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Abdoulaye Mamani: Sarraounia

Sarraounia was a historical figure, living in what is now Niger at the beginning of the French colonial period. Mamani’s short novel tells the events for which she is famous. During the French colonisation of Africa, the French became worried about Rabih, an Arab warlord intent on creating an empire of his own. A troop was sent out to deal with him. This story concerns a French troop led by Captain Voulet. He had been chasing Rabih through Africa and, in doing so, had raped, pillaged and slaughtered his way through the country. Finally he arrived in Hausa country, in modern-day Niger. Mamani’s story starts with his arrival in this area. Manani tells both the story from the French side and from the Aznan side (the Aznans were a non-Islamic people that had resisted the Tuaregs and the Islamic Fulani and remained pagan.) On Voulet’s side we see many problems, not least is which the fact that the African troops are scared of Queen Sarraounia and her magic. Voulet’s interpreter tries to persuade him to bypass Lougou, the Aznan capital, as it is not necessary to capture it to get Rabih but Voulet is determined to defeat the Aznans and ridicules the fear of witchcraft.

On the Aznan side, we learn of Queen Sarraounia’s origins. Her father had been a ferocious warrior and had conquered many neighbouring tribes, consolidating his empire. Sarraounia’s mother had died giving birth to Sarraounia. Her father’s friend, Dawa, had offered to bring the child up. Even though it was unheard of for a man to bring up a girl, the father accepted and Sarraounia was brought up as a boy. As a result she is tough and, as an adult, not only does she continue her father’s work but has reputation throughout the region of being both unbeatable and of using magic to achieve her ends. She had heard about the coming of the French and has prepared. Meanwhile, in the French camp, the doctor receives a letter, indicating that sufficient medical supplies are not available, while Captain Voulet receives a letter complaining about his brutal policy but urging him to suppress Queen Sarraounia. However, his local troops are deserting, afraid of the Queen’s sorcery. We also learn of the various local tribes discussing whether to assist Sarraounia or to let her be beaten, as she has beaten them. Most opt to stand aside. The Emir of Sokoto goes to Captain Voulet, offering his assistance but the Captain thinks it is a trick of the English and beats and imprisons the ambassador (he later escapes).

The French attack Lougou and, with their superior fire power, soon prevail, though losing quite a few men to the poisoned arrows of the Aznans as well as to desertion. However, the Aznans retreat into the bush and are well protected. Because the Aznans essentially survived, the French native troops fear the magic of Queen Sarraounia, particularly when they see the unharmed fetishes in the town, and desert in greater numbers. In the end Voulet’s command breaks down, they have to abandon the town and Voulet is killed by his own men. Mamani tells a good tale, though very much one-sided, of an interesting part of colonial history. Voulet and the French do not come out well while Sarraounia is recognised as the legend she became.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Éditions l’Harmattan
No English translation