Review: Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses”

Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was known as the Negro Moses because of his plans to take African-Americans back to Africa. Garvey’s life (he was born in Jamaica) and his attempts to start a shipping line to repatriate American Negroes is a sad story of hopes squashed because of Garvey’s limited skills for implementing his plan—plus the harassment by American officials who feared the rise of demigod who would unsettle the black population. As I thought about Garvey for the first time in many years, I couldn’t help comparing him to Donald Trump and his grandiose plans for fixing America with no idea at all how to implement those plans. In future years will Trump be called the conservative Moses?

That’s a digression, I confess, but connected in several ways to Alain Mabanckou’s revealing novel, Black Moses, the comic but sad account of a young man’s sudden rise and subsequent fall, a kind of reverse rags-to-riches story. Initially, Mabanckou’s main character has few prospects. He’s an orphan, and a Priest, Papa Moupelo, in charge of the orphanage, in Loango, in Congo, gives him his rather difficult name: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors,” written on his birth certificate. How does Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko live up to his name, even in a part of the world where many people typically have long names? Think, for example, of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, Zaire’s first President and superlative kleptomaniac, whose name meant “the warrior who goes unstoppably from one victory to the next.” But I digress again.

You can’t live with such a long name, as Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko quickly learns, even if he is grateful to Papa Moupelo for calling him that. Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga shortened his to Mobutu (better than Kuku), and Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko will settle for Moses but, still, a name difficult to live up to, plus a constant worry because Papa Moupelo was in charge of several orphanages, causing Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko to wonder if he is the only Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko or whether Papa Moupelo gave that name to a child at each orphanage under his charge.

Moses is three when he arrives at the orphanage and thirteen when he departs, and during those ten years there will be major changes in the country and, hence, the orphanage. Papa Moupelo disappears one day, quite unsettling Moses; but worse, the earlier religious education changes to Marxist revolutionary talk and indoctrination, then to Communist doublespeak, which totally confuse the orphans (let alone their teachers whose every sentence suddenly “contained the word ‘dialectic,’ or as an adverb, ‘dialectically.’”) There are consciousness-raising sessions, plus the birth of the Congolese Workers’ Party, the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo, the National Movement of Pioneers, and so on. The Cold War was strangely implemented in Africa, as Russia and the United States staked out territories, their leaders, and the rhetoric, which filtered down to the schools. “Orphanages [were] considered laboratories of the Revolution.” Crazy times, though no crazier than today.

OK, so Moses imitates the rhetoric of his revolutionary teachers and after having enough of the confusion caused by that runs away to Pointe-Noire, the big city, with a couple of other boys from the orphanage. Mostly, the new environment requires surviving on the street through petty crime, and Moses—because he’s smart—learns how to take advantage of the other youths in his gang, all set to the political changes of Congo-Brazzaville, during the 1970s and 80s.

Moses’ downfall is his sensitivity. Like Marcus Garvey, he can’t take his pals to the next level of survival because aspects of his past increasingly haunt his thinking. He never quite gets over the shift at the orphanage from religion to Marxist dialectics. When he unexpectedly forms an attachment to the madam of a whorehouse, known as Maman Fiat 500, and begins working for her (running errands, helping her with her unruly clients, and acting as a kind of unofficial bouncer), he experiences security and affection similar to what he had at the orphanage before Papa Moupelo disappeared. But then—as in the abrupt change earlier in his life—the mayor of Pointe-Noire decides to close the brothels that employ girls from Zaire, favoring Congo ones.

The result for Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko is confusion, loss of memory, and increasing withdrawal into himself, followed by violence. The comic hijinks that have propelled much of the earlier story shift to something more menacing, a sad, wasted life, again drawing comparisons to Marcus Garvey’s downfall. Whether those analogies are intended by Alain Mabanckou, I cannot determine. But his Black Moses captures our sympathy in this thoroughly engaging story of still another twentieth-century African who discovers his life suddenly transformed because of unexpected political events.

Alain Mabanckou: Black Moses
Trans. by Helen Stevenson
The New Press, 208 pp., $23.95


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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