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Their judgement on October 13th 1990 ended in riots when the large number

of youths present rejected the sentence and took to the streets, overturning cars,

screaming their discontent of the regime, and smashing everything in sight.

That shook the foundations of the single party system

 

 

Love One Another

By Akoli Penoukou

 

I stiffened, snatched the remote control, and turned down the volume of the TV set when the noise began in the street, his nickname clearly distinct in the ballad the children chorused. He is always announced by the children chirping in the street whenever he appears. “Tonton La Joie! Tonton La Joie ! Tonton La Joie !” they chanted. I could picture him, grinning in their midst, beating time with his large hands like an orchestra conductor while they sang for him. I winced. It was dishonorable enough for a drunk to come here but did he have to pile on all those antics too? I fumed with indignation at why some people who should be hiding rather made a spectacle of themselves.

“Say it loud!” he boomed suddenly in English.

“I’m drunk and glad!” the children shrieked the refrain he had taught them.

“Say it louder!” he roared harder.

“I’m drunk and glad!!” the children shouted themselves hoarse.

“Say it loudest!”

“I’m drunk and glad!!!” The children stretched their voices to the limit. Giggling, they clapped. Then all was quiet. I stretched my neck and strained my ears but I hardly caught him sweet talking them. Soon the children giggled, spluttering his nicknames. He mimicked them. Really, Uncle Joy.

“Tonton La Joie!” one of the men playing cards under the acacia tree across the street cried.

“Ouais!” he answered, “C’est moi.” The distinctiveness of his loud voice indicated that he was making his way towards the main gate. I could see him in my mind’s eyes. Tottering as if he would fall. But nimble as a cat. “La joie dans les cœurs, la joie dans les foyers; are they over there?” he shouted over the high gate. He could. Tonton—that was how he insisted people call him instead of his real name Antonio—towered over it.

“Look, he shouldn’t break down our gate,” my daughter, Fidelia, who had ignored his presence up to now, said in a mean tone, squeezing her face. “Can’t he see there’s nobody in the yard?” She was the youngest and impertinent.

No sooner said than done. Tonton began to pound the gate. It was an ash-colored iron gate, solid as only that craftsman a block away makes them. How many times haven’t the children banged it shut but it still stood as if it was installed a minute ago. Tonton rattled the gate now, setting our teeth on edge. Yet we stuck to our seats exchanging dark looks. Me in the sofa facing the window on the wall looking onto the front yard, Fidelia with legs piled into the davenport under the window.

Tonton continued to rap and rock the gate. He knew we were in. Then we heard Mama yell: “There’s somebody at the gate!” She was cooking in the outhouse behind the sitting room which served as kitchen. Hanu, our eldest daughter, had come over to help her. Since childhood Fidelia has loved studies and since she was always top of her class nobody troubles her with housework which she doesn’t do anyway. She has completed her architectural studies and was looking for work.

“It’s that your drunkard of a brother,” Fidelia shouted back.

Just because I shook my head at her, she yelled louder: “It’s that alcoholic,” murmured: “troubling people,” tut-tutted, and pouted.

None of us—except Mama—liked Tonton coming over to visit. We shouldn’t normally be averse to him. Tonton was one of the rare Togolese to study in the UK after independence in the sixties when all the Baccalauréat holders were sent to France. He returned four years later with a bachelors degree in Public Management from the University of Glamorgan. A handsome, well-dressed man, women were his weak point. If the Morris Minor car he brought from Wales made him very popular, his position in the Ministry of Territorial Administration as Technical Adviser spread his fame. Being a bachelor of 23 drew the women and caused his fall.

Soon Mama’s quick steps pounded across the door as she hurried to let Tonton in. Fidelia slid the lace curtain to one side and peeked out the crack. I craned my neck and glimpsed Tonton grinning broadly and stretching his long arms over the gate.

“Where were you hiding, Christiania?” he shouted. His baritone voice could have made him an excellent Sergeant-Major. “I’ve been knocking the gate for ages now.”

Mama said something, pointing behind her. Tonton chortled as she pulled the gate open and he hugged her as if they hadn’t met in centuries. We could see frail Mama straining to keep both of them from tumbling while Fidelia tutted, whispered “boozer” and flipped the curtain closed. Then she buried herself in a Watchtower she was reading. We are Catholics.

Mama, who exhibits amazing hospitality in situations which easily erodes the patience of the most stoic, greeted Tonton gaily as they walked over: “Welcome, Tonton,” she said.

“Tonton La Joie,” he corrected and snickered. “How are you enjoying the brand new year, my mother’s child?”

They come from a polygamous family. Such people say mother’s children to distinguish themselves from their “father’s children” who are the half-brothers and half-sisters. Fidelia and I exchanged glances. If there was anything the children and I hated it was Tonton’s coming during mealtimes. Tonton always came when we were about to eat. One would say he knew when food was ready in our house. Or that he could smell it from wherever he was. Mama didn’t seem to care at all. It seemed sort of quite alright to her.

“Come greet the household,” Mama said brightly, parting the door curtain.

Fidelia squirmed on her seat. I had snatched a newspaper as they approached and rivetted my eyes in it. Mama knew I didn’t like the visits of her people, as they always came to eat, especially Tonton, but took sides with them when I complained. I couldn’t help but be chilly to them. Imagine having to endure Tonton on a New Year’s Day when I’d invited people over to lunch!

Tonton reeled in, though he tried hard to walk as if sober. Mama had flung out her arms to catch him when he seemed like toppling backwards but Tonton caught himself just in time. He straightened his well-pressed grey suit over a sky blue shirt, the top two buttons undone, revealing a wide, hairy chest and collarbones jutting through liver-colored skin. His shoes were creased and dusty.

“Are you from Church?” Mama asked humorously, leaning against the doorframe, with Hanu beside her peering in as if a curiosity lurked in the room.

“Don’t sit there!” Mama was shouting as Tonton sank into a couch to my right. “Sit carefully!” she added as Tonton lowered himself into the furniture and sank in. “The springs are weak.”

Fidelia’s hands flew over her mouth as she giggled when Tonton sank in, said: “It doesn’t matter,” heaving himself up, and perched at the tip of the settee.

“Sit in the other one.” Mama indicated another sofa by me but Tonton said: “I’m okay here, I don’t weigh much.”

“Too much drinking,” Fidelia observed and Mama cast her a glance.

Hanu mouthed something to Fidelia who snorted and rolled to the other side.

“Church?” Mama repeated her question, smiling.

“No,” Tonton replied seriously. “I’ve come to give you New Year’s greeting.”

We exchanged glances. Everybody knew why he had come. He had been there on Christmas day also, to give us yuletide greetings he had said, but he had stayed through lunch and supper. The children and I had hardly spoken to him. He got drunk and one could hear him snoring from fifteen meters away where he sprawled under a grape tree. He got up at dusk but it was not until Mama hollered that it was getting late and tugged him out that he tottered off reluctantly around 11 p.m., singing loudly:

 

            Love one another while you are all alive

            Wreaths, libations are useless for the dead

            Give them to me when I can enjoy them.

 

Somebody shouted: “Love One Another” and he hurled obscenities at him. The person guffawed.

            “Receive New Year greetings,” Tonton said, sliding from the tip of the cushion and crouching.

“No, no, no, sit down,” I said, without bothering to spring to my feet and lift him back onto his perch as a good host should.

“Bonne et Heureuse Année,” he said in French and added in English: “Happy New Year” —and finished in Ewe, the local language— “to you all.”

“Happy New Year to you too!” we chorused as he got up.

Kissing me twice on each cheek, he whispered: “Good health for the children, salary increase Beau”—that was how he called me: Beau. The short form of beau-frère, the French for brother-in-law. The black bristles on his cheek tinged with grey felt prickly— “health above all. Once we’ve health all others will be added onto us.”

“We also wish you good health,” I said, shaking his large palm. 

Mama stepped into the room and gave him a big hug. “Good health. And less drinking this year.”

“I don’t drink anymore,” Tonton said seriously.

I peeped at him and felt like chuckling. He licked his lips a lot anytime he drank.

“You don’t do what anymore,” Mama countered, squinting up at him. They had their father’s mulatto features. “Can the pot refuse to go to the riverside?”

“Can you smell it?” Tonton screened his mouth and scratched his shiny black hair. He swore he never used dye. “Oh, I’m damned! Yet it’s only yesterday’s. No, the day before yesterday’s.”

We giggled. He too, showing the three cavities in the front teeth. At 63. “While my father went with all the thirty-two at 90,” he once moaned.

“Can you afford not to drink on December 31st?” Mama said.

He chortled, rolling his head as if amused.

“Come give your uncle New Year greetings,” Mama said to the girls with a sweet smile.

Hanu climbed into the room but Fidelia rushed to give Tonton a peck on a cheek. “I wish you’d be sober from now,” she said and Tonton nodded quietly.

“Photocopy of my sister,” Tonton said with wide arms and a broad grin as Hanu took her turn to greet him. They embraced each other warmly. “How’s that your husband?”

“He’s fine, Tonton,” Hanu said when they disengaged and Tonton held her arms. Hanu’s husband, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had declared Tonton persona non grata in his house three years ago until he stopped drinking. “Honestly, Tonton, we wish you’d stop this year.”

“I’ll make the effort,” Tonton said solemnly. “I even made a New Year’s resolution yesterday. Dead on midnight. Not a single drop anymore till Easter. Then Christmas, and then the New Year. Three times a year only.”

“Who are you fooling?” Mama joked with a shrill laugh which drowned ours.

“Allah!” He licked his first finger and pointed it up.

“Are you a moslem now?” asked Fidelia.

He shook his head violently.

“Did you attend midnight mass?” Mama asked, scratching her greying hair tied in a brown flowery scarf. I sighed with a bad conscience at how calloused her delicate hands had become with housework.

“Talk of the man being sober before you ask if he attended mass,” Fidelia said and Mama threw her another sidelong look. Fidelia shrugged and went back to her reading.

“I think Beau has something in the cupboard?” Tonton said, pretending not to have heard Fidelia.

I nodded. “What you like.” I brought out a full bottle of vodka.

“Quel beau!” he cried, licking his thin, reddened lips. “Mon beau Beau !”

We all chuckled about that.

I poured him the drink, half beer cupful, as he loved it. Mama gave me a sideways glance. “Just for today,” I said with a shrug.

“Don’t worry,” Tonton said, lifting the cup and giving it a sidelong look. The bottom caught light, throwing it like stars. “This is just for waking the demons, Christiania. The one to kill them will follow later, isn’t it, Beau?” I nodded just to appease him and he turned towards Mama. “Praise God! He has not only given you a loving husband but a kind one too.” I heard Fidelia tut jokingly after murmuring ‘Amen!’. “But Beau,” Tonton continued, “aren’t you accompanying me?”

I poured myself a small drink and we clinked glasses. He always banged glasses so at the moment of shock I drew back my glass to absorb the shock.

“I know the ladies are Coca Cola people,” he joked, shut his reddened eyes, threw back his head, poured the drink down his long throat, sighed like a truck compressor, and wrinkled his puffed face.

Fidelia screwed up her face too. I took a sip and set down my glass.

“Where’s Uncle?” Tonton said on opening his eyes. He always called our second child, Emmanuel, Uncle because he was named after one of their uncles. Yema taught economics at a technical school for three years and then switched over to a vocational training institute a year ago.

“His half-grandfather’s son, Basile, the one working at Ecobank-Benin, invited him to Cotonou for the festivities,” Mama said.

“Ah, Cotonou!” Tonton sighed: “A groovy place.”

“Enjoyment is your only motto,” Mama said, getting up. “I’ve to go back to the kitchen, we’ve guests coming.”

I gazed at Tonton. He didn’t appear disturbed. Typical of Mama’s people. What embarrassed some people just wash over them like water over a duck’s back. What makes me wonder if my education had rather been too prudish.

“Wow!” Tonton cried, mirth ringing in his voice and we knew that even if he had intended it, he wouldn’t be gone soon. But I was not keen on letting him stay. I just had to wait for the appropriate time to gently send him away. How can I forget so soon the scene he had made last Easter?

It was our turn to receive the committee of the mutual aid association we belonged to. We were putting finishing touches to the preparations when Tonton came. There was no predicting his behavior when he took in a bit too much. Mama gave him money and saw him off. Two hours later we were hugging the committee members at the gate in a fever of excitement when we heard his voice.

“You’re welcome!” he boomed to the visitors, swinging like a tall coconut tree caught in a storm.

The startled committee members turned around as Mama and I gaped at each other. Tonton began to embrace them.

“Fofo Antonio what’s the matter?” Mama shrieked in the blood-chilling voice she has when mad.

“Who’s he?” the Chairman asked, throwing his cloth onto his right shoulder.

Mama’s eyes slid deeper inwards. “A brother,” she whispered, pain clearly on her broken voice.

“A former executive at the now Ministry of the Interior,” Tonton added.

All eyes turned on him.

“It’s a pity how the non payment of social security is driving our pensioneers crazy,” the secretary general whispered to me.

I indicated that Tonton was a drinker and waved the guests in. Mama remained behind and whispered fiercely to Tonton. Tonton guffawed and walked past her. Later we learnt that he had gone to burn the money Mama had given him on sodabi—the strong, locally-brewed gin—in a shack around the corner.

“Happy Easter!” he shouted to the group when they were hardly seated and launched into a monologue in English. The committee members stared at him with disbelief. That sort of English was not given to everybody. The Chairman waved Tonton over to his side. He had been an English teacher. The two conversed in English like old friends and we were obliged to put up with Tonton. Mama and I kept watch on him like a dangerous prisoner so that he wouldn’t have a drop of alcohol to drink; but with a group to entertain coupled with the festive atmosphere, that was easier wished than accomplished.

When the music started, with Ghanaian highlife music from the sixties and seventies, especially the classics of Ramblers International and Uhuru Dance Bands and those of Melo Togo, Tonton jumped to his feet. He reached for the beautiful treasurer and impressed the group with his rhythmical and elegant dance steps.

“Applause for him!” the Chairman cried and to me: “It shows, this man has known the good life.”

I nodded eagerly.  

“But, what happened to him?”

“Lust for women,” I explained. One Saturday a colleague caught Tonton with his wife in his own bed. Two days later Tonton took to drinking and he has never been sober since. That was thirty-five years ago. People said the man went to Abomey in the Republic of Benin, the birthplace of vaudou, and got Tonton charmed. Tonton inevitably lost his work. Some said that he had his nose and palate sharpened for alcohol, others swore that a bottle had been lodged in his stomach. “It was even rumored that his blood had been mystically mixed with alcohol so much so that he got drunk even when he took in water.”

The Chairman straightened up and stared at Tonton.

Tonton now executed more delicate steps to everybody’s delight. We all joined them. When Yema changed the music to salsa, Tonton bowed to me and took Mama’s hands. Their great-grandparents had come from Brazil and their love of salsa comes from there. I love that South American music too but I found it difficult to tap my feet and skip and swing them from side to side to the often fast-paced rhythm dominated by the sounds of conga drums, trumpets, trombones, double basses, and the accordion.

At meals Tonton demanded that his plate be filled to the brim despite Mama’s burning looks. When he began to mix liquors in a tall cup, Mama couldn’t stand it anymore. She demanded the cup with an insistent wave.

“Who is giving who orders?” Tonton snarled. “The youngest sister?”

The guests whipped around towards Tonton at the same time that Mama lost her calm and blurted out: “This is my house and if you don’t like it, ...” She indicated the gate with angry jerks of her hand.

The guests intervened and cooled down tempers. Mama ignored Tonton after hurling off his drink. When we went to bed I accused Mama of spoiling the party. How? She wanted to know. If you hadn’t allowed your people to turn our house into a restaurant none of this would have happened, I said. She accused my family of being tightfisted people and I branded hers as parasitic. Tempers flared and our voices rose until Fidelia shouted through the door to us to go on bickering about someone who was no more thinking of what was tearing us apart. It took days of slow warming for the cold between Mama and I to dissipate. Tonton did not come to the house until Mama’s birthday in October, holding a bouquet of fresh Jasmine flowers. Mama thanked him and shoved him out the gate. I felt conscience-stricken. 

Time the eraser of memories. Tonton had classified the Easter incident into his mind’s archives. That was why he had come on Christmas day. Hospitality the spur of hanger-ons. Tonton had to be in our house on New Year’s day too.

“Fifi,” Tonton said to Fidelia, “switch on the TV.”

That was another aspect of them. They would come to the house, prance to the kitchen and uncover pans and pots; strut into the living room, take out drinks, slouch in sofas and siphon alcohol and play the music they liked and loud too; all crowned with bombast. No longer ready to let anybody take my leniency for weakness, one day I exploded and drove them out of the house. That was twenty years ago. Since then some of my in-laws hardly talked to me.

“No-o-o,” I cut in, shaking my forefinger in the air. “The electricity bill is skyrocketing.”

 “Electricity bill,” Tonton repeated to himself and cast down his head, snorting.

Silence hung in the room like a death sentence.

“It was an excellent Christmas you had last,” he soon said, trying to make conversation.

I snorted, glancing at Fidelia. She was lost in her paper.

Tonton lowered his head, wriggling his fingers as if playing the piano. I knew he was searching for a way to break the ice. I also wanted to say something, to be a good host, at the same time I didn’t want to encourage him to stay. I flipped on the radio. The silence was growing too thick. Tonton jacked up his head, met my aloof look, dropped his head again, drumming on his knees with his large fingers to accompany the fast-paced Ivorian music tearing out of the 80-watt speakers. I tried to read the newspaper but my brain refused to soak in anything. It was with relief that I heard Mama’s steps. She was soon at the door, trying to smile through the plaster masking her fatigue. The sun bathed her like a subject in photographic studio lights.

“How’s it, Tonton,” she said civilly.

“Alright,” he said without conviction, his head still down. “Quite alright.”

“I’ve no time today,” Mama said. “Wouldn’t you come back another day?”

Tonton was quiet a while, stretched slowly to his feet, like an arthritic old man, reluctance written into his action and disappointment etched on his face. “Sure,” he whispered and cleared his throat. “I’d only come by to say hi.”

I felt relieved and conscience-burdened.

“See you then,” Mama said, hurrying back to the kitchen. “Fidelia, See him to the gate,” she added.

“Beau, I came on two legs,” Tonton whispered confidentially, peeping out the door. “I can’t go back on one cup. Pour me a second.”

I pointed towards the kitchen.

Tonton peeped out the door again. “She’s over there,” he whispered softly.

I poured him half a cup.

He waved to me to top it. I did. Eyes wide and cheeks ballooned, Fidelia blew air through her lips. I shrugged. Tonton downed the drink in a gulp and sighed loudly. “Happy New Year. Enjoy the party,” he said, walked to the door and paused. I felt like giving him money but then I didn’t.

“Tonton, I’ve reading to do,” Fidelia said irritably, standing behind him.

“That Jehovah Witness paper,” he said scornfully, shook hands with me, then he was gone.

I stood up and peeked through a corner of the window curtain. Fidelia walked fast. Tonton dangled behind her. She opened the gate, gave him a listless hand and banged the gate shut.

“This Tonton,” Fidelia said contemptuously on crawling back into the davenport, “he should’ve rotted in prison.”

Fidelia was referring to an event which had sent Tonton to jail for a year. The democratic wind had begun to blow from the East and tongues had begun to wag but cautiously. The opposition was beginning to organize but timidly. Then some young men were arrested for distributing tracts unfavorable to the government. Their judgement on October 13th 1990 ended in riots when the large number of youths present rejected the sentence and took to the streets, overturning cars, screaming their discontent of the regime, and smashing everything in sight. That shook the foundations of the single party system. Maybe that spurred Tonton on that morning of October seven days after the riots. I was busy thumbing through the archives in the Clerk’s office of the Lome county court looking for a document for a magistrate when Hanu called.

“Papa,” she yelled into the phone and I jerked away the earpiece--as it crackled--and winced. I was about to lash out at Hanu about where she’d left her telephone manners when she added, “come quick! It’s Tonton. He’s going to kill himself.”

I let go of the file and pasted the handset to my ear. “Tonton? Kill himself? Where?”

“Fréau Jardin.”

“Fréau Jardin?” I repeated with incredulity. How can anyone kill himself at that popular public place? The concrete benches were always occupied. The avenue de la Liberation to the west and the rue champs des courses on the south had near traffic jams. Hawkers occupied the other two sides of the park. The only way to commit suicide was to shoot oneself but so far as I knew only members of the security forces had arms. “How?”

“He’s haranguing the crowds about democracy.”

“My goodness!” I gasped and dropped the phone. In a second I was on my Vespa motorbike. Zigzagging between vehicles honking and flashing their headlights at me and their drivers cursing me, I was at Fréau Jardin in a flash. Hanu, who was spending the long holidays with an aunt at Tokoin Gbonvié, was going to the aunt’s Dutch wax print textiles shop in the Central Market when she saw Tonton; she trembled at the main entrance to the park, staring wildly about. Hanu had just turned sixteen. She gasped on seeing me and dashed towards me. I hopped from the motorbike, propped it up and we rushed into the park.

There stood Tonton on the dais in the middle, wearing a dark blue suit, and brandishing a small book in his left hand and a magazine in the right. From his blood-red eyes and the beads of perspiration on his forehead I knew that he had had too much alcohol. He was screaming in French about something and the small crowd—made up mainly of street children, the unemployed who lolled around the park, and some curious passers-by--cheered. Hardly had we taken two steps towards him when I drew Hanu to a stop.

“There’s nothing we can do but wait,” I said. “He shouldn’t even see us.”

Hanu puffed, staring at me with wide eyes. “Why?” she whined.

“We’ll be branded as his accomplices.” The charge could be worse for me, Chief Clerk, at the county court.

Hanu shut her eyes, dropped her head into her palms and whimpered against my shoulder. Tonton had his back to the neem trees to the northern side of the park. I pulled Hanu behind one of them.

“Take it from me that like Independence, nobody will give you democracy on a silver platter.” Tonton was talking like a politician but he reminded me of roadside evangelists, the way he modulated his words and threw his arms about. He didn’t need a microphone to be heard. “You have to struggle for it. That’s right, s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e for it.”

“We will,” a voice shouted from the crowd.

“Thank you, my brother. Brothers and sisters,--“ He looked around. “--despite October 13th they say that we don’t need democracy. Are we fools?”

“No-o-o!” the crowd answered.

Some people stopped on the sidewalk in front of the park, listened for a while and quickly hurried off. Others leaned against the wall of the park and peered in.

Tonton hooked a long finger, skimmed sweat from his brow and flung his hand. “Who doesn’t like a good thing?” he continued.

“Nobody!” the crowd hurled back.

“That’s it!” he said and displayed his teeth and cavities in a wide grin. “Nobody should fool anybody. I studied in Britain.” He thumped his chest and stared proudly around.

I drew Hanu and we ducked behind the tree.

“Awo, Tonton,” Hanu wailed. “Do you realise what you’re doing?

“I know what democracy is. Nobody should fool you. It’s all in this book.” He raised the small book in his right hand and showed it around. We hid again. “Also this month’s L’Afrique Bouge says it all, the single-party system is iniquitous.”

I wondered where he got the L’Afrique Bouge from. This bimonthly magazine of news about Africa printed in Paris, has again published something critical about the regime and as usual they had bought that issue and destroyed it. Hanu shook her head against my shoulder.

“This man appears to be learned,” somebody said from the wall behind me. “But why is he behaving like an idiot?”

Tonton swept the crowd with his eyes. This time I thought he saw us, for when his gaze met mine, he held it for a while and then turned away. “I’m appealing to all of you, let’s stand as one and snatch our inalienable rights from the dictator.”

What’s come over him? I wondered.

Tonton held up both hands and began to jump, like a reggae singer. “Get up, stand up,” he sang, “Stand up for your rights.”

The place went wild, like fans cheering their idol. The crowd sang with him: “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.”

A siren shrilled from our right. The singing snapped out. People scattered in all directions. Somebody tended Hanu his hand from behind the wall. I shoved her across and clambered over myself. A blue Peugeot van followed by a machine gun-mounted army jeep whizzed along avenue de la Libeartion and screeched-curved into the park. Traffic disappeared from the busy intersection and the crowds formed far off.

“Oh, Papa, what’s going to happen to him now?” Hanu cried openly now. People stared at us. “He’s finished. Tonton is finished!” she kept on repeating while I patted her back.

“Don’t be afraid,” Tonton shouted to the empty park. “Stand firm. Be ready to die for your rights.”

“This man must be out of his mind,” a woman said. “No sane man will do that.”

Hanu smothered her whimpers, although her panting increased.

The gendarmes—often soldiers camouflaged in gendarme uniforms—sprang out of the Peugeot van before it squealed to a halt. The soldiers also leapt out of the jeep and pointed their guns in all directions. The crowds lurched behind houses. The soldier on the machine gun swept the area with his gun. I waved Hanu away and peeped from the corner of a house. The soldiers shouted a command and Tonton raised his hands into the sky. They barked again and he let drop the book and the magazine. Then they raced up the dais and arrested him. As they jostled him away Tonton shouted “Liberté! Liberté!” It was not until the two vehicles had whisked him off that the crowds shuffled back to the park wanting to know who the arrested man was and what had gotten into him. Hanu collapse against me and we whimpered in each other’s arms.

I heaved up my motorcycle which had been knocked over during the commotion and we rushed home.

“Mama! Mama! Mama!” Hanu flung the gate open and rushed in shouting.

Mama came running from behind the house, a kitchen knife in her left hand and in the right she clutched a piece of yam she was peeling. “What’s after you?”

“Not me,” Hanu said, “Tonton.” I pushed in my Vespa. “He’s been arrested by military personnel.”

Mama appeared unusually calm. Only her lips ruminated. “What foolhardiness was he into?”

 “He was lecturing about democracy at Fréau Jardin and the soldiers came and took him away.”

Mama shrugged and turned away and in a voice full of resentment said. “If a drunkard wants to die violently should that be my headache?”

But it did. After listening to the two of us recount the incident, Mama couldn’t continue preparing lunch. She left it to Hanu. With Mama fussing behind me about what a pain a drunk was, we first rode to the Head of their family’s house near to the Central Post Office to inform him of the incident. No doubt, he’d heard about it, being so close to the scene of the tragedy; only he didn’t know Tonton was the star (that was the word he used). Next we went to their family house at Aguiarkome where the people couldn’t help getting vexed with Tonton. “Does being drunk make one demented?” an aunt said with regret. By the time we finished the round of the most important members of the family, a meeting had been fixed for that Sunday at the family Head’s house. At the meeting a group was formed to see some influential members of the ruling party and top military officers. But the contacts said the matter had been reported to the President so they couldn’t intervene. All they could do was lobby for a lesser punishment. But Tonton was not released until a general amnesty was voted a year later for all political prisoners and refugees.

“How did you manage without alcohol?” someone asked Tonton at a purification ceremony performed before their ancestral stool at Aneho, an ancient town on the Southeastern edge of Togo.

“Without alcohol?” Tonton asked. “What are you saying? Trust Antonio.” Tonton recounted how he was locked up in a solitary cell the first week in a military camp in Lome and then transferred to the north. “One morning I saw the officer in charge of the camp there learning English. I spoke English to him and his face lit up. He was to go to America for further training and needed to practise English. I’d do so with him and as recompense he allowed me quite some freedom and a daily ration of alcohol.” He licked his lips.

“So while we were distressed about you here, you were having a good time there,” the eldest aunt said.

People rocked with laughter.

“Good time, maybe,” Tonton said. “Because you know how I love to move around. In jail, my movement was limited.”

“Lome is still very large,” the family Head said and winked at us.

“Will I walk around!” Tonton said. And that was when he began coming regularly to our house. But that was not the only reason.

When I met Mama—with the coming of the children I dropped Christiania—thirty-three years ago, I was a messenger at the court. She brought us printed cloth from her aunt on installment basis. One day, when their annual Yeke-Yeke festival came in September, I asked if I could be her guest. She shrugged. On Thursday we went to see the outdooring of the sacred stone at Glidji-Kpodji. Then the family invited me for their get-together on Saturday. We became lovers. But her parents wouldn’t allow her to go out with me because we weren’t married. We arranged with Tonton who found a way to bring her out for me. I had a Solex motorcycle then. While Tonton went to drink somewhere with the tip I gave him, Christiania and I rode to Deckon to eat fried yam and spiced kebab. Then an hour later we met where we’d separated and she and Tonton went back home. A year later I asked for her hand and three months after we had our civil wedding on a Thursday and church wedding two days later.

It was when I went to pay the bridewealth on a Sunday after morning Mass that I knew I would have problems with my family-in-law. Through discreet contacts, an aunt of mine had learned that we needed twelve pieces of top quality Dutch printed wax cloth, three pieces of travelling bags, an engagement ring, an assortment of imported alcoholic drinks, a Holy Bible, and an amount of fifty thousand francs cfa—about $100. Two aunts and an uncle accompanied me to Christiania’s house. Her parents, two uncles, and about six aunts waited for us. After the civilities, we revealed the bridewealth.

“Are you coming to knock at our door or to ask for our child’s hand?” an elderly aunt asked with contempt.

“We’ve already knocked at the door,” my elder aunt said, referring to the three bottles of alcoholic drinks that we had brought one evening three months earlier to signify my interest in Christiania.

“Sorry, we cannot take what you’ve brought; they are not enough,” the aunt said.

My group stared at each other. My anger rose. A strong feeling of displeasure and revolt filled me.

“What’s not enough?” Tonton thundered from the verandah where he was eavesdropping before I could explode. “Forget about all those outmoded customs and take whatever they’ve brought.”

My group again exchanged looks. Christiania’s people squirmed in their seats.

“That drunkard should get out of here,” the eldest aunt yelled. “We aren’t a cheap family and we can’t give out our child for a pittance.”

“Are you selling her?” Tonton asked, now standing in the doorway.

“Tonio, don’t you know that you owe your aunts and uncles deep respect?” Christiania’s father barked.

“Okay,” Tonton said; “But take whatever the people have brought before haggling for the rest.” Then he waved and flung off with an angry exclamation.

The two sides sat in silence which my uncle broke: “We’ll go now and come back later.”

Christiania’s father asked us to hold on a minute. They trooped out for a tête-à-tête and on their return accepted the bridewealth. Tonton came to the court early the next day talking about how tough it would have been for us if he hadn’t intervened. That earned him a commission, not for that day only but for many others too.

That wasn’t the only indelible mark Tonton left on our marriage. If Tonton messed up at the Church wedding, all started at the civil a month after the bridewealth incident. After the ceremony at the Town Hall, as custom demands, Christiania’s parents hosted us for lunch.

“Where’s the MC?” people kept asking as only music accompanied us without the sweet words of a person with oratorial skills.

We learnt that the person chosen, a cousin of Christiania, was late.

“Hello, hello, testing mike, testing mike,” we were in the middle of the second course of rice and fish soup when Tonton picked up the microphone and said. People laid down their cutlery. “Since the MC doesn’t know the importance of time, I’m going to do his work.”

“Will you drop that microphone immediately?” their family Head, a rich, imposing old man, growled.

Tonton glowered at him with red eyes and a calm which foretold of a storm. But he shrugged. “If your MC doesn’t come, then you’d know what service I was going to render you,” he said and turned to put down the mike. Just then the MC appeared. “Aww, you’ve spoiled my plans,” Tonton said and all burst into laughter. He jived all that afternoon, the youth of both families grouped around him.

It was while recounting this event, after our wedding that Tonton revealed why he could never forget our matrimony.

“Our Head approached me after the Mass and said: ‘Tonio, I know there’s a lot of drinks here. But this is your sister’s wedding. You shouldn’t mess it up.’”

So he put him among the drinks servers to keep him busy and not have the opportunity to drink.

“Beau,” Tonton said to me, “what happens when you ask a cat to guard a piece of meat? Lord, did I drink! But our family Head didn’t trust me to do the contrary. He often came around, apparently to see how things were going but I knew it was to keep an eye on me. Anytime he came by, I’d wipe my mouth and act sober.”

‘“Antonio, how is it going?”’ he would ask in a friendly manner.

“Okay,” I’d say. “We’re waiting for the end so that we can also taste something.”

He would look at me in a suspicious way and say ‘Are you sure you haven’t had even a drop?’

I would swear and ask him to smell my mouth. He would guffaw and slink away. Then I would have a good time again. Then when there was an interlude and people started bringing you and Christiania the presents, they allowed the servers to enjoy their food and drinks. I decided to have an aperitif. Unknown to me, my tank was already almost full. I took just a small glass of nothing powerful but just St. James rhum when the world began to whirl. What? Me, an old distillery, drunk? I decided to test my legs. They held me up! That was when I jumped onto the floor.”

I remember it all. A delegation of the choir group to which Christiania was a member had just given us a large, heavy packet. I was kissing the first member on the cheek as a sign of gratitude when Tonton’s loud voice startled us.

“I’m sure you’ve all eaten and drunk to your satisfaction,” he pattered. “Now, it’s time for giving gifts to the couple. Anyone who’s had a drop of drink and a morsel of food would be cursed if he goes away without giving anything.”

