(Part I—Khady)

Chapter XIII 

Back in the concession Bouya told Salifou about his misadventure.

            ‘I didn’t know you had a father,’ his friend said. ‘I mean… You said…’

            ‘What difference does it make?’

            ‘Well, you’ll be buried next to him some day.’

            ‘I’d rather die.’

            ‘How can you die if you’re already dead?’

            Bouya, who at nine years of age had already died many times over, didn’t answer. He started thinking about his mother and his eyes moistened.

            ‘I don’t know where they buried my mother.’

            ‘My master told me that they take people without any family to the hospital so the doctors can open them up to see what’s going on inside.’

            Two tears were forming on Bouya’s lower eyelids and then dropped down to his cheeks. He wiped them away with the back of his hand and remembered his mother had family but they were hardly any better than his father. Salifou regretted his awkward comments and wondered how he could help his friend. In discovering their new-found beliefs, the two kids had no idea how to apply them to themselves. What they did know and shared was their hatred of the world they lived in. The world the adults had created, made up of lies, greed, and violence. The lies grew into betrayal, greed into avarice, and violence into cruelty. How could they live in such a world without being part of it? So they were dreaming of a world of their own, with their own rules, without any adults to mistreat them.

            ‘It isn’t possible,’ Onkoul said twisting his body to see Salifou.

            ‘Why not?’ the child asked.

            ‘Because there’s only one world and to survive in it you have to follow the rules the adults have set and become adults yourselves. Whatever else happens, in the end a child will grow up. Life, misery, love will make him grow up. And an adult can never go back to being a child.’

            ‘Why?’ Bouya asked.

            Onkoul turned back around and answered:

            ‘Because you can never find your lost innocence again.’

            ‘Adults lie all the time,’ Bouya said.

            ‘How do you know?’

            ‘Bourema says so.’

            ‘And who is Bourema?’

            ‘A young man I know. He’s blind.’

            ‘He must have a good reason for saying that. Still, remember this… Not every adult is a liar, and there are many children who tell lies without intending any harm, but merely because they have a rich imagination. Becoming an adult means making choices and taking responsibility for them. By taking charge of your little sister you proved to be more of a grown-up than many parents.’

            Bouya thought that by losing his sister he’d shown himself to be unworthy of his mother’s trust. Often pedantic, Onkoul offered them some advice:

            ‘Our life is meaningless unless we devote it to other people,’ he began. ‘From time to time, life brings out what’s best in us or what’s worst in us, our beauty or our ugliness, the light that makes us shine or the darkness that sometimes moves into our heart. These two things coexist in every human being.'

            The children badgered him with questions.

            ‘Why do grown-ups hurt animals?’


            ‘Like killing a dog?’

            ‘For example… But they hurt their human brothers even more… Simply out of indifference… You can do a lot of harm by just closing your eyes.’

            Words that weren’t finely-shaded but some of them reminded Bouya of what his mother used to say. Onkoul added:

            ‘But be careful about people who only see the bad in others. Sometimes they see their own failings in other people. They demand truth and justice from others but dread practicing it themselves.’

            ‘Does that go on throughout one’s life?’ Salifou asked.

            ‘Life is often much harder than that. Try to be honest with other people and with yourself.  Life will often be difficult but you’ll hold on to your self-respect.’

            ‘I want to learn how to fight to get respect,’ Salifou declared.

            Onkoul turned to him.

            ‘To get respect you have to respect others and you have to respect yourself…’

            ‘If I know how to fight others will be afraid of me and I’ll be a hero.’

            ‘Kéren[1],’ Onkoul said, ‘it’s better to be loved than feared. Firin[2], there’s a hero inside every one of us… Because the hero is someone who helps an old lady to cross the street or gives up his seat for her; it’s also the one who runs after a gentleman to give him back his wallet.’

            Salifou contemplated that wasn’t exactly the kind of hero he wanted to become. Onkoul read his thoughts and, counting on his fingers, continued:

            ‘A hero doesn’t look for a fight. He doesn’t run away from it either, but he does try to avoid it. A hero is someone who gives his favorite candy to his friend; he takes out the trash and helps his parents without complaining; he doesn’t brag about the good things he does and he doesn’t expect any reward for them. A hero doesn’t steal, he doesn’t piss against houses, and he doesn’t sleep till noon…’

            Salifou decided that Onkoul’s hero was nothing but an idiot. He made a

contribution of his own:

            “A hero isn’t afraid and doesn’t cry.’

            ‘A hero is often afraid and he cries when he’s in pain. And above all, a hero isn’t ashamed to say “I love you” to his parents.’

            Bouya ruminated that he’d never said ‘I love you’ to his mother. But he consoled himself with the thought that she knew. He asked:

            ‘Does the good Lord exist?’

            Onkoul twisted around again:

            ‘I believe that God exists. But whether he’s good?’

