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The Paradise of Poverty

Photo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos
  • By Alain Mabanckou
  • Issue 15
  • Essential

Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson

I have a lot of “nieces” and “nephews” now. A small group gathers round me in Uncle Albert’s yard, devouring me with their huge eyes, pulling at my shirt with their little hands. If I move, the whole buzzing little cluster follows me; I stop, and they stop too, afraid, I think, that I might disappear. For these kids I’m like an apparition, a shadow that will vanish with the setting sun. In their minds I’m just a character, artfully constructed by their parents, to the point where the poor kids actually think I can heal the lame and restore sight to the blind. One of them—the tallest—sniffs at me like a dog trying to identify his master after a long absence. They all want to be the first to speak. One wants sandals, and embarks on a series of elaborate explanations: “’Cause you know, Uncle, if you don’t have new sandals, you can’t get to school on time, you have to spend two hours in the street mending them and when you tell the teacher he won’t listen, he just says ‘little liar,’ but it’s not true, I’m not a liar! Don’t you believe me, Uncle?”

“I believe you, Antoine.”

He’s happy now, and starts jumping about, while behind me I hear a shy little girl’s voice: “Uncle, I want a dress like Ursula’s!”

“Who’s Ursula?”

“I can’t tell you. There are too many people here, they’ll tease me…”

“Whisper it in my ear, then…”

I signal to the others to move off a bit, and I bend forward till I’m down at little Julie’s height. She puts her mouth right next to my ear and hisses: “Ursula’s a bad girl! She’s my enemy…”

“Your enemy?”

“Yeah, she pinched my boyfriend because her father bought her a red dress with yellow flowers on. I want the same dress so my boyfriend will love me too…”

As she’s speaking right into my ear, I answer right back into hers. This game makes the others jealous, I can tell from the frowns on most of their faces. They reckon Julie’s getting special treatment, and they all want to talk to me like this, but I straighten up again.

They shout out a litany of lists. Each time I say yes, the lists get longer. Some requests are quite reasonable, like Célestin’s: “I want some Kojak sweets.”

Another has more contemporary tastes: “I want a video game I saw on the TV yesterday!”

One of the cocky ones pushes the group aside: “Uncle, I’m the brainiest here! You have to get me a laptop computer!...”

Another contradicts him: “He’s lying, Uncle, he never listens, he had to repeat his last two years of primary! I’m the brainiest, and I want to go to France and America with you!”

I don’t know exactly how many of them there are, and I’ve no idea when they were all born. They aren’t all here. Some are only a year apart, or even a few months. Every day new ones are added to the long list I was given when I arrived in town. The mother of a nephew I don’t recognize pushes her son towards me: “His name’s Jaden, you’d better not leave him out!”

This nephew is hiding behind his mother, I can just see the gleam of his eyes.

“Go on, Jaden, tell Uncle what you want him to buy you!” Jaden is overwhelmed now, he sucks on his thumb and whines: “A car…”

“OK, I’ll get you a toy tomorrow when I go into town,” I tell him.

At this his eyes widen and he takes his thumb out of his mouth. “No, I want a car like grown-ups have, with a real horn, otherwise I’ll make an accident, and someone will die!”

His mother strokes his head: “Jaden, you’re too little to drive a big person’s car…”

“Doesn’t matter if I’m little! I still want a car, I can keep it till I’m big…”

Cornered, the mother says: “Uncle will buy you one and put it in a garage in France for you. They look after cars in France, they never get stolen there. And when you’re grown up you can go and fetch it yourself. In a real plane!”

But he’s a cunning one, and shakes his head in disbelief: “No, when he leaves he won’t come back again!”

“Why do you say that?” his mother says.

“You told me, you said when this uncle goes traveling he stays with the whites for twenty years and doesn’t come back, and I’ll be as old as Papa in twenty years. And Papa’s old already, and he doesn’t have a car…”

Even when it’s not clear how we are related, they all call me tonton, uncle, and no one seems to mind, especially not the parents. Since I never had a brother or a sister, this gives me an unaccountable sense of pride. I don’t know them, and I will forget most of their faces once I get back in the plane. Little Jaden is probably right: how many have left, and never returned, or returned only twenty years later? Every household in the town can probably claim one.

Still, I need to learn to recognize these little angels, and get their names straight, or they’ll be offended. Even if I’ve never seen them before, I feel close to them, and I know there’s a drop of my blood in their veins.

***

The children insist on having a photo taken with me. And they choose, by chance, the same spot where I used to sit with my cousins Gilbert and Bienvenüe to eat. Here’s where Aunt Mâ Ngudi used to punish me for not finishing what was on my plate, where I toyed with my foufou balls, playing for time. And yet you could tell she really loved me. It was she who told my uncle one day that it wasn’t me wetting the bed, it was my cousin. My uncle was sceptical about this, so Mâ Ngudi carried out an experiment which to Gilbert felt like the greatest mortification of his life. He was made to sleep alone in the room, while Bienvenüe and I slept in the living room. The next day the evidence spoke for itself: Gilbert, in terror of the three-headed monster, had once again pissed in the bed…

Whenever I was really naughty at home, my mother took me to Mâ Ngudi’s and told her I wouldn’t eat, that I was doing the “only child” thing, as she put it. My aunt gave me a defiant look, then turned to my mother: “He’ll eat in this house, Pauline, don’t you worry, I’ll make sure of it. If he gets up to any tricks I’ll send him over to eat Grandma Hélène’s huge portions!”

Mâ Ngudi set to work making a beef soup and foufou balls. I wanted to slip away, but her fierce glare kept me rooted to the spot, and I stayed in the yard, right where my little nieces and nephews are sitting for the photo. Mâ Ngudi set a steaming plate of food and a bowl of foufou down in front of me. I simply wasn’t hungry, but I had to eat, because my aunt had a rubber whip in her hands. I swallowed great mouthfuls, without feeling them go down into my stomach. I held back my tears, but suddenly felt the need to cough. I began to vomit, while Mâ Ngudi whipped me and yelled at me to finish my food. I was used to seeing her wave a whip around. I’d stand there before her, eyes cast down in submission. You hardly ever caught her smiling. She was only ever radiant when Uncle Albert was around. It never lasted long, and we felt she was somehow never satisfied, even if everything was fine and we’d all eaten well. There was the washing up to do, the yard to sweep, the bottles on deposit to return to the bar in the Avenue of Independence. She wasn’t particularly hard on me: she treated her own children exactly the same, whipping them with a force that quite alarmed me. Whenever this happened, I expected to be given the same punishment as them, since we had all been in it together, and I feared the worst. But she tempered her lashes, reminding me, perhaps, that I wasn’t her child, that there were limits to her anger. Which Gilbert and Bienvenüe considered an injustice. Bienvenüe always took it out on me once her mother had gone. She would pinch my ears and growl: “I’m pulling your great long ears, since Maman didn’t whip you like us!”

***

I met a friend from France in the lobby of the French Institute and showed him the photo of me with my nephews and nieces, and he remarked that they, “like most children in Pointe-Noire,” lived in a “paradise of poverty.” A native of Pointe-Noire himself, he launched into the kind of speech you hear from people who have lived so long in Europe, they now accept the image of the black continent projected by the media. While he was having his say, I watched him pityingly. He had forgotten where he came from, and had come to believe that the introduction of European ways would bring happiness to our country. He doesn’t seem to realize that the chains that bind him in what he believes to be a comfortable life in Europe hold no attraction for my little tribe over in the rue du Louboulou. True, he wears a suit and tie and polished shoes every day, when he’s back here. Here he plays a role: broadcasting the notion that the salvation of every Congolese lies over in Europe. But whenever I meet him in Europe he’s dressed quite differently. Back there he comes face to face with reality, which he won’t be sharing with the young people wandering the streets of Pointe-Noire: he lives in less than twenty square metres, must struggle to legitimize his presence in France, and gets up every morning to go in search of casual work.

These children, though, find points of light in the harshness of their lives. It took me a while to understand that they were just as happy as I was when I was their age and found my happiness in a plate of hot food in the kitchen, in the growing grass, in the tweeting of a couple of courting birds, or in the poster for an Indian film at the Rex cinema, where we started queuing at ten in the morning in the hope of getting into the three o’clock show. The difficulties of our parents’ lives were something quite distant, and besides, we had confidence in them; they cleverly concealed their anxieties, the shortages, the difficulty of getting through to the end of the month, so as not to spoil our childish innocence.

Thinking back to my childhood, when we hid in the lantana fields near the Agostinho Neto airport and hunted iridescent beetles or fished for minnows from the banks of the River Tchinouka, I replied to my friend, with his “Parisian Negro” arrogance: “These children aren’t in a paradise of poverty. Here, look at the photo: that tire, those flip-flops… that’s what makes them happy… flip-flops to walk in, the tire they can all climb aboard like a motorbike big enough to carry all their wildest dreams. Every day my nephews and nieces walk out in a long line down the rue du Louboulou. Their childhood knits them together, they wouldn’t swap it for all the world. They drink from a small glass, but it’s their own. Your glass is big, but it’s not yours, and each time you want to drink from it, you have to ask for permission. And alas, that permission is never granted…”

Photo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo © Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos