Ashamed silence

Interview with Tiburce Koffi, by Sylvie Chalaye

Abidjan, August 1998.
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The Ivoirian journalist, essayist, and playwright, and musician Tiburce Koffi has more than one string to his bow. He has written a number plays which are highly acclaimed in Côte d’Ivoire: Massa-Roi and La Médaille de la honte in 1992, Mélodouman and Pour un Casting in 1995, and La Mémoire des tombes in 1996.

The subject of slavery and the slave trade is practically absent from Francophone literature, and particularly from African theatre.
I hadn’t noticed this absence until recently. The subject has, indeed, been occluded. The fact of the matter is that African playwrights of both of the first garde and the new generation which I belong to, haven’t tackled this question. Colonization, on the the other hand, is very present in our theatre. The slave trade is an issue Africa has refused to address, no doubt because the African conscience has a particular experience of this period.
Wasn’t it precisely colonization which, as it took up where slavery left off, sought to maintain this amnesia?
Once slavery was abolished, it was no doubt easier for us to forget it, as this chapter isn’t inscribed in our flesh in the same way as it is for West Indians or African-Americans. The brain-washing orchestrated by colonization certainly greatly contributed to this evacuation. It undoubtedly the founded the state of amnesia we are in today.
Have you thought about staging the subject yourself?
The subject had never come to mind before, but I think that my next play might well now tackle the question, as it is time that we Africans examine this very painful chapter in our people’s past. The thought that often crops up in conversation when you talk to West Indians, the descendants of the deported Africans, is that Africa will not advance as long as it lacks the courage to face up to the question of the slave trade, and to carry out its mea culpa. We have a conflict to resolve with our land. We sold our children, and as long as we refuse to face this past, we will remain trapped in our under-development. We owe our American brothers some answers.
You feel, then, that Africans’ guilt accounts for the veil which has descended on a past people are ashamed of?
We are clearly ill at ease evoking the slave trade era. In the past, we were basically taught that it was the Arabs, and then the Europeans who were responsible for slavery, and who invented the slave trade. But today, we are aware of the Africans’ very significant involvement in setting up this trading in human beings.
There have always been collaborators in all power conflicts, which does not suffice to lay the blame on all African people. Moreover, the Black kings’ involvement was greatly exaggerated by the Europeans in the eighteenth century, in order, precisely, to free Europe from its moral responsibilities.
I would like to think so, but Africans must also have benefitted from the system for the whole continent to be emptied in this way for several centuries. We necessarily bear some responsibility, and not the least at that. It is high time that we accept this. It is too easy to point to Europe, saying « it was the bad Whites who sold the Blacks ». That’s won’t do anymore! I belong to a generation for whom that conception of history doesn’t wash anymore. Today, we must look in the mirror at our own failings, we must analyze our errors.
A lot of African intellectuals adopt this position, but isn’t it a dangerous one? It plays into the hands of the West, which is already reluctant to remember, and who takes pleasure in forgetting, in ignoring even.
I think white Europe’s trial is over: we won’t gain anything from it. We have, at present, to look into our responsibility. That, perhaps, is where our future lies.
We must purge what is devilish within us. Dramatic art needs to question our memory. We need a real catharsis to free us from our guilt. Africa will emerge from this history empowered.

///Article N° : 5399

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