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Conversations One August Afternoon
She was already a boy, Sara was, when she arrived at Mount Pleasant, the royal residence in exile. That is the simple truth of it. She was only nine years old, and yet she had been offered to Njoya, the sultan, when he arrived in Yaoundé. Offered as a sign of friendship, “friendship and brotherhood.” The paramount chief of the Ewondo, Charles Atangana had convinced the monarch to leave Bamum land and take up residence in the French protectorate’s capital. The least he could do was to make his guest’s stay comfortable; custom required no less—ah, yes, our famous customs!
It was the dry season; according to the calendar, the year was 1931. The trees said it was August, even if the day was clothed in the colors of refusal: Sara’s refusal (she was called Sara ever since a Catholic priest had miswritten her actual name, Sala) because she did not want to leave her mother. The sultan’s refusal, for he did not understand how coming to the heart of the region under French control would lessen their mistrust of him, evident ever since his difference of opinion with their local representatives some ten years before in Foumban.
“Isn’t that just stepping on the snake’s tail?” Njoya had asked one day when his friend pushed him for an answer.
“What can I say?” Charles Atangana replied, playing distractedly with his bowler hat. “It’s just a change of scenery.”
Like Njoya, he knew that if the French feared them, it wasn’t for their words or their power, but for the good relationship they had enjoyed with the former German colonizers.
“Don’t you know that France is a very jealous woman?” the chief added. “And with all your wives—”
“And what about you,” the sultan interrupted with a sly smile. “You have only one wife, and yet…”
What could Charles Atangana say to that? He and Njoya still bore the scars of events from before the war, traces they could not erase. “I’m like a woman, and the whites are like men,” Njoya had written in the Saa’ngam, his memoirs. “What can I do except obey?” He was referring to the English, who had come before, but it was the French who, by ordering his banishment, had left him without a voice; yes, without a voice. And yet that’s just how Sara felt, too: without a voice. For very different reasons, of course. She had uttered her last words the night of her departure. Her mother hadn’t given her a moment to rest after waking her, and Sara’s whispers had been lost in the night, muffled by the bamboo frame of her bed, which bore the marks of all the times she gnawed on it in silence.
That same morning, the house had awoken to the sound of her mother’s hollow voice crying out in a nightmare. The little girl’s pale face was a blank that no one wanted to look at too closely. Especially not her mother, a sensible peasant who the previous night had made her peace and furtively wiped away her tears. Not this mother who had mortified her own flesh for days on end after accepting her daughter’s bitter fate, for she had seen men cut the knot of women’s destiny many times before. So she pulled a pagne tightly around her waist, girding herself to speak as the inescapable shadow in which her daughter would now live closed in around them. Uncle Owona, the girl’s godfather, kept quiet. He had wished so hard to put this moment of pain behind him that he had nothing else to say. He knew it was his fault, and that was enough.
As for Carl, Sara’s brother, he was too young, so no adult found it necessary to explain to him why he would now have to spend his days without his sister.
And what about Sara? She had been informed of her “good fortune”—yes, that’s how her mother put it—her good fortune to answer the call of destiny, even though she was still a child.
“If I were you,” her mother added, “I’d be happy.”
Happy? That’s the question that sounded in the mute child’s head as her eyes scanned the silent room, trying to understand the flutterings of her misfortune.
“I would have danced.”
No, Sara couldn’t dance, even if her mother sketched a few steps and started to sing a familiar song, a lullaby that swaddled her warmly in her praise names.
“Daughter of the panther,” said the song.
“Child of the river,” it added.
“Flower of the night.”
“Mother of groundnuts.”
For this rustic woman, singing was a way to calm her burning tears. Yet she knew it was useless to hide from her daughter the truth of the woman’s life that was about to begin for her. Later, much later, Sara would hear her mother’s voice calling for her in songs of praise. Sometimes she’d hear other voices calling for her in the night, voices both familiar and unknown. She’d hear the syllables of her name ricochet off Yaoundé’s seven hills and then roll through the mud of the valley before they were lost in the heart of the rain, in the joyous laughter of the girls her age. Sometimes it would be the voice of her younger brother, whom she would see only once more after that morning. Her brother, who, although just eight years old, already held the gourd of arki—excuse me, I mean alcohol—between his legs, and called her “woman,” as if he were a husband calling for his wife.
Of course Sara would also hear the gruff voice of Njoya calling for her from the depths of his deathbed, calling for her, much to the stupefaction of the six hundred and eighty royal wives. Oh, Sara would hear all of these voices spreading out endlessly over the green hills of the part of town known as Nsimeyong; she would hear these cries, these calls, these shouts, these songs of destiny. For her story is, in truth, a song: a song so poignant and so profound that it can find its echo only in the silence of the father, who, on the day of her departure, was himself absent. All her life Sara would search for the voice of this father—all her life long. The solid voice of this unknown father, she would catch hints of it even in the echo of dogs barking impatiently or in the nocturnal yowling of cats.
I’ll come back to this later in detail.
When I met her, all she remembered of the sultan were his eyes. How could she forget them? Njoya’s face was as captivating as an abyss, she confessed.
“You would have thought he could swallow a soul.”
She smiled. Though Sara was ninety, she still revealed traces of the child she had been at nine: she was astonished. I asked her if she had ever looked at herself before in the mirror.
“No,” she replied. “How could I have?”
I couldn’t believe that it was through Njoya’s eyes that she had seen herself for the first time.
“No,” she corrected me. “The chief’s.”
Who she meant was Charles Atangana.
Copyright © 2011 by Éditions Philippe Rey
Translation copyright © 2016 by Amy Baram Reid