With “Heart of the Sahel”, Djaïli Amadou Amal re-examines the fate of women in northern Cameroon

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Cameroonian writer Djaïli Amadou Amal.

Critical. After the resounding success of his previous novel, The impatientPrix ​​Goncourt des lycéens 2020 (ed. Emmanuelle Collas), first published in Cameroon under the title Munyal, the tears of patience (ed. Proximity, Orange Book Prize in Africa 2019), the new and fourth work of Djaïli Amadou Amal was eagerly awaited. With Heart of the Sahel, the Cameroonian novelist once again sided with women and manages to brilliantly create the cocktail whose secret she has: to mix romance with social painting.

Faydé, her only teenage heroine, wants to leave the village where she was born in the middle of the mountains to work as a maid in the large town of Maroua, in northern Cameroon. If she naively dreams of the city lights, she is mostly driven by the duty to support her family that her father’s mysterious disappearance has plunged her into misery.

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With the help of her predecessors, Faydé made the leap and found herself in the service of a wealthy Fulani merchant, Alhadji Bakary, as well as her mother, three wives, and many children. The beginnings are difficult. Forced to thank you, Faydé discovers the grueling reality of his new place and suffers the contempt shown by the affluent classes towards the people of his condition.

“A servant is still a servant, even if he does a good job and is appreciated, reminds him of his friend Bintou. Even diligent for years, he is never part of the family. You are neither of his ethnicity nor of his religion. They don’t respect you. » Faydé must also learn the tacit and brutal rules that make her a potential prey for domestic males. Nevertheless, life will reserve for the young woman its share of surprises, which in turn are tragic and joyful. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to understand “The shortest way to get from one point to another is not a straight line, but a dream.”

Inner torments

From the title and the first pages of the book, the romance is there, with this young woman of modest means but with strong values ​​and great intelligence. If Faydé is naive or gives in to sadness, her creator at other times endows her with great lucidity and unwavering courage. So we hooked on this heroine with a cleverly spiced suspense course.

But the novel also offers readers a complex social context that amplifies their interest. Because, although he evokes this well-known northern Cameroon, Djaïli Amadou Amal echoes the news of the world widely. It represents, therefore, the economic defeat of farmers in the face of their unproductive lands due to climate change, or the anguish of people fleeing the attacks of Boko Haram terrorist fighters, and who “Survivors are just emaciated faces, in a world they don’t recognize.”

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The writer also knows how to point out the problems that undermine her society: the escalation of external signs of wealth, the weight of traditions, xenophobia, communitarianism … But it is above all the fate of women that matters to her; strives to denounce the violence they suffer as well as the multiple obstacles to their freedom such as patriarchy, the tradition of marriage for abduction and rape, the obligation of virginity, polygamy, prostitution, sex, marital relations auxiliaries, the impossibility of pursuing a career …

The story takes us from the inner torments of Faydé, for whom everything is precarious, to those of Leila, the future bride, who has no other desires than material possessions: “Leïla cares more about having one of her friends have a better phone than her!A crime against his majesty that he promises to correct as soon as possible. »

Stopping in his studies when he stood out, Faydé took them back in secret, obtaining a nursing degree a few years later. Undoubtedly, this professional destiny expresses the novelist’s faith in a possible sociological evolution, thanks to the education of women and girls. Knowledge, an essential step towards freedom, is the most radiant horizon than a Heart of the Sahel I can still dream.

Heart of the Sahel, by Djaïli Amadou Amal, ed. Emmanuelle Collas (364 pages, 19 euros).

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