirement” as though someone else had “retired” him. He operated an electronics repair shop for transistors, television sets, and portable players.

Maman grabbed the edge of her cutting table and propped herself up.

“General, thank God you’re here,” she said with a quiver in her voice. Sadness had overtaken anger, and a tear rolled down her left cheek.

Et c’est…Mma Tagne, sit down, non. Tell me, what happened,” the General said as he led Maman to the wooden chair that stood behind her sewing machine. She was one of the few people who could make him let go of his gruff demeanor. They were good pals, like father and daughter. The General’s children had moved hundreds of miles away, and Maman was the one who helped the old man care for little but essential things like lunch.

“Take this to General Essè,” she would say every weekday at lunchtime, handing a generous plate of food to either my older brother Patou or me. The messenger would click his or her tongue, and exclaim:

Eh, Maman! You gave him plenty oh!”

Maman would invariably shoo the person away, as she mumbled about the virtues of sharing.

Mma Ngassa passed along to General Essè what remained of the bundle of clothing she had received from Maman. He grabbed the pile, and laid all the items side by side on the cutting table. They were a pair of men’s slacks and a suit jacket, two black dresses, and the red wax print fabric dress.

Breaking the sacrosanct rule in African households that children should remain out of the way when adults are engaged in serious matters, I wriggled my way between Mma Noumssi and Mma Ngassa and leaned against the cutting table, one of its corners poking against my chest. Large gashes ran across the garments. The edges along the lacerations were smooth in some areas, and jagged in others. The culprit had not cut along thread lines or zippers. There was no doubt that it would take a miracle to salvage the clothes before their owners arrived to pick them up.

I writhed my way under the table, pulled out my notepad, and wrote down: “In a hurry? Shaky hands?” I then emerged from my retreat, just as Mma Noumssi asked, pointing at the suit jacket:

“Wait, this is Pa’ Jacques’s suit, non?” Jacques Noumssi was her husband.

Another tear rolled down Maman’s cheek, and she stood up, clasped her hands, and implored Mma Noumssi:

“Please, please, I will do everything to make this right. I won’t sleep until it’s repaired. You know how I value my customers’ satisfaction.”

Mma Noumssi’s face dropped, and she placed both palms over her head.

“Jacques is going to Yaoundé tonight,” she cried. “He has a big job interview at the Ministry of Education. Where is his suit?!” She still had her hands over her head, and her bottom lip was now quivering.

“You know Pa’ Jacques just lost his job,” she said, her voice breaking. “You know we need to feed the children and pay our bills. How could you be so careless? Is that how you protect your clients’ property?”

Mma Ngassa pulled on Mma Noumssi’s arm, steering her towards the front door.

“Let’s go Mma, let’s go!” she repeated. At the entrance, she glanced over her left shoulder and mouthed to Maman:

“Fix it!”