Orphaned following the death of his mother, Birahima, ten- or twelve-year-old self-declared “fearless blameless street kid”, leaves his native village in Ivory Coast to find his aunt in far away Liberia. He is accompanied by Yacouba, “money multiplier”, shaman and “gri-gri man”, a man who makes amulets for whatever religion seems appropriate at the moment and claiming to protect the wearer from hostile bullets from whatever enemy. They are caught up in the middle of West Africa’s brutal civil wars of the nineteen nineties. Having little education and no training, Birahima joins the hordes of child soldiers, fighting for whatever faction supplies them with food, weapons, protective gri-gri and hashish. Ahmadou Kourouma, highly respected award winning Ivorian author, has created with Allah is Not Obliged a vivacious, often hilarious, but also disturbing and thought provoking novel.
Published in 2000 in its original French, Allah is Not Obliged was likely the first of fictionalized or factual accounts capturing the life of child soldiers in modern-day Africa. Written in the voice of a boy with less than three years of schooling, and with limited French, the author uses his protagonist to convey much more than the intimate reflections of one of the “small soldiers” and what the youth describes as his “miserable existence”. The young hero, like the author, is Malinké, an ancient and powerful West African civilization with its own unique language. Birahima shares his story in an unusual and often slang-type French. This approach gives the reader a flair of the idiomatic Malinké expressions that are full of vivid imagery, curious connotations and convey a distinct African logic. To help the reader understand, Birahima explains French, African and pidgin terms and phrases in brackets, using several dictionaries and phrasebooks he has acquired at some point. The result can be quite hilarious. While this initially interrupts the flow of the narrative, it gives Birahima’s account an intimate, conversational and often humorous touch. His language does not lack in vulgarity when conveying the often objectionable and brutal reality he encounters. “My characters must be credible and to be credible they must speak in the novel as they speak in their own language…” the author explained in a 1999 interview. The translation by Frank Wynne does convey both the narrative and the odd language quirks expertly.
A ten (or 12) year old boy has only a limited horizon and narrow understanding of the politics of his country and geographic region. Growing up in extreme poverty, however, he is an astute and sarcastic observer of the corruption, violence and power grabs around him. Birahima’s journeys bring him face to face with vicious commanders of some of the most cruel dictators in the region. Each of them relies not only on the effectiveness of their arsenal of guns – ‘kalashs’, AK 47s, being the weapon of choice given to the child soldiers – but any “magic” such as gri-gris, or any religious ritual they can muster or buy. Birahima also learns about the futility of the traditional powers. His comments are astute. At the same time, kids are kids; he and the other child soldiers need bonds of affection and emotions can run high when one of theirs is killed or punished.
As the story progresses, the author mixes Birahima’s voice, relaying his experiences as a “small-soldier”, with that of a more adult narrator who provides the factual context of the complicated historical sequence of events in, primarily, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Aware of the lack of detailed knowledge most people have of these events, it is helpful to relate these to the reader – a technique Kourouma has used in his previous novels also. Kourouma has always been concerned with social injustice, whether during colonial times or since, with the corruption and cruelty of West African dictators being one of his target subjects. With Allah is Not Obliged, his last novel published prior to his death in 2003, the author raises important questions about the absurdity of war, of the power structures that lead to them and the suffering of the innocent people caught up in them.