In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.
This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).
A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.
OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4
Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)
Among my surprises from this project has sometimes been finding where the countries come in order, when you rank them by population. I must admit to being surprised to see the countries of the Sahel, and nearby, ranked so highly in the population stakes, and fairly close together – we’ve just had Niger and Burkina Faso, here we are in Mali, and Chad and South Sudan will follow shortly. I’ve always thought of these countries as having few people with a poor, if not precarious, environmental existence, but on the contrary they obviously manage to support large populations somehow! And it was a surprise that what I always thought of as wretchedly infertile desert or semi-desert lands have larger populations than the countries round the coast, except for Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Like my book for Uganda, Wangrin is not very nice character, but in this case he does have redeeming qualities (and I found this to be on the whole a far better book). Like the English and Australian outlaws, Robin Hood and Ned Kelly (respectively), his criminality is supposedly directed only against the rich and powerful (including the French colonial authorities). But he does come off as quite nasty, calculating, hypocritical and venal, with his eye always on the main chance. Perhaps most shocking is when he passes through an Eden-like town, is treated with kindness and generosity by the commandant’s interpreter and gatekeeper Romo, decides he wants the latter’s cushy job, and sets about stealing this position for himself (thereby making Romo his greatest enemy, reasonably enough) and sets up his son. As he enriches himself, his morality decreases. He enters into complots then cheats his partners in crime. Even his daughter gets used as a weapon. He is not above conjuring witchcraft against his enemies. His prayer to the spirits reveals the sort of person he wants to be:
“Breathe into me the virtue which permits the chameleon to constantly change its colour according to its surroundings in order to pass unseen.”
He can never feel secure, claiming he even sleeps with his eyes open. Nevertheless, he does have some redeeming qualities, such as his generosity to the poor (which the author emphasises in his Afterword but doesn’t come out in the tale itself – what a strange praise-singing is this novel, where ironically only the hero’s worst qualities usually appear!) It’s as if Bâ himself has been mesmerised by Wangrin, as were his other victims, one is tempted to say like the creature of a snake charmer (if it weren’t for the hero’s ultimate fate!)
He is a world champion networker. He always keeps his promises (unfortunately often of revenge). Although become poor, he dies owing nothing, money or otherwise. On the other hand I must admire him for his linguistic skills, speaking perfect Bambara (his mother tongue), Peul, Dogon, Mossi, Djerma, Hausa and, passably, Baolé and Bété (not to mention French)…
There are some great images, like this one of civil servants fearful of an official inspection:
“When the wild animals are disturbed while feasting on the spoils of the hunt, they pause for a moment and move out of the way until the danger has passed. Then they return to their repast as soon as they no longer feel fear.”
The novel is suffused with the world of the griot (praise-singer), whose qualities include:
“On the other hand, what Kountena’s guitar cords refused to him, his vocal cords and his tongue granted it to him to a large extent. He was a marvellous story-teller, singer, and at the same time an excellent mime.”
It is also full of wonderful proverbs, such as the Peul pearl “If you are led to eat the meat from an animal’s body, at least wait until it is good and fat”, i.e. “If you have to do something below your rank, it should at least be something worth doing.”
The book is also chock-full of fascinating footnotes, from which I learnt a great deal about local life. Considering how much I was reading about Ancient Rome that year, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between Rome and Mali in their obsession with auguries taken from natural phenomena.
In the end Wangrin falls victim to the prophecy that was made of him, falls from power, is ruined, becomes a drunkard, and falls to an ignominious, stupid death. All in all, a great portrait of a flawed but fascinating character.
Coming back to that Afterword… I’m not sure if Wangrin was originally a real person, but all that I can say to Bâ’s plea that..
“generally, the historical existence of the one who gave himself the surname ‘Wangrin’ is admitted, but it is considered that I must have “romanticised” his life to some extent, even introducing, to spice up the story and give it some sort of symbolic significance, a subtle dose of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own creation.” [my translations]
… this is a perfect description of this great novel. Methinks he doth protest too much…
Amadou Hampâté Bâ (c.1900-1991), L’étrange destin de Wangrin, ou les roueries d’un interprète africain, Paris, 10/18, 1973, 1992, ISBN 978-2-264-01758-1
“It’s a coup d’état!” Gouama sobbed. “They’re overthrowing me. They’re taking my power. My God, I’m not president any more. It’s not true! It’s impossible! Don’t shoot, I’m the president. The pres…”
My generation was a bit sad when this central West African nation changed its name from Upper Volta (which was a sort of synonym for ‘back of beyond’) to Burkina Faso (’Land of the Incorruptible’). Fortunately they didn’t touch the name of the world’s coolest-sounding capital, Ouagadougo. The Burkinabé seem to be very popular with visitors, but they do know a lot about coups.
This great novel could have justly been called “The Come-uppance”. It is a cynical look at the corruption and brutality of a 10-year African dictatorship in the country of Watinbow. ‘Father-founder of the Nation’ Gouama is corrupt, nepotistic and violent, and superstitious (being willing to have two people killed in a grisly manner to supposedly safeguard his rule). His particular specialty is bumping off his opponents using ‘accidents’ (the sabotaged parachute drop of the title was his way of getting rid of two coup plotters). He is stupidly fond of humiliating even those on whom he is dependent, like his army chiefs of staff. When his Chief of Staff Kodio leads a coup against him, his presidential guard, emasculated by his suspicion, is incapable of (and/or unwilling to) defend him. The incredulous Gouama is dragged from under his silken mosquito net by his brother. He flees, or rather is hustled, to the border, apparently not being recognised by any of his subjects, and receives some lessons from his people about what they really thought of him (though it later becomes apparent that he saw nothing to interest him except an abattoir, a kangaroo court and a lynch mob). Like bullies generally, he turns out to be a wimp – pitiful, pathetic and risible. Deliciously, he is told by his police to ‘fous le camp’ (’Get lost!’) Tricked and abandoned by his ‘friend’, the president of a neighbouring country, and by the former colonial power, he ends up grovelling at his trial. Fortunately the despicable dictator gets his just deserts and you can’t help cheering as he gets humiliated by his ex-subjects and ex-friends overseas. (There is though the sad thought that his overthrower will no doubt end up being of the same ilk).
This ought to be compulsory reading for all of the world’s dictators and would-be dictators, and for all of those who suffer under them. And it’s very worth reading for all of us.
ZONGO, Norbert (1949 – 1998), Le parachutage, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, ISBN 2-296-01712-6 (Collection: Ecrire l’Afrique)
‘Mother, I’ve come to find out what’s happening. For a few days now, people have been coming and going here. Especially Old Gôro whose shadow hovers over all the marriages in the village. Have you been charged with preparing a marriage without telling me?’
’It’s because of you, my daughter. Only because of you’ answered the mother after a long silence.
’Because of me, mother? What’s it got to do with me? No one has spoken to me of marriage here, not even my friends.’
’That doesn’t surprise me, my daughter. That’s because it’s a matter of your own marriage’, her mother sighed.
Fatou and Karimou are lovers and want to get married, but Fatou’s mother doesn’t like him and forbids her only child from wedding him. Her parents force her to marry the ‘Koumandaw’ (the regional authority) against her will – her weak husband Old Mazou having been bribed by giving him his dream of a hajj to Mecca – but she quickly escapes him and her drought-desiccated village for the city, where she is taken under the wing by a house of kindly prostitutes and grows into an independent young woman. When Fatou and Karimou meet back in the village, they find they have grown apart. Fatou, like everyone, has to find a way of accommodating the pressures of family and of changing ways of life, and she does.
It is a slim novel, but I loved it! It’s such a shame that it (or any other of Amadou Idé’s novels) hasn’t been translated into English.
IDÉ, Amadou (1951 – ), Misères et grandeurs ordinaires, Ciboure, Le Cheminante, 2014, ISBN 978-2-37127-016-9
Surely it isn’t any blasphemy… oh, no! It even fills me with joy to think that perhaps it was Providence, the Holy Ghost himself, who whispered this advice in the Father’s ear, ‘Tell them that Jesus Christ and the Reverend Father are all one.’ Especially when our village children, looking at the picture of Christ surrounded by boys, were astonished at his likeness to our Father. Same beard, same soutane, same cord around the waist. And they cried out, ‘But, Jesus Christ is just like the Father!’ And the Father assured them that Christ and himself were all one. And since then all the boys of my village call the Father ‘Jesus Christ’.
Here is yet another delicious and insightful African novel! It is a gentle satire of the power of the colonialists, and the Catholic Church as its choirmaster, in Cameroon in the 1930s.
Its central figure is a priest who looks just like Jesus, and shares His alternation between fire-and-brimstone sternness and mocking good humour. The naive (or is it faux naive?) narrator – at least at first – is his assistant and is totally obsessed with him.
The priest goes on a tour, after three years, of a ‘backsliding’ part of the country.
The narrator is taken in by another boy on the expedition, Zachariah, who knows how to profit from the situation and has a ‘girl in every port’. Luckily for him, they have all been corralled by the Church, since ‘Good Catholic girls’ who are engaged to be married are confined in a building called the sixa for several months and forced to do hard labour – a perfect source for some sex for the local Church men.
The missionaries have an incredible amount of power, with not only God but also the colonial powers behind them. But they are not omnipotent. The portrait of the priest is affectionate and subtle, despite the negative damage and perhaps ultimate futility of his labours. Later he comes to the realisation that the Africans do have their own spirituality and that he must respect its power.
He also becomes disillusioned with the colonial setup.
This is a wonderful send-up of the hypocrisy – or should we say failure to live up to its ideals? – of the Church in Cameroon, and a great read.
BETI, Mongo (1932-2001): The Poor Christ of Bomba (translated by Gerald Moore), Long Grove IL USA, Waveland Press, 1971, 2005, ISBN 978-1-57766-418-5