Finding authors from some of the countries on my Reading the Equator challenge has turned out to be extremely challenging. Of all the tough nuts to crack, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) has been one of the hardest.
This is the second largest country in Africa and has the fourth largest population. But any thoughts I harboured that this would result in a rich vein of literature from which to choose, quickly disappeared. What I had overlooked was the turbulent history of this nation. In the 1870s it was the target of exploration and then exploitation as a colony under Belgian control. Then, upon independence in the 1960s, it began experiencing internal turbulence and political upheaval. In more recent years, a bitterly-fought war with eight of its neighbours cost hundreds of thousands of lives. With all that, plus a high incidence of death from malnutrition and malaria, it’s little wonder that publishing literature isn’t high on the list of the country’s priorities.
Only a small handful of Congolese are published writers; most of them as poets. Novelists are scarce; I could find just two people who have had anything published in English — Sony Lab’Ou Tansi and Frederick Yamusangie. Tansi’s 1988 novel The Antipeople is described by the New York Times as “… an urgent, sardonic narrative….brings us face to face with despair and death, and proposes no solutions except, perhaps, the constancy of love.” But since it would take a few weeks before I could get a reasonably priced copy, I opted to read Yamusangie’s novella Full Circle, which was at least published in the UK where Yamusangie now has his home.
I wasn’t far into the text before the flaws of this book become apparent. Spelling errors, incorrect punctuation, inconsistent use of tenses; all issues that the scrutiny of an editor would easily have remedied but can all too easily creep creep through in self-published books. If ever there was a book that cried out for a fresh pair of eyes, this was it.
It’s a shame because there is a kernel of a good story in Full Circle. It follows the fortunes of Dada, the 10-year-old son of the Zairian Ambassador to the United Nations. When his father leaves to take up his new post in New York, Dada is despatched to live with an uncle in the village of Bulungu. The idea is to help prepare the boy for a future political career by embedding him in a community to learn about the culture and way of life of his native land. The experience is a culture shock for the boy who until now “has more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country.” He is completely unprepared for the privations of Bulungu — a shack instead of an indoor bathroom, the lack of street lighting, the absence of cars. He also has to learn the rules of his new community and learn to make friends.
The community he comes to appreciate is one that holds strong moral values about kinship and respect for one’s elders. Dada discovers this is also a superstitious community, one that believes the local river is inhabited by spirits who, when roused, take the form of child-snatching human crocodiles. It feels odd at first to him but he quickly realises this is just part of the normal way of life in Balungu, not anything to get worked up about. And so at lunch with his teacher one day he is told not to worry about the snake in the henhouse; it’s simply a reincarnation of her aunt.
Beneath the surface of calm in this community however are deepening divides between factions who want to exert control even to the extent of forming secret societies whose power will extend well beyond the Congo, even to America. Dada is the innocent who gets caught up in their struggle.
I gained some interesting insights about the customs and beliefs of this region by reading this book. Unfortunately, the plot became increasingly bizarre and unbelievable. Yamusangie ’s inexperience is evident when he tries to disentangle Dada from false accusations he has killed a schoolmate and his narrative degenerates into a confusion of actions and the introduction of completely new characters right in the final pages.
Yamusangie opens his book with a quote from another novel set in the Congo — Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If this is the status to which he aspires, I think he has a long way to go.