by Thato Magano
On Tuesday, October 1st, 2019, the Department of French, Program in Comparative Literature and Center for African Studies hosted celebrated novelist, poet, painter, illustrator and visiting professor in the French department, the Paris born, and Côte d’Ivoire raised Véronique Tadjo. The event Writing in Difficult Times: Ebola 2014 was styled as a premiere of the anticipated English translation of her 2017 novel, En compagnie des hommes – The Whispering Tree. Sharing that Rutgers felt much like home as this is her third visit, Professor Tadjo described the visceral sensations that went into her writing about the 2014 iteration of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa broadly and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, specifically.
Reflecting on the dynamic circumstances that shaped her life and worldview – a child that was born out of and to travel, an adult who has lived in at least Rwanda and several countries on the African continent – her constant curiosity was the ways the local, to mean Abidjan and Côte d’Ivoire, was always altered by the experience of returning after months and years of being away.
This is why it hadn’t seemed strange that it was in late 2013 while living in South Africa when she first heard the news that a mysterious disease had been discovered in Guinea, later identified as Ebola, and in her travels throughout the continent and to Europe and the United States that she started questioning some of the perceptions the global reporting on the epidemic was creating. This is where the idea of the novel was birthed as she wondered about the quality of spectatorship. “What was the implication of this strange way of reporting the disease that is always mediated by commercial activity (advertising),” she asked herself. It was the incommensurate quality of experiences that created the story.
The novel became a meditation on the ways the epidemic changed social life in Abidjan due to the shared borders with Guinea and Liberia, where the disease was most prevalent. The intent was to highlight the human experiences and to demonstrate the ways in which we are all interconnected through various factors precipitated by capitalism and globalization:
“I wanted to show that much more happened with the epidemic than the media had reported on … One of the difficulties with Ebola is that there are five strains hence the difficulty to eradicate it. The current vaccine does not work for all the strains and different strains affect people differently … I wanted to start with people and end with people and show that the social and cultural dimensions of the disease are important.”
Readings from The Whispering Tree revealed that the novel embodied forms of the oral traditions to speak about the epidemic, employing various first-person voices that spanned human and non-human beings. These multiple voices, using a well understood medium in African literature, sought to make the scientific link between deforestation and Ebola to highlight the ways that the disappearance of animal habitation has resulted in a proximity to humans that makes the spread of the disease possible. It is the voice of the baobab tree that affirms the role of the forest to the past and future of mankind:
““We are the link, we bring humans to their past, to their present and their unpredictable future … Our consciousness dwells beyond space and time … You cannot cut down the forest without spilling blood … I am baobab, the everlasting tree, the mythical tree … Our roots search for water, our roots call the rain.”
This delightful experience was followed by a Q&A that delved more into questions of orality and voice; the ways ecological genocide has not been fully explored to give greater context to the epidemic, and how social life has evolved since the epidemic was first contained in 2014.