NEW YORK, RALEIGH, LONDON, AMSTERDAM
The Assyrians were the creation of the devil. They sowed confusion for posterity after they conquered the northern breakaway kingdom of Israel, and then exiled and enslaved its people. That era is a curse for historical revelation because we are yet to unravel the fate of those tribes after the Assyrians emigrated from their Middle Eastern homeland.
Excerpt from the diary of a Christian crusader in the Holy Land while on a mission to trace the origins of Europeans.
“The Gods are crying! The Gods are angry. Humanity implores on the German people to live in harmony with the rest of the world. Prosperity belies the fatherland if the children of Deutschland cherish it without discriminating against those who love this country as much as they do.”
Words of an elderly female Gypsy diviner addressed to a group of pro-Nazi women returning from church service in Munich one winter afternoon.
“These Gypsies don’t deserve to live in the fatherland. They contaminate our race even more than the Jews.”
One of the women complained bitterly to her friends.
Not only in Berlin was this reawakened search for the past glory of the Germanic peoples blossoming, but also in other areas of Europe where a majority German population lived. To the West, even in the parts beyond the borders of France, German nationalism was challenging the status quo, rattling the nerves of the French government in the process. The resonance of this resurgent nationalism could also be felt across Germany’s northern frontier in Denmark, as the German minority in the Scandinavian country’s southern borderland demanded more rights. On the other side of the Alps beyond Germany’s southern frontiers in what is known as Europe’s highest and most extensive mountain range, in Austria and the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, vibrant voices of German nationalism decrying the Versailles treaty forbidding the reunification of these German-speaking lands with Germany (Anchlusse) were making themselves heard. The scattered patches of German communities in the Balkans were agitating too in their desire to be integrated into the German world. Meanwhile, further east, in the great Western Slavic and Eastern Slavic lands harboring more than five million ethnic Germans, the rights and privileges of the German minority were being curtailed for the sake of consolidating Polish nationalism and Soviet communism.
Forced to grapple with the realities of the Great Depression and rising national consciousness at the close of 1932, the German people sought consolation from the glorious periods of their past, raised their heads to the heavens for answers, and preened themselves for the ideologies and political parties promising to make Germany great again.
However, one party stood out with a seemingly reassuring program for Germany and ethnic Germans. It claimed to be above the others in its commitment to the fatherland and the future of its children within and beyond its borders. The virulent Nazi party under the leadership of Adolf Hitler promised to lead the German people in repelling the dictates of the constraining post World War One Versailles Treaty that deprived Germans of some of their historic lands, seized Germany’s colonies, forced it to pay damaging reparations to its former enemies and limited the size and scope of its military. Adolf Hitler’s pledge to restore Germany’s honor, bring all ethnic Germans together and cleanse the Aryan race of its contaminators sounded pleasant to most Germans who felt severely wronged by the world around them.
The heavens could have been heralding something malevolent that winter afternoon as the dark clouds swirled over the city of Berlin, punctuated by lightning and the sound of thunder. However, if those signs were warnings from nature, Berlin seemed defiant against them.
The cloud over Groningstrasse appeared darker than elsewhere in the city as if a force of nature was sucking the energy out of the neighborhood. It could have been mirroring the election fever sweeping through Germany, with underlying emotions stirred by the political campaigns that week or it could have been saying something else altogether. However, the hatred, blind fanaticism and incomprehension in the air seemed higher than elsewhere in the German capital, all fueled by the increasing passion over ideology, religion, race, and patriotism. In fact, no other election had been so divisive. Gangs of Nazi hoodlums roved the streets, beating Jews and Gentiles alike, and destroying the properties of their opponents.
Groningstrasse, with its sizable Jewish population, happened to be Lorenz Ulbricht’s campaign ground that winter afternoon.
“Germanic people have always determined the destiny of Europe. Our ancestors were the Franks, the Saxons, the Lombards, the Alemanis, the Huns, the Burgundians, the Goths, the Teutons and the Suevis. Those Germanic tribes dominated this land for ages. The Slavs were the slaves of our ancestors too. We controlled the lands of Rus not too long ago. We lorded it over the ancestors of today’s Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. Even the Czechs, Slovaks, Sorbs, Bulgars, Poles, Serbs, Slovenes, Macedonians, Croats, Montenegrins and the Bosnian Muslims were the slaves of our ancestors. The peoples of Northern and Southern Europe were our subjects at one point in our history. Where is the glory of the master race; I ask you?”
The crowd responded in the affirmative with words muttered in high and low pitches, and with chants that drove Lorenz Ulbricht into a frenzy. He coughed, and then continued in a reinvigorated manner.
“Tell me, Children of Assyria―the great Assyria that is the progenitor of those great Germanic powers. Should the master race continue sleeping while its former slaves dictate its destiny?”
“No…no, no!” came the thunderous response from the crowd.
“Ten of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel were our slaves too. Where they are today, I don’t want to know. Jews are from Judah and Benjamin only―the two Hebrew tribes the ancient Assyrians never bothered to overpower. Must we continue allowing these Jews to control the world, even though the children of their ten brothers were the slaves of our progenitors? Must we allow these scoundrels to stay unpunished, even though they betrayed the Reich and stabbed it in the back during the Great War? We are Aryans, a word derived from Assyria. We are the descendants of the great Goths, Alemanis, Franks and the other Germanic tribes that reigned supreme in this part of the world. Rediscover yourself, children of the Reich. You were born to rule the world. The time has come for the master race to put an end to the dictates of its former slaves. The children of the fatherland must live together. Embrace your heritage, children of Deutschland. Unite and take back your world.”
“Who is this fellow?” Hans Wette Heinrich asked a man in the crowd.
“Lorenz Ulbricht,” the wide-eyed neighbor replied.
“Never heard of him before.”
“A rising star in the party. My friend calls him ‘The Mad Enlightener’.”
“Where does he get all this information from?”
“The man is a controversial historian and philosopher with a knack for racial genealogy.”
Hans did not inquire any further. Instead, he moved away, to the back of the crowd, dimmed his eyes and listened to the orator.
“Children of the great Reich, children of the master race! This is the destined moment to support the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. We need your votes to bring our great party to power. The Nazi party under the leadership of Adolf Hitler has accepted the colossal divine mission to restore Germany’s greatness. We need to purify Germany. We need to send the other two tribes of Israel into oblivion as well. We must eliminate all forms of Jewish influence,” Lorenz Ulbricht bellowed.
Hans felt a chill run up his spine. He shuddered, realizing for the first time that he was perspiring in his armpits, brows, and palms. With a sigh, he pocketed his trembling hands and started walking away from the crowd.
“Rheinlandbastard,” a shout hit him from behind.
“Nein! Er ist Amerikaner!” came another sneer from his rear.
“He is ours,” the first voice insisted.
“No, the man is not. Scheiss-Ami! It is hard to find an American who is not a mongrel,” the second voice persisted.
Even though Hans did not like the bile rising in his throat, he did not stop for a moment or turn around to look back.
September 1935 Rastatt, Baden
For a young man who had spent a wonderful week with his mother, stepfather, and half-sister, the sour expression on his face as he walked home that evening could be construed as a mental disturbance of some sort. In fact, his emotion wasn’t even unsettled when he woke up that morning. But then, things changed right after he boarded the train in Berlin, and then picked up a newspaper. The reports in the journal on impending laws that would settle the definition of a true German agitated him so much that he trembled for a while before bringing himself under control. Not only did he find the Nazi anti-miscegenation laws ludicrous, he felt Adolf Hitler’s theory of the master race was more than preposterous, a thought he did not shy from sharing with those who disagreed with the new government in power.
What now, Germany? He thought as he approached his grandmother’s home.
How he wished all of Germany was like Rastatt, a town spared of the feral nationalism eating the fabric of German society. Nobody in the town ever sneered at his Black African heritage or Jewish roots. In this picturesque urban settlement of Baroque buildings situated in the Upper Rhine Plain on the River Murg, he was the amiable Hans, the grandson of Alexandra Herlz, grandson of the war hero David Herlz, and nephew of another war hero and famous football player Matthäus Herlz. Rastatt filled him with a sense of achievement, a history of belonging and a purpose in life. However, he wondered whether the corrupting influence of Nazi laws originating from the chancellery would bypass the town of his birth.
Hans liked his grandmother’s home for the sense of security it provided. It was a feeling he nurtured since childhood. Here, he could be a polite rascal and still be comfortable about it. However, when he arrived at her front door, he stopped out an impulse and watched her through the window as she busied in the kitchen, concluding shortly after that she was amazingly agile for a sixty-five-year old.
Alexandra Herlz could have carried on for a while without noticing him had the darting movement of a bird outside not caught her attention, prompting her to turn around to see the creature that hit the kitchen window, and then flew away. She smiled and raised her hands in welcome the moment she noticed her grandson. With the corners of his mouth upturned, he opened the door and walked into the house.
“I am so fortunate to barge into a winner’s meal. Timely, I should add,” he said with open arms the moment he stepped into the corridor.
Alexandra Hertz gave him a hug, muttered words of joy over his safe return, and then bombarded him with questions that he could barely answer. After satisfying her curiosity about her daughter’s family back in Berlin, she held him at arm’s-length and smiled again.
“Come with me into the kitchen. Come, come, come,” she roused, holding his hand and leading him away.
“What did you hide in there?”
“You will find out.”
“You are making me curious.”
“Oh, nothing! I missed having you around, that’s all. You won’t believe I actually worried about you.”
“You don’t have to worry about me.”
“I know you don’t like having a worried grandmother. As a matter of fact, there are tons of reasons why I shouldn’t lose some sleep over you.”
“Hmm! You wouldn’t lose some sleep over your only grandson?”
“What is good agonizing over somebody or something I have no control over?”
“Why wouldn’t you torment yourself thinking about me?”
“There you go again. Uh, uh! You complain I don’t hold you up to the standards of that man?”
“Didn’t you say you are capable of scaling all of the challenges of life, even Mount Everest, like the man who first climbed it? That is the man I am talking about.”
“I said that?”
“Uh-huh! You even boasted that you capable of handling the ups and downs of life on your own like the survivor in Jack London’s story Love of Life,” she said and made a face.
“Come on, Oma!” he exclaimed.
“Please don’t say that again. I am still your baby.”
“You didn’t talk like that while Rosa was here.”
“I thought you liked her.”
“Don’t belittle the obvious. Why aren’t you seeing her anymore?”
“It is a long story.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can keep that for another day. By the way, what have you got there for me?”
“Look around. Did I ever tell you how much of a treasure you are to have around?”
“You are flattering me again!”
“I mean it.”
“Hmm! I felt great about myself until the Austrian made me reconsider my identity.”
“Adolf Hitler is evil. I thought you knew that.”
“What was that again?”
“I said he is evil for all I know.”
Hans gave forth a feeble laugh. “Let’s be real about this. The man has considerable support from our folks. A good number of our people think he is a genius.”
“Who cares about what others think of him. If they think he is Sigmund Freud or another Napoleon, then, to begin with, he is nothing but an evil genius.”
Hans grunted. “Just like you, I was indifferent about him and his crazy ideas when it all started. The fact is, your daughter was right about it from the very beginning. Mami saw something sinister about the Nazis even before they maneuvered their way to power.”
“Listen to me, Hans! The man fakes a lot. Even so, he is harmless!”
“All the same, he made me reconsider my identity.”
“What about this! He is evil but harmless.”
“How is my dear daughter doing?” Alexandra asked suddenly with raised eyebrows.
“And her little girl?”.
“Eva, as usual, is bustling with life. Between us; there is a new fellow in her life, and I can trust her with my sister’s happiness.”
“Hmm! The French touch. Marriage material?”
“What does he do for a living.”
“They are both students, Oma! But he has prospects.”
“And how old is he?”
Alexandra was thoughtful for a moment. At length, she rolled her eyes and said in a half-complaining voice: “Karina did it again. Your mother should have informed me beforehand that you were on your way.”
“Why?” Hans asked and picked up a slice of beetroot from a saucer sitting on the kitchen table.
“It would have given me enough time to prove that you are my darling.”
“Come on, Oma! I know you hate having me around.”
“Do you mean it?”
“Uh-huh! Oh! I guess I never told you about the special knife I put aside to carve you up the moment you were born.”
“No! Tell me! What happened to it? I am still alive!”
“I lost it the day you were born.”
“What does that tell you? I am made of the Achilles stuff.”
“I know your soft spot, remember?”
“You think so?”
“Well, everything about my departure from Berlin was done in a hurry.”
“You don’t have to defend your mother,” Alexandra Herzl said, feigning reproach.
“Just trying to protect your daughter, that’s all,” Hans said with a chortle.
“Now, tell me the truth. How is my dear child really doing?”
“She is as lighthearted as a ballerina who is unlucky not to get a big role.”
Alexandra Herzl laughed. “And my dear little granddaughter is happy with the new person in her life?”
“Hmm! You still call Eva little when she is already spotting a moustache?” Hans said with a mischievous smile.
Alexandra Herzl guffawed. “What about my handsome Prussian son-in-law?” she asked between gasps of laughter.
“Do you mean your daughter’s commie? His portly belly contradicts his ideals and the ideas of Marxist Socialism that he professes.”
She laughed so much that she had to hold her sides. “I will remember to tell him that.”
“Well, between you and me,” Hans lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner, “Your daughter’s commie lover decided to grow a beard. He tells everyone who cares to listen that he wants to look like a true Teuton or Hun—a natural front man for Attila.”
“And you believed him?”
“Of course, I don’t!” Hans said with a frown, “He easily gets worked up by the political developments.”
Alexandra became serious all of a sudden. “Rudi and his politics again,” she whined and shook her head, “Is he taking care of my daughter?”
“He is a marvelous husband, father, and protector. On a serious note, he is better than any man I can think of.”
“I am glad you didn’t have us, women, in the equation.”
“That would have meant he is better than me too.”
“I didn’t have you in mind, that’s for sure,” Hans laughed.
A bemused expression crossed Alexandra Herzl’s face. Then she rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Huh, smart face. You slipped out of that one. I guess that’s why you are my boy.”
Hans grunted and looked away. He had to put his thoughts together. “I don’t think you are cooking for one today. Are you hosting?”
“Why?” Alexandra Herzl chuckled.
He shrugged and plastered her with a quizzical look. “What’s the surprise?”
“I apologize for not telling you right after you walked in. Helga is joining us for lunch.”
“Helga? I don’t remember hearing that name around here.”
“She fancies you as a product of a fairy tale.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I still can’t put a face to that name.”
“She is Prussian, but she is a good friend.”
“I know what you think of them.”
“You said it before that they are stiff. But she is different. If you ask me; I think she is the type who missed the essence of life.”
“Then, how come I haven’t seen her? It is close to two years since I started living with you!”
“Helga moved to Essen five years ago, but then wised up and returned home to our serene Rastatt.”
“Hmm! There must be strong reasons for her to return.”
“Find out for yourself what stuff she is made of?”
“You are up to something, Oma,” he drawled in a playful manner, regarded his grandmother quizzically for a moment, and then smiled.
The smiling minion woman that Alexander Herzl welcomed into her home that afternoon was in her late thirties or early forties. She was wearing a bat-like hat that Hans thought could make a perfect fit for a circus comedian. However, it was her prominent beak-like nose that struck him the most. It immediately evoked a memory of a twelfth century Moorish painting of an old woman that he saw hanging on the wall of a museum in Dresden, a work of art he thought depicted a witch when he first saw it as a twelve-year old. Even the way her grandmother’s friend walked reminded him of a malnourished greyhound he and his friends used to mimic a decade ago.
Hans shook himself out of his mischievous thoughts caused by ennui and tried to focus on the two women who were shaking hands now. He watched them chat awhile before Alexandra Herzl beckoned him over. He approached the friends in a courteous manner.
“My lovely baby grandson! I don’t think you two have met,” Alexandra said proudly, and then rested an arm on Hans’s shoulder.
“Good afternoon, Frau—” Hans greeted, edged closer and shook hands with Helga, puzzled by the strange glint in her eyes.
“I am glad you finally met,” Alexandra said.
“I am glad, too,” Helga echoed.
“I remember talking to you about him before.”
“Uh-uh! You did. Several times. He went to school in Berlin, didn’t he?”
“He did! Is he not cute? I do not recall telling you that he holds a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Science. In fact, he is only twenty-six years old. This fine young man is my pride! Ha, ha…ha! Helga, he moved in with me two years ago, and now works here in Rastatt.”
“Oh…oh, oh!” Helga mumbled. “His complexion is like…like the color of a ripe banana. He…he is beautiful.”
“Oh, he is a handsome young man. His father is Kamerunian. I told you that too, didn’t I?”
“Uh-huh! You told me he was born here in Rastatt.”
“I am sure I said a lot of things about him.”
Helga nodded effusively at nothing in particular. “My grandfather was stationed in Kamerun back in the day of the Kaiser.”
“That’s beautiful. I am sure he told you lots of things about the place.”
“No, he didn’t. It was like his little secret. We found out he left behind some babies there.”
Alexandra Herzl shrugged, and then raised her hands. “Now, we have everything ready on the table. Please, let’s make ourselves comfortable around it and eat before the dishes get too cold,” she offered heartily.
Hans whispered into his grandmother’s ear while pulling a chair for her to sit down in. “Our Mona Lisa is proving to be good company. I think I am beginning to fall in love with her.”
Alexandra Herzl smiled and whispered back into his ears. “She loves bananas.”
Hans ate hungrily that afternoon, outpacing the conversation at the table. He decided to leave his grandmother and her friend alone after realizing that the women had so much to talk about without him interrupting every now and then. He pushed his plate aside, and then sat in silence for a moment, watching his grandmother and Helga chat heartily. He found their gab boring.
“I will clear the dishes,” he offered.
Hans did as he promised. He carried the half-emptied dishes and the dirty plates to the kitchen, separated them, scraped off the particles of food, and then washed them clean. He used a dishcloth to wipe the plates, and then put them away in the cupboard―a relaxing experience that allowed him to pick up bits and pieces of the women’s catch-up conversation. However, their chatter still failed to garner his interest.
He decided to fix himself a glass of whisky while he figured out what next to do. A little dose of alcohol makes the mind placid, he thought. He knew the excuse to drink was flimsy but found solace in the fact that his maternal grandfather came from a line of heavy boozers, a trait carried over from his Russian Jewish heritage.
Hans did not think of reading until he was halfway through his drink. The thought sent him ferreting among his grandfather’s priced collection of books on the shelves in the study. His face alighted with satisfaction when he finally picked up an encyclopedia on German overseas colonies. He thumbed through the pages and settled on Kamerun.
The geography of the land gripped his interest right away, as he familiarized himself with the names of renowned physical features, towns, ethnic groups and strategic locations. He also noted the coastal areas dotted with oil palm, rubber, tea and banana plantations on the side map. The commercial farming communities were mostly concentrated around the popular mountain town of Buea, located in the southwestern sector under the mandate of the British, following the post-Great War partition of the former German colony of Kamerun into British Cameroons and French Cameroun.
Hans was in a relaxed mood when he made himself another glass of whisky, and then returned to the encyclopedia. His focus this time was on the eastern half of the former German Kamerun, currently under the mandate of the French. Like British Cameroons, it too was having its fair share of large plantations along the upper course of the River Mungo. He also read about the preponderance of private plantations in the area and was intrigued to learn that their owners were cultivating mostly citrus fruits, quinine, cocoa, bananas, oil palm, rubber, and coffee.
Dusk was on the horizon when he started feeling a rising anticipation. Nevertheless, that did not stop him from devouring more information.
The Western High Plateau, otherwise called the Western Highlands―the mountainous grassland in the West of the Kamerun territories whose southern portion is settled by the Bamileké people, piqued his curiosity. His mother once told him that his father hailed from the ethnic group and that they played an invaluable role in the economy of the mandate of more than three hundred ethnic groups, a situation that prevailed even during the era of German Kamerun.
Hans pored over the map of the area, noting the settlements in the densely populated Bamilekéland. He spotted his father’s ancestral settlement called Banganté, located in the transitional zone where the tropical high savannah melted into the Equatorial evergreen forest. He spent the next couple of minutes flipping through the pages until his eyes fell on Douala and Yaoundé, as well as the famous towns of Ebolowa and Nkongsamba. He found the information about them enriching. The North became his next area of interest as he pored over maps of that part of the country, paying attention to the traditional Moslem Fulani strongholds of Garoua, Maroua, Yagoua, Mokolo and Ngaounderé. Then he read about the region too. Not much was written about it, but he found the few pages informative enough.
Hans closed the book, yawned, and then gulped empty his glass of drink. When he returned to the sitting room, he was surprised to find his grandmother resting on the sofa. Helga was nowhere in sight.
He decided not to wake her up. Instead, he settled for a visit to Aurora, his widow lover who always seemed ready to accommodate him with her bed. He brushed aside the slight feeling of guilt that sometimes threatened to creep in at the mere thought of their affair. Perhaps it was because he knew his grandmother would be against it. However, he was doing a good job not dwelling on it. Eduard Schmidt, as Aurora’s late husband was called, happened to have been his late uncle’s close friend and a sweet soul to Alexandra Herzl. Still, Hans thought he should not blame himself. It was the beautiful and ageless Aurora who led him to unveil his suppressed passion for her one evening when he visited her home and she offered him a drink and a feel of her hands. Now, he could hardly tell who the pacesetter in their affair was. However, both lovers conceded that their romance had no future and needed to stay discreet. Only, both lovers did not want the end to be soon.
Hans bought his newspapers from Klaus Ostolitz every Tuesday. The journal vendor owned a kiosk near the neighborhood’s kindergarten, not far from his grandmother’s house. He enjoyed discussing sensational subjects with his customers and provided wisecracks to give different angles to the hot topics of the day.
Even on this Tuesday, with much in the news for the media print, Hans held his curiosity in check and bypassed two other kiosks on his way home, deciding instead to uphold the tradition and buy from Klaus Ostolitz.
The sun was overhead that afternoon as he approached the kiosk. The rumors about the passing of new laws hammered in Nuremberg occupied his mind to the point where he almost bumped into their Jewish neighbor walking from the opposite direction, had the old man not called out his name. Benjamin Hessler was grim-faced and appeared to be mumbling something in a listless manner.
“Good day, Herr Hessler,” Hans greeted, stirring the old man alert.
“Afternoon, Son,” he replied and regarded Hans for a moment with a brooding expression on his face. “I won’t advise you to buy the papers today.”
“Why?” Hans asked for no apparent reason.
“Sorry, Son,” the old man said and shook his head, “I am a Jew after all. The Zionists are right. A Jew would never be accepted anywhere in the world except in the land of his ancestors. Our home is the land of Eretz Israel. What a pity I am realizing this only in my old age. Son, I may leave after all,” he added, moved a hand in the air in a dejected manner, and then started walking away, looking every inch of a broken man.
The stunned expression on Hans’s face turned to a cold fury as he watched the old Jew disappear into the next street. Then he grunted, turned around and headed for the kiosk.
He did not like the atmosphere of resigned despondence around the throng of customers at the newsstand who all appeared to be talking in subdued tones. There was no reason to blame them. They reflected the mood around Rastatt that day. He tried to be upbeat as he bought two newspapers, exchanged a few words with the vendor, and then walked into the nearby cafeteria, ordered black coffee, and then started reading an article while waiting for the drink.
He did not go to his grandmother’s place right after perusing the contents of the newspapers. Instead, he asked their neighbor’s ten-year-old son hovering around to inform his grandmother that he would not be around until late that evening. He left the cafeteria looking like a professor grappling with a worrying phenomenon, and then walked to the home of his forty-year-old widow lover a quarter of a mile away like someone in a hurry.
“Your virility seems to have ebbed,” Aurora cooed, moving her tongue over his torso, from his chest, then down, towards the navel.
“I don’t know,” Hans mumbled.
He was familiar with the result of the feel of her tongue on his chest. It never failed before to arouse him into a passionate drive that always ended with him panting like a cheetah at the end of a challenging hunt. He was glad she didn’t feel offended when her tongue failed to work its magic on him. He was even surprised by his lack of enthusiasm.
“Tell me about your worries,” Aurora purred.
Hans moved his gaze away from the ceiling and regarded the naked body of his lover with a lost look on his face. He shut his eyes for a moment, opened them again, and then peered at her with an intensity that made her shield her breasts instinctively with both hands as if it was only then that she became aware of her nakedness. She quickly realized the absurdity of her action and moved her hands away, resting them on the back of her head instead.
Hans continued regarding her closely, sweeping over her enticing nipples gorged with blood, descending to the mound of hair between her thighs, and then further down, before moving up to her face again.
“What is it? You are beginning to make me nervous.”
“Are you serious?”
Her response was a laugh with a twinge of timidity in her voice that he found alluring.
“You are as beautiful as ever,” he said.
“Then make me feel worthy of my beauty,” she implored, running a hand over his thigh.
“Did you read the papers today?” he asked, fighting back the overpowering sensation of her touch.
“Hmm, hmm…hmm!” she purred. “Politics does not interest me anymore. Not since the Nazis took control of the chancellery and the Austrian began his political gimmick.”
Hans chortled and looked away. He did not like the overwhelming feeling of helplessness sweeping over him or the growing wistfulness of his eyes.
“We are being bombarded by new laws,” he said and sat up.
“Yes, my dear woman! They came up with new laws redefining citizenship. Jesus Christ, woman!”
“What have I done now?”
“The laws are the talk of Rastatt and Germany and you lie here indifferent about everything?”
“Update me,” she said and nipped his left ear.
“You told me you aren’t fully German,” Hans quivered.
“Something I am proud of. My mother is Italian, the descendant of a proud duke of Lombardia,” she said, probing his ear with her tongue.
Hans plastered her with a serious look. “My dear woman! You amaze me. Aren’t you worried about all about the breathtaking changes affecting our society?”
“The tides maneuvered by the insane are threatening everybody.”
“When you lie here looking and sounding completely unperturbed, you frighten me.”
“Why should I lose my hair over something I can’t control?”
“I don’t want to concern myself with something ordinary citizens like us have no control over.”
“Woman, new laws have been discussed in Nuremberg. I am talking about Nazi-promulgated laws that should be a source of concern for anyone with a tint of foreign blood.”
“What type of laws are you talking about?” she asked, her eyes lighting up finally.
“There are so many. All sorts,” Han said with a sigh, “Henceforth, mix marriages are against the law for ethnic Germans. Certain utilities, occupations and positions have been placed beyond the procurement of certain category of non-Germans.”
“And what has that got to do with me?”
Hans smiled, shook his head and reached out for her nose. She did not move a muscle as he held it in an affectionate manner. “You may have to revise your commitment to a fatherland that has been hijacked by those xenophobic bastards.”
“Huh! You made it sound like xenophobes are not bad enough,” she muttered and frowned.
“Thief of My Heart, the point I am trying to make here is that I have already revised mine.”
“And what is that?” she asked, propped herself up on her elbows and fixed her eyes on him.
Hans bit his lip, ruffling his hair as he did so. “Can’t you see? I am Kamerunian after all. Hell, I am partly Jewish.”
“You know you didn’t answer my question,” she said and sighed, turning her face away momentarily before looking at him again.
Hans looked away and fixed his gaze on the ceiling instead, staring at nothing in particular. “I have come to an unsettling conclusion,” he said with a sigh. “On the one hand, I have a father in Kamerun who is ready to welcome a son he never had the opportunity to love. On the other hand, here I am feeling dejected and uncertain in the land of my birth that is now rejecting its own seeds. Tell me, Thief of My Heart! Which of the two must I choose?”
