NOT TO BE MISSED
"Une saison africaine", a novel by Fatoumata Fathy SIDIBE
Paris: Présence africaine, 2006, (160 p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Une saison africaine is a spirited foray into the well-trodden realm of feminism, tradition and modernity with its great zest for love: Cheickna is a young Malian who falls for Nathalie, a fellow student, shortly after his arrival in Paris. Complications arise when, after a few blissful years, time has come for him to return home. During his absence, Cheickna has been betrothed by his parents to Coumba, thus preventing Nathalie from following him to Mali. As reality has it, it should have been the end of the story, but Fatouma Fathy Sidibé's characters are not prepared to bow to traditional elders' demands without a fight, as they are convinced that showing grit and determination in challenging the status quo is another way "to help Africa to remain African". (p.30)
To Cheickna's father Fasiki, being "African" is rather unproblematic until his son's departure for Europe. It simply means walking in the footstep of previous generations, conforming to the land's "primeval order" and "calling upon the power of almighty ancestors for guidance". (p.14) As his eldest son argues: "a book has never produced a single grain of millet" (p.22) and he is attached to "his village where everything is sharing and solidarity. A village ... inhabited by men who lived in harmony with nature; a place where proud agriculturists sheltered from modernity produce and consume their own products according to their needs. A stable community giving birth to many children to ensure the future of the group and expecting everyone to abide strictly by ancestral customs." (pp.18-19) Fasiki is confident in the "rural future"(p.14) of his community and wouldn't have given his blessing to Cheickna's departure if the marabout, Tiédan Bassirou, had not assured him: "The ancestors have spoken... Your son Cheickna, let him go there, where destiny is leading him". (p.15)
When Cheickna arrives in Paris, he soon meets other expatriates like the Cameroonian Omar and the Senegalese Alassane, whose ideas of helping Africa to remain African are still quite different from that of their folk back home. To them, the phoney supremacy of the White is the main issue at hand, and "breaking the mirror of white racial, cultural and economic superiority" (p.32) is the sine qua non of a truly African continent in charge of its own destiny. Unfortunately, the return of the three friends proves them wrong. People's commitment and ideals rather than complexion are the most important factors in maintaining one's sense of identity and belonging. Omar has not long returned before coveting a ministerial position and forgetting the ambitions of his youth, thereby joining the club of the corrupted politicians who are changing Africa for the worse. Alassane, who is put in charge of the Heath Department in his home country, soon realises that a close cooperation between western medicine and local witch doctors is yielding better results than confrontational attitudes; and Cheickna, who has to wait ages before finding a position matching his qualifications, has to endure his elder brother's disparaging comments: "What's the use of all your diplomas, my poor brother? You are not even able to feed your family". (p.75) The new black intelligentsia at the helm is failing to restore hope.
The originality of Une saison africaine is to move away from dogmatism, nepotism, paternalism and neo-colonialist wisdom to show that "helping Africa to remain African" is not something that can be devised by well-meaning outsiders, or imposed by old cronies. It is rather the result of individuals' attempts to reconcile their socio-familial obligations with their personal aspirations; it does not mean preserving old customs and traditions at all cost, but to adapt the latter to idiosyncratic individual and collective needs. The venture of the NGO "Alphabets without borders" in Cheickna's village is a case in point. They arrive with much fanfair and speak at length to the villagers about the benefits of alphabetisation, "but no one has bothered to inquire about the locals' situation and needs" (p.49), thus a burst of demurrals when people are eventually invited to comment on this government-sponsored project: "Women retorted that to know how to read and write meant nothing to them; that it would not bring them more freedom. They could not see how they could find the time to learn how to read and write when their day was already packed and the hours too short to "purge" their daily chores. What they wanted before anything else was enough food for their children, clothes, suitable dwellings and access to health-care. The elders went on to say that they were the custodians of knowledge that allowed them to read the stars, nature and the plants. They were giving due regard to the rhythm of the seasons, the sacred rites and the traditions; they knew how to communicate with the spirits; alphabetisation would not be a continuity with this ancestral knowledge but a rupture". (p.51)
On the contrary, Coumba's decision to take charge of her destiny and to challenge ancestral customs is a matter of survival. She does not need anyone to explain to her that both Cheickna's, and his elders' uncompromising surrender to traditional usage is running contrary to the good of her family. She was given in marriage to a man who did not love her, without the consent of either of them, and the meagre wage he gets sporadically from his work as a civil servant is grossly insufficient to feed the family. Something has to give and Coumba decides to confront her husband, first to get his permission to begin working, later to stop him from accepting the second wife his father wants to bestow on him and eventually, to ask him for a divorce. And each of these requests is to help her to challenge the balance of power between gender, to change social conventions and to preserve the industrious drive that has sustained African women across the centuries. Her disquisition when she hears that Cheickna may get a second wife is a good example : " Cheickna, excuse me for speaking my mind, but every women's dream is of having their husband to themselves. Even our mothers kept this impossible dream in their heart ... But all the rules that govern our lives are made by men, for men. We never have the right to decide for ourselves. We are always puppets in the hands of our fathers, brothers, husbands and all the others. / She was talking in a low voice, with more pain than anger in her heart. / It is cowardly to bow to the pressure of your family. I know that having one or two wives will make no difference to you as you are not going to love either of them. Thus, why accept this masquerade?" (p.87)
The couple's later divorce at the behest of Coumba pitches her against the entire community which categorically denies her the right to leave her husband of her own accord. It is only Cheickna's pretence to repudiate her that satisfies the elders and allows her to move on. University educated Nathalie and self-made business woman Coumba are indeed kindred spirits who have to fight hard to get what they want in the face of Cheickna's weakness and sulking over his unhappy condition. Cheickna is not the man who would have the courage to say no, either to his father, his boss, his wife or his mistress. That makes life awfully difficult for Nathalie. She knows that Cheickna loves her, but she also learned the hard way that he is too weak to confront his own folk. Being ready to scarify one's happiness for tradition's sake is not necessarily reflecting a preoccupation with the good of the community and, in the case of Cheickna, it is definitely not. As Nathalie tells him when he eventually breaks the news of his arranged marriage: " Come on, it's not possible to allow submissiveness to reach such a pass! You proclaim your engagement and desire to help your country get out of under-development and here you are ready to be belittled in the name of stupid customs just to avoid reprisals by the group. I am dreaming! / You cannot understand ... / Oh yes, I understand only too well ... all your talking, yours and that of your militant friends is just rubbish! Once back home, you'll soon forget your perorations". (p.61)
The indictment is severe, yet Nathalie is not in the camp of the afro-pessimists and what Cheickna seems unable to give her in France, she goes to Africa to get. But, as anticipated, the young man has lost sight of his dreams. "Look at me" he tells her, "look at what I have become: some insignificant civil servant. Before leaving for France, I knew who I was, an agriculturalist, well settled on his patch of earth and faithful to his traditions. Now, I am no longer a farmer. I don't even know if I could still cultivate a field and even less, if I could change the order of things". (p.102) The onus is thus on Nathalie to pull her partner out of his inertia and to make their relationship work as best she can. The challenge is tough as the stereotyping of French women is widespread and racism rife among the local population; but her atypical childhood and previous life with Cheickna in Paris have taught her that "racist, sexist, animist, fetishist, capitalist, fascist... all these "ist" words of rejection were to be found everywhere, setting apart Bretons and Italians, Muslims and Christians, Marseillais and Algerians, people in the North and people in the South... that had nothing to do with the colour of one's skin". (p.43)
Shortly after Une saison africaine's publication, Fatoumata Fathy Sidibé was asked by a journalist: "What is your novel about ?" She could have answered, "Women's unstoppable march towards freedom and equality", but she offered a much more sophisticated answer that summarises perfectly her thought-provoking offering. "A season in Africa", is the story of some youths who are smitten with the virus of ineluctable modernity as they chase love. It is the story of African women held captive from their rightful destiny and prisoners of constraining traditions they would like to leave behind. It is a novel that casts a different look at a post-independence Africa despoiled of her strength and vitality, an Africa victim of unemployment, rural exodus, illiteracy, dilapidated health infrastructure, corruption, and preferential treatment for the governing elite. It is the story of lovers walking a tightrope like funambulists, and attempting to break the borders between Africa and Europe. It is also a novel promoting hope that shows how much, in this chaotic world, African men and women organise themselves to fight stagnation in order to better their living conditions, and to dispel definitely the stubborn myth of an unavoidable sorry fate attached to the misfortunes of the whole continent".
1. Salimata Konaté. "Fatoumata Sidibé. Son premier roman Une saison africaine porte un regard lucide sur les défis qu'affronte l'Afrique, en particulier ses femmes". "Amina" 439 (2006), pp.XXXVII-XL-XLI. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAsidibe06.html Sighted 04 June 2010 Sighted 04 June 2010].
See also Fatoumata Sidibé's interview by Laure Bianchini in "Publif@rum", (2007) [http://www.publifarum.farum.it/ezine_articles.php?art_id=70 Sighted 05 June 2010].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities