I surged out of the old rickety bus at Mangochi depot feeling so thirsty as daylight was ebbing away. This was my first time here. I had scrimped a goodly sum of money from my meagre emolument to start a fish business. An itinerant businessman had told me that fish, as well as costing a trifle here, you could haggle for the price too.
The depot was congenial to other depots in the country. It had hordes of passengers, vendors and buses about it. In a moment, I beckoned a tall young bony vendor selling drinks to come. His clothes were fetid and surprisingly, he had a bloated face.
“Yes bwana? Fanta or Coke?” he enquired charmingly adding: “These drinks are straight from the freezer, sir. You won’t get disappointed.” I told him to open a coke. “Can you recommend a cheap rest house?” I asked giving him a K100.
“Oh, certainly. But they’re a goodish step from here,” he said as I guzzled ravenously the coke to half. “Take that road to your right.” He gave me K30 as change and I squawked a protest at the change.
“Madala, that’s the price here,” he bluffed a brusque reply.
I was astounded with his change of mood, but I ignored him, drugged my feet out of the depot, and walked at a terrific pace in search of the rest house with my knap sack on the shoulder. I walked for 20 minutes before I found one. It was a rest house with a sleazy appearance and a cheap advertisement board outside it surrounded by a wanton growth of weeds and a field of nandolo to its left.
I entered into it with an easy lope. The potter, a pot bellied fellow, was a chain smoker. Cigarette ends were littered about the floor. His lips, chapped and rough, had a rank cigar cramped between them. Beside him was a radio, which was on.
“Welcome boss,” he said turning down the radio until it was a mumble in the background. He puffed contentedly on his cigar, and then offered his hand.
“Looking for a room?” he asked, his head wreathed in smoke. I said yes with a smile. “A mere K150, bwana, the cheapest the whole of Mangochi,” he announced in a serious sincere tone. I paid him the money.
“Bwana, am I wrong to assume that you’re new in Mangochi?” he asked stifling a yawn. Again, I said yes and added: “I want to purchase fish to launch a business enterprise.”
“Ah that’s a grand idea. The markets here are glutted with fish. But you see they’re also infested with merchants who like spoofing amateurs in the business,” he warned amidst a spasm of coughs. “You ought to be careful…but see, I know various trusted fish mongers. If you’re willing, I can take you to one of them. Just get me here tomorrow in the morning…I hope I’m not imposing this on you.”
I agreed after a moment of thought and left for my room.
Early the next day, I got up as the first gleams of the morning sun appeared. I dressed up quickly and hurried to the reception, but to my dismay, there was no sign of the man behind the counter; instead a swarthy lady with a slender figure had replaced him. As I queried of his whereabouts, the lady informed me that he would be back by 7 am. I went back to my room momentarily and then decided to loiter the remaining hour by moving about town.
I wasted some minutes surveying my surroundings. There was a rambling array of ramshackle shops and a rash of telephone bureaus along the road to the rest house. Far down the road, I noted a group of people gathered under a huge kachere tree and immediately headed toward it to see what amiss. When I reached the spot I squeezed my way through the crowd to see what was happening.
They were watching a gambling game. The croupier, a bag of bones with a fez on his head and a crusted mode of dressing had a voice that was unbelievably loud. At each turn he raked the money into a carton and paid out winnings to lucky punters. There was a contagion of admiration through the spectators when one taker won a cool K1000 and my eyes almost popped out in wonder. I began watching the proceedings rapaciously when another punter won another K1000.
Immediately, the temptation of easy profit obscured my reasoning. I began telling myself that this was a quick and simpler way to augment my income. One onlooker as if aware of my thoughts tapped me on the shoulder and said: “This is a mug’s game. Discretion is the better part of valour.” I smiled at his wise saying then blinked it away telling myself that it would be stupid of me to muffle the opportunity just like that. This venture was likely to be lucrative.
And stupefied with money greed, I became the next punter. At first, I put the stakes low and lost. I told myself that gambling was like taming a lion and that it needed patience. I betted again, raising the ante to redeem initial amount and lost again. I betted again, again and again and lost all games. I began feeling mortified at losing. My nerves began vibrating like strings of a harp as cool channels of sweat began running down my back.
I increased the stakes further hoping I would win but it was a mirage. I lost again. My inside began quacking with fear. I started seeing my surroundings as if through a crowd and with enormous effort I kept my face composed but my heart was rearing inside me like a wild cat. I began squealing like a pig and sweating at every pore after my hopes of redeeming the money crumbled to dust.