French-Ivorian writer, academic and artist Véronique Tadjo’s spellbinding novel In the Company of Men draws on personal testimonies from medical workers and those affected by the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as oral traditions of storytelling, to create an urgent modern fable about the strength and fragility of life on our planet and humanity’s place in the natural world. It leaves readers reflecting on the breakthroughs and inadequacies of the international response to that relatively contained but deadly two-year outbreak, to the current devastation of the Covid pandemic, and what these events can teach us about coping with crisis and overcoming fear and prejudice.

Mark: When the French edition came out in 2017, no one could have predicted the current state of the world. What was it that first motivated you to write a novel about the Ebola epidemic?

Véronique: Yes, of course in 2017 there was absolutely no sense that a pandemic was coming. Because I was raised in West Africa – I was born in Paris, but was raised in Côte d’Ivoire, in Abidjan – I know the area very well. Côte d’Ivoire shares a border with Guinea in the north, and Liberia in the west, so I became very, very concerned by what was happening with the Ebola epidemic. We were expecting the disease to spread to Côte d’Ivoire because of those common borders, and all the health restrictions were in place to try and stop the epidemic – we couldn’t kiss, we couldn’t hug, we had to wash our hands in chlorine. I was very tense because although I live abroad, I visit regularly. So I continued to follow the evolution of the epidemic, and became more and more immersed in the subject, it became a bit of an obsession. Maybe it’s something that is common to people ‘in exile’, they do worry a lot about what’s happening back at home. At the time, I was living in South Africa, teaching at the University of Witwatersrand. I attended lots of conferences, and it was in the news a lot as well because it was a prime concern for everybody in Africa. I also travelled to the United States and taught there for about two months, and went to conferences there.

When the epidemic ended in 2016, nobody wanted to talk about what had happened, it had become some sort of a taboo. It puzzled me enormously and I thought no, we need to pause and think about this huge trauma and try and work it out, possess it. So that’s when I decided to write the book.

In a large part, the book celebrates the efforts of the local medical staff, ordinary citizens and international volunteers who stepped up to collaborate to neutralise the disease, but the most striking voices in the novel are from nature: the ancient Baobab, the bats that carry the disease, and the virus itself. Why was it important to you to also tell the story of Ebola in the form of fable?

The epidemic took place in West Africa, and I wanted to use a way of telling the story that came from there as well. So I chose to follow the tradition of oral literature, which is made as you know of folk tales and proverbs, and myths and legends. I thought that was the best way for me to tell the story because it allowed me to borrow from different literary genres, and because the storyteller has a lot of freedom, including the freedom to have animal characters, and nature that speaks. The art of storytelling across Africa is linked to the spirituality of traditional religion, also called animism, in which nature occupies a prime place, and it’s all about vital forces interacting and mixing and making the world. So for me as a West African it was natural to use animals and to let nature speak. I’m not the first to have done it, all cultures have that sort of oral tradition. In La Fontaine, the seventeenth-century poet whose series of fables were inspired by Greek mythology, you have animals talking all the time, interacting with human beings, and of course at school we were taught Les Fables de La Fontaine, and that’s something that stayed in my mind as well.

The characters are all on a par; man is just part of nature, and there is also the gaze that the animals have of man in general, looking at humans and what they do.”

The fable or folk tale is a universal genre, everybody can relate to it, so it helped me to reach more potential readers. Also, because the book has a strong element of environmental concern, it allowed me to put man within nature, as opposed to above nature. That’s why the characters are all on a par; man is just part of nature, and there is also the gaze that the animals have of man in general, looking at humans and what they do.

My motivation was not to write a scientific treatise or a documentary, I wanted the readers to know immediately that they had to use their imagination, that they had to use non-conventional ways of understanding.

But by the same token, you hold nothing back about the ravages of the disease. From the opening pages we see Ebola’s horrific effects and deadly contagion, and the fears it provokes. The first human responses are terror, desperation, confusion, shame, denial and self-preservation – all of which we have seen in the response to Covid. Do you feel that we have to first experience shock before we can heal?

I think we are all experiencing shock at the moment with the Covid pandemic. It’s the whole question of memory and what we can learn from the past. We cannot just put a blanket over events, especially if they carry such a load of stigma and trauma – we need to process this so that we are stronger for the future. Look at what is happening with the pandemic: so many initiatives have been started to make sure that we will not forget what is happening right now, that we will draw some very important lessons for the way we want prevent other pandemics from happening. It’s all about learning, so that you can be stronger and not buried by memories that prevent you from progressing.

The Baobab regrets the broken bonds between man and nature, the lost time “when men used to talk to us, the trees. We shared the same gods, the same spirits.” But also witnesses the courage of “ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things” as they fight together for survival. So is human collaboration the first step towards living in sync with nature?

Absolutely, as much as we can we have to find that respect for nature, not just because we want to be good to nature, but because we are dependent on the balance of the world, and if we break that balance we harm ourselves as well. So it’s a kind of pact – sometimes I think of it as a pact of non-aggression between man and nature, so that we can all live in some form of harmony. I know it sounds a bit too sweet and utopian, but it’s not. All you have to do is go to the park on a sunny day and see how much people enjoy being surrounded by nature, and the number of people who want to come closer to the ducks and the geese, and you can see that it is something deep inside man, this communication with nature.

It’s about the way we treat animals as well. Industrial farming is doing more harm than good, not only in the quality of what we eat, in the encouragement to consume too much, but also in the suffering we inflict on the animals that are farmed in that way – where the conditions are also of course an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of viruses and diseases.

The book also contains reports of familiar Third World scandals – millions stolen from international aid; and senior government officials seeking treatment abroad even for minor ailments while the country at large suffers. Is international aid in need of reform; or is it corrupt regimes that need to be most urgently addressed?

It’s both. I think the problem with international aid is when it’s a knee-jerk reaction. If you look at the Ebola crisis, it was only when it became more dangerous for Western countries, and it looked like the Ebola virus would not be contained within the West African region, that suddenly there was this strong will to get rid of that disease, and then a lot of money was pumped very quickly into these countries without accountability – you know, “Let’s get this thing done, let’s fix it,” – and this creates a very bad context in terms of encouraging people to commit all sorts of fraud. Look at today, concerning Covid, we hear that fraud has gone up. Look at the big scandal around the furlough system, for example, where a lot of people made false declarations because they wanted to take advantage of something that came from a real need to help people. There will always be individuals who are going to take advantage of the slightest breach. That’s why international aid needs to be looked at in a more durable way, not always in emergency mode. Of course you have to solve a problem, but at the end of the day we’re all going to be in a better state if there’s more prevention than quick action. We need to take the long view of aid and international collaboration. And let’s be careful not to encourage corruption, let’s be very clear about the objectives, and achieve those objectives by finding the right partners, the right people to talk to.

There are also tragedies in the book, such as the renowned faith healer who succumbs to Ebola, attracting hordes of followers to her funeral, hundreds of whom die as a consequence; and the head physician who succumbs after helping hundreds of patients recover. Are all of these human stories based on actual events?

Those ones, yes. The Ebola epidemic was almost covered by the media in real time, it was extremely intensive: really, really strong and very distressing images most of the time, but online you could find anything you wanted. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières had a website where you could see the plans of an Ebola treatment centre, down to the tiniest detail: where the patients enter, where they’re going to go next, where they’re going to be treated. By reading many testimonies I was able to find out a lot of information.

The healer who caused so many deaths when she was buried was a case that was discussed by a lot of medical experts because of the consequences of that burial, and a lot was learned from that – for example that the villagers needed to be informed as much as possible about the nature of the disease. It was at the beginning of the epidemic, and what came out of that terrible event was that all those involved in the fight against the epidemic understood that there had to be a campaign of communication, and so volunteers went to the villages to explain to the people what the disease was and how they could protect themselves. They also talked to the healers and said, “Look, we need to work together on this – you must talk to your patients so that they can go to the treatment centres if you know you cannot cure them.” So there was a collaboration between science and the healers on the ground.

Because modern medicine is very expensive, when a poor villager is given a prescription, they often can’t afford to pay for even a fraction of the medicines listed on the prescription.”

If I may add, conventional medicine, that is to say modern medicine, has failed in West Africa in many ways. Just after independence there used to be those big hospitals, but over the years they began malfunctioning, the equipment didn’t work anymore, was not replaced, and people started to associate going to the hospital with dying. And also, because modern medicine is very expensive, when a poor villager is given a prescription, they often can’t afford to pay for even a fraction of the medicines listed on the prescription. The consequence is that in rural areas people still go to the healer, who has a more holistic way of curing the patients. So it was necessary during the epidemic to understand that a collaboration had to be created between the medical workers and those people close to the majority of the patients.

The book ends on a hopeful note from the Baobab that “Strength to achieve a renewal may arise from a disaster… And the destiny of man will become one with ours.” How optimistic are you that humans have the capacity to live in harmony with nature and to limit the effects of future pandemics and climate change?

I think that there’s definitely a possibility there, especially if we understand that we have been through so much that we cannot just wait to go back to ‘normality’, because there was in fact nothing normal really about the way we lived. So I think we have a chance to change certain things, and find a bit more balance and equity in our lives. A lot of people want this, and a lot of people are working towards this, so I am optimistic that things will change in the right direction – and are already changing in the right direction. There’s a lot of pressure on governments to do better on the environment. It’s a battle, but I think it’s definitely something that’s happening now, there is a real change of mentality, and we can achieve much more than we might think. There’s no reason to be fatalistic. There is definitely a drive towards something different and more balanced.

You co-translated the book with John Cullen. How did that work?

It’s certainly a very interesting process, because it allows you to go from one culture to the other, and from one sphere to the other, and John Cullen’s collaboration was very important, because of course he’s a native speaker and he had the ear. The French version for me is a bit more lyrical, whereas the English version has put the emphasis on oralité, on expression, meaning you almost hear the characters speak. It started with a big draft in collaboration with someone else, and then it took several stages until the final version lifted off in that way in the final collaboration with John.

You are also a poet, an artist, an author of children’s books, and run workshops on creative writing and illustration. So what are you working on next?

I’m working on the next novel, I’m working on an essay on the environment, and so many other projects, collective works – I’m part of a collective mainly of African academics who are trying to help frame Africa’s response to the Covid pandemic. And as soon as I can return to Côte d’Ivoire, I’ll plan another exhibition as a painter.

In recent years you’ve been splitting your time between London and Abidjan, but as you say you haven’t been able to get out there. When were you last in Côte d’Ivoire, and how has your lockdown experience been generally?

I was in Côte d’Ivoire last March (2020), and the lockdown, what can I say? As a writer of course I am always in my books and in front of my computer writing, so in that sense isolation is something that we know as writers – and artists, as a matter of fact. But London for me has not been a bad place, because it’s very busy, and sometimes all you have to do is look out of the window and you see things happening. And also in England we have been allowed to go to the parks, which is something absolutely fantastic – there’s nothing better than a walk in the park, and even sometimes seeing some friends but at a distance is good enough. So all in all I’ve not been over-traumatised.

Finally, as an Ivorian, what does it mean to you to belong to a ‘young’ country with an ancient history that owes its name not only to colonial times, but to elephant slaughter and the systemic indifference of humankind to nature?

I wouldn’t say that Côte d’Ivoire is a young country. OK, as a country with borders it’s young, because of colonisation, and gaining independence only in 1960. But so many people have lived there for so many centuries, there is all that heritage that we carry within us. It’s a strange place in many ways, because modernity has clashed with tradition, and I’m always interested in looking at how that phenomenon is manifesting itself in our everyday life. It’s a theme that has been treated by numerous writers – Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and many more contemporary writers – but what interests me is to see how it is still going on, that we are still fighting these two tendencies, and trying to find an identity that will help us put our mark on the world today and reach our potential. But we’re still fighting against those two contradictory forces, so it’s interesting to watch what’s happening.

And as someone who is so in touch with nature, would you call for the country to be renamed because of its association with the ivory trade?

It used to be Ivory Coast in English, now it’s Côte d’Ivoire in all languages. It used to be Elfenbeinküste, it used to be Costa d’Avorio, and then they chose to give it the name Côte d’Ivoire. At the end of the day, it’s not a big deal. I mean, whether Burkina Faso used to be called Haute-Volta, at the end of the day the fate of people inside the country hasn’t changed much. It’s fine. For me, yes, if we find a nice name, OK, but I don’t think that’s really going to change the way people live and whether there’s more inequalities or better relationships between people, more happiness and harmony. I’m not sure it would make such a big difference. About Côte d’Ivoire I could add that there’s a big drive to save the elephants and to try and repopulate the herds.

So for as long as it remains Côte d’Ivoire…

Let’s just make sure our elephant population is thriving again.

 

Véronique Tadjo is a writer, academic, artist and author of books for young people. Born in Paris, she grew up in Abidjan, where she attended local schools. She earned a doctorate in Black American Literature and Civilisation from the Sorbonne, Paris IV, and attended Howard University in Washington, DC as a Fulbright scholar. She began writing and illustrating books for children in 1988 with her first book Lord of the Dance. She has lived in Paris, Lagos, Mexico City, Nairobi and London. After 14 years in South Africa where she was Professor and head of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she now lives in London. In the Company of Men is published in the UK by Small Axes (an imprint of Hope Road) in paperback and eBook, translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen.
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Author portrait © Odile Motelet

John Cullen in the translator of more than twenty books from French, Italian, German and Spanish. His translations of Margaret Mazzantini’s Don’t Move and Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul were shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Originally from New Orleans, he lives in Connecticut with the writer Valerie Martin.

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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