NOT TO BE MISSED
"Mes inconnus chez eux", travelogue by Lucie COUSTURIER
Paris: F. Rieder et Cie, 1925. (255p.).
Reedition : Paris: L'Harmattan, Autrement Mêmes, 2003. 2 vol. Foreword by Roger Little.
Ce compte rendu en français
Lucie Cousturier gave an enlightening account of her relationship with the Tirailleurs sénégalais during World War I in a book titled Des Inconnus chez moi [Some strangers in my place]1. Mes Inconnus chez eux [My strangers back home] proposes an equally fascinating account of the author's subsequent travel to West Africa between October 1921 and June 1922. Cousturier's travelogue is irreverent, witty and devastatingly critical of French colonial ventures in Africa2.
Cousturier was commissioned by the Minister for the Colonies to report on African families and women's influence on their children. This provided her with the ideal opportunity to discover the land of the African soldiers who so impressed her during the war. She arrived in Dakar with all the privileges bestowed on French dignitaries but chose, from the beginning of her mission, to pay close attention to West Africa from the bottom up. At every opportunity, she looked for accommodation in family compounds located in the heart of the African quarters. Her Dakar experience is quite typical of her subsequent sojourns in the towns and villages she visited.
"It is very early in the morning ... The address provided by a young Ouolof who had been my pupil in France, led me to the extremity of the craftsmen's precinct ... The yard of sizable dimension that I entered contained only one tree, slightly bigger than our orange tree, a small kitchen-shelter and the dwelling, also made of timber and covered with tiles. The master of the house, resting on a white goat-skin, was finishing the salam ... I mentioned his cousin. He introduced me to his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law and offered me hospitality, as I had no place to stay. And what about my official engagements in the white quarter? They disappeared into the background due to the circumstances. Everything was too easy, too miraculous." (p.11)
By putting aside the assumed wisdom of colonial officials, Cousturier had the chance to make up her own mind about family structures, relationships and living conditions on the basis of direct encounters with the local population. Most of her interlocutors spoke only a few words of French and, on her own admission, she had "little aptitude" (p.89) for learning the local vernacular, thus the importance given to non-verbal communication. What people did, as much as what they said, enlightened her. As she sat at her front door, writing and sketching, the women of the compound were happy to chat with her in a cheerful and easy way just as soon as their husbands had left the premises. Everywhere she sojourned, a continuous stream of neighbours and passers-by came to see her: local nobilities making courtesy calls; people with no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity; a woman who wanted to divorce her aged spouse; others who had been deprived of their children by their husband and who begged her to intercede on their behalf. People of all kinds and, unsurprisingly, Senegalese Tirailleurs who had heard of her coming to Africa.
Paradoxically, their attitude took her aback as she realised they were most unhappy with the French Government and not shy to say so. Scorning her reluctance to hear their plea for help and taking offence at her refusal to acknowledge that she was a representative of a Government which had been wronging them, they were losing patience and, French Military Records in hand, demanded their war indemnities and entitlements. On one occasion the compound even rang to chants of "Moolah, moolah" ("Du pognon, du pognon"). In contrast, official explanation given by the local Administrator was in line with the colonial ethos. To him, the Tirailleurs' rowdy behaviour was due to the crazy promise of financial support and allocations made by Paris's colonial administration; abandoning decommissioned Tirailleurs to their own fate was the only way to go as "Natives only work when they feel hungry" (p.134), he told her. Needless to say, Lucy Cousturier did not share the idea that "Hunger was the best guarantee for the future of the Natives' wellbeing" (p.134) as she wrote with this note of irony characteristic of her style and she attempted to seek alternative explanations for the Tirailleurs' discontent. A great many French colonials, however, did not. The fundamental principles of colonial wisdom were deeply entrenched in the national psyche and their fallacious "truth" continued to be aired unabated throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It was only at the end of the year 2006, almost a century later, that the French justice system was to make some attempt to redress the wrongs of France done to some of the tens of thousands African war veterans: a gesture that meant nothing for the World War I Tirailleurs mentioned by Cousturier who were, of course, long since dead.
Cousturier soon realised, the plight of the Tirailleurs was only one aspect of a multi-faceted exploitation of black Africa. "The native population, she declaims, is this apparatus we came to put into action from far away: a machine that produces taxes, raw material, soldiers ..." (p.75). As one of her interlocutors says, the Africans soon learned that they would inherit nothing but misery as "France was giving nothing back". The system could have worked if "common interests" and "a subtle equilibrium between the parties" had been sought but, she adds, isn't it true that "colonisation excludes subtlety" ? (p.95). Indeed, Mes inconnus chez eux shows clearly that to be so. At every step of her journey, she comes across oafish colonials exhibiting crass behaviour and peddling outrageous ideas: the Deputy arguing that "Africa, being a large devourer of men, black women's main purpose was to "lay" as many children as possible in order to replenish the stock. Her emancipation would be harmful" (p.70); the shrew, Mme Picchini, who accuses her employees of stealing and then sacks them when it is time to pay them; the landowner who called his servant boy a liar when the latter told him he could not swim, then threw him into the river and simply watched him drown (p.101); and many others whose approach to race relations were based on prejudice and crude exploitation.
Lucie Cousturier's travelogue is indeed a vehement indictment of French colonialism. It spares no one and puts together, in the same basket, the Mme Picchinis of the colony, the forlorn officers of dubious morality, greedy colonials and those missionaries who "perform conversions, bread and honey in one hand and the lash in the other" (p.69). Yet, the narrator's style is so entertaining and witty that readers have many occasions to smile, and even to laugh. Cousturier's travelogue owes nothing to the dry and rebarbative compilations of colonialism's excesses. Rather, it proposes a powerful account of the residual difficulties confronting the victims of French colonial enterprise in West Africa. As the writer René Maran said so aptly in 1925, Lucie Cousturier was "two eyes and one heart". What she saw, felt and penned remains little known today, but she certainly belongs among the authors that must be re-discovered by French and African readers alike3.
1. Lucie Cousturier. "Des Inconnus chez moi". Paris: Editions de la Sirène, 1920.
2. Lucie Cousturier. "Mes Inconnus chez eux". Paris, F. Rieder et Cie, éditeurs, 1925, 255p. This review deals with the first volume, reprinted in 2003 with an introduction by Roger Little, and subtitled "Mon amie Fatou, citadine". Volume two "Mon ami Soumaré, Laptot" that reports on the second leg of the journey is also very much worth reading.
3. Hot of the press: Roger Little (Directeur de publication). "Lucie Cousturier, les tirailleurs sénégalais et la question coloniale : actes du colloque international tenu à Fréjus les 13 et 14 juin 2008". Paris : L'Harmattan, 2009, 340 p.
Note added February 11, 2013. Adèle de Lanfranchi's excellent and richly illustrated book dedicated to Lucie Cousturier is highly recommended ("Lucie Cousturier 1876-1925". Chez l'auteure, 2008. ISBN: 2-906130-03-6). It provides invaluable details on her life, family, artistic pursuits, activities as an Art critic, friends, correspondence, arts exhibitions and close association with French neoimpressionist school of thoughts.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities