Reading Note: From the Avenue to the Chateau-Rouge Metro, Chronicles of the World Below

Bitter News from “Eternally Developing” Places, by Jean-Pierre Listre

François-Xavier Akono, a Cameroonian Jesuit priest, gives us a series of bittersweet chronicles of trying realities, around little people whose way out one day is not very clear.

First of all his style: he writes in small incisive sentences, sometimes “poetic” but precise, never practicing melodramatic emphasis. His vocabulary is rich, imaginative, but clear and accurate. His words are rigorous without being pedantic, often returning several times to an idea in order to enrich it, improve it, extend it; where we can see, moreover, in this way of advancing in his narrative, that he is a philosopher by taste (and, often, by profession).

Secondly, the general tone of his writings: he is never excessively demagogic, but always deeply empathetic to the poor beings he evokes, whether real or imaginary. And, in his sober but forceful style, he can in fact be much more bitter and punchy than all the second-rate pamphleteers, skilful at surfing on the good commonplaces that are so well seen and easy (everything that happens to this unfortunate Africa is always the fault of others, the eternal bad colonisers, the dirty whites who are decidedly undrinkable and doomed to disappear, …), but incapable of an autonomous and original thought.

François-Xavier Akono knows how to be raw, even more so, to the point that one sometimes forgets that he is a priest. But, once again, this is unavoidable, and very well so, in front of certain revolting situations. And besides, his words – even trivial ones – have a flavor and a kind of sad elegance that show that they do not come from just anyone. If one did not know that he is a man of God, one would nevertheless say that the author is a good man, who suffers deeply from what he sees, and not a journalist in search of sensations or a politician who is no longer close to hypocrisy. He also sprinkles his texts with numerous references to African writers, artists and singers whom we sometimes know little about, but whose productions accurately reflect the lamentable daily life of the little people with a sharp and courageous bitterness.

And, all in all, these pieces of text – a kind of “writing in dots” – are as many merciless charges against the profiteering, vicious and rotten local “elites” who give no chance to the little people to get out of it except the possibility to howl with the wolves (for the men to work for the party in power, for the women to accept the classic compromises and degradations…) and thus to reach a very small – and so provisional – plot of reward. The Whites are not spared, but this is natural, because they seem to “let it all go”, not out of contempt or a desire for gain – besides, there is not much to be gained in these little stories – but out of weariness and the feeling that, from now on, there is not much they can do.

However, in the imagination of the rest of the world, the Whites still have such a head start in “getting by”! … Perhaps not for much longer, by dint of becoming impoverished and blind, without pride and without compasses…

We can distinguish some major recurring themes and some favorite places that the author desperately surveys, in the hope – always disappointed – of an improvement. François-Xavier Akono’s characters live a lot on the sidewalks (of Paris, of Yaoundé…), setting up poor strategies to survive, essentially from very small jobs of reselling indispensable goods; they often have more than enough time to meditate on the way the world is going and think only in the present tense.

Moreover, their miserable environment is deteriorating as global society becomes more fragmented, allowing the wealthy to live among themselves in a well-protected universe, leaving the rest of humanity to fend for itself in the midst of the garbage heaps. All of this degraded humanity survives “in an environment where bars with high noise levels are plentiful and alcohol flows freely”. She sees, in particular, “incivism developing in the form of a calamitous management of household waste […] or the negligence of road maintenance”. The “structural adjustments” imposed in the past on these poor countries are obviously not responsible for their difficulties either.

A few anthologies grouped by theme:

  • Street children and other young people in perdition.

I am a street child, a small peanut seller who is robbed by a gang of thugs who leave me “lying on the ground”; my life does not offer very exciting prospects, especially when, back home after seven kilometers on foot, “the mother has stormy tantrums” and “the father does not hesitate to use hammers” … But it must be seen that the parents work very hard too. Anyway, I try to get by by reading philosophy books that I translate into Camfranglais for the others. As a result, the kids in the neighborhood call me “old brain”…

I have just been expelled from the European Union. I am Cameroonian by adoption, in fact Congolese, but it is complicated, I pass. Being good in class, my parents went into debt to send me to school in France. I have a degree from Assas. I didn’t want to continue my studies or marry a French woman and be seen as someone who wants to stay in France at all costs, “like those priests in Africa who refuse to return to the fold. They prefer to live in France to feed Africa; and to feed themselves. Then my visa expired and, stupidly, I was caught by the police at the Château-Rouge. It was a failure. Over there, in Cameroon, people will make fun of me and call me “old parigoh”. This being the case, if all Africans go to the West, who will come to “develop” their continent?

I am Petru, Romanian by my father and Bulgarian by my mother. Strong, I am a lone wolf. A convinced Christian, I come to beg in front of the churches, taking advantage of the naivety of the nippers and grannies of the 6th. In the Christian religion, I confess that I don’t always understand this “preferential option for the poor”. “This Jesuit language overwhelms me. Sometimes I think that, in my own way, I am doing a service to rich people who are insecure and almost “unhappy to exist” by allowing them to give me alms!

I am a “penguin” in the Central Prison of Douala, that is to say, someone in the last degree of the prison condition, because I cannot rely on anyone. This last degree is unimaginable for a sensible person. How can one not conclude with Enoh Meyomesse, “who has regained an air of freedom”: “Prison is not a pleasant place; you may succeed in not getting eliminated there, but you are cut off from everything…”.

  • The small trades, often “at the limit”.

The Avenue J.F. Kennedy in Yaoundé “defies the Champs-Elysées, not by the number of passers-by and onlookers, but by the occupation of the sidewalks. “Vendors and street vendors” talk side by side about their penniless lives, their faded dreams of emigrating to paradises that are now well adulterated, and their muted desires to revolt against the local law enforcement agencies on the lookout. But there, as the author laconically says, “some will be shot” …

“Having pocket pains”, that is to say, cruelly lacking money, how to do when you are 22 years old and you are beautiful? One hesitates between the young suitor who “is confused in cries of galley slaves” and “of the vicious old men who come to accompany me… in cars of great price… and give me what to maintain my beauty”.

Clandestine hairdresser in Barbès, his life is almost nothing. In his delirium, he dreams of bringing to the West many other Africans like him who “have the mission to humanize this world rotten by hatred and pride”, because “they possess the fetish that will cure the sick world”.

In Cameroon, the recipe for success is simple: “Someone is someone behind someone. This is not given to everyone. That is why he “left his beloved country”. Since then, his visa is about to expire and he is looking for work under the table. Unable to do as his sisters who are trying to find the white man who will make them a little half-breed by playing with their “hindquarters” and ensure them a prosperous future, he plans to take care of dependent elderly people like his cousin Endéné.

I’ve just arrived from Budapest, so I’ll skip the details. I have to pay 150 euros a day to my “supervisor”. And I’m begging, sitting on the floor on the rue de Sèvres side. Fortunately, the girls and the grannies of the VIe are nice and a bit stupid. But I’m going to have to get my son to work, get his head out of his smartphone and teach him good manners to help me “make” my daily 150 euros.

  • Honest people despite everything, but almost always so disappointed…

The good souls think that “studying” is enough to get out of precariousness, but when we see “the bumbling of civil servants, the staff cuts and the disenchanted students at the end of the University”, because they didn’t have the right pistons to find a decent job, we say to ourselves that they are going to “join the enlarged circle of resourceful people”.

As a “travelling singer”, I work in a team with other young people and we form a small orchestra to “entertain ordinary people by joining them in their ephemeral happiness”. On March 8, International Women’s Day, this translates into the Kaba-Ngondo carnival in Cameroon, which puts women in a trance and allows them to “send their dresses flaring up to their heads”. That’s all I can say… Well, I’m trying hard to “fight for my life in order not to be a swindler”…

Yob Mbumbua-Meboa had the clumsy gait of someone who drinks too much, of course, but who, above all, only has a poor pair of worn-out shoes that hurt. Once prosperous and respected, he was “compressed” following the setbacks of a parapublic company with calamitous management. And, “a man diminished”, “he is nothing because he has nothing”.

Ah, the great question of contribution/participation! Of course, it’s very good to help your loved ones in happy or unhappy events. It’s a way of telling others that they are not alone. But be careful not to create a feeling of dependence in the recipient. And why do we often confine this contribution/participation to the domain of eating and drinking? It would not be bad if it could be extended, for example, to a project of “drilling in a village which cruelly lacks it”…

  • Prejudice.

The Chinese in the remote provinces have sometimes never seen anyone other than their own kind. And since the cinema or television have “the power of illusion”, the Black man could appear to him as a “literary or cinematographic fiction”. And since the image of the Black person in the media is not always flattering, sometimes the Chinese feel that a Black person does not count for much after all. And when they meet a real Black person in real life, they may automatically adopt a superior, even contemptuous attitude. All the more so because “when Africa is displayed too much, when the symbols of Africa are put forward too much, it makes people angry”. But still, why did this Chinese guy spit in my face, me, Cameroonian? Perhaps he was ashamed and angry to discover that the man he had in front of him, whom he despised out of prejudice, was in fact like him “a biped who reasons”. The “emotional charge” was perhaps too strong for the Chinese…

  • Realizations and, sometimes, small glimmers of hope.

I am Nken Ikede Lon Yem (literally foreigner in my country), a Frenchman of Cameroonian origin. I wonder if, although I have not been to Cameroon for 33 years, I am not considered as “being too much” here… But I have dreams: I am part of an NGO that brings 32 benches in a small bush classroom, “under the trees”, in Northern Cameroon. I am welcomed like a messiah, naturally. But the teachers all decline the offer to go to this lost corner. So, shocked, dreaming more than ever of an education for all, noting that the politicians were failing, I launched an almost biblical movement to mobilize my brothers and sisters for this project…

“I want to live in peace and joy”. A simple formulation. But, having a master’s degree in biology in my pocket, I am “unemployed”, “without name or face”, not having the right entries. I am reduced to managing a phone booth. Not wanting to return to the village, and having time, I feed on philosophy to build my future. My “bad life” conditions find a direct echo in Fischbach’s Manifesto of Social Philosophy. I am a fighter, I will make it.

The provisional, the bricolage lead to drama, to death. A building that collapses because the materials used were bought on the cheap, a train that derails for lack of maintenance, untimely power cuts like in Kinshasa… It’s endemic. So much so that the ancestors will tell the newcomers to their world that they are “not at all eager to return to earth”! The provisional is the refusal of the solid, of the definitive; “the provisional translates a culture of the discount”; that amounts to “to exist in the bluster, …, in the irresponsibility”. “The provisional leads us to the evidence that everything sounds false. On the contrary, “to build in the long term calls for determination in the choice of solutions which are themselves tested by the imperative of a solid foundation”.

A new bar in Yaoundé? “More beer and fewer books”. More noise and frenetic dancing. These are the three components of “futile happiness”, “nihilistic happiness” and “ephemeral happiness”. And what about these shabby “frenetic Christmas” parties or these New Year’s delusions? As Christophe Maé sings: “where is happiness, where is it?

How can I put it, we can see a well-made Jesuit at work, free, courageous, pushing the powerful and the clever of the day, whoever they are – including church people. We can also and above all see a man who strives to find ways out of misfortune for his poor fellow human beings. Doesn’t all this remind you of someone? Ah yes, here, Father Maugenest perhaps…

It is a very beautiful book. It really is. But the probability that it will have a real audience and a success is close to zero. Too bad, too bad, …


Jean-Pierre Listre

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