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
Reviewer: Irene Madonko

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