Government Property

“A bitch like that would make any man proud. Look at those tits, bursting forth in need of a man’s touch. They’re calling to me, baby.”

It was nine o’clock in the morning, half an hour after I was supposed to start work, according to the powers that be. Squeezed into the backseat of a taxi with three other people, I was roused from my daily hangover by a dull thud. The young driver, himself the worse for drink, stuck his head back inside the car. He’d been hit in the face with a rotten apple, thrown by a girl who’d taken offense at his comments.

“Next time it’ll be more than just an apple!” the adolescent girl added as she crossed the road, wiggling her behind from side to side, disappearing into the clutches of the morning sex trade.

After spitting and shouting at a pedestrian at a zebra crossing—“Hey! Get a move on, would you? I’m in a hurry! Zebra crossings are for running across—cars are in a hurry!”—our taxi driver suddenly pulled over. He got out of the car, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his right index finger. He turned to us in the back:

“Wait here a moment. My cousin lives nearby. He owes me money.”

The taxi driver slammed the door hard, like Equatorial Guinean men beat their wives and girlfriends, and with the same sense of impunity. Then he disappeared. The heat intensified, along with the muttering of the girl in the passenger seat.

“That man . . . I don’t know . . . He leaves me sitting here, in a car with no AC. Me, who’s climbed into cars with the richest men in the country,” she said furiously, pursing her lips. “Look at the state of this thing! The tires are all ruined, the windows are cracked—I can’t believe I’m here! This is what that idiot thinks of me.”

The girl looked periodically at her watch, despairing that nobody, not one of the men she made it her business to go to bed with, had called her all morning.

“If anyone sees me sitting here I’m finished—I’ll lose my appeal just like that! A girl of my standing, in a clapped-out old banger like this!”

The driver came back fifteen minutes later, his face gloomy.

“The bastard wouldn’t pay me, goddamn it!” he complained, blinking constantly. The scowl on the face of his companion in the passenger seat added to his irritation. “What have you got to complain about—I fuck you good, don’t I?” He restarted the car, connecting two wires that had once answered to a key.

“Fucking me doesn’t put food on the table,” the girl answered, crossing her legs.

“The old guys you sleep with are supposed to satisfy your financial needs. I take care of your emotional needs. So quit complaining, I don’t joke around with women.”

“A drunk, that’s what you are. Nothing but a drunk,” the girl said, giving the taxi driver a scornful look.

“A man either drinks, smokes or womanizes,” he said smiling. “Of the three vices, I picked alcohol. If I didn’t drink, I’d be a woman.”

“The booze’ll be the death of you,” the woman said calmly, lowering her head, as we drove through the streams that had formed on the new Arab-built motorway.

“I have to drink,” the young man said, plucking a beer from somewhere down to his right and easing back in his chair. “If I don’t drink, I think, and if I think, I get sad—I’m from Equatorial Guinea after all.”

A number of heavily armed civil guards signaled for the driver to pull over. He was forced to pay a forty-thousand-franc fine for driving without a license. He tried to protest, but the officers weren’t having any of it.

“This country is ours, it belongs to the security forces. The streets are ours. This road is ours. Were you at the front?”

Insults and threats rained in from the traffic police and presidential officers. Eventually the driver was pulled out of the car and given a kicking in the middle of the road by three guards no older than seventeen. As the traffic piled up at the roundabout, people watched, tut-tutted and avoided meeting the policemen’s eyes. The taxi driver came back to the car with his face covered in blood. Besides getting a beating, he’d been warned that most of the main roads in Malabo were blocked off for the day: the Minister of Internal Affairs was on his way back from his village, where he’d feasted on wild animals reared on private ranches by experts from abroad.

A passenger got out, barefoot, round like a balloon, dressed in a traditional popó smock. She sold snails at the market and pointed to the trunk, saying she needed to unload her wares. Sprawled out, his seat reclined as far as it would go, the taxi driver took a swig of his beer and told her to get it herself.

“But I don’t have the key,” she said, her voice trembling with humiliation.

“Women! You’re all the same, good for nothing, all as useless as the one sitting here next to me!”

“For a good-for-nothing, I did a pretty good job putting up with the insufferable music you play in your beat-up old car,” the passenger replied.

The key changed hands. She gathered her belongings, gave the key back to the driver and we pulled away again. An ad on the sidewalk proclaimed: “San Miguel, drunk the world over.”

The taxi driver was certainly drunk. And testy too: when his companion and confidant tried to take a sip of his beer, laughing all the while but not actually asking, he threw the can back in her face, making her nose swell. I jumped, as did the two youngsters beside me, four and five years old. They’d been put in the taxi by their nanny, on their way to school to learn the Hispanic education program, as taught in Equatorial Guinean classrooms.

The girl wiped beer from her face with the hem of her skirt, exposing her behind, angering her companion all the more:

“I don’t joke around with women. A woman cheated on me in my own bed, four years into a devoted relationship—the devotion being all mine, obviously, not hers! Since then, two women have died by my hand. Yet here I am at large, thanks to my financial generosity with the prison staff. When I was in college I wouldn’t even let women in skirts sit next to me in class. I hate skirts! My ex used to wear tight skirts like you.”

The taxi driver then leaned over and opened the passenger door using a pair of pliers. He pushed his companion out onto the sidewalk. The sobbing girl shouted “You’re a disgrace!,” while I supported the four year-old’s head against my shoulder, the child fast asleep, spilling his breakfast down his school uniform. The girl collapsed against a lamppost bearing a sign: “Guinness Is Good For You.”

The traffic was gridlocked. The driver sounded his horn repeatedly, then drove down the median for several minutes. He managed to get round the hold-up, only to end up stuck in the middle of a funeral procession, for a woman who’d been killed by witchcraft.

“What the hell’s going on with the roads around here?” the taxi driver asked, his breathing uneven. Using the pliers, he lowered his window and asked the question of a young man dressed in mourning, his head shaven. The man said the main road had been closed by the Secretary of State for Important Affairs, at the Ministry for the Indigenous People of Equatorial Guinea.

I was startled again as we came to a halt in the middle of the road. Our taxi driver had recognized another taxi driver and they stopped to chat for five minutes, totally indifferent to any traffic that wanted to pass, filling each other in on their latest sexual exploits, and the huge number of people killed in their hometowns.

The boy, increasingly the worse for drink, pulled up again, this time outside a garage. Some problem with the car needed dealing with. The two young children, who’d been slowly emptying the bottles of unclean public drinking water they kept in their rucksacks, wondered what time they’d be getting to school. The repair work lasted twenty minutes.

I wondered what time I’d be getting to work, though unlike the kids, I kept the question to myself. My gaze fixed upon the ads for beer brands—Codys, Estrella Galicia, Castel—that cluttered the streets of my city and all the urbanized, and indeed un-urbanized, parts of my homeland.

We set off on our journey again. The kids eventually got to school, and I eventually got to work, albeit via an accident that was caused by a pile of sand being dumped in the middle of the road by the Ministry of Parliamentary Justice. Four people died, but I, Aquiba—“the lucky one” as I’m called in my tribe, escaped without further ado. Here, in my country, there’s never much ado about anything. Here in my homeland, even heaven is government property.

© Melibea Obono Ntutumu. Translation © 2014 by Jethro Soutar and Ruth Clarke. All rights reserved.