NOT TO BE MISSED
"La quête infinie de l'autre rive", an epic in three songs by Sylvie KANDE
Paris: Gallimard, 2011. (108p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
In the early 1300s, King Aboubakar II of Mali left with two thousand canoes bound for America. Nobody quite knows the fate of Aboubakar II's odyssey and Sylvie Kandé's "epic in three songs" surmises a likely unravelling of this expedition of discovery aimed at testing the outer limits of the sea. This epic voyage still resonates with todays young Malians' "quest of the other shore" and, in calling into question European's "discovery" of America and current African immigration to Europe, the author reveals the hidden depths of Africa's history.
Altogether the style, rhythm, vocabulary, structure and poetic nature of the narrative provide much entertainment. Furthermore, the author believes firmly in the power of the imagination to bypass the servitudes of historical methodologies that look for definitive answers. That brings to the fore fictitious, yet very likely scenarios. In this context, what is of interest here is not to "prove" that Aboubakar II sailed to America, but to imagine different story-lines that would relate the final outcome of his endeavour. What happened to him after he left? That is what Kandé ponders, and her first alternative is not a celebration of a great success. The epic begins in a more dramatic fashion: readers are thrown among starving and exhausted rowers who have been battling the sea for ages and are contemplating the bleak prospect of an unavoidable demise:
Only three of the departing canoes are still afloat and morale is plummeting: the King realises that he has no answer to the quest that led him to the edge of the world, but he remains sovereign, confident in his belief that his journey in search of truth and knowledge was more important than its practical outcomes. "The pilgrimage is not determined by the ultimate fate of the pilgrims" and "the renown of the brave is eternal". (p.37) But when the King passes away, many of his bereaved subjects and companions are losing faith. Some of them cannot see the point of pursuing the dream of their departed monarch any longer; others lament Mali's lost paradise, and a few suggest that Aboubakar II has been punished for challenging God by chasing a chimera inspired by an illusory pretence to human wisdom.
The expedition is doomed, but there is one voice that eventually dominates all the others, that of Nassita Maninyan, the King's griotte, who galvanises the party into fighting the odds to the bitter end and never to admit defeat. "Keep rowing" she says. Never mind the outcome, keep fighting the waves, sail close to the wind, look death in the eye and keep writing a tale that will give you immortality.
Arguably, writing oneself into eternal glory is no easy feat, especially when one is an African legendary figure who disappeared without trace. Not surprisingly then, Aboubakar II's ill-documented voyage to the Americas has not held much sway in shaping the History of the West. Yet, as Sylvie Kandé argued in a recent interview, "when history remains silent for lack of archival materials, or because of its concern with objectivity, literature can pick up the baton and objectify forsaken worlds, dreams and idiosyncrasies". What modern history cannot do, literature can, without being dismissed or even savaged for lack of strong evidence.
Yes, the fate of Aboubakar II's armada remains a mystery, but a lack of "convincing" evidence does not precluded one from ideating its fortunes. The whole party might well have been lost at sea as Kandé's first song suggests, but it could just as easily have been successful, thus belonging alongside the many voyages led by skilled African navigators of ancient times who made it "to the other shore" and managed to reach America well before Columbus' "discovery". As yet, no one can "prove it conclusively", nor can anyone tell for certain that Aboubakar II, following the stars, did not lead his party safely to the other side of the world. Who can prove that he did not land safely on American shores? No-one. Hence Kandé's resolve to consider another version of the tale in her second song:
Reviewing the fate of the expedition at the edge of the possible, first entails establishing the motives and personality of the King who launched it. According to fourteenth century historian Ahmad ibn Fadl Allāh al-Umarī, Aboubakar II did not embark lightly on his expedition. Two hundred boats full of men, gold, water and victuals sufficient for several years of travel had been sent across the sea on a reconnaissance mission beforehand. One of the boats returned many years later, providing invaluable information; and it was based on the account of the equipage of the boat that Aboubakar II decided to set sail with his imposing flotilla, two thousand strong. A sovereign in search of knowledge could hardly resist the lure of new territories lying at the edge of the sea. The dangers awaiting him along the way were real, but the prospect of safely reaching his destination and returning home seemed no doubt reasonable to him. The erudite monarch of a superpower , one bursting with knowledge about the land and the sea would not have left his kingdom otherwise.
It is indeed possible that Aboubakar II's canoes crossed the sea and landed safely on American shores in the 1300s. That being the case, it would certainly justify revisiting many an history book. And for Kandé it is also an opportunity to pursue a new line of interrogations. Did an elated Aboubakar II escape mighty winds and currents only to fall victim to the inhabitants of the New World reacting swiftly to the threatening intruders coming from the sea? Was it the fate of the King's army to deal the lethal blow on American soil, to be sent to eternal rest at the end of an epic battle, where men fought valiantly to the last at the battle cry of "Mali Mali"? Possibly.
Yet this sorry end of the tale would be more plausible had Aboubakar II displayed a keen affinity for war and conquest; but
Thus the request made to the narrator to play to the gallery, to entertain her audience with some more advantageous ending: one that would do justice to the monarch's keen mind and astute understanding of the dangers that would have awaited him, had he followed the age-old tradition of marching to war, "inflicting upon everyone concerned all the miseries that people are so enthusiastic about when they mistakenly opine to the common idea that others are necessarily hostile".(p.78)
Eager to please, Kandé-the-jester reversed course once more. And instead of telling afresh the demise of Aboubakar II and his men, she recounts for every one to hear, how wisdom rather than force allowed the tale to continue and to take eternal flight. No battles, no killings mar the last chapter, but rather a contest of wills between two great kings gauging their respective strengths, challenging each other and, finally acquiescing in making peace and living side by side at the edge of the sea: "Africa and America in marriage, even before either of them knew their name".(p.81) This marriage of reason, alas, only held its promises of peace and prosperity till others boats reached the coveted shores a few centuries later.
As time went by, Mali's tremendous wealth and power waned and the achievements of the great kings of the past faded away; but Malians' attraction for "the other shore" took a new turn. Twentyfirst century drifters, pushed by economic necessity, are indeed different from their forefathers, but once at sea on their little rafts they are sharing much of their antecedents' fears, suffering and privations at the mercy of capricious elements. Today like before, the seas often challenge human hopes and pretence, swallowing indiscriminately the rich and the poor.
Navigation aboard ill-equipped small boats carrying hopeful youth, attracted by the lure of a better life "on the other side", is no safer this day than it was for those embarking on the dugouts in the fourteenth century. Like the heroes of the tale, modern wanderers have to face an ordeal punctuated by violence, hunger, death and all the evils awaiting them beyond the horizon. And like Nassita Maninyan, the King's griotte in Kandé's first song, a young passenger rises to the task in the last chapter of this ongoing story. When everything seems to be lost, he challenges his fellow travellers who are losing hope and keeps chronicling their uncertain flight towards freedom. The Wheel of Fortune keeps turning, but for better or for worse, life is a constant succession of new beginnings, an aggregate of hopes and despair, and the fate of faceless millions who have been pushed to the periphery of history continues to give meaning to never-ending Malian voyages of discovery across the centuries.
During an interview, Kandé said: "the epic is not only a genre: it is first and foremost the expression of an imaginative mind". One could certainly paraphrase these words and argue that this monumental epic is not only a story: it also a convincing case made by an ingenious writer who shows that it is indeed possible to read history beyond the facts attested by the scribes.
La quête infinie de l'autre rive "evokes the tribulations, triumphs and reflective thoughts of those who, due to their taste for adventure, thirst for knowledge or economic necessity, decided to brave the Atlantic in their small boats".(p.14) The style is awe-inspiring, the story riveting and the debunking of some great historical myths fascinating. Definitely a book to read for those prepared to concede that, after-all, Christopher Columbus was indeed not the one who "discovered" America.
1. "Sylvie Kandé entre deux rives". Entretien de Boniface Mongo-Mboussa avec Sylvie Kandé. Africultures. 17 mars 2011 [Sighted 24 May 2011]. http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=9997
2. See for example Ivan Van Sertima. "African Presence in Early America". New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992.
3. The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach to that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, as many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current. But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life." (Edited version of an article originally written by Professor Mohammed Hamidullah). http://www.muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=646 [Sighted 24 May 2011]. Original source: Ibn Fadl Allah al'Omarī. Masalik al Absar fi Mamalik el-Amsar. French translation by Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1927, pp. 59, 74-75. [Not sighted].
4. The tremendous wealth and power of the kings of Mali was on display during their travel in and out of the kingdom. For example Arab historian al-Umari wrote: "Mansa Musa is mostly remembered for his extravagant hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca with 100 camel-loads of gold, each weighing 300 lbs.; 500 slaves, each carrying a 4 lb. gold staff; thousands of his subjects; as well as his senior wife [...] Al-Umari also states that Mansa Musa and his retinue gave out so much gold that they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its value to fall". http://blackhistorypages.net/pages/mansamusa.php [Sighted 24 May 2011].
5. "Sylvie Kandé entre deux rives". Entretien de Boniface Mongo-Mboussa avec Sylvie Kandé...
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities