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
“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.
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.
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.
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,
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
drinking,” Fidelia observed and Mama cast her a glance.
something to Fidelia who snorted and rolled to the other
repeated her question, smiling.
replied seriously. “I’ve come to give you New Year’s
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:
one another while you are all alive
Wreaths, libations are useless for the dead
them to me when I can enjoy them.
“Love One Another” and he hurled obscenities at him. The
“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
“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
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.
rolling his head as if amused.
“Come give your
uncle New Year greetings,” Mama said to the girls with a
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?”
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
“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
“Allah!” He licked
his first finger and pointed it up.
“Are you a moslem
now?” asked Fidelia.
He shook his head
“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
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.
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
Fidelia screwed up
her face too. I took a sip and set down my glass.
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.
half-grandfather’s son, Basile, the one working at
Ecobank-Benin, invited him to Cotonou for the
festivities,” Mama said.
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.
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.
he boomed to the visitors, swinging like a tall coconut
tree caught in a storm.
committee members turned around as Mama and I gaped at
each other. Tonton began to embrace them.
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
Mama’s eyes slid
deeper inwards. “A brother,” she whispered, pain clearly
on her broken voice.
executive at the now Ministry of the Interior,” Tonton
All eyes turned on
“It’s a pity how
the non payment of social security is driving our
pensioneers crazy,” the secretary general whispered to
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
“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.
him!” the Chairman cried and to me: “It shows, this man
has known the good life.”
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.”
straightened up and stared at Tonton.
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
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.
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.
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.”
bill,” Tonton repeated to himself and cast down his
Silence hung in
the room like a death sentence.
“It was an
excellent Christmas you had last,” he soon said, trying
to make conversation.
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
Tonton,” she said civilly.
“Alright,” he said
without conviction, his head still down. “Quite
“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
“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
Tonton peeped out
the door again. “She’s over there,” he whispered softly.
I poured him half
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.
reading to do,” Fidelia said irritably, standing behind
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.
Fidelia said contemptuously on crawling back into the
davenport, “he should’ve rotted in prison.”
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
“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
I let go of the
file and pasted the handset to my ear. “Tonton? Kill
“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?”
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.
we can do but wait,” I said. “He shouldn’t even see us.”
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?”
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.
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
I drew Hanu and we
ducked behind the tree.
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
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
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
“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
Hanu smothered her
whimpers, although her panting increased.
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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
My group stared at
each other. My anger rose. A strong feeling of
displeasure and revolt filled me.
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
My group again
exchanged looks. Christiania’s people squirmed in their
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.
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
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.
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
It was while
recounting this event, after our wedding that Tonton
revealed why he could never forget our matrimony.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.”
stomach?” I asked.
“The mouth takes
the alcohol into the stomach,” he said.
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
“Yes, mother,” the
boy said in a squeak which tore at my heart.
“Believe it, stand
up and walk!” Heilker shouted.
The crowd got
mother shrieked, her voice colored with pain, “look at
people walking up there. Why do you refuse to stand up?”
trying but I’m unable to stand up,” the boy lamented.
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
“Apart from the
chill which washes over one, I didn’t feel anything.”
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.
Head Nurse yelped, “this is not a funeral parlour. If
you want to know what you should do, go to the
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
“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
with me; fast falls the eventide:
darkness deepens; Lord with me abide!
other helpers fail, and comfort flee,
of the helpless, O abide with me.
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.
and whined that she already was neck-deep in shame.
The next day I
went to see one of their aunts for advice.
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?”
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
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
I squinted at him.
“Your sister said you’d been exempted.”
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
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.
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
“She said she
prepares only your favorite plates for you. And that Mom
makes sure you get your heart’s desire.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
continued and Tonton left, cursing us all.
A long time after
Tonton had left, Fidelia asked: “How did he make your
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.
“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
“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.
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.
7 September 2007
* * *
Coltrane, "Alabama" /
Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"
A Love Supreme
A Blues for the Birmingham Four
/ Eulogy for the Young Victims
/ Six Dead After Church
My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
* * *
* * *
Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.
The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
* * *
Allah, Liberty, and Love
The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom
By Irshad Manji
In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation?
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 25 May 2012