General Gnassingbe Etienné Eyadema has been in power in Togo longer than Amba my Mermaid has been in the world. This year, 1996, Eyadema is the longest-ruling head of state in West Africa and in Africa, but for the pest of Gbadolite. I’m told he is proud of the fact. Amba is therefore distinguished among us, fellow students from other African countries; although we each have variations of the Eyadema syndrome, we are all older than the juntas or regimes in our respective countries.
This is especially true for us West Africans because the incidence of coups ensures that our governments do not last. In the Gambia, Fatimah’s country, Yahya Jammeh was taking a nap in the presidential palace one week after he had overthrown the civilian president, when gunshots were heard down the beach. The new head of state rushed out the bedroom, followed by his guards, only to discover that some soldiers were merely testing their guns. He had them rounded up and went back to sleep. In Nigeria where I come from, there is always a soldier in power; we are grappling with a clown called Abacha, the third soldier in twelve years. Abacha can’t deal with more than one person at a time; he can’t stand a memo more than two pages long; he wears Ray-Ban sunglasses and watched Hindi films inside his bedroom. This is the third year of his ‘reign’, and he has never given an interview to a newspaper or television. The few times he has appeared on the television, it was to read the prepared text of the annual budget, and each broadcast seemed recorded. Our hosts have President Jerry Rawlings whose reelection is due in a few months. He has been around only thirteen years. There is no one responsible for Liberia, says Joe White, whose parents are refugees somewhere in Nigeria; we don’t know what’s going on in Guinea-Bissau because Fernanda would not talk and disrupt her dreams of Lisbon; we know too well what’s happening in the Sudan, and we know about Kenya. We are inclined to discuss Togo because Amba is forever griping (like she is today), switching to French when I begin to giggle at her English, but switching back to English to remind me why she is here. Yes, that’s why she’s in Accra: to learn English.
C’est dommage, can you see it, Amba says. Very sad and ridiculousse. How’s possiblè? A person ruling for all these years. Africa patient.
(We are in her room at the students’ international home, in a Government Reservation Area in Greater Accra. She shares the room with Fernanda, the girl from Guinea-Bissau. I stay in a b-q room attached to a lecturer’s home on the university campus at Legon. I only come here to see her because we are lovers, or are going to be. She likes the fact that I write poetry, and I have promised to surprise her with a portrait as birthday gift. I call her my Mermaid because she is beautiful and likes to swim, and she calls me Martan, the French pronunciation of Martin, but mainly to joke about my inability to sleep with the lights on. We’ve been friends for five weeks. I am also learning French mainly to be able to read Rabelais in the original, but having left Nigeria after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots last year, I’m practically loafing in Ghana-for all their depressing poverty, West African countries are nice in being the only places that I, a Nigerian, can enter and stay in without a visa-and deriving more excitement in Amba’s company. After three months, I still can’t conjugate a verb properly. When I attempt to speak French, I do so as a speaker of English. I know what the words mean, but not how they can be used in a sentence.)
I remind her of, whom else? Mobutu, one with the inflexible will to triumph. The pest of Gbadolite.
Me, I reject that! Amba yells, snapping the fingers of her hands across her head backwards, the way she has seen me react to any implicit suggestion of a curse.
But your president is on the way to Mobutizing your country. He’s been copying Mobutu since he knew how to cheat. He changed his name, Etienné, to Gnassingbe. When Mobutu created Authenticité, he evolved Africanité. Who’s there to challenge him? Olympio? Koffigoh? Or is it you, my Mermaid?
Me, she smiles. Me I will dream, but not like Fernanda. Fernanda is branwashed.
I hope your dream doesn’t become a nightmare, I say. And about Fernanda, I think she’s entitled to want to live anywhere. How could she remain there when most of her relatives are in Portugal?
You, très Yuhophilic!
And you, you lack humor.
Nothing annoys Amba more than this. She thinks herself funny, in fact witty. And I believe she is. The day we first met we had been talking about one of her passions: billboards. We sat under a canopy with Benson and Hedges logo, eating suya, the spiced skewered meat sold on grill, and drinking one of those sweet Accra colas. She talked about the billboards along the highway in Cotonou, capital of Benin Republic. There used to be several announcing the president Mathieu Kerekou as “Notre grand Camarade de Lutte”.
Lutte? Has the country ever been to war? I asked, out of the tentative courtesy men extend to women they are only angling to court.
The loot, she screamed wickedly. The big comrade of the looting of Benin!
Of course I could choose to be prudent and ask her for proof, but it was more practical for me to prove that I had style. I nodded vigorously and giggled, holding up my thumbs.
Then she repeated to me a joke that people shared inside bars in Lome. After the reported attempt on Eyadema’s life in 1994, someone announced to his cabinet that he had died. Cabinet members were spellbound for a while. When one person eventually spoke, he merely wondered who was going to break the news to Eyadema because everyone was terrified of him. Having laughed and applauded, and eager to present myself as well-read, I said that I had read a similar joke in García Márquez’s novel, Autumn of the Patriarch.
She became rather curious after I mentioned that title; I was distracted by her sudden interest. She asked me to repeat it, and I did. Then she stared down her bottle of cola, nodding as if to say Of Course. I took her hand smeared with pepper from the suya.
Yes, yes, Amba beamed.
What’s so interesting about that title?
She smiled, very broadly. Since we met a few hours earlier I had observed that she smiled in earnest, not randomly, and she had a way of manipulating her lips so the smile did not become a grin. Her dimples always showed. I had told her twice that I liked her smile; when she smiled again, I realized I had to change the crucial word to love. Amba was in France two years before, when the first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouet-Boigny had just been hospitalized. It was autumn in Paris, and the ailing leader whose alias Ofwe, ram in his native Baule, long appropriated in his compound name signified the possum-like wiliness with which he had ruled his country for twenty-nine years, had apparently come to die. The real patriarch, she added.
I switch to thinking about all this after I’ve accused her of lack of humor, wondering what she will say. Because I smile at once, she understands that I am only provoking her; if I really wanted to be nasty, I would say what some of us who prefer not to engage with real-life issues invariably say: Now you are talking politics.
Maybe I would be nicer if I had an idea what she’s battling with, she murmurs finally.
My Mermaid, you know I’d do anything to please you! She told me a few days ago not to do anything for a woman, but too insecure to care what she really meant, I retorted that I would do anything for a woman, as long as it’s tied to my desires. Later I was humble enough to ask what she had meant but, clever woman suddenly, she denied ever saying so. I deceived myself a little by concluding she was in love with me.
This is Amba’s real problem: A dream. A force of habit encourages her to toy with superstitions about just anything that worries her. Her wishes, her fears. One of her wishes is that Eyadema gets out of power. Booted out, by ballot by bullet by revolution by strike by thunder. By Anything. Just get out. To carry out this wish, she measures a distance in her mind and tosses a stone. If the stone gets there, then the president will soon get the boot. A figure she’s barely seen sails past behind a wall, and it’s clear the person will reappear at the other end of the wall. She makes a guess about something as definite as the person’s sex: if a man, she is sure to get the car her father promises her. Things like that; games easily susceptible to failing. Sometimes the stone carries out her wish and covers the distance, but she waits forever for the wish to manifest in real terms. A mere wish that fails to come true becomes an obsession if one believes in it, then possibly a form of habit.
Amba went to bed last night soon after we’d parted, piling up all the auguries of her superstition as a pillow. Resting her tired head of dreams on it. Nobody knows how early or late in our sleep we begin to dream; yes, we can wake during or after a dream, and check the watch, but it’s a different thing to time a dream. A coup happens in the afternoon, and General Eyadema is seen rushing into a plane bound for Gbadolite, giving order for the billboard proclaiming him perè de Gaulle to be removed and hurled on board. But he is swept off the ground in a cloud of dust followed by a jeer, applause, and a lot of drumming. In Lome, Amba stays in her grandmother’s house across the stadium where, every January 13, the day of the General’s 1967 coup is marked. She is crossing the street to join the noise when she remembers that it is January 13, and that the jeer and the blast of the bugle that have woken her was in fact the noise of people preparing for the anniversary of the coup. A billboard in the colours of the Togolese flag proclaims:
Continuez, le President! Le peuple Togolais sont avec vous!!
Le pouvoir au peuple!!! Vive la Republique!!!!
Continue (ruling), President! The Togolese people are with you!! Power to the people!!! Long live the Republic!!!!
Amba turns to go back, waking up; and it is late dawn at the hostel in GRA, Greater Accra. This is what she has just told me. In two months it will be time to mark Eyadema’s coup again, and three weeks after that we will spend a day and a night at a beach house in Winneba to mark Amba’s twenty-sixth birthday. I have her birthday gift now, and I’m grateful to her for the surprise, a pleasant distraction from verse and the daily dread.