Born in 1941, Aminata Sow Fall is one of the most famous women authors to ever come out of Francophone Africa. In fact, she was the first black African woman to publish a book and “make it big” on the international scene. My mentor in the BYU French Department is close friends with her and back in June 2006, she invited Aminata to teach two books to our African lit class. It was a phenomenal experience.
During that same trip she also gave a very moving speech at the Kennedy Center on Hope in Africa which, unfortunately, has been taken off of the Kennedy Center website. However since I’m the one who translated the speech into English, I still have a copy of the speech in both languages. It’s entitled “Le bonheur est possible en Afrique,” or “Happiness is Possible in Africa.” It’s beautifully crafted speech and quite inspiring. Unfortunately I don’t have her permission to publish it on the internet (or put it on my blog), so I won’t upload it. But I will quote from it:
If the idea of happiness is intrinsically tied to human existence, if it is evident that happiness can be cultivated anywhere, why go to the trouble to assert that happiness is possible in Africa? It is necessary, ladies and gentlemen, because another evidence invaded the minds of men long ago when prejudices instigated the slave treaty and upheld the idea that certain races are incapable of governing themselves. We remember this painful history—like other similar events (the Holocaust)—to better conjure the demons of rancor and hatred. We also remember it to evoke mankind’s incredible capacity to generate life on a field of ruins. A multitude of countries ravaged by war or by natural catastrophes have regained their dignity thanks to the commitment of men and women determined to never yield to the assaults of physical, political, or economic adversity.
The notion that seems to impose itself on Africa is that of a dilapidated, poverty-stricken continent, ravaged by sickness, corruption and poor governance. If speaking only of the situations that currently dominate the news, we could discuss the fratricidal wars in Congo, Darfur, and Guinea.
Because of this, the African continent imposes, in the minds of those who aren’t familiar with it, an apocalyptic image of a continent in ruins, condemned to wallow in chaos. What else would one think considering the statistics provided by notable financial, political, and development institutions informing us that the African contribution to the global market barely reaches 2%, that poverty increases in leaps and bounds, that AIDS has a stronger presence there than anywhere else, that corruption impedes development, and that the education system is critically ill.
What else would one think when delinquency and the violence that it generates gangrenes the overpopulated slums that grow like poisonous mushrooms on the flanks of poorly equipped cities, where children are savagely delivered to the dangers of the street and end up swelling the ranks of bloodthirsty criminals… The severance of a child from innocence and dreams is more than a misfortune. It’s a tragedy. A childhood without future is a calamity.
[…] In the book Sweetness of Home, [a novel which Madame Sow Fall wrote] published in 1998 but conceived long before that, the author wrote: “The hardest thing of today is that hope is disappearing…Let us love the earth; we will water it with our sweat and we’ll plough it with all of our strength, with courage. The light of our hope will guide us, we will harvest and build. Only then will we be able to follow the road of the heavens, of the earth and of water without being chased like outcasts. We won’t be travelers without experience anymore. Our calloused hands will meet those of others in warm handshakes of respect and shared dignity…”
[…] Happiness is possible in Africa on the condition that her sons are conscious of the role that they themselves must play to save her. Every country in the world has had moments of glory and times of suffering. Patriotic fiber, dignity, the sense of duty, and especially effort, serve, as Rousseau said, as “the leaven of heroism and virtue.” Permanent assistance sows lethargy and blocks the power of dignity.
We can achieve happiness without ever abdicating our full-fledged rights: the liberty of opinion and circulation and the access to education…
But what type of happiness? The happiness of being oneself, of being in harmony with oneself and with others in the accomplishment of one’s desires. It is the happiness of allowing oneself, without restraint, to act upon the whims of recreating the world with one’s fantasies, feelings, and crazy dreams of infinity and of eternity, just as do artists, great thinkers and philosophers, the master-builders, and so many other scientists and creators. God pardons these whims that do not shame humans, for they confer majesty on all of Humanity by their intelligence, creativity, and the intuitive vision of the unknown.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful speech. Aminata Sow Fall is an optimist, a woman who believes in hope, happiness, and success and that they can be achieved anywhere, even in Africa. If you’re interested in viewing the latest address she gave to American university students (September 2012), you can find it here: http://kennedy.byu.edu/archive/lecture.php?id=2695
But that’s not the motivation behind this post. Today Madame Sow Fall graciously welcomed me to her office and gave me the chance to interview her about topics pertinent to her work and my research focus. She spoke freely and at length, pulling in examples from current events (child begging, gun control in the USA) and personal stories and she always, always drew from her faith in mankind and our capacity to do great things. It was very inspiring and has given me a lot of food for thought.
