Art in the Era of Catastrophe: A Dialogue with Véronique Tadjo
Véronique Tadjo was born in Paris, France, and was raised in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. She earned a BA in English from the University of Abidjan and a doctorate in African American Literature and Civilisation from the Sorbonne Université. She has lived and worked in many countries within Africa and its diaspora and sees herself as pan-African. She has written numerous academic articles, novels, poetry, children’s books and translations.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place between London, UK, and Cape Town, South Africa, via email.
Kris: Your latest novel, In The Company of Men, is a story about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It was originally written in French, and was published in 2017. The English translation that came out in 2020 coincided with the global Covid-19 pandemic. I am quite interested in the process of translation that occurred since the book’s initial publication was in French. The language of the book changed and the world that the book exists in changed in that Covid-19 pandemic had yet to capture the world’s attention. In many ways, a story about an Ebola outbreak seems far more relatable to an audience now than it could have been when the book was initially published. I suppose I am seeing tensions that crop up when translating a book and I do not just mean the language; the significance of the story seems to have become immediately relevant to a global audience. But, might such a reading risk losing your book’s initial position as a francophone novel about West Africa, with a focus on the effects that Ebola had on Africa?
Véronique: This question is at the heart of the English translation of In The Company of Men. In 2017, when I was writing the original book in French, I had a sense of urgency. By then, the Ebola epidemic had officially been contained in West Africa. But I was still on edge because all the research I had done pointed to an unfinished story and I could not comprehend why so much silence surrounded the subject. For me, we needed to revisit the events in order to learn more from them. Since 1976, when the virus was first identified, several Ebola epidemics have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. Moreover, my research also pointed to the fact that the contemporary environmental crisis had a big impact on the emergence of the disease.
“With Covid-19, more people have now realised that these kinds of disasters can happen—even if in very different geographical and cultural contexts. We never know what the past can reveal to us about the future. A catastrophe will remain a catastrophe so long as the aftermath did not bring any qualitative change.“
Massive deforestation increases the contact between wild animals and human beings, leading to zoonotic outbreaks. As soon as the virus reaches cities, its destructiveness increases manifold. I sensed a timeless and borderless dimension to the issue. When working on the English translation in the context of Covid-19, it was important for me to make sure that the present situation did not invade the original narrative. The choice of certain words was particularly important. “Nurses” could not be called “key workers” or “essential workers” for example, as this term has been appropriated by the pandemic. In any case, my interest was in stressing our common destiny. Indeed, too many people in the West thought that the Ebola epidemic in Africa had “nothing to do with them”—they were above such disasters. The opportunity of a greater awareness of the dangers awaiting us was missed. It was important to stay faithful to the Ebola story as it called for a more holistic view of the world.
Kris: It is interesting that the Ebola story has this more holistic view. At the time of the most recent outbreak it did feel very distant, even for me in South Africa. Yet, in hindsight, the seemingly distant Ebola has become a missed warning. Of course, hindsight makes everything visible but the form that your novel takes also makes things visible. Maybe we could talk about the baobab section?
Véronique: I was also in South Africa when the Ebola epidemic broke out. After 14 years in Johannesburg with my family, I left in 2015 for London. I had been the Head of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand for seven years. There were ample occasions for me to attend conferences on campus as the academic community followed the Ebola crisis. South African media had regular coverage on the epidemic and the government sent a contingent of medical personnel to West Africa. But as you said, it still felt ‘distant’. This is due to the geographical location of South Africa that sometimes makes it harder to identify with the rest of the continent.
The Baobab tree as a witness of the events unfolding came to me because I wanted to instil a strong ecological dimension into the narration. It was also important for me to invite the readers to dive into their imagination right from the start; to enter a space where humans and non-humans are on the same level; where man is part of nature and not above it. Baobab trees are very well known all over the world. They have an amazing presence and are famous for their resilience and longevity. In the book, Baobab gives nature’s point of view. An increasing number of people realise now that if we want to address the ecological crisis we are in, science alone will not be enough—we need to change our mindset—literature and the arts can play a role in this.
Kris: The role that literature and art can play as they work with science is certainly something I agree with. Both are needed if we are to understand the world that we live in and the ecological crisis that we seem to be heading towards. The boys who kill and eat the bats at the beginning of the text seem to have caused the outbreak, but this would be a misreading as the Baobab precedes the lives of all the humans in the text. Regardless of whether the acts of those boys are justifiable, they are still children. Having them be the supposed cause of an Ebola outbreak would not make much sense. If I am correct, it seems like you are pointing towards the events globally and beyond human scope that cause these deadly outbreaks. Whilst humans are implicated, they are not as central as we like to think.
Véronique: The kids are not responsible for the Ebola outbreak. But for medical experts, it is very important to find out who was ‘patient zero ‘ and where the virus originated. In the case of Ebola in Guinea, for example, it was first diagnosed in one child (rather than two) living in a remote village and bats were identified as the carriers of the virus. Zoonotic diseases are more and more prevalent. For Covid-19, it seems like it came from pangolin meat sold in a wet market, although the jury is still out.
It is the reason why in chapter 15, Bat gets a chance to tell her side of the story. We are surrounded by viruses; some are beneficial to our life, others are destructive for us. Disaster comes with forced contact between species. Men are central to the problem just insofar as they go deeper and deeper into the forests or have an unhealthy relationship with animals through intensive farming or destruction of wildlife. Of course, epidemics and pandemics have happened in the past but I guess we have to ask ourselves what is going wrong considering the high scientific and technological progress we have achieved today.
Kris: We have talked about the role that science and art can play in fighting disease outbreaks. There is another player that we are yet to mention: traditional healers. Whilst the mother does call her local hospital when she notices the boys approaching death, the team of nurses takes a long time to arrive. The mother then turns to a traditional healer. To quote from the text: “She visited the local healer to get plants for treating the sick. The man declared, “There are so many deaths, too many—this isn’t normal. This sickness is not from here. Someone is out to get us. He’s cast an evil spell on us that I don’t know how to break. We must cleanse the village and carry out purification rites.” I am one of those that believe that both traditional medicinal practices and scientific practices have a role to play in human well-being. What are your opinions in this regard?
Véronique: It is worth noting that in South Africa, for example, traditional healers (Sangomas) are legally recognised as ‘traditional health practitioners’ and I think that they are even organised under the wing of the National Department of Health. Traditional healers also have a similar status in Senegal and in several other African countries. This is an important recognition of the influence they still have at the community level. In rural areas and in some remote small towns, there are more traditional healers than ‘modern’ doctors and they are consulted by the majority of the population who trust them.
However, in West Africa their status is generally not recognized officially. When the Ebola epidemic got out of control, medical experts realised that the collaboration of traditional healers was needed. If they could come on board, they would talk to their patients and encourage them not to carry out some of the cultural customs that were putting everybody at risk, like burial rites. In the extract above, we can sense that a shift is taking place. The traditional healer is warning the mother that this is a disease that is beyond his power. But it is still the beginning of the epidemic. Later on, when traditional healers were trained, it made a big difference; they relayed key medical messages and told their patients to seek help in Ebola treatment centers.
Kris: Lastly, In the Company of Men ends with the following phrase narrated by the Baobab:
“The wheel of fortune and disaster never ceases to turn. Joy already bears within itself the sadness of attrition. Strength to achieve a renewal may arise from a disaster. Everything happens deep down, everything happens underneath the earth’s surface. I will pass on to the shrubs my roots’ sap.
And the destiny of Man will become one with ours.”
We have already discussed how science alone cannot prevent future disease outbreaks. Art, like your book, can help raise awareness of what occurred though. It can be passed much like the Baobab passes the roots of its sap to its own shrubs. Your book provides a fascinating and highly enjoyable tale of the Ebola outbreak. If anything, what do you hope for your readers to gain from your book?
Véronique: My motivation when writing the book was to say “Let’s talk about what happened.” It was big and it was very traumatic. The three West African countries affected by the epidemic had seriously struggled to contain the disease. How can we find a way to process this terrible period in our history? Not just in terms of the number of victims but in terms of the profound destructive impact it had on society in a fairly short time. We forget too easily, too quickly. One story chases another. Yet, we need to continue to think about catastrophic events in order to make sure that they do not keep recurring.
As an author, my main concern was to create a work of literature while providing a fair amount of ‘information’ on Ebola. I chose to write the narrative as a ‘tale’ because it is a universal and ageless literary genre. During my intensive research, I learnt a lot in the process. So in a sense, I wanted to pass on some of that knowledge to the readers. But most of all, I wanted the readers to see things from a different perspective. I wanted them to engage with the story. I guess that with Covid-19, more people have now realised that these kinds of disasters can happen—even if in very different geographical and cultural contexts. We never know what the past can reveal to us about the future. A catastrophe will remain a catastrophe so long as the aftermath did not bring any qualitative change.
Photo credit for featured image of Véronique Tadjo: Odile Motelet.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.