Pistes (Tracks) — English Translation

Virtual reading presented as part of Seuls en Scène 2020 French Theater Festival



translated by Amelia Parenteau


To Amadou Makhtar Diouf,
N’Deye Koumba Sy
and Abdoulaye Diouf

This text was commissioned by the SACD as part of the “Intrepid Ones” project, on the theme of courage.

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Do you remember the dunes? Do you remember the dunes in Namibia? Do you remember the dunes in Namibia and the sand swaying on their slopes? The song of their slopes? The lap of the dunes in Namibia from which grains of sand stream, falling one by one, rolling over themselves. Hastily from vertiginous small of the dune’s back, they burn with impatience to roll on the ground, far from their point of origin. A place where they will no longer be seen. Where they will see nothing. Because their eyes have seen everything and their retinas have burned. They sing their lament in a flow as enchanting as it is baleful. A howling dune. It’s the lament of the grain of sand roasted in the sun, in the Namibian desert, which rolls, falls, and tumbles. These are the tearless cries of the grains of sand, witness to ancient deaths. Witness to bodies emaciated by thirst, by other continents’ forgetting. The grains of sand, felled by the wind, wail their sadness for the bodies caught in the German trap. The slopes cry Big Mama’s blues for the dead children. The Namib desert, despite the signification of its name, shield, wasn’t protected well enough. For the first time, the order was given to spare no one. Men, women, and children.

“Within German borders, every Herero, with our without a gun, with or without livestock, will be shot. I will no longer spare neither women nor children; I will drive them back towards their people, or I will shoot them. This is what I have to say to the Herero people.”

—The Great General of the Kaiser, von Trotha, also known as “the shark”

Beneath this radiant sun, in this lunar desert landscape, so beautiful it brings me to tears, men are dead. Men are dead. Only the mineral remembers. The grain of sand that tries to flee its reality, its eyes, its senses. It remembers. And escapes. It sings. And when you, tourist, come hurtle down Crazy Dune, frolic on the red sides of Big Mama, surf on her rounded knoll, don’t forget the song of the grain of sand. Don’t forget the silent cry of the abandonment, sadness, and neglect. This song of the last century that still rings out today.


I have always been fascinated by marks on the skin. Wrinkles, scars, scarification, tattoos. Marks formed by time, wounds. Those caused by others marking the body, opening it up to the inside. Forcing the skin, penetrating it to form

Cuts Lesions Cavities Crevices Cracks Slits Dents Wounds
Scratches Tears Gulfs Breaches Orifices Holes Gaps

A gap. Two parts that belong to the same body, separated. Like twin gametes. The same tissue, torn in two. Two who were only one before the impact. The violence of impact. The trauma of impact. The cut digs a well in the heart. A hole. Like the kind dug to bury a dead body. A black hole, like a lost memory. Silence of the mourners.

I like cuts. What they leave in us, what they leave on us. What they say about us.

In war, split life in two, and send each half to one side, to make up. Two pieces of a puzzle that will never really fit back together.

I like the work of sewing. The needle that goes in and out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in a slow, hypnotic movement, like a serpent searching an escape from its destiny who isn’t able to help himself, it’s even his essence, to bite, and bite, and bite, again and again. Bring two pieces of cloth together, patiently draw the seams that unite them. A work of art to make it discrete, invisible, as if the gulf had never existed. Surgery. A bridge. Bring the separate cloths of history back together, a patchwork sewn with intimacy. And make a flag out of it, a bloody cape to show the world.



And follow the thread back through time…

I am following my path, my instinct. Sometimes I walk into invisible walls, catch my reflection in funhouse mirrors, get lost in labyrinths, feeling my way towards the exit, blindly caressing the exterior of my prison, pushing the hood off of my eyes. The thread guides me through the darkness.


Children’s Games

Where did little Penda go? She who nobody still wants to play with? Who’s never in the center of games? She shouldn’t take up too much space, shouldn’t overshadow the heroes. At best, she endures it. Good versus bad. Of course, she’s the bad. Or rather, she helps, she serves. The perfect foil. These innocent children’s games surely prepared me for my adult life. Always being on the periphery, in the margins. But not showing myself. Certainly not shining. Not shining. The reproduction of oppression starts young. By imitation.

And Mélanie, in preschool. She’s different, too. White, of course, but with a speech problem. She leaves class early once a week to go to the speech therapist. She can’t pronounce her cousin’s first name correctly: Lui, Lui, Lui, Lui, Lui, Lui. Each of us being different, we’re on the same playing field, that of the excluded. Even if the cause of my rejection is more visible, heavier to carry than hers because a doctor will soon help her pronounce “Louis” normally and rejoin the group. The clan. As for me, I will continue to advance in the court of miracles.


I’m 5 years old when I discover what blackface is. Politically, it is of course too early for me to have an opinion on the behavior. The preschool party is themed: Africa! Not Mali, not Tunisia, not Ethiopia or Mozambique. But Africa!!

It’s the 80s, even if I doubt that attitudes have changed very much since then. If not, I never would have bought an educational sweatshirt that says, “Africa is not a country.”

I was looking forward to the day. I thought since I was black, I would be a little celebrated and honored, I would receive special attention that day. My excitement grew.

Two tables were set up to prepare for the show for the parents and the whole school. I hurried to the hairdressing table, already imagining the effect the wig would have on my face. My first wig!

– No, Penda, you have such pretty braids. Why do you want to wear a wig?

I just want to dress up, like everybody else. It’s true the wig was very ugly, in retrospect. But I just wanted to look like the others.

No problem, I’m going to compensate with makeup. I wait in line. All my classmates leave with charcoal black makeup spread on their faces, a toothless smile on their lips. Proud of themselves. With their wigs à la Yannick Noah, they looked like real little Negroes. And I waited. I waited to have my face smeared the color of charcoal, to look more like the representation that is made of me and my people. Negroes. And yet again, I wound up being denied.

– But no, Penda, you’re already black. Why do you want me to make you up?

I just…want…to be like the others, to get dressed up. I want to have fun, too. I understood that day what I was in others’ eyes: a disguise. I was a Carnaval costume, a mask, something you can take off at night, you can wipe off to rediscover your true personality. And your white skin, of course.

That day, everybody danced, laughed, shouted, had fun, and got dressed up. It was a party, a festival. We danced a farandole. I didn’t have a costume. I showed up as if naked, with my everyday face, my hair braided by my mom, wearing the red tights everyone wore that day. I showed up the same way I was every day. Holding my solitude with one hand, my strangeness with the other. The dark side of Carnaval gathered me in its arms.


I have a distant memory of the Christmas I spent at the hospital. I must have been five years old. My parents and I were eating in a big room, where other families were also gathered. There was a small TV in the corner, showing cartoons. It was the Disney Channel, Winnie the Pooh. I had come down with tuberculosis. A friend of my parents had given it to me, by coughing. He died of it, because of his cough.

I had just barely started being sick, coughing, coughing. Blood. I often went to the children’s hospital. For the rest of my life, I will remember the smell of the hallways, the sound of the doors slamming, and the pictures on the windows intended to cheer up life behind the partitions. I took a slew of tests. I fought, I shouted, I cried. It felt like I was on fire from the inside out.

Back then, I’m sick and yet so courageous, so strong. I’m not afraid of anything. Like when I was in my 3rd year of preschool and we were visiting the elementary school. Seated on the ground, all in a row, scared to be in the big kids’ class, the teacher asked if one of us would like to recite a poem. I raise my hand and standing firm on my little legs, I recite, proud of myself, the last poem we learned in class.

Who can tell me where that self-confidence went?

Body on the Playground

I see myself again on the school playground, in 5th grade. I just moved to Moulins, in Allier. We are the only black family for miles around. I don’t know anyone else like us except my parents and my brother. I don’t see us on the TV, nor in advertisements. My body remains on the periphery, often alone. I don’t have any friends who stick with me at school. And so I wait, next to the wall. It’s as if I’m punished, in the corner. I watch the others run, horse around, and have fun while I wait. The desire to be invisible. Nobody pays attention to my presence, asks if everything is alright. Because everything is not alright. I am alone and I am unhappy. Without anyone to take me in their arms, reassure me, and tell me everything will be okay. I wait patiently, soundlessly, in my corner, staring at the ground, fists tight, waiting for the bell to sound so I can hide in the classroom and do my homework. I don’t find my place. I’ve never found my place. My body doesn’t know what it is to be at ease.

My brother is in elementary school at the same time. My mother and I watch him from the window of the house, taking his first steps of socialization on the playground. He’s no exception to the rule. He, too, is alone. Without friends, without attention, without laughter. He spends his recess running, pushing a tire, following the comings and goings of the teachers. Like a tennis ball, I follow him with my eyes, on one side, then the other. One side, then the other. Nobody pays attention to him. Alone. Alone on the playground. Pushing a tire. I would have liked so much to have been on the playground at the same time as you, and take your hand. I would have liked so much to have been on the playground at the same time as you, to smile at you, and take your hand.

At that age, I am Jane Eyre, heroine discovered in the middle school media center’s green library. Certain hearts aren’t made for happiness. They are born to contemplate that of others, respectfully, without one day hoping to have access. Stuck on the side of the path, spectators of a world that isn’t theirs and the key to which has been confiscated for a long time.



A young 14 year-old girl and a fan of athletics, who people like to compare to Marie José Pérec, to a gazelle, an antelope, and other apparently elegiac terms to speak of my thin – even skinny – legs, which my coach at the time took upon himself to fill, shape, and strengthen.

It’s up to me to climb the square fortress steps with bags on my back beneath the harsh sun. Up to me to point and flex on the track with a clear blue sky overhead at the Antibes Stadium. Up to me to run on the pebble beach towards Nice, with the waves as my only company, quiet observers of my clumsy stride, my unspoken dreams. My body already no longer resembles me. Muscular calves, curves I don’t own. It’s not tasteful to be callipygian at that time. The build of a muscular woman while all the knockouts are tall, skinny blondes. I feel like I look like Serena Williams, even though athletically, in the media, she doesn’t exist yet. Her beauty would be revealed to us much later. Nobody there to reassure me about myself. I train this body that I don’t like, I break down walls with this body that I don’t share with anyone.

In this, too, I am alone. I run alone. Warm up alone. Practice alone. No complicit smiles with the other athletes. No encouraging looks during difficult exercises. I am so alone running laps, running on the gravel, apart from the group, that I finally have had enough. I stop practicing.

Lausanne, Oslo, Atlanta, Tokyo, Zurich, Stuttgart, Athens… I’m still not good at placing these cities in the world, but every summer I passionately follow the competitions, the world championships or the Olympic Games. No matter what time of day, there’s no way I’m not watching the 100 and 200 meter races. Because these are the main events, dominated by self-confident African-Americans, strong, built, molded, protruding from their leotards. It doesn’t take much for a young girl of 15.

And then there’s Frankie. Frankie Fredericks. I can’t really remember when I first saw him unleash his stride, passing the 200 line, pitting himself against the Americans, coming in 2nd. On the podium. I can’t really remember the feeling of seeing that unknown African flag, blue, green, and red, with the incandescent sun like the one that burns above the Namibian desert, escorted by the American flags, as if it were placed under the supervision of the Northern countries. The flag flapped in the wind, pride of a nation whose name I had never heard before: Namibia.

Is it at that moment my journey began? When Frankie, on the starting line, responding to his name being called, raises his hand and greets the crowd with a humble, noble attitude, without the very American confidence of someone who knows he’s going to be able to slow down before the finish line, that’s how much he dominates the event. He doesn’t show off, no. He’s there to fight. He’s there to stretch his legs, grip the track, and slowly nibble away the distance between him and the American, Carl Lewis, the Barbadian, Ato Boldon, or the Canadian, Donovan Bailey. To earn his right, centimeter by centimeter, to climb onto the podium, even in second place. To run, as fast as possible. To eat asphalt, regulate his breathing, hear his heart beating, be carried by the crowd. To summon his energy, from the deepest part of his being, as if he only lived for that moment. Is it the hot air of Windhoek, the dust of the township where you were born, that pushed you all the way to the finish line? Is that where my journey began?

Black Body

Run, Frankie, run. You’re already the champion of Africa. In achieving your dream, you only made me a little more sure of my own. But what African athlete is capable of competing with his brothers from across the Atlantic in a sport where they reign supreme, thereby instilling this image of the athletic black who runs fast in the collective unconscious? Basketball, football, baseball, track. It seems that the musculature isn’t the same. It makes sense. This black body comes from far away, very far. It was chosen because only the strongest were sent with the slave traders. It was selected because the most resilient would survive the living conditions on board the ship during the journey. It was sold in the slave markets in New Orleans, forced into the cotton fields in Atlanta, tortured in Mandingue Blacks’ fights to the death. Now, it fights for its life. So yes, this body isn’t from today.


Nobody seems to know. Everyone shuts their eyes. Often compared to giants although our bodies are so fragile. Our bodies are weakened by society, made weak. Far too many have experimented with violence on the black body. How many black men have been violated or killed? My uncle didn’t have a choice. He was struck, beaten, to death. I’ve imagined you so many times in that final moment. How many were they? How many blows did you receive? Did you bleed? Were you still conscious? What were you thinking about? Who were you thinking about? About your daughter, soon to become an orphan? About all the years you were unlucky? About your mother in Senegal who will soon mourn you? What were you thinking when the blows rained down on you, angry men’s volley of boxing, having found their punching bag? What marks did it leave on your body?

Cuts Lesions Cavities Crevices Cracks Slits Dents Wounds
Scratches Tears Gulfs Breaches Orifices Holes Gaps

I imagine you protected yourself with your fists in front of your face, defending yourself in a final combat you know is lost before it begins. But with power and dignity, like a man who knows he will soon die. Were you still conscious when your body was thrown into the Seine? Maybe you didn’t even know how to swim… How many men has France crushed? Driven crazy?

I remember your body at the morgue on the Quai de la Rapée. Your body beneath a white sheet, tiny like a child’s. You looked so light. The three weeks spent in the river did their work, between the tourist boat crossings and the end-of-summer picnics. What body did we bury? You were so brilliant, studying to be a doctor. Look how they destroyed you.

Men, my father, carried your coffin. Bismillahi Rahmani Rahimi. Your dreams, your travels, your loves, your fears framed by the slow march of men in boubous, accompanied by our cries, followed by our prayers. Everything about you was so wonderful. That’s the last image I have of you. In that tiny wooden box.

Nothing but shock remains. Astonishment. Astonishment in the face of violence, absurdity, death. And this observation: we aren’t safe anywhere.



I don’t pass my French final exam in high school. Nothing prepared me for that. An avid reader since I was very young. Best in my French class since elementary school. Sixth regional in my category in Bernard Pivot’s dictation. And my downfall comes during my oral exam in front of a jury that doesn’t understand why the black and white photo on my ID card is so dark, so fuzzy. That asks where I’m born even though they’re holding my French ID card in their hands. That asks, finally, what I’m wearing on my head.

– My hair. I’m wearing my hair on my head. My hair. Braids.
– Oh, braids. Okay. Good, I’m going to ask you to select a text at random.

Baudelaire…my favorite poet, I know several of his quatrains by heart. Whose pen seems to have been dipped in my blood before being poured out on the paper, slashing my skeleton. Whose spleen echoes my own solitude. A restless soul while I am also searching for my own peaceful haven. I know my subject. I am confident.

But the young woman in the picture is too dark, her hair not shiny, combed, or done enough. Her place of birth is questioned. That young girl isn’t very convincing. Despite her seriousness, her rigor, she will know the shame of announcing to her parents she failed the test. On the telephone, she speaks quietly, in a dead voice, like a ghost, to tell her friends that no, she didn’t pass. She will internalize the reality for which her parents had always prepared her. That she has to do two or three times more than the others to achieve half of what they do. She will make humiliation, dejection, feeling unjustly punished, and the idea of fatality, her own. Sadness.

Didn’t Mr. Le Guilloux, Assistant Principal at the Bertone Middle School in Antibes, tell her several years earlier:

– You’re going to have to get used to it.
– To what? Being sad?
– …Yes…

Anger? That would come later. Remembering we aren’t at home and these are the implicit rules of the game. It’s a fact. I learn quickly.

I no longer lower my head. I stand proud, I smile, I continue. Sometimes I even puff up my chest. It’s not natural for me, but rather a constant daily effort. It reminds me of my father, one night, leaving work. Papa pushes a caddie, his back slumped, stooped. He seems to have aged ten years, fatigue is weighing his shoulders down so heavily.

– Papa, Papa, stand up straight.

I can’t accept he who was my beacon, my tutor all these years, to be bent under the hardness and arrogance of the world. Who do I turn to if he too is fallen…

And you, Frankie, where do you get your strength? Your determination? Your elegant fast stride, your relaxation as if you were completing a fitness circuit? That shyness, that shame to even be there, in that place of the best athletes in the world? Where do you come from, Frankie? Where do you come from to confront your American brothers? Such bravery when you come from Namibia, to want to one day leave your mark on the world.


On the Road

I’m seated beside the window, my favorite spot on the airplane. I never leave my seat, no matter how long the flight is. Not to stretch my legs, not even to go to the bathroom. Ever since I was a child, I’ve kept up the habit of making myself very small, no matter the situation, so as not to draw attention to myself. When you’re a minority, you have to stay in your place. So I stay seated. I wait. I am the only black person on the plane. Around me, old retired Germans are headed off to go on safari in the former colony. A piece of Germany in Africa, where no effort is required to be understood. German is still the official language, one hundred years later. Where it won’t be difficult to speak with the natives. As a former colony, you still feel a little at home. No effort for the food, either. The best apple strudel I’ve ever eaten, slowly, chewing each bite, savoring the taste of cinnamon, fixing the moment in my memory, because I knew it was unique, at a gas station, in a forgotten corner of Namibia.

The high, dry grasses parade before us. We have arrived. Frankie, I’m here. Don’t run too fast. Wait for me.

A French woman living in Namibia gives me three pieces of advice before I leave:

“Never leave food in your tent. It will attract animals.

“Position your tent so the opening is close to your car door. You never know…

“If you come across a lion, don’t run away. Look it in the eyes and roar louder than it.”

It’s barely 7 am and the sun is already high in the sky. A raw, relentless light accompanies my first steps in the country. To unstitch my eyelids, so my eyes won’t stay blind to the shining landscapes and all those who have crossed them. Living and dead.

After only a few hours on the road, I’m driving and trying to avoid the mound of sand rising up before me. Too late… I’m stuck in the sand. It’s around noon. I’ve only been in the country for about 5 hours. The sun is at its peak and I’ve entered a desert. I have three tomatoes and a half-drunk bottle of water. Lying under the car, I flatten out the sand under the tire. With water. And no other tools but my hands. I start the car and try to drive. No luck. I spin the wheels and feel like I’ve dug myself in even deeper. Fear of flooding the engine. As a last resort, I try going in reverse. And I move backwards. I get out. Alone. I know from that moment on, the rest of the trip will go well. I know I can count on myself. I’m not afraid.

I wind through this country in the car, on foot, alone, sometimes accompanied by Namibians whose names I’ve now forgotten. The mother with her infant I brought to the hospital more than 200 kilometers from where I picked her up. She speaks a few words of English. Her son is sick, with fever. Fleeting encounters over the course of a drive, shared looks, elongated shadows on the side of the road, which are hard to distinguish as either an ancient tree, a mirage, or a person waiting patiently for a driver to stop.

– Hi. Where are you going?

Smiles. Smiles.

And the grandmother I take in the car 400 kilometers from her native village. Impossible to communicate with her. We don’t share a language. She bobs her head next to me, listening to the radio music. Sometimes, I see her heavy head fall backwards and hear a light whistling escape her slack lips. She’s sleeping. She’s sleeping while a stranger drives her. She lets herself go, completely. She has barely known me for an hour and has never exchanged a word with me. She feels sufficiently comfortable to fall asleep beside me.

Gift. Gift from the heavens.

Etosha Park, one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the world. I don’t sleep. Wrapped in a blanket because the Namibian nights are cold that time of year, I’m seated by the edge of the water and I wait. Animals – giraffes, zebras, antelopes – come to quench their thirst. A man sits down next to me, greets me in English. His name is Gerson, he’s a tour guide and also speaks French. How strange to speak French in the middle of the night in Namibia, with a man I’ve just barely met and who suggests waiting because the lions are likely to come drink. What a surprise to learn Gerson spent several days in France, when he was singing with his school choir. And that the only city where he sung was Dijon. City of my birth. How to interpret these signs, if not that at that moment, I feel perfectly in my place, on the straight line of my life’s path.

That night, eleven lions came to drink at the edge of the water.

I sleep in my tent Queshua, at the end of the rainy season, in unlikely campgrounds. The only tourist to come at this time of year. The only woman to brave the roads. The only black woman to travel this way, in Namibian memory. I hear a herd of elephants, I feel the ground shaking as they pass. I am rocked by their trumpeting, like prayers sent out to the world, the earth, the ancestors.


Little Paris

Who today remembers Windhoek, the Namibian capital, was once considered “Little Paris,” because people lived so well here. Parties, music, bushmeat, all types of food. Alcohol flowing freely. But especially because it was a rich, luxurious city, still very young, at the dawn of its adolescence and full of promise. Windhoek was the new cool. And today, don’t ask where the cool is. Africa has always been cool. If not, foreigners wouldn’t have descended to colonize, build, and construct, if Africa wasn’t the cool place.

Berlin Conference

When did this journey begin? When I went to the library to research Namibia? The country was German from 1884 to 1915. Holdovers from this period include the Protestant religion, Lutheran churches, and the official German language, which a number of my Namibian friends still refuse to speak today. Just like Afrikaans, vestige of another colonization. And for a reason…

In 1884, the Berlin Conference is held at the request of Portugal in order to better organize the spheres of influence of the 13 European colonial powers. Rules were put in place regarding the occupation of land. Random, artificial borders separate families, ethnicities, peoples, and languages. In southwest Africa, Germany inherits present-day Namibia, in eastern Africa, present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, Togo, and Cameroon. It’s the official distribution of Africa, already largely belonging to France and Great Britain.

“Leave the entire responsibility for the foundation and material development of the colony to the work and industriousness of our fellow citizens.”

— German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck


It’s the crisis in Germany, the beginning of capitalism. Several young graduates make up a new middle class, without any notion of the future. It’s also the moment where the racial theories of Gobineau and Chamberlain find new meaning. There are no more opportunities in America, Africa is the new El Dorado.

“The flag follows the money.”

That’s Bismarck’s adage.

In Namibia, there are Hereros in the south, Namas in the north, and the Orlam live everywhere. Conflicts break out sometimes over access to water. The Germans are still scarce. A few explorers, private entrepreneurs, gold and diamond miners, and missionaries are established in this forgotten country. Trade agreements are set up with the chiefs of different tribes. Over the course of years, the Namibian chiefs accept the conditions of the Germans’ protectorate.

Except for one, who writes the following to the Maharero captain, the chief of the Herero people:

“But it seems clear to me you haven’t well enough considered your own interests, your people or your country, your descendants or your role as captain. […] But this other thing, the fact that you are subjected to the gaze of Whites, believing moreover to have acted with wisdom, will be as if you’re carrying the sun on your back.”

—Hendrik Witbooi, May 30, 1890

Hendrik Witbooi

When I visit a country, I always pay attention to the signs of daily life… Advertisements, posters, graffiti, names of streets, statues, stamps, and bank notes. In Namibia, on the 10 dollar bill, you can see a black, wrinkled face, wearing a scarf and hat, staring intensely at you. You are faced with the penetrating gaze of Hendrik Witbooi.

Hendrik is a survivor, a visionary. Becoming the Nama chief after the assassination of his father, which he even tried to avenge, Hendrik gave himself the personal mission of reunifying the Nama tribe and fighting the German enemy in the Namibian territory. Henrik reads and writes in several languages. And with such style, such poetry. Henrik loves the Bible, his wife, his 12 children and his land. He loves his land and wishes for it to find peace, in Namibian hands.

Unfortunately, following different decrees of the protectorate wrought upon other Namibian chiefs, Witbooi finds himself isolated.

“I also don’t understand what you’re thinking, you chiefs, when submit yourselves to the Protection of these men! Nor why I am reduced to advising each one of us not to concede any of our lands to the Whites, nor any right amongst or between us.”

— Hendrik Witbooi



At the time of the German occupation, weapons are forbidden for native populations. Lands are stolen. Thus Joseph Fredericks sells 20,000 miles of his land to the Germans for 500 pounds of sterling and 60 rifles, based on the known, standard unit of measure, the English mile, where 1 mile corresponds to 1.6 kilometers.

But the sale contract is based on the German mile, without informing the concerned party, where 1 mile corresponds to 7.4 kilometers. Thus the Namibian chiefs sold almost all their territory.

It must be said that contracts are often signed after several glasses of wine, generously served by the German host. There are now a lot of Germans, they have weapons and their laws are severe towards the natives: they fight them and steal their land to create fields and farms, then invite the Boers to move in.

The wind of misfortune has blown. Life in the desert no longer has the same taste, the same flavor. Everything has narrowed. Space, horizons, dreams. Even the body has to bend, kowtowing before the new masters. Bodies have lost their confidence, pride. They’ve lost thickness, weight, style. They’re cut off for the Germans’ profit. The body became a tool, a machine, an outlet with nerves running through it. You can squeak it, whip it, crush its genitals, kill it. It’s beaten. It’s a body you can make work nonstop for the interests of the Kaiser. A body that doesn’t belong to you anymore.

Cattle Plague

In 1897, a cattle plague appeared. All the livestock died one after the other. The plague had struck Europe a few years earlier and vaccinations had been found. Without a herd, and therefore without a means of subsistence, the Hereros offer their bodies and become sharecroppers. This serves the German capitalism that controls their pay. Ethnicities nor tribes nor individuals still exist. Just a shapeless mass of black workers, poor and hopeless.

For the cows that survived the plague, there is a huge vaccination campaign. For every Herero cow vaccinated, another is taken by the German government as payment.



Even dead, the black body is not respected. Even dead, he doesn’t have the right to acknowledgement. Sometimes people have more empathy for animals, beasts. But a dead black man, once he’s used all his energy carrying heavy metal on his back for the construction of the railroad connecting Windhoek to Walvis Bay, what’s left of him? A body, shut in a little box, finally enjoying a rest that the German colonizer never permitted him. And even then, in his final sleep, between dusk and dawn, to kill time, they decide they can very easily kill the black man a second time. He won’t feel anything. He’s already dead. Breath still reeking of alcohol, eyes blank and empty, saliva at the corners of the mouth, wondering which demon took him to bury him here, at the other edge of the world, on this dry land, hoping for a few flecks of gold, he desecrates. He violates the law of men, he violates his own religion. He desecrates a cemetery because after all these aren’t men, but negroes. And a dead negro doesn’t mean anything to anybody. They choose at random, to decide who will have the honor of going first.

And leaning towards the designated tomb, digging, scraping the dirt with a shovel, with a hammer, with rage, aggression, anger, because the wood resists, is hard to open. That the meager protection of the body of the deceased, sensing the ultimate disgrace, can only tighten its screws to hold up as long as possible. One blow, two blows, the wood resists, three blows, the wood shatters. The body is there, half decomposed and half putrified. Two holes gaping open seem to once again regard the clear horizon. One last look at the sky shining with all its stars. The coffin is open. What else to do? The head, chop the head off with a hatchet, rip it from its body, put fingers in the two empty sockets and toss the head of the Namibian farmer, like a bowling ball… Shoot at the ball, make him eat dirt, let off steam. Leave humanity on the boat that brought them all the way to the African shores. Because here, there’s no need for it. How many skulls were stolen like this? And the souls of these headless bodies wander in the desert, blind, lost in a world that is no longer their own, without guidance, silently. They march in a line, defeated soldiers, right hand placed on the shoulder of the one in front of him. A slow, macabre procession that appears on the days of the big wind, in the middle of the dunes and the whirlwinds of sand. And the dune sings. And the dune shudders faced with this faceless, nameless squadron of death. No matter how hard you rub your eyes, it’s not a mirage.

Is it this story that marked me the most, or that of apartheid, because after 1915, when the Germans left, up until 1990, Namibia is occupied, annexed, colonized by South Africa, a racist, segregated country. The same laws apply. Over the course of my journey I would sometimes see decrepit signs, sad historical reminders of places that were “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only.”


The Fight

After a dozen years of humiliation and violence, Herero Chief Samuel Maharero takes up arms against the Germans. On January 12, 1903, he and his troops launch an offensive attack against the colonizers, ordering to spare women, children, and missionaries. Acts of sabotage are organized against the railroad and the telegraph companies. A hundred colonizers are killed. Women participate as well. They encourage the men in the first line of battle by protesting and chanting, “Who does the Herero country belong to? To us! Who does the Herero country belong to? To us!”

“Let all of Africa fight the Germans, let us rather die together instead of dying of mistreatment, prison or something else.”

—Samuel Maharer

But the Hereros are slowly surrounded and forced to flee in the direction of the Kalahari desert. Von Trotha, the new governor, who will become “Honorable Führer of Hitler Youth” under the IIIrd Reich, poisons all the water sources. The only escape for the Herero people is to march, ignoring their hunger and thirst and forgetting that the red desert dunes form a bowl for their open-air tomb. Those who don’t die of thirst die of poison. In October 1904, learning of the bloody defeat of the Maharero, Hendrik Witbooi seizes his weapons and accompanied by 1,500 men, kills 40 colonizers, also sparing the women and children. The Germans won’t do the same with his own family. The Namas know their territory. They leave quickly, in the night, with the wind at their backs. Carried by divine inspiration, Witbooi leads his men like shadow soldiers. They work discretely, attacking Germans at the same time, in different parts of the territory. Few deaths each time, but they act like mosquitoes. Buzzing around the German ear, every night, insatiable agitators. They attack their jailers with thousands of tiny pricks, with the portentous humming of a dreamless night, without letting up, a night without peace. The guerrilla war lasted 5 years. 5 years of dreamless nights, moonless nights for these Germans lost at the other end of the earth on a land that does not belong to them. Five years to show the dignity of a people, the force of he who is ready for anything to protect his liberty. Five years of leaps to avoid the impending genocide.

Nobody at the time cared about the fate of the Hereros and the Namas. This genocide takes place in the general indifference of the international community, despite the calls for help from mad Hendrik Witbooi. The Germans hold the keys. The English, alerted to the conflict by Witbooi, don’t want to take a stand. It’s the “British government’s non-intervention principle in German affairs.”

Struck by an enemy bullet, more dead than alive, Hendrik travels a long stretch of ground in one night. During his ride, while he draws near to his people, his ancestors, I imagine him saying goodbye to the red earth, to the rocks, to the stars. I imagine him whipping his mount to arrive as quickly as possible because the great Grim Reaper, seated just behind, is clasping him gently. He feels his frozen breath on his neck. He’s not afraid because he has achieved his destiny. All that’s left is to die close to his people. Expire in friendly arms, known arms. Death waited.

For a long time, no one knew where exactly his tomb was located. To avoid any desecration, he was buried somewhere in the desert, without leaving any sign that the Great Nama Chief is buried there. A lifeless body left in complete anonymity. Buried in the middle of nowhere and yet omnipresent.

The captain is dead. The captain is dead… These are the words that circulate and expand, cross and respond. The captain is dead. What will become of the Nama people once one of their most fervent defenders is no longer? What will they become? To continue fighting without weapons, without ammunition, weakened because the number of warriors diminishes from one day to the next, hunger and thirst not allowing them to wage war in the right conditions. Or to surrender, hoping for clemency from the executioner…

The Herero and Nama populations in 1907 are subjected to the same administrative measures put in place by France in Algeria. Their fatherland is confiscated. Tribal structures tend to disappear, chiefs no longer having any power. Every Namibian over the age of 8 is required to carry a passport on him and to present it at the request of the police or any White who asks for it.



It’s easy to capture the already domesticated livestock that von Trotha’s troops have sapped of its last forces, its last Nama hopes. Men, women, and children. All are taken prisoner on their own land and tattooed: GH for “gefangene herero,” Herero prisoners. For a start…

Shackled, weighted with heavy irons, they leave in the direction of death, Shark Island. The slightest act of resistance can transform a standing man into food for the sharks that surround the island. Escape is therefore almost impossible with such marine guards. Shark Island, today a popular spot for underwater diving or jet skiing is considered to be one of the first concentration camps in the history of humanity. Starvation is naturally par for the course. Undernourishment as a means of enslavement, to break the body, the mind. One ration of rice per day, of course that’s not enough to maintain a person in good physical shape. And the work, all day long, without breaks, without hygienic conditions for everyone, men, women and children. They die slowly, from mistreatment, beatings, insults and humiliations. They go crazy.

And those who are ordered to clean the skull of a father, a brother, or a son. To boil the head, then scrape the flesh off of the skull so it is clean, smooth, polished. Scratch the flesh with pieces of glass until nothing is left. Pull off the skin. Pull out the eyes. Of another human being. Looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself dying with each strike of glass on the skeleton. Asking for forgiveness. From the deceased and from humanity for being required to act in this manner. Only keep the skull to be able to send it to Berlin where its length and width will be measured to prove that the negro is the missing link between monkeys and men. Eugen Fischer is responsible for this work, an eminent geneticist whose work will be reprised in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and which will introduce the young Joseph Menguele to the pertinence of scientific experiments on humans. He will make use of it in the camps in Poland during the second world war.

The mission of missionaries is to find an explanation for the unhappiness of colonized peoples. To instill in them the idea of life after death, of suffering, work, domination, and acceptance to make the daily life of the colonizers, the masters, more comfortable. Once the religion is well established, internalized, it is harder to rebel in the face of God’s plan. When life isn’t here.

Two peoples are extinguished thusly, like a fire whose embers you let go out on purpose. They took their land, their culture, their dignity. The only thing left was to exterminate them.

Namibia was the location of the first genocide in the history of the 20th century. Far before the Holocaust exterminated two-thirds of European Jews. Heinrich Göring was the governor of southwest Africa up until 1890. He is the father of Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe under the Nazi regime. When he leaves, the first concentration camps are created. On African land. Why does no one talk about it today? 75% of the Herero population and 50% of the Nama population are killed, deliberately, methodically, during this period. Who speaks of them? Who puts it right? Who tells their story? Who talks about the skulls of the Herero and Nama warriors, sent to Berlin?

Cuts Lesions Cavities Crevices Cracks Slits Dents Wounds
Scratches Tears Gulfs Breaches Orifices Holes Gaps

There are over 300 skulls in the Berlin museums. Skulls that a Namibian historian, Memory Biwa, professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, is trying to repatriate. Bring them home, finally. Offer them a grave. Finally. Organize funerals and pay them the respect they’re due. Finally. It would seem the Holocaust has roots in the African southwest.


At the Root

What finally made me decide to go to Namibia? Was it the end of the year 2010, when my then-boyfriend brought ten years of communal life to a close and when that decision, combined with fragilities inherited from childhood, and the condition of the black woman in France, would finally drive me into a depression with suicide attempts and more than a month’s hospitalization at Sainte Anne? Did I say to myself that before I die, I should achieve this dream, to head off alone in this country that nobody knows, so old and so young at the same time? Is that where this journey began?

Or was it even earlier than that? On September 18, 1981, at the Bocage Hospital in Dijon. A baby with blocked nostrils who couldn’t breathe. Whose heart stopped. Reanimated. Born into an incubator. Attached. Is that why I can no longer stay in place? Those first days, hands and fists tied? My mother likes to tell me that my feet pedaled, as if on a bicycle. To go far. Far away. Where my passport allows me to go. Where my privilege as a woman raised in the North, in the West, would carry me.

Sports and Politics

When I am on the track, when I run, I try to rediscover Frankie’s ample and rapid stride. His ease. His way of incarnating coolness to swallow the track. Swallow his tense muscles. Swallow the sadness. Swallow the sweat. Swallow the lack of air. Swallow the cracks. Swallow the apartheid. Swallow the humiliations. Swallow the drowned bodies. Swallow the grief. Swallow the tears. Swallow the world, to make way for another, better one.

Two Namibians were granted national renown, through their victories and their defeats: Frankie and his athletic record. Hendrick and his fight for the freedom of his people.

In 1936, Jesse Owens wins several medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin.

In 1967, Mohamed Ali refuses to fight in Vietnam.

In 1968, on the podium of the Games in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their black-gloved fists in homage to the Black Panthers.

In 1994, Surya Bonaly refuses his silver medal on the podium.

In 1998, the Black, white and North African French soccer team wins the World Cup.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick kneels during the American national anthem.

In 2018, the French soccer team wins the World Cup. A scandal swells over the African-ness of the players.

Victory isn’t shared. Victory is exclusive. But defeat…that’s something else.


I seemed, at times, to be an oddity in Namibia. Not really a woman because I was traveling alone. Not really Black because I had the means to travel. Often, when I would return after several nights of camping, in a hotel, to sleep in a real bed and stretch out my tired back after hours of driving, I would feel looks telling me I’ve used the wrong door. I had used the one for guests, not the one for staff. I never heard them openly say anything, but I felt it very strongly. The body’s memory having already experienced these same looks in France. And my passport was my guarantee. I was a guest. I therefore had the right to travel, to enjoy the sublime view from my window of Walvis Bay, the richest city in the country. For the Blacks of Namibia, it still seems to me to be something completely different.

I would also get asked where the other people were. “No, I am alone.”

After seven hours in the Namibian desert? Alone? And crossing the most dangerous pass in Namibia? Alone?

I later learned that several people died in the car crossing that pass. I am happy to not have known it before making the trip.
“You are a brave woman.”

That’s what I’m often told.

“Brave.” … Others have been before me. All I’ve done is follow in the footsteps of Frankie, never catching him, in the same rhythm of life that I had as a baby, in the incubator. Fighting to breathe, get up, walk, and walk, as far as my legs can carry me.



Where does the grain of sand roll to? The grain of sand roasted in the sun, in the Namibian desert, which falls, rolls, and tumbles. The desert shield didn’t suffice to protect it. The desert shield as a tomb of memories, bodies, tears, however, has not forgotten. The fossilized trees of Deadvlei, lost between the dunes, stretching out their branches burned by 900 years of sun like infinite cries for help, agonized for eternity. And that’s without counting the grain of sand. The grain of sand that rolled to escape, that rolled to sing the Big Mama’s lament. I heard its blues on the spikes of Frankie Fredericks’ shoes. I heard its blues on the trails of Namibia. I heard its blues in the silence of the desert. Shh… Shh… Listen to its music.

Windhoek, Waterberg, Etosha, Epupa, Seisfonstein, Palm Wag, Twyfelfontein, Terrace Bay, the Skeleton Coast, Walvis Bay, Naukluft, Sesriem, Keetmanshop, Marienthal, Windhoek.

I’ve done a lap around the track, but I’m far from having finished the journey.