NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le deuil des émeraudes", a novel by Assamala AMOI
Paris: La Bruyère Editions, 2005. (300p.).
ISBN: 2 7500 0148 X.
Ce compte rendu en français
Ndilé is back home after studying medicine overseas and she works as a local doctor while her friend Iroko is a plantation owner determined to better the conditions of the local growers. They are full of ambition but a major obstacle stands in their way: Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba, the Father of the Nation who does not take kindly to those who set out to challenge his authority. Such state of affairs sounds familiar, but Assama Amoi's variation on the theme in Le deuil des émeraudes [The mourning of the emeralds] is worth a read because it encapsulates the hopes of many, tells an interesting story and eschews worn-out stereotypes.
Life is tough in Koulo. Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba rules the country with an iron hand but people are yearning for change. A new generation of professionals is determined to break the government monopoly and to manage the country more openly. Iroko is one of these resolute young people heralding a new epoch, but his refusal to take heed of Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba's threats against him has dire consequences. Political expediency and summary executions are still the order of the day and he ends up being killed. However, the death of Iroko at the hands of Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba is not presented as a dark and unavoidable outcome of African politics. It is rather depicted as the dictator's last desperate attempt to delay the inevitable end of his regime.
Iroko dies, but his twin sister Shani takes over the direction of The Growers' Association and lives to see the ousting of Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba from office. Shani is indeed an interesting character as she personifies the changes that are taking place in people's mentality and attitudes. At first she is considered the black sheep of the family because she defied her father, had an affair with a married man and did not raise the two children she bore to her lover. Her father's rule, like Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba's, did not suffer any countering and it is only the passing of the old guard that gives her a chance to escape the tyranny of patriarchal rule and outdated punctilios. As the novel progresses, Shani makes her mark and the determination that ruined her life when she was in her twenties later becomes the very asset that allows her to grow into a resolute union leader working for the good of the local community.
Ndilé is also the victim of a regime that demands total subservience to authority. She is barred from working as a paediatrician for ten years by Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba. Ndilé's dedication to her work in a small country hospital comes to naught when she becomes Iroko's best friend and supports him in his endeavours. Like Shani, she is an independent and determined woman ready to fight for her rights: the right to chose her friends, her job, her place of residence and also her likes, dislikes and convictions, without incurring the wrath of her lovers, bosses or parents. Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba and Shani's father cannot contemplate a society based on such individual freedom but they have no alternative to offer except violence and repression, thus the irrelevance of their example and the high human cost of their despotism.
The inhabitants of Koulo in general and Ndilé in particular are searching for alternatives that will foster freedom and justice. However, they realise that change will not come from the top echelons of power. It will rather arise from a transformation of ordinary people's expectations, attitudes and interpersonal relationships. There is nothing didactic in the novel, but Ndilé's association with her entourage highlights some of the features of the required mutation. The recognition of everyone's freedom of choice including women's is possibly the first tenet of Ndilé's philosophy. She is neither prepared to bow to Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba's pressure nor to embrace the role of the dutiful daughter, wife or mother: unlike Shani's father, her's understands that. He accepts that Ndilé puts her independence and freedom before family expectations and social conventions. That attitude results in many casualties that include the lover who is not prepared to leave France when she decides to return home after her study, the married man who does not want to divorce his estranged wife to live with her, the young macho who wants to marry the Health Minister's daughter and keep Ndilé as his mistress, the owner of her flat who spreads lies and innuendo about her, and even Iroko when he is not forthcoming with some uncomfortable truths.
That, of course, does not protect Ndilé from tough times and the suffering of many heartbreaks, but unlike Shani's woes at the hands of her tyrannical father, the challenges Ndilé has to face are of her own making, for better or for worse. Her approach to work is the same. Rather than seeking help from dubious politicians and middle-men in order to better her career, she does her job according to her conscience, without fear or favour. And when she is arbitrarily barred from practising medicine, she does not attempt to fight this decision by compromising herself with Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba and his clique; she engaged in new activities that allow her to keep her independence: her decision to learn the curative virtues of local plants with a traditional healer is but one example.
During an interview, Assamala Amoi said that she "endeavoured to create characters who were not perfect" because "in the real world, people's lives are never straight forward; rather they are rather complex and full of contradictions..." [Amina, http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAAmoi2006.html] One could add that the villains and wrongdoers who crossed our path during the course of our reading are also complex human beings and thus, also offered some however feint justification for their behaviour: for Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba it is the fear of being betrayed by the multinational companies exploiting all the resources of the country and his delusion that he would be greatly missed by "his" people if he was to leave; for the head of the hospital who signed a deposition against Ndilé, it is the gun pointed at his head by the police officer demanding he sign the document; as for sleazy ministers, it is the murky waters of local politics that only reward crime and vice.
This said, Le deuil des émeraudes does not depict an epic fight between good and evil as such dichotomy inevitably leads the good guy of today to become the oppressor in tomorrow's scenario. Ndilé does not want a cosmetic change at the helm but a change in people's attitude at every echelon of society. A change that brings real freedom, humanity and tolerance; changes that create more opportunity for work and for hope. That's Ndilé's dream and readers can share it with the narrator over 297 pages. Unfortunately, the beginning of the 21st century does not belong to the dreamers. It is the iron grip of a rejuvenated "old guard" that curtails people's free-will and liberty, using new weapons but age-old propaganda, engineered fear, racism and the "collateral" massacre of innocent people. Thus the heartbreaking end of the novel that sees Ndilé learning, on the radio, that following the untimely death of the President, Général Bessoulmi is taking charge of the country to restore order. A new Dieudonné Gnamian-Ba is born and it is hard not to share Ndilé's despair as her young son asks her, with the all the innocence of youth: "Why are you crying Man' Ndi ? Why are you crying ?"
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities