Aime Victor Olivier de Sanderval (1840-1919) must have been a very interesting guy, as well as stubborn. From a very young age he wanted to be “king of the savages”. By that time, most of the planet was already explored, only parts of the African jungles remained. That is why Sanderval chose Africa to make his dream come true; for being a “perfectly unpredictable” place and because there, he thought, the seeds of civilization could flourish again, in the face of a Europe already tired of itself and its wars. It took him 40 years to fulfill his wish. Earlier he set up a thriving velocipede business in his native France.
It is not known if it was his innocence, his business skills, his tenacity or his seduction skills, but Sanderval went where no white man (that is known) had ever gone before: the very heart of the Futa Yalón, in present-day Guinea Conakry. . A mountainous massif, full of forests and where some of the most important rivers in the area are born, such as the Senegal or the Gambia. There was one of the most powerful Peul kingdoms of the time, closed to contact with foreigners. A theocracy that had eliminated all those who opposed embracing Islam. And despite that, the French managed to reach Labé and the capital itself, Timbo, where he convinced the feared almamy, the king, to grant him large tracts of land. He also planned to build a railway line to link the region with the coast.
But his dreams and his concessions were taken from him by his French compatriots when they made the Futa Yalón a protectorate, taking advantage of the internal divisions of the kingdom. Sanderval also lost his possessions to his countrymen in present-day Conakry, the city he founded: his house was demolished to build the palace of the first governor of the new colony of French Guinea, without even asking him to permission for it.
This historical character appears in the book Peuls (Seuil 2004) by the Guinean Tierno Monénembo (Porédaka, Guinea, 75 years old). But the writer’s opinion of him at the time is quite dismissive. However, in the following years he studies that figure in more detail and modifies his judgment. Thus, in 2008 he publishes the king of kahel (Sun Dance, 2022) based on the life of the French explorer. A book translated into Spanish by Pedro Suárez Martín.
In it, a Sanderval is shown that does not match the image of the ordinary colonizer. He does not seek to plant a flag. He wants a country for himself, not for France. Of course, he suffers from some of the prejudices that the rest of his compatriots hold: he wants to civilize the locals and improve their lot and guide them to the European ideals of civilization. Against these purposes, Monénembo opposes the Peul culture with its complicated moral and social codes and norms (the pulaku), who knows how to treat outsiders and keep them at bay. In this way, Monénembo establishes a meaningful parallelism between two continents and two societies that are polar opposites, but that does not mean that one is superior to the other.
Sanderval not only runs into a town that disrupts his plans to ‘civilize the savages’, but also collides with the French who do not see favorably that he has his own fiefdom, nor that he can exercise the government of the territories that have been donated to him based on kindness and empathy, where he thought that he could be crowned king if he became just another Peul. If he assumed his way of life and his customs and not the other way around, how he weighed when he first got there. France had very different plans for the region and the dreamer did not enter into them.
By presenting a character opposed to the typical colonialist, Monénembo tries to get into the skin of a different European and imagines his way of approaching a new culture totally unknown to him. And how he transformed and left behind his dream of ‘civilizing’ as he got to know the Peuls. Similarly, through humor and ironic comments on both Europeans and Africans, he paints a very believable portrait of the moment when the two continents meet.
Through humor and irony, both about Europeans and about Africans, he paints a very plausible portrait of the moment in which both continents meet
Something similar is intended by the Ivorian writer Gauz in Comrade Dad (Books of Bad Company, Books of the Baobab Collection, 2021). But in his case, among the historical figures he introduces a fictitious one, Maxime Dabilly. Both authors want to imply that there were other approaches to the African continent beyond that of weapons and the mere desire for trade. Possibly an impossibility, something not really taken seriously by Europeans or Africans. But there were people who seem to have tried. And now there are writers who are trying to rescue those stories that would have led to a relationship very different from the current one, more equal, between Africa and Europe.
In the case of Monénembo, he is a writer who “has long observed the African reality from an unwanted distance,” says Suárez. He had to go into exile fleeing the dictatorship of Sekou Touré. For this reason, perhaps in his case, it is a healthy attempt “to approach and assume his origins and his existence: from the cradle in Futa Yalón to the chair of biochemistry that he held in France,” says the translator. of the. That is why he makes a great effort to recover his Peul roots “in an attempt to continue being one”. Much of his work is filled with a desire to recover memory, his own, as he does in L’Aîné des orphelins (Seuil 2005), that of his village in Peuls or that of the colonization and the end of the independence of the kingdom of Futa Yalón, in The king of Kahel. Or even with his own ghosts as in his latest novel Saharan Indigo (Seuil 2022) in which he tries to settle accounts with Sekou Touré.
Lovers of African literature are in luck because suddenly, they can learn more about the work of a writer as prolific and passionate as Tierno Monénembo. In just a few months, in addition to the king of kahelhas also been published the black terrorist (The shady and the sunny 2021). In this last work, the Guinean author vindicates the role of the Senegalese tirailleurs –soldiers from the French African colonies forced to fight in the two world wars– during the war and in the resistance against the German occupation of France, one more attempt to recover the memory of their people and their own.
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