/ 5 November 2010

Prophecy of an election

Prophecy Of An Election

Last Sunday about 80% of Côte d’Ivoire’s eligible voters turned out to vote for a new president. That’s quite an achievement considering that voter registration cards were still being distributed the ­previous Friday.

Camara Nangala’s The Dance of the Hyenas is prophetic. Written in 2000, the people of a small Ivoirian village wait for their voter cards to arrive. When they do, the day before elections, the cards are riddled with errors. There’s no time to have them corrected, leaving thousands unable to exercise their democratic right on polling day. The village, by the way, happens to be in an opposition stronghold.

Trying to find books in Côte d’Ivoire is only slightly more difficult than finding impala in the Kruger National Park. Ivoirians like to read and they like to write. In fact, I generally find there’s a larger choice of local writers in Francophone Africa than on the Anglophone side. Most sizeable Francophone cities tend to have at least one big, bright and well-maintained book shop and Abidjan is no exception.

Stumbling across a bookshop is as simple as walking through the centre of the commercial district. Cafés, department stores and designer boutiques share the same pavements as does the Librairie de France, a well-stocked emporium on Avenue Chardy. As always, Book Safari’s goal is to find a novel by a local author. In places where local authors seem to be as common as hen’s teeth, and ­Liberia comes to mind here, any book will do. In Abidjan one can be more discerning.

One of Côte d’Ivoire’s best-known writers, Veronique Tadjo, lives and works in Johannesburg. Her books, though not as readily available as I think they should be, can be found in South Africa. I decided to rule her out and discover what was, for me in any case, an unknown talent.

Here are a few lines from the back cover of The Dance of the Hyenas: ‘Manipulating electoral lists, intimidating the population by the army, fictitious polling stations, spectacular reversal of results by the ruling party — written with poetry, humour and mockery by Camara Nangala.” I had to read it.

The story centres on a young woman, Kahonaman, and her attempts, against the odds, to provide for her young son. Just about anything that can go wrong does — her husband loses his job, he becomes an abusive drunk, her best friend turns on her and local politicians do their best to prevent her and the rest of her family from turning around
their lives.

Before deciding that this is far too depressing and just another story of African misery, it is not. It is also a story of hope and strength.

Nangala is a realist and makes it clear that rural Ivoirians know exactly what sort of wool is being pulled over their eyes by the ­politicians in the big city.

The election turns out to be a sham, with the ‘big man” and his cronies remaining in place but the locals are thinking long-term and come up with a plan that will make sure that next time around they are better prepared. Not surprisingly from an author who is also a teacher, Nangala sees education as the key to freedom.

Of particular interest is the role international electoral observers play in this story. Nangala’s take on observers, and I tend to agree with him, is that what they do not observe in the run-up to elections is more important than what they manage to see on voting day.

Nangala comes from central Côte d’Ivoire and teaches maths and physics in Abidjan. It’s not surprising he became a writer — his father was a voracious reader who had an impressive library in his home. From the time he was in primary school, Nangala used what extra money he could scrape together to buy books from used bookshops.

Although politics features prominently in his books, Nangala claims allegiance to no political party, believing that doing so would ­compromise his integrity and his ability to write the truth. Nangala has four other novels and a collection of short stories and poetry to his credit.

As is far too often the case, the work of Francophone Africa remains virtually unknown in South Africa. More translations are needed. For that matter, works in English from other parts of the continent are few and far between on the bookshelves of most South African bookshops. Book Safari continues the hunt.

The Dance of the Hyenas (La Ronde des Hyènes) sells for CFA francs 5?550 (about R81) at the Librairie de France and is published by Editions CEDA in Abidjan.