NOT TO BE MISSED
"Rebelle", a novel by Fatou KEITA
Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes, 1998. (232p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Ivorian writer Fatou Keïta is best known for her children's books, but Rebelle is definitely a novel worth reading by people of all ages. It tells the story of a young girl married against her will and it challenges vigorously social norms holding women to ransom. Of course, arranged marriage it not the only woe threatening female teenagers and Fatou Keïta's novel also brings to the fore a string of issues that are still very much in the news today: circumcision, lack of education, unwanted pregnancies, polygamy and domestic violence.
How then is it possible to write such an uplifting novel amidst such doom and gloom? Well, the answer is simple: Malimouna, the main character of Rebelle, is the quintessential heroine beautiful, clever, enterprising, obstinate, dedicated and successful. She has to come to grips with the worst of what the world has to offer, but always manages to turn the tables and to show what the best may look like.
Malimouna lives in the small village of Boritouni, 800 kilometres distant from the capital city. Customary law reigns supreme in this remote part of the country but, quite miraculously, the little girl has escaped the ordeal of circumcision. However, this stroke of good luck soon turns to tragedy as her husband "discovers with horror" (p.39), on their wedding night, that she has been spared the customary mutilation. But before the old man has time to decide what to do, Malimouna thumps him on the head and flees as fast and as far she can. Thus begins this coming-of-age novel that sends the heroine on her way and follows her journey through life. Each challenge thrown at her is both a bane and a boon that provides the author with an opportunity to tackle the important issues besetting her contemporaries. The precarious conditions of maidservants at the hands of the rich and famous is just the first of them.
Soon after landing in the far-away city of Salouma, still wearing her wedding clothes and gold jewellery, Malimouna struck it lucky and finds work as a babysitter with a young French family. The children are sweet and their parents very kind, but Mr Perfect soon begins to notice that their nanny is quite attractive and his wife terminates the former's employment. In the new family to which she is sent, things get even worse as her employer tries to rape her in her own bedroom. That, of course, leaves Malimouna no choice but to flee again. This all too common scenario begs the question of how many young maids are molested by their patrons, with no way of escape? How many are just dismissed when they fall pregnant and are sent back to their village by indignant mistresses who are punishing them, instead of their unfaithful husbands? An important issue is raised by the narrator who puts the blame squarely on these men who believe they can do anything with impunity.  But for Malimouna, who finds herself on the street with no roof over her head and no money, there are no means of redress and more pressing issues on which to concentrate, since the assault takes place in France where her employers are holidaying.
To say that the young teenager feels cheated would be an understatement: she feels abandoned, depressed and hates the way people are looking at her. But as it happens, luck is again on her side when she finds shelter in a church and is subsequently given hospitality by a pastor and his wife. This delightful couple welcomes the young wanderer with open arms. However, even blissful moments have their dark shadows: it is not long before these unconditional believers of the Christian faith begin to proselytise. And their attempt to convince her that Jesus is the only path to salvation makes her feel increasingly baffled, despondent and sad: Is it possible that the religious fervour and devotion closely entwined in Boritouni's every activity were of no value? Is it possible that her whole family was destined to burn in hell because they do not know Jesus?... And could it be possible that her dear mother, who brought her up to respect piety and charity, a woman who was the personification of goodness, should be cast to the devil because she was born in the East rather than in the West? (p.72) The only answer Malimouna could come up with is, of course, in the negative. Well-meaning as they may be, the pastor and his wife only widen the gap that separates her from her roots; thus her decision to leave once more.
The "black ambiance" (p.77) she finds in Paris when she settles in a small enclave of the megalopolis mainly inhabited by people of African descent soon soothes her metaphysical angst. The people of many creeds and cultures who live in harmony give her the reassurance she needs. But this small piece of Africa in the heart of Paris is also the theatre of nasty behaviours: oppression and violence against women bring back Malimouna's painful memories and a sense of déjà vu. Arranged marriages by far-away families who send a wife to their sons and, young brides abused by tyrannical husbands who neither love nor respect them, are legion. Her neighbour Fanta is a case in point. Her dream to go to school is quickly squashed when she gives birth to four children within the first four years that follow her arrival. She is bashed by her husband when he discovers that she has asked a doctor to put her on the pill and things get worse when the family decides to have their oldest daughter excised: Fanta ends up in prison after the young girl dies at the hand of her tormentors.
Devastated by Fanta's uncritical submissiveness to outdated customs and her friend's imprisonment that seals the fate of the entire family, she measures the difficulty of helping others against their will. The challenge to do so becomes even greater as Malimouna embarks on making one of her dreams come true when she becomes a qualified social worker. As her own experience had taught her, freedom is contingent on instruction and financial independence, but the very thought of their wives gaining some kind of independence infuriates the husbands of the women she tries to help. To make matters worse, Malimouna commits what is considered a cardinal sin in the eyes of her compatriots: she falls in love with a white man. Paradoxically, on a personal level, her life is again drifting away at the very moment it gets better and easier.
Malimouna and her partner Philippe's relocation to Africa only accentuates the unbearable hiatus between two worlds that refuse to enter into a meaningful conversation and are happy to survive side-by-side with their own idiosyncratic and stereotyped ideas. Malimouna and Philippe who has been appointed Director of Saloum's French School have swapped their spacious Parisian apartment for a nice cottage in Saloum; they have left the company of well-educated whites lambasting the racaille of the banlieues only to befriend other well-educated white expatriates berating their black neighbours and employees. For their part, the black African population considers white immigrants with a similar disdain and suspicion, putting Malimouna in a very difficult situation as she would like to be recognised as belonging to both universes. Thus her increasing desperation when her compatriots look down on her because of her liaison with a white man (p.122) and when her white friends keep telling her that she is "different from the other Africans" (p.134). Nothing useful can be done at the intersection of two worlds that refuse to meet and mingle openly. This sorry state of affairs seals the end of Malimouna's relationship with Philippe, even though it is otherwise the most blessed, romantic and loving partnership. But people have to feel they belong somewhere and it is time for Malimouna to tackle from within some of the ills of Africa.
True to form, her subsequent marriage to compatriot Karim begins auspiciously, but it is not long before her husband shows his true colours. After encouraging his wife to stay home in order to take care of the children, he takes a second wife, then attempts to gag Malimouna when she decides to speak openly against sexual mutilation during a meeting of the Women's Association which she chairs; Karim eventually organises her kidnapping and return to Boritouni where her first husband's family is waiting for her in anger. However a good angel will once more save her in the nick of time and spare her the wrath of revengeful in-laws and bruised elders.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Malimouna's epic journey, then it is that change will always win against reactionary forces, but the process is made far more painful than it ought to be owing to deep-rooted sexism, racialism and parochialism. Rebelle is an open invitation to women and men alike to give practical meaning to the notions of gender equality, dialogue, social responsibility, individuals' freedom and justice for all.
1. Isaïe Biton Koulibaly. "Rebelle de Fatou Keïta". "Amina" 344 (déc. 1998), p.80. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAKeïtaF2.html Sighted 10 February 2010]
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities