Book reviews n°47
LES POÈMES DE LA MER
Yaoundé, Clé, 2013 (1968, first edition)
During the first two postcolonial decades the Cameroonian publishing house, Éditions Clé, was the best Francophone publisher in Africa. It was responsible for the publication of the texts (essays, novels and drama) which over the years fuelled discussions and fired imaginations on the continent. Just in passing, let us quickly mention Léopold Sédar Senghor, Négritude ou servitude? by the Cameroonian philosopher Marcien Towa, L’errance, by the Zairean critic (at that time, the Democratic Republic of Congo was called Zaire) George Ngal, Tribaliques by the Congolese author Henri Lopes, La marmite de Koka Mbala by his compatriot Guy Menga, and Conscience de tracteur by Sony Labou Tansi. And in particular, it was responsible for publishing translations of some key Anglophone authors, particularly the plays of the future Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and the political essays of the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere.
Then there was a lull in the 1990s. In recent years, the publishing house seems to have revived, thanks to the dynamism and the vast literary knowledge of its new director, Marcelin Vounda Etoa, who is promoting new talents and reissuing the texts published by the firm. This is the background to the reissue of Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard’s Poèmes de la mer.
Born on 15 December 1938 at Ngoyo (about 10 kilometres from Pointe-Noire) in Congo-Brazzaville, Tati-Loutard earned a doctorate in comparative literature and was a professor of literature before achieving recognition as a poet.
He published his first collection Poèmes de la mer in 1966, which immediately ranked him as one of the continent’s original voices. From the very first poem, dedicated to his friend Théophile Obenga, Tati-Loutard asserts his claim.
“La Mer n’est plus notre tombe, C’est notre sarcophage antique, Notre relique,
Ensevelie sous quatre cents ans de sables Et recouverte de toutes les peaux du ciel Jamais vues.
Regarde ! Les étoiles sont nues
Dans le lit bleu de la nuit
On voit bien leur sexe de lumière; Et la lune qui se lève à l’horizon,
Sent toutes les roses du jardin colonial”
“The Sea is no longer our tomb, It is our ancient sarcophagus, Our relic
Buried beneath four hundred years of sand And covered with all the skins of the sky Never seen.
Look! The stars are naked
In the blue bed of night
We can see clearly their sex of light; And the moon rising on the horizon, Smells of the roses of the colonial garden”
The tone of the young poet is serious, the language is sober. The sea is no longer the space for freedom hymned by Baudelaire. It is a place of memory, traversed by history. And the entire first part of the collection recalls the places and names of the Kings branded by the slave trade in the kingdom of Loango. Hovering like a ghost, the odious trade haunts the whole first section of Poèmes de la mer. The poet indefatigably unearths painful buried memories.
It is only in the second part of the collection that he celebrates not the sea but the mother and brings us right back to contemporary experience, which takes the form of the poet’s warning against the lyrical allure of the “independence cha cha”:
“La tornade libère une myriade d’insectes
Clos dans le ventre de la terre ;
Ils croient l’heure venue d’entreprendre
L’ascension du Mont-Soleil
Et leur rêve étouffe dans le bec des hirondelles. Chaque jour je veille ma vie
Je découpe toute effilure de songes
Nés sur la paille fertile de la nuit.
Et tous ces parasites s’en vont nourrir le vent… Ainsi midi incendie mille songes
Quand le soleil debout nous dit toute sa clarté ; Au village on bat le tambour de la liberté
À rompre la peau:
Mais rappelez cet homme qui s’en va dansant
Par les sentiers où les épines hurlent encore
“The tornado releases myriad insects
Enclosed in the belly of the Earth;
They think the time has come to attempt
The ascent of the Sun Mountain
And their dream is engulfed in the swallows’ beaks. Each day I review my life
I banish from it a jumble of dreams
I cut off any frayed edges of dreams
Born on the fertile straw of night
And all these parasites vanish to feed the wind And thus midday sets fire to a thousand dreams In the village they beat the drum of freedom
Fit to burst the skin:
But remember this man who goes dancing away
Down the paths where the thorns still scream
With vicious hatred.”
These lucid lines in L’envers du soleil open the poet’s bitterest collection. Although obsessed by the passage of time and the desire to call things by their proper names, Tati-Loutard was above all a soul sensitive to the blossoming of the other. But the charm of the Poèmes de la mer lies also in his post-face, which inspired the speech of the Congolese delegation at the Pan-African Festival of Algiers in 1969 and is actually the first non-ideological critique of negritude, and indeed of the epigones of negritude.
Paris, Présence Africaine, 2013
There is a link to be found between the essay of the Beninese Paulin Houtondji Sur la philosophie africaine published in 1977 by Maspéro and Philosophies africaines by Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux which has just been published by Présence Africaine.
In forcefully putting ethno-philosophy on trial, Paulin Houtondji was trying to liberate the theoretical creativity of Africans to help them take a full role in universal intellectual debate. Twenty-six years later, Ms. Kodjo’s essay shows that this goal has been achieved. Firstly, because there is no longer any question here of African philosophy, but rather of philosophies in the plural, a plural accepted from the outset if only because Séverine Kodjo explores both the Francophone and Anglophone monographs (although it would have been desirable to see examples from the Portuguese-speaking world too), then because of the fertility of the possibilities and concepts proposed by different philosophers of the continent in order to better apprehend the reality of contemporary Africa. Consequently, this is a book which as Souleymane Bachir Diagne, editor of the collection “La philosophie en toutes lettres” in which the present essay appears, observes “bears witness to the fact that after the controversy of “African philosophy” in the singular, it is now necessary to adapt our discourse to the changing reality of African philosophies in the plural.
The criticism of “African philosophy” is that of an ethnic philosophy where ethnicity frequently finds itself, by some kind of shift, swollen to the proportions of Africa as a whole. Consequently, it is easy to move from the Bantu or the Akan to Africans in general. There are African philosophies, according to Séverine Kodjo- Grandvaux, and it is not through an increased number of national or ethnic philosophers, but because present-day African philosophy is surviving by “kaleidoscoping” into “endless mirror effects.”
Firstly, there is the concept of the “cross-over” suggested by the Cameroonian philosopher Jean-Godefroy Bidima, himself influenced by the Frankfurt School and particularly by the works of Walter Benjamin; there is the contribution of the Senegalese Souleymane Bachir Diagne, exegete of the Pakistani Iqbal, who claims to philosophise within the ethos of Islam; there are the works of the Ghanaian Wiredu proposing cultural decolonisation, etc; on evaluation, they all lead towards what Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux calls a “nomadic philosophy”; nomadic firstly because of its locations of creation (United States, France, Africa) nomadic secondly because it is principally a “philosophy of encounter, intersected by various horizons,” nomadic also because, above all, it engages in dialogue and particularly with the West: “Because of the inextricable links uniting Africa and the West, African philosophy and Western thought are not epistemes sealed off from each other. Contrary to what some might be inclined to believe, African philosophies are not enclosed within their Africanness. On the contrary, they seek to surmount the Africa/West divide to think their existence in the world and the “specifically human.”
ALPOIM CALVÃO. HONRA E DEVER
Rui Hortelão & Luís Sanches de Baêna & Abel Melo de Sousa
Porto, Caminhos Romanos, 2012, 609 p. + 32 p. of black and white photographs + 8 p. of colour photographs.
TUMULT IN THE CLOUDS. STORIES FROM THE SOUTH AFRICAN AIR FORCE, 1920-2010
Pinetown (South Africa), 30° South Publishers & Solihull (United Kingdom), Helion, 2012, 344 p. + 38 p. of black and white photographs.
BAND-AID FOR A BROKEN LEG. BEING A DOCTOR WITH NO BORDERS (AND OTHER WAYS TO STAY SINGLE)
London, Allen & Unwin, 2013, 344 p.
OS MOÇAMBICANOS PERANTE O CINEMA E O AUDIOVISUAL. UMA HISTÓRIA POLriTICO-CULTURAL DO MOÇAMBIQUE COLONIAL ATÉ À REPÚBLICA DE MOÇAMBIQUE (1896-2010)
Maputo, Dockanema & Louvain, Afrika Filmfestival, 2011, 677 p.
UM IMPÉRIO DE PAPEL. IMAGENS DO COLONIALISMO PORTUGUÊS NA IMPRENSA PERIÓDICA ILUSTRADA (1875- 1940)
Leonor Pires Martins
Lisbon, Edições 70, 2012, 214 p., many black and white illustrations.
Mike Stead & Sean Rorison & Oscar Scafidi
Chalfont St Peter (United Kingdom), Bradt Travel Guides, 2nd edition, 2013, XVI-342 p. + 16 p. of colour photos.
Take an old European country which in a long-ago age (15th and 16th centuries) ruled by the sword and firepower of its artillery in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and even in some other vast maritime expanses in the Far East and the South East Asia. It was inevitable that it should then pride itself on being obliged to uphold old naval traditions and to demonstrate corresponding multi- continental imperial pretentions, despite the harshness of the times. But this was in 1970 and its authoritarian regime was stagnating, “at the end of its life-cycle,” entangled in a triple African colonial war that it was losing in Portuguese Guinea. Its navy had already been humiliated by Henrique Galvão, a fantastic old pirate who had mutated at the beginning of 1961 from a zealous admirer faithfully carrying out the orders of Portuguese overseas policy into a kind of romantic sea-hawk when he hijacked one of the flagships of its merchant navy in the Caribbean: nothing less than a big liner filled with foreign tourists, the Santa Maria, thereby making a mockery of the Lisbon authorities. Worse still, in December 1961, in the Sea of Oman, the Indian fleet in an unequal battle in the air and on the sea off the coast of Goa put Lisbon’s “biggest” unit out of action, the corvette 1st class Afonso de Albuquerque (quite a symbol) and thus Portuguese India expired ingloriously and without any real resistance.
Eight or nine years later, the Portuguese navy greatly reinforced its numbers and its firepower in Portuguese Guinea where the war was waged as much on the rivers as on land and where the marines played a key role in maintaining connections between the broadly static garrisons in this country of rias and rios and above all in maintaining the bad tracks mined by the guerrilla forces of the PAIGC. Despite the presence of General António de Spínola as the commander-in-chief in Guinea Bissau, the war dragged on and did not turn to the advantage of his troops confronting a determined foe led by a mastermind of the calibre of Amílcar Cabral. At this moment, from this operational slump — even for the navy — a man of action and imagination emerged, Alpoim Calvão (the political antithesis of his near-homonym Henrique Galvão). The eulogistic biography of this mythicized person, in the process of being “canonised” by the supporters of the old regime (1926-1974), opens our tale and enables us to gain a better understanding of the genesis and development of the risky and somewhat anachronistic operation called “Mar Verde.”
He was a highly trained colossus, a “tough guy” of 32 or 33, always at the head of his marines. Just a middle-rank officer in a second-rate navy and also hampered by a hierarchical system, nevertheless he made an impression on his superiors. He took the initiative of suggesting to them that they should mount an operation smacking of pirate exploits of yore: disembark at Conakry from the sea, neutralise the PAIGC “navy” and release the Portuguese prisoners that they were holding there, after destroying its installations, of course. Spínola expanded the mission: it would also be necessary to seize (and/or kill?) Amílcar Cabral and with the aid of African adversaries of Sékou Touré, overthrow and replace the President of Guinea-Conakry in order to put an end with the support he gave to the PAIGC.
The predictable international repercussions of the plan were such that that it was necessary to go over the head of the refusal of the Minister of Overseas Affairs and the Minister of Defence and force the new President of the Council, the indecisive successor to Salazar, to make a decision. He gave his agreement, but only verbally, being a cautious man! In contrast to the customary Portuguese slowness, matters moved quickly, despite the reservations and refusal of some local officers and especially of the 150 Guinea Bissau commandos who did not want to go and fight in Conakry. To convince them, General Spínola made a special last-minute journey to the island in the archipelago of the Bissagos where the 200 Guineans of Conakry, the 80 Portuguese special marines and the 150 Guinea Bissau commandos needed were trained and assembled.
