NOT TO BE MISSED
"Histoire d'Awu", a novel by Justine MINTSA
Paris: Gallimard, 2000. 116p.
Ce compte rendu en français
Histoire d'Awu [Awu's story] by Gabonese author Justine Mintsa tells the fortunes of an entrepreneurial young woman who lives with her husband and family in Ebomane, a remote community little influenced by the latest fads. Custom reigns supreme and the village has been left to its own devices. This, however, does not mean that Awu is a pawn in a rigid and amorphous social structure. On the contrary, she is forward-looking and energetic in her pursuits because, Mintsa suggests, good and evil are located in people's inner soul rather than social agency. Furthermore, she adds, both male and female individuals are susceptible to become either role models or no-good layabouts.
Awu, her husband Obame and his sister Akut illustrate the point. Obame is a decent sort of fellow, respecting his wife, his family and his pupils. He worked hard to become a teacher and never eschews his responsibilities of which they are many, because not only does he get a steady and coveted income from his teaching position but, aged fifty, he is also a community elder. A gentle man, he does his best to comply with the social, familial and job-related duties imposed upon him.
In contrast, Akut has rebelled against all forms of authority from an early age. She "turned her back on school" (p.31) because, she said, it was too hard. She refused to get married because it was too constrictive (p.32) and, in the face of compelling failures, she eventually transported all her ambitions onto her daughter Ada who was promptly disowned and thrown out of home when she fell pregnant, shattering her mother's dreams of easy fame and glory.
To an obliging Obame, being mindful of local praxis means taking whatever destiny is handing him: conforming to expectation and doing his best for the good of the community. Thus his resolution to take care of his niece Ada in her hour of need. But to a self-centred and venomous Akut, walking the path of social intercourse, rather means dismissing duties, chores and unpleasant business befalling her and overplaying her customary rights at every opportunity. She has no qualms about abandoning her daughter to the care of her sister-in-law despite the family elders demanding that she care for her pregnant daughter, but is the first to call upon her customary right to batter, rob and insult Awu at the time of Obame's funeral.
Between these two opposites, Awu is a woman who behaves according to the rules but reserves the right to bend them when the wellbeing, repute and indeed the survival of the family are at stake. Unlike Akut, she graduated from school, became a teacher and a skilled dressmaker selling embroidered linen. That occupation guaranteed her a steady income which allowed her to complement her husband's salary. Later on, after Obame had to retire and failed to get his old-age pension, it was she who began supporting not only her own family, but also the many leeches notwithstanding a few genuinely needy individuals who used to feed on her husband's generosity, including Akut and a mob of good-for-nothing nephews. A tough responsibility, but one she assumed with no recriminations because she knew she was in charge and acted of her own volition. Unlike Akut, who believes that "a woman does not need to struggle to succeed in life" (p.32) and is jealous of the success of friends and neighbours, Awu is convinced that both men and women should strive for independence, financial and otherwise. However, she suggests, freedom does not entail lacking empathy and rejecting social norms and conventions. Rather, it means feeling empowered and able to do the right thing according to one's conscience and beliefs.
That, of course, does not protect her from experiencing frequent disillusionment in her relationship with others. And paradoxically, it is not the outrageous behaviour of some of her in-laws that hurts her most, but her own husband's lack of genuine love towards her. She recognises that Obame is "a good father and a responsible husband" (p.15), but his lack of connubial passion does not satisfy her overwhelming desire to be loved and pampered. Whereas elders see marriage as an alliance between two families, enabling the sacred duty to procreate, Awu believes in love with a capital L and she is deeply affected by the fact that she had to marry, not for love, but to satisfy elders' pronouncements.
Each generation has to find its own way to accommodate personal aspirations and traditional expectations. This, of course, is not easy, but Mintsa suggests, negotiation and compromise rather than revolution allow change to take place and tradition to evolve. It is true with regard to marriage, but also in relation to children's place in society. Obame and Awu see Ada's unwanted pregnancy as a catastrophe for the twelve-year-old who will have to leave school prematurely, while the elders consider the girl's condition as a benediction that would contribute to strengthen their lineage. Both parties are miles apart, but they have to agree that the future of the family depends neither on a plethora of uneducated children, nor on an exodus of disgruntled educated youth in search of greener pastures. Rather it lies with the opportunity for individuals staying in the village to have their say, to engage positively with others, to believe in the future and to become vehicles for change.
Histoire d'Awu highlights the resilience and determination of women who, like Awu, have kept African towns and villages afloat. But it also calls attention to the negative effects of others, like Akut, who have lost their dignity and sense of purpose before becoming dead-losses for their community. Women occupy a prominent position in the novel, but the author also emphasises that both men and women can be agents of change for better or for worse: the local commissar turned occasional taxi-driver when he is deprived of his old-aged pension is on the side of the characters helping the community. On the contrary, the medical practitioners who abandon Obame to his fate because Awu cannot not pay, in time, for the operation that would have saved his life are definitely an embodiment of degeneracy. High-minded attitudes and unethical behaviours can be found among both men and women, old and young.
Similarly, the novel does not oppose, nor even contrasts tradition and modernity. It neither glorifies the virtues of one nor does it extol the benefit of the other. Common usages, conventions, rules and regulations are the backbone of communal life, but the story suggests that the onus of making sense of dos and donts is on people. They have to reconcile, as best they can, the demands and opportunities that present themselves and take charge of their own destiny. Tradition and modernity are neither good nor bad: Mintsa suggests, they are what individuals make of them. Both can sustain great achievements, but both can equally reveal the darkest features of humanity. Westernised nurses and civil servants seeking bribes and inducements are no different from rapacious in-laws fleecing widows in the name of tradition. And the man barging into the room of the woman he has just inherited from his deceased brother, to make love to her, is no better than the teacher, with impunity, demanding sexual favours from his young students.
Histoire d'Awu is a good read on many accounts: first, it offers an interesting take on the life of an ordinary, yet charismatic woman, in a remote African village at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is equally stimulating in its attempt to downplay the hiatus between tradition and modernity in shifting the tenets of both concepts to the periphery of the main character's preoccupations and existential quest. Awu is well attuned to the demands of tradition and submits willingly to its obligations but, paradoxically, she also fits perfectly the mould of a stereotypical modern woman: she is responsible, well-educated, brimming with energy, financially independent and keen to live with someone she loves. She brings modernity to the very heart of tradition without falling into the trap of Western ideologies and rhetoric. To her, modernity is not discontinuous with the past, yet it does not repeat unquestioningly the power structures, behaviours and values of days of yore. Modernity, Awu style, is based on a conception of the here and now that leans on local experience and practical wisdom, rather than imported notions of development and enlightenment inspired by the West. A book written ten years ago, but still very much ahead of its time in its vision of Africa and the world.
1. See Justine Mintsa's interview published in "Amina" in 2003. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAMintsa03.html Sighted 15 December 2011]
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities