It was hardly noon, and Fatna was holding a five-litre plastic jerry can and was bending and pouring for the third time its contents into two tiny glasses on a small table between two of her most frequent customers, when trouble struck in the neighbourhood.
There was an argument ensuing in one of the neighbouring compounds; Fatna tried to listen while filling the glasses but she could not make out anything.
The two regulars, both blacksmiths, often pass by Fatna’s for a shot or two of aragi, while en route to Suk Juba, a local market in this slum, Dar-es-Salaam, in Omdurman. “To keep the day going,” they would repeatedly say. But Fatna preferred the wholesale customers, the ones who buy in litres or jerry cans to keep and take in the confinement and safety of their homes, rather than the often trouble-making ones who come for a couple of tots at a time. For nowadays one could never tell when the police would pull a surprise visit. Today, despite initial protests from Fatna, the two friends insisted they sit longer, just for a few more minutes than usual for a few more shots, to celebrate a rewarding deal they had cut with a certain company; they promised to pay her extra and she desisted from objection.
“Fatna … Fatna Mustafa!” said Mustafa, one of the two men, smiling with mouth open and exposing his pink lower lip and cigarette-stained teeth, after swallowing quickly and forcefully a mouthful of the strong spirit. He liked to call Fatna after himself, as he often teased her to marry him. “Your sieko five is the best in Dar-es-Salaam, if not the whole of Omdurman and Khartoum combined. It can really knock within five minutes! You deserve a certificate. What do you say, Bakri?”
“Sure, she does,” replied the companion, holding up his raised glass briefly in front of him. “She could even start a school here. Why not? Ha! Ha!”
Fatna was silent after filling the cups, like someone meditating, and remained standing in front of the two, observing the tilted table, her mind far from the two.
“Is it true that you soak some private garment in the sieko overnight, and when customers taste the spirit they would never look elsewhere?” Mustafa teased her, his face still beaming with smile.
Fatna placed the jerry can on the ground and once again bent and adjusted the table, by moving it forward and then backwards, pressing it on the sandy ground at the same time; she was worried it would dance from one side to another and spill the drinks.
“Fatna Mustafa, where did you get the dates from this time?” Mustafa continued, “Must be some fine quality from Dongola, my home town.”
“Ssssh! Ssssh!” Fatna hushed the two men as she stood straight and turned her head in an effort to catch what sounded clearer now like a heated argument over the mud-walled fence, coming from Um Abdallah’s side of the wall. Um Abdallah – the mother of Abdallah – was the next door neighbour and a friend of hers.
“And this one?” Fatna heard a firm voice.
“No, please!” came the protest, “Leave my saucepans and jerry cans!” She knew Um Abdallah’s voice pretty well.
Ever since Fatna came to this area, she had not heard of the police crossing into Um Abdallah’s compound. Um Abdallah was known to be the smartest of all the women who brewed aragi in the slum. The last time she was disturbed by police was over a year ago. The story that Fatna was familiar with was the one when she had a water tank filled with the liquor and everyone thought a water tank was a water tank, and the police raids were not as frequent as now. The police, however, got a lead and stormed her compound. But she had swiftly replaced the aragi with water, as if she had magic powers, with not a trace left behind, and the police reeled away in shame and never bothered her again; for she had outsmarted and made a fool of them.
Um Abdallah was a Falata from Darfur, and the fact that she wore amulets around her neck, and maybe her waist as well, made some of the women involved in the same trade in the area believe she was protected by her charms. Others, the Christians, dismissed the whole idea of amulets as witchcraft rubbish and thought that she had an insider, probably a relative, in the police service that was helping her keep a step ahead of the law. But Um Abdallah herself had always maintained that everyone had their luck; everyone had their good and bad days. If this was the police, for this search to come today to Um Abdallah, Fatna thought: well, some envious rival could have betrayed her, and the amulets’ protection was indeed superstitious rubbish.
“We are taking these,” the firm voice came again.
“No! I don’t accept it! Even if you were to find anything, would you pour it down? Or will you go drink, or sell it elsewhere?”
“Not you to decide. But yes, we would pour everything down, right in front of you.”
“Liars! Leave me alone!” Um Abdallah wailed.
“Looks like trouble’s here today,” Fatna said; her hands were beginning to tremble.
Just then Fatna’s son, Jid-du, pushed the rusted iron sheet gate that opened into her compound and ran towards her, as the gate squeaked and shut by itself behind the boy.
“Mama … Mama … They are here! The police are here!”
“I knew it!” she said. “Please take quick gulps and leave and pay later.” She tried to rush the customers.
“Why so fast Fatna … Fatna Mustafa. I still need a cigarette … Jid-du come here–”
“Please, Mustafa! Please, Bakri! The police are here,” said Fatna. “You won’t be spared either, you know that. I must cover up. Quick! Use the back entrance.” She pointed to a small exit at the back of her compound, gesturing to the two men to speed up.
The customers stood up and in one go emptied the contents of their tiny cups.
“Please …please … please …” Fatna kept saying as she ushered and pushed Mustafa lightly on the back towards the rear of her compound. Bakri followed her.
When the men were out of her site, Fatna quickly collected the cups and rushed with these, together with the five-litre jerry can, to her rubbish container on another side of the compound, and thrust them into the middle of the container. She then scattered the rubbish around the items, camouflaging them in trash.
Like countless compounds in this slum of Omdurman, as well as in other shanty towns on the outskirts of Khartoum, Fatna’s was comprised of walled fence and a one-roomed, box-shaped building, both structures constructed from mud. The one-roomed building was located on one side of the compound, and a roofless and likewise mud-walled pit latrine stood on the opposite side. A resting shelter with an adjacent kitchen, both erected from bamboo and papyrus, was in a corner of the compound, closer to the main structure.
Fatna now ran into the box-shaped building and carried out a twenty-litre plastic jerry can towards the laundry part of the compound, next to the latrine. She dragged a metallic basin leaning against the wall and then checked her water drum, but there was only the dirty residue at the bottom. Whatever happened to Osman Kuku and his donkey-drawn water cart today, she was disappointed in him. Without wasting time, she desperately poured some of the contents of the jerry can into the basin, rushed back inside and grabbed a few clothes and beddings and a piece of washing soap and came and threw the garments on the ground next to the basin, hurling some on the jerry can to cover it completely. Then she tossed a dirty bra and dirty underwear into the basin; just to put off whomever may come nearer; just in case.
Fatna then hurriedly carried a small stool from the resting shelter and came and sat near the basin, holding the soap, her back to the gate, like she was innocent and had been sitting there since sunrise.
The police swoop was becoming more frequent and increasingly random. Fatna knew earlier that they came on weekends, which in northern Sudan was Thursday through to Saturday. But nowadays they pounce on homes in the middle of the week as well; with no particular pattern.
Fatna had never been caught red-handed. But like Um Abdallah had often said, she believed everyone had their luck; everyone had their good and bad days.
She knew her brewing contraptions plus two twenty-litre jerry cans of the spirit were safe, as she usually buried them in an empty drum in a hole; underneath a simple resting shelter on an undeveloped but fenced plot of land. That land belonged to a friend and was just behind her compound. She paid for the space. She did the concealment in the middle of the night, away from prying and untrustworthy eyes. She also disposed of the used dates initially somewhere in the ground, in the same compound and in metallic barrels as well, but later carried these in portions and dumped them elsewhere, away from her home.
Fatna’s real name was Meling, precisely, Meling na Lomodong. That was how she was known when she first came to Juba fresh from Lainya, in the southern part of the country. That was before she came to the North. It was her neighbour and friend Um Abdallah, who started calling her Fatna when she settled at Dar-es-Salaam, a few years back, saying that it was an easier and better name than the other long one, which was traumatizing to the tongue and lips to pronounce. Initially she was uncomfortable with a northern Sudanese or Muslim name, but later having gotten involved in a trade regarded as illicit, she felt for the idea of being known through a name that was not hers. Good to hide behind a name, she acknowledged, for she could always produce an identification card bearing a different name, should anyone connive with the police and trouble found its way to her. Thus the name Fatna stuck.
She had came to Khartoum with her first husband almost a decade earlier, in the early eighties. That husband, also from the south of the country, was initially a tailor at the main market in downtown Khartoum, Suk Al-Arabi, but he later drifted into the Sudanese army and was dispatched to the South. He was reported to have been killed in a battle, over two years ago now, somewhere in the confusing jungles of that part of the country.
After her husband died, with her very low level of education and hardly any skills, Fatna could no longer sit in the house as a housewife and wait for a husband to fend for the family. For where was the husband now? She could not beg either, for begging was unreliable and shameful. She searched for menial jobs to make ends meet; to be able to cater for her sons, Babu and Jid-du. She found work as a domestic help with an Arab family.
Fatna, come here! Fatna, go there! Fatna, bring my tea! Fatna, make sure the sugar is better this time. Fatna, I mean the Sudanese way. Fatna, how can you be so mean with sugar, when Kenana, the famous factory, is just next door? Fatna, you must wash everything. Fatna, I mean even underpants. Fatna, come scratch my back. Fatna, undo my hair. Fatna, you delayed at the market today. Fatna, you still eyeing men, even with those sagging breasts? Fatna, I don’t like the way my husband looks at you. Fatna, you must not try to speak back when I try to correct you. Fatna, my husband says I’m fat, yet I’ve always looked the same; do you by some chance have a hand in that? Fatna, if I ever catch you with my man– Fatna, I said you must not reply whenever I speak to you. Fatna, I don’t like the way you wriggle your buttocks when you walk; do you do that for him, my husband, even in our own house? Fatna, you must wear a “tobe” when my husband is around. Fatna, you must bathe the children before sunset. Fatna, last night you forgot dinner for the dogs. Fatna, it seems you have a hollow head. Fatna, you must keep the floor clean and glistening, despite the dust storm. Fatna, even if you have to mop every minute. Fatna, don’t you see that we have visitors? Fatna, leave the plates and hurry to the shops for some soft drinks. Fatna, you cooked only two dishes today, what has become of you, when we pay you very well?
Fatna, you did this! Fatna, you did not do that! Fatna this! Fatna that! Fatna. Fatna. Fatna. She could not stand the heavy chores and the lashing tongue of the mistress. She quit within months!
She tried her hands at making kisra and roasting groundnuts and tisaly and selling these food items at the local market, but they could not fetch her much. Besides, competition was really tight in this petty trade, as if this was the only way to make a living in the slum.
Then she saw how her neighbours, fellow Southerners, Sadiya and Nakuma, who came to the North almost two years earlier, fleeing from civil war, were doing far better than many. Both looked plump and had bright faces and were often full of laughter - the “He-hel-lok!” kind of laughter, even during funerals - and could be spotted wearing different tobes now and then. Rumour also did its spinning around Dar-es-Salaam that one of the two women had invested in the food business and was running a popular restaurant in Suk Juba, specializing in soups, especially larco and oxtail. Another was said to be the proud owner of a donkey cart that plied different routes in Omdurman, generating extra cash; and this one was well on her way to acquiring a Toyota pick-up, a Hilux, in a move to upgrade her success. That the two women had joined hands and had expanded and were also becoming successful in other suburbs of Khartoum such as Kalakla and Haj Youssef, and had even ventured as far as other towns south of the capital city, like Jebel Aulia and Kosti. Fatna approached them about their secret. But they could not divulge what she sought. They laughed at her. “Open your eyes, sister!” was what they said at first. She insisted. Later they budged; they confided in her. She got tips from the two, including the need to be vigilant, and thus ventured into sieko five distillation; despite being warned of the risks involved with such business: the whippings, the fines, the imprisonment.
Thus, Fatna had been able to raise enough cash, to include keeping a son in one of the public schools in the area, as well as supporting a couple of relatives, who had also fled conflict in the south of the country.
Later Fatna re-married, again to a soldier, a widower with a daughter, for that matter. The man hailed from Damazin, in the Blue Nile area. They met here in Dar-es-Salaam, in Omdurman. But this husband was often away, either in Damazin where his daughter was with his parents, or in Kurmuk, towards the border with Ethiopia, where he had recently been deployed.
With a spouse who was repeatedly away, Fatna could not abandon her lucrative trade. She had learned the importance of not being totally reliant on a husband.
She had customers streaming from all works of life: from labourers to traders, from mechanics to civil servants. There was a member of the clergy as well as an imam. She even had an Islamic fanatic from within the leadership of the ruling party, a messenger who often fetched the substance from her had one time claimed and carelessly disclosed, as his tongue slackened, for he had tested a tot or two to confirm the quality of the liquor. However, Fatna did not care what class her consumers were; what they did or did not do; what they believed in or did not believe in; whether they practiced what they preached or did not practice what they preached: all she cared about was the money she made, the mouths she fed, and the life she lived.
Her clients came mainly from this slum and the next proper suburb, Fitihab, as well as from the posh areas as far as Amarat and Riyadh in Khartoum, just on the other side of the Nile. She also had a couple from Khartoum Bahri. Transactions were done under the cover of darkness. Many of the nearby consumers came with bottles hidden in polythene bags to carry a litre or two to consume from a few days to a week. The regulars from Khartoum, on the other hand, were the wholesale ones, the twenty to thirty-litre jerry cans per week or per fortnight customers. Often the demand would overwhelm the supply; that was when Fatna would involve a friend who brewed as well. Maybe the clients shared the contents with others behind closed doors, of course, maybe they re-sold for profit: Fatna would never know. But they paid her. They paid Fatna very well, hardly bargained, and occasionally rewarded her with a bonus for a job well done: for accomplishing distillation of the highest order. “A feat only achieved with extensive experience and exhaustive expertise,” they would often applaud.
As Fatna sat near the basin, holding a piece of soap and hoping it would be a good day, she turned and saw Jid-du looking at her.
“Come here, Jid-du!” Fatna said, “Where is your brother?”
“At the market, Mama,” the boy said as he stepped towards her, a soccer ball in one hand.
“What is he doing there?”
“I don’t know, Mama. He went with Boboya, his friend.”
Just then her gate squeaked open and three policemen trooped inside as if her compound was their station. She looked over her shoulder, threw the piece of soap in her hand to the ground and turned and stood looking at the men in uniform.
“We have come to search your premises for illegal items,” said the leader of the team, holding a metre long rod in one hand.
“Search me as who?” asked Fatna, as she walked hesitantly towards the men in uniform. Her hands were shaking but she kept wiping them on her dress and managed to contain that a bit.
“It doesn’t matter,” the officer replied. “As long as you don’t obstruct us, your troubles with the law will not multiply.”
“But I have nothing unlawful here!”
“That’s for us to prove, woman. Will you remain standing where you are?”
Fatna remained standing as she was asked.
“Yes, sir!” the constables with the officer replied, almost simultaneously.
The leader made a gesture and the other two started the search in the resting shelter and the kitchen on one side of the compound.
“Where is the aragi?” the officer asked, as he came and stood in front of Fatna in the middle of her compound, rod in hand.
“I don’t have aragi.”
“Woman, we can make this simple, easy, if you tell me.” He looked her in the eyes, his face expressionless while holding the rod with both hands, playfully.
But she did not say anything.
“Woman, you will regret it if I find out that you have illegal material within this compound. Don’t joke with me.”
“I said I don’t have that thing that you want!”
“Fine! We shall see!”
While the constables were overturning utensils and other stuff in the small kitchen next to the resting place, the officer reached inside her box-shaped house. She followed him to the door.
“There is nothing here, I said!”
“I said no distraction!” the officer warned. “You are lucky; our metal detector is faulty today. But I know what to do.” He scanned the room quickly and seeing nothing of interest began prodding randomly the non-cemented floor with his metallic rod. He prodded, prodded, prodded, as if he was angry with the ground. He came out: prodded, prodded, and prodded. He began to sweat. He took out a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his brow, breathing heavily like he has been lifting some heavy weights.
Fatna was silent, regarding the three men wreaking havoc in her compound, like scavengers on rubbish damp. She decided to remain standing somewhere near the middle of the compound; her son next to her, clutching her dress.
“Mama,” Jid-du said.
“Ssh … ssh!” she silenced the boy, tapping him on the back.
The officer moved to a broken gate lying next to the latrine, not far from the washing area. He pulled the gate away. Prodded, prodded, prodded the ground underneath, but he could not find anything on which to pin down Fatna.
“You clever woman,” the officer said. “Your place reeks of alcohol and you saying you have nothing?” He was shaking his head.
By now about half a dozen neighbours or passers-by had gathered on one side of the compound, on the outside, and Fatna could spot heads over the shoulder-high part of the fence, as the onlookers peered stealthily into the compound, some mumbling to each other. Snippets of almost hushed exchanges drifted to Fatna. She caught some phrases in Pojulu and searched the faces to see who was back biting her right in front of the law authorities. She saw it was that woman, Yambe, talking to Abau (both lived on the same street as hers) about seeing Fatna distilling sieko the previous night and that the police were so silly and could not catch a trace of her clever activities. Fatna was glad the conversation was not in Arabic. But that woman with her careless and meddling tongue, she may have to cut it off one day; Fatna thought. What if someone equally nosy like Yambe decided to translate to another inquisitive rascal who may go ahead and sell her off? She just hoped and prayed silently that the men in uniform would complete their search and leave her in peace and she would then deal with the gossipers.
“I’m taking this barrel,” the officer said, distraction her attention from the spectators.
“No! This is for my water. I just bought it recently.” She rushed forward and held the container.
“Bought it with what money? Alcohol money?”
“Who said so?”
“Ahmed! Sabri! Let’s go!” the leader said, “But take this!” He pointed to the water drum.
The policemen came forward and held Fatna’s hands and dragged her away from the container, as if she was arrested and resisting arrest. Then they poured down the little water in the drum, and they carried it to the truck outside.
“This is to prevent you committing a crime: brewing and dealing in alcohol. We’re helping you, you see?” The officer smiled a little.
“Okay, please, take whatever you want and leave!” Fatna said.
Fatna was desperate for the police to leave immediately. The longer they stayed in her compound the more afraid and worried she became that what had happened to her friends Sadiya, and another neighbour, Halima, from the Nuba Mountains, might repeat itself. Sadiya was arrested the previous month despite the fact that the police failed to find any liquor in her possession. One of the four men searching her premises had produced a five-litre jerry can stinking of alcohol and claimed he found it in her kitchen. She denied and insisted it was a set up by the police themselves. Apparently, the police had sent someone ahead of them under the guise of a customer, to drop the jerry can at Sadiya’s place in order implicate her; that was the version that did the rounds in Dar-es-Salaam slum. As they had been tipped many times but could not corner her, it was their only way to exact revenge on her for making them look ineffective and a laughing-stock in police circles, so went the detail. The women brewers had warned each other about the need to watch these law enforcers closely during a search, for they could easily pick valuables, including jewelry and money, and slip these into their pockets when no one was paying any heed. The worst they could do was what they did to Sadiya: set one up! Sadiya could not follow four men in uniform around her household. How could she when she was supposed to be all alone in the house and shaken up at a surprise call? When the container reeking of alcohol was presented to the search team leader, he was convinced there was then adequate evidence to pinch Sadiya. And there was nothing she could do about it; she could not dissuade the law enforcers; she began trembling and almost broke down. She was bundled onto a police truck and taken away, together with several other women. Halima’s story was similar and she was amongst the women arrested. Some brewing gadgets and bags of dates, as well as other unrelated articles that appeared new, such as saucepans and water filters, and even fans, so claimed some of the slum women, were flung alongside them onto the truck; “Evidence!” the police had said. By the time of this search at Fatna’s, her two neighbours had barely served a month in Omdurman Women’s Prison, the correctional facility of which she had always been wary.
Presently, the officer walked to her laundry area, squeezed and held his rod in an armpit as he squatted to wash his hands. He scooped some of the basin contents with a hand and began to wash, unafraid of the dirty bra and dirty underwear. Fatna had hoped these two garments would keep off any man of the law should they dare come near the washing area. On the contrary, the officer had his eyes glued to the unclean undergarments for longer than expected. He felt the abnormal coolness of the liquid and the smell hit him on the nostrils. There was a frown on his face. He smelled his hands.
“Auzu billahi!” the officer uttered, almost in a whisper. The frown on his face was quickly replaced by a brief smile. He shook his head a little from side to side, got up and turned and looked towards Fatna, as he drew a handkerchief from a trouser pocket and began to wipe his hands. The smile lingered a little more as he focused his attention on his hands, wiping them properly, then smelt his hands once again.
Fatna stood where she had been standing all along, silently watching the officer. Her son was also quiet by her side. She felt beads of sweat forming on her forehead and her hands shaking again. She also felt her heart thumping forcefully and her breathing becoming faster.
Now the officer walked a few paces towards her, grasping his rod in both hands as he did earlier, and stopped and looked at her, his face inexpressive.
“Abdel Aziz! Anything?” came a commanding voice from the truck, just outside the gate.
He kept his gaze at her. She looked back at him, unemotional.
“Abdel Aziz!” The voice came again.
There was silence for a brief moment as the officer cleared his throat.
“Anything?” The voice was persistent.
“No!” the officer shouted a reply, finally, his face still expressionless and not leaving hers. He turned and walked towards the gate, shaking his head lightly from side to side, a smile lingering briefly on his face. When he reached the entrance, he stopped and turned his head and looked backwards; the smile gone. Fatna kept her gaze on him. Then he pulled the door open, walked on and disappeared into the truck, as the gate creaked and shut behind him. Then the truck roared away.
She knew his type. She knew he would come back later. Alone.
David L. Lukudu is from the newly independent Republic of South Sudan. He has lived in Uganda and Kenya for about fifteen years, mostly during the second civil war period (1983-2005), when South Sudan was Southern Sudan and part of the Sudan. He went to Makerere University in Kampala (Uganda), where he studied Medicine. Recently, he earned a Master of Science degree in Tropical Medicine and International Health, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, in the UK. He developed interest in writing during his teens; was formally introduced to creative writing at a Writing Seminar organized by the British Council, Khartoum (Sudan) in 1993; and won a third place prize for a short story at a writing competition held at the same cultural institution in the same year. He has since published short fiction with the BBC Focus on Africa magazine in 2001 and has from 2004 to date been a contributor with the online Cook Communication magazine, AuthorMe. Other publications are on Author Africa 2009, sudaneseink.com (Arabic), gurtong.net, and more recently, warscapes.com. While pursuing his Master’s degree in the UK, he took a short course in Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism. Currently, he is based in Juba, South Sudan.