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Patrice Nganang

Patrice Nganang

Nganang, a Cameroonian, was born in 1970. He is a professor of Modern European Languages in the US. His first volume of poems, Elobi, appeared in 1995. He has also published several novels, the most famous of which was translated into English as Dog Days (2006). In its original French version, Temps de Chien won the Prix Marguerite Yourcenar in 2001, among other awards. His newest book is Manifeste d'une Nouvelle Litterature Africaine. Pour une Ecriture Preemptive', with Editions Homnispheres [Paris, 2007]

Necessary Doubt was delivered in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2008, at a symposium on the Genocide of the Tutsi. This translation from the French by Cullen Goldblatt is published for the first time


 Necessary Doubt
The Skull of a Rwandan Genocide Victim

Making Words 
A writer does not make speeches; he writes. What is more, it is presumptuous of me to speak, when my experience of Rwanda is so brief. But nevertheless, I will say what I think. And what I am thinking about now, here, today, is the mandate to doubt, to doubt and always to doubt. Because it is fundamentally this injunction that drives my writing: doubt in the face of the clearly evident. A very necessary act when one knows, for example, that the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the country where I live, pronounced, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” at the same moment that it accepted the enslavement of black people. So the question I will ask myself here is quite brief: what is a text? The response to this question appears to be self-evident - a text is the sum of written words on a page.  Text is what I, a writer, make, and it is what I engage with every day - writing words on a page. The definition is obvious since I have written seriously for the past fifteen years, and you, the writers gathered here, have certainly done so for many more than that.
In truth, we all engage in intellectual activity in order to repeat the obvious facts that have been placed before us: to make the texts, the letters, the pages, all multiply. To write them one must use one’s hands, and one’s head as well, the body therefore - sometimes the legs, even the chest and the genitals… in short, one’s whole body. I have yet to see a corpse write texts, so I think it perhaps wise to assume that a text implies a life. What self-evident facts! In reality, if one is an African of my generation, there are a number of other matters that are also evident, and about which we reflect very little, as little as we reflect upon what constitutes a text; a bit like children before a dancing fire.  It is evident for example that we were each born in a republic, in the case of most of us that is. But is it truly evident that we are citizens? It is also evident that the republics in which we were born were independent – but is it truly so evident that we are free?  Meanwhile it has become self-evident that our states are mortal; while our parents saw the birth of fifty African states during the ‘60s, we have seen a good dozen of these states die, including states of our dear Africa such as Somalia and Sudan. An ultimate lesson in historical humility, if indeed it is that!

Questions from Rwanda
All the things I have just mentioned – states, countries, independence, republics – are inscribed meanwhile in texts, and we only speak of them because they are inscribed in the texts that are transmitted to us, through, for example, books. If one is a writer, one learns very quickly to respect one’s own texts; one says to oneself that a manuscript has a value, has a particular value that makes it singular. And so it is logical, I believe, to say to oneself, as a writer, that the texts of a republic have a particular value; exactly as do the texts inscribing the freedom of each one of us into the legal core that is citizenship. This value, can we not measure it by the extent to which each of its words resonates with the capacity to respect life? That is to say, each letter written on a white page, can it not be understood as the reflection of the life that formulated it? Is it not a contradiction that there are written texts that do not respect life? Can one accept that the texts that legislate our republics do not respect the life of the hands that wrote them? Can one accept that the constitution of one’s country be torn to pieces before one’s eyes by a single person – the president of the republic? Can one accept that the hands which write poems and novels and plays do not always occupy themselves with other kinds of texts  - which means that we are born in republics and live as slaves, forgetting our written constitutions? What else are they about, the coups d’etat? The first in Africa took place in Togo with Eyadema; the most bloody here, in Rwanda in 1994, and the list is long, of the maneuvers that have, before our eyes, ripped to shreds the meaning of ‘republic,’ the type of state in which (it is self-evident) we were born? Will we continue to accept that these events dictate our present as they do nowhere else? And under what conditions? The questions that Rwanda poses are numerous!
The questions raised by Rwanda are numerous because, I believe, it is fundamentally here that the African present began, because it is here that African literature and African imagination encountered their limits. I have said it elsewhere already, and it is an honor for me to come here to Kigali to suggest it again: that one cannot write today in Africa as if Rwanda had never existed. And for me this means we can no longer produce texts as if the obvious and evident – letters written on the page, the satisfaction of literary prizes thus won – is the only thing that dictates the act of the writer. Because these evident facts were fundamentally put into question by what happened here in 1994. And why? Because the events of 1994 reminded us, perhaps particularly those of us not from Rwanda, that a text is above all written by a living hand, by a head, by a body, by legs, by a human being. So that the human life is an extension of the text and a text is an extension of a life. In short, Rwanda reminded us of the moral inscription of art, which is today so called into question in the debates among writers who tell us - having so poorly read Andre Gide – that art is immorality; yet who never cite Rwanda as a reference. Rwanda reminded us that to write is above all to commit an act of ethical dimensions. It reminded us of the obvious. The particularity of our moment is, in my opinion, that we were born amid numerous self-evident facts that were not respected. We were born in republics, and each one of us knows that we have spent all our lives in dictatorships. We were born independent and each one among us knows that our countries are, in reality, the West’s inferior annexes. Our texts are not even read in our own countries, where those in power use the fundamental text, the constitution, only as toilet paper.
Rwanda taught us many things, but above all, I believe, it brought us, Africans, out of childhood. And when I say childhood I am thinking of the denial of responsibility that, from slavery to colonization, has inserted us in a paradigm based essentially on victimhood. Rwanda showed us what we are capable of. Inevitably, in this country too, a generation will emerge that does not define itself by what happened here in 1994. And that would be entirely normal, similar shifts have taken place elsewhere; after all the young French of today do not define themselves in relation to the Commune, and young Germans do not take as their first point of reference the Second World War. For many of my American students, moreover, the Vietnam War never took place. But I think the African generation that will not define itself by Rwanda is not our own, because in 1994 we here were already adults. In other words, we took responsibility for giving a moral meaning to self-evident facts: republic, life, country, nation, text. Using these references, we understood that what we did each day, and the texts we valued – those we had received from history and those we ourselves wrote - had meaning; in short, that they possessed a legitimacy that must be inscribed in life. And I think that for me, as a writer, it is here in Rwanda that a clear response was given to these meaning-producing activities, to what I do (quite obviously) every day before a blank page.

The Preemptive Writer
But have African writers truly heard the many questions posed by Rwanda? I am not at all sure that, in today’s African texts, we are not just engaged in the same automatic activity which, before Rwanda, produced poems, novels, and plays; that is to say, as if our own countries were not all Rwandas and ignoring that fact.  Have we really questioned the meaning of the text within African literature? Our era is producing millions of pages in the form of testimony from the truth and reconciliation commissions; in the form of numerous depositions in the international tribunals in Congo, in Sierra Leone; from the proceedings of Rwanda’s gacacas… It is true that we authors no longer write warrior epics like the famous Chaka! But even so, is it not time to practice a form of writing that forcefully addresses the death that rushes across our continent; that is to say, is it not time to write in a preemptive manner, to create text that will not be merely the a posteriori production of testimony?

Is it not time to think about a body of writing which will render a genocide, like the one which took place in Rwanda in 1994, impossible? In the political sphere, and it is another matter entirely, I read newspapers during the time of the Ivoirian crisis, and Rwanda would constantly reappear as a warning, not to mention in Congo, and even in my native Cameroon, where ‘Rwanda’ recalls what happened in Bamileke country from 1956 to 1970. And let us therefore also mention Kenya, with what has just happened there, because, in every newspaper I have read, the reference to Rwanda was made. A friend sent me an article which indicated that in Zimbabwe, Rwandan refugees are still engaging in violence, this after Mugabe’s bloody and stolen victory, hunting those who voted for the MDC in an endless cycle of retribution, at times cutting out the tongues of their victims.
We have just read that the major genocide which took place in Congo has finally delivered one of its organizers, Jean-Pierre Bemba, into the hands of the international criminal tribunal; that an international arrest warrant has finally put an end to the arrogance of Omar El Béchir, who, as we all know, pulls the strings of the genocide in Darfur. Almost every month I go to The Hague where Charles Taylor answers for the criminal acts he committed in Sierra Leone, as well as in Liberia. There, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré is accused of, in effect, systematic complicity with crimes against humanity. At The Hague, the case of the Central African Republic is also open. Has Ange Patassé finally answered for his barbaric actions? Nevertheless, one question remains: ‘Who is the next one?’ Every one of us knows what will happen. Or maybe we are feigning ignorance?  It is more than evident that the wave of arrests of our countries’ strongmen strikes fear in the hearts of their colleagues: in Cameroon, for example, Paul Biya has just changed the country’s constitution; in a single article he includes that he cannot be prosecuted by any international court for acts committed during the 25 years of his rule. But would he really have had this right, were our texts inscribed in life, the texts which he has so trampled, as he did again this past February? Does he mistake the era he is living in? I believe so. Rwanda that has settled a new sense of urgency over the whole of the African continent has left us with a very simple question haunting us, ‘What is a text?’ I don’t know if we, women and men assembled here, have yet found a response to this question that is anything other than obvious.
July 25, 2008


Translated by Cullen Goldblatt.
Goldblatt is a poet and a translator living in New York. Some of his work have been published in the Cape Town-based Pan-African journal Chimurenga. His original long poem Night Music was published in 2008; his translation of Patrice Nganang's book of poetry, Elobi, was published by Africa World Press in 2006.



Editor's Note:

This photgraph of a human skull is published at the request of the Cameroonian author, Patrice Nganang, which he framed in these words:

'It is the only identified skull in the mass grave of Nyamata, near Kigali, in Rwanda, among around 50.000 other skulls. It just happened to have my name written on it, as if it wanted to tell me: "Patrice, memento mori". I met the sole survivor of the family of that Patrice...'

Rest in Peace,
Rwanda's Patrice


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