I tap my fingers on the board and ask the crowd what I should do.
The responses are loud and eager. Okale is a particularly social game.
But I’m not really looking for their advice. I’m waiting to see Jouda’s reaction. And then it comes – an almost unreadable rightward nod of his head.
I make my move. The second hole to the left. I pick up the pile of seeds and begin to distribute them, one-by-one into the other holes on the board.
The crowd watches, with baited breath, to see the results of my move. I can smell the excitement.
It is a hot day. The break in the summer rains have brought people out of their homes and into the warren of open spaces between them. The scents of a freshly passed rain compete with the warm smells of cashew nuts frying over open-air cooking pits.
My friends and I have come out as well.
We never go in, of course. We live in the open, using scraps of plastic or the occasional overhang as shelter when the rains come.
When they stop, we get to work.
Not too long ago, when the rains stopped, we’d have gotten to fighting. We’d have attacked each other over scraps of stolen food or those rare found articles like the clothing of those who’d overdosed on heroin or the especially rare handouts we’d managed to collect.
I suppose it was meant to be that way. We are undesirables; orphans without family. Some of us are stragglers from the countryside whose entire families have disappeared. Others are simply despised – so difficult their own kin won’t care for them. But most are like me; the products of forbidden relationships. My parents were killed because they came from two less than friendly heroin-dealing clans. The marriage was unsanctioned and thus dishonorable. While my parents did the best they could to hide, and while they succeeded for a time, they were eventually found. And they were executed.
Of course, by that time, I’d had the misfortune of having been both born and weaned. I didn’t simply die when they did, although I should have shortly thereafter.
Why didn’t I die? Because I’m tough. I grew up in a world without peace and I found a way to flourish.
I was a street kid. Like all the others, I fought like a dog (and with them) for every scrap of food, clothing and shelter. There was only one thing I kept through it all; a broken watch my father had given me before he was killed.
But there wasn’t enough to go around and survival was always a challenge.
Since that time, I’ve changed things.
Now, when we play Okale, we don’t just leave our winnings to skill. We augment them. One kid counts each of the most filled bowls – and watches from behind as our opponents consider the number of seeds in their own bowls. My partners tell me what they see – and I play appropriately.
In this case, I tucked my thumb in and tapped two of my fingers to indicate 12 seeds. Because we never tap counted the small bowls, I didn’t need that many taps to say twelve. And with the nod of his head, Jouda nodded a plus one.
And so, I pick up the 13 seeds. And one-by-one I distribute them around the other 11 bowls on the board.
Closer to downtown, a pick pocket is at work. He too is part of my team.
And in a rotting apartment in a rotting building from a failed social program of decades past, a dead body is being picked cleaned by yet another group of my compatriots. The dead man has been shot eight times, a victim of a huge uptick in violence between the clans. My boys will even collect the lead.
And, at the end of the day, we’ll assemble. I’ll collect the day’s earnings and then distribute them. I pride myself on being predictable. My boys follow me because I’m predictable and fair. They cannot read, but we have a contract nonetheless. Those who earn well, those who push themselves, will be rewarded. And those who hold back or fail to perform will be banished.
And those who are banished are condemned.
As I said before, there isn’t enough to go around.
And I haven’t fixed that.
But at the age of 14, there is plenty for me and enough for my crew.
And at the age of 14, I hold the power of life and death in my hands.
When I am done distributing my seeds, my opponent’s face lights up. In one more move, he will defeat me and win the 20 Dunta bet. He has deep pockets and will come back to play again. The next time, he will lose far more than he’s won this time. For now, he smells of triumph.
He makes his move and, acting dejected, I hand over his winnings.
The crowd begins to dissolve.
And then a young and well-fed boy of ten steps out from behind the rank of spectators. He’s unlike the others. Where they smell of sweat and poverty and struggle, he smells of soap. He is almost antiseptic. But he is not stranger.
He is the son of my father’s brother. He is the future of half the city’s heroin trade. With a glance, I see fierce looking men monitoring his safety from strategic points around my little Okale board.
It was his father who killed my parents.
I’ve never spoken to him before. Not by chance or by accident, but on purpose. I avoid them like death itself.
I wasn’t paying enough attention.
My gang, predictably, melts in fear. The boy’s family is a collection of brutal killers with the men and guns to dominate our city. They don’t make social calls. And those who have the misfortune of attracting their attention rarely survive.
I would melt away too. I’m not stupid.
But the boy steps up to me before I can move. And then he utters a single frightening sentence: “I am Mumbato Yogula and my father would like to see you.”
With a tightness in my throat, I gather up my board and follow him.
I have no choice but to comply.