The fire stood between us and linked us together. A boy added wood and the flames rose higher, illuminating our faces.
‘What is the name of your country?’
Poland was distant, beyond the Sahara, beyond the sea, to the north and to the east. The Nana repeated the name aloud. ‘Is that how it is pronounced?’ he asked.
‘That’s the way,’ I answered. ‘That’s correct.’
‘They have snow there,’ Kwesi said. Kwesi worked in town, in Kumasi, and he had come here on vacation. Once, on the movie screen, snow had fallen. The kids applauded and cried merrily, ‘Anko! Anko!’ asking to see the snow again. That was great – the white puffs fell and fell. Those are lucky countries. They do not need to grow cotton: the cotton falls from the sky. They call it snow and they walk on it and even throw it into the river.
We were stuck there by chance. The driver, my friend Kofi from Accra, and I. It was already dark when the tire blew – the third tire, rotten luck. It happened on a side road, in the bush, near the village of Mpango in Ghana. Too dark to fix it. You have no idea how dark the night can be. You stick out your hand and you cannot see that hand. Here they have nights like that. We walked into the village.
The Nana received us. There is a Nana in every village, because Nana means boss, head man. The head man is a sort of village mayor but he has more authority. If you and Maryna want to get married back home the village mayor cannot stop you, but the Nana can. He has a Council of Elders. These old guys meet, govern, ponder disputes. Once upon a time the Nana was a god. But now there is the independent government in Accra. The government passes laws and the Nana has to execute them. A Nana who does not carry them out is acting like a feudal lord and they get rid of him. The government is trying to make all Nanas join the party, and many Nanas are the secretaries of their village party organizations. In such cases the party dues always get paid because the Nana takes them out of people’s taxes.
The Nana from Mpango was skinny and bald, with thin Sudanese lips. Kofi presented us: my driver and me. He explained where I was from, and that they were to treat me as a friend.
‘I know him,’ Kofi said. ‘He’s an African.’
That is the highest compliment that a European can receive. It opens every door for him.
The Nana smiled and we shook hands. You always greet a Nana by pressing his right hand between both of your own palms. This shows respect for him. He sat us down by the fire, where the elders were just holding a meeting. He said boastfully that they met often, which did not sound strange to me. This bonfire was burning in the middle of the village and to the left and right, along the road, other fires were burning. As many fires as huts, because there are no kitchens in the huts and people need to cook. Perhaps twenty. So the fires, the moving figures of women and men, and the outlines of the clay huts were visible, all immersed in the depths of a night so dark that it felt like a weight, oppressive.
The bush had disappeared, yet the bush was everywhere; it began a hundred meters away, an immobile massiveness, a tightly-packed, coarse thicket surrounding the village, and us, and the fire. The bush screamed and cried, it stamped and crackled, it was alive, it existed, it bred and gnawed, it smelled of wilted greenery, it terrified and tempted, you could touch it and be wounded and die, but you couldn’t look at it; on this night you couldn’t see it.
Poland. They did not know of any such country.
The elders looked at me uncertainly or suspiciously; some of them were interested. I wanted to break their mistrust somehow. I did not know how and I was tired.
‘Where are your colonies located?’ the Nana asked.
My eyes were closing, but now I regained consciousness. People often asked that question. Kofi had asked it first, long ago. I explained it to him. It was a revelation to him and from then on he always lay in wait for the question about the Polish colonies so that he could make a concise speech demonstrating its absurdity.
Kofi answered: ‘They don’t have colonies, Nana. Not all white countries have colonies. Not all whites are colonialists. You have to understand that whites often colonized whites.’
That sounded shocking. The elders shuddered and smacked their lips: tsk, tsk, tsk. They were surprised. In the past I would have been surprised that they were surprised. But not anymore. I can’t bear that language, that white, black, yellow. The myth of race is disgusting. What does it mean? Because somebody is white, is he more important? So far, the majority of scoundrels have had white skin. I cannot see how anybody is either happy or upset about being this or that. Nobody gets to choose. The one important thing is the heart. Nothing else counts.
Kofi explained later: ‘For a hundred years they taught us that the white is somebody higher, super, extra. They had their clubs, their swimming pools, their neighborhoods. Their whores, cars and their burbling language. We knew that England was the only country in the world, that God is English, that only the English travel around the globe. We knew exactly as much as they wanted us to know. Now it’s hard to change.’
Kofi and I stuck up for each other, we no longer spoke about the subject of skin, but here, among new faces, the matter had to come up.
One of the elders asked, ‘Are all the women in your country white?’
‘All of them.’
‘Are they beautiful?’
‘They’re very beautiful,’ I answered.
‘Do you know what he told me, Nana?’ Kofi interjected. ‘That when they have their summer, their women take off their clothes and lie in the sun to get black skin. The ones that become dark are proud of it, and others admire them for being as tanned as Negroes.’
Very good! So, Kofi, you hit the bull’s eye! You got to them. The elders’ eyes lit up at the thought of those bodies darkening in the sun, because – you know how it is – men are the same all over the world: they like that sort of thing. The elders rubbed their hands together, smiled; women’s bodies in the sun; the fire here was driving away their rheumatism; they snuggled up inside their loose kente robes modeled on Roman togas.
‘My country has no colonies,’ I said, ‘and there was a time when my country was a colony. I respect what you’ve suffered, but we had it horrible: there were trams, restaurants, districts nur für Deutsch. There were camps, war, executions. You don’t know camps, war and executions. That was what we called fascism. It’s the worst colonialism.’
They listened, frowning and closing their eyes. Strange things had been said, which they had to digest. Two whites and they could not ride in the same tram.
‘Tell me, what does a tram look like?’
The concrete is important. Perhaps there was not enough room. No, it had nothing to do with room; it was contempt. One person stepping on another. Not only Africa is a cursed land. Every land can be like that – Europe, America, many places in the world. The world depends on people. Of course, people fall into types. For instance, a person in the skin of a snake. A snake is neither black nor white. It is slippery. A person in a slippery skin. That is the worst.
‘But Nana, we were free afterwards. We built cities and ran lights into the villages. Whoever couldn’t, learned how to read.’
The Nana stood up and grasped my hand. The rest of the elders did the same. Now we were friends, przyjaciele, amigos. I wanted to eat. I could smell meat in the air. There was no scent of jungle, of palm or of coconuts, but only of our sausage that costs 11.60 złoty at an inn in the Mazury. And a large beer.
Instead of that, we ate goat.
Poland – snow falling, women in the sun, no colonies, there had been a war, building homes, somebody teaching somebody to read.