The premise of the book I read from Benin can be described as follows: life is hard and then you die. The author, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, summed it up even more succinctly when he titled the book Snares without End.
According to Abioseh Michael Porter, who wrote the book’s introduction, while most of his contemporaries in Africa were writing books about colonialism, Bhêly-Quénum chose instead to write an existentialist novel. The book tells the story of Ahouna, who enjoys periods of happiness and good fortune, interspersed with periods of ruin and despair.
Ahouna’s childhood is happy. His father is a prosperous and important man in their village, and, as Ahouna said later, “Life was good. Existence easy.” But good fortune can change in an instant, as Ahouna discovered when his family’s livestock was suddenly stricken with anthrax and when their crops were later ravaged by locusts. Even worse, his father becomes a victim of a tragic injustice, which leaves the family reeling. As his mother observes, “Life, my dear little Ahouna, is a wasteland of rotting refuse, in which men devote their energies to futile, vain things, and build hopes on these. And yet you must continue relentlessly pursuing these trifles, if you want to go on living and feel that you are in fact alive. Everything is linked to these terribly meaningless things.”
In spite of that cheery bit of motherly wisdom, things do get better after that, for quite a long while. Ahouna falls in love, gets married, and starts a family. He is happy tending his family’s flocks, playing music on his kpété (a reed flute) or his tôba (a small bamboo harp). Everything is going well until the day his wife inexplicably turns on him, creating a rift between them that can’t be mended. Things become so bad that Ahouna leaves home, and then his downfall truly begins.
Ahouna seems to go back and forth in his mind about whether his wife has turned him into a monster, or whether he was always a monster and she merely brought this aspect of himself into the open. By the end of the book, his existence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him.
If my description makes Snares without End sound bleak, that’s because it is. This quote from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which appears both on the dedication page and in the novel itself, pretty well summarizes the author’s theme: “Know and believe firmly that your life must be a continual death.”
Snares without End was full of food references, so I assumed I would have no trouble making a good vegan recipe for this post. Boy, was I wrong! I thought I was going to make bean fritters, after reading in the book about an evening market, where “[t]here were cakes for sale, fritters and akassa balls…”. I found a recipe that seemed straightforward enough, and made the bean paste. But when I dropped it into the hot oil to fry, the paste completely disintegrated, leaving me with a pot of oily bean goo.
So I searched the Internet for more recipes from Benin and found one for baby bananas in orange sauce on a website called “Global Table Adventure.” Since there was a reference in Snares without End to the people of the village bringing Ahouna’s family “bunches of bananas, baskets of pineapples, avocado pears, naseberries, cashew nuts and pawpaws,” this recipe seemed appropriate.
It would have been simple enough to make except that I used red bananas like the creator of the recipe had used. I’d never had red bananas before, and they were a little tricky to work with. They don’t peel easily like regular bananas do, and they’re fairly hard, so they take a long time to cook. If I had it to do over again, I’d just use regular bananas. Everything turned out okay, though, helped in no small part by the scoop of vegan vanilla bean ice cream I served with the bananas.
I found several projects in Benin on the GlobalGiving website, so my only dilemma was which one to support. I finally settled on a project to bring education to poor rural children in Benin, undertaken by a British organization called Hands around the World. Money raised for this project will be used to provide flood-proof classrooms in Dogba village. More information about the Hands around the World “Schooling Children in Benin” project is available at http://hatw.org.uk/supporting-village-children-into-school-in-benin/
I’ll be on the road for the rest of the month, so there won’t be another blog post until early April. I may post occasional updates on The Booktrekker’s Facebook page, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/TheBooktrekker/. When I return…
NEXT STOP: BHUTAN
Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.