Madame Livingstone: Congo, la Grande Guerre

CoverSoaring high over the African landscape in his Short Admiralty 184 seaplane, Gaston Mercier, an officer and a pilot in the Royal Belgian army, marvels at the beautiful flora and fauna below him and the blue African sky above him in the opening pages of Madame Livingstone: Congo, la Grande Guerre. And though he descends and lands on Lake Tanganyika to arrive at Albertsville in the Belgian Congo, this bande dessinée strays far from the trappings of an exoticized, colonialist vision of Africa as the Dark Continent. Rather, it features a story of friendship that sheds light on a forgotten dimension of the Great War (1914-1918).

Opening splash page.

Opening splash page.

Set in what is now the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madame Livingstone follows Gaston Mercier who befriends the intelligent and mysterious Madame Livingstone, a kilt-wearing local who claims to be the métis[1] son of famed Scottish explorer David Livingstone, while the two search along the Congo river and Lake Tanganyika for the feared German warship the Graf von Götzen[2] in order to sink it. Through his friendship with Livingstone, Mercier discovers an Africa far removed from the exotic images in circulation in Europe and from the assumptions undergirding the entire Belgian colonial endeavor and social hierarchy. As a result, Mercier—a proxy for readers—begins to question the ethical framework of European colonialism in general and the treatment of the local population by European colonists in particular. Indeed, after working with Madame Livingstone, Mercier voices his concerns and often attests to Livingstone’s intellectual acuity and charisma, much to the disdain of his countrymen from Belgium and his commanding officers.

Map of Africa during WWI.

Map of Africa during WWI.

Published earlier last month by Glénat in conjunction with the 100th anniversary[3] of the beginning of World War I, Madame Livingstone—masterfully illustrated by celebrated Congolese artist and musician Barly Baruti and written by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie from a story by Apollo—delights with the beauty of the central African landscape while plunging into the rich sociocultural complexity of colonial life in the Belgian Congo.

Mercier marveling at the central African landscape.

Mercier marveling at the central African landscape.

Much of the joy of reading Madame Livingstone derives from Barly Baruti’s intuitive use of space on the page and from his deft blending of sumptuous landscapes, subtle facial expressions and body language, and well-researched and well-executed historical accuracy. His combination of a couleur directe aesthetic[4] and a dynamic deployment of varying panel sizes and splash pages adds a dramatic flair to this bande dessinée. From the cover to the bonus section (“Madame Livingstone: études et recherches”), Baruti keeps readers enthralled and entertained while Christophe Cassiau-Haurie’s script engages them in a closer look at the Belgian Congo during this historical moment.

Indeed, Cassiau-Haurie’s humanistic rendering of this century-old epoch serves as the driving force for Baruti’s expressive artwork. Cassiau-Haurie succeeds in generating relatable main characters who are ambitious, intelligent, and independent and who also have their flaws. Put another way, Mercier and Madame Livingstone come across as real, complex individuals rather than categorical stereotypes of colonizer and colonized. Furthermore, through dialogue Cassiau-Haurie reveals the uneasy tension underlying Europeans’ presence and ambitions in central Africa.

In addition to demonstrating interpersonal relationships in the Belgian Congo, Cassiau-Haurie and Baruti also challenge preconceived notions about indigenous populations and, in doing so, offer a vision of central Africa in which the effects of globalization predate the arrival of European colonists. This is most effectively conveyed through the character of Madame Livingstone himself. Visually, he embodies cultural hybridity and a keen sense of capitalistic aptitude; his trademark kilt and traditional Scottish attire he acquired from Scottish soldiers in the British army in exchange for cases of Belgian beers. Similarly, he manifests fluency in many different African and European languages as well as being literate, well-informed, and extremely intelligent. In fact, he is able to see much more clearly than Mercier in both a literal and figurative sense—a fact that Mercier discovers and greatly admires.

Barly Baruti self portrait.

Barly Baruti self portrait.

Though Madame Livingstone tells the tale of a unique and intense friendship during the Great War, it also speaks to the contemporary moment. In many ways, Mercier and Madame Livingstone stand in for Cassiau-Haurie and Baruti themselves, a correlation corroborated in the bonus section and by the authors themselves on social media. The fictional friendship in Madame Livingstone and the real friendship between the authors points to an intimate relationship between Europe and Africa, one that has a long history, and invites readers to reflect on the nuances and complexity of such a history.


[1] Ethnically-mixed.

[2] This is the very same ship at the heart of C. S. Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, which was later adapted in 1951 by director John Hughes into the film classic of the same name famously starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

[3] TV5Monde, upon the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, has created an interactive website that explores the Great War through art (1914-1918: La Grande Guerre à travers les arts) with one section, La force noire, dedicated to the contributions of African soldiers in the war.

[4] Couleur directe is a technique in which artists apply color directly to the original drawings, thus transforming each page and each panel into a veritable painting.

Turquoise : Rwanda, France, and the In-Between of Representation


Five years in the making, Turquoise,[1] a joint effort between Olivier Bramanti (artwork) and Frédéric Debomy (scenario) that revisits the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, is not a bande dessinée in the conventional sense of the term. The size of Turquoise (much narrower and slightly taller than a regular bande dessinée), the textured soft back cover, the high-quality paper, and Bramanti’s tempera paintings instantly distinguish this text from mainstream bandes dessinées. Indeed, the name of the publisher, Les Cahiers dessinés [Illustrated notebooks], provides a more accurate description of the format of Turquoise as the text more closely resembles an artist’s book rather than a standard “48 CC” bande dessinée.[2] In this regard, the title, being the middle ground between blue and green, can signify the ambiguous classification of the text itself—not quite a bande dessinée—in addition to simultaneously referring explicitly to the ostensibly humanitarian French-led effort Operation Turquoise and symbolically representing the psychological gap between the victims and perpetrators of the genocide as Jessie Bi aptly points out.

This metaphor of in-betweenness suggested by the title, when applied to the text more broadly, provides useful insight into the verbal and visual narrative strategies of Debomy and Bramanti. Most immediately, the text is visually dominated by Bramanti’s paintings of the landscape in which the ratio and representation of the blue sky with the verdant rolling hillsides—iconic images associated with Rwanda—vary with changes in mood. In addition, Debomy and Bramanti make narrative use of the space in between each of the images. While the thick white margins of the page generally direct our attention to the meaning of the images and the text accompanying them, there are many moments of silence as well in the form of images without text and also in completely and almost completely blank pages. This strategy effectively turns up the volume of silence and the non dit or the unspoken and at the same time draws attention to the difficulty of representing an admittedly delicate subject matter. For, as Debomy explains in the afterward entitled, “Le genocide des Tutsi du Rwanda et l’Opération Turquoise,”[3] writing about recent history is difficult. Nonetheless, it is also necessary to which the labored production and subsequent publication of this text attest.

In an attempt to make sense of this recent history, Debomy and Bramanti focus on the complicated reality of France’s involvement in the genocide as epitomized by the simultaneity of Operation Turquoise’s humanitarian efforts and its geopolitical underpinnings. This bifurcated undertaking initiated by then French President François Mitterrand—on the one hand openly praiseworthy and on the other hand surreptitiously politically driven—ultimately became the lens through which the international community was made aware of the genocide. However, as this text makes explicit and tries to undo, the images of the genocide that began circulating as a result of the descent of Western journalists on Rwanda with Operation Turquoise were quickly engulfed by the narrative of a humanitarian crisis developing in the refugee camps in the eastern region of Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) due to the outbreak of cholera, ultimately silencing the atrocities and scale of the actual genocide.

To emphasize the dual nature of Operation Turquoise and to problematize the Western media’s representation of the genocide, Debomy constructs a narrative around the handful of repeated images broadcast internationally of the French troops’ arrival in Rwanda and what they witnessed. Not surprisingly, Debomy’s narrative oscillates between fact and fiction to immerse us in a deeper understanding of what took place before Operation Turquoise as well as after its implementation, thus providing the unsettling context of the genocide that the repetitive media images succeeded in stripping away.

To complement this oscillation at the visual level, Bramanti’s imagery and style shift between a more representative mode and more evocative mode. For example, at one point we are presented with some of the now iconic images of the genocide that circulated in Western media at the time of Operation Turquoise; Bramanti’s style accordingly becomes more detail-oriented to re-present the actual screenshots of footage and photographs of the time. Conversely, at other times, Bramanti deploys repetition and variation to evoke a specific tone and to activate an emotional response.

Repetition and variation

One striking example of this can be seen in this image in which the horizontal body of a victim on the ground is juxtaposed and bisected with the vertical body of a genocide perpetrator in the foreground. The framing of the victim occurs three times over the course of two pages with the perpetrator in two of the frames; each time, Bramanti’s rendering of the figures and their environment changes, becoming ever more in focus and culminating in the image seen here. The repetition and variation of these images—presented without text—provoke a reaction and inhibit us from simply passing over the reality of the genocide.

Ultimately, Turquoise exposes the devastation of the genocide beyond the media-driven focus on the health crisis of the refugee camps and thus invites us to take stock of what we think we might know about the genocide. Moreover, it foregrounds the interplay of truth and lies at the heart of discourse about the genocide. To that end, the text is almost completely devoid of proper names. Interestingly, while the main character, a genocide survivor, is only referred to as elle [she], her captor Ferdinand, a neighbor who becomes a participant in the genocide, is the only character identified with a name. Similarly, the text avoids the use of actual terms for nationality and ethnicity, thus hovering between the universal and the specific, all while pointing directly to the political and ideological weight of certain terms. This delicate balancing act is characteristic of the entire text and demonstrates the subtle efficacy of Bramanti and Debomy’s efforts.



[1] Beaux Livres-Albums, 2012, 96 p., 23.35 €ISBN 978-2-283-02558-1

[2] 48 CC is an industry shorthand that describes the standard printing format of many mainstream bandes dessinées in which 48 refers to the number of pages and CC stands for cartonné [hardback] and en couleur [in color].

[3] The Genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda and Operation Turquoise

Le Turban et la capote: Satire and Diversity in Mayotte

Quick-witted and cheeky, Le Turban et la capote[1](published by L’Harmattan BD in 2013),set in the French overseas department of Mayotte, introduces francophone readers to a cast of energetic and short-tempered characters already well known to spectators and readers in the Indian Ocean. This bande dessinée, written by Mahoran Nassur Attoumani and illustrated by Madagascan Luke Razaka, is an updated version of an existing bande dessinée published in Mayotte by Coco-Création in 2000, which was, in fact, an adaptation of Nassur’s successful play of the same title originally written in 1996.[2]

Celebrated and acclaimed author Nassur Attoumani’s first play, La Fille du polygame,[3] premiered in 1989 and was the first play published from the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. His second play, Le Turban et la capote, of which this bande dessinée is an adaptation, premiered soon after in 1996 and was quickly published in Reunion by Grand Océan. As with La Fille du polygame, La Turban et la capote demonstrates Attoumani’s deft Molière-esque satire that entertains spectators and readers while also engaging them in a critique of contemporary society. The correlation with Molière is especially pronounced in La Turban et la capote for the main character, Mabawa Ya Nadzi, an Islamic judge who embodies the title as he hides condoms in his turban, echoes Molière’s Tartuffe in many ways.

Le Turban et la capote’s origin as a play can be felt as the narrative unfolds as a series of scenes with the various characters entering and exiting, often with comedic timing. Also, directly following the title page is a visual replica of the front cover with the addition of the characters’ names and a short description of their role and / or relationship to another character, effectively serving as a cast list and hinting at the potential conflicts between the characters based on their placement in the lineup. For example, the top three figures are the main characters with Mabawa Ya Nadzi strategically placed between the quarreling couple and the bottom three figures are important supporting characters. Moreover, as the central figure, Mabawa Ya Nadzi is placed in the most privileged position while the doctor, ostensibly his foil as a spokesperson for and representative of Western medicine, science, and modernity, is placed directly below him for they are in opposition.

Taking place in contemporary Mamoudzou, Le Turban et la capote provides readers a glimpse into the socially and culturally diverse everyday life of the capital of the French department of Mayotte. Through the interactions of the six characters— Dr. Hachafati, an imported doctor, and Bata-Bata, his no-nonsense secretary; Maborcheti and Pessoiri, a quarreling couple; and Mabawa Ya Nadzi, an Islamic judge and ostensibly honorably religious man and Djanabati, his secretary—the narrative addresses the familiar juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity, focusing on the unique case of Mayotte and the specific themes of Mayotte’s departmentalization, the emancipation of women, birth control and the prevention of AIDS, polygamy, and the lack of any form of structured social program to accompany Mayotte’s political shift.

The title, itself, Le Turban et la capote, points to the simultaneity of different value systems through metonymy with the turban signifying both Islamic culture and traditional African cultures and the condom signifying Westernization and, more specifically, sexual liberation and the emancipation of women. While the juxtaposition of a turban and a condom is meant to create a spark to hook the audience (of the play) and readers (of the bande dessinée), the ‘et’ [and] between the two gives them equal weight, thus sidestepping the primacy or validity of one over the other. Indeed, the narrative foregrounds the assumption that the traditions and value systems associated with these two images are at odds when, in fact, they are often not at odds and do not have to be. Through satire and comedy, Attoumani reveals how this tension between perceived difference and reality manifests in everyday life.

In the afterward of Le Turban et la capote, editor and director of the L’Harmattan’s bande dessinée collection, Christophe Cassiau-Haurie explains that Madagascan cartoonist Ndrematoa (Tana Blues) was first considered to supply the artwork for the updated edition of the bande dessinée. Directly following Cassiau-Haurie’s afterward are the first ten pages in black and white (the last two of which are sketched by not inked) of the bande dessinée as drawn by Ndrematoa. Given Ndrematoa’s extravagantly detailed and expressive drawings, the incompletion of such a massive project is not surprising. However, Madagascan cartoonist Luke Razaka who illustrated the original edition of the bande dessinée, reworked his original images on the computer and added colors (whereas the original was in black and white) and, while Razaka’s drawings are nowhere near as realistic and detailed-oriented as Ndrematoa’s, his cartoonish style, very much in the vein of famed Belgian cartoonist André Franquin’s Gaston Lagaffe, has the double advantage of, on the one hand, capturing the urgency and energy of Attoumani’s characters and, on the other hand, appealing to a global, French-speaking audience already familiar with the visual and verbal comedic conventions of Franquin’s style. For example, characters’ expressions are exaggerated and, to emphasize their anger, they become completely red and even their clothes change the same color red as their complexion. Moreover, Razaka’s use of physical comedy, onomatopoeia, and action lines goes a long way in bringing the humor of Attoumani’s play to life on the page. Ultimately, Razaka’s balance between a swift cartoonish style and a playfulness of characters’ expressions complements Attoumani’s quick-paced and lively satirical writing style.

Opening scene

Another added bonus of this updated version is the overall impact color has on the text and the reader’s experience of Mayotte. Situated in the Indian Ocean in the crux between Madagascar to the east and the Mozambican coastline to the west, Mayotte, not-surprisingly, is a place where cultural hybridity constitutes the fabric of everyday life. Visually, Luke Razaka’s use of color subtly emphasizes this. For example, during the taxi ride at the beginning of the text, Razaka populates the urban coastal setting with people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, but it is mainly through the people’s clothes that the color scheme provides the most visible marker of cultural hybridity: blue jeans and bright t-shirts for more modern outfits contrast with bright colored traditional African fabrics worn by many of the female characters and with the white traditional men’s outfits.

According to Cassiau-Haurie, the goal of this updated and colored version of the 2000 bande dessinée was to give new life to Attoumani’s insightful satire that excels in exposing the social and cultural complexity of life in Mayotte leading up to and during the long (and still ongoing) process of departmentalization.

Mayotte, a small archipelago of the Comoros Islands, became part of the French empire in 1841 and while the rest of the Comoros Islands gained independence from France in 1975, the population of Mayotte, in 1976, voted almost unanimously to forgo independence in favor of keeping its ties to France. In the spring of 2009, the Mahoran people voted, almost unanimously once again, to become an official part of France, thus shifting political status from an overseas community to an overseas department, a long-term process destined to have deep social, cultural, and political affects. Included in the departmentalization of Mayotte would be the gradual phasing out of traditional Islamic law and the establishment of French civil code and republican institutions such as French schools and courts.

It is in the midst of this transition that Attoumani sets Le Turban et la capote, deftly presenting readers with a comical portrait of the diversity of the Mahoran population while also wittingly bringing to bare on important social issues and satirizing personally-motivated hypocrites who take advantage of the vulnerability of such a transitional time.

The timeliness of this updated version of Attoumani’s adept play-turned-bandedessinée and its portrayal of the complex social reality in Mayotte is even more pressing when we consider that, as of 1 January 2014, Mayotte officially became one of the most far-reaching regions of the European Union. Indeed, the issues of cultural hybridity and overlapping value systems—in particular the civil codes associated with French republicanism and traditional Islamic codes of conduct—at the heart of Attoumani’s text are representative of broader discussions of identity in the contemporary global context.

[1] The Turban and the Condom

[2] L’Harmattan also offers a DVD of a 2011 performance of the play directed by Sophie Fueyo. You can watch the trailer for it here.

[3] The Polygamist’s Daughter

Notre Histoire: From Lilian Thuram’s Personal Story to a Shared Diasporic History

Notre Histoire[1] (volume 1, 2014) recounts the story of Mariana Thuram, mother of famed Guadeloupian footballer-turned-activist Lilian Thuram, and focuses on her fortitude and the fortitude of those before her and like her who actively work towards providing a better future for their children. As mentioned on the title page of this recent publication from Éditions Delcourt, the story is loosely inspired by the essay Mes Étoiles noires, de Lucy à Barack Obama[2] by Thuram and Bernard Filaire published in 2010 by Éditions Philippe Rey. As Thuram explains in the introduction to Notre Histoire, this bande dessinée takes up the story of his first star, his mother, while also introducing readers to other stars, in this case, important historical figures whose legacies and contributions are often overlooked and also elements of traditional African culture, in particular from Fulani culture. Written by Jean-Christophe Camus (artistic director of Delcourt and author of the autobiographically-inspired Negrinha), illustrated by Spanish Sam Garcia (Lunes birmanes), and colored by Hugo Poupelin, Notre Histoire uses Thuram’s personal family history both as an emblem of other family histories and as a vehicle to open up our understanding of history as an experienced shared by all.

Notre Histoire draws on Thuram’s celebrity by offering readers an authentic look into his humble beginnings. The text even includes a bonus section with reproductions of Thuram’s family photographs and preparatory sketches by Garcia for the bande dessinée. Indeed, Notre Histoire is an example of a recent trend in which public figures not normally associated with the 9th art produce autobiographically-inspired bandes dessinées and picture books as a means of introducing enriching historical perspectives to a multicultural contemporary French-speaking readership. Examples include Azouz Begag’s Leçons coloniales[3] (2012) illustrated by artist Djillali Defali and Alain Mabanckou’s Ma Soeur-étoile[4] (2010) illustrated by artist Judith Gueyfier. In each of these cases, the format is meant to appeal to a broad audience, thus engaging a wide range of readers with the authors’ personal stories.

Mariana’s difficult decision

Starting in the summer of 1980, Notre Histoire tracks Mariana’s decision to leave the hard work of the sugar cane fields and of housekeeping in Guadeloupe (difficult and physically demanding jobs that fail to provide her a decent income to adequately support herself and her five children) for better-paying jobs in France. Though there are those in her community that question the wisdom and plausibility of her decision as she must travel alone and leave her children behind while she earns enough to bring all of them to France and support them, Mariana’s courage and determination lead to young Lilian (aged 8 in the text) and his siblings moving to France a year later. Once in France, Lilian and his siblings happily take to learning new customs and adapting to differences in weather, cuisine, and culture. Interestingly enough, as their first home-cooked meal in France, Mariana prepares them couscous, which she explains is a dish that everyone in France eats—a not-so-subtle indication of the always already hybrid nature of French culture and of the ways in which the effects of France’s long-reaching geopolitical history manifest in everyday life.

At first, the Thurams live with Mariana’s boyfriend and his daughter. However, after tension arises between the couple, Mariana arranges for her family to move to a different apartment all in one day to give her former boyfriend the slip. The family moves to a new apartment located in an HLM (habitation à loyer modéré)[5] in Fourgères (northeast of Rennes) and it is in this new neighborhood that young Lilian befriends an old man, Neddo. It is also at this point in the text (little more than half way) that Notre Histoire shifts from being about Thuram’s family history to being about a shared diasporic history.

Back Cover with Neddo on the right

Back Cover with Neddo on the right

Neddo, as Thuram explains in the introduction to Notre Histoire, is in fact a figure from Peul (the French term for Fulani) cosmogony who stands as the primordial man with the gifts of intelligence and speech charged with keeping watch on universal harmony and who transmits his wealth of knowledge to his descendants. Symbolically, Neddo represents all the people in our lives who help us become who we are. Visually, the character of Neddo in Notre Histoire resembles celebrated Senegalese sculpture Ousmane Sow, the first African artist to be inducted into the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 2013. Through his name and his appearance, Neddo thus embodies the richness and wisdom of traditional and contemporary African cultures and the gift of his knowledge is meant to open young Lilian’s eyes and by extension, those of the readers. In this regard, the didactic nature of the character of Neddo most aptly demonstrates the motto of Lilian Thuram’s Foundation: “Éducation contre le racisme.”[6]


Ousmane Sow

By teaching readers (young and old alike) through young Lilian about slavery in the Caribbean and about forgotten and underappreciated black historical figures, in particular Commander Louis Delgrès and Solitude who, in 1802, fought against the reinstatement of slavery in Guadeloupe under Emperor Napoleon, and Haitian scientist Joseph Anténor Firmin who, after much research, published De l’égalité des races humaines – Anthropologie positive[7] in 1885 as a refutation of Arthur de Gobineau’s ubiquitous Essai sur les inégalités des races humaines[8] (1853-1855), Neddo explains how preconceived notions of the past are based on certain versions of history. Moreover, at the end of the text is a list of definitions of key historical terms, events, and laws pertaining to the global history of inequality.

Young Lilian’s curiosity about and passion for such historical figures and events is meant to find an echo in the reader through Garcia’s dramatic renderings of the past and Poupelin’s dynamic and cinematic color palette. Implied in Neddo’s recounting is the fact that there are many important events and people that risk being forgotten due to the power dynamics of remembering. Ultimately, these fascinating histories (and Notre Histoire itself) demonstrate how racism and all forms of prejudice are social constructs and that knowledge and education are the best tools for changing such constructs.

[1] Our History

[2] My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama

[3] Colonial Lessons

[4] My Star-Sister

[5] Subsidized housing

[6] Education Against Racism

[7] On the Equality of Human Races

[8] Essay on the Inequalities of the Human Races

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.