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from Coming and Going

by Ken Bugul

Editorial Note:

 

The text  below, translated by Julianna Blair Watson and Hugo Bujon, corresponds to the first four sections of the novel Coming and Going (which was was published as Aller et Retour  in 2014 by Athéna Edif).  This excerpt is reproduced with permission of Ken Bugul. 

*****

Listen to me.

You have to go to Ndakaaru.

You have to find your little brother.

At any cost.

 

Do you hear?

 

You have to bring him back here, to Kayar.

 

Dead or alive.

 

Even just his bones.

 

Do you hear?

The father of the family was talking so while speaking to his daughter, a young woman who’d never taken such a trip. She only knew Ndakaaru – which was attracting more and more people from all over the country – by what those who were coming and going said about it. People were leaving decrepit villages and cities, abandoning hoes, rakes and fishing nets, and hurrying there with their dreams. Men were leaving and some were making the trip with their horses and carts.

 

Women, young women, and young girls were leaving behind the country’s regions – Petite Côte, Sine, Saloum, Casamance – and going there looking for work as house employees, laundry housekeepers, grain workers or “vacation-girls.”

Young and old were leaving, men and women, too.

Some women were leaving with their babies on their backs.

Ndakaaru had a reputation as an Eldorado.

The heartland had a reputation as a wasteland.

The young woman had to leave.

The father had sent his son to Ndakaaru to live with an uncle. It had been several years since the uncle had left Lompoul, a village near Kayar in the zone called the Niayes, leaving a spouse who hadn’t bore him any children.

The father had decided alone.

He said that a man should not stay “sitting down.”

His son had to “get up.”

He was barely seventeen.

But a man is never “little.”

The young man left early one morning on the minibus that stopped at Ndakaaru. Since leaving, neither he nor his uncle from Lompoul had sent any word. The father and his daughter learned, from those who were coming and going, that a month after he arrived, the young man was no longer at his uncle’s. Those who were coming and going told frightening stories about this city. Maids were raped by “bosses,” whose wives disfigured them with hot oil or scalded them, accusing them of tempting their husbands. Some weren’t receiving their pay and when they went to ask for it, they were dismissed, and their employers always said to come back next week. The incessant and fruitless comings and goings, doors always shut in their faces, made them give up. Housekeepers were washing dirty piles of laundry all day, and when it came time to pay them, unscrupulous ladies of the house accused them of theft and threatened to call the police. The “vacation-girls” were battered, famished and sleepless. Impure alcohol in small bags and Indian hemp were circulating, devastating the young and the less so. Some, having tried to take the adventure further, died in dense Equatorial African forests or drowned in unknown, deep waters. Others disappeared in sandstorms. Worrying rumors circulated endlessly. The young and the less so were converting to radical religious orders, becoming the censors of a society that was struggling with its socio-economic, existential and identitarian contradictions. They threw rocks at young girls dressed in short skirts, short pants, or wearing low-cut tops, and invoked the wrath of the sky upon them. They demanded that homosexuals be killed, burned alive. Some were recruited by terrorist groups and left for Maiduguri or somewhere else.

The father was worried.

His daughter less so.

But she had to go to Ndakaaru.

And she had to come back to Kayar with her little brother.

At any cost.

Dead or alive.

Flesh or just bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was early afternoon on a sunny April day. In downtown Ndakaaru, the Place de l’Indépendance was bathed in an enchanting light. It was nice out; the sky was a friendly blue which no cloud dared to disturb. The horizon seemed fixed above the surrounding buildings. The sun, magnanimous, was not scorching. It was just nice. Two young, happy women, Bigué and Ngoné, were crossing the Place arm-in-arm and couldn’t care less about those who sometimes and unwilfully jostled them a little, attracted, like magnets, to their gaiety which radiated from them like a halo. Nevertheless, one of them, Ngoné, was looking for her little brother, even though she seemed no longer concerned about it. She had said to Bigué:

 

This uncle from Lompoul, I barely know him, and if I see him, I’m afraid I won’t recognize him. I don’t even remember the “mold” of his face. He left one day, and those who come and go say that he is in these zones that are wildly popping up all around the suburbs of Ndakaaru. Nothing else. The addresses are vague. In a place called Diamagueune, you have to get off the minibus, take a “car rapide” toward Keur Momar and get off one stop before the end of the line at Cité Mbeur. From there, you have to walk to take a cart that goes to Beug Khadim. Next, you have to walk some more, make a left when you reach a store run by, I think, a Peul from Fouta. And those who come and go hesitate to call this place Yari Nim. They say that the uncle from Lompoul is somewhere in this vicinity.

It’s complicated. In any case, it’s useless to try to go there. My little brother is no longer there.

 

I’m not worried.

I know my little brother.

My father doesn’t know him.

Even if he’s young, he has a sense of honor.

You can’t take advantage of him. He’s no pushover.

He was already thinking about his future. He had plans.

But, you know, for our father, his son can neither think nor judge for himself. God is good.

I’ll find him and I’ll bring him back alive to Kayar.

Those who were coming and going reported that the uncle, seen at a “louma,” a weekly market around Yari Nim, had told them that he hadn’t seen his nephew for more than a month. He explained that as soon as he arrived, he had put him in touch with a “broker” of day laborers for construction sites in Ndakaaru. The young man had no skills in construction. But he could find something else to do, the broker had said. He could help make bricks, transport them in wheelbarrows, help to clear away pebbles and sand. This type of activity was the only work that could be found at construction sites by those who had no training, in masonry, or in tiling, or painting or plumbing or electricity. Those who came from other regions only knew, for the most part, the work of the earth and fishing. Kayar was a fishing village that had lost its main industry with the partitioning of the sea, which severely affected the fishing trade as a whole during those years. The outcasts, from Ndakaaru to Casamance in the south and even to Saint-Louis in the north, numbered in the tens of thousands. The people, already victims of drought and bad administration, and of leaders fumbling or losing their way, now found a new executioner: the partitioning of the sea. Yet a new executioner was sniffing around the country!

The young man started to work two days after arriving. He left in the morning and returned at night. And one day, he didn’t come back. The uncle wasn’t worried. It happened, since the construction sites were far away and some of the young slept there. The second night, the third night, he still didn’t come back. The uncle said he’d talked about it with the broker, who answered that he merely placed the day laborers and was only responsible for them during the day. What the uncle didn’t say, whispered those who were coming and going, was that he was extorting his nephew! From the very first day when the young man returned from a construction site with his pay, the uncle told him that life wasn’t easy here, that everything was expensive and said to him:

I’m going to keep your wages, that way you’re going to save them.

Money goes so quickly here, especially for someone young.

You have to think about your father as well.

And each time, he took more than two-thirds of what he earned – already reduced by the broker’s cut – from working hard under the sun, in the dust, thirsty, threatened and yelled at by supervisors. The amount that remained was not enough for his transportation and his breakfast that he bought along the way. A day laborer could work more than ten hours a day, being treated like a beast of burden, for just a thousand or a thousand five hundred CFA francs or even nothing at all because he could be denied his wages under any pretext.  He was exploited and often accused of theft. As for the uncle, since he’d left, he had not returned to Lompoul. He’d asked one of those who were coming and going to inform his spouse, who was waiting for him, that he “forgave” her and gave her back her neck, which meant that he’d abandoned her.

Ngoné’s ears as well as her father’s only heard news of the uncle from Lompoul from those who were coming and going. The words were scattered, and it wasn’t easy to know what he was really doing in Ndakaaru. Those who were coming and going possessed other information, terrifying information, but it didn’t reach Ngoné and her father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Place de l’Indépendance was teeming with loud voices, laughter, shouts and various greetings. It was the time of day when offices and schools took a break. Everyone went home for lunch, which was sacred, and for some, you had to top it off with a nap. Large stores were closed. Only cafés, bars, restaurants and pastry shops stayed open. The breeze, blowing in from the ocean nearby, was full of invigorating scents and wrapped the area in a languid embrace. For some, their loose clothing billowed with the wind while, for others, their clothes stuck to their bodies. The two young women were breathing in the fresh air with all of their senses. Their faces were luminous, and people were watching them kindly.

The Place was in the farthest part of the city, boxed in by a coast-road, which came from the remote tip of the Almadies, leaving behind the round island of Yoff and the island of Ngor in the shape of a toppled Z. The coast-road ran along the ocean, passed in front of the two hills called the Mamelles, and went down toward Ouakam, Fann Résidence, Mermoz, Fann Hock, Soumbédioune bay, and Reubeuss prison. Here, the round Serpent Island stood out. The road then dove into the Boulevard de la République, forked immediately to the right, a little before Députés hotel, and continued past Club Corse and Club Antillais.

These clubs, very secret, were very active in the shadows during the colonial era. Not open to just anyone unless you were an informant or a “collaborator.” In this circle, there were intelligence agents, far-right henchmen, and specialists in smuggling. Corsicans living in the country had been suspected of being involved in nebulous attacks from World War II, between the supporters of Pétain and those of de Gaulle, to the eve of decolonization movements, the fury that was rumbling in Algeria, the activities of the OAS and everything else. The Club des Antillais was more open and parties, under the rhythm of beguine, were held there on weekends. These clubs were not far from the former colonial administrative and military premises.

The coast-road became a large street, entered the city by the Dial Diop military camp where Bamba was held before his deportation to Gabon. The road passed along the Clinique des Madeleines, made a right, went by Aristide le Dantec hospital and Institut Pasteur, the entrance to the Ambassador of France’s residence, and went up to Cap Manuel. On the right, the small island of the Madeleines seemed to float.

The coast-road reached the promontory of Cap Manuel where the Palais de Justice presided. There, Mamadou Dia, former Président du Conseil and former Chef de Gouvernement, was tried along with members of his cabinet for the alleged coup d’état in 1962. These events, that occurred just two years after the country’s declaration of independence, disrupted the societal plans of a people who needed to “own one’s own head.” When Mamadou Dia’s supporters occupied the radio offices and tried to use the waves to address the people, one of Bigué’s brothers, along with other colleagues working there, were fired for collusion.

From Cap Manuel, the coast-road hugged the curve of the rising coast and went back down behind the Ambassador of France’s residence, the Hôpital Principal, the Résidence du Premier Ministre, and the Palais du Gouverneur, which had become the Palais de la République since the departure of the one who’d had it built. At the top of this majestic building the Métropole’s tricolored flag, blue, white and red, used to fly. In its place, there is now the country’s flag, green, yellow and red with a green star in the middle of the yellow, and under it, there is a small pennant bearing the initials of its current occupant.

The coast-road went down next toward the nightclub “le Niani,” very popular at the time. The new post-independence executives went there on weekends wearing alpaca suits with women dressed in casual dresses, which were gathered or pleated, and belted at the waist. These elegant women wore their hair in a chignon or teased into a lion’s mane.

Further down, there was Anse Bernard beach where families – toubabs, Lebanese and Black toubabs – from Plateau neighborhood went. This beach wasn’t private, but it was privileged due to its geographic situation. The children from the neighborhoods not so far from downtown, like Reubeuss, Niayes Tioker, or Médina, didn’t go there. They had their beaches toward Soumbedioune, Fann Hock and farther away. It was a segregation based on class perpetuated during the colonial era. On one side, there were toubabs, black toubabs, the well-off and Lebanese; on the other, natives, the masses. “Zones” were reserved for each “community,” with special measures taken during the plague and yellow fever epidemic – which hit at the start of the twentieth century – to ensure that it didn’t reach the colony’s toubabs. The negroes needed to be kept out. Zones had been arranged for them and the survivors will never be able to leave them. Whereas, in fact, the neighborhoods of Plateau, Ndakaaru and all of Cape Verde, belonged to these negroes before the arrival of the “red ears.” They were essentially Lebu people, joined later on by other ethnicities.

These lands had been theirs for generations.

After Anse Bernard, there was Des Enfants beach. During her period of solitary wandering, Bigué stopped there and watched the children frolic, contemplating joining them. At this spot, she had woken up one morning with a “bar hopper” beside her, whom she had met in a jazz club on Jules Ferry Street. This man took advantage of her during a moonless night and bragged about it. He was an African American and he confided in the club manager that Bigué was his “first love” since he’d arrived in the country. The manager said that he answered that the man shouldn’t brag about it since Bigué had lost her “xel,” her mind, so she wasn’t in possession of all her faculties. The African American was short, chubby, with a small head and an unremarkable face and had no discernible elegance. When Bigué saw him again in the club, he approached her with a familiarity that we use to remind someone that we had shared or lived through something together. On that day, Bigué told him she didn’t remember what had happened and added, laughing, that she couldn’t imagine having spent the night with someone who wasn’t a poet. He answered that he wasn’t a poet, but a musician. He was like those who took advantage of women suffering from mental illness, diseases of the xel, which made them lose their mind.

Often, people could see women like that in the streets, wandering, with hair disheveled or matted in clumps. When they walked around naked, people hurried to find a wrap, a skirt or a short pant to cover them. A woman, even one without her mind, should not be naked below the waist.

The female sex should not be exposed.

It was sacred. It was the womb of the world.

It was the receptacle.

It was the Earth.

Nevertheless, people could often see men in the same state, walking naked, their sex dangling, but this nudity was less bothersome. Sometimes, the mentally ill got pregnant and Bigué wondered where they gave birth to these babies, born of everyone’s madness. It was difficult to find the perpetrators of this abuse. Rumor had it that “normal” people,” even sometimes VIPs beyond reproach and suspicion, were involved for mystico-magical reasons, seeking to obtain power and potency.

For others, it was out of sheer depravity. But the perpetrators didn’t brag about it; rather, they hid it. Sexual abuse of the mentally ill, of albinos or children, was quite common and no one gave it much thought. This abuse appeared in tabloids and fed discussions for a little while before being thrown away in the drawers of indifference. Ngoné had arrived in Ndakaaru at a time when Bigué found herself in a precarious situation. Bigué had just had a confrontation and had lost her “head.” She wasn’t walking around naked yet, but she often hung around, lived and slept in the streets. For everyone, she was crazy, a druggie.

The coast-road passed under the bridge that connected the Teranga hotel to its pool by the ocean. Bigué had stayed in this hotel before the confrontation and dressed up in the evening to dine in the gourmet restaurant. When she went to the pool, the staff looked at her funny. At the time, she was one of the country’s rare young women, well-mannered and well-composed, lying on a deckchair, in a revealing swimsuit, with a freshly squeezed orange juice in a manicured hand, in the company of a “piir” toubab, a “pure” toubab, a real toubab. During this period, she was preparing for the confrontation with the General. The coast-road went down toward Le Lagon hotel whose restaurant was on a pier in the sea. The lapping waves breathed life into the best grilled grouper in Ndakaaru, amidst a scene of scintillating sparkles. Facing it, Gorée island pouted in its curved shape. Bigué had stayed in the hotel whose windows looked like boat portholes. The hotel had been built upon a steep cliff and when she was in the room, she felt as if she were suspended in the void, above the ocean.

Ngoné was smiling, still arm-in-arm with Bigué. Bigué was talking to her about Ndakaaru, as she had known it before going to the confrontation and as she had found it upon coming back, in the 80s. When Bigué was leaving prison, in the police wagon that took her to the airport for her return, she removed the prison tag off her luggage, wadded it up and swallowed it. It was then that she lost her “head,” which she had nevertheless already snatched back from the General.

This tag was supposed to help her find her head again.

The tag was “her head,” her “xel,” her mind.

A part of her life was thus in parentheses.

And with the other part of her life, she was dragging Ngoné all over town.

The coast-road continued its route that hugged the outline of the sea, then ran in loops and went back up behind Novotel hotel where Bigué had slept as well but it had been an unremarkable stay. And Gorée island stood out again on the right, wrapped in light and shadow, like a jewelry case that you hurry to open. Next, the coast-road went behind the headquarters of the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest whose board was always in the hands of Ivory Coast, and which inspired Benin to create the Banque Ouest Africaine pour le Développment, located in Togo. And so it went for the majority of financial institutions built in the region since the independence era. The former colonizer had its black-clothed hand in it. It was its currency, and it was its money. Its central bank guaranteed its value, despite the taking of independence. The central bank could devalue it whenever it wanted. And the colonizer had never trusted the country when it came to money.

Finally, the coast-road went down toward the port of Ndakaaru, with the grand air of an avenue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downtown Ndakaaru was high up and overlooked the sea. There were steps to reach its beaches, its hotels and restaurants, and railings here and there for security reasons. Couples liked to meet there to gaze at the panorama, make sweeping declarations of love softened by the waves, and take advantage to steal awkward kisses. This part of the coast-road had become flooded with hotels, restaurants, local artist’s shops, taxi lines, and prostitutes, male and female, getting younger and younger. The two young women had not yet included this area in their wandering, but they should, thought Bigué. Ngoné’s little brother could be there. But she gave up talking about it, assuming that Ngoné would have rejected the idea:

My little brother can do anything, but not prostitution! Women are prostitutes, not men, and my brother is young, she would have argued.

The Place de l’Indépendance used to be called Place Protêt. Around it, there was the beautiful Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et de la Coopération, formerly the Palais de Justice during the colonial era, with its purple and white hues, harmonious in its shape. It was facing the Chambre de Commerce; people hesitated for a long time over which one was more beautiful and more colonial. The Chambre de Commerce was more imposing with its columns, and to enter it, you had to climb stairs like those of a Greco-Roman temple. The two buildings were on one end of the Place. The Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et de la Coopération was at the corner of Albert Sarraut Avenue, and the Chambre de Commerce at the corner of Thiong Street.

Two other buildings, facing each other from opposite corners of the Place, were taller and more modern. Their architecture was more in the style of the new trends from the Métropole, such as Haussmann or Le Corbusier. One of the buildings was between William Ponty Avenue and Thiers Street. Under its colonnades, there were banks, travel agencies and stores. The apartments above were used as housing for foreign agents, foreign advisors, toubabs, and Black toubabs. On some floors, there were offices for organizations and major institutions.

After the protestors displayed hostility to the General’s proposition, the “masses” claimed “La Place.” These masses came strolling under the spacious colonnades of the two buildings, where women selling salty or sweet peanuts were calmly sitting. There were newspaper stands and shoe shiners next to them. Other shoe shiners were coming and going; in one hand, they drummed their wooden box to attract customers, and in the other hand, they held a small footstool for the comfort of the customer’s foot. Vendors, standing in front of improvised stalls, hailed passersby, who for the most part never answered their calls. Hawkers sold shoes, belts, eyeglasses, cloths, all hanging off their arms. Beggars disguised as respectable individuals and respectable individuals disguised as beggars paced up the alleys and accosted passersby. They said they were hungry by touching their mouth with their hands. Some ignored them, and others sent them packing by telling them to go work, that begging is not a job. But since the taking of independence, the country lived a life of begging, cloaked as aid, bilateral and multilateral support, trading and cooperation. A classroom or a medical center could not be built without a “partner.”

The taking of independence, with its incoherent vision of development from 1962 on, and the years of drought with the death of cattle and men, had driven entire families to Ndakaaru. They were joined by families who came from neighboring countries. They were fleeing the torment of dictatorship, civil wars, ethnic persecutions, poverty, famine, misery. These families came to Ndakaaru for its reputation in the region and beyond: begging was profitable here. The whole country was known for its alms, but it was not about charity.

People looked to extricate themselves from their schizophrenia, from the landing of the colonizer to the taking of independence. Although they were Black, they saw themselves as toubabs and used mystical and occult forces to make it so. There was an endless back and forth between “authentic blood” and the hardened picture of their alienation whose thick layer was suffocating them. They grimaced and looked like clowns. They were “toubabs ndialaxnes,” fake toubabs.

The Place de l’Indépendance was bordered therefore by buildings and apartments all from the colonial era except for two hotels, one with the same name as the Place, and the current Sofitel that was originally called “Téranga or Hospitality.” This hotel was built by one of the first billionaires from Senegal, Ndiouga Kédé. Next to it, there was “Le Paris” movie theater, one of the most beautiful in Ndakaaru. People “dressed up” to go there. During intermission, young people and young girls in uniform sold Esquimaux ice cream. Movie tickets were expensive and Bigué only went there years later with a film critic who had free access to multiple theaters.

It was to this place, triangular at the time, that in August 1958 General de Gaulle had come to let them join the French community, expecting a positive response. In Afrique Occidentale Française, this country was the headquarters of the colonizer, and had four municipalities – Saint-Louis, Gorée, Rufisque and Dakar – whose inhabitants were subjects. The General had received more or less mixed responses elsewhere and had just suffered a brutal “NO” in the neighboring country, that of Sékou Touré.

In the headquarters-country, occupied for three centuries, some were open to the offer, but didn’t dare say so, while others were forced to support it. The two future leaders of the independent country were not there that day. One was on vacation in the Métropole and the other was undergoing medical care and/or rest in Switzerland. When the General stood in front of the crowd rallied in the Place Protêt in Ndakaaru, he saw signs on which were written:

Mom sa Rew! Own your country!

Independence now!

Facing these signs that were hostile to the offer and held by men and women who were easy-going despite the weight of this moment, General de Gaulle, irritated and mistrustful, let out:

If they want independence, let them take it! France will not object.

This sentence was not really understood.

Like the messages on the signs.

There was a misunderstanding.

The General was not wearing his glasses. He must have been exhausted by his African tour, and still shocked by the deafening “No” of Sékou Touré; he had not really read the messages. He was not talking to the protestors either who only had eyes for him because a tall individual in this country was fondly called “Dégaulle.” One of Bigué’s brothers was named so.

That day, taking independence without owning one’s own head became the poisonous inheritance of these people. Among those who were at the Place, some didn’t care about what was written on the signs or what the General had said but only about who had held the biggest sign.

It’s me who held the biggest sign, the one with: "Mom sa rew," everyone was saying.

Fifty years later, the controversy was still ongoing. But nobody had paid attention to the sentence uttered by the General. It was a massive mistake.

For two years, the country tried to find itself.

Four years later, it faltered.

Twenty years later, it fell to its knees.