Aurora coughed uneasily, held his head, and then looked him in the eyes in a conspiratorial manner. “Which of the two must you choose? What about me? I have two birthright options that do not meet my expectations as a liberated woman. There is Nazism in Germany and there is Fascism in Italy. Still, I must live. I want to live like a free soul.”
“I like that expression—live like a free soul!”
“Uh-huh! That is why I am on the verge of packing my bags and leaving sophisticated Germany with my daughter. That is life, Lover Boy. Life is a rare fantasy that can be made a reality by being objective.”
“You never talked to me about such a plan,” Hans said with wariness in his voice that she picked up in an instant.
Her face lit up again, but with a mischievous smile, leaving him wondering what could be going through her mind as she leaned forward and plastered him with a kiss.
“I want Lover Boy to know that he wouldn’t be my partner for life. We should be objective about it. You are still young and smart with an unexplored future ahead of you. Moreover, I am a sinning woman with a conscience. I don’t want to be held responsible for tying you down, Lover Boy. Make good of your potentials out of Nazi Germany.”
Hans grunted, and then smiled in an authentic manner that illuminated her face even further. “I take it that you are advising me to accept my father’s offer of a place in French Cameroun?”
“What better option?” she asked and nipped his ear again.
He nodded with a grimace. “That’s encouraging. French Cameroun is the best option for me. I am glad you are with me on this one,” he declared and kissed her warmly on her hair.
“That’s not good enough. Make me feel special for the reassuring advice,” she implored with an allure in her voice that made him feel proud of himself.
Hans licked his lips as he smiled. He went on to grant her wish, doing his best to be grateful. He was so vigorous that she called out his name in the process as if urging a special agent from Venus.
Hans walked home from work that evening with a slight sneer on his face that gave him the appearance of a man unhappy with his situation. And he was truly miserable. The state of affairs in the country was his concern, if not worry. Recent developments in Germany were not only threatening, they were pointing to an unpredictable trend, especially with all the restrictions the Nazis were instituting every day. Still, he was determined not to be paralyzed by the fear spreading around, especially among the minorities in Germany.
An anxiety of a different sort gripped him the moment he thought of his grandmother. Without even thinking about it, he increased his pace and clenched his fist as if anticipating something threatening at home. The distress made him perspire despite the cold. In fact, he was still tense when he arrived home, turned the knob of the front door and pushed it open.
Alexandra Herzl saw Hans the moment he stepped inside and looked at him with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Hans! What is it?” she asked, sitting up on the sofa, dimming her eyes in that manner of hers that said she was expecting bad news.
Hans almost chuckled. “Nothing! Or not much, Oma!” he replied, wondering why his hands were trembling.
“Then why are you walking around as if you have just been exiled to hell.”
He stopped pacing about, looked at her for a moment, and then shrugged. “My Dear Oma is always in the dark over everything that goes on beyond this house. We are heading into hell already.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The man who calls himself Der Führer of our fatherland has promulgated new laws, Oma! They are discriminatory and they make me want to cry for Germany,” Hans said with a note of exasperation in his voice.
“Please, sit down.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then sat down on the arm of the sofa, instead of the spot by her side that she indicated with a series of taps.
“What is it, Hans?” she repeated, dimming her eyes.
He rubbed his forehead with both hands, before uttering a tired sigh. He felt like crying. “A lot is going on, Oma,” he muttered in a barely audible tone.
“What about that stench of beer in your breath?” Alexandra Herzl said with a note of reproach in her voice.
He tried to smile, but the expression on his face stayed rueful. “Where else can we find happiness for a day other than from something that can offer momentary relief, something like the booze? A form of solace, isn’t it?”
Alexandra Herzl put aside her thread and knitting pins on the sofa, all the while regarding her grandson with unutterable concern. “You allowed things to get to you, huh?”
“My Dear Oma, I was upset. I left work today to buy the papers, and guess what I found? This trash confirming my worst fears,” he said and put the papers beside her.
Alexandra Herzl fidgeted with her hair for a moment, never taking her eyes off the newspapers. Finally, she looked at Hans with a furrowed brow before bringing her eyes back to the papers. Her lips twitched a little when she picked one up, which she read briefly before tossing it away. He was wondering what was going through her mind when she grabbed another paper and flipped through the pages in a nervous manner. At length, she sighed and darted a nervous look at him.
“This paper calls them the Nuremberg laws,” she said finally.
“Yes, Oma! Adolf Hitler is now legally in power. It is obvious he is beginning to implement his crazy plans for the German people. I never believed Lorenz Ulbricht before the elections even after he said all those crazy things during his campaigns in Berlin,” Hans said with a sigh, pushed the knitting pins aside, reclined in the sofa, and then nodded wearily.
“I too never take people like him seriously?”
“Oma, he talked of taking the German people through a purification process.”
“What is this nonsense about a purification process? And this talk of the German people? We are all German people.”
“Nein, Oma. His notion of the German people or the master race is different from what you and I think. To people like them, a true German must be full-blooded. Except for the few xenophobes, nobody believed him back then. Now, everything seems―”
“Things will change for the better. Trust me on this one,” she stuttered, picked up her thread and pins and started knitting again with trembling hands.
“Tell me, Oma!”
She looked at him but did not utter a word.
“What do you think is going to happen after this?”
“What do you mean?”
“You told me you read Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf.”
“Yes, I did.”
“And you didn’t take it seriously?”
“The points he made there are ridiculous.”
“The man outlined his program for the fatherland in that book in a clear manner. Some patriotic Germans would stop regarding Germany as home the moment he starts implementing his warped ideas. Do you foresee disaster for the German people if you, I, everyone in this country and the rest of the world fail to stop him now? Tell me. Perhaps I am exaggerating my fears.”
Alexandra Herzl sighed and dropped back in the sofa. “The German people have a path to their destiny. It is their problem to decide whether to walk it with the Austrian or not.”
“But, Oma!” Hans called, paused, and then continued, “I have this disturbing worry deep in my heart that you can help me put to rest. Perhaps your wisdom can help me clarify a few things.”
Alexander Herzl dropped her knitting gears again, took a deep breath, and then looked at Hans. “What is it?”
Hans rose and pocketed his hands as if that would calm his agitated nerves. He was on the verge of saying something when he thought about it and started pacing the room instead. His grandmother watched him in silence. At length, he stopped, regarded her, and then sat down quietly on the arm of the sofa.
“It concerns my grandfather,” he blurted out.
Alexander Herzl nodded. “Go ahead,” she mumbled barely above a whisper.
“Tell me! What feelings had he deep in his heart for Germany? Mami told me he was a colonel in the army of the Kaiser until 1916. That was the year he died from an untimely explosion in an ammunition depot.”
“Yes, that’s what happened.”
“His feelings, his feeling…his feelings,” Hans continued, articulating the words as if hoping to get the best meaning out of them.
An expression of deep concern suddenly appeared on Alexander Herzl’s face. “Yes, his feelings. What about them?”
“Oma, did he ever worry that the Germany he was prepared to die for could one day be against his people? Did it even cross his mind that the Germany he was so proud of could one day choose a demagogue like that Austrian to lead it?”
Alexandra Herzl closed her eyes and sighed. “Come and sit here,” he beckoned Hans over, tapping the left half of the sofa.
Hans said nothing as he moved over to her side. She too did not utter a word for a moment as if she knew very well that he was worried and that he felt unwanted. She placed her left hand on his shoulder out of an impulse and was glad that he relaxed a little. “You don’t have to tell me how upset you are at the moment.’
“Ja, Oma! I am upset. I am sad. My spirit has been battered.”
“Don’t say that!”
“You know, Mami took me to the Jewish cemetery in Stuttgart. I was ten years old at the time. She showed me Opa’s grave.”
“He was a brave man. I chose him over several suitors because of his deep heart, wide intelligence, and indefatigable spirit.”
“She told me about Uncle Matthäus too. He was not buried there because he was a messianic Jew. He accepted Jesus Christ, his identity as a Jew and the words of the Talmud.”
Alexandra Herzl nodded. “He had his father’s heart and his mother’s mind.”
“You hardly ever talked about your son.”
“Those are all pains of the past, hurtful memories I dread recalling.”
“My point, Oma, is that the people in power don’t want to acknowledge the twelve thousand Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany and the Kaiser. I am a product of that legacy.”
“I don’t think I ever told your mother about this. But the fact is, my maternal grandmother was Jewish. She abandoned her faith after she married my maternal grandfather.”
Hans was silent for a moment. “By halakha, that makes you Jewish.”
She nodded. “So, I share your concerns and want you to share my optimism.”
“It is hard to.”
“Don’t allow yourself to be worked up by some of Hitler’s exaggerations. I strongly believe there is a future for your grandfather’s people here. There is a place for them everywhere because they are a unique people, created for a purpose in this crazy world. I think Hitler wants to work out something new for the Jews. Germany can’t do without them.”
Hans was at the point of laughing but realized instantly that it was not funny. He could not muster the spirit. His grandmother was blind in her faith in the German people. She too was like most the people of Rastatt who were shielding themselves from the reality of the changing Germany. He heaved a sigh, moved his head to the side and stared at the wall with brooding eyes.
“I love your generous sentiments. Believe me, Oma! I want to put my faith in your optimism, but I can’t,” he muttered, turned around and rested a hand on his grandmother’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” she responded, wondering what else to say.
“Oma, do you know something?”
“Tell me,” she said, feigning enthusiasm.
Hans looked at her and tried to smile. “I am your grandson, and I know how you feel about this, But Germany isn’t the right place for me. Yes, Oma! It is not for me, not anymore. I shall go to Kamerun. I discussed this the other day with Mami and Herr Heinrich, and they were objective about it.”
“What do you mean they are objective?”
“They too aren’t against the idea of moving out of Germany if the situation in the country gets to a crisis point for a certain category of people. It is bad, Oma. Believe me! I have every reason to think it is time for me to look for that safe haven before the situation deteriorates even further.”
Alexandra Herzl nodded. “I see! You didn’t trust the way I would take it until now?” she said, dimming her eyes.
“I knew how you would feel.”
Alexandra Herzl wiped a suppressed tear. “I will miss you. Of course, I will miss you,” she whimpered with a sigh.
“I am sorry, Oma.”
“Personally, I think there is no reason for you to be afraid. We Germans are a civilized people.”
Hans reflected for a moment, and then shook his head in disapproval. “Times are changing. Events are moving against people like us. I must act now. It took a lot of prudent thinking for me to make this decision to go to Kamerun. It is the best option for me. I have a father there who is enthusiastic about having his son with him.”
A faint smile suddenly appeared on Alexandra Herzl’s lips, making them to quiver. It also lit up her eyes in a sweet moment of reminiscence. “Josef is a good and intelligent man,” she said.
“You mean my father?” Hans mumbled in a barely audible voice.
“Yes, your father. Take it from me that he is a wonderful man. No decent person can afford to regret knowing such a wonderful soul. You should be proud of him.”
Hans nodded as he fought back the mist developing in his eyes and the conflicting emotions and thoughts racing through his heart and mind. “You are the person I will miss the most not returning home to every day.”
“Oh, Hans,” she muttered and took him in her arms. Hans had not expected his grandmother to turn around all of a sudden and embrace him. His conception that Germans were not so effusively emotional was deep-seated, which is why he had not expected her to be so demonstrative in her sentimentality. But then, he responded to her deep, affectionate, and unexpected embrace, all the same, wrapping his arms around her in an upsurge of emotion he never imagined he could muster. He did so without even thinking about it.
“Oma!” he mumbled.
“I will miss you too,” she said. “But missing you would be a lot easier to handle than the thought of losing you,” she added.
With soothing words muttered, mutual promises exchanged and emotions suppressed and expressed, Hans felt relieved. However, he did something strange to his nature as he went down on his knees, took his grandmother’s right hand and kissed it reverently, surprising her in the process.
“You have been too dear to me, Oma. Our separation is not going to last forever. Nazism wouldn’t survive us,” he said.
Alexandra Herzl found it difficult to fall asleep that night. She read the letter from her daughter in Berlin three times and committed the contents to memory before putting it away in her chest. The half glass of brandy she had intended to be her only for the night led her to the second, and then to another, to the point where her head was swirling when the clock in the sitting room struck 02:00 hours. Yet the urge to continue drinking would not go away. Perhaps another drink would help, she thought.
The sound of an early morning bird squeaking outside interrupted her thoughts. She even thought she liked the noise it made and wondered for a moment what species it could be. But she did not dwell on it as she poured herself the fourth glass of whisky, indifferent to the effect it could have on the sedative she had just taken. She gulped down the drink, slipped under the bedcovers and reflected on the contents of the letter.
The trend of events in Germany was making Karina apprehensive. She stated she was getting worried beyond the endurance of her nerves because she was half-Jewish and her husband was a big shot in the Communist party. And now, she would have to contend with the pressing issue of her grandson’s future in the country as well. Her daughter barely mentioned Hans in the letter, probably because she did not want to share some useful information with her. She closed her eyes and wondered whether the letter contained any hint that Karina too was thinking of leaving the country.
Alexandra Herzl got up from bed for the umpteenth time, placed the glass on the stool and walked to the mirror. She looked at her reflection and concluded that the person staring back at her did not look fortunate at all. Her husband and her only son had sacrificed their lives in a purposeless war that ended with the German people defeated and consumed by a festering sense of vengeance that was becoming frightening. She no longer found comfort in her long-held perception of Germans as a rational people. The quest for vengeance was blinding her people, threatening to throw them all into another abyss, perhaps a far worse one than the ordeal they went through during and after the Great War.
And now, even her beloved grandson was fleeing the land of his birth, the land his ancestors had fought and died for. Worrying thoughts haunted her mind until the quietness of the morning sent her staggering back to her bed where she fell asleep minutes after she closed her eyes.
Hans also had a hard time falling asleep that night. He drank a glass of whisky, ate cucumbers and even thought a glass of milk would help to soothe the feeling of unease that he was having a hard time dispelling. However, when he realized the futility of his efforts in overcoming his restlessness, he went for the encyclopedia again, hoping to get more information about Kamerun. He started with the territory’s history.
