Fama is a handsome prince of the Malinké people, but he spends his days in the capital city, far from his people, wandering from one funeral to the next as an uninvited, sometimes unwanted orator. Salimata, his beautiful wife, supports her angry and frustrated husband by selling porridge and cooked rice to the workers by the waterfront.
Traditional life was hard. Colonialism was harder. Independence is hardest of all. This is the message that emerges from The Suns of Independence, a novel by Ahmadou Kourouma of the Ivory Coast, translated from the French by Adrian Adams and first published in 1968.
Although no one could call this an especially cheerful story, the feisty spirit of the characters and the cynical bite of the language make it a bracing rather than a depressing one. Even the chapters have names like this: “His neck was hung about with collars bristling with magic charms, like the spike-studded collars worn by baboon-hunting dogs.” Fama may be downtrodden, but he still has the pride of a prince, willing to fight rather than accept a slight. Salimata, too, still has enough spirit and idealism to make a grand but poorly considered gesture, such as giving away all her rice to the beggars at the market. (She is not only robbed as a result, but also precipitates a riot that nearly destroys the place.)
Fama’s opportunity comes when his cousin Lasina dies, leaving Fama the heir apparent of his branch of the Dumbuya dynasty. Leaving Salimata in the city, Fama travels to his home village, but finds his people in a state of “decrepitude and decay.” The village straddles what is now a national boundary between two fractious countries eager to wield their new powers. “Independence had suppressed the chiefdom, dethroned Fama’s cousin, and set up a committee in the village, with a president. A sacrilege, a disgrace!” Fama rallies the support of two old men, a fetish priest and a praise singer, but he is not even sure if it is worth the effort to claim power over the place. This is a village where hyenas routinely raid the graves, where days drop identically one by one “like the eggs of one guinea fowl,” and where good Muslims greet each other “for about as long as it would take a leper to thread a needle.” (The book abounds in pungent expressions, many of which are unrepeatable in polite company.)
At dramatic moments in the story ― a sacrifice, an act of divination, or an outburst of violence ― the colours red, yellow, and green appear together. The flags of many African countries use these colours, and one might assume that they symbolize Fama’s country. The flag of the Ivory Coast, however, is red, white, and green. But then, this corrupt and violent land is not exactly the Ivory Coast. Unnamed for most of the book, it is eventually called the Ebony Coast, as if the author is signalling that this is a darker version of his homeland, strategically shadowed so as to bring out its flaws.
In keeping with its title, The Suns of Independence pays close attention to suns, skies, and weather. The schemes and squabbles of the characters take place against towering skies that make them seem even pettier, and the struggle between the sun and the clouds nearly turns them into characters in their own right. Sometimes the effect is grand: “The huge sun, blazing like a blacksmith’s forge, had climbed high in the sky, and a broad band of copper ran from east to west across the lagoon.” Other times it is more subtle: “The morning was damp and millet-coloured, like morning in a wood after a stormy night.”