Ahmadou Kourouma: Monnè (Monnew)
Monnè, translated as Monnew in the English version, is the Malinké word for something like utter humiliation. Though there is no existing country where the Maninka are in a majority, they form a significant group in many West African countries, including Kourouma’s native Ivory Coast. This novel tells the story of a fictitious Malinké country called Soba and their monnè when they are colonised by the French as, of course, several countries with Malinké populations were. What makes this novel fascinating is that it is told entirely from the perspective of the conquered people and not from the perspective of the conquerors, as is often the case.
Though, of course, sympathetic to the Malinké – he is one – Kourouma is well aware that their culture is by no means perfect. We start with the impending arrival of the French and see things from the perspective of Djigui, the king of Soba. Djigui’s neighbours have called on him to resist though, in general, when they have resisted, they have paid a heavy price. They gradually hear about what happened to other people, through a series of messengers bringing the bad news. The Malinké, who are Muslims, are confident that Allah will protect them from the Nazareans, as they call the French. When the French do finally arrive, they come in the back way and take the main city without any resistance. Djigui tells the interpreter that this is not fair, as they were not prepared and says that the French should leave again. When the interpreter speaks to the French commander, the commander shakes Djigui’s hands and Djigui thinks he has agreed till the interpreter tells him that if he had correctly interpreted, the people of Soba would have been slaughtered and it is best for them to surrender at once, which they do.
The rest of the book tells of the indignities that the people suffer. Their customs – such as slavery – are abolished. They have to learn the basics of capitalism which are just two – they have to pay taxes and they have to buy things to make them happy, even though they have no money. Forced labour is imposed and they gradually learn the ways of the French – from railways to the idea that the white man is considered inherently superior. We follow their trail of tears through wars. In World War I, men are sent off to fight and return with medals but with limbs missing. By the time of World War II, Djigui, who is deemed to be over a hundred years old (age is calculated by harvests which is not always accurate) is pensioned off and replaced by his son. We learn of the complicated machinations of Moussokoro, mother of Béma, Djigui’s fifth son, to have her son imposed as Djigui’s successor. As Djigui opposes the powers-that-be, that happen to be the Vichy French, he is welcomed back when de Gaulle takes over though Béma will eventually replace his father. We even get to meet an Ivorian historical person, Houphoët-Boigny, who will become president of the Ivory Coast but here is the first Soban elected to the French parliament.
Kourouma tells a fascinating tale of colonisation from the colonised’s perspective and while he clearly has no great love for the French and certainly satirises them, his own people come in for just as much criticism as the French. The plotting of Moussokoro and Djigui’s inability to move with the times and his need for slaves show the Sobans in not an entirely positive light but there is no doubt that he feel that the Malinké have lost a lot under colonialism and Kourouma tells this tale well.
First published by Éditions du Seuil in 1990
First English translation in 1993 by Mercury House
Translated by Nidra Poller