NOT TO BE MISSED
"Festins de la détresse", a novel by Aminata SOW FALL
Alliance des éditeurs indépendants Lausanne: Editions d'en bas, 2005. (160p.).
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Festins de la détresse by Senegalese novelist Aminata Sow Fall proposes an interesting insight into contemporary Senegalese society through the lives and interactions of a closely knit family that spans four generations. Maar, the central character, is a retired teacher with two adult sons who find it hard to gain employment in spite of their determination and excellent qualifications. That situation gives rise to much angst, desperation and various attempts to escape the systemic failure of Senegalese society.
The power of traditional knowledge as an alternative to ill-suited foreign wisdom has been the unifying thread of Aminata Sow Fall's abundant literary production. Its wherewithal to enlighten individuals lost between their attachment to the past and their hope for the future runs between the characters of her novels. Maar, the protagonist of Festins de la détresse is no exception. Born in a small fishing village, he never forgot his humble origins. Upon becoming a teacher and graduating to knowledge that could have opened to him the road to riches and fame, he instead remained true to the values inherited from his parents. Their memory has followed him throughout his existence, reminding him of the guiding principles of life. No surprise then when the favourite tune of his mother comes to mind when dark clouds hang over the future of his boys : ... / Daakal nakar, doom yaay / Djiwal diam, doom yaay / Ndakh bou dee dioté, doom yaay / Adal mounoufa dara, doom yaay (p.16). [... / Leave sorrow behind the door, brothers and sisters / Sow the seeds of peace, brothers and sisters / Because when death will come calling, brothers and sisters / Money and wealth will not help, brothers and sisters].
Maar's eldest son, Biram, is a doctor desperately looking for a job. Unfortunately there is no work for him as a few influential politicians, officials and health project managers are deliberately rorting the system for their own personal benefit, channelling foreign aid and paying only lip service to the real needs of the population. In desperation, Biram decides to give up his dream of working as a specialist in a hospital and decides to become a street practitioner at the service of the local community, making do with the few resources he has at his disposal and charging according to people's ability to pay.
His brother Gora who has studied Finance shares the same predicament. He is also under-employed but does not share Biram's placidity and resilience. He resents being reduced to running a small poultry business in order to survive while others are making good for themselves. Well versed in business efficiency, he feels aggrieved at people arguing tenuous family ties in order to get credit, or even some free chicken. To him, such an attitude belongs in a place where sound economics cannot go. Thus, in desperation, he accepts an administrative job offered by a rogue doctor embarking on bogus studies about the AIDS epidemic that have been commissioned by a foreign Non Government Organisation (NGO).
Initially, Gora's decision seems to pay off. He marries a rich woman and makes plenty of money. But Aminata Sow Fall's aim is to cut through smoke and mirrors and the story does not end there. Gora's social ascent is short-lived and when he realises the price of his ephemeral success, it is too late to back off and the shoddy misuse of his accounting talents lands him in jail. Conversely, Biram's venture succeeds beyond expectation and, as time passes by, his local clinic grows bigger without losing its focus on the have-nots. Local expertise, ingenuity and solidarity has won the day. That success, however, did not come about without some hurdles to jump.
Beside the initial uncertainty of his plan, Biram has a few ideas that run contrary to his parents' expectations. For example, they are taken aback when he told them that a gossipy neighbour called Sarata nicknamed "News Flash" in the neighbourhood will work with him as a nurse and, they nearly choke when he decides to marry her. But Biram's occasional decisions to stray from convention are never seen as a direct challenge to the fundamental beliefs of his parents. For Maar and his wife Kiné, traditional values are not a series of inflexible rules: rather they represent a guiding light, an inspiration that does not provides ready-made answers but a solid body of knowledge and principles that help people in making the right choice.
Paradoxically, making the right choice, does not always mean following the rules laid down by previous generations. And in this area, it is not Biram who shows the most striking determination to lead the charge, but successive generations of women who fought against their family's self-serving customary practices. Biram's mother had to fight very hard against her in-laws when her husband died. She incurred the wrath of her parents when she decided to raise her children independently, refused to marry the man who had "inherited" her and declined his request to hand over the fishing boats of her late husband.
Questioning the authority of the elders, for whatever reason, was always severely sanctioned: Biram's mother suffered scorn and abuse, his own wife was cut off from her family when she eloped in order to marry the man she loved, and Sarata was abandoned by her parents after she divorced the husband who was tormenting her; but none of the these women intended to turn their back on their ancestral roots. Challenging ways that no longer suited contemporary sensitivities did not mean abandoning ancestral values altogether in the name of modernity. On the contrary: it meant asserting one's right to be heard, even when what was said did not please everyone else.
In a traditional world often considered as immutable, it was also proof that things had always been amenable to change when people had enough determination to fight for it. Maar's family and friends are living proof of the potential for traditional knowledge and values, not only to adapt and to stand the test of time, but also to provide solace and guidance in an age of uncertainty. The future of Africa, Aminata Sow Fall suggests, is not overseas. Nor does it rest with junkets and juicy financial returns offered by NGOs to "help" local populations. It can only be the product of a rediscovery of the deep meaning of tradition, a new sense of responsibility towards others and a staunch attachment to one's land.
Festins de la détresse does not pretend to be a panacea that will fix all the country's ills. Such a universal cure does not exist. But this excellent novel attests to the power of the individual to recreate unity, prosperity and peace where it counts: that is at the lowest level of organisation: one's own partner, family, neighbours, friends and foes.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities