Childhood pulverized in Africa – Culture / Next

«They came to Mama, and she too died like cattle; they cut off his head. In short, all the parents we were with suffered the same death. We children were terrified ”, tells a young woman, who recalls the terrible scenes she witnessed, then 8 years old. It was at the time of the genocide, the one that led in 1994 to the extermination of two-thirds of the Tutsis in Rwanda. This tragedy is at the heart of a somewhat particular book, which gives voice to those who experienced it at an age normally associated with innocence.

On one continent, Africa, often equated with chaos and destruction, literature has long sublimated nostalgia for an idealized childhood. “I always confuse childhood and Eden”, thus affirmed the Senegalese poet, now president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. This lost childhood paradise has similarly inspired all the great figures of the early years of contemporary African literature, from the Ivorian Amadou Hampâté Bâ to the Nigerian Nobel Prize for Literature Wole Soyinka, including the black child of the Guinean Camara Laye. But this romantic universe has now disappeared.

He was notably buried in a grandiloquent way by the profusion of fictions narrating the bloody abuses of child soldiers, evoked by the Congolese Emmanuel Dongala or the Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa. Except that it was then to switch in the opposite excess, these small killing machines no longer having much to do with the world of childhood, abandoned too early.

“Little snakes”

Two books published this fall offer a more prosaic, albeit tragic, vision of an African childhood confronted with the cruel world of adults who without remorse pulverize children’s paradise. The first, Without heaven or earth, is not a fiction. French historian Hélène Dumas transcribes and analyzes the memories of around a hundred genocide survivors. Children at the time of the events, they were, in 2006, invited by an association to dive back into this period which goes from the beginnings of the tragedy until the aftermath of the massacres. Ten years later, the historian found by chance these testimonies recorded on copies of schoolchildren, “In the recesses of a shelf” in Kigali, capital of Rwanda. Very quickly, she understood the importance of these texts which “Allow to see the genocide of the Tutsis from the world of childhood”. Noticing at the outset how much these writings reveal “Turns” which return “To the singularity of a child’s language”. As if their authors were speaking out “Still like children”.

And it is this naive expression, sometimes almost poetic (“The one who recounts the night is the one who has seen it”, explains a young survivor still haunted by the inexpressible), which at times gives this book the force of a novel. Childish language also accentuates the brutality of certain scenes. In particular when talking about the three months of genocide which will kill nearly 1 million people. You have to accept to face it. Or give up getting involved in a world that has made possible the martyrdom of these children, systematically hunted down, tortured, left for dead for the lucky ones. Those who are still able to tell us about this final African solution. In their memories, it is sketched from the beginning of the 90s by a stigma imposed in particular at school. When the signal of the massacres comes, the spirits were already prepared, not to spare “The little snakes”. For the survivors, the feeling of“A life without value and devoid of all meaning”, notes the historian. Time stood still on an April morning during childhood. And those who have become young adults remain stuck in this unsurpassable past.

Without mercy

It is also by adopting a retrospective look and a childish language that Yaya Diomandé evokes the thwarted fate of a young Dioula (Muslim ethnic group from the north of Ivory Coast), born in a popular district of Abidjan, the capital. economic. This Ivorian author, whose first novel is, also evokes a period in the history of his country. Certainly less tragic, but still marked by a civil war, the first that the Ivory Coast has ever known. The hero’s childhood unfolds before these years of conflict.

Already, however, innocence is shattered, forcing the reign of survival. “I come from Abobo, the town where children grow up with violence”, explains the young hero ofAbobo Marley. But where the novel could have been content with a timeless description of the life of underprivileged young people in the slums in the tropics, the story draws its strength from its anchoring in a very real chronology, which leads this boy rejected by a polygamous father to try a thousand tricks, before joining the ranks of this rebellion which, from 2002, will establish itself in the north of the country and then take power in Abidjan nine years later. The child has become a young adult but retains this deliberately naive language to describe a pitiless world where anything goes. And where the poorest always end up being manipulated. The change of power, for which he fought, does not bring the prosperity promised by the new regime. The one still in place today in Abidjan.

And only the last disillusion, the migration to Europe, reconciles the hero with his native country. “How to live peacefully in a country when you are afraid of being excluded every day?” wonders the young man who became a miserable illegal migrant, before setting off on his way back. Her last childhood dream, now shattered.


Maria Malagardis

Helene Dumas Without sky or earth La Découverte, 308 pp., € 19 (ebook: € 11.99).

Yaya Diomande Abobo Marley Lattès, 214 pp., € 19 (ebook: € 13.99).

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