Aya is a graphic novel about the lives of three teenage girls in prosperous 1970s Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. The book caught my attention when I saw that the author’s goal was to write an African book that didn’t focus on the big problems- no poverty, no AIDS, no violence and dictatorships. I certainly find it important to read books about those big problems, but it’s good to mix in books that have a more positive outlook as well.
Here’s my initial reaction to the book:
Unfortunately, while Aya left out the big problems, it didn’t put much else in either. I would say that it falls solidly into the category of teenage soap opera. The plot mostly revolves not around 19-year-old Aya, the title character, but around her two friends who are only interested in dancing and men. They make lots of bad decisions and create a lot of problems without seeming to learn anything or being interesting in any way.
On further reflection and reading some other reviews, I wonder whether much of my negative opinion is a result of the way the book is marketed rather than the book itself. If the book is trying to show a positive image of Africa, then it is a silly book idealizing flirting and promiscuity. On the other hand, if I try to forget that expectation and simply think of the book as one depiction of teenage life in Abidjan, then I can regain my respect for the book, though I would still like to see better character development.
The scene in the book that most startled me is one in which one of the girls goes out dancing with another girl’s father. She gets caught because her own father is there- dancing with another teenage girl. In a blatant display of hypocrisy, her father beats her and assigns her male cousin* to make sure she doesn’t leave the house, while not reconsidering his own behavior in any way. I know that relationships between younger women and older men are common in parts of Africa, but it was eye-opening to see that playing out.
The scene also reminded me of a segment of the book Poor Economics about a study of the effectiveness of different approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention education in South African high schools. They found that the most effective tactic in reducing rates of infection was to encourage the female high school students to date men their own age, rather than older men. This is because older men have a much higher rate of HIV infection than younger men (a fact that they emphasized to the high school students), but also because women are more successful in insisting on condom use with men their own age. This approach also succeeded because it was successful in changing behaviors, unlike many of the other approaches. Apparently it’s much easier to convince people to choose their partners wisely than to convince them not to have sex at all!
*Many of the families have cousins from the country living with them. The cousins seem to have second-class status in the family and are ordered around like servants.