The months leading up to the millennium felt like an agonizing sermon in a packed church, the never-ending kind that loquaciously drags past noon and into the searing intensity of a tropical afternoon. Church leaders frightened the masses by slamming ringed fists on pulpits and prophesying the end of the world at the genesis of the year 2000. Fanatics reacted accordingly; they sold their property, allegedly gave the money to charity, dressed all in white and waited for the dawn of rapture on church altars. Every time my eleven-year-old consciousness heard a roadside preacher warning passers-by about the imminent return of the Son of God, my stomach muscles constricted like a plastic bottle dropped in fire. What if the world really did come to an end? What would happen to my soul? If I am being entirely honest, my apprehension had very little to do with perishing in the lake of fire for all eternity. I was more concerned with the promise of everlasting life within those yellowed towers of heaven. I pictured myself draped like a Roman senator, running my fingers through a still translucent river, surrounded by pale cherubs wearing oversized flower garlands, singing about the greatness of God forever and ever and ever and ever. Won’t you get tired of singing all those songs for eternity? Won’t you get tired with life after, I don’t know, maybe a thousand years? It must feel, I thought, like a scene from one of those horror movies with brooding vampires weary of their centuries-old routine of sucking blood at night and sleeping in coffins during the day. I could not possibly imagine what was so alluring about perpetuity.
On New Year’s Eve, I ate cookies with warm honey because Mother insisted it brought good luck. She hated the noise I made when I licked my sweetened fingers. “Stop it Tanyi, stop it!” She said I sounded like a hungry baby nibbling at his mother’s breasts.
The night heat had settled on her face, and she looked like a greased piece of new wood. I poured a drop of everything I drank on the floor because Father said it was a gesture of communion with the spirits of our ancestors. I didn’t know what they looked like, what they wanted, or even understand the language they spoke, but I was made to believe that it was in my best interest to stay in their good graces. I remember waking up a minute or three past the midnight hour to the tepid pop of amateur fireworks above the roof. The radiance of Jesus Christ did not burst through night clouds and life went on as usual, as it always does.
That summer, the Internet craze dug its way to Cameroon (or at least into my family). Father was on the fence about the digital movement but a conversation over Scottish brandy with Uncle Vuban tipped him over. Uncle Vuban’s eldest daughter was studying in America at the time, and he proudly called her “a model citizen of the 21st century…I’m telling you, that girl can perform all that technological Internet magic just like the white people.” His favorite magic trick was the convenient communication exchange between email addresses. Understandable, really, especially when you consider the bureaucratic disarray and widespread corruption of Cameroon’s Postal Service. Sealed envelopes notoriously take veritable centuries to cross the Atlantic.
Father enrolled me, together with my siblings and five cousins, in a computer studies program coordinated by a novice institution. Report cards were not issued at the end of the course so no one, besides my sister Josephine, took the classes seriously. Sometimes, when my brother felt like it, we transported the class to the pebbled football field of an adjoining high school. Sometimes, I acted as his team’s unofficial coach — treading the sidelines, hyping their often lackluster performances with contrived applause. He blamed their losses on the unevenness of the field but the truth is, I don’t think they were any good. Other times, I sat at a distance, engulfed in the itchy comfort of grass sprouting past my shoulders. The earthy aroma of fresh grass was threatened by the stench of cow dung from a nearby grazing field. Stacey, my doll, hated the latter smell more than anything in life, but she also hated humans. Thus, besides my bedroom, this was the only place I could bring her.
Yes! She was a doll, and I was a boy. Yes! She was made of plastic. But she was also my friend, my confidante. She was the only one I could tell that running after a plastic ball for sport seemed utterly ridiculous, and not feel judged. While crowning her golden, waist-length hair with blades of woven grass, we often argued about the number of invitation cards for our upcoming tea parties. I wasn’t too keen on sharing our secret closet with those threadbare and mud-stained teddy bears, but Stacey was definitely more magnanimous than I was, that’s for sure. I once asked my brother if I could play on his team and he laughed the most repulsive laugh, so repulsive his body convulsed like he was vomiting tar-caked intestines. “Football is no place for sissies,” he managed to say in between bouts of thunderous guffaws. I never asked again.
On those rare occasions when the instructor was able to get everyone into the computer room, she would threaten not to let us leave until we spent hours going through the typing tutor exercises. At the conclusion of the first month, my hands could comfortably, and without any visual assistance, place eight fingers on A, S, D, F and U, I, O, P. After the second month, the spirits of science possessed me. While my fingers whacked the keyboard, my face marveled at the rapid yet synchronized movement magically churning cohesive sentences on the screen.
I remember the first time I created an email address like the lingering memory of a first kiss. The cyber coordinator, as he was called, led us into the elusive internet room, a special air-conditioned office with antique leather chairs, cobwebbed window curtains, mesh pencil cups and two overheated computers whirring in protest. He divided the class into two even groups and patiently guided each one of us through the email creation process. After what felt like a lifetime, it was finally my turn to click the SEND icon. As I watched my first email disappear into the lucent screen, I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that the same mystic magnetic energy sucking up words into this digital vortex would teleport me to, perhaps, the rim of King Arthur’s table where I could rest my bloodied sword and savor the nourishing wine of true camaraderie. Mr. cyber coordinator proceeded to show us how to browse the World Wide Web. We watched in awe as he journeyed from Dexter’s lab to The Mystery Van in only a matter of seconds. The world became full of infinite possibilities.
I was about to take a dive down the rabbit hole when Josephine’s determined fingers scratched into my blanket and would not stop until I regained consciousness and yelled, “What?”
“Your friends are here. They are waiting for you on the verandah.”
I seldom had friends visit me at home. In fact, I never had anyone visit me — not since the Power Rangers incident. I once invited Colin to come home with me and watch Power Rangers. Colin and I were not friends. My invitation, I’m certain, was not a benevolent gesture because I didn’t know (at the time) that his parents could not afford satellite TV. Colin’s quiet eyes had a habit of scintillating, unannounced, like he was observing an explosion of comets. He could see something no one else saw and perhaps I invited him over because I wanted to know why.
“What is happening here?” Father yelled when he saw both of us huddled in front of the beaming TV screen. “Shouldn’t you be studying?”
Father sent Colin home after scolding him for luring me “to the wrong path.” I was dismissed to my room and banned from watching TV for an entire week. The story circulated around school faster than seasonal flu, and I never had any visitors again.
On the verandah, I took in my school friends. Babo’s wrinkly cargo pants were shredded at the cuffs. While the right sole of his slippers looked fairly new, its left counterpart had been so badly eaten up by the earth that it was now a thin sheet of rubber. This unevenness could probably be attributed to his habit of exerting more pressure on his left foot whenever his body was in motion. Delphine wore a voluminous kaba that attempted, unsuccessfully, to subdue the outline of her figure. She embraced me so warmly I could feel the suppleness of her burgeoning breasts. Jean-Claude had very skinny legs, I remember, and his trousers were so brown and so tight, they could easily be mistaken for skin. He placed an arm over Delphine’s shoulders and swayed childishly, like an innocent schoolboy — probably trying to neutralize the tension of his intrusive glare.
I had never seen them without school uniforms before. They looked different. They were different. I tried to convince myself that we were in that other place, the place illustrated on the margins of my notebooks, the place with children nursing acres of ice cream gardens, riding bicycles on a rainbow after a rainy afternoon, unlocking cages of fireflies in the night forest and at dawn, navigating a pirate’s ship into the orbed reflection of the sun. We weren’t.
“Tanyi, we are going to the General Board of Education to check the results of our exit exams,” Babo said with a grin the good captain wears when he welcomes the newest member of the crew.
“Everyone from class will be there,” Jean-Claude said.
“Come with us, Tanyi, please!” Delphine pleaded, looking at me as if she had placed a hefty bet on the outcome of my decision and was nervously confident about her chances of victory.
“We need to hurry, oh, because the building is going to be full of people very soon,” she continued.
“OK! OK! Let me go and change my clothes. Wait for me, please!”
After rummaging through heaps of clothes in my closet, I initially settled on a fitted white t-shirt, dark blue jeans and a new pair of black sneakers. I observed my appearance in the mirror and decided the look was ordinary, too ordinary for such a triumphant entry into this new world. I added a blue blazer I inherited from Father and replaced the sneakers with black leather boots. This will do. I bumped into Father in the corridor outside my room, and he loomed above me so high his head almost touched the ceiling. I could never look into his eyes back then; they had an accusatory intensity about them that could make you confess to a crime you didn’t commit.
“Where are you going?”
I opened my mouth and tried to hurl words but nothing came out.
“Where are you going?” he repeated, fluttering the gold watch on his right wrist as if trying to shake off an insect.
“My friends are going to the General Board of Education to check the results of the exit exams. I want to go with them.”
There was a long silence.
“Go back to your room,” he calmly said.
I wrapped myself in a wool blanket and rested my skull against the cold rugged wall. Josephine twisted the creaky knob and let herself in. “Your friends are still waiting for you outside. You have to go and tell them something.”
I was too embarrassed to leave my room, but I would have been more embarrassed if I had not left. I rushed into the living room, but I couldn’t go any further. I was too late. I heard Father’s deep monotone voice overpowering dwarfed inquiries. I heard feet shuffling across the verandah and crunching through dead leaves. I heard collective whispers, recognizing their unity in numbers. I heard a creaking gate, a barking dog and finally, silence. I never saw them again.
Hours later, Father twisted the creaky knob and let himself in. I was wrapped in a wool blanket, my skull again pressed against the cold wall. He said I received an A in the exit exams, and my class had the 7th best performance in the country. I didn’t respond, so he left.
Our headmistress organized a party in the school’s auditorium the following Saturday to celebrate my class’s success. I had permission to attend because it was a school event, but I didn’t go.
Josephine had a habit of wringing her lips into a straw and sucking hot tea in small doses.
Lwuup! Gulp. Lwuuuuup! Gulp. Lwuuuuuuuuuup! Gulp.
“Stop doing that,” Father would yell.
“The tea is hot.”
“Is anyone forcing you to drink hot tea?”
My brother preserved his farts in cupped hands and pressed the whiff against my unsuspecting face. Kitchen smoke gave him headaches, and he enjoyed relishing stewed rice with margarine. I killed my first animal in the overgrown backyard. The sun had dropped into grey clouds and the sky glowed like lamp light. It was a chicken, mother of ten chicks. She resisted my fidgety grip with so much conviction, the knife edge turned blunt.
“Focus Tanyi, focus. This is a man’s job. You have no choice but to learn how to do it,” my brother said. As we wrestled, I accidentally stepped on her head. No pulse. Mother always said it was bad luck to kill a chicken before slitting its throat over a freshly-dug hole.
Post-primary education, I thought at the time, was only going to be meaningful if I was a pupil at Sacred Soul, a prestigious all-boys boarding school. Besides their reputation for producing the best results in national exams, their students were generally considered the most handsome boys in the country. The unfortunate looking ones, no doubt, benefited from this prevailing perception. After all, the eyes only see what the mind tells them to see. Stories about their modern infrastructure, mandatory German and Latin classes, endless labyrinths of literature and weevil-free cuisine were appealing. What I found the most exciting, however, was the possibility of once again sharing a classroom with Babo and Jean-Claude.
I spent two weeks in the family library preparing for the entrance exams into Sacred Soul. My study schedule, drafted by Father’s fastidious hands, began at ten in the morning and ended at 6pm. I had a lunch break between noon and 1pm and another hour break from 3pm to 4pm. Sunday was the only day I didn’t breathe the dusty library air. Stacey kept me company during the first week but then on an ordinary day, as ordinary as the straight lines of a poem, her hairbrush snapped into two even parts while I combed her hair knots. Any integer divisible by 2 is an even number. I learned that from my math teacher. He used class time to fill out applications for government jobs. I always thought 4 was a more respectable number than 3. I also believed the sun would refuse to set if something really bad ever happened to me. The bristles trapped a ball of blonde mane, exposing methodically aligned holes on a flesh-colored bald patch. Her head looked like the scattered remains of an abandoned nest and in that suffocating second, she became just a doll.
The drive to Sacred Soul took six full hours. I sat in Father’s Pajero the entire time in unreserved silence. The only words he uttered were brief instructions such as tighten your seat belt or unwind the window. Every time I fell asleep, he nudged my shoulders with his powerful right elbow. When I got bored, I examined him from the corner of my eye. He always looked like he was closely examining a secret message splashed along the ruined road. I would examine the grainy tar and see nothing but yellow lines being swallowed up by the mouth of the car. I would look further ahead and only see the languid movement of immaculate clouds. We arrived in the city of Bamenda the day before the entrance exams and spent the night in Uncle Alindoh’s two-story brick house. I don’t remember if I was nervous.
The following morning, per Father’s request, I took a taxi to Sacred Soul. Self-reliance, he reminded me, was the first virtue of Sacred Soul’s motto, followed by Faith, Obedience and Hard Work. At the main entrance of the school, we were signaled to stop by a baton-waving security guard. Behind him stood a large gate painted with cheap gold to camouflage mulish rust. He demanded to see my application paperwork and identification materials. While I fidgeted through the contents of my briefcase, a black Mercedes Benz approached, glowing like the surface of a museum piano. Without any inquiry, the security guard let the vehicle in.
“Documents?” he screamed at me.
“Here they are, sir.” I gave him a brown folder.
His examination of my documents was occasionally interrupted by either a Pajero or a Lexus and, like the Mercedes Benz, they were let in with a bow so low his nose almost touched the earth. During his second examination of my documents, his phone rang. The conversation seemed amiable enough: there was a lot of smiling and nodding, giggles and even a horse-like cackle. Based on the prolonged goodbyes, the phone conversation was coming to an agreeable conclusion but when he attempted to start another one, the receiver, fortunately, did not oblige. He repeated “hello!” over a dozen times before giving up and stashing the phone in his pocket. Amid an avalanche of curses, the security guard returned my folder. The opening gate squeaked with reluctance and the taxi driver was signaled to drive in.
The written segment of the entrance exams was conducted in several classrooms all over campus. I was assigned to a class of twenty-nine students with buttery faces and Pokémon backpacks. I honestly don’t recall the difficulty level of the written exam. A majority of my class finished in a little over an hour and we were directed to another classroom for a reading test, the final part of the entrance exams. We queued outside and were called in one by one by a dwarfed adult with legs the width of tree trunks. After a forty-five minute wait, it was my turn.
“Tanyi Tih Vechas.”
I waded through the immovable crowd and into the classroom.
“Sit down,” he instructed, pointing at a desk to his right. While he inspected the contents of his folder, his eyes unceasingly wrestled like a fish faced with oxygen. He gave me a green piece of paper and instructed, “Read slowly, don’t shout.”
It had something to do with a young boy sailing down a river on what appeared to be a scruffily made raft. I believe he had a fugitive of some sort on board with him. There was also some description about wood, a swampy forest, family and something to do with the law. The boy, the protagonist I presumed, had an enviable degree of recklessness in his tone. Everything about him suggested a brassy demeanor.
Halfway through, I was told to stop. I wanted to know more about this boy. Where was he from? Who was the fugitive? Where were they going? In a frantic attempt to prevent the letters from hooking me back into the narrative, I covered the paper with my briefcase. Disobedience was not a characteristic Sacred Soul tolerated, so I wasn’t going to risk my chances of admission because of some stubborn boy and his fugitive friend. I was asked to explain the meaning of a word that was used to describe how the boy was looking at a log of wood. I don’t remember the word, but I do remember stuttering. I remember feeling like everything around me was dimming, and I could only sustain the light if I kept talking. I was stopped and politely dismissed.
Babo and Jean-Claude were somewhere on that campus, but I supplanted any desire to find them with an urge to leave.
“Let’s go?” the taxi driver asked, tossing his spent cigarette out the window.
“Yes! Let’s go.”
The taxi meandered downhill like a raft on a river and in only a matter of seconds, Sacred Soul was behind me.
Father charged into the living room like a tempest. Much to the relief of everyone else, his accusatory eyes settled on me. A week had passed since the entrance exams, and I was watching TV with my siblings.
“You failed,” he calmly said.
I stared passively at the carpet, contemplating what emotion to feel.
“Do you think I drove all the way to Bamenda and back to parade failure?” he paused. “You ungrateful boy,” he paused again. “Nyamfuka!”
Nyamfuka is a word in my native language, a language my siblings and I do not speak because we are city children. Father only used it when an unthinkable offense had been committed and till this day, I have never bothered with the translation.
In order to avoid any human contact, I caged myself in the library. My accidental slumber on a sturdy bench was disrupted by the splash of playful screams against the window. The voices belonged to the children of our neighbor, Mr. and Mrs. Atabong. Rubbing my puffy eyes, I gazed outward and could only see the rusty zinc roof of the Atabong residence. I heard incomprehensible sentences struggling through spastic giggling; that was the four-year-old girl, the one with unusually red lips and elf-like ears. My brother used to say she was born in elf land but her spirit was transferred to Mrs. Atabong’s belly by the elf king, just like how God planted the baby Jesus in Mary’s womb. But why was she giggling? There was also the sound of a running faucet. The rowdier eight-year-old twin was responsible for that, no doubt. I pictured his mischievous grin as he cupped water in his leaking palms and doused the faces of his giddy siblings. One distinct voice stood apart from the pack. It didn’t have that prickly quality the others possessed; it was lucid amid cacophony. It belonged to the eldest son and like me, he was eleven years old. He sat on a majestic rock, an experienced captain navigating his fleet into battle, and doled out responsibilities to the younger ones. Put all the pixie dust in a plastic bag. We will use it to protect ourselves from the Octopus Witch. Throw water on the magic wall until it shows us the map to Aquaranus, the planet at the bottom of the sea. His fleet was ancient but strong, handed down from generation to generation and fractured with stories of high tide adventures.
The library door opened. I suspected it was Father. He probably wanted to check on me. I fell on the floor and pretended to sleep. Maybe I could win some sympathy points if he saw me “sleeping” on the uncarpeted floor of that damn and dusty library.
© Nahum N. Welang
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Nahum’s interview]