Friday, December 20, 2013

271. Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

African literature now has two unnecessary camps - Afropolitanism and Poverty Porn - and the discourse has been on which of the two represents the continent, sort of. But does it matter? Can one narrative represents the second largest and the second most populous continent of a whopping 1.033 billion grouped into "54 recognized sovereign states and countries, 9 territories and 2 de facto independent states with very little recognition"? [World Population Review, 2013]. That one theme cannot represent the continent is perhaps known by both 'camps'. So what incited this discourse? (By the way, there are several others who do not believe in either of the two and whose writings are not influenced by them.)

African writers who wrote in a particular style about wars, poverty, deaths, hunger, and such depravities have often been singled out for awards, even when the quality of their prose does not support the award adequately. It became (and is) the magic formula to fame and awards for the African writer who wants to see a meteoric rise in his fortunes. These writers have been accused of telling stories to suit the West's construct of Africa in order to get published, win awards, and become famous. Jose Eduardo Agualusa in his book The Book of Chameleons, described someone as having 'built up his whole career abroad, selling our national horrors to European readers. Misery does ever so well in wealthy countries.' (Pg 68 ).

Sometimes these accusations may seem justified; sometimes they may not. Most often they are debatable: the continent has had its fair share of difficulties and one cannot easily discount the diseases, deaths, poverty, and wars which it has come to represent. In fact, the continent has become synonymous with these. However, no group is happy to keep this narrative up than Africans themselves, especially the few privileged ones. They play this up so that any comparison with (to) themselves will weigh in their favour. They become our spokesmen and women, our representatives - the physical embodiment of what we could become should the continent be aided.

However, in no other book does the macabre and the praise converge than in Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah is not Obliged (Vintage, 2007 (FP: 2000); 215). Described as 'a work of luminous humanity' by the Financial Times with the author himself described as 'one of Africa's pre-eminent novelists' by the Guardian, Allah is not Obliged is a book that tell the story of a young boy of ten who, in embarking on a search for his auntie in Liberia following the death of his cripple mother, gets caught-up in a tribal war of historical proportions; civil wars that would see him trek between two countries - Liberia and Sierra Leone. The recent conviction of Charles Taylor, a Liberian War Lord and a major player in both wars, for war crimes in Sierra Leone shows the enormity and savagery of these wars.

According to Birahima - the narrator and an ex-street child,
The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth.
Thus, it is this unfairness combined with human stupidity and depravity that Ahmahou explored when he uncovered one of the large and deeper wounds that festered and nearly crippled the western part of the continent. The Sierra Leonean and Liberian wars were bitterly fought and because of the complexity of the factors that led to the war, it was just too difficult to disentangle. Together with his relative Yacouba, a confident trickster who would ply his trade as a jujuman to several mini warlords, Birahima would move from camp to camp, village to village and country to country in a war that would cruelly murder the leftovers of his innocence with their unwarranted massacres.

The war motif gives this book all the characteristics of what an African novel has come to be known and perceived. From a priest turned rebel to dead bodies being fed to dogs, Allah is not Obliged has it all, and more. Captain Papa le bon was trained as a priest in the United States. His ordination was to take place in Liberia; however, when all was set, war broke. He stayed in Liberia and became a soldier-cum-priest seeing to the spiritual and physical needs of the people under him and the emotional needs of the women. As a priest, Captain Papa le bon preached and exorcised spirits; as the alpha-male he slept incessantly with people's - including his soldiers' - wives. As a rebel leader, he trained and used child soldiers; took bribes from traders before allowing them to trade in stolen goods; killed whomever he wanted; and represented Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the Eastern part of Liberia. How much more classic than this get? Captain Papa le bon, in addition to carrying a Bible and Qu'ran in his hands, covered himself in magic talismans with Kalashnikovs hanging across his shoulders.

Though the narrative is at times sarcastic with its matter-of-fact tone exposing the stupidity of adult behaviour in such periods of war (when they are overrun by their animalistic passions instead of their brains), the praises this book received had nothing to do with the prose; it has everything to do with the content. One could see an attempt at filling every page with the macabre. For instance, the stories Ahmadou told before the war and those set in non-warring countries were themselves gruesome. This is the story of Sarah prior to the war and her path to becoming a child soldier: Sarah's mother was knocked down by a drunk driver. Her father who was a sailor did not know what to do with her so he sent her to live with his sister. Sarah's auntie physically abused her for the slightest offence. She was beaten and starved when she could not account for the fruits a gang of boys stole from her; when it happened the second time, Sarah stayed away from home and became a street child. On the street, she was raped and left for dead. She was hospitalised and upon her discharge ended up in an orphanage. The orphanage was attacked at the onset of the war, all the nuns were either murdered or raped, and Sarah ended up becoming a prostitute and from there graduated to a child soldier. Or rather, like almost all the child soldiers whose stories Birahima told, asked to be a child soldier. The stories of the other child soldiers were not any different, filled with rape and death. Even in Togobala in Cote d'Ivoire, Birahima's story was macabre and bloody. He described how his mother's leg was going to be cut and given to dogs. And there were a lot of dogs doing the munching in this novel. The men in Togobaland, like Yacouba, Sekou, and their friends, were crooks and thieves who swindled people out of their wealth. There is enough gruesomeness to make the skin grow carbuncular goosebumps.

The characters are one dimensional, that is if one can refer to them even as characters. They pass through the narrative like ghosts, leaving no impression. They were emotionless, unfeeling, like zombies, like automatons, like they are portrayed in African war movies. The only emotion they exude is an unquenchable urge to kill. He describes both the people and the countries as 'fucked up'. Every president in the story was a dictator, from Houphouet-Boigny to Qaddafi and those in between.

There are some inconsistencies which make the story come across as a sort of childhood braggadocio, especially since Birahima had once been a street guy who loved the thrills. Captain Papa le Bon was described as someone who went everywhere without his Kalashs; he carried them with him in his sleep and when he was having sex. However, in another breath, Ahmadou says Captain Papa le bon took his Kalash every morning and before going on his rounds. This may not be much since Birahima was just ten year old. However, it counts for something when it is compared to the other things Birahima talked about.

For instance, the kind of historical information provided at some places was not things a ten-year old illiterate could conceive. Birahima knew almost every date, place, and detailed occurrences that took place at the war fronts and in the conferences and meetings organised in hotels away from the countries during the two civil wars. He knew the histories of both wars like they were his mother's hut.
The second round of negotiations in Abidjan opened on 29 and 30 July 1997, back on the twenty-third floor of the Hotel Ivoire. ... Surprise! The Junta's new proposals are completely in opposition to the points established in the first round of talks on July 17. Now the Junta wants to suspend the constitution and stay in power until 2001. ... 
And it was not as if Birahima was a War Lord with a stake in the war or that he participated in those meetings and historical moments he described with such vividness. He was just a boy looking for his auntie who in the end turned out dead (with all the deaths going on, everybody could predict this).

Ahmadou most often forgot that he was telling a story through the eyes of a child. He could be virtually seen jumping in to vent his personalised anger, emotions, and perceptions about the war to the reader through his narrator. Thus, one is unsure if this is an essay or story; a treatise or thesis. Birahima mixes facts with fantasy and complete falsehood making it difficult for the reader to trust him, He makes his personal beliefs the facts and his facts history. The story, in this way, loses its status as a story. It becomes something else. A child narrator should be believable or at least should not say things he has no means of knowing in a story meant to be realistic. If it were fantastical images of the netherworld, or any of such things that only children see, it would have been acceptable and believable. He talked about Qaddafi having a lot of military camps training terrorists, with authority. How did Birahima get to know these things if it were not Ahmadou saying what he wanted to say through him?

Attempts were made to make the book sound street-tough with its excessive use of street-lingua such as 'fuck' and swear words such Faforo, Gnamokode, Walahe and others. Natives, niggers, savages, bushmen, and other such descriptions used in the book sounded too forced and artificial. And the frequent references to the use of dictionaries to justify Birahima's use of 'big words' was a let down. Whilst some very 'big words' were not at all defined, some other equally unnecessary ones like 'stuff', 'army ants', and others were defined. In fact, a person should know the word to search for it. A person cannot just pick the dictionary and suddenly discover the right word. There should be a starting point. Besides, how could an illiterate ten-year old read the dictionary? Similarly, the frequent use of certain refrains in the telling of the story was not only forced but annoying.

This is a story of a street child who found himself locked up in an unfortunate situation; however, it is more about the story of the wars than it is about the narrator's role or himself. There was too much an attempt at the macabre, which would have been acceptable had it been restricted to the war parts. However, from the first page to the last, the macabre was present in its graphic detail. In this way, it lost its significance and the war sections became just mere attempts at shocking readers the more. The story is written in a tongue-in-cheek manner with the intention to deride and scorn and to be sarcastic. However, the fact that the Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars occurred, the fact that the wars resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands (Sierra Leone, 200,000; Liberia, 220,000; according to Wars and Casualties of the 20th and 21st Centuries), and the fact that the book itself records some historical  moments makes it an important book worth the read. If one take away the poor use of the child-narrator, the failed attempt at scatology, one will come out from reading this book with an average understanding of the history of the wars in those two countries.
______________________________
About the Author: Ahmadou Kourouma (November 24, 1927 - December 11, 2003) was an Ivorian novelist. From 1950 to 1954, when his country was still under French colonial control, he participated in French military campaigns in Indochina, after which he journeyed to France to Study mathematics in Lyon. He returned to Cote d'Ivoire after it won independence in 1960, yet he quickly found himself questioning the government of Felix Houphouet-Boigny. After brief imprisonment, Kourouma spent several years in exile, first in Algeria (1964 - 1969), then in Cameroon (1974 - 1984) and Togo (1984 - 1994), before finally returning to live in Cote d'Ivoire.

His first novel Les soleils des indépendences (The Suns of Independence, 1970) contains a critical treatment of post-colonial governments in Africa.Twenty years later, his second book Monnè, outrages et défis, a history of a century of colonialism, was published. In 1998, he published En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, (translated as Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), a satire of post colonial Africa in the style of Voltaire in which a griot recounts the story of a tribal hunter's transformation into a dictator, inspired by Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo. In 2000, he published Allah n'est pas obligé (translated as Allah is Not Obliged), a tale of an orphan who becomes a child soldier when traveling to visit his aunt in Liberia.

In France, each of Ahmadou Kourouma's novels has been greeted with great acclaim, sold exceptionally well, and been showered with prizes including the Prix Renaudot in 2000 and Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for  Allah n'est pas obligé. [Source]

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