NOT TO BE MISSED
"La mémoire amputée. Mères Naja et Tantes Roz.", a novel by WEREWERE LIKING
Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes, 2004. (416p.). ISBN 2-84487-236-0.
Tanslated in English by Marjolijn de Jager under the title "The Amputated Memory". The Feminist Press at Cuny (2007).
Ce compte rendu en français
La mémoire amputée by multi-talented Cameroonian artist Werewere Liking is a book brimming with life and energy. Its main character, Halla Njokè, takes a walk down memory lane and her journey leads to four hundred pages of sheer entertainment. Werewere Liking's action-packed novel is definitely one that can be read from cover to cover in a single sweep. Yet, beyond all the excitement of discovering the world at the heels of an heart-warming personality, there is also a deeper meaning to the narration, one proposing to track down memory through its "double game of advances and retreats" (p.20) and to expose the skew of authoritative historical accounts.
Initially, Halla Njokè does not want to write her own story but that of her Auntie Roz, an elderly aunt who has devoted all her life to sooth others' pains and sorrows. But the old woman is not forthcoming about telling the peripeteia of her life. She is adamant that in looking at her own journey, the narrator will find out everything she wants to know. Women of our family are sharing a common destiny, she argues, and individuals' paths through life only differ in the detail. Our common history, she adds, does not single out the exploits of a few mavericks: it proclaims the achievements of a forgotten army of laborious women who put the idiosyncrasies of their unhappy fate aside and kept the African continent afloat. Halla Njokè's endless search for truth, independence and self-fulfilment in a world bent on reducing her freedom to naught is thus proposed to readers as a composite portrait that goes beyond her individuality: one that captures significant aspects of women's multi-faceted fight against adversity.
Like many of her contemporaries born before Cameroon's Independence, Halla Njokè's early life is dominated by a power structure that assumes women's subservience to men and their innate ability to obey orders, clench their teeth and overcome any obstacles laid on their path. However, the fight against French foreign occupation and the violence following independence changes women's expectations and behaviour: Auntie Roz becomes an active participant in the resistance movement against colonialism and neo-colonialism. Naja the narrator's mother challenges her husband's traditional right to have custody of their children and Halla Njokè decides to live according to idiosyncratic ideals and sense of self rather than traditional demands and expectations. For years, women's drive and undertakings have been considered as insignificant bits of historical dust but, the narrator argues, they are not: it is the aggregate of their courageous fight and initiative that have pushed Africa forward in spite of considerable strain.
Men's contribution in shaping the country is not forgotten, for all that. On the one hand there are people like Grandpa Helly, the head of the village. He is a tower of strength and a progressive leader in spite of his attachment to traditional values. Secure in his own leadership role and looking ahead, he encourages young Halla to think for herself and he sends her to the village school. Even-handed and disinterested, he is a man full of humanity who has nothing but the good of his community at heart. But on the other hand, there is also the devastating impact of people like Halla's father, a well-educated young man who lost sight of his responsibilities and became a vile collaborator of the colonisers. He leads a life dominated by violence, cupidity, mercenariness and sexual dissipation. For most of the time he is away from his family, returning only to bash his wife, molest his daughter, exploit his neighbours and, on a woeful occasion, to lead a French army detachment to his village, heading an attack against local freedom fighters. And like all the young men's schemes, this one costs his countrymen dearly. A single shot fired at the French captain commanding the unit leads to the summary execution of ten innocent bystanders and the burning of the entire village.
Given the reprehensible and callous behaviour of her father, Halla Njokè could have cut him out of her life, but she does not. Rather she considers his destructive nature as a burden one has to bear. There are lessons to be learned from everything good and bad from love and hate, elation and horror even if one detects some bitter irony in the song she dedicates to her father's memory: "Therefore next to the women of my clan / I want also to mention some men in my life / To people of the future especially you, my father / And I pity rather than blame all those fathers who / In order to countermand their failures, loathe themselves through their descendants / And end up, like perjurers, to sully even their children /.../ But in mentioning you, father, it is also of my passion that I wish to sing/ My passion for life, for its pains, its hard lessons and its joys / I wish to reveal my devotion and gratitude to all those who, like you / And like the cruel mothers throwing the orphan to a fate of moral turpitude on the street, / Have been better initiators than loving mothers". (p.24)
In a world dominated by people who often bear more resemblance to her father than her grandfather, Halla Njokè's odyssey takes the form of an uphill battle. She dreams of furthering her education, but her father puts her to work as a housemaid and sacrifices her future to satisfy his egocentric and vain pursuit of fame and fortune. Her narrow-minded stepfather is no better as he limits her every move in the name of male privilege and religious bigotry. With very few exceptions, the many men who welcome her into their life have ulterior motives: Bayard, the young student who rescues her after she flees from her abusive step-father, invites her to gang-up with him in order to defraud his own family of a large sum of money; the bigwig, who is "protecting" her as she embarks on a career as a singer, saves her from having to sleep with every musicians and night-club owner she wants to work with, but she does not love this "jealous, protective and demanding protector"; (p.323) the director of a Pan-African review who recruits her as a journalist and ends up using her as bait to secure advertisements for his journal and wants her to sleep with him before publishing her articles.
The list goes on, but Halla Njokè's continuous journey towards freedom also stresses her power to move forward and to say "No". No to Bayard's dodgy schemes, no to dogmatic religious beliefs, no to sleeping her way to the top, no to irrelevant vogues and knowledge. Some doors are closing behind the narrator as a consequence of her refusal to comply, but others are opening up. Doors that lead to useful work and more harmonious relationships, like "the production of simple things such as food, clothing, jewellery and also songs that simply make people happy" (p.17) and a meaningful exploration of Bassa rich music, arts, stories, sculptures, theatre and traditions. In the same way, Auntie Roz's community work resurrects the spirit of past chains of solidarity in which mercantilism and selfishness play no part. "Happiness hinges on individual's ability to give convincing answers to their own questions" (p.34) and, for both Auntie Roz and the narrator, it is the efficacy of millions of anonymous women engaged in toilsome activities that gives them a sense of direction and provides a simple answer to their interrogations: this in the context of political dislocation and impenetrable conundrums.
Successive generations of women have learned to conceal hardship and injustices in their determination to move forward. Like Auntie Roz, they have buried their grudges deep within themselves in the belief that dwelling on them would serve no useful purpose: some truths are better left unsaid. But this silencing of one's ego has also facilitated the emergence of powerful myths based on men's courage and western superiority. This has contributed to the failure to record women's achievements and the downplaying of their contribution to the development of the continent. La mémoire amputée is an open invitation to return to the fold the millions of Mères Naja and Tantes Roz who have been lost to the history of Africa and to acknowledge their importance across the centuries. "Alas," the narrators adds, "I hear a heavy and sluggish requiem orchestrated by my de-humanised men as they tear themselves apart for scraps of power, illusory and far removed from godly principles; power worse than the law of the jungle; power that consumes everything oblivious to the perpetuation of life; power that just kills for killing's sake, mechanically, like a robot. And I fear an increasing crushing of women my daughters, if all the Aunties Roz were to disappear altogether, along with the ephemera of our forgotten and deleted memories..." (p.414) A must-read.
This review is based on the French original.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities