His gait singled him out. He could be seen meandering in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre, stopping only to join groups of young men assembled by the side of the road, sometimes on street corners.
Unlike the locals, Longineu walked straight, looking ahead unconcerned with what others might be thinking. He listened to people’s rage in this time of grave political unrest, work stoppages, barricades, general strikes and youth rebellions against the Establishment. Patrice first saw Longineu in Raizet, a neighborhood in a high-density area, in the city of Abymes. The saxophone case hanging from his shoulder made him look innocent.
What threat would a musician pose? he reckoned. If he got mad, people would dance.
Most locals thought nothing of Longineu. There were so many artists in these parts. He looked just like the rest of them. Another nappy-headed, happy-go-lucky musician. A bespectacled high yellow dude of average stature sporting a ‘fro.
He seemed well into his thirties. His slight frame, average looks, and ordinary features prompted no one to take a second glance at him. The jeans and T-shirts he wore helped him blend in with the crowds. His leisurely attitude and dress style made him seem carefree and approachable, almost friendly. Patrice didn’t believe anyone on the streets had yet heard his voice then. The saxophone player listened and nodded, smiled a lot when others smiled, mimicked them when they gestured, but weaseled out whenever someone too forward took an interest in talking with him. If he hadn’t, they’d have discovered his secret. Longineu was all about the word on the street.
Patrice watched Longineu and wondered about the man. Poker-faced, emotionless, yet always present. The man was a mystery who haunted Patrice’s thoughts.
Didn’t he have anything else to do? Like, take cover. Who the hell was he? And what was he really looking for?
Drawn in by Patrice’s inquisitive stares, Longineu greeted him with a bob of the head.
The puny kid was no threat, Longineu thought. Just an island fixture that popped up wherever he happened to be. A bored ragamuffin in search of excitement, no doubt; come to think of it; and school was out.
In Guadeloupe, Longineu would pay four to five times more than in the States. A two-liter bottle of Coke would be $4, instead of 99 cents. A simple hamburger would be $6, instead of the two dollars he was used to paying. Economic disparities and structural inequalities plagued the French Antilles and French Guiana. The collapse of agriculture had left many unemployed.
Unemployment was three times higher than in France. There was a 50% unemployment rate for those under twenty-five who made up over half the overall population. Agricultural production gave way to a service economy centered on tourism, commerce, and a bloated government bureaucracy. The economy was on its knees.
As a little boy, every Wednesday, Patrice opened his piggy bank to retrieve the precious coins he’d been saving. Those he had collected from the deep recesses of the armchair. They had fallen out of his father’s pants while he would fall asleep. The old man would have no use for them now. He’d needed them for a tip here and there.
In the course of a day’s work, in his cash register, Patrice’s father would collect wads of bills. So Patrice thought, what difference would a few missing coins make?
Sometimes too, his mother would hand him a generous amount of her own coins right before driving him to their favorite kiosk where he would purchase the latest editions of the comic books he liked so much, Zembla, Hakim and the likes. The scantily clad heroes depicted in the magazines, the kings of the African jungle were all white.
As a boy, he’d been taught that the world belonged to white men, dressed and undressed, because they had answers to everything, their might knew no bounds, and they always made sense.
American Indians, Aboriginal peoples, Asians, and Africans made no sense, even when they tried, victims of their own magical thinking and lack of military strength. As mere props in someone else’s game, they existed to serve at the white man’s whim.
Patrice’s own schooling had reinforced the lies. It had sought to make him a handy tool. Gratitude remained the only fitting response he was ever allowed to give an army of benevolent usurpers.
The French believed their domination to be a blessing to a lesser people. The colonialists strove daily to set the natives’ souls free of the profound darkness they claimed entrapped them. Patrice was learning his place. The lesson of his insignificance was taking root.
“Hey man. How are you? I keep seeing you wherever I turn.”
“I’m alright. You’re the one I keep seeing everywhere I turn. Are you some kind of a reporter?”
“No man, just curious.”
“You’re clearly not from the Caribbean. Your accent gives you away. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Georgia. The name’s Longineu.”
“Mine’s Patrice. The U.S.? That’s a first. All the tourists are gone! What brings you here at a time like this?”
Longineu laughed. “Oh, well. I came with my wife. She’s doing research on traditional Guadeloupian culture and dance and refuses to leave. She has a dance studio here. Before Guadeloupe, we lived in Senegal for a while. She was also doing research, on Senegalese folk culture. The black world’s fascinating to us. We’re artists. When we return home, we’ll incorporate what we’ve learned.”
Longineu smiled. “Yes. Senegal is a wonderful and vibrant country. Its youth is smart, creative, and beautiful. A lack of resources does nothing to deter the inventiveness of its people. They’re proud, gentle and elegant, despite the dire poverty. Much like your people, they displayed no ill feelings toward us. Communicating with them was generally pleasant.”
The saxophone player paused and looked around the streets, a small smile pursed his lips. “After a while, we just couldn’t take living there any longer. Getting around Dakar was difficult; taxicabs felt unsafe. No one respected the rules of the road; Wolof interfered with our ability to learn French; power outages; constant begging on the streets; all of this created a huge inconvenience. As if this wasn’t enough, men boldly accosted and offered to marry my wife; a huge source of daily irritation. We got sick often, and so we decided to move closer to home and ended up here in Guadeloupe. These trips have opened my eyes to the black world outside of the States.”
“Are you not aware of what’s going on here these days?” Patrice frowned.
“I know what’s going on, even though the televised news doesn’t help much. I try to go where people are so I can learn more. There’s so much more info on the street. My French is not very good and sometimes it’s challenging to make out what people say. And if that wasn’t hard enough, many among you break into Creole or mix it up way too much for my taste. I miss a lot of what’s said.” The man bit his lip and looked at him.
“Since you follow me around, could you help out on occasions?”
“I don’t follow you around. You showed up in my town. Remember! Help with what? What do you need?”
What American does that, look for poorer places to move to? Patrice wondered. Normal people look for comfort. Longineu had to be up to no good. Why did he even pick me to explain and translate what was hard for him to get? Sure, they taught English in school, but how did he know for sure I even speak the language, in a land where French is king? Was he kidding?
The boy was seventeen. He wondered if the saxophone player knew who he was dealing with. Most foreigners, especially Americans, never mingled with the locals, and instead remained secluded in beach resorts.
To be an American is to cultivate fear, to be shaped by fear. Americans hardly ever came to these shores. When they came at all, the tourists traveled in packs or stayed cloistered in air-conditioned tour buses and hotel rooms. They loafed around white sandy beaches, or stayed on board showy cruise ships and continued on.
Longineu was itching to ask a question he sensed was too sensitive. He’d opened up enough and felt entitled anyway.
“Patrice, do you know anyone involved in the unrest?”
The suspicious son of a separatist, Patrice was of a mind to play a trick on Longineu.
“Yeah. Only four. They placed bombs in a few locations too.”
“Who are they?”
“One of them is a nurse. Another, a doctor. Another, an architect, and I can’t recall what the last one did for a living.”
“You seem pretty plugged in. How do you know these people?”
“This is a small island, man. We all practiced karate together. They are my elders.”
“How can I meet them? I’d love to ask a few questions. Popular liberation movements fascinate me. It’s almost like I’m part of history right now.”
“So, you’re into swinging and kinky stuff, uh?”
The man looked at him and blinked. “What?”
“These guys, uh, you know, they are… They’re all dead. They blew up with their bombs. Premature detonation.”
Longineu and Patrice crossed paths again. No one talked. Relentless, he was still out there hanging out with the youths, but he no longer approached. He’d resented being mocked by the cheeky teenager. Longineu had gotten nothing useful out of Patrice who kept watching him. He saw him lurk in dark alleys like a pusher of death and noticed the snitches feeding at his hand. After meeting with Longineu, they always had a little pep in their step and money to impress silly girls.
One day, children stopped hanging out on street corners and classes resumed. On Wednesday, class let out early. Half a day of freedom was a welcome break in a hectic week spent playing catch-up at school. A demanding national curriculum weighed on the minds of the ambitious students who wanted a ticket off of the island. The Baccalauréat was that ticket.
Patrice devoted the best part of Wednesday afternoons to relieving the anxiety associated with the end-of-year examination. After lunch, he left Baimbridge High, took a detour instead of heading straight home, dodged in and out of traffic, and made his way to the international airport in Raizet, his favorite place to hang out. There, he took a seat opposite the departure gate that led to customs and a security screening.
Patrice gawked at the departing travelers; detailed their accouterments, pictured the types of exciting lives they led in the faraway places where hope resided. He imagined that one day, he would be lucky enough to join them. Home would be anywhere, but here. The French colony was a jail for a restless soul. His land was under siege, bleeding faith.
Every time Patrice saw Longineu’s wife, Beverly, she inspired a second look. A tall sleek brown skin beauty, all sugar and spice and everything nice. Her syncopated moves delighted all who watched. Everyone in town had borne witness to her gift. She floated like a hummingbird hugging the frenzied air. The tussle she called a dance riveted onlookers. Hearts throbbed with every thrust of her quivering limbs.
On the street, in the studio, anywhere there was a beat, a mere sound, a vibration, a flutter, she would engage in a modern and stylish convulsion unlike any seen before. The dreadful trance was a celebration of life. The dance invoked ancestors, wandering spirits and lost souls denied heaven or hell.
Beverly delivered an otherworldly performance she called modern dance, while the profane called it a pageantry of madness. It was her singular interpretation of what local culture meant to her. She communicated loud and clear, reminding the audience to honor from whence they’d come. Contorting to imaginary blows, her emotions became their pain.
The American woman understood them. She embodied their resistance to the theft of their spirit. She became one with Guadeloupe, gave the land her all. Beverly had a finger on the pulse of the island. She’d become one of them.
The revival of Creole language and Gwo Ka music and dance brought people together to feed the flame of nationalism.
Patrice had followed Longineu for weeks before school resumed. He’d sought to expose him. Discreet, steering clear of Main Street, Longineu disappeared into alleyways only the locals knew, then, like a ghost, reappeared where no one expected him. Curious, Longineu asked lots of questions to the people he flattered. Adept at building rapport with public figures and low-life felons equally, he placed himself on anyone’s level for the occasion, adopting their taste in a subtle show of conciliation.
When he’d open up to someone, his fanciful stories would lighten up their face inspiring admiration. Like an opportunist, he jumped at any chance to obtain the scoop he wanted. At times, cautious in the extreme, not wanting to show his hand, when the tide shifted, and people doubted his motivation, he backed off, played dumb and made his exit. No one was none the wiser. He got along with assholes and decent folk alike. Getting others to talk came naturally to him.
His undeniable strength, listening, paid dividends. Popular with the natives, they extended invitations to places tourists never visited. Rumor had it; he’d been seen at the hideout of a notorious drug dealer, sitting on the ground, eating red beans and rice from a calabash, his signature musical instrument lying flat on a bench nearby. During the carnival, he and Beverly were the first to break ranks with staid onlookers standing dignified on the sidewalk. They would lunge into the booming chaos of disorderly flesh partaking in unbridled popular hysteria in the middle of the streets.
Guadeloupe had always been a battlefield, a pawn in the interplay of the greed and envy of powerful interests; a playground for rich Europeans manicured by poor West Indians. Culture and identity are on everyone’s mind in Guadeloupe. Anti-colonialist sentiments felt commensurate to the harsh treatment the locals received at the hands of the French. Guadeloupe doesn’t feel or look like France. It is America. It may, at times, remind one of France, but it is warm, lush, hilly, tiny and mostly languid; unless, of course, in the throes of a deep-seated anger that like the thick slow-moving lava from the Soufriere volcano, stews just beneath the surface ready to burst at the slightest irritation.
The dissatisfaction with the status quo led to the rise of a virulent anticolonial movement. In the eighties, a strong nationalist wave of bombings, riots, and unrest rocked the archipelago. General strikes provided an effective response to state oppression. The first bomb attack occurred in 1983, and the last, in 1985. Sixty bombings took place in the archipelago, in Martinique, in French Guiana, and in France, targeting banks, hotels, luxury stores like Chanel, airline companies, automobile clubs, police stations, prisons, tax offices, and restaurants. Spray-painted slogans that read “French People Out” appeared and multiplied all over the walls of cities.
In Guadeloupe, you would not find the filth and chaotic resignation found in Haiti nor the abysmal desperation found in Jamaica. You would only find the madness brought about by multiple identities, split personalities warring against each other, a living legacy of the abuses perpetrated in the flesh and in the soul of a people, in the name of French civilization.
Reminiscent of the flag of Suriname, the large green-red-green UPLG flag, a white stripe between the green and the red, and a bright yellow five-pointed star to the left fluttered frantically and led a procession of rambunctious overloaded cars to a far-off conference hall down at the mouth of Hell. There, in the wilderness, the people of the soil assembled in an unpretentious building to await their leader.
The strong man appeared at last. The rumblings subsided. He looked as dark as their pain and as large as their aspirations. His dark hue made him a compelling son of the same fertile soil, ready for a new crop, a rebirth of the spirit. Doctor Makouke hovered above a packed audience moved by the single-minded obsession of removing the yoke of the usurper masquerading as a friend, jolly and benevolent.
Endorphins inundated Patrice’s brain. Flanked by his mother and his aunt, protected by the fervor of patriots, comrades in the struggle for the sovereignty of their common will, Patrice marveled at the big man shattering the silence.
For the best part of an hour, he delivered a mesmerizing harangue the likes of which Patrice had never heard.
Doctor Makouke’s power didn’t just come from his booming voice, or his unmistakable presence, it came from the profundity of his convictions, which married to everyone else’s, charged the air. Prodded by revolutionary zeal, a procession of cars in the thousands crawled to the barricades outside of Pointe-à-Pitre.
Since early morning, restless patriots had heeded the call to protest the arbitrary rule of the enforcers of inequity. They needed assistance. To the rescue, the guardians of the soil went like an army of Mau Mau warriors on the prowl to prolong the resistance for a few additional hours.
Against sticks and stones, the khakied-reactionary troops of well-paid government terrorists rained down tear gas sending protesters blindly scurrying for cover into tenement yards, back alleys, and the improvised shelter of welcoming shacks.
Water splashed on the sullied faces of women and children gasping for air provided relief and the undeterred were ready once again to face their tormentors.
For weeks on end after the Doctor’s speech, Longineu roamed the streets looking for evidence of discontent, until all talks quieted, groups disbanded, and normalcy returned stilling and sending all rumblings to pasture. The marches and the bombings stopped, the streets emptied, and life resumed its predictable steady pace. The children returned to their soccer games, and the old, to their liquor parlors where sugar and lime mixed again, happy to greet the fragrant local rum.
One day, without warning, Longineu disappeared. He was gone, nowhere to be found, never to be seen again. The dance studio closed permanently. There was no longer any point to watching half-hidden behind shutters, hoping to spot his frail shadow. He was gone. No point in considering spying on his every deceptive move, or in trailing him mindlessly under cover of darkness to the back of unmarked police cars where his steps always led once the angry crowds dispersed.
The gendarmes came for Patrice early one morning and parked in front of the family home. He wondered how they knew he’d be home alone. He watched them through the twilight induced by the plantation shutters. The pit in his stomach would not let him breathe. The huge gendarme truck with rows of open benches in the rear held fifteen officers; lifelike robots made of flesh.
Under the rising sun their alabaster skin turned red, making them uncomfortable in their fatigues; in their hands, the heavy machinery of death; they were chomping at the bits to launch into action. The struggle for liberation at that moment seemed excruciatingly real. Were they about to rob Patrice of his body, or trample his spirit? Hostage to the whim of a higher up, no one moved. The implacable fear growing within Patrice became heart-rending.
Awaiting an order, the dealers of death could not leave the truck. Like a moth, Patrice stayed glued to the shutters, expecting their actions to dictate his fate, resisting the urge to urinate. The pain shooting from his bladder to the tip of his penis sharpening. The truck started suddenly, reawakening his dread, and took off in a huff with its guns and trained hands.
In the wake of Longineu’s unexplained departure, street-corner activists’ imprisonment swiftly followed. Returning from a date at the movies, a high school student with whom Patrice sometimes played soccer was stopped and frisked by an impatient gendarme who demanded to see his papers. The student had often been seen bantering with the American. He failed to promptly produce his identification. Multiple detonations rang out, and he fell hard like a lump to the ground.
Seventeen years old, motionless on a slimy bed of asphalt, the victim of cowardly, uncaring, government bullets, dead; a casualty of the fear of the usurper. Was this the price one had to pay for a fraudulent peace? The loss of the seed of a brighter future? That colonial peace robbed real people of the hope of dignity and the dream of finally owning their bodies.
Patrice would never again speak to random tourists, outsiders from the North, mingling with locals in times of unrest. Unaffected, Longineu had been more afraid than most, while no violence had been directed at him or his family or his country; not the violence of colonial domination nor the retaliation of the dominated. Longineu was as safe as he wanted to be, always a plane ticket away from ultimate safety.
He was safe if he wanted to be, unlike the natives who had nowhere else to run. He could leave and regain his shores anytime. Because of his quest and dealings, he’d made smelling fear his stock in trade; he could only be a spy. How else could Patrice explain Longineu’s infatuation with and the pursuit of drama? He had to have been a spy. Patrice had suspected this much the moment he’d appeared on the scene. How else could the unexpected targeted arrests and the murder of his acquaintance be explained?
Communists hung around high schools, and like Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses, they traveled in pairs using gimmicks to grab the attention of impressionable young people to teach them the ways of their enemies. The colorful material donated by Cuba railed against American and European imperialism, highlighting the spiritual wickedness of takers and bloodsuckers, those who sanctified the “I,” elevated it most highly.
They warned against people like Longineu who were doing the Devil’s work for a pittance they called a living, identified as they were with their master’s cause. The communists trained the youth in how to monitor evil, in the name of a God they called Liberation. Patrice would no longer shun them.
He saw them again, the night before, hovering about his place, playing with his fears. He thought it strange they stayed so long this time, and when they left, with a smile, they looked his way through the shutters, one last time. The next day, they came for him, this time, in earnest. They stopped by the class he was in, with people that knew him.
They made a school administrator fetch him, interrupt the bonding, and deliver him in a cold corridor dressed the color of despair. Intent on bruising his flesh, they assaulted his resigned, motionless body. They tackled and restrained him; tightly shackled his hands and hauled him into the belly of their gaping monster of steel.
They drove slowly around the school, doing a victory lap for all to see, as his defeated soul sank into a hopeless silence. Patrice had never been arrested before, much less humiliated in such a public fashion. Of what was he accused exactly? Why? It didn’t much matter! He was born accused, guilty and condemned; lacking a sovereign will. His body and soul trapped in the lust and fears of others; soul on ice. Half-crazed, waiting for his father, Patrice faded into compulsive reverie. The murdered high school student spoke to him:
“Beware! Deceit, lies, theft, are all around. A spy’s perfidy is revealed when you refuse to entertain the tale he weaves. In the details, he’ll show his hand. Too much ‘I,’ not enough ‘we.’ He’ll talk too much or not enough, and way too carefully. He’ll be too nice, or not at all. Watch the veneer fade and his true colors emerge. Keep a distance. Nothing good ever comes of engaging with trolls. Trust your instincts. A suspicion is all you need. Run. A troll cares only for himself, and shows up in your life uninvited like spam. Delete, and turn inward, where your truth resides. Do not open yourself to a lie and a bullet.”
On the high school student’s grave, Patrice emptied a heavy heart.