African Library: The Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

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Kossi Efoui: The Shadow of Things to Come (2011)

Kossi Efoui is a prize-winning Togolese writer (in French), best known throughout the French reading regions as a playwright. He is also described as a chronicler for his essays on African as well as wider events – political and other. He is a seasoned novelist: The shadow of things to come is his fourth novel. Published, like most of his writing, in France (where he was forced to flee as a result of political activism against the severely repressive Togolese regime of Gnassingbé Eyadéma), the novel was translated into English in 2013. Efoui was born in Anfoin, Togo, in 1962, obtaining his philosophy master’s degree at the University of Lomé in that country, which he left at the age of 28. Nowadays he lives in Nantes (France). Efoui is a prolific writer: the author of 12 plays and several collections of stories besides four novels as mentioned above; his journalism appears most often in the prestigious publication Jeune Afrique. Although he favours a surrealist style, most of his novels mirror his country of birth – where the socio-political reality is perhaps itself felt to be surreal or phantasmagoric. The shadow of things to come was translated by Chris Turner.

One of Africa’s smallest countries, Togo is in West Africa and consists of a relatively narrow strip of land lying between Ghana to its west and Benin (and Nigeria, beyond it) to its east. It reaches from its northern border with Burkina Faso to the Atlantic coast (the Gulf of Guinea), where the capital city Lomè is situated. It is one of the countries that have been described as illustrating the African paradox, since its politically repressive practices are as discernible as its (relative, if thinly spread) economic prosperity. The text makes much of the discovery and marketing of oil in the country (not so named in the narrative); the mundane substance fetishised by being referred to, always in hushed tones, as “‘the commodity’” (3). The narrative illustrates what analysts call “the resource curse”, since in the society evoked, as in so many African countries, a local but internationally sought-after resource does not bring prosperity to the nation; the profits get swallowed up by corrupt leaders and their cronies, while local productivity declines as the economy gets centred on extraction of the single resource – frequently resulting in ecological devastation and with merely the extractive processes involved for the African society – most of the profits being enjoyed by the “first-world” multinationals that market and sell the commodity, or refine and develop it in their own countries.

The shadow of things to come can also be read as a text that demonstrates the forces propelling millions of African refugees from their countries of birth to other parts of the world – taking hugely risky journeys and facing uncertain and usually precarious futures elsewhere in societies where they and their cultures remain unknown oddities; forced into “disguised” lives.

The text’s narrator is never named, but is often referred to as “the speaker”, probably because by the end of the text (both an autobiography and a socio-political analysis of his country’s recent history) he has been forced twice to change his name. Yet the narrative as a whole can be seen as a fierce outcry against the “erasure” of individuals, their unique identities and their voices, and of the crimes committed by the repressive regime forcing these erasures on a mostly cowed population to ensure its own survival.

The narrative tone is generally deeply sarcastic; a sarcasm that pervades the account in order to half contain and half reveal an almost overwhelmingly powerful fury as well as profound grief and sorrow at the losses of some of life’s most necessary and valuable psychic resources – as happens within the kind of system exemplified by the society in which he and his compatriots struggle to survive.

The most severe loss the system causes in the narrator’s personal life is that of his father, who is taken away during a period euphemistically dubbed “the Time of Annexation” or “the Times of Dispersal” (7). When citizens are arrested a particular, sinister mantra is repeated over and over by the arresting officers; they say (to their captive): “On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest” (7). Because hardly anyone knows why they are arrested and taken away to the huge forced-labour camp known as “the Plantation” (9) – a name quite obviously intended to recall slavery systems in the Americas – the arbitrariness of these detentions becomes the topic of wry, bitter jokes, such as the following:

… the story of three men together in the prison cell. The first says, “I got twenty years for telling a joke.” The second says, “I got fifteen years for laughing.” The third says, “I got ten years for doing nothing.” “You’re lying,” say the other two, “doing nothing – that’s only a five-year stretch.” (14)

The narrator, even though he was not yet five years old at the time, vividly recalls the occasion of his father’s arrest. This was during a time of “curfews, road-blocks and more road-blocks, houses being plundered, people becoming scarcer, life becoming cheaper and […] family and friends disappearing” (7). When he thinks back, the narrator states:

[T]he only thing I see, is a corner and a man disappearing round it, a man who looks like my father, thirty years old at the time and already a shadow moving off into the distance, framed by two other shadows, the one on the right walking a little way apart, at a good distance from the big case in which he’s carrying his saxophone, the shadow on the left sticking tight to him, one hand loosely gripping his elbow – courteously, it would seem – as though he were guiding him in the dark. (11)

For the little boy then and the grown-up son now, the “insult remains: a hand. The sensation in my hair […] of a hand that I [did not] recognize” (11) – evidently, a profoundly false gesture of benign intent when one of the men who took his father away ruffled the boy’s hair. His mother loses her mind as a result of this extreme and arbitrarily cruel arrest. “For a long time, defeated, damaged words poured from” her mouth as she “called on assistance from a medical operation to transform her into a bird” (12). As a result of her insanity, she, too, is taken away from the boy and transferred from one “rest home” to another. She is blotted out from life, merged into the vast number of the “mortality figures” for this period, within which her name and identity and her eventual fate are irrecoverably “submerged” (12).

In contrast with some of the other children of “lost” parents, the boy never forgets or stops loving his father and mother. We are told of one boy in particular who, “forcibly adopted [like some others] by distinguished high-society couples in need of new playthings [or …] placed in special institutions” and “taught” to “hate their parents” (12–3), could coolly respond to his uncle’s pointing out that his parents were guiltless by saying: “Does one ever know?” (13). The narrator was already nine when, during the period taught in schools as “The End of the Annexation” (17), his father came back – a half dead man, carrying his empty saxophone case, unable to utter a word and remaining mute until the time of his death. The required photograph recording this return depicts the worried little boy that the narrator was on this occasion; deeply troubled by his father’s psychic absence even as his emaciated body was palpably “there”. Another boy among the abandoned and orphaned band of children with whom the speaker had been living, a slightly older youngster named Ikko, had added himself to the photo, which persuaded the census taker that he, too, was the mute adult’s son. Thus the narrator acquired a brother. Their father was allotted a state house (one among thousands) and a monthly stipend or “pension”.

During the period between his fifth and ninth years, when the narrator found himself alone in the world, he joined up with many other abandoned or orphaned children who had found a voluntary, unpaid care-giver in a woman they nicknamed Mama Maize – the nickname indicating both her nurturing nature and the cheap but sustaining food with which she managed to keep her charges fed, if necessary by “entertaining” the odd man by prostitution. For this practice, and despite its profoundly laudable purpose, she and many other women were publicly humiliated and horrifically tortured by being strung up and flogged to a point of flaying, if denounced and caught. Mama Maize fortunately took timeous warning and escaped to safety, going into hiding for several years. After about a fortnight the beatings were officially declared excessive and shameful and made to stop, but the speaker makes quite clear how cleverly the regime had deflected criticism of itself on to (firstly) the women accused of “inappropriate frequentations” (xx) and then on to the zealous punishers of the same women, making the latter guilty of the conduct the government had itself initiated. Even more sneeringly the narrator reveals that the public floggings had to stop when the wives of famous heroes of the “revolution” began to be fingered for sexual shenanigans.

Parenthood, loss of parents and substitute parental figures play a central role in this narrative. While Mama Maize is clearly a surrogate mother in her warmth and comforting generosity towards some of the “lost” children whose condition results from the state’s brutal practices in breaking up families, the other parental figures in the boy’s and later youth’s life are presented as, or become, “additional” fathers to the irreplaceable and irretrievable actual father who remains forever lost to the speaker even after he comes back from “the Plantation”. During the years that they spend with Mama Maize, the 20 or so children in the group to whom she gives shelter are taught how to keep low profiles and how to survive on very little. This endurance skill the speaker refers to as “the art […] of ridding oneself of certain needs, the better to stay alive”.

But Mama Maize’s teachings have another side to them, which one could “translate” as the “trick” of keeping hope alive in the heart – this is learnt from Mama Maize’s mantra or “talismanic phrase”: “No-one’s immune from miracles” (18). This is how what the speaker refers to as “a childhood that wasn’t without its troubles” (20) became endurable and even occasionally enjoyable, even though he never learnt or understood the word “celebration” before the occasion when fireworks – which a still war-terrified population initially mistook for a resumption of gunfire – were used to mark the cessation of formal hostilities. The speaker’s two best friends among Mama Maize’s charges were the bigger boy named Ikko, who would become the narrator’s official “brother”, and a girl named Abdi. Abdi had been found behind the house they stayed in “in a lifeless heap” and with a badly mangled right foot. Mama Maize nursed this girl back to relative health, to the extent that she was able to walk again, though always with a slight limp; and we learn, too, that Abdi almost never smiled. Ikko’s mother gave birth to this boy under certain circumstances that made him one of a group branded with the name “children of a thousand”, so named because their mothers had been made “pregnant by enemy soldiers” (25). Such women were ostracised and these children usually killed by the women’s families, a fate that Ikko – and his mother – escaped by her giving the child into Mama Maize’s care and making her own escape from the region. What the above details combine to indicate is that, as in all tyrannies, the system lasts not only through ruthless force on the part of the tyrant, but because the general population adopts or maintains cruel practices by means of which some earn safety or privileges by scapegoating others.

Given the condition in which he comes back, the father’s return has a disquieting effect on the text’s speaker despite the exuberant joy with which Ikko announces the event to him. For Ikko, it is enough that this man validly carries the “title” of “father” and so deep is his presence in Ikko’s psyche (since he himself is the son of an uncaring as well as absent man – absent since before his own birth) that his presence in however broken a condition is sufficient. The lucky “accident” of Ikko later on being taken for an older son of the mute adult merely confirms bureaucratically what is an instinctive psychic affiliation with the narrator’s father on Ikko’s part. In the speaker’s first glimpse of his returned father, the man standing there so precariously is seen as “a human apparition” and as “a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing – and voiceless” (28). The narrator is awarded a bursary to allow him into the country’s most prestigious schools with an intake of only 25 pupils a year. This is partly because of his excellent marks, even though he suspects that the case of his father’s grossly unjust incarceration probably played a role in the award as yet another form of “compensation”. The speaker’s father is so lonely that he takes up with a group of soaks who “take him in” because he allows them to use his money to buy themselves booze. They even turn up at the speaker’s snobbish school one day, an occurrence on which the speaker (having surmised that his father’s perpetually thirsty “friends” had blackmailed him) comments as follows:

I was finding excuses for him that had a horrific underside to them, but they were excuses, so that he’d remain beyond reproach in the story which was beginning to spread and which I kept overhearing in the schoolyard, to the effect that there was a child in the school who was being bullied into giving my father money, and that I was that child – I who found every possible excuse for a man who had so little existence that it was impossible to blame him for anything. (42)

Efoui uses the name of one of his own plays, translated here as As a child I didn’t make up stories (54; see 122, footnote) and given a fake author, to title a “novel” that the speaker comes across in his obsessive search for information to find out more about his unspeaking father. He concentrates on books about “the Plantation”; this particular text stands out because it conveys the information that the penal colony had its own brass band that performed at certain prison events and parties for the top brass. Immediately he thinks of the tenor saxophone which his father carried off with him into imprisonment, but which did not come back with him, though he still carried the now empty case for the instrument when he returned. In no other records than the abovementioned text can further information about the prison band be found, but in it he reads that the band members were disliked and resented by the other prisoners, who suspected that they thought themselves a cut above their fellows through being allowed to smell the party food (especially meat and fish) and sometimes even taste the leftovers. In the “novel” a conversation in which an unnamed musician is badgered by one of the other (resentful) prisoners is reported. In it, the musician initially appears to remain quite imperturbable, making no reply to the hostile questions put to him. At last the musician responds – and one can see why the narrator believes that the words are those of his own now mute father. He states that he has no idea, any more than the other prisoners, why he is kept in “the Plantation” and all his acts, too, are controlled. But one act remains utterly free, he says, and that is “playing the right note” (56). The anecdote is simultaneously profoundly moving and impressive and deeply horrifying.

What begins to show through here is that this man was imprisoned for years in horrifying conditions; that he was arbitrarily torn from his family and permanently traumatised because the prison officials required a tenor saxophone player for their band. When he dies he is given the cheapest kind of “state” funeral and described (in a title-obsessed community) merely as “a Worthy Member of the Community” (58). During the period of his mute presence, the narrator says, he kept a constant vigil to try to catch even one word uttered by his father. But he never spoke; not even in his sleep. One day, however, he followed his father when the latter went off on a solitary outing to a formerly lovely but now ecologically devastated area. Here, a former beautiful river supporting rich birdlife and lush vegetation had become a stinking, sluggish, tarry and muddy type of lava in which birds, hoping for a drink of water, got trapped and died in this pollution. His father rescued one particular bird from the sludge and, in an abandoned cabin (with the speaker spying through the keyhole), proceeded to clean its feathers one by one. Another time, he says, he found his father and a bird – whether the same, or another – singing in beautifully, in duet; he is convinced that this was some kind of reunion between his dead mother and his absent-spirited father, both destroyed by the regime, but with a love so vital and deep that it could bring them together again after all. He says:

And I who had learnt to read people’s hidden intentions in the creases of their face, could read that my father’s was transfigured by invisible constellations, by that unassailable pride you can suddenly see in trance ceremonies in the eyes of people ordinarily regarded as lowly, people generally habituated in daily life to the humility of their condition, habituated to lowering their eyes before everybody and everything that shows airs of grandeur – proletarianized peasants in the cities or servants submissive in their work and sexually compliant – who, in a trance state, gather their faces into fixed images, into gazes that are literally held out to the assembled company as a worthy offering, with that assured noble bearing that no Sun King in all his glory ever transmitted to a painter. (67)

A passage such as this one exemplifies the author’s rare ability to write in a way that combines a spiritual, idealistic quality of vision with social realism and political insight – especially if we take into consideration the contrast drawn by the narrator between his father’s transfigured countenance (evoked above) and what he calls his father’s “Friday face” (68). By this phrase he refers to the impassive expression with which his father steeled himself to endure the no doubt torturing occasions, occurring every Friday, when every surviving former inmate of “the Plantation” was forced by government decree to attend a type of debriefing session called (in another dreadful euphemism) “the Discussion Circle” (69) to speak about, or (in his father’s case) listen to descriptions of, what had happened in that camp.

The speaker’s father being a dysfunctional parent, the regime accords the youth an official “mentor” (69), who is also the community doctor. This sinister figure treats the narrator for his insomnia and the father with regular injections of some kind – whether to keep the broken man alive or to prolong and preserve his silence, we do not know.

This “mentor” in all the eeriness of his regime-speak is the “official” father substitute who contrasts with the actual mentor the boy found for himself at age 16, while he was at the boarding school. Whenever the youth raises the point with the mentor that his father suffers terribly because of his pointless (given his muteness) but required attendance at the Friday ex-Plantation memory sessions, the man murmurs another of the creepy phrases that betray their propagandist function in the terminology: “We have to bring the law to bear, I’m sure there are ways to bring the law to bear. Not to despair” (71). (The final sentence seems like a parody of Mama Maize’s encouraging reminder to the abandoned children that miracles can happen at any time.)

The mentor was formerly known as a “life guide” (69), but he functions evidently merely ideologically and as a type of household spy for the ruling establishment. Though seemingly in awe of, and apparently with no distrust in, this awful person, the narrator cleverly pretends to play along with him. He discerns how dangerous the man is when he discovers that it is he who had denounced Mama Maize as having practised prostitution; also when the “mentor” forbids Mama Maize from letting the narrator visit her after her return from the time spent in hiding from her persecutors.

The narrator receives his call-up papers when he turns 21 – shortly before the evening on which, about to flee the country, he begins his narrative. The “mentor” pretends to the narrator to have ensured – using his ill-gotten influence – that he will not have to take part in actual combat, but will be placed in a “safe” zone. Without giving anything away, the narrator turns to his true mentor, who arranges (at great risk to himself) both for the speaker’s escape from military duty and for his safety (by leaving the country) from arrest and punishment for disobeying the call-up order.

The context of the call-up is that even though the regime refuses to acknowledge the existence of armed insurgency and resistance to its power, there are combat zones. No one is allowed even to mention them, let alone to use the word “war”, and the mentor is utterly furious and horrified when the speaker lets the word slip into their last conversation. His response is evoked in the following brilliantly satirical passage:

But all the same, the war belongs to the Time of Annexation, and the war is over because the Annexation has come to an end. Didn’t the heroes of the Liberation parade in the streets? Haven’t the armies of Occupation left, taking the reviled word “war” with them? Isn’t it incongruous to speak of war for an operation that bears the name Frontier Challenge, the aim of which is to contain populations that are not rebellious but restive; populations who, through an atavistic, emotional attachment to the forest, are resistant to the advance of mineral prospecting, a source of communal good fortune to which they are visibly opposed? Just as they are opposed to communal honours and the beneficial spin-offs from the “commodity”, since they are ready to obstruct the work of modernization that is underway, the penetration of the forest by the modern spirit and the engines of science. But, honestly, isn’t it the case that they obstruct these things out of an emotional, atavistic, infantile attachment to the spirits of the forest; isn’t it disgraceful to kill our defenceless engineers for an emotive cause? Honestly. (81)

As the above passage shows, Efoui recognises the combination of human and ecological violation practised by the tyrannical regime, and catches this up in the violation of language which emerges in the double-speak of ideological dishonesty.

The narrator has all but “personal” experience of what is at stake in this combat against the forest people and in being obliged to go to battle with them. Ikko, the speaker’s adoptive brother, had been so emotionally dependent on their father that when he died, he “went off the rails” and behaved in socially delinquent ways. It was “a burst of pain” that caused the misbehaviour, the speaker says, noting that Ikko was “seized by an obsessive quarrelsomeness that led him from one brawl to another, as though he were randomly seeking someone who could grant him redress” (87) – a futile search in a society built on injustice. When Ikko is eventually sent to prison for an aggressive act that nearly causes another man’s death, the speaker’s “mentor” arranges for the youth to be sent to the unacknowledged combat zone instead. What he experiences during his stint of military duty deep in the forest causes him to empathise with and respect the mysterious forest dwellers, even though he never actually meets any of them. Earlier on, the narrator had written as follows about these people: “We know they had already demoralized the Annexation Forces for a century [and then] they had demoralized the census enumerators and the administrative officers for communal property” (82). The attempts to encircle and besiege groups of forest dwellers, maroon them on hilltops and starve them into submission, net only a handful of people and never the able-bodied, elusive youths.

When Ikko returns home from his military service he starts writing strange graffiti on the city walls. He is charged for what is termed “aesthetic sabotage” and ordered to appear before the Behavioural Council. The speaker attends the hearing with and in support of Ikko. Asked to interpret the strange symbols he has drawn on city walls, Ikko describes this as writing, which he proceeds to read out. When Ikko mentions “combat” and “war” in his reading, and makes clear that the state’s campaign of containment and repression of the forest people is both an abject failure and fundamentally unjust, he is sent to one of the government’s sinister “rehabilitation” centres. The narrator visits him there and reports (when his official “mentor” questions him about his adoptive brother) that Ikko is continuing to write/draw his strange symbols; in other words, the “rehabilitation” is simply not working. Before he leaves, the speaker secretly visits Mama Maize and tells her where Ikko is being held so that she, Ikko’s foster mother after all, can go and visit him there after the speaker’s departure from the country.

Perhaps the only heroic figure in the text is the true mentor that the narrator, as an adolescent schoolboy, had found for himself. His name is symbolic: his first name, Axis, indicates his pivotal role, and his foreign surname, Kemal, indicates his outsider status – he is the elder son of an Egyptian businessman whose family had built up a fortune in the speaker’s country. Axis is estranged from this father who, when he discovers that all his family’s possessions are being confiscated by the new regime, precipitously leaves the country. Axis, in the meantime, had joined the liberation forces. He, too, had spent about a year in “the Plantation” – something the speaker learns only just before his own secret departure. Axis had been rescued from captivity by the mysterious group of islanders known as the “crocodile men”: people who seem akin in spirit to the forest folk. They are people who fully, even bodily, share their island space with actual crocodiles. They are also intrepid sailors, the only navigators able to breach the coastal waters to row and sail escaping locals to safer shores. The narrator had got to know him first as the owner of an unusual bookshop to which he had given the name Antique Editions – not because the texts that he (Axis) sold were collector’s items for antiquarians, but because they were simply very old and had been the property of many previous owners. Axis is widely and deeply read and he is the schoolboy speaker’s real educator, in contrast with his schoolteachers and the official so-called mentor. He teaches him in unusual ways, for example, explaining how he lost the “Judaeo-Protestant” faith to which he had once adhered. It was, he says, because he read so avidly, perusing the Bible, too, in its entirety, only to discover (to his personal dismay) that “the god of the Bible” is never once described as laughing (47), and saying that such a god is unimaginable to him.

Axis protects himself from persecution by secretly supplying certain “herbal remedies” to powerful men in the regime and by helping those so inclined to hook up with the beautiful, cross-dressing young men of many professions to whom he is a patron and protector – for the society is, of course, as sexually as it is politically and culturally-intellectually repressive.

With all his diverse contacts and skills and his wide experience, he is the one man the speaker can turn to when he receives the terrifying call-up papers.

At first, Axis Kemal seems worryingly unmoved by the narrator’s plight:

He made no gesture, none of those spontaneous gestures I might expect on grounds of sentiment – taking me into his arms or putting his arm round my shoulder – the spontaneous gesture anyone, whatever his culture or religion, would be entitled to expect on grounds of sentiment. And then, in the end, he got up. He turned his back on me for a long while. […] [A]nd I, who learnt in my earliest childhood to decipher the depths of anyone’s thinking from their face, saw for the first time that what I took for a lack of compassion was the therapeutic distance of the physician, who eschews sentiment when it’s his knowledge that’s in play. That face which says: “I have my resources.” (97)

The narrator learns on this occasion that “with the help of certain former resistance fighters”, Axis Kemal had renewed contact with the crocodile men who had made possible his own escape (from the Plantation). He had done so when the so-called Frontier Challenge was reintroduced and resulted in the call-up of young men to military service in an unsavoury cause. Asked why he had done so, Kemal replies enigmatically that that was his own way of “freaking out” (100) as a war veteran.

At this point, the narrative returns us to where it began, in the text’s opening pages, where the speaker waits in a darkened room; the last in a series of such unknown houses where strangers gave him shelter on condition of anonymity. He knows that a coded knock on the door will mean that he is to be taken to the crocodile men to attempt his final escape from his homeland by risking the dangerous coastal route. If the knock is not the rhythmic four raps he was instructed to await, but with a peremptory rapping he would know that his attempted escape had been detected and that he had been tracked down to be arrested and severely punished. There is only one final loophole; he might jump through a back window and find the hidden hole under the fence of the yard that might lead to his making a getaway, but this is a slim chance. In the end, after he has divested himself of every possible extraneous piece of luggage, such as the one book, one extra pair of trousers and one spare shirt which he had meant to take (to make as much room as possible for food and drink – provisions for the journey of escape), the life-saving four knocks are heard.

We realise at this point that the narrative we have been reading was either merely thought, or perhaps quietly spoken to himself by the narrator. If actually written, it may have been recorded on the pages torn out of notebooks and bunt to cover his traces before he leaves. More poignantly, it suggests that this complex autobiographical narrative will be erased, along with the narrator’s name, as he makes his way into a strange country where no one will understand the terrible circumstances of his home society; his deepest feelings will have no resonance and he will, in any case, for his own protection and the safety of those assisting him and facilitating his escape, be obliged to keep all these experiences secret. He is becoming one of the world’s millions of refugees; those “sans papières” as the French say so resonantly, an expression whose full poignancy becomes more evident if we think of papers as being more than passports, visas or inoculation vouchers, but the personal histories of individuals and the erased cultural histories of whole population groups.

The narrative ends, however, with the following echoing phrase of Axis Kemal’s in the narrator’s mind: “According to an old legend, when you are searching for a treasure, you have to do so in darkest night, and that treasure is your own life” (74 and elsewhere). Had he been found by the police or the military, the speaker would have been sent to a camp named the Centre for Civic and Spiritual Education bearing (like another, more notorious camp set up by yet another murderous regime) the following inscription over its entrance: “WORK HEALS” (138).

The closing pages evoke another and freer type of work: the courageous rescuing exertions of the untameable, exuberant “crocodile men” who will “force the bucking waves to accept the presence of our boat, and we’ll have set out on the road that will take us from the night that’s ending to another one that’s just beginning” (145).

The shadow of things to come is a brief text that packs a mighty punch: it is a finely written and vividly imagined narrative, many of whose details I have not even mentioned in this profile: a grim, brilliant, spell-binding work.

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