All these people embarked with Calvão on 20 November 1970 on six small ships. Operation “Mar Verde” was launched but it was not well prepared and was hampered by out-dated documentation and intelligence. The fact of setting out to attack a foreign capital, basically unknown to the Portuguese and with so few men, reveals the improvised nature of the operation: it was a helping hand of the kind that the Portuguese had often lent in the East during the Renaissance period. But this was the end of the 20th century, not the time of Alfonso de Albuquerque. Nevertheless, during the night of 21 to 22 November, they disembarked in the port of Conakry. They began the campaign by sinking or setting on fire seven gun-boats of Sékou Touré’s navy.
On land, things did not go as planned, however. The unit tasked with destroying the MIG fighters at the airport could not find them. Consequently, they were not assured of controlling the air, which meant shortening, then aborting, part of the operation. The PAIGC installations were certainly destroyed, and also the homes of its leaders, but Amílcar Cabral who was supposed to be taken prisoner or killed was not there. Nor was Sékou Touré. The only thing that was clearly achieved was that the prison was taken by assault and one civilian and 25 Portuguese soldiers (one of whom was a deserter!) were released from it.
Strangely enough, later genealogical studies showed that Calvão and the wife of Amílcar Cabral were from the same family, five or six generations back. According to the book, the sinister Camp Boiro, the Republican Guard barracks, was taken by assault and 600 (?) political prisoners released. With the exception of some twenty commando deserters, on 23 November Calvão and his men returned to their base in the Bissagos. Chapter 6 of the book is entirely given over to other details on Operation “Mar Verde” (pp. 219-269), making the book the most recent source in the abundant bibliography which has accumulated, over the decades, on this raid (and coup d’état) which was a resounding failure.
Some forty pages follow on the international repercussions and the obscure activities of the Guinean putschists in later days and months. The rest of the book is also very useful, especially on the turbulent life of Calvão after the Carnation Revolution in April 1974. Having become a prosperous businessman and a knowledgeable art collector, he can be seen in photographs as an international arms dealer and potential purchaser in Ukraine of a decommissioned aircraft carrier to turn into a floating casino in Macao! Se non è vero, è bene trovato. He was therefore a man very much out of the ordinary, exceptional for 20th century Portugal, a man born in 1937 who in another place and in less civilised times could have been a mercenary leader, a Viceroy in Goa or swallowed up with his entire fortune in an overloaded galleon sunk in the Mozambique channel on his return to Europe.
From the Portuguese seas and their caravels let us move on to the clouds trailed by deadly aircraft. Tumult in the Clouds is a book with no didactic pretentions since it wants to present to readers the lived experience — recounted in the first person by former members of the South African Air Force — of certain operations staged by Pretoria. It recounts in a largely anecdotal form their participation in minor or major conflicts in Madagascar, Ethiopia, North Africa, Italy, Greece, Germany, Poland, etc., during the Second World War. But these airmen were also involved in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and in Korea from 1950 to 1953. However, the bulk of the book deals with the part played by these men in the support given to the Rhodesians in Mozambique and especially when the South Africans fought in Angola against SWAPO, the MPLA, the Cubans and the Russians. We know that in the face of the latest Soviet MIG models, even though the South African aircraft were piloted by extremely skilful crews, ultimately their equipment was liable to be technically outclassed. The material element weighed heavily in the balance when the authorities decided that the game in Namibia was no longer worth the candle. After the end of apartheid, both the air and ground crews of the air force became Africanised.
From the generally rose-tinted reminiscences of former combatants, where the memory of the bad times has faded, we will jump to those who repair the damage, with a young doctor working with Médecins sans frontières (MSF). On his first posting he was sent not to a peaceful holiday resort but to Mavinga. And what was Mavinga like in 2010? A former UNITA command post, in the middle of the bush in what the Portuguese called the “Lands at the end of the world,” the last “locality,” if it can be called that, on the track before Savimbi’s old provisional “capital”: a landing strip, some pole and dagga huts and all around, mines and famine and practically the whole gamut of tropical diseases known to man.
Coming from the ultramodern hospitals of Melbourne, without any preparation to face the extreme poverty, and finding himself in a micro-environment of eccentric humanitarians and African nurses whose training had consisted of looking after the rag-tag soldiers who waged war for over twenty years, and who had thereby acquired a practical knowledge of surgery which he did not have, the first months were difficult. Leopard attacks, linguistic misunderstandings, archaic equipment and operating methods, unknown pathologies, tensions with the local staff and the authorities, everything combined to discourage the faith of the young expatriate. But the learner-doctor had a sense of humour and mainly gives us in his journal a lesson in rapid adaptation and social survival. Far from being discouraged, he once again volunteered: Somalia was too dangerous, okay; Kenya would be temporary and so in the end he “inherited” Mozambique where the flooding Zambezi gave rise to fears of a cholera epidemic. There he faced bureaucracy and a mobile clinic in the midst of extreme poverty and rural unemployment.
He then applied for a post in a “hospital” like the one in Mavinga where he was happy, when all was said and done, despite the difficult conditions. MSF fulfilled his wish and posted him to Nasir, in southern Sudan, among the Nuer community: there too, war was not far away. He stayed eight months and his bible was ethnologist Evans- Pritchard’s book, The Nuer, who studied them in the 1930s. Eighty years later, they had not changed much: gigantic ungovernable shepherds and proud to be so. The major difference was that there were now two million guns in South Sudan for eight million inhabitants and far too many amputees and patients suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis. There were even combats only a few metres from the hospital which had a bunker for protection against bullets and shells.
Despite many periods where he was ill, the author survived several attempts to poison him. In retrospect, he looked back nostalgically to his time in Mavinga. When he left his post, he had matured and overall his book is a tribute to the humanitarians, whatever their motives in plunging into the heart of darkness.
Of the six in our review, the next book has the smallest print run (500 copies), the most unusual author (a Fleming writing in Portuguese on Mozambican film), the greatest number of pages, etc. It is also the one which is the result of the most in-depth research and the one which probably will never be replaced in its sphere. In any case, it wins the top award for surprises. For example, who knew that despite its poverty the People’s Republic of Mozambique in earlier, better times made extraordinary efforts to develop a national film industry? That Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Rouch and other foreign filmmakers
— Latin Americans, all “rebels” in the main — were invited to come and be its mentors?
We must acknowledge that the author has done extremely painstaking work both as a historian and a cinema devotee. From the first films presented in South Africa, probably seen by a few neighbouring Portuguese settlers, to the American and Brazilian series shown on television today, apparently no detail concerning the moving image shown on a screen for over half a century has been neglected. And that includes the cinemas in Maputo and Beira, silent foreign films, Portuguese and local films, the subjects dealt with (from Tarzan to the Afro-American jazz players), censorship, indigenous, white or Indian audiences, film clubs, religious and political propaganda, ethnographical films, documentaries, film professionals, military current events, the travelling cinema, the influence of the South Americans, the civil war, adaptations of works of local fiction, commissioned photo stories, etc. In short, this is an overview of an incredible richness which allows us to discover a whole continent ignored until Guido Convents arrived with his encyclopaedia.
The only question is a double one. Why has our ignorance persisted for so long? Could there not be something to be done to export this cinema if it is so rich and so varied? The Belgian and Swiss Cooperation services, along with other entities, financed the publication of this impressive tome. Apparently, the subject interests more people than the simple books of erudition which have to reckon with the indifference of the “culture professionals.”
Still in the sphere of the all-powerful image, but this time on paper, Leonor Pires Martins’ book has ambitions just as original but more modest than those of Guido Convents’ major work. It is an examination from the standpoint of anthropology and comparative literature (with some digressions into history and sociology) of the representation of the Portuguese empire provided for metropolitan readers in the press and in books. Given the period under consideration (1875-1940), the author reaches the conclusion that this representation was biased. It was inevitable, given the spirit of the colonial period and the nationalism which it underpinned.
The interest of the book for today’s non-specialist reader is that it brings together over three hundred rare illustrations divided into categories such as travels of exploration (including in the neighbouring countries of Angola and Mozambique), caricatures on the political scramble for Africa, the lives of the Europeans and Africans, etc., etc. Each image is analysed and sometimes commented on at length: semiotics and symbolism run riot. The author has combed not so much the daily papers (very few), but notably the current events weeklies and monthlies. There is not a great deal on subjects like the colonial campaigns, except in southern Angola and southern Mozambique.
However, the text is very rich in the chapter devoted to the imperial exhibitions, both at the national level and in the Portuguese sections in the big international exhibitions. As we get closer to 1940, the propaganda of the regime tends towards emphasising the transformation of the towns thanks to white emigration, although still quantitatively quite modest. Worth noting is the talent of the first press artists and in particular of the caricaturists of the end of the 19th century. This is a volume well worth discovering.
To track the development (both good and bad) of a young State in recovery, nothing is as good as the contrast between the first edition and the second of one or more tourist guides devoted to it. And for Angola it is easy to choose: there is only one worth buying. It is notable that from one edition (2009) to the next (2013), the number of pages has increased by about sixty. Even if the typography is a little more spaced out in the most recent version, the updating has been enriched in five years by a third author who has taken his work very seriously. Consequently, anyone who wants a mine of up-to-date information on local conditions for the expatriate population and for tourists (though it must be conceded that they are few and far between) cannot do better than to buy this tome, indispensable both for the analyst far from the country and the user on the spot.
That said, the fact that one of the three authors is permanently resident in the country offers both advantages and disadvantages. The latter include the fact that criticisms cannot be too sharp and even if the guide does not skirt around some of the difficulties that are encountered by travellers at the border posts, it does not insist on such aspects, which can really ruin a reputation (see the most recent travel book of the bilious but celebrated Paul Theroux, the oracle on travel literature as far as the English-speaking readership is concerned).
To remain in the spirit of Angola, we can say that the country is advancing. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that some sections of the local history would still need to be amended. On the positive side, let us note that thanks to this guide we have a detailed view of the conditions in all the provinces, examined individually. Some of the colour photos have been up-dated, the bibliography annotated, expanded and internationalised and the linguistic section has been maintained.
In short, the guide is a success and should be copied by many African countries emerging from bloody conflicts. It is a major work which has a place both in a public library or an academic library as well as on the bookshelves of the traveller who might want to get off the beaten track, or the expatriate baffled by daily life in Luanda.
“Anthropology thus faces a formidable challenge: either it disappears as an exhausted form of humanism, or it undergoes a complete metamorphosis by rethinking its field...
Les grands, by Sylvain Prudhomme, L’Arbalète, Paris, 2015. Souveraine magnifique, by Eugène Ébodé, Gallimard, “Continents Noirs”, 2014. What purpose do...
Africa has been (wholly or partially) the focus of a number of cultural events over the last six months. The first of these was the Leiris & Co exhibition, which took place at the Centre...
Who are the African historians and philosophers who matter today in Francophone Africa? High-proﬁle ﬁgures such as the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne and the historians Achille...
Africa, wrote Frantz Fanon, is shaped like a revolver, and its trigger is in Zaire. I no longer remember in which of his books the essayist from Martinique penned this memorable phrase. One thing is...
In Le premier homme (1994), Albert Camus’s posthumously published novel, there is a memorable scene: the hero, Jacques Cormery, is travelling to the Saint-Brieux...
When Léopold Sédar Senghor died in Normandy on 20 December 2001, France was being governed on the basis of political cohabitation. Lionel...
BOOK REVIEWS.Théo Ananissoh. Tunis, Elyzad, 2013. For about ten years, the Togolese Théo Ananissoh has been patiently putting together a book centred...
In an essay published some ten years ago by Maisonneuve and Larose,•1 the Guadeloupian historian Oruno D. Lara proposed a new reading of Pan-Africanism. Reviewing the long-term history of...
REFLECTIONS ON SOME AFRICAN WARS. BARREL OF A GUN. A WAR CORRESPONDENT’S MISSPENT MOMENTS IN COMBATAl J. VenterPhiladelphia, Casemate, 2010, 504 pp. MY FRIEND THE MERCENARY James BrabazonEdinburgh,...
As far as some Europeans are concerned, Africa is not a continent. It’s a country. All Africans are therefore brothers and all know one another. People forget, or claim to forget, that Africa...
3 bonnes raisons de s'abonner
Share this page with your friends. spread the word
Informez vos ami(e)s automatiquement sur un article ou sur une publication.