NOT TO BE MISSED
"Tragédie amoureuse au cœur du conflit Bantous-Pygmées", a novel by Estelle Bérangère ITOU ZANZA
Paris: L'Harmattan-Congo, 2013. (154p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
The "Love tragedy at the heart of the Bantu-Pygmy conflict" proposed by Congolese writer Estelle Bérangère Itou Zanza evokes an all too common story of racism and discrimination. Two youths of different backgrounds fall in love and wish to live happily ever after. To no one's surprise, that proves impossible in the context of society's demands: a Bantu's girl does not get married to a Pygmy youth . Racial prejudice can be found everywhere, but it is especially rife in the small village of Boussy-Bongoy, in the heart of the Congolese rainforest, where segregation and the exploitation of the autochthon population dominate social intercourse.
In the eyes of land owners of the region, the Babengas, that is the local Pygmy population, are nothing but sub human creatures and there is no harm, they believe, in subjecting them to rough treatment and unlimited exploitation. Instead of skin complexion, people's size was now being used to deny basic human rights to an hapless minority. Bound in servitude on the strength of an ill-founded segregation, the Bagendas were therefore forced to work for a pittance, beaten senseless at their master's whim and deprived of the necessities of life.
Social inequalities is one of the first things Simone Diké notices as she arrives in the village of Boussy-Bongoy from Brazzaville. She is twenty, obtained her baccalaureate a few months earlier and because she was refused a visa to pursue her studies at a French university, she has decided to accompany her parents to the remote village where her father wishes to spend his retirement.
The welcome she receives in Boussy-Bongoy, after a long boat trip on the Oubangui and Motaba rivers, is overwhelming; but what strikes her most is the fact that people gathered around her, and her parents are clearly divided into two distinct groups: one comprised of her Bantu kinsfolk and the other made up of Pygmies, smaller in stature and going about in rags, almost naked. And she finds it odd when only people of the second group came forward to carry her parents' large amount of luggage to their house.
As she shares her impressions with her mother, Simone soon realises that her parents and relatives' mindset is pretty simple: Bantus were born to command and Bagendas to obey. Things could not be any other way as, they thought, Bantus were far superior to backward Bagendas unable to manage their own affairs. Proper accommodation, decent clothing, health facilities and schooling would thus be wasted on them, they argued, and giving their enslaved labour force a fair reward for their work did not enter their collective mind: a little salt, some alcohol, a couple of cigarettes or a dish of "saka saka with no fish" (p.32) was considered fair remuneration for the Bagendas' arduous work. And while Bantu masters were mean and stingy with money, they were contrastingly liberal with corporal punishments inflicted for minor offences, or even for no good reasons at all.
The sorry tale told by Mandja, a young Bagenda man visiting the Diké family adds to Simone's rude awakening to local reality. He had been beaten senseless after losing his master's gun as he was running for his life during a hunting expedition. But, he said, there was nothing he could do. As Simone soon finds out, Mandja does not fit the stereotypical image of the Bagendas peddled by the Bantus. He is rather good looking, articulate and proud of the little schooling he got in Brazzaville when he was sent there as a domestic child years earlier. Life was relatively easy in the city, he says, but quite lonely; and he had begged his boss to send him back home to his family, a decision he never regretted, even though village life was much tougher. The Bantus had misappropriated his ancestral land, but although subjugated, his folk had managed to remain on their demesne, to keep their language and their family values. No small feat, Simone thought, pondering what could be done to better the life of this battered community.
Faced with this conundrum, she returns to Brazzaville to start university, but her busy schedule does not prevent her from thinking about the plight of Mandja and his people. Nothing short of empowering the Bagendas and exposing the fundamental flaws of Bantus' purported superiority could bring change, she eventually concludes. But it is easier said than done. Nobody in Brazzaville is prepared to support her action, not even her best friend, who tells her: "Doing something wont be easy; it will be a declaration of war. Let the authorities deal with it! You are no match for the Bantus of your village" (p.71). To complicate matters, the issue of indigenous exploitation has spread far and wide across the country and even further afield, thus the apparent pointlessness of an individual attempt challenging well established practices. That, however does not diminish Simone's resolve to do something, and that she does when she returns to the village.
As one can guess from the title of the novel, Simone' s determination leads to tragedy, but it also highlights the unstoppable march of change. The latter is eloquently argued by the narrator. Written by a woman keen to denounce the violation of indigenous people's fundamental rights, this novel exposes the curse of racism and human exploitation. It lays bare the delusions of grandeur peddled by sedentary Bantus and foreign loggers in order to facilitate, and even justify, land grabbing, abuse of power and unseemly behaviour. Indigenous forest-people, she suggests, are vulnerable because they are not properly informed, denied knowledge and manipulated. Thus the need to develop a new kind of relationship between the different ethnic groups based on shared knowledge and mutual respect for others needs and aspirations.
It may or may not be a coincidence that the publication of Estelle Bérangère Itou Zanza's novel coincided with the third edition of the "International Forum on the Indigenous People of Central Africa" that took place at Impfondo in 2014, that is in the very region evoked by the author in her novel. But coincidental or not, both the Forum and the novel reflect current preoccupations with the preservation of the rainforest and an appreciation of the wisdom that has allowed its traditional owners to live in harmony with their environment for tens of thousands of years. The author does not advocate turning back the clock, though, but rather, like the organisers of the Forum, building "a space for exchange aimed at promoting the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge of indigenous as well as local populations, including the development of natural resources, creation of businesses, jobs and improving the living conditions of the local populations" .
After taking stock of the situation, Itou Zanza, like the main character of the novel, realises that change is not only possible but already in train: not only practical changes regarding the Bagendas' rights to property, health and education, but also and more importantly change in people's perception of self and others. The Bagendas have to take charge of themselves, and the Bantus have to admit that, taking advantage of one's workforce does not make one superior to the people they have subjugated. "It will be a long term endeavor" (p.52), the narrator admits, but as journalist Franck Salin recently wrote: "while the taboos remain weighty, mentalities are changing" .
When it was first performed in Abidjan in 1992, Wererewere Liking's play Un Touareg s'est marié à une pygmée. Epopée mvet pour une Afrique présente  was prophetic, yet the marriage between a Tuareg and a Pygmy was most unlikely at the time; twenty years on, Simone Diké's return to her home village, her determination to change the world and her eventual espousal to Mandja, all look far more plausible; and one has little doubt that another twenty years on, similar unions would raise few eyebrows, if any, even in Boussy-Bongoy.
This novel introduces readers to issues that are specific to Central Africa, yet relevant to the world at large; that makes it doubly interesting. The racial prejudices that skew the relationship between the Bantus and the Bagendas are specific to Congo and surrounding countries. But beyond its geographical specificity, the matter in question is universal in scope. The reluctance of many parents to approve of their children marrying outside their class, ethnic group or religion is world wide; likewise is the determination of strong minded young women who transgress social taboos and ordinances inimical to their well being. Education, self motivation and social concerns are the key to people's empowerment. It is so in Boussy-Bongoy and everywhere in the world. And the fact that Simone Diké discovers this universal truth in Mandja's dilapidated hut, rather than in the Sorbonne's inner sanctum, holds lesson for us all. An interesting read.
1. Franck Salin. "Pygmées Bantous: un amour impossible ?" Afrik.com. 29 mars 2011. http://www.afrik.com/artic1e22401.html. Sighted 5 June 2014.
2. Forum International sur les Peuples Autochtones d'Afrique Centrale. http://www.ceeac-eccas.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=359:3eme-edition-du-forum-international-sur-les-peuples-autochtones-dafrique-centrale-fipac-3&catid=21:fipac-3. Sighted 5 June 2014.
3. Salin. Op. cit.
4. Wererewere Liking. " Un Touareg s'est marié à une pygmée. Epopée mvet pour une Afrique présente". Carnières (Morlanwelz): Lansman, 1992. Theater.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities