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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Liberia: Misplaced

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By Saah Millimono

Bendu and her mother were sitting in front of their house, in Paynesville, outside Monrovia, when I entered the yard. Immediately the feeling of hostility and rejection, which seemed to follow me wherever I went, like flies attracted to shit, greeted me as I walked toward the porch on which they were seated. Bendu’s mother spat, folded her arms, and looked at me as if I were crazy. Bendu sat where she was, looking at me as if I had ruined her white dress by spilling palm oil on it.

“Of all the men in this country, my daughter,” her mother said, “couldn’t you have found someone else except one who is deaf?”

“Ma,” Bendu said, “I’m not in love with this man, and I’ve asked him not to come here.”

“Then why is he here?” her mother said.

“I don’t know,” Bendu said.

“You see, my young man,” her mother said, “my daughter’s not in love with you. You must stop harassing her. Or I’m going to have to call the police on you.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Anderson,” I said. “I only came to say hello to Bendu. But I will leave if you don’t want me to be here.”

“Why should anybody want you to be here?” Bendu said. “The last thing I’d want in my life is a deaf man. And so you can leave now and stop bothering me.”

I stood with my mouth as wide open as a hippo opens his mouth for a melon. Then I turned and walked out of the yard, looking back once to see Bendu and her mother laughing as if they would split their sides with laughters.

I had lost my hearing following a brief illness. To this day I do not know how it happened. But one day, in September 2006, I was taken to a hospital. After I was discharged, I was shocked and saddened to find this continued ringing in my ears.

I did not bother to get a hearing treatment because I was poor and could not afford one. But I could hear a little – sometimes whole phrases. At times I was even able to hold a brief conversation. But I couldn’t hear if I did not see the person speaking, like they do over a radio. This threw me into depression.

After I left the hospital, I did nothing but cried. But nothing could prepare me for the social isolation, the loneliness, the feeling that I was so unlike other people that I had to be shunned.

Sometimes I would think of killing myself. But for one reason or the other I never got to do it. Later, I was to learn that the ringing in my ears was called tinnitus.

One the same day after I left Bendu’s house, I went to see my friend Gladys. Gladys was a hearing person, like Bendu. She and I lived in New Georgia Estate. It was a housing project which had been built in the 70s.

It had long since passed its twenty-year lease agreement and was no longer owned by the government, becoming the sole property of the owners instead. Some owners now rented their units. Others had sold theirs, packed, and left. Gladys and I had gotten to know each other since when her parents had moved to the estate in 1984.

But Gladys’s father had been killed by National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels in 1990 following the Liberian Civil War. And then in December 2013, her mother had passed after a prolonged illness.

Gladys lived alone, renting one of the rooms in the two-bedroom house to a man who was a commercial motorbike rider. Gladys was studious and worked in a library in town.

She had read many books and looked like a library herself. She was sitting in the living room reading when I entered the house and sat in the chair opposite.

Since I couldn’t hear properly, Gladys and I would usually talk by writing whenever we could, using a notebook or a piece of paper between us. It was a task that many people found odd.

The fact that whole phrases sometimes had to be repeated to me over and over again did not help matters either. But it did not bother Gladys. She loved writing. She had in fact published a number of short stories in a local newspaper and told me she wanted to become a writer. We greeted each other.

Immediately I began telling her about what had happened at Bendu’s house. Gladys said something or other, which I did not hear. She placed the book on the table in front of her, took a notebook and pen, and started writing. Her handwriting was fast, unlike mine. I wrote slowly. I felt I had to express myself clearly and there was no better way to do it than to write as slowly as I could.

There was also a lingering feeling that my mind did not act as fast as other people’s and it was better that I thought slowly and carefully, especially when I was writing.

Gladys was tall and slim, with round hips that looked nice in a pair of tight trousers, her hair cut into a crew-cut, her swelling and firm. She had just had a bath and smelled of body cream.

“You’ve Pope’s problem,” Gladys wrote.

“What do you mean, ‘Pope’s problem’?” I wrote back.

“You’ve heard about the English poet Alexander Poe, haven’t you?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. He’s the one from whom we take quotes like ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ Or ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’”

“Yes.’

“All right. But I still don’t understand why you’d say I have his problem.”

“You’ve his problem in the sense that he also suffered from a disability.”

“What kind of a disability?”

“He was a dwarf.”

“I see.”

“Pope was a tough guy and was not one to mess with, though. It’s said that when he proposed to a lady and she responded by laughing at him, his response was to belittle her and all of her friends. A girl like Bendu, why should you bother yourself about her? If I were you, I’d have told her to fuck off.”

“I couldn’t have done that.”

“So what do you want to do now?”

“I think I must talk to her.”

“Talk to her about what? George, that girl loves money and material things and doesn’t appreciate you. Also, I think she’s very manipulative.”

“Most girls these days are manipulative.”

“That doesn’t mean you should go after one person as if your life depends on it. After all, women are all over the place. You’ll find someone else.”

“It’s not as easy as you say.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you try Facebook. You could find love there?”

“I don’t believe in Facebook love.”

“Other people have found love on Facebook. You could as well.”

“Maybe. But I still love Bendu.”

“So you’re going to keep talking to her, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

My smartphone rang. I took the phone out of my pocket and found a text from Bendu.

“George sorry 4 wat happen @ de house.”

I texted back “Okay.”

“I wan c u tomorrow.”

“Where?”

“2 my workin place.”

“At what time?”

“4.”

“Okay.”

I placed the phone down on the table opposite.

“Don’t bother going to see Bendu,” Gladys wrote.

“Why?” I wrote back.

“She’s to blame for what happened at her place. So I think she should be able to come and apologize to you.”

“She doesn’t come to me.”

“And you know why?’

“No.”

“You’ve allowed yourself to be put into a case of love misplaced.”

But on the next day, I went to see Bendu at the house where she braided hair for a living. The house was on Mechlin Street and a part of Monrovia known for its storefronts and roadside vendors.

I was dressed in a pair of khaki trousers, a white shirt, which had been starched and ironed to perfection, and a pair of black shoes.

I had a fondness for shoes – the leather, the fine craftmanship, the shine of a pair of well-polished shoes. I was working as a proofreader with a small printing press and earning a monthly salary of one hundred dollars.

Whenever I could, I would buy a pair of shoes from one of a number of Lebanese-owned boutiques on Randall Street, Monrovia. I had had the pair of shoes polished as if my life depended on it.

I could have sown it shown like a pair of diamonds. To top it all off, I wore a cologne which had cost me more than a month’s salary and seemed to mask every other smell within half a mile.

The street was full of vendors, passersby and pedestrians. A car drove down the street slowly and carefully, the crowd parting before it like the Red Sea. It was a hot day, and a light wind blew across the expanse.

I went marching down the street, as if at the head of a parade of dignitaries, carrying in a customized bag a pair of shoes I had bought for Bendu that day.

Finally, I reached the house where Bendu worked as a hairdresser. A few hairdressers, women mostly, were sitting in front of the house. Others, who had nothing else to do, sat talking. The house had many rooms. What must have once been a living room was full of hairdressers, a number of men among them.

One day I had gone to town and met proposed to Bendu in front of the house but had not gone there again. It was usually full of women. I had learned long ago that it is foolish for a man to be found sitting and talking with women. Women talked too much. And almost always you found a woman doing nothing but gossiping.

And since I suffered from a hearing loss, I had a feeling that I would become a target of the hairdressers’ gossip and had decided not to go there.

Bendu was braiding a customer’s hair when I entered the room where she worked. We looked at each other. Immediately there was a flash out of her eyes, like a gun had been fired.

But then she saw the bag I carried, and the change was so sudden I could not believe it any more than the Pharisees could believe Jesus. She left the customer’s hair and broke into a broad smile that showed thirty-two teeth. Then she started talking.

I was able to grasp a few words like “My George!” “my beloved,” “He’s so handsome,” and some such other nonsense. But before anybody else could say anything she was grabbing me by the arm and nearly dragging me behind her.

Outside, we stood next to a bank, talking.

“How are you?” I said.

“I’m fine,” she said.

I handed the bag over to her. She opened the bag and took out the pair of shoes. She said something I did not hear properly. I asked her to repeat it. She heaved a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes.  Then she started to say the words all over again.

Unlike Gladys, Bendu couldn’t write and had gone only as far as the Sixth Grade. And so that was the way we talked.

She was dressed in a pair of slippers made of fake leather and the scanty clothing she wore during those days – a pair of shorts and blouse that left her body partly exposed. Her eyelashes were fake, protruding like little hair brushes above both eyes.

“I’m saying I don’t like the shoes,” she said, handing the bag back to me.

“Why?”

“They’re too popular.”

“I could take them back and get you a different pair. But you could go with me to see what kind of a pair of shoes you want. The boutique’s just across the street.”

“You should have given me the money. I owe one of the hairdressers, and she’s been hounding me.”

“How much do you owe?”

“Fifty dollars.”

I took my wallet out of my back pocket, opened it, and handed fifty dollars over to her.

She smiled, flashing all thirty-two teeth again.

I smiled back and shook my head.

“I’m going to braid the customer’s hair now.”

“Okay.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

I turned to go.

“Give me the shoes,” she said suddenly.

“But I thought…”

“It’s all right,” she said, “I’ll wear it.”

I handed the bag back over to her.

She took the bag and blew me a kiss, her nails long and painted. Then she turned and walked away.

On the same day, I went to see Gladys. But she wasn’t at home, and I had to wait a while until she came home from work. Finally, she came and we sat in the living room. She took the notebook from the table and wrote:

“How did it go with you and Bendu?”

“I gave her a pair of shoes and she didn’t even thank me.”

Gladys laughed. “It’s time you forget that girl. She doesn’t appreciate you at all.”

“Sure,” I said.

From that day on I refused to see Bendu. She would call and call and call and I wouldn’t pick up the phone.

A few months later, Gladys and I started a relationship. Maybe she had loved me ever since but I had either not notice or had been completely blind to her feelings, being engrossed so much with Bendu.

But Gladys has brought me so much joy that she’s been like a blessing for which I feel proud and grateful.

Never allow yourself to be totally involved with somebody who doesn’t appreciate you, because there’s always going to be another person who might love you totally and without any cost at all.

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