Review of Fools, Thieves and Other Dreamers - Irene Madonko

Fools, thieves and other dreamers
Seydi Sow, Florent Couao-Zotti and Abdourahman Ali Waberi
2001: (pp: 126) 206 x 145 mm
ISBN: 0797423060



The African Review of Books
2003
Reviewer: Irene Madonko


A glimpse of Francophone Africa

About two years ago representatives from the French Embassy in Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe International Book Fair got together to discuss how an interest in Francophone literature could be nurtured in an Anglophone environment. Then an idea emanated from their cauldron of thought: stories from Francophone authors could be translated into English and published in Zimbabwe. The book Fools, Thieves and other Dreamers is birthed from this meeting. Reading through the translated material, one realised just how much wholesome literature non-French readers are missing out on. Evidence of the value of this slim collection is that one of the stories, ‘Small Hells on Street Corners’, was a finalist for the 2002 Caine Prize for African writing.

The book is a compilation of three stories translated by students from the University of Zimbabwe. Basically all the stories make for good reading, but somehow, when I got to ‘Small Hells on Street Corners’ by Florent Couoa-Zotti, a prolific author from Benin, my fingers helplessly lingered on each page a bit longer than usual as my mind slowly sapped in the sadness of his tale. At first glimpse I thought it was about a skinny, mean urchin who enjoys stealing from hardworking folk at the bustling market down town. You would too, when you get to the part where he snatches a Yoruba gold pendant and skids off.

Then we discover that he has no friends to pass it on to or any home beneath the sky where he might hide it. Sadly, the only place where he can store his booty is down his throat. We get concerned, not just for his intestines mind, but for his life – especially when the angry mob that is pursuing him drives him to dive into a filthy river. From there he emerges on to the turf of a vicious gang leader who painfully interrogates him. Our concern for the streetchild grows with the length of the story, and at the climax Couao-Zotti brilliantly interweaves the street-children’s dilemma with other themes such as homelessness and violence in Africa’s slums. Yet it is also about the people who live on the edges of those slums and how they react when those slums infringe on their everyday lives, and how such reactions are often universal in their anger at its manifestations and indifference to its suffering.

Another interesting piece is ‘The Fool’s Gallery’, by Abdourahman Ali Waberi. Here, Waberi journeys to a part of downtown Djibouti where initially we meet nothing unusual in the ghetto, until the khat ritual is introduced. From Waberi we learn that khat comes in the shape of thin twigs held together by a fibre the colour of cork and comes from a banana leaf. People in the country chew on it, the way they would tobacco. It is an everyday ritual, possibly more akin to sharing a cup of tea, or a beer, with friends. But khat has effects, and is consumed for its narcotic effects more than its social. We come to realise how the community is highly addicted to it, though it has awful side effects from giving diarrhoea, pins and needles in the legs, up to zombifying its addicts. Waberi says: ‘It is the poison and the antidote, the perpetual imprisonment.’

Seydi Sow’s ‘From the Depths of a Well’ is a tale of a judge, a cabinet minister, a journalist, a member of parliament and a ‘simple’ citizen all stuck in a well. They are too isolated to be able to call for help, so they must rely on each other. If they work together, one of them can escape from the depths of the well and go off to call for help. But which one of society’s five representatives can be relied on to do the right thing? Each representative has a chance to plead their case. If they don’t agree to elect one of their own they will die. Or they could wait for help from the outside, however unlikely that might seem.

This piece by Sow is not so much a story as a parable and in it we see the problems faced by too many countries – lack of faith in their own resources, and political systems so enveloped in their own importance that they fail to deal with issues of real importance.

Fools, Thieves and other Dreamers makes for good laid-back reading, with a chance of stirring up your imagination. I hope this slim volume is not the only project of the French department at the University of Zimbabwe that makes it into print.

(Irene Madonko is a Zimbabwean journalist studying in London.)

© The author/publisher

Review of Fools, Thieves and Other Dreamers- by Irene Madonko

Fools, Thieves and Other Dreamers
Seydi Sow, Florent Couao-Zotti and Abdourahman Ali Waberi
126 pp
ISBN 0 7974 2306 0

A glimpse of Francophone Africa
The African Review of Books
2003
Reviewer: Irene Madonko

Read more ...

Review of Fools, Thieves and Other Dreamers- Anne Derges

Fools, Thieves and Other Dreamers
Seydi Sow, Florent Couao-Zotti and Abdourahman Ali Waberi
126 pp
ISBN 0 7974 2306 0

"Destroying the emptiness of silence"
The Mirror
November 24, 2002
Reviewer: Anne Derges


How to introduce Francophone African literature in an Anglophone environment? This was a question posed at the 2001 ZIBF, which had Senegal as the featured country. How to create the conditions for an African literature? These were the questions the Translation Project undertook to respond to. The result is a selection of stories translated by students and staff of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Zimbabwe – thus giving them the experience of formal published work – a challenge to which they have risen admirably.

Reading them, one wonders how these three short stories were selected. According to D’Almeida, one should be able to read [Francophone] African literature as destroying the emptiness of silence, and yet these stories ache with emptiness and hopelessness.

All the stories depict situations which are universal among Africans: there is no difference between the concerns (the hopelessness?) of people in Anglophone, Lusphone or Francophone Africa.

"Our saviour stands among us"
The first story, From the depths of a well, by Seydi Sow is the kind of moral tale which is popular throughout Africa. It deals with questions of leadership and corruption in a tale of five representatives of society – who we all recognize immediately – trapped in a well. Only one may escape, and the dilemma is to select who may be trusted to return and save the rest. Hopeless it is, as none of the five is able to trust any of his fellow men to return and save them, and so they are all doomed to perish. The story is rescued from banality by the fact that Sow shows that even the humble citizen, who has "always allowed himself to be manipulated by the forces of evil promoted by shameful interests…" is as corrupt and unworthy of trust as his leaders.

"Scarcely born and yet already sacrificed"
Small hells on street corners by Florent Couao-Zotti, graphically depicts the hell that is the life of the street child in Africa. In this case he is a street child on the run – a parable of the street child’s life, for there can be no escape. It is the most complex of the three stories, the narrative interspersed with a kind of sorrowful Greek chorus ("sad poet, your job is not to explain but to reveal") How has the situation of this once angel child become man-child come about, it asks? (Your job is not to explain…).

The street child’s story is told in language that is sometimes shocking, violent and beautifully graphic. For example, the African market – the one to be found in every African city – is described as a monster, "its insides continuously churning, writhing, knotting and distending."

"Leaning against the partition wall my father goes on grazing…"
The third story deals with another kind of well of hopelessness. The Fool’s Gallery, by Abdourahman Ali Waberi describes life in Djibouti/Somalia from the viewpoint of the chewer – or grazer – of khat. The use of this drug – a grass-like weed chewed incessantly by men in Somalia, which induces a sense of euphoria and is also used to keep people awake – may be "foreign" to readers in Southern Africa, yet the point is that all over Africa men need to use some drug to fill the emptiness. And the emptiness, populated only by fools, is what this story shows.

The khat-grazers pass their days watching the parade of fools, last of all being the "fool" who can see clearly, the "fool" who speaks out and tells of corruption.

The team of translators has done excellent work with sometimes-difficult texts. Some of the descriptive phrases are memorable: there is the "sleek charm" of a Minister, the market which writhes like a monster, and, "in a world adrift men cling to the most fragile thing that exists…"

A world adrift, and a world populated only by men. In all the stories the only actors are men, women merely exist in the background. It is to be hoped that the next collection of translations will include stories where women feature. Perhaps, then, we shall be able to see an Africa which is less hopeless, less empty. 

© The author/publisher