The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: Before the Birth of the Moon by V. Y. Mudimbe

Title: Before the Birth of the Moon

Author: V. Y. Mudimbe

Language: English

Translator: Marjolijn de Jager

Country: Democratic Republic of Congo

Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989

Genre: Fiction, Novel

Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.

“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.

Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.

Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.

I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.

About the Author:

Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:

Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).

V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.

Further Reading:

Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online

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Book Review: Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl

Posted in African Literature, African Love Stories, Countries: Somalia, Novels, Reviews, Somali Literature by the woyingi blogger on June 15, 2010

Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl

Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski

Published by Zed Press, 1982

Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl is considered the first literary publication in the Somali language, which had no official orthography until 1972. The novel, whose Somali title is Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl, was published by the Somali Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1974. The translation into English is by Russian linguist B.W. Andrzejewski and was commissioned by UNESCO. Unfortunately, the English translation of the novel is currently out of print.

The author of the novel, Faarax Cawl, was born in Laskory in the Sanag Region of Somalia in 1937. In 1958, the British withdrew a scholarship awarded to him for study in the UK because he had taken part in a play, written by an Arab author, which they regarded as seditious. According to B. W. Andrzejewski’s introduction to the novel, Cawl joined the Somali Police Force in 1964 and in 1979 was seconded to the National Transport Agency ad became its General Manager. In 1978 he wrote a second novel entitled The Shackles of Colonialism. In 1991, he, along with several members of his family, were killed during the Somali Civil War.

The British would have found Ignorance is the Enemy of Love even more seditious as it follows the ill-fated love story of Calimaax, a dervish with the Muslim Brotherhood of Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (1856-1921), often referred to by the British as the Mad Mullah, who fights against the British colonizers of Somalia. While traveling from Aden back to Somalia, Calimaax’s ship ends up sinking and he saves a young Somali girl named Cawrala, herself returning from Aden where she has been studying the Koran.

Cawrala falls in love with Calimaax although she has already been promised to a rich and elderly man by her father. The character of Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. She is a poet who does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection but instead writes a poem to him herself declaring her love. Unfortunately, Calimaax can neither read nor write. Not knowing that Cawrala’s note is a love poem, he asks his brother-in-law to read it, thus insulting his wife’s relatives unintentionally. This incident inspires Calimaax to learn how to read and write. As he says:

It is now clear to me that not being able to read and write is a matter of great ignorance, in which stupidity and disgrace are combined. I’ve seen today that ignorance is like a moonless night, like the darkness which screens off from you the world and the light of day-there’s no doubt that whatever a man’s inborn abilities may be, whatever his manly qualities, if he is ignorant his true manhood is flawed and incomplete, as I witnessed in this incident today, when I brought trouble and disgrace on myself and made a fool of myself in front of my wife’s relatives (p. 35-36)

It is Calimaax’s ignorance of reading that is “the enemy of love” referred to in the title.

Cawrala’s poem causes Calimaax to fall in love with her but before he can return to her he is injured in battle and left for dead. Cawrala is forced to marry against her will and dies of grief. Calimaax sums up their tragic love story as follows:

You sent to me at Taleex a precious letter of love-you know this well-and there was nothing in its sweet art and wisdom nor in its mode of expression that could have been ignored or rejected. It created in me a love, ardour and affection that I had not felt for you before. But it was my ill fortune, Cawrala, that because of my ignorance I could not read your letter, and instead I handed it to my new neighbours, who did not want us two to come together. The discovery of my secret led to my being hurried away to a remote part of the eastern region, so that I would be kept far away from Xiis, where you lived. There in the east I played my part in a noteworthy way in the Dervish offensive against the British, but before I could reach the coast and seize some of their ships I was wounded and left for dead. For a long time I could not deliver myself from that empty, deserted place, where for sustenance I had only the berries and leaves which grow on the Cal mountains. I had beasts of prey for company-all of them-and one night the accursed leopard attacked me, tearing a wound in my flesh, when I already had a broken thigh and was holding on to life only by God’s mercy. Nevertheless, in spite of all I had to go through, God rescued me from all the troubles that had come upon me. What I am trying to tell you is that my delay in coming to you was caused by all this-that this is why I did not get to you in time before you were taken to the wedding against your will. O Cawrala, how bitter I feel, how deeply sorrowful I am, how stricken with impotent anger from which I get no respite, that you had to die because of your love for me! (p. 82)

This story is considered to be true and contains poems that Somali oral tradition considered to have been originally composed by Calimaax and Cawrala. Faarax Cawl’s weaving of Somali poetry into the novel form connects this modern, “Western” literary form with the deep-rooted oral traditions of the Somali people.

Faarax Cawl also uses this novel to promote the reformist aims of the Somali Government at the time, particularly in their promotion of literacy and women’s rights. Calimaax suffers great embarrassment because he can’t read and write despite his skill as a fighter. Cawrala is a gifted poet and free spirit whose love and life is ruined by the greed of her family who wish to marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death.

Excerpt from the novel:

About Richard Burton’s attempt to deceive the Somalis

Now among the passengers was a learned cleric, Sheikh Araye Ceelaabe, who was born in Seylac and still lived there; he had been on a short visit to Aden. He it was who had exposed the man who, some time between 1854 and 1860, had been sent by the British government on a reconnoitering mission to explore the Somali territories. This man’s true name was Richard Burton, but he told the Somali people that he was Sheikh Cabdalla, and disguised himself so that they would not know that he was a swindler whose intentions towards the Somali people and their land were robbery and oppression. This British infidel was in truth well acquainted with the Muslim faith and the Arabic language, and sometimes led the prayers in the mosques of the town of Seylac. It seems that most of the time he wore a long robe such as clerics wear, and he never moved very far from the places frequented by learned clerics and students, so that no one else could find him out or even notice him. But one day it happened that Sheikh Araye came upon this Briton when he had gone to relieve himself on open ground, and the Sheikh, hiding behind a tree, saw clearly that the man who was thought to be a sheikh had not been circumcised and that on his body there was the visible mark of being an infidel. Sheikh Araye proclaimed the news loudly and informed the whole town that the apparent sheikh who was staying among them was a hypocrite and then this disguised Briton was driven from Seylac. He went to Harar, whish is also in Somali territory and inhabited by Muslims but was eventually driven from there as well. (p. 15-16)

Further Reading:

Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan by Said Samatar (History)

Remembering B. W. Andrzejewski: Poland’s Somali Genius by Said Samatar (Article available online)

Culture-Bound Tropes in Somali Poetry by B. W. Andrzejewski (Academic essay available online)