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from the April 2007 issue

Allah Is Not Obliged

Ahmadou Kourouma's narrator tells, in raucous detail, of his journey from Ivory Coast to Liberia, musing on the ways language can both liberate and oppress.

The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. OK. Right. I better start explaining some stuff.

First off, Number one . . . My name is Birahima and I'm a little nigger. Not 'cos I'm Black and I'm a kid. I'm a little nigger because I can't talk French for shit. That's how things are. You might be a grown-up, or old, you might be Arab, or Chinese, or white, or Russian—or even American—if you talk bad French, it's called parler petit nègre—little nigger talking—so that makes you a little nigger too. That's the rules of French for you.

Number two . . . I didn't get very far at school; I gave up in my third year in primary school. I chucked it because everyone says education's not worth an old grandmother's fart any more. (In Black Nigger African Native talk, when a thing isn't worth much we say it's not worth an old grandmother's fart, on account of how a fart from a fucked-up old granny doesn't hardly make any noise and it doesn't even smell really bad.) Education isn't worth a grandmother's fart any more, because nowadays even if you get a degree you've got no hope of becoming a nurse or a teacher in some fucked-up French-speaking banana republic. ("Banana republic" means it looks democratic, but really it's all corruption and vested interests.) But going to primary school for three years doesn't make you all autonomous and incredible. You know a bit, but not enough; you end up being what Black Nigger African Natives call grilled on both sides. You're not an indigenous savage any more like the rest of the Black Nigger African Natives 'cos you can understand the civilized Blacks and the toubabs (a toubab is a white person) and work out what they're saying, except maybe English people and the American Blacks in Liberia, but you still don't know how to do geography or grammar or conjugation or long division or comprehension so you'll never get the easy money working as a civil servant in some fucked-up, crooked republic like Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, etc., etc.

Number three . . . I'm disrespectful, I'm rude as a goat's beard and I swear like a bastard. I don't swear like the civilized Black Nigger African Natives in their nice suits, I don't say fuck! shit! bitch! I use Malinké swear words like faforo! (my father's cock—or your father's or somebody's father's), gnamokodé! (bastard), walahé! (I swear by Allah). Malinké is the name of the tribe I belong to. They're Black Nigger African Savages and there's a lot of us in the north of Côte d'Ivoire and in Guinea, and there's even Malinkés in other corrupt fucked-up banana republics like Gambia, Sierra Leone and up in Senegal.

Number four . . . I suppose I should apologize for talking right at you like this, on account of how I'm only a kid. I'm maybe ten, maybe twelve (two years ago, Grandmother said I was eight, Maman said I was ten) and I talk too much. Polite kids are supposed to listen, they don't sit under that talking-tree and they don't chatter like a mynah bird in a fig tree. Talking is for old men with big white beards. There's a proverb that says, "For as long as there's a head on your shoulders, you don't put your headdress on your knee." That's village customs for you. But I don't give two fucks about village customs any more, 'cos I've been in Liberia and killed lots of guys with an AK-47 (we called it a "Kalash") and got fucked-up on kanif and lots of hard drugs.

Number five . . . To make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French, I've got four different dictionaries so I don't get confused with big words. First off, I've got the Larousse and the Petit Robert, then, second off, I've got the Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa, and, third off, I've got the Harrap's. The dictionaries are for looking up big words and checking big words and particularly for explaining big words. I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French. The Larousse and the Petit Robert are for looking up and checking and explain French words so I can explain them to Black Nigger African Natives. The Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa is for explaining African words to the French toubabs from France. The Harrap's is for explaining pidgin words to French people who don't know shit about pidgin.

How did I get the dictionaries? That's a long story that I don't feel like going into right now. Because I haven't got time 'cos I don't want to get tied up in bullshit. That's why. Faforo!

Number six . . . Don't go thinking that I'm some cute kid, 'cos I'm not. I'm cursed because I did bad things to my Maman. According to Black Nigger African Native customs, if your mother is angry with you and she dies with all that anger in her heart, then she curses you and you're cursed. And afterward nothing ever goes right for you or anyone who knows you.

