G – are we here already?

Posted on August 17, 2014

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letterg Wood may remain ten years in the water but it will never become a crocodile. Gabon proverb

Gabon is purportedly one of West Africa’s most stable countries, which may be why Daniel Mengara’s ‘Mema’ escapes the conspicuous violence of many other post-colonial novels. Instead of the usual narrative dose of brutality, concomitant with independence wars and civil conflict, Mengara gives us a series of views of Gabon that shifts between ‘the village’ and ‘the city’, ‘old wisdom’ and ‘new science’, ‘women’s power’ and ‘men’s power’. What’s more, Mengara (mercifully) deftly avoids the pitfall of information dumping. Yet, in its brief 122 pages (it’s a bit of a tardis book, larger on the inside than the outside), Mengara miraculously describes matters as wide-ranging as village justice, marriage and inheritance, language differences, and myths and belief systems. And, despite the thinness of the novel, using brief tableaux and elegant, poetic prose, Mengara manages to make us feel as though we understand Gabon a little better.

Mema, the title of the book, means ‘Mother’ and refers to the main character as seen through the memories (sometimes faulty) of her child, the narrator. The book begins: ‘I remember. I remember Mema. Mother. My mother.’ Mema is rebellious, brash, courageous, and physically and emotionally strong. All characteristics that make her unloved by others in the village who would prefer a quieter life. Mema is barren until, late in marriage, she has four children by her, then, much downtrodden husband. Accusations of witchcraft abound. When she loses her husband and two of her children to disease within a day of each other, she makes the agonizing decision to send her younger son (our narrator) to live with his drunken uncle in the city. Sacrificing one son to modernity, in the hope that he will thereby avoid being eaten by evil spirits. Keeping one at home, in case she is wrong about the dangers that lurk around her. In the city, seduced by the ‘white man’s education’ and the necessity of learning the skills needed to survive both his drunken uncle and the city streets, the boy soon forgets the village, his mother, and his origins.

While the book isn’t about post-colonialism per se, it functions allegorically as a view of post-colonial Gabon. Mema, the pre-colonial repository of legends, healing, strength, courage and rebellion. The narrator, the colonial vassal, soaking up school teaching, enjoying the products and services on offer in the city, products that make him forget. Until finally he returns to the village and is reunited with his pre-colonial identity in the form of Mema whom he learns to love but who makes him promise to do something special in the world of the white man.   Because, of course, modernity cannot be put back in its box and returned to France. And so the boy has to inhabit the two spaces of a culture in transition. All of this subtext is pencilled so lightly, however, that one isn’t forced to acknowledge it unless particularly keen to do so.   Until that is, the final chapter.

‘When you learn the wisdoms of the white man, you forget your own…I promised I would remember. I could not afford to forget. I had             to   remember. For her. I did. She won.

Mema.

Mother.

My mother.

I remember, Mother.

Mema, I remember.’

 

Then, it is as if, standing in a cyclorama, we realize that the end and the beginning seamlessly join. The one inseparable from the other. That the past and the present are indivisible.

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