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In the Shadow of Freedom A Heroic Journey to Liberation, Manhood, and America
By Tchicaya Missamou
Atria Copyright © 2010 Tchicaya Missamou
All right reserved.
The grass reached all the way to the sky.
I moved through it, a ghost, a whisper.
To my left, the stuttering swishes of the other hunters assaulted my ears and I cursed their clumsiness.
The sky was clear, hot, bright, and I wiped tiny beads of sweat away from my forehead. I parted the grasses for a better view.
There, in the distance, approaching the DjouÉ River . . .
“Shhh,” I said, but no one could hear me amongst the clattering of feet and murmuring of mouths. “Shhh,” I said again, muscles tensed, focused on the prey not ten feet from me. It stopped and cocked its head.
We all watched as it slowly pivoted, smelling us, hearing us, sensing our presence in the air. My stomach growled.
The monkey turned and ran for the river. Its tail was rigid, stiff, a finger pointing at us as it sprinted away.
The grasses exploded and we all charged the fleeing animal, tiny spears held high. Blood pumped in my ears. The ground disappeared under my feet as I pulled away from my friends. My mouth opened and a joyful howl erupted.
The monkey reached the river and spun to its right, sprinting along the bank.
I raised my arm high and pushed my legs even harder. Tiny clouds of dirt sprang up with every step, and I squinted my eyes against the dust, sweat, and sun. My world narrowed to this moment. I could hear the breath filling my lungs.
The monkey turned its head as it ran and we locked eyes. I smiled, delighting in the fear that crossed its face, reveling in the power that surged through my limbs.
I raised my stick high and issued my best approximation of a battle cry, the one I heard the men in the village make when they returned triumphantly from the hunt.
The monkey was nearly in arm’s reach, and I could make out the streaks of mud coating its fur, the sheen of moisture across its arms. Time slowed and I watched the muscles coil and release under its skin.
In this moment, I felt alive.
I reached out my arms and grazed the tip of its tail.
It moved even faster, pulling away from me.
The monkey leaped, spinning toward the jungle, and my hands grasped only air. I turned back toward the grasses to avoid falling into the river. The other kids would never let me hear the end of it if I came back wet.
I stopped, breathing hard, panting in the thick heat. The other kids arrived, wheezing, smiling, laughing.
“You almost had him, Tchic!”
“That was the closest ever!”
I smiled, happy because I’d seen fear in the eyes of the prey. I didn’t catch it on that day, but I knew that I would. It was inevitable.
“Come on,” I said. “We don’t want to miss dinner.”•???•???•
Matsimou is a small village in southern Brazzaville. It was, at least to my memory, nearly communal in arrangement. There were no walls, no gates, no locked doors. If I was hungry, there was no house that would not feed me. If I was thirsty, there was no woman who would not give me water.
When we approached from our hunt, the women were gathering coconut shells full of water for their husbands. Some walked from the river, carrying buckets on their heads, babies strapped to their backs, while others stoked the fires for the large amounts of meat the hunters were sure to bring home. A twinge of regret rang through my body as I pictured the closeness of the monkey.
I jockeyed for position with the other children as the deep voices echoed from the tree line. Dinner was upon us.
Huge monkeys, nearly five times the size of the one I’d chased along the banks of the DjouÉ. Stalks of cassava. Snakes. MpukumbendÉ. The women carried baskets of fresh vegetables, and my mouth began watering.
The men set down the prey in front of their wives, who kneeled in return, holding out coconut shells full of fresh water. Boys ran to their fathers, clasping them around the leg and exclaiming about the size of the day’s catch.
I was surrounded by singing and dancing, the celebration of a successful hunt.
The sun edged toward the horizon.
I walked over to my grandmother, Mama Ntsiangani, and smiled.
“Did you have a good day?” she asked. I nodded, and she smiled back. “Good. Now run along while I get dinner ready.”
We sat on a dusty floor, crammed together, shoulder to shoulder, naked, sweating, dirty. The sharp edges of the kouala rug tickled the bare skin on my legs and butt. I quivered in excitement as my mother raised the lid of the pot.
A thick white smoke poured out, filling the room with the rich smell of smoked monkey stew, and I giggled in anticipation. The other kids in the house looked at me, smiles on their faces. The house was full, bustling, complete, with two of my grandmothers, my mother, about ten aunts and uncles, and nearly twenty other children.
My mother dipped the long wooden ladle into the pot and pulled out scoops of meat and fresh vegetables, placing them on the huge tray in the center of the room. An appreciative murmur erupted as it always did when such a dish was served. Outside, the fire pits crackled in the night air and I inhaled deeply, sucking the smells into my body.
Everyone gathered around the tray, reaching in with mud-covered hands, stuffing handfuls of food into their gaping mouths. Sighs of contentment merged with grunts of approval and my mother smiled. I licked my fingers, tasting the smoked monkey, imagining the hunt, feeling the warm broth as it raced down my throat and into my belly. I grabbed a piece of hot cassava from the tray and chewed it, letting the juices trickle over my teeth and chin.
A thousand different conversations happened around me as I sat there in the heat and smoke of my grandparents’ house, but I did not join any of them. I sat and I ate and I listened.
PÉpÉ, my grandfather, stoked the flames of the fire pit high and we all gathered around him, laughing at his wild eyes and frantic movements. He lowered his voice and we crammed in even tighter, silent as he whispered stories of mundelÉ and black magic, of myth and legend.
I curled close to my mother, smiling to myself as her fingers traced mystical patterns up and down the bare skin of my back. Chills sprang up along my body, illuminated by the flickering sparks of fire in front of us.
PÉpÉ was now just an outline, a shadow, a ghost flitting in front of the pit, and I stared, letting my eyes unfocus and drift, letting the gods reach into my head and steal my thoughts away from this moment.
My stomach gurgled gently, my muscles sore from the day’s play. My mother kissed the top of my head and the fire faded.
Sleep surrounded me like mist and I did not fight it.
Saturday meant cowboy movies, episodes of Dallas, or Rambo.
As the boys arrived from around Matsimou, I watched as Miekoutima, my uncle, picked up the small black-and-white television and ran the tangled wires over to the car battery that sat in the yard. He connected the frayed ends and watched the screen intently, breaking into a smile as bright rays splashed his face. I sat in front of the screen, marking my territory. Without a front-row seat, there was little chance that I would be able
to hear the strange American accents or see the gunfights. Often, I’d be late to the movies and would get stuck in the back, hopping up and down to catch scattered glimpses of the flickering images, laughing when everyone else laughed, but not knowing why.
Right now, the screen showed only static, the strange jumbled hissing of black and white specks violently merging together. Amidst much grumbling, Fanfan, my cousin, was elected to hold the antenna. He climbed the nearby sapele tree and waved the thin wire around in the air.
“Wait!” I said as an image formed itself out of the random hissing, then disappeared. “Go back!”
I watched closely, giving him instructions, narrowing in on the cowboy clawing his way out of the background noise. Fanfan finally found the spot, then looked for a way to make himself comfortable. Tonight, he would only be able to listen to the movie and watch the glow of the tiny set reflected against the faces of his friends. It was a thankless job, but we’d all done it at one point or another.
The movie started, one we’d all seen countless times, and we crowded in for a better look.
“Shh,” said somebody as the first gunshot rang out.
American movies were what kept us in line, week after week. If a mother decided that you had done something truly deserving of punishment, she would deny television time. It was an action with far-reaching repercussions. The Saturday movie was all we talked about on the five-mile walk to school Monday morning. Sister Antoinette, the teacher, would watch it at her own house and make references repeatedly throughout the day’s lessons. If you hadn’t seen the film on Saturday, the dismay lasted until at least Wednesday or Thursday of the following week. In the life of a child, this might as well have been a year.
In addition, so much of our slang derived from American sources—Ninja, Cobra, Stallone, Schwarzenegger—that if you didn’t watch the movies, you could expect to be left out of countless conversations. Eventually, even our militias and political structures came to be shaped around these American idols.
“Gringo!” shouted Sazouka, throwing his head back in delight, and all the children laughed.
Gringo was what the bad guys called mundelÉ, and it made us happy to know that other people in the world had special names for the white man. The sounds of gunfire filled the air, and all the boys giggled to themselves and pushed and talked about what they would do when they had their own guns.
“Pow,” said Sazouka.
“Pow,” I said.
The cold water hit my head like a fist and I sat up, sputtering. My mother smiled, holding an empty bucket. My grandmothers, Mama Loukoula and Mama Ntsiangani, nodded, the latter kicking my leg.
I was late for school. Again.
Hopping up, I stood still as my mother flattened my hair
and hung the ardoise, the blackboard, around my neck. She shoved a piece of charcoal into my hand and kissed my forehead.
“You come back with this filled, do you hear me?” she said. “Every time you write something down, you remember it. The man who writes will be remembered forever. The man who talks is forgotten.”
“Okay,” I said, heading for the door. She always said these things before I went to school.
Mama Ntsiangani followed me outside, a machete in one hand and a half-burned cigarette in the other. She began chopping wood, grunting as the sun rose, and the strange sounds followed me deep into the jungle.
It was a five-mile walk to the baobab tree where school was taught. The tree was large and hollow and, when it rained, would allow all the students and Sister Antoinette to fit comfortably inside. I caught up to Loko, Bakala, and Taty, laughing and quoting Schwarzenegger movies.
I liked these boys because they hated school as much as I did. I’d skipped school only once in my life. My mother found out and told PÉpÉ (who was illiterate himself ), Mama Loukoula, and Mama Ntsiangani, and I’d been beaten with sugarcane until my blood ran thick. Now I went, but didn’t enjoy it.
There is nothing more powerful than a man with knowledge.
I knew my mother meant well, but to a young boy, nothing was more exciting than hunting or fishing. Some days, when
the village was hungry, we would have to miss school in order
to hunt small game for our families. If the hunger pains weren’t especially bad, I almost always enjoyed this more than my
“You’ll never guess what happened to my PÉpÉ,” I said to the boys as I caught up, breathlessly interrupting them.
“He got drunk again?” Taty laughed.
“Yes,” I said, “but listen.” The boys quieted down, and the only sounds were the crunching of leaves under our feet and the chatter of birds. “He was visiting all of his palm trees two nights ago, collecting the wine.”
“How many trees does he have?” asked Loko.
“At least a hundred,” said Taty, shuffling his feet in the moist dirt.
My grandfather, PÉpÉ, would use a rope made of roots to climb to the tops of palm trees and leave cups to collect the sweet palm wine. Every so often, he would go from tree to tree, collecting his prizes and getting extremely intoxicated. This habit was well known around the village.
“He got drunk and fell asleep in the middle of the jungle, next to the river. When he woke up, a boa constrictor had swallowed his leg all the way up to his waist!”
The boys laughed and jumped up and down. I smiled, quieting them.
“So my PÉpÉ stared at the boa constrictor, who couldn’t go any farther, and said, ‘You should have started at my head.’ And then he pulled out his knife and cut both of the snake’s eyes out. He slit the boa’s throat like this.” I mimed cutting around my thigh with a knife, severing the imaginary snake’s head from its body. “And then he took the boa home for soup!”
Taty shook his head. “Your grandfather is crazy.”
“He tells me to always carry a knife.”
“I guess so!” said Bakala. “And maybe you shouldn’t drink any of the palm wine!”
The boys laughed. It was good advice.
To this day, I have had only one sip of alcohol.
© 2010 Tchicaya Missamou
Excerpted from In the Shadow of Freedom by Tchicaya Missamou Copyright © 2010 by Tchicaya Missamou. Excerpted by permission.
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