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Gisèle Hountondji: Une Citronnelle dans la neige [Lemon Grass in the Snow]

This presumably autobiographical story is about an unnamed young Beninese woman who comes to France to study English and Spanish in order to become an interpreter. She has always been told by her father how wonderful France is and how fortunate she is to be going there. Sadly, her experience does not bear out her father’s views. Her troubles start on arrival. Her father had been told that there would be lodging for her on arrival. This is not the case. She has great difficulty finding anything. The main problem, inevitably, is her colour. She is given a temporary room in a university hostel (the person who should have had the room has not turned up and our heroine is given the room on a temporary basis). She gets given various suggestions but, generally, when the person on the phone sounds positive, she finds, on arrival, when they see the colour of her skin, they do not want her. In one case, she hears a couple saying that they don’t want a negress from the bush. In another, a woman wants someone to help look after her mother-in-law and live in the mother-in-law’s house. However, when the mother-in-law sees her, she reluctantly agrees to take her but when our heroine then turns up with her cases, she refuses to let her in. Fortunately, the woman who was delayed at the hostel cancels and our heroine is able to take her place. She will have similar problems the next two years.

While we follow her in her courses and her life in Paris, the most interesting part of the book is her reaction to Paris and the French. She is subject to continual racism – are Africans cannibals? she is asked on more than one occasion. Frequently people make racial slurs in her hearing and often go out of their way to avoid her. In shops, she is often served only after white people behind her in the queue are served and then brusquely. She is told on numerous occasions to go back to her own country. Even the teachers are racist, commenting that only whites have achieved anything in the world and that blacks clearly are not as intelligent as whites. The French often assume that she and other Africans are carrying various diseases. She finds the habits of the French (and other whites) to be odd. She cannot see why they like drinking coffee, why women don’t carry goods on their heads, why people don’t always say good morning to one another, why they don’t take an afternoon siesta and why wearing a hat in class is wrong. Her friend from Togo points out that the French are rude, do not have fun and are not social. Interestingly enough, to improve her English, she gets a child minder job one summer for three months in England and finds the English much more tolerant and much nicer.

While she does struggle in France, she does, to a certain degree, adapt. She struggles in her course, not least because the teachers, she feels, ignore her, but does manage to pass her exams. She had had a fiancé back in Benin, Zizi, but their correspondence dwindles and she will learn from her sister that he has married someone else. However, she does have a white boyfriend in Paris, Régis, though when she gets pregnant, he breaks off the relationship. We must assume that Hountondji experienced all of this. It is an interesting account of an African woman’s exposure to Western behaviour and culture and Hountondji tells her story well. She has not published another book since and this book, of course, has not been translated and is long since out of print in French.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 by Nouvelles Editions Africaines
No English translation