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“Triple Agent, Double Cross is a taut and engrossing thriller… there is authenticity in the attitudes it takes, and credibility in the characters, settings, and situations it portrays…The structure of the novel is clear and comprehensible, and it is constructed with a strong sense of dramatic necessities such as timing and suspense, and the need for constant action and interaction…the author keeps up the critical tension that takes the reader through the book…The actual writing, the literary style, is first class and entirely appropriate to the genre…the reader is effortlessly transported from the opening pages, into the world of the novel, and dare not leave until the very end. The writing is strong and fluent, and therefore maximizes the potential brought to the book by an impressive, cleverly constructed plot…This is a professional and an accomplished piece of writing.”
Editorial Director of Minerva Press
“A mind-stirring fiction that sticks long after you have read it.”
“A story no thriller fan can afford to put away.”
“A spellbinder that deals with historical abortions, politics, espionage, sex, love, war, and international conspiracies.”
“Triple Agent, Double Cross is a fascinating page turner of swirling proportions where love, hate, sex, war, secret motives and grand conspiracies become so interwoven much that the characters find themselves trapped in a world they cannot escape.”
The night before was unusually rainy for the Guinean capital. The heavy rainfall could have been considered an irritation if not a catastrophe elsewhere in the world for the flooding it caused in some of the neighborhoods in the city. But for most of the residents of Conakry still reeling from the intense heat wave that blighted the country for more than two weeks, the torrential rains came as a welcome relief. It enlivened their spirits and even brought life to the flora that had been wilting and dying from the intense heat wave from the Sahara Desert. The rain also washed the thick layers of dust off the streets, giving some originality to the color of the asphalt roads.
However, for a man walking the streets of Conakry that morning, the effects of the rain and the nature of the city were of no interest to him. His mind was on the Cameroun cemetery.
The man crossed the November 8 Bridge as if nothing else mattered in the world, even though he stayed conscious of the sounds and activities around him. He raised his head fully only once, just as he walked past the Donka hospital located in the city center.
Any curious bystander watching him at that moment would likely have noticed the thoughtful expression on his face that gave him the academic demeanor of a professor grappling with a worrying phenomenon. The patches of grey hair on the man’s head made it look like he was balding prematurely, since it contrasted with his athletic gait that could only have been expected from a physically fit person in his late thirties or early forties. However, the stranger was a quinquagenarian with more life experiences than most men his age.
“No one can make you feel
inferior without your consent.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
“Darkness cannot drive
out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can
― Martin Luther King
“Love is that condition
in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
― Robert A. Heinlein
“We are all in the
gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
― Oscar Wilde
“The use of political
assassination against liberation movements has changed the course of history in
a number of countries in Africa and continues to devastate the Middle East. The
current power relations between the Third World and the dominant Western and
imperialist powers, are a product of the
war of attrition which the West has waged, particularly by political
assassinations, which have robbed Africa and the Middle East of some of their
great leaders, and weakened their important political organizations.”
1956 Renault Dauphine—made René Roccard proud, a feeling millions of his French
compatriots also shared. So, when he bought a Dauphine sedan from the first
consignment the auto manufacturer shipped to the United States of America, his
co-workers were not surprised at all. However, people started raising their
eyebrows when he made it a point of intoning stanzas of France’s national
anthem La Marseillaise or honking in
jubilation whenever he saw a Dauphine or drove past one.
It is easy to understand
why the patriotic Frenchman regarded the car as a testament to France's recovery after the country's humiliating
four-year occupation by Germany during the Second World War.
Even so, René did not
feel proud or concerned about the automobile as he navigated streets of New
York city that afternoon. The expression of grim determination on his face
relaxed a little as he left East 48th Street behind him and joined the crawl of
traffic through Broadway. Completely oblivious to the skyscrapers on both sides
of the road, he grappled with the details of his self-assigned mission as if
nothing else mattered in the world. The Frenchman’s extreme preoccupation
almost made him hit the back bumper of the blue Ford Fairlane right in front of
his car, but he reacted swiftly to the impending impact by stepping hard on the
brake pedal. The Renault Daphne jerked to a stop, and he came close to bumping
his head on the steering wheel. The thought that he came close to screwing up
his mission by getting into a stupid accident, infuriated him so much that he
hit the steering wheel repeatedly, gritted, and then dropped back in his seat.
salopards!” René cursed and didn’t cease until the sound of cars hooting
from his rear alerted him that he was lagging behind the flow of traffic.
René moved the car
forward, in rhythm with the other vehicles in front of him, and then looked at
his perspiring palms one after the other. The irony of his nervousness brought
a sigh to his lips at the same time that his eyelids narrowed even further. The
contorted expression on his face only eased a little as he drove into 1st
Avenue/United Nations Plaza, steering the vehicle through a variety of
“Cette circulation est
agaçante,” he hissed under his breath.
True he hadn’t
anticipated the heavy traffic at that hour of the day and never imagined the
temperature could hit ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit. He
did not like the implication at all because it could mean a mess up of his
René looked less agitated
when he parked the car in the Turtle Bay neighborhood, got out, opened the
trunk, and then pulled out a guitar case with hardly recognizable rifle parts
inside. In fact, the thought of “La Bastringue” by the chansonnière Mary
Rose-Anna Bolduc crossed his mind as he shut the trunk with a bang. But only
after locking the driver door and pocketing the key did he start humming the
Quebecer’s song under his breath.
“You have a nice baby
there,” a voice with a distinct trace of Boston accent sounded from behind
René, sending a chill up his spine.
He froze for a moment, and then turned around with a
half-angry and half-surprised look on his face. “What did you just say?” the
Frenchman asked with a sneer.
“It is a beautiful piece
of machinery. Oh yes! As a matter of fact, my wife is buying one tonight,” the
smiling American replied, and then ran his hand on the hood as if caressing it.
“Thank you, Sir! Believe
me, your wife will love it,” René retorted, making no effort to disguise his
thick Gallic accent. Then he regarded the man for a moment with narrowed
eye-lids, “Excuse me, Sir! I must leave now,” he added and turned around. He
did not even look at the man he addressed the words to when he waved him
goodbye and hurried away.
He walked across the park
with quick steps in the direction of the Tudor City apartments, conscious of
the dampness on the back of his shirt.
“Ignore it,” he hissed in
an effort to shake off the sudden upsurge of irritation plaguing him.
René increased his pace
as he approached the apartment block situated directly opposite the United
Nations Headquarters, right across First Avenue. He even covered the remaining
twenty yards to the apartment door with half-running steps.
“What am I doing to myself?” he mumbled,
mindful of his panting and the slight trembling of his hands.
The Frenchman pulled out
the bunch of keys from his back pocket, picked out an inconspicuous silver key,
inserted it into the keyhole, and then unlocked the entrance door. He pushed it
open with heightened anxiety, muttering a torrent of curses under his breath as
he stepped inside Giuseppe Matteotti’s two-bedroom apartment. Then he locked
the door behind him and hurried to the casement window.
It was just a month ago
that he made the Italian painter’s acquaintance in a bar, got his invitation to
his apartment to see his paintings, and then decided to copy the painter’s key
after he told him he would be away in his old country for half a year.
René took less than three
minutes to assemble the sniper rifle, and
then set aside fifteen minutes to wait for his target while his high adrenaline
level subsided. But the target did not show up until forty-three minutes later,
and even when he exited the United Nations building, he did so with a crowd. On
top of that, the man never stayed for more than a second or two in the
crosshairs of René’s rifle scope, a development that caused his flow of
adrenaline to rise even further.
Ruben Um Niobe, the
energetic six-foot leader of “The Union of the Populations of the Cameroons (UPC)”,
the civic-nationalist political party that morphed into the Cameroonian
Underground Organization by taking up arms against France in French Cameroun
following its ban by French authorities in 1955, appeared to be talking and
gesturing to the five men and a lone woman around him with an air of confidence
and a smile on his face that triggered a flow of bile up René’s throat. He
swallowed it back and licked his lips.
René’s heart skipped a
beat when the diplomats started walking with the French Camerounian away from
the building. His cardiac turmoil was followed by an ache in his stiffened
trigger finger as he focused his aim and waited for the moment to deliver the
shot that would avenge the death of his brother. However, just as he was about
to press the trigger, Ruben stopped, held the shoulder of one of the foreign
diplomats, and then moved away. The unexpected movement made René gasp without intending to. Now, his target was
almost completely hidden by the burly diplomat, a development that infuriated
him even further, leaving his nerves more overwrought than before. The
Frenchman bit his lip as he watched the other diplomats encircle Ruben. Then
they walked with him to the waiting car. And then the car drove away.
Rage swept over René,
making him to quiver, so that he buckled under the weight of his failure,
slumped to the floor, and then rolled over. He hit his thighs with both fists,
emitting as he did so a series of grunts that seemed to give a rhyme to the
vocal manifestation of his tribulation. Then he leaned backwards on the wall
and closed his eyes, muttering barely audible curses as he banged the back of
his head on the barrier.
René Roccard’s lip
movement stopped for a moment, followed by a deep frown, an unconscious facial
movement that created a look of extreme rage on his face. Then without even
opening his eyes, he nodded to himself several times as if acknowledging an
inner voice. Yes, it was his inner voice all right. He would try again for the
third time, and if the next attempt turned out to be unsuccessful too, then he
would have to make the journey to French Cameroun and finish the job there.
René closed his eyes
again and tried to shake off the haunting Monday, January 6, 1958 headline in the New York Times, but it
kept imposing itself on his mind.
France Sends Troops to
Crush Red-Led Uprising in Cameroons; Acts to Prevent New 'Algeria' in African
Territory Where Rebels Burned 60 Villages.
“Les idiots, lesimbéciles!” he growled, paused for a moment with an expression of deep
pain on his face, and then pulled his hair.
The rebellion in our
Cameroun isn’t different from the one in Algeria. That’s why Marc is dead. He quivered in an inaudible voice,
ruffled his hair, and then closed his eyes.
A moment of silence
ensued before he buried his head in his hands and started weeping. He continued
weeping as he started humming "La
Complainte du Partisan" (The Complaint of the Partisan---"The
Partisan"), and did not stop until he came to the end of the first stanza, when he growled the lyric “… I took my gun and vanished.”
René woke up the next
morning feeling disheartened, but after recalling the song about the French
Resistance against Nazi Germany, he sang it again all the way to the end as he
took a shower and as he ate breakfast. In fact, when he arrived at work shortly
after, he was feeling more solemn than sad. However, that emotion did not last
for long because news from Paris reporting the return to power of General Charles
De Gaulle reached the consulate hardly an hour after he got there. The
afternoon report brought a genuine smile to his face for the first time that
The month of May 1958 is remembered
in the annals of French History as the month of the second and most important
Algiers Putsch—an attempt to overthrow the reigning government in Paris that
was launched from the capital of French Algeria.
This was after the French
populace grew tired of governments that were plagued by recurrent cabinet
crises that in turn increased the misgivings of the French Army and the French
settlers in the colonies, especially in Algeria. The plotted revolt of these
French soldiers was a culmination of years of political instability originating
from the shortcomings of the parliamentary system of the French Fourth
Republic, which saw twenty prime ministers govern France within a period of
eleven years, the vast majority of them coming from parties on the left of the
Following years of
chafing against the incompetence of different French governments to quell the
rebellions in Algeria and French Cameroun, the army became convinced that even
the current right-wing government of the German Alsace-born Pierre Eugène Jean
Pflimlin was about to act out of
political expediency and order another precipitated pullout from the
territories, just like the previous center-left government of Pierre Mendès
France did with French Indochina in 1954, thereby sacrificing French honor in
That was why from the
balconies in Algiers in Algeria and Yaoundé in French Cameroun to the corridors of power in France itself, patriotic
voices were heard disturbing the air, calling for the return to power of
General Charles De Gaulle. The cry for the return of the towering French
warrior and statesman to the political scene carried with it a fervor that felt
like some sort of a religious zeal.
It was Charles De Gaulle
who saved French honor during the four years of German occupation of France, but then surprised the nation by
resigning from public office in 1946, decrying the weaknesses of the French
Fourth Republic, its constitution and the parliamentary system of government.
Now, he was vindicated.
Just like millions of
discontented and despondent French citizens, René Roccard regarded the French
legend as their only hope in rallying the French nation again. He was certain
General Charles De Gaulle was the only person capable of giving a sense of direction
to France’s relationship with its evolving territories and colonies, and with
the rest of the changing world. But above all, René was convinced that France
was entering a new era in its history, a phase that would allow patriots like
him to accomplish their self-assigned missions for the fatherland and be
acknowledged at the same time as French heroes who saved France from
The night after the French
consulate in New York granted his request to travel to France, René Roccard
barely had enough hours of sleep to keep him alert the next day. With his
anxiety fueled and kept high by his constant thoughts on French Cameroun, he
had every reason to be anticipatory. There was much about the territory to keep
abreast of—a lot to learn, personalities to know and strategies to devise.
He arrived in Paris that
late spring without letting his friends, family and relatives know about it,
and then reported the next day at the Ministry of Overseas territories for a
meeting with the new minister. The appointment was set for Thursday.
René was in high spirits
when he showed up at the former Hôtel Majestic in central Paris, once a massive
luxury hotel that politicians decided to transform into a hub for diplomacy. He
was even more effusive when a secretary ushered him into the minister’s office.
But the meeting was a flop even before it ended or so, he concluded
prematurely. The new minister’s partial grasp of the situation in French Cameroun
left René infuriated to the point where he almost called the man a moron, a
concern he thought of informing his superiors about.
A faint expression of
suppressed rage at the lack of substance of the meeting could be seen on his
face as he rose to leave. But then André Colin rose too and extended his hand
to him. René hesitated for a moment before shaking it, musing at the fact that he
stood a head taller than the minister. But then, André Colin made him smile for
the first time that afternoon as he walked him to the door.
“I don’t think you know
about this, but Monsieur Pierre Messmer is eager to meet you. In fact, he asked
me to schedule a rendezvous with you for Tuesday next week, right here in my
“Messmer?” he exclaimed,
dimming his eyes suspiciously.
Pierre Messmer himself.”
René smiled, shaking his
head in acknowledgment. “I will be here next Thursday; that’s for sure. At what
time is the rendezvous?”
The meeting was scheduled
to take place at three o’clock that Tuesday. But René was at the imperial
building half an hour early. He was eager to meet his former commander again.
Their last encounter was during Pierre Messmer’s first year as the High
Commissioner of French Cameroun. So, when five months ago, the new government
acknowledged Pierre Messmer’s impeccable grasp of the developments in French
Africa by promoting him to the strategic post of High Commissioner of French
Equatorial Africa, René Roccard was not surprised at all about it. His former
commander was the right person to talk to.
A secretary ushered him
into the office a minute early. And there at the window was Pierre Messmer.
André Colin was nowhere in sight.
“René, René Le
formidable,” Pierre Messmer bellowed, opened his arms wide and approached
René Roccard with a warm smile.
René muttered with a smile spread across his face.
“Look at you. You haven’t
changed much,” Pierre Messmer chuckled.
The two men had little to
say to each other for the next couple of seconds as they clung to one another
in a bear hug.
“I feel extremely honored
by the fact that you set aside some of your precious time to see me. Especially
with the busy schedule you have to keep
up with,” René said, looking satisfied.
“What are you talking
about? If I can’t make time for someone like you, then who else is out there
for me to accommodate with my worries about France.”
“I guess there is much we
need to talk about.”
“I am at your disposal.
We have all the time in the world. Monsieur Colin made arrangements for some
brandy to keep us going while we grapple with the problems haunting France.”
“Bien sûr que oui!Now, if my memory isn’t playing games with me, then I remember you as
someone with a particular fondness for brandy. In fact, your taste buds for the
drink were good back in the day. You might not have known about this, but you
amazed me with your ability to distinguish the different qualities of brandy
without blinking an eye.”
“What a drink!”
“Excellent! Mon Dieu! You and I loved brandy back in the day! Huh! Brandy was so
scarce back then in Indochina,” Pierre Messmer offered.
René grinned at the
mention of Indochina. Like Pierre Messmer, he too was sent to Indochina right
after the Second World War to help restore complete French control in the
colony after the departure of the Japanese invaders, and to eliminate the
influence of Ho Chi Minh’s Marxist Vietminh forces. That was his first posting
to Asia and there were few distractions in the jungle to make Indochina
interesting. That is until he developed
an extreme fondness for oriental women and brandy. It was in Southeast Asia
that he discovered his strong attraction for women with a high degree of
“Brandy is still my
thing,” he said to Pierre Messmer with a smile.
René Roccard listened to
Pierre Messmer as he small-talked. He never took his eyes off his former boss
as he picked up two glasses from the open cabinet and poured them both a drink.
Then Pierre Messmer handed him a glass.
“Vive La France,”
Pierre Messmer toasted.
“Vive La France,”
René repeated and clinked Pierre Messmer’s glass before bringing his drink to
responded after a good gulp, “C’est merveilleux!”
“Certainement! It tastes better than the ones we had over there. You
won’t believe it, but I experienced an unusual craving for brandy during those
two months that I chaffed in Vietminh captivity.”
“I understand,” René said
with a nod, locking eyes with Messmer’s in reaffirmation of their mutual trust.
“I know you understand
because you also suffered the same indignity.”
“Five months,” René
muttered and closed his eyes for a couple of seconds at the recollection.
“I take it you know what
it means for you, for me and for our
other compatriots who made it to glory in Paris with Parisians lining the
streets cheering us for restoring their honor trampled upon by Hitler’s men. We
went on to sweep through the rest of France achieving one victory after the
other in battle buoyed by the spirit of Paris’s liberation. And the glory and
vindication that came with chasing the Nazis all the way to Germany after
liberating our land.”
“And what happened a few
years after our glorious ride to victory?”
“I am talking about the
humiliation of finding ourselves in bamboo prisons controlled by swarthy
dwarfish illiterates whose concept of war belongs to the dark ages. Hmm! And
then we ended up losing Indochina to the savages after that because our
politicians lacked the will to fight.”
“I knew you would
understand. We fought side by side in France, in Germany, and in Indochina. We returned home after those wars only
to find France gripped by chaos. Yes, René! I took the diplomatic post to
escape from the France I have always loved because I could no longer tolerate
its squabbling politicians, especially those of the left.”
“I also did the same
thing,” René interjected.
“Hmm! So you sought for
peace of mind in America. Hmm! But it is obvious you never stopped worrying
about our beloved France; you never stopped grappling with the challenges
confronting this beautiful country.”
René Roccard nodded his
head several times in acknowledgement. “Certainement!” he mumbled with
“René, Le Formidable!
I’ll go ahead with the purpose of our meeting.”
“When I learned of your
request to go to French Cameroun, I said to myself— ‘Here is the man we need.’”
“I don’t want to recall
the number of times I made that request.”
“René, René, René! Your
kid brother was serving in French Cameroun! How much sacrifice could France
demand from a single family at a given time?”
René shook his head but
said nothing in reply.
“I am sorry about Marc.”
“He is dead and we have a
job to do. Those bandits should not be allowed to succeed.”
“I am glad you are
committed to the land your brother sacrificed his life for. The New France
won’t be led to flee from French Cameroun or Algeria as the left-led France
abandoned Indochina to Ho Chi Minh’s red bandits. Général Charles De
Gaulle is back, and so too is our glory.”
“I like your language,”
René said, sipped his brandy and licked his lips.
“You won’t believe it if
I tell you that the first native we put there as prime minister wanted me to
authorize the army to use Napalm on Um Nyobé’s people. He wanted us to ‘wipe
the Bassa people out’, as he puts it.”
“André-Marie Mbida is a moron. His utterances against Um Nyobé and the UPC partisans the
fellow is leading really make our campaign look bad.”
“Good you understand the
liability we created. He certainly is a bad son of a bitch, but he is our son
of a bitch for all I know. The Americans have a better way of phrasing it,
René nodded. “My
experiences in Cameroun taught me that Mbida’s ethnic group is not fond of the
Bassa people. So, you understand why I think getting rid of this Mbida guy was
the right thing to do. All the same, we must not ostracize the Beti people in
the process. They are a strategic asset in our control of that land.”
“You are right about the
Beti factor. Andre-Marie Mbida is gone and now we have our prime minister
there, someone who is a lot better to use in accomplishing our designs. If you
ask me, getting rid of André-Marie Mbida was the only good thing Jean Ramadier
did when he replaced me as the High Commissioner of French Cameroun.”
“The bastard! I heard he
was planning to lift the ban on the UPC and make it legal again.”
“If Jean Ramadier had
succeeded in doing that, it would have spelt an end to our project in the
Central African region. He took us years back during his three-week tenure in
office over there. Allowing the UPC to operate as a legal entity would mean
allowing our enemies to take over French Cameroun. As a matter of fact, we
found out shortly after the bastard got there that he was in very warm terms with Sekou Touré during the
time that he served as the High Commissioner of Guinea. So you understand why
we had to get him out of there without delay.”
“I never trusted our
left-wing politicians. It is a mistrust that dates back to our days in the
Resistance in France. And in a way, he is like his father. They have proven to
be more committed to their socialist agendas than to the interest of France.”
“Like father like son!”
“Like father like son!”
Pierre Messmer thought
for a moment, and then shook his head.
“Apparently, the son is more to the left than the father. If you recall, Paul
Ramadier ended his party’s alliance with the Communists while he was the Prime
Minister of France in 1947.”
“You have a point there, Mon Commandant.”
“As I said, pulling the
rug under the Mbida fellow’s feet was the only good thing Jean Ramadier did,
but implementing our long term plans for French Cameroun and the rest of
Francophone Africa is a task we still have to accomplish.”
“How is Ahmadou Ahidjo
“Good you are versed with
the fellow. So far, he has been fulfilling his purpose.”
“I am glad we are on the
same page on so many things. Hmm, René! We are about to enter a new era in our
relationship with the colonies and territories. They have a sense of the
direction they want to go. But where they actually head to depends on how we
want our future ties with those lands we adopted to look like.”
“It shouldn’t be in the
direction Indochina took. The communists are roaming all over Vietnam today,”
René said tersely.
“I agree with you, René. Général
De Gaulle is of the same opinion. We are at the doorsteps of a new age in our
history as we embark on a strategy to loosen our grips on our overseas
backyard. We will relax our control, but we won’t let our colonies and
territories go like the British did with theirs in Asia and Africa. Yes, the
British are turning their backs as if it is of no consequence, even as their
former colonies go about embracing the Soviet Union and Marxism. India and
Ghana are with the East, Nasser hates the West and U Nu is about to deliver
Burma into the arms of the Russian bear.”
“Our politicians must
have copied the British policy by letting Indochina go the way it did,” René
said with a sigh.
“I agree with you. We
also risk the complete loss of our colonies and territories in Africa if we
lose our nerves and allow France to be swept off its feet by the decolonization
wave. It is a small wave now, but I see all the signs of a tidal wave
developing there in the coming months and years if we lose French Cameroun and
Algeria. We have vital interests in Africa, René. There is no way we can defend
those strategic interests after the decolonization process unless we completely
defeat the Algerian and the Kamerunian nationalists.”
“You are right,” René
said with a nod, “I lived in America and learned something very important
during my stay there. The heartland of capitalism thrives on interest. Wealth, power, and glory stem from the ability to
procure, secure and defend your interests; and ultimate power lies with those
who are most effective in guarding their interests and spheres of influence. We
have a huge interest in Africa, and losing or maintaining it is our decision
alone to make. That decision should not be based on righteousness but on the
wisdom to accept the fact that we have a collective destiny with the
francophone territories because we are their mentors.”
Pierre Messmer nodded, a
slight smile corrupting the sides of his mouth. “I agree with you, René.”
“Through the scheme of
things beyond the understanding of our mortal minds, France was given a
responsibility to be involved in the destiny of peoples it managed to bring
into the fold of humanity, into modern civilization as we all know it. Shying
away from those lands now is an option that would only haunt us tomorrow.”
“René, René! You said it
beautifully. I like your philosophy,” Pierre Messmer enthused and raised his
hands in the air.
René nodded with a smile.
“Merci, Mon Commandant!”
“I want you by my side in
French Cameroun,” Pierre Messmer began, cracked his knuckles, and then
continued, “I need someone who can direct the wind while I am away as my duties
expand to French West Africa. I see a lot of political developments taking
place in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of the year. Général
Charles De Gaulle, you, I and a host of other like-minded patriots think we should
have the right order and the right Africans in place before we allow the
colonies and territories there to become members of the United Nations
“You are right.”
“Our purpose should be
for the new France,” Pierre Messmer intoned and rested his hand on René’s
René nodded. “I agree
“That’s why I think you
have a strong shoulder to lean on,” Pierre Messmer said, dropped his hand and
caressed his chin, “I see your focus is on French Cameroun. I cannot count the
number of times I told the buffoons who were in power in Paris that the war in
French Cameroun is winnable. I found it disheartening that few of the leftist
sissies in the past governments actually believed me.”
“I understand your
position. Believe me, I do.”
“I have devised a
strategy,” Pierre Messmer said and emitted a light guttural sound, “In fact; I
am looking forward to working with you and other like-minded patriots in
perfecting and implementing this plan of action. Bear in mind that we are being
presented with a very rare opportunity to practice all the theories of
counter-revolutionary warfare that we devised in Vietnam.”
“How?” René asked without
really meaning to.
“This is how it is going
to work. We shall create pacification zones throughout our French Cameroun. And
after doing that, we shall separate the civilian population there from the
rebels in the bush. We shall relocate these civilians from their scattered villages
and hamlets to roadside settlements in those pacification zones. The civilian
population would be guarded by our troops and also by French Cameroonians who
accept our rule. That’s how we shall alienate the guerrillas from their support
base. The zones I am talking about shouldn’t be more than two percent of the
territory of French Cameroun.”
“We must not lose again,”
“I am choosing you for
many reasons, but the most important one is your determination to see France
win in French Cameroun. There is a divine scheme in our involvement in Africa.
It goes beyond tradition, human comprehension,
and national conscience. It is based on a belief, René; it is based on a belief
that cannot accommodate doubts.”
“I agree with you, Mon Commandant!” René said, picked up
the bottle of brandy and refilled their glasses, “Vive La France,” he
toasted, making it sound like a battle cry.
“Vive La France,”
Pierre Messmer echoed, emptied his glass of drink, and then started humming
Anna Marly’s LE CHANT DES PARTISANS---Chant de la Libération (THE SONG OF THE
PARTISANS --- Song of the Liberation), which was the most popular song of the
Free French and the French Resistance during the Second World War. René joined
him as they articulated the lyrics:
Ami, entends-tuMate, do you hear
Le vol noir des corbeaux The dark flight of the
Sur nos plaines? Over our plains?
Ami, entends-tu Mate, do you hear
Les cris sourds du pays The muffled clamour
Qu'on enchaîne? Of enchained countries?
Ohé! partisans, Hey, partisans,
Ouvriers et paysans, Workers and peasants
C'est l'alarme! This is the signal
Ce soir l'ennemi Tonight the enemy
Connaîtra le prix du sang Will know the price of blood
Et des larmes! And tears...
Montez de la mine, Join the sabotage,
Descendez des collines, Get off the hills,
Sortez de la paille Get out of the straw
Les fusils, la mitraille, The rifles, the grape-shot,
Les grenades... The Grenades…
Ohé! les tueurs, Hey, killers,
A la balle et au couteau, With a bullet or by knife,
Ohé! saboteur, Hey, saboteur,
Attention à ton fardeau: Pay attention to your
C'est nous qui brisons It's us who are smashing
Les barreaux des prisons The prison bars
Pour nos frères, For our brothers,
La haine à nos trousses, The hatred at our
Et la faim qui nous pousse, And the hunger that
La misère... The misery…
Il y a des pays There are countries
Ou les gens au creux de lits
Where people deep in
Font des rêves; Weave dreams;
Ici, nous, vois-tu, Here, we, you see,
Nous on marche et nous on tue, We march, We kill,
Nous on crève. We die.
Ici chacun sait Here everyone knows
Ce qu'il veut, ce qui'il fait What he wants, what he does
Quand il passe... When it takes place…
Ami, si tu tombes Mate, if you go down,
Un ami sort de l'ombre
A mate out of the shadows,
A ta place.
Takes your place.
Demain du sang noir Tomorrow black blood
Séchera au grand soleil
Will be drying under
Sur les routes. On the roads,
Sifflez, compagnons, Whistle, companions,
Dans la nuit la Liberté At night, freedom
Nous écoute... Is listening to us…
“Merveilleux!” René said at the end of the song and shook his head
repeatedly, “It inspired us in getting our honor back from the Germans.”
Pierre Messmer nodded
too, his hand tightening around his glass, straining the muscles. “They are
beginning to call themselves Maquis, just like our rural guerrilla bands of
French Resistance fighters during the German occupation of France.”
“Merde!” René growled.
Pierre Messmer nodded, but did not utter a word for a moment.
René exited the imperial building that
evening with a smile on his face. From the time he left the United States of
America right up to the moment he showed up for the meeting, he had been
wondering whether the Overseas and Defense Ministries would transfer him to
fight in French Cameroun. And just when he was becoming desperate about it,
Pierre Messmer showed up and offered him a high-profile assignment in the
United Nations Trust territory. He had not expected things to work out So, well.
Even though Clement Coulther slept
through most of the transatlantic flight to Paris, he was half-awake just
seconds before the air hostess announced that the plane was about to land.
Clement opened his eyes, yawned and stretched his body. At least, I feel
better now, he thought. He sat up in a lackluster manner, turned around,
and then smiled at the elderly English lady by his side.
"You have slept very
well. Do you feel refreshed?" she said and smiled back.
“I feel great! I am glad
I’m up just in time.”
“Did you say just in
“Oh, you mean for the
“Yes, Mrs. Moore. I can’t think of a sight better
than a view of Paris from the air.”
“It is marvelous. And
call me Barbara.”
Clement nodded. “It
certainly is marvelous. All the more reason why I wouldn’t miss the opportunity
of catching one for the sake of the best treasures in this world,” he muttered
and smiled wider, but with a mischievous glint in his eyes that was aimed at an
approaching flight attendant, “Even for that woman who could break my heart,”
he added in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Hasn’t it been broken
“Huh! Never! What are you
“I heard you mutter her
name in your sleep.”
Silence reigned between
the two for a moment before the English lady said in a forthcoming tone, “You
actually repeated her name a couple of times. It could have been Helen or
Elaine or something similar.”
“What else did I say
besides a name?”
“I am hazy about it, but
this one stuck out,” she said with a flush, and then put her hand over her
“It is okay, Mrs. Moore! Go ahead and tell me?” he urged
with a smile.
“You said her name and
something like ‘lost treasure’ afterwards. There were other things in-between.”
“Uh-huh! There was more.”
“What else did I say?”
“Did you kiss and embrace
others in front of her?”
“You must be in love with
“Uh-huh!” Clement said
and sighed, “I still think of her even as I kiss and embrace other women.
Perhaps that’s what I was trying to say in my sleep.”
“I am sorry.”
“Huh!” Clement grunted,
turned his face away from the old lady and frowned.
“Forgive me for poking my
nose. I couldn’t help listening.”
He nodded but did not
turn around to face her again. Instead, he dropped back in his seat and shut
his eyes. “I was tired. I was truly tired,” he said, more to himself than to
the lady by his side.
Clement placed the source
of his listlessness with the disorientation that started haunting him a couple
of months ago. It was sapping him of energy and the will to carry on with life
like he was doing before. But he was determined to overcome that—first by
getting over the bitterness of his divorce with Helen, and then by dispelling
the haunting memory of the loss of his son.
Even though some of his friends marveled at his newfound freedom and
thought he had so much to look forward to, he alone knew the turmoil in his
soul. The return to a life of full time bachelorhood quickly lost its appeal as
he became a jaded womanizer who even feared to
be there for the woman expecting his child. His image in that regard was
not helped by the parties, nightclubs and one-night stands that followed his
divorce. That is, until the phone call
less than forty-eight hours ago sent him packing his bags for Paris.
“See how beautiful Paris
looks from above,” he mumbled with a darting glance at his neighbor.
“I love it,” she replied
with a warm smile.
“I can’t wait to walk its
streets,” he half-whispered, fixing his eyes again on the city they were
The lady said something
in reply, but Clement did not pay attention to her words. His mind had drifted
again, back to a yesterday that held so many fun memories.
The last head-wrecking drama began at
a party organized by his friend Peter Miller in a suburb in Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania. He had consumed more than his fair share of drinks; he had danced
with more blondes, brunettes, and
redheads than he could care to remember; and he had not closed his eyes long
enough afterwards, thanks to the effort of an energetic twenty-three-year old
that made him doubt his vigor for the first time.
Fate appeared to have
been on his side the next morning when his host told him that Jason Montgomery,
his pal from the News Syndicate, wanted him on the phone.
“Tell him I will call
back,” he had responded, and then went
about nursing his hangover with the blonde nibbling his ear.
Peter Miller had returned
a couple of minutes after with a smile on his face.
“Jason said you will like
this one. The assignment involves Paris.”
“What the hell,” he had
“He said it has something
to do with Charles De Gaulle and ‘The French Rooster’.”
“Yeah!” he had added and
continued kissing the blonde’s hand in a disinterested manner.
“He said ‘The French
Rooster’ has already left America and returned to Paris.”
He had thought about that
last piece of information for a moment,
and then sat up abruptly. The blonde was startled when he tossed her hand off
his thigh as if she were an itchy blanket, and then jumped out of bed and
hurried to the phone.
Jason had to be right.
Something was brewing in France. Charles De Gaulle, the French hero who saved
France’s honor in the Second World War by championing French resistance against
German occupation of the country and by leading the liberation of Paris; Charles
De Gaulle the statesman who distinguished himself as France’s greatest post-war
hope, but then shocked the world in 1946 by quitting the French political
scene, was back in politics as the new Prime Minister of France. Also, the fact
that René Roccard, alias “The French Rooster”, hurriedly packed his bag and
returned home, buttressed Clement’s suspicions even further that monumental
developments were afoot in France and its overseas possessions.
The New York Times needed
a correspondent in the field right away, and Clement’s bosses thought he might
want to do the job.
Of course, he wanted to
do the job. Paris happened to be the one place on earth that never failed to
pull him from the down side of life into making a fresh start, like a phoenix
rising from its funeral pyre. He had made his debut there as a journalist
working for the Air Force magazine, using the print media to report the
excesses of the Free French Forces against the former supporters of Marshall
Petain and his Vichy regime whom they accused of collaborating with the German
military during the years that Nazi Germany occupied France.
He thought it was ironic
that the first time he met René Roccard was on his first day in Paris. The
French capital became his favorite city in Europe and inspired him to return
home and finish his journalism program at Rutgers, the State University of New
The drive to New York was
a long one, but he stopped only twice to relieve his bladder and get something
to eat and to drink. Coffee and Coca Cola kept him awake throughout the drive
and sandwiches did a great job of keeping his digestive juices at bay. He
reported upon arrival at the New York Times building on 42nd Street when dusk
was on the horizon. The process went faster than anticipated. He even signed
his contract with a smile on his face, and then picked up his plane ticket and
left the building.
Clement looked out of the airplane
window and spotted the shining River Seine snaking its way through the city.
His eye lids narrowed a little as he marveled at the rows upon rows of classic
buildings that swept past. The beckoning Palace of Versailles and its beautiful
fountains rolled from his view to reveal moments later the imposing Eiffel
He took a deep breath as
he prepared to disembark.
“What else do you have in
there,” the customs officer asked pointedly, never taking his gaze off
Coulther’s eyes as he rested a hand on his luggage.
“Nothing! Nothing to
spoil my first night in Paris in two years and nothing to stop me from having a
bite of one of your famous Parisian croissants,” he beamed.
The official let Clement
through without a fuss. It was easy to find a taxi to the center of the city, so that he was en-route to the St.
Petersburg hotel hardly fifteen minutes after going through inspection. Even
though he felt tired as he leaned back in his seat and avoided a conversation
with the driver, he could not shake off his excitement.
He often wondered why the
city stirred his instincts, accelerated his impulses and warmed his blood so
much, filling him with ideas and memories of a past he seemed to love and hate.
Yet, the answer was simple. Paris epitomized the essence of beauty, freedom,
liberty and hope. Paris was the place that provided him with so many answers to
some of life’s deep questions since the
first day he walked its streets following the liberation of the city in August
1944. It was in the French capital that he first unleashed his passion for
publishing and broadcasting the war, first as an amateur military journalist
and later as a professional who covered Europe, Asia and Africa—reporting on
war, terrorism, revolution, uprisings,
and coups. The city also made it possible for him to meet all sorts of fanciful
The exhausted Clement
heaved a sigh of relief when the taxi stopped in front of the hotel. He stepped
out of the car, stretched his body, and then pulled out his wallet and paid the
fare. The driver helped him to take out his luggage
but did not follow him inside.
He felt a pleasing sense
of change when he finally settled into the comfort of his hotel room. There was
so much to do, so many people to get back in touch with and so many places to
visit. But first, he needed water on his body.
The shower had its
desired effect. It calmed him down. Clement walked out of the bathroom and
flung his tired body onto the bed. He dozed off right away and did not wake up
until it was already nightfall.
Clement left the hotel at
19:53 hours for the Cafe Zinc district and chose to settle in Jacques Melac’s
famous Bistrot Melac. To some of the diners there, he looked like the average
American exploring the city’s cuisine. He ordered a Southern French menu with
the air of confidence of someone who knew exactly what he was leaving out. He
even gave an acknowledging nod when the waiter told him that it came from
Jacques Melac’s native Aveyron. Clement ate quietly, absorbing everything
around him—from the staff to the customers and even the scenes outside. A glass
of wine from Jacques Melac’s stockade off Rue de Charonne spurred him on his
Clement intended his next
stop to be Grand Boulevards where he sang a ballad at a popular bar during his
previous visit to Paris, but he found himself at Boulevard des Italiens
instead. He wanted to walk a little, put his subconscious mind to work for
tomorrow and the days after because he would have to get on René Roccard’s
trail, get into the recess of plots by men of the former Free French Movement
who were bent on creating the new French
Republic. He was determined to be on top in reporting Europe’s next big
He acted out of an
impulse and made a left turn into Rue Louis Le Grand. The street, though quiet
and less crowded than Boulevard des Italiens, was picturesque in its own right.
Less than a hundred yards
of walking brought him a couple feet away from the door to the apartment of
Emilie Villiers, his ex-Franco-Cambodian girlfriend. He stopped for a moment but then steeled himself from knocking
on it. His recollection of their first encounter on her twenty-fourth birthday
made him wince a little. Emilie found the door into his life at a time that she
was still reeling from the stigma of being the former mistress of a Vichy
minister and for having had an affair with a German soldier.
He smiled without
intending to as he recalled some of the games they played with each other’s
hearts. His affair with Emilie had boosted her self-esteem to overcome her
humiliation, but he didn’t think he had much of a future with a woman who drank
champagne almost every day, glowed in the presence of the rich and the famous,
and who seemed to enjoy her frequent mood swings. All the same, he could not
stop himself from wondering about her as he walked past her door, six years
after he slipped out of her life, and five years after her childhood friend Marie
Rocheteau updated him on her unstable life.
A half-oriental herself,
Marie suffered a similar humiliation when a Parisian mob shaved her head and
paraded her half-naked in the streets with other women accused of sleeping with
German soldiers. Marie’s older full-blooded Vietnamese half-sister, Christelle
Nguyen was dating René Roccard back in 1953.
Clement was about to turn
right at the next intersection onto Place D’Opera when a figure jumped in front
of him, brandishing a knife.
portefeuille...ton wallet...Vites, vites, vites,” the intruder said rapidly
and approached Clement with a menacing look on his face.
Clement disarmed him even
before he said the last words. Quick karate kicks knocked the knife from the
mugger’s right hand to the point where the man had no idea of what was coming
when Clement twisted his arm hard and flipped him crashing down on the cobble
“Watch out who you run
into,” Clement warned as he kicked the miserable-looking fellow repeatedly in
the abdomen, forcing the guy to curl over. Then he spat on the groaning man,
turned around and started walking away without even looking back, but conscious
of the fact that the mugger got up and ran away in the opposite direction.
Clement felt irked by the
incident. He figured me out as a foreigner, probably because of this Levi
jeans and flannel shirt. Hmm, I need new clothes tomorrow to fit into the
Parisian crowd, he thought.
But his attacker never
imagined he was confronting a decorated ex-soldier and a winner of black belts
in judo and Isshin-ryū karate.
With the surge of
adrenaline subsiding, Clement sank gradually into a pensive mood, unconscious
of the reduced pace of his strides. He stopped suddenly in front of the
gigantic Second Empire Style Paris Opera building for no apparent reason, and then shook his head repeatedly like
someone pondering a puzzling phenomenon. His countenance changed moments after
as he peered at the building with an enigmatic expression on his face. The
structure always seemed to be revealing something new and exciting each time he
The avid brightness of
his eyes made it plain that he was seeking a deeper meaning in the green cupola
and the winged groups of sculptured figures. What did the architects and
builders have in mind when they created them? He wondered.
uplifting flight of the spirit to the highest pinnacles of joy and happiness?”
he mumbled to himself.
Clement stuck his hands
deep into his pockets but did not take
his eyes off the building, oblivious to those by his side or those walking
past, as he sank into his memories. It was in this building that he watched his
first opera and fell in love with Charlotte Aglionby, one of the opera’s divas
who opened his eyes to the world of classical music and made him appreciate French composer Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” and the
hedonistic “La Traviata” by his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Verdi to the level
of a connoisseur. A rueful smile caressed his lips as he dwelled on his past
Charlotte Aglionby, the
vivacious diva who strove to live her life like Violetta Valery, the heroine in
the opera “La Traviata”. She must have fancied him to be her eternally loyal
and understanding lover like Alberto, Violetta’s admirer, because she brought
more men into her life than he could stomach, and made him weep several times
in jealousy until the day he almost choked the life out of her in a brief
moment of insanity that never failed to leave him with a residue of bitterness
and rue each time he recalled it. The act had left him quivering in remorse as
he watched her get up from the floor, stagger to the sink and drink a glass of
water still holding her throat and gasping for breath. She had laughed at him
afterwards, taunting him for not being as brave as Othello and for failing so
miserably in sending her to her grave.
“You are my damnation,
bitch, but I love you,” he had told her.
“I love you too,
Clement,” she had cooed, pronouncing his name in that sweet French manner that
he liked so much.
He had avoided her kiss
that night, left her home without looking back, and then asked the next day to
go back home to America. Hardly a month after he returned home, he met Helen
Alston, the southern belle, and convinced himself shortly after that he could
become a gentleman after all. Still, the
memory of Charlotte’s voice producing melodious sounds of Brindisi—The Drinking Song, from “La Traviata”—clouded his mind.
The rueful expression on
Clement’s face turned into a reflective smile of sweet reminiscences as he
started singing “Brindisi” with closed lips, not articulating the words until
he got to the second stanza.
‘Let us drink from the
goblets of joy………
…In life everything is
folly which does not bring pleasure.
...Life is nothing but
pleasure, as long as one is not in love.
...That’s my fate...
Be happy... wine and song
and laughter beautify the night;
let the new day find us
in this paradise.
Clement took a deep look
at the building, cocked his head, turned around and started walking
away—destination Le Cafe Rive Droite
where he would find someone to put him on René Roccard’s trail, drink some nice
French wine, sing a little and find a woman for the night that would be a song
for his ears.
The sun seemed to have cast a warm
spell on Paris that day, bringing out the brilliance of the city’s magnificent
structures in ways that confirmed the city’s place as the most beautiful city
in the world. In fact, it also enlivened
Clement Coulther with its heat, as well as stirred the zest of life in the
bosom of Parisians. Clement wanted to make it the day to close in on René
Roccard after an exhausting time getting on the path of his trail, a task that
began with the mutual contacts they once shared. The prospects of finding the
French enigma started looking bright again only after he got in touch with
Marie Rocheteau the day before. Marie did not know Christelle Nguyen’s new
address, but she knew where her friend lived. She helped him to find Christelle’s
friend that morning so that he finally
closed in on René.
Clement was surprised to
find a large and boisterous crowd carousing in Bar Chantellier that night when he walked in. Jokes, laughter, and shouting mingled in the air,
giving the place a liveliness that he liked in an instant. However, he was
quick to observe that not all the customers in the joint were affected by the
merry atmosphere. The English tourists who made the majority in the crowd were
upbeat, but most of the French customers there looked like they did not welcome
Clement spotted René at
the far end of the bar, but he did not approach him right away. Instead, he
walked up to the counter and ordered a glass of wine, sharing words and smiles
with some of the English revelers while he kept an eye on René. He observed a
waiter bring René a plate of a hero sandwich and even thought of ordering one
for himself, but changed his mind when the bartender failed to respond to his
first call. However, because of the distraction, he almost missed seeing
another waiter refill the Frenchman’s glass with red wine had he not turned
around again just in time to see the action.
“Wondering about that
bloke over there?” one of the Englishmen with a high accent muttered, regarded
Clement intensely for a moment, and then fixed his eyes on René before turning
around again to Clement.
“He aroused my curiosity.
I mean, sitting there alone as if nothing is going on around him.”
The English guy chortled
for a moment, and then cleared his
throat. "Won’t have believed it had I not seen the whole thing with my own
eyes. One of my friends invited him to join us, but the guy made it known in no
uncertain terms that he prefers to be alone,” the English guy said, shrugged,
and then extended a hand and added, “My name is Jerry, Jerry Parker.”
He shook it. “I pass
around as Clement Coulther. So what brings you guys here?”
“Huh! Nothing in
“I see quite a jovial
atmosphere around me.”
“Hah! You can tell from
our language that we are nothing but a bunch of old vets who wore down their
boots while treading the beaches, mud paths and streets of the mainland during
the last days of the war. One of my pals came up with this brilliant idea that
we take a tour of the continent, get to appreciate these countries in peace
time, relax and have a fun time. And as you can see, we all went for it.”
“I can see what you mean.
I observed your friend over there guzzling beer as if he is in a contest.”
“Nah! Can’t say that
much,” Jerry said and chortled, “Blimey! Todd is a fine lad, but his binge
drinking is something I sometimes find worrisome. The guy tends to spoil for a
fight whenever he compromises his sobriety. I won’t say he has reached that
“Spoils for a fight all
“Often, I would say. But
not all the time.”
“Just out of curiosity,
you know! You guys are in wine country, yet you carry on drinking beer as if
you don’t want to discover anything new about the traditional French alcohol.”
“I am drinking wine,”
Jerry said and raised his half-empty glass.
“I know. I mean your
Clement and Jerry carried
on with their conversation as low-pitched and high-pitched voices mingled in
the air. Clement had to bend backwards several times to catch a glimpse of René
who after finishing his sandwich, would look at his watch every now and then
like someone expecting a visitor.
Todd attracted Clement’s
attention again when he held his bottle of beer above his six-foot-two frame
and roared, “To show my gratitude to you dear English gentlemen for providing
me with such a wonderful company, I am making an offer to pay for one round of
drinks for our thirsty throats. Breakfast will be at my expense too…but …” Todd
stopped in mid-sentence and stared wide-eyed in the direction of the main
A wondering expression
crossed Clement’s face as he tried to figure out the cause of Todd’s sudden
silence. He was not alone in finding Todd’s unexpected muteness to be something
strange. However, he completely understood what was going on when he found the
object of his fixation.
An oriental lady in her
mid or late thirties, whose beauty would have made her the perfect image of the
princess in Turandot, was at the door, looking around the place wonderingly. It
was Christelle. Aging appeared to have made her even more beautiful. She was
trendy in her dressing too—spotting a silhouette with a pyramidal trapeze
outline crossed high with wide sashes, narrow strips, drawstrings and slanted
Her face alighted when
she spotted the person she was looking for. Clement followed her with his eyes
as she picked her way through the tables and approached the seated René. Then a
figured hurried in her way. Clement held his breath when Todd intercepted her,
positioning himself between her and René’s table.
Mademoiselle, please honor my invitation and join us over there. I might be
known for coming across as a blabbering fool, but I have great respect for
beauty and sophistication. In fact, I even make it a point of saying So, whenever
I see a woman with those qualities,” he said and bowed.
The confused Christelle
opened her mouth to say something, but the words couldn’t come out. All she did
was shake her head no.
“I don’t mean any harm,”
Todd said and offered her his hand.
“The lady doesn’t want to
be with you,” René said and got up.
“Jesus Christ, Todd
again!” Clement heard Jerry mutter under his breath, as he put his drink down
on the counter.
Clement looked at Jerry
for a moment, and then turned around
again just in time to see Todd shove René aside. It did not have much of an
effect, but René staggered backward a little, knocking down some chairs in the
process. He quickly steadied himself on his feet again, advanced at lightning
speed and aimed a jab at Todd that sent him sprawling to the floor. Christelle
screamed and backed away.
“No! God dam it! She is
his woman,” Clement shouted at the top of his voice as five of the revelers
jumped to their feet and approached René menacingly.
Clement made it to the
scene a moment too late after one of the men lunged at René’s waist, crashing
with him to the floor while another kicked him on the back. Jerry was shouting
now, ordering his buddies to cut the fighting, holding the other two who were
trying to surge forward to join in the melee while the fifth helped Todd up to
his feet. Clement forced himself in front of the kicker, urging him to stop.
Everything seemed so
normal a quarter of an hour after Christelle walked in, making it hard to tell
that a drunken brawl took place in the bar that night. Jerry even jokingly
intoned that the fight was so foolish that he would be ashamed the moment he
moved his lips to tell his sons about it. Aren’t we all former soldiers who
not long ago prided ourselves as comrades in arms fighting Nazi Germany in a
war to build a new Europe? So why fight
one another when our politicians with a reputation for squabbling are making
the modest effort to create the structures of a European community, Jerry
“Because of a dame?” one
of the guys who didn’t get involved in the altercation shouted.
“An oriental dame to be
precise,” the guy next to him said in a monotone.
“And a beautiful one at
that,” Todd added in a raucous voice.
René smiled, smoothened
Christelle’s hair, and then looked at his watch. “I must leave you guys now,”
he said in English, got up and shook Todd’s hand, “I am sorry for knocking you
“It is okay man. Didn’t
know the dame was here to see you. You are lucky,
pal!” Todd said with genuine admiration in his voice.
The war vets exchanged
more pleasantries before René bade them goodbye, and then walked out of the
bar. Clement joined him before he stepped on the street.
“I didn’t offer my
special thanks to you for coming to my rescue,” René said.
“No problem. I did what I
had to do.”
“I received a surprise
phone call from my sister today. She told me Clement has been looking for you.”
“D’accord!” René intoned with dimmed eyes, indicating that she could
go ahead with her account.
“I told her you are about
to leave for French Cameroun,” Christelle blurted out with a ring of excitement
in her voice.
René plastered her with a
hard look, and then turned to Clement
again. “What are you here for, Clement?”
“I had this strange idea
that you could feed me with some news about the political developments in France
from the day your hero General Charles De Gaulle returned to active politics.”
“Is this one of your
little games again?”
“What exactly do you
“I don’t like your
reputation, Clement. You have a nose for smelling trouble, but your mind is
unreliable and you have a mouth for reporting things the wrong way. You never
seem to get it. The great powers have interests to defend, obligations to
fulfill. The responsibility for humanity’s survival rests on their shoulders.
Your journalism or reporting fails to recognize that fact.”
“I beg we differ on
“What do you want,
“I am chasing the news,
“Then you are in the
“You are news, René.
Wherever you go to, whatever you put your foot on, whatever you stretch your arms
at or whatever you hold becomes news. What are you aiming at, René?”
“You got all the news you
want here, Clement. We are back. You will find enough news in France to keep
you busy for the next decade. The Gaullists are back in Paris.”
“You put it perfectly,
“What is perfect about
“I have a trail to
“You are the trail, René.
You will lead me to all the good stories in France.”
“Hah, hah…hah, hah, hah!”
René chortled, “France isn’t where the action is, Clement. Go to Algeria. Go to
“You can say that only if
you are going there yourself. Is that what you really plan to do?”
René Roccard was quiet
for a moment. “I don’t need you breathing down my neck again. France is sure
where your buddies need you.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You Americans have no
taste for news from places you had no clue existed in this world.”
“What do you have in
“Leave me alone,
“Huh, René! I am glad I
returned to France.”
“Stay away from me.”
“I am your friend, René.
You make the news, I report it. Our symbiosis is perfect for everyone. So there
is no point threatening your friend here.”
“You heard me,” René
gritted, glared at Clement for a moment, and then turned to Christelle. “Let’s
go,” He beckoned her and started walking away.
Christelle wrapped her
right arm around her lover’s, looked back fleetingly at Clement, and then
batted her eyelids as if to say ‘he is like that’. In fact, she had come to
perceive the world as a place where men fought to make a point while having
peace in mind as their ultimate goal.
Clement Coulther smiled
back as he watched the pair fade away into the Parisian night walking
arm-in-arm. He wondered at the back of his mind what he could do next. He
didn’t feel like rejoining the carousers in the bar,
and he didn’t have the urge anymore to get company
for the night. Just then the thought of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”
crossed his mind and he winced with half closed eyes. It had been a while since
he last heard the song; it was years probably―five or six at least. He started humming the lyrics softly as he
stretched his arm for an approaching taxi. But even as he tried to be upbeat
during the ride home, the revelation Christelle made about René’s intention to
go to French Cameroun and René’s discomfort about it lurked at the back of his
mind as a puzzle he could not shake off.
It was a half-moon night, dark enough
to hide a lot in the forest, but light enough to distinguish the outlines of
everything that it cast a shadow over. Crouched behind two rocks with a little
gap between them was Clement Coulther. He smiled as he peered at the boy
dancing around the camp fire, his arms stretched out like a glider. Clement had
to catch his breath at the boy’s remarkable agility when he leapt about five
feet high in the air. He even stopped himself from running out to give a
helping hand when the boy somersaulted over the fire. Then the kid turned
around and looked in his direction.
“The face; there is
something about the face; I know that face. Michel Villepin?” Clement wondered.
The flashback took him to
Northern France five years ago, to a Bretagne village where he had to step in
on behalf of the boy being chased by a bunch of kids who kept chanting Filsd’un Boche (Son of a Boche)—a derogatory French term for a German
soldier. He had taken the boy home to his grandmother Solange Villepin and
visited them a couple of times afterwards. He even met the boy’s French mother
Marie-Blanche Villepin the third time he went there. She was visiting from
Nantes where she worked at a garment factory. Perhaps he would have loved to
maintain that level of communication with the family had Michel Villepin not
asked him to become his father right there in the presence of his grandmother
and mother. The women had nodded in acceptance. When he promised the family
that he would think it over before making a decision, he knew they would be
getting nothing more than his financial support for Michel’s education. And
that’s what they got. He wasn’t prepared at the time to become a father figure
to the boy.
A sudden flash of
lightning gave a moment of brightness to the forest, revealing a silhouette
figure brandishing a sword behind a tree half a distance away to the left,
between Michel and Clement. Michel certainly saw the figure too because he
started running away. The man got on his heels, prompting Clement to emerge
from his hideout in hot pursuit of them.
Michel was running
frantically now. He tripped twice but got up quickly and was on his heels
again, running like someone being chased by the devil. Another flash of
lightning caught Michel just as he looked back at his pursuer. An expression of
dread on his face turned into a sweet enigmatic smile, and then he was Michel
no more. It was his son Jason Coulther—slightly bigger and looking like a
“No, no…no, no―” Clement
His screams seemed to
have alerted the pursuer who became relentless in his chase—jumping over
brushes, fallen trees and a log. Clement
continued screaming as he ran after the two at a pace that seemed unreal. But
they too were running in a ghost-like manner, a point he made a mental of when
another flash of lightning revealed the face of the pursuer. It was René
“No, René. Not my
son…Never my son—” he cried, tripped and fell. He got up to his feet again in
an instant only to find that René was holding his son’s outstretched hand, with
Jason tipped over a cliff and with the tip of René’s sword on the boy’s throat.
Clement calculated right
away that René held the aces. He could let go of Jason’s hand and his son would
find himself in a free fall down the cliff or he could make Jason’s death less
painful by sticking the weapon into his throat.
René,” Clement pleaded in a helpless manner
but with an underlying determination to save his son.
“I warned you, Clement.
Stay away from me. He is not your son.”
“He is my son. I won’t
let you take him away from me again.”
“Stay away, I am warning
you for the last time.”
“You won’t dare do it,
René. I will chase you to hell and make you pay for any further harm you do to
“To hell, we go then. Take a dive, Clement. He is
going to hell and you alone can save him,” René said and let go of the boy’s
“Jason, no…no, Jason…,
Jason, Jason, Jason!” Clement screamed and jumped down the cliff to rescue his
son. But he couldn’t reach the boy whose faced changed from Jason’s to
Michel's, and then to that of an oriental boy and finally to an African kid’s.
Clement was still screaming when Lisa
Muriel, his new girlfriend, shook him awake. He continued whimpering his son’s
name minutes after, as he sat propped up in bed.
“You just had a bad
dream,” Lisa offered.
“It is okay Lisa. It
could be more than a dream. Oh, it is a nightmare I have been trying to run
away from all my life. Don’t worry. I will take care of it.”
Lisa sensed right away
that he did not want to talk about it. She too did not want to dwell on it
because she needed some more hours of sleep before dawn to keep her alert at
work the next day.
“Bonne nuit, Mon Chéri,”
she whispered and dropped her head back on the pillow.”
“Goodnight, Darling Girl.
Sleep well. And don’t bother to wake me up in the morning.”
Clement waited until Lisa
was snoring before he got out of bed and walked up to the window. He draped the
blind a little and rested his eyes on the
crimson night. His nightmares had started after his return from Vietnam.
It always left him tired, but he had never felt so tired of life before like he
was feeling now. Helen, his ex-wife, had promised him damnation for failing to
be there for her and Jason.
“A curse? What is the
penance?” he whispered helplessly and slumped to the floor like a man
indifferent to the use of his legs.
And truly he was tired in
spirit, wearied like never before by a southern belle who told him at the start
of their relationship that she loved him for his ruggedness, natural soul, and indefatigable spirit.
He had fallen in love
with Helen Alston the first time he laid eyes on her, professed his love like a
babbling fool, and then led her to the altar and made her his wife a quarter of
a year into their relationship, much to the amazement of his family members and
“How did she settle
Clement down?” he too had asked himself afterwards.
But Helen Alston had
settled him down all right. She somehow managed to tame the maverick soldier in
his blood, chiseled a courteous journalist out of the daredevil he was reputed
to be, and made him understand that life
was not only about keeping others abreast of the miseries of this world. But
above all, she made him the father of a beautiful baby boy; and she helped him
become a writer who created wonderful characters, weaved fantastic plots and
wrote fast-paced stories that made readers smile and be endeared to his name in
the process. He became stable; he became famous as a writer, but he was restless all the same.
Helen wanted him around
all the time. And he hovered around her as a devoted husband was expected to do
until he volunteered to cover the September 1957 crisis in Little Rock,
Arkansas. That was the forerunner to their problems. Helen didn’t want him to
go, but he went there despite her emotional appeals.
History was being made in
Little Rock, he wrote for the attention of Americans and the rest of the world.
The American establishment was finally making the effort to integrate its Negro
minority by forcing a white school to comply with judiciary decisions to admit
Only, he did not write
about his encounters in Little Rock with Vera Hilton, his high school crush who
suddenly appeared in his life twenty years after. Vera never left his memory as
the girl who made his blood hot in the tenth grade. She was the first girl he
kissed. So, when she left New Jersey with her parents on a federal assignment
to Alaska hardly a year after they met, the separation almost tore his heart
apart, to the point where it took him another year to feel like he was in love
Vera had always been his type—fire
with fire that led to explosions and explosions until they became oblivious to
the open nature of their affair. Or perhaps they just didn’t care. She was
working for the federal government on a mission to Little Rock to enforce
Washington’s decision in the school debacle and he was working for the biggest
media company in the country. She claimed she was in the process of seeking a
divorce from her husband while he was trying to find accommodation with his
stifling wife. The lovers even consoled themselves that they were doing good
complementing one another in their tasks.
But then, he grew tired
of the Little Rock story when it dragged on for too long and became less
sensational. He sought for some space away from the wearying Vera and looked
back to the gentle life he had known with his wife. However, he never reckoned
that a yesterday missed can never be found even in a fine tomorrow.
He started feeling
restless again hardly a month after he returned home to Philadelphia. Something
was tearing him apart that he could not figure out. So, when his boss asked him
if he would like to report on the increasing American military involvement in
Vietnam, he jumped at the opportunity without thinking twice about it. Helen
didn’t like it, but she there was nothing she could do to stop him. Nobody
could stop him.
He wondered what he was
doing again in South Vietnam right after he got there. However, that
discomfiture did not last for up to a month as the maverick in his soul
resurfaced and he was back in the jungle, away from civilization as most of his
American compatriots knew it, and into a hell that was close to Dante’s
“We got ourselves into
one big hole that has quicksand underneath,” were his words to a French
journalist after a three-week stint in the jungle with American Special Forces.
He admitted to himself
not long afterwards that he too didn’t know he was in a bigger hole when he
accompanied American troops into the jungle for a month and failed to get
Helen’s telegram expressing her rage following her discovery of his affair with
Vera. Then there was a second telegram about Vera’s pregnancy and a third
hardly a week after, reporting the death of their five-year-old son from an
unknown infection picked up at his kindergarten. He got the last two telegrams
on the same day.
“Unknown infection?” he
had raged, wept and despaired.
“Haven’t we just invented
antibiotics? Didn’t they declare that they have eradicated polio and all the
other fatal childhood illnesses?” he had posed the question several times to
whoever cared to listen.
Still, there was no clear
He returned home to find
a desolate and inconsolable wife who didn’t want him anymore, who blamed him
for her grieving and cheated soul, and who openly declared that she too started
an affair with a southern writer and real estate millionaire three weeks before
the death of their son. The divorce was quick, final and difficult to swallow,
but he was determined to carry on with life despite the heartaches. After all,
he was only thirty-seven years old and he still had a lot of punch left in his
But nothing could replace
the loss of Jason and the broken ties with Helen. Then as if to trick his
senses even further, the recurring nightmare featuring Jason and Helen began and
kept haunting him ever since. A week ago, before he got the assignment to
France, the bad dream featured Michel Villepin for the first time. But not
until recently did René Roccard get into the
picture. He wondered what it all meant. He searched for other answers but the
few he could get as a consolation were in the words of an elderly Gypsy woman
who told him ten years ago that he had the gift to see his future if only he
focused on it.
Clement regarded the
sleeping Lisa and sighed. He would follow his instincts and look for Michel.
And after that, he would get on René’s trail. He could be the cure to his
nightmares after all.
If you board a plane or
ship plying any of the international routes and ask to be taken to the heart of
Africa, do not be surprised to find yourself disembarking in Cameroon. It is a
beautiful country per se, situated opposite the middle portion of Brazil, on
the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean. Bordered by six countries of which
Nigeria is the most prominent neighbor, Cameroon appears on maps like a heavily
pregnant mother carrying a baby on her back.
peculiar geopolitical entity was created by accident and apportioned to Germany
during the 1884 Berlin conference that carved up Africa. Thereafter, Berlin
treated German Kamerun as its treasured colony for thirty-two years until Great
Britain and France captured the land during the First World War, partitioned it
into British Cameroons and French Cameroun, and then went on to lord it over
the people for four decades. However, they too were challenged by Cameroonian
civic nationalists who campaigned for the divided territory’s reunification and
self-rule. Today, English and French are the country’s official languages,
mirroring the dominance of the two Indo-European languages in Africa.
say the gods have a design even in the most outrageous acts of mortals. If that
is the case, then it also applies to Cameroon. The country has defied so many
odds in its history that the people now pride themselves with the saying that
“Impossible isn’t a Cameroonian word.”
Renowned voices tend to call Cameroon “Africa
in miniature”, not only because of its fanciful shape and turbulent history, but also because of the physical and
human aspects of its geography. It is the point in Africa where the East meets
the West and where the North meets the South. It is a country that features
plains and mountains, plateaus and valleys, rivers and seas, lakes, and waterfalls and other landmarks that
mirror the rest of Africa. The south is dominated by equatorial and tropical
rainforests, the north is covered by Sahelian vegetation, and the middle
portion of the country is graced with high savannah of mixed grassland and
forest. In fact, all the different flora and fauna in Africa can be found in
this carelessly-drawn triangle called Cameroon.
curious eye is apt to notice varying statures, facial types and shades of
complexion as it travels throughout Cameroon—the result of the territory’s
history as the crossroads of African migrations. Anthropological linguists hold
that all of Africa’s four major language groups converge in Cameroon.
southern portion of the country is the base from where Bantu speakers spread to
southern and eastern Africa. The furthest spread of Afro-Asiatic peoples is in
the north of this territory, featuring groups like the Semitic-speaking Arabs,
Berber-speaking Tuaregs, Chadic-speaking Hausas and Batas, and Fula or
Fulfulde-speaking Fulanis or Peuls. Nilo-Saharan speakers dominate the north of
the country in their furthest spread to the west of the African continent. Also present in Cameroon are small ethnicities
of the fourth major subgroup called Niger-Congo-A that occupy the southwestern
border regions with Nigeria. Settled in the northwestern portion of the country
that looks like the pregnant part of mother Cameroon is the fifth and unique
indigenous group that you will find only in Cameroon. Named semi-Bantu, Graffi
or southern Bantoid, this group has characteristics of all the four major
language groups or sub-races in Africa. Legends and lore hold that semi-Bantus
are originally of Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan descent and that they assimilated
all the peoples they encountered in the course of their migration. The Bamileké
people are the dominant ethnicity in this group.
It is true that Cameroon’s human and physical
wealth has been the source of its turbulent history, its pride and the ingredients
that give its people a unique flavor. The flavor has produced colorful
Cameroonian characters that the curious eye and mind is likely to enjoy by
hating or loving them, pitying or angrily denouncing them. These characters
provide insights into the human nature and the African continent that is
haunted by leaders with the evil disposition.
other African peoples have picked up arms and warred among themselves to have
their country split up, Cameroon is the only geo-political entity in the
continent whose inhabitants went to war to reunite its people separated by the
legacy of the Anglo-French partition of
the former German colony of Kamerun. It is the only country where those who
fought for its reunification and independence are yet to assume political
power, as they continue to languish from the defeat suffered in the hands of
the French overlords and the puppets the French political establishment
installed in power in Cameroon. It is the land where you will find Africa’s
biggest political deception and sleaziest mafia. It is the country in Africa
with the lowest number of heads of state in its history, yet it is a country
that is unlikely to engage in internecine war to get rid of the suffocating
Now that you have disembarked in your
journey into the heart of Africa, where do find yourself? You are certainly at
the doorsteps of the city of Douala.
You are stepping into
Douala because it is also the gateway to Cameroon. In the distant picturesque
background is the Cameroon Mountain, an imposing volcanic outcrop from the
Atlantic Ocean that features layers of forest,
grassland and rocky desert in its entire altitude. You will also find beautiful
creeks, rivers, and streams that
crisscross and surround Douala. These unique features give the area its beauty
and lustrousness—something admirers of nature always marvel at whenever they
view the city from the air, the sea or from land.
Now, brace yourself for
the challenge of walking into a unique unknown by opening the gates of Cameroon
through the soul of Douala.
Douala is the city where
the German colonial administration sought to build a cross of Berlin, Leipzig
and Hanover in Africa, leaving behind an impressive array of architectural
monuments as a stamp of their presence in the land, an exploit that lasted
three decades and made Douala the melting pot of multi-ethnic German Kamerun.
The French also embarked
on an ambitious project of making Douala a sub-Saharan Paris after they kicked
the Germans out of the city in 1916. After all, the machinery of the Free
French forces in Sub-Saharan Africa was molded here and Jacques-Philippe LeClerc
made his debut in the city, eventually becoming the finest French general in
the field during the Second World War.
Now that you have walked
into Cameroon, what do you find going on inside the heart of Douala? If you
perk your head a little higher, you will find a modest one-storey building
standing in the northwestern portion of the neighborhood of Bali, close to
They say the Akwa
neighborhood has been popular for over a century now. It hosts Douala’s popular
waterfront and main thoroughfare where you will find some of Cameroon’s famous
restaurants, bistros, bars, hotels, coffee houses and French-style bakeries and
nightclubs—all within commanding view of the sea, creeks and swamps. It is the
part of the city frequented by the city's large expatriate population and
tourists, and those Cameroonians with a taste for contemporary trends. They say
the city’s inhabitants regard Akwa as their mirror to the rest of the world.
Now, let's go back to the
one-storey building that borders the Akwa neighborhood. It is April 1958 and
Joseph Nkabyo Njike is the owner of the modest structure in this part of French
Cameroun. He resides on the ground floor with his family of a wife and five
children, while two young families occupy the apartments above. He has tried to
give some sense of security to the building by erecting a five-foot-high fence
of concrete blocks with broken bottles on it, all pointing upwards. He has also
built a gate to the yard from corrugated iron sheets that creak each time
someone opens it, proving to be a source of alarm in itself. They say the owner
of the building erected the fence and gate to keep undesirable elements out.
But coming from a man
with two teenage sons and a stunningly beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, the
fence and the gate could also be construed as a measure to keep his family away
from the bustling Douala night life considered by many to be most the vibrant
in Black Africa.
However, another element
has just cropped in—the sense of insecurity pervading the city after the French
mandatory government banned the UPC (Union of the Populations of the
Cameroons), the most popular political party in French Cameroun that along with
its sister parties in British Cameroons, have been advocating for the
reunification and independence of French Cameroun and British Cameroons.
Still, there was dancing in the streets, a
fact not lost on the children of the
Njike family and household who were barred from venturing out that night by
their imposing father. So, even as he snored and rumbled that late evening,
Joseph Njike knew his children were safe and asleep in their rooms. His wife
also shared that thought as she stared into the dark night, wondering why she
was having a hard time falling asleep like her husband.
The Njike mother was half-asleep
when she thought she heard a sound that she could have sworn was in her dream.
She half-opened her eyes and listened. It was a slight creak all right and she
was not dreaming about it.
Maria Meunjeu Njike, née
Njomo, quietly got out of bed and hurried to the window to find her youngest
child, the eight-year-old Gavin Nemafou Njike sneaking out.
Joseph will kill him if he finds out, she thought. Without hesitating for
a moment, she grabbed a wrapper, tied it above her breasts, covering the
greater portion of her gown, and then tip-toed outside.
The sound of traditional
music celebrating the end of the year for
a meeting group was in the air, giving the night a festive spirit that Maria
found alluring. She could hear the drums, rattles and hissing sounds from other
percussionists, who certainly knew what they were doing. Maria stopped herself
from shaking her head to the rhythm.
She didn’t have to think
hard to figure out that Gavin was having a hard time resisting the musical
sounds and the performers whose activities had animated the atmosphere in the
neighborhood. Her son’s love for music was extraordinary. Maria felt a twinge
of pride that Gavin inherited much of her musical genes. The boy often
delighted in testing his vocal cords by singing familiar lyrics, and he equally
enjoyed wriggling his body and moving his legs around in peculiar dance steps
to both local and foreign dance tunes. She suppressed a smile at the thought
that Gavin reacted to music in the same animated manner that she was known to
react as a young girl.
The night was slightly
dark and Maria could not understand why her fears kept growing with every
passing second. Now she was afraid, afraid for her son, afraid of so many
things. Her second cousin had uttered his death scream on a similar night three
weeks ago, only for family members to find his lifeless body moments after with
gunshot wounds that proved the high price he had to pay for his involvement in
protests against French rule in the land.
However, as Maria looked
skywards and spotted the crimson moon on the
horizon, she felt slightly comforted by it. The moon exposes evil
lurking in the darkness, and nobody can hurt my son, she thought.
Maria arrived at the
celebration grounds to find Gavin articulating the lyrics of a song, stamping
his feet, twisting and shaking his body in a serious but comic manner as he
sang and danced with a crowd in the circle, receiving cheers and applause from
the adult dancers for his performance. But she was not amused at all by the
spectacle in front of her. She went straight for her son, grabbed him by the
collar of his shirt and pulled him out of the circle, threatening and scolding.
She even shoved aside a dancer who was slow in getting out of her way.
The initially stunned
Gavin had nothing to say for a minute or two as he listened to the scolding
words of his mother.
“Mama, the only thing I
wanted to do was dance. Didn’t I tell you already that I want to become a
musician? I need the practice,” he protested.
“Shut up and say nothing
anymore…until...until,” she said and left the words hanging. Then she took a
deep breath and shook her head in exasperation.
“I said shut up.”
“I’m taking you back home
to your bed; do you understand? And I want you to go to sleep and do nothing
else until tomorrow morning. That’s when we shall talk about this.”
“Please, don’t tell
Papa,” Gavin pleaded.
“Why shouldn’t I tell
your father that you want to become a bad child like those street children who
“Because I promise I won’t
do it again.”
“Shut up!” Maria snapped
Gavin did not utter
another word. Just then, an owl howled in the darkness, sending a shiver up
Maria’s spine. She did not like the bird at all. She, like so many of her
fellow compatriots, was also convinced that its cry spelt a bad omen.
Mother and son walked the
remaining half of the journey in silence. At the gate, they heard the sound of
distant gun shots that grew louder and more frequent with every passing second.
Maria hurriedly closed the gate, ran with her son into the house, locked the
entrance door and led him to his bed. The sound of shootings outside did not
last more than five minutes and the noise did not wake Joseph Njike and his
boys up from their deep slumber compromised by corn beer supplied by his
neighbor. Maria hung around Gavin and made sure her son was asleep before she
walked back into her room.
It would be almost dawn
before she fell asleep, as tormenting thoughts kept her awake, leaving her
staring sightlessly into the Douala night. She had every reason to worry about
her ingenious son whose love of life had exposed him to danger so many times.
She was also worried about the growing insecurity in Douala where French and
local forces were bent on suppressing and repressing the banned UPC (Union of
the Populations of the Cameroons) through a campaign that risked sucking in his
other sons. She feared they too could be caught in the middle like her deceased
second cousin. Besides, he was convinced the UPC would never relent in its
campaign to achieve reunification and independence for British Cameroons and
French Cameroun, the territories that emerged from the partition of German
Kamerun by Britain and France.
Before she fell asleep
that night, Maria came to a decision that would alter the course of her
family’s destiny. She would send her children to their uncle in Victoria at the
foot of the Cameroon Mountain in British Southern Cameroons. She was certain
they would be safe in the hands of her favorite brother Julius Wakam Njomo for
the entire duration of the long holidays. And if the security situation in
Douala failed to improve in the next couple of months, then she would convince
her husband to move the entire family back to their ancestral homeland where
they could be assured of peace and security.
Five days after his nightmare
featuring René Roccard, the bearded Clement boarded a train at the Paris
St-Lazare station for a ride to the west. He arrived at the Brittany city of
Caen just after midday, a comfortable ride per se that gave him enough time to
reflect on the dream and the sinking feeling it left in him. He admitted to
himself that the successive images, thoughts, emotions and sensations that
blighted his mind during that period of sleep had finally stirred in his bosom
a deep longing for a real meaning to his life, one absolved of guilt and other
entrapping emotions. He even found himself longing for a woman with Helen’s
listening ear. But the one thing he was really having a hard time figuring out
was why the sight of children with their parents always brought out an
unfamiliar softness in his soul.
With the dream still
lingering on his mind, Clement found a
room for a day in the Hôtel de La Fontaine, a beautiful four-star hotel located
in the center of the city. But he did not take a moment to appreciate the place
as he changed into fresh clothes minutes after he got into his room. He didn’t
even check himself in the mirror before he hurried out of the room and made his
way outside. It took him eight minutes to get down to Rue Saint-Jean, where he
found a sporting shop and bought a jogging suit. A lot was still on his mind
when he stopped a cab and asked to be taken to Giberville.
Michel was on the curb
opposite his grandmother’s home, talking with two other boys in a listless manner when Clement stepped out of the vehicle.
The boy didn’t recognize him right away but
he shouted Clement’s name the moment he asked about his grandmother, and then
ran forward and embraced him like he was all he cared about in the world.
Michel walked him into
the house to the warm reception of his grandmother. Solange Villepin insisted
he stay for the evening meal, thanked him several times for the sporting wear
and perfumes he presented to the family, and then petered out his tightness
with her hospitable gestures. Michel’s mother Marie-Blanche Villepin joined
them from work when it was getting dark and carried on with the joyous mood as
if he truly was their most cherished guest in years. She ran outside and
returned moments after with a photographer. They took several photos, most
featuring the sofa and one where Michel stuck his thumbs in his ears with a
broad smile on his face. They started eating dinner after the photo shots.
Clement even confessed that the Navarin d'agneau (lamb stew),
Sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and Breton cake constituted the best meal he had
eaten for a while.
shame-faced all of a sudden and burst into tears after his second glass of the
Muscadet wine Marie-Blanche served.
“You are excellent, fine
and wonderful people. I regret failing to give you my full embrace all these
years after our paths first crossed. Michel has his head on his shoulders, and
he even wishes to join the Foreign Legion. And you—beautiful women,” he said
and regarded Michel’s mother and grandmother with misty eyes, “You have done a
fabulous job raising this young man.”
The women encircled him
within seconds, cooed sweetly and rested soothing hands on his shoulders. “You
have always been his inspiration. He wants to go to university in America, and
he even dreams to become a journalist and soldier just like you,” The
grandmother said and wiped his tear stained cheeks.
Clement looked at Michel
who nodded in acknowledgement. “Why don't we say after your Baccalaureate,
young man? We have a deal on that one. I should be remarried by then.”
“Who is going to be the
lucky woman?” Marie-Blanche asked.
Clement caught her wink
but pretended to be oblivious to the hint. “She is on her way, my Dear
Marie-Blanche. However, she still hasn’t got a face. I am yet to meet her.”
Clement was his joyful
self again when he offered to leave them for his
hotel room. But the women did not want to hear about it. However, he pressed
home his reason for declining to spend the night at their home. He could be up
in time to catch a ride to the train station, the women pointed out. But he had
his way in the end, even though he promised to become more conspicuous in their
lives. The atmosphere in the house was a subdued when he hugged them goodnight.
In fact, he had a smile on his face when he boarded a cab for his hotel room.
He thought he had every reason to feel good about himself.
As he brushed his teeth
late that night, he wondered why Marie-Blanche was still unmarried. He even
went to bed thinking that it might not be a bad idea at all to spend the last
weekend of the month with the family.
The next morning, René Roccard stared
at the gate of the Lycée, expecting
at any moment to see his son Dominique emerging from the school premises. He
was still puzzled by his sudden emotional softness even though it had taken him
over a month to make up his mind to leave for French Cameroun without seeing
his family or letting any of them know about it.
But then, something
touched his soul yesterday and made him board the morning train to Lyon. His
first stop in town was at his father’s home, where he arrived just in time to
join the elderly George Phillipe Roccard for a late breakfast. The hours spent
with his father did a good job of preparing him for the encounter with his son.
“So, you were actually
planning to leave without informing me about it,” George had said as he pushed
aside his breakfast plate and placed his mug of coffee in the center of the table mat.
René had nodded and taken
a bite of his last slice of bread. “I knew you would understand. But,
Dominique… I doubted it. I owe that boy a lot. In fact, I am proud of you,
father. You were always there for us in spite of your duty. And then, you were
always around for Dominique when I should have been the one dealing with all
the hassle. You have been marvelous.”
René’s outpour of
appreciation might have been his own constricted acknowledgement of his
father’s presence in Dominique’s life, but those words set off a steady flow of
fatherly outpouring that brought tears to his eyes.
confession that he had been too hard on René and Marc was so sincere and deep
that his son patted him on his shoulder. When he said he regretted making the
choice of staying in French Cameroon where all his children were born, a land
whose inadequacies contributed to their mother’s death from malaria; René found
it so touching that he squeezed his father’s shoulder. But that did not stop
George from blaming himself for failing to break their attachment to French
Cameroun right after the loss of his wife, hanging on there and returning home
to France in 1938 only after René had passed his Baccalaureate. And above all,
he thought he didn’t feel like stopping Marc from returning to the place of his
birth because he too believed that France could not afford to lose the land.
“Dominique is our
unblemished pride; he is free of our death-wish indulgence. Talk to him son; tell him we love him; tell him we shall
always be there for him,” George had told him.
For quite a while, his
father went on talking to him about life. He provided René with an update on
his baby sister Anne-Marie as well as her husband and their two children in
Sydney, Australia, concluding that they were planning to visit France in the summer
of 1959. Then it was on to Dominique’s wonderful achievements in school, in
sports and in other extracurricular activities, after which the Roccard father
advised him on how to engage his son.
René made up his mind to follow his
father’s counsel the moment Dominique stepped on the sidewalk and started
heading home. He hurried towards his son,
and then stopped abruptly the moment Dominique saw him. The boy was momentarily
stunned, but quickly regained his composure and approached his father with hesitant
steps. René opened his arms wide and got
hit by a slight feeling of hurt when Dominique accepted the embrace without
reaching out to him.
He took Dominique to a
restaurant located a quarter of a mile away from his ex-wife’s home, hold him
his son had left a note at the door for his mother,
and then gave the boy the honor to order the meal. Eating must have worked its
magic because it took a short while for them to start talking in a less
restrained manner. Dominique asked questions, chided him for his absence,
forgave him seconds after his rebukes, and then told him he would be okay
“I told grandpa I shall
become a doctor and he even confided in me that it is the best thing to do,
that I have the heart for people.”
“He told me so too. He said
a lot of good things about you. He is proud of you, Son.”
“He tried to explain a
lot of things about the family—about his father, about himself, about his Uncle
Marc, about you and about late Uncle Marc. He said something about all of you
being dogs of war.”
René nodded, took his
sons hand in both of his and closed his eyes. “Follow your heart and become an
honorable civilian. Never allow yourself to become blinded by the romantics of
war. There are many ways of appreciating our forebears without indulging in
“Tell me honestly. Why
are you going to French Cameroun?”
René looked at his son
deep in the eye and said gently, “My dear Dominique, they need me over there to
stop a confusing situation. If we succeed, your generation would be prevented
from the madness of war.”
Dominique nodded with a
pondering look on his face, avoiding his father’s eyes.
“I hope you find
“Mon cher fils! Only a fool would find happiness from an achievement
that is detrimental to those he loves. Let me also tell you this. I know the
most I can get from my mission is the feeling of accomplishment. And that I
know is going to be short-lived.”
“Then why are you doing
“Because it needs to be
done. Mon cher fils, I am going to
the land of my birth on an important mission, to achieve a goal that would
leave the people of France more secure. Believe me, I know and I understand why
you prefer that I stay in France and be around you as a father. That is
actually how it should. But for reasons beyond my full control, I was away, out
of France. As you can see, happiness isn’t what I am after in French Cameroun.”
René felt like telling
his son more but steeled himself from
doing so. Instead, he engaged him in some
more small talk before offering to walk him home. Solange, his ex-wife, opened
the door after the second rap. She let Dominique walk in, but didn’t let René
do likewise. Instead, she shouted out, letting her son know that they would be
back in half an hour, and then asked René to walk with her to the bench in the
They sat there and
talked, reliving memories of their romance during the war, to the birth of
Dominique while he was in French Indochina. They even touched on the subject of
their divorce. René accepted the blame, even though he knew that
subconsciously, they both wanted their freedom and looked for an excuse to
break up the marriage. She talked about
the supportive role of George Roccard in their lives, of how unstable her love
life had become; and she even mused that there was a chance she could consider
him back if he promised to live in her cage. However, the only thing René got
from her was a kiss on his cheek. He was glad even though. At least Dominique
saw that they were not mad at each other anymore.
René lay on the bed that
night and thought of his father, Dominique,
and Solange, and then concluded that he was lucky to have a family that
appreciated him. Now, he was prepared to go to French Cameroun, knowing that he
would be leaving behind loving souls in France that he could always return to.
René did not waste time on preambles
when French captain Roland Thiraud and his French Camerounian counterpart
Inspector Mahmadou Bello picked him up at the airport baggage claim, and then led him to the waiting car
tucked between two military jeeps right in front of the airport terminal.
Instead, he started questioning them about the recent developments in the
territory—the state of security in French Cameroun, the nature of the military
campaign against the UPC insurgents in the towns and cities, and the progress
they had made against the partisan movement’s rustic Maquis counterpart in the
countryside. The news was not good. The Cameroonian Resistance Forces were in
undisputed control of the countryside in the southern half of French Cameroun,
which constituted some seventy percent of the territory, and they were upping
their challenge of French authority in the urban areas as well. The
implications were equally worrying because that meant the vital railway links
between the economic capital city of Douala and the political capital city of
Yaoundé, and between Douala and the agricultural hub of Nkongsamba were at the
mercy of the fighters of the Camerounian Resistance. As a former Maquisard
himself who fought against the German occupation of France, he had a better
idea of the extent of the disruptive role the French Resistance played in
wrecking the transportation network of France, resulting in a major disruption
of the flow of supplies to the occupying German Army.
The serene expression on
René Roccard’s face disappeared right after they left the Douala airport
vicinity and headed for the police station located in the Bonanjoh
neighborhood. With furrowed brows, a slightly held breath and pursed lips, he
looked like a professor grappling with a worrying phenomenon. However, the
thoughts racing through his mind did not involve hypothesis, theories, lab
tests or measurable results. It was all about life and death. And since the
death part of the game had already consumed his kid brother, he was not in a
joking mood, to say the least.
“I know you must be
wondering at the back of your mind whether we have actually made any progress on
Marc’s case or not,” Roland said, interrupting René’s thoughts.
René looked furtively at
Mahmadou in the driver seat before turning his head to Roland at the other end
of the back seat. “Certainly! It gives me no pleasure knowing that you are yet
to come up with something.”
“Don’t rush into
conclusions, my friend. As a matter of fact, we just made tremendous progress
in our investigation that I am sure you would want to look into. We got our
hands on the guy and brought him down here from Mbanga.”
“When was that?”
René regarded him with
dimmed eyes. “You are not kidding me; or are you?”
“Why don’t you see him
“I want to see him right
away before you take me to my quarters.”
“I will gladly do that.
Mahmadou, we are driving to headquarters instead.”
Commandant! I am at your service,” Mahmadou responded without darting a
glance behind him.
Roland smiled at René
before giving him a regal nod. “Let’s see what else we can get from the fellow
before I leave for Yaoundé tomorrow or Friday.”
Roland shrugged in an
uneasy manner but said nothing afterwards
in response to the remark from his French counterpart who gave him the creeps.
The two Frenchmen drove
the remaining mile in silence as if they were absolute strangers. René was
apprehensive. He did not consider himself a tight-lipped person or an introvert
at all; the more reason he could not understand why he was having a hard time
developing the right degree of comfort with Roland. Perhaps he was tired from
the journey, or perhaps it had something
to do with the fact that his compatriot was also attracted to men and used his
position in the force to satisfy his desires in a twisted way. The second
thought brought a suppressed sigh out of his lips. He was sure their superiors
in France knew about Roland’s unsavory activities, so the fact that nothing had
been done to straighten the fellow out intrigued him a lot. He had also read
that Roland felt uplifted with a strange but comforting sense of power each
time he demeaned another human being to the point where his victims cried for
mercy and regretted their actions, promising never to oppose what he stood for
again. That makes him useful, but not
indispensable, René thought.
Mahmadou brought the car
to a gentle stop, and then cleared his
throat for a moment as if alerting his passengers of their arrival at the
destination. Then he hurried out of the car and opened the door.
René stepped out of the
vehicle to the welcoming nods of the police officers outside, which he
acknowledged with nods of his own. He took a quick look around him before he walked into the building, feeling an unfamiliar
tightening knob in his chest. It made him wonder if it was a premonition of
some sort or if it was an indication of fear. That was something he was
determined to find out.
In Roland’s office, René
rested his hand on the back of the chair he offered him to sit down in, and
then asked in a languid manner, “What do I need to know about the fellow.”
Roland ferreted among the
papers on his desk. “Not much. We have only had him here for a day. But I came
up with something.”
“What are you talking
"Take a look at the
information we have on him,” Roland said, as he handed René a sheet of paper
with a brief profile of the prisoner on it.
René read it in silence and
with a clenched fist. “Where is he?” he asked finally.
"He is in the
That was enough. Roland
did not have to go any further. He was in French Indochina before and knew the
exact meaning of the word chamber when associated with a security facility.
That was where the different branches of the security service carried out sadistic
and inhuman aspects of interrogations in war time, especially in a pacifying
war where it was convenient to ignore the rules of the Geneva Convention.
Roland walked in front him as they descended the stairs. He took note of
Roland’s buffed shoes that shone like it just came out of a shoe factory and
wandered who took care of his well-ironed uniform as well.
Roland opened the door
without knocking, startling the three police officers inside who jumped up from
their seats and saluted, their berets resting uncozily on their heads, the
result of their scrambled efforts to be fully uniformed. He saluted back, a
ritual René replicated without batting an eye.
“Has he spilled the beans
yet?” Roland asked, taking off his beret.
“Non, Mon commandant,”
replied an inspector who did not look more than twenty.
Roland ignored his reply
and turned to the tallest of the three, who looked down as if he just
remembered something about his shoes. “Is that true, Jacques?” he asked
Jacques nodded, averting
his eyes still. “He might have been telling the truth. If not, then he must be
the tightest-lipped prisoner we have had so far.”
“How far did you go?”
“As far as we could
without making him have a cardiac arrest,” Jacques replied with pursed lips.
“What exactly do you
Jacques looked at the
young inspector with disgust in his eyes. “Georges used the gégène to the point where I think it
would be a miracle if the prisoner ever gets a hard on again. His penis must be
roasted by now. I wouldn't be surprised at all if his testes aren’t already as
hard as cooked eggs.”
Roland nodded and sucked
his lips. Here is one difficult nut to crack, he thought. “Jacques, come
with us; you two stay here,” he said to the other two men, beckoned Jacques
over and then turned to René, “Let’s find out what the prisoner is still
holding back from us,” he added and then started walking away towards the door
to the room made of concrete walls, trailed by the two men.
Situated at the far end
of the basement chamber and pivoted to the cement floor were two vertical
posts, which were supporting a transversal crossbar. Called Le balancoir
in French or roughly translated as seesaw
in English, this device was Roland’s favorite method of torture. Hanging from
the horizontal crossbar was a young man of about nineteen. He was groaning in
pains. René overtook Roland with hurried steps, edged closer and gave a gasp of
horror. Despite his awareness of the nature of the place before hand, the
degree of deformation the suspect had undergone shocked him. The fellow was
obviously athletic in nature and was strung up to the crossbar by his wrists
and ankles which were tied in pairs behind his back so that he was in a flying
posture facing the floor. René wondered whether his shoulders were still
intact. That and the fact that they used the electric generator called the gégène in torturing the prisoner by
attaching it to his genitals, and then switching it on, filled René with deep
In an instant, the sight
in front of him brought flashbacks to the days he spent in captivity in
Indochina. He understood the hell the prisoner had been put through and knew
that the young fellow was still in a lot of pains because he appeared in far
worse shape than he ever imagined himself in from the tortures he suffered in
the hands of the communist guerillas. Also, the smell of urine and feces in the
air hit him hard, sure enough signs that
the rubber whips lying on the floor and the other torture devices the police
officers used caused substantial damage. There was a bump on the boy’s head
too. His nose was broken, and his eyes and lips were swollen so much that he
thought they could explode at any moment. In fact, the boy’s eyelids barely
parted when he called his name.
“I didn’t kill them,”
Peter Ndepkeu responded in English.
“He pretends he doesn’t
speak French,” Roland interjected.
“S'il vous plaît, soyez tranquille!”René gritted at Roland. Satisfied
that he got the junior officer’s attention to stay quiet, he turned around
again and faced the prisoner, “I am not talking about the others. I mean Marc,
my brother. Why did you kill him?” he asked in English.
“I didn’t kill them or
“Why did you kill Marc?”
“What are you talking
“I am talking about Marc,
my brother. Why did you shoot him last October?”
When the boy failed to
respond, René stepped closer and opened his swollen left eye so that he could
see him clearly. “Tell me why you shot my brother?”
“Sir, I swear to God and
my grandparents that I have nothing to do with the crimes they are accusing me
“Where were you last
“I was at school last
October,” the prisoner whimpered, and
then started sobbing.
“It is a trick. He speaks
French. He is only pretending,” Roland interjected.
“You heard me well. I
said, unhinge him. I don’t intend to continue talking to him while he is in
“What do you think you
René approached Roland so
that they were eyeball to eyeball, so close that they could feel each other’s
breaths. He even thought of pulling Roland’s handlebar moustache.
“Your rigorous oversight
is pathetic. Apparently, your desire to close the case on Marc before I got
here has landed you with the wrong suspect. Your prisoner is an Anglophone.”
“He is Bamileké.”
“Do as I say. You will
also find Bamileké people in British Cameroons. That’s where he is from. Didn’t
you get it from his accent?”
“He was speaking Pidgin
English just like they do here and in Mbanga where we got him. He spoke some
“Uneducated French, I
guess. His English is spot perfect. Cut him loose.”
Roland turned around and
faced Jacques “Dépêches toi! Allez faire ça!” he gritted
René watched Jacques as
he responded to the order by stepping forward in a hurried manner. Then he
started undoing the ropes around the prisoner’s ankles with trembling hands,
only stopping when the prisoner’s legs dropped down suddenly. Peter dangled a
little before settling into a half-standing position, his hands held above his
head with the bonded wrists perched on opposite sides of the crossbar.
“Free his hands too,”
René said in an undertone.
“Pour quoi?” Roland
asked with an incredulous expression on his face.
“Don’t ask me why. Just
do it,” René snapped.
Roland cocked his head in
acknowledgement, looked at René for a moment, and then nodded to Jacques who
went about executing the order, tossing his head from side to side in a
petulant manner. He did not give the prisoner a helping hand after he freed his
hands, so that Peter fell to the floor with
a thud, and then curled up like a fetus in a womb as if the crouching posture
he was forced to endure over the several hours he was hanging up there suddenly
became a comfortable position to maintain.
“Could we step aside for
a moment? I need a word with you,” Roland said in an agitated manner.
“You might not know this,
but Peter Ndepkeu is the relation of a man Marc shot not long before he too was
killed,” Roland blurted out, throwing his hands in the air as if he had just
been treated so badly that he could not stand it anymore.
René stared at his French
counterpart so hard that Jacques thought he was going to hit him. “Why didn’t
you tell me that before?” he seethed.
“Could we step aside so
that we can talk about this, please?” Roland said in a controlled voice.
“D’accord!” René said, indicating a hand.
He followed Roland back
into the office, doing so in less than a minute. In fact, they walked so fast
that a police officer they ran into in the corridor thought they were
“Tell me what is going on
here!” René roared the moment he banged the door close behind them.
Roland slumped into the
seat behind his desk and buried his face in his hands. “Where do I start?” he
“Where it got Marc
Roland raised his head
and sighed. “The riots back in May 1955. We blamed the UPC for instigating
everything, but you and I know that we overreacted. Our young soldiers, police
officers and gendarmes in Douala had never seen something like that before, So,
they panicked and opened fire in situations where they could have acted
otherwise. We massacred them.”
“Marc was still in France
when it all happened. He wasn’t involved.”
“Yes, he wasn’t involved.
He arrived here in July as part of Roland Pré’s reinforcement to beef up our
defenses in response to the deteriorating situation. Then Roland Pré banned
them. We banned the UPC, René. That is when everything started falling apart here
in French Cameroun. Our job was to pacify them, but your brother thought
otherwise. He thought he could talk some sense into the heads of some of those
he knew in the party. He talked to former Free French fighters he knew or who
were friends with your father. He talked to Bruno Ndepkeu whom he played with
as a child here in Douala. Most of them listened, but Bruno did not. When he
found out that Bruno led a team in the New Bell neighborhood that masterminded
the derailment of elections for seats to the new Assemblée Législative du
Cameroun, he was not happy about it. He said he would talk to the fellow
for as long as it takes to convince him, that the Bruno was after all a soldier
who fought with us during the Second World War. I tried to talk him out of it,
but he would not listen to me or anybody else for that matter, even his
superiors. Luckily for him, Bruno was among those who escaped with most of the
UPC leadership to British Southern Cameroons after someone tipped them off that
we were about to arrest them for their roles in disrupting the elections. I
thought that was all about it with the Bruno issue until last October. I
remember the day like it was only yesterday. It was a peculiarly cool Monday
morning when Marc arrived in the office looking very excited, if not agitated.
He told us he was privy of Bruno’s whereabouts, and then scrambled together a
squad and left with two jeeps. He found Bruno’s location all right, and then convinced him to come out of
the house with his hands in the air. The Camerounian was doing So, when one of our men panicked and shot him.
He claimed he was aiming at a man who suddenly appeared behind Bruno, a man he
claimed looked threatening. All the same, he wounded Bruno in the shoulder.
Bruno reacted after the shot by diving behind a half wall. He pulled out a
pistol right after he found cover, and then went on to shoot at Marc and his
men for a couple of minutes before making an attempt to slip away. That was
when Marc shot him. He said he wanted to wound him in the leg, but he took the
shot just when Bruno was crouching and just when he was turning around to look
back. Your brother was distraught about the whole tragedy, but the damage was
already done. Bruno died while Marc was rushing him to the hospital.”
René heaved a sigh. “How
does that involve your prisoner?”
“He was caught in Mbanga
last week without identification papers. Said he was going to Nkongsamba to see
his mother. Georges, who happened to be in Mbanga last week, saw him at the
police station there and made the connection. So, I asked them to have him
transferred over to us for further investigation. Georges brought him here
yesterday. It turned out that one of our new recruits recognized him and
remembered he was at Bruno Ndepkeu’s funeral. Everything points to the
irrefutable fact that Marc was killed in revenge. The shot was taken from a
distance, which tells us that the killer is a good marksman.”
René sighed. He knew he
was dealing with a man who felt uplifted with a strange but comforting sense of
power each time he demeaned another human being to the point where his victim
cried out for mercy and regretted his action, promising never to oppose his
line again. He had experienced Roland’s types before in Indochina. “Peter is a
student,” René said in a monotone.
“So says the fake student
identification card he carries.”
“Where is it?”
Roland pulled his drawer open
and brought out a file. “Here it is.” He said, handing René a photo ID.”
“Good God! The young man
just graduated from Saint Joseph Secondary School, which is situated in Sasse,
a village off Buea.”
“Saint Joseph quoi?”
“It is a Lycée and it is
situated at the foot of the mountain, a couple of miles from the town of Buea.”
“I don’t think so,”
Roland said, sounding doubtful for the first time that day.
“For God’s sake, he
speaks refined English. Is that all you have got against him—this ID and the
claim that he was at Bruno’s funeral?”
Roland’s eyes dropped,
and for a moment, he was quiet before he sighed. “Yes,” he replied in a
tortured voice and with a nod.
“Meet me down there in
thirty minutes,” René said with a sigh of his own, and then left the office,
the image of the bewildered look on Roland’s face etched in his memory.
He found the three police
officers in the torture room with curious expressions on their faces. Peter was
holding a metal cup with water in it and was cupping something in his other
hand. He looked at the cup, then at the three officers, and then at the cup
again before fixing his eyes on Jacques who shrugged like a child caught
stealing candies with one still in his hand. “What did you give him?”
“Water and tablets for
the pain,” Jacques stuttered.
Jacques shrugged. “I
thought you would want that.”
René closed his eyes for
a moment, shaking his head as he did so. “Do you speak any English?”
“I comprehend it well
“Good! Where did you
learn the language?”
“I picked it up from my
father who learned it while with General De Gaulle in England.”
“And what about you
“Nicolas!” the third
police man said, and then added, “I don’t understand the language at all.”
“I don’t too. English is
like classical music to my ears!”
René stifled a laugh and
shook his head again. “I want you boys to stay here while I have a chat with
The three officers stood
back as he took charge. First, he made
Peter sit in a chair, propped up by a
pillow. Then he offered him a banana and a cup of orange juice, freshly
squeezed from two orange fruits.
“Feeling better?” he
“I want you to be candid
with me. Whose school ID is this?” he asked, brandishing the photo ID he got
from Roland close enough so that Peter did not need to squint at all in order
to take a closer look at it.
“It is mine.”
“Are you a student?”
“Oui Monsieur! I am in my final year.”
“Going to the final year
or you just completed it?”
“We are still awaiting
the results of the final year GCE Ordinary Level exams.”
“And you wrote as a
“Saint Joseph School,
“What do you know about
“Nothing. I told the
“Who was Bruno Ndepkeu to
“He was my Uncle.”
“How come you are an
Anglophone while he was a Francophone for all I know?”
“He grew up here, while I
was born and raised in British Southern Cameroons.”
“How did that come
“He was too young when my
grandfather died, So, he stayed with my grandmother here in Douala. My
grandfather’s younger brother in Victoria took my father with him and sent him
to a primary school there where they study in English. My father never moved
back this way after he finished his primary school.”
“Your granduncle raised
your father, you mean.”
“Oui Monsieur! I called him grandfather. He too was taken to Victoria
during the times of the Germans by his uncle working in one of the coastal
“Let’s focus on your
father. Does he speak French?”
“Non, Monsieur! Only simple words like oui, je m'en fou.”
“He stayed there just
like his uncle and started a family. That’s how I came to be born in British
Southern Cameroons; that’s why I am an Anglophone.”
“What were you doing in
“Nothing they accused me
of doing. I was passing through the town. I only stopped there on transit, on
my way to catch the next train to Nkongsamba to see my mother.”
“Does your mother live in
“Why does she live there
when you said you are from British Southern Cameroons?”
“She divorced my father
fifteen years ago and married another man who has his roots in the Mbohland.
They both live in Nkongsamba with my five half-siblings.”
“Why did she divorce your
“I don’t know. Nobody
ever really talked to me about it.”
“Where is your father?”
“He is in Kumba.”
“I thought you said he
lives in Victoria.”
“He moved to Kumba after
he married his second wife.”
“When was that?”
“What does he do for a
“He is a business man.”
“What sort of business
are you talking about?”
“He owns a grocery store
and an off-license. He also trades in agricultural produce between Nigeria and
British Southern Cameroons.”
“What type of produces
are you talking about?”
“Cocoa, coffee, bush
mango seeds and egusi seeds.”
“Did he ever mention my
“He never talked about
“Did he know Marc?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where does your
grandmother live here in Douala?”
“She is dead. She died
seven years ago.”
“Oh, sorry! Accept my
condolence. Do you have uncles or aunts here?”
“My mother’s brothers and
sisters are in Loum, Manjo, and
“What about other
relatives here in Douala you can live with until you are fully recovered?”
Peter was quiet for a
moment before he said in a hesitant
voice. “My father’s cousin has a house close to where my grandmother used to
“You mean his home?”
“Yes,” Peter said with a
“What’s his name?”
“Good. We will make sure
you get some treatment, and then we shall take you to your father’s cousin,”
René said in a leveled voice.
Not often do we find men who despite their haunting lineages still find
the strength not only to settle down in life
but also to break the circle of misfortune and raise happy, prosperous and
exemplary families that would survive them into old age. So, when someone like
Joseph Nkabyo Njike distinguished himself as one of such rare men, we are
likely to ask questions.
Close friends and family members regarded Joseph not only as a man of extreme valor, nimbleness, and gentle smiles, but also as someone blessed with a very deep heart. Yet, it
was his seemingly unstoppable nature that awed them the most. We often make
simple judgments of people based on their personalities and appearances, so I
wonder what a character judge would say about a man with a raucous voice,
boisterous spirit, imposing physique, but who at the same time is blessed with
a noble soul. I say so because Joseph Njike happened to be such a man.
He was also considered to be a whirlwind of a man, a
discomforting figure to those with the evil disposition, but a hero to gentle
souls and kids. People said he developed an extremely soft spot for children
after he moved his family back to Banganté,
and that he won the affection of the children in return. However, some of the
adults who do not bond easily with little kids and teenagers were initially
puzzled by the sight of this imposing figure sitting around the children of the
neighborhood on the many evenings that he told them delightful stories, taught
them the mysteries of letters, figures and words, and familiarized them with
the lessons of life.
Even so, most of Joseph Njike’s skeptics or detractors did
not take long to realize that he was a unique man of the world with an
One could be tempted to think that the Njike father was one
of those familiar talkers that are in love with their voices or that he was one
of those peculiar characters with the childlike disposition which we often find
in small communities. That is not the case because,
besides his numerous attributes, he was also an exceptional toiler of the land.
In fact, he presided over his household and family in a manner that set him
apart from the other fathers in Banganté. In a nutshell, he was already ahead
of his times in the community a decade before he moved back to his ancestral
This father of five even admitted that he believed in
hospitality and solidarity, not because he thought it was beneficial to be
kind, but because he considered himself a beneficiary of kindness during his
greatest moments of need. Whenever he said he considered extending kindness to
others as an obligation to humanity, he truly meant it. After all, he was an
orphan who survived and made it to adulthood by living on the good graces of
people who were not even his relatives.
True the subject of his life as an orphan was the one thing
that never failed to bring out the philosophical side in him. As a matter of
fact, his mother was the first person to jolt him into contemplating his
destiny. That was on his seventh birthday, when she told him about his
legendary grandfather Pokam Njike, describing him as a six-foot plus mover of
the movers who could break iron with his bare hands, and who could hurl three
hundred or more pounds of load onto his
shoulder without breaking a sweat. That portrayal of a man he never saw, but
whose genes got passed down to him, stirred his imagination back then to the
point where he even thought his grandfather was the strongest man who ever
walked the earth, and so fancied himself as the strongest boy his age in
Banganté until a boy a couple of months younger wrestled him down in a dwell at
the village square.
Joseph Nkabyo Njike’s mother also told him during his first
year as an adolescence that his grandfather was in a blind rage when he killed
the five enemies he found hovering over his younger brother's dead body that
was still oozing blood from machete wounds during an inter-tribal war. His
grandfather shouldn’t have killed at all, Joseph Njike’s mother told him, pointing
out that a clause in the law on the extraordinary powers his ancestors bestowed
on his grandfather forbade him from killing. That meant Pokam Njike should have
disarmed and immobilized his enemies instead. That angle of the narration was
something he could not wrap his head around because he thought he would have
acted just like his grandfather in such a moment of heightened emotions. All
the same, Joseph became convinced at a tender age that his grandfather defied
an ancestral edict by killing in that war.
The legend also holds that Pokam Njike was in the prime of life when he died in his sleep, that
his second wife and daughter died a couple of weeks after him, and that even
his two sons also died within a year of his passing away. However, fate was not
completely harsh to Pokam Njike because his pregnant first wife lived long
enough to give birth to his only surviving seed, a son that came out of his
mother’s womb with a sweet expression on his face as if he were smiling at a
riddle posed by life.
Bernard Ketcha Njike, as this sweet child was called, did not
enjoy the loving care of his mother who died some seven years after his birth,
in accordance with the curse meted out against Pokam Njike by his ancestors or so
the legend holds.
Joseph Njike’s mother also told him that his father died when
he was hardly even a year old, that Bernard Njike was also an outstanding man
like his father Pokam Njike, and that she did not believe in the curse thing
that was being muttered around. But she too died when he was hardly even ten
years old, forcing Joseph Nkabyo Njike to wonder whether she got the curse
legend wrong after all. Not until after his mother’s death did Joseph Njike
become apprehensive of the powers of the ancestors to the point where he even resorted
to occasional ancestral worships and sacrifices in a bid to pacify his unknown
Now, one would think that Joseph Njike’s life as a teenager
growing up in Banganté was without some piquancy. On the contrary, his early
years resonated more than those of his age mates, all thanks to a benefactor
who treated him like his own true son, and who even sent him to school. Joseph
Njike had this knack for telling people in perhaps exaggerated terms that his
benefactor showed him the window to the modern world and that he gave him more
in life than he could even have expected from his biological father. On top of
that, he was comforted by his benefactor’s wise and assuring words that
ancestral curses could not transcend the third generation. It meant his
children would not be affected by the curse that haunted his grandfather and
Joseph Njike tilted back in his easy chair and fixed his gaze
on his orchard devoted to the cultivation of avocado, guava, orange, and mango. The orchard was doing great,
a reflection that brought a sweet smile to his face.
The sight of his youngest son Gavin chasing his older brother
Salomon interrupted Joseph Njike’s thoughts, prompting him to sit up in his
seat. In Gavin’s right hand was a rock that he was threatening his brother
“Gavin, Salomon, come here,” he called his sons over in a
curt tone, demanding unquestionable obedience.
“It is Gavin’s fault. He wants to hit me with that stone,”
Salomon began right before he even turned around and hurried to his father.
“No, Papa; no Papa! He is not telling the truth. I am only
frightening him with it. Papa, he is wearing my sandals and won’t give it back
to me even after I asked for them over and over again,” Gavin cried in a
“Okay, Sons! Okay, Boys! We can do it by turns. Gavin, you
start first. What happened?”
“He won’t give me my sandals, even though he refused to share
his bar of chocolate with me,” Gavin said with wistful eyes.
“It is not true. I offered Gavin a piece of my chocolate, but
he refused to take it. He kept insisting on having his sandals back,” Salomon
“Did he offer you some of his chocolate?” Joseph Njike asked
Gavin in a light-hearted manner
“Yes, Papa! But only after I told him to take my sandals off
his feet and never to wear them again,” Gavin said with a frown.
“Huh!” Joseph Njike grunted and stifled a laugh, “So you
wanted your sandals back because your brother refused you a piece of his
chocolate; but then, you wouldn’t accept the chocolate from him even after he
changed his mind and offered it to you?”
“Papa, God takes a man’s first words seriously and wouldn’t
listen to him when he changes his mind without really meaning it. You told me
so yourself. Salomon wasn’t offering me the chocolate with his whole heart
after he refused to give me a little piece the first time I asked for it.”
“Okay, Son! Your brother changed his mind. He realized he
made a mistake. Didn’t I tell you that life is a give and take thing,
especially between brothers and sisters or between siblings? And what do you
want the sandals for when you are wearing those beautiful and expensive
“Salomon doesn’t like sharing,” Gavin stuttered.
“I bought those sandals for you, remember? They were big for
you, so I offered to give them to Salomon and buy you another pair the next
time I travel to Douala. You said you would keep the sandals until your feet
grew big enough to fit into them. Huh,
Gavin! Do you remember how you surprised me by giving them to Salomon out of a
brotherly impulse that touched my heart? That was a good thing you did, Son!”
A gentle expression settled on Gavin’s face for a moment
before he twisted his right foot without meaning to, “You can wear the
sandals,” he said to his brother in a subdued tone, and then put his left hand
over his eyes.
“Put your hand down. You have just done the right thing,”
Joseph Njike said, and then turned to Salomon with an amused glint in his eyes.
“Give your brother the chocolate. Give him half of it,” Joseph Njike said to
his third son with a slight edge to his voice.
“I don’t want to eat it anymore; I am not hungry,” Gavin
objected with a pout.
Joseph Njike looked at his youngest son for a moment with
puzzled eyes, and then started laughing.
He laughed so loudly that his sons regarded him for a moment with astonished
eyes, and then looked at one another, shrugged, and then started laughing as
well as if their father’s laughing mood infected them too.
“What are you laughing at, Papa?” Salomon asked amidst his
“Come on Gavin; come and sit over here,” Joseph Njike said,
indicating his lap.
Gavin flipped himself over onto his father’s lap.
Salomon was smiling as he gingerly edged forward, leaned on
the right arm of the chair without having been asked to. “Papa, take,” he said
with wide eyes and a broad smile, and
then handed Joseph Njike the unopened bar of chocolate.
The father opened it and split the bar into two halves. He
gave a piece to Salomon and the other half to Gavin. Gavin hesitated for a
fraction of a second, but he took it nonetheless,
and then smiled warmly at his father.
“You see Gavin; you didn’t want it anymore from your brother
because of obstinate pride. Uh-huh! You acted that way all because of obstinate
“Papa, what is pride?” Gavin asked.
“And what is obstinate?” Salomon also asked right after his
younger brother’s question.
“Obstinate is when you are stubborn and won’t change your
mind, even though there is no reason for you not to. To have pride is to think
too highly of yourself or when you behave as if your views or opinions are
above those of every single person around you. You see son; you like chocolate,
you wanted to eat it, but you decided not to accept it even after your brother
changed his mind, all because of the simple reason that he didn’t offer you a
piece when you first asked for it. Don’t be obstinate and don’t think too
highly of yourself whenever you are dealing with your family, okay!”
“Okay, papa!” Gavin mumbled.
“Go ahead and eat it now. I know you like chocolate. Did I
ever tell you the story of the Bamileké husband and the pudding?”
“Papa…papa, papa, you told me the story before,” Salomon said
to his father with excitement in his voice.
“I was asking Gavin,” Joseph Njike said to Salomon in a
mildly reproachful manner.
“No, papa! You never told me the story before,” Gavin
replied, looking at his father with wide eyes.
“Okay! I will tell you the story after church services this
coming Sunday. Now, I want you to promise me something. I want you boys to run
out there and play together right after we sing Mangambeu.”
“I promise, I promise,” Gavin said excitedly.
“I promise, I promise; we promise, we promise,” the brothers
said in unison.
“Now, go and get your instruments,” Joseph Njike ordered his
sons in a light-hearted manner.
Gavin and Salomon dashed into the parlor and came out two
minutes after with Gavin holding a marimbula and Salomon having a kpanlogo drum
around his arms.
Joseph Njike watched his sons play with the percussions and
even sang with them for about half an hour before he announced that they could
“Uh, uh! I am so tired,” Gavin said in a high-spirited voice.
“Ugh, ugh, ugh! I am about to faint,” Salomon jumped up to
his feet, staggered backwards in a suggestive manner, faked a fall, and then
started rolling over on the cement floor.
Gavin bent forward, embraced his brother on the floor, and
then they started rolling around together. “Who is fainting? You are fainting.
Who is fainting? You are fainting―” they repeated one after the other, giggling
as they did so.
Joseph Njike watched his boys for a moment as they
mock-wrestled on the floor, and then concluded that there was nothing to worry
about it. He loved the way Gavin and Salomon bonded. They had nothing of the
sibling rivalry thing that he had discerned in the relationship between his
first son Bernard Ketcha and his second son Christian.
“Get up, boys. Go to the front yard and do your wrestling
there,” Joseph Njike roared good-humoredly.
“Okay, Papa! Okay, Papa!” the boys replied one after the
The father smiled at the sight of his laughing sons chasing
one another in their run to the playground. He loved his sons dearly but adored Gavin the most. His youngest
son was doing a far better job than his siblings in enlivening his home with
his zest for life. However, it wasn’t
until recently when it dawned on him that Gavin did not like the deeply
protective love coming from his brothers and sister,
and that he always made it a point of trying to prove to them that he could be
independent and that he could take care himself without their patronizing
interference in his life. Besides, Gavin was a progeny with an unusual aptitude
When his youngest son returned home from his three-month
summer holidays at the home of his maternal uncle in British Southern
Cameroons, speaking English better than most of the Anglophone kids he knew in
Douala, the boy reaffirmed his conviction that he was a gifted child who needed
special nurturing. He was particularly struck by Gavin’s down-to-earth nature
when he found his youngest son playing with the kids of the neighborhood and
leading them around as if he were the natural leader of a gang. That was hardly
a day after he moved his family to Banganté.
Gavin also made an unmistakable impression on Ken Smith, an
American Baptist missionary residing with his family two hundred yards down the
road, to the point where Kenneth Smith seemed to enjoy speaking English to
Gavin all the time. That alone made Joseph very proud of his youngest son. Even
more satisfying was the fact that the American asked him to allow Gavin to
accompany him and his family on a picnic after the Sunday sermon, pointing out
that he thought Gavin would make excellent friends with his ten and
As he sat on his easy chair and thought of his family, Joseph
Njike concluded that he made the right decision. Moving his family back to the
Bamilekéland, precisely to his ancestral homeland realm of Banganté and away
from the throngs and rattles of war in Douala was the right thing to do for
A sigh escaped his lips as he recalled his warnings to his
friends in Douala before he left the city, pointing out that the ongoing
skirmishes between French forces and the banned Union of the Peoples of the
Cameroons (UPC) were bound to escalate. The French were already whispering
around in some circles that they would never allow the UPC to realize its program
to reunite French Cameroun and British Cameroons, and then lead both United
Nations Trust Territories to independence. Why the French assumed that they
could get away with their game plan in complete disregard of the fact that the
UPC commanded the support of the majority of the peoples of the former Germany
colony, he could not tell. There was something else he was also sure about—his
UPC comrades would fight the French and their puppets to the bitter end rather
than live under the deceptive independence and democracy that the French were
planning to impose on their overseas territories and colonies.
Nevertheless, Joseph Njike did not want to be involved in the
madness of war. He would do everything within his powers to shield his family
from the horrors of the deteriorating situation. He would run away from the war the way his grandfather tried to do.
Joseph Njike picked up a copy of the Monday, Dec. 02, 1957
edition of Time Magazine among the papers on the stool by his side, and then
flipped the pages over to the article he had been told about. It read JUNGLE
TERROR. He licked his lips, and then went on to read the full article:
Six months after the French gave internal autonomy to the
French Cameroun, a California-sized land of steaming coastal plains,
rain-sodden jungles and high savannah
just above the equator on Africa's West Coast, native Premier André-Marie Mbida
finds himself confronted with a reign of terror spearheaded by 5,000 hard-core
Communist guerrillas-Led by a Prague-trained Communist named Ruben Um Nyobé,
first secretary of the Red-front Union of the Peoples of the Cameroons (UPC)…in
the...heartland of the 120,000-member Bassa tribe, center of the spreading
Joseph Njike closed his eyes for a moment and ruminated. He was convinced
the UPC was losing the media war. Being tagged communist was not a good sign at
all. He picked up the Mar. 03, 1958 edition of another Time magazine and
settled on the article entitled FALLEN IDOL.
The French thought they had found the ideal man last May when
they picked André Marie Mbida, 40, to serve as first Premier of the
semiautonomous French Camerouns, the California-sized territory near the
equator on Africa's west coast. His forehead bears a blue tribal tattoo; he is
a Roman Catholic; and like the French themselves, he does not want to rush into
independence before the 3,300,000 African inhabitants are prepared for it. When
Mbida wanted to get tough with Communist-led rebels who were terrorizing parts
of the country's coastal regions from jungle bases (TIME, Dec. 2), the French
approved and dispatched two companies of French troops to help out…But Mbida
became careless with the label of "Communist"—he began to use it
against anyone who disagreed with him. He banished political opponents to
remote areas, imprisoned an opposition editor who published an article written
by Ruben Um Nyobé, Red-trained leader of the rebels. The French themselves
gradually became disenchanted with Mbida…As successor, the French chose Ahmadou
Ahidjo, 33, who had served as Vice Premier and Interior Minister in Mbida's
government. Ahidjo announced his policy: independence (but without a
timetable), union of the British and French Camerouns, cooperation with France
on a basis of equality and confidence—a program that should steal thunder from
the supporters of Moscow and Cairo. Ahidjo also is expected to try to lure the
rebels out of the jungle with the promise that they will suffer no punishment
if they surrender—the kind of offer Mbida had refused to make.
Joseph Njike spent the next hour reading the other papers in French. The
stories were all the same. The media had succeeded in branding the UPC a
communist movement. He placed the last paper back on the stool, shut his eyes
for a moment and brooded.
“Oh no, no, no,” he raged. “They have found another puppet to
turn the north too against us.”
He opened his eyes again and looked around him in a dazed manner. Satisfied that his outburst went
unnoticed, he breathed out heavily and looked at the setting sun and the
picturesque view it gave to the rolling hills of Banganté. Everything looks
so peaceful, he thought.
A feeling of relief swept over Joseph Nkabyo Njike as he
thought of his family. He was glad he brought them back home to the serenity of
the life he was born and bred in. Only, he could not completely dispel the
feeling that perhaps he had deserted his friends at the helm of the UPC party
and the mushrooming partisan movement confronting the French military in French
Cameroun. If only they could understand that his decision not to take sides in
the mushrooming war had deep roots. He could not overlook his past commitments
to both sides of the conflict, a past that sometimes made him smile and sigh in turns.
Joseph Nkabyo Njike was apt to consider himself a lucky and happy family man
until Germany attacked France in the spring of 1940, forcing the capitulation
of the mighty French Army and the flight of some of its soldiers to Britain.
Like everyone else in French Cameroun, the defeat of France after less than six
weeks of fighting came as a shock. Even so, the news that the much vaunted
Marshal Philippe Pétain, who just recently became the French premiere,
capitulated and signed an armistice with Nazi Germany was what appalled him the
Even though cessation of hostilities
brought some peace to France, the truce gave the French State nominal
sovereignty only over the entire French territory, allowing Germany to occupy
the north and east of France, and recognizing Italian occupation of five
percent of French territory in France’s eastern border adjacent with Italy.
This effectively meant that the French State was allowed to have full
sovereignty only over the unoccupied zone covering the greater portion of the
southern half of France. Marshal Pétain and his Nazi-German overlords chose to
call this semi-independent territory Vichy France.
He had the opportunity to discuss the
developments in Europe with the much venerated Joseph Nana Njike and his sons
while on a visit to the patron’s home in Nkongsamba in early July 1940. It
became obvious right from the start that they too abhorred the stifling French
control in French Cameroun and that they too were mooning for a reunited
Kamerun, just like it was during German colonial rule under the Kaiser. But
they were quick to agree on one fact: Germany under the Nazis could not and
should never be trusted. However, when Joseph Nana Njike’s first son Hans Wette
Njike, born from a romance between the patron and a German woman while he was
doing his graduate studies in Germany, pointed out that the Nazis would treat
Africans like sub-humans were they to get a foothold in Africa, he painted the
picture in such a way that the prospect of Nazi control of Kamerun looked far
worse than the horrible treatment the people of the Congo Free State suffered
for a quarter of a century when the territory was under the private control of
Belgian King Leopold II.
In fact, he returned to Douala after
that meeting dreading the thought of Germany regaining control of the Kamerun
territories. But he was at a loss over what the free world should do to stop
that from happening because he knew that Germany wanted its former colonies in
Africa back, because he knew that Adolf Hitler was out to avenge the treatment
Germany suffered at the hands of the victorious Western Powers after the Great
War, and because it was no secret that the combined territories of British
Cameroons and French Cameroun were the
portion of sub-Saharan Africa coveted by Nazi Germany the most in Adolf Hitler’s
plan to control Africa.
So, when he learned that a certain
French General Charles De Gaulle rejected the armistice with Germany and then
went on to create a government in exile, he was impressed. When he became privy
to information that the indefatigable Frenchman had just founded an
organization called Free France, drawing from the allegiance of the French
soldiers who fled Dunkirk and found sanctuary in England, he thought France had
not been completely beaten after all. When he also found out from a French
friend weeks later that Commandant Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, a trusted
lieutenant of General Charles De Gaulle, arrived in French Cameroon a fortnight
ago as the new High Commissioner of the territory in a move that spelled him
out as the replacement for the wavering Richard Brunot, he knew their piece of
Africa was about to see some action too. Still, it never crossed his mind that
he could be a part of the action. He did not want to risk an early death like
However, everything changed after he
received a four-page letter from his Anglophone maternal second cousin
Bartholomew Njoumen Ndepkeu in late August, handed to him by Julius Wakam
Njomo, Maria’s brother from Victoria, a coastal town at the foot of the
Cameroon Mountain in British Southern Cameroons. In it, Bartholomew recounted
his experiences as a soldier in the Southern Nigeria Regiment of the Royal West
African Frontier Force (WAFF), the British overseas colonial force sent to
fight with the 1st African Division in East Africa against Italian
forces in their campaign to increase Dictator Benito Mussolini’s "Italian
East African Empire", a chunk of Africa that now included the Italian
colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, as well as Abyssinia and French
Somaliland, territories recently occupied by Italian forces. In the last two
pages of the letter, Bartholomew expressed his exhilaration over the fact that
they were about to restore the sovereignty of Abyssinia—a country that never
suffered the injustices of European colonization until Italians troops heeded
the order of their head of state, invaded the proud African nation in 1936 and
deposed its king Haile Selassie I. His younger second cousin talked of the joy
that came with fighting alongside his African compatriots from different parts
of the continent against the scourge of fascism; he expressed his belief that these African forces were commencing the
liberation of Africa from colonialism in a process that now involved winning
the respect for their European colonial masters. The letter ended with the
Italian conquest of British Somaliland and the retreat of the 1st (African)
Division to Kenya.
Fired by the letter about the East
African campaign from the son of his mother’s cousin, he sought the counsel of
the French Guianese born Félix Adolphe Éboué, France’s first black governor or
High Commissioner in Africa, who made history as the first of his rank to
pledge his support to General Charles De Gaulle, a decision he backed up right
away by making Chad the first French colony to join the Allies. The visiting
governor of Chad probably took him seriously because he introduced him to
Commandant Jacques-Philippe Leclerc. It was during their first meeting that he
learned of the Frenchman’s plan to form a military force for Free France in
French Equatorial Africa, and it was over a glass of brandy at the new French
Camerounian High Commissioner’s residence in Douala that he too pledged his
support to General Charles De Gaulle’s cause. Then he acted against his wife’s
emotional weeping and pleas, steeled himself from the wondering eyes of his two
sons and dismissed the concerns of his friends by joining the Free French
Forces that Commandant Jacques-Philippe Leclerc and Félix Éboué were putting
together in French Central Africa. He encouraged others to join too, so that
Douala became the rallying center of the Free French Forces in Africa,
producing many of the fine men that inspired others in the rest of French
Africa to join this highly-motivated force fighting for the glory of a free
France. Joseph was not surprised to learn that Africans were the majority in
the movement, a situation that would stay unchanged right up to the moment the
Free French Forces landed in France in 1944.
He was actually enjoying the drill
into army life when news of the impending arrival of new French Camerounian
recruits reached them in the camp. Still, it came as a shock when Barthomew’s
nineteen-year-old younger brother Bruno Ketcha Ndepkeu hooped out of one of the
trucks one afternoon along with the other recruits. When he found out that the
young man’s widowed mother in Nkongsamba knew nothing about it, and that
Bartholomew had no clue that he had enlisted into the Free French Force, he did
his best to get him out of the military, all to no avail. However, after weeks
of basic training that involved standing at attention, running, marching,
crawling through mud and barbed wire, target practices,
and scaling walls, he looked at his young relative and thought the whole
venture was worthwhile after all. Even though the drill chiseled out a fit and
disciplined young man from Bruno, it did not taper his enthusiasm to a
comfortable level. So, when General Charles the Gaulle arrived in Douala that
October, and then four days later announced his plans to invade other parts of
French Equatorial Africa in order to make that part of the African continent
his base from which he planned to launch attacks against German and Italian
forces in Libya, Joseph Njike knew that the real action was about to begin.
However, his worries about his young second cousin affected his anticipation of
He kept an eye on Bruno throughout
the Gabon campaign, jumping him down when the lad started charging recklessly
in the direction of fire from Vichy forces during the battle for the town of
Mitzic, pulling him away to safety after he got shot in the leg in the battle
of Lambaréné on the banks of the River Ogooue as their forces fought to take
the garrison. When they overran Vichy forces in Libreville and finally Port
Gentil, he was glad that the campaign was over with Bruno still alive. With
French Equatorial Africa now secured for the Free French Forces, Joseph started
looking forward to action in French West Africa as the next area to wrestle
from Vichy control.
However, the lull in fighting that
followed the Gabon campaign tapered off his anticipation to the point where he
started developing an interest in Brazzaville and the surrounding areas of
French Congo. In fact, he first observed General Charles De Gaulle in an angry
mood during that temporary interval of quiet, while he, his fellow French
Camerounian compatriot Raphael Onana and a host of other French soldiers were
in attendance to the high command in a party in Brazzaville, French Congo. It
was a Friday actually, just around dust, and with a beautiful hue in the sky,
when he caught sight of the furious-looking towering Frenchman hurrying to his
car, timidly trailed by General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc and Battalion Chief
Marie-Pierre Koenig. The living French legend ignored their entreaties, got
into the car in a hurry, and then ordered his chauffeur to drive away in a curt
voice that could be heard tens of yards away. Later that day, as he shared a
smoke with Sergeant Marcel Kahn, he commented in an off-handed manner about the
angry look on General De Gaulle’s face when he left the place in a hurry.
Marcel was an affable fellow of
taciturn disposition. Unlike most of the French soldiers in the Free French
Forces in the heart of Africa, he was born on
the continent, in the French Equatorial African territory of Oubangui-Chari
where he grew up before moving with his parents to French Cameroun at the age
of eleven. It took only a couple of days working with Marcel to realize that he
felt very comfortable with his fellow native Africans and that he abhorred the
haughtiness of his French-born compatriots. However, they did not become
friends until during the battle for Port Gentil, after he saved the Frenchman’s
life by shooting dead a Vichy soldier who suddenly appeared behind Marcel as if
from nowhere, raised his gun and was about to shoot him. Marcel stayed close to
him after that near death experience, and he became the second voice cautioning
Bruno. In fact, Marcel went on to tell him a lot about himself, his family,
France and French rule in Africa. He learned that Marcel’s parents moved back
to France with his three teenage sisters in June 1939 and settled in Bourges.
That was three months before Hitler gave the orders for the German Army to
invade Poland. But since Bourges fell under the control of Vichy France after
the German invasion of France and the signing of the armistice between the victorious German Army and the defeated
French Army under Marshal Petain, no information had reached him about his
parents. Marcel also told him stories about his older brother who was working
as an administrative officer in Dakar, Senegal, pointing out that the fellow
was steadfast in his loyalty to the Vichy government. However, only when he
talked about his French Camerounian girlfriend did his eyes light up in their
sockets. Salamatou, as she was called, informed him of her pregnancy with his
baby before he deployed to Gabon.
“The great general thinks of French
honor in a manner that is more like a dream than the reality you, I and most
people here consider it to be. He gets upset when others fail to see things the
way he dreams them with his eyes open,” Marcel blurted out in response, was
silent for a moment, and then took a puff on his cigarette, before slowly
expelling the smoke through his mouth and nostrils, never taking his eyes off
“You sound cryptic, my friend,”
Joseph said finally, breaking the silent moment that seemed to be dragging for
Marcel shrugged with dimmed eyes.
“Our great general does not understand why General Marcel Tetu and the other
captured Vichy soldiers are refusing to join the Free French Forces. Even more
so, he is having a hard time getting the significance of the positions taken by
General Leclerc and General Koenig who prefer to see the captured Vichy
soldiers locked up here in Brazzaville as prisoners of war.”
“Hmm! I agree with the great general
on that one.”
“I am with him too, but I know things
aren’t black and white.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Joseph! Let’s be objective
here. Yes, Joseph! We shouldn’t expect the affairs of men to be black and white
only when it involves interests, values,
and honor. Think of a mosaic and you will get the picture I am trying to paint
here,” Marcel said with a pensive look on his face, and then took another puff
on his cigarette and continued, “There is a lesson to learn from all of these.
Any idea of what that could be?”
Joseph shook his head no. “What?” he
asked with quizzical eyes.
“Apparently, the Germans are
barbaric, but militarily, they are brilliant. They beat our military hands
down, treated us in defeat better than they did with Poland and Czechoslovakia,
made our top leaders believe that by allowing us control of half of France,
they are being magnanimous. Their so-called magnanimity has divided the French
people in the process. If I must admit it, they effected a brilliant
divide-and-rule strategy in France. Yes, my friend; the Vichy people are of the
opinion that Germany isn’t treating France as badly as they had expected Hitler
to do; while we, the believers of a Free France, think any acceptance of German
dominance is an act of treason. But there is a paradox to our resistance or
call it our refusal to be subjugated as you and I see it. We are rejecting
Germany from abroad, from a safe distance actually; we are regrouping from a
colonial territory we captured from Germany in the last war, and we are getting most of our help from people that France
subjugated and treated harshly. You, my French Camerounian brothers, are an
honorable people. You are the first to rally to our fight against the Nazis
when Germany treated you before better than France does or ever did. You see
evil in Adolf Hitler, his fellow Nazis
and his Nazi regime, and you reject the Germany you came to prefer because of
that. Meanwhile, supporters of the Vichy regime are indifferent about the evil
in Nazism and its leadership. Why? Well, I think it is because they too are
likely to act like the Nazis if given the opportunity; I think it is because
they too admire many of the racist views and laws against France’s minorities
that the Nazis espouse. There is an underlying sentiment of racism in my dear
country, but it is a sentiment that is being peddled around as ideological
rigidity of the right. My friend, those right-wing ideas are born of pure,
amazing, but unadulterated ignorance.”
“What is the lesson?”
“You didn’t get it?”
“I didn’t! What is the lesson?”
“The strategy! Yes, the strategy the
Germans used and are using against us is what I am talking about. Defeat a
people militarily, and then make peace with the despondent in their midst who
have no fight left in them. Do so by also giving the despondent privileges and the
trappings of power. That way, the despondent becomes your bulwark and works
with you in fighting those resisting your rule. The despondent becomes your
puppet without really knowing it, albeit a puppet who thinks he is being
realistic and that he is safeguarding what is left of the interest of the
country he purports to love. You see, the despondent even gets to the point of
convincing himself that he is a realistic
if not a pragmatic patriot. He might even consider himself a nationalist, when you and I know that the most
consciousness he can develop is that of a pseudo-patriot. He has allowed
limitations to be placed on the sovereignty of his nation.”
Joseph Nkabyo Njike sighed. The exchange with his French friend happened
almost two decades ago, but the truth of Marcel’s words was reverberating now.
What Marcel viewed as a brilliant strategy used by the Nazis against the French
people during the Second World War had apparently been adopted by those who
were the leaders of the Free French Forces, those very French patriots who had
opposed Nazism so much. Only, these new leaders of France were using it now
against his people, against French Camerounians who gave the Free French Forces
their territory for the movement to form its first base in Africa. These new
leaders of France were using the strategy against the people of the former
German Kamerun who were the first Africans to rally behind General Charles De
Gaulle and his resistant organization in the French campaign to liberate France
and defeat the German Army. The General Charles De Gaulle he and other French
Camerounians had risked their lives for by forming the core of the foreign
fighters in the Free French Force that liberated Paris from German control in
August 1944, was now disregarding the will, the dignity and the rights of his
people in a manner that happened to be similar to that of Nazi Germany in so
many ways. But he was tired. He would not fight the French or their army in
French Cameroun. He would not fight anyone any more. He would make sure he
stayed alive to safeguard his family. His children needed his love and guidance
to go through their world that was becoming more complicated with every passing
I need to get a good night’s rest for the journey to Yaoundé
tomorrow with Jean-Marie, he thought.
He would travel to the capital city the next day with
Marcel’s son Jean-Marie Mbombo Kahn, for the young man’s travel documents as
another phase in his preparation for the trip to France to start his freshman
year at the University of Toulouse where he planned to study medicine. How he
was so proud of that boy who called him father, just like his own real sons. He
felt a twinge of shame thinking that he might not have been reciprocal enough.
No, the boy was his son in every sense of the word. After all, didn’t he shed
tears of joy when Jean-Marie graduated from High School, and didn’t he embrace the young man with the pride of an
accomplished father when he passed his baccalaureate? Jean-Marie was his son
all right, even if he did not seed him. After all, he came into the boy’s life
after the war and never made himself unavailable since then, guiding him
through his childhood and adolescence, teaching him the lessons of manhood,
sending him off to the boarding school called Lycée de Manengouba with joy and expectations
just like he was doing now with Bernard Ketcha who happened not to be as
nimble-witted. He was proud of the young man’s accomplishments and looked
forward to the day he would address him as Doctor Jean-Marie Mbombo Kahn and
show him off to his world for all his worth.
When he committed himself to the war
effort against Nazi Germany, his decision was based on a deep idealistic
overtone of fighting for humanity. However, he admitted to a few friends
afterwards that the other reason he joined the Free French Forces was to confront
and overcome his phobia for war. He wanted to cleanse himself of the curse of
war put on his grandfather so that it would not haunt him or any of his
descendants in the future.
As a matter of fact, he
loved his new life as a soldier during the first year he spent fighting with
the Free French Forces. The battles against Vichy forces in French Equatorial
Africa and the march against Italian forces all the way to the southeastern
Libyan Desert in the campaign that culminated in the capture of the oasis town
of Kufra, known for its strategic aerial connection to Italian East Africa,
revealed the long hidden warrior instincts he inherited from his forebears.
After the fall of Kufra, he joined his comrades in arms and somberly swore the
oath their commander Jacques LeClerc came up with, pledging to continue
fighting until "our flag flies over the Cathedral of Strasbourg".
Though he had no clue at the time as to why his commander chose Strasbourg of
all places, he committed the name of the city to memory as the epicenter of the
struggle to liberate France from German occupation.
The rush of adrenaline as
he confronted danger made him feel alive more
than he had ever felt before. It was as if the rattle of machine gunfire, the
crackle of rifle shots, and the deafening sound of explosives all mingled with
the shouts and cries of the frightened, the wounded, the dying, the brave and
the motivated to give more life to his being. This strange excitement from
combat was easy to handle until the scale of the casualties increased multiple folds when what he initially thought would be a
short war moved into the second year; when he watched his comrades in arms die
in battle, in makeshift hospitals, and
from their own hands.
He became a
battle-hardened and an experienced combatant from the military encounters in
Eritrea against Italian forces in the horn of Africa. He even learned some
Arabic too while fighting with the 1st Free French Light Division in Palestine,
Syria, and Lebanon against forces of the
Vichy regime as the Free French Forces wrestled control of the last two
mentioned French mandatory territories from the control of the collaborating
Vichy forces. But then, the ache in his heart increased as he spent more days,
weeks and months away from French Cameroun and his family, so that he starting wishing earnestly for the war to come
to a speedy end, even though the reality on the ground was telling him a
When Italian dictator
Benito Mussolini tried to link Italian North Africa to Italian East Africa, the
fellow must have thought it would be a simple affair. His forces in Libya were
five times more in numbers than the British Forces in Egypt. As a matter of
fact, the invasion went well until the British counter-offensive in early
December of 1940 liberated western Egypt and decimated Italian forces in
Northern Cyrenaica, forcing Italian forces to beat a panicked retreat into
Tripolitania. It was a very dire situation for the Italians that December,
especially with Commonwealth troops now poised to overrun Tripolitania. But
Mussolini came to his senses quick enough the moment it dawned on him that the
collapse of the Italian Army in the rest of Libya was eminent. Even so, few
pundits saw it coming when the proud Italian dictator sought the assistance of
his German ally. Adolf Hitler heeded his plea for help and responded to the
impending disaster right away by deploying the newly formed German corps,
otherwise, known as the "Afrika Korps", under the command of
the brilliant and charismatic General Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel.
With Free French Forces
edging north from their bases in Chad and the southern Libyan Desert, and as
the Allies pressed westward from Cyrenaica, Rommel’s arrival in Libya proved timely
for the Italians. But nobody, not even the Germans, expected the reversal of
fortunes to be so dramatic. By the end of April 1941, Axis forces had routed
the Allies out of most of Libya all the way to Sallum at the Egyptian border,
except Tobruk and the surrounding area. A year of offensives and
counteroffensives from both sides kept the frontlines in North Africa virtually
Joseph, Marcel, the rest
of the Free French Forces and the Allies knew that the Axis powers needed to
capture Tobruk in order to push into Egypt and control the Suez Canal. With
regrouping Axis troops threatening Allied forces thirty miles east of Tobruk
along a line that ran thirty miles south from Gazala at the coast, the
entrenched and equally regrouping Allied forces went about their business of
fortifying their defenses in preparation for the anticipated show down sometime
in May. However, while the northern defense around Tobruk was well prepared and
well-constructed, making it almost impregnable to any advancing army, the
southern part was not as tightly fortified, leaving it vulnerable to
penetration from a heavy flanking force. General Claude Auchinleck, the
Commander in Chief of British Middle East Command and the overall commander of
Allied forces in North Africa, expected the Axis to attack the northern part of
the defense. So, he placed the better armed and better trained 8th
Army there. Here he was outsmarted by Rommel who attacked Gazala on May 26,
giving the impression that the north was the main point of attack. At the same
time, he sent the cream of his forces to the south, thereby outflanking the 8th
Army in the process. But Rommel’s plan to cut the Allied supply lines by
gaining rear access to their southern defenses did not go as smoothly as
planned because of Bir Hakeim.
When General Claude
Auchinleck asked General Marie Pierre Koenig, commander of the 1st Free French
Division to relieve the British forces manning the fort in the oasis of Bir
Hakeim, he never expected much from this diverse military unit made up mostly
of French Camerounians, Chadians, and
other Equatorial Africans. However, quick Axis successes against British troops
south of the oasis made Bir Hakeim the next place to overrun in Rommel’s
southern plunge that was intended to deceive the opposing Allied forces.
Alerted of the rapidly advancing Axis forces, General Koenig readied his men in
defensive positions early the next morning. So, when the enemy attacked, the
fighters of the 1st Free French Division were prepared to do battle with the over-confident
He remembered the first
day of fighting at Bir Hakeim as the proudest day of his life as a soldier
because they fought in a manner and with a spirit that was beyond their
expectations, forcing the enemy to retreat in earnest. The 1st Free
French Division did not lose a single soldier that day, but they deprived the
Axis forces of four dozen tanks and captured ninety-one prisoners. It turned
out that even though Bir Hakeim held out, the Allied positions just north of it
fared much worse as those defending it got wiped out, thereby leaving them at
Bir Hakeim isolated and under siege.
The difficult development
forced the defenders of Bir Hakeim to ration food and water, fortify their
ranks and develop a suicidal mentality. In fact, they barely covered their eyes
to get some rest thereafter. All the same, the dire situation made them become closer to one another than ever before;
it made them determined to stick it to the Germans and their Italian allies. To
sustain their bodies alongside their high spirits, they treated the fresh
supplies the 101st motorized company brought in on May 31, under the
cloak of darkness as if they were divine nourishment or as if they were manner
Still, survival was the
dominant thought on his mind as he battled the Germans and their Italian allies
alongside his fellow soldiers of the Free French Forces. So, when he found out
the next morning that the returning convoy took Bruno with them because of the
wound he suffered from enemy sniper fire just before dawn that day, he wondered
what was going on. But that did not mean he was not happy his young relative
would not see the worst of the fighting, which he knew was yet to come.
Later that day, as he
manned his position with a sniper rifle aimed at the desert night, Marcel
scrambled to his side and asked him if he wanted a smoke. He declined by
shaking his head.
“Here is a letter for
“From me, of course! I
want you to keep it tucked somewhere underneath your uniform until the appropriate
time for you to open it and see what I have written in there.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you make it and I
don’t come out of this war alive, I want you to give the letter to either of my
parents, my mother preferably.”
“What is it about?”
“You will find out. They
will have something for you when you hand it over to them.”
“You are beginning to
“I know. There is
something else I want you to know. I am responsible for Bruno’s evacuation.
There was no enemy fire.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He talked to me a week
ago about the consultation he had with a marabou before he left French
Cameroun; he told me the fellow gave him an amulet which is supposed to protect
him from enemy fire.
“I don’t get it.”
“All I am trying to say
is that your young cousin is convinced he survived the last four days of this
war madness because of the amulet.”
“I still don’t
Marcel shook his head
with a gentle smile on his face. “When I spotted Bruno this morning as he tried
to slip out into the desert to attack our enemies, I thought to stop him was the right thing to do. So I
sniped him in the leg. It was a spur of the moment decision to put him safely
out of the way of death that was lurking around right in front of him. I say so
because German and Italian soldiers thirsty for our blood were not far away.
Now, I am glad I got him in the knee. He would walk all right, but he wouldn’t
be considered fit for fighting anymore.”
“What do you think you
“I just saved the life of
your crazy cousin who was trying to get himself killed. You don’t intend to
tell anyone about it, do you?”
“You are crazy, just like
“So, why did you really
“Your people are known
for grieving the loss of a loved one very deeply. I didn’t want his death to
make you and Bartholomew lose focus. I don’t know what Bartholomew is going
through at the moment, but you and I would consider ourselves blessed if we
both make it out of here alive. We would even be lucky if either one of us survives this siege. Mon Frère, we are about to see the real hell on earth.”
As a matter of fact, he
was right. Their first real hell on earth began the next morning when they
spotted fresh German troops advancing from the south and Italian troops closing
in from the north. It turned out to be a harbinger of what was to come. General
Rommel’s reinforcement must have given the Axis forces a very powerful boost
because two Italian officers stepped forward and asked the defenders of the
fort to surrender it or be blasted into smithereens. But they were not cowed at
all. General Koenig rejected their offer and all hell broke loose the next day.
German air raids after air raids, artillery exchanges between the opposing
forces, the exploding minefields, the stench of burning materials and bodies
were damaging all right, but the frequent counter raids by the Royal Air Force
(RAF) kept up the morale of the defenders of the fort. All the same, the
fighting depleted them of their strength. Even so, the Axis forces only managed
to advance to within eight hundred yards of their defensive positions on the
morning of the fourth day and made it to the inner perimeter the next day.
Despite the fall in fortunes, the Free French Forces did not relent, fighting
from their barricades, dugouts, fox holes and fortified positions.
He saw death and
destruction everywhere, but with morale still high, they kept on resisting as
if the fort meant the entire world to them. Soldiers of the Foreign Legion, the
Colonial battalions, the Fusiliers Marins
(Marine Fusiliers) and the Marine Infantry fought together in a brotherly
spirit that he had never seen before―their blood and sweat mingling together,
their muscles and determination propping up and urging one another to continue
fighting in a manner that made Marcel feel like he was participating in the
greatest moment in French history, a feeling he echoed by remarking that they
were like the Jewish zealots taking a stand at Masada. But he did not like the
comparison. He was convinced that his people were not suicidal at all. After
all, he could not remember a time in his life that he had harbored a death
When General Koenig
announced in the third week of fighting
that they would have to evacuate the fort, the Free French soldiers did not
question his decision at all. They had every reason to feel it was the right
thing to do at that moment. After all, they had put up a good show and slowed
down the Axis drive to the east by prolonging the capture of Gazala and Tobruk,
thereby giving the Allied forces ample time to reinforce the Egyptian defenses.
As a matter of fact, the June 11 evacuation turned out to be truly heroic, even
though there was a chaotic side to the entire process. Putting everything in
perspective, it turned out that the Axis powers suffered more casualties that
day than the Free French Forces, many of whom successfully broke through the
German encirclement to the extraction point where British forces picked them up
and ferried them away to safety.
The 1st Free French
Division lost more than half of its fighters at the Battle of Bir Hakeim—nine hundred soldiers of the Division captured by the Axis
forces. However, he, Marcel, Pierre Messmer, Raphel Onana, George Philippe
Roccard and the other battle weary survivors of Bir Hakeim would rest and
regroup for the first and second battles of El Alamein that would turn the tide
of the war against General Rommel and his seemingly unstoppable Afrika
As the Italians and the
Germans entrenched their positions in Libya and northwestern Egypt, as French
West Africa continued pledging its loyalty to the Vichy regime, and as French
North Africa under Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, a Vichy
sympathizer, hesitated to switch sides and join the Allies and the Free French
Forces, he fine-toned his fighting skills in preparation for the next battle.
Moving up the ranks in the Free French Forces was not something he had aspired
deeply for, but he accepted the recognition of his efforts with a great deal of
indifference that surprised Marcel, who on several occasions, expressed his
discomfort that he had been promoted to the rank of a major while his French
Camerounian counterpart was still a Chief Adjutant. Still, the friends worked
together. Marcel never stopped seeking his opinion and even directives despite
the new difference in their ranks.
When the second battle of
El Alamein began, he was already an expert shooter and a highly decorated
soldier. However, he remembered little about the battle because he was knocked
unconscious on the second day of fighting by an explosion caused by a tank
shell. When he became conscious again on his recovery bed, the medical staff by
his bedside told him he was lucky because he only suffered a concussion and
shrapnel wounds that would heal in about a month or two, while all the men in
his squad died in the battle. All the same, he suffered from recurring
headaches afterwards that left him agonizing in excruciating pains. However, he
only felt relieved when the battle ended with Marcel and Raphel Onana alive.
Then Marcel came up to
his tent one afternoon with news that caused him extreme joy. What many of them
thought before to be a flop had just been turned around to get the expected
result. “Operation Torch”, the Allied landing in Algiers that sparked off fighting
between Allied troops on the one hand and Vichy forces with assistance from
Germany on the other hand, had just been brought to an end because Admiral Jean
Louis Xavier François Darlan ordered French Forces in North Africa to cease
fire and join the Allied Powers against Germany, and also because General Henri
Honoré Giraud accepted to be General Darlan’s subordinate under his new appointment
as commander of the Army of Africa and the other French forces in North Africa,
a development that prompted the Vichy forces in French West Africa to follow
suite and join the Allied war effort, thereby effectively securing the entire
French Africa for French anti-Vichy forces and the Allies. Adolf Hitler
responded to these developments by ordering German forces to occupy Corsica and
the unoccupied south of France. But that was not all about it. Germany
responded further by banning Vichy forces in the entire territory of France,
leaving the Vichy regime with jurisdictional powers only.
“My compatriot, these
developments mean we are going to have a big war in North Africa,” Marcel added
excitedly as if he had to put a coating on
the breaking news on the rapid turn of events in French North Africa.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, Joseph; I see a
lot of intrigues in all of these developments.”
“What are you trying to
say? Aren’t you happy that at long last, all of us in Africa are on the same
side now in the fight against Germany and Italy?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then what is the
Marcel laughed weakly and
shook his head. “I know my people from the motherland.”
“What are you trying to
“The United States and
Great Britain endorsed Admiral Darlan without seeking General Charles De
Gaulle’s approval. I am sure they did something like that because they know the
support of French North Africa and French West Africa would be more substantial
to the Allied war effort than the input from General Charles De Gaulle’s French
Equatorial African base. The two Anglophone powers tricked General Giraud with
promises to allow him to lead the Allied
Command in the landings in North Africa and France, something that never
happened and is never going to happen. Today, he finds himself under the
command of Admiral Darlan, and the French are not going to command the Allied
war effort in the impending Tunisian campaign. General Charles De Gaulle is our
hero, especially those of us who are out of the motherland, but the people of
France look up to General Giraud as the all-time war hero. General Giraud
fought the invading German Army in France until they captured and imprisoned
him; the general went on to orchestrate his escape from prison in the heart of
Germany, made his way to the South of France. He even tried to convince
Marshall Petain to lead France in resisting the occupation, all to no avail,
yet he did not condemn the Vichy leader. Take it as accurate information from
your friend here that General Giraud commands the loyalty and respect for most
of the fighters in the French Resistance in France, the majority of whom are
with the left. They look up to him more than they do to the other generals. So,
tell me my friend; can these three generals who three months ago happened to be
on different, if not opposing sides, work together for the salvation of
“What do you mean by
“Isn’t it obvious?
Admiral Darlan harbors right-wing ideas that many people consider extreme,
though it is not bad as Hitler’s or Mussolini’s. General De Gaulle is a
civilized right-winger. Meanwhile, our General Giraud is a left-winger for all
intents and purposes.”
“Your categorization is
“Thank you. But you still
haven’t answered my question.”
“I think they can work
together. In fact, I think that is what they are going to do because each and
every one of them loves France with a strong passion.”
“I don’t think so, my
Marcel might have been
right after all because news reached them in the Libyan Desert on Christmas day
1942, reporting the death of Admiral Darlan, gunned down at the doorsteps of
his office by Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, a twenty-year old member of the
French resistance who objected to the admiral’s past collaboration with Germany
and his lackluster embrace of the new alliance with the French Resistance and
the Free French Forces. When Marcel informed him a couple of days afterwards
that Fernand had been tried and executed two days after he committed the
murder, if not assassination, and that General Giraud was now the de facto
successor and commander in chief of French forces in Algeria, Tunisia and
Morocco, he stopped taking Marcel’s insights lightly, he stopped taking his
African-born French friend for granted.
Those rapid turn of
events prompted him to start scouring for more information from other soldiers
about the developments in French North Africa. That was how he found out about
the agreement General De Gaulle and General Giraud reached to become
co-presidents of the Free French Forces and the Comité Français de la
Libération Nationale, otherwise known as the French Committee of National
Liberation, which was a body formed to provide a unified command or leadership,
and to organize and coordinate the campaign to liberate France. Somehow, he
wondered if the two generals would be able to carry on as equal partners
throughout the war. But then, when he learned that General De Gaulle thwarted
General Giraud’s attempt to lift all the racist laws undermining the rights of
the indigenous peoples of Africa, but then went on to support only the
restoration of the Cremieux decree that allowed full citizenship for the
Jews in Algeria while maintaining the lower status of the Africans there, he
thought the leader of the Free French Forces probably wanted to move gradually.
He did not want to dwell on the thought that his French hero could be having an
underlying contempt for the very Africans who were giving their sweat and blood
to restore French honor, people who apparently were very committed to the
defeat of Nazi Germany.
In the Tunisian campaign
that followed the capture of Tripoli, he fought with the conviction that
kicking the forces of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany out of Tunisia would be
the last routing of a distasteful idea from African soil. Long and bitter
though the campaign was, he never complained, he never lost heart and he never
had an emotional breakdown. That is, until May 13, 1943, when two hundred and thirty thousand German and Italian
soldiers surrendered to Allied forces, confirming the defeat of the Axis armies
in Africa. That was the day he went down on his knees and wept for the first
time in his adult life. He shed tears of joy. But something was not lost to him
as he celebrated the victory with his fellow comrades in arms. The Free French
Forces in Africa that began as a ragtag force of dozens of soldiers in Douala,
French Cameroun, had evolved into a powerful fighting force to reckon with; and
they, blacks from Sub-Saharan Africa, constituted the absolute majority of this
force. Meanwhile, Maghrebians—North
Africans of mostly Berber and/or Arab origin—constituted slightly more than
half of the combatants of the former Vichy forces of French North Africa and
French West Africa, now called the French Army of Africa. Overall, Africans
constituted more than three quarters of the fighters of the different French
forces when put together.
News that General Giraud
and General Charles De Gaulle decided it would be better to merge the Army of
Africa and the Free French Forces they respectively commanded into the unified
French Liberation Army, was highly welcomed by the rank and file soldiers
fighting for the ultimate liberation of France. Still, he, like his other
comrades in arms of the Free French Forces, did not stop regarding the former
Vichy soldiers with suspicion. That is why he did not like the fact that the
Allies commissioned the 1st Free French Division, comprising mostly men of the former
Free French Forces, to garrison Libya, and then went on to give the
reconstituted 1st Army Corps, brimming with men from the former Vichy forces in
North Africa, the responsibility to liberate Corsica. However, when he learned
that they succeeded in their mission to free the French island with the help of
Italian soldiers who turned against their former German allies, he was happy
The one year that
soldiers of the 1st Free French Division chafed their nerves garrisoning Libya
was not altogether bad for him because he was granted a furlough, allowing him
to go home and spend some time in French Cameroun with his family and friends.
This break gave him the
opportunity to spend cherished moments playing with his sons, bonding with his
daughter born during the Gabon campaign and reiterating his undying love to his
wife Maria. A week before he returned to Libya, news reached him reporting
Bartholomew’s return from Asia to enjoy the break from the war with his family
in Victoria, British Southern Cameroons. He told his wife about it, and then left the next day to see his
Dusk was on the horizon,
the imposing Cameroon Mountain was looking picturesque in the background and
the distant sea appeared forlorn from across his left shoulder as he approached
Bartholomew’s home. He always thought Victoria was an amazing place to live in,
but the beauty of nature all around him that day failed to be the one thing he
remembered the most afterwards because of Bruno. The sight of his limping
second cousin emerging from the house never featured as one of the things he
expected to experience that day. But there he was, his former protégée, raising
his head and dimming his eyes as if wondering who the visitor could be, before
opening his mouth and shouting out his name with great delight. He hollered
back at Bruno in a voice full of keen pleasure, and then the two cousins fell
into each other’s arms in a heart-felt embrace.
Their elation must have
alerted Bartholomew because he appeared hardly a minute after, yelled his name
too before joyfully taking him into his arms. They rambled heartily of their
great delight at seeing and meeting again, inquired about each other’s health
and the welfare of their families, stammered, shook their heads, gave thanks to
the lord for the blessings he never ceased to shower on them, and then they became
quiet all of a sudden as if they needed to catch their breaths. It was then
that Bartholomew grabbed his bag and walked him inside. He was still having a
wide smile on his face as he took the bag to the customary bedroom Joseph slept
in whenever he visited, and then returned and joined them in the sitting room.
Bartholomew's wife Jocelyn and their two sons Peter and Paul came forward
moments after and offered their greetings too, and then scurried away as if they
thought that these soldiers fighting for British and French forces wanted to be
left alone. as if responding to the departure of the mother and her sons, the
three soldiers sat down with beaming expressions on their faces and carried on
with their conversation in an exuberant manner, fueled by the boiled groundnuts
Jocelyn supplied and the corn beer Bartholomew brought to the table. They had
so much to talk about the challenges encountered during the war that they ate supper
still recounting their stories, they drank late into the night still exchanging
their experiences and views, and they went to bed reflecting on their different
accounts of the conflict consuming three continents. But he never told either
of his second cousins about Marcel’s role in taking Bruno out of the war.
On the third day, just as
he was about to leave, as the three men gathered together for the final
conference, he advised Bruno to get married and start a family, a sentiment
Bartholomew echoed. Then the three men promised to see again the next year,
convinced the war would be over by then. With his spirit elevated, he made his
way back to his family in Douala feeling more refreshed and optimistic. That
was why when he returned to Libya, his appreciation of life, love and family
was greater than ever before. It was on the account of the recent developments
that when the 1st Free French Division landed in Italy that April of
1944 to assist French and other Allied troops gearing up to fight there, he was
ready for real action.
Somehow, they became
involved in the Italian Campaign when it was at its most difficult stage. Even
though it was already half a year since the Allied landed on the Italian
peninsula, they were yet to break through the Winter Line―a series of German
military fortifications of minefields, barbed-wires, concrete bunkers, gun
pits, and turreted and machine-gun emplacements constructed across the Italian
peninsula from east to west to defend the area that stretched slightly north of
Rome to the northern frontiers of Naples.
Thrust into the fight for
Monte Cassino in what became known as the fourth Battle of Monte Cassino, the 1st
Free French Division and the rest of the French forces outperformed their
Allied counterparts, fighting their way through until they finally captured
Monte Maio, which then allowed them to assist the Eighth Army in the nearby
Liri valley. Unlike the forces of the other Allied countries, they never lost
ground in the brutal battle known for its offensives and counteroffensives
where strategic grounds were lost, gained and lost,
again and again, consuming thousands of lives in the process and leaving even
greater numbers wounded. When the Germans finally retreated from Monte Cassino
and Anzo to the Gothic Line up north, thereby conceding the loss of the Winter
Line, the Allied forces found those places in rubble.
Like many of the men of
the 1st Free French Division, he too deplored the fact that they
were not taking part in Operation Overlord that began on 6 June 1944, otherwise
known as D-Day, a high-stakes and well-planned operation that involved the
landing of Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy in the north of France. He
would have been extremely proud had he been a participant in the campaign that
finally brought the war to the Germans in France for the first time since they
occupied the country. Still, he and the others of the 1st Free
French Division followed the developments of the war there from their positions
in Italy, feeding on whatever bits and pieces of information about the Allied
progress in France that they could lay their hands, eyes, and ears on. The brief interlude of calm soon set his mind at
work again on ways to pursue the Germans further up north. In fact, he was
starting to look forward to the day their Division would resume the fighting in
Italy until the last of the Germans forces there had been defeated, when his commanders came up with
other plans. They wanted the 1st Free French Division to participate in
Operation Dragoon as part of the French 1st Army, comprising mostly North
African units from the Army of Africa. He was okay with the decision because he
now felt comfortable working with the Maghrebians and the French
Pied-noirs—North Africans of European ancestry, who not long ago were soldiers
taking orders from the puppet Vichy government in the south of France. So, he
readied and waited.
When their version of
D-Day arrived, he was more than relieved. The successful August 15 and August
16 parachute and amphibious landings of Allied
troops on the beaches between Nice and Toulon in Provence, in the southwest of
France, stunned the Germans who never imagined that the Allied Powers were
thinking of opening a second front in France. The ferocity of the assault that
followed the landing sent the enemy forces into a state of panic, so that
hardly a week into the operation, the German forces were seen retreating to the
Vosges Mountains in eastern France, near the border with Germany as if they
were being chased by the devil. He was amazed by the developments.
In fact, he and his
fellow Allied soldiers were still savoring their successful landing and early
victories when news of the Battle for Paris reached their camp. For the first
time since he got involved in the war, he regretted why he did not become a
soldier in the 2nd Armored Division under the command of General LeClerc, who,
working with the French Resistance, was leading the fight against the German
Army in the French capital. Buoyed by the capitulation of the German forces in
Paris hardly a week into the fighting there, intoxicated by news of the
harassment of the German Army all across France by the local French Resistance,
and frenzied by Allied successes in Operation Overlord, the French 1st
Army and the other Allied forces in the south pushed westwards and northwards,
capturing a hundred and thirty thousand German troops and securing most of
Southern France by the end of the fourth week. But then, the Allied forces of
the Southern Front quickly realized that they were overstretched and short of
supplies. So, they stopped their advances, consolidated their positions and
went about repairing the transportation network of Southern France for the
shipment of supplies for the impending offensive to liberate all of France and
advance into Germany.
One of the good things
about the lull in fighting during this late summer was that it gave him the
opportunity to know France, appreciate its countryside, enjoy its cities and
meet with its civilian population. Marcel helped him in this endeavor—joining
him in singing the Zangelewa song in
a bar in Nimes, giving him the honor to open a bottle of champagne for the
first time in his life as they toasted with a French extended family of four
generations in their vineyard in the Languedoc countryside. When their hosts
asked them to spend the night there as their honored guests, Marcel looked at
him in a conspiratorial manner, so that they raised their shoulders in a
seemingly synchronized fashion, said bien sûr, and then thanked the
family for their great hospitality. But he didn’t see it coming when Irene
Armand, a thirty-six-year-old lady of the third generation, sneaked into his
bedroom late that night, hushed him quiet, and then got underneath his
bedcovers and entreated him to make her feel like a woman again, after telling
him in very few words that her socialist husband, a Maquisard in the French
Resistance, died a month before the Normandy landing as a result of a gunfight
with German soldiers. And since he did not know what to say, he just went along
with the flow and made her feel she was the most desirable woman in the whole
of France that he had ever laid eyes on.
During breakfast the next
morning, at a time that he was yet to digest the experience of the night
before, he found himself flustered when Marcel smiled at him in a teasing
manner, and then looked at Irene and her twenty-nine-year-old cousin Caroline
Armand with mischievous eyes. However, not until right after breakfast, when
Marcel confided in him of the wonderful time he had in bed with Caroline the
night before, did he finally understand what was going on. Only then did he
tell his friend of his affair with Irene. He was expecting Marcel to be taken
aback if not shocked, but his friend surprised him by bursting into a raucous
laughter, and then went on to hug him still expressing his mirth as if he were
glad they had ended up again as conspirators in another gamble.
If they ever thought
their affairs with the Armand women were over after they left the next day,
then they were badly mistaken. The cousins went on to pay them visits at their
camp; the women went out with them to bars, parks,
and the cinema; and they promenaded around with their African lovers as if they
had known the Free French fighters all their lives. However, he found it
strange that the cousins never even broached the subject of their wives and
families in French Cameroun as if they expected nothing back from the men they
were heaping so much love on. All the same, when the cousins shed tears the day
the train carrying their lovers hissed and jerked for the journey to the war
front, the friends understood that they had touched souls that could not be
taken for granted.
His love of France and
the French people kept growing stronger as he fought with them against the
retreating German Army through the Vosges Mountains and as they made their way
together into Alsace. With France liberated, and as they took stock of the
developments in a process that involved him rubbing shoulders with the
different shades of units that now constituted the French Army of 1.3 million
soldiers under arms, he discovered things that disheartened him so much. The
Free French Forces he had enlisted in and proudly fought under in a selfless
manner, the Free French Forces he had watched emerge in defeat and victory with
heads held high, the Free French Forces that embraced the Army of Africa which
was loyal to the Vichy regime, and then went on to give it a new character,
thereby making the two a proud fighting force of a quarter of a million
soldiers, the Free French Forces that formed the core of the new French Army of
four hundred and forty thousand men, eighty percent of them indigenous Africans
when the Allies landed in France, the Free French Forces he had always held
proudly in his heart even in the morphed form, was now an army of France of 1.3
million soldiers that he could hardly recognize because the French Army had
grown over the months to include members of the French Resistance and other
French men and women who joined the fight when the Allies landed in France,
people who had no regard for the contribution of the North Africans and
Sub-Saharan Africans in the liberation of Africa and France.
He heard stories of how
during Operation Overlord, African soldiers who had faced death and who had
eaten dirt in battles in Africa and Italy suddenly found themselves relegated
to junior positions and other inconspicuous roles while less qualified French
men got promoted. He learned that some French Divisions, among which was the
2nd Armored Division, purged their ranks of Africans before joining forces with
the French Resistance in the battle to liberate Paris, doing so under the
thinking that French citizens were likely to have a hard time associating their
liberation with the goodwill of African soldiers. Only with the liberation of
France did it dawn on him that the half a million Maghrebians and Sub-Saharan
Africans were now a minority in the new French Army that recently became the
fourth largest army in Europe. He was lost for words when he found out that the
majority in the leadership of this new army would not give people like him who
were not French citizens their deserved treatment and recognition.
When he brought the
subject up to Marcel, his friend was very candid in his response.
“With the exception of us
from Africa, there are four factions in the army at this very moment: The first
is the seven hundred thousand or more soldiers we have today who never resisted
German occupation during the four years of humiliation but who upon seeing the
approaching victory for the Allies, joined the war and are now fighting for
France, feeling great about themselves in the process as if without their
contribution, France would not be completely liberated. The second are the
hundred thousand soldiers from the French Resistance who never left France,
people who felt humiliated by the occupation and were brave enough to join the
Maquis or the other partisan groups that resisted the Germans in the
countryside, the urban areas and other parts of France. Our third are the
soldiers who accepted the defeat of France by Germany, fighters who accepted to
keep wearing their uniforms and went on to collaborate with the Germans,
thereby acknowledging the role of Petain, his government and the Vichy regime
in the South of France. Today, this third group is made up mostly of French
citizens from French North Africa and French West Africa, by which I mean Pied-noirs and the other French men and
women who were serving in Africa when the war broke out. The people of this
group redeemed themselves by joining the struggle, but the sad thing is that
they are carrying on as if they have to justify the two years they failed to
get involved in the struggle on the side of liberation. Our fourth group of
soldiers is those who refused to accept the defeat of France even after Germany
captured all of the motherland. They escaped humiliation by staying out of
France during the four years of occupation and the collaboration of the Vichy
regime. In French Equatorial Africans, they found willing if not magnanimous
friends who made them relevant with their sweat and blood sacrificed in the
African Desert fighting Germany, Italy and their allies. The people of the
fourth group that I am talking about are those soldiers who constituted the
Free French Forces, especially those who were there when everything started in
“So, where do you
“I am not in any of the
groups. Let’s say I am a Pied-noir,
but one who happened to be comfortable with the fourth group. I am an
African-Born French citizen who was not in France when the war started, but who
kept his French honor intact by never accepting the Vichy government and by
fighting for the Free French Forces.”
“You consider yourself a Pied-noir?”
“Uh-huh! What better
description do you have for me?”
“What has your
classification got to do with the way blacks and Maghrebians are feeling today
about the treatment they are getting from the new French Army?”
“I will make it simple.
Africans, especially people like us from French Equatorial Africa, who were the
first to join the Free French Forces, make those of the first group of French
men feel like they are gutless. We from
French Equatorial Africa are the ones who have gone all the way in fighting the
war. We are the ones who have been there from the beginning to the end.
Undermining us is like refusing to accept our role in the liberation of France
or it could be a delusional way of saying that serving France is our principal
reason for being on this earth. The second group might not like us as well
because they too confronted danger resisting the Germans all these years, but
they were doing so for their honor and for their country, the reason why they
are having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that people like you
risked your lives in a war that did not really concern your homeland and your
people. The third group envies us because of the simple fact that we never
wavered. My fear is that some of our Free French Forces people, by whom I mean
those who had little or nothing to do with Africa during the war, are now
beginning to think that Africans are no longer relevant in the war effort.”
“It is like satisfying
yourself with a whore, and then dumping him afterwards as if she has no other purpose
Marcel was thoughtful for
a moment before he said in a tired voice. “It is something like that. Yes,
that’s it. All the same, I think it is a phase. They will learn; they will
overcome the feeling of humiliation. Believe me, Joseph. It is only a matter of
time. It wouldn’t be long before these different groups come to truly
appreciate us from Africa.”
The friends conversed a
little longer before they coiled up in their sleeping spots, said goodnight to
each other and then tried to catch some needed rest for the night before
joining the other soldiers the next day in the Allied thrust into Germany.
It was during this lull
in fighting on the Western Front that he deepened his interest in the developments of the war on the Eastern
Front. He was initially shocked when he pried and found out that Germany had
been committing about two thirds of its forces against the Soviet Union
throughout the war and that most of the German casualties in the war came from
the brutal battles fought against the Soviet Red Army. Further information
picked up revealed the enormous price the Soviet Union had paid and was still
paying in materials and human lives, especially during the early stages of the
It soon became evident to
him that the much talked about assistance the Soviets received from their
American and British allies was overrated and that the Russians and their other
fellow Soviet compatriots had managed through most of their own efforts to build
a formidable war machine and a military industrial complex that was not only
baffling the retreating Germany Army in the East, but that was also intriguing
the Allied powers in the West. However, he didn’t have enough reasons to be
optimistic about the authenticity of the information he was getting from the
newspapers and journals reporting Soviet military advances in the east against
the retreating German Army, reports spelling out the recovery of territories
they had lost in Belorussia, Ukraine and Moldavia. He learned with misgivings
that further Soviet offensives had forced German troops out of Eastern Poland
and Eastern Romania, sparking off local uprisings in Poland and Southern
Czechoslovakia, as well as coup d’états that brought down the pro-Nazi regimes
in Romania and Bulgaria. When he found out that the advance of Soviet troops
into Yugoslavia had forced the Germans to withdraw their troops from Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia, he knew the Soviet
Union that his patron Joseph Nana Njike had talked to him about with guarded
respect had truly arrived at the world stage as a super power or military force
to reckon with.
The last month of the year was the time it
dawned on him that there would be a race between the Western Powers and the
Soviet Union on who would get to Berlin first. Also, he could not dispel a
gnawing feeling that the retreating German troops would likely capitulate to
the western forces than surrender to the Soviets and their new Eastern European
allies. That meant one thing only—the war was virtually over for them and he
was less likely to die from the impending campaign to overrun Germany and kick
the Nazis out of power.
So, when news reached him
too that mid December 1944, reporting a major Germans offensive through the
Ardennes region that formed the borders of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, he was shocked if not unprepared for it. He
followed with puzzlement the news of German advances, of Allied
counteroffensives, of German counterattacks, of the massacre the Germans
committed against Allied prisoners at Malmedy, of the retaliatory massacre of
sixty German prisoners of war by American troops close to the Belgian village
of Chenogne on New Year 1945, and of the return to what was the pre-offensive
battle lines that middle of January 1945. He kept abreast of those developments
and the halt to the German advance in the north of France even as he battled
with the 1st Division in conjunction with other Allied troops
against the Germans in Alsace. But the fighting was low-keyed until the German
19th Army launched an offensive in late January 1945, forcing them to pay a
very high price while defending the area south of Strasbourg.
It was during the battle
that he was wounded in the right shoulder and his left leg as he tried to
rescue a wounded French soldier who had been lying exposed on the ground for
several minutes while crackles of rifle fire ringed the air. The fact that he
got shot after he hefted the guy on his shoulder and started running with him
back to his former safe position behind a concrete wall, made him a war hero of
some sort that the military brass could not afford to ignore. Some members of his squad told him afterwards
that the shots were fired by a sharp shooter, probably a German sniper, but to
him, it did not matter what the person who knocked him out of the battle was.
What he found important in the whole episode was the fact that it marked the
end of the war for him since the French Army sent to Toulouse to convalesce in
the military hospital there. When Marcel pointed out the irony of his situation
on a visit by joking that he almost died saving a communist, he did not think
it was funny at all because he thought he was only trying to save a man who did
not deserve to die at a time that the war’s outcome was fully known by all the
warring parties. Marcel told him the name of the fellow he rescued, but all he
remembered afterwards was that the guy’s first name happened to be Jean-Pierre.
So, when a young soldier
clicked his boots by his hospital bedside one late morning, snapped a military
salute, announced his name and then told him that a certain Captain Ribery
wanted to see him, he had no idea who the person was. He acceded to the request, all the same, only to see Jean-Pierre
approach his hospital bed with slightly hesitant steps. The Frenchman thanked
him for saving his life, apologized for the fact that he almost got killed in
the process for his sake, and then wished him a speedy recovery. However, he
did so with eyes and lips that were twitching in a funny manner. All the same,
the Frenchman’s strange behavior did not stop him from accepting his kind
words, even though he could not help wondering what could be wrong with the
intriguing Frenchman whose life he saved from German gunfire.
“Are you all right?” he
asked Jean-Pierre with dimmed eyes and a gentle voice.
“I am fine, as you can
see. I can move around, unlike you. My injuries were insignificant―just minor
wounds―I would say. I was mostly shell shocked, that was all. Thanks again for
saving my life. The bullets you took were certainly meant for me.”
“That’s nothing. I had
your back, and I am sure you would have done the same for me.”
“You think so?”
“Uh-huh! Also, seeing the
way you twitched not long ago made me think something else was wrong.”
“Can’t you figure that
“Figure what out?”
“That I hate you?”
“You don’t hate me.”
“I hate you because I
betrayed you already.”
“No, you didn’t betray me
at all. You didn’t shoot me.”
“You don’t understand. I
betrayed you all right. I hated you before perhaps because I subconsciously
knew you were a better person fighting a war that is not yours to fight,
risking your life to free my country France that I love so much, and doing all
of that for no material benefits. Or perhaps I hate you because I thought you
were doing so with people whose ideology I do not share. Now, I don’t know.”
“What are you talking
“Look, I have come to see
the depth of your being, and now I know that you are truly a good person.
Still, I hate you because the deeper I
get to know you, the greater is my awareness of my shortcomings. So I try to
give a negative meaning to everything you say and do, and then try to convince
myself afterwards that I was right in my impression of you when we first met or
the way I treated you afterwards. It makes me sane that way; it gives me a
sense of worthiness and convinces me that I am doing the right thing by
“How did you treat me?”
“Badly, I guess. It is
obvious I ignored you. I think I even turned my nose on you like some of our ignorant
soldiers do. I was in the Resistance, but I failed to embrace you guys from
Africa. I think I even allowed myself to think like many of the others who
joined the fight recently. I behaved like an ignoramus.”
“I still don’t get what
you are talking about. I don’t see how the things you have been saying about
yourself tantamount to a betrayal of me or any of my folks from Africa.”
“I hated you Africans for
working with them.”
“Working with whom?”
“The Fascists. Why do you
serve people who don’t respect you as normal people do to other human beings;
why do you risk your lives for people who were Vichy and Nazi supporters
yesterday, but who today pretend to be supporters of universal human rights? I
can’t understand why you guys put your lives on the line; I can’t understand
why you Africans abandoned your families and dishonor your people for someone
like De Gaulle who thinks you are uncivilized and need nurturing, for someone
like him who thinks with conviction that it is our place to determine the type
of development you need. He thinks you have no right to aspire for development
out of the French empire or as an autonomous entity. Didn’t you get the
position the right wing took during the Brazzaville Conference last January.”
“Why are you and your
people aspiring to be subservient all your lives to people who do not have your
interest at heart? I say so because my parents whose footsteps I have been
trying to follow the past couple of years worked all their lives to convince
the Right in France to pay some respect to the rights and dignity of France’s
He must have been in a
deep thought for a moment, staring at Jean-Pierre sightlessly before he finally
understood where the left-wing Frenchman was coming from. A sudden and
inexplicable emotion gripped him so that
he propped up in bed out of an impulse and gave Jean-Pierre his hand again for
a shake. The Frenchman smiled with him when he took it and brought it up and
“I see you are a good
man. I respect you for sharing your deep feelings with me. Now, this is what I
have to say about myself. I joined the war to fight against Nazism and Fascism
which are scourges of humanity. I joined your war because I believe I am
fighting for humanity. I am nobody’s lap dog. I am nobody’s stooge. The war is
over for me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Uh-huh! I want to go
home to my wife and children. I will return home to my people; I will find my
way back to Kamerun and dedicate the rest of my life to teaching young children
to improve their lot in life, to know what is right and what is wrong, and to
know what they need to do in order to better their lives and the lives of those
around them; I will return to my homeland and try to be someone like your
father and your mother.”
When Jean-Pierre bent
over and embraced him on the bed in an emotional display that he didn’t see
coming, he was truly taken aback. The Frenchman did so muttering incoherently
for a couple of seconds. Then he pulled back like someone who suddenly realized
he just acted awkwardly. He looked momentarily embarrassed, but then a smile
emerged on his face as if he just had a clever thought that he wanted to share.
“You are not like the others,” he said.
“What do you mean?” he
asked with quizzical eyes.
“I mean the other
soldiers who are from Africa just like you?”
“Whom are you talking
“I mean the others who
want to go back to their homelands as evolues; I mean the others who are
prepared to serve the interest of the right-wingers for the handouts that those
men are dangling as baits to make the people of French Africa give up their
heritage; I mean compatriots of yours who are prepared to play the roles of
glorified Nazi kapos.”
“I said I am for
was a nod and the dimming of his eyebrows. “Then I am glad you saved my life; I
am sorry for behaving in a disturbing manner,
and I would be honored to have someone like you for a friend. And I
think my parents too will be honored to have you as a guest. Would you mind
meeting them someday?”
He always remembered with
a smile how he told Jean-Pierre he would be happy to know his parents and then
urged him to take a seat. With amused fascination, they talked of the war, of
French history and of politics. It was after a
moment of trust building that Jean-Pierre told him the story of his family.
His mother Caroline
Mauroy was the only child of her parents, but she had a close cousin a year
older than her that she promised to marry on the day she celebrated her fourth
birthday. Jean-Pierre Dieterle, as he was called, was also fond of her and
treated her like his little sister. When she found out at age eight that she
could not marry him because they were related, she blamed everyone for it,
accepted her fate and moved on in life, doing well in school and making many
friends. But the two cousins never stopped keeping in touch with one another.
They shared their progress in school and life; they updated one another on
their future plans, and they exchanged
views on developments around them and the world at large. Caroline chose to
become a lawyer, went to university in Paris and excelled in her studies. But
then she joined a Marxist study circle, mastered the writings of Karl Marx,
Friedrich Engels and several other later day Marxists and made it a point of
sharing his ideas with anyone who in as much as gave her an ear. She believed
at one point that the working class would inherit the world and was convinced
the words of God no longer had a place for humanity’s progress. Her cousin, on the other hand, studied theology and
made it his mission to save the soul and enlighten the world on God’s purpose
for humankind. Thereafter, they disagreed on almost everything except about the
purposelessness of the Great War raging on in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Jean-Pierre Dieterle left
France in 1919 for Africa, just a month after the post-war peace treaties that
shrank the national territory of Germany and deprived it of its colonial
possessions. He chose to evangelize as a protestant missionary in the new
French possession called French Cameroun
and made it his mission to help expand the infant education system there.
Meanwhile, his cousin looked at the end of the war and the coming to power of
the Bolsheviks in Russia as a new era for humanity. She chose to work hard to
replicate Vladimir Lenin’s Russian Marxist revolution in France. As a matter of
fact, her peculiar fervor left delegates at the 5-day 18th National Congress of
the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the
Workers' International) or SFIO musing, especially in the way she went about
siding with the revolutionaries against the reformists in the vote to join the
Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s Third International. This difference in the
direction the delegates wanted the Socialist party to take, ended up dividing
the ranks of the SFIO, resulting in a split in the party. Even though the
revolutionaries won the vote, they still went ahead and formed a new party
called the Section Française de l'Internationale Communiste, (French
Section of the Communist International) or SFIC, which among other things stood
against colonialism to the point of sympathizing with the Moroccan rebel leader
Abd el-Krim in his revolt against France and Spain.
Caroline might have gone
crazy in her activism for the new French Communist Party had she not caught the
eye of the thirty-year-old French surgeon Nicolas Ribery who married her a
month after they started dating and promised to make her his queen. His
intention must have been to domesticate her instead because she gave birth to
three sons within a span of three years, cute babies she chose to name
Jean-Pierre, Jules, and Jacques. Tired by
the bickering French Left and fired by her cousin’s adventures in French
Cameroun, she convinced her husband to move the family to the French
Camerounian capital of Yaoundé where they embarked on the selfless and arduous
task of improving the health of the people there. They did not return to France
until 1936. By then, her idealism had mellowed and she no longer believed in
Democratic Centralism or Soviet Communism under Joseph Stalin. As if they
considered it a natural thing to do, every member of the family joined the
French Resistance during the four years of German occupation of France, which
explained why Jules and Jacques were still at the Western Front wearing the
uniform of the new French Army.
He honored Jean-Pierre’s
invitation all right and spent a week with his parents and brothers at their
family home in Bordeaux where he talked about Cameroon and socialism with them,
got his hands on some political literature and promised the entire family over
dinner one evening that he would not return home and become a kapo for
the French right wing or any other French government that in as much as showed
an inclination to trample on the rights, dignity,
and interests of the colonial peoples of the world.
When Marcel returned to
France late that May following Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 07,
1945, he was surprised by the depth of his friendship with Jean-Pierre and the
rest of the Ribery family. They spent three more days together, and then he and
Marcel left for Paris to straighten out their decommissioning from the French
Army. The next step in their journey was Toulouse where they visited the
Languedoc countryside to the delight of the Armand cousins and the rest of the
family. He told Irene he would return home to French Cameroun at the end of the
month while Marcel made it known to Caroline in very plain terms that he was
harboring no plans to leave France until he saw his mother and father whom he
thought were in Northern Portugal.
When the day arrived, she
could not avoid the feeling of anticipation mixed with sadness and relief as he
made his way to board the ship at the Bordeaux harbor for the voyage to Africa.
Marcel and Jean-Pierre were there to wave him goodbye. After they embraced with
a promise to see again shortly, he took out the letter Marcel gave him in the
Libyan Desert to hand to his parents in case he failed to make it alive at the
end of the war. It was still unopened. He held it for a moment as if contemplating
what next to do with it before he handed
it back to his friend who regarded him for long with wondering eyes. Then
Marcel opened his arms again and hugged him very tight. He didn’t know what to
do and just stood there for a while with his arms by his side before he raised
his left hand and patted Marcel repeatedly on his back.
“I understand,” he
“Thank you, Mon Frere,” Marcel said in an
emotion-choked voice, and then pulled back and held Joseph’s shoulder with his
left hand while brandishing the sealed envelope, “This is what trust is all
about; this is the real trust I always imagined comes from a true friend. I can
always count on you with my legacy. Brother, we shall read this together when I
join you again in Douala. And even if I don’t see you before the end of the
year, you will get something from my wife for you and for your family,” he
It was while on the train to Yaoundé
that René had his first twinge of doubt regarding his decision to return to
French Cameroun. He wandered whether the impulse that had driven him to leave
his post in the USA for the madness going on in the land of his birth was not
laced with insanity. Actually, he was beginning to have a hard time not
thinking so because everything around him seemed to be having an eeriness that
he could not fathom.
It must be the long flight from France and the lingering effect
of the jetlag from the flight from the USA, he thought.
Still, he found no
comfort from that thought. He had landed
at the Douala airport with optimism and was even gripped by a moment of
exaltation when Roland Thiraud told him Marc’s murderer was in custody. But
then, a time with the supposed murderer revealed something else. His brother’s
killer was still at large. He might not have taken it that hard had the
discovery not left him with the task of ensuring that the innocent Peter
Ndepkeu got treatment at L'hôpital
Laquintinie in the Akwa neighborhood. And then as if to play with his
senses even further, his first night in French Cameroun got interrupted by
tortured dreams featuring his mother cautioning him, chiding him and even
telling him to go back to France; and he had challenged her, rejected her call
and even cried to drive home the seriousness of his mission to the point where
his mother finally fell silent. He had
taken a cue from that as her acceptance
of his position.
So, when he visited her
grave in the public cemetery situated on the opposite side of Rue Joss, the
road from the Catholic Cathedral in the Akwa area, the next day, he was trying
to dispel a nagging worry that did not leave his soul at rest. So the last
thing he expected to find was an upgraded grave—featuring a meter-high
enclosure made from iron rails. The wooden cross that once stood at the head of
the grave had been replaced by an iron cross. The most remarkable thing about
the place was the new marble tombstone clearly emblazoned with the name
Marie-Louise Chantal Roccard on it, and then her date of birth and death,
followed by the names of her husband and four children as the souls she left
behind that would miss her sorely. A flower hiding an inscription below
interrupted his reading so that he had to
push it to one side, revealing a six-line verse, which he remembered in an
instant as the last inspiration that their mother read to them from the bible
that Easter of 1933, one week before she died. It read thus:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and
make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of
the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have
commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
He had almost choked with emotion
from that memory and found himself dropping down to his knees without being
aware of it. He had prayed in earnest after that, before laying the wreath he
brought for the resting soul of his mother. Marc’s grave was the next one he
visited, which he found to be slightly bushy from the grass made fresh by the
recent rains. He had weeded the place, reclined the wreath he had for him on
the wooden cross, and then crossed himself and said a prayer, which he ended by
thanking Marc for giving so much splendor to their mother’s grave, and by
telling him that his father, sister and he loved him. Before he left the place,
he made a promise to himself that he would make his brother’s grave look just
as good as their mother’s.
That means we need to get this bloody war over and done with quickly, René thought as the train started
slowing down for the last miles of the journey. It was not yet midday when the
locomotive hissed to a stop. He picked up his bag, stepped off the train and
took a deep breath. He would visit the High Commissioner right away; he
Xavier Antoine Torré, the
High Commissioner of French Cameroun looked like someone in a rush to wrap up
his day when René walked into his office that afternoon. His handshake was firm
and René noticed in an instant the periorbital puffiness indicating the
fatiguing nature of his job from the hurdles of sitting on the hot seat of
directing the course of a land griped by conflict. The High Commissioner wasted
no time on preambles, sat him down right away and gave him a file on what his
mission would entail, his short-term logistics in Yaoundé, his overall
logistical setup until the end of the year and a timetable on the tasks he was
expected to accomplish. Then he babbled endlessly on what the administration
expected of René, hinting for the first time about the day he was having in
mind for French Cameroun to become an independent country. René watched him closely
throughout his presentation looking amazed
than offended, asking only two questions even though Xavier asked him a couple
of times if he had anything to add to some of the points he came up with.
Finally, he told René he was done, got up abruptly and led him to the door, and
then told him a car would be around the corner to take him to his lodging.
René stepped out of the
office building and looked around him. Not a single soul was in the yard. But
all he could see were passing cars on the road. He held his breath for a moment
and listened carefully to his heart. Then he took a deep breath and turned
around just in time to see a blue Renault Dauphine with a dented front bumper
emerge from the left side of the building, driving towards him. He sighed and
didn’t take his eyes off the vehicle until it stopped and a young man of about
twenty-three stepped out from the driver seat.
The chauffeur introduced
himself as Captain Pierre Schumans, put René’s piece of luggage in the trunk,
got back behind the steering wheel and rolled his window down. Then he set the
car rolling, but not before wishing him a good time in Yaoundé. René did not
press for a conversation and just looked out of his window at nothing in
particular. His mind was processing his twenty-minute meeting with the High
Commissioner. By the time Pierre pulled the car to a stop at the three-bedroom
single family home that served as a government guest house, he thought he
finally found the answer to his haziness. The administration was in a panic
mode, the military solution to the conflict was nowhere in sight and he was
expected to shape things up with the limited resources available in the
territory, conscious of the fact that the United Nations would not allow France
to increase its military presence beyond the current numbers, since French
Cameroun was a UN Trust Territory and not a French colony. He concluded that
Xavier Antoine Torré was a borderline eccentric, but he knew he would have to
set aside any hard feelings and work with the man to achieve his goals in
“Mon Commandant, we arrived,” Pierre announced.
“Thanks, Pierre. Now, let’s see what we have in there?”
“Mon, Commandant, here are the keys,” Pierre said and stretched out
his right arm with a bunch of keys in his hands.
René made no attempt to
take it. “You will help me see my new abode; wouldn’t you?”
“Bien sûr, Mon Commandant. It would be a privilege.”
Pierre keyed the front
door open with a flush and ushered René in with a slight bow, before trailing
him into the sitting room with the luggage in his right hand. They checked out
all the rooms and concluded that everything looked normal. Then René sagged into the love seat and shut
René nodded. “I see he is
still around. At what time?”
“It started not long ago
and will carry on until the wee hours. After all, today is Friday.”
“Is the High Commissioner
going to be there?”
“He is a special guest,”
Pierre said, his eyes lighting up, “Rumors have it that he might get lucky with
the cousin of Monsieur Guillaume’s girlfriend.”
René grunted. Now he
understood why Xavier Antoine Torré was in such a hurry not long ago to get him
out of his office. And it seemed everything around here was being rushed
through. Now he understood why they were having setbacks. He was glad he came.
For now, he would think for himself first. And the things he was most certain
about were the facts that he needed a shower first and fresh clothes to wear
after washing himself, all to be done before
the houseboy showed up. After that, he would get something to eat before paying
his friend a visit.
Unlike René Roccard, the Friday
morning ended well for Joseph Njike and his protégé Jean-Marie Mbombo Kahn.
They had arrived Yaoundé from Banganté the night before exhausted from the
bumpy and muddy road that made the vehicle travel
an average of ten miles per hour. In fact, they were pessimistic too that all
would not go well the next day. But Jean-Pierre Ribery stroke an optimistic
note over breakfast that morning, assuring them that all would be fine. Joseph
had asked his friend to accompany them to the High Commissioners’ office, but
Jean-Pierre had explained in very few words that his absence would be more
And Jean-Pierre was right because Jean-Marie got his papers issued all
right. That was why they were in high spirits when they arrived at the gate of
Jean-Pierre Ribery’s home. The host who
was in the verandah preparing carrots and green beans with his wife Rachel and
two sons Marcel and Jean-Jacques jumped
up from the first knock on the gate and hurried towards the barrier with an
expectant look on his face.
The smiles he found on
the faces of his guests alighted his own face in an instant so that he opened his arms wide for Jean-Marie and said,
“Bravo!” even before he got their verbal confirmation of his expectations.
“You can’t be so
certain,” Joseph said with open arms.
response was to hug him instead, an act he followed up by patting him
generously on the back “Good job; good job, Mon
Frère! Marcel will be proud of you from the world of our ancestors.”
The mere reference of
Marcel Kahn made Joseph’s eyes turn
wistful all of a sudden. He was still to get over the death of his friend who
decided to immigrate to Israel two years ago, only to die from a stray bullet
hundreds of yards away from the scene of the terror attack in the mixed
Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, forcing his non-Jewish wife to return home with
their three children.
“He set up everything
before he left us, so I was nothing more than the conveyor,” Joseph responded
as the three approached the verandah with languid steps.
“Jean-Marie got his
documents to travel to France for further studies,” Jean-Pierre announced to
his wife and kids.
They congratulated the
humble Jean-Marie too and Rachel even gave the young man a hug. Then the young Jean-Jacques jumped on the hero
of the day’s back as his older brother held his left hand.
“This calls for a
celebration. Time to pop open a bottle of champagne. Moet et Chandon, first
class. We will use the others for the dinner party tonight. Ma Cherie, why don’t you get the one we
have in our room?” the Master of the house announced.
“Now?” Rachel asked,
lifting her hand so that his husband could read the time from her wrist watch.
“I know it is not yet
noon, but there is no special time to celebrate,” Jean-Pierre told his wife in
a good-humored voice.
“D’accord! I will get it!” Rachel said in her good-natured voice and
disappeared into the room.
They cheered when she
remerged with the bottle in her hands. But the kids kept on clapping until
Jean-Pierre motioned them quiet. Then he grabbed the bottle of champagne.
“To our friend and to our
brother’s son; to our son Jean-Marie Mbombo Kahn for all I know, who would be
leaving us here, who would be leaving his two younger brothers and adoring
mother back in Foumban, for the fatherland, for our beloved France where he would
begin a new phase in his life, as a project where not only he but also the people who matter in his would
be looking forward to see him graduate some years from today as a Medical
Doctor. Hurrah!” he harangued and popped the cork open.
“Hurrah!” the others responded and showed him their
glasses, with the kids looking at him with lost looks on their faces.
“Get glasses for
yourself. It is a special occasion. You wouldn’t get drunk from a sip, I
promise you” The father commanded as he filled up their glasses.
With the children having
their glasses filled up to a quarter, everyone in the house participated in the
noisy toast, which was followed thereafter by music and dancing. Lunch was
next, which they ate in a boisterous manner too. In was in that lively mood
that the household carried on with the preparations for the evening party.
Sometime during the onset
of dusk, Joseph found himself talking alone with Jean-Pierre on the verandah
when he thought he should mention his brief encounter that morning with the
High Commissioner Xavier Antoine Torré.
“I had the opportunity to
see the High Commissioner today and he told me he was considering bringing the
UPC back from the cold, but that the process is more complicated now due to the
new developments in France, especially with the rise of more powerful forces
that are decidedly against moving things in that direction.”
“He is lying. The guy is
stalling. Xavier is more to the right than De Gaulle.”
“He also revealed that he
is fine working with us, the ex-service men of the Free French Forces, but that
he cannot and would not tolerate the syndicalists.”
“The Trade-Unionists, he
“What did you say to
“I told him that the
French Camerounian people are flexible, but that no one, including General
Charles De Gaulle, should allow himself to be fooled into thinking the people
of this land are pliant.”
“Bravo, Joseph. You said
the right thing. They need to understand that. In fact, I was thinking of
flying to France with Jean-Marie. I can
help him get to know the French side of his family better. Besides, there is
always business to take care of in France. Especially with the Gaullist in
power today, dancing merengue with Petain’s boys, who are fascists for all I
“Good! Perfect!” Joseph
responded with dimmed eyes, “You know, he sounded just like Pierre Messmer when
I led a delegation of war veterans to his office in 1956. He was the High
Commissioner at the time. We pleaded with him to lift the ban on the UPC, but
he was adamant. He used a phrase which I still remember So, well. He said: ‘You
the veterans I trust, but I distrust the trade unionists like Nyobé and his
“Now, you get the full
picture. Pierre Messmer, Xavier Torré, and
Charles De Gaulle are serving a common purpose. And that purpose does not
include you and the people you sympathize with.”
“Merde!” Joseph exclaimed.
“And let me add something
very important here, Mon Frère. They
are sensationalists; they are populists; and more so, they are self-absorbed.
What can I say when a man is in love with his voice,
when he finds the impression his words creates on others more important than
the truth in the words. Mon Frère;
there is nothing you can do about sensationalists other than to reject them
totally and completely. We can do that either by ignoring them completely or
denouncing them totally.”
“Please, don’t speak with
so much certainty in your opinion of others,” Joseph cautioned.
Jean-Pierre cocked his
head to the side, thought awhile, and then shrugged. “Here is an interesting
story I wanted to share with you before we started talking about them.”
“Is it a long one?”
Jean-Pierre laughed as he
shook his head. “It wouldn’t be long, I promise. I know I have other guests. It
is a joke actually. Now, this is how the story goes.”
“A joke you said.”
The Frenchman nodded. “A
nineteen-year old stud who has never bought anything from a drugstore before
goes to a pharmacy and says in a voice with a great deal of boosted confidence
in it, ‘Excuse me, Monsieur; could you be so kind as to sell me a condom? I am
on my way to my girlfriend's place for dinner, and I think I might get lucky
tonight!’ The pharmacist gives him the condom and he pays for it. Just as he is
about to leave, a thought enters his head and he turns around and declares to
the pharmacist again, ‘I need another condom because my girlfriend has a
mind-blowing older sister who is a year older than me and who has this knack
for crossing her legs in a provocative manner whenever I happen to be around.
Something tells me there is a high chance I could get lucky with her too if I
make the move.’ As he is receiving the second condom, he notices a faint smile
on the pharmacist’s face, and takes it to
mean that the man is acknowledging his prowess with women. So this interesting
young fellow decides to take things a notch up and says to the Pharmacy guy
again, ‘There is going to be a need for one more condom because my girlfriend
also has a mother who is still stunning for a woman in her mid-forties. Believe
me, she looks like she is hot for athletic studs like me. In fact, she engages
me with her eyes all the time and is actually the one who invited me to dinner.
That tells me she is expecting me to make my move today.’ He gets his third
condom, plus a nod and a broad smile from the pharmacists who even goes further
by wishing his young customer good luck. So, you can imagine what this young
fellow was up against that evening when just before dinner time, right after
making himself comfortable between the two sisters, with the mother of the
house facing him, and barely seconds after finding out that he would be the one
to lead the family to prayers that night, the doorbell rings and the father of
the house strides in. The young man lowers his head and starts praying even
before his girlfriend’s father sits down. His prayer turns out to be sweet
though strange in its depth and duration as he asks God to bless the food on
the table, the hands that cooked the different dishes, the stomachs that would
eat them, the hands that sowed the produce in the fields, the hands that would
dispense of the waste, the organisms that their waste and other wastes affect,
the people of dozens of towns and communities that he listed as if to make a
point, the people of France, the people of other European countries etc. etc.
Fifteen minutes goes by and the young fellow’s head is still down, his eyes are
still closed and he is praying like
someone with a messianic fervor, much to the bemusement of everyone at the
table. Not able to hide her surprise anymore, the girlfriend edges closer to
him and whispers, ‘I never knew you were that religious.’ The fellow whispers
back, ‘I had no idea your father was a pharmacist until I got here.’ The
girlfriend looked even more surprised and retorted ‘I never told you he was a
Pharmacist on purpose.’”
Joseph laughed as he
watched Jean-Pierre chuckling too. He laughed so much that he had to put his
hand over his mouth.
The two friends were
still trying to mute their laughter when the first guest of the evening showed
up at the open gate. It was the Dutch journalist and writer Piet Van Gogh.
“Be gentle with him. His
French wife cuckolded,” Jean-Pierre said in an undertone as he stepped away to
welcome the new arrival.
He was right he needed to
employ some extra care in engaging Piet. At around 21:00 hours that evening, at
a time that the revelry was almost peaking up and barely a minute or so after
he decided to get some fresh air outside in the verandah by leaning on the
rails, he was surprised to find the Dutchman approaching him outside with a
drink in his right hand and a bush plum in the other.
“Jean-Pierre told me you
are from Banganté,” Piet said and extended his right hand.
“Yes, I am from there. It
is the place of my birth and the abode of my family. It is the place that makes
history for me; you know what I mean, don’t you?” Joseph said as he shook it.
“I read about the place
from a book by an English writer. Clement Egerton is his name. The title of his
book is ‘African Majesty: A Record of Refuge at the Court of the King of
Banganté in the French Cameroons.”
“It was during the reign
of which of the kings?”
“King Njike II.”
“Then it must be recent.
I never heard of the writer. Besides, I barely understand English. But my
youngest son does. His name is Gavin Nemafou. The boy reads and speaks the
queen’s language well enough. And he is only nine,” Joseph said, his face
lighting up at the mention of his last son.
“Good to hear that. How
did that happen?”
“How what happened?”
“How come he is literate
in English when Clement Egerton states in his book that Banganté is in French
“One of my wife’s
brothers lives in Victoria, British Southern Cameroons. Julius is his name. He seems to have made it
a mission to turn my son into an Anglophone. The thing is; the boy loves it. I
allowed him to visit his uncle every so often. In fact, he even spends months
with him during the long holidays.”
That was how Joseph and
Piet started talking deeply about their families, life, politics and their
dreams of how the world should be. He learned that the Dutchman’s runaway wife
was a wealthy heiress and that she took their children—an eight-year-old boy
and six-year-old girl—with her to America where she now lives with her American
lover. Even so, Joseph did not see it coming when the Dutchman said all of a
“I have an only sister that I have difficulties warming up to. She is an
only sibling actually.”
you finding it hard to be close to her?”
born when I was ten years old.”
that count as an explanation?”
say this in my hope that it explains everything. Some people think family is a
right that they can take for granted and return to whenever they want to, but family is actually a privilege that
should be cherished. However, it is one of those privileges that should not be
taken away—restricted when abused, yes; but not taken away. When you have a
sister who thinks that your role as a brother is to make sure that she gets
what she wants all the time, and when she happens to be a sister you genuinely
love, a point in time comes when you realize
your relationship has been one-sided all along. Often times, you realize that
at a time that you are in your down side of life and need somebody you can lean
on, but then realize that they are not up to the task in every way
imaginable—emotionally, financially, physically and so on and so forth.”
did not respond for a moment and the Dutchman did not break the silence too, So,
when he said, “I understand,” Piet heaved a sigh of relief as if that explained
whatever conflict he was having in his soul.
know what I mean; don’t you? I love her, but I cannot rely on her love.”
“I understand,” Joseph repeated.
craned his neck and sighed, rubbing his chin in a thoughtful manner. “I often
wish; in fact, I still wish I was blessed with many siblings. That would have
given me the opportunity to choose from a varied source the person I could love
in a blind or profound manner, the person I could trust wholly and be really
attached to as a sibling.”
you had many brothers and sisters, you still wouldn’t have been able to summon
the deep feelings and spirit to be attached to any of them, not because you are
not the giving type, but because you do not demand
give and take as a forever standard in your relationships.”
you think so?”
now. Let’s be honest with ourselves here and look at this from a sincere and
practical point of view. How many friends do you have?”
depends on what you mean by the word friend.”
shook his head with an incredulous expression on his face. “Tell me your
definition of the word friend or friendship for that matter.”
haven’t really given it a deep thought.”
ahead and say something on the fly. It may be muddled, but it would be
reflective of the depth of your being. Yes, my friend; try to come up with your
idea of what you think the whole concept or notion of friendship is about, and
from there, we shall move on with our discussion and find an acceptable meaning
to give to that word.”
will give it a try.”
are getting somewhere.”
to be honest, especially with the person we consider to be our friend,” Piet
stuttered, cleared his throat, and then continued, “We also need to be
comfortable with someone for that person to be considered our friend. What I am
trying to say is that a true friend is someone we can express our feelings
freely to as if there are no inhibitions in our friendship; a true friend has
to be someone who helps us to be our true selves to the point where even when
we make mistakes, we know that this true friend wouldn’t be judgmental and
wouldn’t condemn us; and more especially, a true friend is someone we know
would be there to help us see not only the errors of our ways, but also our strengths, the opportunities
around us and the people and things threatening to wreck our lives.”
have made some very amazing points here, my friend.”
not all. Now, in addition to the points I
just mentioned, I will like to add that a true friend is equally someone I also
have compassion, empathy, and sympathy
for. There needs to be a feeling of mutual understanding between a true friend
and me, and there needs to be a sense of mutual enjoyment of each other’s
company. Those, my friend, are some of the points that I think constitute true
friendship. Those are some of the parameters I think you and I should look for
when talking about the building blocks of friendship.”
put together an interesting package here on what real friendship entails.”
“I am not
yet done, my friend,” Piet said and cocked his head to the side with a
thoughtful expression creasing his face, “My true friend is also someone whose
welfare I deeply care about, not out of loyalty which can be blind, but out of
the feeling that sacrificing for him in a selfless manner without expecting
anything in return or as a reward, is a worthy and fulfilling thing to do.”
you are talking about altruism now.”
way, yes! Not harboring selfish instincts or plans against a friend is within
the territory of what true friendship should be all about.”
count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know who qualify for
the type of friendship I just described. Perhaps one or two of them stand up to
the parameters or characteristics I just mentioned.
mentioned trust, honesty, compassion, empathy, sympathy, affection,
understanding and concern for others as the necessary building blocks of
friendship. It is hard to find all of those qualities together in one package.
In fact, only a miniscule of humans are capable of meeting up to those
standards of friendship.”
glad you recognize that.”
you,” Piet said with a satisfied nod.
what about all those people you mentioned attending your parties back in
Amsterdam or those you hang around with in the city’s bars?”
you really need to know?”
really your friends? I mean, you even buy drinks for most of them.”
not really my friends.”
good number of them consider you their friends.”
of them do. I may be looking at this
from the angle of a poet, but perhaps they think of me that way because they
are comfortable around me; perhaps I am high up in their scale of preference of
people they want in their circle because they can trust me; or perhaps I am
their friend because I have a hard time hurting or betraying people who have
done me no wrong.”
of those who still believe in the old religion of the Bamileké people,
reincarnation is something to be taken seriously,” Joseph said, paused for a
moment, and then continued, “Please do not be offended as I go ahead and apply
the belief to you. But mark you: I am not saying I am a believer in
reincarnation. So, perhaps you had many siblings in your former life and took
them for granted; and perhaps because of that, God made you an only child as a
way to force you to learn to appreciate the people in your life.”
“Ha-ha…ha-ha, ha-ha!” Piet
laughed in a raucous manner, “You, my
friend, have an amazing mind. Apparently, I haven’t been successful
appreciating people in my current life. I still might not be able to do so even
in my future life.”
“I am not
saying that you are not friendly. All I am trying to say is that it is better
to spend more time with true friends than hang around people you don’t trust
all the time.”
why I am hanging around with you, my friend. You are real. You have a beautiful
family and more especially, you have an amazing son in Gavin.”
moment of silence ensued, broken only when Jean-Pierre appeared at the door in
festive spirits. “Piet and Joseph, what are you guys doing on the
verandah. Please, join us inside.
Jean-Marie is saying something marvelous on the floor,” he beckoned his friends
hurried inside just as the boy was wrapping up his inspirational speech. Joseph
was so captivated by his resoluteness that he stood transfixed as he listened.
reach out for my purpose like Jason reaching out to get the Golden Fleece. I
shall come back to French Cameroun and work to make a difference because I know
that my parents, their families, and
friends consider this land the place for my purpose. I shall work and strive
for improvements everyday knowing that I have a responsibility not only to
myself and my family, but also to you
fine people and to my two countries The Cameroons and France. And my endeavors
shall be guided by the knowledge that the fundamental contours of my life were charted by a man I loved dearly, a man
many of you here met before and have fun memories of, a man I called father, a
man I shall always miss, a man I will try to become, a man who loved humanity
deeply. I shall try to reconcile his love for France and his self-sacrificing
concern for French Cameroun that in a way was deeper than love. And I know I
can always count on your support to realize that. My dear aunts and uncles,
thank you for being there for me; thank you for making me know that I, my
mother and my brothers are not alone. Thank you very much,” Jean-Marie
articulated, and then stepped away from the center of the floor, his hands
clasped together in a humble manner as the sound of applause filled the living
stepped forward and gave the young orator a hug, “Miraculeux, formidable, merveilleux, extraordinaire, magnifique,
étonnant, extraordinaire. I am proud of you,” he said, patting him on the
back. Then he rested his hand on Jean-Marie’s should, and then turned around to
the crowd, so that they were facing
Joseph, Piet and René, “We have a future
leader of where?” someone in the crowd asked.
France and French Cameroun or of either of the two,” Jean-Pierre replied with a
broad smile, “And he basically had two fathers who made that possible: Our
greatly missed Marcel Ribery and Joseph Njike who is here with us; men who
served both lands. Come over here Joseph,” he waved Joseph over.
as if sensing his humility, Jean-Marie stepped
forward and embraced Joseph too, muttering thank you, thank you…thank you so
many times, even though Joseph urged him repeatedly to stop.
didn’t say much himself. But he too offered profound thanks to the guests; he
too thanked the hosts and his family enormously and reiterated his commitment
to their love. Then he urged the people gathered there to enjoy themselves,
making a few dance moves to reignite the festive mood again
Roccard was the last guest to leave that night, so Jean-Pierre decided to walk
him to his car.
to thank you deeply for the night. You provided me with company that made me
feel alive and human again after such a long time,” René said at the gate
nothing, Mon Frère. You are always
welcome. Now that you are here, I know who else to go to that I can spend
quality time with.”
be living in Yaoundé, Jean-Pierre.”
here on duty.”
crush the rebellion; to pacify French Cameroun.”
born here, René. You were nurtured here. You are not like them; you are not
like the racists and bigots who see the natives of this land as nothing more
than statistics that should be manipulated for their benefits and the benefit
“Are you applying
those adjectives on me?”
sighed and rested his hand on René’s shoulder. “I am not, Mon Frère. I am not saying that you are a racist, a bigot or any of
those names that are reserved for someone who thinks lowly of other people,
especially those who are not like his own or like him. I am not applying any
negative adjective on you because doing so would be like judging your character
or like condemning you. I know you are a good person; I know Marc’s death has
caused a change in your personality. Our personalities change every once in a
while, based on circumstances we deal with in our lives, but our characters hardly change, unless by a conscious
decision. So I respond to you based on your actions in words and in deeds, and
sometimes what I think your intentions are. I wouldn’t call you a selfish
person either because I know you are not.
But trust me on this: I will speak out
against your action that I deem selfish. That is what I think, Mon Frère.”
Nietzsche! Or should I say Dostoyevsky?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought for a second
you were trying to pass around as a philosopher of their caliber.”
Jean-Pierre sighed. “You
are my friend. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Likewise. But I have a
mission to accomplish.”
“Whom are you doing it
for, René? And for what?”
“France, French Cameroun.
We need to secure the peoples of both countries. I happen to be of both worlds,
Jean-Pierre. I was born here; my mother and brother are buried here, and my
father and son are in France. There is always going to be a flow between France
and our Cameroun; we will always have dealings between the whites and blacks
here and the whites and blacks back home in France. There would always be that
flow going both ways. My job is to make it smooth; my job is to eliminate the
virus that aims to contaminate and kill the flow I am talking about. My job is
to make sure the UPC does not win; my job is to eradicate their influence
“Mon Dieu, René!”
“My God, what?”
“Please spend some time with
me and my family before you get down to work.”
“Thank you, Jean-Pierre.
I will, but not now. I leave on Monday. And there are other people I need to
Against his will,
Jean-Pierre surged forward unexpectedly and embraced René, holding him tight
for a moment without uttering a word. “You are almost suffocating me,” René said in a good-natured voice.
Jean-Pierre released him
and took a step back. There were tears in his eyes. “How can I help you, Mon Frère. I remember the times we spent
together growing up in Yaoundé and Douala. I remember our trips with our
parents and how we pledged to be together. We should René. We loved the people
of this land back then. I still do. We should understand them.”
“You asked how you could
Jean-Pierre nodded. “All
you need to do is ask.”
“How are you going to
help me get on with Elaine?”
“Yes, Elaine Carde.”
The expression on
Jean-Pierre’s changed and he tried to smile, but all he could come up with was
a contraction of the muscles at the corners of his eyes, without an extensive
flexing of the muscles on the sides of his mouth. René noticed the sudden
brooding look on his face in an instant. “You still want her, René?” Jean-Pierre
“For what, René? Can you
make her happy?”
“I will try. One thing I
know for sure is that I will be better than Jacques-Louis Lefèvre.”
“He was a mistake, René;
and at a time that she was vulnerable.
And she realized it and wants to move on.”
“Does she still have the
hots for you.”
“I am happily married, René.
And she is a friend.”
“Then you will help me
get her. Tell her you want us together.”
“I don’t need to do that.
It is not my place to make choices for her.”
“When I tried to court
her twelve years ago, she told me to get your permission.”
“She works at the
Catholic Mission hospital in Bangoua.”
René looked at his friend
intently for a moment, and then said in a
monotone. “I also need you to provide me with the names of those supporting the
rebellion. You have been around here uninterruptedly for more than a decade and
they say you get along well with the locals.”
“Are you asking me to
snitch or worse more spy on people who trust me.”
“I am asking you to
provide us with the resources to win this war against people who are disloyal
“Incroyable! You can’t be serious; you just can’t mean what you just
said,” Jean-Pierre said, shaking his head.
“I am serious,
Jean-Pierre. I need your full cooperation. I demand it.”
Jean-Pierre regarded René
with wistful eyes and slumped shoulders. “I act only against those people who
act against humanity. Goodnight René. Get some sleep. And always remember that
you are welcome at my home. But please, do not try to make me a culprit in a
war I do not approve of,” he said, embraced René again, then held him at
arm’s-length, nodded, and then dropped his hand, “Goodnight, Mon Frère!” he added, turned around and
walked back home.
When Joseph and his first son Bernard
saw Jean-Marie Kahn and Jean-Pierre Ribery off at the Douala Airport they could
not help the mixed feelings that overwhelmed them.
For Joseph, he felt that
he was being rewarded with an insight not only into a successful template to
raise a child, but that he was also going to miss a young man he had treated
like his own true son, a young man who reciprocated by showing him his love and
loyalty, standing out as a good example for his own children to follow. But
above all, he was confident of Jean-Marie’s abilities, his resolve, and his heart. He was sure he would
heed his advice and make it in life. He was sure the young man understood the
common sense of solidarity Marcel always preached about.
As for Bernard, he was happy
for Jean-Marie but sad at the same time. He was about to be separated from the
closest soul in his life, the only person he had been able to share his deepest
thoughts, interest, and weaknesses with.
Jean-Marie had been more than a friend over the years. He was his brother after
all. He felt that way, and that was what was more important. He would miss him;
he would miss Jean-Marie.
They watched the plane
disappear completely into the Douala sky and said nothing to each other until a
mother started singing a lullaby to his distraught toddler nearby. Joseph
snapped out of his thoughts and looked around him. Many of the people who had
made it to the balcony to watch the plane take off were leaving now.
“Let’s go, Son,” he said
At the airport parking
lot, Joseph was surprised to fine René Roccard getting out of a car that just
pulled up two lanes away from the taxi they were about to get into. He
approached the Frenchman with his son,
and then introduced the two to one another. Then they shook hands.
“Seeing off Jean-Marie?” René
“He already left with
They didn’t have much to
say after that, so the Frenchman told them goodbye and hurried away.
The father and his first
son arrived at the train station to find that the train plying the Nkongsamba route
was ten minutes away from leaving. So, he bought their train tickets and
hurried to the platform.
“You can put your bags
over there,” one of the train workers who was wearing a blue apron told them.
But Joseph barely
understood what he was talking about. He only understood what it was as Bernard
grabbed their bags and put them away. Then they sat down in their seats seconds before the train started hissing
for the ride to the northern tip of the Mungo region.
After Mbanga, Joseph sank
into his memory of his life after the war.
Joseph arrived in Douala, French
Cameroun in July 1945 a man with more experience and knowledge that made him an
intellectual in his own right. He had read so much during his stay in France
that he could have taken a degree program in history, psychology or philosophy
and completed it within a year. When he disembarked at the seaport and found
his wife and three sons there to welcome him home, he felt truly glad that he
made it home alive.
For the s next month, he
spent every little time he could afford to be by the side of his family. He did
so much to bond with his two-year-old daughter he had barely known until then
that his neighbors thought he was acting weird. No father around had been
chasing his child crawling on his knees and making funny claw-like gestures
with his hands. But all he cared about were his children’s squeaking laughter,
cries of joy and saintly smiles. They cured him of the horrors of the war so
that by the middle of August, he was starting to feel bored. He concluded right
away that he needed to spend some more time away from home and work was the
best thing to do.
He bought his first piece
of land with money cashed from his discharge and started the construction of a
four-apartment story-building that same month. Then he won the approval of the
headmaster of the school he was teaching in to get back to his old job.
That was how his life
picked up again and he carried on smoothly as a small time teacher in the
public elementary school in Quartier Congo, as an aspiring landlord in the Akwa
neighborhood, and as the father of four children in July 1946, the youngest
being Salomon, when Marcel Kahn returned from France with his usual enthusiasm,
took him out for lunch one afternoon and reiterated his commitment as his true
friend. Then over a glass of wine, Marcel brought out the unopened letter he
had entrusted him with during the war and handed it to him. He had turned it
over and yes, it was the very same letter he returned to Marcel before he
boarded the ship for the voyage back to Cameroon that late June.
“Open it and read,”
Marcel had told him.
He had read it and given
a gasp of surprise. Marcel had told his parents to give him Joseph Nkabyo Njike
a quarter of whatever treasure he was having in a safe in Douala if he failed
to make it alive. And he had also asked his parents to help sell the stone for
him as well as entrust his children to his care as their benefactor.
“What type of stones are
you talking about?”
“Diamonds. Remember the one
I bought from the Baya tribesman. I got more from him when we returned from
Libreville. In fact, he even took me to where he found them.”
“Why are you giving me a
stake in this?”
“Because you got us
together in the first place. Or perhaps because you are my most trusted friend,
the godfather of my son and the type of brother I always wished I had around
me. And something else, my friend; I will sell them and give you your stake.”
That was how he got the
means to construct three more story-buildings before the start of the 1950s;
that was how he got the capital to help his wife start a grocery store; that
was how he started helping poor kids by providing them with their educational
needs; that was how he became the first neighbor to turn to for assistance among
many of the family heads in the Akwa neighborhood. Marcel encouraged him to
join the Union of the Populations of the Cameroons and debated with him about
the socialist values that he thought the political party needed to uphold.
However, if there was one thing he stressed about all the time, was the need
for the UPC to build on its civic-nationalism as the basic pillar of its
socialism. But they had their arguments too. Marcel turned out to be more on
the side of Democratic Socialism while he was more in favor of Social Democracy.
Then in June 1948,
Jean-Pierre Ribery arrived from France with a determination to establish and
grow his medical practice in French Cameroun. He chose Douala as his initial
base. He loved the medical doctor a lot because he piqued his mind, introduced
him to new ideas and books, and because he too was a natural soul. He and
Marcel would tease him every now and then for being a revolutionary socialist,
but there was never any malice in their words. Jean-Pierre called them followers
of revisionism instead and named them Eduard Bernstein No.1 and Eduard
Bernstein No.2. They too did not mind.
It was in his home,
during the bridal shower for his last child Gavin that Jean-Pierre met Rachel
for the first time and made her his wife barely a month into their
relationship. Their son was born three days after he celebrated the first
anniversary of his return to French Cameroun. The new couple named their baby
boy Marcel Djomo Ribery and Jean-Pierre chose him as the child’s godfather. In
a way, the three friends became connected to the little infant.
The train’s brief stop at
the station in Loum whisked Joseph out of his thoughts,
so that he looked at his first son with the corner of an eye and suppressed a
smile. He was certain Jean-Marie’s departure would spur the young man to take
his studies more seriously and pass the public Probatoire Exams that had held him down for three years now. Then
the only obstacle to stop him from joining Jean-Marie in France would be his Baccalauréat.
Joseph did not fall back
into remembering again about fifteen minutes after the train left Loum for the
last phase of the ride to the railway terminal town of Nkongsamba. When Roland
Pré replaced the long-serving André Soucadaux as French Cameroun’s new High Commissioner
in December 1954, Marcel told him and Jean-Pierre that he was sensing trouble.
He went to Yaoundé in January 1955 and returned one week later looking gloomy.
“He is a Fascist. His
tenure spells disaster for this land. Only the government in Paris can do
something to help French Cameroun. But unfortunately for French Cameroun and
France, the new generation in politics is incompetent. They lack character, and
they lack ideas.”
And he was right. Roland
Pré wrecked the peace and tranquility in the land with his stringent measures
that pushed the Ruben-Um-Nyobé-led UPC political party to carry out protest
marches. He banned the popular political party in
July 13, 1955, and threw French Cameroun
into a spiral of violence that most Cameroonians did not appreciate. That was
the day their great political party began the march to its nadir. Marcel became
distraught and immigrated to Israel with his family, catching on the fact that
his mother stayed Jewish. Jean-Pierre moved his family and practice to Yaoundé
where he committed himself to reverse the ban. And he stayed on in Douala,
hoping for the peaceful days to return. Then came the shocking news of Marcel’s
death in November 1956, and then the return of his wife and children to Douala.
But it was the escalating violence that forced him to move with his family to
Banganté. But before he left, he encouraged Marcel’s widowed wife to do
likewise with her three boys. He was glad when she chose to settle in the quiet
Bamoun cultural settlement of Foumban, the native town of her birth. It was
only sixty-two miles away from Banganté.
How he missed Marcel. He
would have been a good support in navigating both their French and French
Camerounian worlds. He would have helped
him deal with his French brethren even better.
Joseph was feeling very
tired when the train arrived in Nkongsamba at 17:08 hours that evening. Even
before he stepped out of the train, his mind was already made. They would spend
the night in one of the apartments of his recently completed story-building in
the town. But they needed to eat something first.
“I am hungry. Let’s get
something to eat at Mami Ngantcha’s restaurant,” he told his son.
Gavin Nemafou Njike looked thoughtful
as he set the second pair of stones a yard apart from one another in a
configuration meant to serve as the goal posts in their soccer game. He didn’t
like the fact that his friends expected him to be the one to select the players
for the two teams all the time because each and every one of them wanted to be
on his side. And then, there was the problem of the pitch. It had stopped
raining two hours ago, leaving the lateritic soil sticky; and for a field with
only a small patch of grass cover, the slippery terrain made staying on one’s
feet a task meant for the sure-footed and fleet-footed only.
“Hurrah, hurrah, let’s
play now; let’s start the game,” Gavin shouted in an effort to raise their
When the other five boys
failed to move and continued staring at him in that peculiarly wondering manner
of theirs that he found so exasperating, he shook his head, and then hit his forehead as if that would make a difference.
It was as if they also expected him to take the initiative all the time.
“Come on, I say. Let’s
play,” he shouted again and threw the ball at one of the boys, who instead of
catching it, let it hit his shoulder, so
that it bounced off him and rolled away, out of the field of play.
“Heh, heh...heh!” Jacques
Nya Njiah, whose shorts reached all the way to his knees, giggled timidly, and
then burst into a chortle, “Njofang was sleeping again,” he added amidst his
The others started
laughing and giggling too, leaving the target of their amusement with a bemused
expression on his face.
Gavin was quick to sense
that Emmanuel Njofang Kabafeu was embarrassed So, he tried to mute his laughter
by placing his left palm over his mouth. He even looked the other way in an
effort to avoid looking his friend in the eye. Only then did it cross Gavin’s
mind that the ball could be a source of distraction. He turned around in a
flash; and with half-walking and half-running steps, he went for the ball that
had rested to a stop about fifteen yards away. He picked it up with a lingering
smile on his face, and then walked with
deliberate steps towards the center of the field. But the smile faded away the
moment he started spinning the ball around his right index finger.
“You know; we can make
this simple. The three of us on this side shall play against the three of you
over there,” Gavin articulated.
“Why do I always have to
play against you? Hmm! I think you don’t want me on your side. Uh-huh, Nemafou!
You always insist on playing with Kemayou,” Michel Wetteu Ketcha said, using
Gavin’s middle name.
“Ach, Wetteu!” Gavin
protested, walked up to his friend and rested his right hand on his left
shoulder, not avoiding his eye, “You are a very good player; don’t you see?
That’s the only reason why the two of us can’t be on the same side. We would
kill them if we play together,” he added in an undertone.
“Okay! Let’s play now.”
“Perfect. You are playing
with Noumbisseu and Nya.”
“Uh-huh,” Wetteu muttered
and scratched his cheek.
“Let’s play, let’s
play…let’s play now,” Gavin urged his friends in an excited voice, strutting
backwards to the center of the field as he did so.
Njofang and the timid
Kemayou joined Gavin on the other half of the field and watched him place the
rubber ball in the hollow patch serving as their center spot. When his eyes
fell on his friends’ feet, he hesitated for a moment and then went on to take
off his sporting shoes. He thought wearing them while playing with his
bare-footed friends was not the right thing to do because he didn’t want to
feel as if playing with shoes made him better than them. He had expressed those
same feelings to his older brother Salomon a week ago, when Salomon first spotted him in school walking around
bare-footed like the other pupils.
There was so much about
Banganté that Gavin liked. Even though the nature of the Bamileké people caught
his fancy the most, he found the culture and tradition of the land to be the
very intriguing indeed. Unlike his older siblings who regretted the family’s
move to Banganté and seemed to make their point by walking around with the airs
of city dwellers trapped in a backward or even primitive small town or village,
Gavin blended with his age group and warmed himself into the hearts of the
adults in his ancestral homeland. His high respect for most of the
Banganté-born-and-raised kids who worked hard on
their parents’ farms, fetched firewood for their families, trekked for miles to
fetch water, and carried farm produce on their heads and backs meant that he
could relate easily with the locals. It also proved that he had no qualms doing
things like a native born. Most of the kids he knew had never worn close-ended
shoes before, but they lived their lives with vivacity and a sense of dignity
that he thought was worth emulating.
“Okay my friends, let’s
play,” Gavin shouted in an excited tone, and then kicked the ball to his
opponents to start the game.
About thirty-five minutes
into the game, Gavin found himself in a tussle at their opponents’ goal area.
The players of both teams were in an excited state as one team tried to push
its way through and score a goal while the other fought back to clear the ball
off its danger zone. In Gavin’s attempt to push forward, he kicked one of the
stones serving as their opponents’ goal post, uttered a brief cry of pain, limped
around for a couple of seconds, and then bent down to check on the source of
the pain. Mouth agape, he realized that the accident had split open the front part of his right hallux and toenail, and that
the wound was oozing blood. His friends immediately circled around him as he
sat on the muddy field and held his wounded toe to stop the bleeding.
Njofang said in a soothing voice.
“Ashia!” the other
friends said in unison.
“Don’t try to move around
until the bleeding subsides. Hmm! Okay! Give me a moment. I will get you some
herbs for the wound,” Njofang offered, and then left his friends for the nearby
Gavin was stunned when
Njofang returned a couple of minute after with a handful of leaves that he
rubbed together between his palms into a paste, and then squeezed the fluid
onto the wound.
Gavin squirmed in pains.
“What?” Njofang said.
“It is painful,” Gavin
“Ach, Nemafou!” Njofang
said with a puff, “I thought you were a tough boy. You need these herbs to
treat your wound and make it heal quickly.”
“Where did you learn to
do this? The pain is beginning to subside.”
“My father is a
traditional doctor. He taught me the right herbs to use for the treatment of
different ailments,” Njofang told him with a shrug.
“Huh, huh...huh! Does he
do weird stuff?” Gavin asked and regarded his friends in a conspiratorial
“Like what?” Njofang
asked back without looking at the face of his friend, and at the same time, he squeezed some more drops onto the
“Heh, heh, heh…heh,” Noumbisseu
laughed, “Njofang’s father gave my father a brown concoction that is very
bitter. I mistook it for corn beer. Yuck! I couldn’t eat anything all day after
I took a sip of the drink,” he added.
Gavin and the other boys
started laughing to. Just then, the roaring sound of a military plane buzzing
overheard towards the east, heading against
the setting sun, interrupted their laughter. Gavin turned around and looked at
the faces of his friends. They were amazed. But he was not impressed at all by
the flying machine. He had heard the sound before and had even read a lot about
military planes. He thought military planes brought one thing only—death and
Gavin was surprised that his mother
did not scold him at all for playing without his shoes on and for failing to
report his injury right after the accident. Instead, she made him seat on a low
kitchen bench, and then started cleaning
the wound with hot water. He winced in pain each time the cloth touched the
wound, and he even received an ‘I warned you’ nod from Salomon who walked past.
His mind began to drift again by the time his mother started applying an
ointment to the wound. After that, she made him sit still for a moment while
she bandaged it.
“Mama, why didn’t you use
the herbs Njofang gave me?”
“I don’t know much about
traditional medicine and I won’t experiment on you with the herbs from a
“Mama, his father taught
him. My friends told me that Njofang is good.”
“Stop it, Nemafou! Now, I
don’t want to see you kicking anything for the next month.”
“Oh Mama, this wound will
heal in a week or two.”
“You heard me.”
“Okay! Mama, thank you.”
“But what am I going to
do after school.”
“There are other games
you can play without jerking or kicking things around.”
“What other games?”
“Like helping me to crack
“Mama, I hate taking the
shells off the egusi. It is boring.”
“That’s because you are
not used to it. Salomon enjoys doing it with me and your sister. Besides,
keeping you away from the ball is the surest way to get your wound to heal
quickly. How are you feeling now?”
“You see. My words too
help in the healing process.”
“You are boasting, “Gavin
said with a laugh.
“I am trying to keep you
away from hurt, that’s all.”
“Thanks, Mama!” Gavin
responded with a reflective look on his face, and then added, “Mama, why didn’t
you become a doctor?”
“You make us well all the
time, treating our wounds and other ailments.”
“It takes many years of
serious studying to become a doctor.”
“Ugh, Nemafou! You and
your questions again! Why do you seek an answer for every thought that crosses
“Okay, Mama! Now I
understand! You didn’t want to become a doctor.”
“I didn’t say that,”
Maria said and laughed.
“Did you fail your
“I passed my school
exams, but I didn’t go further than elementary school because my father didn’t
have the money; there were no high schools for girls around; and it was time
for me to get married and deliver you, your brothers and sister.”
“I will become a doctor.
I will cure the sick just like Jesus, and I will make people happy. I will make
sure that you never die; and I will buy you a big house, a big car, and beautiful dresses. I will make you the
happiest mother in Banganté.”
Tears swelled in Maria’s
eyes. She turned away from her son and wiped them with the back of her hand.
And making an effort not to laugh, she turned around again and spoke to Gavin.
“Didn’t you tell me
before that you want to become a musician?”
“Hmm, hmm...hmm! Mama,
mama...mama! I can become a doctor and a musician as well.”
“Oh, Nemafou!” Maria
said, rose from her seat and wrapped her arms around her youngest son, “You
make me laugh,” she added in an emotion-choked voice.
told us that your uncle was his childhood friend, that his name was also
Maria held her breath.
“You got your name from him, from my uncle.”
“You said before that I
got it from Uncle David, your oldest brother.”
“You are right I said
that. Our mother gave Uncle David the middle name Nemafou in honor of her
brother, who happens to be my maternal uncle; and I honored my brother by
naming you Nemafou.”
“Hmm!” Gavin nodded, “So,
he was your mother’s big brother?”
also told us that your Uncle Nemafou didn’t become the king of Banganté because
he made his father the king angry, that his father exiled him from Banganté.”
Maria was quiet for a moment before she responded in a tired voice. “Yes, Gavin!”
“Yes, it is true.”
“His father was a wicked
man. Why didn’t he like his son?”
“It is not that simple.”
“What is it about their
relationship which is not that simple to understand? Your grandfather was
wicked against his own son, that’s all.”
“No, Gavin! My
grandfather loved my uncle and my mother too. My uncle was his favorite son.”
“Then why did he exile
“Sending him away was a
painful decision he had to make as the king of Banganté and of a people who
expected their king to be impartial.”
“Come on, Mama! Why did
he send his favorite son away?” Gavin persisted.
Maria heaved a breath and
regarded her youngest son with admiring eyes. None of her other children were
really curious about their lineage, so the sort of questions her youngest child
posed never failed to amaze her. Besides, he was the only one in the family who
delighted in speaking English and Pidgin English with her as if he understood
that she sometimes misses the Anglophone culture and way of life she had grown
up in during her early years in Victoria, in British Southern Cameroons.
“I will tell you the
story of your great-grandfather and granduncle when you are old enough,” she
said and ruffled Gavin’s hair, “Now, get something to eat, and then go to bed.”
“Mama, mama…mama, is your
uncle still alive?”
“He died a long time ago,
even before I was born.”
“How many children did he
“One! Her name is Aunty
Klara Nana. She is the mother of many children. Don’t worry; you will get to
know them one day.”
“Mama, what are their
“I don’t know. Come on
Nemafou. Eat something, and then go to bed. You need the sleep to grow up into
a big and strong man.” Maria pointed out, wagging her finger playfully.
“One last thing.”
“What is it now?”
“I miss Cid. I miss the
games we played in Douala. Hmm! He is smart. He came up with this game where we
challenge each other with questions on countries and their capitals. He was
planning to extend it to countries and their heads of states when we left
“Your cousin misses you
too. My brother said as much in his recent letter to me.”
“I love Uncle David
Nemafou too. I love him very much.”
“He is your namesake, and
you might be his favorite nephew after all.”
“Why don’t you ask Uncle
David to send Cid to Banganté to live with us for the long holidays? Or I can
spend the holidays with them in Douala.”
“We will see.”
“Do you think Cid is
going to like it here in Banganté?”
“I don’t know. Come on
Nemafou. Eat your food and get some sleep.”
Gavin’s face had a mildly
thoughtful expression on it as he ate dinner. He even went to bed that evening
with a determination not to make his mother worried any more. He fell into a
deep slumber right after he pulled the blanket up to his chest, and even
dreamed about his family and friends. But then, he had another dream around the
twilight of dawn, a dream featuring the plane he had seen flying low over
Banganté a couple of hours ago.
That same night, about a hundred
miles to the east of Banganté, another man also dreamed as he slept in the
Koutaba air force base in French Cameroun. But unlike Gavin, René Roccard’s
dream was triggered by the flight he took a couple of hours ago over the
rolling hills of the Bamilekéland.
René put his other hand around the
cup of coffee so that they created a circle around the porcelain container. It
was an unconscious move as if he was trying to whisk off the answer to the
multiple questions racing through his mind. The target of his two-month
investigation was close by and perhaps cornered by now. Perhaps cornered now if my men get the coordinates right this times
around, He thought.
He and his men were
convinced that Paul Simou Tankou possessed a gun, probably a sniper rifle
stolen either from a police station or from a military base back in 1954 when
two of the World War Two shoulder guns went missing from the inventory of two
of their stations in Douala. He also believed that the bullet that killed
Roland Thiraud as he was leaving the police headquarters last month was fired
by Paul Tankou. Not only did he find the killing to be an audacious move, he
was convinced without an iota of doubt that the killer carried it out to make a
statement that he was invincible. So getting the fellow today would be a big
victory for him in so many ways. Then perhaps it would bring an end to his
René was certain the
information from the French Camerounian informant was correct because the man had a record of providing information over
the years that proved to be very accurate or so, he was told. In fact, it was
only last month that he requested an increase in the money they dole out to the
fellow for his critical role in the army’s and the police’s intelligence
gathering. And it looked like that gesture may pay off after all. As he stood
there, he was sure about one thing only that kept him optimistic: Paul Tankou
was not far away and he spent the night in the Akwa neighborhood. The informant
had told him so at dawn that morning, adding that it could be one of six houses
in the area, and that he would know which
one shortly, most certainly before 9:00 hour. That meant in about an hour’s
He took a massive gulf of
the coffee and then looked at the time again. His watch said 8:06 hours. He set
the half-empty cup on the desk, dragged his feet to the wall by the window,
rested his head on it and shut his eyes. His men were ready and all they needed
now was the word from the informant. That way, they could make a
clearly-targeted raid and avoid any friction with the local population.
The knocks on the door
startled René, and he ran to see who the person was like someone late for an
appointment. He opened it just in time to find a hand that was about to strike
it again. And standing there, in front of him were the greasy faces of his
informant and Captain Paul Langmuir of the military police called the Gendarmerie.
“Located him?” René asked
with wide eyes,
“Oui, Mon Commandant. We need to hurry because he usually leaves his
hideouts before nine in the morning,” the informant said.
“Let’s go; let’s go. Get
them ready. They know the drill.” René shouted, stepped back into the office,
grabbed his rifle and then dashed back outside.
René adjusted his beret
as he walked down the corridor to the gendarmes outside. They were his
selection, all ten of them, great fighting men he had trained or upgraded. He
addressed them, extolling their honorable nature, prowess, and commitment, and then added in a deep voice, “Our
target has been localized. Let’s go for him,” he added and snapped a salute.
Six minutes after they
left the headquarters, René pulled the jeep in front of a black Daimler-Benz LP
315 truck and jumped out of the vehicle, followed by ten gendarme officers.
“Is this the truck he was
“Oui, Mon Commandant. And he is still inside. We need to hurry. That
is the house over there. His cousin owns it,” the informant pointed.
René waved his hand and
his men swung into action, moving quickly but cautiously in their encirclement
of the house. He stood by the jeep and watched Paul Langmuir cover the ground
to the entrance door, while he kept an eye on the backyard at the same time. He
was glad there were no civilians visible around. They are probably cowering in fright in their homes, he thought. He
raised the sniper rifle and aimed it at the door, his finger to the trigger.
Then he froze from the sound that rang in the air.
“Drop your guns or else I
will slit his throat.”
René knew in an instant
that it was Paul. He turned around to find standing by a little hut that
probably served as a latrine, a strong-looking man, who could be at least
six-foot-two in height, having a knife to the throat of one of the gendarmes,
the officer’s right arm pivoted behind his own back by Paul’s powerful hand.
Then he understood in a flash how Paul circumvented them. Their target was
doing his business when they rolled in,
and then started advancing towards the house. He understood that the game was
up, but decided to sneak behind an officer and hold him hostage instead of giving himself up. René looked around him to find that the other officers had
stopped in their advances, turned around and were now focused on Paul and their
“Keep an eye on the
surrounding houses!” René barked at the men, never taking his eyes off Paul.
Captain Paul Langmuir
said something in response, but it did not register in his mind. He was focused
on the knife-wielding French Camerounian.
“It is over Paul Tankou;
release your hostage and hand yourself in before you get hurt,” he shouted.
“Leave me alone; I didn’t
kill anybody,” Paul shouted back.
René narrowed down the
dot to the center of the viewfinder onto Paul’s exposed left shoulder, and then
brought it down lower, slightly to the left of his armpit.”
“I said drop the knife,” René
barked again, but with a deep edge to his voice.
Paul Tankou was about to
say something when his head jerked back suddenly and the knife dropped from his
hand. The hostage ran forward and was about five yards away from Paul when
several shots rang in the air, propelling Paul’s wavering body to the ground.
“Stop shooting, stop
shooting…stop shooting,” René kept shouting at the top of his lungs until the
For a moment, René stood
there like someone who did not know what next to do. The less than half a
minute of silence that ensued seemed like an eternity
to him and he felt like his head was spinning. Things weren’t turning out the
way he had planned it. No; that was not how he had wanted the whole thing to
happen. However, it wasn’t until Paul
Langmuir started running towards him did he snap out of his momentary
“I think he is dead.” The
French captain said.
René did not offer him a
response as he started walking towards the body on the ground with what looked
like heavy steps, his rifle aimed at it. Then he
heard the Cameroonian’s labored cough and at that moment a heavy weight
seemed to have been lifted off his shoulder. He ran up to the wounded man and
dropped down to his side on one knee.
“It is over. Don’t talk.
We will get you out of here.”
“It is not over, René. You are never going to stop. You came here to
avenge Marc’s death,” Paul said, spurting out blood.
At the mention of his
late brother’s name, a cold sense of rage swept over René, so that he held his
fist over the wounded man as if to strike him with it. “Why did you kill my
brother?” he gritted.
“Why did he kill my
“It was a mistake!” he
“Bruno was like my little
brother. He fought for France and got wounded in Libya. He was a soldier in the
French army. Marc killed him; your
brother murdered an honorary person who put his life on the line to liberate
France in a war that wasn’t his to fight.”
“It was a mistake!” René
“Your brother killed his
former comrade. Soldiers are not supposed to do that.”
“You killed Marc,” René
snapped and rubbed his brows, “Yes, you killed a French officer, your former
“I am not a sniper. And
don’t equate me with your brother. I upheld my honor in the traditions of our
warriors. We don’t surrender.”
“Un morceau de merde,” René grabbed Paul on the tuff of his shirt,
pulled him up and then shoved him back so hard that he banged his head on the
Paul Langmuir ran over to
René and stood above him. “S'il vous plaît, c’est
déjà fait!”he pleaded to his boss.
René rose to his feet and
looked around him like a man lost to his environment. Three adults from the
house they were about to raid a moment ago had stepped outside now and were
looking at them with horrified eyes. Some of their neighbors too had ventured
out of their homes to witness the developments outside. He thought the
situation could escalate in no time.
“Let’s take him to the
hospital right away,” he said in a broken voice.
“You are like Marc,” Paul
slurred, “You want me dead too, a soldier who fought for France. He will... he will get you.” Paul said, gasping for
“Shut up!” René said and
kicked him hard.
Paul Tankou died while the
gendarmes were carrying him to one of their vehicles.
René dropped his head
when he received the news. However, just before he got into his jeep, he turned
to Captain Paul Langmuir and said in a sad voice, “What did I do?”
“We got our man, Mon Commandant.”
“I hope so,” He responded
with a blank look on his face.
René had a hard time
falling asleep that night as he fought to get the raid off his mind, all to no
avail. He plumped the pillows he was sleeping on several times but thought no resting position for his
head was comfortable enough. He also got
up multiple times, paced about in his room, and even kicked the air now and
again in rage until he finally felt like crying. But he could not cry. How he wanted to believe that Paul Tankou was
the gunman that killed his brother because that would absolve him of any sense
of guilt over his death, but the thought that the dead man might not have been
the sniper after all, kept nagging the
back of his mind, ripping his heart apart in way that he had never felt before.
Finally, he walked to the cupboard in the dining room, pulled it open, grabbed
a bottle of brandy and started drinking directly from it. But it wasn’t until the
bottle was almost empty did the first soft sound of weeping escape his throat.
His intermittent sobbing got louder and louder, so that by 5:00 hours that
morning, he was crying like someone who just found out that a soul he loved
dearly was dead and not coming back after all.
They said Ruben Um Nyobé radiated a
strange confidence that did not reflect his level of exposure to the known
world controlled by the major powers. Some of the men of power exercising
direction over the destiny of colonial Africa aptly admitted with some degree
of awe that Ruben Um Nyobé, the leader of the banned Union of the Peoples of
Cameroon, otherwise known as the UPC, was a well-read man. A few of them even
talked of his poignant wit, holding that the French Camerounian leader also
possessed the great ability to grasp details like a vacuum cleaner, and
pointing out that he had what it takes to be a successful politician anywhere
in the world.
True the Cameroonian
interacted with his people deeply and in a manner that some of his enemies and
opponents claimed smacked of populism, true he was engaging even with those who
were committed to prevent him from realizing his political dreams, and true he
was an altruist. But even Ruben's most virulent critics all agreed that he was
neither a populist nor a con politician
nor an advocate of discrimination. Ruben considered himself a leader with the
common touch and an all-embracing vision to move his people to a better future.
The steel-nerved Ruben’s
evolution over the past decade as the head of a trade union that championed the
interest of the workers of French Cameroun, to that of the leader of a
political movement committed to rallying
the forces of the former German colony towards reunification and independence,
had taken a toll on him. This, in view of the fact that the arduous task of
galvanizing the populations of British Cameroons and French Cameroun, of
working against Britain and France in their visions of control of a future
post-independence Africa, and of being a good father and husband, was proving
to be far more challenging than he had anticipated.
As he walked the
footpaths of the Bassa forest that bright September afternoon, Ruben looked
neither charismatic nor imposing. In fact, the expression on his face was that
of a worried man caught in a death trap. His eyelids shook again, repeatedly as
if they were being triggered by a vibrator. The trembling always left him with
a premonition of trouble, an intuitive feeling he did not like, but one that
had been plaguing him for over a week now. It made him grumpy to the point
where he started snapping at his fighters for no apparent reason or for the
slightest of mistakes or infractions. Also, he could not stop himself from
constantly dwelling on the past, to the vision of
a future reunited Cameroon that he and other close top officials of the UPC
weaved. That future New Cameroon was expected to be at peace with itself and
the rest of the world.
Ruben was convinced that
they had done a great job harnessing the resources of the land, that they had
cultivated a sense of common purpose among the various groups in both the
French-speaking and the English-speaking populations of the partitioned former
German colony of Kamerun, and that they were winning over foreign friends to
their cause. But then, France lost Indo-China, surrendered the task of fighting
communists and nationalists in that part of Asia to the Americans, and then
turned its eyes on the nascent African nationalism with a determination to
quell it that rivaled the ferocity of the Roman Army in its campaign to defeat
Spartacus and his slave revolt against Rome. Reacting from fears that the UPC
would reunite French Cameroun and British Cameroons, and then lead it and other
French colonies away from its control, the weakened French government panicked
and banned the party on false grounds that it harbored Marxist objectives.
Ruben shut and opened his
eyes in rapid succession as if to ward off depressing thoughts. Still, the
worries persisted. Those ten years of laying the foundation for a reunited and
independent Cameroon involved winning the overwhelming support of both the
French Camerounian and British Cameroonian peoples, a task that kept him away
from his family most of the time and that subjected him to a great deal of
deprivation. It was a sacrifice for the future, the UPC hierarchy had reasoned.
But now, all their efforts and sacrifices were being washed away by the
irresponsible and irrational action of Roland Pré, the right-wing Frenchman who
as the High Commissioner of French Cameroun banned the UPC on July 13, 1955,
seven months after he arrived in the land as the chief administrator of the
United Nations Trust territory and five months before elections for seats in
the new Assemblée Législative du Cameroun Français (ALCAM), otherwise known
as the Legislative Assembly of French Cameroun. The UPC’s confinement to the
shadows of politics in French Cameroun was all the more disheartening because
they had been looking forward to winning
more than seventy percent of the legislative seats.
The UPC leader’s thoughts
drifted again to the trembling of his eyelids. He muttered a sigh under his
breath and shook his head warily. The trembling of his eyelids wasn’t the only
thing that worried him so much. The onset of insomnia and the discomfort that
came with it had added more irritation to his edgy nerves. Flashbacks of those
sleepless nights when the brief moments of slumber were interrupted by
terrifying dreams that never failed to leave him soaked in his own
perspiration, were not comforting at all. The vividness of one of those nights
as he thought about it brought a sigh out of his lips. For the past couple of
days now, everything around him seemed to be having an eeriness that he found
strange to his senses, to the point where he even had to seek the help of a
local doctor about it, fearing that he was losing his mind.
"You need a lot of
rest, you need some sleep and some time off from the worries of the destiny of
this land," the doctor had told him.
But what did the doctor
know, living off the sifted information the French system was providing to the
local population and the rest of the world about the French Army’s fight
against the UPC liberation movement. How could the doctor even expect him to
sleep when his people were being massacred every day, and when they were being
forced to flee their homes and live a desolate existence in the heart of the
forest? Furthermore, how could his mind be at rest when Félix Moumié, Ernest
Ouandie, Abel Kingue and most of his other assistants had to flee to British
Southern Cameroon, leaving him virtually alone in the arduous task of
continuing the insurrection in that part of French Cameroun where the French
had concentrated their forces in with the sole purpose of killing the cherished
dream of reunification, independence, and
a New Cameroon?
As he trod the footpath
with his close lieutenants in front and behind him, Um Nyobé’s mind started to
wander again—this time, to his 1956 appearance at the United Nations where he
had presented the motion for immediate reunification and independence of French
Cameroun and British Cameroons. However, another French Camerounian unknown to
the political circles in the territory also appeared at the assembly hall that
day led by the French ambassador to the United Nations who, it turned out, had
made arrangements for the unknown entity to speak after him. The position the
man postulated was so shocking that he had trembled in suppressed rage.
However, when he found out afterwards that his French Camerounian counterpart
was groomed, coached and paid by the French to deliver their version of events
in the UN Trust Territory of French Cameroun; he was more awed than surprised.
Hiyopot, as Ruben had
referred to the man afterwards, had countered and contradicted all his claims;
and without blinking an eye, Hiyopot had looked in his direction and declared
to the assembly that he, Ruben Um Nyobé, was not even of Cameroonian descent,
and for that reason above everything else, he, Ruben Um Nyobé, had no right to
be there speaking on behalf of the peoples of the territories of French
Cameroun or British Cameroons that came out of the former German colony of
He remembered how
flabbergasted he was by Hiyopot’s speech until a female delegate from Romania
turned to him, smiled, and then told him in a voice that brought some relief to
his soul. “Mr. Um Nyobé, do not worry
about the things he just said. Every country has its smart and it’s less smart.
In Rumania, we have our useful idiots too."
Still, that betrayal from
his compatriot did not stop him from continuing with his mission to sensitize
world leaders about the plight of the peoples of both French Cameroun and
British Cameroons. He knew he was carrying a tough message to sell to the rest
of the world that France was doing everything within its power to carry out its
plot to retain control of French Cameroun while giving the world the impression
that it had granted that part of the former German colony the independence its
“Where exactly are we
supposed to meet them?” Marcel Ngembus, the UPC lieutenant two persons behind
Ruben interrupted his thoughts with the question, directing it at nobody in
particular, even though he was referring to the local Bassa government official
playing the role of broker in the preliminary talks between Ruben Um Nyobé and
representatives of the government of the new French Camerounian Prime Minister
“We are almost there,”
Elvis Biyick, the other lieutenant at the head of the squad responded without
even looking back at Marcel.
Ruben looked at Elvis in
front of him, then at Marcel behind him, and then grunted. Both men were
clutching their Kalashnikovs tightly and appeared as alert as desert foxes. He
nodded mildly in approval even as he strained his ears for any sound from the
Still, no worrying sound
disturbed the eeriness of the forest for about ten minutes before he thought he
heard something. He was about to mention his suspicions to Elvis when he
realized that Elvis had stopped, his eyes wide in their sockets in a momentary
gaze of dread that instantaneously turned into a look of dawning realization
not unmixed with fury.
“Ambush! We have been
ambushed,” Elvis screamed, broke the line, ran towards Ruben and pushed him
down to the side of the footpath, over into the overgrown bush. The shootings
started the moment he screamed the word ambush. It was an assorted mix of
rattling sounds of gunfire from rifles, crackles from pistols and deafening
explosions from grenades and other explosives. He thought he even heard sounds
from a machine gun. And they appeared to be coming from every direction.
Screams, agonizing cries, the barking of orders, imploration for help, shouts
of surrender were all intermingled in the deafening noise hanging all around
him as he crawled with his belly, grabbed a fallen pistol and crouched behind a
Ruben must have taken
cover behind the trunk for about five minutes and he was still trying to figure
out the directions the enemy firings were coming from when a hand tapped him on
the back and whispered into his ears.
“There is an opening over
there. We can make a run for it. Now, now, let’s go,” Marcel hissed.
Ruben was still trying to
put his thoughts together when a bullet missed his head by an inch and
splintered the trunk that he had crouched behind, sending pieces of wood up in
the air. The miss was followed seconds after by another, and then a third.
“Let’s go now,” Marcel
screamed and got up to his feet.
Marcel started shooting
into the thick forest as they made the run, seemingly at nowhere but making an impact even though. They
were less than five yards away from the huge mahogany tree they were hoping to
crouch behind for shelter when it dawned on Marcel that the intensity of the
assault had abated. Just then, a bullet hit him in his right shoulder. He
stifled his scream, but a series of bullets caught him in the torso, forcing
his weapon out of his hands. Ruben was about to head to the right when the
shootings stopped abruptly as if someone ordered it.
“You are completely
surrounded. Drop your weapons now. I repeat drop your weapons now and save your
lives―” a voice sounded from a megaphone, stopping Ruben in his tracks.
An overwhelming feeling
of tiredness swept over Ruben. He looked at his wounded leg, shut his eyes for
a couple of seconds, and then opened them again and stared wearily at Marcel
who was now on his knees with a dreary and death look on his face. He nodded
slightly, and then turned around and looked dejectedly at his other fighters.
Most of his men appeared dead and two of them were agonizing in pains on the
footpath. One of the men had been hit so badly that his stomach split open and
he was trying to hold his bowels in his hands.
Ruben dropped his pistol
and raised his hands in the air, the anger of betrayal sweeping though his
entire being, making him to unconsciously bite his lower lip so hard that he
even tasted his own blood. He was still trying to make sense of the whole purpose
of the betrayal when he heard a series of spurting sounds behind him, sounds
that were followed by gasps from Marcel as he fell to the ground.
Ruben started turning
around to see who the shooter was when a bullet hit him. This was followed by
another bullet on his back, and then another and another. He buckled to his
knees and fell flat on his face, the black faces of his native soldiers and the
white French officer by his side stamped in his memory even as he tried to make
a connection. The veil finally moved away, allowing him to make the association
just before he let out his last breath. He had seen the face of René before, in
the American city of New York. He even tried to smile at the realization just
before he took his last breath. The haunt was over or So, he thought.