Chad: written out

April was a proud month for A Year of Reading the World. The Scotsman published an article about it, UNESCO featured it on its list of World Book Day initiatives and I got to write a piece for the Guardian books website about some of the highlights and challenges of armchair adventuring so far.

One of the best things about all the excitement was the flood of new visitors it brought to my little corner of the web and the book leads they brought with them. A couple of them even solved countries I thought would be tricky in a single message.

Writer Mark Staniforth was one of these people. He had recently written his own post on a book from Chad as part of the excellent Africa Reading Challenge and was more than happy to share the details with me. As I had made up my mind from my preliminary research that getting a book in translation from this impoverished and troubled country (the Fund for Peace even goes so far as to call it a Failed State) was going to be a mission, Staniforth’s lead seemed too good to be true.

It seems I wasn’t the only one conscious of Chad’s bad rap. Writer and politician Joseph Brahim Seid, who was Minister for Justice until two years before his death in 1980, was clearly sensible of it too – so much so that he sets out to give a very different account of his homeland in his slender short story collection Told by Starlight in Chad.

As the title and romantic preface suggest, the book paints an idyllic picture of rural life in the war-torn country. Drawing on scenes from Seid’s childhood, snatches of folklore and history, and the author’s own imaginings, the tales weave a rich tapestry that is by turns deceptively simple and strange.

Often, there is a fable-like quality to the stories, which, though set ‘in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us’, frequently contain lessons readers can apply to the modern world. We hear of creation myths that summon pride in the beauty and long history of the country and its peoples, disputes among animals that are strangely reminiscent of human politics, and an ancestor’s shadow that continues to haunt the Bulala warriors to this day.

Some of the morals and conclusions are intriguingly alien to the Western eye. ‘Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl’, for example, sees an abused runaway return to endure her foster mother’s beatings because ‘in this life happiness consists in being virtuous’. However, there are points of contact. The last story of ‘The Misanthropic King’, for example, in which King Choua passes his powers to his people only for them to end up under a tyrant once more, is a fascinating dissection of the steps by which a democracy becomes an oligarchy and then a dictatorship in the absence of proper accountability and controls.

As the book goes on, more and more characters emerge from the stories. However, there is a strangely faceless, flat quality to many of the groups and people in the tales, as though they are types instead of fully realised individuals. This may be partly explained by the eulogy to the oral tradition that begins the final story:

‘As far back in time as men can remember, albeit they forget very fast, the oral tradition is there to remind them constantly of events that happened before they were born. Its elasticity and capacity for changing and evolving allows the tradition to yield to the exigencies of the moment; it adapts according to the place and the time in which the individuals live. And thus it guarantees the orderly continuation of custom, linking the past to the present and the present to the future.’

This evocation of the flexibility of the oral tradition inevitably shows up the somewhat stilted quality of some of Seid’s tales. Caught between the spoken stories the author remembers affectionately and the written canon of his formal education, they feel like butterflies pinned to the page: trapped forever in a particular form and robbed of the fluid motion that is also part of their essence. They are fascinating specimens, but you can’t help feeling they are, for the most part, display models rather than living, breathing creations. The real heartbeat of Chadian storytelling, it seems, throbs elsewhere.

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from the French by Karen Haire Hoenig (Africa World Press, Inc, 2007)

Gabon: mother courage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gabon. It’s not a country that we in the UK hear much about. In fact, a quick search of the BBC website shows that only a handful of stories have mentioned the place in the last 12 months – and most of them were to do with the African football Cup of Nations.

With nothing to go on, it seemed to make sense to return to a trusted source for a steer on what to read. And so I picked out Daniel Mengara’s Mema from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a collection which introduced me to the excellent Bessie Head a month or so ago.

I was in for a surprise. Told by a son in memory and praise of his ostracized mother, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read.

The novel records the downfall of Mema (mother) as she runs up against the strict codes and mores of rural Gabonese society. Left to fend for herself in her in-laws’ village after her meek husband dies, the fearless and even fearsome woman, who has a habit of settling disputes with a machete, finds the whispers and suspicions that have dogged her throughout her marriage swell to fever pitch until she is separated from her children and must watch her son go off alone ‘into the new world that the white man was slowly creating for us’ because it is ‘the only way out’.

Mema’s world is a world of storytelling and rhetoric. When problems crop up, they are dealt with through a medzo or village meeting, during which the most persuasive speakers – usually the old women – carry the day. ‘Tales were what made people wise’ in this milieu of ‘psychological games and scare tactics’, the narrator explains, adding that ‘it was up to the youngsters to show cleverness by getting out of the tale the wisdom that they needed’.

The impact of growing up in a world where everyone is expected to be a literary critic and stories are the way of getting things done, is clear from the narrator’s doubts about what he is doing with his own act of telling:

‘Is it because I have travelled across the seas to the white man’s land that I have decided to desecrate my mother’s memories by telling them to strangers who will not even care to read her story to the end? Strangers who may not like what I have to say or may hate me for daring to say it? And how could strangers understand what I have to say? What will they do when the story of my mother proves too much for them and starts to haunt them, eating them from the inside?’

The novel’s portrayal of the power of women is equally intriguing. While making clear that the society he describes is ostensibly patriarchal, the narrator shows how women maintain control behind closed doors. ‘The lion had to be kept roaring for the sake of appearance’, he explains, but ‘when a woman was angry, nothing in the village worked’. The most striking demonstration of this is played out in the description of the rituals surrounding deserting wives in the region. Form dictates that the husband, who has usually been deserted on the grounds of cruelty, must go to apologise and beg his spouse back from his in-laws,. However if a husband is slow to do this the village women will launch a campaign of non-cooperation with their partners to force his hand.

For all the power women wield collectively, though, the radical Mema finds that individuals who don’t conform face a lonely road. Shunned for displaying masculine traits and daring to use mimbiri (witchcraft) to try to heal her dying husband, she is forced out of society and must carve out her own road for herself and her child.

In the wake of her death, only her son’s fierce admiration remains, fuelling this passionate elegy, which cannot fail to resonate with readers. Angry, abrupt, strange and moving, Mema’s tale is as haunting as its narrator describes. I was consumed and challenged by it. In its turn it will give me food for thought for a long time to come.

Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2003)