PARIS — A series of French comic books set in the West African country of Ivory Coast has captivated readers both in Africa and overseas. Now, the film Aya de Yopougon has just been released in French movie houses and will soon be shown in the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan. French-Ivorian author Marguerite Abouet wrote Aya and currently lives in the suburbs of Paris.
In the movie the viewer travels to the Ivorian city of Abidjan in the 1970s to get caught up in the lives of Aya, Bintu, Fanta and Ignace…and all the other colorful characters living in the ethnically-mixed neighborhood of Yopougon.
The characters are the stars of a series of comic books - and now the new movie.
"I deliberately chose Muslim and Christian names for my characters, because I had the chance of living in Yopougon, and in Ivory Coast. Abidjan was the crossroads of West Africa at the time. Everything passed through the country. And my neighbors could be a Muslim who had married a Baoulé [one of Ivory Coast's many ethnic groups], and so in a single household you could have very different names," said Abouet.
A collaboration with French illustrator Clement Oubrerie, the Aya books are about daily life in Yopougon: the loves, the heartaches, the ambitions and the setbacks. They also touch on sensitive issues like homosexuality and infidelity.
The Aya series has become a best-seller both in Ivory Coast and in France, Abouet's adopted home. The film Aya de Yopougon was released in French cinemas in July.
In some ways the real Cinderella story is Abouet herself: the little girl from Yopougon who made it big in Paris. Abouet says she did not grow up in a bookish household, but story-telling was a family tradition.
"During vacations we would go to the village where our grandparents lived, with all our cousins. We had no electricity or running water. Our grandfather was our television. Every evening he'd gather us all around a big fire and tell us stories," she said.
Abouet brought those stories with her to France. As the only African in her class, it was her way of fitting in. Later, she began jotting down memories of her childhood in Yopougon. They became material for a series of children's books.
"I started to write down the stories so I wouldn't forget them. It was important for me to remember all of my stories, because I felt I was so far from home, so far from my parents, that I was afraid to forget them," said Abouet.
The colors and smells of Abouet's Yopougon also permeate the Aya series, although this time, the fictional characters are adults. For French publishing house Gallimard Jeunesse, the stories were a first foray into comic books, or graphic novels.
"It was completely original, completely exotic. We were able to discover the insider's Africa," said Gallimard editor Thierry Laroche. "And it wasn't talking about negative things - war or sickness. It doesn't mean hiding these problems, but talking about Africans and how they live."
The Aya comic books have attracted a diverse fan club in both Africa and France. Thirty-four-year-old Edia Aikessi, who bought a ticket to see the Aya movie in Paris, grew up in Abidjan.
"The books bring back the atmosphere of the city, the expressions, the dishes people eat, all the smells. It's really Abidjan for me, and they're funny and very well drawn," said Aikessi.
Years of conflict have scarred and impoverished Ivory Coast and the Yopougon of Abouet's childhood. But the author salutes the endurance of Ivorians living through those dark times - especially the mothers. The Aya movie is a tribute to them.