The Intrepid Starling

Chapter 4: Seeing Rainbows

Early evening in Briqueterie is quiet compared to the daytime bustle of this Muslim quarter.  Muffled sunlight stretches the shadows of a few traveling vendors still wandering in hopes of an end-of-day sale.  One passes Barkatou and Sam with a leather boot balanced on his head, his eyes focused to keep his posture level and find a final customer.  Surely someone must need of a new pair of shoes before dinner.

Barkatou is looking for everything but footwear for her cousin’s wedding and she’s asked Sam to help her search for pagne.  “Girl, grab some pagne, let’s get that dress on ya,” she rhymes in a low, throaty voice and then does a quick spin, dip and shoulder roll.  “Mmm, you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” she laughs, striking a pose.  Sam claps for the impromptu mini performance.  She hasn’t seen Barkatou dance since their years in college when her friend’s love of hip-hop culture was trumped only by an unwavering devotion to her homeland. 

A happy alignment of travel plans gives Sam the chance to see Yaounde through her old roommate’s eyes and she is charmed by the colorful chaos of Cameroon’s capital.  Even in these calmer moments before sunset, the din of shopkeepers’ banter, children’s laughter, a local radio station, and call to prayer blend in an urban neighborhood symphony.  Men kneel in rows on the wide sidewalks to pray al fresco.  Meager-bellied dogs zigzag across the street while boys play a game of roadside tag. Four taxis filled with a wedding party pass slowly, their drivers mindful of the women perched in the windows to make room for those inside. 

Reminded of their purpose, the girls duck into the closest shop and Sam feels like she’s stepped into a kaleidoscope.  Circles, squares, stripes, paisley, and diamonds jump off the fabric in brash shades of traffic-cone orange and road-sign yellow.  Shapes reminiscent of Moroccan mosaics catch Sam’s eye, but their symmetrical order is not as common as the swirling, fanning, curving patterns found on traditional pieces.  Bolts of material hang from the ceiling in curtains and line the walls like thick wallpaper.  Every inch of counter is stacked with columns of color.  A small rectangle of tiled floor is the only surface not softened by endless folds of fabric. 

A young shopkeeper welcomes them with a cool, businesslike distance.  Barkatou counters his formality with a jovial, informal greeting in Fulfulde and he breaks into a grin.  “Welcome, sister,” he takes her hand in an extended handshake.  He leans back against the stacks and folds his arms to ask about her village in the North, their shared home region.  There is no rush to jump to business here.  Even the air is laidback—warm and sleepy.

Eventually, Barkatou wanders to one of the stacks and holds up a pagne in Kermit-the-Frog green with blue sunbursts shooting across it.  He claps once and shakes his head.  “Ah, no!  Why must you start with the most expensive piece?”  He turns to Sam standing across from him and reaches out for a gentle, knowing handshake.  They are in cahoots, he says with the gesture.  He plans to win the bargaining battle that’s about to ensue and she is welcome to join the winning team.  “17,000,” he says with confidence and Barkatou’s jaw drops.

“Brother!  What is this outsider’s price?  You’ve gone crazy with this one standing here!” she says, waving toward Sam.  “You know 8,000 is fair.  With 8,000, you’ll eat well tonight.”

“I eat well every night!”  He assures her and then gives Sam another long, low high five.  He’s played this game before.   “Sincerely, though,” he turns back to Barkatou. “You are my sister, so I will be more than fair with you.  Leave me 15,000 and we both end the day happy.”

The bartering is interrupted by a newcomer to the shop.  She stands in the doorway holding up a square of cloth.  Do you have this one in stock? she asks without a word. With a polite shake of his head, she disappears to try next door.  Sam is amazed by the exchange.  His shelves are dizzying in their variety of designs and he knows in a glance that her sample isn’t part of his inventory.

Barkatou uses the interruption to pull 12,000 CFA out of her purse and pushes it into his hand.  “You are lucky my friend’s generosity rubs off on me,” she says with mock annoyance.   

“Yes!” he pats Sam on the shoulder.  “I knew you were a good business partner!”

“So where’s my cut?” Sam holds out her hand.  He only high fives it again, laughing.

Barkatou’s phone rings.  Her brother is ready to meet for dinner.  With wrapped packet in tow, they shake the shopkeeper’s hand a final time and say good night.

 

Dusk has fallen on the street and the day’s colors are muted.  Traffic is moving slower, and the people are, too.  Old men in flowing robes amble in conversation.  Young couples saunter hand-in-hand.  Issa is a few streets down at his favorite barbecue spot.  They find him sitting next to a small structure with no walls and a tin roof.  Inside there is a stretch of chain link fence set atop a barrel—a makeshift grill filled with skewers of beef and plantains. 

He greets them by offering Sam a plastic bottle filled with white liquid.  “Elixir of the gods,” he grins.  It is fresh yogurt made by his friend down the road.  Creamy and cool, the smooth liquid coats her tongue and glides down her throat.  It is pure and rich, lightly sweetened with tinges of tart.  It tastes better than ice cream.

“Can a drink be described as gorgeous?” Sam asks and passes the bottle to Barkatou.

“I’ll tell my friend he’s got a new slogan,” he smiles.

The cook presents each of them with three hot skewers in brown paper with a dab of pepper sauce.  The meat is tough, but savory.  Plantains are next—warm and lightly salted with sweet, creamy insides.

“Are you looking forward to the wedding?”  Sams asks. 

The siblings exchange glances.  Issa is first to respond.  “We might get a little lost in the crowd.  There will be hundreds of people there.”

“Hundreds?”

“Our uncle was a rich elder,” Barkatou explains.  “He had four wives.”

“Four?”  Sam’s eyes are wide. 

“Can you imagine?” Issa agrees.  “Half a woman is enough for me!”  He holds up his pinky as if to show how much of a wife he can handle.  Barkatou gently shoves her brother and Sam just laughs.

 

When dinner is finished, they walk up the main road to hail a taxi.  Sam is fascinated by the bidding contest they go through for the ride. The driver rolls to a pseudo stop with a quick beep from his horn.  He’s ready for their offer.  “500, university.”  Issa names a hopeful price and their destination through the open passenger window.  With a barely perceptible shake of his head, the driver moves on.

“It’s late, we’ll have to pay more,” Issa explains as another taxi slows down in front of them.  “600, university,” he suggests and then, with a soft beep, the driver accepts their offer.  Sam and Barkatou climb into the backseat with another passenger while Issa takes the front.

Ahead of them, the two-way road is under construction, so their driver stops abruptly to turn around and blocks several drivers coming quickly behind him.  Their brakes squeal and car horns shriek.  Men on motorbikes yell and curse.  The driver is nonplussed.  “Give me a moment,” he mutters.  “On fait pas la guerre ice.  We’re not at war here."

Issa grips the doorframe and smiles back at Sam.  “Welcome to Cameroon,” he says.  “I hope you’re ready for the ride.” 

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