BY EPHREM ANDARGACHW
Brokers come in all sizes, characters, and backgrounds. I took a day off from the filling station I was working for at the time just to rent a house. I had to leave my place given the warning I received from my landlord. He had increased the rent without even a notice. I was angry about it and decided to find a new place. The only way to find another house to rent is through brokers; and I had to find one before anything else.
The broker I encountered was a well-dressed handsome man. He has gray hair, a well-shaped face that was sun-beaten and darker in complexion, and is of course tall. I met him at local tea shop where brokers usually gather awaiting clients who may look for their service: houses to rent or buy, housemaids to hire, or various commodities to sell or buy. I went to that place because I wanted to rent a modest residential house.
As soon as I entered the teashop, I asked one of the waiters whether I could get a broker to talk to. The waiter turned his eyes to a corner and pointed at Akalu, a popular broker of houses as I came to learn later on. I walked to the table where Akalu was sitting. He was sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. I shook his hand and inquired whether he was really Akalu, the broker.
Akalu smiled broadly and shook my hand saying, “My name is Captain Akalu, a member of the former army!” I was not interested in the details of his life and his former profession. I had gone there to get a house to rent and alleviate my worry as soon as possible.
Akalu invited me to sit at a vacant chair nearby. He then clapped his hands and summoned one of the waiters who came to us promptly and took my order. I ordered tea and started to speak to Akalu.
“Err…I’ve come to ask you whether you can help me rent a house.” I said.
“Of course,” Akalu said. “I’m here to help you!”
The broker asked me what kind of house I wanted and other related details such as whether I was married or not and how much I could afford to pay for the rent. I answered all his inquiries well before the tea I ordered arrived.
“I see your point, “Akalu said quite philosophically, sipping his coffee and pulling on his cigarette, not bothering about what effect the smoke had on me.” As I gather from your situation, what you need is a small one-room house in a big compound where there are more than a dozen other residents who are all renters…you will use one common toilet and shower and you’ll not enter the compound after 8:00 P.M. Does that suit you?”
“It’s okay,” I said because I had no choice but to accept his offer. “Can I see it today?” I was desperate to find another house because my former landlord had given me an ultimatum to leave his house and that ultimatum expired the next day.
I sipped the tea Akalue had offered me. He was looking at me as if he had understood how much I was worried about having a roof above my head.
“Don’t worry my brother,” Akalu comforted me, “We’ll go there right now!”
He called the waiter again and covered the bill for the coffee he drank and the tea bought me. I was in such miserable financial shape that I didn’t even try to pay the bill myself as is usually the case on such occasions.
We left the cafe and took a taxi to the neighborhood where the house for rent was located. It was inside a large compound apparently shared by many renters. Their children were playing football in the garbage-littered vacant space. Women were shouting at the top of their voices although I could not understand what they were saying. In short, the compound rather looked like a small marketplace. I was rather expecting a quieter and less populated location.
“Here is the room,” Akalu said, opening a small room at the end of the row of houses. As he pushed the door open, a disturbing and pungent smell invaded my nostrils. You know the smell of rooms that were occupied by other people until recently still carrying the mixed smell of the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and their body odors as well as the choking stale air that they left behind.
Akalu entered the room as he had the habit of entering a house for rent and did not seem to be disturbed by the odor. I hesitated for a brief moment and joined him.
“This is the room. It’s enough for you…As you told me you’ve no wife and children. You don’t have dogs or cats, right?!” Akalu said the last sentence loughly.
He tried to smile at his own joke but there was nothing for me to smile about. I did not respond to his humor and he did not seem pleased with my silence.
“What do you think?” He said. “Do you take it or you don’t?”
“How much is the rent?” I asked him.
“It’s fair,” Akalu said. “1,500 Birr only… in addition to the water and electricity bills of course!”
I had no choice. If I didn’t rent this room, my former landlord could throw me out or throw away the few commodities in my possession. As I know it from experience, finding a small room with a modest rent is no laughing matter.
“Okay, let it be,” I said reluctantly, my heart torn between the fear of finding another house and my monthly salary that hardly covered all my expenses. I was working at a gas filling station and I often survived on the tips the driver gave me now and then rather than on my salary which was not enough to cover my house rent and my other expenses.
Akalu was seemingly happy with my answer and told me to occupy the room that very day unless other renters might come and pay higher rent to acquire it. Akalu’s warning added to my worries. So, I hastened to my former residence to carry the few things I had in my possession before, as the broker warned me, other tenants might come and occupy it at this time of serious housing shortage and rising rents.
Akalu told me to bring my things while he would hire someone to clean the room before I returned with my few possessions. I was in such a hurry that I did not ask him when and how I had to pay the rent. Akalu looked generous to me as he wanted me to occupy the room before others would. I understood his remarks as a sign of concern for my well-being.
