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The Would be Bride

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Summary

My friends are happily married to the women they met here; some are thankfully married to white girls. Oh, yes, they are. Some haven’t divorced their African-American women either. My entire family wants me to find a Bishuana woman, someone, with whom I could conveniently speak my vernacular. Should I stay in this God-forsaken America or return to my homeland? Tito pondered after hanging up the phone. He had been talking to his father in a telephone booth tucked away among the hills of the West African coastal region.

Genre:
Romance / Other
Author:
emanuel
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

Chapter One

The Would-be Bride

By Emmanuel Kane,

author of Spring into Light

Chapter One: Reminiscence

My friends are happily married to the women they met here; some are thankfully married to white girls. Oh, yes, they are. Some haven’t divorced their African-American women either. My entire family wants me to find a Bishuana woman, someone, with whom I could conveniently speak my vernacular. Should I stay in this God-forsaken America or return to my homeland? Tito pondered after hanging up the phone. He had been talking to his father in a telephone booth tucked away among the hills of the West African coastal region.

Everyone wanted Pa’s first child to be successful, which is why Pa himself had emptied his bank account to get Tito a plane ticket to go overseas and study. He was to obtain as many degrees as he could find before returning home as, for the Isangli family, a man’s success was measured not just by the number of degrees earned, but also his possessions, marrying an independent wife and having many children. It was the want of any family, and yet the Isangli’s took an extraordinary measure of interest seeing the job fulfilled.

However, Tito liked Caucasian women; they understood him better than most women from the coastal African nation. The thought of disappointing his family haunted him for several weeks. Finally, after much deliberation, he decided to return to Bishuana and showcase his accomplishments. He had to show his father he had become a real man in just two years living abroad—a man capable of keeping a promise.

He was leaving behind an unfinished romance with Margie Horkheimer. She’d been his professor – twenty years his senior – and no doubt she would be furious when she arrived at Grandma Becky’s house to take him out for dinner that evening. Tito wasn’t sure he would ever come back to the States, let alone Jackson, where they had first met. So he’d put off telling her of his return to Africa to see his father.

Telling her could be dangerous—very dangerous. She could kill him, and no one would ever find out. Who would spare a thought for a humble African in the land of the free? None of the cops, that was for sure.

That was a good move. Going back to Africa was the right decision.

Tito scrutinized the bare magnolia walls of the dwellings for the last time and exhaled. Finally, he was leaving the furthest room that the wizened eighty-six-year-old Grandma Becky had reluctantly allowed him to rent while her grandson was away in college. No longer would his gaze linger on the separate window which ushered only a thin ray of light when the sun shone plenty elsewhere.

As he unzipped up his suitcase, Tito fretted about why he felt so compelled to return to his homeland. He was a twenty-two-year-old summa cum laude masters degree holder who read two books per week to prepare for his courses. Surely this was the place for him?

The desire was still there, and no one had heard him prepare to leave. Grandma Becky was always in church, probably telling endless stories to a member of the AME Baptist church— someone she must have introduced Tito too.

Grandma Becky, who fed the immigrants every Sunday, he thought.

Bishuana had taught Tito how to understand love, but Margie had trained him how to fight for what one loves. To acquiesce to his best friend Solo’s persuasion and return home would be a chivalric accomplishment. It also put him at risk. His chance for a future with Margie was at stake. She might never forgive him for doing what he had to do.

Tito had no money to purchase a plane ticket for Bishuana. Maybe Margie might give him some. Perhaps not. She might think he was returning home to find a bride, as most other African expatriates do. He could tell her his aunt had passed away and he had to go home but didn’t have the funds. Margie would give in, and what would she do if he later came back with a bride from an African tribe?

Margie, oh, Margie!

With that, Tito called Peter, his homeboy in Washington, to borrow money for a plane ticket.

“I thought you were working,” Peter answered, blunt as ever.

“The college stopped paying me when Human Resources found out I was on an H1-B visa.”

Peter was silent for a moment as he mulled that over.

“Are you there?” Tito inquired.

“They may be tapping our phones.”

“Who?”

“Those uniform people. You should wait until you get your work permit. Don’t go home yet.”

Tito liked to travel. He had a fire underneath him now.

“Father would be grateful. You know how he is.”

“Okay, I’ll send the money—$1,500. Go to the Western Union tomorrow and pick it up. Make sure I get it back by the end of this year, all right?”

As he stuffed his pitiful belongings into the case, Tito’s mind drifted. He wondered whether he had made the right decision when he could have just stayed to marry Margie. He was quiet.

“Did you hear me?” Peter asked, tone louder than before.

“Yes,” Tito replied, unsure of what else to say. His head was elsewhere.

“You want us to sign an agreement before I send the money?”

“You want to sign a death warrant with your brother?”

Peter laughed hysterically and told him nepotism wasn’t allowed. “There’s no countryman affair in this. Will you reimburse me or not?”

“You know I always keep my word.”

Peter read Tito a code to help him pick up the money from the Western Union. After he hung up the phone, he felt increasingly worried.

How will I give him back his money when I’m unemployed?

Tito sank to his bed, reflecting on the world he was leaving behind: smooth legs, steamy nights at the beach with a beautiful blonde whose brains he still secretly liked…

Did I convince her I loved her back? Alternatively, was our month stint all about lust and nothing else? Is she thinking of me right now? Will she think of me while I’m away with my family? Will she board a flight to Bishuana and show up in my Menda home? Is she expecting me to return to Tugaloo and marry her? Will Grandma Becky still be alive when I come back?

Tito glanced at the clock and jumped out of bed cursing. He’d gotten lost in his thoughts again.

Zipping up his suitcase, he left the key of his room on Grandma Becky’s table and shut his door behind him. He went over to Grandma Becky’s door and knocked on it. When she did not respond, he opened it, scared she might have been called to heaven. There she was, wheezing in her bed, body coiled up like a cat.

He shook her shoulder and whispered, “I’m leaving.”

Grandma Becky opened her eyes and sat up slowly, scrubbing her eyes. “Going back to Africa?” She inquired, swearing-in Jesus’ name.

“No, ma’am—oh, yes, ma’am, I am,” he said, realizing he should tell the truth to a person who might be meeting Jesus anytime soon.

“You took all your stuff from the room?”

He strolled down memory lane, replying affirmatively.

“Good,” she responded, “because my great-grandson is coming next week.” She removed her glasses and asked him with some hesitation where he would stay.

“I might look for another place…”

She looked at him pointedly. “Where are you staying in Africa?”

“Oh, oh—at our house.”

She mopped her empty mouth, looking away. A ghost of confidence seemed to empower her to swipe the question again and clear her head.

“Have you already forgotten what I told you?” Tito asked her. “My family lives in a town called Menda.”

“Oh, okay. With your wife and kids!” She concluded, prompting Tito to find that this was precisely what she wanted. After all, he had slept with Margie on the floor of her house. Perhaps her Gods or guts had revealed it to her, and, like all senior citizens in Baptist Christian homes, her deepest desire was for him to repent.

For that reason, he had to prove he was born-again by returning to his own immediate family—his spouse and children.

“I am not married,” he corrected her.

“Not yet?” She inquired, surprised by the response as she peered at his pupils. “A grown man like you hasn’t married?”

She chewed on the inside of her mouth, looking at an old, dust-laden lantern just a couple of feet away from the bed. It was a simple action she would often do whenever she wished to conceal her disappointment.

“Ma’am, I’m still in school. When I finish, then I’ll start a family.”

He hesitated and thought it best to cool her down and bring more peace to someone who had sheltered him from some of the scourge of racism meted to blacks on every street-corner of Mississippi.

“I will fetch a wife and start a family before I return from Africa.”

“Da’ good,” she whispered. “You make Grandma happy. You go in peace, you hear?”

Tito nodded, left the room, and closed the door. He carried the suitcase on his head and trekked to the bus station. I’m the right person—I know I am, he exclaimed as he mulled over the money he owed Peter.

He knew his homeboy would tell everyone he had loaned him money if he refused to pay it back. The seven-foot-tall, fair-skinned fellow who had slept with everything in a skirt, was a hopeless gossip. He shared every secret he had ever been told, always warning the willing listener never to tell anyone. He was still ready to help people in need, but Peter was also sly. He would express deep compassion throughout the dialogue and spell out every detail he had with a total stranger, but only if he knew he would get something back for his efforts. He wiggled his way into women’s panties easy enough, no matter their education, beauty, or marital status. Tito never liked to share his secrets, though he often enjoyed Peter’s sex stories and yearned to have the same kind of luck with women.

Tito arrived at the bus station, hoping for rain, or at the very least a thick layer of clouds to smother the sun and force him back to Jackson. Margie might have had a message for his father, a verbal or a written note sealed or unsealed, to be delivered in person by his son whom she had slept with. He recalled that her lengthy letter to his father, in which she had described herself as “his mentor,” had convinced him. What would his father say if he told him he hadn’t seen Margie?

Lie, lie.

The five miles of cracked, meandering tarmac leading to the bus station felt like the road to hell. The scorching sun made short work of drenching Tito’s thin short-sleeved shirt with sweat as he trekked on with the suitcase on his head, often clearing to the side to allow a car to jerk forward. His brain had blocked any notion of shame that he should be driving and not carrying a heavy load on an American street. He would not tell his family that he had taken his belongings on his head like they do at home. They would be wondering whether a thief had robbed him.

America, home the rich and beautiful! How everyone back home would covet the lifestyle!

Escape

The Greyhound bus wiggled into view, a dusty old motor whistling and screaming. It drifted leisurely toward the station, where it finally halted at the platform where people holding various carry-on stood to wait.

Everyone on the platform sighed, relieved it had finally arrived.

A large black man in an old, long sleeve shirt and loose trousers slowly descended the steps and limped toward McDonald’s inside the terminal without offering an apology to the passengers who had been waiting for five hours.

Three police cars stopped at the gate and hurried into the bus station. White police officers opened the back door as a herd of panting K-9 dogs dripping saliva hopped out, immediately starting to smell luggage and legs.

No weed. They eyed the officers one by one, wagged their tails for a few moments, and strolled toward the car. The officers glanced at each other, lowered their shoulders in dejection, and walked back and let the dogs back in their vehicles. This was their third attempt in an hour.

“Damn fools. Dem white folk bring their stinky dogs here to sniff us like we’re criminals,” lamented a wrinkled-faced man with knee-length dreadlocks. His sandals showed no signs of youth; neither did his threadbare linens.

No one concurred, but that didn’t stop his rant. “We got no guns, no knives, and no nothing. We don’t fight with no one here, but they keep coming here all the time. If they come here one more time, I’ll kick their ass!” He punched a fist in the air; satisfied everyone would follow suit. “Right, brother?” His giant red eyeballs promptly turned toward Tito.

Tito looked away, unwilling to lead him on. These stubborn Jamaicans can strike any moment, he recalled. They love the jailhouse. He knew why they were like that. Runaway slaves and those who didn’t want to be controlled in the days of the American slave trade had settled on that island and started their own families. They, in turn, had taught their relatives to resist.

Did any contact with whites have to be a confrontation?

The officers were quick to return with their hounds, and one of them stepped outside the gate. The dreadlocked man burst through the waiting crowd as the sizeable black driver emerged, mercilessly biting a fat hamburger. “Why you keep coming here? Who killed a man here? You lost a runaway thief, huh?” He ranted, pointing a finger in the face of the officer.

The officer did not reply. The dreadlocked man inched forward cursing. The officer stood affixed, arms akimbo, staring at him.

“You keep coming here,” dreadlocks started again, “coming here, coming here because all those poor black people are here, and right?

“Enough!”

“I’m not your slave.”

“I said, enough. If you say another word, I’ll arrest you.”

“Arrest who? It’s a free country. I can say what I want. Slave days are over, mister. I’ll show you now.”

The officer grabbed the man’s wrist and tried to pull handcuffs from his belt. The man shrugged and punched him in the face. They wrestled to the ground as the crowd quickly encircled them screaming, some cheering him on as he mounted the officer, punching him and swearing in a language found in no dictionary.

A fleet of police cars arrived, and the crowd quickly dispersed, leaving the two men breathing heavily, the Jamaican mercilessly punching the bloodied officer. They immediately pounced on him, but he broke loose, shouting “Rastafarians!” and disappeared into thin air.

Each officer was stunned.

“Where’s the bastard?” They asked each other.

They called alerts to the command station to hunt him down as the dogs barked and sniffed and skidded through the maddening, dispersing crowd. Moments later, they all drove off in different directions. Sirens wailed throughout the sunset of the city of Jackson.

As the passengers queued up to take their seats, arriving, police officers yelled instructions. The bus station was starting to resemble a military command post. It gave Tito a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Several officers quickly rounded up all the black men in and around the station and marched them to a room inside. They ordered them to pull out their IDs; those without IDs were immediately handcuffed and taken away.

Tito felt like the luckiest person on earth. His Tugaloo University ID had not expired, so returning to the US would not be a problem. Or so he thought. The immigration jail wouldn’t be much fun either. Immigrants told copious tales of heinous crimes meted against African immigrants in immigration prison cells all over the country.

Surely, he would be strangled if anyone knew of his now ruined relationship with Margie – a white woman whose relationship he had ended abruptly, depending on who you asked.

The bus finally left Jackson and headed in the direction of Washington, making stops in little towns and cities. Despite the constant clanking, it purred and galloped through day and night to pick up and drop off derelicts and wretched ones, occasionally stopping at stations to refill gas or change drivers.

Neil Diamond, Dionne Warwick, and BB King issued from the dashboard as it sped through the Southern towns and suburbs. Now and then a signpost flashed announcing the entrance into a new hamlet or city or state.

When Tito saw a sign saying, Welcome to South Carolina, he wondered whether the rednecks in that state ever had an official say in welcoming people like him into their country. Scanning his brain, Tito recalled that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. When the Confederacy fell at the end of the Civil War, all the Confederate states lost at once, and most of the late battles were in Tennessee and Virginia. South Carolina did not fight in courts to his knowledge. Most of the major Civil Rights Era fights happened in other states like in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. SC was not necessarily worse than the others. However, by flying the Confederate flag for so long, they would have given that impression to outsiders. There is the State of Georgia that has the Confederate flag as a part of its state flag. So that could be seen as even worse, in some ways.

The driver sped through the interstate highway, passing towns and communities in North Carolina, and Virginia Raleigh as if he never intended to be in the first place. He was lucky for a while. Drivers with long vehicles had a fierce competition with smaller ones for open terrain and quickly snaked their way soon as they found one.

The bus driver kept a close eye on the traffic police cars lurking by the roadside, and the sneaky unmarked ones drifting along with others. He knew that if he got stopped for speeding, he would pay a fine out of his pocket, and the passengers in transit would not be able to catch the connecting bus on time. As he approached the nation’s capital, he knew he had to be patient.

Heavy traffic slowed the bus as it crossed the bridge onto Fourteenth Street. Tito gazed out the window. The Capitol, the Washington Monument, White House, and other landmarks looked gorgeous, reminding him of America’s prowess. The streets were packed with stone and red brick buildings and narrow roads. The White House is an awe-inspiring sight. A fat building surrounded by a chest-level fence on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This place reminded the world of great leaders past and present. It was Washington, D.C., a reasonably short city with buildings erected in 1790, before steel, maxing out around fifteen stories.

The bus tottered into Union Station where a fleet of Greyhound and Peter Pan buses had lined up. It stopped in a parking spot with the signpost, Mississippi. Tito was nervous as he looked around and noticed that buses had parked according to the state or city they had originated from. Scores of people trickled in and out of their transport, suitcases unloaded or offloaded.

People swarmed up and down the stairs where trains were parked, and the streets were littered with yellow taxi cabs, some honking or halting to pick up passengers or waiting for the green light. On every corner, stop sign or stop light, there were bikers, men, and women in suits, some scantily dressed. When the signals changed, everyone rushed over to the other side of the road and moved on.

It’s just too fast here. Not sure I can stay here long.

The bus driver handed Tito his suitcase and moved to the next passenger. He stopped several people inquiring about the airport train. After spending approximately an hour on the train, he arrived at the Dulles International Airport and went straight to the Air France terminal where scores of passengers were gathering. Most were expatriates pushing as many as eight suitcases in a cart, and Tito was grateful that things were well signposted around here. It was difficult for anyone to get lost.

Tito tendered his Bishuana passport to the flight attendant at the ticket counter and handed over his ticket. The middle-aged black woman glanced at him cautiously, but she reserved a harder stare for the passport.

“Finished school?” She inquired, labeling his suitcase.

“Yes,” Tito replied, realizing that meant he had signed off to leave Margie.

She yanked off the Form I-94 card from the passport, wished him goodbye from America, and ushered him toward the entrance to the Air France flight 447.

Finally, Tito was on his way back home.

He did not know what to expect once he landed on home soil. He had only had two contacts from Bishuana in almost two years: a letter from his father, and the phone call from Solo, his cousin.

It wasn’t much to go on.

The Arrival

Tito fastened his seat belt, pulled out a magazine and browsed it. An article inside caught his attention: Emerging Economic Possibilities for the African Continent.

His thoughts were quickly consumed with pessimism, as do most African expatriates. Africa is still the last continent in the world – the previous on pretty much all levels. It was the last place in economic power and the last place in human relations. Last in social standing. Last in class culture. Last in technology. Last in educational standards. Last in everything.

A continent that is unable to win the fight against racism. What worth is Nkrumah, Sundiata, Mandela, Miriam Makeba and the football superstars in Europe when people see flies feasting on abandoned children in deserts and mud-thatched homes? What worth is a Nigerian, Ugandan, or Kenyan Harvard graduate if he cannot fix the corruption pandemic in that country? If he cannot feed starving farmers? If he cannot sponsor children in a primary school? If he cannot change legislation in a European, American, or even Sri Lankan parliament, against Africans? What good is he?

Shame!

Shame on Africa for having fed various countries with its workforce, natural resources, and likes for centuries. Africa still lost! Overtaken by India with its children creeping in poverty in the streets. Last behind China with its farmers. Africa, a continent unable to feed itself. A place where everyone begs from their neighbors, siblings, and stranger, and no one gives back or even tries. Shame!

As the plane flew over North Africa, from Algeria through Tunisia on to Morocco, he observed chains of valleys and slopes and mountains of sand that spread for thousands of miles, never seeming to end. Tito couldn’t help wonder why Arabs had first preferred to settle among the scorched powder.

Often an oasis would appear from nowhere, then a long stint of sparse dry grass, cattle grazing on the dry grass, wheat farms, and stunted trees. It gave him the strangest authority to question how the people had survived there for centuries. He scoured his brain to recall the region’s history, but it was a small effort. They were flying over Carthage, which had survived subjugation of the civilization by the Romans after the Punic war that lasted from 149-146 BC. That took his mind off it for a while.

The Phoenicians had established spread cities along the Mediterranean to have safe havens for their merchant fleets in a bid to have a monopoly on its natural resources and to conduct trade free of interference. The Carthaginian Muslims later traveled further inland, deeper into the Kermit kingdoms, spreading Islam, sharing their cuisine and other customs to primitive societies. Millions of Muslims stayed behind. Patches of homes and mapped roads drifted into sight, a period of deep slumber, white clouds, blue sky.

When Tito woke up from an accidental slumber, he couldn’t help pondering the Muslim culture. He was never able to reconcile why Muslims were adept to their own learning. He had met an Algerian in college with a dark spot on his forehead, and he had told him the place was the result of constant kissing of the ground whenever he prayed.

The plane lowered and slowed. Tito looked outside to see patches of huts and green pastures with herdsmen, then zinced houses, and snaky roads; just ahead, a rough tarmac.

Bishuana!

A zoo that had broken pavements with potholes deep enough to bury a young man, trash oozing on roadsides with dogs and rats scavenging remains, dust rising behind vehicles driving toward each other and oncoming traffic, weary police officers in faded uniforms halting every car, people scurrying on both sides of the street going or coming; many idling around department stores. Dumpsters with rubbish exposed to dogs and rodents and homeless men scouring them, sucking chicken bones. Smoke and haze rent the air overshadowing buildings, blurring the streets as if two hundred fires were ablaze all over the city.

Visibly dejected, as he could not recognize anyone in the maddening crowd behind barbed wire, he pushed his suitcase toward a yellow suntanned taxicab with a faint hope of catching a glimpse of Solo, unaware a foolish-looking young man was following him. He glanced at the suitcase and looked furtively around. No one was watching him, but it was not his day as Tito had reached the yellow taxi. He lowered his six-foot frame and sank into the weather-beaten Toyota Corolla.

“Hotel Ibis, please.”

Oui, Chef,” the driver replied, carefully placing the luggage in the back seat.

Tito glanced through the passenger window. A mountain of children with dirty, torn oversized clothes surrounded the cab. He reached for his pockets and dropped coins in their hands. He then winked at the driver to start the car.

“Yes, monsieur?

“Hotel Ibis.” He repeated.

“Pardon, monsieur?” The taxicab inquired. Tito was too tired to keep repeating himself. He pointed east, and the tallest building in the Douala could not be missed. It was the beacon of the commercial capital.

Built by the French during the colonial era, the hotel housed governors and administrators charged serve as administrators in the ten provinces, sent by French President, Francois Mitterrand. Bishuana was among scores of countries on the western coast of the vast African continent still operating totally under the spell of the French. The leaders of French-speaking countries who had received independence in the 1960s were trained in France and Canada, but, in turn, could not manage their people. Development agencies like the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, missionaries, and other sympathetic groups had been pouring in money and providing other forms of technical assistance to help lift the countries out of poverty. They, too, had failed Africa, Tito affirmed as the taxi rattled through the potholes.

The yellow streetlights blended with clay-like surfaces and walls of buildings. Douala looked like twilight if one focused on it. The air was hot, and Tito was already aware of it damping up the light fabric of his shirt.

As they neared the hotel, the buildings still reared vestiges of the pre-World II German countryside, hinting that Ibis had been built with the help of the Germans in the colonial days. The streets were quiet, the driveways cemented, electric poles taller, and green hedges evenly trimmed as water sprinkled over well-manicured lawns.

When the taxi turned the corner, Tito saw a bar painted red and white a few yards ahead. The driver slowed down and wound down the window. A police officer in a faded beret, sitting at the corner of the bar, stood up and labored toward the taxi cradling a double-barrel black gun.

The officer leaned on the driver’s door. “Les papiers du vehicle, s’il vous plait,” he ordered, ducking his head inside. He looked suspiciously at Tito. He was getting that a lot lately.

The driver stretched his hand toward the ceiling and extracted a bunch of papers with faded ink. The officer rolled his eyes at him, walking back to his seat without taking them. Tito watched him closely. His confused mind didn’t seem to grab the officer’s attention as he sat down, backing the taxi.

Mon Dieu, I’m dehydrated,” he swore, hands scavenging his pockets. He turned sharply toward Tito and asked in bad English if he had any money on him.

“Not quite.”

“I don’t understand. You mean you don’t have it?”

Tito, about as confused, “I only have American dollars.”

“Let me have three dollars, then. I’ll deduct it from your fare.”

“I only have hundred-dollar bills,” Tito explained. He felt fancy but also guilty and stupid. It was a golden rule to never how much money a passenger was carrying to a taxi driver. They were known to belong to gangs and sometimes informants for police and thieves. They ripped off unsuspecting passengers, taking longer routes to the destination to charge exorbitant prices.

“We can change it when we get to the hotel,” Tito added.

“But we must be allowed to enter there; he won’t let me.”

“Why not?”

“You sound like one of us. You understand he wants something, yes? He did not see me put money in vehicle papers.”

“Well then, let’s call the media.”

The driver laughed hysterically. “You must be a bush faller.”

“Bush faller?”

“Have you just come from America?”

Tito nodded.

“Monsieur, the media writes about corruption every day, and nothing gets done because of it. The man needs to meet his quota before his shift is over.”

“I understand that he needs to get enough to feed his family since they’re not well paid.”

“No, he must give the Commissioner at least half of what he’ll do today if he wants to continue a job in traffic control.”

The red-eyed, potbellied officer with tribal strikes on the sides of his mouth like a rat pointed to a corner, ordering him to park the car. He did not move. He strode to the taxi and removed the keys from the ignition, pocketed them and went back to his seat. He sat gingerly, making sure his feet failed to kick a bottle of beer nearby.

“If you don’t bring me your papers in ten minutes, I’ll get your car towed,” he warned, nervously lifting the bottle toward his mouth. The driver went to start begging him.

Tito had seen enough. He went and stood in front of the kinky-haired, sweaty man.

“Why are you trying to squeeze water from a stone? You know this man has no money and that his shift will soon be over, yet you keep him here because of a few dollars. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

The officer swerved toward him and spoke in a soft, stern tone, “Sir, this is not America. We don’t need lawyers here…”

“I’m sure you meant to say you don’t eat lawyers here,” mocked Tito as he walked back to the car, aware the officer could physically hurt him. In that part of the country, uniformed officers got away with murder.

Many bribed their way into the police school and bribed administrators to allow them to control traffic where they had direct contact with drivers, most of them without proper education. Some drivers did not have a driver’s license or up-to-date documents for the vehicle they were driving; officers regularly took a ‘fee’ from them instead of applying the law.

“Monsieur, what did you say?” The officer said, charging out of his seat. “Stop! Otherwise, I’ll shoot.”

He sauntered toward Tito, aiming his rifle at him. Tito stopped.

“Put your hands behind your back. Now!” He yelled. Tito obeyed, stunned by the unwarranted aggression. The officer yanked out his handcuffs from his waist and handcuffed him. He then turned his neck toward the right shoulder and called for backup as neighbors and hotel guests quickly surrounded the taxi. Someone asked what his charge was in excellent French. Tito could understand it just fine, but he never got the hang of speaking it fluently.

“He has disrespected an officer in uniform.”

“But what exactly has he done?” The bystander asked as other people encroached the three men.

“If you want to represent him in court, you may do so. I, myself, am not answering any more questions.”

A rundown blue pickup truck teetering on the border of decay drifted into view, parking in front of the taxi. The growing crowd – mostly teenage boys – also surrounded the car as several police officers rolled out with rifles on their shoulders. The police officer pointed to Tito, who had been ordered to sit on the dusty ground.

“That bastard says he’s American. He insulted the President.” He pointed to Tito with an unflattering look.

“Why then did you call us? I thought it was a burglary.” An officer said, breathing with great difficulty.

“But Chef….” the officer’s question fell short, hanging in the air like a led balloon.

“I have other emergencies. We are on code yellow. The President may be making a stopover at the airport on the way home. Just lock him up!” He sighed and returned to the passenger seat of the truck.

“Yes, mon Commandant,” he replied in military salute and watched the driver start the car. The other officer climbed in the back, and the truck skidded away. He ordered the taxi driver to bring them to the police barracks.

The moment they got there, Tito had a mug shot, and his fingerprints were taken. They ordered him to take off his clothes and shoes as well.

The officer then pushed him into a cell stinking with urine, feces, and heat and unclothed men of all ages. Some were leaning on the iron door, others crying, begging for food, sweating profusely. He looked around him and noticed a tall man with excessive hair, wearing a pair of see-through glasses — the cheap kind, like those made in China. The man glanced at him but was quick to look straight ahead. He seemed afraid to be noticed.

“Mr. Difor. You are here too!” Tito exclaimed. “What did you do?”

“My brother, leave me-no. They say I used the f-word on the air.”

“On 60 Minutes?”

The man nodded.

“This country will never change,” Tito tutted. A police officer was strolling past the gate, holding a cane behind his back.

“Don’t talk politics here. Even these guys can sell you out.”

Tito paused as the officer halted and barked at a crying boy.

“What was he saying?” Tito asked. “I could not understand it all?”

“He said he didn’t eat anything since morning.”

“We don’t feed prisoners here?”

The man looked baffled by the question. “You’re not from this area. If your family does not know you’re here, you will starve to death.”

“Then I’m as good as dead,” Tito murmured.

“Is your family here?”

Tito shook his head. The man spun him around, and he stood to face him.

“When that guy comes by, you must give him money to send his colleague to your home. That’s the only way you can eat here or even solicit a lawyer if they let you. People die here…”

“Without going to court?”

“Without even seeing their family member.”

“Blacks in America are in a better place, then,” Tito muttered.

“You can’t say that. Only Black Americans know best.”

“Yeah. I know plenty of them.’
“From reading the history books and novels, I’m sure.”

“No. Earlier you asked me whether I’m from around here, and I shook my head.”

“I expected you to tell me where you’re from. You know it’s the custom here.”

“I do, but we’re in this embarrassing place,” Tito said to defray attention and avoid feeling ashamed.

“I’ve been locked up twenty times.”

“You’re popular; that’s why.”

“My friend, journalists, are the most unpopular people in this country. Everyone wants our heads.”

“Because you tell the government thinks we’re too afraid to tell them?”

“You’ve been in America, so you know the answer.”

Tito affirmed with a nod and asked him when he would be released.

“Those guys don’t exactly have a timetable.”

Tito stampeded toward the iron door with square holes shaped to allow detainees to speak to jail visitors. There he idled to breathe in the fresh air.

He peeped through the forest of people, some carrying food and water vessels. They had passed the door with a table and a police officer behind it. He saw a man with a heavy beard, clad in a gray shirt and black trousers, bent forward writing on a sheet of paper. The man nervously handed the officer a banknote and approached the crowded door looking furtively ahead. A young woman inched closer to him, moving her lips seemingly overwhelmed by the drama.

A security guard, leaning against the door exhausted from whacking the ever-encroaching crowd, waved him away with a stick in his hand. He pressed forward, handing him a banknote. He grabbed it and shoved it into his breast pocket and asked in awful French whom he was coming to see.

“Tito, that man in a blue suit.” He pointed leaning to his right from the pushing and shoving.

“That one?”

“No, him over there, in the blue jacket.”

“In front of the reporter?”

“Him, yes,” he nodded, breathing hard.

“Have you seen the man behind the desk?”

He nodded, staggering the opposite way.

The guard glanced over his shoulder, and their eyes locked. “Fine, only two minutes. Later, you give me ten thousand, or I will push yourself and him inside.”

He opened the door and let Tito out.

“You are late! See what happens?” A weary Tito said with defeat burned into his eyes.

Solo’s words rattled out of him like rapid-fire bursts from a machine gun as he explained the transport vehicle from Menda to Douala had been stopped twenty-six times.

“You should’ve hired a taxi.”

“You know my situation.”

“My father did not give you transport money? Did you spend it with the girls?” His eyes flashed on her.

“She’s my wife,” he said softly as if to earn approval.

Tito tended his hand toward her, but she responded with a nod. “Are you expecting twins?”

“She is Muslim,” Solo replied, urging her with his eyes.

“I’m lost.”

“The man was serious. We both will enter that jail and rot there.”

“I can’t go back in there. It stinks of sweat and shit.”

Solo sneered. “Welcome to Bishuana. It smells that way whether you’re in a jail cell or not.”

“Those fools brought me here, and…”

Solo whispered in his ear to keep a low profile and trust his next move. “Nawain and I will go fetch you some food. While you will be eating, I’ll sort this. Please, don’t speak.”

Tito strode toward the guard, and he let him back in. They brought him steamy rice and peanut soup steeped with chicken in a wrapping. As he ate inside the jailhouse, they approached the officer sitting behind the front desk and inquired about his release. The officer opened a ledger and thumbed the lines.

“What’s his name again?”

Solo spelled it out.

“Ah, the American,” he exclaimed in a hoarse voice. “He has a severe case. He could be sentenced to death.”

A cold fear rushed down his spine as he stared at the skinny officer. He smelled of Dior Homme and knew he may have come in for the night shift.

“I feel sorry for you. Mr. America has not yet seen the rest of his family. He will remain in jail.”

“Please allow me a few moments,” Solo said, hustling through the crowd as the guard looked on with curiosity. The guard told him he needed two hundred dollars in cash to negotiate his release. “Just let me speak to my brother.”

The guard pulled Tito out the door, and he followed Solo back to the desk.

“What for?” Tito posed leaning over Solo’s shoulder.

I’m trying to fix this. Just shut your mouth. Solo’s eyes scolded.

“This is crazy,” Tito replied, locking eyes with the officer. The officer glanced at Solo before Tito prompted them to confer.

Solo asked him for money to have the officer hire a taxi that would take them to Menda. Tito refused.

“Then, I’ll take you back to jail. Follow me.” He stood up and grabbed a massive bunch of keys from the table. “When you understand the terms, we will talk, if I am on duty,” he said, closing the ledger.

He daintily lifted his cap from his head, left it on the table, slumped back in the chair and exhaled, his feet propped up in the corner of the desk. Solo blinked at him, suggesting he would collaborate in fixing the problem. He lit a cigarette and took in huge breaths.

The hallway seemed to get dimmer and dimmer as Tito shoved back.

Am I a subversive citizen? What policy have I disrupted, changed, or negated since I arrived? We’ll see.

Since when did questioning depraved behavior amount to subversion in the country?

The Police Commissioner in charge of reviewing cases of prisoners arrested on the streets released Tito, the journalist and five more prisoners, despite reports written by the booking officers against them.

Trained by the British at Scotland Yard, he was well respected for his investigations of crime and his decision-making prowess. He was immune to bribes, known for pronouncing long prison terms for police officers found guilty of bribery.

The most famous sentence involved his nephew who had taken bribes from a minister’s relative and written a report that condemned a young political activist opposed to the ruling government to forty years in prison. He had appeared in court as a defense witness, producing castles belonging to his cousin whose annual salary was ninety dollars. He had told the judge that the Minister of Justice, who had only been appointed six months ago, owned apartment buildings and twelve commercial trucks registered under his cousin’s name. He never, however, wanted to join a political party, although citizens in the Menda province had pressed him to run for Governor.

Tito flagged a yellow taxi tottering toward the motor park at Diedo Four Corners, the hub for Menda Province commercial passenger buses. A row of 40 and 50 -seater buses crowded the busy park.

Hawkers crowed, boys and girls with trays of fried peanuts littered the grounds. Used children’s and adults clothing hung down from make-shift hangers, and petty traders occasionally stepped into the walkway to lure buyers into their tents. Another row of sheds had tempting looking pastries.

At the southern end of the buses were crowds of men and women sitting in roofless bars drinking beer and holding needless arguments. Boys carrying merchandise and unsuspecting pedestrians begged them to buy their wares. Elsewhere in the sheds, sellers and buyers were locked in an endless bargaining battle, as scatological images of the arguments he used to have with his white girlfriend in Jackson now meshed into his psyche.

I would rather not re-live that experience in my country.

The taxi driver removed Tito’s suitcase and dashed toward a bus to avoid a bunch of sun-beaten park boys, but it was too late. As soon as they spotted him, they raced after him, each vowing to take the suitcase to his vehicle. He left the bag in the front seat and guarded it until the cargo had been packed atop the bus. He whispered something to the driver’s ear while other passengers took their seats. The driver seemed agitated, and he forged coins into his hands and approached Tito, who was aimlessly watching vehicles and pedestrians hustling back and forth.

“Don’t say anything when the vehicle stops along the way,” he cautioned and told him he was leaving.

“Thanks, here’s your tip,” he said, stretching his hand.

“Not here. Follow me to the taxi.”

“But the bus is leaving now?”

I don’t want these guys to see you giving me money. They’ll puncture my tires and won’t let me out of here with it.”

Tito reluctantly followed him as the bus started to roll out of the park. The driver told him not to hand money to anyone openly. He advised thieves could follow him to his home and kill him to get the money. Tito nodded, thanked him, and turned around. The bus driver honked, and he went in.

The bus meandered through the rough, narrow road heading toward Menda – the town of his childhood. Flanked by forests and fallen electric poles, the city sustained fear and danger, for any wild animal that could pounce on the bus without warning.

Animal voices blending with the roaring of a hacksaw and the purring inside kept his ears indefinitely busy. Passengers chatted in pidgin, French and perfect English, and laughed; children in their mother’s arms cried mercilessly. A heavy dose of armpit sweat and farting rife in the air, forcing him to wind down his window to let in the fresh air. It was unrelenting. Nothing compared to the open space he’d grown accustomed to.

Even when he decided to think about his unexpected romantic escapades with Margie in the Southern part of the US, the sour smell inside enslaved his nose again. He thought he was done with the past, but it seemed the past wasn’t entirely done with him.

He soon fell asleep—he needed it on an eight-hour bus trip. Dreams of Margie stayed with his soul as he snored helplessly, with his mouth wide open, the liquid slowly rolling down his right jaw. She had offered him her soul, fought with her people in public to save his life, offered him her body, her love; taught him about how to take care of a woman.

The last time they met, he made her angry; he did not confirm whether they should go and live in the beach home she had recently purchased.

What could she be doing now? Is she writing love letters to me? Does she know I am back here in Bishuana? That I could find my bride and take her back to America with me? He quivered, opened his eyes, and slumbered away again. Maybe so. Americans know everything, but they play dumb to get more out of you. There’s no doubt she has sent the FBI after me. I’m in deep trouble.

He shook again. The purring had seized. He heard hawkers calling out for customers, offering competitive prices. A crowd of women and children had surrounded the bus; some with basins of wrapped food on their heads, pineapples, oranges, plums, and roasted animals.

I have the best oranges in the world; see this…. I’ll give you ten oranges for ten francs only. Hers are no good, get mine,” they quibbled as passengers quietly made their choices and paid. He saw a fleet of different vehicles on both sides of the road.

“Where are we?” Tito asked the driver.

“Kekem.”

“Looks like a market.”

“It is,” the driver said softly, clearly tired himself.

His window had been down, keeping him awake throughout the trip. He looked in his late sixties—gray beard all over his face, a bushy head and green whiskers, tired eyes, a bold Adam’s apple, high cheekbones, sunken jaws, and neck bones no longer hiding under his torn grayish, short-sleeve T-shirt. The chest and upper backbones that combine to form the robust and protective rib cage around the heart and lungs, seemed to have fallen apart suggesting that the powerful muscles that move the head and arms attached to those bones could be failing as well.

Tito offered to feed him, but the driver kindly declined the offer and said he already had his dinner ready.

“Where?” Tito inquired unfazed about prying.

The driver pointed to a bar with no doors or windows.

“You get all your dinners there?”

“Well, they have a fried monkey, roasted plums, and yams, beer everything.”

Tito pondered. Do they have families? Before he could ask if he had a wife and children, the driver beckoned him to follow.

The bar was full of drivers and passengers with music stinging the ears. Women danced with women; men sat with men on benches gobbling hot beer. Some laid coins on the counter and watched the barman uncork their beer bottles. Others had close looks, gliding from seat to seat swallowing talk in place of beer. They might’ve been drinking for five days in succession, as the stench of spilled beer emitted from the benches and the floor. They wouldn’t mind that.

Tito held his breath. The driver turned to him and whispered.

“Really?”

“Yes, I have been with her, too,” he said boastfully. “Her beauty stands out.”

Tito sat speechlessly.

“I think she has a ten-year-old son with me.”

“You think?” Tito was shocked he did not know. “Don’t you ever help them?”

“Why should I?” He replied defiantly. “She told me she has the right to make children with different men. She suits herself.”

“Are all of the drivers?”

“Of course. This place is the hub for all kinds of drivers. Even ministers going to Yamane or Duala or Menda stop here to eat and drink women. ”

Tito chuckled. “I’m sure you meant ’drink with women.”

“Sure,” he laughed. “I finished high school, but my parents had no bribe to send me to a technical college to Obey, so I became a driver at 16. There are hotels here and chaperones...”

“Another beer?” Tito asked.

The driver waved a finger at a flat-chested servicewoman who told him she already knew the brand he drank.

“Tell me more about these ministers and their concubines.”

“Girls from the university have apartments here that are paid for by ministers.”

“Really?” Tito frowned, hinting he didn’t understand. He was thinking of preachers in those Baptist churches in America.

“Yes, government leaders, directors, and people like that. When they get here, the driver takes them to the hotel. Then he goes to her house to tell her where to go, and he returns to the bar and waits until the minister comes. We know their women, so we have never dated them.”

“But drivers have money, too?”

The driver replied comically, “It’s not minister’s money.”

“What’s the difference?”

“They give them millions; we have hundreds. Go figure.”

“Government money?”

“Fast cash.”

“The bribes are not petty cash, you know.”

Tito thought of how hard his girlfriend in America worked to earn her salary. He quickly reviewed his situation, a penniless Bishuanaian Ambassador among his people who had failed to get a job even as a dishwasher in the restaurant where she often dined with him.

The driver whispered that they would be assassinated if they flirted with the girls. Passengers flocked in, dangling under the weight of drunkenness, and yelling profanities at everything inside, some wearing shirts buttoned in the wrong hole, some with bogeys, others pushing big bellies blaming the DJ for the cockroach-like sounds. The uneven surface made them miss their steps to the tune of the blasting as Makossa.

They were a part of twenty million people who drank from sunrise to dawn. And they made no apology for doing so. Drinking had been introduced by the Germans, who had colonized Bishuana for decades. Buildings built in the early nineteen-twenties still stood firm like fortresses in a war zone, reminding the natives of the longevity and tenacity of German culture. Those iconic landmarks left indelible memories of ruthless, perfection minded administrators keen on details and pushing workers to work into the wee hours.

The Germans governed everyone in the land; they got married to natives and gave birth to children with a clear complexion, preferred to the dark skin by lecherous businessmen. Chiefs did not have complete authority over their people. The Germans had partitioned vast expanses of land, turning the locals into caged animals. They had introduced divisions and appointed officers to have sovereign power over the people and the nation. Accused of invading Africa and making it their permanent home, German colonizers offered little professional training to residents.

But one thing they had taught the locals was how to make and consume alcohol. Accustomed to tapping their wine from palm trees, the Bishuanans had quickly learned to brew and drink beer from corn. They had quickly become very best drunkards around the continent, and even in the entire world, in the art of drinking their problems away.

Each morning, the mountains of crates stood in front of bars, waiting to be picked up by trucks from the brewery. The trucks rolled in mountains of containers that same morning and took empty ones back to the brewery to refill. Although there was only one national brewery, plenty of corn farms and trees made beer brewing easy. There were no laws that provided age limits for the consumption of alcohol. Sales points known as Off License Bars were required to operate until midnight and bars could run for twenty-four hours; however, owners closed the door at midnight to avoid getting citations from law enforcement, but drinkers stayed behind closed doors until dawn.

The driver lifted Tito off the bench, and they scurried toward the bus. Some passengers were eating while others idly chitchatted. Waiting for him in front of the bus was a police officer. As he approached the vehicle, the officer complained that the car could not leave because of a broken taillight. He pointed to a blue suitcase atop the bus belonging to Tito and ordered the driver to bring it down, claiming it had suspicious items.

Instead, the driver dutifully dipped his hand in his pocket and tendered it to him hidden under a paper. The driver casually separated the money from the paper and returned it to him as the other buried the money in his pocket. He slowly walked away, waving a friendly hand at the driver. He hurried back to the bus beckoning everyone in. He had cut a deal with the officer, a promise to give money on his way back.

They left.

The journey lasted six hours as the bus meandered into blind corners and dodged vehicles parked in the middle of the road, some with a missing tire, gaping engine or bashed-in windshield. They passed passengers sitting on the grass by the roadside as mechanics worked on their vehicle.

The bus arrived at the Menda motor park around six pm. The busboy handed Tito his suitcase and left. Solo and Mani, his younger brother, were waiting for him at the gate, barred by security charged with preventing idle boys from robbing the passengers. Two towering men, often mistaken for twins because of their high cheekbones, muscled arms and same height had been smiling a little too much as they waited for the bus bringing their cousin. Mani was tall and massive, and his bushy hair and wild whiskers gave him an oddly stern look. He limped from a duel with a deer. His thumb had been chopped off when he was absentmindedly cutting an animal into pieces.

They hugged and boarded a bush twenty-seater bus toward Jikfuin, his birthplace.

The trip from the motor park to his hometown that often took a half-hour seemed to last an eternity—at every corner, traffic police stopping vehicles to catch apparent defaulters. He blew his whistle, signaling the driver to halt. He approached the car and looked suspiciously inside. Then he asked for the driver’s license, and vehicle papers as Tito snaked his neck to observe. The driver informed him his papers had already been checked twelve times, and all the money he had collected from passengers was gone.

“So, you think I eat stones? Park the vehicle there.” He pointed to a bushy sidewalk and blew his whistle again to stop an oncoming vehicle.

A fleet of vehicles and weary passengers littered the narrow roadside. Tito and Solo joined the others outside.

Tito yelled at the driver to drive off. Solo whispered in his ear that it was not a good idea. “The police can arrest us. He heard you.”

“This is insane…”

“Tito, it seems you have become Americanized too soon. You seem to forget how powerful those uninformed people are.”

“Powerful? You once beat up a police officer in Nakeh’s bar and stripped his clothes.”

Solo laughed boastfully. “They think we fear their uniform. I’ll do it again if any of them cross my path.”

“Does your brute strength come from our uncle or our grandfather?”

Solo eyed him with confidence and told him he had a deadly left-arm embellished with witchcraft. Tito told him he was not clear with his response. Solo said their uncle had endowed him with magical charm; if he entered a place and gave instructions, everyone would follow them.

“So where do your hypnotics end?”

Solo’s face shone with confidence as he spoke, “I jump over houses. I have been seen different places at the same time. …”

Tito looked confused. “I don’t recall seeing those tricks while we together.”

“But you did not take the time to know. I took you to Bomufuh, the great seer and he predicted you would live in a foreign land. At first, you did not believe in these things. You don’t even know that if I were not in Duala, you would still be in jail.”

The vehicle drifted to a clearing and stopped. The driver stepped outside amidst a careless blend of instructional voices, raucous laughter and hisses as Tito quickly studied the surrounding, wary they had arrived at another police checkpoint. It was Jikfuin. Its surroundings had remained intact. Lush green pastures, farmlands with rows of crops, forests, huts, drinking places and meandering footpaths as far as the eyes could see. A row of small buildings, some with the wares or crates of beer or jogs of palm wine or grain offered a kinder view; while a temporary dumpster remained on the near end.

Specific technical improvements had taken place with a corn mill and a coffee processing center reverberating in the area. The presence of a fleet of cranky Hiatus buses and tiny yellow Toyota taxis at the park reminded him that real business was growing in the land. It had been a hub for local agricultural products such as kola nuts, hides, coffee, and tobacco. But the markets of neighboring villages were beginning to interfere with the trade and other commercial activities here. The sheds for sheep, goats, and tie-ropes for horses seemed longer; herders dragged their livestock into the shadows to find others clamoring for space. The stalls for tailors and linen drapers now included women wearing Burqa, suggesting the wandering Muslims may have settled in Jikfuin.

Jikfuin lay some thirty miles from Bandung; a cosmopolitan town composed of seven villages that had been colonized by the Germans in the nineteenth century. The city still held relics of German life, but it had also grown in leaps and bounds.

Markets, credit unions, Bank of America and offices hosted in tall buildings flanked the crowded streets. Cottage industries, schools, and construction sites were all over the place. The local museum and shop on the main road built by the Germans had a wide variety of local baskets, beads, wood carvings, and bronze statues.

For the more significant part of the year, heavy precipitation and rugged relief gave it a blend of tropical exoticism and savannah grace. During the dry season, which ran from December to March, pedestrians ate mouthfuls of dust when vehicles roamed the farm-to-market roads, with ninety to a hundred-degree temperature scorching everything below. Zincked roofs took their share of dust, rough playgrounds and spots for traditional celebrations were littered with reddish dust particles and collars were blackened with sweat and dirt. Body odor could quickly suffocate anyone. It was sticky and muggy, and dry air played a unique role in cracking lips and back feet.

It was difficult to identify boundaries in the six kilometers radius of a village with a chivalric history. The ancestors of Jikfuin were hunters who had defeated the occupants overnight by rolling down heavy stones into their dwellings. They had attached statues to trees and retreated to the caves and waited for the local army to retaliate. The warriors in the village attacked the figures with bows and arrows and, receiving no retaliation; they returned to their huts singing victory war songs. The attackers returned at night and burned down their huts with hot coals, killing scores. In the morning, they picked strong young men and trained them. Within ten years, the Jikfuin army had grown in the hundreds, and it conquered villages.

They then selected a king who appointed counselors and an army chief. And the tribe maintained that tradition for centuries. Tito’s paternal family was part of that royalty.

He stepped down and stretched his frame. He looked around to see if he could recognize anyone, while the park boys offloaded belongings and handed them to respective passengers, exchanged pleasantries, and dutifully bagged the loose change grateful passengers gave them. In broad terms, the place had not changed much of its previous character, even the rattling from the bars and cries of passing trucks as they begged their way toward the neighboring village reminded him of the home he had left.

A young man approached him in black, khaki trousers and a torn, dirt-ridden grey T-shirt, smiling lavishly. A glance was sufficient to inform him that this was Maih, Solo’s younger brother. Life had set its hardening mark on his face; his youthful looks were transformed so cleverly by various forms of physical torture, and honesty seemed absent on his face, perhaps only for that moment.

“Welcome home,” he said, shaking Tito’s hand and nodding frantically. Tito nodded, pretending not to recognize the owner of the rough hands.

“How are things in the White man’s country?”

“Err,” he stalled, “they’re fine.”

He received Tito’s suitcase from the parking boy and transferred it to his head. “We should leave now before those rough boys get here.” He said, nervously glancing around.

A pack of red-eyed teenagers had just left the bus nearby, and he knew them. He sensed they were heading toward Tito’s bus. The thugs could rob them at any given moment. For them, a clean suitcase meant the owner was wealthy.

It had rained across Jikuin and surrounding villages for nine months of the year, keeping vegetation bustling with freshness. Even as they walked through the quiet road, they were soaked, making their journey a small misery. They labored up the stony footpath, often occupied by old land rovers, and as they reached the compound that stood a half-mile away on the side of a hill among a cluster of huts, and zinced roofs, a feeling of nostalgia was instantly replaced by one of homeliness. Tito looked at the compound and exhaled.

The entire village had gathered to welcome him.

The compound Tito had left several years ago had barely changed, save for the culling of several eucalyptus trees behind the house, leaving a gaping view between nearby huts and other trees. The complex had four buildings, each occupied by a wife and her children, and the most significant building facing the road belonged to Tito’s father, the one several yards away was for his oldest wife.

The entire compound was surrounded by tall coffee trees, plantains, and pear and cocoa farms, each bearing healthy crops. Grass and ridges occupied the rest of the twenty-acre yard fringed with sisal hemp.

Tito and Solo were sat in the living room when a sweaty man strolled into view and stared. He stood five feet tall, skinny, without any hair on his chin or head. His trousers hung loosely as he ever attempted to hold on them with his hands. A pair of yellow slippers held the dirty feet, questioning why he was not merely barefooted.

He stretched out his hand and shook Tito’s and Solo’s before sinking into a dusty sofa across the room.

“Welcome home,” he said, leaning back. After taking a few breaths, he called for fresh water in a dish and washed his hands.

He studied Tito’s frame, starting from his head to his feet, and all his facial muscles relaxed with an air of satisfaction.

Tito glanced at Ful Isangli, fondly called Pa by his children and close family friends, and became overwhelmed with fear. Before he was a small-framed man, everyone in the village still revered. Fifty years as a primary school teacher, six as a superintendent and only last two as a pension earner, some thousands of students trained by him across Bishuana.

Retirement had been cruel to the billiard champion, father of twenty-five children, fifteen grandchildren and twenty-three great children, including that of his older sister who had taken Tito’s room.

He felt he had much more to offer the world. He had earned a monthly salary of thirty dollars for decades, sponsoring all five of his children through primary and secondary school and helping to support his siblings. He even dared to marry a second wife after the mother of his first five children had succumbed to breast cancer. That marriage had created a sharp tension between his children and the young bride who spared no effort in dishing out corporal punishment to them for crimes as simple as forgetting to close the door.

Pa could have slumped into a deep depression as he had to quell regular squabbles and feuds between her and his sixteen-year-old oldest daughter who had matriculated into high school. When their arguments ensued, he would sink into his armchair and close his eyes until the shouting mellowed.

His daughter never forgave him for bringing home a teenage girl who’d been suspected of having slept on many mattresses and danced wildly at tea parties. She had convinced her siblings he never liked them; otherwise, he would have remained celibate after she passed, however, the skinny five-foot-tall hunk may have affirmed her thoughts when he took in another wife, adding to her misery.

Pa had not offered anyone, except perhaps his conscience, reasons for courting and marrying the plump, long-haired seamstress whose family later adored him so much that the bride persuaded him to bring Tito under her roof. The two wives lived in separate locations five miles apart, with the newer wife staying at her parents’ home.

Pa had handled jealousies and temper tantrums between her and his other concubines with a degree of dexterity even Aristotle could not have analyzed. He spent more time with the new bride and only returned home early the next morning to prepare school lessons. The dejected wife took out her frustration and humiliation on Tito, depriving him of meals and forcing him to work into the night every day. Tito had grown skinnier for several years; he even had to steal food in school, receiving a shameful beating in front of the entire class.

His mother would send him to a stream near a haunted graveyard in the quiet night to fetch drinking water. When he’d sworn, he had run into a ghost; she did not believe him. He survived on fruits and roasted tubal crops he stole from neighbors’ farms until he went to a co-ed high school.

For his part, Pa had encouraged Tito to focus on his education, promising him a good education was the only track to personal freedom. He always told his son he wanted him to be better than him and longed for the day he would bring home big certificates.

* * *

Pa limped toward a full-length window which overlooked the huts. As he was standing there, he felt confident of one thing. He was slowly-but-surely vegetating.

At seventy-eight, Pa’s gait had slowed to three yards per minute for good measure – a far cry from the man who used to walk briskly while his children sauntered behind him. He was known to cast his eyes inquisitively around, taking copious notes of everything he saw. People with a habit of changing their stories were frustrated with him because he remembered everything he had seen or heard.

He went inside his father’s dark bedroom. Something hummed relentlessly. That must be the black pot with charcoal-like substances mixed with cowries that stood behind the door frame. Pa had once told the family it could wave off evil spirits from the compound. Tito knew what he might do next.

He went back to his seat where the pan with water was waiting, washing his hands like Jesus at the Last Supper.

Dinner was served, and the three ate from the same dish. They then engaged in small conversation starting with changes in the weather, new problems for farmers, and the scarcity of corn and fufu —the staple food.

He lit the bush lamp resting on a rough table beside a squeaky armchair before turning on the radio. It was 7 p.m., and the tune signaling the start of the evening news came on. He sat there and listened, oblivious of Tito and Solo.

Will he wake up at the usual 4 a.m. rush to his farm three miles away, be back at 6 a.m. to tether his goats, release the chickens, and clean around the compound, before taking his shower to be trekking to the billiards site to meet his adversaries before noon? Surely!

When the newscast ended at eight o’clock, Pa went into his bedroom and returned with a rough sheet edged with little notes. He leaned forward toward the light issuing through the doorway and read every word. Then he asked Tito how Margie was doing. Stunned for a moment, Tito said she was okay.

“She must be an outstanding professor,” he continued.

Unsure about the ambivalence of the question, Tito said he thought so.

“She directed your thesis….”

“Yes.”

A measure of satisfaction flashed across his face. “She seems like a kind person. Did she buy the home by the beach?”

Tito looked blankly around, “I’m not sure what you mean. She never told me that.”

Pa thumbed through the middle of the page. “It’s right here. She said she wanted to retire after your degree and get a home where you’ll be staying.”

“She never told me that. I’m trying to move to another city to finish my degree.”

A stern look enhanced by the wrinkles on his face returned, “Is it that easy to move? Isn’t she like a mother to you?”

Tito thought of fabricating a story to impress his father, but that would make no sense; he had never lied to him. He kept quiet. Pa called out for the dishes to be moved away.

“Why do you want to move to another city? She doesn’t like you anymore?”

The onslaught seemed deliberate, so he changed the subject. Pa didn’t budge. “Someone kind to you when you leaped in the dark deserves at least some explanation if you want to go away.”

“I don’t owe her anything except her love.”

“Love, as in, care…”

“Yes. Plus, there are more job opportunities for immigrants in Washington than Mississippi.”

“Then write to her and tell her what you mean and mean what you say. People don’t like pranks. I learned that many years ago at Cambridge.”

Those words reverberated in his mind. His father spoke his mind, so aptly he embarrassed many by repeating verbatim whatever secrets people shared with him. ‘Whatever you say in private, be ready to repeat it in public.’ Tito was not sure he should mention his romantic escapades with Margie; it might hurt his chances of enjoying paternal bliss and the joy of being guided by his father.

Pa leaned forward and stared at the floor, seemingly aimlessly. Age had slowed him down and weakened his pupils, but his mind was still sharp, a weapon that reigned among generations of the Isangli household. Pa’s father, the king, never spoke much and never raised his voice, but his wisdom was in the few words he used. His best ideas spoke volumes when he was not making eye contact. At first, people thought he was shy when he avoided eye contact while speaking. His son seemed to have imbibed the Freudian wisdom as Tito would later learn from his father.

As he stared at the floor, Pa knew Tito had come with good news. He did not doubt that his son’s search abroad would be fruitful. He had to find out.

“I sent you to hunt. With what have you returned?”

Tito reached for his suitcase and pulled out a sheet of paper, waiting to be prompted. Pa sat up straight and slid his hand in a smoky raffia bag searching for a box of matches. He lit a bush lamp and waved at a child running through the door. He stretched his hand. Tito stooped and gave it to him with both hands. Pa arched closer to the light reading the inscribed words. He stopped at the section bearing his son’s name, and his eyes greedily stared at the inscription below the names. He slowly pronounced the words in Latin before stretching out his hand to him.

“Thank you, my son,” he said in the vernacular, pronouncing every word with the utmost linguistic precision. “You have indeed caught the antelope. You must now bring home the lion.”

Tito took a seat as Pa stretched his neck to see those who were still in the other house, and called out, “Roast a rooster and roast it. My son has done it.”

“Indeed so?” A voice called. Within moments, a tall woman pushing a pair of large breasts and a belly rushed into view lavishly serving a broad smile to whoever was around. Her eyes locked in with Tito’s, and she immediately hugged him, praising God repeatedly for bringing him back home safely.

She raised her hands to the sky and hugged him again, repeating the same question as if his answer was incorrect or not loud enough.

“Ayah, my son. Welcome.” She hugged him repeatedly. “You look smooth and well-fed.”

She caressed his forehead and checked his cheeks, raised her arms above her head, praising God. She complained that she had not heard from him since he left. Her husband told her he had been following Tito’s progress. He told her Tito’s thesis supervisor had written him several times about Tito’s wellbeing.

“But you didn’t tell me he had a big brother looking after him in the White people’s country,” she argued on.

“It was a mother, more or less.”

“A mother?” She cast a suspicious glance at her husband and her son. “What mother could look after him better than me?”

Pa waved a hand, conceding defeat, and quickly forged his agenda. He wanted to know if the roasted chicken was ready to eat.

“You want to eat chicken alone?”

He looked at her with precise abandon. “Who eats a rooster alone?”

“Your friends have always shown they care about this child. They come here and pray with you for him to have good health among those white people. Now that he is back, you hide him.”

“Hide? Everybody saw him descend from the car today.”

“Do you have enough wine? Have you told the masked dancers he is here? Have you told your brother?”

He looked up with fiery eyes. “You know the King does not visit his nephews; they visit him. They are in the hundreds.”

“But Ayah is the only one he has not seen for years. He went to the White Man’s country, and we feared he would never return.”

“How can he visit each one of them and still have time to address pressing issues of the Kingdom? Woman, speak sense! While this boy was away from the spirit of Kabala, the deity who sees and protects, never left him. We knew he would be well taken care of. Kabala never abandons his own.” He struck his chest in a gesture of pride. “I knew he was coming home.”

“You never told me he was coming.”

“Why would I?”

“Then, you’re on your own. Prepare his welcome party.” She stormed out and closed the door, seemingly oblivious to his urgent request for the roasted chicken.

News about Tito’s return spread through the village like wildfire. The only offspring of Jikfuin living abroad, his name was on everyone’s lips. Stories about him getting married to a white woman, driving expensive cars and dining with the rich floated in the farms and households around a fireplace where neighbors met.

Some rumored that he looked white, or he could not shake hands, or he could no longer speak the language. Some feared he might snub them if they dared to shake his hand.

Young men trickled into his father’s house and selected their seats. Within several hours of his arrival, the living room only had standing room left. They chit-chatted among themselves and teased each other as Tito listened and laughed and watched. The dialogues then focused on their knowledge of America, some claiming to know more.

Tito could no longer keep his distance.

“We don’t have plum trees in America because it is cold most of the year. So, we don’t eat plums.”

“Well, what do you eat there that makes you so well-kept?” A lean, hard-muscled, teenage boy in a tattered Michael Jackson dirty T-shirt inquired leaning forward to hear him over the voices.

He had shoved his cap backward crookedly, and there was the proof. Both eyeballs were more giant than and veins showed on his face because he had pressed the cap so hard. Still, hair bulged out from the uncovered parts of the head.

He laughed softly and cleared his throat. The noise mellowed. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘well-kept.’”

They had no idea Margie had just flashed through his thoughts, forcing him to pose the question.

The boy hesitated, unsure whether his response would be rebuffed. “I meant that your body is toned now. Your hair looks a lot like these men’s.” He turned his back to show a picture of the Jackson Five in concert, instantly drawing applause from the boys. “Oh, yeah, I see. They even look more like me in person,” he bragged, knowing no-one would challenge him. Everyone cheered up.

“Can you explain this to us? Do they give money to everyone they meet?”

“I hear they come from a rich family.”

“And beautiful women follow them wherever they go.”

“Are all of the singers?”

“Or just Michael Jackson?”

Tito gave short answers, increasingly alarmed by their knowledge of the United States. Maybe by him going, it had spurred many people to research their own. His feedback prompted another barrage of questions. They wanted to know if all black people in America were athletes, or singers, or boxers whether they dined in the same restaurants with whites.

His mouth flew open, and his lungs expanded violently, attempting to suck in the oxygen that his body craved. He was torn between telling them the truth about his stint in the country of mystery and making up stories to impress them.

“I live in an exclusively white neighborhood. I don’t see black people that often.”

“So how did you meet Michael Jackson?”

“I did not say I met him.”

“You said they look like you, so we thought you had met them in concert or something like that,” the boy wearing the Jackson shirt exclaimed.

He caught his breath, mentally surveying the damage he had caused himself. Anger mixed with humiliation gushed down his throat, and he felt a pain like nothing he’d ever imagined possible.

Mercifully, the pain only lasted a few seconds before his world went black. His closest contact with the Jackson Five had been through a nine-inch black and white television screen.

“Blacks don’t roam the streets all that much. You normally find them in the mall, at the barber’s shop or in church.”

They exchanged meaningful glances, mostly convinced he was telling the truth. The interview went on for several more hours until a basket with chicken slices and another with lumps of hot corn dough entered the room. The children placed the food between Pa’s legs and quickly exited the room.

Pa’s eyes followed the children up to the blind corner of the door. He stretched his hands, a signal the boys should be quiet. He then muttered a few words, raised the two baskets toward the roof and paused, muttered a few more words before bringing it to the floor. He then tore the meat and dough into smaller slices.

The boys quickly conferred among themselves and the one wearing the T-shirt beckoned Tito to stand. They stood to form a line behind him and inched toward Pa to receive a piece of chicken and dough. The track quickly became a circle as each boy returned to his seat and ate in silence, throwing a piece of dough in the mouth, followed by a slice of chicken.

When everyone finished eating, Pa dismissed them but not before announcing the date for a special reception for his son.

** *

On the morning of the day set aside by the Kom kingdom for rest, Pa’s compound quickly swelled with men, women, and children of all sizes and shapes. Some brought palm wine and spirits, others cooked or raw food, the rest arrived empty-handed, sure to fill their stomachs to the brim.

An hour or so later, a group of richly-clad men wearing bangles, ostrich feathers and long gowns reaching their feet arrived in the compound one by one and were ushered to some thirty armchairs arranged in a circle. No one had dared to occupy any of them since they had been reserved only for titleholders in the village.

After each dignitary sat down, they were immediately served with a drink of choice as more people arrived.

By midday, a sea of heads covered the entire compound. Bystanders crowded around the dignitaries keeping a three-yard distance from them. They chattered and fidgeted as they eagerly waited for the big moment. Shorter people sat in front of the bystanders, to make sure they did not miss a single detail of the mystery that was about to unfold.

Drums beat unceasingly. On the corner of Tito’s mother’s house, the same place he grew up, a group of masked dancers gave measured responses to the rhythmic precision of xylophone beats. The competition between the drummers and the xylophone players maddened; people broke into smaller groups and slowly into duos and exchanging style as they scampered against the hard ground.

It was on the cusp of an almighty crescendo, set to inspire the hearts of men for years to come.

A tall man pushing a swollen stomach emerged from the back door of Pa’s house. He had been sitting with the dignitaries, but closer to the door. In front of his chair was a gourd of palm wine. Its wetness meant it was not full. He scanned his eyes through the crowd and waved his hands. The music and commotion slowly calmed, and he began to spea, prompting silence.

“You all know why we have gathered here today,” he said, pacing every word, pinning his gaze at the unsuspecting guest while he spoke. “Our son has done it again.”

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