« Those who detect a pessimistic view of Africa are mistaken »

Interview with Ahmadou Kourouma, by Héric Libong

Paris, September 2000
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After the success of Ahmadou Kourouma’s penultimate novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, the Ivoirian writer’s latest work, Allah n’est pas obligé (Editions du Seuil), has erupted onto the French literary scene this autumn, where it has been nominated for several and won one of the country’s top literary awards. Over to the author.
(cf Africultures 12 and 30 for reviews of these novels)

What does the title of your latest novel refer to?
It is the story of an unlucky young man. He loses his parents at a very early age, is forced to travel when he is very young, and finds himself caught up in a tribal war, becoming a child soldier. But he tells himself that as Allah has not been fair on him, « He » is not obliged to be fair with all he creates on earth. And so he, Ibrahima, doesn’t have to be either… It illustrates Muslim fatalism. And the fact that man is responsible for his destiny. He does whatever he wants to.
Can it be read as an initiation tale?
No, it is not an initiation tale, but rather a modern escapade. He goes off looking for his aunt and meets Yacouba, an adventurer and a bank-note multiplier who wants to go to Sierra Leone because death is present and because this is the kind of place where you can make a lot of money when you are a « Grigri man ». It’s paradoxical, but he knows that when death is omnipresent, people are willing to give everything to stay alive. They clutch at anything, and it is in such moments that the grigri has the most value, reality and force.
What made you choose the theme of child soldiers?
It is in fact something which children imposed on me. When I went to Ethiopia, I participated in a conference on child soldiers in the Horn of Africa. I met some who were from Somalia. Some had lost their parents, and they asked me to write something about what they had experienced, on tribal war. They made a big to-do about it! As I couldn’t write about the East African tribal wars I don’t know much about, and as there were wars just next-door to where I live, I worked on Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Adopting an eleven-year-old child’s language affects your writing style. The poetics which were the strength of your preceding works lose out a little. How do you justify this choice?
If people get the impression that the poetic density of the narrative suffers, it is because the realities the child soldiers live are absolutely not poetic. I consider that the tribal wars such as those in Sierra Leone and Liberia should be classed among the most atrocious events of the end of this century. Moreover, that is why I chose to tell the story through a child. Presented in all their nudity, these realities are terrible. Getting a child to speak is a way of bringing out the violence less crudely. Even if it isn’t easy. For the child soldiers are child killers, capable of terrible cruelty and violence. They have nothing to lose. They have lost their fathers, their mothers – some told me that sometimes they were forced to kill their parents in order to be recruited. On the other hand, they still have the innocence of a child. They know nothing and people exploit them. They commit terrible acts without realizing the consequences. I think that it is this innocence which is the most difficult feeling to convey.
You give a violent satire of occultism in Africa and the savageness it gives rise to. Aren’t you worried about giving a simplistic and negative impression of this field?
It isn’t a negative connotation. Africans have always believed in witchcraft and in marabouts and use them in their daily lives. Why hide this? Moreover, they aren’t the only ones. Witchcraft is also practiced in the West. Many Heads of State use it. People have always tried to resolve their problems by using it. I don’t believe in it personally. For if we had been able to draw any kind of force from it, we would have used it not to be subjected to slavery in the United States. We could have avoided colonization. When I say that in Africa, people take me for a White person. I remember during a visit to Libreville, some Gabonese writers took it very badly. I adopt a highly satirical tone vis-à-vis witches and marabouts because I consider them to be people who take advantage of other people’s poverty or naivety in order to make money.
People complain of only hearing about Africa in terms of catastrophes or ethnic conflicts. By exploring this theme, aren’t you worried about contributing to the pessimistic vision of the continent relayed by much of the Western media?
Those who detect a pessimistic vision here are mistaken. The West can try to make people believe that this involves the whole of Africa, but everyone knows that it only concerns a small part. And then, the war in Liberia is almost over, the one in Sierra Leone will be soon. There are over fifty countries in Africa. As I was asked to translate a reality, I felt that I had to stick to the historic chronology of things as much as possible. And why be afraid of the truth? We have to face up to it. Given that people are killing one another, I couldn’t say the opposite. Moreover, for me it is a way of denouncing, of condemning the wrong the people who contribute to keeping this kind of conflict alive do to Africa. Whether they are from Africa or elsewhere. It is true that with regard to Africa, people do not speak much about the things that are going well. But whether I do or not, the West has already constructed a certain image of the continent. However, it would be wrong to believe that I encourage this vision of things.
When « En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages » came out, you were delighted about the progress in freedom of speech in Africa. Since then, your country, Côte d’Ivoire, has suffered a military coup. Do you think that democracy as it is practiced in the West is applicable in Africa?
I don’t think that there are several ways of having a democratic society. And democracy is not a Western specificity. Westerners were not born with it and it doesn’t belong to them. It is a way of thinking and of living. Democracy is imperative, but no one can force it on you. You cannot impose either tolerance nor the fact that you have to accept the other for what he is. As for Côte d’Ivoire, it hadn’t yet experienced the turmoil caused by the Cold War in Africa because Houphouêt-Boigny had the country under control. This is what has just happened with General Gueï and the army’s arrival in power. But even though there has been harassment, even though journalists have been roughed up, it hasn’t stopped people from speaking out. The facts are reported and known to all. There are newspapers, people talk about it in the streets, demonstrate, etc. I never believed General Gueï when he said that he was going to hand over power after organizing democratic elections. And I am sure he will be Côte d’Ivoire’s future president, because in Africa, the army represents the only real force. And as people don’t know how to contain it, they turn to the army.
You often point out that your books aren’t read in Africa. How do you account for this?
It is true. Firstly, Africans cannot buy my books because they cost much too much. Secondly, many are illiterate, and lastly, they do not read. Oh, they read all that involves utility: the newspapers, or medicine or the economy when they practice these disciplines. But they don’t read novels. Once, a friend said to me jokingly: « Hey you, why would I read the stories you make up. Are they true? » People have other preoccupations. And you cannot change mentalities just like that. It takes time. We have no choice.

///Article N° : 5468


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