GUINEA-BISSAU (*)

Abdulai Sila — The Ultimate Tragedy (1995)

Setting: C20th Guinea-Bissau under Portuguese colonial rule

What it’s about: It is an old-fashioned Greek tragedy in a colonial setting, where a doomed heroine (Ndani) flees her traditional society to avoid a curse only to meet it in colonial society. She survives abuse, sexual violence and force marriage only for the man she falls in love with to be unjustly deported to a prison colony for challenging a white official (“because whites always get revenge”).

Similar to the book I read for Benin, there a hint of mysogyny in the plot where a good or powerful man is brought down by his loyalty to a “cursed” woman. The saving grace is that it is not really the traditional curse but the cruel nature of colonial rule that dooms the heroines husband — a school teacher who dreams of leading an independence movement.

In the first half of the novel, Ndani is taken in by a Portuguese family — poor at home but now empowered in the colony. Tellingly, she mishears Ndani’s name, assuming she is a Dania, which she considers a communist name. When the Mistress discovers religion (and her role in saving Africans’ souls) she suddenly treats Ndani with more respect, which is met with shock and suspicion, and she remembers her stepmother’s advice:

A housegirl should always be cautious, always know her place.”

Despite this reprieve, she is soon raped by the Portuguese husband — a colonial administrator — and forced into marriage with a Guinean community leader (a ‘regulo’) who scorns and challenges the coloniser but finds himself weakened by the marriage. Thus ends another challenge from a local figure who had refused to bow to the colonialists:

The majority of whiles who came to Guinea were poor whites. They came to make a new life in Guine because they had nothing in the Metropole. If they cam from the north, they were fishermen. If they were from the south, they were also fishermen. If they were from the centre, they were peasants, they scrubbed potatoes or picked grapes to make wine. When they came to Guine, they forgot all this and thought people didnt know. But the Regulo knew.”

Ndani leaves the community elder for a teacher, who also plans to oppose the Portuguese, only to be goaded into punching one of them, which leads to his deportation for life on a prison island. Ndani waits for him by the sea every year, until he comes no longer.

Why you should read it: This book does for Portuguese colonialism what George Orwell’s Burmese Days (and his accompanying essay, Shooting an Elephant) did for British rule in South Asia: it lays bare the inherent weakness of the coloniser that means only violence — and the support of local elites — can maintain their rule.

It also handles the full spectrum of coloinial racism from the casual everyday treatment of house servants to the violent, ruthless, bullying repression of anyone who challenges white power.

Read it if you liked: Burmese Days.

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