NOT TO BE MISSED
"La petite fille des eaux"
A collective novel by Florent COUAO-ZOTTI, Agnès ADJAHO, Gisèle HOUNTONDJI, Gniré DAFIA, Hodonou EGLOSSEH, Anita MARIANO, Mireille AHONDOUKPE, Venance MAHOUGNON SINSIN, Mahougnon KAKPO and Adélaïde FASSINOU
Bertoua, Cameroun: Editions Ndzé, 2006. (96p.)
Ce compte rendu en français
At the beginning of 2001, the story of African children trafficked between Benin to Gabon aboard the Etireno whipped the world media into a frenzy. But, as a journalist wrote a few months later: "When the Etireno finally limped into port in Benin at 2am on April 17, 23 children were taken off. The adults who had been travelling with them disappeared into the night and the media circus moved on, grumbling. With no corpses floating in the sea or chained below decks, they concluded this was aid agency hype" . It was not, and La petite fille des eaux [The little girl by the lake] a short novel inspired by this sorrowful episode of human exploitation, jointly written by ten authors of the region makes instructive reading.
Young Sité is at the centre of the narration. Born to very poor parents in a remote area of Benin, her life takes a turn for the worse when her father becomes sick and is no longer able to work as a fisherman. The family is in dire straits and a neigbour with connections in the city offers to find a good family that could take care of Sité, employ her as a little maid and pay her parents a small amount of money to help them out. Thus Sité's departure from her village for an arduous life in the service of Mà Sika, a callous and brutal mistress.
Not yet 10 years old, and in better circumstances, Sité would have been able to stay at home with her parents instead of labouring from dawn to dusk in the backyard of a rich city-dweller. Yet, as Camille Amouro argues in his foreword, it is not so much sending a child away that is problematic as it often expresses family solidarity in the context of the superstructure failing people's basic needs rather, it is the manner in which children are treated in their host family. Contributing to household chores can be educational and is not incompatible with school attendance. On the contrary, "in some societies, as in my own", Amouro says, "child labour is a part of life's apprenticeship" (p.8). "As far as I am concerned," he adds, "I would have been very unhappy if my parents had forbidden me to make brooms and other artisanal objects for sale when I was little. I attended school where these things were not only authorised, but encouraged." (p.9). Thus for me, "the issue is sending or not sending children away; making or forbidding children to work. The issue is one of intrinsic respect for human dignity, irrespective of age, origin or gender. It is to know that children, in particular, need more social protection than others because of their vulnerability. It means fighting harder than ever the assaults on human rights, and in the first place, assaults on children." (p.9).
La petite fille des eaux illustrates well this point of view. In spite of Beninese common practice of children's placement at an early age, the root of Sité's ordeal is not systemic, but idiosyncratic. It is due to people abusing the system rather than the system itself: it is brought about by the greed, insensitivity and lack of morality of individuals exploiting a child's vulnerability. Adding to the disquieting nature of their transgressions is the fact that the guilty parties are not prototypical nasties, but a range of rather ordinary people surrendering to brutality: e.g., Mà Sika, the bully who flogs her maid senseless for any peccadillos; deviousness: e.g., Daavi, the relative who rescues Sité from Mà Sika, only to sell her to a ring of child-smugglers; depravity: e.g., the crew member of the Etireno molesting a young girl below decks; and greed: e.g., the accomplices, from all walks of life and nationalities, who recruit, transport and sell their unsuspecting victims .
Eschewing ideologies, media sensationalism and a blunt condemnation of tradition, this short novel re-frames the issue of child abuse, from the bottom up: that is from the child's socio-familial environment to the overall principles of children's rights, outlined in the 1989 Convention on the rights of the Child, agreed upon by many States, including Benin . As Camille Amouro puts it: "the humbug, energy and money spent in relation to child-trafficking is, I am sure, no longer due to the trade itself, but to NGOs', journalists' and academics' junkets that, probably, swallow more funds than the amount of cash produced by the trade itself, muddle the issue and remain short of practical solutions" (p.6). Thus La petite fille des eaux's deliberate emphasis on down-to-earth problematics rather then authoritative dictums.
That does not mean that the fundamental principles outlined in the Convention on the rights of the Child are not essential to the wellbeing of children: their right to survival, development, protection and participation are relevant everywhere . But as the ten chapters of the novel demonstrate, it is people rather than rules and regulations that decide the fate and fortune of a child. Sité is born to a caring and loving family, but the disastrous state of the local economy limits drastically her parents' margin for manoeuvre. Faced with the inability to provide for their children, Nanan and Vofo have no choice but to send them away in the hope that life will be better in the city. "Governments should ensure that children survive and develop healthily... Children have the right to live with their parents" the Convention says, but in practical terms, that means very little when the economy is in tatters, the fishing grounds exhausted, the father of the family jobless, resources dwindling and the prospect of starvation is at the door. Sending the children away in search of work may well contravene international conventions, but there is little a depleted Government can do to rescue its most vulnerable in citizens.
And more often then not, it is not the state apparatus that comes to the rescue of abused children when it matters. It is well-meaning individuals: the neigbour who saved Sité from Mà Sika's ferocious blows, and her brother Médé who is most unexpectedly reunited with his sister aboard the Etireno. And like everybody else, officials and police in charge of ensuring the protection of children are responding to the situation according to their own temperament and sense of duty. The commissar who is first informed of Sité's ordeal, following her bashing, is more eager to transfer her case to Cotonou's services for the protection of minors than prosecuting Mà Sika; and the police-woman who takes Sité's statement is not overly concerned with the welfare of a child in need of protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and cruelty sanctioned by the criminal justice system. Even worse is the behaviour of the Gabonese police who arrest, insult and bash Médé, instead of pursuing the people who kept him captive. But as in all things human, there are also the compassionate and caring individuals who make their profession proud; such as the police officer who dismantles the child trafficking ring that held Sité and Médé captive, and the NGO officials who eventually reunite the two children with their parents.
La petite fille des eaux exposes people using traditional ideals for wrong ends in a Beninese context. But the issue of child abuse extends far beyond any specific country and this novel concerns readers of all extractions. As Camille Amouro rightly emphasises, the bashing, neglect and exploitation of children is not restricted to Benin or Gabon, "it is a universal issue, even though one tends to focus on specific regions of the world due to financial reasons and ideological manipulations" (p.9) : even if big issues never call for a single and universal solution, many are indeed of universal concern. Domestic violence, child abuse and domestic slavery cannot be stamped out by universal rules and regulations. It is the capacity of the local community "to mobilise for a just cause" (p.10) that brings about changes in attitudes and makes a difference. Authors Florent Couao-Zotti, Agnès Adjaho, Gisèle Hountondji, Gniré Dafia, Hodonou Eglosseh, Anita Mariano, Mireille Ahondoukpe, Venance Mahougnon Sinsin, Mahougnon Kakpo and Adélaïde Fassinou have done just that in writing Sité's story. Their achievement is also impressive from a literary point of view, as the ten chapters, written by ten different authors, are remarkably coherent and the story-line flows very nicely. Highly recommended reading.
1. "Children of the Etireno". The Guardian, Thursday 4 October 2001. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2001/oct/04/features11.g22]. [Sighted May 15, 2012].
2. "Une esclave moderne" (Michel Lafon, 2000), the life-story of Henriette Akofa who had to perform many years of unpaid domestic drudgery for a French family in France in the 1990 is but another example that shows that greed and lack of empathy is a world wide phenomenon.
3. A Convention ratified by Benin in 1990 and Gabon in 1994.
4. See http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30177.html (Sighted May 15, 2012).
5. The separation of children from their parents has indeed been a worldwide problematic. Just think of the "The stolen generations" of Australian Aboriginal children removed from their parents until the 1970s; of the thousands of children forcibly placed in foster care by the Swiss government until the 1960s (children of unmarried women, divorcees, paupers...); at Child migration from Britain to the rest of the world, where some 100,000 children were shipped to Canada alone between 1899 and 1967. [http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v9n4/buti94_text.html (Sighted May 15, 2012)], etc.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Created: 1 June 2012.