Allah is Not Obliged

Ahmadou Kourouma

translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Anchor Books 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
When young Birahima's mother dies he sets off from his village in Cote d'Ivoire to find his aunt in Liberia, accompanied by the "money multiplying" village gigriman, a kind of entrepreneur/sorcerer. So begins a journey across Liberia and Sierre Leone, lasting three years, in which Birahima becomes a child soldier with a Kalashnikov — as he would say it, "a small-soldier with a kalash". Caught up in a world of warlords and petty leaders and ethnic conflict, in a society which is tightly regimented but lacks the social framework of normal life, he spends most of his time high on hashish. His one resolve is to provide eulogies for his fellow soldiers as they die.

Much of this is brutal, starting with the death of Birahima's mother from a rotting leg and getting worse. It is told in a matter of fact way, however, from the perspective of a child who is still innocent despite his actions, and that helps to make it bearable. There's also a kind of dark humour in the sheer confusion of betrayals, incompetencies and disasters. The effect is not to sanitise the violence, but to present it in its context, without reading like a war crimes indictment.

It is told in the first person and the framing conceit is that Allah is Not Obliged has been written by Birahima with the aid of a Larousse, a Petit Robert, a Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa and a Harrap's, picked up in the course of his travels. This gives Kourouma license to use non-standard language and to infuse it with regional idioms and rhythms, though the full effect of this may not have survived translation.

"The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. Okay. Right. I better start by explaining some stuff.
First off, Number one . . . My name is Birahima and I'm a little nigger. Not 'cos I'm black and I'm a kid. I'm a little nigger because I can't talk French for shit. That's how things are. You might be a grown-up, or old, you might be Arab, or Chinese, or white, or Russian — or even American — if you talk bad French, it's called parler petit nègre — little nigger talking — so that makes you a little nigger too. That's the rules of French for you."

At various points, however, and more often as the book progresses, the narrator steps out of character and presents what are effectively summary histories of the conflicts in Liberia and Sierre Leone, including short biographies of figures such as Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe and Prince Johnson. This is fascinating background which many readers may not be familiar with, but it sits a little awkwardly with Birahima's personal story, which could have stood by itself.

Like Kourouma's other novels, Allah is Not Obliged brings to life West African politics and history, in this case the recent history of Sierra Leone and Liberia and the lives of child soldiers. It offers a perspective beyond the reach of news articles or non-fiction.

Note: Allah is Not Obliged was originally published in 2000 in French, as Allah n'est pas obligé.

May 2008

External links:
- buy from
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Ahmadou Kourouma - The Suns of Independence
- Ahmadou Kourouma - Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote
- books about Africa + African history
- more African literature
- more French literature
%T Allah is Not Obliged
%A Kourouma, Ahmadou
%M French
%F Wynne, Frank
%I Anchor Books
%D 2007
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780307279576
%P 215pp