The old man walked slowly up the hill. The crumbling sidewalk was covered in sand and he stepped carefully so as not to slip in his flip-flops. The old cooler box hung heavily over his bony shoulder, the strap cutting into his skin. He stopped and paused for a second. The African midday sun was blaring down on him and though there was a breeze coming from the ocean, it did little to ease the heat. The road was lined with large villas and the occasional office building. No other hawkers came this far out, too few places to sell. He stretched out his back with a sigh before picking up his box again and continued up the hill. He came to a large blue steel gate and stepped up to the security booth. The guard lowered the newspaper and smiled. He was a big man, from the Tsonga tribe.
“Morning, Manuelito. Making your round, are you? What do you have today?”
“Fish and chicken.”
“Alright, give me five fish ones,” the Tsongan said as he took out his wallet.
Manuelito opened up the box and fished out five samosas, the oil still dripping from them. He folded them in newspaper before handing them to the Tsongan.
“Can I go in?” he asked.
The Tsongan just nodded as he started scoffing down the samosas. The office was built up on a slope and the driveway was steep.
“Always uphill,” Manuelito mumbled as he walked up the driveway.
Up at the end of the long driveway, the gardener was busy trimming the bougainvillea along the tall wall, which surrounded the garden. It was a shame to cut it now with all the flowers in full bloom but the big boss had complained that it cover the barbed wire on top of the wall. The gardener stopped his work when he saw the small frame of Manuelito, bent under the weight of the box. Down in the guardhouse, the Tsongan finished his last samosa.
“That man is like a goat, eating anything he gets close to. He would eat a cardboard box if he was hungry enough,” the gardener thought.
“Samosa?” Manuelito asked out of breath as he finally finished walking up the driveway.
The gardener wasn’t hungry and frankly, Manuelito’s samosas were not that good, but he always bought from him anyway whenever he saw him. He had known poverty too.
“Of course. Give me four.”
The gardener nodded. “How is the family?” he asked as Manuelito handed him the samosas. The oil soaked through the newspaper and the gardener wiped his hands on his pants.
“They are well, thank God. My daughter is starting a business, a beauty salon!”
“That is good. Good that she found a job for herself. Son in law still spending too much time with the bottle?”
“He left. Now it’s just me, her and the baby,” Manuelito said as he busied himself reorganizing the samosas in the cooler. The gardener noticed Manuelito’s hands were shaking from the hunger he had tried to ignore for too long.
“You know, give me a couple more. It’s good to have something to snack on while waiting for the chapas in the evening. These days, it takes forever to get home! The buses are all gone. Now there are only pickup trucks in Maputo!”
“I always walk,” Manuelito said as he handed the gardener the samosas.
The gardener dug out a couple of notes. “Your samosas got to be the cheapest in town. Why don’t you charge a bit more?”
“People will complain and stop buying,” Manuelito sighed as he lifted his box up. “I will go and see if anyone in the office wants some.”
“Well, good luck to you. Alice is in. I saw her arrive this morning.”
Manuelito gave a little smile. “Thank you, my friend.”
He climbed up the steps to the office entrance and gently knocked on the glass door. The receptionist ignored him, seemingly busy with some papers. He stood quietly and waited until she signaled that he could come in. She was a large woman; he did not know from which tribe she was. A large blue flag hung on the wall behind her.
She looked at him. “Yes?” she asked.
“So sorry to disturb you, ma’am,” Manuelito said as he bowed slightly. “Would you like some samosas?”
“Alright, I will have a couple. But the ones you sold me yesterday were not fresh.”
“They were fresh, I always make them in the morning,” he tried to protest but not too strongly, afraid to alienate her.
“Only give me chicken!”
She fished out some notes from her wallet. “I buy from you every day. You should give me a discount.”
He smiled sheepishly as he took the money. She turned away from him and started eating.
“Perhaps Ms. Alice also wants some? She normally buys from me,” he suggested.
“Would you mind calling her to let her know that I am here?”
“Alright!” She put down a half-eaten samosa. “But then you give me one for free next time!” The gold rings on her plum fingers made a clicking sound as she dialed a number on the phone. “This is Bina from reception. Manuelito wants to know if Alice wants to buy samosas.” She put the phone down. “Alice is in a meeting, so we can’t get hold of her. Come back later if you want to talk to her.”
“Thank you. Would you mind telling her I was here?”
The woman just turned her back on him and focused on the samosas as she made a dismissing move with her hand. “Yes, yes. I will tell her!”
“Thank you, thank you,” Manuelito said as he again bowed his head slightly.
Outside, the gardener was resting. He had won the fight against the bougainvillea and the colorful flowers now lay cut in pieces on the grass, mixed up with branches and leaves. He saw Manuelito coming out.
“How did it go? Did you see Alice?” he asked.
Manuelito shook his head. “No, Bina said she was in a meeting.” He sat down on his box next to the gardener and wiped the sweat off his forehead. “It’s a shame with the flowers,” he said. The gardener nodded.
Down at the gate the large Tsongan suddenly jumped to attention. A white land cruiser roared up the driveway and came to a halt right next to them. An old white man in a suit stepped out. He nodded politely to the gardener and Manuelito as he passed them.
“You can forget about selling any to him,” the gardener said. “Says his stomach can’t handle street food. Doesn’t even want someone to cook for him at home.”
“I know. Bina told me. None of the white in the office eat samosas. Only Alice.”
The driver came over. “Manuelito! For God’s sake, don’t you have a t-shirt without any holes in it? The big boss doesn’t like people dressed like you on the property. He says it makes him look bad.”
Manuelito jumped up from his box. “Sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“Anyway, aren’t you too old to be walking around hawking samosas? Shouldn’t you be at home with your grandchild?” The driver went back to his car before Manuelito could answer.
“Well, better get back to it,” the gardener said.
Manuelito made no sign to move on. “I might wait a bit,” he said. “Maybe Alice will come out when she is finished with her meeting. I am not sure Bina will let me back in.”
“There is always tomorrow,” the gardener said. “It will be Friday. Didn’t you say that she always buys a lot for the weekend?”
Manuelito nodded. “Yes, but I made a big portion this morning. I hoped she would buy. It’s hard to sell. Not many people are buying these days.” He opened his cooler. It was still more than half full.
“You are a bit of an old fool, Manuelito. Why did you make so many. It’s a lot more than usual. You hardly sell the few you normally make.”
“I need to bring home more money today,” Manuelito said. “A lot more.” The last words were a whisper and the gardener could hardly hear. For a second the gardener saw a distraught look pass over Manuelito’s face. “I have promised my daughter I would bring home enough so she could start her beauty salon. She has to pay the rent for the first month.”
“Manuelito, she is old enough to look after herself.”
He looked down a bit sheepishly. “I know, but she is still my little girl.” The gardener watched as the old man for a second fought to control his emotions. “I just don’t want her to go back to working in the bars down in Baixa again, not with all those men,” Manuelito said.
The gardener nodded quietly. He didn’t know she had been working there. It was not something one would talk about. No one would want their daughter anywhere near those places. “A beauty salon, that should be good,” he said, and looked at the bougainvillea flowers on the grass. They had already started to wither.
Thomas Kring July 2020