The man in the suit found Maabo Tamboura Demmbo sitting at the market by a pile of cola nuts. The maabo was dressed in a bright green robe, and was looking at his face in a small handheld mirror, rolling his wide eyes back and forth and moving the mirror to keep up.
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"Salaam alekum," said the man in the suit. Peace be upon you.
"Alekum asalaam." And also upon you.
"Did you wake in peace?"
"Do you own a drum?"
"Only one is needed. I have a job for you."
Demmbo Tamboura listened as the stranger explained the job. Then he put down his mirror and said, `You want me to walk round the village banging my drum and shouting, "Vote for Blaise Campaore."'
"That is exactly right."
"And to give a T-shirt to anyone who seems undecided."
Demmbo Tamboura feigned indignation. "Will you next ask the chief to shell your peanuts?" he demanded. "I am an artist. I craft words that seize men's innards and confound their minds. I soar in song above the desert eagle and straddle in speech vast oceans of wisdom. I shine dazzling coloured lights down the wells of history. When I sing the Ballad of Safietu and Pullori the weeping in the village lasts three full phases of the moon. When I recite the conquests of Ousmana Dan Fodio cows are woken from their sleep by the sound of infidel knees a-knocking. When I tell of the Ten Plagues of Egypt or the Omniscient Twins of Timbuktu, princes clutch my robes and beg for more. And you ask me to become a grovelling town-crier, an announcer of commonplaces, a pedestrian wallopper of goatskins. It is no matter. I will go to my grave wailing "Vote for Blaise Campaore!" and in my dying breath a library will burn. Three thousand Francs."
"Two thousand five hundred."
"Two thousand five hundred and a T-shirt."
"Good. You will begin immediately."
The man in the suit went to a nearby kiosk, took off his shoes and ordered a bottle of Fasobrew. There was another suited man already sitting there, and they eyed each other with ill-concealed suspicion.
Demmbo Tamboura went home and fetched his blue robe and his good drum. He found a small boy with a donkey cart, and they piled it high with T-shirts. They walked side by side down the main road of the village, the boy hitting his donkey and the maabo hitting his drum. As they passed the kiosk, his employer waved a bottle at him and grinned. "Work hard," he called.
"Vote for Blaise Campaore!" yelled back Demmbo Tamboura.
Election day was only three weeks away. The first democratic elections of Burkina Faso since the military coup of1987. Down in Ouagadougou there was feverish excitement about the occasion, but in the villages in the north of the country there were more immediate concerns - rain had not fallen for two weeks and the millet in the fields was beginning to wilt.
From house to house, the maabo walked, banging his drum and giving out T-shirts to bemused villagers. Everyone knew him, of course, in his role as storyteller and musician, but this was something different.
The sun was high in the sky, and Demmbo Tamboura's campaign was going excellently, he thought. "Vote for Blaise Campaore!", he shouted happily, as they approached a bend in the road.
"Vote for Maurice Ouedraogo!"
Demmbo Tamboura jumped, and glared at the small boy fiercely.
"Wasn't me," said the boy quickly.
Demmbo Tamboura glared at the donkey.
"Wasn't him either," added the boy nervously.
"Vote for Maurice Ouedraogo!" This time Demmbo Tamboura recognized the voice. It was none other than Suleimana Sorro, his arch rival, Petegoli's other maabo. Sure enough, as their donkey turned the corner, it came nose to nose with another donkey coming in the other direction. Walking next to the donkey was a small boy, and walking next to the boy was Maabo Suleimana Sorro, wearing a fine red robe and carrying a drum. The donkey cart was loaded with cooking pots of every shape and size, and on each pot was stencilled in red paint the message, "Vote for Maurice Ouedraogo."
Demmbo Tamboura glared at his rival. "Vote for Campaore!" he bellowed.
"Vote for Ouedraogo!" roared the other, and they both beat so furiously on their drums that Senegalese fire finches rose out of the bushes, squawking in terror. A python dozing by the side of the road woke up with a start and inadvertently shed its skin.
In the house on the corner lived the schoolteacher and his family. They were new to the village. Demmbo Tamboura grabbed a T-shirt and hurried up to the house. He heard footsteps following hard behind him.
There was a woman sweeping in front of the house.
"Salaam alekum," said the maabos in unison, smiling broadly and revealing two sets of brilliantly white teeth. A good maabo has good teeth.
"My husband is not here," said the woman, straightening up and eyeing the colourful visitors disapprovingly.
"Vote for Blaise Campaore," said Demmbo Tamboura, holding out a T-shirt.
"Thank you," said the woman, taking it.
Suleimana Sorro stepped in front of him and thrust a cooking pot into the woman's hands. "Vote for Maurice Ouedraogo," he said firmly.
Demmbo Tamboura looked angrily at his enemy. He recalled bitterly the day of the naming ceremony of the first son of the village chief. He had been in the middle of reciting the chief's distinguished genealogy in front of the large and illustrious assembly, when Sorro had turned up and stood off to one side, arms folded, tutting quietly. Reaching a particularly complex part of the family tree, he had made a small error, a slip of the tongue, no more, and that supercilious Sorro had corrected him gleefully. In front of all those people, too. It was twelve years ago but he still smarted at the memory.
"Madame, how many children do you have?" he asked innocently.
"Blaise loves children," said Demmbo Tamboura, dashing off to the donkey cart in a cloud of dust, and returning with an armful of T-shirts.
Suleimana Sorro glowered, and then forced a smile. "Madame, how many sisters and cousin sisters do you have?"
"Ouedraogo loves cousin sisters," he said, hitching up his robe and running to his cart. "I mean to say, Ouedraogo has great respect for cousin sisters," he said, shuffling back under a teetering stack of cooking pots. "Ouedraogo is open-handed," he beamed.
Demmbo Tamboura looked on in horror. He no longer cared about anything but outdoing his rival. He would wipe that smirk off Sorro's face. He ran to get more T-shirts.
To and fro the maabos dashed, until the area in front of the house was engulfed by T-shirts and cooking pots. The two small boys watched open-mouthed as the carts were cleared of their wares. They kept quiet until the maabos tried to give away the donkeys, at which they protested volubly.
"Your party needs it!" shrieked Demmbo Tamboura, grabbing the reins of the donkey.
"So does my father!" cried the small boy, grabbing them back.
When the schoolteacher arrived, he found a great commotion in his usually peaceful yard. "Salaam alekum," he said quietly, and all eyes turned to look at him.
"Alekum asalaam," said the maabos.
"Peace only, I trust."
The schoolteacher turned to his wife. "What is going on?" he said.
"This maabo wants us to vote for Blaise Campaore," she replied. "He has given us many clothes."
"Blaise is bounteous," grinned Demmbo Tamboura.
"And that maabo wants us to vote for Maurice Ouedraogo," continued the woman. "He has given us many pots."
"Ouedraogo is openhanded!" simpered Suleimana Sorro.
"I see. Well, my friends, this is all extremely kind. Blaise is bounteous beyond our wildest dreams. And Ouedraogo is unimaginably openhanded. If I and my wife had the privilege of Burkinabé nationality, we would undoubtedly vote for one of those fine, generous men."
The maabos simpered and grinned and hugged themselves beneath their robes, and then stopped.
"What?" they gasped.
"You can't vote?" said Suleimana Sorro.
"But you are Fulani," said Demmbo Tamboura.
"That makes no difference. Our parents are from the Ivory Coast."
There was a long pause. A small monitor lizard wandered across the ground and up the wall of the house, disappearing in the eaves.
It was Demmbo Tamboura who broke the silence. "This is not fitting work for maabos," he said miserably.
"They should hire mynah birds to do it," muttered Suleimana Sorro.
"We have exchanged our eloquence for meaningless slogans," said Demmbo Tamboura.
"The subtle magic of persuasion for the distribution of knick-knacks," said Suleimana Sorro.
"Which don't even have sleeves," added Demmbo Tamboura, scowling at the T-shirts.
"Perhaps we will go home now," said Suleimana Sorro to the schoolteacher and his wife. "Peace be upon you."
On the road outside, the maabos sat on their empty carts and took hold of the reins of their borrowed donkeys. Demmbo Tamboura turned to his rival. "When we played our drums together this morning, the sound was sweet, was it not?"
"No. But we will play our drums together again some day, if God wills it."
"I greet your household."
"They will hear."