By Timothy Ogene
We sat in silence wondering what had happened to Dan. A motorbike screeched along leaving a long trail of thick smoke, and a reverberating wail that rang in my ears for a while. My left toes started to itch, I reached for the exact spot, but realized the itch ran deep in my bones, and seemed to percolate from my follicles. I ignored the itch and lifted my eyes to a rabble of bats flying across the evening sky; they formed a long, staggering canopy that expanded and dispersed like the marks of aeroplanes in the clouds.
Pa Suku walked inside, leaving me to process the weight of our chat. I tossed our talk from side to side hoping to comprehend what was wrong, or what was right. They will not understand him, Pa Suku had said. Not in this lifetime, at least. Understand what? I asked. He cocked his head, as if he was waiting for the answer to trickle in, and then he sighed. He was still waiting for that answer when the sudden silence fell on us, and on the blocks. If not for the motorbike, one would have thought the blocks were a deserted plain bereft of life.
Pa Suku emerged with a book and his radio. He ran through the local stations. Boma Erekosima was cracking a joke and concluding the news in Pidgin English. He turned it off and asked if I was still worried about Dan. Then he spoke to himself in a sigh, “Poor Dan, he doesn’t even know why the world is turning against him.” Then he turned to me, and showed me the book in his hands. “Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin,” he said, sounding like a teacher introducing a new topic. “I read this book a long time ago.” He crossed his legs and tapped his bare feet.
“Can I touch it?” I asked
“Feel free,” he said, and offered me the book.
I took the paperback. Sniffed it. It smelt old like our door frame. The pages were not white, but almost brown like old books. I ran my hands on the cover, over the bold face of a man. “It was a gift from Dr Isodje,” Pa Suku was saying.
“What is it about?” I asked. My eyes were still on the cover. I was wondering how the cover design, so intricate, became a permanent matter. What technology did they use here? I turned to the first page and read out loud, not without hesitations between words and sentences, though: I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.
“What is it about?” I asked again, and continued to read. I finished the whole paragraph in silence. He did not answer straight away. When I looked up, his face was a volcano of smiles, beaming and flaring in black conflagrations. I think I saw something more in his eyes, something that made me wonder if he wished I were his son. I did wish he were my father.
“You will go far,” he said through his fiery smile. “I will start with the author. Baldwin was an African-American writer. African because his ancestors were from here; American because he was born there, in America.”
“Black-American?” I asked, more of a proclamation of my knowledge.
“Yes, Black-American. He looked just like you and I. But his life and experiences were different, far different from ours. Hold on, I have a book with an illustration of Baldwin. One second.” He went back inside. I continued to turn the book from side to side. I wrote the title author’s name in sand. I wiped the name and replaced it with mine. Then I wiped the title with my left feet and replaced it with Dan’s Room, and swore that I would, when I was as wise as Pa Suku, write a book with that title: Dan’s Room.
Pa Suku returned with another book.
“Here,” he said. “That’s James Baldwin on the cover.”
I handed him the Baldwin and took Stanley Macebuh’s James Baldwin: A Critical Study. The man on the cover looked like my father: the lips, pursed and drawn; the forehead, furrowed, with a receding hairline; the eyes, staring into nothingness as though in trance. “He looks like my father,” I said.
“I bet he does. Now, back to your question.” I thought he had forgotten. “Giovanni’s Room is about a young American man in Paris. He is torn between his love for a girl and his strong affection for Giovanni, a young man like himself. I bet it’s too much for you now. But remember the title and the author. Dan reminds me of this story. The circumstances and experiences are different, but there is something there that refreshes my memory, or rather reminds me of my own life.”
I continued to study Baldwin’s face.
“The whole story takes place in Paris. Paris in France.” He paused to wait for my response knowing how the names of places peaked my curiosity. “It is a sad but instructive story.”
I returned the Macebuh and retrieved the Baldwin. This little exchange fascinated me. I wondered if it was how one grew into a well spoken, all-wise person. I flipped through the pages and stopped where two italicized, unfamiliar words caught my attention. Le milieu, it read. “What is this?” I asked, tapping both words.
