For its 30th anniversary, the Hay Festival selected 30 young novelists, scientists, philosophers, performers and activists who will imagine and shape the world in the next 30 years. One of these was Eric Ngalle Charles, a Cameroonian refugee who settled in Wales and has been steadily building bridges between the two countries ever since.
Last year saw the publication of ‘Hiraeth Erzolirzoli,’ an anthology of poetry written by some forty poets, which he edited. Now, hard on its heels, comes this hard-edged account of how he came here in the first place, after his family was duped into thinking they were sending him to start a degree and a new life in Belgium. In reality he was trafficked to Moscow, deep in the throes of winter, dressed in thin clothes and with just three dollars in his pocket.
In Russia he had far more first experiences than he probably would have wished for: the first fairground ride, the first time he tasted pig swill, the first time he had a gun held to his head. In the Moscow suburbs he naturally felt a painfully long way from home… ‘far away from the meandering slopes of Small Soppo. No longer surrounded by the plantains behind my mother’s house. I could no longer go and steal pears from Mola Ngombis farm…’
We hear how he in Africa he brought shame on himself in being roundly defeated in a wrestling competition by a man with a stick insect’s body and learn how to trap rat moles successfully. We read of the pleasures of pepper soup and eating his mother’s ekwam, a rich mix of coco yams, coco leavesm, crayfish, palm dried fish and the ubiquitous Maggi cubes.
In Russia, though, he often goes hungry, and he is repeatedly beaten up and on one occasionally systematically tortured. His two years in Moscow test him to the very limits and one day he finds himself on a platform in Kievskaya station, waiting to hurl himself in front of a fast train.
Steeling himself for the jump he then hears his mother’s voice yelling his name, and “Ngalle” is the name she always used when he had done something good. But she also has a warning for him saying ‘If you kill yourself, I may wake you up and beat you until you die again.’ His mother is so redoubtable that even her shade is a tough nut.
In the main it was his aptitude for languages that helped him survive, picking up Russian very quickly and just as swiftly turning it to his advantage. Soon he was a small-time scammer and no-one was safe, not even his friends. Then he graduated to deceit on a bigger scale, persuading “investors” that he could copy American dollars for them, using a complicated technique involving chemicals and cold. This is thus a disarmingly honest account of what it takes to stay alive in a hostile environment, where random packs of racist skinheads range the streets of Pechatniki in attack formation.
‘I, Eric Ngalle’ is an exploration of memory and trauma, so that we are given glimpses of childhood adventures and make the aquaintance of his sprawling family. Eric Ngalle was an illegitimate child and his account of life in Cameroon is also one of familial disinheritance, culminating in a traumatising court hearing where many of his relatives claim not to know him at all, callously looking him in the eyes as they each have their Judas moments.
This is not a book to read if, like me, you suffer from ophidophobia or a fear of snakes because not one but two types of mamba slither through its pages while there is a simply heart-stilling account of putting a hand down a hole inhabited by a rhinoceros viper. I had to check under the soaf after reading that passage.
Despite the dark and testing times he lived through in Russia the memoir is leavened by bright flashes of language, so we meet ‘one guy who was so fat he looked as if he had grown into a chair’ and a ‘Bakossi boy who looked like a ghost…and walked as if his clothes were still in the cupboard.’ Most memorable is the description of his pet dog, Meki who was ‘brown and had permanent marks under his eyes as if he had been crying – he had the face of a mother leopard whose children had been taken captive by hunters.’
‘I, Eric Ngalle’ is both a memoir and apologium, as the book concludes with an apology to all those he has hurt along the way, and as this book attests there were lots of them. It takes guts to tell all in this way, and while this is not just writing as therapy, it nevertheless took the author nineteen years to be able to write down ‘this very dark memory.’
In these xenophobic times, when migrants and refugees are pilloried or vilified it is a useful corrective to read a story such as this, to appreciate the inner steel and simple survival skills necessary to make such journeys.
Eric Ngalle says that Wales gave him back his name, his voice and his identity. In turn, he now works with other refugees helping them find their voices and redact their own stories. They are the quintessential tales of our age, when war, oppression and poverty dispossesses so many. In finding sanctuary migrants such as Ngalle also enrich society, as he has proved by his many contributions to Welsh cultural and civic life.
The next volume of memoirs will chart his time in Wales, and while not as grim as his hand-to-mouth existence in a world peopled with Russian mobsters and duplicitous friends, it, too was not without its challenges. But it will also pick up where this book leaves off, with a life-scarred African getting on a bus for Cardiff, buying a one-way ticket to what he will one day call home.
I, Eric Ngalle is published by Parthian, costs £9.99 and can be bought here.