»I had only daughters for Musa and when I left Musa for Makanya I was tired of giving birth to children for men, and leaving them with men, so I only had one last child, a girl.«
The German word Lebensentwürfe can be translated as »individual life plans.«. In her new piece, the Cameroonian writer Clementine Ewokolo Burnley creates different narrative ele-ments using fictional texts that draw on real events. She weaves together diary entries, songs, and letters, about West African women and their descendants, to question their history, so as to tell it anew.
After the Fall of Songhai (2045, Spin III)
as al-Mansur trembles,
between silk sheets,
salt-dreams, of Taghaza,
gold dreams, of the Akan
cannot rest for javelin dreams,
iron-shoe dreams of
The Great Library,
Timbuktu in ashes,
provokes royal night-wet emissions.
Songhai’s loss, Bornu’s gain.
In trade with Constantinople
Kano and Katsina sell doubters,
Hausa city-states thrive.
Downriver coast dwellers
launch women and children
into ocean passage.
2050 Saheli F.
If you are asked, then say, not all new forms survive. Still we buzz, fly, struggle towards tomorrow. Sometimes we arrive.
Say in death, we were always free.
A Life: Baghirmi, 1600 Kanem-Bornu Empire
If you are asked, then say I was born in the years when all the men of Baghirmi had gone to unload caravans of weapons from Istanbul, wood from Gao, oil from Al Andalus, kola nuts from the Asante. Maybe that is why I did not know, for a child to come, there had to be a man and a woman. Say I knew nothing of men. The whole world was Zainab, Maa and my sisters, but mostly Zainab. She was my height exactly, filled half the space on my mat. She was all elbows and sharp limbs. I was rounded, my bones hidden under a solid layer of padding. At night when we fought for the cover cloth I won easily, but I made sure Zainab had her share of the faded sheet. Say that Maa sold Zainab for two nanny goats. Say I killed the goats. Maa’s eyes were black with rage, but I ignored her. Say Maa tried to kill me. If you are asked, say I do not want to be a woman, and wait.
A Life: 1870 Bimbia
If you are asked, then say, I, Makanya left the Bota Islands, which trading companies had begun to call the Pirate Isles, to settle in a small missionary town named Victoria.
Growing up, when I heard the name Pirate Isles, I imagined skull-flagged ships, not the cargo vessels which flew British colours, or those of Portugal, Spain, France, Sweden, and Denmark, which carried human goods, or beads and mirrors for John Holt, Woermann, the German South West Afrika Company, and for the Anglo Dutch East Indies Company.
Water rose in the soil every time it rained and flooded into low-lying dwellings, tickling us in our beds. The rising waters whispered come, to me in the voices of my friends who had drowned. I did not go back.
Say that we left the villages for Christ. We learned English at the mission schools. As we forgot to speak their language, our ancestors forgot the way into the new world. Ngondi is where the gods wait, a place both ending and beginning, the sand placenta. Our village relatives, »When you die who will bury you?« Either we never returned, or someone brought what they wanted, and they put us into the ground.
»If you are asked, then say, in the wedding photo, the scar on her chin off set a perfect, heart-shaped face.«
A life: 1890, Laindé, Northern Kamerun
If you are asked, then say, I was born in the season of red millet in Laindé, northern region, in the reign of Lamido Bouba around the time the Germans came. We lived near the briqueterie.
I was married three times, first at fourteen to Adamu, then Musa, then to the man of my heart, Makanya.
Adamu was a wealthy merchant, nevertheless, I found him slow and a bit smelly. In those days it was not like now. If a woman didn’t like her husband, she could go back to her parents.
I found my second husband, a Yoruba from Yola, who was new to the village. I thought Musa was well-made. He had the softest voice. It tickled my ears like a feather, moving me deep down inside. We walked to the market. By the time we arrived I had decided. I had never felt so alive. I told him I was married but he could go to see my father.
I stayed with my parents for ninety days. My father grumbled for eighty-nine and on the last day he smiled at my back as I walked away from his compound.
Say that Adamu kept his four sons. I had only daughters for Musa and when I left Musa for Makanya I was tired of giving birth to children for men, and leaving them with men, so I only had one last child, a girl.
A Life: 1932 Buea, Cameroons Region
If you are asked, then say, my mother’s people moved often, despite the danger of never returning. My mother’s male ancestors, my ancestors, paddled and sailed the West African coast before there were boundaries, much the same as fishermen from Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal continue to do now. A few were blown off course, or shipwrecked, settled elsewhere, were presumed dead until they came home years later. Some did not return, in life. Women stayed. They learned to deal with separation. Masculine was to go far away, to face danger alone. Until the women left.
A Life: 1945 Apapa Beach, British Nigeria
If you are asked, then say, away from small-town Victoria her speech and intonation were infused with Yoruba expressions I could not understand but accepted as a marking she would never lose. Say that I don’t remember if she talked about how she learned to speak the new language, whether it was hard or easy, whether she was fluent or whether her accent showed in her words. Lagos is the heartland of Yoruba, whose speakers make up the largest language group in Africa. Yoruba connected my mother to the bigger culture of the country which was to become Nigeria, the home of one in four Africans. Say that if she had taught me Yoruba, I would have stayed.
A Life: 1960 British Cameroons
If you are asked, then say, in the wedding photo, the scar on her chin off set a perfect, heart-shaped face. The cut of her cream satin dress was daring, and modern. Her husband says that day his fingers met, clasped around her waist. He had seen her at the teacher training college where she worked and remembered the deck, and her small figure cradled in the white moving shine of the Atlantic, after she had swarmed that first time.
»If you are asked, then say, not all new forms survive. Still we buzz, fly, struggle towards tomorrow. Sometimes we arrive. Say in death, we were always free.«
A Life: 20.05.1972 United Republic of Cameroon
You said, women and men can never be equal. It makes no sense. Look at your own hand, your five fingers can never be equal.
I said, what if the hand’s been amputated?
What if the fingers are broken, ligaments twisted, torn from the bone.
You hit me.
I said, can two countries join and be equal?
I said, if I can never be equal does it matter, in which country I live?
A Life: 2000 The Village of Dry-Eyed Women, Muyuka, United Republic of Cameroon
Most High asks DJ Spin to manifest a dusty square. There is a baobab tree. A small crowd of women faces a wooden platform, where an old woman stands. She pulls at her own ear as she speaks a monologue.
- For this village we get simple rules.
- Make wena listen well.
- Rule number 1. No men inside village.
- Rule number 2: No public cry.
- Wena see this one?
The old woman points into the crowd, at a tall woman. Heads turn to follow the direction of the old woman’s finger.
- I say, sometime wena no go believe, so make you talk with your own mouth.
The tall woman rises and speaks in a mechanical tone.
- I be politician. When man dem want defeat me dem call me witch woman, whore, dem say I no go ever born. Dem say dem sleep with me. After that anytime I want talk, dem shout, until my voice stop.
The old woman carries on.
- She suffer over too much. Water no fit come from her eyes again. Na the only reason her eye dry. When wena want cry wena go for house, any person wey feel for cry with wena, go come knock.
- If wena cry we go send wena out. Hear me fine. We jealous wena tears. We no think cry bad, cry good like money, so hide cry for inside wena house. No make other woman jealous. Many of we here no fit cry. When suffer too bad, eye turn dry. Unless wena fit give crying lessons, na pure selfishness for see people pack up to dem neck with hurt, wena come with wena eye water-water, stand for them front.
Lament for Alphas (2040 Spin I)
Because parts of our lives come together
in ways we have not learned to un-puzzle
we do not speak.
We have not learned to separate work
from »I am dying at work.«
We are afraid,
because the violence
the distance from goodness
the real likelihood of imprisonment
the unbearable beauty, we are not.
We do not speak out loud, except with __,
We do not speak because
the dominance we have internalized,
the violence is overwhelming, and
At night, we lie awake.
We have been degraded. Stop.
Why does that make you afraid. Question.
Glossary of important words used
Countries: If you are asked about countries, say that they are warring political entities led by alphas. Say they are nothing, an excuse to behave badly. A single stone in the shifting slope of a hill, a single entity in a shifting diagram, an idea anchored in time by faulty records. People are important, not countries. People produce and reduce countries.
DJ: If you are asked about DJs say this: a combination of learning machine, and living archive, they take over the role of ancestral spirits after all ancestral remains are taken without consent during the Human Tissue Wars, and destroyed.
Femme: Say that until recently in humans, sex has served to create gender roles and decide power relations. Gender doesn’t always work out; human bodies don’t behave as we expect them to. Bodies mutate, we revise gender relations.
Lebensentwürfe: blueprints, or individual life plans.
Most Highs: Say, the Most Highs coordinate sister hives for a maximum of 500 days.
Hives: Femme-only villages
Say, social norms entrapped Femmes in all the places and times they lived. In all centuries. They couldn’t be pretty enough, thick or thin enough, say yes enough. Alphas talked about equality; they wouldn’t give shit up fast enough. On the news, alpha allies supported family values, tradition, not action on abuse. Alpha allies stayed on the fence or organised risk-full silences while Femme bodies were desecrated by the actions of alphas, and Femme spirits were drained by their wants. The Femme villages were few at first but the trend grew quickly. Some hives allowed alphas, with mind-touch, if under contract to a Femme.
Saheli Faso: If you are asked, say that the Saheli F. is an autonomous region roughly contiguous with Economic Community of West African States. Saheli F. was formed after the Wars of Separation. Femmes and contracted alphas with mind-touch can enter with fast, easy, paid or gratis visas.
Spins: The Most Highs of Saheli F. are selected through a series of poetry competitions, called spins. Spins are judged by DJs.
Spermer: Say, pejorative, generic word for a person born without empathic abilities. Some Alphas are capable of basic mind-touch. In 2040, after the Wars of Separation, un-contracted alphas were forced to leave Saheli F.
Wars of Separation: If you are asked about the Wars of Separation, say, to quote Cardi B: »I learned to be selfish.« Alphas refused to shut up and listen. Shit changed.