The excerpt below, from Monique Kwachou’s short story “Afritude” [originally published in the Caine Prize anthology To See the Mountain and other stories] is part of #100DaysofAfricanReads (curated by @SisterKilljoy). The story relates how Elizabeth’s life changes the day she leaves the USA for a boarding school in Cameroon and eventually nine months become three years during which Elizabeth rediscovers herself after an internal journey punctuated by putting up with mockery from other students because she doesn’t easily fit in. The story is published here with permission from the author.
Can you a imagine being a pet fish in an aquarium, catered for but never being quite at home? So you fight what you think is a despicable cruelty, then you lose the aquarium, and are tossed on land, forced to breathe like never before. It’s sad right? It’s said we never know what we have till we lose it. The aquarium might have lacked the freedom of the sea, but at least it had water! I was that fish, and this is my story.
“Shop-lifting Eli, of all ungodly things, shop-lifting!” My mother, Ms. Frida Tambe or Ma Fri as she was commonly called clapped her hands at her idea of an abomination “What did you lack? Is it not madness that has come over you?” Her voice was shrill, resounding with confusion. “Am I not talking to you? What did you lack?
“I have told you time and time again! As you see me standing here, I was born in a place that makes this house look like a palace!
“You do practically nothing. I provide you with everything; all you have to do is be a good child! Ah-ah is that too much to ask? When I was half your age I worked! Do you know what that even means? I would fetch water from a deep well in the mornings, feed my father’s swine by noon and then in the evenings, I’m at the roadside roasting corn! But here you are at 12 years, I tell you to do mere chores; make up your own bed, wash dishes you eat in, clean up your room, and you can’t do it without an agreement of $10 a week as allowance!“ Ma Fri looked to the ceiling as though seeking God therein.
“Where did I go wrong, have I spoiled you? How could I? Did I not bring a hoe and a broom from my last trip to Cameroon, just to teach you how to sweep like a child should instead of being lazy and using a vacuum cleaner? “Her voice expressed her distaste.
“Am I not the one who cleared the backyard and taught you how to use the hoe to plant, maize?
“No, I did not spoil you! It is this America oh! Eh! Shop-lifting! And then you excuse it by saying it was a dare, you want to be accepted in some clique.
“Do you hear yourself when you speak? Don’t you sound like a fool, since when are thieves accepted anywhere in society?
“Cha! I have suffered!
“This child you will not kill me! Elizabeth, you will not kill me oh!” Ma Fri sat down taking some time to think to make some sense out of the madness in her house.
The subject of her thoughts, I sat, laid back on the loveseat across from her scowling at the adjacent wall. I was not in the least remorseful, and I did not look it. No, I looked as though I wished that ceiling would cave in and crush my mother. And I did. I thought about what she’d been saying. I smiled as I remembered when she had brought that hoe and broom, one of her friends, aunty Bessem had exclaimed, “Ma Fri, you are the epitome of the idiom that says; you can take a man out of the village, but never the village out of the man!” My mother always had crazy plans like that, claiming she was trying to resurrect the African in me, trying to wipe away American bred ideas like saying I was from Africa when asked. “Elizabeth! Africa is not a country, you are Cameroonian!” She was wont to say. I was tired of hearing her complain about my so called ‘attitude’, telling me to act like a Cameroonian. I had left Cameroon at the age of 5, and I hated it when my mom spoke as though the place was heaven, when I distinctly remember it as a step up from hell. I remember I came to America with a shaved head and rashes on my skin. And when I began school, everyone wanted to know what kind of cancer I had. I didn’t even know what cancer was!
I had explained to her about the dare. The cop had understood why couldn’t she? Did she know what it meant or how it felt to be an outcast at school? Or how I longed to belong to any group whatsoever at school so I wouldn’t have to sit at the table with the geeks whose lives revolved around their computers and the freaks who always wore black as though they were in constant mourning. No, she couldn’t understand. All my mom knew was I was not behaving like a Cameroonian, not even an African. As though anyone cared whether I did or not, apart from her that is. Being the good African child did not get you accepted in school, or get you friends, or get you much of anything, except your mom’s acceptance and shouldn’t she accept me as I am anyways?
“I’ve come to a decision.” My mother’s voice interrupted my thoughts. Still scowling, I looked at her; she looked me straight in my face, trying to meet my eyes.
“I’m sending you to back home to go to boarding school.” My body tensed. I knew what she called home. My first thought was to correct her, home is where the heart is and my heart was definitely not in Cameroon. But I was too proud to show I was hurt by the fact that she would want me to go away. I couldn’t let her see the hurt, let her think she was sending me away shipping me off like some undesirable element. Pride spoke loudest.
“I want to go anyways”, I heard myself lie. “I can’t stand living in the same house with you!”
I was shocked my voice didn’t crack. With that I fled to my room. I guess I wasn’t surprised; she had always threatened me with boarding school painting a picture akin to exile in my mind. So all I had actually done was hurt her as she had me. And as I lay on my bed, I consoled myself, filling my mind with my idea of what boarding school would entail; a room for me and another young girl. No mom, no chores, free to do as I liked. Didn’t only rich kids go to boarding school? It ought to be something prestigious right? It was going to be okay, everything would be great.
My ticket was bought; we had agreed I was going to go for nine months, a single school year after which I’d return. I saw myself as taking a leisurely sabbatical from my mother’s authority. My only moment of pause, of suspicion that maybe everything wasn’t going to be alright, came on the day of take-off. Before prayers an uncle laughingly asked my mom if she had bought my lance. My mom chided him playfully saying I’d get one when the time came. When I asked what a lance was, she evaded, answering me by commencing the prayers. When the same uncle asked me one last time if I was sure I wanted to go back, my mom scowled, but I simply reminded him that I was a pre-teen and not a child. I therefore knew my mind. I left the aquarium on that false notion.
The first thing I wondered as l stepped off the plane unto Cameroonian soil was how the air in the plane, a confined space seemed more fresh than that of the open space outdoors. The air was thick with heat, car exhaust, and the odors of about three hundred busy travelers. My mom had said someone would meet me at the airport, but I didn’t know who, I began to panic. What had I gotten myself into? I felt queasy in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to get back on the plane, just continue flying, without landing, and definitely not landing here!
I heard my name; well, I heard something like my name. Instead of Elizabeth, it sounded more like Eliz-a-beth. As I turned to the direction of the voice, I saw a middle-aged woman approaching me. She called the remix of my name once more and waited hesitantly till I nodded in response. She then proceeded to swallow me in her embrace. She was dressed in full African wear, a patterned wax cloth tailored to suit her, with a matching head-tie elaborately tied. Behind her a swarm of people followed to welcome me. Those I knew and those I didn’t. Who could have guessed that my mother’s sister-in-laws brother’s child could be considered family to the point of welcoming me at the airport?
As we left the airport, the wave of heat that met me made me long for a swim. As we settled in the Jeep an uncle had brought, I asked if there was a swimming pool around the house. After repeating myself about five times so as to be understood my relatives all began laughing. “Did y’all understand what I said? I haven’t made a joke, so why are y’all laughing? “
Hannah, one of the far relations, and the closest to my age spoke up “You rap too much, but we understood you. The question is funny because it seems you do not know what you’re asking. Swimming pools are not common around here.”
As I digested her words my aunt took pity on me. “Don’t worry okay, maybe during the holiday we could take you to one of the hotels with a swimming pool.”
When I heard holiday, I thought of Christmas, of snow. It was already September. I laid my head back on my seat willing tears back as I thought of the strangeness of everything.
When my mom called later that day to check that I had arrived safe and sound, I had to talk to her. I could have complained, could have cried, begged even, but I didn’t. “I’m fine mom.” My pride spoke for me, and when looking around I thought the tears would come anyway. I told her I was tired and passed the phone to my aunt. That night I barely slept. I had been told I was going off to Bamenda, to a Christian boarding school in three days time.
C.R.H.S, Christian Remedial High School, Mbengwi welcomed me with a barber and a uniform the color of spirogyra. The barber, a lanky guy wearing a faded polo shirt and sporting a trimmed moustache, had to hold my head still while wielding his evil machinery on me. I was taken to the dormitory, where all the nice clothes, the only perks of my journey to Cameroon were seized. I was told to wear the uniform, the shapeless sterile garb so fashion-less it would be cruel to give a nun. Upon reaching the dorm, I received another blow looking around what was to be my home for the next nine months, I cringed. My image of boarding school having a room of my own, privacy, freedom independence burst like the bubble of infatuation it was. When a swift breeze came through the window sending a chill through my new shaved scalp, I stood unmovable in the midst of the dorm with its iron beds, rough cement floors, and grayish stained walls with little sign of life. I felt tears threatening. I willed the tears away at least until I had some where I could shed them and still keep my pride intact. As I scurried around other kids, most who looked at me with open curiosity I tried to ignore their murmured comments.
“Cha! Na form one that? how e fats so?” one said.
“Na America wanda! Na so dem dey whether dey di chop na fertilizer oh?”
Once outside I tried to get to the back of the dorm, with feet not used to conducting what seemed like the rubbles left behind by a volcanic eruption. Trying to avoid the rocks, I attempted to walk on the sides of the cemented gutter. I promptly found myself on the ground, with half my body in the air, the other half in the gutter. The tears which had been building up since I had proudly left my mother’s care, tear I had restrained for days, fell unbridled, uncontrolled, I couldn’t take it anymore. As I sobbed, I felt the stares of those around me and instead of clinging to that pride I had held on to for so long, I sobbed all the more.
A young girl came up to me while the others who were laughing and pointing, looked on.
“Hi” She said “I’m Yaah”
I was down to sniffling now, she helped me up of the ground. Looking down at the ugly uniform made all the more ugly by my fall, and the dribble of blood from where the cement had scraped my legs, I resumed my sobbing again but muted this time restrained as tears of self pity streamed down my face.
“So what is your name?” Yaah asked, trying to get me to stop crying.
” Eli- Elizabeth” I stammered. She smiled and still holding my hand led me to a nearby bucket to rinse my wound.
Clang! Clang! The unmistakable sound of a gong made me raise my head to see what had happened. Yaah’s eyes however did not mirror my surprise.
“It’s time for supper”, she said simply “That’s the warning bell, you don’t want to be late.” with that she left me to my own devices and fled.
I looked around; the gong had caused an uproar, with everyone moving hurriedly, busy with one thing or the other. I stood lost in the center of a whirlwind. I saw Yaah with another group of girls far ahead. I rushed into the dorm and rummaged through my things in the trunk I had been sent to school with. I found my plate. A minute later, Yaah was nowhere to be seen. I attached myself to a group of older girls, following them to the refectory. At the doors a tall boy stood looking imposing. My heartbeat quickened as I saw he barred the door way.
“Refecto, abeg sorry oh, we bi di follow form one dem for cam Ref”. The statement was made by one of the tallest girls in the bunch.
“Elise, don’t you know you shouldn’t be speaking in pidgin besides these new students?” the boy nodded at me. The girls, noticing me just then turned their astonished gazes on me.
“Where are you from?” asked one, wondering when I had joined their group.
“Are you not the bush-faller who fell in the gutter today” asked another.
“When you heard the gong, why didn’t you run to the refectory?” It was the boys turn to speak ” You did not want to eat, not so?”
I did not move. I had been in this situation before, if I answered him, I would be speaking back to an elder, if I didn’t, I would be ignoring an older person. Either way, I would be considered rude. I decided not to risk it.
“Since you have nothing to say for yourself, you will sit outside here.” With that he let the other girls pass, entering and shutting the door behind him, leaving me outside. I stood there like a fool, praying it was a nightmare. A chilling breeze blew in my face mocking my wish with just how real things were.
Twenty minutes later the population of the refectory spilled out, everyone busy talking, hurrying forward. I was scarcely noticed. I spotted Yaah and rushed to her.
“I didn’t get to eat” I blurted as though expecting her to solve the problem. The girls around her giggled. I ignored them, only to have my snub destroyed by the hungry growl of my stomach.
“I told you to hurry when you heard the gong na?” Yaah couldn’t help but pity me.
She gave me her plate with what looked like her leftovers. “Take, finish It.” she said
“What is it?” I asked
Her friends snickered, and she rolled her eyes, “Garri and okra”
One taste of the meal had me offering it back to her. The food had lost its warmth and was now a cold tasteless mass. I knew I had food in my trunk back in the dorm. I would eat later. Yaah shrugged at my refusal of her food, and we hurried on to class.
Two hours later I was sure I had never been so hungry in my life. Upon arrival at the dorm, I found the store room where our trunks were kept was locked. Yaah found me on my bunk bed weeping in my hunger. After attempting in vain to console me, she asked “Haven’t you ever slept hungry?”
I looked at her baffled at the absurdity of the question “No, why should I?”
She turned surprisingly solemn eyes on mine. “Why should anybody?’ she left to her own bunk, leaving me with unexplainable feelings of immaturity and guilt.
Somehow, by some inane will I didn’t know existed, I survived the weeks that followed; the horror of the pit toilets, the labor in scrubbing the rough cement floors of the dormitory or worse, the spirogyra of the gutters. I braved the insults of elder students and the lashings of teachers for late-coming or some other inconsequential crime. I endured the assaults on my way of talking, walking and yes, even eating. Above all I lived day by agonizing day through the rigorous schedule, the lack of privacy, freedom, independence all the things I had sought. Yes I lived, not only survived but lived through broken dreams.
Monique Kwachou is a Cameroonian youth advocate and writer. Her first book; Writing Therapy: A collection of poems was published in 2010 with Langaa RPCIG. This was her first attempt at short story writing done when she had participated in the Caine Prize Workshop for African Writing of 2011. When she is not reading or writing, she is involved in youth development projects through her organization Better Breed Cameroon.