Nigerian writer Sada Malumfashi relates an encounter with his friends, while hunting a key in Berlin’s night. After roaming through the city, learning and re-learning Berlin, Sada, Nkiacha, Johann, and Pa Tanka find themselves in the apartment of Bonaventure. They share unending conversations, talking about their contemporaries, and in that moment shaping the city with a black perspective.
There is rice, stew and chicken in a pot. The walls are decorated with black and white photographs, paintings and collage of art works like splash of colors. We sit on a sofa, plates and cutleries on a table as hands grab them and scrap rice and chicken to clanking sounds. Wine is making rounds as long shelves of books complement art works and stare at us. »Us« is four black men speaking and laughing at the top of our voices: it is a rapid mixture of Cameroonian pidgin while I join the conversation in my Northern Nigerian accented English. The only white person here is a German – a foreigner to the conversation and he watches our tongues spew a language in stories we are familiar with, and he is learning and nodding – surprised mostly. We dissect Africa – through philosophy, religion and tricks of conmen selling money-doubling machines to the government – through chicken bones and African stew. But we are not in Kaduna, Douala, Limbe, or Lagos – we are in Berlin, Johann’s home, yet in this moment in time, in this space, in this apartment, Africanized by Bonaventure, Pa Tanka, Nkiacha, and myself, we have colonized the space, detached it from the cold winter of Europe and made it a black continent.
Nkiacha and I had come to Berlin from Sylt, a windy island on the North Sea of Germany. Sylt was our first destination to Europe, so hip and welcoming Berlin was an escape from the quiet windy island. Nkiacha had planned the four-day trip to Berlin. I tagged along with him to also escape the winds over the Christmas period. Johann is Nkiacha’s Berlin acquaintance and picks us up at Berlin Hauptbahnhof on arrival. Bonaventure would be providing Nkiacha with an apartment for the period to accommodate us. He is an independent art curator and we are to get the key to the apartment at Savvy, an arts space he curates. We are to meet with a certain Pa Tanka at Savvy and get the key.
»We dissect Africa – through philosophy, religion and tricks of conmen selling money-doubling machines to the government – through chicken bones and African stew. But we are not in Kaduna, Douala, Limbe, or Lagos – we are in Berlin, Johann’s home, yet in this moment in time, in this space, in this apartment, Africanized by Bonaventure, Pa Tanka, Nkiacha, and myself, we have colonized the space, detached it from the cold winter of Europe and made it a black continent.«
»I wish we would be able to meet Bonaventure. But he is a very busy man.« Nkiacha keeps reiterating as we join the rushing mass of people to ride the U-Bahn and inhale the cold air of Berlin. The way Nkiacha had been talking about his fellow Cameroonian, Bonaventure made me think he might have met him before, in Douala maybe. But he has not; their connection has only been via email. But still, Nkiacha goes on and on about Bonaventure the way Nkiacha goes on and on about anything Cameroonish – from their »great« national football team to the funny stories of his work at the Douala airport and even inconsequential stuff like Cameroonian jollof rice. So, I indulge in the stories and feel like I have also met Bonaventure.
We are at SAVVY Contemporary: The Laboratory of Form-Ideas waiting for Pa Tanka and an apartment key. Savvy is a crematorium turned arts space. From housing corpses and dead memories to housing books, history, art, colors and blend of a borderless people. There is an ongoing exhibition and we descend into the former crematorium like ghosts returning.
»Do you feel weird roaming about in a former crematorium?« Johann asks.
»I don’t know.« I answer. »It does feel creepy.« The question puts the thought of ghosts in my mind. But then art is ghostly anyways, and a crematorium is a perfect place for an art space.
Pa Tanka arrives. He is an older man spotting a hat and a pair of Apple Airpods popping all white from his dark earlobes. He has a set of musical instruments like armory strapped to his back. Pa Tanka would be providing us with the key to the apartment.
But there is no key.
Bonaventure had left with the key, having forgotten to drop it for Pa Tanka at Savvy. As this is being sorted out through phone calls and Whatsapp convos, and Johann and Pa Tanka mapping the city into different parts to know where to begin from, I drift around Berlin’s first crematorium exploring Savvy in silence. But here, right now, I am not mourning or burning dead bodies. I am exploring memories and stories, through human forms across different continents that make up Savvy as well as shelves and stored memories in old books. Soon, I am streaming knowledge from old forgotten manuscripts and African classics resurfacing like ghosts in a cemetery.
There is still the matter of a key and an apartment and these tired feet.
It is decided an Uber driver will be sent to Bonaventure’s place to fetch the key. Calls are made, descriptions are given and Bonaventure is shouted at through a cellular mouthpiece. So four of us move to get warm in a nearby Turkish restaurant, sipping coffee and munching Döner, while we pose for a picture by our Turkish chef now turned photographer.
But there is the matter of a key and an apartment, filled stomachs and tired soles.
The Uber driver cannot find a named Bonaventure on the apartment address given to him – or he had decided not to bother and move on to other business. Soon, we are re-strategizing. A group of four jumping U-Bahns, learning and re-learning Berlin, finding Bonaventure as Pa Tanka regales us with tales of this person.
And Pa Tanka is a storyteller, so the tales of Bonaventure emanating from his sage mouth are that of a legendary young biotechnologist who abandons a lucrative job in sciences to pursue an arts dream. And the legend of Bonaventure is that of a busy and successful man, and if we are lucky enough to catch up with him on a free schedule, then visiting Berlin would be worthwhile. Bonaventure in Pa Tanka’s mouth is what art should be and is, and art in Berlin’s space is as radical as Bonaventure as a person.
And that is how we come to be in this Berlin, strangers Nkiacha and I in Johann’s country, Pa Tanka’s country, Bonaventure’s country, in this apartment colonizing spaces.
And we are lucky to meet Bonaventure in his apartment, and he is simple, inviting us in. He talks with a calm tongue, and explained that he was hoping to have put his two kids to sleep by 8pm. But here we are past 8pm, hunting a key in Berlin’s night.
This was supposed to be a short conversation. We talk, introduce each other, get the key and move back into Berlin’s chilly night. Bonaventure is wearing a pink pullover and a dark blue hat and has an Mboma-esque physique common with the Cameroonian football national team. At first, he seems to be a man with a German stoicism, but soon that stoicism and directness is peeled off, layer by layer as the apartment transforms from a white land to a black continent.
Our conversations are unending. From publishing and writing and the politics of it all. To Europe, to Africa, to a homeland and a foreign land. We are this squad of five, munching rice and chicken, talking, about our contemporaries, those before us and those to come after. We talk of a continent like it is the belly of an elephant that held us and expunged us to various points on the globe, representing blackness.
We are black bodies and now a white continent is trying to shape us, build us, yet the rivers Kaduna, Douala, Limbe are a still a force claiming us from drowning in the Mediterranean. Johann is a whole mood having experienced a culture shock in his own cultural home as we baptize him in our stories, in brown muddy rivers where natives wash their dirty clothing, all together, smiling in unison. He finds in this apartment, at this moment, a black continent, and a continent is not a country. Our stories are diverse, yet cohesive. We are children of Africa, and there is rice, stew and chicken. And there is energy.
»Our conversations are unending. From publishing and writing and the politics of it all. To Europe, to Africa, to a homeland and a foreign land. We are this squad of five, munching rice and chicken, talking, about our contemporaries, those before us and those to come after. We talk of a continent like it is the belly of an elephant that held us and expunged us to various points on the globe, representing blackness.«
It is late but the two kids are happy and jovial, having escaped sleep, bouncing around our conversations like they are castles, as Bonaventure holds them in his arms, their legs flailing, without abandoning a sentence he began constructing. Our moods are happy and jovial.
We wear our shoes, tie our laces and hang our backpacks. We started in Sylt in the morning and arrived Berlin, but right now here we are, five people standing at the doorway, in unending conversations, unable to say goodnight. Maybe uttering it five times or more but yet springing a new topic always.
Finally, Bonaventure bids us farewell, with his laptop in hands showing us yet another conversation changer from an article about the continent in his bookmarks. But we are soon leaving, learning Berlin and shaping it with a black perspective.