NOT TO BE MISSED
"Détonations et folie", a collection of short stories by LISS (KIHINDOU)
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2007. (140p.).
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Over the decades, the Republic of the Congo has been marred by many coups d'etat and civil wars. These turbulent events have led to unrestrained abuse of the local population. Détonations et folie by Liss Kihindou evokes such tragedy during the war of 1997-1998, the anguish of the victims and the long term sequelae on ordinary citizens subjected to both the violence of the militia and the exactions of the looters.
For all the attachment of the Congolese people to their homeland, way of life, celebrated music and flourishing literature, there is also lingering anguish among the population, as many victims of the war are still grieving over irremediable losses: the demise of parents and friends, the loss of dignity, of work and material possessions. The first lines of the volume's dedication expresses well these harrowing experiences.
Bereaved of loved ones, many people had also to face starting again from nothing upon returning to their looted homes: the story of the unfortunate family losing everything, down to their last dinner-plate and saucepan, just nine months after suffering a similar plight, is evocative of a predicament common to thousands. Umpteen had to seek refuge with parents in different suburbs or towns, others in the countryside, living off the generosity of local farmers; and those who fled overseas had little hope of a quick return home.
The mood prevailing in the country as the conflict ended was indeed sombre but, as the second part of the dedication posits, while it was difficult to guess what tomorrow held in store, everyone had to give the future a go. Fear and despair could not be brushed aside, but an indomitable yet painful belief in life, peace and freedom helped people to move on. Despondency and hope dominated the aftermath of the conflict and they were also the forces that drove people's deportment when the war erupted.
These competing impulses lie at the centre of this collection of stories which relates war experience from the perspectives of different people confronted by similar adversities: contradictory rumours, fighting nearing their home and the terrifying noise of heavy-artillery-fire that leaves little choice but to flee for one's life. And the roadblocks that are popping up everywhere, controlled by armed gangs, make the dreadful situation that befell innocent civilians even worse.
No-one seems to know exactly what sparked the war, but "the only thing clear to all is that the Lumoso is now the Lubakala's worst enemy, and vice versa" (p. 111). Hatred is ferocious and people's origin often decides if someone will live or be molested or even killed depending on the faction one encounters along the arduous road to exile. Nobody is safe, and the author provides invaluable insight into the mind and attitude of individuals confronted by the savagery of men who have been granted unlimited power over their country's folk, including the right to rape, maim, abduct and kill at will; men who see themselves as the "Masters of the world" (p.43). What should one do, or rather will do when neighbours begin to flee? when thugs seize one's daughter to gang rape her? when one's father dies after a severe beating or a summary execution? when everywhere death looks one in the eye?
The range of situations and characters proposed to the readers in answer to these questions, and more, have been well chosen. As a whole, the ten short stories testify to behaviours that run the gamut from bravery to craven abdication of morality. There are people fleeing at the first sign of conflict and others who, refusing to be pawns in the hands of rabble-rousers, try to stay home often with deadly consequences; those who deal as best they can with the pounding of their neighbourhood by rockets, lack of water, electricity and food, not to mention the threats of competing militias. There are teachers of different ethnic origins banding together to protect their schools. There are mothers and fathers, begging on their knees for the release of their children and braving the deadly fury of roadblocks, rapists and molesters; girls clenching their teeth and submitting to their fate to save their parents; individuals putting their life on the line to help family and friends to get some food or accommodation.
Bravery is everywhere to see, but so too despicable crimes by sinister malefactors, ranging from the drugged militia-men to the unscrupulous looters; from the pastor calling his flock to support one side of the war from the pulpit to "the crooks who decided to disturb the people by the spectacle of war in order to arrogate, surreptitiously, their property" (p.78). The author does not dwell on these faceless people pulling the strings from afar, as her concern is for the ordinary person on the ground. She is interested in the victims, the strongest as well as the weakest, the good hearted and the wastrels, the ones destroyed by drugs and those just determined, strong-willed and resourceful.
Many men would fit this last category, but Détonations et folie suggests that, on balance, far more women do. People like Mayele-Esili, the self-made business-woman who runs her life as she pleases, who managed to cut her losses during the previous war and is not prepared to lose it all this time around. Her occasional lovers and influential friends in the army are nowhere to be seen; but despite her lack of male protection, she keeps a cool head and plans carefully her flight from turmoil, devising the best ways to outwit the unavoidable thugs erecting roadblocks. The same strength and determination drives the teenager who decides to treat her family to a proper meal while severe food shortages have left everyone famished. So too the single mother who decides to stay in her house because "whatever one does, one has to be consistent with oneself" (p.100); and her gut feeling tells her that the time to leave has not come.
The attitude of these female characters is interesting as it suggests that the proverbial "courage" of the African woman who grins and bears it in the face of adversity has been superseded by a new, self-confident persona; one who no longer doubts her own ability to take charge, acts resolutely in trying circumstances and changes the world around her. The young mother who takes charge of her infant children after her husband was shot dead in cold blood in front of her family is another case in point. When she advises her in-laws of her decision to leave them, declaring: "I lost my spouse but I do not propose to lose any of my children. The blood of my husband is quite enough" (p.132); she is asking permission from no-one and takes full responsibility for her action.
The majority of the short-stories of the volume are told by insiders whose first person reporting rings so true that readers will quickly forget that they have a book of fiction in their hand. But have they? Obviously, characters, names and situations came out from the author's creative power; but beyond the nuts and bolts of the narrative that successfully blends the ten short stories in a reader-friendly and coherent whole, the volume proposes, without question, a sensitive, compassionate and genuine testimony to the resilience and human endurance of the Congolese population during the 1997 civil war that ravaged the author's home-land.
A statement printed on the back-cover reads: "In many countries, people have been confronted by the critical vicissitudes and violence of civil war. Nothing will ever be the same for them. All will have to contend with the fear of the hatchet re-emerging. And when it is brandished, no one knows exactly what one will be forced to endure". Liss Kihindou's short stories put flesh on the bones of the dry news reporting on military engagements whose ultimate goal always remains evasive, local casualties ignored, innocent victims considered mere "collateral damage", and droves of hapless civilians sent away on a hellish road to nowhere. In bearing witness to the hardships endured by her compatriots almost two decades ago, the author also gives a voice to today's unfortunate people engulfed by civil war the world over: people unable to find a safe haven, either at home or beyond the borders of their native land, and longing for "a little piece of the Earth where they can find peace and unload their fears" (back cover).
A fine collection highly recommended.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities