Walk on Fine
Rhumsiki, Far North Region, Cameroon
Watches the sun set behind a long, low jawline of mountains. Watches the dirt go rust red, like the land's been bled on, end to end. Watches the dust kicked up by the motorcycles and horses, settling in a powder coat as orange as the end of the day on steel belts and rubber tires left behind by the trucks screaming to Kousséri and Djamena.
“How many tourists came last year?” the journalist asks, sipping his tea. “Rough estimate.”
Aram thinks. “I don't know the exact numbers, OK? But maybe a third. Yes. A third from the year before.”
The journalist sets his glass down. It was clean and lemon scented when it came to the table five minutes ago. Already, the dust has formed a light film. He lights a cigarette. “Buddy. Make like The Animals. You gotta get out of this place.”
“It's a song.”
Aram nods. “Maybe I should head back to a beach town. Limbe. Maybe Kribi? There's more tourists. More work for translators.”
The journalist shakes his head. “No, man, you're not following me. Not just 'this place'”. He sweeps his hand around the market. “This place. Cameroon. Even the beach towns are empty. You're smart, Aram.” He means it. Most of the people he grew up with in Ohio speak one language, and they don't speak it well. Aram speaks four, and he's 25.
“OK,” Aram says. “Get me a visa.”
The expression on the journalist's face doesn't change. “I would. Wish it were that easy. What about Quebec? They give preference to native Francophones. It's cold, but fuck it.”
Aram doesn't know Quebec. Knows Canada, vaguely. It's a country, it's near America. Maybe it snows? Aram's never seen snow. But he doesn't need anyone to tell him to get out. If he could grow a visa out of this dun, gritty dirt that only nurtures aloe plants and thornbush, he'd have a passport garden. A visa is impossible, though. A dream of water in the desert.
Ngaoundéré train station
Diesel in the air, and the whine of metal on metal as trains arrive. Mothers lift babies to the windows for a farewell kiss from their fathers; soldiers buy bananas to soothe their mouths from the dust.
The journalist takes notes on his smart phone when Aram asks to see the project that is taking him to more of his country than he's ever dreamed of seeing. The book is thick, almost 1000 pages, West Africa printed on the front and a picture, a mud palace. Maybe like the ones his nephew would make in the lemon sunlight of the day after the rains, but this castle was impossibly large, an ochre mountain against the sky.
“What is this place?” asks Aram.
The journalist looks up. “The Great Mosque of Djenne. In Mali. Beautiful, right? Too bad I'm just covering Cameroon for this book. I'd love to go back there. That mudbrick style—it looks so simple, but there's something really elegant about it. The closer you get, the more you realize what a, um, 'iconic example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture' the thing is.”
“Why did you just change your voice?”
The journalist laughs. “Sorry, I was quoting the book. That's guidebook talk.”
Aram nods. “So how much of the book tells people about mosques? And how much is telling them when trains come?”
“It's a balance. Telling folks how to to get somewhere and get out is pretty big. And where to eat. Where to sleep. How much it all costs.”
Aram looks at the train station. The men arguing over a spark plug and a ruined motorcycle, the dust, the dirt, the sheer dry of the place. If I were going to a place, how would I tell it to my people, he thinks. His village, nestled in a valley drenched in more rain in a year than this place would receive in a lifetime. His father, his father's three wives, the boys in the tyre shop, the women beating laundry along the river rocks. His fat-ankled nephew. What guide would take them beyond the green mountains that house the long generations of ancestors?
Douala: Getting in & out
You can take the Camrail train from Yaoundé but only foreigners and big men can afford first class and second class isn't worth the extra francs. If a man comes on board between stations telling you the potions he sells will cure gout and rheumatism, ignore him, because our cousin Philémon bought a bottle once and it was just cologne and water.
If you take the bus instead you might save money, but there will be checkpoints every hour or so, and if your ID card isn't perfect in order the police might make you buy a case of beer for them, and then you won't have money for a taxi once you get to Douala, and your friends didn't charge their mobiles so they don't know you're stuck. If you walk it takes an hour or more. Plus there are men near the Gare de Bessengue who will say You have nice shoes, and flash teeth sharp as their knives, and then you hope they're just talking today and not in a mood to chase.
If you want to get out you can take the train or the bus, but if you want to Get Out, like the journalist says you should, you go to an electronics shop on Rue Koumassi and ask for Fabrice. He is skinny and has glasses. He looks at you and nods and sits quiet until you want to leave, the hell with this guy, and then he opens his mouth. Says he can get you to Agadez and from there to Libya and from there the boats across the sea, and he needs two and a half million francs. When he says that number don't laugh because his face will pinch like he's been stung by a hornet and he'll say You're lucky I don't ask for three million, look at you, your skin is black as midnight, you think the Libyans don't know who you are, don't know where you come from, think they'll pity you because you're a fellow Muslim, no my boy they'll put you in a camp in the desert and you've never felt heat like that. I don't care if you've worked in the far north you've never felt sun that strong, you'll fry like an onion in a pan, so take the price or leave it but don't waste my time.
And you leave his office. And you meet Paul from your home village later that day and ask him are they serious, and if you pay the price does it get you there? Is it like you're at the market and you pass your francs to the lady and you get your bread, or is it like a bribe, when you give the big men cash and hope they are in a good mood because sometimes they're not, and then all you've got is a skinny wallet and anger at getting ripped off again, the frustration digging into your heart like red ants.
And Paul will say sometimes the money pays the way and sometimes it doesn't, but he knows a girl, a sister of a friend, and she paid and then she was kidnapped, somewhere in the sand between Niger and Libya, and they took the girl to the mountains and called her family and asked for a ransom.
They wanted six thousand for that girl. US dollars. There are people in your village who cannot dream those dollars. The kidnappers said, Pay it, or she becomes our wife.
You don't ask if they paid it. Because you have to pay now, too. You need two and a half million francs, and you only know one man with that kind of money.
This place is covered in grainy photos. The pictures are front lit by the chandelier that hangs from the moldy ceiling, the frames hanging from walls of plaster, not sheets of corrugated tin or particle board. Photos of Idriss, of his children, of his cousins and nieces and nephews, Aram among them. Idriss in Cairo, in Jerusalem, in Kampala, in Moscow, in Paris. Aram knows some of those places—the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower—but feels closer to the photos from the northwest, from the home place he and Idriss share in the Grassfields. His uncle wearing a blue chief's boubou. Leading a line of young men clad in headresses of fur and feathers and iron. Standing in a procession to be received by the sultan of Foumban. Holding aloft a cattle hide shield painted with the two-headed snake of the Bamoun dynasty. Standing in front of the businesses he opened around Aram's village: a petrol station, a hotel, a truck depot.
When Aram asks about the loan, Idriss appreciates his nephew's inability to lie.
“You know what happens to people who take that route?” Idriss asks. “If they're not robbed in Niger, they die of thirst in Libya, and if they don't die of thirst in Libya, they drown in the sea. What would I tell your father?”
Aram nods. “If you don't lend me the money, I'll find another way.”
“W'allah, boy! How many translating jobs have I gotten you? You were working with that American doing the travel book—where is that money?”
Some of that money is in Aram's pocket; more of it is secreted away in a seam in his pants and some of it is rolled into his sock. He doesn't trust the banks to keep it; one year, a manager at his local bank, a brother-in-law of a parliamentarian, left the country after emptying the branch of its cash reserves. Aram had to wait two weeks to access his account, and when he did, he was told his savings had shrank by ten percent.
Aram tells his uncle, Yes, I have the money. And yes, you get me work. In Cameroon, everyone needs a big man to pull strings on their behalf. Aram could do worse than Idriss. He works maybe once every two months, which is unthinkable to some: translating at a conference, for a journalist, for a UNICEF tech education project with a multimillion dollar budget that ultimately delivered a few dozen iPads into the hands of various cabinet ministers. And when the work is over? The never ending hustle for the next job. Hoping the money you make stays in the bank. Hoping the police don't need beer. Hoping the boys at the train station don't check your socks.
Aram's voice is soft and angry. “I'm walking, uncle. I keep walking, and I want to climb.” He stops himself, and Idriss can imagine his nephew's dilemma: Aram doesn't want to live a life in thrall to big men, and to do that, he has to ask a big man for help.
Idriss is silent. Thinks about young men who want to change the world, bend it to their will the way he once did. When Idriss was young, you could earn the status he enjoys by cunning and cleverness, qualities Aram has. Now the country has changed. Now you need ruthlessness and a lack of pity Idriss isn't sure he possesses, or ever did.
Finally, he says, “I may have another job for you.”
Aram shakes his head. “Thank you. But I don't need another job.”
Idriss ignores this, points at a dusty globe. Settles his fingers on the continent's northwest coast. “The government is sending me to a conference in Rabat in three months. A four day conference. I can bring an aide with me, you know?”
