Tracking the Trickster in Mali: My Encounter with Yambo Ouologuem
My brief encounter with the author of Bound to Violence happened in February 2002, during a twelve-day road trip I took every other year through Mali and Burkina Faso with a group of about twenty Carleton College students. During these long excursions, we traveled in the footsteps of a picaresque trickster character called Wangrin (Samba Traoré was his birth name), a colonial interpreter whose life and epic-like adventures in the French colonial service have been depicted by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, a Malian author, in his novel L’Etrange Destin de Wangrin, published in English as The Fortunes of Wangrin. This exciting road trip was an important component of my ten-week off-campus experience titled “The History and Culture of Mali,” an immersive experience focusing on a multifaceted study through literature, cinema, and popular culture. It was an ideal opportunity to visit the country’s fabled places along the Niger River (Ségou, Djenné, Mopti, Timbuktu), even venturing into the hard-to-reach areas of central Mali (the Dogon plateau and cliffs), thus adding a practical dimension to an intellectual approach to Mali’s literature and folklore. Although Yambo Ouologuem was not on my list of authors to be studied during this program, I would always speak to my students about his unique place as the author of Bound to Violence, the most iconoclastic novel to have come out of Africa. That year, as in subsequent ones, I told them that our trip would take us through the author’s hometown of Sévaré, the gateway into the legendary Dogon country, the region of Mali’s cliff-dwelling culture. This group, whose advanced notions of astronomy and intricate cosmology have fascinated European anthropologists since the 1930s, is Ouologuem’s ethnic group, the mysterious Dogon of the cliffs of Bandiagara.
Since 2000, the year I established the program, I had wanted to meet Ouologuem, the enigmatic writer and enfant terrible of African literature in French. In 2002 that opportunity presented itself during our stop in Sévaré to refuel the six or seven SUVs that made up our caravan of vehicles and to buy the much-needed food supplies for the long road ahead. At the busy gas station where we stopped, I asked a young man about Yambo. He told me that he knew him and offered to take me to meet him. I enthusiastically accepted the offer. But having been warned about the writer’s aversion to certain types of people since his return to his hometown in the early 1970s, out of caution I asked my group to stay behind while I was visiting with Ouologuem. As soon as we walked into the family property through an iron gate, we saw Ouologuem at the far end, sitting on the edge of a patio doing his ablutions. We stopped to greet the elderly woman my guide had identified as the author’s mother and exchanged with her the traditional words of Malian civility, inquiring about her health and about the well-being of her household members and neighbors. She pointed us in the direction of Yambo, who by then had had enough time to smell out the strange visitor accompanying his acquaintance. It was not the hour of any of the five mandatory prayers. We nonetheless walked toward him with great precaution so as not to take his attention away from his ablutions, which, I thought, had gone on a bit too long already. Aware that we were standing and waiting for him, he would quickly glance in our direction without interrupting his ritual, without saying a word or even making a welcoming gesture. Embarrassed by this intrusion on our part, having come unannounced, we did our best to stay far enough from him as a sign of respect. I must say that according to all the rumors I had heard, Yambo spent quite a bit of his time praying at the mosque, supposedly to avoid certain types of people he considered undesirable. Those undesirable people were the Western-educated African intellectuals or white Westerners who would be inclined to engage him about his writings. Was I surprised to see him getting ready for prayer? No, I was not. However, the unusual length of his ablutions was puzzling to me. Five minutes, ten minutes had passed, and we were now close to fifteen endless minutes. I started to suspect that Ouologuem had detected something in my appearance and was intentionally delaying the end of his ritual, in the hope that we would leave on our own. Seeing that we were not leaving, suddenly he did the most unexpected thing. He picked up from the cement floor, next to him, a small transparent plastic pouch containing a mixture of what looked like tree bark and other medicinal substances. Turning toward my guide, he said in our Bamana lingua franca: “Give him this, have him mix the contents with his bathwater and wash himself with it!” After this exchange, disconcerting to say the least, Ouologuem calmly returned to his ablutions, without looking at us again. Not knowing if my companion shared my great surprise and confusion, I understood clearly that Ouologuem had just signaled the end of our visit in the most baffling fashion. We left quietly and exited the house, bidding farewell to the elderly lady on our way out. Thus, Ouologuem had succeeded in deflecting for the nth time the danger he had been running from since the day he returned home from Paris, barely able to stand on his feet, after years in Europe filled with both great glory and crushing ignominy. To shoo me away, he had resorted to an effective albeit strange trick: he acted as a healer, even though I had not come to him for a consultation, and better, as a diviner, one who was able to detect a hidden ailment in his visitors without even exchanging a word with them. Once back on the street, I felt more saddened by the scene I had witnessed than disappointed for missing a long-shot opportunity to chat with Ouologuem. To help me regain my composure, my kind companion told me that visibly Ouologuem was not having one of his best days. He admitted that although the writer often came to sit and chat freely and coherently with him and his friends in a public space, he would now and then walk up to the nearby police station and hurl all sorts of insults at the officers and their staff, for reasons not always clear. That was how people had learned to live with him in the decades since his return from France physically and mentally wrecked by the scandal surrounding the publication of Bound to Violence in 1968. He had come a long way from his last days in Paris, when he feared persecution and death by poisoning at any moment, at the hands of anyone around him, including his cousin on whose couch he had found his last refuge in Paris; from being unable to stand on his feet the day he landed in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, he is said to have been completely healed, in the words of his own mother, by his father, a man who combined his European education with a deep knowledge of Dogon traditional medicine. Thus, Ouologuem had managed to build a new life for himself in Sévaré, with a new wife and children, on his parents’ large property.