The Shifting Tides of Time
For some of us, it takes time to pursue our passions, for our dreams to soar, and for us to blossom. Take the story of Colonel Harland David Sanders. For years, he took on various jobs, including farmer, streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, and insurance salesman. He would achieve financial success after perfecting his “finger-lickin’ good chicken” in 1939. Over eight decades later, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is ubiquitous and is a globally recognized brand. Similar stories can be found among writers. Sidney Sheldon was already a successful director and producer before he started pursuing literature as a full-time career. By the time his first novel was published, he was already a quinquagenarian but he would end up publishing seventeen more novels and a memoir to boot. On the same note, Amor Towles first found success in the corporate world but after two decades, he rekindled his interest in his first passion: writing. His debut and succeeding novels were all critically acclaimed and ensured his successful transition into a full-time literary career.
Like Towles, Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé discovered her love for writing at a young age. When she was 12-years-old, she even wrote a play. However, it was not with literature that she kick-started her career. Post-university, she pursued a career in teaching, holding teaching positions in Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. She was nearly into her forties when her first novel was published, later on admitting that one of the reasons she initially shied away from a literary career was because of her lack of confidence. She overcame it, thus, launching the rise of a literary star to the zenith of success. There was no looking back for Condé, whose popularity skyrocketed. With paean for her work pouring in from various parts of the world, her success story is a reminder that we can still reset and achieve success.
But then again, success for Condé was not instantaneous. It would take Condé her third novel, Segu, for her international breakthrough, and gain global recognition and critical acclaim. Situated on the banks of the Niger River, Segu (Ségou) is a city in present-day south-central Mali. The city was founded by Biton Kulibaby and once served as the capital of the Bambara kingdom of the same name. It was to this city that Condé transported her readers, commencing in the year 1797. The city was thriving. The noblemen were also prospering. The kingdom’s power and influences stretched for miles, with influential families such as the Fulanis of Macina serving as their vassals. The mere mention of the kingdom’s name was enough to arouse and instill fear in both its enemies and its subjects. Segu is a garden where cunning grows. Segu is built on treachery. Speak of Segu outside Segu, but do not speak of Segu in Segu.
“The earth is the color of ochre and burning hotThe grass, when it manages to grow at all, is yellow. But usually there is nothing but a desolate stony crust from which only the baobab can derive nourishment, together with the acacia and the shea trees, symbols of the whole region.”~Maryse Condé, Segu
Originally published in French in 1984, the fate of the city was charted through the trials and tribulations of one of the city’s most powerful and influential clans, the Traore family, with the story focusing on the male members of the clan. The patriarch, Dousika, was a yerewolo (nobleman) and a member of the royal council. His position allowed him to enjoy a vast influence being the king’s primary advisor and confidant. In his family compound, he was the fa, or the patriarch who oversees all of the affairs not just of his own household but of the entire Traore clan, which was comprised of five families, his own and those of his younger brothers. What Dousika failed to see were the bad omens that have been trickling from all directions. Firstly, his influence over the king started to falter, adversely affecting his reputation across the kingdom.
When he fell from grace and into depression, the rest of the household was left to fend for their own. Dousika’s own household was comprised of several children he fathered from several wives and concubines. It was through the journeys of four of his sons that the narrative started to take a firmer shape. In different circumstances, several of the Traore scions found themselves leaving the family compound and into the bigger world outside of the Bambara Kingdom. The eldest son, Tiekoro was appalled by the violence that has become prevalent in his hometown. Because of this, he started embracing the teachings of Islam, a new religion that was slowly influencing every kingdom surrounding Segu. He then embarked on a journey to Timbuktu to attend a Quranic school.
Accompanying Tiekoro in his journey was his brother, Siga. Both Tiekoro and Siga were born on the same day, with a couple of hours separating them, but Tiekoro was considered the heir apparent and the favorite son because his mother, Nya, was Dousika’s first wife. As the first wife, Nya has wielded great influence over the other wives. Siga’s mother, on the other hand, was a captive Dousika slept with. Meanwhile, Tiekoro’s younger brother, Naba, was kidnapped by slave traders during a hunting trip with his cousin, Tiefolo, the son of Diemogo, Dousika’s younger brother. Malobali was Dousika’s youngest son and was mothered by Sira, one of the patriarch’s concubines. However, Malobali was left to the care of Nya after Sira decided to leave Segu. Like leaves that have fallen from a tree, Dousika’s descendants were blown away by the wind to different parts of the world, each charting his own destiny.
A Kingdom under Threat
Spanning nearly two centuries, we get to read about the transformations that were taking place in Western Africa. While the Traore scions were navigating the world, Segu was under constant threats by different elements coming from different parts. One growing threat was the exponential rise of Islam which was aggressive in its conversion of the kingdoms surrounding Segu. It has become dominant in Western Africa. However, the Bambara king was adamant in his refusal to have his subjects be converted. Rather, he wanted to keep the fetish priests as primary counsels while letting his subjects freely choose between fetishism and conversion. Islamic crusaders, on the other hand, viewed fetishism and fetish priests as the biggest obstacle to the conversion, hence, gaining control of western Africa. They were vocal in their criticism of fetishism and in Tiekoro, they found an unwilling ally. Segu was caught in an impasse.
“The whites had come, cadged a little land to build their forts, and then because of them nothing was ever the same again. They had brought with them things never before heard of here, and people had fought over them, nation against nation, brother against brother. And now the whites’ ambition knew no bounds. Where would it end?”~Maryse Condé, Segu
The passage of time saw the emergence of new threats. On another front, the arrival of white Europeans saw the emergence of the slave trade. The tremendous movement of saw captured Africans, through either wars or kidnapping, being shipped across oceans, shackled together, and usually kept under the slave ship’s bunk with very little room to maneuver themselves. However, Condé also underlined the slavery that already persisted prior to the arrival of the Europeans; the kingdoms of western Africa were no strangers to slavery. During sieges, they forcefully take members of other tribes they have successfully conquered. The Traore family compound was brimming with slaves and the male members even fathered children with some of them.
In conjunction with the slave trade, the novel underscored racism. Condé was yet again unsparing in her examination of racism and its impact. While Tiekoro was considered royalty in Segu, he was nearly denied access to the Quranic school because of his skin color and his appearance. It was not until he showed the gold provided by his father that he was allowed to enter the school. Despite being granted entry to a prestigious institution, he found himself the subject of bullying by his fellow students who were fair-skinned. His experience was a projection of how skin color was a determinant of how the rest of the world will see him, and, for that matter, his entire tribe. But even in western African societies, discrimination persisted. For instance, Segu often saw the Fulani tribe as a lower rung, hence, their resentment towards them, especially after the Fulani tribe converted to Islam.
With the arrival of the Europeans on the shores of the Niger River entered a new threat: colonialism. In the opening sequence of the novel, a white man was seen standing on the shores of the Joliba (Bambara term for the Niger River). The denizens of Segu were apprehensive of him, especially at the start. They had the right reasons to be. Tagging along with colonialism was the indoctrination to a new religion, Christianity, driven by the motivation of “Gold, God, Glory.” The colonialists also saw it as their duty to “civilize” Africa: “To civilize Africa by converting it to Christianity? But what did that mean? Didn’t every people have its own civilization, subtended by its belief in its own gods? What was converting Africa to Christianity but imposing an alien civilization upon it?”
The quote also mirrored how the rest of the world perceived Africa and its people. They viewed Africans as uncivilized, barbaric even, hence the rise of modern racism. Unfortunately, these ideas persist in the contemporary. The book was effective in quashing all of these preconceived notions. Through Condé’s descriptive images and evocative storytelling, we were given a peek into a thriving civilization, a simulacrum of the civilizations that thrived in the other parts of the world. They have their own set of beliefs, traditions, government and military structures, and hierarchies. They share several similarities, including royal counsels but the most prevalent were the power struggles that were present all throughout the course of the story. The book was rich in details that cannot be found in history textbooks, making it a good primer for an African history class.
“What a terrible part we have to play, we mothers of sons? Our daughters bring us wealth, joy, and grandchildren, but our sons are nothing but torment, anguish, and affliction. They seek death in war, and if they don’t find it there they travel the world in search of it. And one day a stranger comes and tells us they are no more. Or else they try to undo what our fathers have done and so offend the ancestors. Sometimes I wonder if they ever think of us.”~Maryse Condé, Segu
On Identity and Culture
As various tides of change started pervading western Africa and imposing their “civilization”, we get to see a picture of a civilization that was being drowned by these different foreign influences. Previously, being a member of the Bambara Kingdom carried with it prestige and privilege. But with years of violence and bloodshed, and the conversion of its surrounding kingdoms, Segu has started losing all its reputation. With more influences flowing in, Segu and its people must reckon with the growing reality that their conversion was a foregone conclusion. In all of this, it was increasingly becoming palpable how the novel grappled with a seminal subject: what it means to be Black. Tiekoro’s earlier years in Timbuktu, for instance, abounded with reflections on skin colors. How does a civilization overcome foreign elements intent on invading every level of society?
Accenting the story are cultural touchstones that provided the readers a vibrant portrait of life in 18th century western Africa. The customs and traditions of Segu were integral in understanding the transformation shaping up western Africa and gave the landscape of the story a distinct complexion. The patriarchal structure of the Bambara Kingdom is akin to the patriarchal societies prevalent in other societies. The Traores and Segu were microcosms of this structure. Contrasting these patriarchal structures are the subtle narrative threads depicting the dynamics of mother-son relationships. The roles of the fetish priests in the running of the government were vividly captured by Condé, along with how rituals and superstitions are normal parts of daily living in Segu. One prevalent superstition prohibited making love in daylight because would result in an albino child; an albino child was seen as a force of evil.
The amount of research poured into the story by Condé was commendable. This resulted in an evocative and insightful work of historical fiction that diagnosed cultural maladies that persist in the contemporary. She managed to capture the adverse impact of the slave trade, colonialism, and religious fanaticism on other societies. The trauma and the wounds that they have left behind still reverberate in the contemporary: “Why did the English go spreading their religion and their way of life to the ends of the earth when there was so much to be done at home? It was because their real object was quite different – their real aim was to trade, to trade so that the rich might get richer.”
The Ugly Realities
All of the novel’s different layers and elements were astutely woven together by Condé’s descriptive prose and riveting storytelling. She made Segu come alive and the result was a lush tapestry. But what makes the story all the more compelling was the objective lenses Condé used to paint the portrait of Segu. The concern was not the painting of a utopia but rather more a realistic picture of a civilization on the precipice of collapse. She created in the readers’ minds a beautiful and romantic picture of Segu. On the other hand, she didn’t shy away from the ugly realities that hounded the kingdom. We read of a kingdom that thrived in chaos and war. It was a kingdom built by and overran with slaves, further reminding the readers of the existence of slavery within the ambit of African societies. Segu was no paradise:
“A livelier place was not to be found within a radius of several days’ march. The main market was held in a big square surrounded with mud-roofed sheds divided by partitions of wood or woven matting. Here, women sold everything that could be sold: millet, onions, rice, sweet potatoes, smoked fish, fresh fish, peppers, shea butter and chickens, while craftsmen hung the products of their trade on strings: strips of woven cotton, sandals, saddles and finely decorated gourds. To the left was the slave market, where prisoners of war were crammed together, attached to one another by means of branches torn from saplings.”~Maryse Condé, Segu
As one digs deeper into the story, it also becomes palpable how the male voices drowned the voices of women. We read of how women were treated as second-class citizens in Segu. They were given very little agency. Freedom was a construct as they remained subservient to the wishes and desires of the patriarchy. Unlike the men, they are not allowed the freedom to explore the world beyond their homes. The story did expound on the story of two women but in both instances, it was emphasized that women only manage to make an impact if they are manipulative, not for their cunning. The growth of women is tied to their relationship with men. The treatment of women as second-class citizens makes them vulnerable to the evil designs of men. The novel proliferated with discomfiting images of rape and lust.
The book was also rich in images, being the result of Condé’s extensive research. However, it was also this intricate level of detail that was the undoing of the story. The richness of details resulted in a verbose story that tells the readers too much, including the characters’ interiors and motivations. Their feelings were also readily provided without much thought from the reader, thus causing them to lose their subtlety. Descriptions of places, customs, and traditions were given the same level of attention to detail. There was not much for the readers to decipher. With language and storytelling losing their nuances in the sea of details, repetitive sentences made the novel a tedious read at times.
In Segu, Condé delivered a literary masterpiece that challenged how we understand colonialism, religious fanaticism, and the scars they have left on different quarters of the world. The book was even more effective in its undoing of the preconceived notions most of us have formed on Africa, its customs, and its people. In Segu, we see a civilization on the precipice of collapse as it was slowly being choked to surrender by various foreign elements. The book had its fair share of flaws but the book’s successes far outweighed its flaws. Parts-family saga, parts-history textbook, Segu was a lush tapestry of western African history explored through the strands of the Traore clan.
“A moment earlier he had never doubted his own religion. He had lived only through and for Allah. He could go for two days without food or drink. The sexual act to which he was condemend as a married man, he regarded as defilement. He started to pray every morning as soon as he opened his eyes. But that cry – “Allah has killed my husband! – echoed and reechoed in his mind. He suddenly understood there was no universal god; every man had the right to worship whomsoever he pleased; and to take away a man’s religion, the keystone of his life, was to condemn him to death. Why was Allah better than Faro or Pemba? Who had decreed it?”~Maryse Condé, Segu
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I have always been intrigued by Maryse Condé after my first encounter with her during the lead-up to the announcement of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature winners. Many a literary pundit touted her as a shoo-in for the award. Unfortunately, she wasn’t picked by the Swedish Academy but I picked her prose to be my next literary adventure. Her first novel that I read, Crossing the Mangrove, immediately reeled me into the beauty and power of her prose. When I was able to obtain a copy of her most popular work, Segu, I was even more ecstatic, hence, its inclusion in my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. Indeed, what an experience it was. It was a multilayered narrative that captured the transformations taking place in Western Africa in the mid-18th to mid-19th century through the story of the Traore clan. The lush historical details reminded me of Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob while the equally intricate cultural details rendered the story a distinct atmosphere. Sure, there were discomfiting subjects and images but Condé’s unsparing literary lens provided for an objective and, at the same time, impressionable reading journey. It is easily one of my best reads of 2022, perhaps all-time. This makes me more excited to read more of Condé’s works.
Author: Maryse Condé
Translator (from French): Barbara Bray
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: March 2017
Number of Pages: 495
Genre: Historical Fiction
It is 1797 and the African kingdom of Segu, born of blood and violence, is at the height of its power. Yet Dousika Traore, the king’s most trusted advisor, feels nothing but dread. Change is coming. From the East, a new religion, Islam. From the West, the slave trade. These forces will tear his country, his village, and the lives of his beloved sons apart, in Maryse Condé’s glittering epic of family, betrayal, religious fervour and the turbulent fate of a people.
About the Author
To learn more about Maryse Condé, please click here.