There is a beer house overlooking the turbid, heavily polluted waters of the Wouri River in the Akwa District of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. To my friend, Andy “Young” and me, it is the best drinking spot anywhere in the city. What with its little booth-like cubicles called “buckaroos”, and its still-to-be-rivalled bevy of heavy-bosomed, hip-swinging ladies, some in see-through dresses, who dance along rather than walk.
One of those girls in particular, Andy’s favourite, has what that incomparable Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado, would describe as “an indomitable derrière” – and to think that some of us have always associated “indomitable” only with lions! – a behind so large it seems to sweep the entire width of the road as she walks along. Boy, you should see it! A marvel to behold indeed! It invites a touch. Whoever claimed life in Douala had lost its glamour still has much exploring to do in this life-throbbing city!
If you decide to sit outside, as we sometimes do, a cold refreshing wind rises, like a charred skin, off the surface of the Wouri river below, and sensuously necks your cheeks, elbowing the usual, suffocating Douala heat out of the way.
On the Wouri itself, you see fishermen, just tiny black specks, raising and thrusting their arms with rhythmic regularity into the river, as they set out to sea, their canoes bobbing their way on the crests of waves.
As the sun steadies itself for its final journey west, it often sheds its ray, becoming just one big, crimson ball that seems to hang precariously onto the right flank of the Cameroon mountain, which the natives call Fako, and which, history tells us, Carthaginian explorers of old had called the Chariot of the Gods.
On certain clear evenings, Efassa Moto – that half-man-half-beast god of the Bakweri people – smiles and unsheathes the mountain from its eternally foggy surroundings, revealing a massive heap of earth, standing erect and proud, its head snugly lodged in the navel of the sky above, its dark shadow dancing in the shimmering waters of the Wouri, casting a protective cover over the fishermen as they head out to sea.
Not long after the sun has buried its head behind the mountain, the fishermen’s tiny lanterns begin to glow on and off like fire-flies in a dark forest, as they appear and disappear with the rhythm of the waves.
In the Douala sea-port some distance away, the bright lights from ships that are dropping or lifting anchor, illuminate the surface of the glittering water in one huge crescendo of colours. This is usually the time the voice of the city begins to rise up to fondle the belly of the dome-shaped, star-spangled sky, and to greet the dark cloak of the evening as it slowly descends on the city like a man on a woman.
Last evening, I was comfortably ensconced in one corner of our favourite drinking spot, a bottle of jobajo in hand, when Andy walked in, accompanied by our mutual friend, Doctor the Professor.
That may sound like a strange name to some people, but our friend does hold a doctorate degree either in sociology or ethnology, I’ve never known which really, and teaches at the University of Yaounde. He claims to have attained the rank of Professor although Andy says he is still a Lecturer. We call him “Doctor the Professor”, and he doesn’t seem to mind it at all.
Do I still need to introduce my childhood friend Andy, to you? Together, Andy and I had watched the sun of our infancy rise over the grass-capped, saw-toothed, undulating hills of Nkar, a small sleepy village of a few hundred inhabitants, located fifty-five miles north of the German-fortified Bamenda Station, on the Bamenda-Nkambe section of the famous, but largely neglected Ring Road in the North West Province of Cameroon.
In that region of our country, hills of breath-taking beauty turn and twist and rise and fall and speed away like huge waves into infinity. Those hills, which had once appeared to a visiting Canadian journalist “like huge punctuation marks”, carry swift rivers like heavy loads on their shoulders and cascade them down the noisy valleys where they bash their heads in spectacular dives on jutting, unyielding rocks.
That land of my childhood, to borrow the enviable words of Mao Zedong, the poet, describing the paralysing beauty of the landscape of his native China, is so “surpassing in beauty” it sets “the poet’s mind aglow with dreams”.
Look around you and you see herds of cattle winding their way lazily over hills and valleys like ants filing out of dry wood. Cattle egrets, spotless-white in colour, tail the lowing, grazing herd from pasture to pasture, clumsily landing on their humped backs, tickling them with their long beaks in their incessant and insatiable quest for ticks.
You often hear herd-boys chanting familiar songs that the hills and valleys echo and re-echo so well. Theirs is a life of boundless freedom in a landscape of infinite immensity.
Whenever I can, I always retire from the world around me to revisit, through the froth of my Jobajo, the Nkar of the early morning of our existence, long before that ecstatic discovery of the softness of full-fledged breasts and the sweetness of a tongue shattered the fragile glass of our innocence and, in the foreboding words of one religious fanatic from next door Nigeria, “definitely qualified” some of us for an embroidered stool in “Satan’s Kingdom”. Nostalgia, I call your name!
Yesterday evening, Andy and Doctor the Professor, or Doc., for short, had hardly walked in, when Doc., in his usual boisterous and uninhibited manner, with a voice coarsened by alcohol and cigarette smoke and as loud as a trumpet, suddenly lunged out and gave a resounding pat on the huge behind of the girl Andy so greatly cherishes. He would have seized the girl’s waist in his huge hands, had she, apparently not a stranger to this form of appreciation from the men, not slid out of reach, a “come-and-get-me-if-you-can” seductively-tempting smile on her lips.
“Oh, just look at those bums. Andy, man, do I envy you, you dirty rogue!” he said, taking a mock aim at Andy’s jaw with a clenched fist. “Boy, just look at how those bums are dancing like two canoes on a rough sea”, he added, with a poetic flourish. As if eager to reveal her doughy behind more prominently, the girl made a Roger-Milla-style jig, to the applause of the onlookers.
“Martin, how are you, my man?” Doc. asked, sitting down next to me, his enormous hand enveloping mine like a glove.
“Fine, thanks Doc. What about yourself?”
“You can say I’m surviving, thank God. By the way, I’m very angry with you”, he said, training an accusing finger at me.
“And what has your humble servant done this time, Doc.?”
“That article you wrote was not complete at all”, he said, shaking his head disapprovingly.
“Which article are we talking about here, Doc.?” I asked, turning a questioning look at Andy, who merely shrugged his shoulders as he took a seat across the table from me.
“The one in that magazine, eh, eh, what do you call it again?”
“Cameroon Life”, Andy came to his rescue.
“That’s right!” bellowed the Doctor, in a voice so loud it must have been heard as far away as Bonaberi, across the river. I could see heads turning towards us, huge question marks dancing on each face.
“You entitled that article “Sex in Russia”, or something along those lines, but, man, I regret to say there was no sex in it at all”, he said, shaking his head, regret heavy in his voice.
“And just what do you mean no sex in it?” I asked, truly intrigued. He didn’t answer me, instead turning to Andy, who was already affectionately fondling a bottle of Sasse-Old-Boy, his favourite beer.
“Andy, tell me, how in the world could he claim to write about sex without mentioning a word like “fornication” even once? Is that being serious, really? That’s just one example. I can mention more, if you like”. And he did, indeed, run through a gamut of mainly four-letter words, which he claimed could have gone a long way to spice what he called “an otherwise very nice piece of writing”.
I nearly choked in my beer, and I could see surprise walking its way across Andy’s face as well.
“Listen, Doc. If you’d been complaining of the unfortunate typographical mistakes and omissions that almost marred that piece …”
“Oh, come-on, Martin, forget about typos, man. I’m talking about something much more serious than that. Imagine that; you claim to be writing about sex, but you keep rambling from one topic to another, even going as far as to call on the ghost of Professor Fonlon to help you define sex!! Are you crazy? Good Lord! Why go to someone who’s thought never to have had anything to do with the action that word depicts for a definition of the word? That’s simply sacrilegious! Why not come to someone like your humble servant here?” he said pointing to his chest. “Mind you, I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, although in this case I have every reason to, being someone who has explored the contours, the hills, the valleys, and the peaks of that over-fondled word and the action it so graphically describes”, he said, laughing loudly.
I was so confused I didn’t know what to say. I remember mumbling something to the effect that it was definitely not my intention to give Cameroonians, of all people, a lesson in sex, such a favourite sport of nearly an entire nation, from top to bottom.
“Then, you shouldn’t have bothered to write about it!” he cut in, angrily. “You raise people’s expectations for nothing, whet their appetite by claiming you had something really juicy to tell them, and then, nothing. Your usual Banso prudishness, I presume?”
I knew he was coming to that. I remember when Andy first introduced me to him some nine months, or so, ago, in a pulsating night club in downtown Akwa, the first thing he said was, “another Banso Priest, I presume?” before emitting a spurt of raucous laughter, sounding like a farting horse.
“Why a priest?” I remember asking, a little surprised.
“Show me one Banso man, just one, who’s never aspired for the priesthood”, he’d said, laughing hollowly. “Even Andy here”, he said, reaching for Andy’s jaw with a clenched fist, “loitered around Bishop Rogan College for a while before that Bayangi woman, what’s her name again? eh, ehe, Mamiyah, yes that’s her… before Mamiyah pulled down his pants and showed him what life is all about”, he said, roaring with laughter.
I hadn’t bothered to tell him I was one Nso man who has never aspired for the priesthood, for our Professor would never even have listened to me. Andy had earlier warned me that his friend was the type who would talk, insist that you listen to him, but never ever deemed it necessary to listen to you himself.
Another instance of the man’s insensitivity to other’s feelings came that first day I meet him. When Andy had told him my name, he had said: “Oh, that name does ring a bell!” and I could see the fingers of his mind lifting up one beer-soaked name after another, trying to locate my name among them? And it did, for he came out triumphant: “Oh, yes, I’ve read some of the things you write in the papers.”
“And what do you think about them?” Andy had asked.
“Not bad, not bad at all, if I do say so myself. In fact, it’s strange what a different picture of you I had on my mind from your writing.”
“How different?” I remember asking.
“Oh well; I thought I would meet a tall, hefty man with an imposing personality and aggressive voice.”
“So I imagine you’re somewhat disappointed with what you’ve seen, eh?” I asked.
“I guess you can say I am, yes. In fact, I wasn’t exactly expecting to meet a short, fat, pot-bellied Banso man with a greying, unkempt, Ho-Chi-Minh-like goatee, a rapidly receding forehead, and fat eyes roving so nervously behind thick lenses.”
Our man accompanied that less-than-flattering description of your humble servant with one long, hollow laugh that rang out loud above the booming speakers, making heads turn in our direction from every corner of the smoke-filled night club with its nicotine-yellowed walls.
I had cushioned that below-the-belt jab like a man, keeping my anger firmly on a leash. “Cool it”, I said to myself, “why flare up when Andy has already warned you that his friend is the type who shoots his mouth off anyhow, anywhere?”
So, last evening when he dismissed my article as incomplete because I hadn’t used any “interesting four-letter words in it”, I told him in a calm but firm voice that I would never want to see any of those words in print under my name. Did I make myself crystal clear?
“Okay! Okay! Don’t set the place on fire, man. Take it easy. Maybe you should take a bite of this”, he said, thrusting a small, round, smooth nut into my hand. “That’s bitter-kola, my man; it does wonders for the prick!”
He must have seen the look of shock and disapproval in my eyes for he suddenly burst out laughing: “Watch out, Andy, our Banso Pope will die of shame today!” he shouted, cigarette smoke bellowing from his chimney-like nostrils. “No, be serious, Martin, don’t tell me you’ve never tried bitter-kola before! Come-on, man”.
“Look here, Doc. I’ve never needed artificial lifts in that area”, I said, pushing his bitter-kola back into his hand.
To my surprise, he burst out laughing like a trumpet. “Oh, Martin, that’s a good one, Sir! Yes, a really good one, if I do say so myself. Don’t you have a way with words! How did you put it again, an artificial what? Lift?” he asked, his finger making a lifting gesture that bore the weight of obscenity.
“This man is truly incorrigible”, I thought to myself. Andy too looked at me and I could read the same thought in his eyes. We decided to ignore him and to go back to our beer and to more pleasant conversation topics.