University of Provence
Today, childhood is changing very rapidly and very radically throughout the world, even in the richest countries that call themselves the most developed, where these changes often appear as tragic "news items" and become the stakes in power struggles. However, it is in the poorest and most politically unstable regions, such as many African countries, that they take their most spectacular forms and seem to be symptoms of real social change. Disrupted and displaced, unstable and highly ambivalent, the representations of childhood are becoming the blurred signs of a worrying world. At the same time, the child victims of enormous contemporary catastrophes - population displacement, famines, wars, AIDS, etc. - contrast with the child executioners - except that they are sometimes the same children. Spoiled children contrast with street children. Children are sold as slaves, others are recruited as soldiers, and these can seize power or help to seize it, as can, too, those child-sorcerers who are feared by their parents. Childhood has become an undefinable state, without fixed boundaries, where all stereotypes are overturned and all values are questioned. It has become difficult to sing, like Senghor was able to do, about the magic of the realm of childhood. We can, however, hope that from this seething mass a new world will be born.
The international courts are concerned more and more with the fate of children, and even though their generous resolutions often go unheeded, they are a sign of change. Hence, in New York in May 2002, the UN General Assembly held an extraordinary session dedicated to children. 500 children who had come from more than 100 countries, in fact, took part. In relation to the commitments made in 1990, this summit, despite an occasional point of progress, drew up a report indicating failure: "Almost 11 million children are still dying from avoidable diseases [...] It is estimated that there are 150 million undernourished children [...] 120 million children do not go to school [...] about 250 million are working in conditions that are often dangerous" (Le Monde, 10 May 2002, p.4). "Between 1990 and 2000, more than 2 million children have lost their lives in civil wars, more than 6 million have been maimed, 20 million have been driven from their homes, some 300 000 children have been recruited as soldiers and each year, more than 700 000 are victims of people traffickers ". (Le Monde, 12-13 May 2002, p.3). These figures are both grievous and and shameful.
However, the invited children were able to make their voices heard; they were indeed stern with regard to the adults responsible for the catastrophic state of the world in which they have to live, but they were also lucid and positive. The statement by Gabriela Azurdy Arriétaire, a 13 year old Bolivian girl, for example: "We are victims of all kinds of exploitation and abuse, we are street children, we are children of war, we are AIDS orphans, we are victims and our voices have not been heard, it all has to stop, we want a world that is worthy of us ...". Their message clearly presents the basic and often forgotten facts: "We are not the source of your problems, we are your resources: we are not expenses, we are investments; we are not just children, we are also citizens of this planet; you say that we are the future, but we are also the present". According to Olara Otunnu, special UN representative for children in armed conflicts, it was the children's words that, in contrast to the "quibbling between governments", gave "meaning to this conference" (Le Monde, 11-12 May).
In suggesting the theme "Being a child in Africa", Mots Pluriels set itself the very ambitious objective of attempting a broad multidisciplinary approach. An echo of this is to be found in the articles selected, although the very randomness of the responses to our call for articles has led us to favour Black francophone Africa. This same randomness has given a predominant place to literary or, more broadly, artistic approaches. The issue of childhood is therefore approached less on a factual level than on the level of representation. Is this not essential, however? Especially when it is a matter of the image that Africa is in the process of constructing of itself, for the texts studied are in the main very recently published texts by African authors. It is commonplace to say that art, in Africa, has never been gratuitous or even separate. Kourouma, for example, states that he always wanted "to write in order to bear witness". To a journalist who asked him what literature was for, he replied very simply: "Reflecting, I think. Take Allah n'est pas obligé. I don't invent anything, the press has already said it all [but] it didn't cause much reaction. When it's a writer who is narrating things, they take on another dimension." (Interview in Lire, September 2000, p.33).
The first part of this issue of Mots Pluriels is therefore devoted to literary perspectives. "How does contemporary African literature represent childhood?" and "How are we to interpret these representations?" These are the questions that underlie all the articles. Obviously, they lead to overlapping that permits a transversal reading around the authors, such as Monemembo, for example, who appears in several articles, or even around themes, such as that of the orphan.
African literature produced over the last twenty years no longer risks being classed as "pink literature", as Mongo Beti did in criticising the watered down vision of Camara Laye in L'enfant noir. Far from cultivating the myth of original harmony that was popular during the age of negritude, it is working to deconstruct it almost systematically by projecting contemporary disillusion onto past childhoods.
is the only one to speak about poetry. Entitling her article "A la recherche du royaume perdu", she shows that there remain only occasional traces of that green paradise in the works of female African poets. In contrast with the male poets, they are "hard pressed by the urgency of the present moment", scarcely lingering over evocations of the past and preferring to "force open new roads" (Boni). Rather, they evoke the painful present and the "tattered future". Nonetheless without losing faith, by affirming on the contrary, as a poem by V. Tadjo cited by A. Bassolé declares: "We shall go in search of hope".
In search of "L'enfant colonial dans le roman post-colonial", offers us a reading of two Guinean novels, Les écailles du ciel, by Tierno Monemembo, published in 1986, and Mémoire d'une peau, by Williams Sassine (1998), which evoke in flash-back two childhoods of the colonial period. Cousin Samba, in Les écailles du ciel, rejected by his father and treated cruelly by the villagers who see a sorcerer in him, is condemned to solitude. Milos Kan, "the albino, without a childhood, without a father and a mother", also suffers insults and brutality, aggravated even further by the load of curses that weigh on the albino. It is in these painful childhoods that the empty, hollow and even odious characters who serve as the novels' derisory "heroes" were formed. This is to show that the misfortunes of childhood are not a new thing in Africa and that the present situation has its origins in colonial times, but it is also perhaps to project onto the past the darkness of current times.
The article by , "African Childhoods: Identity, Race and Autobiography", is distinguishable from all the other articles in this issue through a corpus of anglophone texts by White authors, reversing the perspective presupposed by this issue's title, that of "Black children", and brings it face to face with representations of Africa in the European imagination, which were dominant for a long time, and perhaps still are. Tony da Silva is interested in stories of White childhoods in Africa. Some, the descendants of Karen Blixen (1937), perpetuate the stereotype of the love story with Africa, like Alexandra Fuller's narrative. But Tony da Silva is interested above all in the narratives of African-born White individuals who use the account of their childhood in Africa to give meaning to the life they are living "elsewhere" and contribute to a continual reframing of the interpretation - even "the invention" ((Mudimbe) - of Africa in the European collective imagination, as for example Doris Lessing's books. These White children feel like orphans separated from their Mother Africa by independence, which leads to violent resentment. Postcolonial autobiographical narratives, written by Africa's White children, reveal a rift. Whether they lean towards myth or towards nightmare, they lead the reader into the adventure, not only individual but also historical, of the reconstruction of an identity.
The figure of the orphan appears again and again almost obsessively in contemporary fictional literature. makes it the subject of his article: "Sans père mais non sans espoir. La continuité de la figure de l'orphelin dans la littérature sub saharienne". He studies the transformations of this figure which is already strongly present in traditional oral literature. In contemporary novels, orphans have become marginals, relegated to "the HQs of distress" and they have had to assimilate in order to survive perverted knowledge. But already, in oral literature, the figure of the orphan was often so transgressive and amoral that it required interpretation: the orphan could be understood as the messenger from the beyond, an intermediary with the ancestral manes and thereby the bearer of meaning. Has the orphan in current novels ceased to be, beyond appearances, a sign of hope? L. Obiang shows that it is nothing of the kind. It is true that by widening the meaning of the word "orphan", he sees in him a force of adjustment and movement. At the centre of B.B. Diop's novel Le cavalier et son ombre, the mythical character of Tunde, the child-saviour, whose name means "the one who keeps hope intact", is an allegory of this.
This positive vision of childhood, as opposed to the world's chaos, is the same one shown by Djibril Diop Mambety's latest film, analysed by , La petite vendeuse du soleil, 1998. Despite the aggressive presence of the city, and despite poverty aggravated still further by infirmity, the very positive character of little Sili keeps on being brave and smiling. She continues to "sell the Sun", which is not just the name of a Dakar daily. A hymn to the courage of street children, this film-testament is a message of confidence. It seems to us all the more important that the cinema plays an essential role in Africa, in that it is much more "democratic" than literature. Books are still a luxury product, whereas films are seen everywhere and by everyone (or almost). This issue merely skims the surface of a very rich topic that deserves to be explored in greater depth.
also suggests a rather optimistic reading of the work of Henri Lopes. This work focuses on the father/son relationship, whether it be the natural father or the "father of the nation". Against this or these fathers, the son shows his mistrust, even his revolt. Even when their identity is uncertain, the fathers remain omnipresent: "there are no orphans in Africa". This paradoxical assertion runs counter to any realistic representation and on the surface contradicts most of the other articles. But perhaps it reflects one of the elements of the current situation of childhood in Africa, since the super-abundance of symbolic fathers is not incompatible with the absence or defection of the natural father?
However, when African literature of the last few decades takes childhood as its subject and the child as its hero, or even its narrator, it paints, rather, a dark picture of childhood. For it is above all to the victims of the great modern transformations (urbanisation, AIDS, etc.) and of the collective tragedies ("tribal" wars) that it pays particular attention, and this is what gives rise to most of the articles.
So it is for Tierno Monemembo whose "fictional journey" is studied by . Childhood becomes a major theme only in Monemembo's most recent novels. The Guinean writer articulates this theme of childhood on an antithesis that refers "to the ambivalence of the notion in the collective imaginary". In Monemembo's universe, the world is very hard for children, even if there still subsist a few traces of an ephemeral childhood happiness. The child is "the preferential victim of history's convulsions" and there is a close correspondence between the history of children and that of the country, which is much more obvious in the last two novels. But whereas Cinéma presents a crisis of adolescence and ends happily with the movement of the child from the role of fictional hero to the status of "Hero", L'aîné des orphelins, inscribed in the after-effects of the Rwandan genocide, begins and ends in despair, finally relegating "the scenarios of happy childhood to the universe of impossible fiction". Finally , presents us with a very interesting comparison between Sozaboy, by Ken Saro Wiwa and Allah n'est pas obligé, by Ahmadou Kourouma, two novels whose hero-narrators are children or very young people involved as soldiers in conflicts that have nothing to do with them. Both these novels contend with history, but in very different ways. In Sozaboy, the (Biafran) war is never named or located, whereas the "tribal wars" that are tearing Liberia and Sierra Leone apart are clearly named and located by Kourouma. However, their common perspective, which is not at all historical, is firstly a reflection on the human condition and human limits. Sozaboy can be read as a novel of apprenticeship, in which the character is seeking to draw lessons from his experience, even though he finally emerges into despair. Whereas in Allah, despair is at the very origin of the journey. Birahima is "cursed" for the evil he has done to his mother: the worst has already happened and, according to the belief system, his fate is determined, making questions pointless, since the answers have already been given, and making apprenticeship impossible. Another point that is common to both novels is the significance granted to language. The consultation of the four dictionaries by Birahima and his commentaries in fact appear above all as true events. For they do not succeed in reducing the differences but rather function as a screen to avert unbearable realities and as an effort to rearrange the world. In Sozaboy, language is strongly associated with the social condition and more broadly with the human condition. Both novels can therefore be understood as attempts to express the inexpressible. This is, moreover, what is suggested by the brief interview with , for whom the world described by Camara Laye in L'enfant noir is gone and has given way to the world of "tribal wars" into which many children have been dragged.
The second section, which is rather nostalgic, is devoted to three personal testimonies about what childhood was, at the beginning of the independence era, in West Africa and more particularly in Ivory Coast. The testimonies of Pierre N'Da and Amadou Koné have many points in common. Their authors, who are about the same age and who are both university Professors, lived their childhoods in the same francophone country in West Africa, Ivory Coast, which it used to be said was Africa's showcase. But whereas , without really distinguishing the past from the present, focuses all the various types of difficulties that used to and still make the life of an African child into an obstacle course, stresses change. Reflecting on his childhood, a "time of dreams and hope", which he refrains from idealising, he opposes the situation of today's children, deprived of a future and of hope.
, in "A l'ombre des jeunes filles en pleurs" shifts the question of childhood by posing it in the feminine and by focusing her essay on excision, which she does not present as a theory but as personal experience. The "subject of writing" is at the same time within and without, in an uncomfortable in-between. The author, who has not undergone excision herself and has not even really been threatened with it since her ethnic group does not practise it, has had an external experience of it through several incidents that she recounts. Disturbing incidents, subjected to taboos, linked to blood and fear, an echo of which she has rediscovered in literature, through the painful experience of Salimata, Kourouma's female character in Les Soleils des Indépendances, that of Mariam "the unexcised girl", in Monné (by the same author), or again in that of the transgressive and combative character of Malimouna in Rebelle, by Fatou Keïta.
's short story, "L'enfer de l'autre côté de la frontière", condenses into a story most of the themes addressed in this issue. Beginning with that of the orphan. "I had no father. I have never had one", recounts the young narrator, "a child who became an adult too soon", to his friend the mango tree which serves as his confidant. He tells of illiteracy, work at seven years of age, separation, the road, hunger, movement towards the lure of a paradise that is "always elsewhere", a "monster" border that "gobbles up children", life in the dangerous forest, the atrociousness of "events" and once again the road across a burnt and deserted land. But he also tells of discovering an identity and perhaps a random father who had disappeared, and especially meeting a sister. In this way, this tragic story nevertheless ends in hope. 's interview by Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana complements the literary testimonies while the third section balances the literary bent of this issue on children by introducing other perspectives.
, in "Towards Eliminating Child Labour : the power of the Law", deals with the issue from a legal viewpoint. She clearly shows the huge discrepancy that exists between statements, legislation and practice. On this point, as on all points concerning the destiny of children in Africa, progress in law is reflected in what actually happens only very slowly and with great difficulty. , in "Le deuxième monde et les enfants-sorciers en République Démocratique du Congo", contributes an ethno-political perspective more fully addressed by the report in an issue of the review Politique africaine: Enfants, jeunes et politique. He describes the awful situation of sometimes very young children who are accused of sorcery and links this to the pernicious effects of urbanisation on collective representations. This is not just one of the spectacular forms of the destitution of children in Africa's large cities, but also a transformation of the image of childhood and of family patterns that implies a crisis and a radical social change.
The spectre of AIDS that is threatening the very future of Africa is also inducing a deep crisis in society. evokes in "The African Child and HIV/AIDS" a very encouraging experience that she had with South African children. AIDS is a part of everyday life for thousands of African children, whether they are themselves infected or whether they watch their parents die and then swell the orphan population. The pictures of children and the texts accompanying them are distressing: "AIDS is a killer". "AIDS is killing our mothers and fathers"; "What is going to become of me? Who will look after me? Who will help me?" At the same time, Véronique Tadjo addresses in a concrete way the very old issue of the usefulness of art by recalling the role it played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. She expresses the belief that the arts, especially the visual arts, can play an important role in the fight against AIDS and more broadly, in the reconstruction of a future. A similar experience was shown in France, at the 2002 Avignon Festival, with the pictorial and poetic productions of the street children of Dakar "Children of night" (Le Monde, 12/07/02).
In this venture to reach salvation through art, children's books can play a role. , in "Towards a Potscolonial Children's Litérature for Black Africa", hopes that the major concern of the authors and publishers of books for children will be to offer new positive models. This wish is in keeping with the interview with , director of African Books Collective. She stresses the increasing demand for children's books published in Africa that therefore emanate from African culture, which is not the case with books published in Europe or the USA.
In presenting this issue, we have evoked the limits of this venture but we have also stressed its significance. Despite the preference given to literature and representations - or thanks to them, perhaps? - we hope that we have approached in some way the complexity, the diversity and the ambivalences of childhood in Africa. There are still many issues to address, testimonies to discover, novels to decipher in order to give an idea of this hard experience in which the destiny of a continent is being played out. We have not given any answers, but we would above all like to have opened up tracks and asked questions.
|A former student of l'Ecole Normale Supérieure, Agrégée de
Lettres Classiques, Docteur d'État, Madeleine Borgomano has
taught at the University of Rabat (Morocco), Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and at
Aix-en-Provence (France). Her main interest is in the contemporary French
novel, in particular those of women writers. Following her thesis on Marguerite
Duras, she has published several books on this author and she is the President
of the Duras Society which has its headquarters in London. Meanwhile, she has
published two works on Le Clézio as well as numerous articles on the
contemporary novel. Since her sojourn in Ivory Coast, Madeleine Borgomano has
become passionate about Africa, its literature and films, about which she has
published a great number of articles.
Her most recent works include : Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein de Marguerite Duras, Paris, Gallimard, Foliothèque, 1997. (212p.); Ahmadou Kourouma, le 'guerrier' griot, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1998, (256p.); Des Hommes ou des bêtes? Lecture de 'En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages', Paris, L'Harmattan, 2000, (210p.), [see review] ; "Kourouma et les 'gros mots'" [Kourouma and the 'swear words'] in Transposer, transcrire, traduire, to be published by the University Paul Valéry, Montpellier (Autumn 2002); "Kourouma : écrire pour témoigner" [Kourouma : writing to bear witness] in Ecrire l'Afrique d'aujourd'hui, revue Palabres, for publication Autumn 2002.