My family members were sitting behind me to my right. Christiania’s were grouped behind her, to my left. The gasps of disapproval and horror which escaped from their lips seemed amplified. Christiania’s eyes met mine. Pain and shame had almost sucked in her eyes. I took her hand, squeezed it and patted it softly. I heard her pant. Before Tonton could continue with his one-man-show, the youths of their large family bundled him off while he screamed: “Let me tell these misers the truth.”

Tonton’s drinking worried the family and they did everything to get him off it. First he was treated in hospitals and clinics. When that didn’t work, as is often the case in Africa, they resorted to herbal treatment. Tonton was dragged from one herbalist to the other, each of who promised miracles. When Tonton consumed litres of all sorts of concoctions and chewed lengths of all kinds of roots destined to kick alcoholism out of his system and the wonder still didn’t come, the family was obliged to consult deities.  How many ritual baths didn’t Tonton take, what number of animal and other sacrifices didn’t the family make, what ritual rings, amulets, and talismans didn’t Tonton wear, which part of Tonton’s body didn’t undergo scarifications and the rubbing in of black powders, how many days didn’t he spend in shrines, but nothing changed. Then when the political situation changed, the freedom of religion also came and new churches flourished. Tonton was sent from one revival meeting to the other, not to mention healing, evangelization meetings, and crusades of visiting foreign evangelists, preachers, and prophets. The one Tonton likes to talk about most happened about thirteen years ago.

The German preacher, Heilker, had come to Togo. After days of evangelization at the northern bank of the lagoon at Nyekonakpoe, he ended his crusade with a healing one.

“We were standing near a couple who had brought their crippled teenage boy. When the big moment came and we were asked to hold the parts of our body we wanted healed, I clutched my mouth and stomach.”

“Mouth and stomach?” I asked.

“The mouth takes the alcohol into the stomach,” he said.

 “The boy stretched in his wheelchair to grip his dangling, emaciated legs. Heilker and his group yelled, screamed, shrieked, screeched, roared, bellowed, squealed and the crowd went wild with prayers. Electricity ran through the crowd when some people rushed to the dais where Heilker stood and hurled away their crutches.”

“Get up, Thomas,” the boy’s parents said.

The boy squirmed.

“Try harder!” the mother shouted, she and her husband helping the boy to his feet.

“Yes, mother,” the boy said in a squeak which tore at my heart.

“Believe it, stand up and walk!” Heilker shouted.

The crowd got wilder.

“Matthieu!” the mother shrieked, her voice colored with pain, “look at people walking up there. Why do you refuse to stand up?”

“Mother, I’m trying but I’m unable to stand up,” the boy lamented.

“Just believe!” Heilker screamed.

“Matthieu, believe!” the mother shouted while the father shut his eyes and face and arms raised towards the sky, prayed fervently. “Matthieu, get up!” the mother screamed.

“Mother I can’t,” the boy burst into tears.

“If you can’t, remain there,” the disappointed mother spat with pain and joined the husband in fervent prayers while the boy dropped his head into his palms and wept.

“And you?” I asked.

“Apart from the chill which washes over one, I didn’t feel anything.”

“Tonton!” Mama shrieked and we giggled.

Less than a year after our wedding, Christiania’s father died. He had been suffering from hypertension, asthma, and diabetes. Tonton and a cousin had gone to pay him a visit at the hospital one afternoon when they saw an empty bed. What followed is an anecdote which others and Tonton himself like to retell.

“Has the old man here been transferred to another ward?” Tonton warily asked the nurse in charge of the intensive care unit.

“I’m sorry; he’s been transferred to the mortuary.”

“To the mortuary?” Tonton asked. “What happened?”

The Head Nurse stared at him as if he had insulted her. “What happens to people who are sent to the mortuary?”

Tonton threw his hands over his head and burst into a raucous wailing, blaring, “My father’s dead, what should I do?”

Visitors in the ward burst into laughter.

“Gentleman,” the Head Nurse yelped, “this is not a funeral parlour. If you want to know what you should do, go to the mortuary.”

Tonton hurried to a shack and gulped a shot. Then he continued to the mortuary in high spirits to find the body on a hospital trolley.

“Why have you left my father here?” he asked.

“It’s the payment of mortuary fees and not the alcohol you’ve imbibed which will make us put the body into the compartment,” a mortuary assistant replied.

Tonton burst into tears and lay on the body, screaming “Papa! Papa! Papa!”

“Out of here, you drunkard,” the Head mortuary attendant yapped. “We’re waiting for money not tears.” Tonton was jostled outside. He returned home singing sorrowfully in a soprano tone, stretching each word in a trembling voice :

 

            Abide with me; fast falls the eventide:

            The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide!

            When other helpers fail, and comfort flee,

            Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

 

People still recount that it was the first time Tonton’s conduct hadn’t made them rock with laughter but had given them goose pimples and brought real tears into their eyes. 

“Is it not scary being the only son-in-law to bury your father-in-law?” Tonton asked me three days after that incident.

When a father- or mother-in-law died, it was customary for the sons- and daughters-in-law to participate in the funeral. Although symbolic, people have blown it up into the flaunting of wealth and a system bordering on exploitation.

“Why should I?” I growled, feeling like venting my spleen on him. Two nights before Christiania had told me not to disgrace her by giving her father a dignified burial. Then she gave a long list of women in their family whose husbands had done more than what custom expected of them.

“And what does custom demand?” I grumbled.

“Some people buy the coffin, others pay for the grave or the canopy, ...”

“I’m not asking for what others do, but what custom demands,” I cut in.

“That’s what I’m explaining to you!” Christiania sounded cross.

“I don’t care what custom dictates, but you the children of the deceased should first make your program and I’d see what I can contribute.” Otherwise your father wouldn’t be buried.

Christiania sighed and whined that she already was neck-deep in shame.

The next day I went to see one of their aunts for advice.

“Coffin, grave, canopy, and other major things are not your responsibility,” she said. “If your wife insists on your doing them, then what will be their duty?”

I wished Christiania was there to hear that.

“All that you have to do is bring imported drink, the local gin, a piece of cloth, and any amount you feel like giving.”

And that was what I did.

In the days following the death of his father, Tonton did the round of everybody he knew, soliciting money to bury his father. He crawled into my office early one morning.

“Beau,” he said in the saddest voice I’ve ever known of him, “we’ve been asked to contribute fifty thousand francs cfa—” About $100. “—each. But you know my situation.” He lowered his head and shook it, whimpering. He sniffled a bit and continued: “I came to see if you can help me with a small contribution.”

I squinted at him. “Your sister said you’d been exempted.”

Tonton sat straight and the sad look disappeared from his face. “She told you already?”

I nodded slowly.

He got slowly to his feet. “Why can’t Christiania hold her tongue? I’m exempted but I’ve to have something in my pocket for any eventuality.”

Tonton managed to have so much in his pocket that he couldn’t even pay his last respect to his father.

On the night before the body was to be brought home for wake-keeping, Tonton’s mother heard him retching. She screamed for help. Tonton was found lying unconscious in a puddle of vomit. They rushed him to the hospital where he was put under intensive care. He didn’t come out of the coma until two days later. The first thing he asked for was his father. On his discharge from the hospital, the doctors advised Tonton to stop drinking or die early. Tonton observed their advice for only a few days. Years later he laughed at the doctor’s prediction. “Are they God?” he used to say. That became one of his nicknames.

After his father’s death, Tonton began to lose weight. Mama and I often discussed his state.

“What’s happening to you?” Christiania asked him one Sunday morning when he came by. “Although you’re being well fed.”

Tonton cast a surprised look at Mama. “Who told you that big lie?” he said. “It should be that witch of Nafisatou.” He lowered his head and shook it mournfully. “I’ve fallen low.” A blur came into his eyes when he looked up. “Can you believe, my sister, that even that maid has the guts to starve me?”

 “She said she prepares only your favorite plates for you. And that Mom makes sure you get your heart’s desire.”

Tonton sniggered, rocking. “Favorite plates! Heart’s desire!” he spat out the words. “Her preferred food or mine? You people have given that girl so many privileges that she thinks she’s part of the family and can do whatever she likes. She even dictates to Mom.”

“Nafisa has rendered the family eminent services,” Mama said. “She needs praises for sacrificing everything for us.”

Tonton nodded as if his sister was a traitor. “It’s Nafisa’s word against mine. It’s the faithful maid against the useless drunkard.”

“Not really, Tonton,” Mama’s voice began to rise with anger. “But try to make life easy for everybody.”

Pious hope, I thought. Tonton came to our house each week when his father was alive. After his death, he increased the frequency. When Yema, who rather was on good terms with him, complained one afternoon and the others supported him, Tonton stared for a long time at them one by one and snickered, shaking his head.

“If you people know who made the union between your parents possible so that you could come into the world, you’d carry me on your backs.” Crouched, he thumped his back.

The children stared from me to their mother and back again, waiting for us to say something.

None of us talked.

“Ask your parents, now,” Tonton insisted.

The silence continued and Tonton left, cursing us all.

A long time after Tonton had left, Fidelia asked: “How did he make your union possible?”

Mama’s lustreless eyes met mine. I explained how Tonton enabled Mama and I to go out.

“He should’ve left you to find us somewhere else,” Fidelia babbled.

Mama cast her a sharp look. “Don’t you know the white porridge came out of the black pot?”

“You’ve got me wrong, Mama,” Fidelia explained. “What I meant was, if he hadn’t intervened, you could have brought us into the world with someone else.”

“Pity, it may not be us,” Yema said jokingly.

Fidelia shrugged. “Once you don’t come into the world, you don’t exist and you can’t regret anything.”

Thinking back to those days, I felt good that my children didn’t have to and wouldn’t have to go through the same gymnastics to have their future partners. Hanu’s husband had lived across the street. He would come to us and ask for Hanu to accompany him to such and such event and we would allow her to go. Our only insistence was that she returned home before nine p.m. Yema had several male and female friends coming over to visit that we didn’t know who was who. Up to now he seemed to be searching. When we ask him when he was going to introduce his fiancée to us, he says there was no need to rush and make mistakes, he has all the time to make a good choice. As for Fidelia, a few boys visited her, but it was more for group work, studies, than anything else. We’ve been wondering if she would get married at all. Mama said if she had, Fidelia too will. I joked that there was no Tonton to help her to. She tut-tutted. Just then someone rapped at the gate and shook it. We froze. Like startled gangs.

“Is it him?” Fidelia asked, although the answer was obvious and jerked the curtain to one side.

“I came to apologize for my behavior and then go back,” Tonton shouted over the gate.

“Tonton!” Mama said and shaking her head went to open the gate for him.

“Hasn’t he come to stay?” Fidelia wondered, but he hadn’t. After excusing himself, Tonton hesitated in the living room; not even Mama asked him to sit down.

“See you,” he whispered in a croaky voice and left.

“Tonton La Joie!” one of the men playing cards outside called.

“No more joy,” he wailed. “Love is finished.”

We looked at each other.

posted 7 September 2007

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John Coltrane, "Alabama"  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"  / A Love Supreme

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Ancient African Nations

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