“December Rain” highlights familiar, yet very important issues: displacement and homecoming. With an eye for detail and a keen sense of belonging (the kind of belonging that many citizens of the world have in common), Elsa’s story takes us from introspection to reality and from Germany to Cameroon.
She woke up to the gentle sound of water-drops falling against the ceiling and windows. Yes, it was raining, again. She stayed still for a bit, stretched out on the futon. In the nondescript darkness of this closed space, she could have been anywhere in the world. But no time for dreamers, there were things to do, people to call and emails to answer. She pulled herself up and opened the balcony door. The fresh air and the grey morning light harassed her sleepy eyes. The trees had lost most of their leaves but the view was colorful. In the horizon there was pasturage tinted in yellow, green and dark green hues, framed by a surrounding landscape of buildings, like a pistil in its late years.
It was raining in Pforzheim as it did two years ago, the last time she was in Germany. Different corner, similar struggle. Two years ago, further up north, in the city of the free-minded international scholars, rich elderly fur-wearing conservatives and rainy Sundays. Münster perfectly reflected a contradiction from within, its peculiarly arranged gardens and antic churches with the diversity of its rather wild music festivities, such as the Hawerkamp Festival, where you could switch between a heavy metal crowd and a dancehall/dub step get-down without leaving the building. But what she liked most in that town was her old house. It was a witch-like, two-floor cabana with changing scents, built mostly out of wood. It had survived two world wars and countless attempts by the city to tear it down. It had a Japanese tree garden at the back and was located in the midst of the Aasee Park, five minutes both to her uni- versity and to the center of the city and— on top of that— it was affordable! If it wasn’t for the mental institution next door, it would have been a keeper. Every Saturday and Sunday one of the neighbors would scream Nazi songs and slogans out his window. It remained a quite frightening experience but, like with everything here, she just got used to it. Plus, she already had a lot on her plate, for example constantly having to debate with her mostly white scholars and professors about the unexciting nuance between well-meant ra-cism and racism. Nevertheless this was home, a place she could always come back to. In winter it was freezing cold, as it was in summer, but the view was golden all year around.
Lutzo was a male street cat that the house adopted years ago. He came and left as he pleased. Even after her roommates had him castrated, he stayed faithful. She often had unpleasant daydreams about ending her life just like that, in an old house with street cats as her only comrades. When she finally had the whole house to herself, her days would consist of watching Spanish cartoons, eating porridge, listening to loud online radio and dancing whenever possible. She loved to watch her locks jump up and down her face, reflecting so much of her, but so little of what her parents saw in her.
“Dreadlocks are just not appropriate for a young intelligent girl like yourself,” repeated her mother whenever possible. Eventually though, her mother got used to it. Secretly, she prayed God would help her see her daughter’s inner worth shine brightly. Within these walls, she had successfully created a world within worlds that refused to acknowledge her multifaceted existence. Here she felt comfortable. Others would often peek in, but never stay for long. She always ended up pulling them away, maybe she was afraid that they might get too familiar and she would never be able to enjoy her solitude the way she did now.
She sneezed herself back into this reality. It was cold, but not as cold as she had expected it to be at this time of year. The snow was missing. People had been preparing for the ice— children had carried their sledges out of the basement, parents had their cars pimped out with the best winter tires from the Stiftung Warentest ranking list. The expectations were high, as were the disappointments.
She suddenly remembered the very first time she saw those solid water drops falling from the sky. She was eleven when she arrived from Cameroon with little baggage, her two brothers and her mother in the heat of the August sun in south Germany. Her mother had realized the impossible: after years of studying in a foreign language, working for minimal pay and saving whatever was possible, she had brought her three children to Europe, all by herself. From then on, it was the longest countdown to winter. Such a wonderful time! Children got a lot of gifts, ate all the candy they wanted and watched the Americanized versions of this cheerful time on television. Basically like in Yaoundé but with one major difference, there was powdery sugar dust fal- ling from the sky. A friend at Toussaint Antoine primary school in Yaoundé confirmed that the white man is closer to God simply because of that fact. Therefore she considered it an honor to be the first one of her girlfriends who could see, touch and play with this magical element that they only knew from television. It was watery and tasteless.
She decided to start that morning with the most dreadful task of all: what is the goal of you returning to Cameroon? She had been writing and researching for this innovative project, she could only launch there, yet was still unable to face her family or friends with a satisfying answer. As she didn’t have one herself, she needed to be there, see and smell that city again, the one she now had vanishing memories of. She had spent the last few years traveling and learning about various places, outside the realms of an academic institution. For most people it was not worth a thing, yet for her it was the best way to encounter the unwritten, the unknown.
“You need to have your qualifications straight here, not experiences! As long as you were not granted a certificate by a well-acclaimed professor with award- winning professional methods, it does not count!”
That voice, again. After her baccalaureate, she took a break from school, officially to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Unofficially, she felt confused that she was being asked to decide what she was going to do for the rest of her life at eighteen years of age. So during the following two years she traveled throughout Europe. After her Bachelor degree she took another two-year break that led her to America, the Caribbean and Cameroon. And everywhere she landed she felt as if a part of her had always belonged there. She easily connected to places and their stories, but hardly with their citizens.
She liked to remember how her grandmother in Cameroon used to groan to herself. She didn’t like what the white man’s school was doing to her child-ren, always reinterpreting and analyzing one’s words. Would the doctor have taken better care of her, especially during her last years, if she had spoken more in French? Right up until her death three years ago, her grandmother did understand but wouldn’t say one sentence in French – was this out of embarrassment or rebellion? Nobody knew or cared. Except for her. It pained her deeply to not be able to communicate with Mama Antonia, as everyone called her. Mama Antonia was a brave soul: she fed, clothed and provided for seven children with the work of her hands. She had never gone to school and had never held a book in front of her eyes. Except for the Bible. This was the only book German missionaries have ever translated into Ewondo. Mama Antonia was a firm believer in faith, humanity and God. She never imagined her children being sent away from her to learn foreign languages and critical thinking, forgetting about their culture and the importance of the earth and water— beneath and above them.
Today, she felt confused by the expectations of her family. They wanted her to finally start living the “European dream”, or whatever distorted imaginations they had of it. For her Cameroonian father this meant school, studies and a career – or better yet an Íton dowry, a husband and babies. She was still trying to figure out who she actually was.
She still loved to be in Yaoundé, where she couldn’t openly express herself on political levels but where her spiritual self was at peace, where the streets were reddish and sucer l’oeil was an art form for survivors of the capital. Where girls, women and men would be sharing stories about December all year round, as well as saving money for new clothes, fresher hairstyles and innovative dating strategies.
In December in Yaoundé, it rains money, so the women are extra beautiful, so the men can be extra generous. From taxi drivers to farmers, “tout le monde est liquide” and happy. And “Yafé” is where the fun is. It took her a while to stop romanticizing this place, the inhabitants and their struggle. Ten years later and the culture was exactly the same— as if it had been in a time capsule. The music, the TV shows and even the stand-ups jokes hadn’t really changed; it was only more of the same kind, with shinier add-ups. It baffled her how Cameroonians do not believe in Emergence but nobody would speak publicly about the infrastructural difficulties involved in setting up transparent businesses in a country that is used to corruption— or tchoko as it is locally known.
The memories of the past few years were still very vivid as were the current uncertainties, traveling on an identity quest from somewhere to nowhere, just away from what everybody taught her she had to be. She had had so many lives and too many identities already. She had discovered many versi-ons of herself. Not all of them were beautiful, but a few were. She needed to remember that. On the brink of a new year, she was ready to settle, but the questions remained: where and for what? All she was certain of was the pressing urge to interact with diverse realities, to be able to recreate her own space, at her own pace.
Back in Pforzheim: the Golden City, as they like to call it, even though to her it seemed to be more of an old greyish green.
Here, nobody chants or even whistles on the streets – not even on Christmas evening. Like with any other of the religious holidays throughout the year, this one needs a long prepara- tion list. The items are diverse, from Eierlikör to the obligatory Wichteln at the workplace. Everybody is frantically waiting for an official break in their mundane lives, to finally start having fun. Because here, you have to prepare yourself, in order to rightfully enjoy yourself.
The phone rings. She realizes she was frowning her eyebrows whilst scribbling on an envelope. She looks at the time and wonders if she should pick up.
Originally published in Winter Shorts (Witnessed).
Elsa M’bala was born in 1988 in Yaoundé (CMR). She holds two diplomas in Social Sciences and is a member of the Pan Afro-German poetry female duo, Rising Thoughts. In 2013, with Über die Grenze der Zweifel (D.), she collectively re-defined the colonially imposed definition of blackness, through poems and performance pieces. Between 2013 and 2014, she co-edited the sixth issue of Freier, the magazine for the mental state, with photographer Simone Gilges, which was presented in 2014 at Dak’Art OFF (SNL).
In 2014, with JUST-Episoden in der Calwer passage (D.), she was invited to participate in an open studio experiment with passengers; in 2015, within the framework of Stories tellers (CMR) she participated in a group exhibition at Barthelemy Togouo’s Bandjoun Station and in 2015 she participated in the Chale Wote festival (GHN).
A winner of Goethe Institut Kamerun’s 2015 Laureat Découverte, she is currently working on Martin Ambara’s piece, Black Django.