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When a Pygmy Stands for the Great African Continent

Translated Tuesday 24 June 2014, by Isabelle Métral

Jean Bofane, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, publishes his second novel in France, Congo Inc. Le testament de Bismark (Congo Inc. Bismark’s Will) Actes Sud pub.,in which he invokes the eternal African tragedy. Interviewed by Muriel Steinmetz he gives a global and a detailed account of this work.

HUMA: You have obviously written an allegory of Africa. It seems you have chosen a central character that stands for the deep Africa of the forest, namely that which lies farthest from globalization. Your fable – for a fable it is – starts from Africa’s smallest common denominator: a Pygmy.

BOFANE: The Pygmy is the genesis of Africa. He has had time to go through thousands of years. Has been a witness to the devastation it has incurred. Has understood that everything is ephemeral except for the forest and the big river. The Pygmy is the scum of Africa. He is thought to lie on the periphery of the world when in fact he stands at its centre, just like the African. Don’t his land and his subsoil guarantee the world’s prosperity? Without them nothing much would be left.

This is what I have tried to show in Congo Inc. Le testament de Bismark. The Pygmy suffers from the world’s attempts at rooting out his identity and from the destruction of his biotope. I imagined the character of Isookanga, who is both nice and a bit of a bastard considering his views on globalization and its devastating effects on the ecosystems. He might easily turn from a torturer into a victim. I am thinking, for instance, of those survivors of the genocide in Rwanda who did turn into torturers in their turn. And it is also true of the war in Congo, which broke out two years after the Tutsi’s genocide in Rwanda. It is difficult to hold a clear-cut view of Isookanga.

HUMA: The paradox is that the man of the forest has a passionate interest in modern technology…

BOFANE: Isookanga is also modern man, his passionate love of immediacy, his fascination for fleeting images, who never wonders where all this comes from, nor where it is leading us, or what is his part of responsibility in all this. Isookanga’s thought lacks coherence.

HUMA: In the course of his life your character comes across some of Africa’s current parasites…

BOFANE: There all sorts of parasites. From the war lord that has turned politician, to the pedophiliac blue helmet, through the Africa expert who reveals to the African who he is, who he was, what he will be. The parasites are not only human subjects. They are also and mostly/firstly ill governance, war, social exclusion as represented here by the street urchins. And religion, which the character of Jonas Monkaya, the preacher, knows how to take advantage of.

HUMA: Isookanga is also surrounded with figures that are emblematic of all the political and sociological contradictions that the continent comes up against. What do these characters stand for?

BOFANE: The most striking character to me is Bizimungu, a guy that used to be in the occupation army in Kivu, who is responsible for millions of deaths. UNO promoted him to a senior officer’s post in Congo. Then there are the Shegue like the vainglorious Shasha, or Small Modogo, the child sorcerer. When social relations have been so largely destroyed, catastrophe is imminent. If Africans have been able to survive slavery, colonization, and hold on all through the last five centuries, modernity may well drive the essential awareness of past and future out of their minds. The past is old uncle Lomama; the future is those kids. Then take Zhang Xia, the Chinese. He is Isookanga’s friend and associate in their trade of “worse water”.

Today, China is incontrovertible in Africa. Besides, the title of each of the novel’s chapters is translated into Mandarin. China’s appearance was no effect of chance. Because Africans were tired of being refused visas everywhere, they started looking at a map of the world, no longer from south to north, but from west (Brazil) to east – the Maghreb, the Emirates, India, China. Whatever you may say about this country and its régime, the main question is: what can the Chinese do for Africa that the Americans, the French, the Belgians have not done yet? I wanted to picture an ordinary Chinese person, not a fancy one.

But mostly, Congo Inc. is those women and girls like Shasha the …, who’s survived the war, who became a child whore in Kinshasa. Then take Adeïto Kalisayi, a sexual slave brought back from Kivu by former major Kobra Zulu. There is also Gong Xiyen, Zhang Xia’s spouse, who is sexually harassed by a corrupt cop over there in Sichan. If I want to describe globalization and the plundering that the war in Congo truly is, the common theme is violence against women. Nearly 500,000 have been raped and sexually mutilated: this is happening before our eyes, right now.

HUMA: you do not hesitate to resort to humour in order to describe this tragic situation. Your writing is rich with all of Africa. All Africa is in your writing. Your language is the one spoken there, with its digressions, with the exaltation/intense excitement/elation and the loud laughter even in the climax of the drama.

BOFANE: That’s because the narrative is nonsensical and beyond my understanding. How is it possible to consider enslaving an entire world and eliminating millions of individuals from one part of the surface of the globe? It would be something laughable if it did not actually happen. Laughter is an integral part of life, even in tragedy.

HUMA: In the current state of African research and more specifically of Congo, can one not say that novelists are the first historiographers of their country’s history in so far as you works of fiction are all anchored/rooted in its real history./historical reality?

BOFANE: It is time Africans told their own story themselves. A lady recently asked me this question. Having nearly come to the end of her university course she had doubts about what she had learned after she had started reading African authors. I could only advise her to go on reading them.

HUMA: I always ask our African writer friends who publish in French a more general question: “This novel of yours should speak to all Africans: what readership can this good novel gain in your country just now? Who can read, who can buy books?

BOFANE: There are no available statistics on reading habits in Africa. AlI can say is that the books are read. In Kinshasa a book costs sixty dollars. The price is exorbitant. But books are handed round. My novel Mathématiques congolaises (Congolese Mathematics) was widely circulated in Makala’s central prison. When, disguised as a female visitor, the book’s owner escaped from the prison where he was under a death sentence, he was careful to slip it into his handbag. The text is still going round.

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