February 7, 2012 by markstani
First, a disclaimer of sorts. I’ve been fascinated by Chad since I can remember. I had a small globe I’d spin, reeling off the names of nations made familiar by news headlines or World Cup campaigns. Slap-bang in the centre of Africa, light green and strangely desolate-looking, Chad was neither of those. It was a mystery, and still is. I’ve hoovered up every bit of information I can lay my hands on since. I know, for instance, that the nearest Chadian Embassy to the UK is in Belgium, and that it’s possible to fly to its capital, N’Djamena, with Air France via Paris. It’s a journey I’ve vowed to make.
The Chad portrayed in Joseph Brahim Seid’s Told By Starlight in Chad sounds eminently welcoming. This is not a Chad ravaged by war and famine, routinely listed as one of the world’s poorest and most corrupt nations; the so-called ‘Dead Heart of Africa’.
Seid’s Chad is one of abundance: a ‘vast paradise’ of sand and gold where ‘birds don all their colours and the air vibrates with their melodious song’. A land whose children love nothing better than sitting out under the stars to listen to the myths and legends of their elders.
This slim, seventy-page volume ostensibly consists of those campfire stories. They feature great warriors, impossibly beautiful daughters and great, mythical beasts. Most possess morals which have presumably sustained Chadian children through centuries.
Brahim Seid’s intense love for his country shines through from the book’s preface, which ends:
During all these seasons, the children of Chad are the happiest under the sun. When they are not working in the fields, they roam all over the bush picking wild fruit; armed with their assegais, they hunt guinea fowl, hare, porcupine and gazelle. One of their favourite pastimes, to this day, is to lie in wait for the teals and moorhens in pools strewn with water lilies. They are passionately fond of the large gatherings after nightfall, when the elders recount the most beautiful tales, which sometimes never end and must be resumed evening after evening under the light of the moon.
Brahim Seid was a well-known Chadian author and politician who died in 1980. This, his only book translated into English, was published in 2007 by Africa World Press, who have offices in Eritrea and New Jersey. Clearly, it occupies a unique position in the marketplace. But while its remit avoids contemporary issues, it shines a unique light on the history and traditions of a country whose people have been hewn together from the many tribes who passed through on trans-Saharan trade routes, leaving as their legacies a rich mix of cultures and religions which must co-exist to this day.
Seid’s fourteen short stories are beautifully written and richly evocative (much credit must also go to Karen Haire Hoenig for the seamless translation and the desire to take on such an unusual project in the first place). Seid has done his homeland a valuable service in consigning them to paper, ensuring that they will be preserved for many more generations, whatever Chad’s future may hold.
This book was reviewed as part of the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinnareads.