Lydia from Cameroon is Wojciech Albiński’s fourth collection of African stories, as he continues to discover new pieces of the picture of contemporary Africa that he is painting. However, anyone hoping to find an exotic world in this sort of fiction might feel disappointed on reading Lydia from Cameroon. To a large extent Albiński focuses on the universal problems that not just people living in the southern extremes of Africa contend with, but on other continents too. He writes about a middle-aged engineer who has been sacked from his job and has to overcome his fears about his own future and set up a new life for himself (in the story An unexpected new career), or about a young architect who gives in to the pressure of his ambitious, comfort and luxury-loving fiancée in order to obtain money and gets tangled up in deals with some suspicious, dangerous people (Antelope seeks hunter). Of course that does not mean Albiński entirely ignores any attempt to bring the reader closer to the unique features and problems of the Dark Continent. In depicting the fate of the president of a small African country, he shows us the workings of power (in the title story). He also writes about bloody tribal feuds and their sad consequences (Which of you committed genocide?). And in Waiting for the Russians – perhaps the best story in the whole collection – he tries, as it were, to touch the soul of the indigenous inhabitants of Africa by describing the shocking story of the self-destruction of the Xhosa tribe. It is worth stressing that in the process Albiński does not make judgements, instruct or moralise, but simply presents a variety of human examples, doing his best to show African reality in all its complexity. And he does it all in prose that is free of any linguistic fireworks, but is extremely lucid and disciplined instead. In short, this is a good piece of writing.
- Robert Ostaszewski
It was in these very hills that Jerry Fox was born. Two clay huts stood on a swept dirt floor, a naked boy was playing with a dog, and above him hung the leaves of a banana tree.
His father was a sergeant in the colonial army. He went about in khaki shorts and a pith helmet. He was wounded twice and awarded two crosses, and he used to welcome the recruits with a short speech ending in a command: down! He was proud of his uniform made of raw linen, and a brass buckle adorned his polished belt. On the sideboard in the drawing room the tea set shone. Every two days Jerry’s mother gave the cups a fresh shine.
The boy’s education began early, when he was sent to St Mark’s. It was a school run by missionaries, the pupils included Indians and whites, and most of them were Africans. The children of senior officials were sent to school in England, but within the Colony St Mark’s was also highly regarded. Rugby, tennis and developing the character were just as important as physics lessons. After his final exams the headmaster asked the boy what career he was electing for. Jerry stood to attention and replied: “Military”. His own reports, as well as his father’s long service, meant that his studies were paid for.
Then came his first voyage on a battleship, a new environment, and misty dawns doing drill training. Then lessons in tactics, new methods of commanding a platoon, and automatic weapons. From command points the cadets aw tanks burning on the fields of real battles.
At officer training school the snobbery was intense, which Jerry Fox ably picked up on. For social purposes he presented his family as ranchers and said his father was a colonel.
As he scrambled up muddy hillocks under the weight of his kit and with a gun slung around him, he was filled with feelings of reluctance and rage. And the whole time letters kept coming from home saying: “Son, you must stick it out”.
Jerry Fox returned to Africa with the rank of lieutenant. A month later he was already a captain. He was assigned fourth company, entirely composed of black volunteers. Trained for half a year by Fox’s sergeant, they did not conceal their joy at going into the field.
During a council of senior officers at the Governor’s mansion, Jerry Fox was given a file containing his orders. What he read amazed him. The apparently peaceful Colony was living in a state of extreme danger, starting from the mood among the local elite… People who owed their prosperity to the Empire, belonged to clubs and fulfilled responsible functions, were now wavering in their loyalty to the Crown. They had been following events in the neighbouring countries and were dreaming of Uhuru. When cautioned they replied: “We shall govern in our own way… We have the right to make our own mistakes.”
A thousand copies of a journal openly inciting rebellion were distributed. Its editor, one Gomo, was taken to court three times. By being smart, and thanks to some legal loopholes he wormed his way out of any serious penalties.
But the atmosphere among the wealthy elite was not the greatest threat to the Colony. The Army of the Lord God had taken over the northern provinces. Who called it that? Why of the Lord God? Maybe because Christ loved children, and the leaders of this army also had a weakness for little people. “Children make good soldiers,” they often said, “smart and disciplined”.
Jerry Fox moved his brigade north. He sent out undercover intelligence agents. He marked enemy positions on the map, leaving his tent for just a minute, rolled up the map and shut it in a metal box.
He soon discovered that the guerrillas had made a mistake. Instead of melting into the local population and burying their weapons, they had created a single, strong concentration. They had disappeared into some swampy flood plains, reckoning no one would track them down there. They reasoned that it was their country, and only they knew the strategic routes across it. Apart from that they were waiting for weapons deliveries; apparently the shipment had already left Libya. To kill time they were training the children in the art of removing fuses and disarming anti-tank mines.
They were camping out on a bend in the river, where under the crowns of some tall trees the morning mist and smoke from their bonfires gathered. A narrow, muddy road led there, which they had closed off with a system of fortified positions. They had mounted rapid-fire cannon on Land Rovers, dug ambush pits and filled them with bamboo canes. They did not know that a plane had already been flying over them, and that pictures were being developed in labs.
Jerry Fox devised the plan of attack himself. They were to come in by boat at night and quietly disembark onto the overgrown riverbank. They would travel the distance of three miles to the enemy encampment by marching quickly, under cover. He summoned the British advisers, Major Wright and Captain Warren, to his tent. Officially he was not subordinate to them, but they to him – they fulfilled the role of liaison officers. The oil lamp swayed above the table as Jerry Fox pointed at the unfolded map. They fell upon it like a valuable piece of booty, recognising signs and symbols. The host presented his plan to them.
“Jesus!’ cried Warren. “It can’t possibly fail to succeed!”
They clinked glasses of neat whisky, as the certainty of success went to their heads. They leaned over the map, studying the details.
“The ones on the river bend will be cut off,” remarked Wright.
“We’ll destroy their boats.”
“Won’t they swim across the river full of crocodiles?”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Will they hand over their weapons? Or make an about-turn?”
Jerry Fox looked suspiciously at the Englishman.
“What will you do with the ones who surrender?” asked Wright. “You won’t drown them, will you?”
They went outside; it was a warm night. A long branch lay burned through in the middle, and Jerry threw both ends onto the campfire.
“I too place high value on the virtue of reconciliation,” he said. “You’ll board your battleships, but this country will have to go on living.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones