Véronique Tadjo, in her prelude to Queen Pokou (2009) states:
The legend of Abraha Pokou, Queen of the Baoule people, was told to me for the first time when I was about ten years old. I remember how the story of this woman, who sacrificed her only son to save her people, caught my imagination…
Pokou grew in me. I gave her a face, a life, feelings.
Pokou appeared again, in other guises, at other times, as if 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 Comoe river.
Abraha Pokou was born into a matrilineal dynasty of an Akan royal family in Ghana. Most claim her as an Ashanti, though there is a possibility she might be Brong. (Really, we need to do a much better job documenting our myths and legends). Her position, as the much-admired sister of the King, made her a powerful woman in the Kingdom. A fight for the crown among her male cousins and uncles broke out after the death of her brother. The victor, and resultant king, considered Pokou a threat to his power, and ordered a fratricide. Pokou and her followers fled west, with the soldiers of the king in pursuit. Her group came to a great river. With no means of a safe passage across the river, the high priest conferred with the gods. The gods demanded the sacrifice of a noble child. And Pokou, who had struggled to get pregnant, sacrificed her son and only child so her people could cross the river to what is now Cote D’Ivoire.
“Ba-ou-li; the child is dead”
The new kingdom was called Baloule, in honor of this great sacrifice.
On its own, this legend is quite powerful. But Tadjo’s re-telling gives it new meaning, urgency and a relevance to Africa’s myriad problems. Queen Pokou presents multiple versions of the legend. Yet, these differing scenarios do not read as separate or interconnected short stories. Each one echoes the others.
The first section, “The Time of Legend”, presents a complete version of the legend, one that closely approximates Pokou’s story. The narration is terse. As chilling as the paragraphs that describe the sacrifice are, this is the most emotionally-restrained of all the versions. The second section, “The Time of Questioning”, details and probes Pokou’s sacrifice. In the most personal and emotional version, Tadjo delves into Pokou’s pain. It reads like praise song:
Abraha Pokou, mighty with the blessing of the ancestors,
Abraha Pokou, who had been solemnly presented to the sacred totems;
Abraha Pokou, who had grown into a true beauty;
Abraha Pokou, the one of superior intellect;
Abraha Pokou whose courage allowed her to hold her head high in the most difficult of times.
Here, Tadjo is most tender and respectful. The narrative voice echoes our disbelief that Pokou is asked to perform this most unbearable and unbelievable of sacrifices. It asks:
To what divinity did they make such a sacrifice?
To whom did they offer up the death of the child?
And just where were Africa’s forgiving gods?
At the end, Pokou jumps into the river after her son. The two are reunited; Pokou becomes a mermaid and goddess of the river. In another version, Pokou refuses to sacrifice her son. Instead, she makes a stand against her uncle’s army. She loses the fight, is captured and sold into slavery. Hardship and more misery await on the shores of a new land. Another scenario depicts a woman hungry for power who does not hesitate to sacrifice her son for the chance to be queen. In “The Words of the Poet”, Tadjo questions the truthfulness of the legend itself:
Was the river actually a river? Was the enemy army not in some sense this flood tide in which Pokou and her parisans were about to drown?… Everything is possible in legend… And the child? Was he really a child? Was he rather not the symbol of all that the people held most dear but needed to give up, to abandon, in order to open up a path through the ranks of that powerful army?
Pokou is vulnerable, nurturing, wise, monstrous, cruel, strong but also rendered irrational and unstable by her plight. Quite a contradiction because Tadjo uses the legend to interrogate her society, its widely-held beliefs and cultural practices. She demonstrates how oral histories can change with each successive narration and how legends can be co-opted. I read this during the recent unrest in Tadjo’s homeland, Cote d’Ivoire. Elections, coups, dictatorships and whatever else may come. The bloody sacrifices demanded by African leaders in their quest for power continues unabated on the continent.
Queen Pokou, which won the 2005 Grand Prix Litteraire d’Afrique Noire, for all its 90 pages, is a powerfully rich book. Poetic, lyrical, evocative, enchanting and gut-wrenching. Tadjo is a master storyteller and now I’m intrigued by the enigmatic Abraha Pokou.
On the translation: According to the translator Amy Baram Reid, the author consistently pushed her “not only to find le mot juste, but to develop my own register for the work’s poetry”. Well, Reid must have done just that because this translation is more than sufficiently poetic. In fact, it’s superb. I think it can only be bested by the original French text.
Queen Pokou is highly recommended.
( My thanks to the publisher, Ayebia, for sending me the book. In Ghana, the book can be purchased at the Accra Mall bookstore)