Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan : A Decidedly African Report on the Probo Koala Affair

As the title Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan[1] (2012) and the cover image of a cargo ship with the word Trafigoura (an obvious modification of Trafigura) on it suggest, this bande dessinée is inspired by the ecological disaster and international controversy of the 2006 Probo Koala affair. In the avant-propos, Cameroonian cartoonist Japhet Miagotar cites this deplorable series of events as the inspiration for his bande dessinée, explaining that the Probo Koala affair and its aftermath are highly symbolic of the ways in which certain multinational corporations view the African continent.



In August of 2006, the Probo Koala, a cargo ship registered in Panama, entered the port in Abidjan, Ivory Coast after having already attempted to dock elsewhere in Europe and Africa (including Amsterdam and Lagos) in order to dispose of a large quantity of toxic waste from the Dutch-based shipping company Trafigura. The Probo Koala’s brief stay in Abidjan lasted as long as it took local subcontracted workers to unload the hazardous materials that were then discretely dispersed throughout the city.[2] Within weeks, tens of thousands of people were treated for exposure to chemical waste and the dumping eventually led to over a dozen deaths.[3] While Dutch and Ivorian courts unsuccessfully brought criminal charges against Trafigura executives for illegally dumping toxic waste and knowingly trying to cover it up (which, ironically, led to Trafigura attempting to bring a libel cases against British lawyers and news outlets[4]), it was not until 2010 that Trafigura was forced to pay a fine, having finally been found guilty.[5] In the interim, though Trafigura denied all liability, the company settled out of court with the Ivorian government for a sum of $198 million to clean up the toxic waste and while Trafigura employees were never convicted, the Ivorian subcontractors were tried in Abidjan and those overseeing the disposal of the waste throughout Abidjan were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.[6]


Probo Koala with graffiti exclaiming: “Europe poisons Africa”

This contemptible treatment of the African continent as a dumping ground for industrialized waste and the blatant inequity between those actually convicted of crimes (African subcontractors) and those acquitted of crimes (Trafigura) constitute the driving force for Miagotar’s Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan.

The tenth installment of the Harmattan BD[7] series directed by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie, Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan reveals Miagotar, recipient of a 2008 Africa e Mediterraneo award[8]—as a masterful storyteller who blends a distinct visual style with relatable characters thus rendering the complexity and scale of the Probo Koala affair approachable for the average reader. In addition, embedded in Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan is Miagotar’s desire to produce a decidedly African bande dessinée both at the level of form and content. That is to say, Miagotar’s visual aesthetic coupled with the choice of subject matter and narrative strategies present readers with an exploration of the Probo Koala affair from the point of view of the African continent.

In his article “L’Anthropologie au cœur de la bande dessinée: Pertinence d’une bande dessinée africaine avec des personnages issus de la statue africaine,”[9] Japhet Miagotar asks whether the tendency among African cartoonists to imitate mainstream visual influences—specifically those of American Comics, Japanese Manga, and Franco-Belgian Bandes Dessinées—is satisfactory and critiques the perception of African bandes dessinées as little more pedagogical, didactic, exotic, and proverb-laden stories. Though Miagotar admits these types of African bandes dessinées have the advantages of conserving, promoting, and spreading oral traditions, he goes on to assert that they simultaneously have the effect of reinforcing exotic stereotypes of Africa already in circulation in the West.

As an alternative, Miagotar praises the benefits of revisiting traditional African art forms and argues that such an approach would generate a visual diversity in African bandes dessinées that is inspired by and reflects the diversity of local cultures in Africa. As a practical example of this approach, he describes his intricate technique for rendering three-dimensional African statues into two-dimensional drawings for his bande dessinée characters.


Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan (p. 22)

A cursory glance at Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan might suggest a contradiction to Miagotar’s main argument that African bandes dessinées should look to other African arts for inspiration as a means of avoiding reinscribing exotic stereotypes due to the highly geometric and icon-driven visual character of the bande dessinée. Indeed, the lack of shading, the use of matte colors, and the choice of matte black and white for the characters in conjunction with the ostensibly unchanging nature of the statue-inspired characters would seem to promote an exoticized representation of Africa. However, Miagotar’s aesthetic—the result of studying Fang sculpture and culture and of a reflective appropriation and adaptation of Fang sculpture—has the dual function of presenting readers with a visually innovative bande dessinée and generating a genuine interest in traditional African arts.

For Miagotar, the specific choice of Fang sculpture and his anthropological and philosophical inquiry into how to transform the three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional drawing also necessarily includes a formal analysis of the complexity of Fang sculpture and, consequently, an appreciation of Fang culture. Moreover, reading through Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan, the reader recognizes the extraordinary expressiveness and dynamism of the characters that Miagotar achieves through an intelligent and insightful use of framing, scale, body language, color choice, and composition.

Similarly, just as his deft appropriation and transformation of Fang sculpture seeks to move beyond an overly simplistic view of African art as little more than fetishes, Miagotar’s narrative choices work to humanize the Probo Koala affair, focusing specifically on the particularly human desires (including greed, lust, and vanity) of those (mainly in Europe and on the cargo ship) who knowingly plotted the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan. Indeed, in its portrayal of those responsible for the dumping, this bande dessinée enacts a kind of symbolic justice. Cargaison mortelle à Abidjan, as a result, invites readers to delve beyond the surface of things—in this case both African art and international controversies—in favor of more socially and culturally conscious understanding.

[1] Deadly Cargo in Abidjan








[9] “Anthropology at the Heart of Bande Dessinée: The Pertinence of an African Bande Dessinée with Characters Derived from African Statues”

Against Silence: La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994

Published in March 2014 on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994 (The Gods’ Fantasy: Rwanda 1994)[1][2] is the result of a collaborative effort between cartoonist Hippolyte and journalist and cofounder of the French magazine XXI Patrick de Saint-Exupéry. An added sticker on the front cover describes the text as “Une BD reportage au cœur du génocide” (A journalistic BD at the heart of the genocide), while the back cover blurb highlights the underlying question at the heart of the text: how to tell the tale of the genocide in the absence of words and in the face of the silence generated by the genocide.

La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994

La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994

La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994 simultaneously serves as a continued effort to implicate those responsible for the genocide (both in Rwanda and in France) and as a kind of commemoration of the genocide through Saint-Exupéry’s account of what he witnessed in 1994 while reporting on the genocide. In fact, the two epigraphs underline the dual goals of the text. On the one hand, the first quote comes from during the summer of 1994 by then-French President François Mitterrand in which he states that a genocide in Rwanda isn’t too important. In light of the extensive research into France’s role—specifically Mitterrand’s unquestionable knowledge of the threat of genocide in Rwanda and his up-to-date awareness of the events of the spring of 1994—by journalists such as Linda Melvern[3],[4] and Saint-Exupéry[5] himself, the choice of Mitterrand’s quote emphasizes the nefarious character of France’s knowing complicity in the genocide. On the other hand, the second quote comes from Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel about the genocide, Murambi: The Book of Bones,[6] originally published in 2000 as part of the Fest’Africa project “Rwanda: Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” (Rwanda” Writing as a Duty to Memory). The quote taken from Diop’s novel points to the paradoxical nature of the memory of genocide in that, the more time passes, the less one forgets. In addition to the continuing acts of commemoration and remembering of the genocide through the erection of memorial sites and through cultural production—of which La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994 is a part—the varied and sustained aftermath of the genocide seen in both the political instability of the region (in particular the on-going war in eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and in recent court trials of genocide perpetrators who fled to other countries (e.g. Canada,[7] Uganda,[8] and France[9]) reminds us of the still-pressing and urgent need to fight against forgetting and, in fact, work to understand the genocide and what has happened, and is still happening, since 1994.

In La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994, rather than present readers with a chronology of the genocide, Saint-Exupéry and Hippolyte chose to focus on one specific aspect of the genocide to avoid overgeneralizing.[10] In this case, they chose to focus on the events in western Rwanda in and around Kibuye (located on Lake Kivu) and Bisesero that Saint-Exupéry experienced firsthand as he accompanied a unit of French soldiers sent to Rwanda as part of Operation Turquoise—an ostensibly humanitarian effort that also surreptitiously functioned as a protected corridor from Rwanda to eastern DRC for genocide perpetrators.

Told primarily from Saint-Exupéry’s point of view, the narrative unfolds as an extended flashback. However, the frame narrative of Saint-Exupéry’s return to the region with French cartoonist Hippolyte in 2013 in preparation of the bande dessinée, establishes a mise en abyme of witnessing and recounting. In the extended flashback, Saint-Exupéry meets both genocide perpetrators and survivors who recount their experiences before the arrival of the French soldiers as well as their current situation; while some of the perpetrators that Saint-Exupéry meets are delighted at the sight of the French soldiers and believe that they have come to support what they have been doing, many survivors, especially in Bisesero, explain to Saint-Exupéry that they are still under the constant threat of being found and murdered and they plead with the soldiers and with Saint-Exupéry as well to protect them. During the frame narrative set in 2013 in the same region upon Saint-Exupéry’s return with Hippolyte, Hippolyte bears witness to Saint-Exupéry’s testimony of what he saw, heard, and experienced in 1994. In this regard, the reader is placed alongside Hippolyte as an outsider listening to Saint-Exupéry’s 20 years’ worth of reflection.

The representation and comprehension of the genocide thus operate on two levels. On the one hand, the extended flashback depicts the confusion and unpreparedness of Saint-Exupéry and the French soldiers in the face of the reality of the genocide and the growing awareness of France’s involvement. On the other hand, in the context of the frame narrative, the account given by Saint-Exupéry to Hippolyte is undoubtedly informed by almost 20 years of rigorous investigation into the reasons for and interworkings of the genocide on the part of Saint-Exupéry (including the publication in 2009 of Complices de l’inavouable: la France au Rwanda [Accomplices of the unspeakable: France in Rwanda]). In effect, the reader experiences Hippolyte’s psychological undertaking of witnessing Saint-Exupéry’s testimony of what happened to him and what he saw in 1994. The text is, in many ways, Hippolyte’s testimony of his experience of contemporary Rwanda onto which is superimposed Saint-Exupéry’s experiences and, by extension, events from during the genocide. Hippolyte’s aesthetic approach thus attests to his own encounter with Rwanda (including a handful of black and white photographs he took while in Rwanda, as is his tendency with his other journalistic bandes dessinées) and to Saint-Exupéry’s well-informed and complex vision of Rwanda. In fact, this dual mode creates a tension throughout the text that is also reflected in text’s title.

Hippolyte's photography

Hippolyte’s photography

The meaning of the title—explained by de Saint-Exupéry as a description of the beauty of Kibuye in western Rwanda—accentuates an important dichotomy about Rwanda to which many other writers and artists have pointed[11]: namely, the extreme juxtaposition of the beauty of the country and the ugliness of the genocide. Indeed, specifically in the visual medium of the 9th Art, this tension is continually reinforced. In La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994, Hippolyte’s careful attention to the aesthetic of the BD is evidenced in the watercolored images and hand-drawn frames. Furthermore, the color palette, dominated by blues—primarily the sky and Lake Kivu—and yellowy-greens—mainly the rolling hills for which Rwanda is known and the army fatigues of the Operation Turquoise unit with which de Saint-Euxpéry traveled—does much to maintain the tension between beauty and ugliness.

Rwandan countryside

Rwandan countryside (from Hippolyte’s blog)

However, it is important to point out that Hippolyte strays from over-sensationalizing the gruesome violence meted out during the genocide. In fact, even the dead are depicted as part and parcel of the gorgeous countryside, becoming the landscape in their silence.


French President François Mitterrand gracing the first page of the text.

No, the ugliness in this particular bande dessinée is focalized in the close-ups of those responsible for the genocide—in particular the French officials who knowingly refused to step in until after hundreds of thousands of people had already been murdered—and in the close-ups of those, like Saint-Exupéry himself, who witnessed the destructive force and sheer enormity of the genocide. For example the opening pages present the reader with a cold, gray scene in which Mitterrand calmly sips on a drink served to him in his luxurious Elysée Palace office where he is going over documents that date back to 1990 in which the French ambassador in Kigali warns of a looming genocide. Mitterrand’s distant and closed expression suggest his unwillingness and conscious decision to not act on behalf of the Rwandan people because of his ties to those already in power in Rwanda, in particular President Juvénal Habyarimana and his wife Agathe. Later in the text, instead of presenting the reader with gruesome murders, Hippolyte focuses attention on the faces and expressions of the French soldiers. Through the repetition of shocked expressions and the move from close ups to extreme close ups of the soldiers’ faces and then eyes, he draws our attention to their traumatic witnessing of the effects of the genocide.

In large part, the ripple effect of recounting and accounting for genocide in La Fantaisie des Dieux: Rwanda 1994 functions as an antidote to the heavy, deafening silence of genocide, introduced at the beginning of the text, underlined throughout, and restated at the end: “Un génocide… c’est d’abord du silence. Un silence étourdissant” (p. 82-83) (“A genocide … first, it’s silence. A deafening silence”). Thus, the answer to the question posed on the back cover—“Comment raconter?” (How to recount?)—is ultimately, and precisely, to recount.

[1][All translations are my own unless otherwise stated].










[11] For example, Jean-Philippe Stassen’s BD reportage Pawa: Chroniques des monts de la lune (2002) also contrasts the ugly violence of the genocide (i.e. “Pawa,” meaning power, was an important rallying cry of the Hutu Power movement) with the renowned beauty of the region (through the reference to the cartographic term—Mountains of the Moon-used to describe the region in Antiquity that was later taken up by English explorers in the 19th century) in its title.