“Le milieu!” he exclaimed in an exaggerated excitement that eclipsed my question. “Le milieu is the French for the environment, or surrounding, depending on how you use it. There are lots of French words in that book. Like I said, the story unfolds in Paris. Reading it made me feel like I prowled the Parisian underworld drinking in the pubs and staggering home on the sidewalks.”
“They speak French in Paris, right?”
“Yes, French in France.”
“They also speak French in Rwanda, right?”
“Rwanda, yes, yes. I’m glad you remember. It might interest you to know that French-speaking countries surround us on all sides: Niger, Chad, Benin Republic, Cameroon. Rwanda is on the far side of the map, far from here. There are probably more French speakers on the continent. Let’s find out.” He went inside for the third time. I wrote in sand: le milieu, le milieu, le milieu, le milieu. I wiped the last, then the third, the second, leaving the first. How is this French spoken? I asked myself. Not the type we hazarded in class. How do you think in French? How do you dream in French? How do you say Ogoamaka in French? How many words are there in French? How do you crack jokes in French?
I searched for more French words in Giovanni’s Room. The next after le milieu was longer so I assumed it was a sentence. Je veux m’evader it was. I wiped le milieu; my sandals collecting sand. Je veux m’evader became my new inscription in sand.
Pa Suku returned with a map – the size of a notebook – pinched between his fingers. He literarily had the world in his hands: the French-speaking nations, the rivers, the mountains and cliffs, the blocks where we lived and its daily dose of theatrics, the far away home of James Baldwin, all in that small map, in his hands! Tiny lines zigzagged dizzily, running from one corner to the other, across many colors. The blues and yellows were more prominent. There were few patches of green and brown.
We had a map in school, a globe like the teacher called it. But we were never allowed to go close; the teacher kept us from exploring the globe. We were only free to watch and observe the world from the fringes, from our little, ignorant corner – pointing at the blues and yellows and the zigzagging lines. But
“We are here,” he was saying, “tucked in the middle of those French speakers.” He had a matchstick, which he held delicately like a puncturing pin, and with it he tapped and circled the blue and yellow colors. “And over there is France, the home of the French language. Paris is somewhere here.” I touched the map. He let go. I held it – I held the world in my hands and tried to magnify what I saw: to inflate and people it with places; with the murmur of waterfalls; the roar of lions; with the tremble of the earth when lorries ran; with the BBC voices that spoke like birds, counting deaths in Rwanda; with my mother’s face at dawn, when her eyes looked dull but sharp enough to rouse and ready us for the day.
My eyes travelled from France to Nigeria. Nigeria looked like it was at the mercy of her neighbors and the ocean. Port Harcourt dipped into the Gulf of Guinea, and beyond was a vast blue void with dots and blurry inscriptions.
“How come we don’t speak French?” I asked.
“Good question. I was expecting that.” He took the map. “See, that is England, over there, the home of the English language, and the home of the BBC.” I looked at his radio. “We got our English from them,” he was saying. I knew we got our English from somewhere. Everyone knew that. But how did it happen? Did we choose to speak English? I looked from England to Nigeria, from Nigeria to France, from France to Togo.
“How did it happen?” I asked. “How did they give us their English?”
“Long story,” he said. “It all happened a long time ago. You see these blue areas? That is the Atlantic Ocean. It used to be as busy as the sky with all the planes. Busy with ships sailing from here,” he placed the matchstick over Europe and ran it down to the edge of the Sahara, via the wide blue area. For a second I thought I saw the matchstick trotting arrogantly into the wide, blue expanse, brandishing several flags and ready to force-feed its language to whatever or whomever it ran into. “Their cargoes included humans.” The matchstick tapped the Americas. “That was how Baldwin’s ancestors got there.”
I tried to imagine the length and sadness of what he had just said, but at that time my pre-teenage mind was as vastly small as the map itself. He gave me the map and fished out his cigarette pack. He lit a stick and puffed contemplatively. I continued to run my fingers on the borderlines and rivers and mountains and forests on the map. I tried to look for Rwanda, a name that never ceased to gush from the lips of the news reporters. But my quest was cut short by a riot of voices coming from where the motorbike had headed. We turned at once and were frozen by what we saw. It was not an unfamiliar, but the characters added an unusually strange twist to the scene.