Lidou is by the standards of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, an affluent man. He is also a fortunate man, as he is married to two beautiful women whom he makes love to frequently. At the beginning of the novel he is mulling over whether he will bother to vote in the nation’s elections, both his wives have gone to queue in the intense heat so they can vote, but Lidou opts instead to read and re-read his French Real Estate Magazine. A few days later he is feeling anything but contented, he is only forty-nine and yet despite his beautiful wives he is unable to perform. He makes up his mind to procure whatever modern and traditional remedies he can find that will solve the problem. A few days later after exhausting his wives with his new found vigour, he experiences an intense debilitating pain in the chest as he reclines alone beneath a mango tree. When his wives return from mass they find their children crying over the dead body of their father.
Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou both grieve for their dead husband. But while they and their children keen and cry, Lidou’s friend Zouaboua, who had sent him the traditional medicine moves quickly to put his body onto his 4×4, runs into the family compound while the family are mourning outside, locks all the doors to Lidou’s office and remerges to inform the co-widows that the house is closed off. Ndongo Passy understands exactly what he is trying to do and attacks him, calling him a thief. A passionate woman, she claws at his face, drawing blood, having to be pulled off by intervening neighbours.
Zouaboua takes Lidou’s body to the hospital, “he knew the code, the great poem passed down through the oral tradition, that prescribed which small note should be slipped into the pocket of which small person, and what quantity of large notes should be placed in a large envelope for a larger person.” The doctor produces what Zouaboua had wanted, a medical report attributing Lidou’s death to foul play, poisoning. Back at the compound Ndongo Passy has broken down the locked doors with an axe, destroyed Lidou’s computers, and removed all ready money, which she shares with Grekpoubou.
What follows is a tussle between the co-widows and Zouaboua for control of Lidou’s assets. Despite the popularity of the two women and right clearly being on their side, their enemy is intent on using every underhand means to get it from them. Zouaboua is frequently humiliated by Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, but however much he is made a fool of, there is a saddening sense of inevitability about how shameless determination will win out in a corrupt system. One also gets a sense of a culture where people simply accept corruption because it is so pervasive and so difficult to root out, it is unfortunate, but what can one do? Zouaboua has worked in government for over a decade, so has numerous connections.
The two women both have very different responses to these events, Ndongo Passy is like a tigress. To call her a feminist, or a proto-feminist figure would be to miss the point that her fighting spirit is that of a woman who loves her deceased husband, her children, and loves Grekpoubou as a dear sister, it is the natural product of her great vitality and energy, a sort of Central African Boudicca (mercifully less violent though). There is too much of a modern tendency for unbelievable strong female protagonists, works of literature and cinema that savour of wish fulfilment. These trends are so frustrating, because female characters drawn from life, with spirit, passion and complexity, will always be more interesting and more memorable than a flattering soulless perfection.
Grekpoubou by contrast has none of her friend’s indignation, but it is clear that together they have formed a bond that has outlasted their marriage to Lidou. I know very little about the realities of polygamous relationships, but it must happen frequently enough that the women involved in them come to think of their fellow wives as a cherished family member. I think this was what I found unexpectedly so warming about this novel.
The novella gives one a strong sense of a place that is unlikely to be familiar to many western readers. I knew little about the Central African Republic before reading this book, but through looking up a few words here and there I feel a curtain has been drawn back on the life and culture of the country. I know that French is the language of the old colonial power, and that Sangho is the main African language. That districts in the capital Bangui are named on how many kilometres they are from the city centre PK 5, PK 12 denoting 5 or 12 kilometres. That kangoya is Palm Wine. That CAR’s second biggest city is curiously called Bimbo.
When reading a new book from a country I know so little about I am always apprehensive I will demand a bit too much of the writer, that I want them to read my mind, and give me enough local detail and colour for me to look up unique things from that country, but without sending me to my phone to look something up every paragraph. I think Co-Wives, Co-Widows has the right balance, giving you enough detail to know this story takes place in a real somewhere that many good people are trying to make into a good home, despite the Zouabouas of this world.