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Conclusion: The Anchoring of Identities

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

CONCLUSION

THE ANCHORING OF IDENTITIES

Of Logs and Crocodiles

There is an expression in the Bamanan language: “Yirikurun mèn o mèn ji la, a tè kè bama ye,” which translates as “However long a log may float in the water, it will never become a crocodile.” This adage is part of everyday discourse in Mali and even inspired the title of a book about that country (Belloncle 1981). Like all popular expressions, it applies to a broad range of contexts. One could interpret it generally to mean “the leopard cannot change its spots.” More specifically, however, one can understand it as a commentary on migrants’ inability to assimilate into their host societies, an avowal that “one cannot renounce one’s origins” (Bailleul 2005:141). Natives will remain natives, and strangers will remain strangers.

This proverb, like the sentiment it articulates, turns out to be widespread in Africa. A cursory Web search reveals equivalent expressions in Wolof, Sonrai, and Pulaar. Congolese musician Casimir Zao uses a version of it to reproach his compatriots who travel to France and put on French airs after returning home. In his song “Pierre de Paris” (1982), he sings of a Congolese named Pierre who wears French clothes and only speaks French. Zao scolds him in Kikongo with the words “Ntí kà wú tìtùkáákà / Ngáándù kó mù maambbà”—“Never can a tree trunk / Be transformed into a crocodile in the water” (see Milandou 1997:120). Wherever it originated, today this expression has become something of a pan-African phenomenon.

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3. Among the Unbelievers

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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AMONG THE UNBELIEVERS

“Hold fast to prayer,” Vieux Diallo counseled me as we walked back into the market from the nearby zawiya, the modest Sufi mosque, after the midday prayer. “All the other things, family, wealth, will abandon you at the grave,” he said, “but the rewards from prayer, and fasting, and zakat [sacrifice] are the only things you can take with you after you die.”

Diallo was more than devout in his Muslim faith. Not only did he perform all five daily prayers, but he did so in mosques near his work or home. Despite being in his seventies, he had recently made the decision to begin studying Arabic, the language of the holy Qur'an. Among West African men in Brazzaville, Diallo was by no means unusual in his devotion to Islam.

Mali's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and signs of Islamic influence are omnipresent there: most Malians bear Muslim names, and many Bamanan nouns—from the names of the days of the week to the words for book, luck, obligation, and blessing—are derived from Arabic. I recognized all this during my initial years in Mali, and yet I was influenced by those who, following the lead of French colonial administrators, characterized West African societies as superficially Islamized. Islam, according to their logic, was only a veneer covering a more substantial African identity based on local “traditional beliefs.” I held to the notion sometimes expressed by Western expatriates that “Mali is 90 percent Muslim and 100 percent animist.”

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1. The Avenue of Sergeant Malamine

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

1

THE AVENUE OF SERGEANT MALAMINE

Quite little is known about the life of Malamine Camara. He was born in Senegal around the mid-nineteenth century, served as a soldier for France, and died young, probably in his thirties. His brief career in colonial service, however, made a tremendous mark on what became France's Congo colony. Like his white commanding officer who orchestrated France's claim to the region in the 1880s, Malamine Camara was present at the creation of the Congo colony and was instrumental in safeguarding it against encroachments by rival powers. And, like his commanding officer, he was esteemed by his fellow explorers, celebrated by the French press, and decorated by the French government. Unlike his commanding officer, however, within a few decades of his death he was virtually forgotten: all that bears his name in the Congolese capital today is a narrow, unpaved street running through the Poto-Poto market. During my Brazzaville fieldwork in 2005, no sign indicated its official designation known by a few of my informants: l’Avenue du Sergent Malamine. The story of this street's namesake reveals the extent to which, over more than seven decades of European colonial rule, the origins of France's Congo colony were intertwined with West African migration to the region.

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2. Enterprising Strangers

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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ENTERPRISING STRANGERS

From the beginning of my Brazzaville research, I tried to understand why West Africans went there at such expense and often physical risk. What was the city's attraction to them? Answers were unsatisfying, and migrants’ life histories rarely seemed to indicate a compelling reason for them to have come to that particular place. My elderly friend and informant, Vieux Diallo, for example, who had left Mali upon independence in 1960, never could or would explain to me precisely what had brought him to Brazzaville in the first place. If socialism was truly the reason why he left Mali, as he claimed, why come to Congo, which, at the time Diallo arrived there, was officially known as the People's Republic of Congo, with a government espousing a stricter approach to socialism than Mali had ever known? Why not stay in Abidjan? Why not go to Gabon?

To listen to Diallo and most other West African informants narrate their life histories, their presence in Brazzaville appeared to be the outcome of a series of random encounters, not carefully planned strategies. They knew little about the place before arriving there. Some knew of friends or relatives in the city with whom they might seek employment, but many others did not. Brazzaville was somewhere they had simply ended up, and their specific destination was less important than the fact of l'aventure—a term literally meaning “adventure” but used in French-speaking Africa for the experience of going abroad to seek one's fortune. For aventuriers (young men undertaking l'aventure) the crucial thing was to leave home; the destination was secondary. A term that regularly cropped up in their parlance was yaala, which, in Bamanan, roughly means “wandering about.”1 I once asked a Malian aventurier making a living pushing a handcart on Poto-Poto's rutted streets why he had not stayed in his home country to do that kind of work. “Yaala tè?” he replied with nonchalance. “Isn't it for wandering?”

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6. Children of Exile

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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CHILDREN OF EXILE

Although some of the circumstances surrounding the incident are uncertain, this much is clear: on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December 2005 Papa Doucouré was shot. He was driving a friend’s car in a northern district of Brazzaville and allegedly failed to stop at an intersection when a policeman signaled him to do so. A pickup truck full of heavily armed paramilitary police sped after him and made him pull over a few hundred meters down the road. After he had stopped, sitting behind the wheel of the motionless car, he was hit by three bullets from a policeman’s Kalashnikov rifle—once in the arm, once in the leg, and once in the stomach. The police put him into the bed of their truck and brought him to the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, the city’s largest public hospital. That is where Papa Doucouré, lying on a hospital gurney, was pronounced dead a short time later. He was one day short of his nineteenth birthday.

This young man’s killing symbolized different things to different people in Brazzaville. To most ordinary Congolese, if they knew of the incident at all, it was yet another tragic display of heavy-handed police tactics, further proof of their government’s failure to respect basic human rights, and evidence that the forces de l’ordre (the security forces) were in fact the greatest local threat to public safety. “Recurring incidents of blunders and holdups [braquages] by elements of the security forces are becoming more and more troubling,” one online magazine commented a few weeks later, “yet it is they who ought to be assuring the safety of people and their property” (Afriqu’Echos 2005).

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