After three gulps of afo-fo, J. Safour smacked his lips and continued our story. The fog was quite heavy and visibility was almost nil. The cold went right into the bones. This was Buea in August of the late 70s. It was also the month of fear. The fear of the nyongo man, a senior cop who owned a beetle with license number 999.
It was a time that Buea broke with the past. Crime wave rose steadily and culminated in the first public execution. The atmosphere was grim. We saw the Igboman or so (at that time we took all Nigerians for Igbos) tied to the stake at the Buea Town Stadium, the huge crowd that had assembled as early as 6am, the last sacrament administered by a priest, soldiers who received rap orders from their commander and the slumped body of the criminal.
What was his crime? As he was being conveyed in a Sans Pays (Saviem Bus) to the courthouse by the police, he succeeded in removing a gun from the holster of a cop close to him and shot the latter. This was around the slope from Buea hospital junction leading to the Education Office and opposite St Pius Primary School, Station alias Slow School. Though in handcuffs he managed to get out of the vehicle but was allegedly intercepted by Ma Ozimba who was farming hard by!
For a long time, when watching Prisons Buea FC play against football clubs such as Canon Kpa Kum, Union Kamakaï, Tonnerre Kalara, PWD Bamenda alias P-Ton Ton, Aigle Nkong, Dynamo Botafogo, Leopard and so on we stayed clear of the spot where the man was shot.
Then, Buea was fast imbibing French with the influx of Francophone functionaries particularly at the Government Residential Area, Military, Police and Warders Barracks, Bilingual Grammar School, Molyko and Ecole Francophone at Long Street, Woganga. Thus, we the station boys could afford to mutter a phrase or two in French. Tellingly, when Dynamo FC defeated PWD Bamenda FC at one of the most memorable Cup of Cameroon encounters in Yaounde, we went back to school with Dynamo abwe raison on our lips. In fact, after the brouhaha, the late president Ahidjo supposedly said, “Dynamo avait raison”. The tenseness of the Cup finals was felt in Buea. On that day, there was an interquarter match between station and GRA beside KK’s residence. When PWD first scored there was electricity in the air but as the tides turned so did our interquarter match end abruptly and in confusion.
I queried his drinking habits and poor health. He muttered something like what’s afo-fo got to do with it. “I know say i be ndou-man”, he said. “Chei! place cold’oh!” he exclaimed. Apparently, the strong drink made him warm. Between lisps and hiccups, he brushed aside my observations. He called for more liquor and asked whether I was ready to listen to his story. I nodded. He rambled on.
In the semi-darkness, I did not realize his eyes were bloodshot and welling up with tears. He did not like my occasional interruptions. I wanted to be sure because he may want to pepper the story to make it surreal. At each interruption, in order to somewhat put the records straight, he insisted that it was handed to him by his grandfather.
Indeed, I knew his granddad. He used to be a cook at the once famous Buea Mountain Hotel in the late 60s, early 70s and mid-80s. Pa Lou, as he was called was in my child’s eye a sort of blackman of God. He was a regular churchgoer at the Saint Martin de Porres Catholic Church at Bokwaongo, a village hemmed by Likoko Membea and Bweku on the way to Bwasa-Mapanja. When an ailment immobilized him, the late Father JK used to visit him after church service or would pick him and drop him to and from mass.
Pa Lou was a wonderful and engaging storyteller. He spoke and walked slowly with a slight limp. The limp as he told us was due to a deadly encounter in the River Niger and as usual he came out victorious in a miraculous way. From school and on weekends we would gather around his sickbed to hear the story of his life; his travails in Nigeria and a tale that gripped my imagination. When later I put together the strands of the story I was struck by the power of the rosary!
Then I remembered that one of the gifts his daughter, Gubiani’s mother, brought from a trip to Rome, at that time, was a rosary blessed by Papa for Roma. The story itself is juju. In a nutshell, he had a friend of his who introduced him to a njangi house around Bukuru. When he faced financial difficulties, he was given a loan. The night he took the money home he had a very terrible dream; the blood of his children and wife were on his hands. He was shaken to his boots. Immediately, he sought to return the money but it was turned down. Unlike other persons of his age, he did not go to a ngambe man. He contacted a priest who introduced him on how to pray the rosary. He prayed the rosary for three weeks and on the fourth week he realized that the contents (money) of the envelope that was handed to him had turned into ashes!
As kids, we held everything Pa Lou said to be true. That is why J.Safour’s insistence that his story dripped from the lips of Pa Lou grabbed my interest.
We are towards the end of the Second World War and Safour Sr.is part of the Burma campaign. There were no signs that the guns were about getting silent on the Eastern front because of the tenacity of the Japs.
While on a mopping up operation in the jungle, he surprised a Jap bayoneting an old Burmese woman. He gunned down the enemy and took the woman in his arms. Safour Sr. was the archetypical soldja. Indeed, he was a real soldjaman; ramrod, tall and a commanding voice to match.
The Burmese woman pored over the hard dark face of her saviour for sometime. It was a meeting of far-flung cultures: sub-Saharan Africa versus the Indian sub-continent. A young colonized African fighting under the British flag to liberate Burma from the clutches of the Japanese! She heaved a sigh and pulled a ring from her middle finger and said, “Put this on always. It will protect you. You are bold and courageous. But the day you would take fright, it will be over”. She passed away.
When the war ended, Safour Sr. came back home. He settled in Victoria aka Va. where the timeless tidal hush of the Atlantic Ocean sweeps through simmering palms, the lush botanic gardens, exquisite beaches, the imposing Mt Etindi, an offshoot of Mount Fako and hamlets that have a story or two to tell about our pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial history.
Safour Sr. stayed at New Town in Victoria. He picked up a job at the light house at Bota. A neighbour or colleague would think Safour Sr. was single. No! Like most graffimen in those days, his wife and six children were up kontri where the piercingly cold harmattan whistles through high rolling-smooth-rugged hills (with Mt Oku towering above all else) and plains; where the Mentchum Falls rumbles and tumbles like the drumbeats of the tchum, where high and low savannah entwine to produce a luxuriant and bountiful tapestry that could make Maghreb carpet weavers wince.
He rowed everyday to work at the lighthouse. Apparently, his stay in Victoria was fine. He made friends. One of his bosom friends was called Liengu…