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Saddique glanced towards the policeman. He was snatching some sleep. You’d sleep,

 Saddique thought,  knowing that I’m chained. And  anyway, how can anyone escape

from a jet whisking at 10,000 metres above the ground?

 

 

Out of the Clouds

By Akoli Penoukou

 

Heavy steady steps clopped in the corridor and stopped at his door. Saddique Boukari levelled his gaze as colossal keys clanked against each other and soon one clicked in the lock. The hefty metal door heaved open and a burly French policeman waved him out. He had been informed the day before that he would be released the next day and he had woken up earlier than the usual 6 a.m. What time was it? In the glaring lights of the prison corridor it was difficult to say. The policeman flapped his arms like a bird flying and smiled. His beefy face flushed red. Saddique nodded and stepped into the quiet corridor. The policeman clanged the door shut, locked it and nodded to him to move ahead. They marched down the glistening yellow corridor, their steps echoing down it like noises ricocheting in a cave and soon they came to an office.

When they first brought him to the Maison d’arrët de la Santé-Paris, it was here that he was made to leave his belongings. The air smelled light. The policeman behind the wooden counter bent down and slapped his things on the counter top. Seeing his wristwatch, leather wallet, copper bracelet, luggage keys, and golden chain for the first time in a decade and a half made Saddique feel as if he was dreaming. The policeman whirled a heavy notebook around, tended him a pen, and jabbed at an empty rectangular space for him to sign. Signatures jammed both pages. Saddique scrawled his name and picked up the items. The policeman who had come to fetch him led him through a door by the left side of the office and then the dawn air enveloped him like the soft embrace of a lover. 

It was still dark outside. The barbed wires over the high wall glared in the strong, broad beams of the floodlights like the sharp teeth of the great white shark. A policeman standing by a white Citroen Xsara police car in the wide compound yanked the right back door open and nodded him inside. Saddique found himself beside another policeman. The one who had opened the door for him slid into the seat beside him, and so hemmed in, the driver stepped on the gas and the van lurched forward. Another policeman at the main gate saluted as they bumped out the great gate onto Boulevard Arago. The car turned into the rue de la santé and gathered speed.

Saddique sighed loud enough to make the policemen turn and gaze at him. “Relieved, arent’ you?” the one sitting to his right joked. Saddique shrugged. The other policeman chewed his thin lips, his green eyes narrowed into slits, and then turned to stare out the tinted window. Saddique disliked him. He heard the police were paired like that: one kind, affable, nice, and the other quite the opposite. Why this combination? Saddique shrugged again and peered straight ahead. It was the month of May and a spring rain had drenched the streets. The van’s headlight cut a dazzling tunnel through the haloed street lighting and the tyres swished underneath. The plane and chestnut trees along the street whisked past like meteors. Soon they left the fields and drove past scattered houses. The van turned again and a row of houses flashed past. The parked cars gave Paris the illusion of a ghost city. The sky was clearing when they again came to fields in which cows stood like statues. Saddique leaned back into the seat and closed his eyes.

He hadn’t had much sleep in the night. The news of his release had given him insomnia. Besides, the thought of going back home after all those years in a Parisian jail made him nervous. What does he have to show for his long years abroad? Worse, how would his people receive him? That is, if they were still alive. He hadn’t written to anybody in those fifteen years. Better leave his people in the dark than get them worrying themselves to hell. Saddique heard cars whooshing past them. Initially, once in a while. Then, more occasionally. And now, insistently. He threw his eyes open to see broad daylight. People scurried about, their heads hunched into raincoats. Soon the houses of Paris Treizième hurtled away and they headed for Aéroport de Paris-Orly. Saddique closed his eyes again and tried to run his mind into a blank but thoughts of home still gnawed at him.

A tap came on his right shoulder and he jumped. The policeman to his left slid out of the van and waved him angrily out. Saddique glowered at him for a while before stepping out at the same time that the other policeman elbowed him. As he shifted on the seat, the other policeman tagged him. They hemmed him in again at the car’s door. The stern policeman slid a handcuff on his wrists and they signalled him on. Passing by the taxi rank, Saddique lowered his gaze as the curious looks of some black taxi drivers met his. Another sans papier being bundled home like livestock, they might have thought. Saddique felt his ego sink deeper than the deepest ocean bottom.

Soon they swung through the wide hall gates and came to the relatively warm departure lounge. A storky African man scrubbing the floor quickly averted his gaze. Maybe he wasn’t proud doing that job but Saddique thought he would give up everything to be in his shoes. At least, he was free and not chained like a dangerous criminal. Near to the check-in counters, Saddique saw another blackman being led off by a plain-clothes policeman; he felt a bit consoled not to be the only handcuffed person in the huge airport bustling with people scuttling to and from cities all over the world. Free people going where they wanted instead of being herded home like a fugitive.

The kind policeman handed a shiny passport to a plain-clothes man who saluted. The other policeman hurled his knapsack into the luggage screening machine. Saddique turned to give him a mean look but the two were already bouncing away. The kind one spun around, thumped his chest where his heart was, kissed his palm and waved. Saddique, taken aback, didn’t know how to reciprocate the gesture. He turned about to find that the machine had sucked his bag and the contents were displayed on a screen.

Bien, viens.” The plain-clothes man said, motioning him into the terminal building. He walked ahead. It was only when an air hostess smiled at them and he saw other people snuggled in their blue seats that Saddique realized they had walked through an air bridge.

The policeman led him to a seat and chained him to it. Saddique, furious and helpless, caught the indignant looks of some passengers. Others buried their faces in magazines. Soon the A330 jet took off for Niamey in Niger with another stop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, before the final destination, Lomé. Well, I might as well accept the fact that this’s the epilogue of a melodrama, Saddique told himself as wild thoughts of home raced through his head again.

He had left Togo in 1990 when his country’s economy began to show signs of doldrums. He had served as a driver with the Rural Water Project initiated and funded by the USAID in the Sokode area to drill boreholes for their semi-arid region. The project had halted when funding stopped. Rumours of impending political troubles were rife in the country. Soon the expatriate staff left. Saddique searched frantically for what to do with his severance pay. Memories of the harrowing experience he had gone through when unemployed haunted him. It was then he spoke to a successful Nigerian who ran an electronics shop at the Sokode Municipal Market.

“You Togolese have a hell of chances but you don’t use your heads,” the Ibo, Nwafor, had told him.

Saddique was going to fly into one of his tantrums when Nwafor lifted his hand and waved him to the back of his store. Saddique came out minutes later grinning like a nincompoop. Nwafor led him to the front of his shop and shook hands warmly with him. Then he thumped him playfully as Saddique began to walk away. Saddique struck back, his grin now wider than a forehead.

The aircraft bell chimed to signal that it was now safe to unbuckle the seat belts. A few people got up to go to the WC at the back of the aeroplane. Saddique glanced towards the policeman. He was snatching some sleep. You’d sleep, Saddique thought, knowing that I’m chained. And  anyway, how can anyone escape from a jet whisking at 10,000 metres above the ground? He settled back into his seat with a sigh.

Saddique wondered if Nwafor still run his shop at the market. He asked himself too what Nwafor had thought of him when he disappeared in Paris.

Paris! The pain came flooding back and Saddique winced. He had landed at Orly Sud airport on a sunny June afternoon. The Malian Nwafor had connected him to came to meet him at the airport. 

“How was your flight?” Traore had asked with a wide smile.

“Fine, thank you,” Saddique had answered tersely. Nwafor had told him not to reveal anything to Traore.

They took the métro to Gare 13 ART and continued home by bus. A short walk away and they came to a dilapidated six-storey building. They stepped inside and Saddique saw that the place was not so well kept. The creaking wooden steps were worn smooth at the edges. TV sets and HiFi systems blared from behind the shut doors. Occasionally they passed someone pattering down the stairs and Traore exchanged greetings with them. One of them wished Saddique welcome with a large smile and shook his hand. The man’s palm felt horny.

Traore lived in a small room. After tucking away his suitcase behind the bed on the far side of the room, Traore shuffled over to the refrigerator humming under the window overlooking the street and tugged out cans of sweating beer. Saddique’s wide face contorted into disgust.

“You don’t like beer? This’s good stuff,” Traore said and snapped one can open. The beer fizzed and the foam frothed to the top. Traore smiled and took a swig. With the other hand he dangled a can in Saddique’s direction. Saddique recoiled in terror.

Qu’est-ce qu’il y a ?” Traore asked, surprised.

“Aren’t you a moslem ?” Saddique asked in a shocked tone.

“Sure,” Traore said, “but I’m not Arab.”

Saddique felt like giggling but caught himself just in time. He thought Traore had blasphemed. Especially when he added that even the Arabs drank alcohol, right in Saudi Arabia, hiding in their basements. Saddique only accepted to take water out of gratitude for Traore’s hospitality. But he insisted on drinking straight from the bottle. He didn’t want any cup from which alcohol had been served. “Comme tu veux,” Traore had said, shrugging. Then tittering, he had added: “People like you finally guzzle alcohol in Paris like parched soil soaking water. We’d see in a few months.”

If I’ll be here then, Saddique had said to himself.

Traore left for work around 5 p.m. after they had gobbled down mounds of rice and groundnut soup choked with chunks of beef. Saddique had never eaten so much in his life. Traore showed him how to operate the big Philips TV set and the Panasonic HiFi system piled high like a New York skyscraper but Saddique’s concern was elsewhere. To make sure Traore was really gone, Saddique had accompanied him to the bus stop and waited till the crammed bus came and Traore squirmed into it and the bus rumbled off with Saddique waving wildly to a widely grinning Traore. Some passengers stared in amusement. Back home, Saddique locked the door securely, shut the window and drew the blind. Then he opened his suitcase and dumped the contents onto the floor. He took out his jack knife and began to work on the leather. He couldn’t help thinking of Nwafor.

Nwafor had brought someone from Nigeria who sold them five kilogrammes of a substance believed to be cocaine and heroin. Nwafor had contributed three and a half million Francs CFA, added to Saddique’s one and a half million. He had bought Saddique the round air ticket and given him pocket money for a week after which he would join him in Paris. Nwafor’s friend helped them parcel the narcotic substances and line them into specially slit holes in the leather suitcase. After carefully concealing the drugs, they used what Nwafor said was python oil to smear the suitcase in order to beat police sniffer dogs.

Saddique had heard that drug smugglers caught overseas got stiff jail sentences.

“No, no, no, you’re safe,” Nwafor had assured him. He added that Togolese were not ready suspects when they arrived overseas. Their passport still had value and relatively easy access to European countries. Then Nwafor gave a list of successful people in Sokode who he claimed had made their money through drug deals. Saddique whistled under his breath. He wouldn’t have believed it if this was coming from someone else.

“Anytime they travel, it’s the stuff they carry overseas,” Nwafor had said. The fact that those people went and came stilled Saddique’s fears. That was years ago. Saddique sighed again, thinking how he had let himself be lured into a game which has frozen fifteen years of his life.

The policeman tapped him and took off the handcuff from the left hand. From the crew cabin, air hostesses with sweet smiles pushed carts through the aisles, dishing out trays of food and drinks. The policeman rubbed his hands and swallowed with slurping sounds.

Saddique wondered if he could eat. He did not feel hungry at all. Yet he took mashed potatoes and fried fish fillet with a bottle of mineral water. He had hardly shovelled a spoonful of the potatoes into his mouth when his stomach churned. He pushed the food away. The policeman stole a look at him, shrugged and attacked his food like a famished wolf. Saddique closed his eyes again and his mind took him back to Paris on his arrival.

After unpacking the drugs, he had waited till 10 p.m. Then he went downstairs and across the street to a deserted phone booth, dialled a number and gave the code: “The document has arrived.”

“In duplicate or triplicate?” a voice asked him.

“Four copies.”

“Okay,” the voice relaxed and asked him to take a taxi to 10 Rue des Pirogues. Saddique rushed up and lugged his knapsack downstairs. Soon he was fingering a doorbell at the address. It took sometime for the door to be opened a crack. A wiry man peeked at him. “Who are you?” he said in a surly voice.

“NS,” Saddique gave the other code, signifying Nwafor Saddique.

A twinkle came into the man’s hard eyes and he unlatched the door and opened it wide. Saddique stepped into the room heavy with the smell of coffee.

Whilst in prison he had thought over what had happened afterwards but he had never found an answer. Sometimes he thought it was the police intelligence which had caught up with them; other times he suspected Nwafor, and quite frequently the Frenchman whom he came to know as René. If he had doubts about Nwafor being involved in his arrest because he had also invested in the deal, he found it difficult to absolve René. They had been arrested together, sent to the same jail, judged together but he had never met René in the prison afterwards. The prisoners had time daily for walkabouts around the area between the cells and the high walls. He had searched the white faces in vain for René. He thought of him on and off but now images of the event at René’s place came back forcefully to him.

Saddique’s heart was fluttering with joy as René was counting crisp French Francs to pay him when the doorbell pealed. René glanced at him, opened his mouth to say something, decided not to, and then stared about in panic. Quickly he bundled the stuff into a corner and slithered to open the door cautiously and in swooped armed men, yelling “Police! Les bras en l’air!” Saddique felt the large room caving in on him. He only came to himself as the two of them were led off handcuffed after a search had turned up the drugs.

Saddique kept his face jammed in his palms as the car whizzed through the streets of the Treizième Arrondissement, siren wailing madly and the blue light on the car roof flashing eerily. By the time they reached the Commissariat at the angle of rue Rambouillet and avenue Daumesnil, his palms were moist with tears.

Alone in a police cell that night, Saddique had found it impossible to close his eyes. So many jumbled thoughts raced through his mind. His heart felt heavy and he trembled at times. His chest heaved with snivelling and he kept on shaking his head in disbelief. Many times he regretted being born.

The following day René and he were transferred to the prison. It took him days there to get back some appetite and to snatch some sleep. Not only did being behind bars worry him. The next day, as they walked about the yard, there was talk of a fire outbreak in a century-old  six-storey apartment block inhabitated by West Africans in the Treizième Arrondissement southeast of Paris. Over the days the pieces of information suggested it was where Traore lived which had caught fire towards 3 o’clock in the morning. Nobody survived from the third floor upwards where the fire had started in the stairway. Saddique began to shiver. Was Traore dead too? Somehow, Saddique began to view his being in prison as a blessing in disguise. Police investigations revealed the fire had been started by a cigarette butt someone had thrown carelessly into a corner of the stairway. That might have been caused by a drunk, Saddique had thought. That’s what happens when teetotallers come to Paris to swill alcohol like water. For days a paralyzing numbness gnawed at his frame and he felt the fire incident like a personal tragedy. Now Nwafor would take him for dead.

In any case Nwafor wouldn’t have the courage to inform his family of his fate: his coming to Paris had been kept secret. He had only said he was going to visit an Uncle in neighbouring Ghana. Saddique sighed. When he didn’t return after the week he had given them, they would send somebody to Accra and what a shock his uncle’s answer would be for them!

On the advice of some inmates, Saddique had appealed against his jail sentence, hoping the fifteen years would be whittled down. But as time went on, he lost all hopes of seeing his term reduced. And with it any desire to write home. In any way, he didn’t feel like letting anybody know he was in prison. He preferred for them to think whatever they wanted of him and Allah willing he’d appear before them one day. And here he was on the plane hurtling him back home. Saddique opened his eyes. The policeman was staring at him. Has he been talking in his dream, he asked himself.

Saddique wondered too how home was. A few months after his departure, a popular uprising had broken out there with the people taking to the streets and demanding liberties and democracy. This he had learned in prison. That was the good thing about Western prisons. They don’t totally cut you off from the world. But in Africa, even outside jail, the governments strove to control one’s mind. He heard other things too about Togo. Especially from Togolese and other West Africans during the time for exercise. Including how a transition to multi-party democratic rule had been foiled by the army. He also heard of many deaths in the country and presidential elections which ended in violence. The last news he had was the sudden death of the long-reigning President in February, the foiled attempt by top military officers to install one of his nephews as the interim President, and the contested elections two months later. Each of these events had nearly plunged the country into civil war.

As Saddique thought of all these incidents, he wondered how Sokode was now. He had heard his town had also been shaken by the unfortunate episodes. Are his people alive? His old father, his mother, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Friends too. Neighbours. Certainly some of them might have lost their lives in those circumstances. Of course, in fifteen years there were bound to be natural deaths too. And also births. How many new mouths have joined the family? He also thought a lot of his son. Yes, his son Muctar. He was only two years old when he left. Muctar should be seventeen now. How was he like? Maybe tall and muscular like him. Would he recognize his son when he saw him? That would be a miracle. And his dear wife, Adisa. Poor Adisa, she might have suffered so waiting for him. Waiting for him? He straightened up. It would be strange if she waited all these years. Certainly she has remarried and had loads of children. Something twitched at his heart. He dismissed the thought and switched back to thinking of the people of Sokode.

He knew their opposition to the ruling party. In 1990 when he left, one couldn’t voice one’s disagreement with the ruling party. He heard all of that has changed somewhat. But to what extent? A peal of the aircraft’s bell impinged on his thoughts again and he threw his eyes open. The pilot was asking them to put on their seat belts for the descent towards Niamey.

From the air, Saddique caught glimpses of the town. It seemed full of mud houses, which surprised him, and it looked so desert! Africans in long, large, colourful boubou and a few white people bounced out. The same happened at Ouagadougou where more white people got out. It was an almost empty aircraft that rose into the clouds towards Lomé. Saddique had seen handcuffed passengers accompanied by plain-clothes policemen descend at the two stops. Were there more deportees on the flight to Lomé? Or was he the only one? The thought that he would come out of the plane handcuffed and probably handed over to immigration officials bothered him. He glanced at the policeman. He seemed to be lost in his eternal dream. Saddique pouted and tried not to think of anything. Yet the uncomfortable thought of arriving in Lomé in that state gave him gooseflesh.

The plane soon banked towards Lomé. From the air Saddique saw that the town had grown. Or has it? He didn’t know the capital city that much but he thought Lomé wasn’t that big when he flew from there fifteen years before. Maybe time was playing tricks with his memory. Time. The element which waits for no man. Who said that? Sound wisdom. Look at how fifteen good years have passed him by.

The plane taxied to a stop and the door opened. Saddique sighed loud enough to feel the breath on his hands. The policeman unchained him from the seat and they headed for the door. The hot May air hit him like a knockout blow. Getting to the terminal building, Saddique saw armed soldiers all about. Has something happened again? Or was it the usual display of power people told him about?

The policeman handed him over to the immigration officials who seized his French deportees’ passport and led him out to a police car. Soon they were zooming across the streets of Lomé and then Saddique found himself in prison. He felt like he had fallen from an indescribable height into an abysmal depth. The first thing he noticed on entering the prison was the stench. He wrinkled his nose. He had asked the policeman in the car why they were wheeling him away.

Scowling, he had muttered: “You people tarnish our country’s image abroad with weird stories to get refugee status.”

“I wasn’t a refugee,” Saddique had protested.

“The public prosecutor’s department will decide,” he had said firmly and then had squeezed his face into an unfriendly knot.

A prison warden took Saddique’s belongings, noted them in a large notebook and then led him down a dimly-lit corridor to a cell. People were bellowing all over like mating bulls. Saddique began to quiver. The guard opened a cell door and an appalling malodor of armpit sweat, unwashed bodies, musty room and stale foods hit him in the face. His stomach churned. The prisoners all fixed their gazes on him. “A guest for you,” the guard said, shoved him inside and clanged the door shut and locked it firmly.

Saddique found himself in a sea of decrepit-looking people. They sat hunched on the hard floor and there was hardly any room for him to sit down.

Grand frère,” a fair-coloured inmate he later came to know as Guy called to him from the right corner, “come and sit by me.” But Saddique was too numbed to move. Where was the place to sit beside Guy? Lord, how did they sleep in this place?

Saddique’s gaze swung up. The dirty grey walls of the five foot by five room were hung with black plastic bags and small synthetic leather bags he learnt later were called bafana bafana. He also learnt later that one has to pay the oldest inmate a fee to have a nail peg on the wall to hang one’s bag on. In it, one kept precious belongings such as cakes of soap, sponge, chewing stick, and even gari and loaves of bread. As for money, his new friend had advised him to tie it in his underpants.  “This place’s full of thieves,” he had whispered into his ears. “They snatch people’s money at night. Even right from under their testicles.”

After his realease from the French jail Saddique had thought he was free, but here he was tasting hell. The three days Saddique spent in Lomé prison appeared longer than the fifteen in Paris.

In the night the fiftysome inmates crouched on their sides, right on the floor, tighter than sardines in tins. After the oldest inmate had packed them, head thrust into the other’s legs, it was impossible to move even a millimetre. That so many people could squeeze into such a tight space was itself a feat. Saddique felt asphyxiated. He longed for the French jail. He had shared it with two other inmates and he could pace back and forth.

Day broke without Saddique having closed his eyes a wink. Having his head so close to someone’s anus had worried him. Some prisoners snored like toads. Someone would curse and rock them. They would stop snoring. Minutes later they picked up the trumpeting again.

Saddique felt cramped when the gate was thrown open the next day for them to go into the courtyard for their walk-around. There, he learnt many of the prisoners were people who had been arrested after the violence which followed the announcement of the results of the last presidential elections which saw the late President’s nephew declared winner. There were some young people, some barely fifteen years old and also men old enough to be his grandfather. It was during this break time that the inmates called “prison thieves” sold items they had stolen in the night. A pair of bedroom slippers for twenty-five Francs CFA, a shirt for seventy-five, a used cake of soap, and even a sponge. When someone cried: “Surplus stuff!” that meant a stolen good was being advertised for sale.

“Don’t the owners recognize their properties?” he had asked Guy.

Guy gave him an amused look. “Recognize, you say?” he said in a mock tone. “The thief would ask if the article had been manufactured exclusively for them.”

“What do they do with those chicken change?”

“Chicken change! That money can make a big difference in this hell of a place, you know.”

Guy told him that they were fed once a day, at 1 p.m. A ball--he measured it with his scrawny fist--of hardly-done akume. “A child can mash it in his palms,” Guy had said with a shake of his head. “And the inside’s full of raw maize flour. As for the soup, one couldn’t feed livestock with it: water mixed with rotten condiments, maize flour and rare pieces of fish.” He winced and spat.

Saddique found it difficult to imagine how the food was until they were served that afternoon. Everyone took his own plate to collect the food. Saddique refused to go.

“Go,” Guy said. “You can sell it if you don’t like it.”

“How much?” he had asked, more out of indifference than interest.

“Seventy-five Francs.”

“What would one do with that?”

“It can make a difference for an inmate who has nobody to visit him. Where will he get money to buy soap to bathe, stick to clean his teeth, extra food to eat. Better food, not the swill they serve us. Do you know that they sell food in this prison?”

“Yeah?”

“You can get beans with gari and oil. Even rice and meat. Also maize dough ball and fried fish.” Then he glanced around him and whispered: “The guard’s wives sell them.”

Saddique was to learn other things too. The prisoners who were better off hired single rooms for twenty-five thousand Francs CFA monthly. Their families brought them food. Saddique wanted to tell Guy about prison life in France but felt embarrassed by that part of his life.

On the third day Saddique was brought before an examining magistrate.

“You were a refugee in Europe?” the magistrate asked.

“No,” Saddique answered. “I was in jail for fifteen years.”

The magistrate leaned back in his creaking leather seat and eyebrows arched, stared at him. “Fifteen years. What did you do?”

Saddique thought quickly. “Someone gave me a packet at the airport here for a cousin in Paris. It happened to contain narcotic drugs.”

“Then you have nothing doing in prison,” the magistrate said and ordered that he be released.

Outside the sun was blazing already but Saddique hardly felt it. He walked to Lomé Central Market and boarded a taxi to Tokoin Lycée. “Where have all the busses gone to?” he asked someone on seeing an empty station he knew always swarmed with people and crammed with busses.

The man stared at him and asked: “Are you a stranger?”

Saddique nodded.

“It has been removed to Agbalepedo years ago.”

“How do I get there?”

The man waved to the street he had just crossed to come to the station. “Take a zemidjan from there and they’d take you to Agbalepedo.”

Zemidjan?

“You don’t know that too?” The man laughed. “You must have been away for a long time. The motorcycle-taxi. Look at them.”

As he was walking to the central market, Saddique was surprised to find riders on motorbikes whispering to him and shouting oleyia (Are you going?). He didn’t mind them. How much things have changed!

Lome had changed too. Down the Lycée station, where the now slurry lagoon run, heaps of reeking rubbish had made him clutch his nose. He found the city centre also littered with plastic bags, pieces of papers and other odds. This was not the Lomé he knew. So clean, one could eat right in the streets. Now it was an eyesore.

He clung to the motorcycle seat and turned his head left and right, noting the changes.

“What’s that?” he asked after they had passed the Résidence du Benin on the right and the university on the left and the road to the late President’s private residence.

“Cité OUA,” the motorcyclist said. “It was built to accommodate guests during an O. A. U. conference here some years back.”

Saddique admired the eye-catching architecture of the expensive-looking houses which now stood where there had been bushes during the dry season and rustling corn fields when the rains came. Other buildings were springing up too. The motorcyclist explained that a big one was the new American Embassy under construction. Saddique began to wonder if Sokode had also changed much. The motorcycle turned left before the new Agoe dual carriageway into a cobblestone street and rumbled to a large station on the right.

Saddique boarded a bus which took hours to fill up. It rolled over the Agoe highway and Saddique was soon pleasantly surprised to find a park filled with vehicles at Agoe Zongo.

The park hadn’t been there when he left Lomé for Paris. Like many people from Sokode, he used to spend time in this place when he came to Lomé. He even spent the hours before his flight to Paris there with a friend called Yahaya. He wondered where Yahaya was now. Maybe dead. He staggered back to himself and wondered why he thought everybody was dead. Wasn’t he seeing people about? His acquaintances could be alive too. 

“What’s this place?” he asked the woman beside him as the bus crawled alongside the automobile park.

The woman stared sharply at him before answering: “It’s the Terminal du Sahel. This’s where they park all the Venus d’Europe from the port on transit to the Sahelian countries. Mali. Niger. Burkina Faso.”

Saddique nodded, not taking his eyes off the second hand automobiles and the multitude of people who milled about them. He felt the pang of the lost years in Europe again. Had he been free, he could have brought home a car too. 

Saddique found himself staring left and right all the way to Sokode. The highway had been resurfaced and now and then new housing units sprang up at places. Was this a country in crisis, he wondered, where the European Union and other development partners had cut off aid since 1993 in protest against the lack of democratic rule?

A sudden apprehension seized Saddique as the bus approached Sokode. The town had also changed a bit. He took a motorcycle-taxi home. His nervousness increased as the motorcycle approached his father’s house at Tchawanda. His feet led him hesitantly inside. How decrepit the house had gone! Maybe it had not seen a single coat of paint since he left. With all those problems in the country, he wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.

He recognized his mother, hunched on the low concrete wall that hugged the walls of the rooms opening onto the cemented central courtyard. How old she has grown! With hair totally white. And a bent back.  Other people hung about the courtyard. They set inquiring eyes on him.

Saddique knew people would hardly recognize him. Fifteen years without any news of him could blur any images of him. He had put on a lot of weight in prison. To fight that he had been sweating it out in the gym. That had trimmed him but had added more muscle to his body. He had also grown a bushy beard (which earned him the nickname al Qaeda), with streaks of grey. He was going bald too.

Mogo,” he said, unsaddling his knapsack and kneeling in front of his mother. “It’s me, Saddique.”

His mother opened her eyes wide as if waking from a dream. Then her face took on a look of surprise. “Saddique?” she whispered absent-mindedly. “Which Saddique?”

“Your son, Saddique,” he said with a broad smile. “The one who left for Accra years ago.”

His mother let out a piercing cry and began to slide backwards. Saddique caught her just in time. “Come help me,” he cried, looking around but everybody had scattered into their rooms which they locked firmly.

Saddique slapped his mother’s sunken-in cheeks lightly in an attempt to revive her. A distant look came into her eyes rolling white. “Help!” he cried again and stared into the windows. Heads ducked into the dark rooms and trembling hands hurriedly pulled the windows shut.

“Help me save mogo!” he yelled harder, laying her on the cold cement and kneeling down beside her. “I’m not a ghost,” he bellowed towards the rooms. “Can you hear me? I’m not a ghost! It’s me Saddique.”

He saw the black of his mother’s eyes sliding back; her Adam’s apple bobbed up and then down, slowly. Her lips stirred and she let out a soft moan.

Mogo, it’s me Saddique,” he whispered.

“Saddique,” his mother said, as if in a drugged sleep.

“Yes, mogo. Saddique. Sa-ddique.”

His mother opened her eyes wide and began to breathe rhythmically.

“Please, come out,” Saddique shouted towards the rooms. “Mogo’s okay now. It’s me Saddique in the flesh.”

A door sighed open and his eldest sister and a lad he didn’t know stalked out.

“Come help me, Fatima,” he called to her. “I’ll tell you my story later.”

Both of them helped their mother until she began to feel a bit better. Saddique noticed Fatima stealing looks at him.

“Where’s dad?” Saddique asked at last.

Fatima’s chest heaved.

