The man I called my father died in 2005, ten years after Maman Pauline. I am not sure I ever really knew him. We were both intimate and distant. Intimate, because I had always felt his eyes watching me, accompanying me every step of the way, anxious I might stumble or fall, concerned I should choose the path he had opened up for me.
He seemed distant, too, not because he wasn’t my biological father, but because I knew nothing about him, never having met a single member of what I might have considered my ‘paternal family’, even if, to do him justice, his relationship with my mother had never been sealed at the mairie. Their union was an unspoken agreement, made material by the fact that a man and a woman lived under the same roof with a child, in a society where the collective opinion was more important than any signature on a piece of paper, or vows before a public authority. Sometimes, even when a civil marriage had taken place, a few wise old men would mutter among themselves:
So what, they just want to be like white people, those papers don’t count in our eyes, what matters is the word of the ancestors, they don’t need papers, people tear them up, anyway, after a few months’ marriage. Can the word of the ancestors be torn up?’
No, my parents were not officially married. In fact he wasn’t actually married to Maman Martine either, his other wife, with whom he had had eight children. This woman was what was called my mother’s ‘rival’, the word ‘rival’ in the language of the Congolese meaning ‘co-wife’. In itself, even the term ‘co-wife’ was incorrect, since neither of my two mothers had ever married Papa Roger before the mayor of Pointe-Noire. If it came to it, Maman Martine could claim more rights than my mother: she had had children with Papa Roger, her status of ‘wife’ had been legitimised by a traditional marriage, while in my mother’s case, my father had settled it all by buying a drink for my mother’s older brother, my maternal uncle, Albert.
I was aware of a generation gap between my ‘two mothers’. There were two eras, one of which might be considered that of the black-and-white photo, the other that of experimentation with colour. The age difference between them was more than twenty years, enough to ensure they had different takes on life, different interests. In this respect, Papa Roger had done the same as many other polygamists in this country: he had thrown in his lot with a younger woman, a very young woman, in this case—my mother—to compensate for his first wife’s declining beauty, and perhaps to protect himself against what he perceived as the monotony of married life, which they had shared now for nearly twenty years. But these were not the real reasons. Many polygamists needed their multiple marriages in order to feel strong and ‘manly’. You certainly had to be financially comfortable to juggle two households and bring up a brood so close in age that the names of some children got forgotten, or confused with others. In order to make ends meet, husbands usually sent their wives out to work, while they stayed at home or hung out in the local bars, where they might well meet another young lady to swell the ranks of the harem. Papa Roger, though a polygamist, was not of this breed; it was Maman Martine who stayed at home. She was more traditional, kept to the kitchen, often silent and self-effacing, speaking only in the language of her tribe, in bembé, not munukutuba, the language of Pointe-Noire, even though she had lived in this town for many years. She was the living embodiment of the ‘village woman’, who, it was said, expected her husband to provide everything for her. Whenever husband and wife argued, she would consult the council of old greybeards, who welcomed the opportunity for a get-together and a good excuse to get drunk on palm wine, settling the dispute by the by. Maman Pauline, on the other hand, was more ‘with it’—indeed, rather too much so for some people’s tastes, going out when she felt like it, and walking into a bar full of men without any of the bowing and scraping they considered their due. She did this by way of provocation, and if you pointed it out she would reply:
‘If they’re so respectable, what are they doing hanging out in a bar while their wives are at home? Looking for other women?’
Her independence came from the groundnut and banana business she ran at the Grand Marché, and even more so from what she considered the great achievement of her life: the purchase of a plot of land in Pointe-Noire, in the Voungou district. My father didn’t like her being autonomous, it made him feel, in his words, ‘useless’. A woman shouldn’t ‘wear the trousers’ in a relationship, or acquire possessions in her own name, these were the prerogatives of the husband, who also had the right to marry as many other women as he chose.
Much later—I must already have been at the lycée—Papa Roger started seeing another woman, one he intended to take as a third ‘rival’. Usually he was the most punctual man on earth, but now he started coming home late to my mother’s house, or to Maman Martine’s, and making up excuses, contradicting himself, arousing the suspicion of his two ‘official’ wives. He’d tell Maman Martine he was a bit late because he’d stopped off at my mother’s house. Then the next day, when he was meant to be sleeping at our house, he would argue that he had to go to Maman Martine’s on some urgent business, which he didn’t go into.
He couldn’t play this game for much longer than a few weeks. Maman Martine got wind of the affair through one of her friends, and alerted my mother: ‘I think Roger’s seeing Célestine...he hasn’t laid a finger on me for weeks, we’re like strangers in bed. I know him, there’s a woman on the scene.’
‘No! Célestine? Can’t he do better than that?’
Maman Martine, already half resigned to it, said meekly:
‘Well, it doesn’t matter much to me, I’m out of the running, I said goodbye to my youth a while back. But what’s this Célestine got that you haven’t? You’re young, you’re beautiful, you work hard, you and I have never fallen out! That Roger! He’ll never change! Well, I’m just going to tell him to keep his hands off me till he’s stopped seeing another woman on the side!’
My mother would have gone to the stake to prove my father’s innocence. She was convinced it was only gossip, put about by jealous neighbours. But over the next few weeks my father’s alibis grew less and less convincing, and my mother cornered him and demanded the truth.
Papa Roger raised his voice:
‘Why are you and Martine spying on me? She won’t let me sleep when I’m at her house, you won’t let me breathe at yours, where am I meant to sleep? Tell me that!’
‘Go and sleep at Célestine’s! You might as well, I’m not sharing my bed with you! Aren’t two wives enough for you? You do nothing but snore when you are here! What am I meant to do? Find myself a lover?’
‘Fine, if that’s the way it is, I’m going out to get some air!’
‘You do that! You go and find her!’
That’s enough, Pauline! Every day it’s the same in this house! Is it because it’s your house? If it was my house would you dare talk to me like that? I’m fed up with it, and if it carries on, I’m going home!’
I sometimes got the feeling in my mother’s house that my father felt a bit like the lodger, since she was the one who had not only purchased the land but also built the house, which Papa Roger now visited every other day, alternating with his own home, a four-roomed house where Maman Martine lived with my eight half-brothers and—sisters.
The affair of the third wife eventually poisoned the atmosphere in both households. At ours, my parents no longer spoke to each other as they had. The slightest spark was enough to light the fire and set them off arguing, even though I was standing behind them, unable to understand why they were rowing about what seemed to me like the kind of things that occupy kids in the playground.
The situation grew worse every day, and in the end my mother and Maman Martine joined forces, and decided that it was up to us children to go and pay a little ‘courtesy visit’ to the potential ‘co-wife’. Permission was even granted to sort her out by whatever means we saw fit.
I was part of the little group that set off on this punitive expedition, along with six of my half-brothers. One afternoon we went over to the neighbourhood where the woman lived, having been told her name by our mothers: Célestine. Outside her house we found a woman of a certain age, and Yaya Gaston, the oldest of us, spoke to her, saying:
‘Excuse me, madame, we’re looking for a young woman called Célestine, your daughter, we need to talk to her...’
The woman answered curtly:
‘What do you want with her?’
I felt Yaya Gaston’s body shake with anger, and he clenched his fist:
‘Mind your own business, you old crone! We’ve come to tell your daughter to keep her little panties up and stop bothering our father, or we’ll beat her up! She should be ashamed, stealing money from a respectable man with two families!’
‘Well, go on, then. Beat me up!’
‘We don’t want you, old lady! We want to talk to Célestine!
Come on, get out of the way, we need to search this place, we know she’s hiding in there!’
She burst out laughing:
‘There’s only one Célestine here, and that’s me! So what are you waiting for? Hit me!’
Yaya Gaston shrank back, turned to us and then looked at the woman again for a few seconds. Grey hair. Large, thick spectacles. Threadbare, patched pagnes. She must be older than Maman Martine, she could be Maman Pauline’s grandmother.
‘It’s—you’re—you’re her?’ stammered our big brother, incredulously, his fist still clenched as though he still meant to hit her.
‘You want to see my ID or what? You just try to hit me, and you’ll be cursed to the end of time!’
Gaston unclenched his fist and turned to us again:
I can’t. I just can’t... She’s really old. Who’ll hit her for me?’
‘I said hit me!’ yelled the woman, commanding now, sure none of us would dare lift a finger against an old woman.
Since no one in the group moved, and we were all looking at the ground, Yaya Gaston settled for intimidating the old woman:
‘We’ve come to warn you! If you don’t stop hanging round our father, you’ll live to regret it! Even if you are... like you are!’
And how am I? Old, am I? Stink do I? Do I ask your father to come over here? Go and sort out your own affairs, and tell your mothers to satisfy their man, because in my day, believe me, I was such a great lay, my late husband would forget to go to work for a whole month! And tell your mothers to look to their cooking, because when your father comes here you’d think he hadn’t eaten in years! And now, if you don’t get off my land, I’m going to expose myself to you. Then you’ll see with your own eyes what your father’s up to when he’s not with your mothers! I’ve got white hairs on my pubis, you want to see them?’
Yaya Gaston was already out of her yard, with his fingers stuffed in his ears to block out her obscenities. We dashed after him, and fled with our tails between our legs, just as the old woman lifted her pagne around her waist to shake her arse at us.
‘Don’t look back, it brings bad luck!’ Gaston cried.
Anyway, once Papa Roger heard about our visit from Célestine, he began to visit her less often, particularly since we started hiding out nearby in the hope of catching him going into the house of the woman we considered a witch, who had cast a spell on our father.
A month went by and the ‘affair’ of the third wife was closed. Papa Roger returned to coming home on time, sitting in a corner to read the weekly magazines from Europe, and exclaiming at the idiot French for forgetting to mention our country, because it was only tiny...♦
Copyright © 2016 by Alain Mabanckou. This excerpt originally appeared in The Lights of Pointe-Noire. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. Translation copyright © 2015 Helen Stevenson