Events that took place in the landmass before colonization turned out to be a lot more interesting. He learned that the territory was at the crossroads of north to south and east to west migrations throughout the history of the African continent, making it the only entity with related peoples to all the four major language groups in Africa. He mused over the fact that Carthaginian sailors and adventurers visited its coast, and he was amazed that the northern half of the land became the base from where Ousman Dan Fodio undertook the most far-reaching spread of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa before contemporary European powers grappled with one another to stake their claims on the continent from its coast. However, when he read that in 1884, Britain lost to Germany by a fraction of a week’s delay in its quest to make the African territory its colony, he understood why the British crown never stopped having an interest in the land.
The history of German colonial rule was even more explicit. Hans learned that Kamerun became a German colony in 1884, following its annexation by the German envoy Dr. Gustav Nachtigal. He found out that the other major colonial powers recognized Germany’s claim to the territory during the Berlin conference of that same year, and that German Kamerun took the shape of a territorial entity after 1884 through the great expeditions and explorations carried out by prominent figures in the history of the colony. The outsized figure of Dr. Zintgraff towered above the others in staking Germany’s claim to the territory.
Hans also read about the great battles the German Colonial Army called the Schutztruppe—Protection Force—fought with less subservient ethnic groups, tribes, and clans of the land, notably the Bafut people. He reserved a great deal of admiration for the hardy explorers who penetrated the territory's inhospitable eastern forest regions to open up vast areas as far as the Kadei and Boumba rivers. He was equally amazed by the speed with which the German colonial administration opened up the territory, a land they referred to as Germany’s “African Pearl”.
Even so, Hans acknowledged the high price Kamerunians paid for the progress made under German colonial rule. The forced labor policies, forced requisition of land and the harsh reprisal against native opposition decimated villages, caused the deaths of thousands and moved populations to “alien parts.” of the land. His curiosity spiked further when he started reading about Martin Paul Samba and Rudolf Duala Manga Bell—two outstanding Kamerunians who distinguished themselves at the onset of the Great War. While Martin Paul Samba was a former top ranking soldier in the German Colonial Army, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell was the son of a Duala chief who signed the treaty recognizing German annexation of Kamerun. He found it intriguing that the two former allies of the German colonial government studied in Germany. When he read about their execution in 1914 for conspiring with the foes of Germany, he concluded that their deaths marked the biggest scar Germany created on its former colony.
The encyclopedia said little about the war itself, except for a brief mention of its early stages in German Kamerun.
Hans yawned as he tried to make sense of the last year of German rule in the territory. The German colonial administration had just eliminated Kamerunian leaders over differences that could have been resolved, leaving the land devoid of leading political figures after the Great War. He was convinced Martin Paul Samba and Rudolf Duala Manga Bell appreciated German values. Now, he understood why the victorious Allied powers faced no serious opposition from Kamerunians when they partitioned German Kamerun into French Cameroun and British Cameroons in Versailles during the post-war peace conference held there. Even his father was out of Kamerun at the time France and Britain carved up the land.
Hans sighed, closed the book, put it aside and shut his eyes, willing himself into a slumber that would stay unbroken for the next six hours.
Hans felt a huge sense of relief when the French embassy in Berlin finally granted him a visa to travel to French Cameroun. This nerve-stretching test to his resolve began right from the application process, with an initial refusal from the French authorities to formalize his ties to the land, even though his father happened to be a native-born Kamerunian. The ethnic Breton ambassador maintained that he was German by birth and that he was bearing the distinctive last name Heinrich, which among other unstated reasons, failed to qualify him as a Kamerunian.
The gruesomeness of the process did not prevent Hans from expressing his happiness with the final results. The passageway to French Cameroun would relieve him of depressing emotions or so he thought. But he never forgot the bitter experience.
It happened to be an unusually warm day that late January as if a spell was hovering over the city of Berlin, lulling both the sinister and benevolent forces trying to shape its destiny. The tranquillizing feeling stirred such warm emotions in Hans's bosom that he thought it would be a good idea to share it with Karl Mittenzer, his friend from high school. He sensed Karl’s nervousness the moment his friend opened the door for him to get in. Karl received him into his parent’s home in a cordial manner all the same, and then asked him to settle into a Victorian seat.
“Arrangements for me to leave Germany have been finalized,” Hans said, half an hour after he got in.
Karl coughed uneasily and moved in his seat. “Oh, my friend, I don’t know whether I should be happy for you or be worried for Germany! It is sad, especially with all our good citizens that have left or the increasing number that are in the process of leaving. We cannot pretend that this development is not draining Germany of some of its valuable brains. It is an exodus.”
“Did you just say exodus?”
“Uh-huh! I think most of those leaving are convinced Germany doesn’t want them.”
Hans nodded and scratched his chin. “Did my plans surprise you?”
Hans barely noticed the split of a second smile that crossed Karl’s face, but he processed it all the same. “Rosa told me you want to go to Africa. What is there in Kamerun for you?”
Hans nodded again, fighting off his suspicions. Rosa Niessen was his girlfriend for two years until she found out that he cheated on her with a blonde Sorb and decided to call off their relationship. He was still determined to get her back, if not, then reconcile with her before leaving for French Cameroun. That notwithstanding, Rosa could be vindictive in a self-punitive way.
“My sister told me she has been away from Berlin for more than a month now.”
Karl nodded. “She is still in Dortmund with an uncle. Speaking from what I heard on the grapevine, she got herself a good and befitting job over there. She is lucky.”
“It appears the Nazis are providing jobs for their kinds only.”
Karl shrugged, avoiding his friend’s eyes. “Der Führer promised jobs before the elections. He is a great leader except that―,” he said and emitted a cough of discomfort.
“Except what?” Hans asked, never taking his eyes off his friend’s face.
“Well!” Karl winced and shifted uneasily in his seat. “Sometimes, it is okay to turn a blind eye to the few faults if the aim is for the greater good. Don’t you agree with me on this one?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I am talking about,” Karl said with a note of exasperation in his voice. “Do I have to scream it out that his policies against the Jews are somehow disturbing?”
“It is unbelievable, Karl! I think you were about to justify his actions.”
Karl groaned. “Why don’t we skip this topic? I don’t think anything good is going to come out of it.”
“I can’t believe it, Kumpel!” Hans stuttered, “You sounded a while ago like someone who is indifferent to the problem. Those men at the top are insane, Karl! Ethnic Germans are not the only ones behind all the good things that happened or that are happening in Germany. This country was built by all its citizens.”
“Had unpatriotic non-Germans not been living within our borders, we wouldn’t have lost the Great War.”
An expression of shock and disbelief settled on Hans’s face to the point where he bit his left thumb without intending to. “You are harboring a discomforting view,” he said finally in a labored voice.
“I have been thinking too.”
“Phew!” Hans gasped. “What now? That Germany was stabbed in the back during the Great War as Der Führer claims?”
“That Jews, Communists, Socialists and other alien elements are responsible for our defeat; that the loss of Alsace, Lorraine and the lands of Holy Prussia are their faults too?”
“That’s not exactly how I look at things.”
Then Hans chortled. He did not want to, but he could not dispel the conflicting thoughts racing through his mind. “So, tell me, my dear friend. Who caused the defeat of our Germany?”
“It is so obvious. We were cursed with renegades, the selfish and the cowardly. And the truth is that they came from several camps.”
“Be candid, my friend. Why don’t you scream it out to my face that you think renegade, selfish and cowardly non-Germans betrayed Germany? That the Jews are precisely the traitors you have in mind.”
“You are putting words into my mouth.”
“Oh, common! Why don’t you face it; why don’t you admit it?”
“I still think it is best we avoid arguing about subjects you and I cannot influence. Trust me, Hans; nothing good will come out of our different views on this sensitive topic.”
“A man’s dreams, plans, and works should be open for self-analysis. Do not let others be the judge on something you are better placed to explain.”
“I am getting another drink. Do you want a refill?” Karl asked, indicating the whisky bottle.
Hans shook his head no. “I am fine.”
Karl nodded to show that he understood. Then he poured himself half a glass, took a sip, savored it for a while, and then sat down again.
“Der Führer has great plans for this country,” he said at length, and then cleared his throat, “Yes, his plans are far-reaching and colossal. They need men to coordinate those plans. In fact, the security service approached me for a job. Hell, I have been a lawyer without a job for months.”
“Don’t get yourself mixed up with them.”
Karl shrugged and took a slug of the whisky. “I appreciate your concerns, Kumpel. Unfortunately, words alone do not help. I need to apply my intelligence for the good of this country. Can’t you see? I too must contribute to the growing strength of the Reich.”
“Not by becoming a member of a security force whose allegiance is to the Nazi party.”
“You are wrong!” Karl cried all of a sudden.
“Wrong?” Hans retorted in a slightly elevated voice. “Whom or what do you think you would be serving? It certainly won’t be the Germany our grandfathers and parents fought to defend! You will end up serving an idea, my dear friend. Look! They are going to mess up our people’s conscience.”
“I have a mind of my own.”
“Tell me something,” Hans said with steel in his voice, “My mother is partly Jewish. Can you refuse orders that would deprive people like her of certain rights as Germans?”
“I said I have a mind of my own. That mind considers her as a German with all the rights that come with being a proud child of the fatherland.”
“And what about the others―someone like Alex, our mutual friend?”
“Come on Hans, let’s talk about something else?”
“And what about someone like me, the son of a Negro and a half-Jewish woman?”
“You are upset, Kumpel.”
In the moment of eerie quietness that ensued, the friends avoided each other’s eyes. Even their faces betrayed their uneasiness as they grappled with their thoughts.
Hans blushed finally. “I can see a growing insanity all around us, Karl. It is eating deeper and deeper into our beloved Germany. I wonder if something can be done about it. It is as if it must reach its logical conclusion,” he said in a brooding voice.
“I see no insanity.”
“Yes, there is a whole lot of it. It is becoming incurable. Rational people are almost helpless in the face of this growing madness. That is what I want you to look at. There is hardly anything you can do to fight it.”
“Don’t underestimate me.”
“Why don’t you relocate to Austria or Switzerland before this whole madness consumes you too? You have relatives across our southern borders.”
Karl’s face turned crimson all of a sudden. That was the moment Hans realized his friend’s soul was in conflict. He watched Karl take a deep breath, and then put his drink down on the side stool.
“You know I love Germany. I am from Wurttemberg. Germany is my home. Yes, Hans! Germany’s greatness ought to be restored.”
“My father has a growing business. We can work for him and enjoy the fun of life out there in that frontier world,” Hans said desperately, “We have German-owned plantations in both French Cameroun and British Cameroons. And they are expanding. There are jobs there for us. Why don’t we move to Africa and stake it out there until this madness is over?”
Karl shook his head in what Hans supposed was feigned rue. “What you are saying sounds ridiculous. This is my home. I must stay here. Things will definitely improve. Der Führer’s actions do not constitute policies. They are just temporary measures to stabilize things and get Germany on its feet again,” he said in a sudden frenzy that surprised Hans.
Hans sat back in his seat and plastered his friend with a quizzical look. Then it finally dawned on him. Why did he doubt their mutual friend Humfried Schwarz when he expressed his grave misgivings about Karl? His friend could be flirting with Nazism after all. Humfried had even floated his suspicions that Karl and Rosa were involved. Why had he dismissed Humfried’s words three months ago as if it never crossed his mind that Karl thought of him as a rival at one point in their long friendship? Now, he was convinced that his friend was developing a dangerous streak.
Hans’s thoughts raced to a conclusion, pitting rationality against instincts. Despite Karl’s cordial smiles, he too possessed the unscrupulous ambition luring some ethnic Germans to the ideology of the Nazis. He wondered why he failed all along to discern that perilous nature of his friend’s ambitions.
“I can see you have already made up your mind,” Hans muttered.
Karl nodded. “It has been carefully thought over. Candidly speaking, you are exceptional from the lot Der Führer is against. I understand your decision to leave Germany. It is regrettable, but I want you to know that Germany needs people like you more than it needs me.”
“Yes, I think so.”
Hans chortled and looked at his friend with an incredulous expression on his face. “What are you talking about?”
“I know irrational people are in our midst. They are incapable of distinguishing the good from the bad.”
Hans smiled wryly. “Ah! You mean the good from the bad! That too has become a basis for distinguishing people from one another or precisely one group from another. I always thought the bad are the criminals and those less enthusiastic about the welfare of Germany.”
Karl gulped empty his glass of drink, his demeanor overbearing. “Let’s put it this way. I hold you, Alex and Humfried in high esteem. I shall always be available to safeguard your interests. That is, if the need arises and if it is within my powers.”
Hans shook his head in disbelief. “Within your powers, you said?”
“Within my powers,” Karl reiterated.
“You are getting yourself into a group, my dear friend. Most of us have an idea of how they operate. Henceforth, do not be surprised when people start judging you based on the activities of the group you associate with. People will start judging you as a Nazi, irrespective of the extent of your involvement with that party. Once you get in, you are in, Kumpel. Never forget that.”
“Perhaps you are right. Who knows?” Karl said with a shrug. “I bear no malice against you and your people. But I have Germany in my heart.”
Hans got up and regarded his friend fixedly for a moment. “I’m leaving now,” he said and started for the door.
Karl got up too and went after him. “Hans!” he called, stopping him just as he put his hand on the knob.
Hans turned around and regarded his friend with brooding eyes. “Yes, Karl.”
“I know there are moments when I might even be viewed as a difficult person to understand. I even wonder what I really stand for. But what else can we hold onto to ensure our sanity except our love for something beyond ourselves―our love for our families, our love for our fatherland?”
“Don’t fool yourself, Kumpel. Our love for our country is worth nothing if it deprives us of our sense of humanity, if it destroys positive consensus. Do we have any form of consensus in Germany today? No, no! We do not. Rationalism isn’t cheap anymore.”
Karl laughed uncomfortably and ruffled his hair. “Come on, Kumpel! You have your olde freund hier. I am the same buddy you will find tomorrow.”
