A local madman in Bonanjo, Cameroon, regales a stranger with stories about his country’s history, and his own, in this short story by Congolese author and 2015 Man Booker International finalist Alain Mabanckou.
“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find”
—Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
Tall, thin, profile like a flatfish, bushy eyebrows, gray beard, prominent red eyes, he stands with a book in his hands: The Story of the Madman . . .
I'm told he often reads long passages from Mongo Beti's novel aloud to a loyal audience. I hadn't noticed the presence of this strange reader till I heard his spluttering cough.
He's staring right at me now. His ragged clothes trail on the ground of the park in Bonanjo, a poor district of Douala, as he slips the novel into his pocket. I start to feel afraid. He moves toward me and speaks to me in a deep voice, like some disgraced prophet from the pages of the Old Testament:
“Voyager, I am the master of Bonanjo, the oldest orphan, the last survivor of the caravan, the seeker of Africas, the man they call mad, proof of the fickleness of men, possessor of a third eye, more powerful that Cain's ever was. I've seen you pass this way these last few days, I've wondered what you're after. I know you've come to spy on us. Let me speak, then, for speech can never be spied on. We hide it away deep inside us, like Mount Cameroon over there, yielding her secrets only to those who climb her with a humble heart.
“You think I'm just some madman, a piece of crap. I may look like a little black dot, but don't forget—the little black dot has the final word. I'll tell you one thing. Douala's not going to open its arms to you like some street girl schlepping along the sidewalk in the Rue de la Joie, over the far end of Deido. This is Bonanjo, this is my patch. This district belongs to me, every inch of it. You thought you could just wander into my chiefdom without seeing the chief, did you? Is a great man a little man? Who are you trying to kid? I'll tell you one thing: I'm the keeper of this land you're tramping over. That's why I sit here from dawn until dusk, beside this monument to the memory of soldiers and sailors who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. Come close to the statue, look at the soldier, see how the rains have filled up the pool around him, carrying along the rubbish that fouls my chiefdom. Oh don't worry, the kids love the rain water, even some adults do. They wash their cars with it all along the main street over there, close by’s my friend Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling, the young magician-cum-saint-cum-healer, a man who can turn a snake into a rat, a cat into a tiger, take my word for it, I know what I'm saying, don't you go polluting my mind with all that stuff about Descartes and those other guys who've come between you and our view of reality. Cameroon is Cameroon! Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling's no charlatan! He knows every single one of the ninety-nine plants to cure a cough, night poison, slow poison, rheumatism, internal and external hemorrhoids, low sperm count, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, period pains, those worms in your groin that nibble your spermatozoids and keep your wife from getting pregnant. He can cure all that, believe me. Once, before witnesses, he even said to a crippled man: Rise up and walk! And the crippled man rose up. And the crippled man walked! And the crowd applauded. The tourists were amazed. Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling is one of my most loyal and humble servants. And if God calls me up to heaven one day, to sit on at his right-hand side . . . yes, that's what I said, his right-hand side . . . I'm leaving this land to him!
“Voyager, my territory starts at the Avenue General de Gaulle. It stretches as far as the Camp de la Valeur, past the Lycée Joss, the port, Douala train station, and the Marina crossroads. I've posted lieutenants all over Bonanjo, they report any suspicious movements to me. Some of them have seen you taking photos, writing in a notebook. You people who've traveled abroad and experienced the culture of Whites, all you believe in is what white men have written. You know nothing of the spirit that moves as the wind, that heaves with laughter, mocking your snow-bound education, washed in bleach, smoothed by the hot iron of alienation . . .
“Voyager, I am Doualan, proud of my lineage, proud of the glorious flame I have carried for centuries. My ancestors came from the Congo. The faces of these my brothers and sisters carry the mark of wanderers, the murmur of the shoreline, the acute and the grave accents of a language which connects us to our past, our exodus. Anyone who, like us, gives hospitality and reveres fraternity and tolerance, is welcome here. I will not let you go without hearing who I am and what I want you to tell people who live beyond these borders. My name is Ewalè. You may also call me Keeper of the Doualan Records. I live out of doors, in the street. The word roof means nothing to me now and I've even forgotten the pleasure of stretching out on a comfortable bed with clean sheets, fresh with the scent of Omo. It's no big deal. The Chief must live outdoors so he can see if the devil comes in the night to terrorize his subjects. Here I can keep watch on all the Doualan files, especially those of my sector, Bonanjo. I decided to in the street the day my wife, Hermina Coura Tcha, who was Togolese by birth, left this world for the next. She took our unborn child with her. It felt like injustice, but I told myself it was the will of God, that I should devote myself entirely to governing my Bonanjo territory. Stunned by this twofold sorrow, I started to cackle like a hyena, chasing after people who were invisible to ordinary mortals. My house felt too small to contain the multitude of turbulent characters who could have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Mongo Beti. I didn't want to live in it anymore. Besides, I knew I would become chief of a chiefdom: I was reminded of it in my dreams and in the course of conversations with people who were invisible to ordinary mortals.
“At first I roamed the streets of Deido and lay down by the trees in the temple of Nazareth. Once I had been duly enthroned by the Doula Gods, with all the chiefs' agreement, I handed my Deido territory over to my friend Rico, alias Credit Gone West, a hunchback with whom I'd kept on neighborly terms, and every now and then, quietly and calmly, we hold meetings to discuss matters arising in our respective territories. In this way we can settle any disputes in a spirit of perfect harmony.
“I know what's going on in the outside world. I've seen the boats set sail, or enter the water, at the port of Douala. That's where I've found most of the books that have taken me on my own journeys, without ever leaving Bonanjo. I've talked with Cervantes's Don Quixote while stroking the beard of Garcia Marquez's patriarch, Buendia. I've even seen a fisherman round here, Santiago, straight out of Hemingway. I've dreamed of Venetian gondolas with Luis Sepulveda and his old pal who liked to read love stories. I've traced the flight of Baudelaire's albatross, so cruelly treated by the crew with their hearts of stone. I've poured with sweat as I hauled in nets with fishermen from Victor Hugo. And one more thing: to make my peace with my ancestors, I've traveled to the Congo with André Gide . . . .
“Voyager, no trace will be left of your passage in the streets of Bonanjo, unless you kneel at my feet. 'He's nothing!' Is that what you think? 'Why should I bow down to him!' Is that it? Hear my cry: Ekié! Antsi! Wèèèh! Look across at the horizon, and ask yourself why Mount Cameroon has stayed silent since the dawn of time. You turn up in this country, in this town, on my territory, glutted on comfort, borne on wings of smug conceit, pectorals puffed with prejudice, strutting from street to street with your pencil in your hand, on the lookout for some little incident so you can make a note of it and give one of your readers a thrill. Get the hell out of here!
“I'm not your ordinary madman. Write that one down, spell it out in black and white, or you'll be cursed to the end of your days. I'm a chief, I'm the real McCoy. Is a great man a little man? I'm the only one who's here after dark, talking with the hero who founded the town of Douala. My ancestors are like the Buendias, the builders of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The history of my town is long forgotten now, alas. I know my ancestors, though, and I want you to remind your readers who they were.
“During my nocturnal discussions I hang out with one Rudolph Douala Manga Bell, descendant of the founders of this town. A true rebel, product of the German system, no less. Naturally, with his legal training, he looked back over the protectorate treaty his grandfather signed with the Germans. Rudolph would go on to protect our land, to oppose the abuse of rights, of power, and the attempt by Europeans to redefine property rules in the land of his ancestors. As I see it, Rudolph Douala Manga Bell was the first Cameroonian nationalist. His struggle was national, not ethnic. Dead, killed, murdered. Those cowards the Germans hanged him. What a sad and terrible day, the Eighth of August, 1914. They delivered him up to a shameful death hanging from the branch of a mango tree. Whenever I visit that dreadful place, I break down and weep. The autumn leaves chant their funeral prayers and birds take flight from the crown of that ill-fated tree, whirling in a maelstrom of grief. I fold my arms behind my back, and scour the earth for the marks of the instruments of torture the Germans used to put an end to the life of one of my most glorious ancestors . . .
“Voyager, the hanging of Rudolph taught me a a bit of wisdom I'll hand on to you: you can hang a man from a tree, but you cannot hang History with him. Every rope on earth tied end to end would still be too short to strangle History. Rudolph Douala Manga Bell is still here. He sees us. He shows us the way. He hears me now, speaking to you. No, don't look back, you are not worthy even to meet the gaze of that most illustrious man. Go and visit The Pagoda, on the other side of the Avenue General de Gaulle. Take a closer look at the house my ancestor Rudolph called home, built by the Germans in 1901 for his father, Auguste Manga Ndoumbé. We gave this country a deputy in the French National Assembly, Alexandre Ndoumbé Douala. It was those same Germans who later tore up and threw out the agreement made with my people. Obviously we should have kept our own land, and the Germans should have stuck by the terms agreed in the protectorate treaty. What drove them to try and change the face of our town? Was it just greed? They even created a ghetto, which we now call New Bell, where they rounded up the Doula Manga Bells, keeping Douala for themselves!
“Voyager, go take a walk by The Pagoda, behind you. Look at it closely. I fear it will fall down one of these days, though it looks so solid, towering over the monument across the street, that was built to honour those who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. That house is in danger, I can tell. There's nothing I can do, I'm alone against the world. When I speak they take me for a loudmouth, a weirdo, a character from The Story of The Madman by Mongo Beti, which I do sometimes read out loud to those who have ears and can hear.
“I've got my eyes on that place, I know one day The Pagoda will crumble and fall from ingratitude and neglect, and we'll all be to blame. My ancestors have still not found their rest. Nor will they, till The Padoga becomes a 'historic monument,' or better still, a heritage site valued beyond the borders of this country. Alas, voyager, we've been waiting forever for that to happen. There's no inscription outside The Pagoda recording this episode in our history. It just looks like one more administrative office, the provincial residence of some prefect or other. Which is why, voyager, you scarcely even noticed it as you passed. You crossed over to the other side, because the soldiers and the sailors who fell in the 1914–18 war have a bright, shiny memorial, a fountain and a green space, Bonanjo Park . . .
“Meanwhile, The Pagoda stands waiting. Waiting, first, for Cameroon to acknowledge its place in its history. Charity begins at home. It's still waiting. It knows that if Cameroon won't credit the role it played, no international authority is going to rescue it, or even put a coat of paint on the steps at the main entrance. One day it will just fall down, the building that once proudly housed the first ever movie theater in Douala and proudly hosted the paintings and sculpture of the young Hervé Yamguen.
“The Pagoda will watch the centuries pass, and treasure the memory of those who once believed in this city as a realm of freedom, a door onto the world. Voyager, if no one will listen I'll choose to die in the rubble of that building, to give my life as a sacrifice. Then I'd know I wasn't the crazy one; it's the ones who claim to be on the side of reason who've done nothing to get this place the status of historic monument. Off you go now, forget this place, or else write it down and do something to help us . . .”
The Madman of Bonanjo is crying now. His arms hang loose by his sides, his eyes trace the flight of a crow as it skims the rooftop of The Pagoda. Without a word he moves a little way off and takes out the novel by Mongo Beti, beginning to read aloud at the first page to a small but impatient crowd.
I must go now. I throw my notebook on the ground, and set off back to the Hotel Ibis, less than a thousand feet away. At the hotel reception, I take the clippings from the national press from Marc Bessodes, as I do every evening. He must wonder why I'm looking less jovial today. I go straight upstairs to my room, no. 610, and begin to write down the words of the Madman of Bonanjo. I wonder if he'll ever read them.
"Le Fou de Bonanjo" © Alain Mabanckou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Stevenson. All rights reserved.