I probably didn't tell you that my diary contains ten chapters. We are now in Chapter Five, which I dedicate entirely to my family. In it, you will meet and shake hands with my father, my mother, my two brothers, Litila and Basha, and my sister, Yefon and her husband, Banka. I pause to think of my family after receiving a letter from my sister, Yefon. Share it with me, will you?
“Everyone at home is well”, said my sister in her letter. “Since you’ve decided never to write us, we can only assume that you are well.” I knew that was coming. Whenever I pick up an envelope with my sister’s writing on it, I can tell, without opening it, what its contents are. My silence is always viewed as a sign of gradual detachment from the family. I try to make them understand that letter-writing has always been a difficult task for me to perform. They don’t understand and I don’t blame them at all. I don’t understand why I feel so lazy these days either.
When I was a student in Paris and Marseilles some years ago, I wrote home fairly often, especially to Banka, my sister Yefon’s husband, whom I encouraged to write the General Certificate of Education ‘A’ Level examination, which he did with brilliant results. My sister had deeply appreciated my concern for the welfare of her family. However, these days whenever I pick up a pen and paper to write them a letter, laziness starts to crawl irresistibly over my determination and, before long, it is triumphantly planting a flag of victory in the ridges of my mind. In such cases, I do end up lighting a cigarette.
My sister’s letter has left the shores of my mind awash with the waves of childhood memory. Layers of memory neatly stacked away in the vaults of my mind, which I occasionally revisit to relive the victories and failures of the past from which I draw sustenance to battle the perplexities of the present in hope of steeling myself against the uncertainties of tomorrow; a tomorrow that will hopefully be better than yesterday and today.
You may want to know something about my family. Well, I come from a relatively small family. I am talking about my immediate family: my mother, my father, my brothers and my sister. It is hard to think of one’s family as being small when one includes such near and far relatives as uncles, aunts, cousins...
I feel like talking only about my immediate family. Litila is the eldest of us all. He is twenty-seven years old. I am the second and I’m twenty-five years of age. Yefon, our only sister, is twenty-three. She is now a mother of two sons. Her husband, Banka, is now a very close member of the family and I can’t think of our family without him. It is as if he has been with us from time immemorial. He is a primary school teacher in Nkar, our village. He is twenty seven years of age.
Then there is Basha, the youngest of us all. He is named after my father. He is twenty. He is in the Cameroon College of Arts, Science and Technology in Bambili, some eight miles or so, from Bamenda Town. He is preparing to write the General Certificate of Education (G.C.E.) Advanced Level next June. He is in the science section. In my days in the same school some six years ago, I studied History, French and English Literature. Numbers have always scared the hell out of me.
Basha is one fellow who adores numbers. He has an eye on computer sciences. He tells us that since computers are already ruling the world, he wants to be one of those at the helm of things. What ambition! Basha is truly mulish, and once his mind is set on something, he sticks to it firmer than a leech.
I remember how he would say annoying things to me because he knew Mama would always side with him. She would scold you for hitting her son’s head and Basha would pretend to scream even louder. Mama would then rock him on her lap and sing lullabies to her son who had been so unjustly wronged. That would always drive me up the wall and I would storm out of the house in fury.
Litila, my elder brother, is quite different from Basha. While Basha is aggressive, loud-mouthed, never backing out of any fight and always being the first to start one, Litila is the calm and very easy-going type. In fact, so slow that when he’s around, you have to slow down your rhythm of activity to suit his. Don’t waste your time urging him on to act more quickly. He’ll walk about the house unconcerned, whistling to himself as if you weren’t even there! By Jove! does that ever drive me crazy!!
Like me, he is a graduate of the University of Yaoundé where he had studied History. He then went to the Yaounde-based International Relations Institute of Cameroon (IRIC) for international relations studies. Today, he works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it’s likely that he’ll be posted to a diplomatic post abroad. He’s eagerly looking forward to such an appointment. He’s a sharp fellow, graduating among the first three from the University and among the first five from IRIC.
