NOT TO BE MISSED
"Les danseuses d'Impé-Eya. Jeunes filles à Abidjan", autobiography by Simone KAYA
Abidjan: Inades, 1976. (128p.).
Preface by Cheikh Hamidou Kane.
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 1976, Simone Kaya's sapid book of childhood reminiscences is a lovely evocation of life in Abidjan during the 1940s and 50s. With its 20,000 inhabitants, the old French colonial city bore little resemblance to the megalopolis of five or six million we know today: colonialism was still in full swing. African families lived in the black suburbs of Treichville and Adjamé, while the Whites congregated in Le Plateau, cars were few and far between, a rough floating bridge connected different parts of the city and the mingling of various religions, languages and ethnicity was perceived by many as unproblematic.
Simone Kaya's memories tell the story of a young girl's discovery of a world wavering between the "African common cultural values"  prevailing among the families living in Treicheville at the time and the imported values of the French colonisers. Far from being unsettling, the wide range of views expressed around her was breaking the barriers of tribalism, parochialism and religious intolerance: Aunty Mafitini's myths and legends, told at night in front of a captive audience, bore no resemblance to the school teachers' talks. But for Simone and her friends, the exciting stories about the sky and the earth, told by her family's famous storyteller, cohabited easily with the explanations about the world provided at school. She loved them both and saw them as complementary, rather than mutually exclusive.
The attitude of Simone's father is similar. Like his daughter, he attended a school run by colonial teachers; like her, he had to submit to French values, yet he remained strongly attached to his African roots. Although well educated and employed by the French administration, Simone's father never shied from his customary responsibilities. As the narrator says: "Although the heads of family who worked as civil servants could be considered to be privileged because they could speak French, worked in offices in Le Plateau and earned regular wages, they also felt responsible for their compound, their extended family, their tribe and indeed, all the surrounding indigenous population... In the African spirit of the time, the elite or the chief had to help their parents, their brothers, all the people of their village, and even the whole region" (p.31).
By the same token, Simone's father was open to the challenge of opportunity when it arose. Educating his daughters in French schools from an early age was a case in point, sending them away to Europe when the Government of Côte d'Ivoire decided to allow female students the same privilege as males, was another. But progressive ideas were not shared by many people around him. Gender equality that is beyond question in our day and age was not part of African and European prevailing wisdom, thus the heated discussions between Simone's father and his friends. Whereas everyone agreed that "A woman's duty is to keep her home in good order and give birth to children"; many argued that, "If we educate them, they will refuse to crush the foutou and the millet. They will need a cook, just like the French women. And when a husband contemplates taking a new wife, they will argue against polygamy. A good Muslim should have four wives. How could a good man refuse the women chosen for him by his family ? ... Believe me, said one, sending young girls to school is fraught with danger" (p.97).
Plenty of women, including Simone's mother, were of a similar mind. By and large, they did not want to see their daughters leaving home for the classroom, but their "faltering objections" (p.97) did not sway their progressive husbands. Thus the striking similarity between Simone's experience and that of many other daughters who were enrolled in school by their father, much to the despair of their mother. Many young girls like the Malian Aoua Keïta and the Senegalese Mariama Bâ later became leading women of their generation, but all of them could have said in unison with Simone Kaya: "I believe that because of school, I was estranging from my mother a bit more every day" (p.60). "My mother or my grandmother in the case of Mariama Bâ and her contemporaries attempted to raise their daughters and their nieces in the way they were brought up. But school and its games also fashioned the world of the Black girls of the lagoon who were of so many different origins" (p.29).
