NOT TO BE MISSED
"La France au bout de la piste", a travelogue by Josiane TOUSSAINT
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2003. (182p.). Récit.
Ce compte rendu en français
La France au bout de la piste [France at the end of the road] by French expatriate Josiane Toussaint is an interesting little book that offers a somewhat quirky view of life in Madagascar colonial community in the 1950s. The main part of the book, however, tells the story of the 15.000 km journey between Madagascar and France undertaken by the author and her family across Africa in 1959, crammed into their small family car.
The story begins in 1952 when Josiane moved to Madagascar shortly after her marriage to sweetheart David. The pair was soon well integrated in the carefree society of local revellers, but the rapture of glamorous social intercourse came to an abrupt end when Josiane fell repeatedly pregnant and gave birth to three children in the space of a few years. Needless to say, the dreaded prospect of having more children and the drastic measures she takes in order to avoid new pregnancies are not to the liking of husband David who soon found solace in an hectic social life and extramarital affairs. In this context, the advantages, material and domestic, provided to white folk in the colonies are of little comfort to Josiane's bleeding heart. To make matter worse, David's recurrent lack of cash precludes her from saving money from her own teacher's wages in order to return home to France with her children. Cornered and with nowhere to go, she is completely dispirited, but in the late 1950s the prospect of Madagascar's independence rang the changes.
David, who had been in no hurry to return to France, soon realised that the heyday of sharp dressers was over. Moreover, the little money he had was not sufficient to take him back to France with his family, thus his acquiescence in Josiane's bold proposal to drive back to France in their little family car. In theory, it was indeed possible, but serious practical impediments made it a most hazardous proposition. Not only did the 15.000 kilometres separating Antsirabé from La Rochelle represent a frightfully long drive, but in the late 1950s the bulk of African roads were ill-suited to small motorcars: most were unsealed and reduced to dirt tracks or slippery surfaces covered in mud known as "poto-poto". Petrol was difficult to find and reliable maps likewise. Accommodation along the way was basic and roadside assistance reduced to other drivers' and the local population's solidarity.
To make matter worse the small family car could only carry a very small quantity of luggage on top of its five passengers: A spare wheel, David's toolbox, a few containers of water and petrol, some cooking gear and a few items of clothing were all that could be fitted within the car's specified weight-load. In addition, a very tight budget left little room for unexpected expenses. And the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya as well as the Algerian war that was raging throughout "French" Sahara added to the potential dangers of an already extremely perilous expedition. It was thus not without some reason that many thought that Josiane and David were raving mad to embark on such a dangerous journey, and even more so since their intention was to travel with their three children, aged between two and a half and six.
Fortune rewards the bold, and the whole family eventually made it to France, but it was not without serious perils that almost ruin the travellers' prospect of reaching their destination. An incredible number of people and animals crossing the road unexpectedly was but one of these many dangers they encountered, while running a little girl over in a remote village was possibly the lowest point of the journey. Less damaging to others, but nerve-racking nonetheless, were also numerous breakdowns, river crossings, bogging down and hundreds of miles of driving across vast expanses of slippery "poto-poto". Crossing the Sahara represented another major challenge they would manage only with the help of benevolent truck drivers who took them under their wing and managed to bring then safely across, but only just.
Money being scarce and local currency lacking, the family was moving from one country to the next making do with opportunities coming their way. Josiane's jewellery was sold to pay for food and lodging. David's provision of cigarettes went to the roadside workers who rescued them, the car radio was given as payment to a mechanic in Fort Lamy and the camera remained in the hands of one of his colleagues in Colomb-Béchar. As the last material possessions of the family were slowly dwindling, both David and Josiane's attitudes towards life were changing. David was rediscovering the pleasure of family life, a new sense of responsibility and a positive way to channel his energy. As for Josiane, it was a long awaited opportunity to put years of unhappy matrimony behind her:
"Paradoxically, she says, our trip was first taking place in our heads. After seven years spent in Madagascar with the distinct sensation we had failed our life, we wanted to fight together, to win together and to set down the foundation of our new life as a couple based on shared victories" (p.38). But beside rekindling her relationship with her husband, travelling also allows Josiane to meet other people who change her view of the world. The overall welcome by colonial expatriates French and English alike along the way is soothing, but the generosity of some completely takes her aback. For example, the helping hand of a storekeeper who does not want the broach she wishes to sell, but buys it nevertheless as a favour, asking her to write once she gets home in order for him to return her jewellery; or the perfect stranger who lent them 50.000 French francs in order to pay for the ferry crossing from Morocco to Spain. Even more puzzling to her is the attitude of the Arab drivers who helped them safely across the desert at the very time France is fighting the local Arab population in a war that makes no sense to her.
Fourty years on, Josiane Toussaint admits that it was mad to have left on such a precarious journey, and insane to have taken their young children with them but, she adds, the kids could not be left out of an epic adventure of such enormous scale. Everyone had to be included. (p.179).
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities