Ken Bugul, Wolof for “one who is unwanted,” is the penname of Mariètou Mbaye Biléoma. Born in 1947 in Ndoucoumane, Senegal, Bugul has risen to prominent fame as one of Senegal’s most prolific and internationally celebrated writers. In the words of scholars Ada Uzoamaka Azodo and Jeanne-Sarah de Larquier, Bugul’s “tremendous contribution” has ensured her the title of “one of the most important figures in sub-Saharan literature.”
Torn across her cultural duality – Wolof-born and French-educated – Bugul’s writing explores the ruptured identity of the modern African woman intellectual. Her first novel, Le Baobab Fou (The Abandoned Baobab, Caraf Books) published in 1982, is an autobiographical account of her dissolution into madness during her years as a young woman in Belgium. The work, with its flashy and assertive style, brought her international acclaim in both the French and English speaking worlds. The writing explores her own simultaneous liberation and constriction through her use of her own ‘exoticized’ body as a tool for exploring the European world. Her first novel was followed by Cendres et Braises (Ashes and Embers) and Riwan ou Le Chemin de Sable (Riwan or the Sandy Track), which was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix littéraire de l'Afrique noire in 1999.
At once a radical feminist and the twenty-eighth wife of a deceased Senegalese marabout, Bugul reinvents herself through controversy and rips at the seams of her own identity. A Senegalese woman who fully embraces neither Africa nor Europe, she writes to understand the “deep experiences” of her past. She currently lives in Ngor with her only daughter. In this interview, she thinks back on her life as a prostitute in Dakar, her hardships and her period of “madness” as well her journey out of this abyss to become a respected author.
Ngoundji Dieng interviewed Ken Bugul for the Senegalese newspaper Le Quotidien. Translation into English by Armelle English.
Le Quotidien: Some find you quite mysterious. How do you see it?
Ken Bugul: No, I am not mysterious. I am a normal human being with eyes and ears. So, there is no mystery. I do not hide. On the contrary, I am quite flashy. Mysterious does not fit my persona. There is no mystery. I write autobiographically. I uncover myself. I unveil myself. Sometimes people can say this like that Beninese student who said he did not want to meet me when I lived in Benin. He did not believe I could exist. I was a myth for him. He did not believe that such person could exist. That, I can agree with him on, but mysterious, no.
I say what I mean. I have gotten wiser with age, but I used to be very flashy. I dreamed of living in a glass house forever so that people on the outside could see how I live. Even when I am naked in the shower. That has always been my dream. As I am aging, I start to notice my skin sagging, and I say to myself: “That’s not possible! That’s not attractive.” Because I have always had a sense of what is beautiful. I would consider myself to be mythical rather than mysterious.
LQ: You have written An Abandoned Baobab which is an autobiographical piece. Do you really identify with the main narrator Ken Bugul?
KB: I completely identify with her. I do not only identify with her. I am Ken Bugul (someone whom nobody wants).
LQ: With her extravagance and excess?
KB: Ah, yes. I used to be extravagant. I believe that even with age, I have kept that very, very extravagant side of me.
LQ: At one point, Ken Bugul left to go study in Belgium. She got mixed up in prostitution and drugs. That was your Mariétou Mbaye.
KB: When I say prostitution, I do not mean working the streets. As in someone who would be standing on the sidewalk in a miniskirt. I would give myself to men out of a need for affection and recognition due to my past as a little girl whom nobody wanted. Because I had been separated from my mother.
I was more or less a person who was badly loved in my family. And that bad love first came from my mother who preferred her granddaughter over me. And I have suffered a lot from it. So, I believed that nobody wanted me. Nobody loved me. So, I gave myself to men to fill that void. Otherwise, I had no material issues. In The Abandoned Baobad, one could see that I rubbed shoulders with Brussels upper-middle class, the counts and the barons. I wanted for nothing.
I slept in particular houses as they say. I went to country houses, hunting relays. So, I gave myself to men out of a need for affection and to fill an emotional void stemming from the separation with my mother, and a father who was 85 years at the time of my birth, and who, at 90, had lost his eyesight, and whom I believed was my grandfather. I thought to myself: “Where is this father who was supposed to love me, take care of me, even though I was separated from my mother?”
I could have and one knows that little girls love their father. But when I was born I found a grandfather. So, that’s a form of prostitution in a way. It’s sort of like giving yourself away as a present.
LQ: In what context did your mother abandon you?
KB: Well that is the tradition. Before when a mother had a child, as soon as the child was weaned, if it was a boy, he would often be sent to live with his paternal uncle. If it was a girl, she would be sent to live with her paternal aunt. So, children were often taken away from their families because the child did not come from a couple. The child belongs to the community and that is weaning.
From the ages of 5 to 7 years old, some other children were sent to Serignes (leaders of the Qur’an) to learn the Qur’an. They were also taken away from their families because they would generally come back at the age of 14 years old when they had finished reciting the Qur’an in its entirety. It is because of the Western influence that children no longer go to the villages. People live in Dakar. Some children don’t even know their parents’ village.
Children are kept in Nintendo summer camps. We watch movies, which is not bad. But we should be going to our grandparents’ village; we would learn a lot more there. There is an emotional transfer because grandparents love their grandchildren and we need that emotional stock later on in life. “Sama mame nimouma beugéwone” (My grandparents loved me very much); those are important things in the life of a human being.
LQ: And were you entrusted to an aunt, an uncle…
KB: My separation did not occur in the same way. First of all, I am the last one, the youngest in a family of older people since when my birth. My father was already over 85 years old. Before, people used to live healthy lives and we know that scientifically, a man can father children for as long as he is alive.
When I was 5 years old, my mother had to go to my grandmother’s village because my brother was sent there to go to school. All of my mother’s children were sent there to go to school; the reason being that at the time, Malem Hodar did not yet have a French school.
When I was born, my mother, who was very attached to my older brother, had to do what my grandmother did with age and retire from her business; therefore, someone needed to stay with my brother in Guinguinéo. So my mother left me to go live with her son. Incidentally, I often say that I blame him for my mother loving him more than she did me. My mother said: “You, I don’t worry about you, but him (my brother), he is fragile.” Why did she leave me? She could have taken me with her. And on top of that, I was the youngest.
If I had brothers and sisters who had stayed with me, I could have played some games with them. Moreover, my father had gone blind at that time. I was the one who had to guide him; but nobody was there to guide me. All of the sudden, I was part of a family of deserters because everyone was gone. My sisters were married and I had nephews who were older than me. So all of my existential suffering stems from there.
LQ: And what did your existential suffering translate into?
KB: I left Belgium in March 1973 and went back to Senegal. In September of the same year, I took a competitive exam to work on the radio as a production agent and so I left for an internship in NIA (National Institute of the Audiovisual) in France. And before leaving for a reception, I met a Frenchman for whom I had feelings. So when I went to France, it was at that time that I wrote Cendres et Braises, the title of one of my works.
This Frenchman was an upper-middle class man who said he loved me, and then humiliated me not only as a woman, but as a black woman. That’s when I realized I was a woman because I still lived in the suffering of my childhood. As I threw myself in life with despair, I was looking for affection everywhere because I had received none from my father or my mother.
I was disturbed. I was following the hippie movement. I smoked marijuana. I was a hippie and suddenly, part of the French upper-middle class. I believed my partner was modern. His family told me they did not like Blacks, but that it was different with me. I lived with him for five years during which I could not even say hello to a black person on the street because I was no allowed to. It was humiliating! It is after that extreme humiliation that I became aware of my condition as a woman.
LQ: And you really have lived through all of this?
KB: Ah! Really. Authentically. Everything I did was to drown the suffering I felt from my separation from my mother. It still haunts me to this day because those things are going to stay in here for life. Then, the questions of origins are asked. I was asked: “Are you African? Are there Black in your home land?” And I would ask: “What is my home land?” For me, it’s the West because I knew the Western culture. I had always been marginalized and isolated.
I read a lot. I had alienated myself on my own. It felt like a hole that needed to be filled. Then, I get there and I’m told: “In your homeland.” This life with a man in free partnership for the first time, it opened my eyes on the condition of women. I told myself that women must suffer. As a woman, when you are with a man, you are considered a woman. “I will take care of you, I am the boss.” In addition, not only was I a woman but I was also black. I realized that it was too much. The humiliation was full but I could not complain about it to anyone because he had alienated me from the other African women. He was mean and tough. I was not allowed to go out. He had gotten a big dog that had to stay with me.
LQ: How long did this last?
KB: Five years. With small escapes where I ran away to go see my friends, in Belgium, who loved me. Great civil servants. I had connections there. He would look for me everywhere in Europe. He would hire private investigators and when they would find me, he would send me bouquets of flowers, orchids. He would ask for my forgiveness and tell me that he loved me. Out of weakness, just like all women, I would let myself get sucked back in until one day, he called the police who came to get me in the ritzy district of Paris, in the 7th arrondissement to take me to the Sainte Anne psychiatric hospital in Paris which is a good hospital, not only a psychiatric hospital, but also a prison hospital.
I stayed there for two nights and three days. It was painful. I was locked up. I would bang on the walls, on the doors. Then, there were other people locked up who would scream and shout. When I got out of there with a suitcase that had the Sainte Anne hospital sticker on it, some friends from Paris who had come to pick me up looked for a plane ticket. The suitcase that I had taken to Sainte Anne hospital was the one I had when I arrived in Dakar.
LQ: What year was it?
KB: February 1978. It was terrible. I was completely disturbed psychologically, and physically marked. When I arrived, they said: “She’s arrived. What did she bring?” And me, I was exhausted. My family rejected me. “She went all the way to France and did not bring back anything. That one, she was not in France. She was rather in the wild forests of France” when I had just come out of Sainte Anne hospital in Paris.
My sisters from the same father rejected me. And that is how I ended up at a friend’s house in Fass with her mother who took me in for five to six months. When my friend left, I hung around here and there. I slept here and there at girls’ houses, guys’ houses. People who abused me psychologically and sexually because I had lost all my senses. People said: “She is insane.” I would sleep in the street. I hung around. I had no clothes, and that is how somebody named Abdou Salam Kane, now deceased, saw me one day. I was hanging around, I was exhausted. I needed to shower because as a girl, I was 33 years old, you need to wash up when you are on your period. Sleeping in the street is fine but…That is why I like the Café Rond-Point because the first time I went in there, people looked at me and asked me: “what will you have?” I did not even have 100 francs. The Lebanese woman who has been there for over 50 years said to leave me alone. And Abdou Salam Kane gave me 1000 francs.
The store where I had bought the notebook and the desk is still on avenue Albert Sarrault. I bought the notebook, and then I went to the café “rond-point” and started to write Le Baobab Fou.
LQ: Did you continue to hang around in the streets?
KB: I could not sleep at the Café Rond-Point. I have to hang around my friends’ houses where I can eat, shower and things like that. I had friends in my village, but in the state I was in, my friends were already married to middle class men and I did not want to bother them in their homes even though they loved me. They did not care. Come and take a shower, but since I looked like a rag, I did not want to bother them.
LQ: How much time did you spend in the streets?
KB: Ah! I hung around there for a long time; I almost spent a year and a half in the streets.
LQ: And after that?
KB: One day, as I was hanging around everywhere, I met someone who told me that my friend was named Ambassador. At that time, everybody had condemned me: “She is insane”.
LQ: And you knew that you were not insane?
KB: Ah, of course! You are going through tough times, you have problems, and everyone abandons you.
LQ: Does this include your own family?
KB: Family is interest. I went to France and I had to bring back suitcases of gold and silver. The role of the family is to collect. Before in our families, we had crazy people, disabled people, even homosexuals who were out.
The family would collect. But with modernization, interest, and cupidity, we have let go of all those roles. If you do not succeed, you are excluded from the family. The way we are currently living is a tragedy. If our youth has problems with violence, aggressiveness, (and) drugs, they are rejected. We have let our guards which society had put in place down so we could single out the ones who were not part of the norm.
LQ: And your ambassador friend…
KB: I met a person who told me: “Ah, did you know that your friend was named Ambassador?” I said to him: “Ah, well that’s good.” He even told me he had arrived. He was staying at the Croix du Sud hotel. Since I was hanging around between marché Kermel, the Place de l’Indépendance, I went to the Croix du Sud hotel. When I said I was looking for someone, the receptionist looked at me with disdain before saying: “One moment.”
That man despised me when he knew nothing of what I knew. I had traveled around the world. I had seen wonderful things. And it is the education, the reading, the knowledge, the experiences that allowed me to deal with the things I was going through at that time. That’s why one must always have some intellectual baggage and that’s why nothing stops me. I even felt sorry for the receptionist.
LQ: Were you able to meet the man you were looking for?
KB: I was able to meet him and when he saw me, he said: “Is everything ok? Are you all right?”
LQ: Who was that man?
KB: Ah, I do not want to name him. It was a well-known person who is now deceased, but his children are still around. He was so happy to see me that he did not even notice the physical state I was in. He asked me what I wanted. I told him I only wanted a ticket to go to Guinguinéo. It was before noon. He gave me money and I left the hotel to go to the train station.
I stayed at the station until 6 pm, the time at which the train leaves Dakar for Guinguinéo and I got to my mother’s at 10 pm. I knocked on the door. She said: “Who is it?” I answered that it was me, Mariétou. She said: “What did you come here for?” Because my sisters told her: “She has become a bad person. She hangs out with drug addicts and alcoholics.” Even though I socialized with Djibril Diop Mame Bety, the artists and the creators. In fact, these people are much more respectful that our upper middle class men.
So in her head, her daughter was lost. When living in a village, one becomes very sensitive to these things. The rumor had already gone around the entire village. People would say: She has come back. I heard she has gone crazy. She doesn’t have a husband. She doesn’t have children. She was in France?”
She opened the door the next day and they put me in a pantéré (a small room in English). She did not want me to come out of the room when we had guests over. But people in the village knew I was there. I was forced to get up in the morning to shower. Food was left in front of my door because I did not go out. I was sequestered. My little nephews told me I was crazy and that I was not allowed to leave the room. Sometimes, I would find myself smiling. I saw life as one big wad of misery. I stayed locked up in that room with the heat for months.
LQ: Who saved you from that “prison”?
KB: One day, among the people that came to our house, I heard someone say: “Serigne Khassimou Mbacké has arrived in Guinguinéo”. He was the son of Serigne Afia Mbacké who was the brother of Serigne Touba. As soon as I heard his name, it was in broad day light, I opened the door and I took out Riwan ou le Chemin du Sable. As soon as he saw me, he said: “But where have you been?” I told him I had been traveling. He said: “Have you been to China?” Instead of asking me: “Are you all right?” as other people would ask me, he would talk to me about knowledge, essential things.
So from 1978 to 1981, somebody spoke to me in a regular manner. Just being able to speak with me would help me regain confidence. The more people told me: “You are crazy,” I started doubting myself sometimes. Serigne Khassimou took me under his protection.
LQ: What kind of relationship did you have with this marabou?
KB: They are Muslim. They have four legitimate wives. The other ones are called “taras”. They are either widows or women rejected by society. He would take these women in and they could leave whenever they pleased. The “Serigne” could also find a husband for one of those women and free her. It was not so much a matter of accumulating women as it was taking them in to reintroduce them to society. That’s why people used to say: “The Mourides marry many women.” Maybe they are today’s “Serignes.” And that’s how, little by little, I left my mother’s and went to his place. I would go back and forth. And when someone brought him something, he would give it to me. I started having a piece of clothing to wear.
LQ: How did people in the village see this relationship?
KB: His family and people in the village would say: “How can the “Serigne” eat with that woman?” They even thought I was manipulating the “Serigne” with my Toubab mind since he was over 80 years old. He would say: “The only witnesses to my relationship with Mariétou are God, Serigne Touba and the Prophet Mohamed.” One day, he said to me: “You represent all the women I have known. If I had met you when I was younger, you would have been sufficient to 100 women.” He ate with me. That’s how I met Serigne Abdou Khadre because he let me share into everything he did. Already in the village, the “Serigne” had rehabilitated me. Unfortunately, he passed away in September 1983. But before his death, I had been offered a job at the Association for the Well-being of the Family in Dakar (ASBEF). Since I had regained confidence and assurance, I accepted the job. And he is the one who rehabilitated me. He made me an individual and since then, nothing stops me.
LQ: Did you ever get married while at ASBEF?
KB: At ASBEF, while on a mission in Morocco, I met a Beninese doctor. That man became my husband. A daughter came out of that marriage.
LQ: Is she an only child?
KB: Yes. When I got married, I was almost 40 years old. Serigne Khassimou had told me about it. I had told him: “Now, I am old and I still do not have children.” He told me: “You will have one.”
LQ: And what has become of this marriage?
KB: I was working with international organizations when I lived in Lomé, and one day my husband came to visit me there. He said he wanted to tell me something. We went somewhere and he told me he was dying of prostate cancer. We left Lomé and went to Benin to be with him for six months until he died. He passed away on August 18, 1991. My daughter was 4 years old. When I finished working with that international organization in 1993, in 1994 I decided to go back to Benin with my daughter to provide her with a Yoruba education rather than coming back to Senegal where people were racist. They would have told me: “Her daughter is “niack”” (a derogatory term used in Senegal to describe other Africans). Yes, Senegalese racism must be denounced. They say it is the country of the téranga, which is wrong! It is a country of hypocrisy, of hypocrites, and of racists.
Sometimes my daughter tells me: “Mom I’m going to say that my name is Yasmina Ndella Mbaye.” I tell her: “Never, you must say your name is Yasmina Ndella Adebo Biléoma. You must be proud of your family.”
LQ: How do your sisters see you now?
KB: Well they are all older than me since I am the youngest – I am 67 years old – my sister, the meanest one whom I have forgiven, but I have not forgotten. I say this for society, but I no longer believe in forgiveness. When someone hurts you, you say: “I have forgiven but I have not forgotten.” That is not true! You must say: “The person hurt me and that’s it.”
LQ: Where is that sister now?
KB: She is in Guinguinéo.
LQ: Do you go there?
LQ: Have you healed from your story?
KB: Ah! It is writing and the “Serigne.” But even with the “Serigne,” I was already healed. In addition to this, there is writing and traveling. I have seen almost 30 African countries. I almost know the entire continent, other cultures, and other people. I was able to find a husband in spite of everything. I had a child at 40 years old. And the autobiography allowed me to flush everything out. In the mean time, I have written books on politics, the environment, and rural exodus.
LQ: What does Mariétou Mbaye do now?
KB: I mainly write. I sleep and I eat Tiéré, Mbakhalou Saloum and lakhou bissap (a few saloum saloum dishes). I read a lot. I have become a homebody.
LQ: How do you see literature in Senegal?
KB: We need to give it a little push. The State, the department of Culture (capitalize Department) should finance publishing houses. We should give a new dynamic to creativity. We should be more demanding of the fact that people should write better quality books. There are young writers out here but this environment does not lead to creativity. All publishing houses have gone bankrupt. I heard that at Nouvelles Editions Africaines, people had not been paid in 3 months. Publishing is dead. We need to make books more exciting, make the field more exciting. Giving literature a place is very important!
Image via www.kenbugulfilm.com
Armelle English is a student of French and Francophone studies at St. John's University, New York. She was born in Bujumbara, Burundi and moved to Belgium as a child. She is fluent in French, English, Spanish, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi.