The river never forgets. It just pretends to. It will not forget us.

There were many signs that the plague was coming. Several nights during, I lived in my dreams, nightmarish scenes. Several times I found myself alone on the deck, my forehead dripping with large drops of sweat. Around me, nobody, not even my friends. For the adults of the city, we count for nothing, gringy, infectious children that we were.

I went back down to our lodge to see if the others were still on their beds. And there, I had the sudden company of three black butterflies. Immediately I remembered what the old man had told us about butterflies. Black butterflies, when they enter a house, announce misfortune. Black butterflies are the incarnation of the souls of dead people. These butterflies that repeatedly visit and sometimes enter rooms are the souls of familiar beings who remain very attached to these places or people they visit. Undoubtedly, in the dream, it was the souls of Kenan, Bola and the old man who visited me.

When we walked a long distance across the bridge, we came to the big crossroads. There, on the left, at the foot of a large uninhabited building was the old man, still sitting with a plastic bowl under his nose. This is his home, at the edge of the road.

Rumor has it that he has golden eyes. In fact, everyone wanted to take them out of his eyes or sell them to the traveling merchants. So he would hide them under his chest away from the prying eyes of passers-by who didn’t know him from these details. Some people claim that he is a reincarnated horseman. And that the evidence of this secret lurked in his eyes.

In the past, at the beginning of each Gaani[1], a rider whose eyes were gold opened the ceremony, under the harmonious blasts that the drums intoned and that the fanfares relayed in crescendo and emulsifying flow. Nowadays, we hear that dressed in white turban and cape with golden patterns, the rider, at the time, appeared in the center of the huge stage at the beginning of the feast, the pace brimming with elegance, his fan in hand. He would make his horse perform dance steps that were slow at first, then frenetic, and would end abruptly at the emperor’s toes, smiling candidly as he greeted him while his horse bowed and did rhythmic half-steps towards the exit. All of today’s riders got their skills from this first one, who was known at the time for his mysterious air and golden eyes. Rumor has it that the old man at the edge of this path is the reincarnated Wassangari rider of old.

It is said that he is worth billions in museums. So for some, he had golden eyes, for others, he was a reincarnated rider of Nikki or Ouénou. For us, however, he was none of these things. He was simply an old beggar and a friend. We had admired him up close. Apart from his peuhl appearance, he had neither golden eyes nor a rider’s face. Flies and foul smells were his first companions. We had come much later.


Another night I had the same nightmare. When I found myself on the deck in the nightmare, there was no one around, of course. But a thousand black butterflies were fluttering around me, reminiscent of snow falling from the sky. I knew from those days that misfortune was not only threatening our group, but the whole city. There had been another terrifying sign.

We had gone to the market at dawn and on our trek in search of food, we had come across a stall filled with a variety of yam that heralded misfortune. The one called Drouba yessirou. At first we screamed in fright, took our heads in our hands, then it was the turn of our legs that we hurried to take to the neck shouting “curse” at the top of our lungs, going as the old man had advised us to do when we met the variety of yam Drouba yessirou on the market. We ran full speed ahead, making a spectacle of ourselves to everyone. Everyone thought we were crazy. It was obvious. They couldn’t figure out what was happening to us. They were going to run away and warn their friends if they knew anything about it.

We had tried hard to be adept at facing any eventuality, because any misfortune that comes always smiles to see us at the front without weapons, without size and without stoutness. We had expected a curse, and what we got proved more disastrous than a curse, Covid-19. The old man does not lie.

If we no longer grieve today, it is because we had had time to use up all our tears. We had dried up our tear glands even before the plague came. Our days and nights were sadness and grief. And now that it is here, we spend our days learning to die rather than survive. For there is nothing left for us to stand on.

We didn’t know that the plague was going to deprive us of everything that made us live. We did not know that it would make our markets deserted, that it would deprive us of our beloved Klouikloui of Agonli and gari. We did not know that he would end the agô ceremonies and deprive us of our Wini-Wini, our Tillou and our meat and food leftovers that we would collect there. No more tabaski, no more yam festival and therefore no more pounded yam. No more ten-january feast under the grace of which we ate sankpiti[2] to satiety at least once a year. Even in the garbage cans behind the fence of the houses, we no longer find anything. No more passers-by and the old man’s bowl remains dry, thirsty for a piece all day long. And even no atmosphere. The plague has muzzled our Assan. It has extinguished the melody of our Agbadjakpu that we loved to listen to when the gankéké[3] launch the Assogue[4], Kpézen and Gidigbo preparing the scene for the Gangan that comes to set the rhythm on fire and incite the steps to wriggle and the hips to swirl and sway. No more Agbadja[5], no more Tchenkumen and Akonhoun. No more exit of Egùngùn who entertained us, and no more his prayers which protected us.

This morning, everyone had woken up well. Nobody was dead. Not yet, at least. So far, so good. We had gotten up and gone on deck to meet the sun and experience its majestic rise. But it wasn’t there. This morning too, it had not risen from its bed. The atmosphere remained grey, gloomy and calm. Nevertheless, we thought we were experiencing the feverish awakening of the city. The city, too, had given no sign of life. It should be rotting on its bed.


The main avenue of the city, which used to be muffled for several hours, especially on weekends, was surprisingly quiet. Barely an ambulance vehicle passed by and shouted its loneliness as it went. The world seemed to be waking up from a massacre. Not a sound. Cemetery silence. Breaths of mortuary wind. We would think we were the only ones left on earth.

We had thought that the plague had ravaged all life and forgotten us as always. Everything forgets us. Graces forget us, luck forgets us, the joy of life, our creator too. And misfortunes should also forget us. But alas. That is what everything leads us to believe. Only disgrace, misfortune and the ups and downs of the world watch over our souls as street children.

Toundé remained in the memories of the night. He snored in comfort leaning against one of the bridge posts. Above our heads, the concrete roof, the bridge itself. Beside us, the big river. To avoid falling at night and getting lost in the river, we had barricaded this side with long planks that we had found in the vicinity of the big market. We had adjusted the boards against the iron bars of the bridge, which extended and became somewhat stuck in the river. To get on the bridge, the concrete roof, we climbed the iron bars in turn.

Bola was no longer there. Every morning he tried to wake up before dawn. Then he would run through the city. Every morning and evening he would run ten miles around.

Just like Bola, we all have a big dream. The old man says that our big dreams should be called escapes for children of our category. We don’t have a dream, we are looking for loopholes to change our lives as street children with a bang. Since we don’t know magic, we work hard every day to invent the miracle with our hands.

Imagine that one day, during the Olympic Games, Bola wins the gold medal or several million francs by representing his country. That’s what it means to change one’s life with a single shot. This is inventing the miracle of the work of his hands. We don’t have to rely on anyone. At least we won’t be begging for our lives.

At Toundé’s feet lies Kenan. For hours he had been trying out the notes of his Kora. This Kora, he had made it himself. He had made it from a medium-sized wood, a large dried calabash tree, with fairly long tips, and to make the notes vary, he had used several kinds of thread. Elastic wires, thin metal cables, strong cotton wires… His big dream is to win a big music prize.

The more of us who are looking for a big prize, the more chances we have. If it was Bola who won a big prize, we would have nothing to fear. We agreed that we would share it equally. That we would live as a family, the four of us in a skyscraper, each with his own apartment and wife. If it was Kenan or Toundé who won a big prize, it would be the same.

Toundé enjoys a career as a boxer. He trains every night and falls asleep exhausted. I am a portrait painter. Since the crisis has subjugated the city, the market is no longer animated and therefore, it is the calvary here.

From his last moments of life, Kenan had chosen to play his Kora. What notes of mourning; sad and distressing. Bola had convinced himself that running fifteen kilometers would help his immune system to fight effectively against the virus as the old man had taught us. So he left earlier this morning. He had run all day.

In the evening, we met under the bridge. Everyone went for a swim in the river to refresh their bodies. We hoped that the night would be peaceful. But alas. Kenan and Bola had not stopped sneezing and coughing. They were the only ones who had touched and sniffed the bills. What would happen to our group without the old man, without Bola and Kenan? Tomorrow is a big day. We will go in search of a cure. Either this cure, we will invent it with our own hands.

Early in the morning, we had gone to inquire about the old man’s condition. In addition to the fever, he was suffering from a strange panting. Toundé and I had gone to request the ambulance vehicle. We hoped to pass him on the way to the big hospital. We had walked a long distance. We had spent the whole day walking around the city. We didn’t see anyone. Not an ambulance vehicle, not a motorcycle. A few steps away from the health center, the police had sent us running.

Days earlier, we had heard cries of “lockdown” and that the police would storm the streets to punish the recalcitrant. We had turned around in a hurry. It was completely evening. When we arrived at the place where we had left them in the morning, they were gone. Where had they gone? Had the ambulances come for them?

We had gone to our usual place: under the bridge. They were there. The old man had remained sprawled out on the edge of the bridge. He had not gone down with the others. He had not been able to. He had no strength left in his muscles.

Bola and Kenan reported to us when we returned that the police had come to order them to leave. They didn’t want to know. Without regard for anything, they drew their belts and went after us.

That night, the old man had decided to spend the night on the bridge. Long before, he had prescribed that Bola and Kenan drink their urine very often. He said that we don’t know the use of drinking urine. That for people in our condition, it was the only promising remedy.

In fact, when we bathed tonight, we drank a lot of water from the river. We promised ourselves that we would wake up at night and urinate into bowls so that we would have enough urine to drink in the morning.

The next day, early in the morning, we quickly went up to the bridge to say hello to the old man. But he didn’t answer. We kicked his feet, but nothing seemed to hurt him. Was he dead?

As if by a miracle, the ambulance’s siren announced itself from afar. The vehicle was about to pass over the bridge. Toundé and I hurriedly positioned ourselves in the middle of the bridge and swung our arms, shouting SOS at the top of our voices. When the vehicle arrived at our position, it almost ran us over. It had not stopped. He had shamelessly driven away.

The old man was gone. The last spirit of the sahel. The extralucid being. We had rolled his body and thrown it into the river.

Two days after his death, we never tired of drinking our urine. Only Bola’s health had deteriorated.

He hardly ate and rarely slept. His face and his whole body were emaciated. He lived day and night with chronic fevers. Sometimes he screams as if something in the invisible world of the living terrifies him without our knowledge. Perhaps he saw death. To see death, you have to be at its doorstep. And Bola should already be in his living room. And since death is horrified to take a child’s breath away, he prefers playing with him. He does not want to go on a rampage. He prefers to go gently to avoid the trauma that the experience of dying would bring to the little child that was Bola.

One morning, Bola did not wake up. We hit him hard. Not even a breath. We will wait two days. On the second day, if he still didn’t wake up, we’ll throw his corpse into the river. We, if in the future we feel sick, if our throats itch, we will quickly throw ourselves into the river. We will throw ourselves into the river for fear of having no one to throw us in when the time comes. For that is how we bury ourselves when we die. The river is our museum. It will keep forever the trace of our passage. It will not forget the old man, the one whose eyes turn to sunlight at each dawn to predict the future and his fate. The river will not forget the old man. It will not forget us. It never forgets.

We prayed. We prayed a lot for a miracle to come and save us. We prayed without knowing if the miracles have ears to listen to the prayers. And if the prayers of the weaklings that we were would not repulse them too. We prayed without knowing if miracles really exist or not. And one evening, a mysterious phenomenon.

The sun had set. The sleepy streets were bathed in an indolent gloom. The whole horizon painted in night. Bola in agony or perhaps dead for a while sprawled under the bridge.

Toundé coughed incessantly at my side.

– We had to drink the river water in order to prepare our urine for the night, he said, coughing. That was the plan. We started to go down from the bridge when suddenly, a golden glow came over us. Terrified, we stretched our necks and looked over our shoulders. It was the river. Its surface became as if glowing or fluorescing. The sun seemed to be rising below. An orange glow, pervasive. Molten gold, it seemed. Molten gold covered its entire surface.

– Let’s go take a closer look,” suggested Toundé.

– No, I refused. It could be too dangerous.

– Dangerous? We’ve been living in danger for days. And believe me, we’re already dead, it’s just a matter of time.

He was right. But has the river we have always known become so strange? Should we rush into it then? Toundé had not waited for me. He hadn’t even thought about it. Maybe he didn’t want to die in one of the most horrifying ways and finally found the most relieving way. But I. I didn’t want to die yet. He had already gone down. He had already come closer. He had put his hand in the water.

– Come on! It’s not hot. The water is very cold and my hand is covered with fluorescent gold oil. You should come and see.

Resolved, I went down too. Toundé had already jumped into the course of the luminous river. When I was close by, I did the same. We were swimming in it and when Toundé looked me in the eyes, his face shining as if there was a street lamp underneath.

He had decided to go back up. It was to look for Bola. He would throw him into the river while I would fish him out immediately.

Everything went well. He had thrown him in. And I fished him out. Bola was still unconscious. We rinsed his body with the mysterious water. We bathed until late at night. It was time for us to go back up. It was not easy to bring Bola up, so we spread him out on a dry surface set back from the river. Our bodys shine for a while.

Then, the next day, we received evidence that the miracle had ears to hear prayers and that, in addition, it adored us street children regardless of our condition. Maybe it was the miracle, but it was the old man.

When we woke up, there was no longer a bright river but, astonishingly, the resurrected Bola was bathing in the river with all his ardor early that morning. Toundé had also regained his perfect health. We were all healed. The sign of the luminous river was the old man. We then realized that he did not really exist, that he was only a ghost. The ghost of the knight whose eyes are made of gold. He had certainly found a way to hide his golden eyes from us when he was watching over us. The one whose exploits have been sung for generations. In this time when the world is falling apart, we thought we had no one to protect us. We were never alone. From the world of the unseen, our children’s souls are watched over.

[1] Annual traditional festival

[2] Beninese speciality

[3] Musical instrument

[4] Musical instrument

[5] Ethnic dance of rejoicing