Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to address the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments Book Series, involved, often radical, scientific, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It provides debates and conversations, contexts and controversies, and reviews and answers that flow from the African Arguments books.
In January 2017, I traveled to Chad to interview a group of victims of the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré who had been jailed the previous year for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. On a hot evening, I took a taxi in a dusty N’Djamena back street to the home of Jacqueline Moudeina, one of the Chadian lawyers who are campaigning for justice on behalf of the victims. Jacqueline has always refused to play the hero, and it was hard to get her to agree to meet me. “I’m so tired of talking to journalists,” she said as she let me into her cool porch. “You all show up and want my time, and then you go away, make your money and never talk to me again.”
Jacqueline’s frustration with the fleeting obsessions of the news cycle prevailed. As I listened over a few days to the horrific stories of torture, murder, forced disappearance and expropriation in Chad in the 1980s, I wondered how many hundreds of times did these people act to whom they wanted to listen to what happened? How can any of us who have not gone through this really understand and witness the impact of such cruelty on people’s lives? All I could do was promise to tell their stories. It felt a little deceptive.
When I signed the contract for the English edition of my book, The trial of Hissène Habré, published in the African Arguments series, I wanted to make sure I did not forget Jacqueline’s words. I did not want to be that journalist who came, took the story and finally moved on to a new patch.
I chose to present my manuscript to Zed Books for several reasons, not the least of which is to ‘repatriate’ knowledge. Zed has had a long commitment to ensuring that its books are available in Africa, at affordable prices, and not as expensive hardcover types that are on the shelves of university libraries in the West.
Just writing the book was not enough. It seemed important to me that Habré’s victims could keep a physical copy of the book that tells their story, as if the book could be their record. To achieve this, it had to be in a language they could understand, and not my language.
Chadian Arabic is a dialect that is not commonly understood outside the Sahel and therefore I decided to translate it into French (which is quite common in Chad). Even that was a huge challenge. Zed supported the project, but we had to pay someone a professional rate for a translation. Although much money is available from the French government to translate the works of French writers to reach a wider audience, the British government does not share the same language paranoia. When it became clear that it was very difficult for a freelancer to apply for selected pots, I devised a plan with Stephanie Kitchen, managing editor of ‘African Arguments’. If I could increase half the translation costs (estimated at $ 4,000) through crowdfunding, the International African Institute (IAI) would agree to the funding. The IAI is prepared to support such efforts to further its objectives of disseminating knowledge across, within and within the African continent, and in recognition of the (colonial) barriers to sharing important work across (linguistic) boundaries. Stephanie has also had excellent ties with African publishers, including Sulaiman Adebowale in Dakar Amalion. Thanks to the generosity of a wide network of friends, Africanists and Francophone contacts, we reached the target within 6 weeks. We then instructed Youssoupha Féhé Sarr, Issa Sarr and Marie Ndiaye to carry out the work, and Sulaiman agreed to the published book.
I am delighted with the final product – a proper book at an affordable price with a beautiful cover. This French edition is already linked to the emerging network of West African bookstores, distributors and of course readers. Our next challenge is to secure a delivery of the books to Chad, which ironically / annoyingly still involves sending it via Europe. I hope to visit N’Djamena in the not too distant future and see this inspiring story on the shelves of small but vibrant bookstores in the city.