Quite often, the divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africa makes the two parts of the continent seem like totally different worlds. With the exception of music – think Lingala and other Francophone genres, little else has crossed over to Anglophone Africa.
“Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote”, the third novel from Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, is one such gem. Read Philip Daoust’s excellent review of the english translation by Frank Wynne.
Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote
by Ahmadou Kourouma
translated by Frank Wynne
445pp, Heinemann, £12.99
Throughout the free world, hands are being wrung over the misdeeds of unelected dictators. Blair claims that “ridding the world of Saddam Hussein would be an act of humanity” because of his mistreatment of the Iraqi people; Bush justifies North Korea’s place on his axis of evil on the grounds that Kim Jong-il is starving his own “folks”. Not since Milosevic threatened to rip apart Europe have the rich democracies taken such an interest in their repressed neighbours.
Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, the third novel from the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, reminds us of the other side of the coin: “civilised” countries will turn a blind eye to almost any abuse of the “savages”, as long as their own interests are not threat ened. And nowhere has this been more true than in Africa, first pillaged for slaves and minerals, then transformed into a safely remote battlefield in the war on communism, and finally abandoned as a profitless irrelevancy.
Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, published in France in 1998 and now finely translated by Frank Wynne, tells the story of President Koyaga of the fictional République du Golfe, 30 years in power and facing the greatest challenge of his bloody career. To prepare Koyaga for the future, the poet Bingo and the jester Tiécoura sum up his life in a ritual of purification that picks at both the hero’s personality and the cult that has grown up around it.
Orphaned at the age of seven, Koyaga serves his country’s French rulers in Vietnam and Algeria, then returns to his newly independent home, only to find himself rejected as a symbol of the old regime. Proud and ambitious, he soon takes power, first as part of a four-man junta, then – “in a herd there can only be one male hippopotamus” – as sole ruler.
Over the next three decades, the “supreme guide” survives dozens of attempts on his life. To those who love or fear Koyaga, there is more than luck involved. His surrogate father is a marabout or Muslim holy man; his mother a sorceress. From the moment he appears on Earth – heavy as a lion cub, after 12 months in the womb – he seems to have been marked out for greatness.
Koyaga shows no mercy to those who question his right to rule. A mighty hunter of men as well as animals, he emasculates his victims and places their penises in their mouths to prevent their spirits taking revenge on him (or possibly because he is an evil bastard). This Ubu-like figure, Kourouma has said, was inspired by President Eyadema of Togo, where the writer lived and worked between 1983 and 1993. But Kourouma, lauded in Francophone countries as an African Voltaire, spreads his net wider in this lyrical but bitter novel.
Shortly after the coup that brings him to power, Koyaga visits other African dictators – their models Bokassa, Mobutu and Houphouët-Boigny, among others – to find them vain but dangerous buffoons, corrupt liars who remain in power only through ruthless repression, usually with the connivance of the west. They compete to give him the most cynical advice in a thoroughgoing indictment of the African way of leadership: “Every man is a dissembler… The most important institution in any one-party state is the prison… Africans are thieves from birth.” The next three decades show that Koyaga has absorbed every word of their advice.
But these men have not come to power in a vacuum. Kourouma places the blame firmly on the rich west, first the colonial powers – above all France – then the neo-colonialists of the cold war.
There’s a lesson there for Bush and Blair, if they succeed in toppling Saddam and installing a new regime. If they think only of the west’s interests, the new Iraq could resemble “measureless Africa” as described by Kou-rouma – “a land as rich in tyrants as it is in pachyderms… a land as rich in violators of human rights as it is in hyenas… a land as rich in shameless lying heads of state as it is in vultures.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010