At the same time that he converted to Christianity, Grace’s father gave up the piece of land that was required to build a church and house for the Swiss missionary, who was working on a translation of the bible, as well as another house for the interpreter, Brother Kimba, who frequently visited him.
And Grace, only half-grown, coiled up in one corner of the living room, observed fascinated out of the corner of her eye, the stature of the translator – or rather, the outline of his silhouette draped in a broad, flowing tunic. She had been told that the interpreters were torn away from their families at an early age, as soon as they had learned their own language, so that they could work as servants for English, French, Portuguese or German families – a rough method but one through which they quickly learned the language of their new households before being sent back into the interior of the country, accompanying a commander or a reporter, a scientist or a missionary.
Brother Kimba’s biography wasn’t quite that cinematic. His uncle, who had brought him up, had told him: “And in the beginning, there was the word”. The uncle was a wood carver and made ceremonial masks. He belonged to the traditional circle of notables but he did not share the contempt many of his peers had for the schooling that the missionaries brought with them. He said to his nephew: “In the beginning, there was the word”.
He explained to him that in the beginning the signs of knowledge were hidden in nature. The signs of knowledge could be found in the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic signatures that infused the land, in the torn plants, in the footprints that a bird left behind on the ground, as well in the upright positions of the trees, which invited you to look up and interpret the delicate lines their feathered residents drew, and to read into the signs in the sky, and then, to look beyond the sky into the great universal emptiness and read about the beginning of time, as told to us by a multitude of twinkling stars.
At that time, that age when the signs of knowledge were hidden in nature, anyone who wanted to read the world would have to be inducted into the mysteries of the hunt by the brotherhood of hunters. Later on the signs of knowledge would be hidden in word and stone, in the masks and in the cathedrals. At the time anyone who wanted to read had to be inducted into their art by the brotherhood of artisans and craftsmen. And today, the uncle said, the signs of knowledge are hidden in books and anyone who wants to read the world now must find their way to a school.
And that is how the child ended up in a Catholic mission school where it had to recite the story of a virgin named Maria, even though at that time he really knew nothing of the opposite sex. Like all good students a future in the seminary in the capital city was predicted for him, and he was eventually accepted there.
When he was not talking about his uncle, Brother Kimba talked about his big project, the translation of the Bible, a book that first arrived in Africa in 60AD, after Jesus Christ, when it was first translated into the ancient language of Ge’ez. Now it was all about translating the Bible into the language commonly used along the West African coasts. That is, if you could call it a language. The first German linguist to scout the land described it like this: “The people do not speak. They sing”.
A half-century later this mad project, to translate the Bible into this otherworldly speech, this birdsong of sorts, was still not yet complete. The translation foundered from the start, on the first verse of the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
How does one translate this central, unique and singular word of monotheism - God – into a polytheistic language in which there are only plurals? Like people, or pants, in English, Brother Kimba explained. A language in which everything is doubled, every single entity: the stone, the tree, the table, the gun, the man and yes, even divinity itself. In a language like that, the Creator becomes an incestuous couple of masculine-feminine twins. In this language, the one and only God became a lonely soul, condemned to isolation, the translator, perplexed and fearful, suggested.
In Grace’s country, the Catholic missionary had been warmly received, with his rituals, his God, his Holinesses, his virgin, his interpreter and his small decorated cards to entice the children. And shortly after he had settled in, during the countless mission meetings, he started to encourage the new converts to joke about their former objects of worship, the previous recipients of their sacrifices and the festive songs they used to sing. He told them they should refer to all these items as “fetishes”. There was no translation for this word in their language and the word felt like violence in their mouths as it passed through them.
Because of this, the former symbols of their gods began to pile up in heaps: masks and statues, damned on a pyre and burnt as their former owners called out hallelujahs. The people, who took part in the desecration of these signs of knowledge through fire, were like stone and they asked themselves if this spectacle was not a premonition of things to come in the near future, when humans themselves would be piled onto the fire to burn, or whether heads would be cut off so that anybody who could still read those signs would be silenced.
Grace was 12 years old when she witnessed her first burning of cult objects, in faith’s name, in the square in front of the church. Her whole life, Grace never understood what faith could mean, this girl who, aged 16, accepted a theology she practiced in art in order to negotiate with a non-negotiable God, a brutal, patriarchal bullwhip she had sworn to ignore gracefully for the rest of her days.
One Sunday as she was leaving church, in that same square, that same year, she saw the men who were pulled out of the crowd by other men with machine guns, lined up and sorted. This was the beginning of the raids that would decimate all the cities and villages in the French colonies of West Africa. The forced mobilisation extracted the strongest of the men from the population in order to send them to Europe, where they would be victorious or die. It was the Second World War.
Among those chosen during that Sunday sortation Grace saw in the church square, the ones who would be picked up and shipped off, was her uncle, Yao Akato’s younger brother. The younger brother whose forced conscription could not be hindered by Grace’s father, no matter his connections to the colonial administrators or his status as an assimilated local. That younger brother.
His body was not one of the 88 bodies that were dumped in the earth in Lyon, in one cemetery that they would call the Senegalese Tata. His body was not one of the 1,333 dead who were executed by German troops near Lyon, or part of the 25th Senegalese Infantry Regiment who had been given the order to hold their position and not even to think of retreating, despite a hail of bullets and cannon fire.
He made it through the storm without being hit by the lightning. He traversed the cannons without being shot. He passed through the explosions without exploding. He fought his way through gun smoke without being gunned down. He crossed death’s path and returned home, unscathed, sad and badly paid.
He drew his older brother into politics, a man who had become irritable and in whose eyes this whole monotheistic and monogamous adventure had started to seem laughable, this story of the single God, the God who was alone or lonely, damned to isolation and cast out of the choir of other gods, who had become bitter and vengeful because of that. It seemed to him that it went the same way with gods that it did with men: When you feel excluded, you become cynical and bitter.
Excerpt from Kossi Efoui’s novel, Cantique de l’acacia (in English, Song of the acacia) Éditions du Seuil, Paris, October 2017.
Translated from the French by Caroline Härdter