We are sitting across from each other, watching a rainy afternoon through the window of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic’s offices in Wasserstein Hall. Suddenly, Henry* thinks of a new anecdote to tell. This one, he explains, is about his time in jail while he was still living in Cameroon.
“I was there for five days. Five days was like five years. And every morning they come and say ‘Do you want hot coffee?’ And we say yes, but we didn’t know what is hot coffee. It’s not like this,” he says, pointing to the mug he has set on the table. “They’re going to beat you.”
Henry then begins to point at other objects in the room, while describing what I later learn is amatraque–a sort of heavy baton. He says that it has the black color of the leg of the couch, but in its dimension more closely resembles the leg of the desk next to us, and it is also strong and flexible. Once he believes I have caught on well enough to the concept, he returns to the story.
“So they can put you in something–they call it balancoire–and beat you in your feet. So you see it’s different.”
I look at him: “That’s what they meant by coffee?”
“Yes, that is hot coffee,” says Henry. “That is hot coffee. But in California it’s different.”