Under the Mango Tree

White man come tramping through our land one day and say to me mother “love me”. She love him under the stars and he give her a baby with green eyes and they call her Jasmine. When the baby is not very old, he say he go back to England.

Me mother cry. He say he send for her and the baby soon.

Mother wait under the same stars of loving him and she do little else. The pig and the cow get thin and she get thin and the people of the village tell her you are thin and he is not coming back. And so, one day, as is the way of Africa, she get up, tie her best scarf around her head and go find herself a new man.

At first he was kind to me. He gave me toys and juicy slices of melon and guava. But after a while, he say me light skin bring bad luck and make me sleep with the pig and the cow. He tell my mother she is bad bad woman for having child with light skin and when she is not there he pull my hair and slap my face.

One night when the stars are bright and Africa hot and dusty, me lie flat on the roof of a lorry crossing the border from Uganda to Sudan.

I am twelve years old when I leave home.


At first, the street girls poke me, tease me, are nervous of me. They have no seen someone with pale skin and green eyes before. They nudge each other with their elbows and stare. But one of them is kind to me. Her name is Honey – like the bee, like the bird.

Honey take me to the mango tree. Under branches lit by fairy lights, men sit at pink plastic tables and play cards and drink tea. When customers come, they click their fingers and the waitresses take them away behind Jemba market. None of the men choose me and when the girls come back, their eyes are bright and vacant.

How you goin’ to survive Jasmine?” Honey ask me. “The men don’t look at you. You don’t speak Arabic or Dinka. The only work you can do is this,” and she jiggle her hips and laugh and eat mango.

At night we sleep in the cemetery. We take it in turns to keep watch. When it is my turn I am scared of the wild dogs. They stare with their pinpoint eyes and sniff and snarl in the rubbish.

“We gotta do something about you,” Honey say, painting mascara on her lashes in front of a small jagged piece of broken mirror.

She take me to the Church Mission shop. She choose me an outfit.

Men see you now,” she say.

We go back to the cemetery. I perch on a gravestone and Honey fluff out my hair and paint my eyelids blue and me lips red. I put on the tight pink shorts and low cut white t-shirt.

You have this too,” she say, giving me her jagged mirror and a packet of condoms. “They will keep you safe.”

That night the men notice me. I earn $27.

That’s better baby,” Honey says.

Some nights, when we are sleeping in the cemetery, Honey whisper to me in the dark.

One day,” she say “We find rich khawadjas and live in big white house in America.”

Honey get us our own shack behind Jemba market and we stop sleeping in cemetery. She hang a bright pink curtain between our beds and put sprays of jasmine in old cooking oil cans. They make the air smell sweet.

We try the Queen of Sheba soon,” Honey say.

Honey is eating mango. She eat a lot of mango.

Keep your insides clean,” she say.

Sometimes, in between customers, she read out loud from the Bible she got from the Church Mission shop. She teach me English this way.

English good for khawadjas,” she say.

One evening, Honey come through the pink curtain and throw a red dress at me.

Tonight we go to the Queen of Sheba,” she say.

We need to be careful as Dario likes us to stay at the market, earning money. Dario is our street uncle and we give him some of our wages. In return he find us customers and let us live in the shack.

I wriggle into the dress. It shows off my breasts and stops at the top of my legs. All our clothes do that.

Honey whistle for a boda boda and we climb on the motorbike taxi and ride to the Queen of Sheba with the wind in our hair.

The nightclub is pink and lit with fairy lights against the darkening night sky. Outside there are lots of shiny cars and people talking and laughing.

Honey saunter in as if she own the place and start scanning the customers.

Look for the men in suits with well cut hair,” she say. “They have money.”

Honey finds men at the back, sitting at a table smoking cigars and we approach their table.

Drink ladies?” one of them asks, smiling up at me.

Don’t mind if we do,” Honey says.

The man clicks his fingers and a table girl brings long tall glasses of coconut and rum on a tray. We drink through pink straws.

When they stand up,” Honey whisper in my ear, “You follow the fat one.”

I follow the fat one. We enter a tent with lilac muslin curtains and ruby cushions piled on a single bed. The music from the disco is loud. He drop his trousers and push up my dress. Easy money. Double the rate at Jemba market.

Soon we go there every other night. On the nights in between, we work the market under Dario’s watchful eye and sometimes we get dragged out of bed by the police. They beat us and we go back to sleep. It is part of life. But we earn good money and every night, Honey hide it in a cooking oil tin.

We have a boda boda rider called Anton who take us home from the Queen of Sheba. He is so sweet on Honey he teach me how to drive the bike. He think being nice to me will get him closer to Honey.

I take you away from this Honey,” he say and Honey smile at him sweetly but say nothing.

I no share Honey’s dream of making the world come right by finding a rich foreigner – a khawadja. If I have a dream, and dreams are rare when there are wild dogs and hard beds – it is to get away but not on the wings of a man. My mother had that dream. Look where it got her.

Soon it look as if Honey’s dream might come true because for the last few weeks at the Queen of Sheba, the same man take her to the lilac tent every night. He no look at any of the others girls. It’s Honey, every time.

He start giving her presents. A necklace with a tiny bird on it. A bracelet with a ruby. One night he arrive at our shack with an armful of Persian lilies. This is against the rules and if Dario see him he throw us out and beat us up. But Honey smuggle him in and spend the night with him and when he leave at dawn she come through the pink curtain and sit on the side of my bed, and her eyes are sparkling and far away. In the day she laugh a lot and sometimes, she dance.

Our boda boda driver no understand why she no look at him like she used to. She still lie with him behind the market, but that is what street girls do. He feel her pull away and start arguing with her as he drive us to the nightclub on the boda boda.

It will be alright Anton,” she tell him. “It will be alright.”

Honey pay him, as we pay for all things, with her body, but he can feel her heart and soul are somewhere else. He no understand sex is a job like working the tables or driving a motorbike taxi. But Honey start to do something no street girl should do and she let the tingles of love invade her heart and make her want no man but the American.

Me no have energy for anyone else!” she laugh and toss her hair, pick up a flower from the floor, smell it, place it behind my ear.

You’re turn next,” she say, kissing my cheek. Bees buzz around Honey. I too, love her for her warmth and vitality.

One night Honey stay late at the club waiting for the American. It is two o’clock in the morning and I want to sleep.

Go to bed,” she tell me. “Anton take me home later.”

Usually we leave together but the club is quiet and I have only turned two tricks all night. I don’t like leaving her but when I tell her this, Honey smile and touch my hair.

Outside, Anton is waiting and he let me drive the boda boda back to the market where the men under the mango tree shuffle their cards and throw their dice, cigarettes hanging from their lips, curls of smoke drifting up to the fairy lights. The market never sleeps. The waitresses who aren’t waitresses prowl the outside tables with their trays held high and the hairdressers who aren’t hairdressers sit on chairs outside their shops filing their nails. Dogs bark, half naked children run through the dirty streets filled with vegetable scraps and rubbish; loud music plays boom boom and it is hot hot hot. The market stalls sell roasted nuts, bananas and rubber shoes and the air is full of confused aromas. Sweat soaks through my hair. I go to our shack at the back of the market and I sleep.

I wake early with the sun. The room feel empty and I push through the pink curtain to Honey’s side. Her bed is empty.

I wait for her all day but she no come.

In the evening, the American come and I know something bad has happened.

He sit on the edge of her bed, his long arms dangling between his knees and he look at the floor.

They find Honey’s body by the side of the road three hours ago, he say. Just dumped with the old tyres and the newspapers and the rotting vegetables from the market.

I feel pain so deep in my heart I think it will steal my breath away and take the light of the sun from my eyes. The American cannot apply his laws of logic here. He go to police but they shrug because this is Africa and it happen all the time. Who care about one less street worker? He peel off green dollar bills and give them to me and he touches my arm and leaves.

After he go, I stay sitting on Honey’s bed. I can hear shouting and music from the market but the world is much quieter for me.

After a while I stand up and go through the pink curtain to my side of the room. I put on the red dress, clip on earrings, spray on perfume and fluff out my hair. I take a last look around our shack and I take the money the American gave me and the money from the cooking oil tin and I put it in my shoe. I fasten Honey’s bracelet, the one with the ruby on it, around my wrist.

At the Queen of Sheba, I earn $100. There is no sign of the American. I leave the club a little after 2am. The air is warm and heavy with jasmine and mango. Round the corner, Anton is sitting on the boda boda smoking lazily as if nothing has happened. But it has.

He no see me come up behind him. I move slowly and silently like a hungry cat in Jemba market. It is only when I spring that he turn in surprise and in his eyes I can see fear and I know I am right; I know he kill Honey.

The broken mirror glide into his side easily like a knife through mango. He gasp and fall forward on to the handlebars.

I push him to the side and he falls to the ground with a thud and a groan, and I leave him there, as he left Honey, with the rubbish and the rats and the wild dogs.

I hitch up my red dress, throw my leg over the saddle of the boda boda and kick the motorbike into life.

I don’t know where I am going but it doesn’t matter. I drive to the edge of town where the lights end and the fields begin.

I don’t know where I am going but I have the wind in my hair and I am free. Finally, finally, I am free.



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