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Using comics to undermine censorship: The government in Guinea does not take the work of the draughtsmen seriously and stamps it as bastard art. This is how the artists manage to draw freely.

In 2017, Conakry was the book’s world capital, but the Unesco decision for Guinea reflected wishful thinking rather than verifiable reality, because even here smartphones displace books, although French is still spoken and written. This is all the more surprising since the later head of state Sékou Touré snubbed De Gaulle on the eve of independence with the sentence that his country would rather remain poor and free than join the Communauté Française, the counterpart to the Commonwealth, whereupon De Gaulle departed angrily. Guinea then oriented itself towards the Eastern bloc, and decades passed before relations returned to normal.

Following the book capital year, a book fair now took place in the Palais du Peuple, built by China, where French-speaking literature and texts in the languages of the Fulbe and Malinke, Guinea’s leading ethnic groups who have been fighting for decades for supremacy, were on display. The range of books on offer was as manageable as the international presence, apart from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso as guests of honour.

Horrendous prices

Only Germany was represented with a stand supervised by the embassy, because Guinea’s book production is dominated by the Paris publishing house Harmattan, named after a desert wind, which has branches in all francophone countries and publishes critically commented colonial literature, travelogues and ethnological studies as well as modern African authors. There is nothing wrong with that, except that the carefully edited books are unaffordable for students and interested readers.

The greatest annoyance, however, was the appearance of the head of state Alpha Conté, who made the diplomats and journalists, authors and publishers who had taken part in the appeal wait for hours in the blazing heat, while dancers and jugglers, court jesters and dwarves performed tricks and an orchestra rehearsed the national anthem. The President and the First Lady, Madame la Première Dame, were thanked in endless speeches, without whose good will the Book Fair would not have been able to take place, although it is predominantly financed by sponsors, including the Federal Republic of Germany. When I ask Djibril Tamsir Niane, Guinea’s best-known historian who recorded and edited the Malinke epic “Soundjata”, whether the ruler’s praise comes from pre-colonial tradition, the ninety-year-old smiles: “No, it is a legacy of the totalitarian dictatorship of Sékou Touré and later military regimes. “Those who don’t chum up with the rulers have no chance in Guinea, and that’s one of the reasons why so many qualified young people leave the country.

Among them is the Paris-based Tierno Monénembo, Guinea’s most prominent writer, who recently won the Prix Renaudot. He ostentatiously stayed away from the book fair in Conakry because he did not feel like serving as a fig leaf for the head of state who came to power through a controversial election, as one of the publishing staff suspected. Guinea’s civil society is struggling to emerge from the long shadow of Sékou Touré’s 25 year dictatorship, which suffocated any creative impulse, followed by equally long, rigid military rule, which was not exactly conducive to democracy.

After the overthrow of his friend Nkrumah, Sékou Touré constantly devised new conspiracies to pillory unpopular politicians, rivals and opposition members. A master brewer from Aachen was arrested and accused of poisoning Sékou Touré with beer, as was a German bicycle tourist who inquired about entry formalities. Only years later it came out that the Stasi had denounced a German citizen working in Guinea as a Nazi agent, who was tortured to death in the infamous Camp Boiro. Sékou Touré could hear the cries for help – the torture centre was next to his official residence. Although some of the main culprits were convicted, Guinea is far from being able to come to terms with the dictatorship.

Only comic-strip artists and cartoonists do not mince their words and undermine censorship because their work is considered bastard art and is not taken seriously by the government. The table at which two comic book authors from Germany demonstrated how to tell a picture story with a shot and a counter-shot was always surrounded by curious people, among them highly gifted but poorly paid local caricaturists who cannot be prevented from cracking sexual and religious taboos even by death threats. Similar to telenovelas in Nigeria, “graphic novels” are also understood by illiterates and present everyday problems in a more unadorned way than the so-called high literature, which only the African elite can understand.

About Guinea

Guinea lies on the west coast of Africa. The former French colony gained its independence on 2 October 1958. In recent decades, despite its mineral resources, the country has been ruined primarily by communist experiments and the bloody dictatorship of Sékou Touré. Due to the senility of the current president, there is a great deal of agony in politics and society.