Eric Ngalle Charles | Purple Shelves Publishers, 2021 | 246 pages
I met Eric Ngalle in person before I met him in the book “I, Eric Ngalle”.
The setting of the first meeting was a session at the 2021 Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF) where he had a conversation via zoom with Osaze Samuel, about his book. It was such an engaging session that despite the frequent disruptions we had on the day with technology failing repeatedly, the small audience, was held captive as Eric regaled us with snippets of the tale of life experienced in the little over two years, he spent in Russia between 1997 and 1999. He often left us in stitches as he recounted some incidents with the ease and panache of a standup comedian. My interest sufficiently piqued, I could not resist grabbing a copy of the book when it became available in Nigeria.
That was when I met Eric Ngalle; in full.
A rider to the title of the book says, “One man’s quest for home” but I will rather describe it as “One man’s quest for survival on a route paved with mischief.” After a particularly humiliating experience of being rejected by his father’s family, the young Eric is convinced there is nothing left for him in his native Cameroon. As is common with young people in this clime today, he decided to vote with his legs, or japa as we like to say here. He was going to find greener pastures elsewhere, study, make money and return home in grand style to the chagrin of his paternal family. The desperation as is often the case lands him in the hands of those who have made a thriving industry of human trafficking in the guise of helping young people get abroad, a theme I explored in my novel My Mind is No Longer Here. Eric pays a handsome fee that should get him to Belgium but when his flight lands, he finds himself in cold, hostile, Russia.
Surviving Russia as an illegal, with no money, no knowledge of the language, no friends to trust and no exit plan, forms the core of this 246 paged memoir that has got everything in it. Many readers may not associate memoirs with entertainment but I, Eric Ngalle is of a different mettle. Not minding the sensitive nature, sheer urgency and underlining dangers the narrator often found himself in, he tells this story with a lot of humour and with quite a sense of clarity which I dare say is possible because the intervening years before he put pen to paper allowed him ample time to reflect on the events and perhaps afforded him some healing.
Having heard him speak, i can affirm that Eric writes the way he talks, and his ability to find laughter through those dark experiences is quite remarkable. The narration is fast paced and engaging. The story of the present, is interspaced with reminiscences of his past life, growing up in the village of Wovilla in the shadow of Mount Cameroon, presented in italicized text.
It gets a bit too much and quite repetitive at times with names and places that do not linger in the readers memory, but nonetheless the bit allowed us a glimpse into Eric’s life in his village, and his boyhood adventures, much like a coming-of-age story and the rites of passage into adulthood.
In Russia, broke, without the right travel documents and with no help coming from home, Eric is forced to survive, often tethering dangerously on the precipice with many near misses. From debauchery, stained dollar scams, stealing from co-travelers, forgery, betrayal, impersonation etc, Eric gets in the mix of it all, swimming along with sharks until he finds a lucky break and a rare gift of a second chance.
The memoir captures at its core, just about two years of Eric’s life (albeit with the flashbacks) but it reads like a lifetime. Reader will be left to marvel at how all of it has happened to one person in this very short period. Indeed, one can easily say that Eric Ngalle Charles has lived many lives with scars (trophies, if you like) to show for it.
I, Eric Ngalle once again brings to the fore, the issue of illegal migration and the experiences of migrants especially from Africa, in foreign lands. It beams the light on the largely unwritten stories of a generation of Cameroonians, (and Nigerians) who found themselves in Russia and the things they did to navigate a particularly unfriendly environment mostly because of their illegal status. Some of them never made it out of Russia. It re-echoes some of the conversations that continue to make headlines around race and what it means to be different and tells the story of how corruption and bad leadership are conspiring to evoke heightened levels of cynicism that is driving Africa’s energetic and best minds, away.
While migration itself is human nature (and some argue there should be no term like ‘illegal migration’), the fact that sovereign states have created clear prerequisites for accessing their countries requires that anyone looking to go there should do so in line with the law. Travelers (as Helon Habila prefers to call them) must then ensure they are dealing with the right persons and channels because the outcomes of the alternative, be it a suicide-mission across the Mediterranean, the falsification of travel papers or the more popular overstaying of visas, is often not a pleasant tale. And yes, as cliché as it sounds, the grass is not always greener on the other side.
I, Eric Ngalle is a delightful read and an important addition to the collection of African migrant stories. It is also an invitation to all of us, to tell our stories. Memoirs should not only be written at the twilight of our lives when we feel we have accomplished all and have something to say.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo is the author of Believers and Hustlers (out in Nigeria in January 2022). He is available on social media at @nzesylva