NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le jardin d'Adalou", a novel by Josette DESCLERCS ABONDIO
Abidjan: Les Classiques ivoiriens, 2012. (312p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
When the looter of dead bodies, Gaston Mandé, stumbles upon a lost child hiding next to her savagely mutilated mother in the middle of the jungle, he thanks Providence and the war: on top of the money and valuables stashed nearby, the little girl who had escaped the attention of the rampaging militia would fetch a good price with child traffickers, and so, his decision to rescue her from certain death. Thus begins Josette Desclercs Abondio's novel, a gripping story, telling of the long and arduous path to freedom followed by the young Espéranza.
Le jardin d'Adalou [Adalou's Garden] is spellbinding, with a zest of mystery, as this coming-of-age story will only reveal the true identity of the protagonist at the end of the novel. Her long journey that began with the dreadful murder of her mother and her flight to an uncertain future in the trail of Gaston Mandé, introduces her to a world full of bad-tempered bullies who abuse her in any way they can. And throughout her childhood and adolescence, many clones of Mandé will take advantage of her. Abandoned by a society that has lost its way, she eludes one ruffian only to fall into the hands of another.
In spite of that, the string of exploitative people who treat her like a slave do not manage to break her spirit and unflagging hope of finding something about her past. Intuitive rather then rationally formulated, her confidence in her own ability to break free from servitude, eventually, seems to be blessed by fate. Her daily life is dominated by the violent deportment of self-appointed masters, but there is always someone ready to rescue her in times of high drama. The large majority of these "saviours" are no white-knights in shining armour though, and more often than not, any positive outcome derived from their nasty pursuits is purely coincidental. Gaston Mandé's decision to rescue her from militia running amok in order to sell her is just one example among many.
In this context, Espéranza should not be in two minds about the string of unsavoury men and women who cross her path: she should hate them all equally: but she cannot do so as she slowly discovers that grave-diggers, sanguinary militia, murderous mercenaries and insatiable ruffians ready to commit all kinds of betrayals and felonies are villains, yet not the main culprits behind war and misery. Unscrupulous stooges were the noticeable face of ugliness, but others were pulling the strings, that is the invisible masters of the game who had to be brought to account for the shameful activities of their underlings. By all accounts, most of the people showing an interest in Espéranza are ghastly individuals who deserve to rot in jail, but a few are repenting of their actions and end, quite unexpectedly, on the side of righteousness.
The French soldier of fortune looking for redemption in the autumn of a dreadful existence dominated by rapine is a case in point. He takes Espéranza under his wing, teaches her to read, and write, and although this small benevolent gesture seems insignificant in the full scale of things, this belated surge of empathy by an otherwise amoral and ruthless thug changes the course of Espéranza's life. So too the close protection provided by an ex-child soldier who has become a fully-fledged trooper that saves the heroine's life. But notwithstanding incidental bits of help, it is mainly her lucky star that allows her to cheat death on numerous occasions. She lacks power of agency, but chance and her innate ability to adapt to the worst of living conditions allows her, not only to survive, but also to get stronger as she grows older. To get wiser too, as she understands better and better the way of the world, eventually taking charge of her own destiny.
The first part of the novel is thus dominated by the young heroine's resilience in the face of the dark forces colluding to make a misery of her life. "The itinerant war that raged in neighbouring Liberia, before spreading from one neighbouring country to the next, across porous borders" (p.5), provides a fertile ground for deprivation and abuse; and it soon becomes apparent that, from the slaughtering of her mother in the middle of the jungle, to her molestation by lustful old men, it is the misconduct of wicked and unscrupulous lowlife rather than war per se that is primarily responsible for the lewd and brutal assaults she has to endure. Her road to freedom is thus independent of the outcome of the war itself, but very much dependent of the behaviour of people involved, one way or another, in the conflict.
She also discovers that her foes are not only armed with guns, but also with a panoply of local traditions used to ensure men' supremacy over women. Thus her growing realisation that irrespective of their age and situation, women are consistently refused freedom of choice and equality. The second part of the novel thus highlights her gradual attempts at substituting the power relationships that has maintained her in thrall to her abusive masters with her right to self-determination; that is, the liberty to engage consciously with like-minded people providing her friendship and support.
As the women she befriends in the Ivorian capital show, men have had much to say in what their womenfolk can and cannot do; and male prerogatives have led to abuses across the board. The fact that husbands can cheat on their wives with impunity, whereas the reverse is not allowed and attracts harsh punishments is but one example. Ergo, Espéranza's active engagement with the women's association of which she, willy-nilly, became the president when, not only one of her friends is bashed to death by her husband, but the "justice" system also fails to convict the criminal husband, who uses and abuses the well-entrenched customary rights of men to beat their wives whenever they want.
One's duty to Justice, though, is not always as clear-cut as Espéranza's very public condemnation of both a murderous husband and a miscarriage of justice. Thus the novel raises a number of interesting moral dilemmas confronting her as her ability to act on her own volition increases: for example, she wonders if it was better to take revenge in the name of justice, or to abandon the past to the past, and to move on in the name of peace? What is the purpose of making a scapegoat of a handful of vile henchmen when the real culprits always remain in the shadows and are never brought to account, she wonders? She is more interested in the future than in past woes, in negotiated peace rather than in outright victory, in matrimonial bliss rather than in marital rights.
In her eyes, love and forgiveness are the trump cards held by Humanity and she does not want, she says, to provide grist for the mill of victims who are cultivating hatred and a spirit of vengeance, repeating ad infinitum the vicious circle of hate (p.294). By the same token, she is keen to accept her responsibilities and to be an agent of change. Inaction and submission feed the insatiable appetite of warmongers, profiteers and abusers, and while she longs for peace, she also feels that she has a moral duty to bring malefactors to account when the opportunity arises. Thus her denunciation of a failing Justice system and her decision to testify against the leading figure of the underworld who killed her lover, attempted to get rid of her, and destroyed her family.
The wars that have devastated Liberia and Ivory Coast have killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly victims of local brigands lost to the blood-lust craving of a mob mentality. But beyond the lawlessness fuelled by greed, ethnic prejudices, pitiless warlords and rogue politcians under the thumb of shadowy masters, the finality of these confrontations is difficult to ascertain, except in the context of the overall interests of powerful forces pulling the strings. Thus, Espéranza's conviction that "in Africa, more than anywhere else, women have been chained to unduly heavy irons forged by powerful hands, greedy and rough; hands that gave and took back, gave again and took back as fast as they gave; greedy hands, thirsty hands, claw-like hands that never let go of their prey for as long as the last bit of virgin land remained unsullied, for as long as the last drop of black blood had not been absorbed by the earth, for as long as desire is put above high principles. [... ] It was undeniable that greed, covetousness and profit had left permanent scars on African women's flesh: in nauseating howls from the back of beyond, overrun by intrigues and ill-understood by ignorant local satraps full of their own importance, and happy to hand over their mothers, their daughters and their sisters to the carnal appetite of a never-ending stream of footsloggers" (pp.256-257).
African women have paid a heavy price for all the wars fought on African soil, and change in traditional gender inequalities, at peace and at war, is a prerequisite for long-lasting peace and social stability. That however, can only emanate from a concerted commitment to change by African women themselves, the narrator suggests. Still, she adds, while the empowerment of women is a necessary condition to improve their lot, it is not sufficient, on its own, to secure lasting peace: baleful external forces are at play and, she argues, women from the International Community would probably have done better in putting the weapons factories of the West under pressure, instead of attempting to coach African women towards feminist thoughts (p.257). Beyond the teasing nature of the latter comment, one can sense an interesting variation on the slogan "Think globally, act locally"; it argues the case for self-determination and claims African women's right to set the agenda of international cooperation. It emphasises both the power and the tenuous nature of people's agency in the context of powerful forces that one needs to understand or, at least, acknowledge in order to succeed. One cannot make complete sense of the local situation without unravelling the covert aims of the protagonists and the external forces brought to bear.
Le jardin d'Adalou tells a captivating story, full of twists and turns. It addresses important issues and shows that the evils that fuelled violence and destructions in Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and many parts of Africa have not only hit women hard, but also strengthened gender inequality. Espéranza is one of the innumerable victims of this sorry state of affairs, but she does not dwell on what might have been in a peaceful Liberia. Rather she deals as best she can with the hand she was dealt, and unwittingly answers the peaceful call to arms launched in 2006 by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first elected woman President in Africa: "I advise all women to follow their high objectives: Go for it! All in all I am glad I am a woman and I think that in Liberia today, it is time for women to show what they can do" .
A recommended read.
1. Mehri Madarshahi. "Interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf". MaximsNews.com, U.N. 17 March 2006. [http://www.maximsnews.com/1006mehrimadarshahi17march.htm Sighted 24 November 2013].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities