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In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman A. Waberi


In the United States of Africa (Aux Etats Unis d’Afrique. 2006)

Author:            Abdourahman A. Waberi
Translators:  David and Nicole Ball
University of Nebraska Press
              Paper $19.95. ISBN
              978-0-8032-2262- 5

Reviewer:      Peter Wuteh Vakunta


 Turning Tables

In the United States of Africa is the first translation of Abdourahman’s fiction by David and Nicole Ball, both seasoned literary translators.  His Pays sans ombre: Nouvelles (1994) was translated as Land without Shadows (2005) by Jeanne Garane. Abdourahman is author of several other fictional works written single-handedly and as co-author.  His masterpiece is undoubtedly In the United States of Africa, a novel in which the Djiboutian writer resident in France avails himself of the literary technique of reverse psychology to invert the accepted prism through which we seem to perceive the world. He does so with apparent ease. Abdourahman proves to be a master of the written word. He wields humor, irony, sarcasm, and satire adeptly in his attempt to debunk the often unquestionable clichés and stereotypes that have become the lot of Africa—a continent described severally as: “a continent for the taking”, “the lost continent”, “and the Dark Continent”, “a continent at risk”, and more.  The novel recounts the trajectory of Malaïka, an French child adopted by an African, Doctor Papa, on a humanitarian mission to Asmara. Now a young artist, Malaïka returns to the land of her birth to trace the whereabouts of her biological mother, and perhaps find her lost identity. Her search, laden with unknowns, is portrayed as tortuous and revealing. She is described as an ‘angel’ on account of her decent upbringing in France: “She is graceful as an angel, and that’s why she is called Malaïka.”(p.9)  

In the United States of Africa is a futuristic novel in which the writer turns the fortunes of the world upside down, and invites his readers to re-imagine a world where economic refugees and victims of social oppression escape from the squalor of America and the slums of Europe in desperation to seek freedom and prosperity in the United States of Africa. As he puts it: “This is what attracts the hundreds of thousands of wretched Euramericans subjected to a host of calamities and a deprivation of hope.” (5)  It goes without the saying that acerbic irony is a powerful deconstructionist tool in the hands of Abdourahman as the following statement shows: “This individual, poor as Job on his dung heap, has never seen a trace of soap, cannot imagine the flavor of yogurt, has no conception of the sweetness of a fruit salad. He is a thousand miles from our most basic Sahelian conveniences.” (4) Or this other telling one: “After an insipid soap opera, a professor from the  Kenyatta School of European and American Studies, an eminent specialist in Africanization—the latest fad in our universities, now setting the tone for the whole world—claims that the United States of Africa can no longer accommodate all the world’s poor.”(6)

Abdourahman’s ambivalent use of language is evident throughout the narrative. In a bid to translate anger and despondency into the written word, he has no compunction about resorting to vulgarity for the purpose of effective communication: “In short, they are introducing the Third World right up the anus of the United States of Africa.”(8) This novel is a poignant depiction of the plight of the proletariat of the First World whose very survival depends on government bailouts, referred to as ‘food stamps’ in the United States of America. “It is a tale that can make a family forget the absent father, always wandering off or between odd jobs…who holds the house together by means of federal welfare checks and various sacrifices” (9-10) This text is a satiric derision of the fallacy of the American dream: “Two men in quest of the African dream, seeking manioc and fresh water. Sheriff Ouedraogo promises to spare the life of the one who kills the other at sunset.”(19). Tongue in cheek, the novelist laments the fate of African immigrants subjected to all forms of ignominies in the Western world: “Not a day goes by without new cases of disappearances, illegal immigrants arrested and neutralized for good, illegal workers sent to meet their maker in less time than it takes to light a cigarette.”(20)

In the United States of Africa is captivating in several respects but the quality that captures the reader’s attention the most is the novelist recourse to the theme of exile as a thread that holds his narrative together: “The tiny elite was the first to clear out, and every youngster’s dream is to leave and go into exile.” (14).The problematic strife with double exile (physical and psychological) seems to be a leitmotif in Abdourahman’s text. In this novel, psychological exile is seen to be as deleterious as physical displacement: “He’s gone on a journey inside himself, you think… He’s really gone. Where‌ He doesn’t know…” (23)  Abdourahman employs sagacious words to adumbrate on this haunting theme: “One’s birthplace is only an accident; you choose your true homeland with your body and heart. You love it all your life or you leave it alone.”(10)  It is hard to ignore the novelist’s attempt to fictionalize his own existential travails in the world of exile. In writing his tale of exile, Abdourahman turns the tables topsy-turvy as this statement clearly indicates: “Today even more than yesterday, our African lands attract all kinds of people crushed by poverty: trollops with their feet powdered by the dust of exodus; opponents of their regimes with a ruined conscience; mangy kids with pulmonary diseases; bony, shriveled old people. “(15) Abdourahman’s text is a double-edged   trenchant weapon; it chides the predator and the prey with the same breath. It decries the tribulations engendered by xenophobic tendencies: “They begin by setting up security perimeters in big cities, investigate at length before tackling lawless zones, shady hotels, guerilla camps, bordellos, and shebeens for illegal immigrants.”(46)

In the United States of Africa is a tale of the underdevelopment of Africa by Western powers. It is a laudation of the material and intellectual wealth of pre-colonial Africa: “Ever since Emperor Kankan Moussa, the ruler of the ancient Empire of Mali, one of the most prestigious empires of our federation, made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 scattering gold along the way, all the wretched of the earth have their eyes fixed on our felicity.”(15) The writer underscores the fact that Africa was not a tabula rasa devoid of prosperity before the advent of colonialists. Intertextuality is another sharp tool that this novelist uses for the purpose of protest. Reference to the ‘wretched of the earth’ is undoubtedly an allusion to Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece of the same title. Abdourahman does not stop at mere allusions, he refers to the “neurologists in the Frantz Fanon Institute of Blida” (27) who have “come up with a dream–making machine that brings you whatever dreams you want while you sleep.”(28)  In a rather veiled manner, he refers to the legendary Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o as follows: “Following Nzila Kongolo Wa Th’iongo (1786-1852), once so popular in the course of the unpredictable monarch Kodjo Aemjoro, author of the classic An Evening on the Danube…” (32) He pays tribute to Africa’s illustrious musical virtuosos such as Miriam Makeba (38).

The distinctive characteristic of Abdourahman’s style is his constant recourse to code-switching as a narrative technique. Purposeful linguistic miscegenation serves as an effective tool for the depiction of the socio-cultural specificities of the context in which his novel is written: “You hesitate between a bowl of kinkeliba and a glass of bissap.”(29) Or this other interesting one: “Maya! Pleated bubus, draped djellabas, wraparound haiks, majestic gandouras, raffia straw, ivory and amber, muslin and cotton, cowries and tortoise shells—vanished all gone!”(45) The domestication of the ex-colonizer’s language is evident here.

Abdourahman uses figurative language for communicative expediency as this example shows: “… his constant encouragements to the mother, who is flapping her lips like a fish yanked out of water.”(114) Metaphors come in handy in the narrative as this statement illustrates: “Every one submits to the tick-tock of daily life, the order of life that pulses with each passing second…” (30). Or this very powerful one:” Outside, this small corner of the jungle is curling up in the arms of the rising dawn.”(31) He employs similes for comparative pungency: “Her great camel eyes are almost lifeless.”(27).

Proverbs enable him to drive home messages pregnant with meaning: “Never speak ill of the dead is the ancient rule execrated by the hard of heart who resent those who have just passed over to the other side.” (109) All in all, figurative language is the palm oil with which words are eaten in In the United States of Africa, to paraphrase another illustrious son of Africa, Chinua Achebe.

In sum, In the United States of Africa is the handiwork of a literary virtuoso. Abdourahman distinguishes himself from the mainstream of Francophone African writers through the depth of his thought processes, adroit use of language, and skilful re-writing of history. This is a novel steeped in innovative ideas. It is strikingly impressionistic and didactic. The excellent translation of this fine work into English by David and Nicole Ball cannot escape encomium.

Peter Vakunta

Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta
is a Cameroonian resident in Madison-Wisconsin, USA. He teaches the Theory of African Literature and Contemporary African Fiction in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Vakunta is novelist, storyteller, poet and essayist. He has also written language manuals. His literary works have won him awards in the U.K., USA and Africa

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