This novel found it’s way to my bookshelf courtesy of the African Women’s Bookclub. I read this tiny book in one sitting, with no hesitations though with each turn of the page I could feel the weight of the world on my head and share the despair of Juletane.
Powerful! Devastating! Heart-wrenching! These are some of the words that jump to mind. Of course given the source of the recommendation, it does not surprise me that a one-line summary for this novel could be “an insight into the oppressive world of Muslim women in francophone Africa…as experienced through the eyes of an outsider who shares the same skin colour.”
Helene, a social worker of the “independent strong Black woman” variety who has finally decided in her 40s to settle down and have a child, with a man much younger than herself to boot, is packing up her belongings when she finds a faded exercise book that was given to her to help unearth a fellow country-woman’s suffering in a strange land. It’s the journal of Juletane, a young French West Indian woman, orphaned as a child, who spent a lonely childhood in France with a very strict god-mother whose death at age 19 allows her to blossom into a young woman..right into the arms of a Francophone West African student with whom she is eagerly anticipating a life of married bliss in the land of her ancestry, only to discover, much too late and much to her chagrin that she has just become second wife in a very traditional Muslim society. The cultural demands and the foreignness of everything drive her crazy, literally.
If ever there’s a fine example of why you, as the woman, should not marry out of your ethnic group, this is it. I can even hear my mother giving me a tale of caution along these lines. Even my father when defending why he thinks it’s best for us to marry Nzema (our ethnic group) had once said something along the lines of “sure, love transcends things so you can say you want to marry a Chinese man, but living a married life is not about the lovey-dovey it’s about living with someone, with their family, through times of turmoil, through times of argument, and then where does your love help you when you don’t understand each other’s point of reference and each others culture”. Yeah, yeah, Daddy. But back to the novel. Poor Juletane can not find anything in common with her new family. She doesn’t even understand them when they speak. And so over a period of 3 weeks she pours out the unhappiness of her 5 years in foreign soil and a hostile home into the pages of an exercise book.
As depressing and devastating as this novel was I liked it. I have not read many works of Caribbean authors and it was interesting to explore an African culture (foreign to me by the way as I am not Muslim nor from a Francophone country) through the eyes of a Black-skinned foreigner. Interesting, because some of us like to think Blackness in itself transcends all things and that by virtue of that alone we should be able to understand each other when we are probably the most diverse people on Earth. It says something about the people not of Africa who fantasize about returning to their ancestral homeland only to experience difficulty in making Africa fit their expectations. These people would of course include Africans like myself who have not really grown up on the continent yet have all these expectations of what it should be like.
Juletane talks about how demeaned she felt about being called a toubabesse – a white woman – since her ancestors “paid a heavy price for [her] right to be black” and could not fathom how “on African soil, one would have considered [her] as a white person.” It reminded me of African-American women who have excitedly gone to Ghana (or other African countries) and did not feel welcomed as a long lost child with wide open arms as they had expected and then to add insult to injury get called obroni. And my response to them is always the same. Why are you so mad? I’m as Black as those in Ghana in skin tone. I look exactly as those in Ghana in terms of facial features. I was born in Ghana of parents who were born in Ghana of parents who were born in Ghana of parents who were born in Ghana etc. Yet when I go home, for it is my home after all, I get called obroni, so why are you, a true foreigner, so offended? Yes obroni is the term for a white person but if you are “not a Ghanaian” then you are obroni. No offence meant, and no offence should be taken.
In regards to Mamadou though, the main man, the husband, I just ended
up despising him as the coward that he is with no sorrow whatsoever
regarding his losses. So a word to the wise is that if you are in a state of mind where your faith in men is low, you might want to just leave this book alone until you’ve worked out your issues. Yet, even as I type this, I’m certain there was no
malice on his part, he was just being a man like any other man of his
background, and he was probably left to wonder what was going on with
these women (wives) in his life.
This novel, set in the 1950s and written in 1982 resonates with me today in 2012. Imagine.The author, a French West Indian woman herself (Guadalupe) did marry a French West African man (Senegal) and her tales of racism and prejudice even amongst those of the same skin colour, effects of colonialism, intrusion of relatives in family life, sister solidarity or the lack thereof, depression, family tragedies, lure of money and keeping up appearances, domestic violence, self-identity, and ultimately the difficulty of culturally mixed marriages are just as pressing today as they were in the 1950s diaspora.