Book review: The Legend of Queen Abraha Pokou.
The Legend of Queen Abraha Pokou, by Veronique Tadjo, is a compilation of numerous versions of the famous myth, which recounts the story about the making of the Baoule people of Ivory Coast. By creating parallel universes in which different storylines of the legend develop, the author compels us to wonder to what extent the legend of Pokou is true.
The first part of the story, The Time of Legend, recounts the famous legend of Abraha Pokou, the beloved princess of the powerful Ashanti Kingdom and queen of the Baoule people.
It is from the second part of the story, The Time of Questioning, that the author creates new interpretations of the legend.
Pokou ‘s cry, “Ba-ou-li: the child is dead!” appears numerous times in Abraha Pokou: Fallen Queen; despair seems to be the focus in this version. In a bitter tone, the story interrogates the justifications for the sacrifice. “ To what divinity did they make such a sacrifice? To whom did they offer up the death of a child? And just where were Africa’s forgiving gods?” The story also vilifies other characters in the story, implying that they had persuaded their queen to make the sacrifice. “Could it be that when they saw that princess, weaker and more fragile than the most ordinary of women, the dignitaries wanted to show the impatient and cruel gods that they, too, know how to speak their language?” In the end, devoured by sorrow, the queen runs to the river to find her child; drifting through currents, she reaches the high sea and becomes the queen of the oceans.
The Atlantic Passage seems to tell the story that conflicts the most from the original legend; the queen refuses to sacrifice her child and her people are enslaved as a consequence. Pokou refuses to succumb to the will of her gods, believing that there is some other way to save her people “I refuse to throw my child into the tumultuous waters of the Comoe River. Do not ask that of me. Our warriors are brave. Together we will be able to defend ourselves against the army of our foes and their dogged hatred.” Pokou and her followers are soon captured by her uncle’s army and sold into slavery. This story seems to indicate that the sacrifice was necessary for Pokou to build her own kingdom and her defiance came with a cost. “To live or die? They had lost their faces, their names, their tomorrows. They had been emptied of their strength. They had nothing left.”
In The Queen pulled from Waters, Pokou is able to lead her people to freedom but becomes tormented by her choice to sacrifice the child. This story also takes a spiritual direction; the spirit of the dead child tries to return to her mother. “The spirit of the deceased prince is troubling our queen. He is harassing her, trying to garner all her attention. He has turned into a tyrant. Feeling lonely in the world beyond, he wants her to join him. All the Baoule people bear the weight of his displeasure.” In an attempt to appease their troubled queen, a sculptor is charged to make a statuette of the sacrificed prince. Though it is not clear if the spirit of the prince now resided in the statuette or if it vanished after the libation was offered, Pokou’s joy rejuvenates once she laid her eyes of the wooden figure of her son.
The Claws of Power analyses on the power dynamics conveyed in this story; Pokou’s sacrifice is narrowed down to her ambition to gain power. Like in Abraha Pokou: Fallen Queen, this story also implies that the Baoule people influenced Pokou ‘s decision to sacrifice the child. “...I am the child’s mother and I love him. But you need to know that he does not belong to me. He belongs to the people...They have been pushed to the limits of their strength and they are waiting for me. I must make the sacrifice for them…” This story also conveys Pokou’s reluctance to make the sacrifice, which she decides to proceed with anyways to gain power over her people. “Pokou has long craved power. She had moved towards it, step by step with determination, knowing that one day she would have to give up everything else for it…”
Veronique Tadjo finally offers her personal interpretation of the legend in The Words of the Poet. She questions if this legend should be interpreted literally or if it has an underlying meaning. “Everything is possible in legend; those beautiful words created to pacify the people and renew their confidence in the future.” Her persisting hesitance to endorse the popular interpretation of this legend is mainly because she believes that legends have the power to influence how we view ourselves, and we might be reciting these stories without understanding their significance. “Today, the legend has lost its magical power, and is nothing more than an object of cold and hollow beauty. The words, of course, remain unpleasant to hear, but they have also grown dangerous, turning around in the air, here and there, unsure of where to land.” In a dark tone, the author concludes that our inability to comprehend these legends has left us cut off from a much richer knowledge.
Though it is possible that these legends might have knowledge that we have been unable to access, they have to a certain extent served their purpose. Legends about the making of people are retold so that those people take pride in the stories that define them. I also believe that interpretations of stories change with time, and maybe these interpretations ought to change so that younger generations relate and learn from them.
In the third part of the story, the writer offers an interpretation of what happened to the young prince after he was thrown into the into the river. “And the bird-child laughs, lifting his arms up to the sky. He has vanquished the Beast.”