Born in Niamey (Niger) in 1962, Alfred Dogbé used to teach Literature. A journalist since 1996, he has written for diverse generalist publications and cultural magazines. He is the author of numerous short stories published in Niamey in Encres and L’Arène. In 1997, he published a book entitled Bon voyage, Don Quichotte et autres textes in the Lansman collection « Nouvelles et récits d’Afrique ».
Have you already been confronted with the question of the slave trade as an author, a subject which is relatively absent in African literature, and in particular in the theatre?
Personally, the kind of slavery which interests me in my current writing are the vestiges of local slavery, and not the slave trade. In Niger, we have barely emerged from a feudal society, and feudal-style relations can be felt right down to political life. Moreover, there is a tendency in our family set-ups to get people brought from the village to work for us, without pay, generally as servants, which I see as slavery. It is the current forms of slavery which concern me when I write. I write short stories above all, which are based on real events, and which are first and foremost destined for the press, which causes me to stick to pressing news.
Nonetheless, I can, without any pretensions, try to analyze the reasons for the absence you are speaking about. I think that African literature’s first preoccupation has been to operate a kind of clearing out of the memory in reverse. But, at the same time that we tried to detach ourselves from colonial ideology, to fight it, a kind of censure existed, which limited interest to this historic period alone. This literature deals with colonization as if it came tumbling out of the sky. You will notice that in Césaire, for example, slavery is present in every line, whereas Senghor hardly addresses it at all.
Perhaps because Césaire belongs to the diaspora?
Exactly. Africa’s immediate reality takes us away from evoking the slave trade somewhat. At the same time, I think that the work of the writers of the past generations erased the reality of slavery from our minds. Even when they do speak about it, you can tell that it was not what moved them.
Why this « distance »? Is it colonization which…
Indeed, this is one of the outcomes of colonization. Colonial theatre, that of William Ponty, was a theatre of self-contempt. From the Sixties on, this theatre, in its desire to create a « nation » where Africans could rediscover their dignity based on certain values, was to take a leap in time and return to a kind of ante-colonial period. What interested the theatre then was not to analyze colonialism as a « natural » consequence of the slave trade, it was more a question of showing the shock of the meeting with Europe, in order to valorize the resistance of a nation before the invader. But the very slow destruction which was the slave trade is not present. On that subject, I would say that being too close to current affairs is one of the characteristics of African literature. Raising the question of the slave trade is not urgent, as it is for the Blacks of the diaspora. Take the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, for example. It all took place as if it were question of the International Day of the Woman, the International Day of the Child… It was an international event, that’s all, no more. I didn’t get the impression that we reacted like people who were « specially » concerned. In Niger, it was the foreign press who related all that was said about slavery.
There isn’t a consciousness about what the slave trade represented. And yet, it is anchored in reality even today. Isn’t the situation of the African continent ascribable to that period, to a large extent?
You even get the impression sometimes that the history of the black slave trade is not Black people’s history, but that of others.
Certain Africans admit to covering up this period due to their very strong feeling of guilt.
I would even add that in certain coastal countries, such as Togo and Benin, there are still, as we speak, so many traces which could serve to divide, that people prefer to draw a veil on it. The majority of the North-South conflicts in certain coastal countries, analyzed from the point of view of this silencing, may well reveal a conflict between the victims and the headsmen of that period.
Because the people of the South sold those of the North, which fuels so-called ethnic conflicts?
Not necessarily, but I say that we haven’t got the courage to pose the question in this light. However, we will have to do so; there will come a time when we will have to say things out loud. Forgiveness implies recognizing the fault.
White people do not recognize the seriousness of what they did either, even today.
This situation remains precisely because we have not faced up to the question in Africa itself.
Can it be said that a memory of slavery exists in the oral traditions, but that it hasn’t been carried over to written texts?
Absolutely. A small survey on the collecting of oral literature texts shows that there are many epic tales about the African Middle Ages, about the anti-colonial myths, but, to my knowledge, never tales about a slave who escaped, who fought back… Kunta Kinté could only be American. In Africa, we are not sufficiently aware of the question for an African to go and find the traces of his great great-grandfather in the United States.
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