Monday, 19 May 2014

The untameable Ken Bugul, the lioness of African literature

[Translated from the original spanish version by Diego Urdiales. Thank you Diego!!]

Barefoot, wearing a simple colour-dotted white kaftan, Ken Bugul appears parsimoniously amongst the workers, as though feigning an old age that she is yet to reach.

We go up to her home, sober and comfortable, with a splendid Benin throne surrounded by bookshelves as the sole note of flamboyance, and we start by directly talking about her book “The Abandoned Baobab”, about the magic of the sacred baobab which protects and punishes the people that worship it, which laughs, cries and dreams with them, and about her own baobab (a real and specific one) with which she wanted to identify herself, with its robustness, with its strong roots.

I killed it. It died so that I could live… 

Knowing the story of her novel beforehand ―her story, ― was of no use. A girl separated from her mother at a young age and without explanations. A young woman who, after managing to travel to the West, is unable to find her missing roots there. A woman who, after returning to her country, finds her baobab again, still standing, still apparently alive, but…

I had an appointment with the baobab, I didn’t go but I couldn’t warn it, I didn’t dare. That meeting I didn’t attend caused it great sadness. It went crazy and died shortly after.” (p. 181)

Did that really happen? Can a baobab die of sadness?

Not a baobab, the baobab. In Senegal, you can see many baobabs, trees like any other. But in each village there is a sacred baobab, a tree completely linked to the life of that village, which it knows and protects. And when suddenly, with no prior sign of illness, it dies and falls to the ground, the people know that it has died to save them from some danger.

In my case, I know it died so that I, after my traumatic experience, could start a new life.

I point to her that the book seems to have been written in the midst of an emotional breakdown, with an often dismembered structure which reflects very well the feelings of the main character.

While I was in Belgium I wrote very little, just a few notes of homesickness about my birthplace, which also carried the baobab in their title. But I only wrote the book ten years later, after the terrible experience I went through in France, ―abused by the man she loved, which she later related in “Ashes and Embers”― which left me in tatters.

Some friends had kept my notes. I asked them to send them to me, but I realized that was no longer the story I wanted to tell, so I wrote the book without looking at them.

And how did you manage to “take root” again? ―I ask her petrified in my armchair, fascinated by the strength of this brave woman. Did you try to recover the relationship with your mother?

You must consider the importance of modesty in Africa. You can’t directly go to your mother or your father and tell her that you feel abandoned or something like that. There is the figure of your maternal uncle to talk to your mother (or paternal aunt to talk to your father), but in my case he was already dead, so I couldn’t resort to him.

My relationship with my mother was not distant, but it wasn’t intimate either. And that I couldn’t get back. When I came back from Belgium, I lived with some friends, not with relatives, I was already an independent woman. But luckily there are other roots, a union with the people and the birthplace…

To go out of those painful memories, but still talking about the first book, I praise her braveness to bring up the subject of bisexuality/homosexuality when she discovers that her partner in Belgium has “homosexual tendencies” and compares him to a “family slave”…

But homosexuality was fully accepted in Senegal before! ―she laughs. Gor-Djigen, as we called him, man-woman, was respected in spite of his manners ―and, full of naturalness, she starts imitating the gestures and way of speaking of her “slave”. Humour is probably the least well known register of this multifaceted woman, but it fills the rest of our conversation with hilarious moments.

In Africa we still affectionately call “slaves” the descendants of the true slaves that belonged to the family. Also our paternal cousins, who are theoretically our slaves. But they like it, it’s a way of feeling “attached” to the family. Belonging, having your place in society, is very important. 

For instance, when you leave, my daughter could come and tell me ―again, her acting in full flair― “Who was this badolo who came home this early and didn’t even bring bread or any breakfast?”― and we both start laughing, myself a little ashamed by the sudden accusation.

“Badolo” is a derogatory term even if it’s sometimes said affectionately, to refer to the common man, who has no caste, who is no griot or royalty or craftsman… In fact, if griots wanted to embellish their speech when singing your praises, to get some money from you, they would call you “guer”, a euphemism…  As you have no caste, you must be a scholar or someone important.

And what caste are you?― I ask.

Badolo― she states forthrightly and we both burst into laughter.

You must also take into account that, with the crisis in the eighties and the tough adjustment plans from the World Bank, Senegal ended up borrowing money from the Arab countries, which sent “undercover” envoys to the country and tried to impose their way of seeing religion, the sharia… And that is partly the cause for the “schizophrenia” that present Senegal suffers from, amidst its own traditions, the different versions of Islam and capitalism. It is surprising that we are now talking about this referring to “The Abandoned Baobab”, given that it is the subject of the book I have just finished.

But before the conversation diverts towards the pathways of today, I do not want to miss the chance to ask her about the experience she relates in “Riwan or the Sandy Track”, where, after coming from the traumatic experience in France, the “freed” and westernized woman becomes… the 28th wife of a marabout!

It was a wonderful experience. But I was not exactly a wife. A marabout, like any Muslim, can only have four wives. One must be from his own family, one from a scholar family, one from a royal family, and finally one from a different family. The rest are “taco”, which means “link” (“le lien”, in French) ―she repeats as she clinches her fists to stress the importance of that immaterial “something” that bonds them.

I knew him since I was a child. And when I came back from France in tatters, everyone rejected me (that is why now I hardly tell anyone that I’m here, it’s hard to forget how they treated me). So I went to him for spiritual help, and he supported me and gave me advice, and tenderness. One day he proposed me “taco”. But this has nothing to do with sex, he was already over ninety years old! I didn’t even live with him. I walked to see him almost every day, which is why the book’s title is “the sandy track”.

Oftentimes, the marabout shelters women who have been rejected by society in his home, and he “binds” to them to give them value, self-esteem. Think about it, not only does he tell you how much you’re worth, he even chooses to bind himself to you. That makes you recover a lot of self-confidence. 

Moreover, the marabout’s other wives taught me a great deal. Me, the supposedly “liberated” woman, ―we resume the pantomime― but who, like many women in the West, was obsessed with “having” a man, dominated by the idea of possession and by jealousy.

Mariétou, tend to your affairs”, they told me, laughing about my stories from the West, where every woman waits for a prince of charming. “Why wait?” And they were right. Sharing my life with these other women brought me the peace I needed to remake my life, read, write and tend to myself. 

The conversation now shifts to the bourgeois marriages in old-time Europe, where the spouses had separate rooms, which Ken Bugul finds essential. 

I can only love someone who is superior to me in some aspect. Who has a passion. Or several. A musician, a painter like Picasso (well, not him, he had too special a character, better Dalí). Someone who is not on top of me all the time, who lets me live my own life. What matters is that when we’re together, our conversation, our “bond”, is something special.

I want a lover, not a husband ―she concludes, forthright and smiling.

And could you accept being someone’s second wife?

Pff ―she leans back in her chair.― That is just for great personalities, a genius, a marabout… who are capable of that. But yes, if I can live my life and when we are together, the bond is special, yes. It suits me ―she adds with a slightly ironic smile. 

It is impossible to write about every subject that came up in the conversation, or how we ended up talking about meeting in the Himalayas, her great project.

I’m going to climb to the top of the Himalayas, even if takes the rest of my life ―she says, unmoved. And if she was not Ken Bugul, nobody would take it seriously…

Ken Bugul, which means “one who is unwanted” in Wolof (sometimes as a trick to free a child from the early death which supposedly awaits him), sits me in the Benin throne for a picture, hugs me and then walks me, barefoot and vigorous, greeting the workers by their names. She can no longer hide her overflowing energy, and when a neighbour approaches her to tell her about her problems and ask her for advice, it becomes apparent that her pen name does not match the respect and admiration she commends.

She will not leave until, having put me in the taxi ―the driver is an aspiring son-in-law of hers, she informs me, ― she gives me two kisses and we shake each other’s left hand to make sure we will meet again. 

I should start getting my boots ready for the Himalayas…

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