Aya, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by the French artist Clément Oubrerie, is a lively and colorful glimpse of life in Ivory Coast in the late 1970s, a time when the country was enjoying unprecedented prosperity and the capital Abidjan was earning its title as the Paris of Africa. Aya was published in Montreal in 2007 by the press Drawn & Quarterly. The text was translated from the French by Helge Dascher.
A teenager in Abidjan’s working-class neighborhood of Yopougon, Aya is a thoughtful and responsible young woman who dreams of becoming a doctor. We first see her in the living room of her family, where friends and relatives are gathered together to watch a TV commercial for the beer company that Aya’s father works for. (TV commercials are still a novelty in Abidjan in 1978.)
Later we meet Aya’s father’s boss: a huge cigar-smoking tycoon named Mr. Sissoko, who lives in a flat-roofed pink mansion behind a pink wall studded with spikes. A well-connected member of the urban elite, he buys his furniture in France and casually drops the names of Presidents Houphouet-Boigny and Giscard d’Estaing.
Aya’s friends Adjoua and Bintou are pretty and popular, and considerably more easygoing than Aya. We first see Adjoua getting dressed in front of a mirror when the phone rings.
“I’ve got a plan,” Bintou tells her. “This little stud asked me to go out tonight…. Meet me at my place at six o’clock. We’ll waste that boy’s money, OK?” On the way out of the house, Adjoua sees Aya and invites her to come dancing with them. “No thanks,” she replies, “I’ve got homework.”
On the surface, Aya is a simple story of high-spirited youth, but the details give it a West African flavor. Much of the action takes place under the sky. Young people (and not so young) dance in a big roofless compound with colored lights strung overhead, overlooking the city’s lagoon. Lovers meet after dark in what they call the Thousand Star Hotel: the market square, where the vendors’ tables serve as beds. The artwork by M. Oubrerie combines a cartoon style, sometimes verging on caricature, with subtle effects of light and color, especially in the dawn and dusk scenes.
As a scholarly introduction to this edition explains, Ivory Coast’s prosperity was short-lived. The export profits earned by the hard work of small-scale farmers, and enjoyed even by working-class youth like Aya and her friends, were absorbed by the likes of Mr. Sissoko, and dried up in a few years when export profits fell. This book captures the fun and sense of optimism that filled the city before the party ended.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.