(For Felix Nsom Bongjoh, August 25, 1978, Washington DC)
Friend, in moments of solitude, the lapping tongue of my mind keeps licking the juicy, creamy edges of receding memories. Memories of past dreams. Dreams that budded and flowered. Those that withered in the stifling grips of passing time. Memories of those days together along the sunny seashore in Man O’War Bay in Victoria where we toyed with youthful dreams as numerous as the sand on the beaches.
Those were days of few cares when we let others worry for us while we counted the stars of hope under a moon-drenched sky. Remember how we would snatch floating coconuts from the deadly fangs of furious waves? That rushing body of water would, to borrow your enviable words, arch on its spine like a cobra ready for a kill, before striking with determined fury the jutting, unyielding rocks of the coast. The bellicose waves did at times declare a precarious, unilateral truce. Then we would sit on the spiky rocks to listen to the sharp calls of the sea gulls as they sailed in from the mirage-shifting horizon.
Clearly discernible in the distance, were the glittering, mystery-wrapped roof-tops of Santa Isabel, the then capital of the Spanish island of Fernando Po – Panya to the ordinary Cameroonian. I remember how often we wondered what it would be like to live over there and to speak Spanish with its beautiful resonances. Before long, however, news started filtering out of how a few sons and daughters of that land had decided to visit mayhem on their own people in the name of political power. With that news, those once attractive roof-tops suddenly seemed smeared with sun-caked blood, and the once so musical calls of the sea-gulls began to sound like the awesome lament from the split throats of an oppressed people!
I also recall that those were days of human carnage in neighbouring Nigerian where Army Generals were washing their folly and lust for power in the blood of the poor and the innocent. How often did we see in the dancing horizon canoes stuffed with smuggled goods bobbing their way to Nigeria? Huge canoes in the vast shimmering sea, which our ever-vigilant customs officers claimed were ‘too small’ for them to see and intercept. Smugglers enriching themselves and their anonymous political protectors on a far-away human tragedy.
Even though we were still too young to understand the intricacies of the political football game in our backyard, our tender hearts were already beating in unison with those of the oppressed of the world. The raging sea, as if in protest over the senseless killings next door, would suddenly violate its own truce. We would then quickly skip off the rocks, giggling and mocking at the furious waves as they rushed for the shore and, in the felicitous words of a Caribbean poet, sank their teeth into the sandy beaches. We would occasionally see sailors waving at us as our laughter crashed on the decks of passing ships bound for which far-off lands? we could not tell.
I remember waking up one bright morning against the background of a humming, spume-filled sea, with the soft rays of the sun, crimson in colour, bathing the glittering dew (the left-over of a rainy night) on the deep, green grass. A sight-arresting scene that tickled the responsive feelers of my tender heart, giving birth to the first confusion of invading feelings that later matured into my first poem; a poem in which the sun’s rays fingered the sky-unveiled belly of a full sea groaning as if with child.
Friend, my mind lingers on the edges of those numerous discussions we had on life in town; on the softness of breasts we had so often heard about but not yet felt; on the loud boast of female conquests we knew only too well we didn’t make. All we then knew of the marvels of women was through hearsay, even though none of us would admit to that.
I remember those early days at the University of Yaoundé. When the unbridled enthusiasm of youthful dreams had mellowed with a touch of reality, we saw opening up before us a harsh world of cut-throat rivalry, of revenge and blatant administrative arrogance. What with so many hastily hushed-up rumours of juicy sex, sexual and sexualising scandals between female students and their male professors, resulting in mysterious twists-and-turns in examination results?
Then came those coffee-drinking days in the cafés of Southern France. Recall the first day we arrived in Paris that early September noon? We wondered at a continual grumble coming from below our window that turned out to be a drunk in urine-starched rags, clutching a half-finished bottle of wine in his armpit, relaxing in his vomit and challenging to a duel an impatient tail-wagging dog just a few feet away. Wasn’t that a surprise for a welcome in Paris of all places! We had not then known that there too the have-nots slept in their vomit with tail-twisting dogs salivating abundantly nearby, eagerly waiting to clean up the mess. Dogs participating in the widely publicised Keep-Paris-Clean Campaign.
Then that long and tedious train ride from Paris to Marseilles. A still longer column of doubt unrelentingly trailing its way like ants through the contours of our minds. Unasked questions on our destination hopping up and down the worry-carpeted floors of our minds. Aix-en-Province, our final destination, did, however, turn out to be a pleasant university town with its ever-teeming student population of every shade and colour. Red: Mao’s children heavily seasoning their discussions with lengthy quotations from the Chairman’s Red Book. Yellow: Omniscient, camera-toting Japanese tourists at every historic site. Black: Africans arm-in-arm with white women. Black men parading their conquests and inviting admiration with the wink of an eye. White: Starry-eyed white women in the hairy arms of their black lovers, defying the fury-propelled gazes of their scandalised society.
Summer in Aix-en-Provence was full of pleasant memories. What with those splendid, sunny afternoons spent in cafés overflowing with blue-jeaned, dope-snuffing students and tourists. Young men and women with aimlessness peeping out of hazy eyes. Remnants of the hippy era, bumming you for a franc. Drifters asleep in their urine-oiled clothes on the narrow sidewalks. Casualties of the “Flower-Children Era”, sagging under the weight of drugs, alcohol and the stale stench of unwashed bodies. Unshaven and raggedly-dressed remnants of the May 1968 University-Students-Revolution, staring with unseeing eyes into space, or loudly rebuilding, to the glee of onlookers the split hopes of those rock-and-insult hurling days in the fear-littered streets of Paris. Aborted poets and half-baked bards strumming away the eternity of poetic loneliness on out-of-key strings of graffiti-stained guitars, with stoned or indifferent crowd for audience. Summer-beautified, thinly-clad girls invitingly pushing out their generous bosoms in every street corner.
Friend, a few years later I found myself alone fingering the soft breasts of solitude in a cold, deserted Barajas International Airport in Madrid. Oh, Madrid, what a throbbing city ringed by snow-capped mountains! Madrid, pinched guitar strings outside bulging cafés. The high-pitched out-bursts of flamenco-dancing women and the bellowing of accompanying, hand-clapping male companions. Madrid, how crowds surge into your streets from every corner. How they seem to turn, and toss and twist round and round as if in some kind of merry-go-round! Madrid, what splendid memories I have of love so frantically received and so voraciously given in lazy, calm afternoons under a splendid, sensuously sunny, infinitely blue, cloud-free sky. Madrid, I remember those church-going women, clad in black, telling the long doubts of their sex-haunted days on long rosaries. !Qué escandalo, hombre! Madrid, the ugly side of you was when a frantically-furious, black-shod, black-shirted, pistol-waving, club-clutching, obscenity-tossing police force chased the still fugitive hammer-and-sickle banner down your crowded streets. It was still not the proper thing to be tagged a ‘communist’, or anything near to it, in the immediate post-Franco Spain!
Friend, it was again Paris for me. Paris, a tiny room with a dirty-rugged floor, faded-papered walls and a rusty, iron-barred window on the seventh floor. The famous chambre de bonne was all I could afford for room and board. No shower; just a rust-eaten tap from which water of undetermined colour dripped perpetually into a small sink, polished by countless scars from who could tell how many numerous fingers? No lift, just an age-blackened, spiralling staircase, lit by a rheumatic light bulb; the walls glistening with the sweat of open, un-flushed toilets. Paris, one pair of leaky shoes in winter. Intestines grumbling and churning in the grips of hunger. Paris, poem-spewing days with my mind belching withered images, twirling in despair, coiling in uncertainty and recoiling in the froth of beer. Paris, I recall those tea-drinking afternoons almost always followed by generous love-making sessions. The fusion of the rich odour of sex and unwashed socks.
Paris, how in vain I searched for that proverbial beauty of yours in spring when metaphors, similes, rhymes and rhythm are rumoured to waltz jubilantly on the mirthful tongues of poets; when romantic tales are said to twirl off the nibs of writers’ pens like smoke from abandoned, ash-trayed cigarettes in noisy cafés; when the brush in an artist’s discoloured fingers are said to rainbow the hopes of mankind on canvas! Where was your legendary beauty, Paris?
It was in Paris, friend, that I heard you had left for the USA. Hearing of your departure made me think of your exquisite verses. I remember trying in vain to grasp the reasons for your poetic silence. I have been waiting for the sweet melody of your beautiful verses, but somehow it is only my lonely bird I hear chirping weakly down the tree-lined avenues of my mind. Let’s hope this is only a momentary recess, friend.
Then I too flew into Washington, DC that muggy, summer afternoon in the month of August. Fresh from Paris, I was still fingering the ailing dollar with visible discomfort. Then your phone call one heavy, stifling morning. And then the reunion! The lengthy talk on the past, memories of many a friend of yesterday as we reclined over bubble-belching bottles of beer. Then you left for Florida, ceding me your apartment; a very brotherly gesture, indeed. Things did not quite work out the way we had thought, friend; but there’s one comfort, though. Despair is a word that has never seeped into our vocabulary. For, right now, I can see, on the horizon of my mind, the day this dark pall enveloping our sunshine will be blown away by the wind of hope.