Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma - translated from the French by Frank Wynne. Published by Farafina Press.
'Allah is not obliged - to be fair about all things he does here on earth' is the mantra that weaves itself through this remarkable novel by Ahmadou Kourouma. This was my first reading of Kourouma, which I started at 11am and finished around 6.30pm. In those seven hours I followed the narrator, 10-year-old Birahima, across West Africa into the heart of Liberia and Sierra Leone and into the psychotic minds of dictators Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire and Sani Abachi of Nigeria. Through warlords, thieves, corrupt leaders, NGOs and multinationals, opportunists and charlatans, marabouts and animists, coups and counter-coups, we are exposed to the lives of the child-soldiers. At once both victims and survivors, the 'small soldiers' are the prized possession of the warlords with their AK-47 'kalashes' and drugged out on hashish. They are themselves little lords, with outlandish colourful names like Tete Brulee, Sekou the Terrible and Johnny Thunderbolt.
There are three sets of interwoven stories. There is the story of Birahima and his many wanderings with different militias across the region, which makes a mockery of the artificial boundaries created by colonial rulers: only tribes, not countries, have meaning in this chaos and madness. Then there are the stories of some of his best comrades, which explain how they came to be child soldiers - invariably due to some horrific story of family loss and poverty. And the history of the wars, the warlords, the dirty deals with transnationals, foreign governments, colonials and various African leaders.
The author makes a mockery of cultural traditions which invade the rights of women and children, such as forced marriage and male and female circumcision. He exposes the global structures of corruption which allow for the violence - the silence of the international community, the commercial value of war, the brutality of the peacekeepers [Nigerians] who themselves act like militias operating under their own warlord [Abacha] and strips them naked:
'Humanitarian peacekeeping is when one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.'
'Nigeria is the most heavily populated country in Africa and has loads of soldiers they don't know what to do with, so they sent their spare soldiers to Liberia with the right to massacre innocent civilian population, the whole works.'
Birahima's language, which is aided by various dictionaries to help explain French words, is uncompromising in its simplicity and brutality. Sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, but mostly horrific, and with much profanity, the language works as a critique of the scramble for Africa by colonialists,transnationals and African leaders. This is Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, states of anarchy which still remain today: 'the crazy bullshit' nihilism existing in places like Somalia, northern Uganda, the Eastern DRC and the Niger Delta in 2009.
On Forday Sankoh, who tries to stop the democratic process by cutting off people's hands, the narrator says:
'He won't want a ceasefire. He won't agree to anything. (He won't give a fuck, he'll still control the useful part of Sierra Leone.) So the dictator Eyadema will come up with a great idea, a brilliant idea. An idea that will be actively supported by the USA, France, Britain and the UN. The idea is to suggest a change to the change that doesn't change anything.'
The only innocents in this world are the children, and even for them the innocence is soon lost in the arms of AK47s - except Birahima, who despite all the horrors and bitterness never loses his humanity.