Originally published in The Standard (Kenya)
Title: The Travail of Dieudonne
Author: Francis B. Nyamnjoh
Publisher: East African Educational Publishers (Peak Library)
Year of Publication: 2008
Reviewer: Tom Odhiambo
The Travail of Dieudonne is a modern version of Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road.
The main narrative in the novel is a biography of Dieudonne, a houseboy (that colonial term that refuses to go away) to an expatriate white couple teaching at a university in Mimboland.
Mimboland is a typical African nation-state wracked with poverty due to bad governance. It is reliant on foreign aid and the unbalanced trade relationship with the West. (Remember Giles Poor Story?).
Dieudonne is an exile in Mimboland. He not only ran away from his homeland because of civil war, but also to escape the horrifying reality of his father’s misery.
Nyamnjoh uses Dieudonne’s life story as a metaphor to capture the degrading and depressing social reality in the post-colonial Africa. His family’s life is traced from the colonial era into the present. His father sacrifices his life in the service of colonial masters during the European wars — passed off as World Wars. He dies a poor man with nothing to show for his contribution, only a stump of a leg after losing one in the war.
Dieudonne’s father’s mirrors that of many African foot soldiers during the so-called First and Second World Wars who came back without limbs and ended up as beggars in their homelands.
The characterisation of Dieudonne’s life with his master and mistress is a replay of the colonial relationship between Africa and Europe, in some sense. He lives at the mercy of the couple. Indeed, by the time we meet him, he has worked for a number of white couples always willing to ‘fire’ and ‘hand him over’ to another white couple.
In the hands of these expatriates, he matters little. Just like his country, which grows cotton for export to Europe, he can only offer service to the foreigners.
Life collapses around him. He takes to heavy drinking that leads to a testy relationship with his employers. Eventually, he loses his wife, Tsanga.
After the departure of his wife, Dieudonne spends most of his non-working time in the ‘Grand Canari’, a drinking den in the neighbourhood of Swine Quarter. The latter stands as the anti-thesis to Beverly Hills, where the rich of Mimboland live. And it is this contrast that Nyamnjoh is challenging us to examine in his story.
However, like most postcolonial African writers, it is easy to see where his sympathy lies — with the poor. Out of the desire to speak for the poor, the author relocates the story to the ‘Grand Canari’.
It is in this drinking hole where the downtrodden wash away their sorrows with whatever type of alcohol their pockets can afford. When the pocket is heavy, one can drink the most expensive spirits; when light, there are equally poverty-friendly brands.
Dieudonne’s life-story and the context in which he tells it serves many purposes in the theme of the novel. On one hand, he offers the reader the opportunity to do a critique of Africa’s history, especially its neo-colonialist tendencies which have led to local leaders abdicating their responsibilities to serve and instead becoming parasitic.
Also, in Dieudonne the author celebrates the resilience of the underprivileged by highlighting their enduring sense of hope or sheer desire to ‘live another day.’
However, most significantly, the subtext of the novel is a call to rethink the transnational linkages and shared cultures as Africans in a world where Africans are ‘junior brothers’. Indeed, Nyamnjoh tries hard to stress the pan-African connections in this book. His references to languages, music, foods, names and cultures from across Anglo and Francophone Africa is a challenge to Africans, especially students of comparative literature, to engage more with arts from beyond their localities. This stylistic tendency is evident in his earlier book, A Nose for Money (2006).
The call to engage with a broader postcolonial African reality, especially the plight of the poor, is weakened by the bilingual/multingual nature of the book.
Dr Odhiambo researches and teaches literature and communication.