Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ségou I: De aarden wallen - Maryse Condé

If you read the history of a random country in sub-Saharan Africa, it either begins at the first contact with Europeans or briefly mentions the state of the region right before the colonial powers show up. Before that, Africa appears not to have had a history. At least not one that anybody in the western world is particularly interested in exploring. In the west, Africa might have been an unknown continent until the end of the nineteenth century, but that obviously doesn't make it the start of history. The thing that attracted me to this book many years ago is that Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé explores the history of city of Ségou (or Segu if you prefer the English spelling), located in present-day Mali, before it became part of the French colonial empire. I read it in Dutch translation, the original French title is Ségou: Les murailles de terre. It has been translated into English as well under the rather unimaginative title Segu. It is the first part of a duology, I hope to have a look at the second volume later in the year.

The novel opens in October 1796 when the Bambara state ruled from Ségou is at the height of its power. Its soldiers have subjugated all its neighbours and is growing rich from the trade in slaves. The river Joliba (Niger) keeps its fields fertile and productive and the ruler Mansa Mozon is strong and feared throughout the region. The Bambara are a proud and confident people, but change is about to arrive in Ségou. A white man by the name of Mungo Park presents himself at the gate of the city and from the north the call of Islam is heard ever louder. As the decline of the empire sets in, we follow the members of the Traoré family. Four of its sons will be scattered across the globe, showing us the developments that, unknown to much of the Bambara population of the city, contribute to the downward spiral they find themselves in.

Interestingly, Condé starts where many of the history books would start, with the first white man to show up in the area. She chooses to use him as a herald of change but the change that most directly affects the city in the book doesn't come from the western powers. Ségou would not be taken by the French until 1890. Tiékoro hears the call of Islam early on in the novel. His curiosity about the religion shocks his family. The morals of his new religion clashes with the traditional Bambara views on sexuality, family and religion. He gets sent to Tombouctou to study however, accompanied by his brother Siga. Where Tiékoro's conversion is complete, Siga's is only skin deep. He adopts an Arab name out of necessity and while he is interested in learning to write, he doesn't particularly care for a ban on alcohol or extramarital sex. The conflict in the family between Siga's practicality and Tiékoro's fanaticism is one that will play out throughout the Bambara empire. It's a conflict that rips the city apart in the end, and if you look at current events in Mali, it is a conflict that continues to be relevant to the region.

A third son, Naba, is pulled in another direction. He is taken prisoner and suffers the fate so many Africans taken in raids and wars have had to endure. He is sold as a slave and ends up on the island of Gorée, the departure point of many transports to the new world. He is bought by one of the rich inhabitants of the island but when he falls in love with a slave girl about to depart for Brazil, he sneaks on board and goes with her. From Naba's point of view we get to see the slave trade and its importance to the economy of many of the African empires, but also the cost in human suffering and effects of a loss of their roots and culture. The novel is set in a period in which slavery is challenged from several sides. The ban on the trade  in 1807 by Great Britain is a historically important moment, although in practice the slave trade would go on for decades after.

The fourth member of the Traoré family Condé uses to explore the external pressures on the Bambara empire is Malobali. He makes a run for it after being sent to Djenné to study the Islam and ends up serving in the army of the Ashanti Empire, in what is today part of Ghana. Through his eyes we explore the expanding influence of the British, the introduction of Christianity and the effect the (descendants of) returning slaves have on west-African society. While the Ashanti would not be completely defeated and colonized by the British entirely until after the fourth Anglo-Ashanti War starting in 1895, their influence is still felt throughout the region.

The brilliance of this book is probably in the way Condé manages to describe so many diverse cultures the characters encounter. She manages to step into the Bambara worldview but describes places like Brazil, the Ashanti empire, Morocco, London, Djenné and Tombouctou vividly as well. The author doesn't overwhelm the reader with it, but in most of these places, hints to the history are included. The Bambara Empire for instance, is not the only one to flourish in the region. Ségou was once part of the Songhai Empire, and before that the Mali Empire. It is very interesting to see how the Traoré sons often represent the outsider view to a particular culture, religion or nation, while in the generation of their children it shifts dramatically. There is also a big gap between the characters who stay in Ségou and those who have seen parts of the world. In the entire novel you can feel the hammer coming down on the city that despite all these omens remains proud and self-assured to the point of arrogance.

With the frequent changes in point of view and the large timespan the novel covers, the character development is not very in depth. Characters are chosen to represent a development and Condé spends quite a lot of time telling us exactly what makes them tick. What she is interested in is what they witness and how it will shape the city that is the real main character of the novel. It's a style of writing that is not that unusual in historical novels but not everybody can appreciate it. Personally I like the variety in characters and locales Condé employs just fine.

One other thing that might turn the reader of is the way gender relations are portrayed in the novel. Although there are plenty of female characters in the book, almost the entire novel is written from male points of view. They have opinions on women and sexuality that fit the society and religion they adhere to and usually those ideas are quite sexist. Condé doesn't steer away from it. Forced marriages, abuse of slaves and rape are very much part of the story and we are not spared the consequences of it. Several of the characters struggle with the restrictions their new religion puts on sexual activity in ways that often quite brutally expose the hypocrisy of the characters and their society. Bambara customs are not spared in that department. Their views on sex, while not as restrictive to the men, are not exactly free of sexism and other problems.

I think this was the fourth time I've read this book and I still think it is an amazing read. It is one of the few novels I'm aware of that shows us an African society from the inside and succeeds in making it believable. Condé has obviously put in a lot of research into the history, culture and customs of Ségou and the result is a very good historical novel. It's a book that will make the reader a lot more aware of the fact that slave trade, religious fanaticism and colonialism left their scars on many local cultures and have sown the seeds of many of the post-colonial conflicts that still plague the continent. On the other hand it also shows this part of the world as vibrant, culturally rich and in some ways very resilient. I must admit that I knew very little of Mali before I read this book for the first time many years ago and that may have been the type or reader Condé was aiming for. It is a great introduction to a piece of Africa that does not show up in the history curriculum of the average western highschool student. Since that is not likely to change anytime soon, you should probably just go out and read this book.

Book Details
Title: Ségou. I: De aarden wallen
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 609
Year: 1993
Language: Dutch
Translation: Stefaan van den Bremt
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-085-X
First published: 1984

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