Letters from France
MarseillesMy dear old friend,
You’re sulking. You’re sulking without knowing anything about my state of mind and my material circumstances here. To be sure, if I did as you say, I ought to have written to you more often. Haven’t you received my letters? (Oh! don’t stick your bottom lip out—I know you still do that.) If my letters are too short it’s because I couldn’t do otherwise. Believe me. I need you to believe me.
You know you’re the only one I love and want for my friend. Stop sulking! I admit I’ve been in the wrong. Hurry and send me your news, the news of everyone.
As to my husband, I’ll tell you about him later. You’ll have a shock, my girl. Poor stupid fool that I was.
Your old and frank friend,
MarseillesDear old friend,
I’ve read your letter at least twenty times, my father’s letter just the once. Father had written to my husband—I emphasize the word ‘husband’ as it contains something quite different from what a girl usually expects of the man she marries. Well, my ‘husband’ said to me, there’s a letter from your father. After he’d had it read to him by someone else. For he can’t read, my old man. And he is old, is my husband. That’s not so serious as the rest. The rest is a lot worse!
Don’t forget to write. Write even if you don’t get anything from me. Hoping to hear from you, I send you fond kisses.
Yours ever, Nafi.
Dear old friend,
I can’t reply to all your questions. A flood of questions! I don’t know where to begin myself. For days I’ve been looking out for the postman, morning and afternoon. I was afraid of my ‘husband’ intercepting my letters. I think he’s quite capable of that. But he goes out in the afternoons. Not in the mornings though. Just after he’d gone out, I saw Mister Postman come. Your letter was there. The woman who manages this block of furnished rooms gave me an odd look, as if to say, ‘Your daddy of a husband has given orders not to hand over the mail to anyone.’ But I didn’t let her get away with it. Nevertheless, I’m obliged to tell Monsieur that there was a letter for me.
No, I haven’t got persecution mania. You know me very well. Let me tell you, my dear old friend, all the joys that your letters bring me - an intoxication of sunshine, heat that makes my body exude torrents, waves of pulsations which send the warm blood edged with foam that’s laced with bracing memories surging through my whole being (inside and out). I’ve never realized that memories are so necessary.
I haven’t any sun here. I live shut up between the four walls of a block of furnished rooms that’s shabby and dirty, damp, smelly, and without running water or proper toilets. I’m so much alone that sometimes I talk to myself aloud. A prisoner of the thick shadows of dreary walls oozing in summer and winter alike, that’s what I am. When my gaze happens to wander it meets with nothing but cracks encrusted with ancient grey dust or a bare tiled floor all scored and scratched. Most of the time, I’m indoors. Where could I go? Who with? Him? No. There’s one room for both of us. A room that has to do for cooking and washing. If I want to do a job for myself during the night, I don’t go out; I use the chamber-pot. There’s one lavatory and one tap for all the tenants. My room—no, that’s a pretension—my ‘husband’s’ room is what is called a ‘dark room’. It’s right opposite the stairs, so the door has to be kept shut all the time, as is the rule in this country. Above the only door there’s a small opening, but the sun never gets round to it. To do my work, I have the light on all the time. How could all this not be bound to affect me, to influence my character?
Do you remember how lively I was, overflowing with vitality? Everyone used to talk of my exuberance. Well, now I’m all shriveled up, like a slice of meat left in the sun. To be sure, I used to live in a hovel in a shanty-town. But there was an abundance of sunshine and much laughter; there were shared pleasures and hopes. Here there’s nothing. Nothing, I tell you. Sometimes in my thoughts I can see the lesions hollowed out by the bloody weepings of my heart. And then I ask questions.
To see the sun I have to go out and walk to the nearest crossroads. And then, in a gap between the buildings and on the stroke of two, the orb deigns to show itself - though not every day, it depends. Here the sun has no strength, it’s timid and doesn’t blaze down very much. And the women hang out their washing from the day before. How sad it all is.
My dear, you can’t possibly imagine my disillusionment. When you and the others are chatting together I expect you say that Nafi is in France—and everyone envies me! But I’m not in France, at least not the France that came into our dreams and fed our ambitions. I’m in a different world, a gloomy, depressing world which weighs me down, is slowly killing me off, day by day.
A photo has made an outcast of me.
How I regret ever marrying ... It’s my own fault, I know. I am the victim of a mirage. My father showed me a photo of a man; he looked handsome, and he was in France. A few days later my father said to me: ‘This man wants you for his wife. He is in France, he works there. He’s been living there for years.’ That was all. For weeks, I put off giving my answer. Then I accepted him, although there were many young men of my age who wanted me. Granted, with any of them, I’d never have visited France. And what school-girl has not dreamed of France, of Paris and the brightly-lit avenues? So I consented. Why? For France. For her, the artificial France, I gave up all my suitors. Now I’ve got what I deserved—doubly so. Really, I never thought I should sink so low. I’m ashamed to tell the whole story. How I should like to see our sunshine again, the garish colors, and the nonchalance of our women sauntering to market in joyful groups; to hear again the arguments going on around the public fountain, to tease the men selling shins of beef, to catch the sounds of a kora through the hubbub of the daily round, to sit in the shade out of the blinding sun, to see the chickens standing on one leg, and children going on errands wearing their father’s sandals, hugging the fence.