It did not take me much time to return with my few possessions. I felt relieved because I have found a roof above my head, at least for now. The thought of facing my former landlord who was merciless and the possibility of being thrown out of his house and the resulting shame and humiliation disturbed me very much. I looked at Akalu as a real savior. He had the room cleaned and he even helped me carry my things to the house. The room looked full of furniture because it was small and could accommodate only my bed, two chairs, my old bag, and a few utensils. I used to prepare some of the meager meals I cooked now and then when I ran out of money.
I sat on my bed while Akalu sat on one of the chairs and admired the way I had arranged my furniture and the next topic was about the rent.
“Do you know when you have to pay the rent? Akalu asked me casually.
“I know…It’s at the end of the month; isn’t it?” I answered his question with another question.
“Things have changed these days,”Akalu added. “ The landlords expect the rent to be paid as soon as the house is occupied”
“What do you mean?” I said with a feeling of anxiety creeping into my heart.
“I mean that you have to pay the rent now!” Akalu said more seriously. The tone of his voice had changed from one of compassion to harshness.
I had enough money to pay for the rent although I understood that was not fair to pay in advance. In a way, I had made a mistake. I wanted to ask Akalu why I had to pay the rent before using the room. But that was pointless after I had agreed to rent the house. Besides, my previous landlord too collected his rent as soon as I set foot into his house. Anyway, I should have raised this question before I brought my things and settled in the room.
Why did Akalu keep silent when I went to fetch my things from my former residence? Was it a deliberate act on his part or did he forget to raise the issue then? I was not sure about it. My guess was that Akalu was not a cynic. I knew many brokers are not angels. I have heard so many unpleasant stories about them although I did not believe all of them to be true.
Akalu left the room for a moment and returned with an old man who looked sick and frail. The man was short in stature, with a frail body and a head full of white hair.
“This is the owner of the house,” Akalu introduced him to me. “His name is Ato Belachew and he is a very kind man!”
The old man smiled and I saw that a few teeth were missing from his denture while his eyes were small and looked like the eyes of what folks describe as those smart people. The old man sat on the other chair and asked me what I do for a living. I answered his question with politeness and the old man smiled as if he was pleased with what I do for a living.
Then I opened my old bag and fished the money Akalu asked me to pay as rent. I felt like a big burden being lifted from my heart. I thought that at least for the coming thirty days’ no one would come to disturb me about paying the rent. The old man took the money and counted it and looked at me in utter puzzlement.
“What’s this?” he asked me in a voice stifled with what seemed anger.
“Well, this is the rent for this month!” I said stunned.
“How much is it?” He asked me again as if he had not counted it.
“Well, it’s 1,500 Birr!” I said I was more astounded and even scared.
“But this is only the rent for one month!” He almost shouted in his weak voice. Then he turned to Akalu and asked him, “didn’t I tell you that I need at least a three-month rent?”
I was shaking with fear, indignation, and anger.
“No, you didn’t tell me that!” Akalu shouted in his turn.
“Yes, I did but you didn’t listen to me because you’re eager to collect your commission at my cost and run away!”
“Listen to me Ato Belachew!” Akalu said,” You only told me how much the rent is. You didn’t tell me the rent for three months!”
The old man rose from his chair and threw the money on my bed as he prepared to go. “What can I do with only one month’s rent? Life is expensive and I know how much pain I had to build this house!”
“What have I done to make you so angry?” Akalu asked the old man in a polite voice.
“I had vowed not to trust brokers!” The old man said. “You’re no better than the others!”
Akalu tried to explain to the old man that I had not enough money for three months’ rent and that I will pay the rest at the end of the month although I did not tell that to him. The old man stopped and turned to me, looked at me, and asked, “Is that true? Is what this man is saying true? will you pay the rest of the money at the end of the month?”
“Yes, I’ll!” I said instantly as the prospect of finding another house was a distant possibility.
“I want you to sign on a piece of paper!” the old man said. “It’s hard to trust you, young folks, these days!”
Akalu went to the nearby shop and bought a paper. He wrote the agreement and read it to the landlord and I. Then we signed it. According to the agreement I will have to pay a two-month rent at the end of the month if not quit the house. The old man looked at me as he took the paper from Akalu, folded it, and put it in his breast pocket. I felt as if a huge burden was lifted from my breast this time. But another burden was shoved at me. I did not know how I would pay the two-month rent at the end of the first month.
The old man collected the money again and left the room, followed by Akalu who asked him to pay his commission. “Aren’t you ashamed to ask for a commission from a one-month rent?” I heard the old man say. “I’ll pay you next month!”
At least Akalu did not return to ask me for the commission I owed him as brokers usually collect commission from both sides.
I breathed a long sigh of relief and looked at the ceiling that was torn in many places through which the rain had leaked down, leaving its mark on the cloth. I felt as if a big hole was formed in my life and I envied people who do not worry about paying the rent. I wished there was a world without landlords and rents. I abandoned that idea when I realized that such a world existed only in my imagination.
The 7 August 2022