24 November 2023

Belet is a “city of a thousand cries, located south of the Alima River, in the current district of Ongogni”. There, in the heart of Congo-Brazzaville, live the Mbochi people. A society impacted by colonization and which the journalist François Ondai Akiera recounts with superb in Mwana Okwèmet, Fetish and Destiny, his first novel.

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This chronicle of an African village in the XXe century follows the figure of the very skeptical, opinionated, reckless” Oba’mbé Mboundjè. Healer-fetisher, he put all his knowledge into the perfection of the Okwèmet fetish, which he endows with the power to “infallible righteousness”. The tall, fair-skinned man is presented to us crowned with his genealogy – the same goes for the multitude of characters in what must be called a fresco, even if this novel with the false air of historical precision makes barely 150 pages.

Because François Ondai Akiera describes quickly and with great clarity the composition of families, customs and conflicts. Details that give depth to the plot without diminishing its intensity. Thus the miraculous birth of Mboundjè’s daughter, in 1903 or 1904, after the numerous miscarriages of her mother, Lembo’o. During her pregnancy, she consulted an old augur who predicted that her daughter would live to be 100 years old. At birth, the child is placed by his father under the protection of the Okwèmet fetish, from which he takes his name.

Slavery and collaboration

It is she, Mwana Okwèmet, whom we follow through the storms that will fall on her city, starting with colonization, which had nevertheless begun with fruitful commercial exchanges. nicknamed “Ebamis” because of their color close to the eponymous fruit, the settlers withdraw without warning “the mask of hypocrisy” and go to “the next step: conquest and submission”. The French attack is seen as “incredible” by Mboundjè, who can’t believe this “rumour” malicious strangers. Too late, he is murdered.

The author in no way qualifies the horror of the “gulag” that was the construction of the Congo-Ocean railway (1921-1934)

The strength of François Ondai Akiera is to seize this historical moment outside of any Manichaeism: his novel conceals neither the slavery and the kidnappings practiced in a common way in the Mbochi society (and of which the heroine will be victim), nor the pride of certain village chiefs when they are decorated with a singa » (the French tricolor scarf), nor the collaboration of “Cerberian militiamen” with the colonial administration. In the same way, the author in no way qualifies the horror of the “gulag” that was the construction of the Congo-Ocean railway (1921-1934), on which tens of thousands of men were sacrificed.

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In doing so, Mwana Okwemet reveals something rarely mentioned: how the people were tossed around, willingly or by force, in this adventure guided solely by the economic appetites of the powerful. What is illustrated by the scene where militiamen resume “a warrior song”, which is none other than The Marseillaisewithout understanding anything: “To the Djaraaaaaaa, citoyaaaa. Foromaaaa batralionnnns! Marassooooo, marassoooooo! »they shout.

memory ferryman

Meanwhile, Mwana Okwèmet survives the forced marriage. She awakens to love and independence and rejoices in her abundant offspring. It symbolizes what continues despite everything. As a transmitter of memory, François Ondai Akiera invites us to listen to this woman of a century who carries history within her.

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First published in 2021 as a serial in the weekly The Congo Basin Dispatches, the text published at the end of 2022 in Pointe-Noire by Les Lettres Mouchetées editions has been amended, on the form, by the author. François Ondai Akiera has indeed understood that he could draw from the 37 signs of the French language (letters of the alphabet, accents and punctuation marks) enough to allow the reader to pronounce his story correctly, whatever his origin. He thus introduced the apostrophe, changing “nianga” in “nia’nga” or “obamba” in “oba’mbé”.

“Quebecers and Walloons have for a long time had recourse to different interpretations and contributions tending to bring the French language to life in this space. (French-speaking), writes the author in warning. It remains for other French speakers to show that these 37 signs form a perfectible mold in which their intelligence can easily accommodate their local speech. » And thus make heard other stories of this XXe century in which so many societies collapsed.

Mwana Okwèmet, the Fetish and Destiny, by François Ondai Akiera, preface by Boniface Mongo Mboussa, ed. Speckled Letters, 160 pages, 16 euros.

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