Ono preferred to be called by his Christian name, Charles. The French missionary who had converted his family was an avid scholar of Charlemagne. And when Ono and his powerful, tribal family were baptized, he named them each after a revered member of the Frankish royalty. Ono was named after the greatest Frankish king of all, because he was the most precocious and gifted of his clan; so much so that in that time after independence, when scholarships were offered to the bright youth of his nation for universities in England and France, Ono led them abroad.
When he returned, in his pressed suit, to a land he had departed from in second hand, relief clothes, he was still called Ono by the common people. But to those who spoke English or French, and to those who prayed to Jesus, he was Charles still, but with a novel dimension. He was one of the first to return from an overseas experiment in crafting leaders for this newly forged nation. So when he came back he ceased being a real man and became a symbol.
His job in the government was to orient journalists – no small task for a country tearing itself apart by civil war. His round face was always sheepishly beaming, as if he felt somewhat abashed by the simplicity and ease by which he exercised his share of state power. He had a broad, honest smile, vast, bright, deceptive. He was a man who held one world in one hand – the world of Charles who read statements to reporters in precise Oxfordian English, as punctilious as the seams of his shinny black suit – and another world in the other --- that of Ono, the man of the tribe, from the mid-portion of his country, the littoral zone before the rainy mountains slope down to the grassy plain (now mostly planted over with sugar cane, banana and pineapple plantations) and meets the verdant, cove studded coast.
Charles’ land was where the fauna and flora of the two zones intermingled, and this variation was mirrored in the human taxonomy. Where Charles’ tribe lived was the nexus of the Muslim tribes of the north and the Christian peoples of the coast, an overlap that was not entirely noticeable.
Trundling about the dirt tracks in a land rover, rumbling through small villages composed of corrugated tin shacks, flustered chickens, meandering cows, all under the omnipresent gray sky of this equatorial nation, pregnant with yet to fall rain, it is difficult to tell which town is Christian and which is Muslim except for the occasional swarm of pigs, or a crescent moon stenciled on a hut which is both a mosque and madrassa and town hall.
For the outsider, this place is more than an enigma: before the majestic rise of the tropical mountains, and after the gentle arch which this long, narrow nation takes to the sea, there is the constant need of redefinition.
This land needs to be forced, again and again, into steady categories which give experience permanence and meaning. But most of all you need an insider. That is why Charles took me aside one day following a conference. It was a difficult session. To the North-East, a war lord had declared an Islamic state. The government had been forced to brutally suppress the revolt; the Muslims retreated to the hills, and now the government had to decide if it should follow them.
Charles was peppered with questions by the foreign press about the revolt. He did his best to not answer the questions he was asked, but the ones he wished he had been asked. He stuck to his text as if it wascatechism: there was no civil war in his land; there was no revolt; there were bandits and brigands and they were being brought to justice.
Everyone was milling about the hallway outside the news hall, and I was surprised to find Charles in front of me. I imagined he was about to more fully answer the question I had asked (and refused to stop asking) about the Northern provinces.
“I know you, you know,” he said and smiled slyly, as if his intelligence was, if not superior to mine, than more highly polished, more honed – something to lord over me, as if a was a child and he had a shiny new toy in his pocket he only allowed me to peek at; I answered, of course, I was with such and such a news agency. On hearing this, he shook his head emphatically.
“No, not that. I know the dissertation you wrote at Boston University on the Ghana Empire.”
“You read that?”
“Yes, I thought it well done, Mr. Servi. However,” and he then began to enumerate some of my scholarly shortcomings. I did not doubt his diagnosis, since I could no longer remember the details as he did. I simply smiled as Charles continued to speak, wondering who, in fact, was speaking: Charles, the government functionary, or Ono, the man of the tribal highlands.
“Well,” I answered when it was apparent he had concluded. “If I had to write it again, and I never will, no doubt I would do it differently. I was so young then.” On hearing his defense, Charles ratcheted his smile down a notch.
“Isn’t that they way of things,” he stated as if reciting an elegy. “We can always do better. We always wish to redress the inadequacies of the past with today’s progress…” he then stumbled, uncharacteristically, on the next word, perhaps seeing, as I did, that these words were an allegory for his nation.
I knew the school of African education from which Charles hailed: the belief in the unbroken line of African tradition from the great, old kingdoms of Ghana and Zimbabwe, thought the turbulence of the slave trading empires, the arrival of Islam, the long dark age of colonial suppression, the post-colonial tumult, right to today’s nation states.
For Christians such as Charles, African Islam below the great arid swatch of the Sahara, was ironically attractive. Undeniably from the West, Islam had “colonized” this region through trade; Muslim merchants from the north introduced the faith of the Prophet with their wares, and it was adopted and adapted to local need, often with startling results.
For men like Charles, accustomed to more aggressive, naked colonialism, native Islam had a noble savage charm. It possessed all the appeals of the West with none of the obvious drawbacks. It was an import whose foreign cast was far easier to hide than poorly constructed concrete high rise buildings, or capital cities carved out of jungles, whose roads, often, lead only to more jungle, to suburbs never built.
The Muslims in the north, although in active revolt against the Christian led government to the south, held a strange fascination for men like Charles. The Muslims were apart from Africa but of it; and unlike men like Charles, where the jagged seam of Africa and the West was all but visible, the Muslim north appeared as natural and unforced as the gradual rise from the plain to the foothills, and from the foothills to the mountains.
“But your interests are my interests, Mr Servi” Charles continued, as if reading my thoughts. “Even here, even amidst this turmoil of politics and war, there is time for God.”
“Are you admitting that your country is at war?” I asked, for here Charles deviated from the government line: there was no war here, or even a revolt, just a few thugs rattling their swords in the foothills.
“I am speaking metaphorically. I mean the war of all against all…. As Hobbes wrote…”Just as the hulk of the Leviathan loomed over us, suddenly there was a great deal of movement. The leader was about to drive from the capital city to his estate outside of town, and there was the clamor of army trucks which inevitably accompanied him as thunder did Zeus.
A phalanx of grim men in khaki, their long machine guns pointed into the sky like medieval lances, all awaited Charles, since the leader traveled everywhere with his entourage of officials and secretaries. Charles perfunctorily offered me his hand, and with nothing more than a smile to confirm our mutual interests, was gone