I stood in the circular drive of the hotel. The towering banyan trees, planted as an ornamental barrier, blocking the pit dug as a foundation for a building which was never built, were dying from lack of water. Their dung colored leaves rustled in the breeze. It was already dark. As always in the tropics, day turned to night with seemingly no transition. Dusk was merely a spot of pink on a horizon which quickly bled dry to black. As I stared at the disappearing stain that sun had left on the horizon, a government car pulled up. A driver emerged, opened the door, closed it behind me, and we sped off into the dark city.
Charles’ house was, not surprisingly, in an area of the city once reserved for the colonial officials who occupied this nation. The streets were arranged in an orderly grid. A line of stately elms flanked the well paved streets. Hemmed in on all sides by poverty and decay, the district was eerily quiet in the dark, with few houses lit from private generators
The driver let me out in front of a large stucco home tiled with red stones. The garden was blooming with flowers: vermillion, crimson, deep, aquatic greens. The path smelled of water and herbs. Several lamps glowed along the path, illuminating the way, which terminated at a large door carved with the figures of European Knights in chivalrous, marital poses – some colonial official’s nostalgic concession to a lost world still worthy of emulation.
I had expected a servant to answer the door, but it was Charles standing in the threshold. He still wore the charcoal gray suit which had become his trademark in news conferences, but he had removed his tie, and I noticed for the first time that he had a meaty neck.
It was the beginning of a future transformation; he was a slim man, but as he made he way up the rungs of state, he would need to grow in size and stature, to become, on a grander scale, one of the immense tribal leaders, with their spreading girth covered by flowing, colorful robes. Charles stiffly pumped my hand and led me through some plush, air conditioned rooms. The furniture was thoroughly European, but the art and décor were strictly African. I recognized masks, spears, and ceremonial totems from the half a dozen large, native groups of this nation. On a side table was a collection of amulets written in Arabic script. I recognized them. As I bent to look at them closely, I felt Charles’ hand on the small of my back. He was leaning over them too, examining the items afresh.
“These I thought you would enjoy,” he said with heavy breath, picking up an amulet with his slim hand. He removed the other hand from my back, but I could still feel its weighty imprint. To my surprise, he began to read the Arabic, a quotation from the Qu’ran, and worn by women in this country when in labor.
He read yet another one, this for the finding of a lost item. He then moved toward a book shelf and removed a photo album. He opened it and there were pictures of a young Charles with a marabout, a Muslim holy man, brown and skinny as a reed.
The photo was taken in a village in the north. Above the squat buildings towered the equatorial mountain range, the highest peaks clad in snow and enveloped in mist like mythical giants stalking the earth.
Charles continued to turn the pages. The photographs of Charles with various marabouts changed from black and white to color, and to my astonishment, I saw Chalres – or I suppose he was Ono then -- as a young adult, one amongst a line of Muslim men kneeling in prayer. They were in a sparse Friday mosque; a reed niche for the Qu’ran was the only wall fixture, some bamboo mats the only furniture.
In the foreground was a line of battered shoes and sandals, and at the end would be the young Charles’ polished dress shoes; here he was already the young scholarship boy. Was this an atavistic expression of faith? Or was this only Charles, the young official, pressing the floor with his constituents not out of love of God but from love of power? If this was so, one such picture would make sense, but they stretched back, all they way to a boy of no more than eight or nine. Some thread of authenticity attached him to the Muslims of the north. Although he showed me this Muslim paraphernalia as proof of some lasting connection, it was unclear what it was. Was it just another layer of applique , this hybrid Ono-Charles?
He seemed disinclined to talk about this, and I felt reticent to push in this more intimate setting, away from the cameras, the podium, the lights and insignia of government.