There are three things you must know about Alibe.
One: he is overly ‘protective’ of his daughter.
Two: he is superstitious.
Not uncommon traits in men on the island of Maduvvari or maybe even out there in Male. In Alibe’s case, however, they have become extremely pronounced, making him teeter on the precipice of ludicrity.
He rarely lets the 14-year-old Hawwa out of the house and has imposed on her the burqa. With his 11-year-old son, Hafiz, he is more lenient, and the boy is often Hawwa’s only company.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hawwa has the mind of someone much younger as she rarely meets with children her age. At school, she is said to be odd, so I hear from a relative who is a teacher. At home, no friends visit her.
She is very chatty when I go over for my morning coffee. She’ll talk about hiding tins of breadfruit from her father, or her favourite flavour of crisps, or she may ask me if I like looking at clouds. In the face of so much chatter, her father would tell Hawwa to go to her room.
Hafiz, meanwhile, has dreams of becoming famous, having acted in a TV drama shot on that island. He also has a fairly convincing American accent, gleaned, his father says, from years of watching cartoons.
“I never liked it when his mother fed him by the TV, showing him that rubbish,” Alibe told me once. “The poor boy can’t eat without watching the TV now. It shouldn’t be like this. You and me, Kokko, we weren’t brought up in front of a screen.”
Three: Alibe had the worst month of his life last August.
First, he was sitting in the swing joali under the breadfruit tree when a ripe fruit fell onto his crotch. It made his penis and testicles swell into a banana and a pair of giant biscutlas – his words.
Next, just after the swelling had subsided, he had climbed the breadfruit tree in his father’s yard to retrieve a glider for Hafiz. One moment he was up among the branches, the next he was on his back on the ground, overcome with pain but unable to move.
By an act of god, he had not broken any bones, but when I visited him the day I arrived on the island, he could barely sit.
“Kokko,” he said. “Something is up with me, I don’t know what.”
He calls me Kokko and acts like someone much older than me though he is just a year my senior.
I had heard rumours at the seaside café that Alibe was cursed by a sorcerer.
“There are wicked people here, Kokko” he said when I dutifully informed him. “You wouldn’t know it but there are some even among our family. It pains them to see happiness.”
Then, Alibe had a dream in which he divorced his wife. He didn’t tell me about it until after the fact, when he and Rania were living separately. Rania still stayed in Alibe’s house but I noticed he slept at his father’s. And one morning, as we had our coffee, I grew a little curious as to why this was.
“Kokko, it wasn’t me who wanted the divorce, it was her.”
I had to know more. Alibe was forthcoming.
“It’s the people at her work. They poisoned her mind. They think she can marry better than someone who just sells fish. She is educated, I’m not. They use that against me.”
He asked me if I wanted more coffee. I nodded. Alibe stood tenderly from his chair and moved stiffly across the yard and into the kitchen. In a minute, he returned with a small porcelain cup in his hand.
“You know Kokko, I think I gave her too much freedom,” he said sitting on the plastic chair near my joali. “All she ever thought of was work. She neglected me, she neglected our children. Of course, she fed them, but nine times out of ten, I would be the one washing them or putting them to bed. Meanwhile, she’d be at work.”
A breeze rustled the big breadfruit leaves above. I caught a waft of something pungent, boiling fish – it was a fishy place, this island of ours. People smoked, salted and made rihaakuru from their catch, boiling the fish until the water thickened like a paste. When the wind was right, you could smell Maduvvari miles away.
The following day, when I made my visit, Alibe was in great distress.
“Last night, Hafiz fell from my bed in his sleep,” he told me, his bearded face tight with concern. “This doesn’t bode well for me, Kokko. An ill omen.”
We drank coffee but Alibe made little talk, pulling on his beard and muttering under his breath.
The next day, while I was dressing up for Friday prayers, I received a call from my mother.
“Shaira is dead,” she said.
“She used to visit us, don’t you remember? She would take you to Ashrafee Bookshop when you were little. Tall, hair down to her waist?”
“Oh, her,” I said. I had no idea.
“Alibe’s half-sister from his mother’s side. She married her neighbour Easafulhube, don’t you remember? He used to take you out to Scoop for ice cream.”
I trusted my mother’s voluminous knowledge of her Maduvvari relatives.
And I knew I had to get in touch with Alibe but it will have to wait until after prayers.
When I entered the green, airconditioned interior of the island’s sole mosque after the sermon, I found Alibe seated on a chair by the entrance with his son Hafiz. We acknowledged each other and, following the Imam, began our prayers.
We exited the mosque together. Hafiz wanted to know if I could video him singing ‘Believer’ and put it on my Instagram. I told him I would and as I was about to ask Alibe how he was, he said: Kokko, remember me telling you about that omen?
“I get these signs from Allah because I try to walk the path of his Messenger.”
He told his son to be quiet, and took hold of my shoulder.
“Kokko, my sister was only forty-three. They found her on the bathroom floor. Death is always with us, Kokko. Always.”
I nodded. I didn’t think of my mortality often. And when I did, it was very abstract and removed. I could only compare it to a second-hand impression of nothingness. It’s not something that affects or informs my life.
“Make death your friend,” said Alibe entering his house.
I stood there on the sandy street, watching the two figures recede into the hallway of their old coral-stone home. It seemed familiar to me, Alibe’s phrase, but I couldn’t recall its origin. Perhaps Alibe felt older inside than I could imagine. Life hadn’t been especially kind to him, and he’d tried to raise those children the best he could. I believed that. The island had shaped him, its currents surged in his mind. The world beyond exerted its tepid will on Maduvvari and only few are stirred from their sleep.