His main problem, and this Mama never ceases to sing in his ears, is women. He also drinks like a hole. I’m not saying that he is worse than me in that respect for I drink too; I also smoke, which he doesn’t, and far be it from me to claim that I am indifferent to the charms of the daughters of Adam and Eve. But, should one really take such things to extremes?
I recall that when I first went to the University, he was in his last year there. He had suggested that I could cut down my expenses by moving in with him and sharing his one-bedroom house. I thought that was a marvellous but I ran out of there at the end of the first term. That fellow can hardly go for a day without a woman! Good heavens! He would come back home late at night completely drunk, yet he would be trailing a spindle-legged whore with a wasp-like waist behind him. I found that unbearable indeed.
Yefon, our sister, dropped out of a commercial school after barely two years when she fell in love. School had never really meant much to her. When she fell in love and told us she wanted to marry, Mama was beside herself with joy. Nowadays girls are taking more and more to prostitution and if your daughter can find a man to cling to, you must support her, she reasoned. Since then, her husband has become, as Mama puts it, “the loving father of my grand children.”
Indeed Banka is a good man, calm and soft-spoken; always there when Mama wants help. Always there to repair a leaking roof, or split a log of wood, or just to talk and laugh with Mama. Mama always says that her family is growing bigger and bigger. She is worried that neither Litila nor I is in any hurry to take a wife yet. But she understands when you tell her that you can’t possibly run a home and go to school. Then she says: “Hurry up and let me see more of my grand kids before I finally join your father.”
Papa died about twelve years ago. I had just turned thirteen and was preparing to go to secondary school. He had been bed-ridden for about seven years before his death. The only real picture of him that looms clear in my mind is one of an emaciated man in bed with blankets covering his body up to his chest with a forlorn look on his face and a sad smile whenever you sat by his bed and took his bony hand in yours. Another picture is one of him lying on a bed in front of our house, a fly-whisk in hand, watching as we ran noisily from one corner of our compound to another. He would call out to warn you against running too fast, or ask that you move a log out of the way so as not to trip on it.
At the foggy corner of my mind, I can still see a fading picture of Papa when he was well and strong. I see him a tall man, not too fat and not too lean either, coming back home in the evening, a load of firewood on his head. He was an excellent trapper. I remember him bringing home each morning just as we were waking up, his catch of squirrels, porcupines, grass-eaters, etc. I recall that Litila and I would always argue whether Papa ever slept at all. He would send my brother, my sister and me to bed, then stay up late talking with Mama. When we woke up in the morning, there he was coming home, feet wet with dew, his usual catch wrapped in banana or cocoyam leaves. He would often call Litila or me to go to a neighbour’s house with some of the catch and the happy neighbour would praise the generosity of the man whom everyone acknowledged had been endowed by nature with unparalleled skills as a trapper.
Papa always had something new to do around the compound and in our house. He would always find the grass layer on this or that side of our grass-thatched, three-bedroom house too thin. He would then climb onto the roof on a bamboo ladder and add more layers of grass on it. He would take your bamboo-bed apart and put it back again because the bamboo nail at the corner looked too weak, or because there was a crack on one of the bamboos that could harm a child. He would always find something wrong with Mama’s basket which had taken him a week, or more, to weave. Then he would begin another one bigger or smaller than the first one. He was a man in perpetual quest of perfection.
I never ever heard my parents quarrel. Of course, there were times when we felt that nerves were taut, that feelings were swollen or even slightly bruised, but we were never witness to any outburst of violence, verbal or physical, as was the case in some of our friends’ homes. We were perhaps too young then and too concerned with playing in the yard than listening to Papa and Mama, but coming home was always a delight as we always found the two of them with a smile on their lips.
I don’t recall how it happened exactly, but I remember hearing Papa complaining of pain in his knee joints. He started to find it difficult to walk long distances. When he gave up what was almost second nature to him – trapping – I then knew that things were not good at all. We began to run out of meat and it was a little rough to do without that which had become an integral part of our diet.
