By Martin Jumbam
Hi there! My name is Leinteng Basha. I am from the Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa. Up until a few months ago, I was a student in Madrid, Spain. Like most African students, who are alone and lonely in European cities, I have fondled, and have been extensively fondled by solitude. In the many hours of loneliness and pain that characterized my stay in the Spanish capital, I found solace in keeping a diary.
When my friend Martin, who owns this blog, read a few pages from my diary, he became convinced that others would likely enjoy reading it as well. Being the jolly good fellow he’s always been, he suggested, and I gratefully accepted, to post my diary, chapter by chapter, on his blog. Here’s Chapter One.
January 1 is the traditional day of resolutions. I made one of mine as well. I decided to enter my thoughts in a diary. This was not a decision made on the spur of the moment. No. It has always been my intention to immortalise my thoughts on paper. Many times I have felt the need to strangle on paper those very frequent moments of loneliness when the dikes hemming in my feelings burst loose, flooding my mind with tempting acts of madness. I am also thinking of those numerous times when rebellious thoughts go on a rampage, pitching themselves against each other, putting up uncontrollable skirmishes and clashes, and throwing up barricades of stormy anger along the ever foggy, tortuous and pothole-laden streets of my mind. I have often felt the urge too to store away on paper those few moments of calm and peace when, on my back in bed, I watch nicotine-pregnant smoke coil and spiral off the smouldering butt of my cigarette. I cannot, of course, forget those rare but exquisite moments when words of love tickle my ear and calm strides with authority among rioting, mind-splitting thoughts, flogging them to silence and pulling a sensuous cloak draped in rainbow colours over my life.
However, my first day’s entry is rather terse. It merely states: “A cold and misty day”. That laconic phrase attests to the difficulty I unexpectedly encountered in my first attempt to write. When I made the decision to keep a diary, hundreds of metaphor-woven thoughts were jubilantly somersaulting in the bulging sacks of my mind. I quickly un-capped my pen and pressed its nib on the paper. Like tears, the ink began to flow. A generous flood of tears gluing my feelings onto the virgin paper.
The nib of my pen had hardly picked up the thread-ends of the beautiful and heart-lifting sentences that were well-mapped out on my mind, when I began to notice something a little unusual. Those sentences were all crash-landing on paper, collapsing in lumps. At one point, I wrestled valiantly with the stubborn edge of a naughty simile, striving desperately to link it up with a flashy metonymy I had subdued a few minutes earlier. No luck; my slimy thought process decided to play a trick on me. Like fish, images sprinted out of the roaring depths of my mind but then just as quickly they rushed back to hide in the dark and desolate corners where the broom of my imagination could hardly reach.
I watched impotently as thread-ends of the recalcitrant thoughts I was trying to weave into a mat of coherent feelings on paper were sprinting back to hide in the foggy and turbulent corners of my mind. It was then that I admitted my defeat by putting a line through what I had written, for it all sounded insipid and stale. As a compromise, I wrote the laconic phrase: “A cold and misty day.”
Helpless, I lit my fourth cigarette of the morning. I took a deep drag on it and heard, rather than saw, the glowing tip eating its way up the length of my cigarette. As I took a still deeper drag, the burning sounds reminded me of the noise of burning, dry grass. A light breeze filtered into my stale room through a crack on the window-sill and quickly whipped away the puffs of smoke from my cigarette. I sat smoking for about five minutes, trying to figure out the best way to quell my mutinous thoughts.
I looked down on my un-capped pen, limp as a broken spear, and there it was, shedding its sticky tears on the first page of my diary. A black smudge on the first page of my diary will always serve as a reminder of my first day’s humiliating defeat over a blank sheet of paper; the day I bowed down to my evasive thoughts, leaving only the nib of my pen to weep for me while I filled my lungs with nicotine-dripping smoke.
I was absentmindedly flipping through an old American magazine, my attention elsewhere, when the lengthened ash from my cigarette dropped on the open page. I pushed the ash away and there, staring haughtily at me was an anti-smoking advertisement, which consisted of an ash-tray with many cigarette butt-ends crushed into it. In bold letters, it asked: “Is this how your breath smells?”
For some unexplained reason, I felt a lump of anger walking its way up my throat. “What right do these Americans think they have to tell people how their breaths should smell?” I felt waves of anger hitting my throat and in one swift movement, I crushed the smouldering butt of my cigarette right on picture of the over-flowing ash tray itself. Smoke, like a twisted spindle, unwound itself coyly from the page as fire sparks began to eat a small hole on the page. It was then that my anger subsided. It was as if I had burnt a hole through my humiliating defeat over a virgin sheet of paper.
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This morning, I again picked up my diary for a post-mortem examination of my defeat of yesterday. The major reason was my impotence to deflower a virgin sheet of paper. My anger was certainly all the more intense as it hadn’t occurred to me that a man armed with the determination and enthusiasm that were my weapons then, could be so easily floored by his attempts to give his eagerness verbal or written expression.
Today, the second day of my writing career, is quite a different ball game altogether. I feel much more relaxed than I was yesterday. I have been able to look at yesterday’s failure in a serene manner, with reason fondling and taming my ego. That may be the only way I’m ever going to be a writer; no unnecessary out-bursts of emotions; no time for anonymous enemies of smokers naively asking us to give up what is already second-nature to many of us. Lonely crusaders against smoking who are probably former smokers themselves with lungs already riddled beyond repairs with cancer tumours. Who knows if they haven’t all died of cancer already.
Today, Madrid is even colder. Flogging the metallic ribs of this fog-invaded city is a lip-splitting wind that courses down from the snow-capped, undulating Sierra, the mountains that ring this city like a noose around the condemned neck of a prisoner. Those mountains belch columns of a grumbling, furious and voracious wind that licks every exposed part of your body. It seems to have a particular love for my fleshy lips, taking an obscene delight in digging deep crevices through the thick layer of vaseline-coating on them. Oh, how I hate jokes that make me smile or laugh out loud! The merciless wind seems to wait for just such a moment to plunge its razor-concealed tongue into the tiny cracks on my patched lips. When that happens, salty blood trickles down, hardening just as quickly for the cold wind leaves nothing liquid on its path.
I have a hobby which my friends don’t understand. I like to watch the Sierra at the horizon because they remind me of the hills of my childhood years. Up in the grassland region of Cameroon where I was born and bred, saw-toothed hills twist and turn and rise and fall in huge reels that look like endless waves winding away further than the eye can ever see. The hills of my land carry swift, flowing rivers like heavy loads on their shoulders and overturn them into deep, hollow valleys where they bash their heads in spectacular drives against jutting rocks.
I have often stood on top of one of those hills of my childhood years and watched as herd-boys drove their never-hurrying herd of cattle along the flanks of neighbouring hills. Another beautiful spectacle is the sight of long-necked and long-legged cattle-egrets tailing and landing clumsily on the calm backs of the grazing cattle.
The majestic hills of my land. In the moonlight, their shadows seem to sway ominously to the noisy rhythm from down the river-churned valleys. At night, the clash of the rivers against the jutting, resistant rocks joins hands with the chilling hooting of window-eyed owls, the guttural croaking of hopping frogs, the howling of blood-raving dogs, the groan and grumbling of roving winds to give our land a murmuring sound that sends a chill down your spine.
However, in the morning, just after the rains have purged the air of dust, the soft rays of a rising sun robe the glittering dew on the green grass in a multitude of rainbow colours. It is then that you see the captivating beauty of the saw-toothed hills of my land. Hills that tower above the land like giants tossing out their overflowing robes to the winds as they rush towards the horizon where they embrace the equally majestic Adamawa high-lands, and together, hand in hand, they head for neighbouring Nigeria. A beauty that is refreshing, a beauty that paralyses by its majesty!
When I watch the mountains around Madrid, I don’t take any notice of their snow-covered tops. It is not their winter-scorched sides I gaze at. No. Through those mountains, I see a long column of cattle winding its way lazily over the hills of my land. I hear the rhythmic chants of herd-boys rising and falling with familiar regularity. I pay no attention to the pollution-stained mist hooding the Spanish capital. I don’t care either for the ray-less sun that seems to perch so dexterously on the tips of the naked branches of winter-flogged trees at the horizon. All I see is a dark, coiling smoke from a brush fire in the dry season. I hear, not the grumbling winds, but the shouts of hunters urging their dogs to flush out animals from behind their hiding thickets. My fingers do tighten their grip on my pen, as if on a spear, as I get ready to pin down my capricious and evasive thought.