Véronique Tadjo (Translation by Amy Baram Reid)
(Ayebia Clarke 2009); pbk. £8.99
Véronique Tadjo; author, scholar, artist, educator, brings us her unique take on the original myth of the Baoulé people of Côte D’Ivoire Queen Pokou: Concerto for a Sacrifice; it won the 2005 Grand Prix Littéraire D’Afrique Noire. Parisian-born Tadjo was brought up in Abidjan by her French mother and Ivorian father; such a cultural heterogenity may explain both the motives behind Tadjo’s selection of the genus myth and the unique and multi-faceted way in which she is able to view it.
Queen Pokou tells the story of Abraha Pokou, an Ashanti Princess who escapes the threat of assassination in her homeland (Ghana) and, through the sacrifice of her baby son to the gods of the river Comoé is able to lead her followers across the treacherous river to a new land (Côte D’Ivoire). However, for Tadjo, the story is not so simple. In the prelude, Tadjo explains how the story of Pokou was first told to her as a ten year old, how she later re-encountered her in a high school history textbook and how she was haunted by the tale during the years of violence that have blighted Côte D’Ivoire. Both Baram Reid, in her postscript, and Kofi Anyidoho in his introduction, allude to the myth having been used by Côte D’Ivoire’s former President Félix Houphouët- Boigny to bolster feelings of nationalism in the country (and conversely how such differentiation myths can be used to justify ethnic violence). Perhaps it is not surprising then, given both the personal and national significance of the tale, that Tadjo says “Pokou grew in me. I gave her a face, a life, feelings…the legend could be told an infinite number of ways. I revisited it again and again in an effort to resolve the enigma of this woman; this mother who threw her infant into the Comoé River.” Resolving that enigma is exactly what Tadjo sets out to do inQueen Pokou.
Opening with “The Time of Legend”, Tadjo presents us with the most traditional version of the story. This telling is the overture to Tadjo’s concerto. Characters take second place to the importance of the narrative. In this version Pokou must simply play the part in her own legend and no further questioning of her motives is carried out. Our only clues to the mother’s anguish are her cries of “Ba-ou-li: the child is dead!” from which the name Baoulé comes. This cry is clearly one of Tadjo’s points of departure. The idea that Pokou willingly sacrificed her child is belied by this heartrending proclamation.
In the second part of the book the myth is turned on its head. In “Abraha Pokou: The Fallen Queen”, disturbing imagery of the river’s effect on the child’s corpse, and the portrayal of Pokou as “weaker and more fragile than the most ordinary of women”, rather than as the warrior queen, bring the human element of the myth to life. “The Atlantic Passage” explores both the possible outcome if Pokou had refused to sacrifice her child, and the horrors of the slave trade. “The Queen Pulled from the Waters” examines the themes of grief and madness. “In the Claws of Power” the ideas of ambition and hunger for power emerge. Through this constant retelling and reforming, Tadjo invites us to question the story, its origins, and its outcomes. By reconfiguring Pokou as a different woman with different feelings, actions and destinies, Tadjo makes Pokou into an Everywoman but, simultaneously, a woman who seems unable to escape her destiny to become a leader and to lose her child. The dialogue invites us to revisit our own legends and myths; .and to develop new stories from the originals. Tadjo shows how such explorations can serve to give the original tale added depth and dimensions.