The Prophet of Rebola: In Memoriam Bosquete POP
In 2011, I made a documentary film in Equatorial Guinea, a West African oil state where photography is illegal. Filming covertly, I was searching for Marcelo Ensema Nsang, a poet who had been incarcerated and tortured under the Macías regime of the 1970s. Along the way I was fortunate to be taken in by a community of younger Guinean artists, including the playwright and poet Recaredo Silebo Boturu, who introduced me to his former teacher, the prophet of Rebola. DS
The Director of the Spanish Cultural Center in Malabo drives us to Rebola, about twenty kilometers outside Malabo. A tall, wide, and very bald Spaniard with extensive experience in West Africa, he smokes Marlboro Reds incessantly while he drives and while he waits. He’s been waiting about twenty minutes—maybe two, three cigarettes—when we arrive, since Boturu didn’t tell us he was going to pick us up from the Clatetian Monastery where we’ve been sleeping, and we were napping, and the monastery has no doorbell, and knocking is useless since the priests rest deep within its confines. Come on, Boturu says, we’re headed to Rebola. The sun is low in the sky and the air is humid; it rained for an hour in the early afternoon. The highway to Rebola is one of Obiang’s accomplishments. Though it is close, the journey used to be a half-day affair over rutted dirt roads. Now it takes about twenty minutes. The Director drives an anonymous white 4WD—he answers our questions but prefers not to talk. Why Rebola, I ask Boturu. To see the country. It turns out to be one of the few places outside Malabo we can get to without passing through police checkpoints.
Recaredo Silebo Boturu is a poet and playwright. He was born in nearby Baresó in 1972, and went to primary school in Rebola. He’s the founder and director of Bocamandja, a theatre company based in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo and supported by the Spanish Cultural Centre. The troupe has travelled to Spain, to the Canary Islands, and to Colombia to perform their plays, which are mostly written by Boturu. Boturu is wildly generous, a true bohemian. He drinks San Migueles with abandon, speaks his mind with enthusiasm, covets the experience of being human. In his plays and poetry he is a humanizer. He is ridiculously funny, the life of the party. Like the Spanish director he is tall and wide, though to a lesser degree, and he is even balder.
We pull into Rebola and park next to the small, pink Catholic church. It could be a semi-rural community in the Dominican Republic or Trinidad. Kids play soccer on the church’s patio, including a young nun in training, who specializes in heading the ball with the padding of her habit-hood.
A skinny man comes out of a home with a small workshop at its front, holding what looks like an oil-blackened engine valve and a dirty work rag. He wipes oil off his hand. Boturu’s teacher, he explains. He sits with us on a berm of grass looking out over the church, and tells us about Rebola.
Rebola is a Bubi town—the Bubi are one of the two major ethnic groups of Equatorial Guinea, originally from the island of Bioko (formerly Fernando Po), where Malabo and Rebola are located off the coast of Cameroon. Obiang is Fang, the primary ethnic group from mainland Equatorial Guinea, known as Río Muni. In Bubi its name means the place of children, and that’s because it’s such a fertile place, the teacher explains. By now it is obvious that the teacher is a little out there—he’s not dangerous, but he punctuates his sentences with cackles and talks as if he’s been snorting Ritalin.
Even Obiang knows that Rebola is the town of children, el presidente, he was supposed to come here to get his wife pregnant to have twins, he was supposed to but he went to Luba, and that’s why it’s the county seat and not Rebola—it was supposed to be Rebola. Seriously, I’m not kidding, Rebola is the most fertile land in the world. If you made love right now you’d have a baby, I swear, with anyone, look I have a niece. Look I’m the only one here in Rebola who cares about the kids, I use my stipend to buy bread for them, I’m the only one.
Yes, I always knew that Boturu would make it in the world. He was a cheater. He was the best cheater I ever taught. He’s been all around the world, the asshole, he’s been to Colombia, he’s been to Europe, he’s been everywhere, he never takes me with him.
Up on the mountain, up on this one here, there is a lake, a little lake, a pond, and there is a cave by the pond, and one of the gods lives in a cave. Yeah, one of the gods, I swear. He wears weird things, skins, animal skins, and people take offerings to the lake. I swear, ask that woman over there, you see the woman with the baby on her back, ask her, we went there last month. There are many beautiful things up there, near the cave, but they belong to the god, don’t touch them or you’ll die. Really, you’ll die. Once—this wasn’t long ago either, some Catholic priests went up with some people from here, and they took some stuff—oh, I donno what kind of stuff, some beautiful things, some wooden things, some stones—and they got back in their car to drive down to the church, this church here, and listen, I told you you couldn’t take anything from up there, they drove off a cliff and all of them died. Six people. Really.
You want to learn a Bubi song? I wrote this one. I’ll sing this part and then you go Oo na na na na. You got it? So I sing like this— and okay, now you go Oo na na na na. Ha, you’re a good singer, don’t be afraid to sing.
You know my artist name? Bosquete POP. You know what that means? Bosque because I come from the forest, plus té because everyone in the entire world drinks tea—the Chinese, Blacks, Whites, you name it. And POP—no, not like Michael Jackson, not that kind of pop—POP stands for Public Order Police. You know why? Cause I take care of things. I protect Rebola. I protect my friends. If someone wants to attack you, I would protect you. If they wanted to rob you, I wouldn’t let ‘em. This can be a dangerous place, Rebola.
What’s my artist’s name? I ask Bosquete.
You can have my old one. Kikian Smollins.
Kikian Smollins? What does that mean?
It’s an artist’s name. Every artist’s name needs a first name and a last name.
I want my own name, not your old one. Maybe something with my moustache.
Your moustache? He cackles. Okay, then. Bigote POP. You’re Bigote POP.
And that was my nickname for the rest of our time in Equatorial Guinea, Bigote POP. I introduced myself that way at bars, beginning immediately, when we stopped for 32-oz. Castels—the Cameroonian beer that is most popular on Bioko—on the outskirts of Rebola on our way back down the hill toward Malabo, reggaeton and Top 40 pumping through speakers whose tweeters had been blown out sometime in the late ‘80s. There was a decrepit foosball table at the bar, under a zinc-roofed lean-to, with a 60-W light bulb hanging from a wire looped over a stray nail, strung some thirty feet from the bar, which was lit by three of the same bulbs. Home pitch advantage is huge in foosball, when the table is less than level, and this table was no exception. We played two-on-two with a group of buzzed twenty-somethings who knew how to grip the handle-less poles perfectly, how to take advantage of the table’s every divot and roll.
About two months after our return from Equatorial Guinea, Boturu shares the news over Facebook chat, where we often talk about poetry late at night, when he gets to work at the Guinean cell phone company and before I go to bed. Bosquete died. He was in his late fifties and came down with something, maybe malaria.
It’s strange how sad I feel, having only met the man once, for maybe thirty minutes. Our interaction still lingers in my memory. He seemed crazy. He was wild. I’m not sure if he was mad, or maddened. He reminded me of an Old Testament prophet. Of the man who wouldn’t leave Guadeloupe in Werner Herzog’s short documentary La Soufrière.
I am skeptical of my own tendency towards romanticism. Though I suspect a manufactured nostalgia, the sensation of loss doesn’t feel artificial. I watch the video footage of our interaction several times. I transcribe his lengthy lesson on Rebola. His cackle echos through my memory each time I recall his skinny face.
I have a small tattoo tattooed on my left shoulder in Los Angeles: a black handlebar moustache over P.O.P. Bigote POP. The name Bosquete gave me at my Guinean christening, the name I used to make friends, to explore a country that does not encourage exploration. It’s my first, ridiculous like all tattoos. A mad ode to a madman who had more sense than most of us, a teacher, a storyteller, a lost prophet, someone who took care of the children. It is a cackle inked permanently into my skin. Or as permanently as any of us are.
David Shook studied creative writing at Kellogg College. His debut collection of poems, Our Obsidian Tongues, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in Spring 2013. His documentary from Equatorial Guinea, Kilometer Zero, is also forthcoming in 2013, as are several books in his translation from the Isthmus Zapotec and Spanish. His writing on Equatorial Guinea has appeared in AMBIT and World Literature Today, and his story of being detained by the Guinean police commissioner is available on Amazon as Detained at Kilometer Zero.