I’m lonely, so lonely that I envy the corpses in their graves. I’ve no taste for anything. Everything has lost its flavor. The food here always needs to be seasoned. But my ‘husband’ can’t stand the taste of red peppers, his old stomach won’t take them any more. If, in compensation, there were enough sun I might get used to him, in spite of his age. I’ve had enough, I’ve touched bottom.
I’ll tell you about him ... Where shall I begin? The day I arrived? That morning—six months ago, that was. Don’t tell me time passes quickly. Half a year in hell would have been sweeter. You remember the photo I gave to Aminata? Well, that’s him. A photo taken twenty years ago! And like a perfect idiot, I was taken in by it. By a photo that had been touched up! He’s seventy-three. It says so on his sworn affidavit. He doesn’t know the exact date of his birth. But he looks younger. A cold climate preserves Africans. For the rest, he’s as hale and hearty as any man ... the swine! In spite of all my pleas, I have to go through with it. His eyes have lost their brightness, they’re just dull and lifeless.
His job is being out of work. That’s lasted five years. Every afternoon he makes the rounds of the shipping companies’ offices. He sells kola-nuts—wholesale or retail. He never goes out without his jar filled with nuts. The other day he said to me, ‘The whites are beginning to realize the benefits of kola-nuts.’ He walks slowly. I get the impression that he walks sideways, although I’ve never yet seen him coming towards me from more than five yards away. He goes out by himself, comes back by himself, the jar empty - or half empty. After he’s said the evening prayer he counts his takings. I see his bent back as he reckons his day’s earnings, then he puts it all in an old school satchel which he keeps always in the same place. Sometimes old men of his age come and visit him, and they all natter away about things my generation knows nothing of. They talk over their past. I go to bed, keeping my ears cocked to their nostalgic reminiscences of their youth. All about the failure of a certain policy, a certain world—the elders who accepted the domination of the foreigner through their passive resistance. About this almost total submission which was fed by the promise of an everlasting ease in the future. It all makes me feel very bitter, and rightly so.
My dear old friend, I don’t rebel against my situation. Do you remember what we used to dream about—of what life would bring us, of the house we should like to live in and how it would be with our husband and our children? Do you remember, too, how we used to carry on so angrily against polygamy?
When I look back and remember my childhood, the big house filled with the cries of children, with singing and sunshine, my loneliness terrifies me. There are times when I wish I could catch some awful disease, an illness with running sores, so that my appearance would put him off and he would not want to touch me. I suffer from not being ill...
Well, that’s enough for you to envy me for. As you say you envy me, make quite sure my letter doesn’t get into other hands, especially my parents’. I embrace you. If you see Tave, give him my good wishes but don’t say a word about my troubles.
Fond kisses from Nafi.
No news is good news! Yes, but I need news. Your news, warm with our sun and sprinkled with the gossip around the fountain, the trifling kind as well as the other.
My ‘husband’ has just gone out, so I’m taking advantage to continue our conversation of a month or so ago. I have to go and see Madame Baronne. She’s a very nice woman who has a grocery shop down the street. I keep her company, or rather the opposite is nearer the truth. I got your letter yesterday.
I’m alone with you, just as when there were only the two of us. With you, I can pour my heart out. You’re a real friend, something truly rare. You say you’re surprised by what I told you about the great age of my ‘husband’? If I went further into details of his state, you’d be flabbergasted. By your suppositions, you raise doubts in my mind. It’s quite true, and I’ve thought about it myself, that my marriage to Demba was hatched in silence to which my father contributed. It’s a thought that sometimes gnaws sharply at my mind. Yet I refuse to believe it. Not for myself, but for a reason I’m unable to determine for the moment. What I can be certain of, if these doubts should prove to have substance, is that the little shame remaining to me would be still further diluted. I find consolation in the fact that I brought my misfortunes on myself. But to know that I was caught in a plot which was chiefly the work of my father, my own father . . . no, that I can’t believe. You know my father, how gentle, good and straightforward he is.
Why do you go on hurting me? No, my friend, I believe you’re sincere. It’s just that to know such things is very unpleasant.
You don’t believe me? It’s unpleasant all the same! I assure you that he’s as old as my father, if not older. Besides, I’m enclosing one of his papers. His body is all creased. Now that winter is upon us—and it’s devilishly cold, I’m all frozen—he wears long underpants night and day. He washes in the room. In the evening—the hardest moment of all for me is when he comes to bed. That’s all he thinks of. Anyone would believe he’s after getting an heir. I detest him to the point of hating my own body. His death would be a happy release for me. Sometimes, to break the silence, he tells me about episodes in his past, the pig. He’s been up to plenty of mischief, if I’m to believe all he says. Our talk is at cross-purposes.
But I can say it to you. I think I’m going to have a baby. And the other evening, after gazing at me a long time—the swine—he said, ‘You ought to go and see a doctor.’ It was he who first pointed out my condition. After all, he ought to know all about the subject, considering the time he’s been gallivanting about the ports. And he added, without giving me time to recover, ‘If the doctor gives you a certificate to say that you’re pregnant, we’ll go to the shipping company and you can see the chief in charge of sailings.’ He’s the one who engages the crews. For five years now, my ‘husband’ has been out of work. ‘The white women do that for their husbands,’ he ended up. ‘Why shouldn’t we do the same?’
If you knew how humiliating it was to hear him say that to me! It wasn’t enough to send me off my nut, he expected me to go and make eyes at some white or other, too.
I can hear his voice through the skylight. He’s coming back; I’ll leave you until later.
I’m taking up our chat again. As I was saying, I went and saw the doctor. There’s no doubt about it! I’m expecting. He’s pleased, and he’s always hanging around. He’s more often in the room, with his foul smell, than out in the street. His mere presence fills me with disgust, more and more so. All his kindness and fond attentions just irritate me. He even goes and does some of my shopping for me, very likely because he’s afraid I might get knocked down by a car while crossing the road. If only that could happen to me! What luck! But no, it’s too much to hope for. So much the worse for me.
Just imagine, yesterday I went to see this shipping boss. Humiliating it was. This gentleman gave me an interview. He thought I was Demba’s daughter. When I’d explained the object of my visit, assuming the air of a wife whose husband has been out of work for years and who is expecting her first baby, has no money and no hope of any to buy the layette—I probably sounded the right note there—this gentleman sent for the file on Demba and then said, ‘Your husband has reached the age limit’ (and he gazed at me with his globular eyes as if to say ‘he could be your grandfather’), ‘and with these modern techniques it will be difficult to find him a ship, especially as a stoker. For we haven’t any coal-burning vessels now. And the modern ones...'
When it comes to being modern, my ‘husband’ is that all right. A tight jacket and wide floppy trousers. He was waiting for me down below, and before I left him to go up he had said, ‘Insist on a cleaner’s job for me, as I don’t know anything about the workings of things on board.’ So with that in mind, I pressed for a job for him as a cleaner. And I pushed his claim with persistence, saying that he’d been with the shipping company for more than thirty years, and that now he was getting on in years they wanted nothing more to do with him. He hadn’t been given a pension, not even a sum of money as compensation. Then I enlarged upon my situation as an expectant mother, the rent, the high cost of living—everything I could think of. I must have been more than half-an-hour in that office. In the end, he gave way, he’ll sign him on the first chance he gets, ‘and it’ll be his last ship’.
So now you know and can see how I’ve spent the last couple of days.
By that evening the news of my visit to the shipping office had got around. After supper, his friends and acquaintances arrived one after the other, all of his generation. They stank of tobacco and never stopped chewing kola-nuts. I think Demba must have told them that I’m expecting a baby, for they showed great concern towards me. I looked at them as I listened to their talk, not saying a word myself. They would suddenly fall silent, as if wanting to retain in their hearing the last sentence someone had uttered. Now and again they would stay quite still, body and jaws motionless—like kids made to stand in the corner. Seeing them stuck like that, not moving, made me think of those war-memorials with a statue that no one puts flowers on except once a year. Their eyes have an aged look, dulled by an infinite sadness, a sense of being neglected, of living in a little world of their own, and only light up with their last look to the past.
All they can do is re-open the past, their past. They talk about the early years of this century, about the First World War, as I talk to you about the present and dream of a better future. They recall the names of ships that were sunk, their tonnage, their captains and boatswains, the good and bad whites—for to them there still exist good and bad whites—and they recall old comrades now dead. And when one of them brings the conversation round to his childhood, they listen so religiously that I have the feeling he’s making his confession, with his voice heavy with regrets. By dint of telling the same things over and over again, each one knows the other as if he were a part of himself. In the matter of growing up, they have many memories in common. Their characters were formed in the same way and their mentality is all alike.
These recollections help and support them, give them a link with their childhood . . . It’s all they have left—a tarnished mirror giving a reflection of their youth. The life of an exile! They are doubly exiled—cut off from their origins and from the French language. And the present time, with its many changes, geographical, technical and mental, is quite beyond their comprehension. It is too late for them to return to their own country; they would be just as much foreigners there . . . They keep alive the events of the past and chew them over, make a meal of them in the present.
You can detect nostalgia in the tone of their voices, but they never seem disgruntled—indifferent is more the word. And there they are stuck here, stoically waiting for death to cart them off one after the other. And as their numbers decrease, so the remainder cling together more than ever.
It’s an odd sort of life that these men lead.
You write and say that Tave has got married to that hussy! However did she manage to hook him? Tave is sensible and levelheaded after all! She was only interested in ministers, deputies and heads of departments. Is it known who the father of her child is? Poor Tave! He’s become a saver of dignity, a redeemer of sins. I’ve sometimes thought of writing to him, in moments of great loneliness and when smitten with remorse. He was the kindest and most sincere of all my suitors. I think it was his great kindness that curbed my desire for him. And now he’s with this woman whom I never want to see. Let’s hope that they’ll be happy together until the divorce.
I’m very glad about you, from all you tell me. Of all us girls, you’re the only one who has kept her head.
What a long letter! I shan’t read it over, there’s too much of it.
Dear old friend,
Why this tone? This scarcely concealed wrath? For nearly two months you’ve been very cool with me. It’s impossible for you to put yourself in my place. Besides, I shouldn’t advise you to ... No, I don’t spend my time bemoaning my lot. I’m not living—I leave life on one side. It’s worse! No one but me knows my mental sufferings.
Get a divorce? I don’t think so. I’m too far from home to indulge in such a luxury. But thank you for your advice. I know, my marriage is a Muslim one. It’s not valid in the eyes of the law. But which law? The law made by men or by the morals of men? I can leave him—that’s true! But then where can I go? Who will take me in? Don’t forget that I’ve no money to pay for my passage back to Dakar. Of course it’s easy to bring about a break. And the baby—have you thought of that? No, I think you’re on the wrong track. And I don’t consider myself to be the center of the universe either. At least, not now.
I’ve had a letter from my family, from my brother Babacar. I had a job to read it, so badly is it written. He asks me to get him a suit. Me—who never has any money! Where could I get any from? I’ve nothing of my own, absolutely nothing. My father has written to my ‘husband’, who is sending him some things. When I think . . . or rather when suspicion distills its poison in my heart, I’m deeply hurt. All filial love takes flight.
Do you remember our dreams, our ambitions when we were girls? We wanted to be free of a husband’s domination, to be our own mistresses, be able to buy what we wished without having to give reasons for it or to wait for someone else to hand over the money to pay for it—in short, to be independent. Well, I haven’t a chance now. With my old man’s jar of kola-nuts and his being out of work, we just manage to live. Everything is very dear in France. The white men and women I know here all want to go to Africa. Sometimes my old man brings in packets of spaghetti and sugar, and where do you think he gets them from? The Welfare Committee. The tickets fell from his pocket one day. I found out about it by asking Madame Baronne. So you see what I’ve come to, begging. I tell myself I’ve got no morals left. Besides, Madame Baronne often tells me there are two kinds of morals, one for the rich and the other for the workers. And after thinking deeply about it, I came to the conclusion that she’s quite right. Another thing—all hope of returning home hangs on playing the horses. My ‘husband’ has a bet on the Tote forecast every Sunday. He studies the racing page of the paper on Saturdays; crouched in a corner, he juggles with the names of horses. You ought to see him! He talks in millions, and on Sunday evening grumbles because one horse has let him down.
Poor wretch! It’s the only hope left to him.
To reassure you of all my friendship for you, I’m keeping this letter short. My pregnancy is developing normally. I haven’t yet written to tell my family. So don’t you say anything to anybody. One never knows!
Many kisses, Nafi.
My very dear,
Something wonderful! There’s a break in even the deepest gloom at times. Oh yes! I’ve just emerged from my long slumber of loneliness and despair, from my lethargy. I’ve left the bed I’ve been tied to for months—a bed of resignation. It’s a little as if my whole horizon has been set alight.
My old man, my ‘husband’, joined his ship and sailed today. But wait! That’s not the reason why I’m feeling so satisfied.
Where shall I begin? With the old man? The swine. If you knew how he takes everyone in, me included. He was sent a form to go and have a medical examination. He got someone else to go in his place. The doctor didn’t notice anything—only black. In that way, his great age won’t affect the doctor’s opinion.
As the day of his departure drew near, so my life of isolation seemed to deepen. I was going to be really alone. I asked him to send me back to Africa, and I’d wait for him there. These dark, damp, cold walls seemed to be my coffin. I began to regret him—to say the opposite would be lying to you. He’s my companion, the only person I could break the wall of silence with; as you know, I don’t like him, but I was used to him. In this life of a recluse, he was all I had; and I’d got used to him a bit, as one gets used to some infirmity. He brought me news of the outside world. The long hours I spent with him—the time he took over his prayers, counting his money, his daily takings—that all filled the emptiness around me. And all that was going to be just a memory. We chatted together; we laughed. At the end I think I came to cherish his white hairs.
You remember the fable of the hyena? He won the most beautiful female in a competition open to all the animals, and his beaten rivals said to him, ‘Hyena, you’re much too ugly for her.’ And he replied: ‘I know. I know I’m not pleasant to look at. But that’s because of all of you. When she sees no one but me for weeks and months on end, she’ll start to get used to the sight of me and finish by liking me.’ And the hyena was right.
He’s made me a monthly allowance from his wages.
He joined a ‘libert’ ship—I’m not sure of the spelling and I haven’t got a dictionary, but it’s something like that.
And that’s when it all started.
I went down to the docks with him, and he took me on board and proudly introduced me to his shipmates. I got the feeling that they were only looking at my belly and his wrinkled face, and were making rude jokes about his age. I was thinking about myself all the time—lonesome Nafi, my mind ran. While sitting down below in a cabin and ruminating on the future, I heard a loud voice say, ‘Sister, it’s time to leave.’ It was him. Tall, thin. He wasn’t even looking at me. He has a grave, pugnacious face, nothing sleek about it. He was wearing a blue suit - it’s called Shanghai blue, I don’t know why. ‘Arona will take you back,’ said my ‘husband’, poking his worn old face round the door. Their two faces filled my whole vision. ‘If you need to know anything, Arona will help you,’ added my ‘husband’. He gave me some last advice and then accompanied me to the gangway. Arona was talking with some of the crew, a cigarette between his lips.
Then we walked out of the docks together, not saying a word. A white—who probably knew Arona—said to him, ‘Is that your wife?’ ‘No, she’s the wife of an old man,’ he replied. I didn’t know where to put myself. Wasn’t his reply a dividing line? He was already keeping his distance. If you’d seen how he twice repeated ‘No, no’—it was quite explicit. The white shook my hand all the same.
We took a bus to the Old Port, and during the journey got to know each other better. He had been on board the day I arrived here. And I knew him by name too—the old ones often talked about him. He pulled a face when I told him that. I know he’s one of the leaders of the Association of Black Workers in France—a militant, in short.
When we got off the bus he helped me to cross the road, holding me by the elbow. Submissively, I allowed myself to be led. Out on the square there was an African sun, and in my heart too, shedding a flood of light. There were crowds of people walking about and long lines of cars moving slowly past. He took me to a cafe, a select one facing the port, and we had a drink.
How long we stayed there chatting away, I’ve no idea. What does it matter! All I know is, it was wonderful! And besides, I was in no hurry to get back to my attic room with its tatty walls, thick shadows and damp sheets, where I should be all alone. The din all around was deafening—the hooting of cars, a pneumatic drill where workmen were mending the road, and the cacophony of the crowds.
I was feeling fine in heart and body. This sequel to the gloomy, silent days made my face radiant, and a flood of joyfulness surged through my veins. The hyena was right: ‘I know that, I know I’m not pleasant to look at. And it’s because of all of you. But when she sees no one but me, me alone, for weeks and months on end, she’ll start to get used to the sight of me and finish by liking me.’
Arona was not looking at me; in fact we hardly caught each other’s glance. He was sitting at his ease, his long legs stretched out, smoking with one elbow on the table, and looking at the pleasure-boats that ply between the Old Port and the Château d’lf, the island just outside the harbor.
‘Have you been to the Château d’lf ?’ he asked me.
‘Don’t worry—I know people born here who’ve never set foot in the place.’
And there was I thinking that he was about to suggest taking me on the trip there. I don’t know if he does it on purpose, but he can be baffling. There’s an innocent look to him at times, just like a child. Is he married? To a white woman? He doesn’t wear a wedding-ring. Mind you, a ring doesn’t mean anything. Has he any children? I didn’t put these questions to him; I checked myself in time. We got on to the subject—I don’t know how—of the emigration of Africans to France. He knew plenty about that. As he talked, his tobacco-colour eyes took on a different shade. He spoke about them from the heart—the old men, the soldiers who were demobilized here, the seamen. He had a lot to say about the old ones especially, pitying them and taking their part. I had the air of a child listening to the complaints of an adult and being surprised that he should have any worries.
What age can he be? He has the bearing and vitality of a young man. (He said we’d have another drink, the same again, without asking me if I wanted one.) Then he decided it was time to go home. That made me miserable ... the treat was over. We walked back. Do you think he asked if I was tired? No ....
When we reached my street door he said he would come and see me from time to time, and that if I wanted to see him urgently I had only to call at the Association’s center between six and seven.
If you saw him, you would approve. Oh, no doubt of it! He has already brought me the sunshine, the surf of the ocean of happiness. With him, everything has to be alive and genuine. Do you think I’m doing right? Of course, there’s my condition. Will it be all right until the birth? I’m in raptures at seeing a gleam of life shining on the horizon at last.
That’s all for now, old friend,P.S. I’ve just counted the pages - there are ten. Too many.
I came across these odd pages of letters, which I’ve gathered together here:
... No, no! How do you expect me to follow your advice. He hasn’t been back for four days. The last time he stayed until after midnight, and next morning my landlady gave me a dirty look. He sent another man to go with me to the Family Allowances office, saying that he was very busy. I’m waiting patiently for him to come and see me again. When will that be? He said to me the last time, ‘I don’t like your landlady.’ But he didn’t tell me why not.
... Arona came to see me three days later. I heard his voice on the landing, through the skylight which I’d opened to have some air. He was talking to some Algerians, and I can still remember everything he said. He told the Algerians: ‘If the FLN gives orders that you’re not to take part in the referendum, you’ll have to obey. But we of Black Africa who work here, we must vote. Because our ‘No’ will have a double meaning. We’ll be voting ‘No’ to show our solidarity with the French working class, for we benefit from the better conditions that they’ve gained by their struggles in the past, and also we’re workers ourselves. Secondly, our ‘No’ will show that we want an end to colonial domination of our own country.’
He came to see me afterwards. But he didn’t stay very long. He has to ...
. . . at the risk of repeating myself, as in my previous letters, I still enjoy his company and conversation. I talk about all sorts of things with him—clothes, hair-styles, shoes, films ... He doesn’t like Negresses—he always calls them that—who have the crinkle taken out of their hair. We’ve been to the shipping place together, then we bought a few things. Going down the main avenue, we laughed at everything. We had ourselves photographed. He’ll go back to collect the photo. As we were walking along we saw a woman just in front of us with a little dog on a leash. ‘Do you know what those dogs are called?’ he whispered to me. I looked blank, showing him I’d no idea. ‘Bum-lickers,’ he said. I could feel the blood rush to my face, and didn’t know where to put myself. This happened a second time when, in his free and easy way, he took me into a shop selling clothes for pregnant women.
He went up to the shopkeeper and said to him, ‘My wife’s expecting a baby, presumably mine, and would like a dress becoming to her condition of a gratified wife.’ The shopkeeper looked me up and down. I felt confused and embarrassed. But with great tact—his slogan must be always be pleasant to customers—he replied, ‘I’m very happy for you, sir, and for you too, madam.’ Then he beckoned to a shop girl to see to us. Arona, without giving her time to ask anything, said to her in the same tone as the shopkeeper had used, ‘What color will suit madam? As she’s aubergine-black, I don’t want anything too striking, but nothing neutral either.’ I could have screamed; I felt like hitting him. What was I to do—walk out of the shop? Since meeting him, I can’t control my nerves! While I was seething inwardly, he was feeling and examining the dresses, all with a straight face, holding them up to me and murmuring to the shop girl, ‘No, no, that won’t do.’ I’m not sure what happened after that, but when we were out in the street again he laughed and laughed. But I was furious. I’m not a clown. He doesn’t care what I might think ... perhaps? But I don’t think so.
The next thing was that he took me into a pastry-shop. There were quite a few people, about a dozen, waiting to be served. When our turn came, he asked for ‘half-a-dozen Negro-lickers’. The woman behind the counter looked at me and blushed. And he, after staring at the poor woman, turned to me and said, ‘Is that enough, darling?’ You must admit, it was going a bit too far. And when we’d sat down at a table he said, ‘I like a good laugh. But I don’t often have the chance. So I take advantage of you being with me.’ I didn’t understand a word. I heard what he said all right, but what did he mean? However, my anger gradually subsided.
Him a hooligan? You’re a long way out, dear. A man, yes—a combination of authority and vindictiveness, of a revolutionary and someone up to date. A stimulating person.
Well, we made a few more purchases. Oh, and then there’s the film. When we got back he said, ‘I’ll call for you at half-past eight, to take you to the cinema.’ No question of whether I was feeling well enough to go out again. . . No, he manages people as he decides on ways and means for them. I’ve had a glimpse of that.
So in the evening he took me to see Limelight. It’s a Charlie Chaplin film. If you get the chance, if it comes to your town, do go and see it. It made me cry . . . the music and the dancing, and the dancer who trampled on the old man’s feelings! Only someone inhuman could see this film without a tightening of the heart. Afterwards, walking back home from the cinema, he was silent. I concluded he was in one of his uncommunicative moods, and this led me to think over one or two things. Was it on purpose that he’d taken me to see this film? I asked him. For there was a similarity with my own situation.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘You mean people are saying that I’m sleeping with you? Even that the child you’re carrying is mine?’
I’d decided to risk everything, to bring matters to a head and put an end to this ambiguous situation between us. Never mind what the Africans here might think or would think. What do they know of my sufferings, of how low I’ve fallen? Haven’t I the right to love, to laugh, to go out? No, of course not. They’re all men, and men with conservative ideas, very reactionary. Quite a few of them abandoned their wives back in their own country two, three, even four years ago, and live here with white women. I had to take a strong hold on myself not to burst out in anger. ‘And what do you think about these tales ?’ I asked him.
‘What people are saying isn’t true. And it makes my work more difficult.’
‘How does it do that?’
He seemed not to have heard. His silence embarrassed me too much for me to repeat the question; I was torn between hoping he had not in fact heard and wanting a reply.
‘Because I’ve no wish to take another man’s wife,’ he finally said.
‘And supposing I was just any sort of woman?’
‘I’ve no wish for any sort of woman either.’
‘What you’re doing or aiming at is more important?’
‘For me, yes.’
‘Is that why you take me around with you—for your own ends?’
‘I don’t see anything dishonest in that. If I need a woman, I pay for her.’
Beating him to death wouldn’t have been good enough for him; stretching him out over an ant-heap, yes. I’d bared myself, I was naked, and he just pushed me aside, rejected me. We didn’t exchange another word all the way back. I never want to see him again.
. . . My old man will be back in a few days. He’s ill and in the sickbay on board. It seems to be serious. Arona still comes just as he used to, and there’s nothing in his look that recalls our argument after going to see that film. We haven’t been to the cinema again. He’s dealing with the forms for my admission to the maternity hospital.
As for my ‘husband’, my old man, he mentions in one of his letters the rumors going around among the Africans. But his letters are not so violent now as they were at first.
No, don’t go to see a marabout. What for? Arona doesn’t mean anything to me any more ...
... You’re badly mistaken. God knows I’d rather be mistaken than to have a moment’s doubts. There’s something that Madame Baronne and Arona have in common. Madame Baronne is a Communist. ‘A great-hearted woman,’ my ‘husband’ once said of her. And indeed, she’s the only woman I like talking with. She’s lent me a magazine called Femmes Françaises. Everything is easy and straightforward with her. But some of her expressions escape me. Oh, the other day Arona came with a friend of his, who looked at the African-style garment I was wearing and said, ‘African material is certainly pretty.’ At which Arona commented, ‘African material, stamped Boussac.’ Who is Boussac? Madame Baronne told me—the biggest textile manufacturer in France.
It’s odd, how deep your distrust goes. Thanks all the same.
. . . I’m at the maternity hospital. The Referendum has been held. Senegal has voted ‘Yes’. It’s odd. It’s disappointing after the reception given to the General (De Gaulle). No one expected it—at least, not here. Here in France there’s a majority for ‘Yes’. Arona hasn’t been to see me again. He must be taking his defeat badly. For his sake, I wanted the ‘No’ to win. My old ‘husband’ has been to see me though. He looks even more unpleasant than when he went away. I feel sorry for him. He’s really very ill. He brought me a whole lot of things that he got on his voyage. He just sat near me, not saying a word, his head bowed as if the weight of years added to the burden of poverty crushed what dignity remains to him. The women in the ward with me thought that he’s my father and that Arona is my husband. I was obliged to tell them they’re wrong. What do you think the old man has? Cancer. His friends, those of his own generation, haven’t come to see me. The reason? Arona. I’m all the better for it, anyway. I explained to the old man that there’s never been anything between Arona and me. We’re like brother and sister. He believes me—at least, that’s what he says.
Everything is going well with me. I mean . . .
.. . Madame Baronne came to see me with her daughter. She brought me some bananas and said, ‘These are fruit from your own country.’ There’s a student midwife here who’s a Negress. From Togoland. She came to see me too. Arona sent her. Can she be his fiancee? The other women here are full of praise for her. She’s a very hard worker and the most conscientious of all the student nurses. She gives me African newspapers to read. She comes twice a day.
I’ve two neighbors, the one in the bed on the left is an Arab, she thinks I’m a Muslim; the one on the right is Italian, and she thinks I’m a Roman Catholic.
I’ve nothing much to write to you about. I walk in the grounds with some of the women. They make me laugh. They know nothing at all about Africa. All day long I have to answer their daft questions.
Fond kisses, Nafi.P.S. The old man is in a bad way, confined to his bed. I’m very distressed about him.
MarseillesMy dear friend,
I’ve left hospital with a baby girl. A priest came to baptize her, but I refused. She hasn’t been baptized according to Muslim rites either, nor to those of our country. She’s been named after the old man’s mother—Yaye Codou. So now I’m back in my pigeon-hole. . . It’s lucky that the old man is in hospital, for with a baby weighing all of six pounds the room would be much too small. Three of us in this match-box—it’s just not possible. I must find somewhere else to live. In this room that’s twelve feet square there’s a double bed, a wardrobe, some suitcases, sacks of kola-nuts and all my cooking things. To make a little space, I’ve taken the baby’s pram to pieces. She’s in the bed with me.
I’ve had a letter from my father. He sends me advice and encouragement and talks about a wife being submissive, a sort of unobtrusive shadow. It’s very easy to give advice and tell me what to do. I don’t hold it against him—my father I mean—he’s only conforming to type. The times are changing but he can’t see it and he still clings to his old-fashioned ideas. Mother hasn’t written at all.
Do you remember what we used to say about the first baby we’d have—my first this and that? The reality is turning out to be quite different. It’s very hard for me—I don’t know what to compare my situation with. All I know is that our dreams resulted from a sort of torpor of the mind, that we were much too sensitive and influenced by the life around us. Almost as if we were drugged.
I don’t like France. What is France to me, anyway? These four walls, that’s all!
Madame Baronne comes to see me nearly every day. She tells me that I’m wasting away, and I can well believe her. She must have guessed how lonely I am; she keeps inviting me, but I don’t want to go. She knows I’m alone, very much alone just now, without relatives, friends or neighbors. There’s no neighborliness in this country. I’m a stranger here. The women I sometimes meet down at the shipping place, seeing me with Yaye Codou, say, ‘Oh, what a lovely baby! A boy?’ ‘No, a girl,’ I reply. ‘Oh, I’d have said a boy,’ they say. And that’s all. My black neighbors are worse than the white.
This is a letter from me to you alone.
Yours ever, Nafi.
My mind was made up before going to see my old man. I’d done all my packing and I was going to tell him I was leaving. I can’t stand it any longer. I’ve had enough! This room! With this baby! And all alone! I couldn’t go on. But when I got to the hospital and went into the ward and saw him lying there, his face all drawn and his breathing so harsh, I couldn’t hold back my tears. There were some of his old friends at his bedside. They sit with him, watch over him with faces like death-masks. It’s the final mark of their affection for him. They all know he’s had it. I was sitting at the back and saying over to myself, ‘Demba, I’ve made up my mind, I’m going back to the old country.’ But it was impossible for me to say that out loud—I just couldn’t. Yet I can’t wait until his end comes. When will that be? Tomorrow—or not for a year or two?
No one could make the decision for me. There they were, his old companions, calmly convinced of approaching death. Which will be the next to go? I’d rather it were one of them and not me. They’ve had their life. Mine is still ahead of me. Looking at them gives me indigestion for this life. What has happened to my insatiable appetite for life?
The words suddenly slipped from me, automatically: ‘Demba, I’m going back home.’ What else could I do? Nothing ... I think the old man moved ... an arm. But that was all. The others were still staring at the same spot. Not one of them had looked up at me. I was in a cold sweat. I was expecting some response, but none came. God knows I don’t refuse to watch over him. God knows that! But I’m unable to, here. A woman left alone, with a young baby to look after, never any sun for her nappies and other things. This damp room which never gets a single ray of sunshine. It’ll be the death of me! No, I can’t stay here—they can think what they like. Stay and wait for him to get better? He never will get better. He wanted a young wife to end his days with. I don’t want to die—not here. It’s enough to drive you mad. The baby crying ... And those yells! I lost all taste for things a long while ago. I haven’t even time to attend to myself. When I look in a mirror I don’t recognize myself. It’s a martyrdom—and all because of a photograph.
In his last letter my father talked of God. It’s not a question of Him, but of me—me, very much alive. I’ve stopped replying to father’s letters. It’s better that way. One of these fine mornings he’ll see me arrive. When I left I was just a child—in my mind—but I’m not any longer.
I left the hospital ward soon afterwards. None of them got up to see me out.
Arona came to see me. ‘There’s nothing I can say—nothing I can say to you,’ were his words. He doesn’t approve of me. Not in the slightest. But I don’t give a damn for his ideas, big or little. ‘Where will you get the money for your ticket home?’ he asked. I hadn’t thought about that. The swine, they’ve really got me. Arona had thought about it—but in which way? I’ve no idea, and he’ll probably never tell me. Nobody will come to my aid, I told Arona. Then I shouted that I didn’t like France. He smiled slightly and said, ‘You know nothing about France.’
My very dear friend,
What would have happened to me if it weren’t for you? My one support, the only person I could confide in. You’ll never know just how much our correspondence has meant to me. Without this coming and going of letters I should have been cut off from my source, been lost and gone astray. I’m no poet, but I wish I could write and make you feel all my emotions. Despite all the water between us, our exchanges have put the seal on our friendship.
Well, it’s all over! My ‘husband’ is dead. Dead, I tell you. A fortnight ago. He was given a fine funeral. The whole of the African colony attended. I was there too—which is against all tradition. Arona said to me that if I wanted to go, I could, after all. That ‘after all’ grieved me. It was full of reproach. The other day he told me: ‘I’ve a lot of admiration for our elders—the old men here. They’ve never wanted to become neutral and assimilate with the French. They’ve remained Africans in the true sense of the word.’ But what does it matter to me, what Arona or any of them thinks. To him, the end justifies the means. He spares nobody and never forgives anyone. As for the others, let’s say no more about them.
The death of the old man distresses me, just a little. I should be telling you a lie if I said the opposite. And another thing—I’m letting my thoughts run on, I’m so happy—I shan’t have to go into mourning. The elders had a meeting to decide about it. I had to admire Arona’s coolness and clarity. That man is capable of killing a baby in support of his ideas. He stood up for me, even though he disapproves of my conduct. He took a realistic view in fact. It was after they’d all left that I thought over and admired what he’d said to the others. ‘She can’t stay shut up for forty days, seeing no one but her close relatives,’ he put it to them. ‘And who is her close relative here? Who is there to go to market for her? A wife in mourning in our country is not allowed to go out, must not see any men nor even talk to them, except through a thick screen. She has to be kept from temptation, guarded against the weakness of the flesh. Demba’s widow ought to be sent back home as soon as possible. That’s my opinion on the matter.’ After a long discussion, the others agreed with him. And the more I think about it, the more I wish it. And I can understand their situation in France, too.
I’ve settled all my affairs here, as well as those of my dead husband, and I shall be taking ship in a fortnight’s time.
This is my last letter from France.
Good-bye for now, dear, and I’ll tell you the rest when I see you.