Human Trees Are Not Moved by Wind

Translated by ADDIE LEAK


The Mango Garden

Birds of prey circled in the distant sky, watching the Earth’s surface: nothing, just warm air and a hot sun that spilled its rays angrily, recklessly. Sando jumped over a stream of dirty water and walked briskly down the road until he saw a group of young boys squatting on the road, defecating on piles of filth. He paid them no heed and continued a bit farther, where he saw another group playing football, bathed in thick dust, creating a commotion as they ran after their small ball. They yelled excitedly, calling each other after famous footballers, bellowing frenzied orders and laughing. One boy whimpered over his scraped knees, and others stood outside the circle, cheering and whispering. Their ball was a sphere of socks and bags all scrunched together; every so often, it came apart, then got reassembled and sent back into action. Sando passed in front of this din to greet the neighborhood’s older youth, who were sitting on a bench and listening to Africa No. 1 Radio. Then he went to his room, thought about shaving his head, took off his old socks (which reeked), and put his shoes away. Before he sat down, the water seller came in, stooping beneath the weight of the long stick laid across his shoulders, large tins dangling from a thick chain on each end. He poured some water from one of them—the kind that used to hold milk or oil—and left without saying much, so Sando got ready to take a bucket shower.

As he did so, a little boy burst in without knocking and informed him that there was someone waiting for him outside. He got up and followed the boy and saw his friend Mahamed Kali there on his Siklo motorcycle. In his most diplomatic tones, he invited his friend in, but the latter had a better idea, so Sando went inside, then came back out with a new spring in his step. He climbed onto the bike behind his friend, and then the two of them got off again to try and get the Siklo started. Mahamed Kali held the bike upright and pushed until the engine caught; then they hopped on, and the wheels of the bike moved slowly as they jolted over potholes and climbed small hills, lagging as it zigzagged through the sandy soil.

They stopped in an area filled with mango trees. A guard there greeted them cheerfully and seated them on the nylon rug before crouching down across from them in front of a kanoon filled with glowing embers, a teapot sitting atop it.

The weather was pleasant and the garden inviting and fresh, its cool, sweet-smelling air spreading a calm charm, empty of locusts. The guard spoke to them politely: “Can you drink the tea as is, or would you rather make it your way?”

Sando was surprised and replied awkwardly, “What you’ve prepared looks delicious.”

Mahamed Kali turned to his companion: “This is Abdel Rahmane Abisso, the guard at the farm; he’s family, from the same tribe as me.”

Abisso poured the tea into cups and served it to them on an old tray. They picked up their cups gratefully, and Abisso sipped his tea with pleasure, but the two friends only managed a small swallow before stopping: the tea didn’t have any sugar in it. Now Abisso’s question made sense.

The guard stood and walked about the farm with a blue plastic bag, filling it with several mangoes for his guests. His wife brought water, kneeling in respect. The two companions had intended to leave when they finished their tea, but the old man started pouring his heart out to them. The veins protruded from his face, and his eyes bulged a little as he scratched his white hair and said, savoring his words as he spoke, “… That was before Independence. Back then, I was young and strong, and time flew. The first time I set foot in the capital was a Thursday. Life was totally different than it is now; N’Djamena was still Fort-Lamy, hemmed in by five alleyways, its inhabitants from just a handful of tribes. I came from my village to live in a small room—in those days, renting one wasn’t more than a hundred CFA francs a month—and when World War II broke out, some of my friends emigrated to protect France. Some of them were martyred for a cause that wasn’t theirs. After the victory, the country was granted independence to make up for what happened to its youth.

“I wasn’t part of the war to free France from the Nazis, but I did play an important role in building the N’Djamena International Airport. When I first met Jean, the Frenchman, he was like a giant raging bull; anyone who saw him in repose thought he was a small elephant. His eyes were a vague blue, and his ears lay flat against his scalp like the wings of a bird of prey. His nose was long and sharp, and his lips, which had lost their pinkness thanks to his pipe, were the color of dirt.”

The old man paused for a moment, then said, “Add some sugar.”

Sando tried to interject, but Abisso interrupted him: “I wanted to meet the Frenchman, and in the end, I managed to. He told me to step forward so he could see me better, and his voice was angry; my limbs felt heavy when I moved, and he shouted so violently that I started trembling and sped up so he couldn’t accuse me of being useless or lazy. He came so close I could see his eyes drooping in the corners when he said, ‘Do you want work, or are you here to steal tools?’

“I responded politely: ‘I want work.’

“Looking away with a sarcastic smile, he said, ‘What’s your religion, kid?’

“I answered without hesitation: ‘I’m Muslim.’

“‘We start at six a.m. here and get off at six p.m.’

“‘Yes. Okay,’ I said.

“‘Yes, sir,’ he said irritably.

“My voice cracked. ‘Yes, sir.’ Then I added, ‘How much will my wages be?’

“He exploded. ‘It’s your job to work; you answer questions, you don’t ask them. Is that understood?’

“‘Understood, sir,’ I said, and my answer seemed to put him at ease, so he said, more quietly, ‘You’ll receive a thousand francs a day.’

“That was a good night; I was so happy I didn’t sleep. That was a huge amount of money back then. If daily expenses were fifty francs for a whole family, how could I not be pleased with my wages?”

Abisso fell silent, and the enchanting breeze descended on the green, dewy space. They sipped their tea. Sando got excited and asked, “What happened next, ‘Amu Abisso?”

“I took up my pickaxe and got to work before the sun made its appearance, and then, when I went to pray, Monsieur Jean flew into a rage to see me performing my ablutions. I shouted at him that if work got in the way of my prayers and my worship, I would quit; God was more important than everything else. I saw his face brighten, and he smiled. He loved godly men even if he didn’t follow my religion, and he trusted me after that. After six months, I was finally allowed to operate the tractor, a new skill set I mastered easily, prompting Monsieur Jean to give me bonuses and gifts. When the building was completed, he asked me to go with him to Central Africa, but I preferred to live the life of an adventurous young person, because I had both money and good health. I went to Sudan, Libya, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Nigeria. In the end, though, I wanted to settle down in my own country. The advice I would give you two is not to leave your studies, and to pray.”

By the time Abisso fell silent, Sando was rapt, and Mahamed Kali was fast asleep. Sando woke his companion, and they took their leave of the old man.

They arrived in Am Rgeba surrounded by gloomy darkness, divided up the mangoes, and separated. The cold was leaving ashy spots across Sando’s dark skin, so he curled up under his old comforter to wait out the cold air, and gazed through the rectangular window at the bright moon. He remembered his affectionate mother, remembered the village, the smell of rain on the fields, and the taste of aseeda with ghee, and a kind of calm entered into him, and he fell into a deep sleep. The air reached out to extinguish his lamp, which remained dark the rest of the night.

The Prison

They entered a modest restaurant to get some breakfast, Old Man Abisso first, followed by Sando and Mahamed Kali. The seats were shabby, the tables old and covered with litter from previous customers, frogs hopping under the chairs in search of food, tattered spiderwebs on the ceiling waving like worn-out rags. The waiter came and wiped down the tables with a small handkerchief. A breeze blew from the north, and Abisso said simply, “Just bring us whatever you’ve got.”

The waiter brought three plates; seven gateau balls, crispy and sweet; and a big container of warm water. They took the food to go, the air heavy and suffocating and the smell of sewage beginning to waft their way, and the area took on an ugly aspect. They reached the big souk, where the police were out in force, fanning out in all directions to guard the market. They ran into one policeman, who asked for their IDs. Mahamed Kali took out his school card, but they arrested Sando, who’d forgotten his at home, and Old Man Abisso, who’d never gotten an ID, or even thought about it. Bribery made no difference, nor did wheedling or yelling.

The prison was all of one small room, with solid walls and a high ceiling. One of the prisoners passed out in the suffocating heat, and silence hung over the place, the footsteps of the policemen filling them with loathing. A policeman opened the door and said, in a tense voice, “Anyone with two thousand francs can buy their pardon and go free.” One man left, and they locked the door behind him.

A little while later, they heard footfalls again, and the prisoners were seized by fear and a kind of cruel humiliation. The policeman stood in front of them, and the group again tried to talk to and appease him, but he simply said, “Anyone with one thousand francs can buy their pardon and go free.” This time, two men followed him and disappeared.

The evening came slowly, for once; mosquitoes and various other insects began to spread out and attack. The smell was foul, like the smell of blood in a wound. Bodies sagged, and the hands of the clock announced that it was seven p.m. The men shouted, now cursing, now begging for sympathy. Then the footfalls again, and the policeman stood before them, serious, and spoke violently and harshly: “You dogs! God damn you and people like you—will you go get ID cards now or not?”

They answered with a single voice: “We’ll get them.”

He opened the door for them, and they filed out in an orderly fashion, then scattered throughout the city.


Adam Youssouf is a Chadian writer and academic, a specialist in Afro-Arab studies and professor of African culture and literature at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan. He is the author of two short-story collections and three novels and has also published books on philosophy, literature, and politics.

Addie Leak is a co-translator of Mostafa Nissabouri’s For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert and Hisham Bustani’s Waking Up to My Distorted City, and her translations from French and Arabic have also been featured in Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, Words Without Borders, The Common, Exchanges, Shuddhashar, The Huffington Post, and more. She is a former Fulbrighter in Jordan, where she lived for six years.


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Human Trees Are Not Moved by Wind

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