Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

  1. April 13, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    This sounds immensely powerful. Although I can’t read it in translation I enjoyed hearing about it through your review, thank you Emma.

    Like

    • April 13, 2022 at 9:51 pm

      It’s a wonderful novel and I enjoyed my time with these ladies who decided to fight for themselves.
      I don’t understand why it’s not translated into English. It’s the kind of story that readers like to read.

      Liked by 1 person

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