NOT TO BE MISSED
"Collier de cheville", a novel by Adja Ndeye Boury NDIAYE
Dakar: Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1983. (160p.).
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Reading Collier de cheville is akin to browsing through an old family photo album. It offers an entertaining array of snapshots describing a Lebou matriarch and her family in Dakar during the first half of the 20th century. And like pictorial collections of bygone eras, Adja Ndeye Boury Ndiaye's literary reminiscences lend themselves both to an overall feel of family interactions and a close examination of interesting details about various topics, including food and clothing.
For example, it is obvious from the very first few pages of the book, that the author and her characters have a keen interest in fashion. Senegalese women are known for their fascination with stylishness and the author is no exception. She does not miss an opportunity to describe at length what people wear, starting with Tante Lika, the main character, whose physical traits are dealt with in a couple of lines, while her attire is described at length over two pages. We learn the colour of her caftans, the size of her blouses, the type of head-scarf she dons, the shoes she wears, and the jewellery she likes. No details are spared and further features are added as we move along. Matters of clothing are relevant to all the significant events marking the family calendar. They play an important role in the courting of Rokhaya by young suitors: the Saint-Charles celebrations at Goree Island and Léna's marriage. What you wear unequivocally determines who you are.
Food is also an important item for both Tante Lika and the narrator. Traditionally, Lebous have been fishermen and their close association with the sea has continued over the colonial period. Although an increasing number of men found employment with the French army and the colonial administration, children still go regularly to the sea shores to collect seafood; and a large plate of rice and fish remains the staple of the family. However, when Tante Lika moves into the old family house with her husband Pa Driss who is a carpenter after the death of her eldest brother and his wife in the early 1930s fishing gear and oars are replaced by her husband's chisels and jointers. The old fishermen's home and its inhabitants are adapting to change, but on big occasions such as Léna's marriage, Lebous traditions re-surface. Time-honoured solidarities are called upon and a great variety of food is prepared by numerous helping hands. A few pages describing the preparation of a gigantic amount of victuals and beverages for the guests invited to the ceremony, evoke nicely "a spectacle surrounded with the smell of ginger, dumplings, "goongo", frankincense, henna, and even "keteraan" perfume". (p.86)
Added to details about clothes and food, a precise description of Dakar's landmarks and roads reinforces the impression or the illusion that the narrator's story is unequivocally embedded in reality. Tante Lika's Dakar is not a dot on the map, but blocks of real houses and buildings within a warren of dirt roads which are no secret to her: "Once outside on the footpath, Lika chose a direction following the inspiration of the day. Sometimes it was heading towards the suburbs Hock and Guy Mariama where one can find, some people say, the location of a very old cemetery. Striding along the street until the intersection of Victor Hugo Road and the Boulevard of the Republic, she liked to stop and to observe, with a smile, a block of houses still asleep and facing the Maginot Avenue on the right hand side [...] Sometimes, choosing to change her route, Lika took the opposite direction in order to smell the flowers, the lawn and the dew at the Grand Conseil's garden. She walked around it, stopping in the vicinity of the Roume Avenue to glimpse, through the fence, at "Monsieur" Faidherbe, standing on his pedestal". (pp.33-34)
Against this background, the characters also give an inkling that this family chronicle belongs to history rather than fiction. They are not part of a complicated literary plot and their presence in the narration seems to have a unique purpose: telling the story of ordinary people in days of yore: "Neighbours were considered as parents. When misfortune struck, they were the first to come rushing to your rescue. They were sharing all your joys and pains, and you did the same. Your children were theirs, and theirs yours. Collaboration with others was candid, pleasant, and it ensured spontaneous and reciprocal assistance, emotional and material, in a quite informal yet very effective way." (p.21)
Thus Tante Lika's unflinching attention to the needs of her neighbours and dedication to others. She makes no difference between her own progeny, her nephews and other children sojourning under her roof. She considers all of them as hers, including her daughters-in-law who settle in the house when her boys get married. According to the narrator, they all live together like a big happy family; and on the whole, they certainly did. However, a few features of this old-time communal life reveal some aspects of social intercourse that ruffle modern sensibility. The differential treatment between genders and the open favouritism shown to boys is certainly the most striking.
Different weaning practices according to gender is only one of the prejudices born of a social order that did not condone gender equality. As the narrator says: "From the time of weaning from breastfeeding, the little boy will be advantaged compared to a girl. He will get a rich and varied diet much earlier, as he has to become physically stronger and intellectually superior to his future partner over whom he will have to assert his ascendancy". (p.27) And this lack of equity is perpetuated throughout the life of the individuals: when Rokhaya and her brothers are sharing the proceeds of the seafood sold on the beach, " the money was divided immediately, but never equally. The boys always kept more than their due: the lion's share, as it were!... but Rokhaya never complained". (p.40) In similar fashion, when Rokhaya's brother who is now a young man arrives home unexpectedly with half a dozen friends and asks for a good dish of rice and fish, Tante Lika serves her husband his share of the family dinner and gives the rest to the young men to enjoy while plain rice is hastily cooked for the women and the children. (p.82)
The tragic irony of women raised on a diet of inequality and reduced rations becoming enterprising individuals brimming with life and energy, while their better fed husbands and sons tended, on the whole, to become placid and uninspiring partners, was not an issue addressed by Tante Lika and her entourage. However, Pa Driss' attitude towards girls' education reveals his fear of losing his dominant position in a world beset by outside influences and social change: "Girls should not be given wings lest they use them", (p.27) he says. This leads him to interrupt Rokhaya's schooling at the age of twelve and to marry her off, against her will, just two years later. Pa Driss has no objection to boys becoming teachers or doctors while remaining convinced that the right place for his daughters is under the care and watchful eye of a good Muslim. (p.131)
Did Tante Lika share her husband's view of the world? Most certainly. But unlike him, she had learned to deal with a world riddled with inequalities; from infancy, she was able to take discrimination in her stride and she knew to choose the fights worth fighting. It is clear that she always came out on top when she really wanted something: her co-wives invariably ended-up divorcing their husband, photographs of her own parents and forebears remained posted on the wall of her bedroom in spite of Pa Driss' displeasure; and the latter is rebuked when he accused her of conduct unbecoming a good Muslim because she entered a Catholic church in order to attend the requiem mass for a young Tirailleur, lost in action in France. But in the segregated world in which she lived, girls' schooling was not her first priority; arming her daughters with the necessary skills to allow them to survive, and even flourish, was a labour of love. It is thus not surprising that her daughter, Rokhaya, who is in a marriage arranged by her father against her will, ends up divorcing before subsequently marrying an old flame a year later. Wives and daughters cannot openly say "no" to their husband or father but, as Tante Lika and Rokhaya show, they can still have the last word.
Collier de cheville has nothing of the well polished novel telling a good yarn. Rather, it is a collection of memories, loosely assembled in the form of a rough family chronicle located within the humdrum of everyday life in the Dakar of a couple of generations ago. This simple narrative structure is interesting as it allows the imagination to fly unfettered over a city that is no more, but whose traditional values and beliefs still live in so many ways in the Senegalese psyche of today.
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The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities