John Michael Koffi’s “Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired” is a memoirs of his teens _ years he had barely left when he self-published his book earlier this year. It is adolescent, which is to say the book is by turns mature and childlike; wise and naïve; brash and awkward. It has passages that read like a cliché-riddled college application essay. But others are extraordinary, as when Koffi brings memory and imagination to bear to describe what it would be like to have been born in a refugee camp, unwanted by the world from the start.
“You grew up there enjoying the delicious taste of its dust and despair. At the age of three, you started speaking a few words. Whenever you heard your mother saying, “Nakupenda mtoto wangu,” your neighbor said, “Dore uko gisa.” You learned both the languages, more often than not, the exact same wording. “I love you my child. Look how it looks like!” Two foreign languages, two foreign feelings _ one meant to build you up, one meant to destroy you. As a toddler, you ran around the camp and its premises naked. Whenever you met a stranger, he was quick to say, “Chimwana cha ndani ichi? Bwerera kwenu!” – whose horrible child is this? Go back to where you came from. A local language. And even though you found it hard to understand him, his stale stare was kind enough to communicate that it was probably time to turn around, and like a soft breeze, slowly vamoose. Time to go and cry on the lap of your confused mother, unable to explain what had just happened. You couldn’t and you would never understand those words in your entire, possibly shortened, life. They were native to the land; their land did not belong to you.”
Koffi offers a window into a world where “everyone was living in havoc. Everything was weathering and breaking apart; everything was disheartening and scary.” In addition to building empathy in countries like my own challenged by a global refugee crisis, Koffi’s perspective would be revelatory for anyone working with any scarred children. Not just those scarred by war and by flight to polyglot camps where adults want a future for their children but don’t dare hope for too much.
In presenting the possibility of people from different cultures and experiences coming to a shared understanding, Koffi’s work reminded me of “There was this Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile.” In “There was this Goat, “ journalist Antjie Krog and academics Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele investigate how a South African survivor of apartheid brutality tells her story, and propose that listeners have work to do to hear the truth.
Koffi only sketches out the violence he saw himself before his family left their lives behind in the Democratic Republic of Congo, first finding refuge in Malawi before political volatility there forced another exodus, this time to Swaziland. Koffi is a bright student fortunate to have family and friends who are able to support him. Many of his peers were orphaned, or are neglected by adults overwhelmed by loss. After excelling at schools in southern Africa Koffi goes on to study in Europe before starting university in North America and writing his book.
Koffi calls himself a “specialist” on what it means to be a refugee:
“A refugee is a wanderer: no proper place to live but a long exodus toward life or death. As a refugee, you flee from your country, sometimes with a planned destination, most of the time with none. What happens when you find yourself in a situation where you have to abandon your itinerary? Why plan if the undesirable human traits make you forsake your so-called refuge? Yesterday it was war. Today it’s xenophobia and immigration. Tomorrow it will be poor living conditions, a quest for resettlement, an inability to cope with life. Moving from bad to worse, worse to bad, it’s never better. Government, people, resources. Immigration, education, poverty. Fear, hostility, discrimination. No sense of security. Life is simply nonsense!”
When reality is nonsensical, it can seem surreal. “Refuge-e” made me reach for my copy of pioneering Nigerian novelist Amos Tutola’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.”
Koffi, writing in at least his fourth language, and Tutola, writing in his second, share an alchemical command of English, transforming it into something rich and strange. And both are influenced by oral traditions, embellishing their tales with repetitions and non sequiturs as if they were sitting at a campfire with their readers.
Here is Tutola:
“But as the noises of the enemies’ guns drove me very far until I entered into the ‘Bush of Ghosts’ unnoticed, because I was too young to know that it was a dreadful bush or it was banned to be entered by any earthly person, so that immediately I entered it I stopped and ate both fruits which my brother gave me before we left each other, because I was very hungry before I reached there.”
And here is Koffi, sharing a fable he learned from his grandmother as she told it:
“Fisi, the cunning predators that tried to prey on the other players in the industry, ruled the goats, always emphasizing how the goats should never be preyed upon! And the hyenas and goats lived happily ever after, until ‘ever after’ ended ….”
Perhaps Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele can explain what’s up with the goats. I’m left pondering how both the fictional “My Life” and the nonfiction “Refuge-e” feature adults who treat morality like a luxury, while only the young prove wise enough to see that the concept of right and wrong is more important than ever when the world seems to be falling apart.
Koffi is not yet a Tutola. Some of “Refuge-e” reads like an over-earnest high school valedictory. But if the young autobiographer’s farewell to childhood falls short, it’s because he reaches so high.