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Maryse Condé: En attendant la montée des eaux (Waiting for the Waters to Rise)

Babakar is a doctor, specialising in obstetrics, living in Guadeloupe. (His mother was from Guadeloupe.) He is originally from Mali. Indeed, his father descended from Malian royalty. We start with him living on his own in Guadeloupe, working as a doctor but fairly solitary. During a storm he is woken one night to deal with an emergency. The man is clearly a Haitian immigrant. He is taken to a woman in childbirth. By the time he arrives, she – Reinette Ovide – has died but the child – a girl – has survived.

The man – Movar Pompilius – is, like the deceased, an illegal Haitian immigrant. There are quite a few illegal Haitian immigrants on the island and they are exploited as cheap labour. He had met Reinette on the boat and they had stayed together. Reinette was already pregnant when he met her. The father is unknown. Neither Movar nor the woman who owns the hut where Reinette died is in a position to look after the baby, so, out of the blue, Babakar volunteers. I shall call you Anaïs, for that was the name of the first Haitian I knew, and the first woman I loved, excepting my mother.

We learn that Babakar has just one friend, Hugo Moreno, an elderly man whom he pushes around in a wheelchair and who will die soon after. He has a housekeeper called Carmen who also provides him with regular sex. Having the baby soon causes him problems. He claims to be the father so is able to register her as his daughter. However, the Haitian community think that he has stolen the baby from them while the locals, who have, on the whole not taken to him, also object. He does hire a carer to look after Anaïs.

Movar, however, had made a promise to Reinette that he would eventually take the baby back to Haiti and he makes Babakar accept this promise. He also has a few documents which indicate Reinette’s possible origins.

We learn about Babakar’s origin. His father was Malian and had been a minister in the government but was ousted and became a teacher in a remote area. Mali was then under French control. A young woman from Guadeloupe, Thécla Minerve, was sent to assist and the couple were soon married. She had blue eyes, a sign, as far as the locals were concerned, that she might be a witch. Thécla did not fit in as she made no attempt to learn any of the local languages.

It was four years till she became pregnant and Babakar was born. This inspires his father to renew his connections and he again becomes a minister, to his wife’s disgust. Babakar is very fond of his grandmother, who is a midwife. He wants to follow in her footsteps but obviously cannot become a midwife so he decides to become a doctor specialising in obstetrics.

He manages to get a scholarship to a university in Montreal. This is where he meets Hassan. He finds Hassan fascinating. Even today I can’t understand what someone like him found of interest in someone as drab and uninteresting as me. Hassan is from a country neighbouring Mali but is fictitious, with its capital called Eburnéa, though we never learn the name of the country. It is clearly an amalgam of several of Mali’s neighbours.

Babakar and Hasssan have a series of ups and downs in the very unstable country, at times being on the winning side and at times being on the losing side. Babakar even spends some time in jail. He also acquires a wife, a marriage not approved of by her family. She disappears when he is released from jail. He remains in the country but things do not go well for him or the country and his dead mother advises him to leave. So, at her suggestion, off he goes to Guadeloupe.

As we know things are not working out in Guadeloupe. Movar loses everything when his hut burns down and he comes and lives with Babakar. However, things are not working out for Babakar as he is ostracised by the locals and the Haitians, so off he goes to Haiti to try and find Anaïs’ roots. He does get a job, running a charity hospital but Haiti has even more crises than he had in Africa. He and Movar become friends with Fouad, an old friend of Movar, from when he lived in Haiti previously. Fouad is nominally Lebanese but, in fact, Palestinian and we follow his story, which is, inevitably grim. He was working in a restaurant but it lost a lot of custom when tourism declined in Haiti because of the violence, so his boss turned to drug dealing with the inevitable consequences.

Babakar is helping the poor women in Haiti but also looking for Anaïs’ relatives which inevitably turns out to be complicated and violence predominates. Babakar’s love life is also, inevitably, murky and unsatisfactory. Haiti faces not only violence, corruption and the lack of basic amenities but also the odd hurricane and earthquake.

Babakar is a strange character in many ways. He does seem committed to helping poor women struggling with childbirth. At the same time, he also makes poor decisions. Indeed, the only sensible decisions he makes seem to come from his dead mother. His love life is murky and complicated and prone to failure. At times he seems indecisive, reluctant to leave a war-torn area for no other reasons than he does not where to go. As mentioned above, he considers himself drab and uninteresting and later says Neither here nor there did I have friends, a mistress, or parents. Nobody cared about me.

He does have four male friends during the course of the book – Hugo Moreno, Hassan, Movar and Fouad – but even there, things do not always work out well. Anaïs remains devoted to him but that is understandable. However, she remains something of a shadowy character.

The book is set in five countries: Mali, the fictitious country bordering Mali, Lebanon, Haiti and Guadeloupe. Four of those countries suffer considerable upheavals – violence, frequent and usually violent changes of government, lack of basic amenities, massive corruption, human life considered as cheap and, in some cases, natural disasters. Only Guadeloupe is reasonably safe but he is effectively driven out of the country .

Condé as always tells an excellent and complex story but one that is grim. There are numerous deaths, most of them violent. Corruption is endemic and the various humanitarian attempts are generally doomed to failure. In short, life for all too many in these places is bad, not getting any better and not likely to do so, despite the valiant efforts of a few. Babakar may not fight for democracy but he does fight for women and child health and we can only hope that others like him can make a difference.

Publishing history

First published by JC Lattès 2010
First published in English in 2021 by World Editions
Translated by Richard Philcox