Women, who had to work from the day they could walk, who were married in their early teens and slaved for their husband, their children and their in-laws, could not see the relevance of the stuff taught in French schools. Clearly, to them, that could not help their daughters to survive in the tough environment they knew. How could it prepare them to endure the whims of their husband, the difficult cohabitation with their co-wives and the innumerable tasks which were part of their daily routine? Female education and the teaching of practical skills had to begin early in life, and it did: "At home," the narrator says, "we were taught very early the chores that would be ours as married women. Going to the markets was one ... And as soon as Mum thought I was able to bargain the price of food products and getting my change right, it was my responsibility to stock the family with vegetables and spices" (p.35). Carrying a baby on one's back was also part of young girls' duty, thus Simone says, "I was still very young when I learned to keep a wriggling baby on my back... All my friends had to carry a little brother, a little sister, a cousin or an infant neighbour on their back" (p.107). More complex tasks came later, and the year before Simone was due to depart for France, her mother intensified her daughter's presence in the kitchen in order to teach her to prepare food and to cook it to satisfaction. "A girl has to master basic cooking by the age of 12-14" (p.98), she was told; and "even if you become respectable ladies, people will shun your food if you are a bad cook. That's a grievous insult to a woman. I do not want to be accused of having neglected your education" (p.99).
Simone's return to Abidjan after a two year sojourn in France proved dramatic. Her French accent surprised everyone, including her father, who did not expect his daughter to speak like the youth from the south of France, and he did not like her accent; her mother was outraged to learn that her daughter did not learn to cook European food at her boarding school and Mafitini accused her of having forgotten her mother tongue. "Fanta and I were mortified", the narrator says. "We looked forward to being reunited with our families with so much anticipation and joy but, in an instant, this long-awaited happy moment was wasted by undeserved reproaches ... when you put three children in the middle of a group of other youngsters, only a few weeks later no one would be able to tell the foreigners from the rest, at least as far as language is concerned" (p.114). The initial dismay of Simone's mother and father soon gave way to genuine pride as their daughter provided a full account of her stay overseas and showed that she had lost none of her good African manners: "we were still bowing in front of the elders and soon started again to carry babies on our back and that reassured our mothers" (p.119), Simone says.
The importance of girls' formal and traditional education, French leverage in its colonies and the narrator's search for equilibrium are at the core of Kayas' reminiscences. Yet it would be a mistake to see French schooling as the predominant influence in Simone's enculturation. The values expressed by her family, no doubt had a greater impact on her, and the disparate beliefs and rites followed by her friends' families were also important elements shaping her sense of identity. Dozens of dialects associated with different people and cultural practices were spoken on the streets of Abidjan and children "understood and spoke at least four or five local languages" (p.36) in their interactions with others. On the occasion of baptisms, marriages, funerals and a wide range of religious festivities that always were very public affairs children not only spoke many languages (and got free donuts), but they also learned to see others in their diversity, each family expressing specific rites and celebrations according to their religions and ethnic origins.
Simone's visit to her ancestral village also reinforced her sense of belonging, even though she says, the ancestral customs of her Fâso origin "seemed often as distant as the life of the Gauls those ancestors of the French, mentioned in our history books" (p.71). Her father who was neither born nor lived in the village of his forebears, "wanted to go back to his roots with his children, doing the same thing his father did when he took him there as a child" (p.71). An exciting expedition by train from Abidjan to Bobo-Dioulasso is the first leg of a journey; one full of surprises and discoveries that includes the very formal welcome of their family with a 'gun salute' and her father kneeling in front of a very old man in a gown; the decorum of the children of the village; the endless salutations; the many activities of the village; the damage caused by a panther to a flock of sheep; the men's hunts; the women's dances. All that and more left an imprint upon Simone's Kaya, who was slowly learning that people are made of many complementary and sometime contradictory experiences.
People of various origins, religions and creeds built Abidjan's rise to prosperity in the 1960s. To many people of Burkinabe and other origins, Abidjan became a beloved home. "It was not only my family that counted" Simone says, "it was also the city's life and its landscape" (p.127). But racial riots and ethnic tensions, fuelled by political opportunism in the 1990s, put an end to that peaceful cohabitation. Those Abidjanese of Burkinabe ancestry and other "foreigners" were singled out, looted and killed by rogue militias. Simone Kaya's gracious evocation of an era dominated by peace, tolerance and cooperation is all the more important to remember, as the city is still in the throes of chaos, ethnocentrism and civil unrest.
1. Expression borrowed from Cheikh Hamidou Kane's preface.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities