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Her:Story Lab - À travers des conflits

Edwige-Renée Dro 14.07.2023

Brought together by editor and literary curator Edwige Dro, "À travers des conflits – Her:Story Lab" summons four stories by female African writers which echo within the reader's minds for a long time. They inspire a thought process and perhaps even have the power to bring forth a lasting change in one’s behaviour. The women involved in this project encourage us to work on a future where conflict is met with tools to share our perspectives and our stories with the world.

"À travers des conflits – Her:Story Lab" is a publication project curated by Edwige-Renée Dro, is a writer, literary translator, and literary activist from Côte d’Ivoire and summons four stories exploring conflict in all its forms written by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Sandra Tamele, Mariette Tchamda and Laeïla Adjovi. The bilingual booklet (English and French) contains a foreword by Edwige-Renée Dro as well as the four stories and is available against donations to our association. You will find at our bookshop InterKontinental (Sonntagstr. 26, 10245 Berlin) or write a short email to and we can also send it to you per post.

To get an idea of what the booklet contains, you can read below the foreword of curator Edwige-Renéé Dro. 


When InterKontinental asked me to curate this short book of essays, I jumped at the chance. The topic of conflict – what it is, how does it come about, is there a moment where we can pinpoint that a conflict has occurred, and many other questions in that register are questions that I had been thinking about for quite some time in relation to one particular conflict: the war in my country, Côte d’Ivoire.

I remember talking about this to my friend, the writer Helon Habila, in Iowa in 2021 when I was there as a writing fellow on the International Writing Program, and he was there as a visiting scholar.

“I really want to read good fiction, or at least really good creative nonfiction about that war,” I remember telling him as we shared a glass of wine.

I might also have talked to him about my desire to read up more about this war that traumatized the country, in 2016, when we were both judges on the Etisalat Prize for Writing.

“Maybe you have to write about it,” he suggested.

But did I have the legitimacy to write about this war, was the question I asked myself.

Before I go any further, I have to say that in 2022, Nimba Éditions, an Ivorian publishing house re-edited Matins de couvre-feu by Tanella Boni, a novel set in 2004 in which she explored the many curfews Côte d’Ivoire lived under that period and the climate of suspicion that reigned then (and still reigns). When the book first came out in 2004, Tanella had to leave the country because some people close to the regime in power accused her of siding with the others. In 2009, L’avenir a rendez-vous avec l’aube[1], a poetry collection by the same writer was published at Vents d'ailleurs. Here again, she explored the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire but hopes that the country will heal. The historical, and perhaps the colonial origins of the war are explored in the poetry collection of Josué Guébo, Mon pays, ce soir[2]. The many peace agreements that were signed and the ballets of dignitaries to Côte d’Ivoire to seek an end to the war have also been written about by the Ivoiro-Cameroonian writer, Werewere Liking in many of her poetry.

On signa
À Marcoussis
On cria
Aux «Raccourcis»
On sombra
Dans des replis
On provoqua
D’autres conflits
On s’en fut tout déconfit
Pleins de haine et de dépit[3]

We signed
In Marcoussis
We decried
We sank
Into fallbacks
We provoked
Other conflicts
We left disconsolate
Full of hate and spite

So, the war has been written about, sung about, and even painted. But I’m still looking for something else, the human stories, the emotional costs borne. After all, the common Ivorian did not go to Marcoussis or Pretoria or Accra or Ouagadougou to sign a peace agreement that fell through as soon as the plane landed in Abidjan. How were people living in the areas under rebel control? What about the pregnant women disemboweled in the West of the country? Did the French army deliberately point their guns at young Ivorians who huddled around the Sofitel Ivoire in Abidjan in 2004 and kill many? And why is the war not called the war? Why do we refer to it as The Crisis, or The Events? Why is it not spoken about? This is a war that caused some 3,000 people to lose their lives, but again, the deaths counted are those who lost their lives between the post-election period of November 2010 to April 2011. Furthermore, when the time length of The Crisis is referred to, it is that period of 6 months. But what about the 2002 rebellion that split the country between so-called Muslim North and Christian South. Since when has Côte d’Ivoire had a Muslim North and a Christian South? When did this conflict effectively begin?

As the writer Werewere Liking writes in another one of her poems:

La crise ivoirienne ne date pas de 2002, ni même de 1999.
Je dirais avec le journaliste Zio Moussa, qu’elle remonte
Au moment sorcier où l’on accepta le terme « Miracle Ivoirien » !
Ce fut trop une injustice de nommer miracle les efforts acharnés
Le travail intelligent et persévérant de toute une Nation
Et de toutes ses populations cosmopolites
Guidées par un véritable patriote et visionnaire…
Non ce n’était pas un miracle, mais le juste résultat
D’une judicieuse coordination de rêves, de passions, de travail solidaire
Et d’une volonté ferme de rétribuer l’engagement individuel et collectif
La compétence et l’excellence de chacun et de chacune…
Appeler cela miracle était trop réductif et relevait
Sinon d’un mépris inadmissible, au moins de la mauvaise foi
Et aurait dû paraitre suspect au simple bon sens…
Or curieusement
On s’y complut orgueilleusement
On s’en gargarisa à souhait
Tuant les valeurs fondatrices du pays
Contenues dans sa devise
Dévaluant nos propres efforts…
Pas étonnant que le mérite du travail ainsi ridiculisé
L’union et la discipline ainsi piétinées,
L’on n’ait plus dû compter
Que sur des parrains nébuleux
Et les miracles fallacieux
Et depuis lors,
Les germes de la crise ivoirienne étaient bien plantés
Copieusement engraissés et arrosés.
Ils n’attendaient plus que la bonne saison
Pour offrir toute leur miraculeuse récolte :
Coups d’Etats, Rébellions, escadrons puis bataillons…[4]
The Ivorian crisis did not start in 2002, or even 1999.
I would agree with the journalist Zio Moussa that it goes back to
To the sorcerous moment when the term "Ivorian Miracle" was accepted!
It was too much of an injustice to call a miracle the strenuous hard work
The intelligent and persevering work of an entire Nation
And its cosmopolitan populations
Guided by a true patriot and a visionary...
No, it was not a miracle, but the just result
Of a judicious coordination of dreams, passions, united work
And a firm determination to reward individual and collective commitment
The skills and excellence of each and every one...
To call it a miracle was too simplistic and a sign of
If not inadmissible contempt, at least bad faith
And should have been suspect to simple common sense...
But curiously
People proudly indulged in it
They gargled with it to their heart's content
Killing the founding values of the country
Contained in its motto
Devaluing our own efforts...
No wonder the merit of hard work was ridiculed
Union and discipline so trampled underfoot,
We have had to rely
on nebulous sponsors
And false miracles
And ever since,
The seeds of the Ivorian crisis were well planted
Copiously fertilised and watered.
All they were waiting for was the right season
To yield their miraculous harvest:
Coups d'états, rebellions, squads and battalions...

So, it wasn’t the rebellion of 2002, or the coup d’État of 1999, or even the Ivoirité concept of 1995 that sought to categorize Ivorians according to when their ancestors arrived in the territory known after 6th of August 1960 as Côte d’Ivoire. It was that supposed Miracle Ivoirien – the Ivorian Miracle – boosted by sales of cocoa and coffee, inspiring Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first President of Côte d’Ivoire from 1960 to 1993, to coin his famous saying: Le succès de ce pays repose sur l’agriculture (The success of this country rests on agriculture). Only that a success that rested on raw material exports alone was never going to be that miraculous. From the early 1980s onwards, trouble appeared on the land – Houphouët who was just beginning to get the venerable nickname of “Le vieux” (The Old Man) quelled it, this time, hiding his iron hand in the velvet glove. Gone were the days when he sent opponents, suspected or imagined, to an underground prison in his village (where incidentally, the biggest Basilica in the world is built) and tortured them there. Being sent into exile or being killed was a fate reserved to a lucky few. But in the early 1980s, as cocoa prices dropped and students on campus and the underprivileged developed their own language – Nouchi – and began having conversations that he could no longer control because he couldn’t understand them, he changed tactics, deciding to be magnanimous, telling us that he was doing all that he was doing so that we didn’t end up like the Liberians and the Ghanaians and the Malians and the Burkinabe, and even the Nigerians who were running away from their countries because of wars, coup d’États, decline in the value of their currencies, secessions.

But calling a people’s hard work miraculous, as Werewere Liking writes, is reductive and sows seed of a crisis. Because those plantations of cocoa didn’t come to groan under the weight of cocoa pods through a miracle. Because that would mean that there was a miracle maker: Houphouët. And no people, however scared and muzzled, will accept such an erasure. By the mid-eighties, voices were calling out for a multi-party system; in 1990, that became reality in Côte d’Ivoire and Houphouët lost some of his aura. In that same year, university students and other young people took to the streets, shouting “Houphouët, voleur” – Houphouët, thief – parents held their breaths, perhaps in fear but also in admiration. The admirable audacity! When the International Monetary Fund posed as an aid condition the designation of a Prime Minister, a first in the history of the country, astute observers noted that we had entered a new era. Houphouët had lost his grip on the country and scared nobody anymore.

But I have wondered if all the unsaid of all those years since the independence (and who knows, even from before independence) had to erupt in the violence we began living under from 2002, reaching its culmination in 2011 when corpses lined the streets of Abidjan. Is that why the war is not mentioned by name, because apart from 2004 when it looked like the country would plunge headlong into a civil war, the conflict had remained confined to the zone under rebel control: the North, the West, and some cities in the Centre. Speaking of legitimacy to speak then, until some 7 years ago, I kept quiet when the questions became probing.

Were you in the country during the war?

The question designed to shut you up, although responding YES is no guarantee that your arguments, ponderings, and questions will be considered valid.

Were you in Abidjan?

Only a yes to this question will keep you in the conversation.

Perhaps I kept quiet out of shame, because I wasn’t living in Côte d’Ivoire then? After all, I wasn’t the one who had to live through the sounds of Kalashnikovs or shells landing or an impossibility to get medicine or having to crawl in gutters to protect myself from soldiers firing or hiding in the boot of a car to leave Abidjan, and the banking system kaput. But I lived through my parents calling me in 2004 while I was in England, telling me that the rebels had entered Yamoussoukro and perhaps Yamoussoukro would fall.

“Where will you go?” I asked my father in tears.

“To the Basilica. That’s where everyone is going. But if we don’t see each other anymore, we love you. Make us proud.”

I too nearly lost my brother as Abidjan fell into the hands of the rebel army, which quickly became the republican army and the republican army becoming the rebel army. So, excuse-me for no longer choosing to encumber myself with any feeling of illegitimacy. So, what if I wasn’t in Côte d’Ivoire, let alone Abidjan? The war affected me because my kith and kin were affected, and because we have not resolved the issues that led to war, I have to fend off questions tainted with undertones of xenophobia like:

Where are you from?

Dro? Which part of you is a Dro?

And where is that accent from?

Questions that, unbeknown to the questioners, are sowing the seeds of a conflict regarding notions of patriotism and belonging. Add to that the seeds of patriarchy, malpractices hiding under notions of culture and traditions, rampant religiosity, a country struggling to heal and a country confronting for the first time since independence its relationship with its former (current?) colonizer and we have an explosive pot-pourri of conflict en route. How will it manifest itself? I don’t know.

In curating this book of essays then, I wanted to explore how conflicts are born, how the bigger conflicts taking place ‘out there’ are also affecting us, as a collectivity or as individual. Today, when we speak of religion in many parts of West Africa, our failsafe response is to fall back on the religions brought to us by the colonizers: Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other, as if before those religions, our ancestors were just walking around with no notions of wanting something beyond themselves. Knowing that Laiela Adjovi works on questions of transmission and religions that were present before the transatlantic trade and how those religions have been preserved in places like Cuba, I really wanted her take on that clash, and sometimes incompatibility of world values.

Speaking of the world, I have always wondered why something gets value because a specific someone has spoken about the issue. This has come even more on the forefront since the War in Ukraine whereby sometimes, the ‘international community’ (to mean France, Germany, the US, and the UK, because that’s how these countries together are referred to in countries like mine) has wanted to know where (certain) African presidents and, or intellectuals stood. Don’t we have the right to be as removed from the War in Ukraine as others are to from the war in Côte d’Ivoire, in the anglophone part of Cameroon, in Burkina Faso, in Mali? Furthermore, this is where we speak of colonization. As much as we would like to go forth, we go forth when past issues have been brought about in the open, and an attempt has been made to resolve them. What does it mean to be a francophone Cameroonian today, to be in a so-called majority and therefore belong to the group of the privileged? Evidently, Mariette’s essay does not, and cannot speak to the experience of every (francophone) Cameroonian today but articulating or beginning to articulate the things we see and experience around us is necessary.

I must add that I didn’t prescribe the topic each of the writers should explore in their essay, but these are brains that I have been listening to for a while now, and hearing their thoughts on any topic is a privilege to me. I have read a couple of essays and listened to talks by Sylvia Ilahuka and Sandra Tamele, and I wanted more of their compassionate and very probing writing styles and voices. It was a joy then for me to see it written in black and white what I had felt about being seen as a stranger in my country, and nodding emphatically at the energy that I too used to spend proving that I’m from Côte d’Ivoire, and not being at ease because you don’t eat this or that food, because you are following your own path, and those whom you call your people are looking at you askance because you are not behaving the way you are supposed to be behaving.

Finally, because I’m a translator, I enjoyed how InterKontinental translated the title: Through Conflicts in French. A travers DES conflits. Not LES conflits in the sense of defined conflicts but DES conflits, undefined conflicts; conflicts which you cannot put your finger on but are/might be there. Perhaps because one person’s conflict is another’s crisis, or events?

Whether these essays in this collection are crisis, events, or conflicts to you, or even nothingness, my hope is that you read them at least as DES conflits.

With love, from Abidjan

Edwige-Renée Dro

[1] The Future Has An Appointment With The Dawn, translated into English by Todd Fredson and published in 2018 by University of Nebraska Press

[2] My country Tonight, translated into English by Todd Fredson and published in 2016 by Action Books

[3] Werewere Liking – L’Eternelle Reine de Peintures et de Poésies, Éditions Tabala

[4] Werewere Liking – L’Éternelle Reine de Peintures et de Poésies, Éditions Tabala

Edwige-Renée Dro is a writer, literary translator, and literary activist from Côte d’Ivoire. Her short stories and articles have been published in anthologies such as New Daughters of Africa, Africa39, the Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, This is Africa, etc. As a literary translator, she has mentored emerging literary translators as part of the Bakwa Literary Translation workshop that birthed the anthology Your feet will lead you where your heart is / Le crepuscule des âmes soeurs. She is also the translator of the anthology Les oiseaux d’eau sur la rive du lac / Water birds on the lakeshore (English and French), the children’s book Rêve d’oiseau by Shenaz Patel, the short story Petit Pa by Hemley Boum, etc. In 2020, she founded “1949: the library of women’s writings from Africa and the black world” in Abidjan were she also lives today.