The summer in Madrid can be quite hot. The only redeeming factor is the mercifully cool breeze that sometimes blows down into the city from the surrounding Sierra mountains. This afternoon, Jesus Ndongo and I went to visit our friend Bassey. Like me he too lives in Moncloa, although he is much closer to the University than me. In fact, he doesn’t even have to take the bus when he goes to class as the language institute he attends is a stone’s throw away.
His room is a lot bigger than mine. It is also a lot neater. That perpetual stale smell of beer and cigarette, which hangs in my room as permanent as the crucifix at the corner, is absent from his room. He drinks but doesn’t smoke much. Lucky him!
From his wall, hang posters of African freedom fighters. On the wall directly facing you as you sit on the table, the huge face of the assassinated Guinean leader, Amilcar Cabral, stares down at you from behind horn-rimmed glasses. His goatee is strewn with grey. Directly above Bassey’s bed, a Soweto school child is skipping to safety, bearing a struck-down friend whose head is drooping like that of a shot partridge.
“The first casualty of the 1976 Soweto uprising in the Apartheid kingdom”, is how Jesus described that picture, before adding, in his characteristic dramatic manner, that a revolution oiled by the blood of the young is bound to be a revolution frightening in its potency. Such a revolution can never be quelled by bullets, only by victory, he likes to boast.
The pleasantly warm summer day slowly wore itself out. We lifted up one topic of discussion after another, dissecting and examining it in detail before shelving it in the vaults of our minds. Beer and wine greased the hinges of our oratory. Smoke unwound itself lazily from our cigarettes. Jesus pulled out some weeds from his bag, which helped to season the evening even more, relaxing our minds and making them all the more receptive to the wails and sobs of the jazz saxophone oozing out of the record spinning on Bassey’s turn-table. Bassey, a real sucker for jazz sounds.
Submissively, we yielded to the grand masters of jazz: Charlie Parker; Dexter Gordon; Miles Davis, yes, Miles, what an accomplished artist! Then came the incomparable Louis Armstrong, ‘Satchmo’, to the jazz connoisseur; then there was Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpet wizard with inflated jaws; and then there was Billy Holliday, that lady singing the blues with such a haunting, tragedy-laden voice, or wailing over strange fruits hanging from trees, a reference to blacks lynched in the Southern part of America by the dreaded Ku Klux Klan. Then Nina Simone made a dramatic appearance, oh what a lady! How tall and proud she stands and how violently she castigates the society that could so cruelly eliminate such great souls as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Junior! “The King is dead!” she shouts before packing her bag and heading for France, which she made her home. From Canada, we saluted Oscar Peterson, that huge Canadian jazz musician, a real monster on the piano, whom one critic has described as a man with a near flawless virtuosity. Wow!
Those fellows were really reaching deep into the depths of their souls, marching across the Middle Passage, fondling the blood-stained walls of the infamous slave-forts studding the West African coastline, especially in Ghana and on Gorée, off the coast of Senegal; a heart-renting voyage through 400 years of history characterized by the whiplash, four centuries of humiliation induced by the searing slashes of the cane in the cotton, tobacco and sugarcane plantations of the Americas and the West Indies; yes, through four hundred long, tragic years of history those jazz men and women desperately searched for their lost Africa. Boy, oh boy! How badly we all longed for home!
I told my friends about my new conquest, Lupe, and how she had mistaken my country for a town. Then I recounted the incident in Paris between my companion, Jules Mbarga, and the old French lady.
“In any case, the fault lies not with that woman but rather with the French government”, said Jesus. His reasoning was that if the French government didn’t deem it necessary to educate its people about its colonies or former colonies, then the people themselves are not to blame.
“There is one thing imperialists governments the world over do marvellously well”, he continued; “they deliberately keep their people in the dark about their activities abroad. They know that once their people come to know just what they are doing over there, they won’t let them continue with it. Look at what happened in America; once the American people came to know just how deeply involved their government was in Vietnam, they took to the streets in their thousands, calling on their government to bring the boys back home. Your friend thought that since Cameroon was colonised, or rather partly colonised by France – I believe the British were also down there – the French people just had to know where Cameroon is. But he should have blamed the French government for failing to properly educate its people about its colonies. It knows that if its people knew just how badly the treated Africans in their colonies, the French people themselves would oppose it.”
“In any struggle”, he continued, “you must be careful to make a clear distinction between the people of the aggressor country and the government of that country. If you direct the jets of your fury against the ordinary people, instead of their government, then, my friend, you are definitely on the wrong track. Look, I have a declaration of solidarity here from the women of Vietnam to the American women at the height of the American aggression in that country. I’ll show you, if only I can find it in this bag.”
That was Jesus doing what he loves to do best, talk politics. We let him talk without interrupting him. That was his moment and we wanted him to have it. When the said declaration of solidarity came out of that bag, it was in a pitiful state. It looked as if it had been seized from a dog’s mouth. But his point had been made and we agreed with him.
Jesus Ndongo. Twenty-six years of age but, from his looks, you won’t hesitate one second to add ten or fifteen years on top. A young man with a hope crushed and buried years ago in his homeland. A boy in whom some had seen a promising leader of tomorrow, is now a drifter who roams the cities of a foreign land, foraging for food in garbage cans and sleeping in the hall ways of infamous hotels, because a political demon is at large in his home land.
Jesus Ndongo is the walking tragedy you see in most European cities. Stay around African students for a while, learn to know them better and you’ll see many of them with similar unhealed scars in their hearts, similar cracks in their minds, similar fears in their eyes; the same frustrations and the same solutions: drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution.
There are Jesus Ndongos in their hundreds in Paris, London, Lisbon, Marseilles... I know of Paris and Marseilles especially, because I have lived there. I saw hordes of them, listened to their complaints, shared their fears and frustrations and, at times, their meagre meals. Come winter, some of them sleep in the toilets of Cités Universitaires, if the authorities would let them. Where they won’t, the Africans all join the noisy tramps of the Paris subway. Sons and daughters of Africa with a relative held hostage at home or massacred by a self-styled “saviour” of the Nation.
Girls and boys alike, taking to prostitution, drug addiction or bowing to alcoholism because an angry leader has decided that their parents would no longer be allowed to send money to their sons and daughters who have become what the State-run media in some African countries loudly brandish as “the enemies of our revolution.”
These thoughts have been coursing through my mind ever since Bassey called me early this evening to tell me that Jesus had left Madrid for Barcelona. He had phoned Bassey earlier in the day to tell him that he was no longer feeling at ease in Madrid, and that he thought Barcelona might give his restless soul the peace he was searching for.
He had asked Bassey to greet me and to explain to me that he was a man on the move and that he had to go. He had tried to reach me by phone to explain this to me in person why he had to go, but I hadn’t been home. He extended his appreciation for the help we had given him over the past several months.
That is one young man who lives on the decisions taken on the spur of the moment. The past he tries to bury in drugs and alcohol. Then he waits for the future to unveil its mysteries to him. How sad, indeed!
Coming up in Chapter Nine, Bassey leaves Madrid and I'm sure I won't be around for too long either.