Fate – A short film

 

Fate Film 1

Dear Friends,

I just signed the campaign: Serving Life w/ Hard Labor w/o Parole for $20 of Marijuana.

It would mean the world to me if you could also add your name to this important issue. Every name that is added builds momentum around the campaign and makes it more likely for us to get the change we want to see.

=> Why is this important?

Fate Vincent Winslow a 47-year-old African-American homeless man who acted as go-between in the sale of two minuscule bags of cannabis (worth $20 total) to an undercover cop, Winslow was sentenced to life in prison without parole based on other “strikes” that were 14 and 24 years old, respectively, one of which he received was a drug-related charge at 15 years of age. The white dealer in the transaction, who was also identified by the undercover officer, was never charged even though he was found with police evidence; a marked $20 bill.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/homeless-life-in-prison-wee…

A petition for a Fate Vincent Winslow’s release through Color of Change at Organizefor.org. has been created. Korstiaan Vandiver in conjunction with a Youth Community Center in Los Angeles, mentoring a marijuana drug prevention film project for a group of wonderful high school students, together, they were able to obtain the court case document from an appeal easily and with articles, and decided to do a short film to deter youth from marijuana drug used based on Fate — racial profiling and ridiculous sentencing such as Fate’s and many others.

They reached out to Fate at Angola and the Assistant Warden got involved. He told them he wouldn’t allow them to talk to Fate and that he was saying no to any media. He then began a series of untruths that created red flags. They became concerned for Fate after that conversation and started calling his former lawyers and the ACLU for help and answers.I was burdened with a heavy desire to get this man out and others like him. By signing and sharing this petition you can help. President Obama has already pardoned 2 men with similar sentences during his term. I also wonder whether Korstiaan and his students’ rights were violated by being denied a conversation with a non-violent offender and how many others rights may have been also in an effort to help Fate.

“Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president in almost a century. That said, thousands of inmates remain in federal prison for nonviolent drug charges, many of them holdovers from the draconian sentencing laws that came out of the war on drugs. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new clemency initiative, claiming that 10,000 inmates “were potentially going to be released” as a result. But 562 is a far cry from that. And as Mother Jones has reported, dozens more are serving life sentences without parole for marijuana-only crimes, a group of people whom advocates view as an obvious choice for the kind of clemency reform that’s been promised.” (One marijuana lifer, Ramon Gonzalez, had his sentence commuted…)
http://www.motherjones.com/…/obama-just-freed-another-214-i…

ACLU Blurb
Fate Vincent Winslow was homeless when he acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer. During an undercover investigation in Shreveport in September 2008, an undercover officer approached a white man named Mr. Perdue and Winslow, who is Black. The officer asked Winslow for two dime bags of marijuana worth $10 each and promised a $5 commission for Winslow, who says he accepted the offer in order to earn some money to get something to eat.
Winslow says he bought two $5 bags of marijuana from Perdue and sold them to the undercover officer as dime bags worth $10 each. The undercover officer testified that he witnessed a hand-to-hand transaction between Winslow and Perdue and that he paid Winslow with a $20 bill and a $5 bill. When officers arrested Winslow, he only had the $5 bill on him. Officers found the marked $20 bill on Perdue (the white supplier), but did not arrest him. According to Winslow, at trial, the 10 white jurors found him guilty of marijuana distribution, while the two black jurors found him not guilty (the state of Louisiana does not require a unanimous jury to convict and instead allows convictions by 10 out of 12 jurors). He was sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a fourth strike offender. His prior convictions were for a simple burglary committed in 1984, when he was 17; simple burglary in 1994, when he was 27 (he was accused and convicted of opening an unlocked car door and rummaging inside without taking anything); and possession of cocaine in 2000, when he was 37 (an undercover officer tried to sell him cocaine, which he says he did not purchase)

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Requiem for Sleep

1.

Under the bright lights of a glass-and-chrome clock, on a black cushioned chair, Cecil is sleeping, his two pieces of black luggage in front of him. A police officer awakens him,

“Excuse me, sir,” he says.

Cecil sits up startled. He is wearing a flannel suit, a luxurious warm cashmere scarf, and an overcoat. Eyes red and puffy, his face gaunt and pale, Cecil sits before the police officer, who studies him with bemusement.

“Please keep your bags close to you,” the police officer says, picking up Cecil’s carry-on and sliding it under his chair, and says, “I have never seen anyone frown so much in their sleep.”

“I will keep that in mind officer,” Cecil retorts with an insincere smile trying to lighten the moment, and watches the law enforcer walk away. He glances at his watch, and then looks at an overhanging clock; check-in for his flight begins in a few minutes. He’s been battling sleepless nights, and this is his only chance to catch up on some much needed snooze. In the silence of the nights, Cecil fights his imaginary battles; his unrealized dreams, corruption and unjust occurrences to which he turned a blind eye, the moments of timidity he manages to conceal from other people, but not from himself – and the love which he lacked the courage to embrace. The thought inevitably occurs: if only I had said or done x instead of y, if only I could do it over. He tosses and turns from side to side on his bed, and still fails to fall asleep. He keeps recalling the day’s events; tomorrow’s planned events, and next week’s planned events. His mind keeps spinning in circles, and though he is exhausted, he simply cannot fall asleep.

He overhears the couple behind him chatting about the weather in Florida, and the possibility of rain. He recognizes the smell of fading perfume that women are wearing, Chanel, clashing with the smell of popcorn and toasted sandwiches. The mechanical, yet pleasant, voice on the public address system starts calling for someone to go to the nearest courtesy phone, then announces that flight 446 is now boarding at gate-4B. He hears snippets of conversation from other passengers passing him on their way to the next gate. Underneath Cecil’s functional surface is an undercurrent of excitement, anticipation and impatience.

If the end of the year is a time to reflect on mistakes made and relationships lost, there may not be a better way to start the New Year than with a long overdue vacation. Airports are passageways to life’s biggest moments: celebrations, weddings, and funerals. Along with overstuffed bags, laptops and treasured souvenirs, travelers carry joy and heartache.

Cecil starts moving through the security screening. It’s a beautiful choreographed ballet of a bag handle collapsing, shoes coming off, a laptop in a separate tray, wallet and watch sliding into a shoe, his boarding pass sliding into his back pocket.

2.

Once up in the celestial clouds, strapped into his tight seat, in the climate-controlled can-like cabin, the seat-belt sign goes off. With the hope that in the end, the destination will be worth the discomfort, the inconvenience, and the anxiety, Cecil decides to watch an epic movie.

The film depicts a fallen hero in a medieval epoch. This hero’s village is destroyed by a rival neighboring clan, his wife and child raped and killed, his friends beheaded, and his puppy roasted on an open spit. Throughout the movie the hero justifies his actions, cloaked in religious rhetoric, claiming that it is justice he is after, not vengeance. One cannot be in a moral position not to root for this hero. All the same, as the movie develops, Cecil notices how the more the hero hunts the cause of his woes; the more he takes on the villain’s personality and mannerisms. Justice is probably a mere feeling.

Cecil is fascinated by this kind of heroism because it evinces a kind of strength he wants to emulate. In reality when a man looks in his heart he doesn’t discover something valiant and dangerous, but instead finds anger, lust, and fear. The heroism Cecil finds in the movie has a melancholic sense to it since the hero is all alone, but keeps fighting because without friendship and love, even the strongest man cannot live long. The human soul needs a kindred, familiar heart, a place to rest and lie down. What a precious flower friendship is; we can never value our friend highly enough if he is a true friend, and can never run away fast enough if he betrays our trust.

“Damn you, Iago!” Cecil mutters under his breath, shaking his head in disappointment.

Man will always be man because there is no new man. Civilization, a culture that promotes democratic values of being fair to one and all, the importance of fitting into a group, and knowing how to cooperate with other people. We strive so hard to create a society that is equal where there is nothing to envy your fellow man. But there is always something to covet: a smile, a friendship, something you don’t have and want to claim as your own. There will always be rich and poor, those fortunate in gifts, and others wretched in affliction. There will always be those blessed in love, and others poor in love. A kiss was to be a sign of love and friendship, Judas came up to Jesus with an act of affection but all the while in his heart he was going to betray Jesus. Cicero once said that a nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious, but it cannot survive treason within. Cecil died a million times when he heard that she was happy with Iago, and spent sleepless nights wondering why someone so close would turn around, ruin the best part of him, and leave him empty. More troubling and complex, however, are the battles we face with those who are supposedly on our side – “Et tu Brute, then fall Caesar,” as Shakespeare would say. We laugh extra hard at each other’s jokes, since honesty rarely strengthens friendships, one may never know how a friend truly feels.

Cecil resorts to contemplating, over-thinking, and wishing that they suffer the consequences for what they did to his heart, allowing them to hurt him a second time, this time in his mind. Cecil can’t quite remember who he is anymore, and nothing makes any sense. His significant other is no longer significant, and his closest and oldest friend, the very paragon of benevolence, stabbed him in the back with a velvet glove on his hand, and the sweetest of smiles.

3.

The passenger sitting beside Cecil, an old man, presumably a priest by the clerical clothing he is wearing looks at Cecil with confident loving eyes, and asks,

“What’s the issue young man? You seem troubled, unfinished business?”

“No,” Cecil replies. “Everything is tied up just fine, knock on wood,” Cecil says. He smiles positively; mirroring the confidence exuded from the old man, and then says,

“However, I find myself wondering what the chances are for this particular plane we’re sitting in to sending us into a spinning, rotating, and nose-diving spiral of certain death?”

“I presume you are not fond of flying,” the priest says cracking a sardonic smile.

“No, flying is not really my cup of tea,” Cecil replies.

In reality, the priest’s presence made Cecil ponder about heaven and hell. If the plane actually crashed, killing everyone on board, hell! The thought of anyone suffering at all, let alone for eternity makes Cecil’s stomach twist. He then decides to ask the priest a question,

“May I ask you a question about your faith?”

“Yes, you may,” the priest answers.

“Is God really so vengeful?” Cecil asks.

The priest takes a moment of silence to respond, looking at Cecil pensively, and says,

“The Lord hears the prayers of those who ask to put aside hatred, but he is deaf to those who would flee from love.”

Cecil remains quiet, nods at the priest slightly embarrassed, and mutters under his breath a platonic reply, “Interesting!” his voice trailing away weakly. He looks out the oval window to the earth’s landscape covered in clouds and water. He keeps thinking over what the priest said about the conundrum of love.

For some reason Cecil finally manages to fall asleep.

 

END

What Could Be: A Letter to my Younger Self

Dear Lionel,

I wish to properly introduce myself first:

I am you in twenty years in the future from your vantage point. You must be wondering how all this is possible; this letter – you, me, writing to you, to me, in the past, at this moment, in the future. Nevertheless, do not worry too much about the plausibility of all this for now. This ‘one-time’ opportunity could pass. This letter might be the only chance for us to finally meet, because amazing occurrences in life rarely happen twice.

I know for a fact that you think a lot about yourself in the future, of what could be, and I particularly love dwelling in nostalgia, reminiscing about myself in the past. With this letter, our opposing parallel lives have finally merged; your present is now my present. So pay attention because I write from the future.

There is so much I would like to tell you, details of what lies ahead, the kind of man you will become, the choices you will make and their aftereffects, the amazing moments you will experience, like the time your friends will throw you a surprise birthday party, the hardships you will endure, like the time when you will be persecuted for your skin color during your internship in Europe, the mistakes you will misapprehend, like the time when you will over-speed and crash your car and your ankle, the moments of courage you will weather, like the time your girlfriend will be drowning and you will save her, the moments of solitude you will discover, like the time you will decide to write your first novel, and everyone around will be mocking you, the comradery you will share, like the day your best friend will defend you during the political crisis, the carnal desire you will be tempted with, like the day you will be taken to a brothel, and you will be tongue-tied and ashamed, the romantic love you will feel, like when you will first meet Kelly, the moments of duty you will be committed to, like when dad will lose all his money, and the betrayal you will not see coming, like when Ari will take your business from under you all the while smiling in your face.

All this might sound strange as you read this, and no, I will not give you any more details for I want you to learn to dwell in the euphoric, impetus of present life. I want you to consider hope as a life motto, and believe in ‘what could be’. For I know too well what is disturbing you at this particular time in your life. You are very anxious; fear is at the center of your being. Trust me, trust you, trust yourself, but more importantly, trust your instincts. Instinct is something which transcends knowledge. We somehow have a God-given ability enabling us to perceive truths when logical deduction or any other willful effort of the brain is futile.

I hope I was not too preachy, but these are aspects of life that will align everything you are yearning to understand. But then again, I do not want to give you enough details that will in turn make you completely alter the future, your future, my present. Rest assured I am content with my life as I write this letter; moreover, it could be better. So the ball is in your court.

I suppose you are still young at heart to fully grasp all that is written in this letter at this particular time in your life, and I am quite relieved to know this. I hope you keep this letter in all your adventures, and hope you re-read it over the next few years as it will all make sense as the years pass. Give yourself time to grow. You do not need to be serious all the time.

In any event, I hope it strengthens your belief in yourself.

 

Yours Truly,

Lionel ‘Love Jones’ Ntasano

Strong and True

I will age

And so will you

I am no sage

And this is my view

We are all we got

Me and my crew

We could be chilling on a yacht

But the plans fell through

It is the life we choose

Where friends become foes

It is a life of ego, drugs and booze

That brings fake snakes and dishonest hoes

When the chips are down

I realize I am all alone

Because nobody is around

I cry tears that are bitter and warm

The world moves fast

An old friend came back and stopped

He pulled me out at last

Because he realized I was knocked

Let us not talk of money

Let us forget the world

Let us focus on our comradery

Forget the yacht

Let us sail unfurled

I will age

And so will you

I hope our friendship stays

Strong and True

 

The Relatives

The humidity gave Nick a shortness of breath. The heat was unbearable and could instantly be felt as soon as he stepped out of the plane. “I will not run, I will not run,” Nick kept telling himself. I will not cry, I will not cry, he thought as he hit the tarmac at Bujumbura International Airport; after what seemed like an endless flight of steps down the airplane stairwell. It was about two weeks after the September 11 terror attacks in New York.He remembered the fateful night of October 1993. He felt a bit of anger but put those feelings aside for the time being as he entered the tiny airport.

It was empty compared to JFK or Roissy Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and very small. There were a few Europeans with UN passports, and other Burundian teenagers that dressed like kids back in the US; sagging pants and durags on their heads. They looked happy and excited, but arrogant. After filling out the official forms and picking up his bags, he was harassed by people he didn’t know, who kept asking him what he had brought them. He graciously declined their request. He was shocked by their audacity and lack of shame. If only he really understood what they went through every day, maybe he would have better answers- or better yet, a solution. But those were not things he thought about yet.
As he stepped out into the arrivals hall, he stood in front of a big crowd, who kept waving at him. For a moment he thought they were waving at him, and then someone behind him would come out running, full of emotions and tears and falling into their loved one’s arms with screams of joy. What a feeling this must be, the orphan boy thought. All of a sudden he saw a familiar face: a very beautiful woman approaching him with open arms as she spoke in French.
“Nickolas? Nico – it’s you!”
Nick froze with emotions. He dropped his bags and smiled almost up to his ears, recognizing his mythical cousin from the pictures she sent with her emails. They embraced as she cried with happiness.

*

Nellie’s and Nick’s grandmothers were sisters, and she was the only relative that he had left. She had gone back to Burundi after sixteen years living abroad in Belgium. She got married there and had a son. Frits, her husband, was fifteen years her senior and had been married once before. He was a chemist from Belgium and they decided to relocate to Burundi, as he found peace there, in the midst of all the chaos going on in the country.

*

The drive to their home was an emotional one for Nick. It had been eight years since he last saw his native country, and he felt a mess of emotions; fear and confusion. It felt like a healthy tooth being yanked out without any anesthesia. Everything had happened so fast, and he hadn’t been prepared for the events that occurred. Just like that, he was thrown into the woods to fend for himself. The love and support the Pécresse’s gave him was too pure for him to fathom.
It was really hot and humid. He kept sweating. He had rarely spent time in the capital city back when he still lived with his parents, but not much had changed in eight years. Actually, almost nothing had changed. The potholes in the roads eight years ago were still there. Some were even bigger. There was an air or atmosphere of despair, abandonment, negligence and surrender. Things were not going well in the country, but at least they were slightly better than when he left.
How beautiful is this country! Nick thought as he looked around like a tourist in his home country, noticing the not-so-distant hills on one side and the lake on the other. Nellie gabbed and gossiped about people they knew, while Nick rolled down the window to smell the lake. He closed his eyes and had a flashing memory of his younger brothers laughing and giggling when they all took a bath together. Frits interrupted his flashback.
“So what do you do now that you finished college?” Frits asked, looking at Nick from the mirror, trying to focus on the road.
“I’m a counselor at a hedge fund firm in Manhattan,” Nick replied.
“Interesting,” Frits exclaimed. “How old are you? You seem to be young to be a counselor. You must be a star,” Frits added.
“I don’t know if I’m a star. All I know is that I feel and understand people. I guess it’s just a gift. I’m very grateful. I just turned twenty-seven last month.” Nick answered.
“Good for you, young man. It would even be better if you could work your magic here. People need counseling here more than you would imagine,” Frits added.
“You don’t say!” Nick retorted rather sarcastically. “So do you love what you do?” Nellie joined in the conversation.
“I actually do. I used my conversations for the basis of a book I just finished writing. It just got published. It is actually getting good reviews as we speak, and I just got offered a full scholarship for grad school at Harvard.” Nick said proudly.
“Really? Wow, Nick! I’m so proud of you. You keep amazing me, cousin. What is the book about?” Nellie asked.
“I have a copy with me. Read it and tell me what you think.” Nick answered.
“I guess we have so much to talk about. I’m honestly glad you are here,” Nellie added.
They arrived at their house, a villa in the hills with a view of the whole city. It was astoundingly beautiful. After setting his bags down, he presented them with some gifts: a Cartier watch and Channel No˚5 perfume for Nellie, a Mont Blanc pen for her husband, and a Yankee cap, a basketball, and CD player for their ten-year-old son Stephane.
Nellie gave him a brief tour of the house as she told him the story of how she met Frits in Brussels. After that he got acquainted with his room. He sat on the bouncy bed, still not fully grasping the fact that he was back in his native country. He took a refreshing shower and went downstairs to be with his cousin. His nose and ears were still congested from the twelve hour flight from Paris.
“Eight hours from N.Y to Paris. I spent 2 weeks in Paris, then another ten from Paris to Nairobi. Then two to reach here,” Nick lamented.
They sat in the living room, reminiscing on the good old times, and talking about their parents and other departed siblings. She showed him photo album after photo album. It was a very endearing moment for Nick, who for the first time in a very longtime felt like he belonged somewhere. In a way, this trip would help him move forward. It would not be closure, but an acceptance of reality.
Frits and Stephane joined them only for a few minutes just to let them know that they were leaving for the rest of the afternoon. Stephane needed to attend to his Judo class. “We will see you later!” Frits shouted out of the window of the Range Rover.
As soon as they left, Nellie asked Nick if he wanted to drink something or if he was hungry. Nick gracefully declined, as the jetlag was kicking in. Nellie called for the house help and sent him to buy some drinks.
Nellie was extremely pretty, with very smooth, hairless skin, small pointy nose and a smile to die for. She had put on a few pounds around the waist area and oddly always looked tired with her irresistible puppy eyes. But it gave her charm. As soon as the house help returned with the drinks in a green plastic bag with Sylvester Stallone as Rambo on it, she asked Nick if he was sure he did not want anything. Nick excused himself and went to bed to have some rest.
Waking later, he opened his eyes slowly and immediately felt lost. Blank white walls were all he could see; musty and humid air was all he could feel. The small fan was at full speed but could only barely alleviate the heat. Nick yawned, popping his right ear. He was feeling much better, and hungry.
He ran down the stairs to see what was happening downstairs. The sun was setting, and felt rejuvenated by the breath of cooler air coming in from the wide open glass front doors. As he reached the living room, he saw two empty big brown bottles of Amstel beer on the coffee table. He noticed Nellie’s red shoes on the carpet next to the sofa. He made his way to the kitchen, hoping to find her there. He met the house help Juvenal.
“Where is Mrs. Nellie?” Nick asked.
“Madame is by the pool at the back. She told me to let her know as soon as you woke up. I have prepared some food for you.” Juvenal answered.
“What did you make for me I’m hungry,” Nick retorted quite joyfully, noticing yet another empty Amstel bottle.
“Some roast beef, plantain bananas, rice, beans and some lenga-lenga.” Juvenal quickly responded. Nick didn’t pay attention to what Juvenal was saying, as he was looking out through the kitchen window at Nellie on her cell phone.
“So are you going to eat?” Juvenal asked, getting irritated.
“Lenga lenga, you say, huh? The last time I had lenga-lenga, I was a small boy. Never mind, no beef for me, but lots of lenga-lenga.” Nick answered, walking towards Nellie.
Nellie was on the phone talking loudly, laughing erratically with a cigarette in her left hand between her index and middle finger. A small bottle of gin was in front of her, but Nick could not see any tonic or juice. She drank it straight, with lots of ice. It shocked him a bit, but he would not comment quite yet. She hung up the phone, and she stood up happily, stumbling a bit and holding herself to the chair so that she would not fall. She hugged him for a minute or so saying, “You’re up, American boy. I am so happy you are here, cousin. We are going to have so much fun.”
They sat back down, and she yelled at Juvenal to bring his food quickly. “It’s so hard to find good house help here, you know”. She yelled again at Juvenal to bring some lemon.
“I was talking to Chantal, my best friend here. Her husband has traveled. So we are going out to the club tonight. Are you up for it?” Nellie asked as she took a good swig of her gin, munching on the ice as she waited for an answer.
“I thought we would do such things later in the week. You know I just travelled from the US,” Nick answered, trying to put some sense into the conversation.
“Come on, man. Don’t be a pussy. How old are you now? You’re not a baby anymore. Let’s have fun; live life to the fullest. Anyway, you will have time to sleep later – when you’re dead!” Nellie retorted, laughing uncontrollably.
It was hard for Nick to find any humor in what she was saying. For a minute, he did not recognize his cousin. This was another person all of a sudden. Why did she have to use words like ‘pussy’? he thought. He found it vulgar. Where is all this coming from? he pondered.
He agreed to go out to see where all this would lead to. He ate, filling up his stomach, while Nellie ordered Juvenal to bake a cake for him. They chatted until sundown, when she got a phone call from Frits. Her husband and son were on their way back. She told Nick that they had to leave or else it would be difficult for them to go out. She told Juvenal to hide all the ash trays, return all the empty bottles and not say a word to her husband. As far as he knew, they were going to see some old friends.
About five minutes later, Chantal was honking at the gate. They hurried to her car and left the house. In the car Nellie introduced her cousin to her best friend, who had just dropped her husband to the airport. Pleasantries were exchanged. Chantal then opened the glove box, removing a medium sized Gordon gin bottle. The women laughed naughtily, but the only thing Nick kept thinking was, where is all this coming from? How is this going to end? I bet someone is going to get hurt.

*

They decided to start off the evening with a few drinks at a charming place just by the lake called Cercle Nautique. There, they would meet up with other Diaspora Burundians who had come back to the country for various reasons. Nick got introduced to Nellie’s friends, who all acted and talked like her. They were inebriated, gossiped about other people, judging them, mocking the ones that seemed weak, and talked highly of themselves.
Nick had two glasses of wine, but in reality he could not stand alcohol. It affected him badly and quickly, impairing his judgment. He hated being in a situation where he could not think straight, and waking up without a clear head. He decided to get some air and get away from the crowd. Nellie noticed his uneasiness and followed him. He lit a cigarette, walking slowly towards the car. She caught up to him and asked him, “What’s wrong American boy?”
“I am feeling uneasy Nellie.” Nick replied.
“Wait, I just have the right thing to get you to relax. You are just too tense, cousin.” She took out a rolled-up joint of marijuana.
They got into the car, and parked it on the darker side of the entrance, playing some dim music, pushing back their seats and opening the sun roof.
They started smoking in silence, as they were both unsure how the other felt about smoking reefer. Nick broke the silence with a question, “Have you ever been in love?”
Nellie laughed out loud looking out the window. The question made her shy. “You are a weird guy. Where is this coming from?” She asked, defending herself.
“Just curiosity,” Nick replied.
Nellie paused as she puffed away her worries, blowing her smoke as if she was in slow-motion.
“I don’t think I have ever”. Nellie added.
“What about Frits? Don’t you love him?” Nick asked, perplexed. She giggled again, passing the blunt to Nick and blowing more smoke, her eyes diming down. The weed was kicking in.
“Are you serious with these questions?” Nellie asked.
“Yeah, I actually am.” Nick replied trying not to laugh. He was getting high as well. She let out a little burp from the beer she had been drinking.
“Sorry!”She exclaimed, placing her hand in front of her mouth. She laughed again. It was getting hard for her to control her laughter now. “I have never been asked these questions so bluntly. You have really become westernized. An American boy,” Nellie laughed again.
“With that kind of reaction, I think you have answered the question,” Nick added.
“I don’t really know. At times, I feel like it can happen to me. It happens to others. What about you Nick? American boy, have you ever been in love?” Nellie asked.
“Once. It was a while ago. Her name was Fatima, but I was more naïve then,” Nick answered, staring at the stars.
“The meaning changes when you grow up, I guess,” Nellie added, feeling his hurt.
“You talk like you have some experience in that department, though,” Nick commented as they both laughed.
“I think I was in love with my first boyfriend, but I must have been about seventeen or eighteen years old and just needed to fit in. We had just arrived in Brussels, you know. Looking back, though, I think I was.” Nellie said.
“What did it feel like?” Nick probed.
“Well, very happy and a sense of fulfillment. Just being together felt like I was on top of the world,” Nellie answered, smiling and bobbing her head to the soft music that was playing.
“Are you looking for this feeling again? You know, out of fear of weeping later, some people don’t accept the joy that is knocking at their doorstep,” Nick added.
“Yes, I got hurt bad. But it is a great feeling indeed,” Nellie answered, almost falling asleep.
“What music do you listen to? I believe that music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot be silent.”
“Wow! That is deep. I listen to all genres, but mainly dancehall. It just makes me want to dance. I enjoy it most when I dance with someone else. It’s got so much rhythm and base. Love it!” Nellie replied, mimicking some dance moves.
Nick started singing Till my baby comes home by Luther Vandross: ‘Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby/ You said you would come back this way, babe/ Baby…baby…baby, oh baby/ I love you/ I really do. His singing made Nellie smile.
“What do you think about before you fall asleep?” Nellie asked.
“What if this? What if that? I’m curious,” Nick answered.
“Yeah, me too. I think about the future and things that would make me happier,” Nellie added.
“Happier? Aren’t you happy? You are married to a very nice and responsible guy. You have Stephane. You told me that he is doing well at school, and he is healthy. You have a beautiful house. Why are you not happy?” Nick asked with a tone of sincere surprise.
“I am comfortable but not happy.” She answered back.
“Ok! Fair enough. What’s lacking then?” Nick asked.
“Nice question,” Nellie paused. “Something is missing. I feel like…”
A knock on the window interrupted her. Two policemen with rifles were patrolling the area and wanted to be sure that they were not having any intercourse in their car. They were on the lookout for such things, as it was an avenue for bribery.
Nick and Nellie were ordered to get out of the car. They got frisked violently. While Nick remained calm, Nellie was erratic. She spoke in Kirundi and argued frantically with them. She gave them a wad of cash, after which they disappeared without thinking twice. The cousins then entered the restaurant in a hurry, distraught. She told Chantal what had just happened and told her that they had to leave. She did not feel safe anymore, so she started persuading the others to leave the place. She particularly wanted one of the guys named Eloge to follow them, as she had a particular interest in him.
Eloge was a few years younger and had spent the last decade in the French-speaking part of Canada as a political refugee. However, he was tough mentally and an entrepreneur. He sold second-hand and refurbished cell phones from Canada to various African countries. He was his own boss. He had a deep voice. He spent a lot of time in the gym in pursuit of a body shape that he knew women liked in men. He basically had a big mouth, in the sense that he always spoke his mind regardless of how it made the other person feel. Some would deem him to be an alpha male. Inevitably, Nellie got attracted.
They all left in a cortege, going to one of the only night clubs open at the time. It was safer if they stuck together, because there were army road blocks all over the city that were there to ensure that people did not violate the national curfew; another avenue for bribery. They gathered at a night club called Archipel. On their arrival, everyone was already drunk. The motley crew was super excited, all emotions glaring, each individual with his own agenda, but outwardly adhering to the group dynamic.
Nick had lost touch with reality due to the marijuana. Nellie was becoming uncontrollable as she kept on downing gin and tonics. Nick all of a sudden started feeling paranoid. What would Michel think of me if he saw me right now? Nick thought. My kid brothers died and I survived. Now look at me. Is this the best way to honor their death? I do not deserve this life. Mom should have lived. She was just the kindest. She deserved the education, the book publishing, the good food and wine I ate in Paris. God, why did you have to take mom?
He put his hand in his pocket just to check that he still had his wallet and identification. They were there. He felt a wave of relief. The disc jockey started playing a popular song from the US. Nick felt consoled by the familiarity of the tune and the effect it had on the people present in the club.
Without realizing it, he began dancing all by himself. He gesticulated like a buffoon in the middle of the dance floor, trying his best to mimic the dance moves from the kids back in the US at the time. They called the dance the Harlem Shake. Nellie was flirting with Eloge when she noticed Nick letting go of himself dancing like a nitwit, and she couldn’t help but feel relieved to finally see vulnerability out of her cousin. Nobody ever has everything figured out, Nellie thought. Seeing her cousin in that state, she grabbed Eloge’s hand and led him seductively to the dance floor. They starting dancing, syncing their hips in a sexual motion. She didn’t care anymore; all she wanted was to do what she was not supposed to do. Eloge thought that he had everything under control. The rest of the group, including Chantal, formed a circle, as each person of the group entered the circle and started balling out in ecstasy, encouraged by chants and whistles by the group of friends. Nellie moved away from Eloge and joined in the circle. She started dancing as if she was possessed, moving slowly in tune with the beat and touching herself in a sexual manner. The motion of her hips hypnotized all the men who watched her. Her hands touched her private parts, moving up to her breasts and ending with one finger in her mouth as if she was an innocent child who did not know how naughty she was – a mixture of innocence and sexual aura. She was just captivating. As the song changed, she left the circle to get yet another gin and tonic. At the bar, she met people she knew. They hugged and screamed with joy. They took shots of tequila, reacting as if they were disgusted by the poison they had just ingested in their fragile bodies, but they liked how it made them feel: free from their worries, responsibilities, their mistakes and the daily life they had chosen to live. They just wanted to be who they really were inside.
It was 6am and the sun was rising. The DJ was playing his last song. Nick was exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. He asked Nellie if they could go home. Nellie had become aggressive. She did not want to leave. Nick tried to put some sense into her head, but she was out of her mind. Eloge was walking past them when she just grabbed him and kissed him in front of everyone. She then pushed him away and told him that she was married and started laughing. Chantal grabbed Nellie’s hand, and they both disappeared in the ladies’ room. Chantal came back out and told Nick that he would have to take a cab because Nellie was not ready to leave quite yet. She gave directions to the cab driver and sent Nick back to the house.

*

Frits opened the door for Nick. He looked extremely annoyed. Nick felt extremely ashamed. He told Frits what had happened. Frits calmed down, and told him that they would talk when he woke up. Nick struggled to go up the stairs, swaying and lurching with every movement as Frits watched him fail to walk up the tiny flight of stairs.
“I hope you are proud of yourself now, counselor?” Frits commented in a rather sarcastic tone.
Nick, unable to pay attention to what Frits was saying, reached his room, where he collapsed and blacked out instantly. Later in the day, Nick got woken up by the unbearable heat. His head pounding, he felt awful.
“I will never drink again. For sure this is the last time,” Nick whispered.
He was feeling hungry. He slowly walked down the stairs, drowsy, with bad breath and reddish eyes. He looked sick. He saw Frits in the living room reading Nick’s novel while his son Stephane was watching TV. Frits ordered his son to go play outside. They then sat in silence for a few minutes or so as Nick gulped ounces of water.
“I bet you are thirsty,” Frits commented
“I feel awful. You cannot imagine,” Nick replied
“I can imagine. I tried this lifestyle for a brief period in my youth: drugs, alcohol and sex. Fortunately I quickly realized it was detrimental to a person’s karma.” Frits said.
“What do you mean karma?” Nick asked perplexed.
“I mean the sum of somebody’s good and bad actions in one of their lives.” Frits replied.
“Are you talking about reincarnation?” Nick asked, confounded.
“I believe that our actions have so much power that it not only affects our own lives, but those around us, our loved ones, our children and our children’s children. Whether we like it or not, we live through them and them through us.” Frits answered.
Nick remained silent as he pondered at what Frits was saying.
“Are you planning to go out drinking your whole time while you’re here? Is this what you envisioned yourself doing when you planned your trip coming back here?” Frits asked with a tone of disappointment.
“I guess I needed to get it out of my system. I needed some form of release therapy. Being here has drained me of all my self-control strength. I am swayed by all kinds of emotions that I did not imagine that I could feel. I am giving myself a break. Plus, all this is making Nellie happy,” Nick replied.
“That is how most alcoholics start, by giving themselves a break.” Frits answered, while focusing on Nick’s book.
“Where is Nellie, anyway?” Nick asked.
“You tell me,” Frits answered rather sarcastically yet again.
“I left her at the night club.” Nick exclaimed.
“She came home a few hours ago. She is fast asleep in the second guest room. I could barely recognize her. Now she is going to be asleep the entire day. Even our son Stephane has been asking me why Mommy sleeps so much lately. Do you imagine that?” Frits said.
“Does she always drink this much, or is it just the festive mood?” Nick asked.
“This behavior is new to all of us. She had a miscarriage last year. We lost our second child. Before Stephane was born she had managed to get a good job at BNP Pariba. She was a star in fiscal economics but had to take a break in order to take care of our son. She never found the strength or motivation to go back to it. I see her with our friends’ kids. It is never the same with Stephane. Maybe he is a constant reminder of what could have been. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it has been getting worse over the last decade. The frustrating part of all this is that we never get to talk about it. All I’m sure of is that the miscarriage was the tipping point.” Frits answered.
“Whose idea was it to come back to Burundi?” Nick asked.
“It was actually mine. I figured it would help us to change our environment due to the miscarriage. We led a hectic life in Brussels. I worked a lot, but made a lot of money. She hated the cold, and never got along with my friends or acquaintances. I managed to get beside myself and realized that we could have been heading in a disastrous direction. I proposed the idea of a getaway to her. It pleased her. So here we are. Now I have to deal with Chantal and the rest, and I do not like the way things are turning out.” Frits answered candidly.
“Have you really tried talking to her? As in what do you guys talk about intimately?” Nick asked.
“That is a very interesting question Nick. I will have to get back at you on that one,” Frits answered with an air of surprise.
Frits noticed how Nick was suffering from his hangover. He stood up without saying a word and fetched two aspirins out of his medicine box. “Take these and eat something. It will help you feel better,” Frits said, then threw Nick’s novel in front of him and added, “You have a lot to offer to people around you. I urge you to make this trip meaningful.”
Nick remained silent as he resisted reacting to the avalanche of emotions that clouded his thoughts. Those words reminded him of Michel. It reminded him how much he wished he had father around to teach him how to be a man. Guys like Frits or Michel were wise, but they were not his father. He wanted it from his father.
Later in the day, Nick woke up as the sun was setting. He went to check if his cousin was still asleep. There she was, snoring, her arms and legs spread wide like a star. He did not know how to feel; he just accepted what he saw. The hangover was fading, as he was getting back to his senses. He could not find Frits or Stephane. It was a Saturday, and so he decided to go get a sense of what normal Burundians did on the weekend.
He hopped on a taxi-moto and headed for the lake shore. He got dropped at a very popular beach next to the port. Common Burundians hung out there – those that spoke Swahili more than Kirundi. They tended not to have cars, did not go to fancy schools, and did not hold fancy managerial positions, nor official functions. They got drunk on the cheapest beers, and got pleased and entertained by the simplest of things. They were full of dreams, but almost gave up on them as they had no idea on how they could surmount all the numerous obstacles they faced. So they drank, danced to music and experimented with various drugs. They basically indulged in activities that soothed their feelings of inferiority and sadness. Nick needed to understand this particular feeling of inferiority and how it affected an individual’s life, because he did not know how to deal with his.
He wore beige shorts, a black polo shirt and a NY baseball cap worn backwards. He wore his reading glasses as he was going to read Animal Farm by George Orwell. As he started walking in the sand, he saw a group of people that had gathered. He sensed chaos in the atmosphere. He heard screams and people arguing. Drawn to the brawl and low mumbles, he got into the spectating crowd. He found a half-naked woman holding a large beer bottle, drunk out of her mind, venting her frustration to the crowd about how she lost her husband to two fishermen who usually fished with him. She lamented on how one fateful day the three of them went on a fishing trip together as they always did. At the end of that day, only two of them came back. Her husband was missing. At that particular time, there was a shortage of fish, and fishermen did not manage to reach their normal quotas; anxiety was rampant as their catch basically meant their livelihood. She accused them of having thrown him into the lake. She explained how they did so as a form of sacrifice to whatever creature or mermaid God ruled the deep waters in order to appease it so that it could release the flow of fish. It sounded absurd, and Nick could not believe what he was hearing. She further explained how she had never been the same since. She searched, and went to the police, but all to no avail. She went to see pastors, gurus and witch doctors to get justice, but nothing worked. Frustrated, she started drinking to alleviate her trauma. It destroyed her. It annihilated her energy. It confused her, making her hallucinate.
Nick walked away after hearing enough as he perched under a palm tree to ponder on what he had just witnessed. The events he had just witnessed made think about HAPPINESS. He wondered what made it so fleeting; he did not even know what it meant. Was it love? Was it the ability to love? Was it the sensation of being loved unconditionally? Could it be security? Peace? What about the stillness of the mind. He got stuck on the idea of HOPE and how it could be the precursor of it. Why does the grass always seem to be greener on the other side of the fence? He reasoned that everybody is in love and irrationally attached to the concept of “what could be”. That is the essence and wealth of a youthful mind – having options, having the ability to dream. Reality is probably just too boring; slow, or unengaging. That little fantasy of ours; that little secret is the only thing that keeps us going. Some people call it hope, others view it as goals, and spiritual souls call it faith, and the professionals, vision.
However, Nick found it odd how happiness was always in the future – never in the present.
These philosophical thoughts got interrupted by an old bum playing beautiful music on a dingy homemade guitar. The music was hypnotizing and soothing, but let out feelings of despair, hurt and disappointment. The small waves smashing on the reef mixed with the complex guitar riffs made it sound like a symphony of life – a life of sadness counterbalanced with a consoling promise of hope. It quickly got dark and Nick headed back home.

*

As he arrived back at the house, he saw Frits in his car arguing with Nellie. She was standing on the front porch yelling at her husband. Frits put the car into reverse and dashed out of the compound, almost running Nick over. Nick took a deep breath and approached the main house. He followed Nellie inside the living room.
“Is everything alright?” Nick asked.
“I can’t take this anymore, I just can’t,” Nellie kept mumbling to herself, walking around aimlessly like a headless chicken.
She was dressed quite provocatively, with a tight and extremely short black skirt. She had lots of make-up on, making her look like she was out looking for trouble. Her perfume filled the room as she grabbed some keys, her cell phone and her purse. Nick asked her if she was going out. She did not answer. She walked towards the door and looked back. She smiled, batting her luscious eyelashes and said, “I wish he could understand.”
She received a phone call. She picked it up, answering in monosyllables. She then told Nick that Chantal was waiting for her, and disappeared into the darkness, struggling to walk in her high heels.
Nick, filled with ambivalent feelings, went up the stairs and heard Stephane giggling as if he was with someone else. He entered the room and found an undone bed as if someone had just jumped out of it. He noticed one of Stephane’s little toes protruding from underneath his bed. Nick got down and asked the boy what he was up to, and the kid told him that he was with ‘Bernada’ and ‘Bolida’, his imaginary friends. Nick asked him why they had such odd names. The boy answered that they had unique names because they were special. He was sure that nobody else in the world had the same names as his imaginary friends. They were his secret. They were loyal only to him. They protected him, and always told him that everything was going to be OK. He trusted them because they never let him down, never left him alone and always did what they promised they would do.
Nick returned to his room and laid down on his bed, his hands folded behind his head. He started pondering what Nellie and her husband were going through. He concluded that gluttony was an inordinate desire to consume more than one required. We usually think of a glutton as someone who indulges excessively in eating or drinking. The chief error about gluttony is to think it only pertains to food and drink. Even though gluttony does mean eating or drinking too much, it nevertheless denotes far more than that. Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating us. It has to do with need. A need that is unfulfilled and frustrated for a long period, that is thwarted again and again, which will seek outlets. Such an outlet, among many other possibilities, may be gluttony. Overeating and drunkenness are symptoms of a larger problem of over-indulgence, lack of self-control, boredom or anxiety. When someone falls into the temptation of gluttony, he or she does not only want to eat or drink without limits but devour the whole universe, assimilating and possessing everything exterior, reducing the surroundings to oneself. Physical appetites are an analogy of our inability to control ourselves. If we are unable to control our eating and drinking habits, we are probably also unable to control other habits such as those of the mind (lust, covetousness, anger). This also means that we are unable to keep our mouth from gossip or strife – the inability to say “no”. However, possessing the ability to say “no” to anything in excess is one of the fruits of the spirit. Excessive enjoyment through the senses will result in the senses enjoying you.

*

Nick later went back to Gitega and visited Kibimba, the notorious place where the atrocious slaughter happened. It has since become a place of reconciliation. It has been commemorated by converting the old petrol station where it happened into a monument with the legend, ‘Plus jamais’ (never again!) inscribed on it.

Excerpt from the novel “Greener On The Other Side”

book cover

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