Hans turned around and looked Karl in the eye, forcing him to look away. “I hope so,” he said with a note of sadness in his voice.
“Do you really want to leave now?”
“In that case, greet your family for me.”
“When do you plan to pay us a visit? My mother asked about you.”
“I don’t know. We are facing uncertain times.”
“I look forward to seeing you again before I board the ship,” Hans said and patted Karl on the shoulder in an awkward manner.
Karl nodded and leaned on the door. “Also, I don’t think I can go that far.”
“That far? What do you mean?”
“I cannot go that far in seeing you off.”
“Why?” Hans asked, dimming his eyes in the momentary haze of incomprehension that glutted his mind.
“There is someone,” Karl said, took a deep breath, and then continued, “I am expecting someone any moment from now. He is important. Commitments you know,” he stuttered, and then shrugged in an apologetic manner.
Hans looked at his friend deeply for a moment and understood. “You don’t need to explain anything to me,” he said with a faint smile, “I understand,” he added, opened the door and walked out. He did not even greet his friend goodbye or goodnight.
He was still furious when he took the second bend from the Mittenzer home. Karl was undergoing a lot of transformation like someone searching for a new role for himself in the New Germany. Humfried was right. Why did he doubt the effusive Prussian only for it to dawn on him today that Karl was embracing Nazism with open arms? His apology not to see him off was a polite excuse not to be seen with him. Hans bit his lip and trudged on.
It was only nine o’clock, but the night carried an eerie quietness with it as if the neighborhood was bracing for a disaster. Even the streets looked slightly deserted too. True they were usually scanty at that hour of the season. Or perhaps there is a reason, he thought. He had been away from the capital for two years, so he could not dismiss the possibility of changes so easily. It was a chilly night too, forcing Hans to pocket his hands and quicken his pace. He kept walking for a couple of minutes preoccupied with his thoughts and paying little attention to the things and people around him. The only time he slowed down a little was when he was just yards away from the intersection to the next street. In fact, he heard voices with a worrying ring in them but failed to dwell on them. However, someone called his name, forcing him to snap out of his thoughts and raise his head.
That was the moment he first saw them. There were five men altogether, and they were in their late twenties or early thirties. He immediately deduced from the men’s facial expressions, tall statures, slightly muscular frames, hardened looks and outfit that they were involved with the paramilitary. He heaved his shoulders and kept on walking despite the chill that ran up his spine.
“Black Jew, Hans Heinrich,” one of the men called out, distinguished himself from the group and approached Hans in a half-running manner.
Hans realized it was too late to turn around and make a run for his life. But, why run? He thought. Now, the men were less than eight yards away, and they looked too malicious for his liking. The fact that one of them recognized me can be helpful, he thought. Hans kept on walking in a slightly hesitant manner until they closed in on him.
“Halt! We want to talk to you,” one of the brown-shirted men barked.
Hans put up a dignified air as he stopped. But he did not turn around. “What do you want?” he asked in a calm voice that was surprising even to his own ears.
“What is it we want?” the second man quipped.
“The creep lives with that communist?” the tallest and meanest looking, said, his chevron moustache aligned in a funny way.
“Ja!” Another growled. “His father is an African monkey. And worst still, his mother is a Jew married to a Communist.”
Hans fought back his rising infuriation. “Verzeihen Sie bitte, Meine Herren. I am trying to get back home after visiting my friend. I suppose you don’t mind that.”
“You will get home all right; but not until after we are done with you,” the third man said with a mocking laughter that had an insane ring in it.
“Tell us the name of the ape your Jewish mother fell in love with to conceive you.”
Hans did not respond. Instead, he turned around and looked at the man who threw the insult. At that moment, he saw the silhouette of an approaching figure down the street. He could not discern the face, but the profile looked so much like Karl’s that he was about to shout out his name. Then the figure stopped, hesitated for a moment, and then turned around and hurried away.
“I see what you are doing. You are defying us by not answering our questions. Huh?” the fourth man said and edged closer.
“He must answer this one or else―,” the fifth man said.
“What is the question?” one of the men asked.
“Was the kike who raped your grandmother circumcised?”
Hans did not utter a word. He knew that the fifth man knew something about his lineage too.”
“Answer us, black kike,” the first man ordered.
Hans maintained his tranquility and sucked his mouth, wondering whether it was actually Karl backing away after observing the thugs harassing him or if it was someone else.
“Say something,” one of the men shouted with a slight plea in his voice.
Hans looked them in the eyes, moving from one person to the other. Then he settled on the last fellow with a look of discomfort on his face, the man who had tried to engage him in an eye contact. He was about to say something to the fellow when the others pounced on him—punching his head, stomach, and back. They rained him with kicks and shoves that knocked him off his feet and brought him crashing down by the roadside. Hans made an attempt to fight back, but they quickly overwhelmed him. However, he managed to shield his face with both hands and curled to avoid the kicks and blows raining on his body. The men pounded and cursed him, laughed at him and mocked him, spat on him and promised him hell to the point where he thought he was about to die. Then they dragged him up the street and abandoned him on the curb. He lay there all bloodied and battered for about five minutes before he tried to get up again. The first effort saw him tumbling back. In the end, he managed to crawl onto the pavement.
“Kamerun, Kamerun…Kamerun,” Hans mumbled, as he tried to make use of his legs.
Eva was reading a novel in the sitting room when she heard the noise outside. She dropped the book on the sofa and dragged her feet to the door, gripped by curiosity, fear, and apprehension. She opened the door with a yawn, and then peered outside. The sight of his half-conscious brother bent over with his buttocks on the cobblestones forced a scream out of her mouth. Hans was bloody and dirty, with a big cut on his forehead. With his eyelids and lips so swollen, he was barely recognizable. She continued screaming and even shut the door before opening it again.
“Eva!” he gasped and fell on her feet.
“Mami…Mami, Mami—” she continued screaming haltingly, unable to control her rising hysteria.
Karina failed to retain her usual calm when she ran to the door and found Eva struggling to get Hans on his feet. She too uttered a loud, sharp and piercing cry as if she had to complement her daughter in her distress. As the women tried to give some support to his wobbling legs, weeping on his body as they did so, Rudolph Heinrich reached the scene mouth agape, his shirt unbuttoned and his zip down. He managed to calm the women down. Then he made Hans rest his weight on his body. Assisted by Karin and Eva; he carried Hans into his room.
The family helped him undress. Then they helped him take a bath before they cleaned his wounds.
“Kamerun!” was the last word from Hans’s lips that night before he passed out into a tranquilizing sleep.
The freighter Hans boarded left the Kiel harbor for the voyage to Africa on a wet Thursday morning. He left behind a country that was about to give birth to a new order, fearful that it risked pitting Germany again against the rest of the world. Hardly did he imagine even in his wildest dreams that the new order could affect his German family. It had already sucked in Karl Mittenzer a week ago when he became a member of the Waffen SS, otherwise known as the Schutz Stoffel (SS)―the Nazi paramilitary that would become Hitler’s Praetorian Guard. He thought his friend just made a pact with the devil to get a job.
Like all determined prospectors, Hans left Europe behind him, convinced that destiny was taking him away from a land devoid of hope, to a land holding a better future for him, and perhaps for his future descendants too. He thought he would find his new haven in a land whose coastal mountain ranges were described by Carthaginian adventurers as ‘The Chariots of the Gods’ when they observed it spewing lava some two thousand years ago.
Hans fell asleep that night without an iota of doubt that staking his future in the alluring land often referred to as ‘Africa in Miniature’ was the right thing to do. His new homeland would be the land Portuguese sailors called Rio dos Camaros, meaning River of Shrimps, when they visited its shores four centuries ago, and then moved up the Wouri Estuary and discovered that the river was rich with prawns.
Josef Nana Njike paced his office room in Nkongsamba restlessly that wet Monday morning. He was agitated, a mood he could not comprehend. He had left his home that morning with much anticipation, which is often how he began a new week. That is until his car broke down barely thirty yards away from his home. He had considered that a mild irritation that could easily be shaken off, and then continued the commute to his office on foot, whistling and greeting people as he walked along. However, that optimistic spirit evaporated about a hundred yards from his destination when a French soldier cyclist splashed muddy water on his well-polished shoes, and then rode away without looking back or offering even a word of apology.
“The bastard,” he had cursed.
Even so, he only attained the height of his irritation after he stepped into his office. Hardly had he settled behind his desk when the door burst open and one of his employees ushered himself in beaming with smiles.
“Tapang has a letter. I am sorry, no. Tapang has a telegram got here from Douala last Friday,” Franz Tchakounteu had announced, using his name of respect.
He had grunted, bemused by Tchakounteu’s beaming smile. “Where is it now?”
He remembered Tchakounteu coughing nervously as he looked away as if he just found something interesting at the window. “Eboua should be having it. In fact, he promised to give it to you without delay. I bet his wife did it again with her bickering. That woman has a way of making my friend forget to use his brains. I can swear she is the reason why he failed to get the telegram to you.”
“Where is he?” Nana Njike had asked in a flat voice.
The nervous-looking Tchakounteu had scratched his head before responding. “He came to work quite early today but left a short while ago for your home. He told me he wanted to catch you there and give you the telegram before you leave for office. I don’t think he expected you here this early.”
“For God’s sake, how long have you been working with me? Don’t I always start my Mondays earlier than the other days? Now, get out of here and make sure I get the telegram before, before—” he had half-screamed and motioned Tchakounteu out with an angry wave of his hand.
That was how his bad morning got exacerbated that January, leaving him in a state of heightened emotion that he deplored. How could his day start so badly? The discomfiture he had encountered en-route to work should have been soothed by a promising office day. It was as if his employees were mocking him, giving him the impression that they too were out to add more misery to his day. He felt particularly disheartened because Jacob Eboua and Franz Tchakounteu were his two most trusted employees. How could they not understand the importance of a telegram in their part of the world, a rare dispatch for that matter? He was convinced it concerned him and his businesses, something their livelihood also depended on.
To keep somebody’s telegram for a day, let alone for three days was ludicrous, a development that he could only attribute to the falling values of the land. His employees were failing him in that regard.
With a contemplative expression on his face, he walked to the window, opened it and viewed his coffee plantation outside. His intuition was at play again, indicating something unusual. He wondered what that could be. His cluelessness exasperated him even further. In spite of that, he resolved to trust his intuition. It rarely failed him.
Even as Nana Njike thought about it, he knew something momentous was about to happen. Could it be the French administration again or could it be his family back home in Banganté? The worry forced a sigh out of his lips.
His heart skipped in his chest as he leaned on the windowpane and thought about the telegram again. He would have been able to dispel the nagging worry at the back of his mind had he seen it right away.
Nana Njike scratched his wrist from an itch, and then looked at his hands wet with perspiration and sighed. The furrow on his forehead appeared more accentuated when he left the window and slumped in his seat behind his office desk.
Just then, an agitated Eboua knocked and entered. Nana Njike glared at him for a moment, and then leaned forward with his elbows on his desk.
“Good morning Tapang. I brought the letter,” Jacob Eboua stuttered.
Nana Njike did not respond. Instead, he shut his eyes and shook his head repeatedly, surprised that he was not as angry as he was moments ago. He opened his eyes again and fixed them on Eboua for a moment, only to realize that the man looked hung-over.
“Do you have any idea what is in there?” he asked in a level voice.
Eboua turned the telegram over in his hands, looked at it, and then looked away. “Yes, Tapang,” he said in a faint voice.
“Do we receive telegrams in French Cameroun that often?”
“Do you think it is important?”
“I believe it is important, Tapang.”
“Important!” Nana Njike exclaimed and threw his hands in the air in a comical manner.
“Yes, Tapang! That’s what I think! Something tells me it is bearing a very important message.”
“But you kept it for three days before bringing it to me,” Nana Njike said in a calm voice.
“I am sorry, Tapang. I was so preoccupied with worthless issues to the point where I forgot to bring it to you, to your home, as I had intended originally.”
“Occupied doing what?” Nana Njike snapped, and then shook his head and sighed.
“I am sorry, Tapang.”
Nana Njike spoke again in a voice devoid of any irritation. “But you were at Talla’s funeral last Saturday and got yourself sluggishly drunk. You spent most of your day yesterday at Mami Wanji’s drinking spot, depleting her stock of palm wine. What is wrong with you, Eboua?”
“Huh, Tapang! How did you know about that one?”
“I am informed, Eboua, even by people who care about your welfare.”
“I am sorry, Tapang.”
“Hmm! You see, Tapang!”
“What is wrong with you?” Nana Njike repeated.
Eboua bit his lip, opened his mouth to say something, apparently thought about it, and then shook his head instead. “It is a long story that involves my wife and her family,” he said finally.
“Your wife and her family, you said,” Nana Njike beamed encouragingly and nodded.
“Yes, Tapang! The ciphers have been too demanding on me. In fact, they have been bothering me beyond the endurance of my patient nerves. Tchakounteu can attest to everything I say here. My home is always full of my in-laws, yet they had the guts to demand that I contribute the equivalent of a month’s salary for the preparation of her late brother’s memorial.”
“Hah! Your patient nerves, you said.”
“They are too demanding as if I am blessed with all the wealth in this world.”
“That shouldn’t push you to drink that much to the point where you thought your mother-in-law was your wife and ordered her to bring your food to the table,” Nana Njike said, rubbing his cheeks.
“A weakness, Tapang.”
“Did you say a weakness?”
“Yes, Tapang! A weakness aggravated by other pressures.”
“Have you complied with the demands made by your in-laws?”
“No, Tapang,” Eboua replied with a vehemence in his voice that surprised Nana Njike.
“Yes, Tapang. I said no, never. I am sick and tired of their endless demands. Let them go to hell and ask the devil himself to make me change my mind. Only, they would be surprised to find that I am the devil.”
Nana Njike chuckled. He laughed so much that he thought he was about to choke. Eboua was funny, always funny, and so funny in an unintentional way. His effort to terminate the laughter ended with a series of coughs that left him with misty eyes. The sudden relief from the brief laughter amazed him. Eboua had altered his mood. Nana Njike regarded him for a moment with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Put the telegram on the table,” he said finally and pursed his lips in an effort not to laugh any more.
Eboua did. “Thanks, Tapang!”
“I want you to remind me about this. We shall double your salary for this month. I suggest you contribute half of it to the memorial service or Cry Die.”
“Thank you Tapang. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Oh! I don’t expect you to say anything. Just in case I forget, please remind me to make my contribution before the celebrations. You can pick it up at my home.”
“Thank you, Tapang!” Eboua repeated and held his hands together in gratitude.
“You haven’t shown any inclination to visit my home of late. We can always find a day to have dinner with your wife and kids. Don’t you think it is a good idea?”
“The idea is good, Tapang,” Eboua said effusively, “And thank you very much for the invitation and all the other help you have given me in life. You saved me again. Please, understand why I don’t want to alter the happy mood that always prevails in your home with the worries of my conjugal home. I am even planning to build a wooden divide on our bed that would separate my wife from me. Why would anybody expect me to sleep soundly when it is no secret that I have a wife by my side who is plotting constantly with her family to leave me without a sou or without a penny, as my cousin in British Cameroons would say?”
“Come on, Eboua. She is a good woman, and you know that. You married a Bamileké woman knowing how attached the Bamileké people are to the dead. Besides, she is the oldest daughter of her parents and the first grandchild of both set of her grandparents.”
“I understand, Tapang! Still, it is a tough job getting involved in all those funerals, memorial services, and Cry Dies.”
“That’s part of the baggage that comes with her statute. She is trying to live up to expectations and prove to her people that she is married to a man worthy of his salt, a man who can be relied upon to sustain the good name of his in-law’s family. Don’t tell me you aren’t such a man.”
“If the price is an empty pocket all the time, then I don’t want to be such a man.”
“Ha-ha, ha-ha…ha-ha!” Nana Njike laughed. “You may not believe this, but I thought you did the wise thing by marrying a Bamileké woman from a small family. Believe me, Eboua! You should count yourself lucky for failing to marry Agatha Kwinkeu who had your head between her legs.”
“Huh, Tapang! Why did you go there again?”
“To make you understand you are not really having it bad with your wife!”
“You are right. I loved Agatha. Perhaps I still love her. The only thing is that she still frightens me. Hmm! How can a woman go about hurting the person she loves by hurting herself?”
“Nobody can answer that.”
“I still can’t.”
“I brought Agatha’s name up in an effort to make a point, that’s all! Agatha Kwinkeu is the daughter of the old Bana King’s first son. The king has tens of wives and hundreds of children. Had you married her as she wanted, attending funerals and memorials would have been your second job,” Nana Njike said and reclined in his seat, feeling relaxed for the first time since he stepped into his office that morning.
Eboua shrugged, “Hmm, Tapang! Thank you again. I think I should leave now so that you can go ahead and read the telegram, and then begin your day.”
Nana Njike waved him quiet to show that he did not appreciate the incessant show of gratitude. “We are together. That’s something you should always remember, Eboua. Always bear that in mind. Any time you have a problem, you come to me rather than get yourself soaked up in alcohol. You wouldn’t find a solution to your problems from the booze.”
“I will remember that.”
“You have my ears and heart at your disposal.”
“Thank you again, Tapang!”
“I hope you plan to make a difference and be practical about it.”
“Yes, Tapang!” Eboua said. “I promise I will be sober, henceforth!”
“Okay!” Nana Njike muttered but did not say anything anymore, indicating that Eboua could leave.
“I think I should go back to the work I was doing,” Eboua offered, “Also, I hope Tapang has forgiven me.”
Nana Njike nodded and smiled to show that he did not mind. He was still having an amused look on his face when Eboua walked out.
Alone in his office room, Nana Njike sat up in his seat and took out his pipe. He filled it with tobacco, lit it, inhaled a couple of times, and then puffed out smoke. He could feel a soothing tranquility that was both comforting and oblivious. It made his mind reel a little, to the day he had his first cigarette back in Berlin.
Nana Njike willed his mind not to dwell on that past. Instead, he leaned back in his seat, regarded his spacious office and grinned. The interior design was almost the carbon copy of the office of Otto Zammer, his principal in secondary school back in Germany. He always insisted on having the office thoroughly cleaned every day, a sense of tidiness that continues to awe most of his employees.
He smiled as he recalled a comment his driver Paul Nkepseu made to another employee. “Our Tapang makes me wonder whether he isn’t a white man with a black skin,” Nkepseu had said, not knowing that his boss was in the next room.
Nana Njike’s children were very fond of Nkepseu. He too was also amazed by the young driver’s insight.
He stifled a laugh as he recalled another. “Si―The Supreme God wasn’t paying attention when he allowed Tapang to be born a black man with our Bamileké blood. I don’t think he can manage Banganté with its red soil. Don’t you think that’s why he keeps his family there while he resides in Nkongsamba?”
He overheard that comment one hot Saturday afternoon, when he walked into his office after a hectic day working in his plantation, only to find that it had not been cleaned. He had subjected Jonas Kwankam, the cleaner, to the better side of his temper that day. The fellow then went on to grumble to another employee, not knowing that he was within hearing distance.
Nana Njike puffed out smoke and inhaled several times before he emptied the pipe into the waste paper basket. Satisfied with the sense of relief it brought, he reached out for the telegram on the table, humming Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 as he did so.
“Ngenjeu, Ngenjeu…Ngenjeu!” Nana Njike called repeatedly for his friend and assistant in an excited voice.
The burly Benjamin Ngenjeu hurried into the office moments after with an astonished look on his face. “What is it, Tapang?” he asked, wondering why his friend was so agitated.
Nana Njike got up abruptly from his seat, took quick steps towards his friend, but said nothing as he rubbed his hands together. At length, he held Ngenjeu’s shoulder and gasped for breath. “It is my son. He is coming.” he stuttered.
“Your son? Which son are you talking about? Aren’t they all in Banganté?”
“Tambou, my son is coming home to me at last,” he repeated, using Ngenjeu’s name of respect.
“Your son? Home? Is that what you just said?” Ngenjeu offered, too lost for more words.
“Yes, Tambou. Indeed, he is coming home at last. He is supposed to arrive in Douala in three days’ time. It is real, my friend and brother. Can you believe that?”
Ngenjeu observed his friend’s excessive exaltation without batting an eye, thought about it for a moment, and then walked up to the office cupboard by the window and picked up two crystal glasses and a bottle of gin. He poured three quarters of a glass full and gave it to Nana Njike, and then made half a glass for himself before rejoining his friend. They drank quietly.
“Thanks!” Nana Njike said after a good dose of the booze.
Ngenjeu flashed him a reassuring smile. “You don’t have to thank me because I used the opportunity to have some for myself,” he said and laughed.
Nana Njike laughed too. “Ah! And the drink is even mine.”
“You needed it. Your nerves seem to be pretty rusty. Calm them down before telling me the thing that got you into such a state of delight.”
Nana Njike shook his head in disbelief. “It is my son in Germany. It is Hans Wette. I thought I talked to you about him before.”
“I don’t remember you telling me anything about him,” Ngenjeu said, shaking his head no.
“Ah, I never,” Nana Njike admitted with a sigh, “The grief of the dispossession was too much for me to handle. You can’t blame me for not sharing his existence with anybody, can you?”
Ngenjeu shook his head, no, not knowing what else to say.
“I wanted Hans Wette to grow up under my watchful eyes, directing words and reassuring gestures. I wanted him to cherish me as his father, but his grandfather stood between us even before he was born. Ah, Ngenjeu, he came into the world before I returned home from Germany. The whole thing was so depressing. It was really hard for me not to be around him as a dad.”
“You are right about that because you did a good job of keeping quiet about it.”
“Yes, I rarely mentioned his existence. But my wife and the king know about him.”
“You said he is coming here?” Ngenjeu asked in a calm voice.
Nana Njike nodded and took a gulp of his drink. “Yes, he is coming home to Kamerun,” he said and nodded effusively, “That was a request I made five years ago.”
“But, but…but! But, why now, Tapang?”
Nana Njike sat back in his chair and explained to his friend. He began from the time he first met Karina, to the advent of Nazism in Germany. He even talked about the Nuremberg laws and his fears of what it could mean for Germany and its relationship with the rest of the world.
“Germany rejected its own seed. Even Herr Solomon Eichmann, a soul I respected greatly for raising me and for working so hard for Germany, wouldn’t be appreciated and welcomed in that country today.”
“I understand, Tapang! Things have changed in Germany since Hitler came to power in almost the same way as our old ways have been affronted since the French took over this land from the Kaiser.”
“Hmm! What a comparison! All the same, I am proud to say that my son has a home here, one that is always ready to accommodate him. The first seed of my life wouldn’t be dishonored when he has a place to call the natural abode of his spirit or soul or whatever appellation you choose to give to the things that make him fully human,” Nana Njike said, clenching his fist.
“He is Banganté after all. We have our pride, our dignity,” Ngenjeu offered with gusto.
Nana Njike nodded, his face grave all of a sudden. Ngenjeu watched him quietly for a moment until he startled him by getting up abruptly from his seat. Mouth agape, Nana Njike fixed his puzzled eyes on his friend, and then started pacing about as if a new thought was bothering him. When he stopped and turned to Ngenjeu again, he was radiating his usual authority and force.
“Tambou, you are a brother from the heart,” he began, “I would feel honored if you help me welcome my son home.”
“I would consider it an honor to do that. How do you want me to do it?”
“Could you help me by going down to Douala tomorrow to prepare things there for Hans Wette’s arrival? Your presence there shall serve a dual purpose. I mean for the cooperation and for us. Please go there, be my face and get Hans adequately accommodated in Njiah’s hotel. I shall join you two next Thursday.”
“It is okay, Tapang. I think I can handle that.”
“You might need a photograph to identify him.”
Ngenjeu nodded. “Do you have one here with you?”
“Yes, I do. Give me a moment, and I will get it for you,” Nana Njike said, pulled the top drawer of his desk and ferreted among the things there.
“Perhaps you have it at home,” Ngenjeu offered.
“No, I have it here,” Nana Njike replied, banged the top drawer, and then grabbed the handle of the middle drawer. He found the photograph in a book. “Here is the photo of Hans, my first son. He is unlikely to look much different from the way he looks here.”
Ngenjeu took the photograph, regarded it for a moment, and then nodded. “He is big. He looks like a man already. I see much of you in him.”
Nana Njike nodded, and then smiled warmly as he rubbed his chin. “He is twenty-six and a graduate of the Humboldt, just like me. Only, he went two years further.”
Ngenjeu nodded too. “That means his presence here could also serve as a major asset to the business. I bet he knows a lot about modern agriculture and business.”
Nana Njike nodded. “He is smart.”
“I shall cherish his knowledge, Tapang.”
“As a matter of fact, that is one of the aspects of his coming that I find rosy. Well, my dear friend and brother, tell the director of that bastard agency to wait for me next Friday for negotiations. Don’t respond to any of the demands or proposals he puts forward. He is a whirlwind of a man whose every move should be anticipated. They shouldn’t know our position before the real talks.”
“The man is rude and obnoxious. His last proposal was crazy,” Ngenjeu complained bitterly.
Nana Njike laughed in a raucous voice, never taking his eyes off his friend’s puzzled face. At length, he sighed and shook his head. “I sometimes wonder if it is true the things they say about the French—that they are sleazy as businessmen, crazy as politicians, and that they go about life like born usurpers. Wouldn’t I be stereotyping too if I hold on to those preconceptions, just like others have been stereotyping about our people?”
“If I could have my way, I wouldn’t deal with them at all.”
Nana Njike smiled at his friend. “Remember that developments over the years have bonded us together in an inseparable tango. We are destined to either find a way to enjoy our dance together or be doomed for perpetuity. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for failing to base our relationship on realism.”
“True we are bound to deal with one another for life. But all I am asking for is a relationship that is mutually beneficial.”
“It is what most Kamerunians want.”
A thoughtful expression appeared on Ngenjeu’s face for a moment. Then he shrugged and smiled faintly at his friend. He had no interest in philosophy and made it a point of perceiving business relationships in the simplest terms possible.
“You might be right after all. I guess you know them better.”
Nana Njike shrugged too and smiled. “That’s business. The players always want an edge over their counterparts, even if they share a common interest. Only, in our case, the French are both players and arbitrators.”
Ngenjeu rose and pocketed his hand. “Don’t you think it is about time I return to the task I was trying to accomplish before you made a song out of my name?”
“Ha,ha,ha…ha,ha!” Nana Njike laughed. “Thanks for offering me a shoulder to lean on.”
“It is okay Tapang! I will leave now and try to put everything in order before I go home and pack a few things for the trip tomorrow.”
“Again!” Nana Njike said, scratching his forehead uneasily. “Since you are going to use the train, I may have need of the vehicle you are driving.”
“No problem,” Ngenjeu offered.
Nana Njike nodded, and then took out his wallet from his jacket pocket and counted out a thousand francs. “This is to take care of the enormous cost you shall incur and for any other inevitability, that is, before I join you two. I hope it is sufficient.”
“Ah, Tapang! Believe me! Our son will be in the hands of a second father.”
Nana Njike smiled in appreciation. “Treat him well. He is the first life that came out of my loins.”
“I have never declined in my affection for your children. You have always made me proud with the privileged position you set aside for me in your family,” Ngenjeu said, paused, and then added. “Your children mean more to me than you can imagine. They are my other family; they are like my own.”
“I understand. You have constantly reassured me without even saying it,” Nana Njike acknowledged with a smile, and then rose too, “My dear brother, you can put my mind at rest if you go down to Douala a day before the ship anchors and take care of his lodging, food and whatever he fancies before I join you. You know, it is his first voyage to Africa.”
“I shall be there earlier than you can imagine.”
