There’s drama everyday and everywhere. A writer’s job is to extract it, connect the dots and present it to you. »House No. 49« is a piece of literary fiction by Kenyan author Dominic Otiang’a that mirrors the current Zeitgeist – the forces of globalization.
House Number 49
When it stopped snowing it stopped annoying, allowing drivers and pedestrians to move easily to their various destinations. The sun began shining, pleasing the pupils in the neighboring school. They turned louder, amused by their games on a sunny snowy day, sliding on the snow and throwing the snowballs up in the air, here and there – against gravity and against each other and stuffing the balls into each other’s jackets. But they included a passerby in their game of snow. Accidentally, or knowingly, a pupil threw a couple of snowballs to a young pedestrian in her late 20s or early 30s. The lady stopped and grinned in disbelief. In the old days, one would say she was of Chinese, Korean, or generally Asian origin. But in these beautiful, good modern days and times, who knows? And, so, who am I to tell?
A ball of snow landed on her neck spreading coldness down her back inside her jacket. She yelled in shock as the kids giggled with amusement, others running in disappointment and regret.
»It’s not funny!« she registered her anger at a high pitch and stood to shake off the mess. She wiped her phone with her scarf before walking ahead past the school, wondering whether this was part of a cultural shock or a sudden encounter with rude kids. »Julia that’s not funny,« reiterated one kid to her giggling friend responsible for the mess. The passerby looked at Julia, »this must be a Chinese behavior, mainland behaviour! huh!« she cursed silently after noticing the pupil’s physical appearance. With her eyes between her phone and the street ahead, the lady’s pace was now slow, then fast, then slow as if to stop – as if she wasn’t sure of her destination anymore. As if she was deeply consumed by some excitement in the search for a Pokemon in the vicinity.
A voice came from her phone »in 50 meters turn left to Bundestraße!« She then tightened her backpack, switched her luggage to her left hand, threw her long dark hair back, phone to the left hand and dragged the luggage faster with some assurance and urgency. Minutes later, »your destination is on your right!« sounded her phone.
The tall building on her right bore the number 49, »House number 49!« she whispered happily, flashing her eyes from the ground floor to as far up as she could. Centrally located, house 49 was an affluent looking 16 story building that stood taller than any other in the neighborhood.This would be her home for the next unforeseeable period of time. She crossed the street, walked into the building, and straight to the elevator to the 12th floor.
A lady, one of her hosts, welcomed her in. Her name, Claudia Blitz. Claudia Blitz had opened the door in a flash, smiling with a wooden spoon in her hand. A slice of onion could be seen hanging on the tips of the wooden spoon. »Hey! welcome, Liu Yang!« she said and they continued with a brief conversation. »I was actually in the kitchen. Your room,« pointing in the direction, »is right straight ahead, with the keys hanging on the door. May I just finish something then we can catch up?« she requested as she rushed back to the kitchen. Like her surname, she talked and walked fast. While in the kitchen, Claudia felt happy for receiving their new house member. She kept thinking of how lucky Liu Yang was, arriving in Germany from abroad to occupy one of their rooms only after a couple of skype interviews with her.
None of the other house members had had time to communicate or get to know her but they’d trusted Claudia’s choice. »I hope she’s nice or else they’ll blame me for that decision!« She wished
It was a 6-bedroomed furnished apartment with an incredibly spacious living room, three bathrooms, and a utility room. Just large enough to be shared by the 6 housemates each occupying a bedroom. Liu Yang checked out her room and walked back to the kitchen for a conversation with Claudia.
»Are you alone today? You said I should expect more other flatmates here,« she said, opening up a conversation. Claudia double-tasted the soup in her pan with a wooden spoon before responding. »Yes, yes! For now I am alone. But,« she tasted the soup for the third time, »yes, six is the number when the house is full. You will meet the rest in a few hours. Some very interesting characters from all over the place, two from the Americas, one from Africa, two from Europe and now one from Asia. There are six housemates here now; a Chilean, a Swede, an Angolan, a German, US-American and now you, the Chinese. but we’ve invited former housemates from the 8th and 11th floor for dinner, Khan from India and Mehmet from Turkey.«
»Wow! Quite international. But please, I am not Chinese, I told you I am not from the mainland. I am Taiwanese…« she pleaded. Claudia pleaded guilty and offered a quick apology. »Well, every month someone volunteers to cook for the rest, preferably a traditional speciality from one’s home country. This is my day, so in the evening I will call the rest when I am done,« stated Claudia. »Sounds very interesting. No one’s vegetarian in the house? I can see chicken, fish, mussels and… what is this? Is it a traditional German food?«
»No! I am preparing Curanto en olla, a Chilean speciality. There will be vegetarian food too, and vegan. Sorry! I am not from Germany. But, yes, I am ethnic German from Chile!« she clarified to Liu Yang who stared blankly at her before coughing out an apology with a smile. Claudia had felt more German while in Chile where she even went through German education system till she relocated to Germany for university and opted to remain for work. In her early days in Germany, she often introduced herself as German- Chilean before cutting it short later to simply »Chilean.« She had even connected more with Chileans and other friends from South America in her first year in Germany than she had in a quarter a century in Chile. She would often be heard saying, »I feel homesick.«
In the evening, after Claudia had escorted Liu Yang out for a shopping spree and gone out for a walk, they arrived back home to prepare for the monthly dinner. The dining table had been well arranged for eight and, just before dinner, Claudia went round introducing Liu Yang to the housemates. From door to door they walked and knocked. Every housemate would be in their room on such an occasion. A knock at their doors would cause salivation, for it meant one thing, dinner is ready. But, this was an introduction of a newly arrived housemate that everyone had been expecting but had not yet met. Liu Yang was quite a shy lady but very generous with smiles and laughter. She observed more, questioned more, and spoke about herself less. Her laughter would average out her lack of talking. They stood outside the door of a housemate for the first introduction, but before knocking, Claudia briefed her, »This is Makawee, the US- American.« A lady in her late 20s opened the door, looking very hungry yet very hopeful. An introduction was made and they proceeded to the next door.
»She doesn’t look American,« commented Liu Yang on Makawee’s appearance.
»No. She’s American! Or …you mean how do Americans look like?« Liu Yang kept silent. »She’s native American,« added Claudia.
»And here lives Sankara, the African guy from Angola,« she added on reaching the second door. On the door were three portraits of prominent Africans, all assassinated in their thirties: Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara. A man in his early 20s opened the door with a phone in his hand. He was busy skyping. He spoke in Portuguese briefly before hanging up the phone to meet Liu Yang. Liu Yang was almost laughing when the man affirmed, »I’m Sankara!« She looked at Claudia to confirm or understand the joke! Claudia didn’t seem to be into some jokes. Liu Yang flushed, trying hurriedly to tell whether he was a Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or from where else? She was certain this Sankara guy was from one of those countries. A smile from Sankara brought an end to her mind exercise and a question suddenly popped out of her.
»Did she just say you’re from Angola?«
»Yes, I am! You too?« responded Sankara.
She guffaws for seconds, »I’m from Taiwan! But Angola is in Africa!«
»Yes! I am African!« he affirmed.
They left Sankara’s room for the next one and the next one, then the next one. And every next door offered a fresh new surprise until she could no longer tell anyone’s origin by their look and name except for herself. However, she couldn’t resist thinking about Sankara. A man who claimed to be African yet to her, he looked very Chinese, »…like my sister’s Ex from Sichuan province…« she said to herself.
At the dining table there were eight of them; including Andrea from Sweden, Khan from India, Thomas a native German, and Mehmet from Turkey. Khan’s skin tone and hair texture were similar to that of the majority of sub-Saharans. He wasn’t the exact image that flits into your mind when your daughter, sister or best friend says »I am in love with an Indian guy.« He looked exactly like that innocent guy you often see on your TV laying on the ground while surrounded by gun-wielding and trigger-happy men in blue, somewhere in the land of the free – far across the pond. He reminded Liu Yang twice he was from India.
»My ancestors left Africa some centuries ago…« »I know! We all came from Africa!« Liu Yang would react.
»No! I’m not talking about the evolution of man and the subsequent emigration from Africa. I am talking about a few centuries ago, like 300 years or so.«
»I know!« reacted Liu Yang, inattentively.
»We all come from Africa, period! There’s no discussion there!« concluded Mehmet, his eyes glued to the dinner table.
Khan felt disappointed and completely annoyed. As a member of the Siddi community from India, his story has hardly been a relevant history. Not in India and not in this house. At the best of times, it was all summed up to »we all come from Africa« and the topic would be changed. Maybe it wasn’t the prime moment for his story or history but dinner? Either way, he wasn’t amused.
At the dinner table, Liu Yang had maintained a low key while the rest talked, she would only talk when questioned. Deep in her mind were smiles and laughter mingled with strange feelings. She had that odd feeling of an encounter with strange, funny, and weird people who would wish to be taken as normal until proven otherwise. She kept on listening more than talking as she ate as much as she could. But she couldn’t resist the strange air in the house, too strange to her; a Chinese claiming to be an Angolan, an African posing as Indian, a German preparing her traditional Chilean speciality and insisting she wasn’t German. It was all like a prank. But somehow, three people looked very real, at least in her imagination and perception. Thomas looked just like she would expect a man with the surname Hoffmann to look like. The two others were Mehmet from Turkey and Andrea from Sweden. Mehmet looked exactly like she would expect a Turkish to look like. Same for Andreas’, blond hair, blue eyes with some detectable shades of a liberal mind – a reflection of Liu Yang’s perception of Sweden and the Swedish people. She turned to Mehmet to post a question in a bid to feel part of the conversation. But before she could say anything to Mehmet, she felt an urge to smile. There was something in Mehmet that made Liu Yang feel he was a funny character.
Mehmet had earlier narrated to Liu Yang how great a footballer he used to be, just less than a decade ago. But by looking at him, Liu Yang could hardly see the evidence of such sportful past. He was now an oversized man, standing 6 feet tall in a baggy white T-shirt with the writing ‘Male model of the year’. His previous words still amused Liu Yang, »I used to be the next Maradona, the only problem was that there was no football coach who ever liked me. So I stopped training and that’s when I began gaining weight.
Just a few months ago I couldn’t see my shoes while standing, let alone my pants. I lost some 20 kilos when I recently began playing football again. Now I can, at least, see the edges of my shoes.« He would say, and Liu Yang would laugh inwardly wishing to call it ‘black humor’ but she couldn’t. She feared to offend the only African in the house, even though he wasn’t black. Instead she said »I like your sense of humor« she then began connecting with him. Mehmet wasn’t a professional footballer but a regular football player of what he described as »Bier Fußball« – they met to play and drink beer.
Back to the dining table, Liu Yang turned to Mehmet to begin a conversation.
»Do you have a large Turkish community here, Mehmet?«
»Mhm, yes! Quite a handful, I would say. But, you know, I am not Turkish. I am Kurdish.«
»Kurdish! Hhm! From where?«
She had heard of »Kurdish« before. However, that answer still sounded strange to her. She believed it was because her knowledge of the world map was unparalleled, but neither politics nor human geography was her cup of tea. Andrea, the Swedish lady, played Liu Yang’s cultural capital by narrating to her a brief history of Kurdish people. Mehmet then interrupted with an additional statement for clarity, »we are the largest group without a country of our own.« His statement tickled Sankara who cancelled his next swallow and placed his full spoon back to the plate. »You sure, dude? While, I’m neutral to your cause to find a country of your own, I do not agree with your statement. In Africa, we have Igbo, the Yoruba and several other groups. Plus there are several other groups worldwide, but the mentioned two are already larger than yours yet they do not have a country cut out for them. Colonialism put them all together, for
better or for worse. Again, remember that I am only criticizing your statement not your political ambition as a group.«
»It’s not comparable, come on!« reacted Mehmet.
While others talked, Liu Yang maintained her silence again, now staring at Sankara once again, a man she’d thought could easily pass as Chinese, Korean, or Taiwanese like herself, but he was more Afrocentric and often began his arguments or statement with, »we in Africa…In my home country in Africa…In my African country…Us in Angola…« she found it funny, if not strange. Andrea continued explaining that in the past decades, lots of Kurds had flown to different European countries, »and previously even to the New world.« That phrase »the new world« got on Makawee’s nerves, She reacted instantly. »New to who, Andrea?« then remained sharply staring at Andrea for an answer. Andrea bit her lips while reflecting on her statement and searching for a perfect answer to such a vexed question. She forked a piece of fish, her eyes on Makawee, and raised the fork to reach her mouth. Only the fork had missed the target and delivered nothing to her mouth. It was retained in the mouth a little longer and a little something did go down her throat, nonetheless. She was still searching for a befitting answer to a patient Makawee, but she couldn’t find it. Not at all, or not in that limited time? But she knew that any reaction would do. So instead of explaining or changing her statement, she opted for a different path,
»well, that’s why I love this house, it broadens my social and cultural competence. Let’s eat guys!« she said, smiling. Then opened up a bottle of wine served everyone and lead them to a toast. The glass in her hand had only about 20 ml content, but there was an extra glass served on the table for her. She raised the glass high as she spoke in dramatic tone like a scene from some classic play.
»To the strength in our diversity and the sweetness of our individual differences!«
Everyone repeated it in unison »To house Number 49!« they all took a sip, but that single sip emptied her first glass. She then threw it against a wall some yards away from the table in one corner of the large living room. It fell apart on a large floor mat. She then picked the second glass and lift up before saying
»Let nothing exceed the significance and greatness of the emotion of that toast, for it wasn’t for the mere purpose of drinking to satisfy an alcoholic mind.« (dramatic silence) »To house number Forty Nine!«
»To House Number Forty Nine« they repeated in unison, took sips and continued with more sips as they wished.
The newest House member, Liu Yang turned to Makawee to whisper an inquiry, »from which country is that culture? Chile?«
»No, that’s a house culture. We try to keep it a hundred!« Makawee whispered back.
They had a brief silence after every new topic and within the silence, there would be a comment or compliment about the food or the cook’s artistic prowess. Later, after the next silence, Liu Yang would then learn that Andrea was a school teacher at a nearby school – the very same school she had passed by that morning and got hit by snowballs. She also learned from Andrea that the kid that had hit her with snowballs wasn’t Chinese or from the mainland as she had earlier concluded. The kid’s parents originated from Taiwan, just like her.
The air was again dominated by the sound produced by the cutlery until the next minute when Andrea demanded to know why she had been pranked some days ago upon her arrival back from Sweden. The entire house had participated in the prank. »It was such a horrific act of welcoming a friend! Now, whose idea was it?« she flipped out.
»Oh! what happened?« inquired Liu Yang.
»Ok, I will step to the plate. It was my idea. I’d imagined you would love it but, as you can see, I’m not always right. Right?« responded Thomas.
Before the arrival of Liu Yang, Thomas had been the newest member of the house. This was, therefore, his second monthly dinner.
»It had all began after the last monthly dinner. From that incident after we had a few bottles of alcohol confirmed empty,« he explained, referring to a specific incidence that had been triggered by a visitor called Ahmed, an Arab friend of Sankara, who after having a conversation with Claudia he had expressed his displeasure on learning that Claudia’s boyfriend was an Arab. »Oh! your boyfriend is an Arab! oww! they are not good people. Trust me, they don’t mean what they say!« after Ahmed had left the house, Claudia was still disturbed and shared that statement with the house. She asked what it meant when someone warned you against people like them. »They’re not good…«
»I’ve heard that several times from Angolan friends telling me to avoid Angolans. Many African friends also asking me to avoid Africans if I want to progress in life,« Sankara reacted immediately and others began registering their displeasure and reactions.
»I think it’s different for us Chileans and south Americans. At home, we have different colors and backgrounds, but when we’re here, we are all Brazilians, Chileans, and Latin Americans! Well, I attended private German school at home, unlike many other Chileans,« contributed Claudia. But Andrea surprised the rest when she said.
»Well, I think it’s true what Ahmed said of Arabs! Basically, I shouldn’t be saying this. But, come on guys! Let’s face it!«
»Auch! Andrea, that’s cheapening!« cried Claudia, throwing her head on her left shoulder in disappointment.
Makawee wasn’t part of the debate. She had been following local news on TV. It was her first time abroad and she had discovered a whole new world ever since her arrival several months ago. Back in high school she would be bothered by those students who came back from visits overseas, they’d acted as if they had a different and better world-view. As though there were some strange machines at every international arrival section of the airports overseas waiting to change their mindsets 360 degrees upon arrival there.
But there were no such machines yet her views, opinions and entire mindset was changing at a strange rate. Whenever she entered a public bus or train she felt that the person speaking English was the loudest, because of the assumption that others found it cool and modern, the language of the smart fellows. And those speaking local and other languages would lower their tone and open their ears. And if everyone had their conversation in English then the ones with the »best« or »original« accent would rule the air. On TV, the sad news of immigrants docking in the shores to be part of a new society reminded her of a similar
event in history where others docked on the shores of her country. It occurred to her that human migration is natural hence unstoppable. And when she saw discussion after discussion about refugees on live TV without a refugee on the panel, it reminded her of a photo she had seen on facebook of an alleged
»women’s conference« in which men were discussing women without a single woman in the conference hall. When she saw faces of people she assumed had immigration background talking in favor of Britain exiting the EU, it reminded her of her home country. She wondered whether her comparison, synthesis and analysis of events and incidences were accurate or whether she was undergoing a gradual mental collapse. And she feared that if she were to stay away from home just one more month, she would end up being an intellectual zombie, a rejected social psychologist, an unaccredited philosopher or belong to some kind of a crazy Think-Tank. She feared to think again, but that last statement from Andrea made her tune in and confront Andrea. She let Andrea know how disappointing her statement was. Nobody was on the side of Andrea.
Thomas, who was either neutral or lost for words had just joined the house some weeks ago and was yet to get acquainted with the member’s emotional strength and limits. He would say nothing more than a reaction to a direct question to him. But when there was silence, he would be counted on for a word or two to break the silence.
»I volunteered in Dominican republic, my experience was different. Yes, I tried to avoid Europeans, Germans or Westerners, black or white, but for reasons very different from yours. Have you ever seen a rich kid who’s eager to show off its toys?« Thomas asked, pausing. Laughter from the house. »Well, I’d noticed that some of them, those I’d bumped into, were conditioned to the myth of white supremacy, and that never turned me on. I was there to learn and to exchange.« He gave his contribution and remained quiet to the end when the debate turned to emotional argument and advanced to a quarrel.
»I am thinking of doing a research or having a discussion group on self-reflection as an inquiry and path to understanding others. Anyone interested? Like a reading group for academic purposes. Anyone?« inquired Thomas, opening up a new topic. After a long silence, he walked to his room. Makawee was next, she checked in in the kitchen, then the washroom then straight to her room. Sankara was next, then Claudia then the next thing Andrea had known was that she was alone in the living room. Even Frontex, the neighbor’s cat that had often visited for her delicious vegan steak while helping to intercept or keep away the unwanted flies from reaching the high table and dinner candles, cut across the living room floor to the window, giving her the sense of the originality of the meaning of the phrase ‘cat-walking’. She stared at Andrea one last time for a parting shot, »Miaauu!« off it went. The sound echoed in Claudia’s ears »Miaauu…Miaauu…Miaauu…« until her inner soul eventually translated it to »People still talk like that…?!«
Back to the dinner of the month.
»That’s when the idea of the prank first flitted across my mind. But let’s call it a social experiment rather than a prank, just so that you can understand why it happened,« revealed Thomas.
»Can you just tell me what happened, please?« inquired Liu Yang.
»What’s the connection to that incident?« inquired Andreas.
Claudia looked at Thomas, almost correcting him. »Well, I would say it began earlier than that but it’s fine. Go ahead,« she said.
Her take was that it had all begun with the choice of Thomas as the new housemate. A choice that had been thoughtfully made and strongly defended two dinners ago by the very same Andrea.
It had begun when one housemate, Mehmet, now a former housemate, reminded the rest of his planned exit from the house and wished to help the remaining members find a suitable replacement. Andrea had then coerced the rest to allow only a native German housemate.
Her demand was questioned by other housemates with Makawee and Sankara terming it
But she was determined to back up her demands. After accusing Sankara of always warming up to play Mandela in every emerging situation, she went ahead to explain why her demand would amount to a
»Ok! Let’s be honest guys and check out the flip side of it. None of us here is a native of this country. We need to find the missing link – a link to the society. We need someone here who would tell us with a straight face that it’s wrong to drop plastic waste in a container containing food remnants and why – I noticed we do that every day! Someone who would tell us how much money we waste in travel cost and help us find affordable ways of traveling. Don’t you think we need such? To know what it means when someone buys you a growler full of local beer in a Biergarten and the next time you meet it’s a waving hand from a distance and that’s all? Someone to introduce us to a club, Stammtisch culture, to get us into the local specialty or …or… just someone who would find it easy and normal to deal with the country’s bureaucracy. Believe me, in this house, we are all either lazy or clueless when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy and other petty but important things. I even saw the letter from GEZ, asking us to pay for TV service, laying comfortably in the dustbin. We just ignored it like we always do,« she paused on suspicion that no one might have agreed or understood her. »Come on, you all know what I mean,« claimed Andrea. She then turned to Claudia, who felt compelled to interrupt her.
Claudia shook her head in disapproval before giving her reaction, »Assuming that ten applicants showed up and only one of them is a native German. What choice of words do you pick to dismiss the rest? huh!
…sorry you’re not of the right kind?«–She paused–»It sounds like discrimination because it is! But your point is at home! In a few, we are like a multicultural family whose location is nowhere. Like a cloud suspended above a community – geographically in the community and it exists there because of that community but not really part of it. Like tourists in a guest house whose contact with the locals is very clinical however perfectly mutual the relationship is. We don’t make a rainbow society – we are a rainbow in the society. So, yes! We either dissolve this house and go different ways to mix with the natives or let a native or two to stay with us« reacted Claudia. She then turned to Makawee and Sankara for their opinion. Her eyes pleading for support against Andrea’s demand. They all seemed to concur with that as a way of joining a wider society to find their place in it or play their part in realizing an unrestricted and equal association.
Almost 12 people would show interest in the same offered room. Only four of them non-natives. The house members would then gather later that evening in the living room to decide on their choice. Each member would be asked by the outgoing member, Mehmet to forward a single name of the person they deemed fit and suitable to be their house member. Makawee and Sankara had a similar choice.The rest had different choices and reasons for their choices. They would then end up with 4 different choices. »Now, out of your choices,« he said, scratching his potbelly, »I can tell that you have eliminated the 4 non-natives. To put it short, may I know the reasons behind your choices?« inquired Mehmet. Andrea said it’s because of punctuality. »But all except one was punctual. That’s not convincing enough,« reacted Mehmet.
Claudia’s choice was informed by the fact that the lady of her choice was late but had arrived with an apology to offer. »By so doing, I think it means she’s normal and ready to take responsibility!« she stated in defense of her choice. Mehmet nodded as he turned to Makawee and Sankara. Sankara said he liked the charm and attitude of his choice. But it was Andrea’s reason that broke the laughter. »I think it’s because he showed up here with unzipped pants!« she said. After a heavy laughter and accusation of filthiness leveled against her, and even after Mehmet corrected her that they were in search of a housemate, not her roommate. She was up with enough words and reasons to defend her choice. »Look guys,« quickly grabbing her hair with both hands and tying them to a high ponytail with an elastic band from her left arm, »let me first call it the Zip-Code before I decode it.«–laughter–»It’s not even close to what’s in your mind. All those smart folks represented a socialized group thinking except for the zipper guy who seemed to show signs of a free thinker.«
»Just because of the zipper? Really?!« interrupted Sankara.
»Sankara, I should first make my point before you miss it. You always interrupt me! Always!« she paused and continued after a node from Sankara. »Okay! Well, all those folks were punctual. Some had even arrived too early but lingered about out there till time. They looked chic, with nice haircuts or good- looking hairstyles, wrist watches for the men and perfect make-ups for the ladies. Their smiles – very timely and accurately lengthened. Their words correctly picked and their language very formal. They said ‘Sorry!’ and ‘Thank you!’ where and when necessary. They were perfect human beings and nothing negative could be seen or said about them. For that matter we do not know whether they acquired such description by default or design: is that who they are or is it what the society expects them, real people, to be? And if they acquired that by default then I doubt their easiness to accommodate new ideas and cultures,«
»I get your point! So, what about the zipper?« reacted Mehmet.
»I am coming to that, Sankara. Sorry, I meant Mehmet. I’m not being verbose or anything but…«
»You mention my name more times in a day than the media mentions refugees!«
»I said sorry! OK, then I will avoid it in the same fashion Britain avoids Euro! Is that fair enough?«
»Mhm…or the same way development aid avoids development. Fair enough. Go ahead,« responded Sankara in a funny drunkard’s voice, trying to score on his past hot debate with Andrea after she had revealed that her Dad was the boss of an organization dealing with development Aid in Angola.
»You two guys should take it slow. You are just about to fall out with each other,« Makawee advised.
»…Or fall in in love with each other,« added Mehmet. All eyes now on Mehmet. He sunk his neck down his shoulder, lifted his shoulder higher and opened the palms of his hands as he fumbled his words, »I mean, yea…you know..I..I’m just saying!«
Andrea opted to ignore the interference and continued to explain herself, »I wanted to synthesize it in a social way. Ok, to the Zip-code,«–she smiles and laughs–»Alright! You know, through that open zipper I saw something. Something very beautiful and special, a free mind. It means the guy does not necessarily have to stand in front of the mirror to see whether or not his image would meet the standard requirement of an image to present to society. But that shouldn’t be translated to mean that his leaving the zipper open was a good show. It only provides evidence attached to the status of his mind: for a man who thinks of the look will never forget to zip-up. However, he was also punctual and chose his words perfectly well, just like the rest. And that means he cares about certain values that are important for an inter-personal relationship. He has a mind of his own and does not see things only through the eyes of society. He’s not made by the society. He makes a society. So when he smiles, the smile is legit. When he says ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Sorry’ it’s not because he has to but because he wants to.«
After listening to that, Claudia changed her mind in favor of the Zip-code. »But also because he’s native,« added Claudia. When confronted by Mehmet and Sankara with claims of bigotry and segregation, she defended herself by saying her decision was designed to stand with the segregated ones. »My ex- boyfriend was a landlord. He once told me he prefers non-Germans because they are not too demanding. They don’t care whether the house or apartment is well-tended. That they rarely telephone him to repair this and that. That they never cause trouble whenever rent was disproportionally raised. In other words, some landlords segregate against the natives even though they are natives themselves. Whatever it means, I stand with the natives,« she explained.
A decision was made in favor of Thomas, who would later be secretly nicknamed Zip-code. Thomas Hoffmann joined House number 49 less than a fortnight later. He was a private German language teacher with a background in Sociology and Philosophy. He was, indeed, open-minded with a sharp taste for local beer. He could invite the housemates to beer gardens, beer festivals and sometimes just to hang out with his workmates and friends in an Irish pub. At home, he could suggest a change in electricity, telephone and Internet tariffs, and providers. They had spent their time one evening learning from him about filing Tax returns and, that was the evening Makawee and Sankara realized how boring life could get.
Especially when he insisted that, »such petty things are of great benefit.« They would come home from work every evening to finish the remaining bit of energy on taking care of bureaucracy. But it wasn’t in vain: they’d learned how to cut the cost of living and got to meet lots of people in village festivals, city events, and different exciting activities with the help of Thomas. As the only student in the house, Sankara also loved the fact that he could save a minimum of 30 minutes every evening from the time he used to spend cooking now that he ate evening bread with sausages, cheese, tomato and whatever he liked it with.
But while Andrea was away – just two weeks after he’d moved in – Thomas organized to prank her upon her arrival back to the house. All members had agreed to take part. They were excited.
That’s how it all began, in Claudia’s view. Choices have consequences and Andrea’s very choice of a housemate was the beginning of The Prank. They all liked Thomas and his ideas. Having him in the house was a good choice, in her view. She now let Thomas explain to Andrea what and how exactly it had transpired.
While Andrea was on her way back from Sweden. All the remaining housemates, with or without prior acting knowledge, had agreed to take part in the script-free and prank-like invisible Theater. The victim of the prank was closing in by the minute. The door bell rang. It meant »Action!.«
All the housemates would remain in different positions away from each other. Makawee would be the first in action, she reached the door to embrace the arriving Andrea. They were happy to meet each other again. But her facial expression insinuated worry or surprise and Andrea noticed it.
»Do you have a headache or something?«
»What? No! Why? I’m fine. Maybe a bit tired!« responded Andrea.
»Are you sure? But your face is bluish and pale. Are you sure you are fine? Nothing internal?«
»No, no! Maybe it’s the lighting here, but I’m alright,« the kind of light bulb in the room could only make her lighter not blueish. She knew that.
Makawee left for her room after a brief conversation with Andrea. Andrea went ahead pulling her luggage closer to her door before walking back to enter the washroom. In the washroom was Claudia, applying some make-up. She acted as though she’d accidentally and inappropriately painted her nose instead of her eye-lashes. She then turned to Andrea and they both laughed, welcoming Andrea. It didn’t last long before she complimented Andrea for her good-looking blue facial powder. »It matches your eye colour!« she added before exiting the washroom for Andrea. But, she wasn’t done with Andrea yet. Not until Andrea came out of the washroom to ask Claudia what she meant by »blue facial powder.«
Claudia accomplished her mission, sending Andrea back to the washroom for some more minutes in front of the mirror. Andrea still felt healthy, and normal, and saw nothing strange or blueish in her face to sound the alarm.
Exit Claudia enter Thomas Hoffmann, half an hour later. He walked to the fridge, pulled out a bottle of beer and sat on the living room sofa, relaxing as the cold beer descends down the pipeline. When Andrea approached him with smiles and happiness of meeting him once again. He pulls a surprise, quite an anticlimax, and introduced himself.
»I’m Thomas! A housemate here.«
»I know you, Thomas. We’ve met already. I was here with you for some weeks before living for Sweden. Don’t you remember?«
»Really? Maybe I was stressed then, but I do remember there was only one Swedish lady when I moved in!« It was such a futile exercise trying to tickle his memory. »You’re sure it’s you?«
»Come on! Of course, it’s me!«
»Oh, then you’ve changed. Or is that make-up? The blue thing on your face? I mean you look good with it though.«
»Come on people! What’s this blue thing everyone’s talking about!« she yelled, rushing for the mirror in her room. Perhaps the washroom mirror was another liar. But the mirror in her room showed nothing strange either. She was in tip-top health.
Sankara would be the last entry, about an hour later. He had not been in the house but was aware of his role once he arrived home. The blue face was to be his focus. He came prepared and staged a wonderful performance. His meeting with Andrea sent her back to her room, direct to the mirror then to her bed.
After a couple of minutes back and forth between her bed and her mirror, Andrea chose to take a nap. An hour later she was seen, sad, weak, and preparing to leave the house.
»I am going to see my doctor,« she said. Sankara sent a quick text to the house’s WhatsApp group. It was time to demystify their action. They came out one by one.
»Well, it was a prank!« said Claudia. The rest laughed out loudly to confirm it and to show how funny the prank really was. Really? The victim of the prank could listen to none of that. As far as she was concerned, she was medically sick. »Of course, I knew from the very beginning that it was a prank. But I am sick and it has nothing to do with the prank!«
Thomas staged the final attempt to try and convince her that it was to do with the prank since she had confirmed on arrival that she was healthy. She had been very jovial upon arrival, just some hours ago. Still, Andrea couldn’t hear any of that. She left for her doctor.
Back to the dining table, to the dinner of the month.
»Hhm! I still can’t believe you all sat down and planned all that. huh! That was nasty torturous as it sounds! Even the the devil would reject it as evil! And you want to call it a social what…?« asked Andrea shaking her head in disapproval and anger, »but on a serious note, why?«
Thomas Hoffmann still had some explanation to do. »Well, remember you and I had a deal before you left: we had planned to have a discussion or a study group on the concept of self-reflection as a way of understanding the other. That social experiment or prank was part of it – to jumpstart the inquiry. You see, in the absence of consciousness the human brain possesses certain democratic tenets. The concept of majority rule takes over: it receives facts, fiction, perception and lies and tally them up such that when a perception or a lie tallies higher than a fact – guess what happens? – it’s crowned the truth. It rules to become the only fact. Not a scientific or a proven fact but a fact nonetheless. So« – caressing his beards and feeling excited – »I think we should analyze that Prank; using you as the study subject. I remember when Sankara and Claudia had insisted that Ahmed, the Arab friend of Sankara, viewed Arabs negatively because he had subconsciously succumbed to the repetitive phrase of a similar proposition as uttered by many, you dropped out of that school of thought – well, I believe you belonged there at some point.
Now imagine if only four of us, just four!« – flashing four fingers – »insisted that you have a blue face and you went to see the doctor – even after we revealed to you that it was just a prank. Your mirror showed nothing and your doctor found nothing, as you said. You tell me now« – laying back – »what will happen if a million people keep saying something negative or positive about you and people of your kind and origin? That you are not good with languages, less intelligent, you are a lesser human, inferior being, not good in sciences, superior race, inferior race, good, bad, not capable of…I mean, how will it affect you? How will…«
»Well, whatever,« said Andrea waving him away, her hand moving as if to swat a housefly in midair, »I get you! I got it!« she cut him short and walked out, closing the balcony door behind her and stood there for a cigarette. Meanwhile, Sankara and Claudia were bursting into some cheeky belly laugh, but quietly enough not to annoy Andrea. Makawee and Khan asked Sankara not to laugh out loud. He went ahead falling down on the floor with laughter before staggering to the kitchen to laugh more behind the closed door. While there he would send a text to Claudia, »I now agree with Andrea’s Zipcode. She was right. Hahaha!« Claudia replied to it with a huge smile on her face. »I had her informed that she was right about it while she was away. This guy’s crazy enough to be here!«
Minutes later Andrea was back and everyone was around the table. But Andrea was quiet and too frail to maintain her sprightly mood. She sat down, picked a bottle of red wine, refilled all the empty glasses, including those in housemate’s hands. They toasted a second time,
»To House number 49!«