This fourth and final novel by the acclaimed Ivoirian (1927–2003), published in France in 2000, combines an invented child-soldier’s story with that of a gallery of real warlords.
The narrator, Birahima, a ten-year-old who loves to cuss, belongs to the Malinké tribe of Ivory Coast—“Black Nigger African Natives”—a constant refrain; but Birahima has access to four different dictionaries, and he proudly parades definitions (an over-used device). In this way, Kourouma sets up a tension between the “primitive” and the “civilized.” The self-styled street kid drops out of village school after third grade (the dictionaries come later)—his father died young; his mother after injuries incurred in the ceremony of excision (clitoris removal). The village elders decide Birahima must join his aunt, who has fled from her abusive husband to Liberia, so in June 1993, he begins his journey, accompanied by Yacouba, a village hotshot, a money multiplier and marabout (fortune-teller) bedecked in grigris (amulets). This is a world saturated in history and superstitions, which coexist with Islam and Christianity; what’s new are the child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Eager to join them, Birahima gets his chance soon enough and is given a kalash (AK-47). He participates in the killing, and sees fellow child-soldiers killed in a kind of dark vaudeville. His quest for his aunt is put on hold while the author offers thumbnail sketches of Liberian warlords such as Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson. Kourouma then delves (too deeply) into a ribald history of factional blood-letting in Sierra Leone; top billing goes to Foday Sankoh, that notorious amputator of hands and arms. ECOMOG, the Nigerian-dominated peacekeeping force, is also pilloried. The author’s implicit message is that all the players, religions included, have failed a generation of young Africans.
As eye-catching as graffiti, but lacking the emotional power of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (2006).