Kelly Duke Bryant
“I don’t know what his last words were.” So begins Kaveena, a novel by Boubacar Boris Diop, which was published in French in 2006 and in English translation last year. In this compelling first line of his detective story, Diop introduces his narrator, Colonel Asante Kroma, chief of the secret police, who has just discovered the corpse of his country’s recently deposed ruler, N’Zo Nikiema, amid an ongoing civil war. In the pages that follow, as he pieces together the details surrounding Nikiema’s downfall and death, Kroma ruminates on the violence of Nikiema’s rule and on the prominent role played by the ruler’s French friend and advisor. At once a harsh critique of Françafrique, an indictment of corrupt and violent postcolonial African regimes, and a tale of a mother’s desire to avenge the cruel death of her child, Kaveena seems to confirm certain American stereotypes of the continent, even as it challenges others.
Boubacar Boris Diop is a Senegalese novelist, playwright, and cultural critic, and his writings are often overtly political in nature, taking on issues such as political repression and violence, protest, and the power of memory. Indeed, he is perhaps best known for his novel, Murambi: Le livre des ossements (2000; Murambi, The Book of Bones, 2006), which deals with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Diop has made important contributions to francophone literature, and is recognized as a significant contemporary African writer.
In Kaveena, set in an unnamed, fictional West African country in the late twentieth century, Diop turns his attention to corrupt postcolonial regimes, neocolonialism, and civil war. In the book’s opening pages, Colonel Kroma begins to tell us about N’Zo Nikiema, a president whose regime had produced terror in the populace and whose “name would make hearts stop with fear” (1). As the country’s first post-independence ruler, Nikiema had held the presidency for around three decades before being pushed out by his former associate, Frenchman Pierre Castaneda, who had installed a new puppet president. Though Castaneda had instructed Kroma to hunt down the deposed president, the chief of the secret police realizes that by finding Nikiema in an out-of-the-way place—a “small house” in the Jinkoré district of the capital city—he himself will be killed by the new regime on suspicion of plotting with the man he had once served. So Kroma hides in the house with Nikiema’s decomposing corpse as the civil war continues and as Castaneda’s men search for him.
The rest of the narrative alternates between this frame story, centered on Colonel Kroma’s investigations within the small house and the bunker he discovers beneath it, and the story of the relationship between Nikiema and Castaneda, which had driven economic exploitation and political violence in the fictional country since the late colonial period. Both Kroma’s investigation and the narrative structure of the novel are informed by the fragments of Nikiema’s writings that he finds in the underground hiding place. Some of these fragments appear as italicized sections of the novel, and they serve as prompts for Kroma’s efforts to reconstruct the former president’s last days and his thought processes, and to reflect on the postcolonial condition.
As the story proceeds, Kroma uncovers details about Nikiema’s life and political maneuverings and draws conclusions about Nikiema’s escape from the presidential palace, which had led to an escalation in fighting a few months before. Pivotal to the plot is the death of Kaveena, a girl from a working-class family who was the victim of a ritual murder at the age of six, some fifteen years prior to Nikiema’s own death. We learn that a powerful person had ordered her death, that it had driven a wedge between the president and his top advisor, and that, in the words of Colonel Kroma, it “cost us a bloody civil war” (44). Kroma eventually meets Kaveena’s mother, Mumbi, an artist who owns the small house in Jinkoré. Mumbi provides Kroma with food, conversation, and access to news from the outside world. Methodically plotting her revenge against those she held responsible for her daughter’s death, Nikiema and Castaneda, Mumbi had carried on an affair with Nikiema for many years, and his relationship with her had proved to be an Achilles heel. In her final act of vengeance, which is also the novel’s climax, Mumbi seduces and kills Castaneda, thereby continuing to entwine the fate of Kaveena with the fate of the fictional West African country in which she had lived.
The rest of the novel details the decades-old relationship between Castaneda and Nikiema, who had begun working under Castaneda as an accountant at the French mining company, Cogemin, during the colonial era. The two became friends, and they worked to secure Cogemin’s future by acquiring mining concessions and suppressing opposition in the surrounding community. In return for his loyalty and support, Nikiema was the only African allowed to live in the upscale housing complex developed by Cogemin for its white employees. As racial tensions erupted during the struggle for independence from colonial rule, however, Castaneda arranged for Nikiema to step down, pledging covert support for the nationalist political party that he would create. When Nikiema became president after independence, Castaneda continued to use their relationship to benefit his company, and the two worked together to eliminate dissent. Yet eventually, due to increasing criticism of the regime, to Kaveena’s death, and to Nikiema’s desire to nationalize the mines, a rift emerged between the two men. And when Nikiema refused to step down, this rift led to civil war.
Thus this fictional West African country—like many real countries on the continent—had long suffered due to government corruption and neocolonial meddling, and the characters of N’Zo Nikiema and Pierre Castaneda embody these negative forces. Nikiema is, in a sense, a composite of African dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), Paul Biya (Cameroon), Omar Bongo (Gabon), and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). Western-educated and a member of a traditional royal family, Nikiema ruled the country with a kind of paranoid violence, ordering the investigation and often the execution of anyone thought to pose a threat to his regime. And, predictably, the president and his family had enriched themselves at their country’s expense. Though nearly everything about Nikiema is disturbing, I appreciate Diop’s efforts to portray him as a complex character and to explore both his political and personal motivations and dreams.
The character of Castaneda, on the other hand, seems a bit more original, though no less appalling. His mining company controlled vast swaths of territory, ruthlessly exploited its numerous African workers, and determined the country’s economic path, and he and Nikiema had frequently turned to violence to ensure its success. Indeed, in his revealing final conversation with Nikiema, Castaneda made clear that he had conducted business and politics in Africa in a way he never would have considered in France. “You know, my dear Niko,” he said, “we’ve killed many people together. But you don’t seem to have noticed: we’ve never killed a white man together, we’ve only killed your brothers” (172). After helping bring about the civil war that led to Nikiema’s ouster, Castaneda positioned himself to continue exploiting the country’s natural resources. He thus clearly represents the dangers of France’s continued involvement in the economic, political, and military affairs of its former colonies. Indeed, in the ruthless, exploitative, racist, and resolutely colonialist Castaneda, Diop rails against Françafrique for holding back true development and contributing to corruption and violence in Africa.
In Kaveena, then, Diop portrays an Africa that continues to be victimized by ruthless despots and neocolonialist exploitation, and that participates in the world economy in problematic ways. Indeed, though he reserves his harshest words for corrupt African rulers and neocolonialist France, Diop also calls international aid into question, through the figure of the government minister who “knows all about the art of starving with an outstretched hand,” (216) and by describing the United Nations as a place where dignitaries talk endlessly while conflicts and economic crises continue unabated.
In these ways, the novel dramatizes several concepts used by historians and political scientists to describe the problems facing many postcolonial African states. Through the characters of Pierre Castaneda and N’Zo Nikiema, for example, the novel aptly explores the “politics of the belly,” a phrase that Jean-François Bayart uses to express the idea that many postcolonial African leaders have used their positions to obtain wealth, to consume their fill of the nation’s resources. Indeed, Nikiema has enriched himself and his family at the expense of his country, and in their last conversation, Castaneda told Nikiema that in signing a land-use agreement with Cogemin, “You condemned your own people to starvation. The children of these people relied on you for their health and for their education, and you, you never thought of anything but your own personal comfort. You would do anything to maintain that power” (172). The Castaneda character in turn suggests that this concept might apply not only to African rulers but to their neocolonial partners as well. Willing to do nearly anything to ensure the success of his mining company and his own power, Castaneda repeatedly turned to violent tactics and went so far as to participate in what he saw as a ritual act—the killing and consumption of a little girl.
Similarly, the novel also illustrates the concept of the “gatekeeper state” as explored by Frederick Cooper and others. A “gatekeeper state” was one that managed political and economic interactions with other countries and “depended precisely on the fact that formal sovereignty was recognized from outside.” Such recognition allowed the government to collect resources like foreign aid and to use them in patronage politics. Any internal legitimacy derived from this redistribution of resources. That Nikiema’s government had previously functioned as a gatekeeper became apparent in its inability to continue to do so as the country headed toward civil war. As Castaneda built a private militia to oppose him, for example, Nikiema visited several Latin American countries to try to obtain weapons. He was “received reluctantly” by foreign leaders and came back empty-handed (88). His decreased ability to control the “gate” and the increasing anger of the population pointed to his impending fall from power.
While I found this book to be both compelling and provocative, I have some serious reservations about using it in an undergraduate classroom. Kaveena is populated with a violent and corrupt West African leader, Ukrainian and Southern African mercenaries, child soldiers, and brutal police interrogators, and the plot involves both civil war and ritual murder, all tropes that are already central to American assumptions about Africa. While Diop evokes these tropes critically, I kept wondering whether my students would be able to distinguish between their use here and their appearance in Hollywood films or the mainstream American media. These are, in fact, the very stereotypes about Africa that I work diligently to challenge in my courses, even as I acknowledge their basis in certain specific realities. Perhaps of greater pedagogical concern is the fact that this novel takes place in an imagined and unnamed country, making it easier for novices to assume that it tells some truth about a monolithic “Africa.” It would be truly unfortunate if this bleak narrative were to become the “single story” that our students tell themselves about an entire continent. Finally, students may struggle with the nonlinear structure of the novel and with the fact that there are things that the narrator cannot know. Indeed, toward the end of the book, one of the central characters casts doubt over the veracity of the letters that Nikiema left in the small house in Jinkoré: “Well, tell yourself this, Colonel,” she says, “almost everything you’ve seen or read in Jinkoré is false. Even from the other world, this man continued to lie to us” (226). Reading this novel thus requires a bit more work than students might expect, since the narrator ultimately questions his own narrative, which, as the foreword states, takes the “form of an aberrant puzzle for the reader to figure out.”
Despite these concerns, I think that instructors can teach this novel appropriately and productively. Read alongside one of the scholarly texts mentioned above, for example, Kaveena could offer a powerful composite image of a gatekeeper state to students of contemporary African history or politics. Perhaps in conjunction with Boubacar Boris Diop’s 2010 essay on Western support for African dictators, Kaveena could provide a sustained criticism of France’s role in its former African colonies from the 1960s to the present. This could prompt exciting discussions in courses dealing with the French empire and its dissolution or with French international affairs. Or, if considered as an artifact of a particular moment in Diop’s life and work, Kaveena could usefully contribute to a course on the intellectual history of francophone West Africa. Yet in teaching this novel, instructors should underscore the problems that I mention above, or better yet, should encourage students to deconstruct the novel themselves. And the novel’s complex structure can of course be addressed with a list of principal characters, a plot outline, or a simple discussion of strategies for reading it.
Kaveena is many things: a story about the rise and undoing of an authoritarian leader, a powerful critique of the violence and atrocities committed by the state against its people, a condemnation of neocolonialism, and a tale of the ferocity of a mother’s love and her long quest to avenge the death of her child. While it unfortunately can be interpreted as confirmation of what many Americans think we “know” about Africa, it should encourage us to think about the paths African countries might take in the future, and to re-envision the role of the West in the continent.
Boubacar Boris Diop, Kaveena, trans. Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
- Laurence M. Porter, “Senegalese Literature Today,” The French Review 66, no. 6 (1993): 896-897; Boubacar Boris Diop and Charles Sugnet, “Dances with Wolofs,” Transition 87 (2001): 138-144; Ayo A. Coly, “Foreword,” to Kaveena, Boubacar Boris Diop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), ix-x.
- Jean-François Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London: Longman, 1993). For a useful review, see Christopher Clapham, “Review: The Longue Durée of the African State,” African Affairs 93, no. 372 (1994): 433-439.
- Frederick Cooper, Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ch. 7, quotation on page 156. See also Paul Nugent, Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004); Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Béatrice Hibou, The Criminalization of the State in Africa, trans. Stephen Ellis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), ch. 1.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TED video, 18:49, July 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
- Coly, x.
- Boubacar Boris Diop, “La Vie en %$!” Foreign Policy 180 (July/August 2010): 102-103. For criticism of this essay and Diop’s response, see Yves Gounin, “Not Your Father’s Franc-Afrique,” Foreign Policy 181 (September/October 2010): 16-17.