For a roaming Africanity

Interview with Koulsy Lamko, by Sylvie Chalaye

Avignon, 19 July 2001
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Koulsy Lamko belongs to that « roaming » generation of playwrights who « yearn for the world ». Born in Dadouar, Koulsy Lamko left Chad in 1979, interrupting his studies because of the war. He moved to Burkina Faso, where he became close to Thomas Sankara, and got involved in the activities of the Institut des peoples noirs (Institute of Black Peoples). A regular attendant of the Limousin Festival International des Francophonies, he lived in Limoges, France, where several of his plays were performed, notably Tout bas… si bas (Lansman, 1995). At present, he has laid down his hat in Rwanda, where he teaches at the University of Butaré. In 2000, he published a novel on the genocide, La phalène des collines, and became actively involved in directing Corps et voix, paroles rhizome, a show staged in Butaré in 2000 in the framework of a Fest’Africa project to be presented in France this autumn.

How can the African artist’s identity be defined today? Why do many people consider that it no longer lies there where they expect it to be?
We have always been influenced and more often than not have functioned accordingly, sticking to the image people expected of us. This continues to be the case in many respects, whether on a political or economic level. The only space in which it is possible to say we exist and that we are what we are, without having to modify our behaviour in relation to that gaze, is the space of our work as artists and writers, because the stakes are different there. We do the things we do in that particular space quite simply because we believe in them, and not because we are looking for recognition or money. We do them simply because they are what makes us, those of us who dare to speak out and inhabit that space of liberty.
To define oneself as African today is to contribute what we are as men, with our cultural background, our education, without conforming to the Western gaze. Understanding that and trying to live it of course involves agreeing to live other ostracisms from different quarters. At times, when we try to embrace Africa, people treat us like Westerners, and in the West, people see us as epiphenomenona because we do not correspond to what people expect us to be.
Identity is not an origin; it is above all deeply rooted in each person’s own experiences. I am of Chadian origin and, moreover, when I say that, people think that I have taken on French citizenship. I am of Chadian origin, fine, but what do I still have that is Chadian? It isn’t birth that founds a culture. I was born in a little Chadian village, but my culture is not limited to that small village. I have lived in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, in Togo where my family are, in France and in the Limousin in particular, where I shared very strong experiences with people, and I now live in Rwanda. The African I am today has inherited all that, all those cultures.
What makes you close to other black artists?
It’s a complex question because it involves two levels. On an ideological level, the ties are very close. Black people all over the world experience ostracism, difficult economic and political conditions; we are oppressed and I proclaim the solidarity that exists amongst the oppressed. We are united by our struggle to exist, by our combat. You sometimes have to keep close ranks. Aids is decimating millions of black people, wars too. On an artistic level, however, why should I feel closer to a black artist? No. On that level, you can share powerful ideas with a French person, a Canadian, a Japanese, it’s a human question. You can discover extraordinary things re-reading the Greeks today, and I don’t want to deprive myself of that. There are no barriers in art, no limits, no frontiers.
Do you believe that there is such a thing as an African specificity in the creative domain?
I think that that’s a Western fantasy and I quite often protest against this idea. I am even very aggressive when people speak to me about « African theatre ». It was precisely that kind of black essentialism that justified the slave trade and colonisation, and it carries on. It’s terrible today at a time when people speak so much about globalisation. It’s a Western fear. It’s as if this difference necessarily had to exist, that this wall had to exist for people to feel secure. This same fear means that Africans are refused visas and it spills over into other considerations: the fear of being invaded in human terms, on an economic level, and also the fear of being invaded by modes of thought that come from elsewhere. As long as African theatre remains other people’s theatre, it doesn’t concern us, it doesn’t question our world.
There were the Negritude movements though.
Negritude had its raison d’être in its given context. The people who were entrusted with Africa’s destinies carried the hopes of peoples who were emerging from forced labour, and they had to react to a clean slate policy. But you cannot ignore the world’s evolution and the dialectical phenomena that are inherent to it. To do so is to consider that nothing changes in Africa. People would like to force us to stay inside the circle. Everything is changing in the world, but people would like us to stay in the circle, not even in the spiral. It’s another form of colonisation. We are against this confinement. If our generation is a « roaming » one, it is probably in part a refusal to be hemmed in: we can go to the Lebanon to speak about the Lebanon, we can leave our native Chad to go and do things in Canada or in the Limousin. It’s a way of resisting for us. And African identity today lies precisely in this wandering, this quest, this very questioning of identity. People need to accept the idea that there are African theatres, which are undergoing changes and which belong first of all to the individuals who produce them, and not an « African » or « black » theatre.

///Article N° : 5503

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