An intimidating subject

Interview with Koffi Kwahulé, by Sylvie Chalaye

Abidjan, September 1998.
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Ivoirian actor and theatre director, winner of the Grand Prix International de Dramaturgies du Monde organized by RFI in 1992 with Cette vieille magie noire (Lansman, 1993), he is the author of several plays, including, notably, Il nous faut l’Amérique (Acoria, 1997), Bintou (Lansman, 1997), and Les Déconnards created in Avignon in 1998. He published La Dame du Café d’en face and Jaz in December (Théâtrales), and, with the backing of Afrique en créations and the Festival de Limoges, last year staged an adaptation of the fantastic universe of Ahmadou Kourouma, Fama (Lansman, 1998), which is currently on tour.

African playwrights only very rarely evoke the subject of slavery in their plays.
Africans writing today do not have the experience of slavery handed down by their ancestors like the other Blacks of the diaspora. The people who were slaves are our relatives, our ancestors, but Africa is not the continent of slavery. Slavery started out in Africa, but it took place elsewhere, in the Caribbean, in America, on the islands. And the Africans did not undergo the brutal experience of slavery: it’s a chunk of history which does not resonate in their flesh itself. It concerns them through community solidarity, but they do not have an intuitive and emotional relation to it, they can only have a discursive and intellectual relation. This is no doubt the reason why Africans have not spontaneously written about this subject.
According to certain artists, the Africans avoid the problem of slavery because they feel guilty about it.
It’s a false argument. Man’s survival instinct has caused him to compromise with the barbarians in all historic situations in which he has found himself confronted with barbarity: Jews « handed over » Jews, the Algerians had the Harkis, Vietnamese people fought alongside the Americans… The French collaborators do not absolve Nazi barbarity. This phenomenon exists everywhere, and I don’t understand why it is thought to be singularly exceptional as soon as it applies to Blacks. Any people in the situation the Africans found themselves in would have behaved like the Africans. What happened to certain African kings is tragically banal. There is no black guilt. The guilt lies with those who had the idea of setting up this trade, who built the ships, crossed the seas, affronted the oceans to come to buy humans. It is demand which triggers the supply.
How can we explain, then, the sense of guilt expressed by numerous African intellectuals?
It’s a guilt which has been drummed into Blacks, as the Black can only be guilty. Guilt was no doubt introduced by the colonial school, which tried to rid Europe of its own guilt by cultivating a guilty conscience amongst the future black elites. Today still, the notion that you have openly to repent, to go in for self-flagellation, in order to seem open, humanistic, democratic, cultured and intelligent, is cultivated by Africans.
Do you think it would be preferable to forget, to turn the page?
To forget would be alienating. Africans should not forget. In any case, they can’t – even the most « trained to forget » cannot. I am not saying that we must embrace the slave trade, but if we have the opportunity to recall it, we must do so. Only, the Africans are not in a political and economic situation to address the issue. The day there are powerful enough black media in the world, which are autonomous enough and free economically, the question of the slave trade will come to the fore.
Do you think that it isn’t spoken about enough?
Absolutely, that is where the problem lies. In Africa, we have ended up evacuating the question of the slave trade by keeping quiet about it. It’s a paradox, Black people do not speak about slavery, and yet people have managed to drum into their heads that they speak about it too much. As a result, they no longer even dare speak about it. We have been convinced that we must go beyond the question, but you cannot go beyond your history. It is not about using one’s history as an annuity in other people’s consciences, or brandishing it as a threat, but, vis-a-vis oneself, vis-a-vis our children, we have to keep it alive to know where we come from. Africans are always turning the page. They are always being convinced that we have to turn the page. Slavery? We turn the page. Colonization? We turn the page. Dictatorships? We turn the page. They are systematically in the situation of not fixing their history, and, as a result, only live snippets of history.
Why is it the theatre which avoids this subject the most?
I don’t know that the theatre really avoids this subject. With poetry, you give something to be read, you convey feeling through words, but in the theatre, you have to demonstrate. And the experience of the slave trade is so singular and brutal that the majority of the few people who have tried to write about the subject, and who were not African-American, Antillian, or Jamaican – the Blacks of the diaspora – have systematically taken refuge behind the archetypes, the clichés, the surface of things, because whatever we do, we write about slavery from the outside. Inevitably, we cling to what identifies the question, the visual stereotypes, images which are necessarily second-hand. And, moreover, how can we pose the question from the inside? If you take Dadié, who speaks about it in Iles des tempêtes, one of the major plays of his work, what does he show of the slave trade? The slaves ships, islands, the whip… Because Dadié is African, and he learnt that from books; his ancestors did not pass on a live, burning memory to him. Strangely, there isn’t a « culture » of the slave trade in Africa. We thus content ourselves with conventional images.
Is it a subject that you have already thought about as a playwright?
Yes, I have thought about it, but for me, it’s like racism: they are such important issues that, at the same time, they are intimidating. I get the impression that my pen isn’t certain enough, isn’t steadfast enough yet, to evoke it. In my writing, for example, I prefer the racists to be Black: in Bintou the racism is found in the African family. In Cette vieille magie noire, it is Shadow who turns out to be racist. It’s a racism I « understand » better, and which I can have the illusion of fighting. But speaking about the racism Black people are subjected to is such a serious thing, it is so « unjustified », that I don’t know how to address it. In Jaz (and the character Jaz can be played by a European, an African, an Asian…), I evoke with the question of Black people in the world, with the rape they have been subjected to, but I evoke it in an extremely covert way, perhaps through a sense of discretion. It is very difficult to address it head on, and people no doubt do not always immediately realize that I am always speaking about the black question in Jaz.

///Article N° : 5401

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