Why Cameroonian writer Djaiili Amadou Amal is “impatient”
“At the end of patience, it’s paradise. This is why death is here,” says Cameroonian novelist and feminist activist Djaiili Amadou Amal
Her own indulgence, or “Munyal” in her mother tongue Fulfulde, nearly drove her to suicide.
The word “patience” does not even remotely encompass what it is associated with in the culture of Amal: self-control to the point of self-sacrifice.
Women are meant to be submissive
“It also means you have to submit without complaining,” Amal told DW, when discussing her third novel, “Les impatientes,” which has now been published in German. The English version of the book, titled “The Impatient”, will follow in October.
“According to this principle, which applies throughout the Sahel, a woman should only exist to please those around her, to sacrifice herself so that everyone is well. But the problem is that no one ever asked her how she was doing.
And if possible, she shouldn’t ask the question herself.
But that’s exactly what Amal’s characters do in the novel: the Hindu girl, who has to marry her violent cousin; his sister Ramla, who is married against her will to a much older man; and this man’s first wife, Safira, who suddenly has to deal with a second wife who is the same age as her own daughter.
Three insider views on a system in which the rules break people – not the other way around. The fact that all three express themselves as first-person narrators borders on revolt in this environment where silence is golden and talking about one’s own pain is taboo.
Djaiili Amadou Amal has experienced the power of this system herself. Born in Maroua, in the north Cameroonsome 1,300 kilometers from the capital Yaoundé, she was only 17 when she was forced to marry a 55-year-old politician.
How did she feel then? Injustice, she says first: “In these forced marriages, physical violence is not used as in bad TV movies. This is always accompanied by emotional blackmail. Your whole environment, your whole family convinces you that you have to accept this, for your good, but also for their good. This social pressure makes female solidarity impossible and pushes mothers to force their daughters into disastrous marriages.
Like Amal, all of her friends felt the same way. “The only difference was that I had read books.” Her marriage saw the onset of depression, bulimia, anorexia, as well as her escape and suicide attempts.
“I was completely lost. The only time I felt good was when I opened a book. I developed a passion for everything that was far away. Novels on the Middle Ages, Turkey, India, China. There, I could be a heroine of any era.
Saved by a pen
One day, years later, she picked up a notebook. She has always drawn and written poetry. “But that day there was a pen, I took it and started to write. After a while, a certain calm came over me, I felt better. Maybe it was a survival instinct. It took her a long time to understand what she was writing.
“I wrote it myself. I let out everything that was in me. I was screaming how unhappy I was.
She didn’t realize when she was writing her first book. But it gave her the strength to break free from marriage.
Ten years later, she will find the strength to leave a second marriage to a violent man. “I often say that literature saved me,” she says.
Meanwhile, Literature projected her onto the international scene, notably through her third novel. Published in Cameroon in 2017, it caught the attention of a Parisian publisher. Together they published a revised version which was shortlisted for France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2020 – a first for an African author.
The fact that she ended up winning the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, awarded by a jury of young people, was much more than a consolation. She saw her book become compulsory reading in Cameroonian schools and open the eyes of the younger generation.
In addition to her work as an author, Djaili Amadou Amal is involved in the feminist organization “Femmes du Sahel”, which provides girls with a school education and access to books so important for her own life.
At the same time, Amal’s main concern is to Women’s rights worldwide. “I’m talking about the Sahel,” she says, “but that doesn’t change the fact that European, Indian, American women also suffer all these forms of violence.”
For example, she cites the consequences of the COVID-related lockdowns around the world: increased violence and an increase in the number of murdered women.
“We are losing years behind at every little opportunity. I say to girls around the world: your mothers and grandmothers had to fight for what seems to be given to you. If you’re not careful, your daughters won’t have your rights.