“May he rest in peace,” Saddique murmured and his eyes misted. He learnt too that other people had also died. Like his aunt Salimatou and uncle Gado. “Ibrahim?” he asked. Ibrahim was his younger brother, the one he was closest too.

Fatima averted his gaze and the other people exchanged quick looks and his mother seemed to be going into a trance again. Saddique stared about, confused.

“Is he dead too?” he asked with alarm in his voice.

Fatima shook her head and heaved a big sigh. Their mother burst into tears.

“You said he isn’t dead,” Saddique said. “Then why is mogo crying?”

Fatima sighed again. Their mother continued to wail, shaking herself and imploring Allah to save her.

“I don’t understand,” Saddique said, on the verge of tears himself. “What’s the matter?”

Everybody avoided his gaze now. Was Ibrahim in prison? Or maybe gone mad, roaming the streets naked? Since nobody would tell him, finally Saddique asked after Adisa and Muctar. His mother threw herself on the floor, and rolling about, howled like a crazy person. Curious people began to crowd their house. Fatima waved them off and locked the main gate. With everybody weeping now, they carried the old lady into her room where she continued to blubber.

Outside, Saddique held his sister in his arms and stared her straight in the eyes. “Fatima, tell me,” he said gravely. “Don’t lie. What has happened to Ibrahim, Adisa, and Muctar?”

Fatima wriggled free of him. “You’d better find out yourself,” she said. Then she threw her hands over her head and whined: “Allah, Allah, Allah, why should this happen to us?”

Saddique still couldn’t guess what the matter was. Truly, he was plain confused. The boy who led him to where they said Ibrahim and the others lived wouldn’t say more than “Just be bold,” which further heightened his anxiety.

The evening sun had slid down the western sky and was now a huge red ball down on the horizon. Saddique felt as if the world had caught fire. Men in white djellaba and women covered with chador were returning from evening prayers in the main mosque. Saddique got more perplexed as they approached the house he had lived in for five years before his departure overseas.

Asalamualaikum!” the boy cried.

Mualaikumsalam,” a voice Saddique recognized as Ibrahim’s answered from the room. 

That voice didn’t sound like that of a person who would make people cry. Saddique felt like hopping right through the smudged flower-printed door curtain to embrace Ibrahim at the same time that Ibrahim cried “Ei, Wahab!” on seeing the boy. Then Ibrahim saw him and said in a quieter tone: “You’ve brought a stranger.”

Saddique began to tremble lightly as soon as he stepped into the room. Ibrahim, Adisa, and eight children were about to share a meal of tuo--rice balls--with palm soup laced with baobab leaves. Saddique found himself swallowing hard as the grainy aroma of the balls and the spicy odour of the soup assaulted his nostrils.

“Ibrahim, don’t you recognize me?” Saddique said.

Ibrahim, who had gotten to his feet to welcome him, sank slowly back onto the tattered,  blackened Morocco red upholstery. His mouth jarred open.

Saddique crumpled into an armchair by the door. Adisa lowered her head and wrung her long slim fingers. She had gone a bit plumpy and dark. The children stared at Ibrahim, then at Adisa, and then at Saddique, not knowing what to make of the situation.

It was like eternity before Ibrahim explained everything to him in a quivering voice. When a month after his departure for Accra, he had not returned, Ibrahim was sent to Accra to find out why he had delayed so. Their uncle was surprised to hear the news. He couldn’t tell when he last saw Saddique. They had checked everywhere, and in desperation even consulted oracles. It was then they learnt that he had died in a lorry accident and had been buried. The family therefore organized his funeral. And as custom demands, Adisa was married to him.

“And who are these children?” Saddique asked, apprehensive of the answer.

Ibrahim hesitated, swallowed hard and then said: “That’s Muctar.” He pointed to a lanky boy who lowered his gaze. “And these seven are the children I’ve had with ... Adisa.”

Adisa bounded from the seat, hurled off her chador, threw her hands over her head and screaming, disappeared into an adjoining bedroom and banged the peeling plywood door shut.

Saddique and Ibrahim sat in the living room—filled with the children’s squalls--, their heads clutched in their palms and their hot tears streaming onto the grey carpet turning brown with grime.

posted 11 July 2006

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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Related files: The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead  /  Into His Arms  / Out of the Clouds  //  How can we trust them? / On Learning of Walter Rodney's Death  (poems)  Points to Paradise    Love One Another