If you take a walk down Manchester’s Market Street, you will not fail to notice the street pedlars, pushing their mobile carts. Selling everything from fidget spinners to balloons and umbrellas, these mysterious street vendors are an integral part of Manchester’s high street. In Water Seeds Not Stones, Elmi Ali, a writer, poet and spoken word performer, delivers a unique insight into street mountebanks. Through the medium of oral storytelling, Ali describes the life of his fictional salesman, Mamamawodi. Wearing a dapper suit, sandals and colourful odd socks, this flamboyant street merchant defies the trend by selling books, knowledge and a unique moral philosophy, where all roads lead to chicken.
The play’s title, Water Seeds Not Stones is a metaphor for nurturing wonder. Ali encourages his audience to contemplate and reminisce, just as Mamamawodi nostalgically recounts the events of his life. He is a charismatic character, whose stories and philosophies are entertaining, particularly concerning his native country, Africa. Describing Live Aid, he tells how white men swooped in, like Superman, to save Africans with their charity songs. Mamamawodi creates his own charity single, Africa, Wash Your Face, which could be sung by Michael Jackson “because he used to be black”. Although being hilarious, this soberly reveals the hypocrisy of Europeans wanting to save Africa in the 1980s, only to turn their backs and close their borders now they are facing a monumental humanitarian crisis and civil war. Throughout Water Seeds Not Stones, Ali efficiently uses antithesis to create comedy, yet encourage sober reflection.
Ali is a remarkably talented performer and an incredibly skilled writer. He impressively masters the English language, cleverly playing with words, for example, “I lean on Eileen“, and “I have a part, you have a part, we have a part-y“. The analogies used are inventive and funny, such as describing the repercussions of the Berlin Conference in 1880, and the subsequent division of Africa, as “African tapas“. Wonderful similes and metaphors are in abundance, juxtaposed with clever puns and witty jokes. Mamamawodi tells how he has never been stopped by the Home Office after using Imperial Leather shower gel, explaining how the term ‘Home Office’ is actually an oxymoron. Best of all are the brilliant onomatopoeic outbursts, which perfectly ‘CAP-A-CHA!’ his character’s lively nature.
I have to admit, for the first twenty minutes of Water Seeds Not Stones, I was wondering what on earth was happening. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. But I started to warm to Mamamawodi and appreciated Ali’s skill as a writer and a performer. His talent as a poet shone through, as it was all delivered with a poetic, musical rhythm that was as energetic as Mamamawodi’s character.
Spontaneously injecting song and dance into his performance, and getting the audience to join in, Ali’s one man show makes for a truly entertaining evening. Next time I walk down Market Street, I will certainly pay more attention to these nomadic salesmen. I just wish they sold books too!