In the space below, I have reproduced the interview in full. It’s a philosophical read, but a lot of it rings true and I think we could all find lessons that we can apply to our own life. The books that I reference, La grève des Bàttu and L’Appel des arènes, have been translated into English as The Beggar’s Strike and Call of the Arena respectively. They’re worth finding in a good library and reading. Enjoy.
Interview with Aminata Sow Fall – Dakar, Senegal – 19 December 2012
LP: Why does so much African literature, and Senegalese literature in general, focus on children? Or in other words, why do African writers place so much value and emphasis on children?
ASF: I think that goes back to our core values. True, right now much can be said about children who live in the streets, who spend all of their time in the streets away from home. You know all about that. There are dishonest men who masquerade as marabout – religious teachers – who exploit small children by forcing them to beg on the streets and bring money to them. For those men, it’s a business and they get rich off of innocent children who, in many cases, have no where else to go. When I was growing up, that sort of thing didn’t exist. The talibés begged for their food at mealtimes and that was it – there was no financial gain – and that’s one way that we teach our children humility. No, I didn’t know that as a child, and no one that I knew growing up experienced it, either. When I learned of what those children go through today, I was shocked and appalled. How can anyone give up their child to someone like that and let him take the children far away from the love and protection of their families? Unfortunately, that’s what happens today. But it wasn’t always like that. I have a friend who used to be a Minister in the Senegalese government. When he was growing up, his grandfather was a high official in the government. Like most young boys, my friend was conferred to a marabout so he could learn the Koran. One day his Koranic teacher took him to see his grandfather. The teacher asked my friend, “Who is this man?” My friend answered, “He is my grandfather.” The teacher took him back to the Koranic school and chastised him, roughed him up a bit. Later they returned a second time. Again the teacher asked my friend, “Who is this man?” He responded, “He is my grandfather.” Back at the school the teacher chastised him again. When they returned the third time, the teacher repeated his question. That time my friend answered, “He is our leader.” So you see, the teacher wanted him to learn that even as the grandson of a high ranking official, he was no better than any other child who came from a poorer family, that deep down there are no differences between one person and another. We want to teach our children humility, respect, and to work from the basis of humanity, that we are all the same and have the same potential.
In our fundamental culture, a child is cherished by all. He is not one person’s child, but everyone’s child. That also means that any one can correct him. If an adult sees him acting up, whether it’s at school, as he is playing with friends, as he walks the streets, no matter where he is, or even if what he is doing isn’t blatantly wrong but calls for a minor correction, he can, should, and will be corrected. The child will never tell his parents that another adult had to correct him because that would bring on another chastisement or slap from them – because it reflects poorly on their parenting. So in that respect, everyone treats him as if he’s their own child. But you must also remember that his parents and the adults dote on him, too. We’ll laugh and talk with them, play with them, give them small treats, and so forth.
LP: As I have read Senegalese and other Francophone African novels dealing with children, I have noticed that the majority of the characters set out on a voyage or a quest. Why is it that child characters, like Nalla in L’Appel des arènes, must embark on a journey between tradition or modernity, the village or the city, etc?
ASF: The voyage crops up everywhere in literature, whether it’s African literature, French literature, or British literature. All of us, each human being goes on a journey, do we not? We have to find out who we are, where we stand in society, what we want to do in life, all of that. I see the child’s voyage as one to the future. Children are our future, and like anyone, they have to find their place in this world. However, our future is undecided. Society evolves, and therefore the child must leave his home or comfortable surroundings in order to become what society needs him to be. But that does not mean that he has to abandon his heritage. No, no. Modernity does not mean razing the past. One has to build on the past, take the good things that his culture teaches, and apply them to today’s world. His culture is his inner being. That’s what fed him and nourished him, just as his mother’s milk nourished and fed him. A child can and should experience the world through his culture, his core beliefs, and find what is good and apply it to his life. We’ll take Nalla as an example since you mentioned him. He was fascinated by traditional wrestling – it was his passion. He loved it so much that he daydreamed about it in school. His teacher recognized his passion for wrestling, and rather than prohibiting him from talking about it, etc, he encouraged it. He saw the poetry in wrestling, in the movement, in the music, and he used that to teach French grammar to Nalla. Nalla loved it and learned quite well. That’s what makes a good teacher – being able to take what interests the student and find a way to incorporate it into the lesson. Nalla’s teacher tried to show that to his parents, but as you know, Diattou had rejected her culture and inner being because she thought it was savage. She wanted her son to grow up like a little French boy so he could be civilized. She wasn’t about to let tradition and culture feed or nourish his intellect. She couldn’t see how that could make him more rich in mind, spirit, and body or how such hybridity would help him ease into a modern world more fully. Abandoning one’s roots does not make you modern. It makes you weak. Modernity is not a table rase. It is the culmination of all the good that the past offers us. Yes, some things change and need to be changed. But you should never abandon time-honored principles. What the novel [L’Appel des arènes] shows in the end is that it is Diattou, not her son, who becomes a savage because she severed her roots and could no longer draw strength from the past to help her through the difficulties of the present.
So the journey is learning how to navigate, how to become. I’m all about pedagogy. I do not write to make a sensation as so many of today’s authors do. I don’t tell people, I show them. Give them a good example, show them that connecting to our universal core, the core of humanity, is what makes us better people. When I gave my editor the manuscript to La grève des Bàttu and later the one for L’Appel des arènes, he told me that the Westerners wouldn’t buy the books because they wouldn’t understand it. That they would think that we’re too different. I looked at him and said, “Oh really? I don’t think so. We are all human and we all share the same core.” So I had him print them. And I was right. Because all of us, whether we’re African, American, French, or from other Western countries, we all understand the concept of family, we all understand the struggle to become.
LP: Why is there such a stark contrast between your novels wherein the child is always a successful hero and today’s literature where the child is destined to fail? Do you feel that it goes back to your belief in these “core values of humanity” or something else?
ASF: It’s true that the majority of my novels are more positive than many of today’s works. I think it’s because I still believe in man and the good that he can do. We all have the potential to do great things. There are huge problems in today’s world and often times contemporary African writers want to make a statement, to draw attention to them. They do that through sensationalism…
LP: By shocking their reader…
ASF: Yes, exactly. They want a big bang, so to speak. They want to make an impression, so they portray the horror of our world. They want to tell the world something, so they make their novel as sensational as possible. That has it’s place, certainly. However, I do not feel that we need to focus on the bad to bring attention to how we have degenerated, how the world has degenerated. Like I said, I do not want to “tell” anyone anything. I want to show him, to let him see what the alternatives are, to allow him to make inferences, to think for himself. When someone reads of the healing that one of my characters receives, let’s take Nalla for instance, by grounding himself in the nourishing sap of his ancestors – Nalla learns so much at the foot of the baobab, remember – the reader recognizes that lack in our own world. He yearns for it. I can’t tell you how many people have written me or come up to me after conferences to express such observations. We all know that we have abandoned our traditional and religious heritage. It doesn’t matter if your Christian or Muslim or Jewish, or what have you. We have all strayed from it, and deep down our cry for justice, for inner peace, for world peace, is a cry to return to our roots. We may not recognized it as such at first, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see it.
Take, for instance, what happened this past weekend in your country, that awful, awful tragedy [the elementary school massacre in Connecticut]. I’ve listened to many, many reports and debates that have come from that event. People are clamoring for gun control. But really, Lark, that’s not the solution. The problem goes much deeper than that. The problem is culture – how our global culture has turned to violence, and how we have abandoned our religious, national, and ethnic cultures. We all have an inner light inside of us that shines forth and teaches us what is right and what is wrong. It is powerful and can make amazing changes in ourselves, and when we apply it to our relationships with others, it can change our society and our world. We have to go back to our core beliefs, our universality, our sameness, our humanity. We need to stop isolating ourselves. Our children are isolated emotionally, they do not have the skills to express their feelings. They’re isolated financially – you see that here in Senegal, especially with the beggars. We’ve become so concentrated on ourselves that we’ve become selfish and chase after money in order to keep it for ourselves or for our immediate family. Money is king, and we worship it. We isolate ourselves in our pursuit of money. Just the other day, I wanted to see how many people smiled as they walked down the street. So I watched them. No one smiled at those who passed him/her by. They were in a hurry to get to work, to buy and sell. It’s just like when I go to Paris and take the metro – when I go to the United States I don’t take the metro, but you have to in Paris – and everyone is in a rush, they jostle each other around, and push right by the people around them. We have no time for each other any more. We don’t love our fellow man anymore. If we go back to teaching our children to honor, strengthen, and cherish that inner light that is inside each and every one of us, any one can own a gun, have it within reach, and not use it to harm another person in a time of difficulty or suffering because he will love the person standing in front of him. He will know that he doesn’t have to use the gun to get his point across. Regulate guns, yes. But do not get rid of them, do not disarm those who have them, because they are not the problem. I do not think your country needs much more regulation – and I can say that because I have family members that live there, I have lived there over short periods of time throughout the years, I know people in your government, I’ve followed this issue closely throughout my life. That young man had it in his heart to kill, and nothing would have stopped him. There will always be guns – look at Europe, those countries have extremely strict gun laws and most of the time their citizens do not have the right to defend themselves through force. But the criminals get guns because they want them. The criminals have guns and they harm others. So those laws don’t do a thing other than make it easier for innocent people to get killed. And they do. Children are being massacred in French schools, in Toulouse, as you know, in Germany, Norway, Sweden, by gunmen. The guns aren’t the problem. The problem is us. I am convinced that when someone is taught – with love – to show love unto other in turn, then he will never use the gun that he carries in his hand to harm another being, unless of course his life or his family’s life is in danger. But he will not use it to make a statement or to get attention.
So it goes back to how I write. I write about that light, the one that each of us has within us. I do not tell, I show a pattern, example, or path. Our world has changed so drastically that many people don’t even recognize that light anymore – they’ve gotten so wrapped up in this or that, money, success, fame, that they’ve isolated themselves from themselves. Do you see? They have taught themselves to ignore that inner core, that light, which is the very essence of their being. Thus they wander emotionally, figuratively, and sometimes physically, do they not? The solution is to rediscover that light, uncover it, feed it, and let it shine and influence our choices, actions, and behavior. That’s why the children in my novels succeed – because they, more so than the adults, have the courage to do what is right, by letting the good of the past direct their future.
All children are good, innocent, loving and treat others with kindness. When they do not, it is because they have been taught not to listen to that light. Circumstance can have a part in that, certainly. But more often than not it is another human being, most often an adult, who snuffs out that light by the way they treat the child. Why are other authors creating child characters who fail? Well, because they are looking at our African cultures from an exterior viewpoint, the viewpoint of the foreigner who tells us that Africa isn’t worth anything, that we don’t have anything to offer. Preposterous, but they listen nonetheless. And because the world says that Africa can’t succeed, that it never has succeeded and that it’s future is destined to fail, then the symbol of the future – the child – is also destined to fail. It is that simple.
LP: In short, then, you feel that failure is rooted in the inability to find hope and in abandoning core values?
ASF: Yes. In this situation, it’s based in the African’s tendency to ignore the interior view, the view from inside himself, and instead listening to what exterior forces are telling him. We are too prone to sell ourselves for the approval of someone else.
LP: So according to what we have discussed previously, failure stems from ignoring/not loving our fellowman and falling into the trap of individualism and selfishness?
ASF: Yes. The African is a social creature, someone who is used to being surrounded by other people. We are always in close proximity with our family. Look at how mothers carry their babies – on their backs. The child isn’t pushed in front of her in a stroller, he is very much connected to, an extension of, her body. He is almost always in constant contact with his mother. Look at how we travel – we fit dozens of people in one small van. Now, that’s not always safe, but what I’m trying to point out is that you don’t see anyone complaining about another person being in his “space.” Because space is communal. People care about one another. I had a European friend visit me a few times over the years, and once she told me that it bothered her when the vendors on the street near her hotel – who she passed by every day – would ask her where she was going, when she expected to be back, etc. They’d ask lots of questions about her family, her activities, etc. It annoyed her because she felt that they were prying into her private life, her private space. So I had to explain to her that they weren’t trying to be rude. In fact, their actions were showing quite the opposite. They were showing her that they cared. Asking questions about the family or her activities for the day showed that they were paying attention to her, and if by chance she didn’t return when she said she would, they would be on the look out for her in case something had happened. If someone in her family was not doing well, they wanted to be able to offer comfort and assistance. To a virtual stranger! They were connecting with the thing that we all share – compassion, family, love, our humanity. They did not want her to be isolated. In our fundamental culture, we Senegalese, we Africans, are not isolated beings.
However, today’s global society is teaching us differently. It is teaching you differently. I do not believe Americans at their core are isolated beings. But your culture, today’s shared culture, teaches that it’s every man for himself. That money is important. That it doesn’t matter how we treat others. It teaches us to sever human relationships. Look at last weekend’s events for an example once again. Our inner light teaches us to draw others to us, to love them. It is a well of water that gives life. Isolation is a desert that sucks our humanity from us. Focusing on our humanity, uncovering the light that has become buried is of vital importance. That is success. We fail when we bury it, ignore it, and isolate ourselves from our fellowman.
LP: A little while ago you mentioned your novel La grève des Bàttu. Someone who reads that book can come away with the impression that Senegal and by extension, Africa, needs beggars and that society cannot survive without them. Did you feel that way when you wrote the novel and if you did, do you still feel that way now?
ASF: Many people ask me about that novel – I wrote it in 1979 and it’s the book that put me on the international scene. Much as been said about it in the past, and even today, it is still used as a point of reference. In your work here in Dakar, you deal with that every day. Begging is a crutch for this society. Yes, we do need it, but it is a need that we created. It is not an inherent need. If we take it away, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We’ve twisted certain teachings in the Koran and we think that our salvation is based, in part, on our charitable offerings. So instead of refusing to let these individuals live on the street and not have access to the most basic of necessities, instead of creating a system where we can be charitable by not relegating someone to destitution, we say that we must have beggars so we can give alms. I think the definition of alms that we use today is too narrow. The same thing happens in Christianity. Your Bible teaches you to give of your substance to the poor, to help the needy, etc much like the Koran does. And somehow we have trained ourselves to think that we must keep people in poverty so we can follow the teachings of our religion. We need it to feel good about ourselves, do we not? We need to be able to say to ourselves, “I helped someone in need,” or “I gave money to the poor, therefore I’m following the teachings of my religion.” Do we need to be charitable? By all means, yes! But we forget that we can do it in another way. We forget that we don’t have to have toddlers, children, teenagers, and adults living in these adverse conditions. We forget that in many cases we cause their poverty. And in essence, we want them to stay there. Because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Because we want them to be dependent on us. Because we think we’re following a holier example. In short, we isolate them in order to feel good about ourselves. It is not right, but we use religion to justify it. The Western world does it, too. If someone thinks otherwise, they are in denial.
It also flows into exploitation. As humans, we want poor people because it drives down the cost of labor, etc. A poor person will take almost any job offered to him because he wants to eat, because he doesn’t want to sleep under a piece of cardboard. But in general, because we have ignored that inner light, we don’t want them to succeed. Because if he succeeds, he will want more money and then we don’t make as much money. If we don’t have the poor, how can we be charitable? It’s a cycle of hypocrisy, is it not? Alms do not have to take the form of money.
An American graduate student did her dissertation on the novel not too long ago. And she found a connection between the beggars of that novel’s society and the relationship between the Western world and Africa. The rich people in the novel didn’t know what to do or who to give alms to once the beggars went on strike and refused to “encumber” the streets as they had previously. When they needed to exercise charity so they could fulfill the requirements placed upon them by their religion, no beggars could be found. Their prayers and desires were not answered because they were not taking care of their fellowman – the beggars. Similarly, as this student pointed out, the Western world needs Africa. Why? Because this is the last area of the world where it is still accepted, if not expected, for powers/governments to exploit the land for minerals, oil, precious stones, rubber, and manpower. For the most part, this continent is the only continent left where the land isn’t rigorously protected against over-mining, deforestation, poaching, etc. Why? Because the colonial powers – Europe, Asia – want it that way and keep it that way. How? Money, bribes. In many cases – not all, but many – the Western world isolates us in order to create dependency. And years of colonialism, war, occupation, etc has trained us to fall into line and not think for ourselves. It’s psychological warfare in many respects. And we’re losing. If the African countries “went on strike” and told the Western powers to leave them alone, what would happen? The Western world could not export their goods, including their money and NGO funding/expertise/savoir-faire – their “alms” – and they could not import much of the goods that support their way of life, especially oil and minerals. What would happen to the African countries? They’d get by and they’d be free to live as they please. However, neither side will leave the other one alone because the Western world depends on our raw products and we have become dependent on their “alms.” It is not an inherent need, but it is a need that was created, much like the begging need here in this society.
LP: What would you like me, and other individuals like me who study Senegalese literature and culture, to learn/understand and take back to our country?
ASF: That at our core, we’re a people who are rich in humanity. Often when I meet American students, workers, or intellectuals here in Dakar, they tell me that when they first arrive they look at my country and my people through a superficial lens. When viewed that way, all one can see is poverty, dirtiness, underdevelopment, the beggars who flood the streets. But they also say that when they choose to look through a more profound lens, a lens of reality, they tell me that they are deeply touched by our humanity, our love for our fellow man. We have a warmth that we share with others, a concern for everyone that we meet. And I think that is missing in our global society. I have letters upon letters of testimonials that all point to that affect, especially from Chantal’s students. When compared to the Western world, we don’t have much. However, you will find that overall we are a happy people, and we want other people to be happy, too.