Smashed the villages. Knocked their walls to bits.
Broke the kilns and meeting houses. Sometimes
you make me wonder. You, who now commits
“crime de guerre,” wouldn’t dream of such crimes
near your beloved Paris. If I’m devout
and dire it is only in proportion
to the horrors your soldiers carried out
during your Voulet-Chanoine mission.
You called me witch-queen. No, I’m a mother
who took up arms against the men who raped
her last daughter, then sold her last sister
to the pimps of France. There are monster-shaped
men who’ll fear the witch-queen of the Azna.
I will teach you my name: Sarraouna.
* * *
What is known about Sarraouna is that she was a queen of the Azna people, who ruled in a region of West Africa during the late 19th century. Like many controversies surrounding European colonialism there appears two conflicting versions of Sarraouna. In one she is a champion of her people, standing up against an invading army that used large-scale rape and massacres as a means of subduing an indigenous population. In the other she is a “witch-queen” who stirred up anti-French sentiment during a time when France was attempting to conquer Chad and unify all French territories in West Africa.
The Azna occupied the Dallol Mawri, a broad valley in the Hausa country of the present-day Dogondoutchi district of Niger in northwest Africa. Like so many heroes of history, myths have grown about Sarraouna’s childhood. She had a Spartan upbringing with adoptive parents. At the age of eighteen she already knew how to lead men into battle, and as a tribal sorceress, she held her warriors and her enemies alike in thrall. When the Fulani of Sokoto attempted to convert her and her people to Islam, she and her warriors fought bravely to drive them back …
In January 1899, French troops — primarily [African] mercenaries — commanded by captains Voulet and Chanoine left Segou in Mali, crossed the territories of the Zarma and of the Gourma, and entered the dense vegetation of the Dallol Mawri. On April 17, 1899, they laid siege with cannon fire to the village of Lugu, which Queen Sarraouna and her fierce warriors defended valiantly, determined not to allow the invaders drive her out: “We won’t move a single inch from here … even if we must die to the last person!” But the superior French arms proved too powerful … forced to retreat … she continued to harass her enemies, so intimidating the mercenaries that many of them abandoned the French. While the French captains, watching her rituals from afar, at first dismissed them as “drunkenness” and “incoherent ramblings of a superstitious woman,” the mercenaries came to believe her to be the Nkomo Woman, the femme fetale, the Dogoua, or demon-woman. (Jackson-Laufer, 354)
Jackson-Laufer, Guida. Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide (Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO: 1999)
Balumba stole my lover’s breath. She died
and all of Mayumba suffered with me.
The next day, down by the ocean, I spied
the ghost of my love as she passed. Fairy
lights were in her hair, her left breast had grown
back and her splendid ass shook as she walked.
Balumba had painted an ash skull-bone
on my lover’s face and prated and squawked
in the mist of my dead Osa’s unbound
hair. I do not like blue-faced Balumba,
even if she is a woman who drowned
under the long shadows of the casbah.
Osa just smiles. Death was not the nightmare
she thought. Neither was our secret affair.
Bongolo Hospital of Libreville is the only cancer treatment center in all of Gabon, Africa. The distance from Libreville to my coastal village of Mayumba is 276 miles. Mayumba is known for its long sandy beach where leatherback turtles nest.
Balumba (whose name means Ghost Face) is a Gabonese haunt from the same region.