2 April, 2024: L’anniversaire le plus joyeux set in Conakry, Guinea

Featured & Cover 2 April 2024 L'anniversaire le plus joyeux set in Conakry Guinea

«Bonsoir, ma tante. »

«Bonsoir, Tina » Mother said to her niece, all the while thinking, What are you doing here?

It was seven in the evening, a half hour after Father had come home from his hospital work. Because of some construction happening in the suburb of Kipe, the lights outside of the house were not working. The muddy street looked murky and easy to fall into. A street dog ambled by on an injured leg. Seagulls from the coast side were fighting with the crows for scraps of food. Their house was on a small commercial strip with a small clothes store and some local restaurants, but that otherwise had no real reason to be frequented by an outgoing youngster like Tina.

Her niece, as if hearing the question Mother had been too polite to voice, said, « I am here to wish my uncle. Can I come in? »

« Bien sûr » Mother said, though she was still confused. While this was the hour Mother and Father had agreed to celebrate his sixty-ninth birthday on, Father had made it very clear that he was not going to tell anyone about it, that it was just going to be an intimate celebration within their individual family. Perhaps Tina had a thing for remembering dates. While Tina was irresponsible in a lot of ways, Mother had discerned that she was good at numbers, given how quick she was at calculating tabs and doing math out loud. Mother did not want to assume mal intent on the part of Tina.

She said, « You have all of the right to come in. You are family. You do not even have to ask. »

Tina took off her shoes and put on the pair of slippers that Mother had by the door. They were actually Son’s, and it was rare for other people to use them, but Mother didn’t address it as Tina was quick to ask questions.

« Alors, how have the last few months been for you? It’s been some months since we last talked, has it not? »

« Oui » Mother said, but before she could answer, Tina spoke on.

« I am so sorry to not have visited you. I have been so busy. I’m now in my second year of college. It’s a lot more work than the first. And soon I will be starting my third year. »

« Are you still studying biology? » Mother asked.

« Ma tante » Tina chuckled. « Why does it matter to you so much? »

« It is because you did not come from Koidu with the plan to study biology, and it is expensive to change your degree like this. Are you not thinking about your mother? When was the last time you called her, in fact? »

« Ma tante » Tina repeated, keeping the amused smile on her face. She opened up an app on her phone. « Do you think I look good in this picture? Or do you think I should apply some more red on my face? »

She showed the picture first without any filter, in which Tina’s face was normal, her cat-like eyes and caramel-toned skin against the steel wall of a mall, her face centered because of the size of her dreads and how much space they took up in the photo. Then she put on a filter, and Tina’s cheeks were fully red, and the size of her eyes were widened out, almost made to look like a cartoon character’s.

« Tina, aren’t you here to wish my husband for his birthday? Why don’t you go wish him instead of showing me these photos? »

« Oui, oui » Tina said, laughing it off. « You have reason. Where is he? »

Mother pointed into the dining room, which was through the doorway on the other side of the sofa. It should have been obvious from the light and the smell of burnt candles. Tina rushed over, and Mother heard her say, « Bonsoir uncle. Happy birthday. »

« Thank you, Tina. » Mother could hear, based on Father’s matter-of-fact tone, that he wasn’t happy about this particular visit. Mother could understand. Tina rarely visited or interacted with them unless she was in need of money, and she barely talked to her husband as it was.

Then Tina roared almost too loudly, « And who is that? »

Mother entered the room. Tina, of course, was referring to her mother-in-law, the great Madame Condé, the dame of the Temme people of Kambia who was well respected in her town, and who was known for being the mother of Sekou Condé in this particular house. She was sitting in her wheelchair, covered in a purple sun-print dress. The dress used to cover her properly, but with how thin she was becoming, it now draped over her like a bedsheet. The only place where there was still a healthy amount of fat deposit was on her cheeks. Her eyes were turning blue with age. It seemed like she had noticed Tina and was putting her lips together to say something, but instead she blew out spit. Drool pooled over her chin.

« What is she doing? » Tina asked.

Father responded to Tina’s earlier question, « This is my mother. I don’t think you have met her, have you not? »

« Why is she making a face like that? »

Certainly, for someone not used to seeing a face in the midst of dementia, Mother knew it would be a puzzling sight. The eyes seemed completely vacant, and yet the lips were open, as if in the middle of conversation. Father’s mother put up one of her hands, and Tina reached towards it as if she wanted to give her a handshake.

But then Madame Condé lost her focus, and she slapped at Tina.

« She just slapped me » Tina said, rubbing her arm. « And it was quite hard. She is strong. »

« Yes, she is » Father said. The chocolate frosting of the cake was dripping onto the table. The lights above were flickering, the bulbs soon in need of changing. « Tina, what was it you wanted to say in coming here? »

« I wanted to say happy birthday » Tina said, her French sounding joyous and polite and very positive. But then something else glinted in her eye, a clear, obvious question.

Was she about to ask for money?

The silence stretched out for some time, then Tina said, « I guess I should get going. »

« You could have some cake » Mother said.

« I am on a diet, but thank you. »

Mother gave a polite smile, knowing that made sense given how Tina thought. Mother gave a look to her husband, asking with her eyes if she could see Tina off. Father gestured for her to go, that it would no bother for the two of them. They returned to the living room, and Tina picked up her purse from the sofa. She said, « I understand why you are so busy. It must be hard to take care of a woman like her. »

Mother held her mouth shut, not sure how to respond. Yes, it was very hard to take care of a woman like her mother-in-law, very much so. But Mother didn’t like Tina’s tone.

Tina went on:

« The cake smells splendid, and there was not a power cut today. It would probably have been a most joyous birthday otherwise, if she wasn’t there, making a mess everywhere. »

Mother wanted to say something to stop Tina in her tracks, something along the lines of, You shouldn’t speak about your elders that way. Someday, someone will say the exact same thing about you. At the same time, all Mother had to do was sniff the air to remind herself that there was now a permanent smell of urine in her house, just as she could see the snot stains from her mother-in-law on the couch, or the TV knob that was permanently broken because her mother-in-law had tried to pull it off one day.

« You have a good day today, Tina » Mother said.

« You too, my aunt » Tina said, and she went in for a hug.

When Tina left, Mother reflected. She was glad that Tina had not asked for money; it showed she was maturing. She also appreciated that Tina had taken the time to visit them and wished her uncle as politely as she could.

But Tina had a lot of growing up to do. A lot of what she had said, while well intentioned, was not appropriate. It was not even correct.

It was a joyous birthday indeed. And what made the birthday important was not that Father was turning sixty-nine, but that this was the first birthday Father was spending with his own mother in many decades. That family time was rare, special, and far more valuable than a big birthday party. While Mother was very tired of taking care of her mother-in-law, it had been nice how they had cut the cake, blown out the candles, and sung French songs from the radio, just the three of them. The presence of the grand Madame Condé did make the house feel fuller, she had to admit, and Father was happier, no doubt about that. Mother was grateful.

Mother was grateful for that very much.

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