msafiri FICTION 144 H e was popularly known as mai- tea, or the tea- seller. His shop was located right in the navel of Zongo Street— a stone's throw from the chief's assembly shed and adjacent to the kiosk that Mansa BBC, the town gossip, sold her provisions. Along with fried eggs and white butter bread, Mallam Sile carried all kinds of beverages: ordinary black tea, Japanese green tea, milo, bournvita, cocoa drink, instant coffee. But on Zongo Street all hot beverages were referred to as just tea, and it was usual, therefore, to hear people say, " Mallam Sile, may I have a mug of cocoa tea," or " Sile, may I have a cup of coffee tea?" The teashop had no windows. It was built of wawa, a cheap wood easily infested by termites. The floor was uncemented, and heaps of dust rose in the air anytime a customer walked in. Sile protected his merchandise from the dust by keeping everything in plastic bags. An enormous wooden chopbox, the top of which he used as serving table, covered most of the space in the shop. There was a tall chair behind the chopbox for Sile, but he never used it, preferring instead to stand on his feet even when the shop was empty. There were also three benches that were meant to be used only by those who bought tea from Sile, though the idle gossips who crowded the shop occupied the seats most of the time. Old Sile had an irrational fear of being electrocuted, and so never tapped electricity into his shack, as was usually done on Zongo Street. Instead, he used kerosene lanterns, three of which hung from the low wooden ceiling. Sile kept a small radio near in the shop, and whenever he had no customers listened, in meditative silence, to the English programmes on GBC 2, as though he understood what was being said. Mallam Sile only spoke his northern Sisala tongue, and knew just enough broken Hausa — the language of the Street's inhabitants — to be able to conduct his tea business. The mornings were usually slow for the tea- seller, as a majority of the streetfolks preferred the traditional breakfast of kókó da mása, or corn porridge with rice cake. But come evening the shop was crowded with the Street's young men and women, who gossiped and talked about the " laytes' neus" in town. Some, however, went to the shop just to meet their loved ones. During the shop's peak hours — from eight in the evening till around midnight — one could hardly hear himself talk because of the boisterous chatter that went on. But anytime Mallam Sile opened his mouth to add to a conversation people would say to him, " Shut up, Sile, what do you know about this?" or " Close your beak, Sile, who told you that?" The tea- seller learned to swallow his words, and eventually, spoke only when he was engaged in a transaction with a customer. But nothing said or even whispered in the shop escaped Sile's quick ears. Mallam Sile was a loner, without kin on the Street or anywhere else in the city. He was born in Nanpugu, a small border town in the North. He left home at age sixteen, and all by himself, journeyed more than nine hundred miles in a cow- truck to find work down South in Kumasi, the the prosperous and gold- rich capital city of Ghana's Ashanti region. Within a week of his arrival in the city Sile landed a house- servant job. And even though his monthly wages were meagre, he still relayed a portion of it back home to his poor, ailing parents who lived like destitutes in their drought- stricken village. But, Sile's efforts were not enough to save his parents from the claws of Death, who took them away in their sleep one night. They were found tightly clung to each other, as if one of them had realised that he or she was about to die and had grabbed the other so they could go together. The young Sile received the death- news with mixed emotions of sadness and joy. He saw it as a deserved rest for his parents, as they were ill and bedridden for many months. Then he made the unusual decision not to attend their funeral, though he sent money for their decent burial. With his parents deceased, Sile suddenly found himself with more money than he usually had. He quit his house- servant job and found another hawking iced kenkey for Papa Acheampong, the Asante kiosk owner on Zongo Street. Sile kept every pesewa he earned, and two years later was able to use his savings to open his tea business. It was the first of such establishments on Zongo Street and remained the only one for many years to come. MallamSILE Kenya Airways is proud of its association with The Caine Prize for African Writing, award-ed for a short story by an African writer published in English. Mohammed Naseehu Ali, from Ghana, was shortlisted in the 2008 competition for his story Mallam Sile Nothing is harder than to accept oneself. Actually only the naive succeed in doing it, and I have so far met very few people in my world who could be described as naive in this positive sense. Max Frisch, " I'm Not Stiller"