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Justine Mintsa: Histoire d’Awu (Awu’s Story)

Awudabiran, known as Awu, is the second wife of Obame Afane, a teacher. She was the first girl in her region to get the elementary school certificate but now she has become accustomed to being a wife and mother and to sewing, at which she is very good. She had married Obame when his first wife, Bella, had been unable to have a child. Subsequently, Bella died (without any apparent cause). Awu has a boy and twins. The village in which they live has an evangelical college and a primary school, which opened the day Obame was born. These two schools and the church at one end and the tree-covered hill at the other end, where the traditional religion, of which Obame’s father is a priest, is practised, symbolise the divide in this village, though Mintsa makes little of it. Though she is happy in her life, with a good husband, children, happy in her sewing and with a nice house, there is one thing that Awu wants above all and that is a warm hug from her husband. Obame married Awu primarily because he wanted to have children. Indeed, his culture expects it. As his wife could not, apparently, bear children, he had to marry someone else and Awu was chosen. Though she is attractive, Obame has felt that sex with her was merely a duty and, while nice to her, he was never affectionate. He continues to miss his late wife.

We also learn about Obame’s family. Adu, his niece and daughter of Akut, turns up at Obame’s one day, having got pregnant at school. She has been thrown out of school and her mother, who is lazy and never married, has also thrown her out. Obame takes her in but it is Awu, with the help of Ntsame, Obame’s other sister, who looks after her. Sadly, Adu is as lazy as her mother and she neglects the baby after it is born, leaving Awu to do the work. Obame’s brother, Nguema, is also lazy, spending his time drinking and scrounging. He has two wives and Awu is often called on to feed them, as Nguema has given them no money. Nguema has twin sons who also share the family trait and behave badly.

Obame is now coming up to retirement and he has to go off to the capital to sort out his pension. (We hear of the story of a former policeman whose pension has not been sorted out for some time and is facing financial problems.) One of the main plot lines is Obame’s struggle to get his pension, which requires a lot of documentation, requires his return to the capital to sign a further document and then he has to start all over again because his entire file is lost. Meanwhile he is nearly broke but fortunately for him, Awu’s sewing keeps them stable. The novel ends sadly and with a clear critique of the sexist situation in which Gabonese women find themselves. Awu wants her hug but she also needs, according to Mintsa, her political and social freedom.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Gallimard
First English translation by University of Nebraska Press in 2018
Translated by Cheryl Toman