Since that year, declared historical by those who didn’t want to join the French community, the Place de l’Indépendance remained nonetheless colonial. Sculpted golden lions were erected and sat, threatening, on each side of the Place, but they weren’t scary. The lion and the baobab were depicted on the country’s coat of arms, a country where lions had disappeared. Its skin, claws, bones, fur, blood, fangs, ears, even its turds were sought after to make talismans for power and potency. In the end, it turned out to be a fake lion, king of a frightened people. There were no longer any red lions. The species was exterminated during the time of the colonizer. The baobabs were still holding on and still multiplying while every other tree was chopped down to make charcoal and furniture identical to those of the man standing in front of signs stating: “Independence now.” People wanted living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and dressing tables, nightstands and writing desks. Drums and djembes were sent to the General’s country. His people wanted to dance.

The baobab was fibrous, and people threaded its fibers into hammocks that were comfortable for the back. Its fruits cured many ills and its leaves were rich in magnesium. The people needed intensive care. And woe to those who would chop one down! The baobab kept the sacred words of the masters – words that hadn’t faltered – in its trunk. The baobab alone should be on the country’s coat of arms. It would have inspired resistance, stirred up fear and respect, instead of a lion who only existed in circuses, like the kind that came to the country in the 60s and that people adored. The circus set up in town, toward Jean Jaurès Avenue, near the office of Radiodiffusion and the Ministère de l’Intérieur. People gathered there. The country itself had turned into one big circus since the “taking” of independence, even somewhat before. It was like the story of Ndoumbélane’s defeat:

Ku meun ca morom dan. Survival of the strongest.

The red lion who should have watched over the country was decimated and its head taken away. Other lions, coming from abroad, were locked in cages at the Dieunatakh zoo one of the previous names of the Hann neighborhood. And when they roared, the lids of water jugs and cooking pots shook in the surrounding areas. Bigué remembered picnics in this park with her older brother who worked at Radiodiffusion and was married to a woman from Saint-Louis. She felt awkward around them. They were living like toubabs but they were Black.

In the middle of the Place de l’Indépendance, there was a fountain whose water sprayed people who got close. Now, beggars, hawkers and passersby crowded the Place so it became less bright except at Christmas when the city tries to restore its shine, but not when it comes to commemorating the battles of Dékheulé, Niané or the main feats of resistance, like that of “Talaatay Ndër.” On that Tuesday in Ndër, women from Walo locked themselves in a hut and burned themselves alive, rather than be kicked off their land and their river in Walo and deported as slaves far from their homes.

Before, crossing the Place was pleasant, especially for people from surrounding bedroom communities which were becoming more and more crowded, without any sea breeze, even though the sea was just next door. They took their time, and got drunk off the fresh air, while the blue sky pretended to flow like frivolous lava between buildings.

Bigué and Ngoné were coming from an especially lively William Ponty Avenue with its Plaza movie theater and the Indian store Taj Mahal. Except for Hindu films – with which people had fallen in love since the movie Mangala came out in the 50s – the infatuation with India, its dances, its languages, its saris, its jewelry, its TV shows, its movie stars, had never been so close to worship. There were ballets and Hindi language courses were given to people who could not even find India on a map. Now, there were radio and TV shows about Indian cinema, as well as about its stars’ professional and private lives.

William Ponty Avenue was shaded, with sidewalks where people could still move about. On Saturdays and Sundays, the residents of Plateau neighborhood and its surrounding areas dressed up to go window-shopping at stores like Opéra. There was a club called Le Tabou, like in Brussels, and young people went there in the afternoon. On both sides of the avenue were bars and restaurants owned by toubabs. Foreign agents, foreign advisors, passing sailors, tourists – all toubabs – and some negroes – lost since the taking of independence and seeing themselves as toubabs – stopped by these spots. Women who loved the libertine life, but were not real escorts, liked to go there. They sat at tables or stood at the bar and laughed with each other.

Ndakaaru swarmed with the presence of toubabs, as if they were ensuring the correct understanding of the General’s response to the signs. They didn’t have to worry about it: the new leaders had not “owned their own heads,” but pretended to own the decapitated country, and the disoriented masses followed.

Some passing sailors had a predilection for Félix Faure Street, just a short distance from William Ponty Avenue. Its discretion and its light, softened both day and night, made some excesses easier, whether with alcohol or girls who hung around there. There were also toubabesses: white women who were neglected then abandoned by their husbands, who, now back in the country, married cousins “identified” by their families. These young, local women, looking for status, led men astray with suggestions that made them lose their heads. Most of these toubabesses didn’t go back home, either because they didn’t have the means or for their children or, after all, they liked the country. Women from Cape Verde, who had left their island of misery behind, lived in the street, except for those who worked as maids for the toubabs or as seamstresses. Elsewhere on the continent, it was mainly Cuban or Russian women – brought by students coming from the countries that displayed the Hammer and Sickle – who engaged in these activities. Some of them played at little tropical Mata Haris. For those trying to emigrate, prostitution could be physical, intellectual, or even spiritual. Some applicants went so far as apostasy in order to leave with a visa and a “job” as a priest.

Most of these bars and restaurants on William Ponty Avenue and on adjacent streets had lost their colonial shine; they had become places for prostitutes and beggars. It was becoming harder and harder to walk on these sidewalks that were overcrowded with stands, hawkers and passersby. There were fast-food restaurants owned by Lebanese that sold shawarma, merguez and kibbeh, with lingering smells of grease and spice.

Having been there since the XIXth century, these Lebanese had acted as intermediaries between the colonizer and the natives. Some had settled in Ndakaaru and in Cape Verde, others in peanut-producing regions. They bought cash crop harvests for the colonizer and sold its manufactured goods. In their shops, there were printed fabrics, polyester, gabardine, blankets, gas-powered storm lamps, flashlights, batteries, gas, and agricultural equipment. The peanuts that went to the Métropole came back to the country as oil and Marseille soap. The oil was sold off the cask with a millimetric tube.

Upon the taking of independence, the concentration of power and government in Ndakaaru and the lack of a commitment to re-energizing the outdated agricultural sector pushed people out of cities and large villages in the heartland. The decline of cash crops, on top of years of drought, triggered an ever-expanding poverty. The Lebanese closed shops and houses and moved to Ndakaaru. The businesses that were collapsing along the railroad and had been taken over by the first emigrants, especially the Mourides, pushed some Lebanese to go even farther away. They reached Ndakaaru after the people they had worked with in the heartland had already arrived. Many young people from Bigué’s village had left for Ivory Coast. That country, which had become a major economic player thanks to the development of its agriculture and its open-door policy, needed laborers and skilled workers, which was attractive. Among the Lebanese who had stayed here, some turned towards higher education, while others chose to open corner stores, restaurants and nightclubs. They were diversifying their portfolio, but the trading business was the priority.

On William Ponty Avenue, there was Professor Pathé Diagne’s publishing house Sankoré that doubled as a place for lectures, discussions and debates. It was there that Bigué met filmmakers such as Ababacar Samb Maharam, Mahama Johnson Traoré, the actor Doura Mané, the phenomenon Joe Oukam, and so many others that were raising the ante, and she admired them all. At the time, all these “great ones” were not full of themselves like some nowadays who think they are sitting next to God Almighty… who happens to look a lot like the General. Before, intellectuals, creators and dreamers had no complexes. They valued raising awareness of the stakes of independence and were pushing for resistance against the vices and adversity of neocolonialism. Ideas were exchanged, projects and dreams shared.

William Ponty Avenue had been named after a former colonial governor, as was the case with the École Normale Fédérale de l’Afrique Occidentale Française, that trained and tried to condition the first schoolteachers, administrators and executives of the country and then of the whole region. These “Pontins” made up the first elite that was going to take charge of their respective countries, be it as heads of state, heads of government or top administrative executives. William Ponty Avenue was renamed Pompidou Avenue under the tenure of the country’s first leader after independence. The gossipers said that it was just nepotism; the two men had been friends since they attended Louis Le Grand high school in the Métropole. This obsession, with naming avenues and boulevards after living presidents of the former colonizer, still persisted.  

William Ponty Avenue went on until the roundabout created by the intersection of Gambetta Avenue, André Peytavin Avenue, and Maginot Avenue, where you could find the Sandaga market, with its Sudan-Sahelian architecture in tones of ocher. Bigué knew this market well, since, as a young girl she had lived on Gambetta Avenue, at the corner of Grammont Street, now Abdou Karim Bourgi Street, the name of a Lebanese “patriot” who didn’t marry a native woman, but whose memory was used to push for a stronger integration of the Lebanese population. The Sandaga market had several floors, with stairs that went up and down in every direction. At night, there was the sound of drums, of songs and muffled sounds of dancing feet, as dance troupes and ballet companies rehearsed there. This market was full of colors, bordered by Lebanese stores, seamstress shops, and sellers of imported beauty products and other goods. At night, people went there to buy fresh fish with bright eyes and red gills from strong Lebu women who had a sharp wit and were hanging out on the sidewalk. Due to massive rural flight, people were chaotically occupying the market and its surroundings, which were deteriorating. Nothing was done to preserve it, such as turning it into a modern market or a museum of colonial history. Currently, the market has cracks all over and the building could collapse any day, which would be a tragedy similar to the Le Joola shipwreck. The crowd, unaware, is there day and night, even street children and the homeless. Since independence, everything is deteriorating.

If they want Independence, let them take it!

Buildings that were, after all, the glory of the country, were abandoned to their sad fate, and instead new ones were built whose architecture was not grounded in traditional styles and techniques, even when being adapted to contemporary needs. More and more, people were complaining and saying that it was intolerable to have Sandaga market occupied like that in the middle of downtown, full of waste and rotting garbage, and big rats running everywhere. Those who occupied it answered that they had nothing but this market for work and feeding their family, even if they, too, recognized that the market was in critical condition.

But God is good! they concluded.

It was always like this, in this country. Evictions were attempted, but those who occupied the market and its surroundings had been organizing and had become a force not to be messed with on election days. Traffic jams were monstruous on weekdays and people used that as a pretext to come to work late. Tough luck for an ambulance transporting anyone sick: they could easily breathe their last breath among the noises, awful smells and impatient honking!

One-way streets, wrong way signs, two-lane roads, and parking spaces, nothing made sense, just like the country’s leadership. But what do you want, these roads weren’t used by the country’s leaders, toubabs or Black toubabs. Beggars, street children, hawkers and cars occupied bits and pieces of sidewalks, along with those who practiced a new and discreet form of prostitution that was becoming more widespread. As such, it was young girls who were feeding their families. Fathers gave up on looking for work and mothers were getting used to being treated like the wife of a sultan or a governor. Brothers were “sitting down” and only thought about leaving to look for something better in the country of the General, a country that was starting to close its doors. Otherwise, it was Barzakh. Families overlooked the nighttime and daytime absences of their daughters, and later on of their sons, since they had their lunch, their bills were paid, and they were guaranteed to have a sheep for Tabaski…

And more and more young people were soliciting in the street, in hotels, in bars, even in supermarkets. Housewives were doing the same, to fill up their grocery baskets.

The people were prostituting themselves, “with no heads.”

Along the coast, with the development of sexual and pedophile tourism, young people roamed near hotels and tried to leave the country with their clients, be they men or women. Many among them succeeded in doing so. No matter the age, the only objective was to leave the country. Young people grew dreadlocks or braided their hair. They wore necklaces and earrings to look like an authentic Chaka Zulu and seduced toubabesses looking for exoticism and thrills. Young, Black, thin girls wore tight jeans, small, tight tops or “belly-buttons out,” showcasing long braids touching their vigorous and bouncy butts, thanks to the Nina, Amina, or Darling hair extensions widely available in the markets. They were like vines that toubabs loved to wrap themselves in, like a contemporary Tarzan.

Were the roles reversed?

Who was Cheetah now?

Maginot Avenue was shaded and more peaceful than William Ponty Avenue. A large building was standing between Victor Hugo Street on the one side, and Jules Ferry Street on the other, made in the same style as the buildings of the Place de l’Indépendance. Under the colonnades, there were stores and Fouquet’s, like in Paris. This café had a green patio with tables for small meals and, at night, a soloist or a duet played there. It was at Fouquet’s that Bigué met Bassirou Lô, may he rest in peace, a gifted musician, songwriter, composer, and talented flutist and guitar player, who had classical training and knew how to write sheet music. He was the only love Bigué had after coming back from the confrontation. He was a musician and a poet.

In front of the Maginot building, there was Laetitia tea shop/bakery, and it was great to have breakfast there, facing the benevolent kindness of the Virgin Mary statue, put on the facade of the completely white cathedral. Maginot Avenue was trying to preserve its shine, but its sidewalks were beginning to be crowded by tables where hawkers showcased glasses, costume jewelry, coffee makers, rosaries, random stuff from who knows where. The sidewalks were also used for a pay-to-park managed by young Peul from Futah.  

The Chirara store, owned by Lebanese, was located farther up on the avenue, near Guigon pharmacy from the colonial era, opposite Sandaga market. Ladies shopped there, buying fabrics like organza, Calais lace, guipure, velvet, Duchesse satin, chiffon, English embroidery, and fine or coarse silk. Bigué had bought fabric there for a university ball, fabric whose cost had eaten up her small student fellowship. The design found in an issue of Nous Deux magazine didn’t suit her. Honestly, it wasn’t even the design she wanted. She just wanted to look like the model who was wearing it. She had already lost her “head” and wore this outfit to go to the confrontation with the General. On Maginot Avenue, there was ABC movie theater, Citec and Bouchara stores, and the stores of the Lebanese, that were expanding their market to include electronic and household tools, furniture fabric, imported lamps, and even fast-food smelling of cumin.

Downtown was mirroring the mess that was the country’s leadership. The people were beginning to understand the General’s speech. Those clowns, no! They were grimacing more and more.

 

 

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