Gabriel is back in Kenya after a first stay as a doctoral student from Europe. As a young geographer, he had been commissioned to map the water points of Kibera, the huge and infamous Nairobi slum. If he did indeed leave after a few months with a map of the place, he also knows that he has missed their underground complexity: ” This cityhe said, liquefied as I shaped it. »
Four years later, still obsessed with the popular neighborhoods of the Kenyan capital, Gabriel plunges back into Kibera, this time focusing on retracing the particular destiny of two women, Mbonoko and Nancy Gloria. Thus is set the scene for Shores from where I watch over you, the first work of fiction by French author Jean-Baptiste Lanne. For this trip to the foundations of the city, its hero understood the need to open up to a world where the visible, the invisible, the terrestrial and the celestial coexist. Also the novel is structured around many mysteries.
Mystery of the characters first. Tel Joro, says ” the storyteller “. At the same time memory of Kibera, guide and companion of Gabriel, Joro takes the latter to meet Mbonoko, whom he describes as a woman phenomenon of almost 100 years “all in folds: folds in the eyes, folds in the neck, folds in the soul and in the kidneys”, and whose name, in Nairobi slang, means “something wrong”.
First known as a radio host, Mbonoko left her mark on the inhabitants of the slum, giving their problems and their lives a dimension of madness. The outcome of a cockfight, for example, becomes the measure of all decisions: “In seven days, believe me, everyone has put their lives back in the bevelled feathers of Providence. Send the kid to school? Stay ? Leave ? Sell the rice today? Tomorrow ? Will prices go up in January? Wait again? This year, when will the rains come? Redo my daub right away? The answer suddenly was extraordinarily clear: let’s wait for Sunday, let’s wait for the roosters! »
A city within the city
Raised in misery by sisters without affection, Nancy Gloria, she became aware very early on of the social violence of the slum. “These people, they didn’t invest anything. They lived as ghosts. In the village, they were warriors, farmers, clan leaders, shepherds with a hundred head of cattle. Women: mothers, storytellers, healers, respected traders. All of them found themselves servants in air-conditioned residences. Bitterness cracked their hearts. »
When a childcare program allows her to take classes at the Alliance Française, she uses this opportunity as a springboard to gradually create a place for herself in the sun. Shamelessly using false rumors and thanks to her innate commercial acumen, she soon becomes the one through whom her entire neighborhood must pass to access water and electricity. She also secures her reign by buying hairdressing salons whose employees soon form her network of informants: “From today, you are my eyes and my ears. Whatever these women say, bring it back to me.” she commands them.
By becoming adults, Mbonoko and Nancy Gloria will both hold their own in the great game of life where cynicism alone allows them to escape poverty: one by taxing without exception all those around him , the other expressing his authority through his fighting cocks. Through these two improbable characters, Jean-Baptiste Lanne depicts Kibera as a real city within the city, with its own laws and justice, its powers, its hierarchies, and where daily normality constantly yields to occult forces.
From tale to hallucination
Around Mbonoko and Nancy Gloria there is still a string of figures and as many life journeys, stories that the author skilfully embeds into each other, thus drawing readers into the mystery of an intrigue to which we are drawn. hang on without ever knowing which direction it will take. Finally, another mystery of this novel is doubtless to be found in its form, totally freed from the limitation to a single genre, capable of passing in turn from the false transcription of a story to poetic declamation in free verse, or even from tale to hallucination.
Investigation, dark novel, fantasy novel? Shores where I watch is all of these. We dive happily to discover a world where the little ones and the destitute find power. And where the shantytown, carried by a nervous language, sometimes disheveled to the point of onirism, reveals itself as the ultimate character: “Another city, yes, a counter-city, a daughter of fluids, a daughter of kidneys, superimposed on the first. In the back and forth of the hips, a city of opposite oscillation. »
Shores from where I watch over you, by Jean-Baptiste Lanne, ed. African presence, 328 pages, 15 euros.