            That response added to Bouya’s perplexity. He asked:

            ‘How do we know that what we do is good or not?’

            ‘We frequently know it only from the consequences, when it’s too late.’

            ‘But…how can you know it beforehand?’

            ‘Our conscience tells us. Our conscience talks to us all the time. Sadly, we often silence it. Remember this: anything that hurts other people is bad. Therefore, doing good is a choice. Doing evil is, too… Everything is a matter of choice. But it isn’t always so black and white. Good doesn’t stand on one side and evil on the other. Do you understand? Our actions aren’t always purely good or purely evil. Sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle. Not exactly in the middle, but more to one side than the other. It’s up to us to see where they’re located. That allows us to adopt certain forms of behavior and give up on others. You do this not for your parents, not for your friends, but for yourself. There’s not one single good way of doing things. You should try the one that to you seems the most just… But if you don’t believe in yourself you’ll get nowhere. And whatever happens, always stick to your word and keep moving forward. One day you’ll find your place.’

(Part II—Malick)

Chapter XII

With the mistral, the cold returned. In Méissa’s apartment, freezing drafts circulated through the rooms making the children shiver. The only bit of warmth that they could find was in the cuddling space heater of their mother’s arms. After dinner, the women, each in her own bed surrounded by her progeny, waited for the time that one of them would join the husband. The TV was the signal. As soon as he turned it off the ‘wife of the day’ would get up. Sometimes she’d wait for him in his bedroom, although both of them preferred staying with their children as long as possible. Always suspicious, Méissa had noticed that her father turned the TV off earlier when it was her stepmother’s turn. She told Djanka about it:

            ‘Don’t be too hard on her,’ her friend said. ‘She’s not responsible for this situation. Maybe she didn’t even have anything to say about it. I know the problem all too well. Back home, all parents want to marry off their daughters. Surely she must be happy she came to France, but I’m not sure she’s happy to be where she is today.’

            ‘I’m going to tell you something that nobody knows. My stepmother is my cousin. She’s my mother’s niece, the daughter of her half-sister who despises her the most. She came here to visit my mother, her aunt. She took advantage of it by seducing my father. No one saw anything. A few months later my father went to the village to ask for her hand. Then he gave my mother a choice: either you accept my marrying her or you’ll go back to your country and I’ll marry her anyway. That’s why she’s so unhappy.’

            ‘My God,’ Djanka said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before.’

            ‘That’s why I hate them both. When she first came here, you know, I was fourteen and she eighteen. I showed her the entire city. I even had a friend almost fuck her.’


            ‘I should’ve done it. She wouldn’t be here today if I had.’

            ‘There are situations worse than mine,’ Djanka sighed. ‘Be that as it may, show her that you’re not her enemy. For, whatever you do, right now you are a family. And maybe her son will be the one who loves you the most tomorrow.’

            ‘I really doubt that.’

            After a moment’s silence, Méissa changed her tone and the subject:

            ‘So are you going to tell me or not?’


            ‘Did he forget to use a condom or did you…use some magic?’

            Djanka smiled sadly.

            ‘We haven’t agreed on who did what yet.’

            Her eyes filled with tears and she added:

            ‘He treats my child like a bastard. He’s convinced I cheated on him.’

            ‘You didn’t?’

            ‘Of course not,’ Djanka was indignant and wiped her eyes. ‘He swore he’d kill me if he found any proof at all of my infidelity.’

            ‘He wouldn’t dare. He just wants to scare you to keep you from starting up again.’

            ‘Keep me from starting up again what I didn’t do in the first place?’

            ‘But he thinks you did.’

            ‘He’s the one who’s cheating on me.’

            ‘How do you know?’

            ‘Intuition. Some of the things he says… His nights out.’

            Seeing her friend almost in tears again, Méissa tried to make her smile.

            ‘In any event,’ she joked, ‘nothing will stop your child. A sperm that manages to rupture a condom is what they call a MacGyver here.’

            ‘I thought of calling him Facély. That’s my father’s first name.’

            ‘Much better,’ Méissa said. ‘Would you like an old cradle?’

            ‘A cradle?’

            ‘It used to be mine. All my brothers slept in it. My mother would like you to have it but I told her that maybe you didn’t want such an old one.’

            ‘Are you crazy, Méissa? Of course I want it. But…what about your stepmother?’

            ‘We’re hoping she won’t have any more children. My mother is praying for that.’

            ‘You shouldn’t ask God for such things. You should ask Him for happiness for yourself and for those you love, not for the misery of other people.’

            ‘Isn’t that the same thing sometimes? Tell me about the girls where you come from.’

            ‘It’s where you come from, too. Just because you were born and raised here doesn’t mean you can ignore that.’

            ‘I don’t. My mother tried to tell me about it but I was too young to be interested. Today I don’t really feel very African. But I do want to know why the girls…where we come from…let their parents impose their will on them.’

            ‘It depends on the environment. There are girls who’ve gone to college, who work and are responsible for themselves. They choose whom they want to marry. And others, like me, who don’t belong to themselves and have to bow to the will of their parents.’

            ‘You demean yourself if you say you don’t belong to yourself. You don’t have enough self-esteem, that’s your problem. Don’t forget you have defeated lots of people to come into this world.’

            ‘I’m not forgetting. But I’ve always been dependent on others. Everything I’ve done was decided for me by other people. Except coming to France with my husband. And even so, I didn’t really want to come.’

            ‘You can change that. Going to college has nothing to do with it, except that it opens your eyes. You alone must decide what you want to do with your life. I’m only seventeen but I know that much. You’re like my mother. You submit and you wait for something to free you from your yoke.’

            Djanka was hurt by these words. She protested:

            ‘I’m not a subservient woman.’

            ‘Yes, you are.’

            ‘If I were, I wouldn’t be here today. My husband insisted that I wait in our home country but I refused.’

            ‘Yes, but now you’re waiting like a good little girl for things to straighten out in your life. You’re not doing anything to change them.’

            Djanka was insulted. She wanted to strike back.

            ‘You, don’t you demean yourself by letting them grope you in the hallway?’

            ‘No, nobody makes me do it. I do it because I like it.’

            ‘Don’t you do it to get back at your father? As his only daughter, you make him pay for his attitude toward your mother. But by such behavior you’re shaming your mother and making her situation worse.’

            ‘It’s my father who should be worried. What kind of man goes looking for a wife the age of his daughter to impose her upon the one who’s given him five kids? That’s why I don’t feel African. I can’t stand the men’s authoritarian conduct nor the women’s submissiveness.’

            ‘Africa isn’t like that at all. The submissiveness of women you’re talking about concerns only those who have neither education nor fortune and need a husband. Countless women don’t want anything to do with a husband because they earn more money than men.’

            ‘Yeah, I’ve heard about the Nanas Benz. Isn’t it ridiculous to use the name of an expensive car to advertise your business success? In a country where there’s so much poverty, to boot?’

            ‘They don’t have any in Guinea, so I don’t know about it.’

            “Aren’t there any in Guinea?’

            ‘No, they’re Togolese. I don’t know the situation in that country. But I do believe those women have a lot of people working for them, which is a good thing for their country.’

            ‘There are girls here who call themselves “Nanas Benz of France”.’

            ‘Now that is totally ridiculous.’

            ‘And all those African women who lighten their skin, that really sucks. By doing that, some are downright turning into half-bloods.’

            ‘Many African women don’t touch those products, even if the men prefer lighter skins.’

            ‘See, it’s always the same problem. You do everything to please men while they do nothing to please you. First you should do things for yourself, because sooner or later you end up hating those for whom you relinquish yourself.’

            Djanka didn’t want the discussion to end on a note that so depreciated African women and said:

            ‘This so-called male authority is practiced in front of others. In the intimacy of the bedroom it’s the women who decide.’

            ‘I find that hard to believe.’

            Djanka sensed she wasn’t in a position to set herself up as an advocate for the women of her country, her own case being hardly defensible. But she wanted to change Méissa’s image of African women.  The magnitude of her task became clear when the young girl flung at her:

            ‘Why do women have their daughters genitally excised when they themselves suffered and continue to suffer from that mutilation?’

            ‘Tradition. And also to let them find a husband.’

            ‘You see? You always let them impose horrifying things on you. Me, I’d never want a man who hates my clitoris. A few years ago my father insisted I go to the village with my mother, supposedly to visit the family. My mother refused because she knew I’d be cut as soon as we were there.’

            ‘You see, your mother doesn’t always submit to your father’s will.’

            ‘That’s because she’s been living here for twenty years. She doesn’t tolerate the family’s pressure anymore. And also because it was about me. My mother has always made a difference between her duties as a mother and her obligations as a spouse.’

            She fell silent for a moment, then added:

            ‘I’m grateful to her for having saved the part of my body I like the best. Not to speak of the pain and infections. I read that they do it with a knife or a piece of broken bottle.’

            She trembled as she said it. Djanka who didn’t know quite what to say, clarified naively:

            ‘No, most frequently it’s done with a razorblade. But that, too, is disappearing as girls are getting an education.’

            Méissa burst out laughing.

            ‘So you are a Gillette or…’

            ‘If you’re going to say hurtful things to me, you’d better go home.’

            Méissa got up. Djanka hung on to her:

            ‘I’m sorry I said that. You have every right to have an opinion other than mine. But you should express it in such a way that I don’t feel insulted. I bara a famou[3]?’

            ‘I was just kidding,’ Méissa answered. ‘I admit it was no good.’

            It was her way of apologizing.


[1] One (in Susu).

[2] Two.

[3] You understand? (In Susu).