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Co-wives, Co-widows

Author: Adrienne Yabouza

Translator: Rachael McGill  

'Who is it?'
'Who’s me?’
'Me! Lidou!'
A laugh exploded from behind the door, followed by the word "coming!"'
Ndongo Passy was smoothing cream over her naked body. She grabbed the towel she’d used after her shower and tucked it round her waist. She opened the door. She was caressed by sunlight from head to toe.
'What is it, Lidou?'
Before he could answer, she let out that laugh again. 'What is this? Have you come straight from my co-wife's room to mine? Don’t try to tell
me Grekpoubou doesn't know what she's doing!'
'Mother of Gbandagba,' Lidou murmured, 'Come closer. Come over here.'
'I'm here! What do you want?'
He pulled her towards him and began to suck on her breasts as if she was his own mother, not the mother of Gbandagba, his son. He sucked as
if he’d been thirsting for those two teats since the beginning of time. After three minutes he stopped, satisfied. Ndongo Passy sat on the edge of the bed.
'It's Sunday, isn't it?' she asked him. 'It's January 24th, isn't it?'
'That’s right.'
'Then you have to get out of here now. I need to make myself beautiful. It's election day, remember? I'm on the register, I've got my polling card in my bag. 'I'm going to go and vote to the best of my abilities, like a good citizen.'
'But do you know how?'
'Yes! My co-wife and I are going down together. We've been discussing this election for some time.'
'What are you going to vote for? Who, I mean?'
'The same as Grekpoubou. We've decided.'
'You didn't consult me!'
'I've got my card, you've got your card. This is every man for himself!'
'But you’re not a man, Ndongo Passy. You're my first wife.'
'That's got nothing to do with it. Husband and wife vote separately. That's what democracy is.'
'Who said that?'
Lidou left to let his wife get dressed. In the living room he found Grekpoubou, with whom he'd spent the night. She served him a plate of yabanda and a large glass of kangoya, then left him alone to eat. She had to make herself beautiful too. It was the first time she'd voted. She was voting for her own future and for that of her four children, who weren't old enough to do it for themselves. Ndongo Passy was voting for herself and for her only child, Gbandagba, who was twelve.
Ndongo Passy wore an indigo suit, her co-wife a long black skirt and a golden yellow blouse. As the two women stepped out into the dusty street, their husband was making himself comfortable in his armchair beneath the shade of the mango tree. 'Safe trip!' he shouted with a chuckle.
Who knows which of the women was the first to complain about the sun. It beat down mercilessly and democratically on all citizens, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or age, regardless of whether they planned to vote for the president or to sneak a vote for one of the four opposition candidates into the envelope. The sun, like the mosquito, was pan-sexual and gregarious; every variety of flesh was welcome.
The polling station for the first arrondissement was in the nursery school in Cite Cristophe. It had been open since 7 am. By the time Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou arrived at 9 am, the queue outside was 25 metres long. A question for the older pupils at the primary school: at a rate of 2.5-2.7 metres of voter per hour, at what time would the two women fulfil their civic duty?
Lidou was in possession of two beautiful wives. He spent two nights with one, the next two with the other, and was never required to choose between them. He preferred to let his two wives go to the polling station alone while he stayed in his courtyard, under the shade of his mango tree, flicking through the Christmas double edition of his French magazine, Maisons d'aujourd'hui. He hadn't decided whether to go and vote himself. Making a choice usually meant getting it wrong. This time it was even more devilishly deceptive than usual: five candidates! Like having to choose between five serious illnesses. Mind you, not all serious illnesses packed the same punch; not all were incurable for example. Lidou placed the magazine on his knees for a moment and closed his eyes. Some people said, correctly, that life itself was a mortal illness, that death was a garment everyone would have to put on one day. Maybe that meant he should go and vote; choosing one candidate or
the other wasn't as serious as life and death. The world wouldn't end if it turned out he, Lidou, was no better at voting than the next man, even if the next man was as illiterate as a perch in the river.
Lidou's radio was always tuned to Ndeke Luka. The music began to work its way under his skin: he could've got up right then and started dancing the yangbabolo, alone in the courtyard. Business was good: he was throwing up building after building in the Republic, and he'd carry on for as long as the Congolese and Cameroonian cement lasted. Building houses was as important as voting, more important in fact. At the centre of Lidou's magazine of exclusive new houses built by the French, in France, was a glossy red and white Father Christmas spitting out a speech bubble that said, 'Laying the foundations for a prosperous nation!' Wise words. Santa had certainly earned his status as a prophet, alongside Jesus Christ (amen) and Mohammed (Inch'Allah).
Who better to believe in on election day than Father Christmas and his international prophet friends? Me, thought Lidou. Me and my small business. I'm constructing this country, brick by brick, using nothing but my own graft. I'm a living example of the electoral slogan, 'work, only work'. I should be voting for myself. Come to think of it, I’d probably make an excellent president, but it's not as if I can do everything.
He gazed upwards. A red powder coated the leaves of the mango tree like some sort of leprous plague. Perhaps it would kill the tree. Lidou shuddered, closed his eyes again.
After 3.10 metres of voters, the co-wives had reached an enviable position under the shade of the giant rubber tree that filled the courtyard of the nursery school. A pregnant woman walked the length of the queue to the front. She had priority, as did the old and infirm. If there'd been a pregnant candidate for the presidency, they could all have saved some time by just letting her go first: she’d be elected in the first hour of the first round of voting without even needing to distribute extra polling cards to her friends or pay a magician to make certain ballot boxes appear and certain others disappear.
Time ticked by. 'How are your feet, sister?' Ndongo Passy asked Grekpoubou.
'That’s good.'
'But we don’t vote with our feet, do we?'
Ndongo Passy burst out laughing. It was probably the tenth time she'd laughed since she got up that morning. Perhaps it was the laugh that kept her large body, solid but supple, in such good shape.
'You vote with your finger, sister. You press your finger into the ink, just once.'
'Just once, and vote once?'
Standing was becoming difficult for everyone; the woman in front of them had sat down on the ground. Some lucky voters were able to squat
with their bottoms on the cement border that ringed the rubber tree. Policemen watched from a few paces. They had a bench, but would clearly have preferred a bed: they slumped, eyes only half open, AK47s slung casually at their feet.
The queue was like a long, lazy, multi-legged makongo. But, against all expectations, and without ever getting any shorter, it moved forward. Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou were now not far from the door to the office, a location as sought-after as Ali Baba's cave.
Two white men appeared with cards hanging from blue cords around their necks. They were from the EU, an organisation that preferred presidents to seek re-election by consulting their people. These were the kind of EUs who might say, 'This election could do with a bit more salt, but it’s basically acceptable'. As they entered the building, one said to the other, 'This crowd reminds me of queuing for a Michel Sardou concert at the Olympia as a kid.'
The other, a slightly classier type, smiled and said, ‘It reminds me of the Tutankhamun exhibition.’
An old woman in the queue, dried out by that morning’s and yesterday’s sun, murmured to herself, ‘At the end of patience is heaven.’
Five minutes later, the two whites mandated by the Union of Whites came back out and climbed into their 4x4, the air-con reminding them of their skiing holidays (in the French Alps in one case, the Bavarian in the other).
What was supposed to occur finally did occur: Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou reached the office. They took their time exercising their democratic duty: voting for the first time feels no less momentous than being elected president for the first time. Ndongo Passy savoured the sense of importance of sliding her ballot paper into the box, despite the looks from the officials, who all seemed to have been struck by toothache.
As soon as they got outside, Grekpoubou whispered, ‘In the booth I went in, someone had done a piss!’
‘I suppose they just couldn’t hold on any longer.’
Lidou lounged in the dusty street at the door of his compound. He was hungry. It was high time his wives came back. He’d read his French magazine twice. He’d chosen a design for a family home he could adapt to the local market and start building immediately. A whole series of them, perhaps.
The two women came towards him, their steps in time. As Lidou watched them approach, each as beautiful as the other, he felt his power. He filled his lungs with the hot, dry city air. He had these women, he had his truck, he had his building sites. His status was high. He wasn’t a man who had to stand on tiptoe to be noticed. He forgot for a moment that he was only a human being, that he only had two legs, that two legs might not really be enough to chase two hares at the same time.
‘There you are! What’s going on down there?’
‘There’s a crowd,’ said Ndongo Passy. ‘Democracy must’ve been handing out thousand franc notes to people to come and vote.’
‘You took a long time!’
‘Yes, and we only voted once, with one finger, not ten times with ten fingers.’
‘Are you going to go and do democracy or not, Lidou?’ Grekpoubou asked.
‘Hmm… I’m hungry. My wives are using their mouths to chatter while my mouth’s hungry. Do you catch my drift?’
‘We’re all about to eat.’
Grekpoubou’s daughters and Yache had already prepared lunch. If he’d wanted to, Lidou could’ve gone and filled his stomach. The big pot sitting on the hearth stones in the outdoor kitchen didn’t have a blackened bottom for nothing. Three pairs of eyes had been fixed on it for hours, as if their owners were afraid it might sprout wings and fly away. Those six eyes belonged to a girl of twelve, a girl of eight and a girl of six: twenty six years in total, the perfect age for a cook. The girls had chopped up the manioc leaves, boiled them, pounded and pounded them in the mortar, then added the peanut paste, the oil, the salt and the smoked fish. They’d done their job to perfection.
Grekpoubou and Ndongo Passy disappeared into their bedrooms and re-emerged in loose kaba dresses and indoor mules. They took their seats on the small wooden stools next to Lidou and the boys under the mango tree. The girls placed the big serving dish on a rattan mat. Election day was a day for celebration. Grekpoubou served everyone. Lidou was the first to put his fingers, untouched by the voting ink, to his plate, then to his mouth. Soon all the other hands dived in. The food was very good.
The dish was large: after everyone had been served, there was still enough left for a passing neighbour or friend. Which was lucky, because Lidou’s cousin Zouaboua was passing.
‘Sit down, Zouaboua, make yourself at home. There’s enough shade for everyone, and plenty of food to go round.’
‘Thank you, I will.’
He took his seat without further ado. They all polished off the yabanda together without another word. Tangani, the youngest child, went without being asked to fetch a basin of water, soap and a cloth so everyone could wash their hands.
Ndongo Passy presented the inked finger of a proud citizen and said, ‘Is this ink indelible? Or is it just terrible?’
‘Indelible?’ Where had she got that white man’s word? Lidou didn’t even know what it meant. She explained, and everyone laughed. She shook her finger as she added, ‘We’ll know when the results are out. If my candidate wins, it was indelible; if another one wins, it was terrible.’
‘Who wants kangoya?’ asked Lidou. ‘Who’s for beer? Who’s for bili-bili?’
Everyone picked one, except the children, who had gone to watch ‘Capitaine Biceps’ on Teletoon.
After drinking two gourds of bili-bili, Lidou wouldn’t have said no to popping inside with Ndongo Passy for a round of two person push-ups. He stretched, looked at them all and said, ‘Hey, Zouaboua, have you already voted out there in Poto Poto?’
‘Yes, I went when it opened.’
‘You did?’
‘It opened an hour late, though.’
‘I know who you voted for.’
‘Do you?’
‘You voted for the current president. You always vote for the current president. Should I go and vote too, then? Who should I vote for? Fine. I’ll go. Perhaps I’ll do it better than all of you did.’
‘Who or what are you going to vote for?’ asked Grekpoubou.
‘I think I’ll vote for all five, so whoever wins makes me Minister for Newbuild Housing.’
Everyone laughed. Lidou stood up. Zouaboua did the same. Grekpoubou called after them, ‘Watch out in the booth. Someone pissed in one of them this morning!’
Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou took up their usual places in the street, one on either side of the compound gate. Ndongo Passy had peanuts and a mini mountain of manioc in a washing up basin, while Grekpoubou sold small dresses for girls and small shorts for boys. She’d sewn them herself on an old pedal-operated Singer she’d got from her mother.
A gentle breeze blew, perhaps just to provide a coating of colour to the mangoes that were still too green.


RRP: £8.99

No. of pages: 128

Publication date: 05.11.2021

Re-print date: 05.11.2021

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 77 3
978 1 912868 85 8

World English