NOT TO BE MISSED
"Bayo, la mélodie du temps", a novel by Sokhna BENGA
Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes/CEDA, 2007. (328 p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Bayo, la mélodie du temps by Senegalese writer Sokhna Benga proposes an engaging family saga, well worth reading. Sabel, a woman born in poverty in the early 1940s has become a rich and celebrated writer at the turn of the millennium. However, acclaim, love and personal success do not make life any easier when it comes to guiding five children toward adulthood. Neither can they erase the memory of an absentee father, the premature death of her mother and years of bullying by her grandmother. Mixed feelings and emotions cohabit in the narrator's mind; people come and go and the meaning of life is hard to fathom, thus "in the face of death, Sabel says, there is only one thing of significance: the good one leaves behind". (p.320)
These words of wisdom appear to be beyond contention, however the main interest of the book is to show that life is never as easy as it seems. To begin with, doing the right thing for someone else's "own good" often leads to the worst possible outcome. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and it is definitely resentment, jealousy and injustice that Sabel's grandmother Yaye Daba leaves behind when she passes away. In disowning her pregnant daughter Ken "for the good of the family", in failing to understand the real hopes and ambitions of her children for the same reason; and in bullying Sabel into becoming her little maid after the death of Ken, she shows the potentially destructive nature of rigid customary social practices and beliefs.
Everything good that happens to Sabel is thus associated with breaches of her grandmother's authoritative rules. As a matter of fact, her very existence is the result of such a transgression. Her mother's refusal to bow to the demand of her own mother and her refusal to seek an abortion was indeed a defining moment. Later on, it was Uncle Ceen's decision to send Sabel to school against the will of Yaye Daba that changed the course of her life. And it was Uncle Déthié's open-mindedness and support that gave her the opportunity to escape her grandmother's rigid ideas regarding women's role in society: "My mother, Déthié said, is a person convinced that everything that does not revolve around her is useless. But you cannot continue like that, Sabel. Our country is in full mutation. We have a duty to contribute to its development ... You have to make yourself useful!" (p.73). Déthié's subsequent decision to give her Yaye Daba's house when the latter dies, provided the young woman with a financial independence that allowed her to become the master of her own destiny. So too was her decision to marry Kader, the man she loved, instead of Samba, the heir of a rich family that Yaye Daba had in mind for her.
In spite of the hardship and injustices befalling her, courtesy of Yaye Daba, Sabel remains a dutiful child, showing respect to her elders. But while abiding local and familial etiquette, she also becomes a "modern" woman whose values and ideals have little in common with those of her grandmother. The latter is tough and autocratic, Sabel, soft and forgiving. Yaye Daba is a majestic and self-centred woman of ample proportions, insisting on girls staying home, marrying into good families and submitting blindly to their men-folk and elders. In contrast, Sabel wants girls to be independent, to go to school like the boys and to be respected for who they are rather than for what their father or husband does. To her, neither social intercourse nor peer recognition and good manners should be an end in itself. Rather these should be congruent with people's engagement in the service of the community.
Hence, a supportive yet permissive attitude to child-rearing, one offering plenty of freedom for children of both genders and the opportunity to chose what they wanted to do superseded the strict, arbitrary and authoritarian approach imposed by Yaye Daba a generation earlier. But as one knows, parents' best efforts, financial and otherwise, are not a foolproof guarantee that their offspring will take the path to success and happiness as a matter of course. The rocky road of Sabel's children is a case in point. In spite of the warm and cosy family atmosphere she manages to create, in collaboration with husband Kader, when the children reached adulthood many things turned out differently from what Sabel had hoped for: her youngest daughter becomes a drug addict and dies of an overdose. Her eldest daughter moves to the United States, marries a fity-something compatriot and decides to stay overseas. Her youngest boy settles in France and marries a French woman. The daughter who graduates in Medicine becomes obsessed with money and the oldest brother gets a sixteen year old girl pregnant and marries her before turning to Islamic fundamentalism, growing a beard and demanding his young wife "wear the veil, like Afghan women". (p.317) "When I call his place, Sabel says, they tell me he is at the Mosque... When I turn up, he is never there. I had the usual mother's temper tantrum, but it was to no avail. Now, I just let go. He has reached the age of consent! But something is telling me that I am losing my son in the worst possible way. Death, in time, is something one can assume. But a deliberately engineered detachment, there is nothing like it to destroy the heart of a mother". (p.317)
One the one hand, Bayo, la mélodie du temps is telling the tale of a strong and tremendously successful woman who appears to have it all: a loving husband, a nice family, job satisfaction, plenty of money, peer recognition, fame and much more; but on the other hand, this fine novel is also voicing the harrowing journey of a sensitive woman, haunted by her past and afflicted by life's absurdity and ferocious unpredictability. It is the tension resulting from the narrator's irreconcilable feelings of complete success and absolute failure that drives the narration and provides a fascinating take on contemporary life in Senegal. Bayo, la mélodie du temps depicts the lot of the rich and famous, but in doing so it shows the little value of socio-cultural indicators, such as power, wealth and social recognition when it comes to existential matters. There is not a single character in the novel for whom the old saying that "money doesn't buy happiness" does not hold true.
Other compelling aspects of the novel add to its appeal: one of them is the composite account of Senegal's history over the past sixty-odd years that articulates the points of view of a wide range of different people. Another is the fine analysis of everyday life for a family of Dakar's intelligentsia. Furthermore, the vivid depiction of Senegalese youth brimming with energy is well-suited to a brisk narrative tempo. Unexpected series of events keep readers on the alert and a highly believable main character adds to the depth of feeling expressed in the novel. Bayo, la mélodie du temps is definitely a very good novel and I have no doubt that it will capture the imagination of many readers for years to come.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities