NOT TO BE MISSED
"Ségou. Les murailles de terre", a novel by Maryse CONDE
Paris: Robert Laffont, 1984, (487 p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Twentyfive years after its first publication, Maryse Condé's famous African saga remains an all-inspiring novel. It is set between the 18th and 19th centuries and follows the fortunes of the family of Dousika Traoré, a nobleman and councillor of the Kingdom of Segou located between Bamako and Timbuktu in present-day Mali. After a century of conquests the King has become powerful and affluent, but a bleaker era is looming for the city. The rapid progression of Islam, the conversion of the Peuls, the disputes between various religious leaders whose bloody wars aimed at ridding African kingdoms of their ancestral beliefs and a downturn in the slave trade following England's change of heart about slave transportation, all contributed to alter the dynamics of the region. The life stories of Dousika and his sons reflect the human dimension of these turbulent times.
One of the most seductive characteristic of this eventful family history is the fact that it tells of the history as if Segou was at the centre of the world. That, to a Western reader raised to believe that Europe and America are the mother of all things is altogether compelling and stimulating. Small details and big issues are not exposed in the context of modern hegemonies and current discourse about Africa. They are revealed from the point of view of Bambara people to whom, for example, the concepts of "Africa" and "Europe" do not exist; people who have their own gods and do not need the help of ours but still have to deal with issues confronting all the inhabitants of the four corners of the earth: matters of life, death, family, love and hope.
The life journeys of Dousika's many sons evoke all of these issues. Tièkoro, the eldest son, embodies for example the irruption of Islam in Segou's way of life, "a novelty in the region borne by Arab caravans like a new, exotic merchandise" (p.29). Tièkoro's discovery of the written word and subsequently of the Muslim faith when he is about fifteen and walks unsuspectingly into El-Hadj Ibrahima's small mosque leads him to a life-long journey of scholarship and enlightenment. His eager embrace of the new religion suits his dislike of bloody sacrifices and warlike activities, but it challenges the core of his family's values and leaves him with ambiguous feelings towards his peers, his elders and his father. From the day of his conversion forth, he has to deal with a hiatus that separates his heart and his mind, his instinctive feelings and the demands of his new religious beliefs. His sojourn in Timbuktu and other centres of learning makes things even more difficult as he discovers the evil of racism, deception, intolerance and doctrinal infighting. In the end, like his father Dousika who was unjustly accused of plotting against his king, Tiékoro spends his life at the service of God and country only to become a victim of religious intransigence and political intrigue: the powerful El-Hadj Omar who fights the pagans with unparalleled ferocity accuses him of collusion with the infidels and denounces his spiritual leniency, whereas the King of Segou, in the most ironic twist of fate, condemns him to death for his association with the very same El-Hadj Omar.
The issue of slavery is raised through the fortunes of Tièkoro's brother Naba. He is a keen hunter who dreams of making a name to himself. But one day, when a young man, he became separated from his friends, is captured by a small party of mercenaries roaming the countryside and is sold as a slave. For this young nobleman used to unlimited freedom, a life in chains is a rude awakening to the hardships of life. This marks the beginnings of a long journey that will lead him to the small island of Gorée, and later to Brazil where, ultimately, he will die. Much could be said about Naba's extraordinary life as a slave; but rather it was some trivial details that got me lost in thought. For Naba, as it were, "America" did not mean the United States of America, but rather Brazil and South America. Moreover, it was not European slave traders who organized his capture but out-of-work African mercenaries. And it was not a White land- owner who bought him in the first place, but a Signare from Gorée. Was it a pure coincidence? A deliberate authorial choice? Perhaps . But to me, this state of affairs appeared definitely to be the logical outcome of a novel the purpose of which was to look at the world from a different point of view: one bent on eschewing the well-trodden path of Caribbean and North American slave-history in order to explore the world outside contemporary wisdom, cleavages, interpretations and hegemonies. Not only did Condé put Segou at the centre of the world, but she also made it the vantage point from which the rest of the universe was to be viewed. For Dousika and his peers Paris, London and New York did not exist and slavery was not a foreign import but very much a local issue: one that permeated every aspect of society and family life. Every war-victory meant the arrival of new slaves and a never-ending flow of people employed in the concession to mend the fields, fight new wars and even bear children who would strengthen the power of the family.
For example Siga Dousika's third son was born to a slave woman of Peul origin. His status in the Traoré's family was therefore somewhat less than that of his other brothers, thus his mission to chaperon Tièkoro when the latter decides to move to Hamdallay in order to further his study of the Holy Book. The narrow-mindedness of Tiékoro's new spiritual leader who refuses to welcome Siga in his house, forces the two brothers to go their separate ways from the start. In order to find work, Siga cuts his hair, buys new clothes and takes the name of Ahmed. Noble Bambara do not work, yet Siga has no choice but to swallow his pride and join a gang of youths carting goods using donkeys. His reliability and good nature allow him eventually to become the right-hand man of a wealthy merchant who sends him to Fès to run his shop. The city is magnificent but racism against Blacks is rife and social interactions at their nastiest. As Siga says, "because I was Black, I was automatically despised and assimilated with the large contingent of slaves who allowed the sultan Moulaye Ismaïl, a century earlier, to subdue Arabs, Berbers, Turks and Christians"(p.181). But as chance has it, Fès is also the city where Siga falls in love with a young Moroccan girl with whom elopes. The couple eventually reaches Segou where Siga is reunited with his family after his long absence from home. However their plan to carry on working in business is denied by the rest of the family as they do not want a nobleman engaging in what they consider as degrading work reserved for men of lower caste. Admittedly Siga's mother was a slave, but a boy belongs to his father and it is unbecoming for Traoré's heirs to indulge in commercial ventures.
Disputing the decisions of elders was also a clear interdiction, thus Siga's reluctant compliance. But for his young brother Malobali, some pills are to hard to swallow. Tièkoro who is in charge of his education has decided to send him away to a Koranic school in Djenné and Malobali does not want to go; he does not want to become a Muslim and his attempt to argue his case only provokes Tièkoro's dismissive scorn: "You don't want, you don't want. Since when does a nobody like you dare to speak like that? You will go, and soon..." (p.166) Left with no alternative but to comply with his brother's marching order, Malobali decides to run away. Like his brothers before him, Maloboli soon discovers that his name means little once the concession of the family and the walls of Segou have disappeared below the horizon. The need to find employment leads him to join the powerful army of the Ashanti as a mercenary, but he soon gets tired of army life dominated by rape, looting, arson and the slaughtering of hapless villagers. After deserting the ranks, he eventually finds refuge with a Christian priest in Porto Novo who gives him the name of Samuel and teaches him his language and faith. It is during a journey to Ouida with this priest that Malobali alias Samuel meets Romana whom he marries, subsequently embarking on new commercial ventures. Both spouses are quite shrewd and soon become successful merchants dealing in palm-oil. However, things begin to unravel as Romana, a devout Catholic, refuses to accept her husband's mistresses and dismisses the idea of the family going back to Segou; thus Malobali's decision to return home alone. Unfortunately for him, as he reaches Abomey, he is mistaken for a spy and thrown in jail. By the time his wife, Romana, manages to secure his release, he is near death and meets his Maker soon after.
Dousika's son's passing does not means however the end of the Traoré dynasty as new blood takes over from the previous generation; new children are born, long lost relatives come back, while others continue their exploration of the world. People like Romana's son Eucaristus who arrives in London in 1840 to study theology and gets an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective and Ollubunmi, who dreams of a life full of excitement and joins the army as the novel reaches its end. Europe is about to send its troops in earnest to invade the whole continent including Segou to exploit its resources and force upon the African population the cultivation of cocoa, cotton, palm-oil and hundreds of other products needed to feed its new factories. (p.289). A new chapter in the history of Segou is about to begin but, as in previous generations, the local elite is ready to forge new alliances and to make do with whatever remnants can be salvaged from the repeated onslaughts that both old and new foes will unleash on the city .
In a review of Ségou published soon after its publication, Guy Ossito Midiohouan seems to suggest that all the characters of the novel are hapless victims, unaware of the tragedy governing their lives and unable to understand its origins.  My reading is quite the opposite. I see in Dousika's descendants, a powerful group of people exploring, on their own terms, the various avenues offered to them. Every generation is sitting at the intersection of past wisdom and new challenges and opportunities. On this score, Dousika's sons and grandsons are no different from their ancestors and none of them are idling their life away, ready to submit passively to the hand of fate. That, of course, goes for women as much as for the men, in spite of the very limited freedom and personal space bestowed upon their female folk by the male protagonists of the novel. As rightly suggested by afore-mentioned Midiohouan: "If the main characters of this rich and exuberant tale are men, women are also getting plenty of attention from Maryse Condé. Their status, conditions of life, passions, disappointments and rebuffs have inspired some of the best pages of the novel".
Ségou is definitely an outstanding piece of work. Not only does it "stir one's blood and leave readers ecstatic and full of admiration upon turning the last page of the book" , but it also offers an alternative account of African history that shows the limits of our own vision of the past.
1. And we could not find an answer to the question in « Conversations avec Maryse Condé » de Françoise Pfaff. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
2. Guy Ossito Midiohouan. "Livres lus" in "Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains" no 40, 1984, p.83. "Il apparaît donc ... que ces personnages (et les autres) ne sont que les jouets et les victimes de la fatalité qui oriente le cours d'une tragédie souvent insoupçonnée et dont nul n'est en mesure de saisir les ressorts".
3. ibid, pp.83-84.
4. ibid, p.84.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities