Évelyne Mpoudi Ngollé: Sous la cendre le feu [No Smoke Without Fire]
The story starts off with Mina Mohamadou in a psychiatric institution, having suffered a breakdown. The novel tells us both how she got there and what happens after she is there. Mina (short for Hermine) had grown up well away from the big city but had come to Douala to go to school, where she had lived with her aunt and uncle, who were somewhat old-fashioned in their ways. She had met and fallen for Joël, a medical student, by whom she had become pregnant. She visits her friend Sylvie, who is living with Maurice, and one of Maurice’s friends, Djibril, a lawyer some ten years older than Mina, comes for dinner. Both fall in love with each other at once, just like in the novels, Mina comments. Mina has just discovered that she is pregnant but has also received a letter from Joël, declining responsibility. Her love for Djibril but also her concern about her pregnancy, which is eased when Djibril proposes to her, though he knows that she is pregnant by another man, make her determined to marry him. They get married and, five months after the marriage, their daughter, Fanny, is born. It is only at this time that a common friend points out that it is strange that not only did his parents not come to the wedding, they did not send a relative as a representative. Djibril says that his mother is too old and ill to travel and, though he comes from the more traditional North, he seems less concerned about custom.
Mina wishes to continue her studies which, with Djibril’s support, she does. They have a son – Djibril, whom they call Djibrilla – and then, when she is again pregnant, Djibril pulls a surprise, telling her that he has invited his older (ten years older) sister, Hadja, to come and help Mina. The two women immediately clash. Hadja speaks the language of her part of Cameroon, which Mina does not speak, and they have to speak in Pidgin, which Mina does not know well. Hadja comes from a traditional Muslim part of Cameroon and believes that women should keep apart from men, e.g. eat separately, and very much disapproves of her sister-in-law’s studies and behaviour. It was Hadja who essentially brought up Djibril so he is unwilling to stand up to her and the couple soon become somewhat alienated. When their fourth child, Laura, is born, Mina is stills studying and Djibril now bringing home men he calls his brothers, i.e. male friends from up North. Not only does he spend much of his time with these men, sometimes staying out drinking with them till the small hours of the morning, but he expects Mina to cook for them, even if they turn up unexpectedly late at night. Her friends say that this behaviour is quite normal and expected in Cameroon, but she resents it.
Meanwhile, we have learned, from Mina’s discussions with her psychiatrist after her breakdown, that a key event in her life occurred when she was twelve. The parents of her friend, Prisca, had divorced and this was Mina’s first exposure to divorce. When she hears her parents arguing, she starts to get worried and even asks her mother if they are getting divorced. Her mother furiously denies this. However, when she sees her mother go to the house of a neighbour, with whom Mina’s father is having dinner and accusing him of staying away with this woman, she is even more worried. Her parents do eventually patch things up but Mina remains worried.
It is not initially clear if her breakdown is caused by this traumatic event or something Djibril did. He visits her regularly in the hospital but there is a suspicion that he has done something wrong. What this is we do eventually learn. Indeed, there is more than one event that triggered her breakdown. The rest of the novel tells of these events and how not just the couple but also the family (both sides) dealt with the issue. Mpoudi Ngollé interestingly deals with psychiatric issues and their treatment, not a common theme in African literature. She ties it in well with the issue of the changing role of women in African society and the general changing mores of the populace. Once again, we can only regret that works like this are not available in English.
First published 1983 by L’Harmattan
No English translation