“Uncle, I need a loan—”
“Rabat. Only a few hours by bus from Tangier.” Idriss' finger traces north. “Look how much water between Morocco and Spain. Not a finger's width. How long to cross that little bit of water?” He pauses. “Safer than a desert, I would think. Three months. Not much time to get a visa.”
Rabat: Getting in & out
When you get the visa to Morocco you realize what it truly is: permission to enter another country. It is the last permission you will have.
In Rabat, Idriss takes you to a bus station. The touts scream in different languages. One you don't know. One is Arabic, but that doesn't help. You face Mecca five times a day, know the shape of the language but not these specific sounds. When your face is blank they shout in broken English. You thought they spoke French here, but you answer in English until your uncle says Que l'on va vers Tangier, and they nod and point to the right bus.
Idriss pays for your ticket.
When he says goodbye he doesn't speak in French, but the patois of the Grassfields, of your home place, and while every step of this journey, not just this journey but the course of your life, has been a direction removed from that green dream, the words cut your heart: “Wakka faino.” Walk on fine.
You board the bus and the lights of the city trail away and then the night is all black and purple except for fluorescent gas stations and paraffin cook fires. You can smell wind and salt: the ocean. You roll your jacket into a pillow and sleep against the window for a few hours, until you wake up, and you are in Tangier, and the sun is rising on everything.
The fisherman is short, built like the coils of rope humped into the corners of his boat. The craft is painted white and mint green, edged by sky blue gunwales. Aram notices his moustache, bristly like a porcupine, and the crescent tattooed on the skin between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He may work the sea, but he is from the mountains, and his French is as muddy as the sodden flats around the dock that are exposed by low tide.
The fisherman notices Aram staring at his tattoo. “Islam. Islam sign.” He waggles his fingers, holding the ink up under the orange glare of the sodium lights that illuminate the docks at night.
“I'm a Muslim too,” says Aram.
The man ignores this. Asks, “You work a boat?”
“I can work anywhere,” Aram says.
“You no work a boat.”
Aram is quiet, then reaches into his pocket. “Six hundred to cross. Dollars. It's everything I have.” That's not true, but the rest is for an emergency.
The short man doesn't take the money, at first. Then asks, “You. Cook?”
Aram nods. The short man takes the money.
The boat: eating, sleeping, getting in and out. Mainly out.
The captain doesn't just make you cook. You have to clean. Empty the toilets. The first time you breathe in the shit and salt water festering for weeks in the latrines, you vomit. You never truly stop.
You have to gut fish. You know how to gut fish, how to cook it, too. But they don't allow an open fire ever since the accident on another fishing boat, when some stray charcoal lit a trickle of leaking petrol and two of the men were burnt like skewers of mutton. So you cook on a hot plate, and there is no palm oil, just a green oil that is too thin and doesn't give the right flavor, that heavy taste of fruit. But you make do, and while you can never get the skin to crisp to the sweet black of the fish they sell on the roadside at home, the meat is still white and flaky. They say mean things about you in Berber—the language, you learn, you didn't know at the bus stop—but never say anything bad about your cooking.
When you gut the fish and cut your hand and the salt they use for packing is glistening on your fingers, burning the wound, you almost don't mind. It takes your head off the anger.
The anger is this: the captain says he will leave you in Spain when the time is right. After a week, you think the moment will come soon. After two weeks, you wonder if it is safe to swim to shore the next time you see Europe. The captain must see this, because one night he tells you, “No run. You run, you drown. No drown? Spain will put you in jail. You papers? You passport? No good. Nothing. You in Spain and you nothing. Maybe they forget you in jail.”
You sleep on the floor, and you smell like water and petrol.
The first time the captain hits you, because he doesn't think the latrines are clean enough, you stand up and be a man. When you do, you see his friends there. It is night on the boat and you cannot see the water, but you can hear it. “Maybe I leave you in the sea,” the captain says.
When you decide to steal a life jacket, do not take one from the main hold, because those things couldn't keep a feather afloat. Take one from the lifeboats. But only take it when you are ready to jump, because there is no place to hide it. Seal your cash in a plastic bag you take from the kitchen.
Remember what your friend told you in Kribi, the first time you swam in the ocean. He said, If you are pulled out by the current, don't swim for land. Swim parallel to it. The tide will take you in.
When it is night and you see the lights to the north, they can't be more than two kilometres, grab the jacket and walk to the end of the boat and fasten it and pray and fall.
If you did this in winter you would be dead. Even still, in June, the water is cold. It fills your nose. Probably, you will die. Forget what your friend said and swim for the lights. The water feels like it is going to rip your shoes away and grab your legs and then the rest of you. Maybe they will fish your body out of the sea and you'll be back on the boat.
Swim to the lights, but they don't seem brighter. Your arms are stones. And your lungs are beginning to burn. Then remember your friend. You forgot in your cold panic. Swim parallel to shore. Like you were racing Europe.
The lights grow brighter, but is the land closer? The growing shape to the north might be Spain, but it might be the shadows that come into your head before you drown. Keep swimming like you were before. Keep racing Europe.
When your feet touch the bottom and you feel mud, don't cry out, because you will swallow water. Just walk, even if your legs are dying, because your arms are already dead. It's alright. You won the race.
Sits on the beach waiting for the sun. He knows he should move, but the water is in his bones.
Aram sees a line of people moving towards him. They look like they're hunting treasure. Every few steps, one of them pokes at the ground with a pole or bends down and scoops indiscernible objects into black plastic bags. He wants to move before they come too close, but his limbs resist his brain. Finally, he strips off the life jacket and walk away. When he collapses on the sand, drops as if he just climbed a mountain, the jacket looks inconsequentially smaller. He has walked maybe twenty meters.
The people come across the life jacket first. They look at it, bag it, then stare at Aram. They are so close he can hear them mumbling in Berber. It is as if he never left Tangier, or the boat, and for a moment he wonders if he swam to Morocco, but they are all wearing neon vests that say Playa Municipal in big black letters.
Aram raises his hand. “Salaam alaikum.”
One of the men says, “Wa alaikum salaam” and asks, “Wash kat'ref l'arbīya?”
Aram shakes his head. “English. Français.”
The other one nods. They speak to him in French, ask if he has money. Aram decides they will not rob him, and he says yes, a little, and I can work. Any work. They tell him to follow while they clean the beach. Afterwards, one of the men takes Aram to a car and drives him across a bone dry landscape of short grass and spiky trees burning under a chalk white sun. It could be northern Cameroon, but for the smell of the sea. He drives to the center of a town and parks, looks around, as if to say, Well, you made it. Now what?
Spain on a budget
When you change the money that survived the swim you're left with almost nothing. You can't waste it on something like a warm place to sleep. You need money. So you nap in train stations and bus stations. You need money. Security guards recognize you, and they won't let you inside buildings. You need money.
You go around asking for work during the day and during the evenings. It is better at night. The kitchens and bars are open then, and they pay under the table, and the staff in the back are Africans. For a few weeks you give men soap in a wash room in a place where women dance on a stage, but the shifts are unreliable. The customers are all British, so not knowing Spanish doesn't matter. Sometimes they give you a euro, and sometimes they're annoyed at paying to piss and walk by you.
You can never afford rent, but you find a station where no one bothers you. Still, you don't feel rested. By day, you walk around. Usually, you are hungry. So every day you spend about eight hours walking hungry, eight hours sitting in front of a line of toilets handing out soap, and the rest trying to sleep on a wood pallet in a loud bus station.
One night as you clean the washroom you see a wallet on the floor. It is sitting in a pool of shining urine. You won't hesitate to pick it up. There are four hundred neatly folded euros inside. When you leave work you buy a sausage on the street, it is hot and the juice runs over your lips, hamdullah, the man puts onions on it, onions fried in a pan, swear on your mother you haven't eaten something so good. When you finish realize you've eaten pork and you barely finish that thought before you realize you don't care.
There is a building you've passed many times, a short, concrete tower, three stories high. The only people who come out are brown and black; the only noises are pop tracks from Marrakech and Dakar and Bissau. You cannot read Spanish, but “Semana/135€” isn't hard to understand.
Aram shares an apartment with four other men, two per room and one sleeping in the common space, so it's even cheaper than advertised. The space is smaller than his little house in Yaoundé, and he lived there by himself. The apartment smells so intensely of sweat you'd think it was inside a gym. Actually, the gym at the resort doesn't smell as strong. It is empty, sometimes. You can scrub the smell away. But there is always someone in the apartment.
Two Tunisians, a Moroccan, a Gambian, a Cameroonian. One of the Tunisians gets Aram the job at the resort, where he works, not with other Africans, but whites. Aram feels lucky. Whites, he reasons, do not work bad jobs. And they don't, really. The work is constant but easy: gathering towels, bussing tables, spraying down the gym.
But the pay is a pittance. Aram wonders why whites would accept so little money. White is European is wealthier, is more powerful than an African. He doesn't distinguish between white countries or white age groups. It takes him awhile to understand the Europeans he works with are children. The oldest are near his age, but most are in their late teens. They don't care about the work. If they're fired—and they rarely are—they work another resort on the coast.
Aram tries to work seven days a week, but sometimes the police set up checkpoints. His flatmates warn each other when these appear, and on those days, Aram is late or cannot come in. No one seems to care too much.
One day, he hears two white co-workers talking. One complains about working on a bank holiday. The other shrugs. “This isn't really work, right? It's fun for a summer.”
Aram thinks about this for a long time. The concept of work for fun is as foreign as the moon.
Spain: the language
Young people from so many places. Italy. Denmark. Poland. Russia. Netherlands. Norway. They all speak English to each other. When you realize you speak better English than the people you work with, it will be a shock.
Spain has its own language. You should learn it. It is not bad if you already have French. Some words are very easy to learn because you hear them all the time. Words like:
negrito = blackie
mono = monkey
monito = little monkey
chico = boy. Pretend this is OK, because it seems least insulting, but you see the age of the ones who say it and it makes your skin crawl.
negrata = it is bad.
You have to keep your job. You can't fight the boys who say these things. You have to work.
To be fair, only some boys say those things. A few Spanish guys. They are managers at the resort—big men, Aram thinks—who spend their days trying to sleep with women, guests and workers. When it's slow the managers roll out a football and tell Aram to play. They don't ask. They say, “Hey chico. Juguemos. You good? Like Drogba?” Aram doesn't bother telling them Drogba is Ivorian, as far from Cameroon as Spain is from Bosnia.
The managers are good at football. Aram is not. He falls behind the ball and makes a few ineffectual kicks before the managers and their friends laugh and tell him to get off the field. Adios, monito. A 19-year old Czech claps Aram on the shoulder and says, “Don't let them bother you, chico.” He means well, but Aram walks away without saying anything.
One night the managers throw a party for the working holiday kids. The tourist season is nearing an end and they want to show their appreciation and sleep with some of their workers. They make Aram stay. Not to enjoy himself, but clear plates and sop up spilled beer. One of the managers calls after him, yells negrito, you're a better “sweeper” than striker. The big men laugh. Aram wonders how you could make it to Europe and be so far from it.
The night goes on. Aram is wiping down the bars when he realizes it is just him and one of the managers, and the manager looks angry. He says, in his broken English, “Chico. Go home. I want close, and I want go party, OK?”
Aram looks at him. “I have to finish my work,” he says.
The manager's face is already red from liquor. Now it darkens. “Who gives a shit. Let's go. I close now. Understand, monito?”
Aram puts his towel down, and for a moment, the manager sees he has awakened something he is utterly unprepared to deal with.
“I understand,” says Aram, and then switches to French, “Do you understand?” and then switches to Ghomala', “Do you understand?” and then to Bamun, “I said, do you understand?” He goes back to English. “I understand. You wanted me to work. I am working.”
“Fuck, monito.” The manager is tipsy, and more than a little scared. “It's party. Chill out. It's just fun.”
“You think this is fun?”
The manager's voice goes quiet. “I call police.”
“For what? For working?”
Aram's pitch rises. “For trespass? You ask me to work. I come to work. It's not fun. It's work. You asked, and I came.”
“I ask work! No stay! You can no stay as long as you want! Pinche negrata.”
The manager leaves and Aram keeps working. When the police arrive fifteen minutes later, the bar is spotless, and the chairs have all been stacked on the tables.
In the facility they take away your clothes and give you a t-shirt and sweatpants. Why would they do this? They have a hard time telling us apart even when we dress differently. But maybe that's it. Maybe they don't need to tell us apart.
It's a “facility” because it's not quite a jail, really. You're not in cells. But it's also a jail, really, because you cannot move. Yes, you have the yard, and there is a kitchen, but it's an imaginary moving. You still get to the fence and then you can't move anymore. You can go as far as they let you, and really, that isn't far.
It is hot and dry, but you know you are near the coast because sometimes you see seagulls flying slow on the blue sky. You know you are near the coast because many of the people they bring are still dripping from the sea.
One day in the yard you will meet a Congolese who will ask, “What did you do to get here?” You won't know how to answer, it seems silly in your head, but finally you say you got caught working, and he will not think it is strange. He will just nod.
Whenever you watch the seagulls it makes your heart heavy like it would drop to your toes. It is very dry here, a desert, really. Sometimes, you swear you can hear the ocean, and once, you think you smell it, but the yard is always dry.