In rural Mozambique, it’s not uncommon for humans to be eaten by lions—a fact that Mia Couto was reminded of in 2008.
During that year, the Portuguese-descended, native Mozambican writer—who is also a biologist—was working on a natural gas excavation project when lions killed 26 people over 5 months. After the first attack, Couto went to his tent and began putting his fear down on paper. Those first sentences would grow into his novel Confession of the Lioness, a haunting and ethereal tale of a group of lions killing the women of a remote Mozambican village. Locals are incapable of stopping the animals and to their chagrin the government brings an outside hunter to get the job done.
A book about hunting lions runs the risk of becoming a stereotypical “Africa” story; Couto wanted to avoid this. What began as a story about fear became an exploration of identity and clashing cultures in post-colonial Africa. And the flashpoint of this conflict is the lions themselves.
Through the bulk of the book the villagers believe the lions are not literal animals but are humans transforming themselves into the beasts. The hunter, Archangel Bullseye, who is mulatto and less trusted in the village because of his mixed heritage, begins to wonder if there are any lions at all, thinking the reports of the predators could be a cover for men preying on women.
“All writers are interested in searching identities,” Couto says. “What attracts me is to cross this borderline of humanity. What defines us as humans and what is on the other side, this animal.”
This blending of human and beast is not entirely a literary device.
Just as it’s not uncommon for people to be killed by lions in Mozambique, it’s not uncommon for locals, even those who grew up in cities, to see lions as “a creature between lions and human beings,” Couto says. Although Mozambique was a former Portuguese colony, the bulk of the country was untouched by Europeans and traditional beliefs still reign in the culture.
This divide between the logical and the magical, the modern and traditional is a critical component to the conflict of the novel and serves as a larger conflict in Couto’s life.
Descended from colonialists, he did not grow up with traditional African beliefs. But he also was not isolated from African culture. As a teen he joined the underground liberation movement—incredibly rare for ethnic Portuguese in the country. After Mozambique gained its independence in 1975, Couto directed media for the new government for a decade.
“I’m a writer and a scientist in a society that is dominated by religious thought,” he says. “I’m descended from Europeans but I’m an African. There’s a lot of conflict inside me and I’m using that.”
Couto describes himself as a non-practicing atheist, explaining the counterintuitive term by saying he is “open to understand what is invisible.” In other words, he doesn’t mind having his beliefs challenged and that includes embracing the illogical ideas of his native home.
If this sounds silly to you, Couto would say that this sort of illogical belief is not just an African way of thinking. He references the resistance many Americans have to the theory of evolution.
“We are so close in believing in things that don’t need proof,” he says of the U.S. and Africa.
Sean Rose is a former crime reporter and current Clark House Writer-In-Residence with Texas State University.