NOT TO BE MISSED
"Gagné-gagné Perdu-perdu", short stories by NIANTIE LOU GOLEY
Abidjan: Editions CEDA, 1999. (262p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Niantié Goley's Gagné-gagné Perdu-perdu [Won and Lost] is an interesting and somewhat unusual collection of short-stories. The volume develops around the epistolary exchange of two young teachers from Côte d'Ivoire assigned to their first positing after graduation. Against his hopes, Séverin is sent to the inland and the stories from the village accompanying the letters he writes to his friend Didier highlight the impediment of traditional life to modernising society and bettering women's condition. In contrast, Didier is posted to the capital, thanks to his uncle's connections, but teaching in Abidjan does not meet his expectations and surviving in the jungle of a large city is no easier than fending for oneself in the rest of the country. That is the main thrust of the short stories surrounding his testimony to life in the metropolis.
As we enter the world of the two young men, both are quite disappointed with the hand that fate or rather a selection based on kickbacks has dealt them: especially Séverin, who finds it hard to settle into a village with no electricity, no running water, no girl friends, no television, no cinema and nothing to do after dusk. To make matters worse, the drinking water is infested with guinea worms, many local beliefs do not agree with the young man's way of thinking and, more than one month in the job, he still has not been paid, thus having to borrow cash from a money-lender in order to survive. Boredom certainly played a part in his decision to write to his friend Didier, but one far more pressing reason seems to have pushed him to put pen to paper: finding someone who could help him in getting a transfer to a bigger town at the earliest opportunity. Hence the all-important final paragraph of his letter: "Most importantly, don't forget to pay a visit to your uncle. He's got to find me an opening in a more civilised region for next term" (p.35).
But, by the time the answer to his first letter arrives, things have improved and Séverin is no longer obsessed by the idea of leaving the place, even though it is still in his mind. He has been paid and, as it turned out, the head of the village is not a contemptible old fogey viscerally attached to traditional ways. The village head takes his young teacher's suggestions seriously and gives him free rein on many occasions. Upon learning that falling victim to guinea-worm disease can be easily overcome by boiling drinking water, the old man decides to follow Séverin's advice and encouraged others to do the same. He also gives him his backing when the young man begins to play politicians at their own game, managing to channel to the village some of the infrastructure and money promised by politicians during the election campaigns.
By the time Séverin writes his fourth and last letter to his friend, the appeal of big towns hustling and bustling has all but disappeared, hence his decision to stay in his adoptive village and to continue working for the good of his community. As he explains to his penfriend: "Like many, instead of fighting to change the world around me, I was running away and opted out. I wanted to take instead of giving first. Today I am proud of what has been achieved alongside the elders who are the custodians of our customs; thanks to some perseverance, guinea worm disease is no longer a major issue in the village. New wells have been dug [...] training for traditional midwives has been introduced, talks about Aids organised [...] official school programs complemented in order to suit the need for the practical teaching on food production [...] and the village's chief is always setting a good example: He was the first to send his daughters to school, the first to have his children vaccinated..." (pp.242-244).
Séverin's righteousness, his conversion to the virtue of country life and his gracious bowing to his mother's decision to marry him to a cousin he does not know, all that sounds altogether too good to be true; but it is also a fact that many dedicated young men destined to change the world rise to the task when they are offered the opportunity to do so. Séverin's eagerness in lecturing his friend Didier on the latter's poor attitude towards women, unsafe sex and antiquated behaviour comes from the heart and it makes him a shining example of what the ideal man would be; it portrays the kind of people the country needs to move forward. But unfortunately, the nation is still dominated by ignorance, corruption, bullying, individuals' greed and political intrigues. The devils to be fought are many and the short stories about life in the bush well illustrate the point.
School has opened its doors to the daughters of the village's chief but, at the same time all around the country, innumerable girls of a very young age are still getting married, against their will, to elderly men: this with devastating effect. The dowry system that cements families' alliances determines the fate of women who have no alternative but to submit to their husband and to bear them as many children as they possibly can. Between the distressed thirteen year old Zoli, forced to marry a man many times her age, and the desperate mother of nine who does not want a tenth child and who argues vainly with her husband, there is a common feeling of revolt that, in both cases, ends in tragedy. But it is not only women who suffer from a rigid enforcement of old customary law and prejudices. The rejection of the young man from his community because he flouted social hierarchies by secretly marrying a women of a higher social status is a case in point. That he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine does not count in the eyes of the elders. He had forgotten that he was still the child of a slave and for the indigenous population, pretending otherwise is a cardinal sin. "Oil and water do not mix" they say, and when he tries to defend himself, he is crudely told of his insignificance:
"They reminded me that nothing had changed for me and my family. That those of my race had to listen and obey. They told me brashly that my great-grandfather arrived in the village with a ring in his nose. That his son was part of the Marie grandmother's dowry, along with women's clothing and sweet-potatoes. They made it clear that we did not own anything. That we would never own anything. That we were nothing. [...] they reiterated that the offspring of my forebears belonged to the chief of the clan in perpetuity. They insisted that no matter the titles and money I would accumulate, I would always remain Volou's son, 'Kakobé's thing'..." (p.88).
A decade or so later, the quagmire that emerged from the spurning of so-called foreigners by self-proclaimed locals brandishing the concept of "ivoirité" echoes Marie's parents asserting their innate superiority over their slaves. Villagers' lot has not changed for the best since Séverin's time. Neither has life in the city that still suffers from the difficulties brought to light in Didier's letters and in the stories illustrating some of the problems experienced by those living in the squalor of overcrowded suburbs.
When he enters adulthood and embarks on a teaching career, Didier does not have Severin's maturity. He considers his posting in Abidjan as a major victory over administrative unpredictability, but soon realises that teaching conditions are no better in the capital than in the countryside. He has to take care of eighty children crammed into a small room, sparsely furnished and badly ventilated. Like Severin, he has not been paid for weeks and remains stuck at his parents' house, sleeping with his four brothers, two cousins and the son of his father's friend. "They are paying me peanuts" he says, "hence I am doing the strict minimum. Full stop." (p.53). It is only after his friend's rebuke that he begins reflecting on his behaviour and sets about amending his outlook. A succession of unexpected incidents forces him to grow up, to change his ways and to take his share of social and familial responsibilities.
That, of course, is not an easy feat. Finding the right balance between traditional family expectations and personal aspirations is already difficult in itself. It is close to impossible in the context of the brutal and bewildering squalor of the slums. The stories from the city accompanying Didier's letters are making the point. If life is tough in the village, it is even worse in the city where many people end up in the hands of abusive and unscrupulous villains. The sorry tale of Alassi, who is sold as a slave at the age of four, put to work in various families, brutalised, raped and eventually imprisoned for infanticide, evokes a tragedy that goes beyond the imagination and reflects a reality that is still very much alive in today's Ivorian society. So too the lack of jobs for new graduates, the lure of prostitution, the bewitching consumerism, the depravity of unscrupulous bosses, domestic violence, the failing of the health system, the demonising of others, the manoeuvring of political leaders ready to do anything to keep their seat...
Gagné-gagné Perdu-perdu is an interesting read because it offers a candid analysis of Ivory Coast society in the 1990s. From a literary point of view, it is also attractive and well-constructed volume. The correspondence between Séverin and Didier stands for the need of a meaningful dialogue between the bush and the city, a relationship that goes beyond short visits to relatives dictated by funerals, family business and politicians roaming the countryside during the election lead-ups and paying lip service to their constituency the rest of the time. Conjointly, the short-stories accompanying the letters encapsulate vividly the tragic fate of people crushed by the establishment. They are well written and sustain readers' interest thanks to a trove of original details: the woman reading part of Alassi's sorry tale on the piece of paper wrapping the banana she has just bought on the street, and the given name of a prostitute escaping the tyranny of a very large family that adds a sting to the tail in one of the novels are but two examples of clever narrative devices. The main characters of the short stories do not make it a happy-ever-after ending, but they are a perfect foil for Séverin and Didier's victory over the forces of evil.
In latter years, intolerance, self-centredness and despotism have brought to naught the longing for peace, meaningful change and prosperity sought by many. Thus the dual interest of Gagné-gagné Perdu-perdu that is both an entertaining read and a sensible map for the future which sums up the hopes and difficulties of the road ahead.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities