Johnny Mad Dog: A Novel

Johnny Mad Dog: A Novel

by Emmanuel Dongala

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Life During Wartime, As Seen Through the Eyes of Two Congolese Teenagers

Set amid the chaos of West Africa's civil wars, Emmanuel Dongala's striking new novel tells the story of two teenagers growing up while rival ethnic groups fight for control of their country.

At age sixteen, Johnny is a member of the Death Dealers, a rebel faction


Life During Wartime, As Seen Through the Eyes of Two Congolese Teenagers

Set amid the chaos of West Africa's civil wars, Emmanuel Dongala's striking new novel tells the story of two teenagers growing up while rival ethnic groups fight for control of their country.

At age sixteen, Johnny is a member of the Death Dealers, a rebel faction bent on seizing power. Even as he is drawn into the rebels' program of terror, Johnny Mad Dog, as he calls himself, retains his youthful exuberance-searching for girls, good times, and adventure. Sixteen-year-old Laokolé, for her part, dreams of finishing high school and becoming an engineer, but as rogue militias prepare to sack the city, she is forced to leave home with her mother and brother-and then finds herself alone and running from the likes of Johnny.

Acclaimed in France, Johnny Mad Dog is a coming-of-age story like no other; Dongala's masterful use of dual narrators makes the novel an unusually vivid and affecting tale of the struggle to survive-and to retain one's humanity-in terrifying times.

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Johnny Mad Dog

By Emmanuel Dongala, Maria Louise Ascher


Copyright © 2002 Le Serpent ô Plumes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70803-0



General Giap proclaimed a period of looting that was to last forty-eight hours.

Instantly I switched off the radio. I took the hurricane lamp and ran toward our little storage shed, to make sure the wheelbarrow was there and in working order. Yes, it was there, lying upside down. I spun its single wheel. The wheel turned smoothly but squeaked a little. I went to the kitchen to find the bit of palm oil we had left. I oiled the wheel and tested it again. It didn't squeak anymore. Despite the rust that had begun to corrode the body, the barrow was in good repair and both of its handles were steady.

I returned to the house. I raised the pagne that served as a curtain between my room and Mama's. She was still asleep. Wake her, or let her sleep awhile longer? I hesitated briefly, then decided to wake her only at the last minute. She'd had a very difficult night, unable to fall asleep until three a.m., when the two water-soluble aspirin I'd forced her to take had dulled the pain of her injured legs and allowed her to get some rest. I would leave her in peace for another half hour. I lowered the pagne and went over to Fofo, my little brother, who shared the room with me. He was still snoring, sprawled comfortably on his foam mattress, which lay on the floor next to my bed. I shook him roughly. He was almost twelve now, no longer a small child, old enough to help the family.

He awoke with a start. I told him that another round of looting would begin in a few hours and that we had to hurry—we mustn't be taken by surprise, the way we had been last time. Panic in his eyes, he began to cry, his whole body trembling. He was terrified, I knew, because he was dreading a repeat of the day when members of the first militias—the men who, back then, were fighting against the troops gearing up for the looting today—had killed Papa right in front of him. It would be a disaster if he had another of his breakdowns now. So I had to shake him, had to impress on him the urgency of the situation in order to prevent him from dwelling on its gravity.

Raising my right hand in a threatening way, I told him to run and fetch two shovels from the shed where the wheelbarrow was stored, then wait for me behind the house. He understood right away that I wasn't joking; he calmed down and went out into the darkness. I was afraid I'd woken Mama by speaking so loudly to Fofo. I raised the pagne once more; she lay undisturbed. It had been a long time since I'd seen such tranquillity in her face. She was sleeping so peacefully!

I followed Fofo outside. He was already waiting for me in our little garden behind the house. He had only one shovel with him; the handle of the other, he said, was broken. I told him to go fetch a hoe instead. When he came back, I handed him the shovel and took the hoe. I marked out a rectangle on the ground and we began to dig a large hole by the light of the moon. Since it was garden soil—lucky for us—it was easily worked. Imagine if we'd had to dig in sand or packed ground! After ten minutes or so, the hole was deep enough.

I looked at Fofo. He was sweating profusely. Poor child! I'd gotten him up at five in the morning, threatened him, made him work like a dog, and he hadn't even had breakfast yet. A twelve-year-old doesn't deserve that. I told him to go wash up and then have something to eat. "Remember to brush your teeth and comb your hair. And be quick about it! Don't dawdle, or I'll come looking for you." He went without a word. How I wished I had a treat to give him, if only a piece of chocolate!

I picked up the shovel Fofo had been using and moved the heaped-up soil farther from the edge of the hole, so it wouldn't fall back in. Now I had to attend to Mama.


Johnny, Known as Lutua Liwa

Giap authorized a period of looting that was to last forty-eight hours. You should have heard him, squawking away on the radio.

"This is General Giap speaking. Our brave freedom fighters have fought like lions, like buffalo! They've struck fear into the hearts of our enemies, who have fled with their tails between their legs. Victory! La luta continua! We are afraid of nothing! We will pursue them to the depths of the ocean—we will cling to them like lice! To celebrate this triumph of a liberated people, I, General Giap, together with our new president, give you full authorization to take anything you want for a period of forty-eight hours. Whatever you wish is yours! Confiscate what you please! To the victor go the spoils—this is one of the benefits of war. So help yourselves until Monday ..."

"Help yourselves until Monday ..." Who the fuck did he think he was, with his "forty-eight hours"? Did he really think we needed his okay? We were going to loot until there was nothing left to be looted, whether that took twenty-four, forty-eight, or seventy-two hours, or as long as a week. Even the VIP we were fighting for, the guy who'd been president of the country for the past few hours, ever since we'd captured the city—even he couldn't stop us. He knew that of all the militias who had fought and were fighting on his behalf, ours was the best. It was no accident that we were called the Mata Matathe Death Dealers—for we were completely fearless when killing others or meeting death ourselves. In fact, it was our commando unit that had secured his power, because we'd been the first to enter the city and had taken over the radio and TV stations. And when the city was cleansed and the entire country was under our control, the government would have to integrate us into the army. Otherwise, there'd be hell to pay! I myself would be integrated with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Giap had been promoted to general because he was already old. He was twenty-five.

It was thanks to me that he was called Giap. His nom de guerre was Pili Pili, because he liked to torture female prisoners by rubbing their eyes with pili-pili, the little red pepper that, when made into a sauce, burned your mouth so badly you'd swallow the entire Congo River trying to put out the fire. Unlike us, he didn't screw the pretty girls we captured. He said that if he did, his fetishes would be robbed of their power—that, for example, he'd lose his ability to become invisible to the enemy and that bullets would no longer turn into clumps of dirt as they approached him. Actually, I was the only one who knew his secret: his piston was dead, and he could no longer pump the women the way we could. His thing got really stiff only with women we didn't want, those that didn't excite us. He would take them, would douse their eyes with pepper sauce or powder that he'd made himself, and would tear their clothes off. And while the women screamed, rubbed their eyes, and writhed from the burning pepper, he'd howl with laughter, laugh till he cried. When he saw them rolling on the ground, twisting and jerking, and wriggling their bare asses as if performing some devilish dance—well, then he got a hard-on like a bull's. His eyes, the bulging eyes of a pot smoker, were even redder than the pepper-filled eyes of his victims. He'd feel gay and happy, and would come without any inhibition. I knew when he'd shot his wad, because a dark stain, round and wet, would appear on his khakis right below his fly. Once, when he was all played out, I saw his banana droop and go soft, then shrink away and vanish into the folds of his belly. Amazing! But you had to pretend not to see that, or else he'd go crazy, like a bitch in heat when she's been denied a male. Once, Smoking Cannon, on seeing Pili Pili's thing shrivel up and disappear, had dared to say, "Hey, it looks like a worm crawling back into its hole!" And Pili Pili had blown him away with a burst from his Kalashnikov. Ever since then, we all watched our step and averted our eyes when he was like that. Even Rambo, our previous leader, had been afraid of him. Yeah, Pili Pili was a good name for him.

When Major Rambo was killed in an argument over some stuff we'd looted from the home of a rich Mauritanian shopkeeper, I'd had the feeling the guys were going to ask me to take his place. I was all ready to refuse. I would have said that Pili Pili was the oldest and that he was the one who should take command. But the truth was that I was afraid of his fetishes, because I'd seen them in action. One day, when he'd forgotten to put on the fetish that made him invisible, he'd been captured by the Chechens, allies of the militias we were fighting. He'd managed to escape, and by the time he'd gotten back to our camp his clothes were so wet you could have wrung them out like a mop. All of the bullets that hit him had been transformed into drops of water! No shit, he was one powerful guy. So I would have let him lead the group. Apparently this was precisely what he was expecting, since he accepted without batting an eye, and said that his name from now on was General Pili Pili.

We all thought it was ridiculous for a general to call himself "Hot Pepper." The other militias made fun of us and disrespected us for being led by a guy who got a hard-on staring at the twitching asses of women with spices in their eyes. Then he looked at us while flexing his biceps and said that since Rambo was dead, he was now General Rambo. I objected strongly. Since it was my bullet that had killed Rambo, I thought something bad might happen to me if the name Rambo stayed alive in our group. A name isn't just a name. A name contains hidden power. It's no accident that I've taken the name Lufua Liwa, which means "Kill Death," or rather "Cheat Death." So in order to stroke his ego, I told him that the name Rambo was too common, almost vulgar, and that in Texas there were more than three hundred Rambos in Dallas alone. The others, who considered me pretty smart (in fact, I was the only intellectual in the group), agreed. We all began to think hard, very hard. We came up with "Godzilla" and "Orangutan"; then "Khaddafi," "Saddam Hussein," "Milosevic"—all the strongmen whose names we'd heard on the radio. But I wasn't satisfied. Those names were too well-known, and, like daylight, names that are too well-known contain no secrets and thus no hidden power. The light of day is transparent; it has no secrets, no mystery, the way the night has. And then, bang, he came up with "Grenade"—"General Grenade." He was hugely proud of himself. The others had begun saying: Yeah, that's perfect, that's a great name, a name that scares you shitless, a name that explodes like an armed grenade.

Pili Pili had his fetishes and his pectorals going for him, but I had my brains and I wanted everybody to know this. Maybe someday the others would choose me as leader. So I said it was nothing for a general to pop off like a grenade. That wouldn't scare anybody. A general should make a horrendous explosion and a vast fiery cloud—like a bomb, not like a stupid grenade. He hesitated a moment and saw that there was some truth in what I was saying. He looked at me, his eyes red from the weed he'd been smoking, and asked me to think of a name that sounded good. And think of one fast. Since I'm an intellectual—I've completed second grade, while Pili Pili never even finished first grade—my brain is always working even when I haven't put it in gear, the way you breathe without knowing it but you're breathing all the same. So all of a sudden, bang—I myself exploded like a grenade: "Giap!" I don't know where or when I'd heard this name, or who Giap was, but this was what I came out with: "Giap." Pili Pili seized on it right away. "Yeah, General Giap—I'm General Giap!"

And instantly Pili Pili was transformed. He straightened his spine and gazed at us with the look of a true leader. I saw the power of a word, of a name, and I regretted what I'd done. I should have taken the name myself. A name is never innocent. "Lufua Liwa" doesn't inspire fear. Someone who cheats death is certainly crafty, sly, cunning, and shrewd, but he has never struck terror into the enemy's ranks. From now on, I'd call myself Matiti Mabé—"Poison Weed." Poison like diamba, the powerful hemp that grows around here and that makes your head spin, drives you crazy. Poison like the deadly mushroom. Matiti Mabé!

But fucking hell— of all the guys there, it was me he singled out when he gave his first order as General Giap. A humiliating order: he told me to go fetch his boots. Matiti Mabé, ordered to bring him his shit-kickers! And why not polish them too? I was on the verge of saying it was thanks to me that he'd become a general. And not just any general—a general named Giap! But the look he gave me, and the power of his fetishes and his a bdominals, were so strong that I obeyed right away. I hustled off to fetch his boots.



I went back to the house. Fofo had finished washing and was rummaging through the little bamboo cupboard to see what he could find for breakfast. I told him to take the two eggs that were left and make himself an omelet.

I headed to Mama's room to wake her up, and lifted the pagne that served as a curtain. Incredible! This woman who hadn't had a good night's rest since her husband's murder, who was continually being awakened by the pain in her legs, was sleeping peacefully, her face calm. Despite the urgency of the situation, I didn't have the heart to drive away the fleeting smile I thought I saw on her lips. Right away I found a rationalization: waking her five minutes later would hardly affect our escape.

Fofo called out from the little galley kitchen, saying the groundnut oil had been used up—there was only palm oil. I don't care for palm oil and think that eggs fried in it are inedible. I told him to hard-boil the eggs; there was kerosene in the portable stove we'd bought to replace the stolen gas cooker. And above all not to dawdle! We had to be out of the house in half an hour at the latest. This time, we wouldn't let ourselves be taken by surprise.

I went over to my bed. I knelt, bent down, and pulled out the large metal trunk we kept hidden beneath it. I opened it. Inside were three dead cockroaches and their dung. How had they gotten into a closed trunk? A mystery. Quickly I cleaned it out and started filling it with the important things we had to save at all costs. The choice was difficult, even though I'd devoted much thought to it since the last round of looting. I began with the big cardboard folder that contained all of our official documents: birth certificates, my parents' marriage license, report cards, diplomas. Then I put in my textbooks, and Fofo's as well. I wished I could take with me the large Encyclopedia of Space that I'd received as a school prize the previous year, but it was too heavy and bulky. As for the photo of Papa and Mama holding hands, I slipped it into the little purse where I'd also stored our money. In situations like this, I would keep the purse tucked inside my dress, my pants, or my pagne while carrying a decoy—a larger bag—which I wore openly, slung bandolier-style across my front, making sure it always contained a few coins and bits of cheap jewelry. A ruse like that can save your life. Then I filled up the trunk with Mama's three superwax pagnes, my two prettiest dresses, and my new pair of shoes. I asked Fofo to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything that was important to him. At last, I went to wake Mama.


Excerpted from Johnny Mad Dog by Emmanuel Dongala, Maria Louise Ascher. Copyright © 2002 Le Serpent ô Plumes. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Emmanuel Dongala was a lifelong resident of Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), until leaving the country during its civil war in 1997. He teaches at Simon's Rock of Bard College and lives in western Massachusetts.

Emmanuel Dongala was a resident from birth of Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), until he left the country in 1997 during its civil war. He teaches at Simon's Rock College of Bard and lives in western Massachusetts.

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