By Wale Okediran
AT the last count there were 48,400,000 fictional accounts on the theme of Colonialism globally. These include unforgettable world classics like ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe, ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and ‘Kindred’ by Octavia E Butler among many others.
In addition, on December 14, 1921, the first book by a Black author to win France’s most prestigious literary prize also forced the country to confront its brutal colonial record. That year, The Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary award, had gone to René Maran, a French Guyanese colonial administrator in Ubangui-Shari — what is today the Central African Republic (CAR).
Maran was the first Black winner of the then-18-year-old award. But as civil rights and anti-colonial movements were stirring, it was the content of Maran’s novel that truly set off tremors on both sides of the Atlantic.
“You build your realm on dead bodies,” wrote Maran in the preface to the book entitled ‘Batouala.’ “You are living a lie. Everything you touch you consume.”
A searing indictment of French colonialism in Central Africa, the book was an insider’s account that forced France to confront the reality of its “civilizational” mission, much as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ had lifted the veil on Belgian brutality in the Congo two decades earlier.
The French Parliament debated the book, with some accusing Maran of defamation and others arguing that he had exposed exploitation. Several French writers criticized the Académie Goncourt, with some predicting ‘Batouala’ would soon be forgotten. They were wrong. Maran’s own career as a colonial administrator ended soon after, and faced with threats of retribution, he returned to Paris in 1923.
But he became the “African point of reference” for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, according to the late French expert on African-American studies, Michel Fabre. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about Maran and ”Batouala’ in ‘The Crisis’, the NAACP’s magazine while a young Ernest Hemingway, writing in Paris for the ‘Toronto Star Weekly,’ called the book “great art.”
Just when many thought that the subject of Colonialism has gone away, Moussibahou Mazou, in his 2021, 22 Chapter, 273- page novel ‘BABINGO The Noble Rebel’ (Sub-Saharan Publishers, Legon-Accra, Ghana; 2021) takes us back to the ageless subject, with its multiple ripple effects of cultural clash, religious ambivalence and the advocacy for the mainstreaming of indigenous African languages into the curriculum of African countries.
In this racy and pulsating narrative set in the 1950’s, Paul Makouta, a ‘Frenchified and Elitist native’ of the now independent Congo-Brazzaville thought he was preparing his only son, Alex Babingo and his siblings to step into the shoes of the country’s French colonial masters when he insists that his children must communicate exclusively in French. While it may be justifiable for Paul Makouta to project into his son his own ambitions, particularly those he had been unable to achieve himself, little did he know that by alienating his offspring from their native language and by extension their culture, he was hauling the family into an abyss from which it would be difficult to escape.
To further perfect his plan of educating his children according to European mode of expression and thought in order to make it easy for them to snatch power from the French Colonialists, Makouta sent Alex to France for his secondary school and university education. In addition, rather than allowing his son to come home regularly for holidays, Papa Makouta sent Alex to various summer camps in France where he perfected his French language.
However, unknown to Papa Makouta, Alex had secretly learnt to speak Kituba, a Congolese native language through one of his classmates Tessa in the city of Pointe Noire where the family lived. In spite of this, Alex still finds it difficult to express himself very well in his native language to the extent that he is unable to sing a song in his native language when asked to do so during a concert in his school in France. The young boy soon becomes the butt of jokes by his European classmates who can’t believe that Alex cannot speak his native language. The shock of the incident jolts Alex to realize the importance of language as the purveyor of culture.
As cultural experts put it: ‘’It is through language that culture is transmitted from one generation to another. When a language dies or goes into extinction, other aspects of culture are likely to go down with it. Without the indigenous language necessary to promote and sustain their relevance and the transfer the skills used in creating them, even these objects and ways of life of the people will disappear with time.’’
In his determination to ‘’fight for the incorporation of national languages into our country’s curriculum when it attains full sovereignty’’ without informing his father, Alex changes his course of study from Medicine which was imposed on him by his father to Linguistic Studies. When Papa Makouta discovers that his son has changed his course of study, he cuts off his allowance. This leaves Alex with no choice but to do menial jobs to take care of his studies and upkeep.
By turns shocking, passionate, unflinching, bitter and above all, nationalistic, ‘BABINGO The Noble Rebel’ sweeps the reader along Babingo’s adventures which include a love-child from his European girlfriend to his return to his native country to learn the language of his mother’s ethnic group among other haunting narratives. We also travel with Babingo on the railway line called Congo-Ocean Railway from his native Pointe-Noire to the capital city of Brazzaville where his cousins give him a quick tour of the city before his departure by plane to Paris, France. This was followed by another trip through the Parisian subway onto another long train journey to his final destination at Toulouse.
The long journey from Toulouse to Reykjavik in Iceland to see his new born child and his mother is another arduous addition to the young man’s problems. The train journey takes him through Paris, Cologne, Copenhagen, as ‘the powerful Borealis locomotive cut through adverse and foggy winds with great speed, haughtily ignoring the intermediary stations to stop only at Kolding and later at Odense.’
After a train journey of more than twenty-four hours, Babingo begins another lap to the distant and isolated country of Iceland. He covers more than two thousand kilometers by sea, and another one thousand and seventy-nine nautical miles before reaching Reykjavik where he meets the family of his girlfriend and his twelve-day old son whom the 20-year old man names Didrik Alexson Kikimayo
A well written book, ‘BABINGO The Nobel rebel’ brims with intriguing, well-developed characters and a fast-paced plot that offers a plethora of surprising twists and turns. Sometimes engaging, often vibrant and lucid but always powerful, this novel explores the urgent need for the study of indigenous languages. This is because any language that is not written and studied will surely die. This is why it is necessary to encourage the young ones to speak their mother tongue. Speaking a language is what primarily keeps it alive while neglecting it may lead to its extinction, as is the case with Australia where there is a clear lesson to be learnt about language extinction where there wer no less than two hundred languages about two hundred years, but only about twenty remain till today.
After his hurried departure from his mother’s Odiba Village with Ingrid his European girlfriend and mother of his son, Alex who by then has changed his name to Intu Ngolo Babingo, is appointed a Deputy Minister of Education in the newly independent Congo Brazaville. Even though he is later removed from the ministerial position, Babingo finally succeeds in ensuring that his mother’s ethnic language is one of those promoted to the rank of national languages to be taught as compulsory subjects in the country.
The author, however, does not fully resolve the fate of Ingrid and Alex’s baby son who is been left behind by the mother with her parents in faraway Iceland. Will the couple be reunited after Ingrid’s expulsion from the Congo after the expiration of her Visa or will Alex move to Iceland to join his young family?