The Congolese writer Paul Lomami Tchibamba (1914-85) was previously best known for Ngando (first published in 1949). Written over a period of three decades, and published for the first time two decades after the author's death, Ah! Mbongo ("Ah! Money" in Lingala) is one of the most important novels from francophone sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. In his preface, Alain Mabanckou calls it "le roman fondateur de la litterature congolaise." Generally a realistic depiction of colonial-era racism and exploitation, Tchibamba's novel also contains elements that liken it to magical realism: in the prologue, the main character's mother is suddenly swallowed up by the earth, only to miraculously reappear with her newborn son a few days later.
As the central character, Gikwa, a young Ubangi prince, is the symbolic depository of traditional values in his rural village. However, he is seduced by the lure of the capital city (Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo of the 1920s), with its gaudy and generally useless products that must be bought with hard-earned mbongo. Leaving behind his parents but followed by his wife, Gikwa seeks work that will bring him the exalted money, only to descend into a spiral of abuse and humiliation, in the center of one of the most brutal colonial regimes on the African continent: "Cette chose, mbongo, grace laquelle l'on puisait a pleines mains les e1ements du bonheur de vivre en securite dans ce camp de concentration des travailleurs de Kinshasa" (That thing, mbongo, thanks to which one could scoop up with both hands the ingredients of happiness in that concentration camp for workers in Kinshasa). While Gikwa performs exhausting manual labor, his wife is progressively recruited by an apparently helpful neighbor into the only profession open to her: prostitution. By the end of the narrative, along with his freedom and his social status, Gikwa will thus also lose his wife and thereby what is left of his inherited identity. Tchibamba's social criticism is not exempt from misogyny: the formerly proud and aristocratic Gikwa "payait donc le prix de l'emancipation de son epouse" (paid a price for the emancipation of his wife).
Toward the end of the novel, a long discussion takes place among a group of jailed prisoners-which includes the now-thoroughly debased Gikwa-over the links between "la civilisation europeenne," the barbaric punishments to which they are subjected, and the reign of money. Using characters with various backgrounds and levels of education, Tchibamba explores the effects of their forced encounters with the armed version of commercial modernity brought by the (French-speaking) Belgian colonizers. The few forms of resistance available to the colonized-mocking the masters, sometimes through a more sophisticated use of the French language-are in practical terms less than effective, yet provide memorable instances of satire.
Western Washington University
COPYRIGHT 2008 University of Oklahoma
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
Paul Lomami Tchibamba. Ah! Mbongo. Paris. L'Harmattan. 2007. 336 pages. 27 [euro]. ISBN 978-2-296-03523-2
WORLD LITERATURE TODAY, octobre 2008