In Other Words

Africa’s Small Soldiers

Allah n’est pas obligé (Allah Is Not Obliged) by Ahmadou Kourouma 223 pages, Paris: Seuil, 2000 (in French) For Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, "the child soldier is the most famous character of the end of the 20th century." Such children — some 300,000 worldwide — are also the central figures of his latest novel, Allah ...

Allah n’est pas obligé (Allah Is Not Obliged)
by Ahmadou Kourouma
223 pages, Paris: Seuil, 2000 (in French)

For Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, "the child soldier is the most famous character of the end of the 20th century." Such children — some 300,000 worldwide — are also the central figures of his latest novel, Allah n’est pas obligé (Allah Is Not Obliged), which Kourouma wrote after former child soldiers from the war in Somalia entreated him to write a book denouncing the practice. The controversial writer’s work won a prestigious French literary award, the Prix Renaudot, in October 2000. Calling the book "a satire à la Voltaire written in the style of Céline," French Minister of Culture and Communication Catherine Tasca praised Kourouma for giving these young victims a voice and acting as "the keeper of their memory."

Kourouma sets his tale in the forests of Liberia and Sierra Leone, not far from where he grew up. He tells the story of Birahima, child of the bush, then vagabond of the streets, and then a child soldier swept into the hellish wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. With coarse and cruel words that belie his young age, the boy — who became a "small soldier" because it was more alluring to live with a pointed Kalashnikov than with an outstretched hand — recounts scenes of spectacular slaughter and human suffering. The stories are inspired by the dramatically ordinary facts of the conflicts that consumed West Africa during the 1990s. Liberia’s civil war, which began when rebel leader (now president) Charles Taylor attacked government forces in 1989, descended into seven years of massacres and ethnic slaughter that left 200,000 dead and turned 500,000 into refugees. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front headed by Foday Sankoh (one of Taylor’s protégés) gained worldwide notoriety for viciously amputating the limbs of men, women, and children.

Kourouma’s book is his latest work chronicling life on the continent of his birth. A mathematician by training, Kourouma is an "Afro-optimist" who believes that the current "commotion" in Africa is better than the ravages of slavery, colonization, the Cold War, totalitarianism, dictators, and warmongers. His first novel, Les soleils des indépendances (The Suns of Independence), completed in 1964 and published in France in 1976, has been a staple of school and university curricula across Africa. Les Soleils indirectly criticized the then master of the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had briefly sent the young Kourouma to prison at the beginning of the 1960s. Then, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals), published in 1998, denounced, still obliquely, the African "dinosaurs" (the Eyademas, Mobutus, and others). For 20 years, censored and exiled in places such as Algeria, Kourouma continued to condemn African leaders in this veiled manner, distancing himself from opposition politics. But in Allah Is Not Obliged, he does not hesitate to reveal the identities of the warlords of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian forests: Taylor, Sankoh, and Prince Johnson, former chief of the Liberian army.

Charles Taylor once remarked that enlisting children is "a means of control" that keeps them "out of trouble." Kourouma’s young protagonist tells a different story. Birahima joins the rebels and serves in the company of different armed factions that enlist or arrest him. He witnesses the tribulations of populations dragged into the war, where "people abandon villages, where men live to take refuge in the forest, where wild animals live. The wild animals, they live better than the men."

He recounts so-called military acts: rape, torture, executions. Drugs that make the soldiers stronger, crazier. Days of marching, nights of drunkenness. Magic that is supposed to protect soldiers from bullets. The bloody rites. The camps in the bush, "their boundaries marked by human skulls hoisted on top of stakes."

And he describes the process of enlisting 10-year-olds. One child "returned to his family’s land and found his father’s throat slashed, his brother’s throat slashed, and his mother and his sister raped, their heads smashed… And when one has no one left on the earth, neither father nor mother, neither brother nor sister, and when one is small, a little boy in a damned and barbaric country where everyone slashes each other’s throats, what does one do? Of course one becomes a child soldier, a small soldier, to get one’s fair share of eating and butchering as well. Only that remains." Only that remains because, Birahima reasons, "Allah is not obliged, doesn’t have to be just in all things, with all of his creations, with all of his acts down here."

Birahima’s hopelessness mirrors reality: In Liberia and Sierra Leone, children are often kidnapped, sometimes as young as 3 years old, to serve as slaves, porters, or messengers. Around the age of 10, boys and girls become soldiers, the girls usually raped by officers. Many are forced to attack their villages and kill their parents so they won’t have a home to return to or reason to run away. Often, child soldiers carry out the most atrocious missions. To warn or punish those who had voted for Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in 1996, rebels forced thousands of little Birahimas to wage a campaign that consisted of cutting off the arms of people in the cities and towns through which they passed — an operation baptized "short sleeves, long sleeves" according to whether the arms were amputated at the elbow or the wrist.

It is not only the gruesome plight of African small soldiers that has made this story resonate with the public. As in his previous novels, Kourouma takes liberties with syntax and writes in an Africanized French that is bizarre, cruel, and inventive; he enticed the French public with his new uses of the language. From that, along with the subject matter, comes the novel’s spectacular success since its publication in France, where it was a bestseller last year.

Kourouma’s novel, made vivid by the voice of Birahima, carries readers to the heart of Africa and its wars. It is a novel that, even if its realism brings readers to the heights of cruelty, does not remain any less magical or captivating.

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