Nana Njike patted his friend on the back. “You have this knack for getting things done the way they should be. It is amazing. Yes, Tambou! You are an exceptional man. How you managed to retain most of your values far away from our homeland, I don’t know. You are truly Bamileké. You understand the seriousness of affairs and the value of money.”
Ngenjeu shook Nana Njike’s hand and smiled. “I am from Banganté. Yes, I am Bamileké after all.”
Little was said after that before Ngenjeu turned around and left the office.
Nana Njike watched the door for a moment and thought about Ngenjeu’s mild smile. He knew the money was too much. But his action was deliberate. Few men would have accepted the task of bridging the relationship between an adult son and his father who had never talked to one another before.
Back in his office, Nana Njike perused the telegram again and realized the coincidence. His son would be arriving on January 15, the same date that he set foot on German soil with Solomon Eichmann. He wondered whether that turning point in his life could herald a similar phase in his son’s life. As his mind wandered back to his childhood, he doubted if that time of the northern winter or the tropical dry season affected their destiny in any way.
Nana Njike shook himself out of his reverie and edged towards the window with a pensive look on his face. His mind grappled with several thoughts for a moment before he narrowed things down to a final decision. He would go to Banganté immediately and prepare a place for Hans. He was convinced his native land would be the best place to integrate his son into the realities of life in French Cameroun.
Nana Njike left his office late that afternoon, got behind the steering wheel of the company pickup truck Ngenjeu was using and then drove to his six-bedroom mansion overlooking the Manengouba Mountain. But it wasn’t until three hours after he got there that he started the drive home to his family, to the bigger than life town called Banganté that is located in the Southeastern borderland of the traditional Bamileké realm of the same name.
Hans wanted to know certain things about the land before he set foot on French Camerounian soil, a preoccupation that left him in a pensive mood as he leaned on the railing of the deck and peered at the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean as the ship “Das Deutschland” cruised into the Gulf of Biafra. He was starting to feel the disorienting effect of the equatorial maritime heat. The high humidity, strong sea breeze and salty freshness of the air made a strange but alluring mix that he found intoxicating. He had enjoyed the voyage so far, enjoyed the challenges that came with braving the high seas, and he even thought the unique blend of passengers was enriching in a special way. At least, it gave him a sense of what to expect on land.
Hans looked up at the distant horizon to find patches of land separated from one other by portions of water. A smile spread across his face without him being conscious of it.
“The Creeks! See how beautiful they look from here,” he mumbled, as he recalled reading about them in his grandfather’s encyclopedia.
He welcomed the rising anxiety in his bosom, an impatient urge to stretch himself to the utmost, pull everything around him to himself and suck out the joy of life from them so that they could become a part of him forever. The expectations also proved intoxicating. He thought he would love the land too. Perhaps he would not regret knowing his father at such a late stage in his life; perhaps all would be fine with his African family if he did his best to win the love and trust of his half-siblings; and perhaps a lot would be achieved if he contributed in improving things in the new land of his heritage. That notwithstanding, he doubted whether he would ever stop missing Germany.
He was alone with his thoughts again when he spotted an imposing landscape in the distant horizon. The sight was so awesome that he gaped unconsciously, his eyes riveted to the ranges of the Cameroon Mountain, otherwise known by its indigenous name Mongo ma Ndemi, meaning "Mountain of Greatness". He noticed the somber hue around it. At that moment, a strange thought crossed his mind that the mountain looked alluring and at the same time threatening in a mysterious way.
But if it attracted the Carthaginians, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Spaniards and Germans, then it should be having something promising for me too, he thought.
The waves lapsing on the sides of the ship as it ferried along also caught his attention before his mind started wandering again—drifting to his new haven in waiting, to the family he was about to meet and to the Germany he had left behind. He thought of them all with mixed feelings, his uncertainty not unmixed with nostalgia, anticipation, and foreboding.
Douala appeared in the distance as a blip in a shadowy horizon, slightly illuminated like the flames of hell. That was the moment he felt a slight panic.
“Staring at its beauty?” he heard a voice behind his back.
Hans turned around to find the smiling face of the French Camerounian he had dined next to the day before. He smiled back and threw his hands in the air in a welcoming manner.
“I was wondering what it would be like on land.”
“This is my first voyage to Kamerun.”
“I could tell.”
“Was it so obvious?”
“Uh-huh! You wouldn’t feel lost in French Cameroun if you have already been to other parts of Africa. That’s why our land is often called ‘Africa in Miniature’.”
“I should have said Kamerun and Africa,” Hans said and shook hands with the stranger.
“One can deduce from your accent that you are from Germany.”
Hans nodded and winced. “Is it that obvious? I thought my French was good enough.”
“You can’t hide your guttural German accent.”
“I challenge you to grade my French again a year from now.”
“Did you mean you plan to be here until next year?”
“It is good you have a positive outlook. There is a lot to learn about this land, my friend. The French and their values for one, getting used to our local food is another, and then there is the heat. I almost forgot the bureaucracy and the other countless hurdles. My God, they are so tiresome! Think of everything that gives life a tickle and expect to find it different here.”
“You make it sound like I should be looking forward to a challenging stay in French Cameroun.”
“Uh-huh! It would be fun nonetheless. Always remember to have an open mind.”
“Think of an interesting place you never envisaged, and our land fits the picture.”
“I guess I will find out about that.”
“What’s your name again?”
Hans looked at him and thought there was something mysterious about his smile. “Hans,” he said, “Hans Wette.”
“How long do you plan to live here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Years! Maybe forever!”
“Good! Then we should stay in touch. Maybe I can help you find your feet in French Cameroun. You know, I live in Douala.”
“My destination too,” Hans offered.
“I am the son of a Duala prince from the Bell clan.”
Hans nodded. “I guess that means you are of royal blood.”
“That’s exactly what I mean!” the French Camerounian affirmed and smiled. “Bear in mind that the French are particularly suspicious of German nationals living here in French Cameroun. So here is my advice to you: No matter what they throw at you, never take their security measures seriously.”
“Why?” Hans asked, looking puzzled.
The French Camerounian yawned. “You may know better. I guess it has something to do with the age-old rivalry between the French and the Germans. This land was a former German colony, remember? And a prized one at that.”
“I see. But, still—”
“The French became very fearful after intercepting a spy a couple of weeks ago with sensitive documents on France’s defenses behind the Maginot line. They said he is an ethnic German from Lorraine.”
“I didn’t read about that one.”
“They caught him when it was almost too late; that is after he already had most of the documents channeled to a link across the border.”
Hans grunted, looking thoughtful all of a sudden. “Developments like those will complicate a lot of things for me here.”
“My God, look at your face. You look horrified. You aren’t a spy; are you?”
Hans chortled. “I am not worried about that. I have other things on my mind to worry about.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is difficult to understand.”
“I take it there is really nothing to worry about.”
“Are you expecting someone to pick you up?”
Hans nodded. “My father.”
“Did you say your father?”
“Does he live here?”
“What’s his name?”
“Josef Nana Njike. He lived in Douala for a while, but moved up to Nkongsamba a couple of years ago.”
A faint shadow of surprise crossed the French Camerounian’s face. Hans watched him take a deep breath. “Your father?” he stuttered finally.
“Yes!” Hans said. “Does the name sound familiar to you? Basing my assumption on the look on your face, I am tempted to say that you have heard the name before.”
“You are right I have. I am glad we met,” the French Camerounian said suddenly, surged forward, grabbed Hans’s hand and shook it forcefully. “I actually work for Monsieur Njike in Douala. I am his branch manager there.”
Hans initiated the second handshake. “Good, good, good,” he mumbled and raised his hands in a suggestive manner, “This is a lovely surprise. We are bound to be closer than I initially thought.”
“Certainly, certainly, certainly,” the man muttered, “We will get along fine. What is that announcement about?”
“It said something about our arrival.”
“Yes, we dock in about half an hour. I think I should go back to my cabin and get my things ready before we disembark,” he intoned, turned around and started walking away.
“Excuse me,” Hans called. “I am sorry your name slipped my mind.”
“Hektor!” he said. “Hektor Manga Bell,” he added with a smile; and with heaved shoulders, he turned around and hurried away.
Hans smiled too, reflected for a moment as he regarded the retreating figure. Then he shrugged, turned around and leaned again on the railing again, fixing his eyes on the smooth waters lapsing against the ship.
The heavy downpour of rain posed as another inconvenience to Benjamin Ngenjeu sheltering that evening under the roof of the verandah of the customs building in the Port of Douala. Waiting for hours in solemn anticipation of the arrival of the ship bringing his friend’s son home to his people was not something he enjoyed doing. In fact, he was better off in many ways because unlike most of the well-wishers around, he was wearing a raincoat, a prized possession in French Cameroun that he got as a present from Nana Njike during his mother-in-law’s memorial service the year before.
He pushed up his sleeve and checked his watch. It read 18:38 hours, but he expected the passengers to disembark at 20:00 hours. He was certain about the information because he got it from a cousin’s brother-in-law called Jürgen Tchoula Ngemnjou, someone he considered a member of his extended family. He was glad he introduced the young man to Nana Njike, who went on to use his invaluable contacts to get him the job at the Douala seaport.
Ngenjeu thought of Jürgen Tchoula Ngemnjou and smiled. The young man traced his roots to Kekem, a Bamileké realm at the fringe of the West Bank of the River Nkam, overlooking the northeastern half of the Mbohland. However, his father left the realm due to a family feud and settled in Banganté, where he married a local woman and started a family, and for all intents and purposes, becoming a man of Banganté.
Ngenjeu sniffed the air and winced at the discomfort of standing there for half an hour. Jürgen Tchoula had advised him to call around again in an hour. However, the rainstorm trapped him before he could get to the street. Now it was subsiding.
He ruminated over the journey from Nkongsamba and thought it was fun after all. The train ride was tiresome, but what was that compared to an estimated five hundred francs that would swell his bank account. He was sure his friend would not ask him what he did with the rest of the money if he did a good job of taking care of his son. However, making Hans feel at home was one thing he was determined to accomplish with style.
He thought the ache in his stomach was becoming a nuisance, especially as it reminded him of the fact that he had not eaten since that morning. The thought of food caused an immediate upsurge of saliva in his mouth, which he managed to reduce by swallowing in a raucous manner. It was at that moment that he decided to take care of his hunger and thirst. To do that, he chose the restaurant of his childhood friend from Banganté.
Ngenjeu was perplexed that Andrei Kemajou Njiah’s Hôtel Le Nzui was already crowded that day, although it was just 18:53 hours. Serving as a restaurant, a bar, and a lounging center, the place gained a reputation over the years as the most beautiful hotel in town, even surpassing the once famous French-owned Meridian Hotel. Ngenjeu did not flush when he entered the building. He walked with brisk steps into the restaurant and approached a side table without wincing at all. However, a grunt escaped his lips as he took off his raincoat. He hung it on a chair, and then settled into it. Then he flipped his fingers for the attention of a waiter. A young man arrived seconds after his signal call. On his face was a beaming smile.
“Welcome, Tambou! How can I be of service to you?” he asked, holding his hands together.
“Dudu, old boy! It has been a long time,” Ngenjeu greeted and extended his arm to the waiter for a handshake.
Dudu shook it. “You are right, Tambou! It has been a long time since you last honored us with your presence. I suppose everybody back home is doing fine?”
“Everybody is fine, Dudu. And how are your wife and young son doing?”
“My boy is fine, Tambou. He now walks around and even helps his mother in the kitchen with little chores. He likes dancing makossa too, just like me. Hmm, Tambou, his mother’s fertility mortifies me. She is already heavy with another child. I wouldn’t be surprised if she delivers twins because her protruding belly is almost an arm’s-length.”
“Dudu, Dudu! It can’t be true.”
“And she eats a lot, Tambou. I am afraid she may eat me up one day if I fail to stock my home up with enough food.”
Ngenjeu chortled. “Tell me if I am wrong. Your wish must be to have a girl.”
“Don’t pray for that, Tambou! I have a vast expanse of land that needs strong hands to cultivate; and sons are what I need to realize that project to become a Junker, like that German who owns a plantation in Dibombari.”
“Otto Von Zimmermann, you mean. I heard he is into his fifth marriage already.”
“Uh-huh, Tambou! His new wife is a Duala woman. They have two children already. Is it true that he shaves his moustache each time he marries a new wife?”
“Is it also true that he keeps an imperial moustache when he is happily married, and only starts grooming a walrus moustache when he starts thinking of getting himself another wife?”
“So they say.”
“Hmm, Tambou! I fear for my Duala sister. I was in Dibombari last week to see my father who works there. Hmm, the old lecher’s moustache is a lot thicker now and it is pointing downward.”
“Be true to yourself. The only thing you should strive to learn from him is how to cultivate the earth and run a good plantation.”
“Thank you, Tambou! I was drifting again. Tapang advised me to cultivate cocoa and coffee. He told me there is a growing market for those cash crops.”
“The demand for cocoa and coffee is growing rapidly. Are you really against your wife giving birth to a baby girl?”
“Uh-huh, Tambou! Sons can help me grow cocoa and coffee better.”
Ngenjeu laughed lightly and hit the table. “That’s a good way of making money. Don’t you think your wife wouldn’t be happy if she hears that you are against her having a daughter?”
“She is of no consequence, Tambou. I wouldn’t mind her providing me with a daughter, but I am going to welcome that only after I count eight sons as security for my bloodline.”
Ngenjeu shook his head in a bemused manner, and then looked the excited young man in the eye. “I hope you are not thinking of acquiring another wife?”
“No, Tambou! I have enough trouble already, taking care of one wife who is so demanding. So, why should I marry another wife and put myself at the risk of dying young?”
“You have a point.”
“I sometimes wonder whether my wife thinks I am a millionaire. You can’t imagine her asking me to buy her all the latest wears that women are so crazy about these days.”
Ngenjeu guffawed. “Okay, Dudu! I understand what you are going through. Times are changing, you know. But don’t forget to remind me when she delivers.”
“I wouldn’t forget, Tambou,” Dudu promised, and then added. “Tambou must be hungry or thirsty.”
Ngenjeu grunted, adjusted his coat, and then leaned forward and whispered to Dudu in a conspiratorial tone. “Believe me, Dudu! I am starving. I can eat an entire goat without belching. How about corn-fufu and ndole?”
“That would be fine, Tambou,” Dudu said, holding back his laughter.
“Make it more than the quantity I usually get. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
Dudu emitted a small but brief chortle finally. “Yes, Tambou. I know what you mean. And you usually wash it down with a drink.”
Ngenjeu nodded with a funny smile. “Make it a litter of palm wine.”
“You will get them as quickly as possible, Tambou,” Dudu said, ducked his head to the side, and then left for the kitchen.
Ngenjeu ate quickly that evening, doing his best not to slurp. He ate so fast that he almost choked twice. Only after finishing more than three quarters of the food did he pick up the drink. He gulped it down like a thirsty camel, and then grunted. A belch escaped his lips moments after just as he sat back in his chair. In fact, when he called Dudu over and paid the bill, he looked like a man satisfied with the service he had just been rendered.
“Tambou must be leaving now,” Dudu offered as Ngenjeu slipped into his raincoat and started walking away.
“Oh, Dudu! I have to pick up a very important person who is visiting us for the first time. He is from Germany. In fact, he is going to become one of us.”
“We will see again, I guess.”
“By the way, I have something for you,” Ngenjeu said, took out his wallet again and peeled out a bill. He gave Dudu his awaited tip, and then left the hotel for the seaport.
It was almost 20:00 hours when he arrived there and faced an anxious Jürgen Tchoula who told him that the ship was about to anchor. Ngenjeu declined the seat he offered, but then went on to make sure that a vehicle was around to drive them away.
The passengers on board Das Deutschland scrambled for their possessions as they prepared to disembark. At the same time, frantic preparations were underway by the captain and his crew to anchor the ship.
Back in his cabin, Hans took a deep breath and leaned on the door. He thought of Germany, he thought of Berlin, and he thought of his grandmother in Rastatt. He promised himself he would see his family and friends again in better times. He would never give up on his German ties. However, he knew he needed to sort himself out first.
Now, the ship was using flares to coordinate with the port officials. He observed it for a moment, and then turned away with a sagging feeling and started preparing himself to step onto French Cameroun.
It was close to 21:00 hours when Hans stepped down from the gangway and felt the earth underneath his shoes. He sighed, sniffed the air and thought he should go down on his knees and kiss the soil. The thought brought a smile to his face. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt instead and slipped into his grey jacket.
The drizzling outside had subsided even further when the thickset man in a black raincoat approached him, grinning widely.
“You must be Hans Wette! I don’t doubt that,” the man said, showing him a photograph.
“That’s me,” Hans replied, looking at him curiously, but knowing that he was not his father.
“My name is Ngenjeu, Benjamin Ngenjeu,” the man said with an infectious smile on his face. “Your father sent me here to welcome you home and see to it that you are well taken care of before he gets to see you. You might not know it, but I am his manager and assistant in Nkongsamba,” he added and extended a hand to Hans
“Thanks!” Hans said with a smile as they shook hands, uncertain of what next to say or do.
Ngenjeu gripped his hand tighter all of a sudden, pulled him closer, and then embraced him in an affectionate manner.
“You are finally home, Son! We are happy you chose to come home after all. You are Bamileké. You are of Banganté. You did not forget your first home. A leopard never forgets its origin. You will never regret you sought your real roots.”
When Ngenjeu released him, Hans looked into his eyes and thought tears had formed in them. He was, however, uncertain of the degree of their wistfulness.
“I am glad you came, Herr Ngenjeu! I am glad you are around to welcome me home,” Hans mumbled, barely able to recognize his own voice.
“Call me Tambou,” Ngenjeu offered. “And you don’t have to feel as if I did anything out of the ordinary with my presence here today. Your father and I are orphans who accepted each other as brothers without reservations. It is a long story, Son! It is an unusual story,” he added, shaking his head wonderingly.
Hans looked at the bald-headed man and thought he liked, trusted and respected him. “Remember to tell me about it. Where is my father? I don’t see him around.”
Ngenjeu smiled encouragingly and held his shoulder. “You have an unusual father, Son! He is a very committed man who insists on ensuring that everything turns out right. He got the telegram informing him of your voyage only three days ago.”
“Okay. There must have been a delay along the way.”
“This is Africa, Son! We are not as organized as Germany. And we attach less importance to messages encrypted on a piece of paper. Your father thought the right thing to do would be to go to our homeland first and prepare the place to make your homecoming a thing to remember. That’s how I became the person to welcome you and see to your wellbeing until he gets here.”
“When should I expect to see him?”
“Tomorrow! That’s how he planned it.”
“That could be a rush for him.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. Your father is a tough man. Believe me! Our homeland is a difficult terrain to travel on.”
Hans checked on his watch and grinned. “It is getting late, Herr Ngenjeu. Where do we spend the night?”
“That’s something your father took care of. There is a place for you to spend the night in.”
“How far is it from here?”
“Don’t worry, Son! Your father is a meticulous and considerate man. He made special arrangements for your accommodation in our friend’s hotel. You will enjoy it there. The hotel is only a thirty-minutes from here; on foot.”
“It is not far. I can walk that distance.”
“Oh, no, no, no! I arranged for a car to take us there. Hmm! Why isn’t the driver here already?”
“I wish I could answer that.”
“It is okay, Son! He is somewhere around.”
Hans smiled in gratitude and shook his head. “Wonderful, Herr Ngenjeu! You are already making life too easy for me in Africa. You can see for yourself that I have a lot of luggage to haul with me.”
“Africa isn’t as bad as you might have been made to think. Your father is an outstanding man here with a wonderful vision for this land. He doesn’t like the pace of our development at all. We have to move fast and catch up with the rest of the world, he tells me all the time. Believe me, I have no idea of the world he talks about all the time. The most I can make of that world is in books. Well, Son, I am a natural man of my world. The world I am familiar with is here. So, finding happiness in my homeland is all I need for the enrichment of my soul.”
“I think you are right, Herr Benjamin. A man’s true world should be the space and people that enrich his soul,” Hans said in a spirited voice.
“Again, I am officially Monsieur Ngenjeu, Herr Ngenjeu or plain Uncle Ngenjeu. I prefer Tambou, though. It is my name of respect or the title of the maternal line of my family. We call it a person's Ndap.”
Hans blushed. “I forgot that the traditional name comes first. I failed my first test.”
Ngenjeu smiled and patted Hans on the back. “Come on, Son! Give yourself some time to learn. You are even doing better than I expected.”
“Thanks, Monsieur Ngenjeu!”
“I mean it. I am not promising much, but you will be very thrilled by the things you discover here. You chose a very promising land to make your new home and the home for your children.”
Just then, Hans heard someone call his name. He turned around to find Hektor Manga Bell.
“So you beat me to the race and finally put your foot on this soil, ah? I was wondering where you disappeared to after I picked up my luggage, looked around and couldn’t find you in the queue,” Hektor said as he walked towards Hans.
Hans excused himself from Ngenjeu, edged away and greeted Hektor, leaving Ngenjeu facing the other direction. “I have itchy legs. I was aiming to be the first passenger to step out,” Hans joked.
“Did you make it?”
“No! An eighty-year-old grandmother with twenty-six children and grandchildren beat me to it, with all her descendants on the path of her trail.”
The two young men laughed at the joke for a while before Hans turned around to introduce Hektor to Ngenjeu. But the old man was nowhere in sight. Hans stood dumbfounded for a moment, staring sightlessly at the Douala night.
“Is there a problem? I can see you are worried.”
“It is okay. Give me a moment.”
“Do you have transportation and accommodation plans? Did you make arrangements for those? Don’t worry about it if you didn’t because I can come up with something for you,” Hektor said.
“Someone offered to drive me to town. It is as if he just disappeared while I was talking to you. I—” Hans said, interrupted by the black Renault Monaquatre that drove haltingly in front of them.
The car hissed and jerked before it stopped. Then a shiny-faced driver with a Mongoloid-like complexion got out, introduced himself to Hans, shook hands with him and Alex, and then hurriedly opened the trunk. Hans and Hektor engaged the driver in a conversation as they assisted him with putting the luggage inside the car.
Ngenjeu reappeared as the driver shut the trunk. He shook hands with Hektor and patted the young driver on the back. “You had no difficulty in finding him, just as I told you, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, Tambou!” the driver said with a smile.
“Huh, Nkengfack! You are wonderful,” Ngenjeu said and laughed.
Hans laughed too, and then turned around to share a joke with Hektor when he realized that his new friend looked slightly tensed, like someone not happy about something. He even thought Hektor’s mood changed after Ngenjeu showed up. He would think about that later.
The four men got into the car, held their breath for a while as the driver tried to kick the engine alive, and then heaved a sigh of relief when the car moved forward for the drive into Douala. Hans peered at the rolling scenes of winding streets, muddy roads and buildings with mixed feelings. The heat was becoming an inconvenience now, and mosquitoes buzzed past his ears several times to add more discomfort to the ride.
The trip to Njiah’s hotel took less than ten minutes. The driver pulled the car to a stop in front of the building, and then heaved his shoulder as if he had just accomplished a very important mission. Ngenjeu matched his enthusiasm by announcing that they had arrived. Hans also felt relieved. Nkengfack scrambled out and jerked Ngenjeu’s door open, before helping Hans too with his own door. A smile of accomplishment was spread across his face when he opened the door for Hektor as well.
“What is the secret with these doors?” Ngenjeu joked.
“Nothing but special innovations, Tambou! Special innovations in the backward sense of the word because I alone can handle my doors.”
“Thank you, Nkengfack. The car serves its purpose. That’s what is important.”
“And it got us here in one piece,” Hans interjected with an amused look on his face.
Ngenjeu did not wait to see the luggage taken out of the trunk. Instead, he hurried into the hotel and returned moments after with three strong-looking men. Handshakes were brief, words were few and the purpose was clear. Hans watched Nkengfack drive away with Hektor, and then followed the porters carrying his luggage inside, just seconds before it started raining heavily.
“Thank you, Tamba! I am grateful to have you around helping me feel at home right on my first day here,” Hans said.
“Tambou,” Ngenjeu corrected and laughed. “Ah, Son, you don’t have to thank me. We are a hospitable people. Always remember that. Naturally, it is the norm to treat you like a king during the first few weeks of your stay here. After that, consider yourself an integral member of the community. In fact, we wouldn’t hesitate to hand you a machete after you spend a month here with us.”
“Uh-huh!” Ngenjeu affirmed with a laugh. “Yes! A machete or cutlass for you to use to work on the land ten hours a day like everyone else.”
Hans chuckled. “I am waiting for that. My father must have told you that I am an agronomist.”
Ngenjeu patted Hans on the back. “This is between us. Your father is a tight-mouthed fellow who sometimes gets too excited. In fact, I can tell you your life story if you want me to.”
Hans laughed again. “It is a long one. I am sure it took you months to digest his narration. We certainly don’t have time for it right now. Is it true what they say about palm wine?”
“What do they say?”
“That it is served as a welcoming drink in Africa for those who are visiting the land for the first time.”
Ngenjeu chortled and shook his head. “It goes with kola nut too. You are smart, Son! You will love the palm wine down here. In fact, I am prepared to share a toast with you after you freshen up a little. You don’t have to tell me you are exhausted, do you? It is obvious.”
“You are right Tambou. My clothes are soaked with sweat; I need water on my body, and I need fresh clothes on me as well.”
“I am in the opposite room, even though I don’t plan to occupy it for the next hour. You will find me in the bar in half an hour’s time, that is, if you think you are strong enough for it.”
“I will try. I have to admit I feel tired all the same.”
“Then get yourself some rest first. I will see you tomorrow morning if you are okay with that.”
“We will see.”
“Fine! How about leaving you now?”
“You can always find me in the bar. I will be there, probably until 22:00 hours. Also, someone will be here shortly to make arrangements for your evening meal and anything else you may want to quench your taste with.”
Just as Hans was about to protest, Ngenjeu took his hand, shook it affectionately, said see you later, and then left the room and closed the door behind him.
Hans regarded the closed door for a moment, shrugged, and then sagged into a chair by the window. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He felt tired, listless, relieved and eager at the same time. Perhaps a time alone would help, he thought.
He got up again, walked to the window, opened it wide and sucked in the gush of fresh air that greeted him. Then he closed his eyes, opened them again, and then treated himself to a view of the town. The place looked too dull for his liking as if mourning from the heavy rains. He sighed, moved away from the window and started taking out some stuff from his suitcase.
Hans undressed but did not take off his shorts. The next thing he did was fling his tired body on the bed and closed his eyes. It has been an exhausting day, he thought. Yet he was having only a few hours to rest before the start of another demanding day. How he wished he could be in better spirits for the first meeting with his father. Naturally, he should have been angry that his father failed to welcome him to French Cameroun on the day of his arrival, but strangely enough, he did not feel let down at all. He was certain his father was having a good reason for failing to be around. His mother had even told him that Nana Njike would never deliberately hurt people, that his intentions were always good. Still, he would limit his expectations of his father.
The vicissitude of life teaches us about our limitations in a world with no guarantees and permanence, he recalled telling Eva the day before he left Germany for the voyage to Africa.
It had ceased raining outside when Hans walked into the bathroom. He enjoyed the soothing feeling that came with scrubbing himself clean, and for that reason, he decided to stay there a little longer. The experience affected his spirit in such a positive way that he got out of the bathtub humming Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Then he toweled his body dry, feeling refreshed like a fish that found itself back in water after a brief spell in the open air.
Hans thought about his grandmother as he slipped into his pajamas, but he did not allow the reflection to linger on his mind. Instead, he drank a glass of orange juice, prostrated himself on the bed and fell asleep shortly after.