Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

I cannot explain why things appeared as they did in my dreams. In the waking dreams I had while propping up the bar at The Daughters of Kilimanjaro, on the bank of the lagoon that bisects Bassadji, the neighbourhood of my childhood.

Bassadji, a poor neighbourhood that backs onto a forest of chimeras, the Palaeozoic massif of Eden Garden, thick with trees wreathed in ferns, lichen and blood. The blood of the animals regularly sacrificed to the gods of the place would send a rush of adrenaline coursing through me whenever I walked along the fence at the entrance to the forest, the fence that marked out the pathway of spells and enchantments. A famous pathway whose labyrinthine meanders I knew by heart, winding paths that led to the heart of Ablomé, from the old town to the place where Dou Legba, ‘the guardian of the crossroads’, sits enthroned. Dou Legba, amorphous or misshapen according to the seasons and the weather on the clay. Some days, the rains would eat into its muddy flesh, on other days the sun would bake the earth into random limbs and stumps. At such times, his body would bristle shards and slivers of bottle glass, with rotted straw, with empty tins of tomatoes made in Italy, with potsherds of every shape and size, and countless, countless cowrie shells.

Dou Legba is shaped vaguely like a human torso, surmounted by a ball supposed to represent his head. Into this, someone embedded two cowrie shells to serve as eyes, grafted an excrescence for his nose and carved a slit for the mouth, holes for the ears, and added a pair of horns fashioned from oval shells. From this shapeless mound emerge two stumps by way of arms, or paws.

He is now always benevolent, this ‘guardian of the crossroads’, especially when the stench of sacrifices seems to plunge him into a state of metaphysical digestion of which he alone knows the secret. After long days, when the rapture of the god’s disciples had ebbed from whispers to silence, when the hymns of praise had settled with the swirling dust, I would sometimes come back and stare at the god of the crossroads. Groans emanated from the sinister depths of the godly heart suddenly afflicted by excess weight. At his feet the bodies of cockerels, some ineptly slaughtered, were still wracked by violent spasms. I would creep closer, taking small steps, and study the motley assortment of gifts left for him: cowrie shells, often in groups of seven, a palm nut, unfamiliar plants, a tattered scrap of fabric, beans, corn kernels, a dog’s bone, a miniature machete, and sometimes a decapitated cockerel. In the empty orifices of his ears, trapped flies struggled in the sacrificial unction of blood and palm oil. Why had no one thought to distribute these generous gifts among other neighbourhood gods? They might have avoided offering to my childish eyes this extravagant spectacle of waste. In a single day, a solitary god sagging beneath the weight of so much food and drink rich in precious nutrients, while, nearby, other gods waited for someone to remember them. For, even among the gods, there are many mouths to feed.

Like every master, Dou Legba had his servants. Gods of second or third rank, who crouched at the entrance to houses, or watched over courtyards. We could shout their names without fear of enraging them, or having them pursue us: Nyigbanto, Afeli, Djadjaglidja, Sunya, Wango, Ketetchi, Banguini, Ablowa, Kudé, Tchamba… Names that sounded ridiculous on our childish lips, foolish names that had us doubled up laughing behind the backs of those who bore them.

‘Hey, Djadjaglidja, he-who-walks-through-walls, come down from that shrine where your master placed you.’

‘Hey, Tchamba, yes, you, Tchamba, he-who-has-come-from-afar, show us your passport!’ (Show us your arse, the more reckless boys would say.)

We knew all of the Legba gods. Their powers and their weaknesses. Afeli, for example, could be both mean and cowardly. Though habitually considered the foundation on which a house is built, Afeli could choose to betray its owner, or forge unnatural alliances with evil spirits to bring about his ruin. To punish, to humiliate this arse-licking deity, we would leave him to his role as intercessor and trudge more than a kilometre to fetch his Legba rival Kpetodékè, bring him back and ceremoniously place him right under the nose of the verminous Afeli, who would slowly die of shame and starvation, and dissolve into earth, stained with tears and remorse. Kpetodékè, in turn, would betray his master, so we would trudge farther, more than two kilometres, to fetch Kpetové…

My friends and I mercilessly mocked these misshapen gods. We were all pupils at a Catholic school, and the God our parents forced us to love, to praise, to invoke, was incorporeal, evanescent, too evanescent. He had withdrawn from this world, we were told, leaving no reliable prophets, so we had to search for him between the lines of the Te Deum and the Tantum Ergo… To mock a God so distant that He could be contemplated only by the soul was an ant hunt, a waste of time. But being boys rather than saints, we felt a connection. Not with the ineffable but with the physical, the earthbound gods we encountered in our community, whose appetites were all too human—lying, scheming and fornicating. We could hardly miss the one thing that distinguished a Legba god from any others: the chthonic phallus, standing proud, ready to indulge in any feverish passion.

‘Ah, Legba Agbo…’ Monsieur Lomé, the landlord of The Daughters of Kilimanjaro would say. ‘Legba Agbo is hornier than a rutting goat! Men call on him to cure their waning virility; barren women pray to him to fall pregnant each time a penis chafes the walls of their shrivelled vaginas.’

Spending time with the local gods, my childish head became bigger than the great wide world. And in the neighbourhood where I grew up, the bar called The Daughters of Kilimanjaro was the great wide world. The owner, Monsieur Lomé, was an artist. People said he grew rich selling talismans, Legba talismans. The artist’s father, Osofo Lomeshi, had been a powerful priest at the Monastery of the Sacred Forest in Bassadji.

Legends that kindled my childish imagination spilled over the bar at The Daughters of Kilimanjaro. Often, as a change from my wanderings along the enchanted path, I would go and position myself near the bar. On nights when there was a grand ball, customers arrived in droves, in cars, on Vespas or Solex mopeds. In a neighbourhood as deprived as ours, seeing the ladies and gentlemen of the country’s bourgeoisie arrive was proof that the owner was a notch above our everyday reality. He had made a success of himself, the poorer locals would say, more even than his father, who may have been a high priest of Voodoo but was a man of little worth according to the down-to-earth criteria of those comparing him to his son. He was more of a success than his father because he had found a means of selling the same fetishes that his father worshipped. He sold them to White folk, these gods we rejected without ever daring to admit as much, and White tourists would pay a fortune to acquire these statues of Legba specially made for the purpose.

‘Monsieur Lomé makes special Legba statues he can sell,’ said the locals. ‘Have you seen the phalluses he puts on them? Solid, impervious to termites. The phallus of the future, in copper and zinc, but I suppose we’re doomed to move with the times.’

Metals penises attached to finely carved wooden Legba statues—such originality was all it took to make a man rich. I could hardly believe it. As if this were not enough to seal his fame, the people of Bassadji whispered that he had transformed his bar into something even more original.

‘I tell you, entering that bar is like entering a woman!’

As customers lined up on nights when there was a great ball, I would sit there, dreaming that they were entering a space shaped like a womb. The womb, of course, was a place I had never visited. Customers entered by a long, humid corridor with pink walls on which the artist had painted white spatters. So those who had entered the courtyard of The Daughters of Kilimanjaro said. Spermatic trails. Made from a concoction of water and cassava starch. People walked down a corridor that seemed endless only to emerge onto a vast plain, in the middle of which stood a great mango tree. A mound. A mountain. A giant phallus. It seemed that those who claimed to have been in the bar had not all seen the same thing. If a mango tree, a mound, a mountain and a giant phallus had risen from the middle of the vast plain at one and the same time, I would not have been surprised. My childish brain was vaster even than the great wide world.

I cannot explain why things appeared as they did in my dreams. In my waking dreams, I pictured misshapen Legba gods ritually greeting the guests: they yapped like dogs, scampering on all fours, with Monsieur Lomé’s brass phalluses fixed between their legs.

Hardly had they stepped into the courtyard than a horde of tiny Legba appeared out of the darkness and began chasing women, only women, with Monsieur Lomé’s huge metal phalluses hung round their necks. We will impregnate you! they shrieked, and the poor bewildered women scurried around the bar as though they truly believed that these carved wooden gods could carry out their threat. The men, titillated by the appearance of these dwarf gods, joined in their chant:

Mi li vo li vo

Mi la mon mi ya!

Finally, Monsieur Lomé would appear and hand out phalluses to everyone. Small brass phalluses whose insides had been hollowed to turn them into drinking glasses. Now, at last, the ball could begin.

And my nights camped outside the artist’s bar were long. At first, my parents, worried that I had not come home, would scour the neighbourhood to find me. Later, when they discovered where I went, they shrugged off their fears. However much I daydreamed, in the end I always abandoned my dream for reality. One night, as I was leaving my lookout post, I came face to face with the artist. His car had pulled up outside the garage next to the bar, and he had climbed out, whistling the same rumba that blared from the speakers inside his bar. He spotted me just as I was about to turn away.

‘Hey, kid, could you come and help me?’

I retraced my steps. He had opened the boot of his Mercedes Benz and was struggling to take out something vast, a seat carved from solid wood.

‘Can you hold that end? Go on, you can do it, take that end. Do you know what this is?’

‘Togbuizikpi,’ I said.

‘Exactly, the throne of the ancestors. A little extravagant, I’ll grant you. But, kid, in every extravagant thing there hides a meaning. What’s your name?’

‘Dansou,’ I said.

‘Ah, the son of the great Marabout! Well then, you will feel right at home. Come on, follow me! What? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of going into a bar? Welcome to the great wide world, boy. Come on, follow me!’

The secret life of the things of this world appeared to me for the first time in this bar called The Daughters of Kilimanjaro, where the gods took the twisted form of the men and women I was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with by day.