With each passing day, the pains in Papa’s knees intensified. For the next seven years he was to remain in bed, an invalid; a strong and active man had suddenly been reduced to a vegetable. A loving and loved father from whose eyes the light of life was gradually fading out. Traditional doctors came and went. Some, just mere quacks, charging a high fee and then running away as soon as you turned your back to them. Others, sincere and devoted men, who charged little or nothing at all, and who did not hide their concern, and even frustration, in the face of such a mysterious illness which could so easily incapacitate an active and respected son of the people. Then came the turn of Western medicine and the result wasn’t any more encouraging.
The strain was beginning to show on Mama’s face. For the first time ever, I saw her usual self-confidence start to abandon her, and strains of distress began to walk their way into every furrow of her beautiful face. Many people even predicted that she would go mad soon. Those who thought Mama would run mad did not know the woman they were talking about. She seemed to have accepted our father’s illness as a challenge which fate had flung in her face and firmly decided to rise up to the occasion.
I still have in my mind’s eye the picture of Mama during those seven years of pain. She would rise up each morning, take our father, her husband, to the bathroom, wash him and sit him down by the fireside. Then she would wake us up, wash us and prepare us for school. Then she would go about her house chores, whistling and singing as if the work she was called upon to do was the lightest any woman could have had the luck to do. She would interrupt her singing just to talk to Papa or to greet a neighbour bringing us food.
Mama would give you a spanking on your behind if you did something really stupid and Papa would call out from his bed: “Layir, that’s not the way to beat a child. What if you sprain his back.” Mama would answer back impatiently, while still going about her chores: “He can only be your child. You talk of a man who spoilt his children with over-indulgence.”
We knew, of course, that Mama did not mean what she said. If you fell ill, she would run to a neighbour’s house to get some medicine for you. She would urge you to get well quickly for her children, the embodiment of courage, could never afford to stay in bed while the children of the nobodys were out there pushing out their bony chests and occupying territory that was rightly her children’s. Were you not her right arm whose hand should be clutching a spear ready to pin down a fleeing animal for the evening meal, just like your daddy once did? No, this could not happen to her own child; to the children of others, yes, but not to hers. With that, you were soon up and running about, to her utmost delight.
For seven years, she was a mother and a father to us the children and also to our father, her husband. I can hardly think of anyone in the village who did not speak of Mama in less than glorious terms. Who is the girl of today who’d agree to sit by a bedridden husband for seven years? the elders would always wonder, their voices dripping with great admiration for Mama.
The day Papa passed away, Mama revealed another side to her personality which we hadn’t been aware of then. To our greatest surprise, she extemporised a heart-stirring eulogy to our father, coated in the poetry of unblemished love. That scene is still among the most noble images of that day that still occasionally visits the shores of my mind, especially when I let the arms of solitude in these alien lands encircle me in their desperate embrace.
I remember that our house was packed full as relatives and neighbours came and went. Mama stood over the shrouded body of our father and addressed him in words majestic by their simplicity, and which have marked me for life.
“Basha”, she began in a slow, emotion-drenched voice, “your children and I are here beside your bed. We have been beside this bed by your side for the past seven years. However, today is the last day we stand here this way, for you are no longer with us.”
“Basha, you are the tree in whose shadow I walked with your children until one day, and for no known reason, its leaves withered away.”
“Basha, you were the strong arm your children and I had clung to in times of trials, but then one day, we still don’t understand why, it shrivelled away.”
"Basha, as you go, know that your children and I feel like chicks without their mother. A powerful wind has blown away the umbrella under which my children and I have been sheltering from the wind.”
“But”, she continued, slowly turning away from the bed to face the assembled crowd, “the women of the land, all these women here assembled with us, united with us in grief, are the mothers of these children as well. The elders of the land here assembled; will take care of us; these men with white hair on their heads and chin; these men who, hours after they have walked past by, the aura of their presence still lingers behind them. Yes, these men take these children as theirs as well; they are no longer mine alone.”
“These children”, she said pointing at us as if introducing us to whoever did not know us, “are the children of the people, the children we have given to our people, that they may grow up strong and walk along the path you had traced for them, the path of upright deeds, the path of rectitude, the path of truth.”
On and on went my mother, lifting up layers of emotion-fraught images to describe the times she had spent with my father as a wife and as a mother of his children. What a great man my father had been. A man poor in material wealth but how very rich in the warmth of human kindness! How he had cared for her and her children and how she in turn had been happy to take care of him.
It was then that I saw many an elder of the land furtively wipe away a tear and men, who called themselves men, turn their faces to the wall because they did not want us, their children, not to mention their wives present, to see the tears glistening in their eyes. Where has it ever been heard in Nsoland that a man, who has ever called himself a man, has ever let a woman see a tear glistening in his eyes?! Abomination of all abominations!!
Today, twelve years to the day Papa passed way, Mama is still as vigorous as ever. Before leaving for Madrid last October, I went home to greet my family.
“As I told you the first time you were leaving us for those strange lands”, Mama said, pointing at me accusingly before I even knew what it was all about, “don’t bring home any of their bad habits. No one will help you take them off your shoulder.” Everyone was there that day. My sister Yefon’s son, Veyu, just a year and some months old, kept playing with one of my buttons, complaining noisily because he couldn’t pinch it out as easily as he would’ve liked. From his ever gaping mouth, interminable saliva, the purest I have ever seen, drooled all over my shirt.
“If only he can write often.” That was my sister. Her only complaint has always been that I never write, at least not as often as she would’ve liked me to. She loves to run around the village with an envelope bearing a foreign stamp or a postcard, telling everyone how her brother in the white man’s land is a great genius.
“Look, take my word for it, I will inundate you with so many letters it will take you a year to read all of them, I said, sounding unconvincingly.”
“Where?” she said with an ironic chuckle and a sigh. Her husband asked her to give me a chance, and that I might actually mean what I was saying this time.
“He will write!” Mama cut in quite categorically. That was just like her. She never asks you to do something, she orders you to do it. She didn’t forget her usual order to Litila and me to make sure we eat before travelling.
“Are you going by air?” she asked.
“Yes, of course, how else do you expect ...”
“Then don’t forget to eat before boarding that thing”, she cut in.
Everyone burst out laughing. She feigned seriousness for a few seconds before laughing too.
“But Mama, all these years I have been travelling I always eat when I have to.”
“Knowing my children, I’m not sure I can bet my head on that.”
Our laughter rang out far into the night. It was like going back twenty years in life, taking a smooth ride down memory lane to those care-free days of infancy. Those days we spent playing on the dusty road that runs through our village. We would crawl on the dust before a rushing truck would chase us away with the frightening blare of its horn.
Those were days we spent playing hide-and-seek inside the coffee farm or behind the age-less kolanut trees, only rushing home late in the evening to draw water for the evening meal.
I also remember those days along the river Mensai that rushes down the hills in such a noisy and quarrelsome manner. Down the valley, it looks like a shimmering snake, coiling and recoiling and knocking itself against the unyielding rocks and bubbling out in foams. We knew that somewhere far away, perhaps in another land, the river Mensai linked hands with the river Tsemkan and together they made their way, silent and tame, to the sea.
How can I think of life in the village of my childhood without lingering for a minute longer on those numerous festivals in the land when the king of my people would summon the elders to his palace to discuss the latest wishes for our ancestors. Drums would pulsate either in slow, majestic rhythms or in violent gyrations as the feet of the dancers weaved a rhythm in one huge loom of melody. The enticing voices of the women would rise to fondle the hidden folds of the sky above. The dancing would go on far into the night until, as one African poet so exquisitely puts it, the feet of the dancers would grow heavy, and heavy would grow the tongues of the singers.
I clearly recall what an enchanting moment it always was for us, the children, as we ran one errand after another for the elders of the people. After each errand, an elder would tell you what a good boy you were; the son of a great man who had never let down his people; a boy who was going to pick up his father’s name and, through great deeds, glue it forever on the admiring lips of the people. With that compliment, you beamed a proud smile before running off to join your friends playing in the yard.
Mother Nostalgia, I have become a mere toy in your hands. Do with your humble servant as you please. When I am alone and lonely in these foreign lands, I like to barricade myself behind closed doors to suck the slippery tongue of memory.
Chapter Six is coming up. Don’t go away.