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Sonja Porle

Sonja Porle

Porle, a Slovenian writer, first travelled to Africa in 1983 and has returned every year since. Having written her thesis on Ashanti children, Sonja went on to interview some of the greatest African musicians and write extensively on West African politics, literature and music. Her literary debut, Black Angel Watching over me (dedicated to Thomas Sankara) was  a 1997 best-seller which was translated into Croatian and German. The jury for her Zlata ptica award (a major cultural prize) felt that Black Angel helped Slovenians understand Africa better than decades of the Non-aligned Movement. In 1998 she published The Colour of Sweet Chocolate, her selection of newspaper articles about West Africa. Sonja lives in Oxford.


 Street life in Ouagadougou  

This extract from Black Angel Watching Over Me is translated from Slovenian,
by Tamara Soban

Coffee and Friends

I stepped off the bus into a street alight with the golden glow of the setting sun. The faces of passersby and the sunlit trunks of roadside trees were made of liquid gold, and the long, slim shadows of burnished copper. Over the tin roofs of the town arched a limpid blue sky. The pure and boundless heart of an angel. The street was lined with a row of taller and greener trees than I had expected, and hurrying past under their boughs were more smartly dressed people than there had been a half-year before. And the notorious Ouagadougou dust seemed to have melted into the brick-colored earth. Only around the unbroken line of taxicabs, mopeds and bicycles on the asphalt road did it swirl in a dry, grainy halo. And even that was golden in color. The evening was glorious.

I had taken barely twenty steps along the road which I presumed would take me downtown from the Western outskirts of Ouaga, when I felt the urge to treat myself to a complet coffee. I approached the long row of men and women sitting on a bench outside a roadside cafe watching the buoyant life on the street. They squeezed over to make room for me and shook hands with me one after another, bidding me good-evening. I ordered a café complet and joined in their silence.

The street life was more than just buoyant; it throbbed in the frenzied rhythms of the approaching night, as if people were rushing pell-mell to finish in the coolness of the dying light all the things they hadn't managed to do in the heat of the day. Their innocent actions called for imitation. The view from the restful side of the road lured one into momentary oblivion. I sank my teeth into some white bread and resolved to postpone my visit to the Zongos for a day or two.

I wished to be by myself, to reflect in peace on exactly what I would tell the Zongos about my life in Ghana. I had learned from experience that the stories and thoughts you share with the first friend you meet upon your return are the ones you then keep repeating to everyone willing to listen, and thus inadvertently forget all the things you'd failed to first mention, until you end up no longer knowing yourself what had truly happened and what the places you'd visited had really been like. In Ghana, I had been free and at peace with the world in a way I had never known before. I'd made a vow to myself that I would not forget that serene happiness.

I inquired of the other guests at the cafe about the nearest inexpensive hotel. They conferred, and one of them told me there indeed was a tiny hotel quite close by, but it was not fit for me, a white woman, because it was not clean enough and it had no electricity. Actually, it was not really a hotel at all, he added, just a doss-house, at best good enough for African wayfarers who were used to anything. I shook the dust out of my skirt and asked them to show me the way to the doss-house.


A Handy Hole-in-the-Wall

My hotel room turned out to be a little hole in the wall, chock full of the tired spirits of all who had stayed there before me. It was furnished with a military bed, and illuminated by watery moonlight pouring in through a porthole just below the ceiling. I liked the little cubicle. It felt custom-made for my soul.

Spreading the vivid Ghana cloth over the warm bed, I sank into the sagging mattress, washed and tired after the long journey. I did not think about my vow; instead I listened to the buzz of the nearby streets and wondered at how curiously akin it was to the breathing of the sleeping tropical bush, which had been my lullaby for the last five months in that backwater Ghana village. And at how the piercing cries and whispering sighs were not, after all, the nighttime shenanigans of jungle creatures, but the waking nightlife of a city. My thoughts grew lighter and weaker, seamlessly entwining with sweet dreams. At dawn I remembered dreaming that my journey was only just beginning.

Afterwards, I similarly failed to sort out my travel impressions. I quickly slipped on my high-heeled shoes and, with my spirits also high, set out from the little hotel with no name, which stood on a street with no name, for an aimless stroll around the anonymous suburb. I did not go far; I knew all along I was going in circles and never lost track of the general whereabouts of my little room. I just walked on, with no thought or memory, this way and that, forward and back. Every now and then I'd buy myself a small delicacy, a banana or a fried millet dumpling, have a Coke and then go on, or else retrace my steps. I shook hands with everyone who crossed my path or met my eyes for longer than a brief second and, as luck would have it, engaged in lengthy conversation primarily with travelers: Guineans, Senegalese, Malians.

Every encounter served in its way to convince me that there was nothing better than a carefree stroll around the wide world. Young Guineans enticed me with their flirtatious laughter and off-key guitars. With two fingers they twanged dewy, pretty tunes. They also sang in strangled, wounded voices, their eyes moist. Leaning against house fronts they sang:

'I've been all around.
To the south, to the north,
to the east and the west.
It's nice everywhere.
But Ouagadougou is the most beautiful of all.
Because it is there, there that you are,
my love, my angel.
Ouaga's your home, my lovely.
Diarabi, ma Cherie,
diarabi, diarabi, ma Cherie...'

The passersby fell in step to the rhythm of the guitars, swaying their hips; young girls faltered and let their eyes drop, intimidated by the rhythm of the willing male desires; and I, I was overpowered by homesickness for places I'd never even been to. For cities that must be almost as beautiful as Ouaga. For Lagos, Dakar, and Conakry, for Kinshasa, Luanda, and Lusaka. The Senegalese produced from their bottomless pockets wallets made of crocodile leather, bracelets and belts made of cowrie shells, strings of glass beads, Fula earrings, Tuareg swords, and heavy Ashanti weavings, jingling them in front of my eyes until I finally bought one tiny, trifling souvenir that I did not need and could ill afford. But what could I do - it was so nice to adorn myself with nomadic jewels and imagine a life both restless and steadfast in the future.

The Malians were the most alluring of all. I had never before seen people with such graceful bodies and regular features. The older they were, the more perfect and stately their beauty. The men wrapped in shiny Moslem togas were tall and lean, with smooth, regal faces. I had to look up into the women's faces as well: their many-layered turbans and heavy earrings pulled their patrician heads back, and they craned their necks in sharp, falcon-like twists; between their sparse words they would lower their silky black lids until their eyes were like coffee beans, and disdainfully pout their thick lips. Their demeanor exuded an air of dignity that was only fleetingly comprehensible. Quite evidently, the Malians were anything but rich. They hung about in the streets on the outskirts of the world's poorest capital city. But their surroundings had no bearing on their undisguised otherworldliness.

It was as though they guarded inside themselves the memory of the time when Malians ruled the known world, and with their gold undermined the financial markets of the unknown white world. They came from Gao, Timbuktu, Bamako, Djenne, Segou and Kayes ... The very names of their hometowns rang with echoes of legendary beauty and fairy-tale power. Without restraint, and without lying either, I answered those Malians who invited me to come visit them when my travels took me to their desert kingdom that I would probably be going there the very next day. I did not have time, though - let alone money - for a new journey. But my daydreams knew no parsimony as I walked on and on and on, skipping over muddy puddles and laughing, thinking of a bright future and enjoying the moment, making new friends and taking a long time to say goodbye, as the ground under my feet turned golden, the sunlight ebbed away, and the afternoon soundlessly blossomed into evening. Until an enormous and restless full moon wandered onto the cornflower-blue expanse of Ouaga sky. I realized only then that I was no better prepared for my pending return than the night before.

Parcelling Memories

I took refuge in my little cubicle. I shook the money out of my handbag and onto the bed. I did not bother with the kerosene lamp, I made do with the torch. But the longer I counted, the less money there was. Even if I managed to postpone my flight to a later date, I could not stay in Ouaga for more than a week. I dropped my clothes on the ground and lay down without washing, covering myself with the coolness of the turquoise moonlight. Without wanting to I started thinking about the objects in my suitcase. I wished to give the Zongos something, I knew they would appreciate every little thing no matter how small, even down-at-heel shoes and torn socks. I tossed about on the creaky bed, endlessly distributing my meager belongings among people who loved me rich or poor.

In my mind, to the mothers I gave my toiletries, to Lizeta the non-African jewelry and my wristwatch, to Lara my worn clothes and shoes, to David the English books I'd finished reading, to Ousmane the bed-sheet, to the children the leaves in my notebooks I hadn't written upon. I decided to hand them the paltry gifts at the last moment before leaving for the airport, so they wouldn't have time for profuse thanks. Only for Abdoulaye I had nothing left. I could give him my camera, or the Swiss army knife. After a brief moment of deliberation I decided to keep the camera for myself and took comfort in the thought that Abdoulaye did not have money for film anyway.

Undoubtedly, though, he would have been delighted with the knife, which would have been useful, too. He could whittle forked sticks for catapults with it, or open bottles of beer in his bar. But I had inherited that pocket knife from my late father, and I could not bear to part with it. Before I had resolved whether I would nevertheless leave it with Abdoulaye or not, a ray of sunlight peeked into the room and I dropped off to sweaty daytime sleep.

When I peered out from the stuffy cell, my head heavy, the sun was high up in the middle of the sky. I threw my odds and ends into my suitcase and, carrying it in my hand and walking on my own shadow, hurried to the asphalt road. The first taxi stopped, and I agreed to the driver's first reduced fare to Dapoja. I did not feel like haggling. I began to look forward to returning to the Zongos, and immediately after that, home to Slovenia. Now, I could not have explained even to myself why I had feared going back. I could hardly wait to shake hands with the Zongos, and learn if they were - as always - all well and happy.

Translated by Tamara Soban

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