“ Allah is not obliged – to be fair about all things he does here on earth” is the mantra that weaves itself through this remarkable novel by Ahmadou Kourouma. This was my first reading of Kourouma which I started at 11am and finished around 6.30pm. In those seven hours I followed the narrator, 10 year old Birahima, across West Africa into the heart of Liberia and Sierra Leone and into the psychotic minds of dictators Houphouet-Boigny of CÃ´te d’Ivoire and Sani Abachi of Nigeria. Through warlords, thieves, corrupt leaders, NGOs and multinationals, opportunists and charlatans, marabouts and animists, coups and counter coups, we are exposed to the lives of the child soldiers. At once both victims and survivors, the “small soldiers” are the prized possession of the war lords with their AK-47s “kalashes” drugged out on hashish they are themselves little lords with outlandish colourful names like Tete Brulee, Sekou the Terrible and Johnny Thunderbolt.
There are three sets of interwoven stories. The story of Birahima and his many wanderings with different militias across the region which makes a mockery of the artificial boundaries created by colonial rulers. Only tribes not countries have meaning in this chaos and madness. The stories of some of his best comrades, how they came to be child soldiers which is invariably due to some horrific story of loss of family and poverty. And the history of the wars, the warlords, the dirty deals with multinationals, foreign governments, colonials and various African leaders.
The author makes a mockery of cultural traditions which invade the rights of women and children such as forced marriage and male and female circumcision. He exposes the global structures of corruption which allow for the violence, the silence of the international community, the commercial value of war, the brutality of the peacekeepers [Nigerians] who themselves act like militias operating under their own warlord [Abacha.] and strips them naked.
(“Humanitarian peacekeeping is when one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.) Nigeria is the most heavily populated country in African and has loads of soldiers they dont know wht to do with, so they sent their spare soldiers to Liberia with the right to massacre innocent civilian population, the whole works.”
Birahima’s language which is aided by various dictionaries to help explain French words, is uncompromising in its simplicity and brutality. Sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic but mostly horrific with much profanity. The language works as a critique of the scramble for Africa by colonialists, multinationals and African leaders. This is Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s – states of anarchy which still remain today, “the crazy bullshit” nihilism existing in places like Somalia, northern Uganda, the Eastern DRC and the Niger Delta 2009.
On Forday Sankoh who tries to stop the democratic process by cutting off peoples hands…..
“He wont want a ceasefire. He wont agree to anything. (He wont give a fuck, he’ll still control the useful part of Sierra Leone.) So the dictator Eyadema will come up with a great idea, a brilliant idea. An idea that will be actively supported by the USA, France, Britain and the UN. The idea is to suggest a change to the change that doesnt change anything.”
The only innocents in this world are the children and even for them the innocence is soon lost in the arms of AK47s except Birahima who despite all the horrors and bitterness never looses his humanity – Walahe! Faforo! Gnamokode!
The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. Okay. Right. I better start explaining some stuff.
First off, Number one . . . My name is Birahima and I’m a little nigger. Not ‘cos I’m black and I’m a kid. I’m a little nigger because I can’t talk French for shit. That’s how things are. You might be a grown-up, or old, you might be Arab, or Chinese, or white, or Russian-or even American-if you talk bad French, it’s called parler petit nÃ¨gre-little nigger talking-so that makes you a little nigger too. That’s the rules of French for you.
Number two . . . I didn’t get very far at school; I gave up in my third year in primary school. I chucked it because everyone says education’s not worth an old grandmother’s fart any more. (In Black Nigger African Native talk, when a thing isn’t worth much we say it’s not worth an old grandmother’s fart, on account of how a fart from a fucked-up old granny doesn’t hardly make any noise and it doesn’t even smell really bad.) Education isn’t worth a grandmother’s fart any more, because nowadays even if you get a degree you’ve got no hope of becoming a nurse or a teacher in some fucked-up French-speaking banana republic. (“Banana republic” means it looks democratic, but really it’s all corruption and vested interests.) But going to primary school for three years doesn’t make you all autonomous and incredible. You know a bit, but not enough; you end up being what Black Nigger African Natives call grilled on both sides. You’re not an indigenous savage any more like the rest of the Black Nigger African Natives ‘cos you can understand the civilized blacks and the toubabs (a toubab is a white person) and work out what they’re saying, except maybe English people and the American Blacks in Liberia, but you still don’t know how to do geography or grammar or conjugation or long division or comprehension so you’ll never get the easy money working as a civil servant in some fucked-up, crooked republic like Guinea, CÃ´te d’Ivoire, etc., etc.
Number three . . . I’m disrespectful, I’m rude as a goat’s beard and I swear like a bastard. I don’t swear like the civilized Black Nigger African Natives in their nice suits, I don’t say fuck! shit! bitch! I use MalinkÃ© swear words like faforo! (my father’s cock-or your father’s or somebody’s father’s), gnamokodÃ©! (bastard), walahÃ©! (I swear by Allah). MalinkÃ© is the name of the tribe I belong to. They’re Black Nigger African Savages and there’s a lot of us in the north of CÃ´te d’Ivoire and in Guinea, and there’s even MalinkÃ©s in other corrupt fucked-up banana republics like Gambia, Sierra Leone and up in Senegal.
Number four . . . I suppose I should apologize for talking right at you like this, on account of how I’m only a kid. I’m maybe ten, maybe twelve (two years ago, Grandmother said I was eight, Maman said I was ten) and I talk too much. Polite kids are supposed to listen, they don’t sit under that talking-tree and they don’t chatter like a mynah bird in a fig tree. Talking is for old men with big white beards. There’s a proverb that says, “For as long as there’s a head on your shoulders, you don’t put your headdress on your knee.” That’s village customs for you. But I don’t give two fucks about village customs any more, ‘cos I’ve been in Liberia and killed lots of guys with an AK-47 (we called it a “Kalash”) and got fucked-up on kanif and lots of hard drugs.
Number five . . . To make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French, I’ve got four different dictionaries so I don’t get confused with big words. First off, I’ve got the Larousse and the Petit Robert, then, second off, I’ve got the Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa, and, third off, I’ve got the Harrap’s. The dictionaries are for looking up big words and checking big words and particularly for explaining big words. I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French. The Larousse and the Petit Robert are for looking up and checking and explain French words so I can explain them to Black Nigger African Natives. The Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa is for explaining African words to the French toubabs from France. The Harrap’s is for explaining pidgin words to French people who don’t know shit about pidgin.