NOT TO BE MISSED
"Riwan ou le chemin de sable", a novel by KEN BUGUL
Paris: Présence Africaine, 1999, (232p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Riwan ou le chemin de sable by Ken Bugul was awarded the 2000 Grand prix littéraire de l'Afrique noire. Upon turning the last page of the novel, I wonder what guided the panellists in their choice. Was it the author's gallant defence of traditional life? Her quite provocative apology for polygamy; or could it be because the epilogue of the book may suggest that, reassuring as traditional life and values might have been, the old conventions are breaking down? There are indeed many ways to expound on the meaning and contradictions of this semi-autobiographical novel.
The narrator-main character is in her thirties. She is back home in Senegal after a long sojourn overseas. There, she went to university, but her moot success in the West has left her somewhat confused and uneasy. Admittedly, she has not been impervious to the company of young Rolefe and enjoyed Polish caviar, cheese and vodka. Yet, she has also realised that her inability to share her experiences with her own family and childhood friends has made her life meaningless. She feels cut off from her black brothers and sisters who are walking along the sandy track that links the past of their country to its future. "Thus, she says, my happiness was so sad". (p.115)
When she arrives in her village, her stroll brings her towards the gate of the local spiritual leader, the Serigne de Daroulère. Her chance meeting with the great man leads her to discover who she really is and what it really means to be a Senegalese woman; or rather what it does not mean, as she comes to the conclusion that unfortunate women like her, who were encouraged to relate to white culture and knowledge, were lured into the erroneous belief that African traditions, knowledge and way of life were no longer suited to their needs. "I wanted to become a women loaded with diplomas... my education pushed me in that direction ... At school I was taught that men of my village were savages who did not know good manners, made love with brutality, did not respect women." (p.39)
The Serigne de Daroulère is the exact opposite of the black men misrepresented by the narrator's former teachers. He is considerate, tolerant and curious of the ways of the world. To him, it is not knowledge that counts but understanding what it means to know something. Far from looking askance at the narrator's Western education and experience, he takes pleasure in teasing out her quest for personal fulfilment. He also offers her an opportunity to realise her avid desire to reconnect with her origins, to exorcise her past and to feel she belongs somewhere. Eventually, he proposes to take her as his spouse and the narrator is happy to accept his offer.
Who benefits most from this matrimonial alliance and what impact it has on the life of the Serigne's twentyseven other wives may well cross the reader's mind but, the author suggests, people's reactions to the issue are different according to their upbringing, loyalties and expectations. For a Senegalese raised "in a society governed by dogma, rules and well-established practices", (p.43) she contends there are no qualms in admitting that marriage is ruled by social engineering rather than individuals' love. It is part of the attributions of the Serigne to rescue an unmarried woman crying for help and the duty of everyone to submit to the course of action suggested by the venerable man. Social interaction does not spring from individual volition, but rather submission to the rules, hence the Serigne's many wives' only option, when they are joined by a new wife, is to endure their plight because it is the way things are and always have been.
The numerous life-stories imbedded in the narration reiterate this point and show that for better or for worse, young women are given in marriage to men whom they have not chosen, but are willing to serve dutifully. Some, like Nabou Samb, have the good fortune of marrying fair and opulent businessmen in the city, but others like Rama have no such luck and, like her, end up confined in some serigne's compound, abandoned to their fate by oft married clerics or elderly gentlemen. Yet, the narrator contends, the sense of duty that cloaks every social interaction provides everyone with the strength to transcend individual yearning, desires, envy or jealousy and everyone finds solace in an over-arching sense of duty and belonging.
In contrast, the narrator surmises, distressed, alienated and possessive "modern women" of the West are endlessly chasing an elusive happiness based on failed monogamous unions. As Gallimore rightly argues in her critic of Riwan ou le chemin de sable, Ken Bugul's view of "modern women" is highly problematic: it over-generalises from the narrator's unhappy and idiosyncratic experience of the West, towers above other voices and echoes the radical Western feminists ill-fated depiction of "African women" as an homogeneous group of people. "The novel is constructed on the wrong premise" Gallimore submits "and its conclusions are problematic. At the beginning, one is led to believe that Ken Bugul is proposing a new discourse on the African woman, but as the novel unfolds, the author keeps reproducing the very oppositional categories of the universalist discourse she wanted to pull apart in the first place." 
Why then take an interest in this book? Well, possibly because beyond the author's stereotyped discourse and dichotomies, one can perceive a genuine search for personal fulfilment. The narrator's desire to belong somewhere and to enter into a meaningful relationship with others is sincere, even though it is not peculiar to her country of origin. Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically, the narrator's marriage with her Serigne is not illustrative of the traditional horse-trading and family negotiations described in the novel in relation to other traditional marriages, such as that of Nabou Samb. The narrator marries the Serigne de Daroulère of her own accord and despite the initial misgivings of her mother. Her relationship is based on mutual sexual enjoyment, trust, reciprocal feelings and sharing of ideas, elements that one would find in the best love-relationships right around the world. Even more surprising is the Serigne's declaration to his lover that "had she been the first woman he had met, he would not have married any other". (p.198) Not the kind of divulgence expected from one of the foremost custodians of "African tradition" who is taking a new wife every few years.
But the Serigne is not a dogmatic man trapped in the past. He tries to decipher people's preoccupations and failures in the context of their own hopes and fears. He is keen to comprehend why the madman Riwan has lost his mind, why the narrator could not find answers to her woes in books published far away, why the world is the way it is. His wisdom is thus based on a thorough and enlightened observation of human-kind in the context of various individual aspirations, social constraints and collective beliefs. For the local population, his power is perceived as a God-given wisdom inherited from the enduring values enshrined in traditions. But for the reader, privy to his earthly love-life, interests and preoccupations, rather he is a principled but open-minded elder, skilled at empathising with his contemporaries.
His power is put to the test though, when his young wife Rama absconds from his compound after sleeping with another man. In a true patriarchy, he would have treated the young sinner with an iron fist and re-established his control and influence over the up-coming generation. But he does not: instead he lies down and waits for death to free him from his vengeful earthly obligations. That I see as a powerful metaphor for the ineluctable passing of tradition in the face of people's new needs and expectations. Of course, society lacks the insight and flexibility of its visionaries, thus the tragic end of Rama who dies at the hands of some ill-defined avengers. But both the narrator's marriage for love and Rama's elopement mark the dawn of a new era.
I am not sure everyone would agree with my particular interpretation of the novel's meaning, but to me, it is what makes it interesting. In spite of the author's best efforts, Riwan ou le chemin de sable does not substantiate the value of polygamy : far from it. Rather it shows that open-minded and inspirational leaders can be found just about anywhere, you just have to find them.
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The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities