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close this bookThe Courier N 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the document“The Basin”: prize-winner of the Short Story Competition
View the document18th Century life in the West Indies: the life and works of Agostino Brunias

“The Basin”: prize-winner of the Short Story Competition

by Getachew Gebrewold AYELE

As indicated in the editorial in our July issue, the winners of the ACP-EEC Cultural Foundation/The Courier “ Short Story Competition were chosen by two panels of distinguished judges (see box), one for each language group.

For the English-language stories, their choice was “ The Basin “, by Getachew Gebrewold Ayele of Ethiopia, who, the Jury commented, “had created, with humour and economy and in a highly individual voice, an anarchic picture of family life”. The winning entry is published here in its original version and will be published in translation in the next francophone edition of the magazine. For the stories in French, the prize goes to “Comme un message de Dieu” by M’Bamakan Soucko Bathily, of Mali. Her winning entry is published in our French edition and will appear in translation in The Courier’s next English-language edition.

Here, with our congratulations and with those of the ACP-EEC Cultural Foundation, is the prize-winning entry in English (unedited).

It was Saturday night, so the people in the nearby tej bet were busy drinking, and with a free day ahead of my uncle, he joined them too. He came home dead-drunk round the middle of the night.

“Are... you... asleep... Zawdu?” he said as soon as he entered the room. I knew he was drunk, and I kept quiet. I could see him through the holes in my blanket. He was sitting on his bed, when he called again, “Zawdu... I am calling you troy!” Then he yelled, “Zawdu”! I had to respond to that.

I pretended I was asleep, “Aaa... Aaa... Uhu... uu” and yawning I replied, “What... is... it?”.

“ Bring me that basin, boy! “ I knew it at once. He was going to vomit. He was like that occasionally when he was boozed up. He added, “I have to take it out, I don’t feel alright inside”.

“Oh God!” I said to myself. I got out of my bed and fetched him the basin.

I did not remain beside him. Just before he inserted his finger in his mouth, I hopped into my bed again. I covered my face not to view or smell the vomit. I could hear his struggle to take out the unwanted stuff from his stomach. It was a loud uproar. “ O... A... A... Ah... Ahe...” Finally it came in a big gulf and splashed out on the basin. He tried a second time. He strove more than the previous time. The remaining came out bits by bits and spattered on the basin.

“ Oh . . . ‘Ifoy’ . . . I am feeling alright now... Upsa!... Zawdu! Give me some water to wash my mouth.”

I had to get up again. When I uncovered my face, I was overcome by the stink. It was a mixture of tej and tela and watt It was a horrible smell. I felt like vomiting. I gave him the water. He filled his mouth with it and inserted his finger once again to clean up his mouth this time. Then he spat out the water. Next he said, “ Clean up the basin, Zawdu! “.

The basin had been filled up with vomit up to the brim. I was disgusted to touch it. I said to myself, “ At least he could have done it outside”.

He shouted at me, “Don’t just stand there staring at the basin, take it outside and clean it! “.

I picked up the basin automatically and took it outside and went close to the fence and poured it out there. My hands touched some of the filth. “ Eh! “ I scurried for water.

He usually said, “ Clean up the basin, Zawdu!”, but I didn’t perform that. All I managed to do, I poured some water on the basin and agitated it and poured out the water. That was all. I abhorred touching the inside of the basin.

In the morning, I woke up early and used the tap outside to wash my face. It was the only tap in the house. I enjoyed using the tap, but my grandmother did not like it.

“ I have told you several times not to use that tap. You have no idea how much I am paying,” she screamed at me. Then she gave me an old empty Mobil Oil can to use instead.

My uncle had got up from his bed and with a tired voice he called me, “ Zawdu. . ., bring. . . me. . . some water”. I filled up the Mobil Oil can and took it to him.

He was about to start washing when he noticed the basin unwashed. He bellowed, “ I told you to wash the basin last night!”.

“ I was sleepy. “ I replied to him very politely.

He calmed down. “ Just pour the water on my head”, he said. I understood the idea - to cool him down. The basin was filled at once. “ Pour it outside!” He gave order. Once again I carried the dirty basin towards the fence. I said to myself, “ He could have done it outside using the tap”. I left for school without washing the basin.

I was not on good terms with everybody in that house. I was only sleeping there. As for food, I sometimes used to eat at my sister’s place or bought it myself. I was selling cokes in one of the cinema houses. I was getting enough for my food, therefore, I did not care much about their injera. Both my grandmother and my aunt were disgusting people. My grandmother was a penny-pincher. I remembered the last words she said to me that stopped my eating there. She used to give me twenty-five cents per day for breakfast and lunch. One morning I went to get the same sum.

“Why don’t you look around the other village boys. They are no burden to their families. They work as shoe-shine boys, coolies, etc... They bring money to their families. And you! you take from us. It is over eight years now and all you do, you count your grades. We can’t eat your grades...” She shrieked at me. I departed from her before she concluded her silly lecture. I despised her from that day on.

I could have stayed somewhere else, if not for the closeness of the place I was working. I had to bear the bastard in order to finish my high school too. My uncle and I stayed in one roomed house. Everything crammed like sardines. His bed on one side and mine on the other. A table in the middle, another small table alongside his bed. A hoary wardrobe near the lower side of my bed. Under the beds, it was stowed up with boxes and other worthless items. The wall was overspread completely with a variety of calendars and movie house ‘reclams’, and beneath it the kingdom of the bedbugs lay. The room was so crowded that there was only small spaces to move around. And just beside the door on the lower side of his bed stood another small table and on it the filthy basin was kept.

One morning I woke up promptly as usual. I always wanted to leave the place early. Besides, I didn’t want to touch the bowl. I was about to change the can of water that was kept for him the night before, when I noticed the basin was full of yellow water. It scented horrible. It was urine. “ Oh God” I was going to slip out from that wretched place leaving everything for my aunt. It was too late. He called, “ Don’t forget to clean up the basin, Zawdu”. I lingered a few seconds before I finally touched the edge of the basin. I cautiously picked up the basin and disposed of the stinking urine near the fence. After that I poured some water in the basin and stirred it a bit and poured out the water.

Although my uncle had passed his youthful age, he was behaving like a juvenile. He was married briefly once and after that he altered his women like a tycoon changing his shirts. He, spent most of his earnings on women, and liquor. In short he was a lewd; person.

One evening, he brought one of the women from the nearby telabet. He was also drunk. As soon as they entered the room, they started to converse very slowly. I kept my ear alert.

“ Has he slept? “ the woman asked.

And my uncle replied, “ Don’t worry about him. When he sleeps - he sleeps like a dead man”.

I had to act ‘like a dead man’ too. I was not supposed to make any movement, but the bugs made it impossible for me to lie down peacefully. It seemed as if the entire bedbugs had come out from their places to attack me. I left them sucking me.

At the same time, I could see both undressing through the holes in my blanket. It didn’t take them much time to undress. Evidently the light was switched off. I heard their struggle to adjust themselves on the bed, and this was followed with a rhythmical noise, “ Tshit. .. Tsit. .. Tsit. . . “. It was from his crumbling bed. The rhythm kept on for over half an hour. Finally it ceased.

The light was switched on again. My uncle brought down the basin and the can of water on the floor. He was completely naked. He washed his genitals. Then the woman did the same thing on her part. After that they settled on the bed once more. I said to myself, “ Oh God! This is too much! I am not going to touch that filthy basin tomorrow morning”. They slept quietly.

I cautiously made some motion. I scratched my body very lightly as well. I was so exasperated with what I saw, I couldn’t sleep for sometime.

I didn’t know how I slept, but I woke up early as usual. The perfume was still there, but the prostitute had left. I woke up very carefully without disturbing him. I was going to try to escape that morning too. I didn’t care to wash my face. I put on my cloth and I was about to leave the room when his head popped-out from the blanket.

“What time is it?” He asked me.

“ I don’t know. I didn’t hear the seven o’clock siren yet,” I replied.

“ Never mind about the time. Don’t forget to flush up the basin before you leave.” He was looking at me when he said that.

“Ishi!” I said. I picked the basin very carefully and took it outside. I rested it slowly on the ground beside the fence. I used my foot to pour out the dirt from the basin. My aunt saw that, and shouted at me, “ Have you swallowed a stick? Or have you lost both your hands?”

I returned the basin inside the house. I cleaned my hands very thoroughly and hurried out for school.

Towards the end of every Ethiopian month he used to come home early. That was the time when he had almost finished his money. In the evening when I returned home, he was there before me. I washed his feet in the same filthy basin.

I hated living there for one thing - the BASIN, otherwise I could bear both the bugs and the bastards.

Once more, he brought another woman to his place. They played the same game like other nights. I waited impatiently for the day. I was going to run to school before touching that stinking basin. So I woke up that morning very cautiously dressed up, opened the door. Just before I left, I looked at the basin, to my surprise, it was empty. “ Aha! She must be a respectable prostitute. She has thrown out the water outside.”

That morning, my uncle didn’t overtake me.

When I met him in the evening, he shouted at me, “Where are you running out early in the morning?”.

“To school.” I replied.

He was sitting on the edge of his bed when he asked me to wash his feet. I brought a can of water and the basin. I poured some water on the bowl and started scraping his feet. While I was doing this slowly the level of the water went down. I poured some water to bring the level up again.

He shouted at me, “Stop adding water and clean up my feet properly!”.

The level of the water went down again. For the moment I didn’t perceive anything. Finally I detected that the water was slipping out of the basin and entering in one of the floor’s cracks.

“ Aha! This must be the end of the line.” 1 said to myself. From that day on he started using the faucet outside. He loathed buying a replacement for anything.

Getachew Gebrewold Ayele National Bank of Ethiopia
Documentation Division
P.O. Box. 5550
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
TELE 51-58-23

18th Century life in the West Indies: the life and works of Agostino Brunias

by Alissandra CUMMINS

One might wonder why an 18th Century Italian painter has become so important in a place far distant from his birthplace. Although generally regarded as a minor English artist in various contemporary historical texts, Agostino Brunias (also known as Brunyas or Brunais) has in recent years gained increasing significance, not only for the art historian, in the Caribbean.

Caribbean Art History is a relatively young field of study and the work of this Italian painter forms a major part of the region’s artistic resources. The colonial life of the West Indies can only be recaptured through the analysis of contemporary descriptions, both visual and written, which provide intriguing glimpses of that particular aspect of world history. Brunias’ work has special significance for researchers in this field. The relative rarity of images of the Indian, black and mulatto populations in the islands was no doubt indicative of the attitudes of the 18th century creole plantocracy. In general they preferred not to be reminded of an aspect of their daily lives which, by the latter half of the century, was becoming more of a social burden than an economic convenience.

Why would a young artist brought to the West Indies under a governor’s patronage give so much attention to such an unfashionable topic? The answer lies, at least partially, in the nature of both the man and his patron, Governor Sir William Young. When Brunias first arrived in the Caribbean in 1770 the tropical landscapes, the glowing colours and warmth of the winds, and the exotic lifestyle made a tremendous impact on the previously correct academician. Almost immediately his painting reflected this enchantment, and for 25 years, until his death, Brunias remained under the spell of the West Indies.

Born in Rome in 1730, little is known of the artist’s early life until he entered the Academy of Design of Saint Luke in Rome as a young art student around 1748. There he received a rigorous academic training which included drawing and copying antique Roman sculpture and studying the painting techniques of the master painters, destined to prepare him for a life as the versatile working artist he was expected to become. He received some small distinction in 1754 when, as part of his graduation, Brunias won third prize for his set piece.

The painting ‘Tobias and the Angel’ took almost three months to complete and shows little of the personal style Brunias was to develop in later years. Instead, the work is replete with the traditions of centuries. Brunias cannot be totally to blame for the stilted formality of the scene of Tobias at the moment of revelation. The self-consciousness of the artist’s technique reveals Brunias’ anxiety to succeed, and indeed his training stood him in good stead once he left the Academy. By 1756 he had found employment as a draughtsman with the famous English architect/designer, Robert Adam.

Apprenticeship to Adam

Under Adam’s supervision, Brunias exercised his training to the full, completing the exhausting task of meticulously recording the dimensions and decoration of the Baths of Diocletian, and other famous sites and ruins. For the next two years, Adam kept Brunias and his colleagues busy on a relentless schedule drafting drawings and plans of many other antique sites located all over Italy. This was Adam’s preparation for developing the knowledge necessary to satisfy his clients’ taste for the neo-classical in interior design. However, there was little opportunity for Brunias to develop a recognisable personal style; Adam has become the key to his success.

In 1758 Adam returned home to London taking Brunias with him. Over the next few years Brunias continued to work for Adam, producing working drawings to the designer’s specifications and, later, large decorative paintings in the neo-classical style intended to complement Adam’s interiors designed for the stately homes of England’s aristocracy. Brunias also started to exhibit his work regularly with The Free Society of Artists, hoping, no doubt, to develop a larger clientele and greater popularity. His paintings from this period all bear titles such as ‘A Large landscape, with ruins and figures.’

Despite his attempt at independence the familiarity and popularity of the antique provided a safe approach to the public market. Brunias was caught in the trap of his own making. Although he eventually parted company with Robert Adam, in 1765 he had found employment with another London architect, William Chambers, and continued to support himself producing commissioned pieces for clients’ residences.

By the age of 40, Brunias has achieved a comfortable reputation for himself as a landscape and figure painter as well as an engraver, but he had never achieved the prominence to which he aspired. The artist had reached a cross-roads in his career when he was approached by Sir William Young to travel under his patronage to the West Indies. Sir William was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands in 1770 and took up residence in the island of Dominica for the period of his office.

The Leewards - a revelation

Brunias leapt at this opportunity to travel to this little-known territory. Brunias no doubt saw himself as fulfilling the romantic dream of any young artist at the time. Travel and adventure in exotic places was the ambition of many with the hope of achieving success and prosperity. Indeed the artist found himself surrounded by every luxury, for contemporary records report that “Sir William lived in the style of a Prince. . . “.

Almost immediately the artist was inspired and sent two drawings “ after nature” to be exhibited in London. Over the next three years Brunias worked feverishly to record his impressions of an environment, both natural and cultural, that was as alien to the mores of European society in its own way as the Far East was to the artists who ‘discovered’ that region in the 19th century.

Every aspect of West Indian society was captured on Brunias’ canvas. He recorded the simple chattel huts and unfettered lives of the island’s caribindian population as meticulously as he did the indolent lifestyle of the creole plantocracy. Of primary importance for Caribbean historians however, was Brunias’ detailed sketches and paintings of the slave and free coloured populations. Bound inextricably to the demands of the plantation, the negro could not escape the pervasive influence of European society. In many of his paintings, the dress and stance of this subject apes the mode of English society of the period. This impression is enhanced by the classical qualities with which the artist imbues his figures regardless of whether they are fighting, washing clothes or standing at their ease.

It is clear that Brunias was as much influenced by the theories of ‘the noble savage’ surfacing around this time, as he was intrigued by the complexity of a culture which incorporated both African and European elements at every level. In his “ Free Natives of Dominica”, Brunias records in magnificent detail the extravagant clothing, headdress and jewellery of the island’s mulattoes. At the same time both men and women adopted the tall intricately-folded headties which were primarily African in origin.

In his larger pieces such as “ A Cudgelling Match. .. “ and “ A Negroes’ Dance in the Island of Dominica” Brunias provides a wealth of detail about the habits and customs of a rigidly delineated society. The paintings are invaluable markers to the ways in which negro men and women conducted themselves under the harsh reality of colonial society. Brunias was also given the opportunity to travel to many of the other islands as Governor Young toured his estates within the territory. His canvases of Barbados, St. Vincent and St. Kitts reveal aspects of the social and economic life of each island which, despite their rather romanticised flavour, help in developing a clearer perspective of 1 8th century life in each island.

Brunias returned to England with Sir William in 1773 and immediately set to work creating large-scale paintings based on his smaller sketches. The following year he exhibited two of his pieces at the Royal Academy of London where they were favourably received. Over the next few years he continued to exhibit regularly, finally achieving the success he so avidly sought. His exotic scenes captured the public’s imagination to such an extent that the series of prints which he later produced sold successfully to the European market.

Despite this success, however, Brunias could not forget his island home and returned there after visiting the continent once more. Once again Brunias’ life faded into comfortable oblivion, despite the continued success of his paintings and prints. Perhaps once he had achieved his success he was happy to retreat into solitude, for little or nothing is known of his final years in Dominica until his death in 1796. Nevertheless this this century artist, traveller and chronicler has left an invaluable legacy to the region, a legacy which is now the subject of ongoing research, analysis and interpretation.

A. C.