Usain Bolting to Sylt Island – Nkiacha Atemnkeng

...from Migration and the Writer series

You arrive way ahead of time for the Hamburg-Altona train to Westerland, Sylt Island, but you almost miss it. You run with your bags across Platform 7 and catch the RE 6 train only moments before it starts moving away.

But how did this almost-missing-the-train thing happen?

You visit Lagos for the first time in 2017. You have come on an invitation by the Nigeria Cameroon Literary Exchange Project, a partnership between Saraba and Bakwa; the leading literary online magazines in Nigeria and Cameroon respectively. The partnership is funded by the Goethe-Institut, the German cultural centre. It is the second phase of the workshop in November, after the first phase in Limbe six months earlier.

You remember that the Caine Prize for African writing and the Miles Morland Foundation writing scholarship are two of the biggest literary prizes on the continent – European institutions organizing prizes and writers’ workshops that recognize and bring together writers from different parts of Africa, more than the writers or their countries can do. Well, except for a few, like the Aké Arts and Book festival in Nigeria, organized by Nigerian writer, Lola Shoneyin.

After a few days in Lagos, you travel to Abeokuta to attend the Aké Book and Arts Festival. Abeokuta, the small town immortalized by Fela Kuti, Wole Soyinka, Lola Shoneyin and the legends of its rocky hills, Olumo Rocky, is so serene and beautiful. You are in Sanja gear, the traditional attire of the Sawa people of Cameroon, during the opening ceremony of the festival. Safurat Balogun, one of Goethe-Institut Nigeria’s employees and organizers of the exchange project, walks onto the stage in a beautiful, black gown and announces that you have won a Sylt Foundation writing residency prize to Germany, on the island of Sylt for three months. Everyone claps for you – the Cameroonian winner of the Sylt Prize.

You are stunned, because Safurat and the three workshop facilitators, had not informed any of you, the workshop participants, that there’ll be a Sylt residency prize at the end of the workshop. But you are happy and consider the prize as God’s consolation for the three visa rejections you suffered at the hands of consular officers in that one year; twice at the American embassy and once at the German consulate in Yaoundé, when you were invited for writing residencies in both countries, and you went there for your visa interviews. Out of the blue, a residency opportunity in Europe was going to happen. But wait a minute, will you be issued a visa to Sylt? You don’t know that the Goethe-Institut staff are on good terms with their embassy. If they refuse you a visa, would they intervene? In fact, they will tell you that later, so that you should not worry about a rejection.

You start thinking how you will work on a long form project, which you had always planned for whenever the western residencies accepted your application. Next, Safurat announces that Sada Malumfashi, the only workshop participant selected from northern Nigeria, is the Nigerian winner of the Sylt prize. You imagine not only Sada’s joy, but also that of the whole literary community in his hometown, Kaduna, erupting for Sada, who will be Germany-bound together with you. Sada then walks onto the stage and stands next to you, amidst applause.

Safurat will tell you later that one person will go during summer and the other during winter of 2018, but you don’t know which of you. You don’t want to be the one who is chosen to travel to Germany for the first time in the heart of winter, so you hope and pray. But Safurat emails both of you later with sad winter travel news. The director of the residency says there are some issues regarding the summer dates. The three summer slots available are all between twenty days and a month, but if both of you want to travel on November 1st, you’ll have your full three-month residency slots and return at the end of January 2019. You sigh in frustration, but accept the winter slot anyway, together with Sada.

You start your visa process early in October, under the auspices of a Goethe-Institut Kamerun employee. He sends you some Goethe travel documents, and you compile yours – work documents mostly. He sends your flight ticket, and you head to the German consulate in Yaoundé on your interview day. You are nervous because of your past encounters with extremely condescending consular officers, but you hide it. The Cameroonian man who interviews you tries to unruffle and even scare you with tricky questions, but you stand your ground. He tells you to return a week later to get your passport and piece of paper with the visa decision. You don’t know if you will be issued a visa or not.After all, the consular officers have the final say.

When you open your passport upon your return, it is right there; your Schengen etudiant BAC visa for 90 days. You smile, but you are not as happy as you thought you would be because you’ve been rejected visas for so long, so to you, this is mostly a consolation. The Goethe Institute Kamerun employee is happy for you, as he sends emails with travel guidelines, on how to navigate the subway and train from Hamburg airport to Hamburg-Altona. He says it is where you will buy your train ticket to Sylt Island and all your travel expenses will be refunded.

You begin to freak out because you have never been to Europe, you don’t speak German and you don’t know anyone in Hamburg. You know you have a classmate from secondary school in Germany you haven’t communicated with in years, but you don’t even know that she lives in Hamburg with her husband, or that you will eventually connect, spend a couple of days with them celebrating the new year of 2019. You are only thinking how if you make a mistake and miss a train, or board the wrong train and go missing around Hamburg, you won’t arrive Sylt that day, and your host won’t be able to pick you up at the train station in Sylt. It will be difficult for you to find your way to the island after that.

You don’t know that you needed a Euro coin to get an airport cart once you landed in Hamburg, so a middle-aged Ghanaian man, Kwabena, who you met on the Hamburg-bound plane in Brussels lends you a coin at the airport arrival. The coin releases your cart. You pick up your bags from one of the conveyor belts. The subway ticket machines outside the arrival are in German. European winter slaps your tropical body for the first time, and it is colder than anything you’ve ever felt in Cameroon. Even the cold you experienced when you traveled to Ethiopia and Rwanda does not compare to this. You shiver and suit up: gloves, a jacket, a beanie and a muffler.

You watch train ticket buyers in queues as they punch keys, insert notes into the subway ticket machine in German and pull out their tickets. Kwabena has been a driver in Hamburg for twenty years, so you ask him to help you buy a ticket to Hamburg-Altona, where you’ll catch the second train to Sylt Island. He doesn’t tell you that there’s a button that translates all the German to English. Fortunately, you are both going in the same direction, but he will change trains at Hamburg-Altona and travel to another city, not Sylt Island where you’re headed.

Hamburg’s architecture is an aesthetic delight. The glass buildings are tall, but there aren’t any skyscrapers, except the dancing towers and the head offices of the biggest German newspapers like Bild. Colourful graffiti on numerous walls impart an urban feel. Some train musicians are playing beautiful songs with accordions and horns. Oh, when the saints go marching in, but it is the train that marches on. Deciduous trees from your Geography lessons begin to appear. You had relished Hamburg’s scenic aerial view upon descent, but it is even more picturesque up close.

You borrow Kwabena’s phone to call Joachim, the man who will pick you up in Sylt. The Goethe-Institut employee had also told you that Joachim is married to the residency founder, Indra, who is in South Africa. When Joachim doesn’t pick up, you become worried because the Goethe-Institut Kamerun guy told you that he had already informed Joachim about your arrival. You text Joachim. No response. Kwabena assures you that Joachim will reach out before you get to Sylt. As you continue chatting with Kwabena, he suddenly interrupts you when he glances at his phone again. Joachim just texted back. You call Joachim quickly. He says he’s expecting you. When does your train arrive in Sylt? You say you are still to buy the ticket at Hamburg-Altona. You can’t call him directly. Does he use Whatsapp? No. You hang up the phone thinking that Joachim sounds nice, but you begin to worry again about how you’ll reach him when you finally buy the train ticket.

Kwabena sees you off to the lift at Hamburg-Altona. You say goodbye. The RE 6 train to Sylt is on level one above. You are looking for the Hamburg-Altona train ticket office. The first German guy you ask is as cold as the November weather. The second does not speak English. The third is a is a Turk who sells food. He directs you in a fast sweep of incomprehensible English and quickly returns to his task. You barely understand what he said, and politely ask again, but he snaps at you in a “Have I not already told you?” sort of manner and returns to his task again. You start feeling like you are the epitome of the stranger-comes-to-town trope in many movies and stories. You feel an extreme dissonance which is not only lingual, but also cultural, and even racial: the sort of spatial disorientation pilots sometimes feel during a beleaguered flight.

You decide to solve your problem alone, so you walk along the patio flanked by small food kiosks and shops, trying to locate the ticket office by guessing the Turk’s directions. People in winter gear are flying past. Everybody in Europe is in such a hurry, but you take your time. You see a few black folks and give that Teju Cole’s black nod but they are flying by so fast you dare not interrupt them. You enter what you guess is the train ticket office. There is a short queue of five. Two men in slovenly industrial wear are talking. One of them passes bank notes through a glass space to the bank teller, who receives the cash and gives the client a piece of paper which you think is a receipt. It is your turn. You need a train ticket to Sylt. The bank teller stares at you through the glass, extremely stunned.

“I am a bank,” he says out loud, but in a manner that doesn’t really offend you. You feel so embarrassed and sweep the environs of the human bank with your eyes by turning your head around, almost 360 degrees, but even the writing on the wall is in German, which is all Greek to you!. It doesn’t stop you from imagining though, that perhaps this human bank swallows all the clients’ money to keep it safe, therefore the human bank is even more efficient than the Swiss banks. Perhaps the human bank only vomits the exact amount of money you need, when you tell him how much you need to withdraw, just like a Vegas magician.

A young boy next to you giggles and tells you where the train ticket office is. Before you turn to leave, he adds.

“Let me just show you.” He rises from his seat. “Let’s go.”

You thank him.

“Where are you from?”


“Where in Africa?”

You are impressed that this young, white boy knows that Africa is not a country.


“Cool. I am from Africa too.”

You quickly scrutinize his face. Oh, now he looks like a Maghrebian Arab. You were so lost and tired in the Hamburg-Altona cold that you just assumed he is German and white when he gave you directions.

“Where in Africa?”

“North Africa….Libya.”


“My name is Salah.”

“Oh, like Mohammed Salah?”

“No, no, no. That one is Mohammed Salah,” he pauses. “I am Salah Zater.”

You can tell that he has heard the annoying name comparison many times before. He can’t pronounce your name, even when you show him the spelling of your name on your passport, even when you repeat it a few more times.

You both enter the train ticket office. Salah bumps into his Syrian friend there and introduces you to him, as you hand Salah thirty one Euros: the price for a train ticket to Sylt. You both stand adjacent to Salah as he queues up for about fifteen minutes. You feel comfortable around them and chat for all that time as Salah moves ahead slowly; nothing about your countries, which are all in the media for the wrong reasons, but about Hamburg and what sometimes bonds citizens from developing countries in the West. Like him warming up to you at the bank because you are African like him. Finally, your train ticket is in your hands.

You ask Salah if you can borrow his phone to text Joachim your time of arrival. Sure. You are worried that Sada will have to go through all this when he arrives the next day, but you don’t know that Safurat has already bought Sada a train ticket from Hamburg-Altona to Sylt online and even given him more detailed information on how to navigate the trains to Sylt. You will even get a little pissed when Sada tells you later in Sylt that he had an easier time travelling to the island than you did, because of how thorough Safurat had been with her travel guidance.

You are hungry, so your two new friends take you to a restaurant across the street to eat non unctuous, non-spicy food you don’t know: a meal which doesn’t include dessert, but Salah and the Syrian have really been your oasis in the cold, Hamburg-Altona desert. You say it’s your first time out on the streets of Hamburg.


Your first time out in Europe.


Salah giggles in surprise.

“Really? You’ve never been to Europe before?” He laughs again and you’re thinking.

“Guy, isn’t it obvious? All the things I don’t know.”

“How does it feel?”

“Hamburg looked so pretty upon descent, and it looks even prettier up close now. But I’m so exhausted and worried about arriving in Sylt and not finding Joachim, that I don’t want to start forming any grand thoughts about Hamburg.”

Salah nods, and as if sensing your non-committal response, checks his phone again.

“Oh, your man just texted back. You’ll find him. Don’t worry.”

He shows you Joachim’s text. After you finish eating, your new Hamburg-Altona friends take you to an area on Platform 7 where your train will stop when it arrives. Finally, you hug them hearty goodbyes, thanking them again and again.

The oldest writer in the Cameroon Nigeria Literary Exchange project, a Cameroonian journalist, once wisecracked to you in Lagos, when your hosts arrived a little late to pick you up from the airport.

“When you are in trouble in a strange land, talk to a lady.”

However, the rapid progress in human relations you experienced with your new friends in a short time, in a desert as culturally estranged from you as Hamburg, which started from a chance encounter in front of a human bank, is the ultimate expression of a universal aspect of the human condition: we are all social beings, who can bond anywhere anytime, no matter our differences.

It is 11.10 AM. The train’s departure time is 11.40 AM. You walk around the patio and return to the area on Platform 7 where your friends had shown you around 11.25AM You count down the minutes to departure, but you still can’t see the RE 6 train, only the other trains on the other platforms. There is a train about two hundred metres straight down Platform 7 though. You begin to wonder if it might be the RE 6 train and ask someone. When he confirms, your heart skips out of your chest because it is 11.37 or so. You begin to charge towards it with your bags. Bull style. Germans are staring. You are a little frustrated that your friends did not show you the right spot on the platform, but you quickly beat the whiny thought away because they had gone out of their way to help you.

You make it anyway and place your bags in the overhead compartment. You don’t know that even if you missed that train, there’ll be another one every other hour; at 12.40, at 1.40, at 2.40, which you can board freely with that same ticket. All you had to do was wait another hour, borrow another phone and text Joachim. Instead, you had thought that once you missed that train, the whole ticket would be gone, just like with the commercial buses in Cameroon. You didn’t know that pulling an Usain Bolt in full German view when you were exhausted wasn’t necessary

You collapse on a seat next to a lady who is reading a novel in English and have a friendly chat with her about what she’s reading. The entire coach is lily-white: except for you, which makes you feel a weird kind of claustrophobia because it is the first time you’ve been in such an enclosed space with only White people. The train begins to move just moments after you embark. The lady reading the novel warms up to you when you tell her that you are a writer heading to Sylt for a writing residency.

You admire the countryside through your window. It is just stop after stop after stop. Nachster Halt: Elmshorn, Itzehoe, Heide, Lunden, Friedrichstadt, Husum, Bredstedt, Langenhorn, Niebull. Sometimes the train halts at an intersection for another train to pass. You see hundreds of windmills spinning lazily. You see small factories emitting whiffs of smoke. You see two black women working on a tomato farm. You see other farms where all kinds of vegetables grow. You see ranches on the flat landscape thriving with cattle, sheep and horses: the sights of a 190 km/hour train ride you will never enjoy on a metro – but you wish this slow train could move faster.

You ride over a lengthy viaduct: the view is like that from your plane window. It is a small village consisting of buildings with triangular roofs, a murky river and a small factory. The train returns to the surface once more. Nachster Halt: Klanxbull. Suddenly, the train track ahead becomes Moses and divides the North Sea into two with its metal rods. And just like the Israelites, you begin to move not across the Red sea but  the North Sea. Destination: the promised island of Sylt.

The sea borders a very narrow strip of land that flanks both sides of the train track. Fresh vegetables are in full bloom on the narrow strip. In the dead of winter, sea water along the edge of the green strip freezes and becomes an exquisite white sight: as if guarding the land reclaimed from the sea. Land engulfs water some more and after about ten minutes of train in the sea, you ride onto land. Sylt island. Nachster halt: Morsum. After a three-and-a-half hour train trip, you finally arrive in Westerland, the central settlement in Sylt. A German man is staring at the disembarking sea of passengers at the end of the platform.

“Joachim?” You say timidly. He nods and says welcome. Yes, you made it! You occupy the front seat of Joachim’s cozy Mercedes sports car as if you own it, admiring Sylt until you arrive at your furnished apartment in Sylt Quelle, Rantum Nod; the small village where you’ll live.

You had met three writers who told you a little about Sylt at Aké, after you were announced winner. They had all attended the Sylt residency too. One had said it is an island which is full of rich Germans, but it is a strange place. The other had told you to go with cash because many of the Sylt ATMs don’t accept foreign debit cards. He had told you a very complicated reason why, which you immediately forgot. The third had told you that you will not find any young, white women to date there because it has an aging population. Pray that you don’t go during the winter too, because it would be so cold and windy, and without a young woman by your side, you’re finished.

You had tried to picture what Sylt life would be like, but it seemed so different from what you knew that you could not summon a proper mental image of the island, nor island life. Even the googled images did not help, and you decided not to delve into the world of the travel guide. You told yourself that you will just experience Sylt when you arrive there.

In Joachim’s car, you are thinking that Sylt is an island stuck in time. It is a beautifully coloured sand heap. The soul-calming silence is so intense it is haunting. It is like there is no human life when there is human life. Linear settlements along roads, like an African village where everybody knows everybody. Sylt is a vintage island full of folksy buildings with steeply pitched thatched roofs, several dating to the 18th century; there’s no need for air conditioning. Sylt is swanky and lonely and gloomy and windy and weird. A guy from a rowdy economic capital city in Central Africa, thrust into a cave-quiet island in Germany for the first time. But the whole of Sylt feels like a residency island because it enhances the creation of mental islands on an island far away from the mainland.

Sada sends you a pick-up time message on Whatsapp the next day, which you relay to Joachim via email. You are thinking how this is not Cameroon, or Nigeria, where almost everyone you see is Black. This is white-lily land and he should get ready for it. So, you type a response which will make him send laugh emojis back. Prepare for whiteness!

**Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a Cameroonian writer with an MFA Writing from Texas State University San Marcos, where he teaches (College) writing. His works have been published widely and he contributed to the Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria anthology.




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