NOT TO BE MISSED
"Bayembo", a novel by Simone CAZAC-HEBERT
Paris: Editions du Scorpion, 1962. (352p.).
Préface de l'Abbé Fulbert Youlou, Président de la République du Congo.
Ce compte rendu n'est disponible qu'en anglais
Bayembo is a name: that of a Congolese youngster born in the late 1920s, keen to learn, and eager to become a doctor. It is also the title of the eponym novel written by Simone Cazac-Hébert between February 1959 and April 1960, and published in Paris in 1962. Like many other books, this one was for sale on the internet for a few dollars, with its deckle edges still intact except for a short introduction written by the Abbé Fulbert Youlou, the first President of the then new Republic of the Congo. Who was the reader who cut just these few edges, no-one will ever know; but reaching for an old paper cutter, I could not resist the quaint pleasure of setting free a few more pages... and eventually to read the whole book.
As it turned out, Bayembo was an interesting read. It tells the life-story of Okakandé and his son Bayembo chasing their dreams. Seduced by the uniform, the red fez, the rifle and the unmitigated authority conferred to French-African militiamen, Okakandé put his hand up when recruiting officers came to his village and he never looked back. Pursuing his ambitions and rising to the rank of corporal, he then moves from place to place according to his successive postings and assignments. His interactions with French officials, the local priest and a wide range of "colonials" ease his son's enrolment at school and the pursuit of the latter's studies in Brazzaville. Those in charge of the Seminary are keen to see Bayembo become a priest, but the young man does not want to. His dream is to become a doctor, and the novel ends up as he heads off to Senegal, shortly after WWII, to study medicine.
On the whole, Simone Cazac-Hébert casts a sympathetic eye over her characters, Blacks and Whites, but in putting the emphasis on their moral righteousness, she often eschews the dark side of their life and deeds. Take Okakandé for example: He joins the Army because he is attracted by the "unquestioned authority of guards arriving in villages, and demanding in a curt and emphatic tone: "the hut for the Commander ... water, chicken, eggs, men for the Commander" (p. 93). One may thus assume that this power-streak remained part of Okakandé's character throughout his life; that he was no different from the majority of his fellow "Tirailleurs", whose job it was to enforce ruthlessly French pressing demands for tax-money, accommodation, food, porterage, forced labour, etc. But little is said of his work and modus operandi, except that he is dedicated, honest and well-liked by his French boss, the Commander.
Okakandé's multi-pronged assistance to the French crews building the Congo-Ocean Railway between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire is indeed valued by his superiors, but we learn nothing of his conduct as he deals with "teams of Black workers ...who were difficult to manoeuvre" (p.133). We hear about the difficult working conditions of European surveyors and engineers, but nothing of the daily grind of "the big Saras who came from Chad" (p.133) and, little nourished but copiously whipped, were confronted by the worst possible environment and living conditions as forced labour. Neither do we hear of the tens of thousands of lives claimed by the construction of a railway that mainly served the interests of French mining companies . Instead, we hear of the Colony's development, of "the trucks and the trains so handy to cross the country effortlessly" (p.12).
Some unsavoury characters included in the novel also tend to reflect stereotypical ideas of the time as scientific racism was still in vogue, traditional beliefs considered evil, inter-racial unions frowned upon, and children of mixed parentage cast out. It is not surprising then, to read that while "the French Commander was paying for the goods he was getting from the villagers, his right-hand man, the metis Maurice Kombo, was abusing his function and taking, without payment, chicken, sweet potatoes, bananas, fish, etc". Or that people's intelligence was being correlated, not only with complexion, but also with stature: "the Negrille" was at the lower end of the social order. No-one escapes completely the "wisdom" of their time and Simone Cazac-Hébert was no exception, even if one of her characters condemns a rogue White overseer mistreating his work-force and denying them their rightful earnings under the indifferent gaze of his fellow White boss (p.113). As her introduction shows, she belongs to her era, but nonetheless remains keen to understand the world around her in the context of its evolution and turbulent history over the centuries.
While many of her contemporaries still associate evolutionary process with racial and physiological differences, she rather sees people's behaviour, aspirations and appetite for change in terms of mental and emotional factors. The slave-trade curse, the belittlement of African people by the colonisers and forced labour were the real determinant of people's attitudes, resistance to white impositions, and resilience, she argues. Given the tremendous disruptive events that struck Africa over the centuries, she adds, "isn't it amazing to find, still alive, these African societies with their structures, institutions, traditions and ancestral heritage; to be privy to their vivacious way of thinking, poetry, tales and music typically African?" (p.11).
The author is not about disparaging Africa, nor is she into colonisation bashing. Rather she is interested in the future of her adoptive land at a time when it faces many choices and challenges, but the real individuals and the fictional characters populating her novel are standing ready to take the reins of their country. They are keen to join in a loyal and sincere community of Nations where, the author says, they should be warmly welcomed, as, she adds, dubious characters sent by the Kremlin are keen to take over and to implant their distorted Marxism, their rabid materialism and their well-known collective farms, a scenario that would spell the end of all hope (p.13). History tells us that all the villains did not come from the Kremlin as the Congo was not welcomed as an equal partner by the old colonial powers. Instead, narrow economic interests, greed, the Cold War, tribalism and competing ideologies led to political instability, oppression and wars.
Simone Cazac-Hébert's novel takes place in colonial times, but its paratex makes it straddle the political divide between French colonial rule and the very beginnings of an independent Republic of the Congo. In some ways, it encapsulates the hopes of many, Blacks and Whites. It also shows that French national and economic interests did not match the aspirations of many ordinary citizens. Cazac-Hébert's decision to ask the newly elected President of the Congo to preface her novel is a case in point. In seeking the patronage of a well-known African leader rather than a run-of the-mill compatriot, she undeniably signalled a significant shift in the perception of Other. Unlike her compatriot Georges Mazenot, who wrote in the introduction of his Carnets du Haut-Congo, "The vocabulary I used in my notes [in the early 1960s] is often that of the colonists; i.e., not the words used by people with good manners; when one is accustomed to straight talking, one easily convinced oneself that there is no good reason for change" , she sees the need to adapt not only one's attitude, but also one's language and social mores, to the "New Africa" born of the celebrated 1944 Conference of Brazzaville.
Many French civil servants remained in the Congo in "a position of authority" for some years after the Independence, but irrespective of their rank in the administration, personal beliefs and often ingrained racism, they no longer were the almighty rulers answerable to no-one but their Parisian hierarchy. They had to get used to working under Congolese leaders keen to follow their own agenda. President Youlou writing in his preface that "Mrs Cazac is the wife of one of my excellent and close collaborators", leaves no doubt as to who was in charge in 1961. It was neither Mr Cazac nor Mr Mazenot. And while the pride of many die-hard colonials was hurt, many others like Mrs Cazac saw great opportunities to move forward and to establish better relationships between both countries, even if their hopes were short-lived...
Bayembo is an interesting testimony to the perception of Congo's idiosyncrasies by an open-minded Fench colonial women who put her pen to paper in the late fifties-early sixties. It is also a lively record of Congolese geography and history, drawing on Simone Cazac-Hébert's many years in the Congo and extensive travel in the region: no doubt pen in hand. Thus, readers following her characters up-hill and down-dale, are discovering vivid descriptions of the country the way it used to be. The author never lingers, but makes good use of her extensive knowledge, offering a vast array of notable details that root the story in the "real" world. Let's just give an example:
"It was the end of the rail and a long trek awaited them ahead; in short, it was no longer possible to rely on convoys. They had to walk, sometimes by the ancient caravan route, sometimes along sections of the track nearing the future railway and villages that would later become train stations: Loulombo, Kimbei, Loutété , Bouanza, Madingou, Loudima ... between two hundred and fifty and two hundred and seventy kilometers, and possibly more with all the detours they had to make during their difficult and exhausting journey. On top of that, the road was often cut off by landslides due to roadworks and rain, not to mention the major rivers such as the Louvisi, the Loutété, the Bouaboua, the N'kénké they had to ford but which swelled enormously during rainstorms and, in less than two hours, became impassable. Only the Loudima, too deep, had a hand-operated ferry" (pp.125-126).
Other examples describe vividly the colour of the rivers, the weather at different times of the year, the flora, the fauna, the ship movements up and down river, the local customs, the numerous ethnic groups living along the river or inhabiting the densely populated shanty-town of Poto-Poto, etc. Similarly, the footnote printed at the bottom of page 131 indicates that many an incident included in the novel may well be borrowed from news items reported by the press at the time. Okakandé is a fictitious character, but the funeral of a villager who fell and subsequently drowned while carrying a device used to measure ground level did exist, as the accident is based, the footnote says, on a real "accident which befell one on the men of the team of Mr Romano, Engineer of the C.F.C.O."
This blend of reality and imaginative reporting fits well the novel's rich and evocative style. It gives substance to a well-crafted plot that indeed makes for pleasant and worthwhile reading: a pleasure certainly missed by the anonymous reader of yesteryear who failed to discover the interesting story hidden between this novel's uncut deckle edges.
1. Gilles Sautter, "Notes sur la construction du chemin de fer Congo-Océan 1921-1934", "Cahier d'études africaines" 7-26, 1967, p.230 [http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/cea_0008-0055_1967_num_7_26_3098] sighted November 10, 2014].
2. Georges Mazenot, "Carnets du Haut-Congo 1959-1963" Paris: L'Harmattan, 1996, p.8.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Created: 11 May 2015