Not the most brilliant class meeting, but then they can’t all be golden. We need to find ways to provoke dialog in class, which, admittedly, lecture doesn’t tend to encourage.
My purpose in following up Nervous Conditions with Allah is Not Obliged is to contrast two moments in Africa’s history. The postcolonial era seems to vindicate Marx’s assertion that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” In other words, decolonization has brought with it a new set of challenges and difficulties. If colonialism and the Cold War attempted to bend African polities to the will of superior forces, some of the social landscapes produced in those geopolitical scenarios continue to shape the lives of millions. In the case of West Africa, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed an extraordinary degree of factionalism– often though not always along tribal lines– in the context of a largely stalled process of economic development. As is the case generally, the most vulnerable were the least able to avoid harm. We see this with the use of child-soldiers, those– as Birahima calls them– celebrities of the 20th century. Rather than take child-soldiers and the shocking atrocities committed in Sierra Leone’s and Liberia’s civil wars as evidence of some innate dysfunction peculiar to Africa– an argument advanced by Kaplan and popularized by Clinton according to a “coming anarchy” thesis– we need to dig a bit deeper.
Our goal is to examine this cultural text– Allah, etc.– in order to understand its function. A hybrid artefact blending a repurposed picaresque with oral tradition, Kourouma’s novel criticizes West Africa from within. When Birahima uses a phrase like “Black Nigger African Native,” we witness Kourouma making a satirical point about perceptions of Africans, one that– in my reading, at least– is both bitter and funny. Think about it: how is Africa (and it’s usually no more specific than “Africa,” an entire continent of highly variegated cultures and peoples, under consideration) represented in the western media? Africa is usually discussed in terms of epic scenery, exotic animals, sclerotic politics, pathological social problems, or romanticized “natives.” Kourouma seems to be challenging this view, though he insists that yes, absolutely, there is something wrong when violence persists in such a sharp and brutal form for so long. In distinction to America liberalism, which holds– more or less– that any religious conviction deserves to be tolerated no matter how irrational, Kourouma seems to suggest that some of the ideologies percolating in West Africa have led– at least in this instance– to a form of collective madness. What we have here, in a sense (and this is a dangerous analogy b/c it might be seen as allochronizing Africans) is an African version of the European religious wars, a generations-long bloodbath in the name of god.
Kourouma writes in the tradition of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, whose scathing novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan navigate the scorched earth between black comedy and heartbreak. A plethora of grotesque images and brutal ironies; Birahima’s successfully realized “voice”; and scenes of controlled pathos work together to produce a novel capable of confronting a kind of social nadir in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Is this the best aesthetic choice? Should a novel about child soldiers focus entirely on the tragic for its dramaturgical effect?