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The story of Ngobi’ s Take

On a hot Monday morning of June 1957, a primary school teacher, let’s call him Mr Pierre Ferry) in a school located in the little town of Porto-Novo in Benin, was enraged with one student, his favorite student whom he nicknamed “Ngobi”. Mr Pierre, a rather nice French colonial civilizer, in his 9th year of teaching in the still colonized Benin (the country became independent from French colonization in 1960) entered the classroom through the back door, walked at his usual senator’s pace, while repeatedly saying something angrily under his breath about a broken bicycle. The classroom was very confused. While everyone knew that Ngobi was Mr Pierre’s favorite student evidenced by the fact that he never got any lashing from “The Punisher” (more on him later), no one knew then that Mr Pierre trusted Ngobi enough to always ask him on Fridays, after school, to drag his bicycle home when he goes for drinks with his French circle (I believe it was more his Beninese girlfriend but that is story for another post)! Ngobi would drag the bicycle to the teacher’s house near the train station, about 1km from the school. This routine worked pretty well, until apparently, a bad spirit (aka curiosity) struck. Ngobi decided he was better off cycling. So that Friday, he jumped on the machine and rode it to the house. Things only went wrong after he arrived at the teacher’s house, as he was trying to get off, his legs were too short! He fell, nobody was injured except one mirror and the kickstand!

The weekend passed. With a smell of fear and trepidation.

Then came Monday morning.

Mr Pierre Ferry, when he finally faced the classroom, said in a deep breath “Ngobi, au tabas!” literally “Ngobi, go get beat up!”

Ngobi means “Prince” according to Mr Pierre, who learned that from his previous posting in central Africa (maybe Cameroon or Congo Brazzaville). He would call this student Ngobi, because he was the best in the class, and he predicted the boy was going to become “someone” in the country’s future.

Ngobi looked around terrified but saw no support in the eyes that he scanned through quickly as he was getting ready to lower his khaki short. Even Fred, one of his very good friends (or so he thought) did not seem to feel sorry for him! What he saw was his mates, curious and perhaps excited, to see how he will survive this initiation into manhood. Yes, the experience of going through the punishment was apparently equivalent of a cultural initiatory ceremony.

Back to The Punisher, a big fella, whose origin in Benin is quite frankly unknown. Students affiliated to the “International Gossip Association” (I know a few people who should join for sure) said his family, a royal one from Senegal was exiled to Benin, after their kingdom was captured by the French army. That was never confirmed, but the dude seemed to really have a lot of anger in him, to the point where he would be the one crying when he was beating others! For sure, there must be some pain when you are 16 years old in a class where the average age was 9 , the description I received makes me think of him as John Coffey played by Michael Clarke Duncan in his breakout role in the movie The Green Mile (1999), based on Stephen King’s 1996 novel of the same name.

To cut a long story short:

  • Big fella, The Punisher, cried while nicely beating up the prince.
  • Ngobi, cried too, a lot, and could barely walk back home. But survived long enough to become a man. But a man who never rode a bicycle for the rest of his life.
  • Mr Pierre Ferry promised he would teach the Ngobi how to ride. But was reported missing at the end of the year. Maybe his affair was uncovered, and he was sent to another French colony? (I will publish the unreleased tapes about Mr Pierre Ferry and the Punisher in future posts)

What I do know is that Ngobi’ s capabilities to procreate were not cancelled by that punishment and he went on to have 4 kids (I’m number 3 out of the 4), and he went on to become a history and geography professor. While he never bought a bike for himself, he bought me my first bike when I completed primary school and told me the story of his first riding experience, and how painful it ended.

I felt H-O-R-R-I-F-I-E-D! for Ngobi, and for The Punisher

The story literally kickstarted my questions around colonization and history and set off a series of cultural, philosophical, and historical conversations with my dad for the last 30 years. Fueled by the weekly delivery of ‘Jeune Afrique” magazine and my early access to his many collection of books and encyclopedia including The Dictionnaire de la langue française by Émile Littré, (commonly called “Littré”, which is a four-volume dictionary of the French language). Over the years, it became a ritual for me to hear a story in the news, often on the International French Radio, (hence my habit of listening to it every morning), then call him at the first opportunity to ask, “Is that the real story? What’s your take?”

The last time I got Ngobi’s Take, was in December 2021, as I called him from Beyrouth, Lebanon, and excitedly said “Finally! I understand why we have a lot of Lebanese in West Africa!” and he responded, “Yeah? Tell me more.” in that voice which really translates to “Let’s see what you’ve got” automatically fueling my determination to have the last word.

On Thursday December 14, 2021, Ngobi left this part of the world. And the lines of communications we use here, instantly closed.

No more challenging conversations.

No more “What’s your take?” and the intellectual stimulation that came with every interaction.

What was unexpected was the complete loss of the desire to read, talk or write. These things felt very intertwined with Ngobi.

Two years since his departure, this blog is my best attempt at continuing my conversations or rather imagining what his take would be on the coups in Gabon and in Niger, the Ukraine war, the new immigration laws in France, the upcoming felt or perceived renaissance of Africa heritage preservation, the next volume of my book etc… It is a fulfilment of a desire to preserve and share the musings and beliefs of a true champion for Pan-Africanism in the hope that you too can be inspired to engage the Ngobis in your life while you still have them.

Each blog post will explore a current, past, or even futuristic incident across politics, culture, music, the arts, and many more in the context of Africa’s history and its evolution.

If you read this post up to now, I hope I have convinced you to subscribe to Ngobi’s Take and more importantly, to remember that this is a conversation, so your take and the take of your Ngobi, are welcome, in the comments, as well as by email.

Until the next take.