When Congolese author Alain Mabanckou lived in Pointe-Noire, the second largest city in the Republic of Congo, he interacted with homeless youth living on the streets: Their stories inspired the book, Black Moses.
He dedicated the novel to the urchins especially to “Little Pepper”, “whose greatest wish was to be a character in fiction, since he’d had enough of being one in real life,” Mabanckou writes in the foreword.
Moses is an orphan who never knew his parents. He has lived in a government-run orphanage in the village of Loanga since being abandoned as a baby. Priest Papa Moupelo, from neighbouring Zaire, is adroit at Lingala dancing.
Sensing something special in his young charge, Papa Moupelo gives him the name Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bokako — Lingala for “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.”
Narrated by Moses, the story chronicles life at the orphanage under Dieudonne Ngoulmoumako, the institute director, who employs his nephews as wardens. The story is set in the 1970s when the country had turned to one-party Marxist-Leninist socialism.
Contrary to national ideals of social equality and development, the orphanage is rife with deceitfulness and dishonest staff.
As the socialist revolution sweeps through the country, a clamp-down on Christianity and clerics leads to the exit of the priest. He is followed out by Sabine Niangui, a nurse at the orphanage and one of the few sources of comfort to Moses. Their abrupt departure deepens the gloomy outlook of the children.
So when the opportunity arises, and despite misgivings about abandoning his best friend Bonaventure, Moses escapes from the home along with twin brothers. They flee to the coastal city of Pointe-Noire where they start a new life as petty street thieves.
After an incident involving too much pepper in a meal, Moses’s name is changed to Little Pepper. In the city, Moses falls in with society’s deplorable and survives by “stealing scooters or car tyres, mugging whites in the town centre, setting ambushes for lovers near the Martyrs’ Bridge, then stealing their purses.”
Mabanckou lives in the US but grew up in Mobutu’s Congo-Brazzaville of the 1970s and 1980s.
This is the story of a boy in search of family, reflecting the reality of many of Africa’s street children. But Mabanckou also takes an allegorical review of post-colonial dictatorship, failed communism and intertwined histories of the two Congos as seen through the eyes of children.
Told as a roller-coaster adventure, Mabanckou’s humour and play on words keeps this unhappy tale from feeling utterly wretched. In and out of the tale drift random characters with unconventional names such as Crumbly Biscuit and Instant Decapsulation.
Despite his visionary name, Black Moses’s life hardly brings salvation to anybody let alone himself. His journey is a continuous series of losses and for this reason the story at times gets frustrating for having few moments of triumph.
The novel is translated from French by Helen Stevenson, but does not seem to have lost its flavour nor the message become unclear. Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.