Max Lobe's novel A Long Way from Douala, translated by Ros Schwartz, is out next month from Other Press. The novel follows the narrator, Jean, and his friend Simon, as they search for Jean's brother Roger, who has run away from home in hopes of crossing illegally into Europe. In the excerpt below, against the wishes of a family friend with whom they are staying, Jean and Simon plan to journey toward northern Cameroon, where the presence of Boko Haram has made travel dangerous.
We get into a crappy old taxi that dates back to the German presence in Cameroon. The springs in the seats dig into our bums, which makes us laugh, at the expense of the driver: his car must be his only possession. He ignores us and turns up the volume of his car radio, 102 FM: Radio Kongossa. Women speak: a phone-in program for housewives all over the country. The big issue this evening is mixed marriage. The listeners are divided. One argues with a strong English accent that love is colorblind and has no borders: “no bordas” she says. Another is outraged that women should give their piment to a man who’s never heard of the Kingdom of Bamum or the leader Um Nyobè: “What’s the world coming to?” A third, her voice tired, says she’ll do anything to marry her daughter to a White man. “A real White man, I say. Unless you find me a rich Cameroonian . . . ,” she adds, laughing. The presenter tries to reframe the discussion by arguing that love should be the most important consideration. “Love?” snorts a caller, whose shrill voice is ear-splitting. “Can you eat love, madame? I see you live comfortably there in your radio world. But let me tell you a home truth: the White man is money. Let’s not pretend. Take me: I fight like an animal to keep my little business going and it earns me peanuts. Life here is hard! At the end of the month, I count out the money for the rent, the electricity and the water, which we don’t even see, the children’s food, the telephone, the cable TV, Ekié!” She gives a long sigh. The presenter tries to interrupt her, but she won’t be stopped: “No, madame! Let me speak. Did I say I’d finished? . . . I was explaining that with all those outgoings, if my fifteen-year-old daughter brings home a White man as bald as her great-grandfather, of course I’m going to accept him!” The presenter can’t believe her ears. Beep. Beep. Beeep.
But neither Simon nor I pay attention to the rest of the program. The air is much cooler than in Douala. Simon fumbles for the handle to wind up the window and turns to the driver, who simply shrugs. He switches from one frequency to another. Nothing but Christian stations. Give your lives to God, Jesus will soon return. And traditional music, too—a mix of the mvet, balafon, and tam-tam; you’d think we were among the Baka Pygmies. The driver stops at a newsflash: there’s just been a terrorist attack on a village in the Kolofata region, in the far north of the country. Result: eight dead and twenty or so injured, some of them severely. The nearest health center is overwhelmed. The nurses don’t know which way to turn. They lack water, fresh blood sachets, everything.
A man with a strong Maghida accent gives an eyewitness account. They were sitting there, he and his friends, on mats, drinking tea, when there was an explosion a few meters away. Panic-stricken, they took refuge in their brother-host’s hut. Some stayed there, prostrate, praying, surah after surah. Others eventually came out of that shack to go and help the wounded at the scene of the explosion. Pools of blood, he says. I’m struck by this expression. Perhaps because I’ve never experienced an attack from the inside. Now I imagine the sandy lands of the north as clay-red, like those of the south, in the Beti or Bamileke areas. The witness describes bits of brain and guts scattered in the dust. He says: “It’s butcherrrry here.”
The driver, who remains unperturbed—probably because he is so used to news of attacks—starts twiddling the knob again. He must be hoping to go back to the Radio Kongossa frequency. No luck. He only picks up a load of jabbering and endless sermons about the glory of God. We learn the next day via social media that Radio Kongossa has lost its broadcasting license because it mentioned the attack. Several journalists were even sent to prison for high treason, they say.
We meet up with Sita Mpondo in Olembe. Her face is a mask of worry. We tell her about our visit to Mini Ferme Melen and the latest news, including the attack.
Sita Mpondo is wearing a hairnet over her tight Afro. She deftly reties her colorful, faded pagne around her chest. She looks at us each in turn, Simon and then me. A lengthy silence. At last she says, “My son, given the circumstances, better you go back to Douala. It’s hard for us that Roger’s gone, uhmmn, but I don’t want to lose you two, as well. It’s too dangerous to continue the search in the north. It’s tough enough in Yaounde, but up there it’s worse, you’ll end up in Maghida territory, where on every street corner God’s bombs will send you straight to hell. I swear! Leave things as they are. Go home to your mothers in Douala. Go. They’re praying tirelessly. And when they stop praying, do you know what they do? They telephone me. They need reassurance. My word! May the fingers of both my hands and even my tongue be chopped off if something happens to you and it’s my fault. No, oh! Me, I don’t want any problems!” Simon and I keep our heads bowed.
We’re big boys, yes, but for her, we’re still babies. Respect is nonnegotiable. Especially given her serious tone. But to my great surprise, Simon dares to answer back. “Auntie, I agree with you. The north may be dangerous. But are we going to twiddle our thumbs and wait for the Good Lord to bring Roger back to us? I think we have to carry on looking for him. We were given some reliable information this evening. We’re on his trail, do you understand? Better we keep going to the end. And if we don’t get anywhere within one or two weeks, then we’ll go back to Douala.”
“What if you don’t come back? If . . .”
“Auntie, the bombs know when to fall.”
“We’re not going to provoke those fanatics. The bombs know who to target. We’re just looking for our brother.”
“Oh Simon! Tell me you’re joking. You believe the bombs don’t kill innocent people . . . !”
“If Jean wants to go home, let him. But I’m carrying on. I’m going to call my mother and tell her I’m taking the night train to Ngaoundéré. Once I’ve explained what I’m doing, she’ll understand. I hope she’ll understand.”
Sita Mpondo is left openmouthed, completely baffled. She was certain that her words would convince us. Honestly, today’s children insist on doing things their way! She doesn’t say another word but stands up and drags herself toward the bedroom. Not even a “Good night.” Nothing.
Excerpted from A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe, translated by Ros Schwartz. English translation © Ros Schwartz, 2020. Soon to be published by Other Press. All rights reserved.