I'm not some cute kid on account of how I'm hunted by the gnamas of lots of people. (Gnamas is a complicated Black Nigger African Native word that I need to explain so French people can understand. According to the Glossary, a gnama is the shadow of a person that remains after death. The shadow becomes an immanent malevolent force which stalks anyone who has killed an innocent victim.) And I killed lots of innocent victims over in Liberia and Sierra Leone where I was a child doing tribal warfare, and where I got fucked-up on lots of hard drugs. The gnamas of the innocent people I killed are stalking me, so my whole life and everything round me is fucked. Gnamokodé!

So that's me: six points, no more no less, with my cheeky foul-mouthed attitude thrown in for good treasure. (Actually, you don't say "for good treasure," you say "for good measure." I need to explain "for good measure" for Black Nigger African Natives who don't know nothing about anything. According to Larousse, it means extra, on top of everything else.)

So that's me, and it's not an edifying spectacle. Anyway, now that I've introduced myself, I'm really, truly going to tell you the life story of my cursed, fucked-up life.

Sit down and listen. And write everything down. Allah is not obliged to be fair about everything he does. Faforo!

Before I got to Liberia, I was a fearless, blameless kid. I slept anywhere I wanted and stole all kinds of stuff to eat. My grandmother used to spend days and days looking for me: that's because I was what they call a street kid. Before I was a street kid, I went at school. Before that, I was a bilakoro back in the village of Togobala (according to the Glossary, a bilakoro is an uncircumcised boy). I ran through the streams and down to the fields and I hunted mice and birds in the scrubland. I was a proper Black Nigger African Native Savage. Before that, I was a baby in Maman's hut. I used to scamper between Maman's hut and Grandmother's hut. Before that, I crawled around in Maman's hut. Before I was crawling around on all fours, I was in Maman's belly. And before that, I could have been the wind, or maybe a snake, or maybe water. You're always something like a snake or a tree or an animal or a person before you get born. It's called life before life. I lived life before life. Gnamokodé!

The first thing inside me . . . In proper French, you don't say "inside me," you say "in my mind." Well, the first thing inside me or in my mind when I think about Maman's hut is the fire, the glow of the embers, the flicker of flame. I don't know how many months old I was when I grilled my arm. Maman hadn't been counting my age, she hadn't got time on account of how she spent all the time suffering and crying.

I forgot to tell you something major, something really extremely important. Maman walked round on her arse. Walahé! On the two cheeks of her arse. She propped herself up on her hands and her left leg. Her left leg was as withered as a shepherd's crook and her right leg—the one she called her crushed serpent's head—was amputated and crippled by the ulcer. (According to my Larousse, an "ulcer" is "an inflammatory and often suppurating lesion on the skin or an internal mucous surface resulting in necrosis of tissue.") It's like a blister that never gets better and ends up killing you. Maman's ulcer was swathed in leaves wrapped up in an old pagne (a loincloth). Her right leg was permanently sticking up in the air. Maman moved on her arse like a caterpillar in fits and starts ("fits and starts" means "stopping suddenly then starting again"). I was still crawling back then. I could tell you what happened, I can remember. But I don't like to tell everyone about it. Because it's a secret, because when I tell the story I tremble from the pain like I'm terrified on account of the fire searing in my skin. I was running around on all fours and Maman was chasing me. I was going faster than she was. She was chasing after me, her right leg stuck up in the air, moving on her arse in fits and starts, leaning on her arms. I went too far, too fast, 'cos I was trying not to get caught. I made a dash and fell on to the glowing embers. The fire did its job and grilled my arm. It grilled the arm of a poor little kid because Allah doesn't have to be fair about everything he does here on earth. I still have the scar, on my arm, in my head, in my belly like the Black Africans say, and in my heart. It's still there in my heart, in my whole being, like the smell of my mother. My body is saturated with Maman's nauseating smell. (According to the Larousse, "nauseating" means "capable of arousing aversion or disgust" and "saturated" means "drenched or soaked with liquid.")


From Allah Is Not Obliged. Published 2007 by Anchor Books. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2006 by Frank Wynne. All rights reserved.

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