Apostle for all Africa

Posted on June 9, 2013


A house cannot be repaired when the owner is destroying it. Central African Republic proverb

andreeI came to Andrée Blouin’s autobiography My Country, Africa with a closed heart.  The book itself was intimidating, a heavy, library hardback with ‘worthy’ written all over it (not literally you understand. Literally, only the title and author’s name are written over it – there’s not even a picture). It is the type of book it takes so many muscles to hold that acupuncture is needed to relieve the ensuing frozen shoulder.  It’s the type of book that is too hard(backed) for bedtime reading. Even Jessica Mitford’s endorsement didn’t generate enthusiasm.  And then, then I started reading.

The first half of the book deals with Blouin’s life as a mixed race child in the Central African Republic at the beginning of the last century (I still have to remind myself that that means the 20th Century and not the 19th).   As the child of a white French father and black African village child (her mother was 14 at marriage), Blouin was put into a convent orphanage, hidden away and punished for the sin of being born métisse.  And boy, could those nuns punish.  Her experiences at the hands of the sadistic nuns reads like the opening of Jane Eyre – not only in the brutality it exposes, but in the richness and tone of the language that Blouin uses.   Despite the faintest wisp of a voice, ‘not another bloody misery memoire’, I became transfixed by Blouin’s story and story telling.   The only thing that’s annoying, and this is perhaps a general point about autobiography, is that Blouin describes her childhood (from 2 yrs old upwards) as a fully remembered, lived experience.  Maybe I’m odd, but I really only have the vaguest memories from early childhood and those, as flimsy and fly-away as the wrapper of an Amaretto biscuit, lit and floating to a vanishing point before returning as ashes.[1]  That niggle aside, Blouin’s description of a system that kept Africans bound body and soul to European colonists (Belgium and French in this case, but no different from British) is sad, and sickening.  To take a country’s resources at great physical cost to her people, to profit from them and then sell them back to those people (who, lest we forget, owned them in the first place) in the shape of goods and services they never needed or wanted, is cynical exploitation at its most extreme.  This is nothing new, but these kind of first-hand accounts bring the reality home more starkly and poignantly and remind us that, to use a French expression, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme soding chose.

The second half of the book deals with Blouin’s involvement in both the African independence movement and the feminist movement in Congo.[2]   Given the role she played and the people she advised and was close to, it is astonishing that her story is not more widely read or known.  Of course, this may be because, as the product of a French colony, her story has been of no interest to English publishers. For my part, I can’t afford to be too snotty on this point, since I have been oblivious to anything outside my Albion-centric world for several decades. However, if you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible you’ll have some idea of the politics of the region at the time of Blouin’s involvement and you’ll also understand Blouin’s heartbreak at the death of Patrice Lumumba at the hands of the Belgian authorities on the insistence of the U.S. (confirmed) and the British (unconfirmed).

I have often taken a slight mental inhalation when someone has talked of Africa as if it were not a continent but a country with the same language, customs and culture across the whole of its reach.  I have also found it difficult to understand why the identity of a person of dual heritage has to be a choice of one side of their genetic or cultural heritage over another. Why can’t someone be both/and rather than either/or? Reading Blouin’s story I have a greater understanding of, and sympathy for, the difficult choices behind many people’s struggle for identity. For Blouin this meant (in her own words) that, ‘for myself, I am irremediably African. I have always laughed to the full, cried all my tears, and given my heart in friendship without reserve. I carry my Africa with me, wherever I go. In my home, Africa finds her own.’ Blouin’s love of her country, of her continent and all the peoples of Africa bounces off every page. It comes as no surprise that, Boganda, the first prime minster of an independent Central African Republic, called her ‘the apostle for all Africa’.

Blouin died in complete obscurity in Paris in 1986.  To understand the tragedy of this, one only has to imagine the same being said of Rosa Parks. It seems impossible doesn’t it?

[1] If you’ve never done this – try it http://bit.ly/ZC9TVe

[2] Although Blouin is from the Central African Republic she was directly involved in the struggle for independence of their neighbour, the Republic of Congo.