Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

When I look back at my absolute favourite book of the year in recent years, there is a common theme running in which an author has written a story that comes from deep within their cultural heritage; it’s there in my favourite book of 2017 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book that reaches back to the author’s Ghanaian heritage, in Simone Schwartz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond and in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. It’s even there in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

This is what appealed to me immediately about the prospect of reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu. It promises to do the same thing, to take the reader from where we are at today in a culture and link it back to the past, from modern day Uganda to the era of when the region was ruled as a kingdom. And it succeeds brilliantly, in a way rarely seen in literature in the UK/US published today.

Kintu was discovered when a project called Kwani? launched a manuscript competition in 2012 to discover the best unpublished novels  by writers from across Africa, and to publish them for readers there. Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s excellent Stay With Me, was one of seven manuscripts shortlisted, it also went on to make the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

About the Kwani? project, one of the judges, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey said:

What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined ‘West’ would view them.

As a result of winning that prize Kintu was published by Kwani Trust (in Kenya) before being offered to international publishers. It was published in the US (Transit Books) and the UK (One World Publications) and in March 2018 Jennifer Makumbi learned she was a recipient of a prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Literature worth US$165,000. She is working on her second novel.

My Review:

1750 Buddu Province, Buganda

Kintu is the name of a clan, the original clan elder Kintu Kidda fell in love with Nnakato, an identical twin (the younger) and her family refuse to allow him to marry her unless he married her sister Babirye first. He refused. They resisted. He relented.

Kintu’s mind lingered on the primal conflict that led to a soul splitting into twins. No matter how he looked at it, life was tragic. If the soul is at conflict even at this remotest level of existence, what chance do communities have? This made the Ganda custom of marrying female identical twins to the same man preposterous. It goes against their very nature, Kintu thought. Twins split because they cannot be one, why keep them as such in life? Besides, identical men did not marry the same woman.

Babirye gave him four sets of twins while Nnakato was unable to conceive. When the twins, raised as if they belonged to Nnakto were adults, Nnakato finally gave birth to a son Baale. They adopted a baby boy Kalema, from Ntwire a widower who was passing through their lands, who decided to stay in gratitude to Kintu and Nnakto for raising his son in their family.

When tragedy occurs, Kintu tries to conceal it, Ntwire suspects something and places a curse on Kintu, his family and their future descendants.

The novel is structured into Book One to Book Six, the first five books focus on different strands of the Kintu clan, the first book being the original story of Kintu Kidda and his family in the 1700’s (pre-colonial era) and the latter stories are set in modern times, colonial interlopers have left their imprint, however this is not their story nor a story of their influence, except to note the impact on the kingdom.

After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabuku Mutees II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kubuka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabuka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecration of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.

Each beginning of the six parts/books however narrates over a few pages, something of the story of a man named Kamu Kintu, who is seized from his home, hands tied behind his back and taken away for questioning by a group of local councillors. Overhearing someone mutter the word thief, an angry mob of villagers menace him without knowledge of the reason for his being detained and he is killed, left for dead on the road, the men who’d requested he come with them fleeing. What subsequently happens to every one of those councillors is equally mysterious, creating a thread of mystery that both links and separates the family stories that make up the novel.

We don’t find out who Kamu Kintu is or how he is connected to the families we encounter in each part, until Book Six, where the threads that tie the clan together begin to connect in the enthralling homecoming.

Throughout each family and over the years certain aspects replicate throughout the families, the presence of twins, premature death, as if the curse that was muttered so long ago continues to reverberate through each generation. Some of them are aware of the curse, remembering the story told by their grandmothers, others haven’t been told the truth of their origins, in the hope that ignorance might absolve them.

Her grandmother’s story had intruded on her again. All day at work, the story, like an incessant song, had kept coming and going. Now that she was on her way home, Suubi gave in and her grandmother’s voice flooded her mind.

Some are haunted by ghosts of the past, thinking themselves not of sound mind, particularly when aspects of their childhood have been hidden from them, some have prophetic dreams, some have had a foreign university education and try to sever their connections to the old ways, though continue to be haunted by omens and symbols, making it difficult to ignore what they feel within themselves, that their mind wishes to reject. Some turn to God and the Awakened, looking for salvation in newly acquired religions.

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’ and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that may have cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

One of the things that’s particularly unique about the novel, is the contrast of the historical era, 1750’s with the modern era, the historical part shows the unique way of life before the arrival of Europeans, in all its richness and detail, how they live, the power structures, the preparation for the long journey to acknowledge a new leader, the protocols they must adhere to, the landscapes they traverse. An article in The Guardian notes twin historical omissions and concludes that the novel is the better for it:

Makumbi mostly avoids describing both the colonial period, which so often seems the obligation of the historical African novel, and Idi Amin’s reign, which seems the obligation of the Ugandan novel. Kintu is better for not retreading this worn ground.

It reminded me of the world recreated by the Guadeloupean-French-African writer, Maryse Condé, in her epic historical novel Segu, another African masterpiece, set in the 1700’s in the kingdom of Segu.

I hope the success of Kintu encourages other young writers from within the vast storytelling traditions of the many African countries to continue to tell their stories and that international publishers continue to make them available to the wider reading public, who are indeed interested in these lives, cultures, histories and belief systems of old that continue to resonate in the modern-day, despite political policies and power regimes that seem to want to change them.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Image from Martin Harris Centre via BrittlePaper.com

Further Reading

Brittle Paper: Essay – When We Talk about Kintu by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Africa In Words: Review – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu’ Made Me Want to Tell Our Stories by Nyana Kakoma

The East African: Article – Kintu’s ‘Africaness’ pays off for Jennifer Makumbi by Bamutaraki Musinguzi

The Guardian: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – is this ‘the great Ugandan novel’? by Lesley Nneka Arimah

 

Buy a copy of Kintu via BookDepository

Note: Thank you to the UK Publisher One World Publications for sending me a copy of the book.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye

Once I got into the rhythm of this, which is to say, reading in French, and getting past the need to look up too many new words, I couldn’t put this down, by the time I found my reading rhythm, the lives of Gabriel (Gaby) and his sister Ana, his parents, his friends had their claws in me and I had to know what was going to happen next.

I heard about this book initially via a French friend who retired here, but spent most of her married life living in a number of African countries. She introduced the book to me, as having been written by the son of friends. I was intrigued, it wasn’t too long – and then it began to win a lot of prizes! I suspected it might get translated, but decided not to wait.

Gaël Faye, like the protagonist of the book, is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother and the historical facts which run alongside this narrative coincide with what he would have experienced, born in Bujumbura in Burundi and similarly fleeing the country to live in exile when civil war broke out in 1993 at the same time as the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi in 1994.

The book starts with Gaby reflecting on a conversation with his father, a turning point in his understanding of the ethnic origin of his people, of the difference between the Hutu, and the Tutsi. He is trying to understand the motivation for the ethnic violence that caused his mother to flee her country of origin.

His father is French, his mother Tutsi from Rwanda, they live in the small country bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Burundi. It boasts the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika, which occupies a large portion of the country’s border and is part of the African Great Lakes region.

An italicised chapter depicts Gaby in France on his 33rd birthday, unable to reach his sister Ana, falling into what has become an annual day of melancholy, he remembers his exceptional 11th birthday, his parents and friends. And thus begins the novel, back to Burundi when he is 10 years old, remembering those last days of his parents marriage, replaying scenes that may have contributed to the demise of their relationship and many that contribute to his homesickness today.

Conversations highlight the cultural differences between his parents, disputes provoke them to raise age-old issues, two people, neither of whom are really at home where they are, whose references come from elsewhere, who yearn for different things, Yvonne dreams of Paris, Michel is content with his piece of paradise in Burundi; his business, their beautiful home, domestic servants, the climate, the lake, the mountains, he refers to her dream of Paris and Europe as if it is a fantasy, far from the paradise she imagines.

For Gaby and Ana, Bujumbura is home, it is where they belong. Each day unfolds according to the same routine, as the domestics arrive, the gate is opened, they prepare for school, are driven, there is a change as Gaby begins college and new friendships develop. His close friends live in the same alleyway, the twins, Gino, Armand.  And Francis who they conflict with. They like to hang out in an abandoned Combi, talking, laughing, planning things.

On connaissait tous les recoins de l’impasse et on voulait y rester pour la vie entière, tous les cinq, ensemble.

(We know all the nooks of the alley and we would like to stay there the rest of our lives, all five of us, together.)

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment ou l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorévenant il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis, comme Francis.

(I looked hard, I don’t remember the moment when we began to think differently. To consider that, from now on, there would be us on one side and on the other, enemies, like Francis.)

Slowly unsettling news penetrates their utopia, Yvonne is worried for her Aunt and four children who never left Rwanda and for her nephew Pacifique who decides to return there to fight. They begin to listen more often to the radio for news, adults start making confidential telephone calls behind closed doors.

Despite the unsettled times, they plan a visit to Rwanda for a family marriage, excitement and tension mount and while they make the event, the changing atmosphere forces them to return in haste.

The book continues to follow the daily life revolving around Gaby, the highs of the adventures with his friends, despite the unease that pervades their township, the lows of news from Rwanda and a fear that the divisions that have become violent will trickle across to Burundi.

The news of a coup d’etat arrives when the radio plays classic music nonstop, it is a sign, one that has happened before, in November 1966 it was a Schubert piano sonata, in 1987 Chopin. Now, it’s Wagner they hear.

Ce jour-là, le 21 October 1993, nous avons eu droit au Crépsucule des dieux de Wagner.

Attitudes change and begin to take effect in the playground and in the neighbourhood. Gaby befriends an elderly neighbour, a widow with large bookshelves, he seeks respite between the pages of a newfound love, literature.

The story is told through scenes viewed from the perspective of Gaby, we slowly understand the beauty and stability of his life and how that is slowly dismantled and it is no wonder, miles away and many years in the future, something in him yearns for that lost youth.

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

The ending is not really an ending, it could be said there is more than one ending and perhaps there may even be another book. I found it incredibly moving and was amazed to be so moved in a language that is not my own. An incredible feat of writing, a wonderful talent.

Winner of five French literary prizes including the sought after Prix Goncourt des lycéens, it is due to be translated into English in June 2018 under the title Small Country by Hogarth Press.

As you can see from the photo above Gaël Faye is also a singer, rapper, composer and poet. Unfortunately that concert above is already sold out. However, there is a beautiful song, also named Petit Pays, which gives you a glimpse of that small country he is nostalgic for and the wonderful musical talent he possesses.

A top read, highly recommended.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

To Buy A Novel by Maryse Condé Click here (Book Depository Affiliate Link)

Segu by Maryse Condé tr. by Barbara Bray

As I have been on something of a reading journey through Maryse Condé, I want to capture a little background leading up to how she came to write this masterpiece of historical fiction, set in a time of major change in this part of Africa where her ancestors came from.

Background

 Maryse Condé grew up in a large black bourgeoise family in Guadeloupe, well-educated, with regular family visits to Paris, in fact her parents felt French and were surprised when people they deemed of a lesser status than they, (like Parisian cafe waiters) commented on how well they spoke French, in a patronising way.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was the youngest of eight children, her mother married an older, financially and professionally stable man, she was a formidable teacher, a staunch, authoritative force to be reckoned with.

She died when Maryse was 14 and it wasn’t until years later that Condé began to question why her mother had been the way she had been with her and others, wondering what unseen forces had been pushing from within. this led her to research her grandmothers story, which she published as the novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother (reviewed here).

Her own childhood she writes about in the beautiful set of vignettes, autobiographical essays collected in Tales of the Heart, Stories from My Childhood (reviewed here).

What she discovered in researching her mother and grandmother’s lives was a history of struggle, of single, compromised women, forced by the abuses inflicted upon them – for which they were harshly judged, though little more was expected of them – to raise their children alone and make do as best they could.

While Condé’s mother was fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to acquire an education, it was a favour she wanted little or nothing to do with, never sharing the reasons  or people behind it, for her mother Victoire, had been the open mistress of her employer, a friend of his wife, a situation her daughter detested and determined to remove herself far from.

Embarking on her own education, the young Maryse Condé, discovered that though she’d had the best education possible, enabling her to find success in France and Guadeloupe, she learned little about her own history or that of  her people. It was a gap in her education she couldn’t live with, that she wished to fill and it sent her off on a historical pursuit to understand both her maternal history and the voyage of her ancestors.

HeremakhononHer novel Heremakhonon(1976), which I’ve not yet read, is a semi-autobiographical story of a sophisticated Caribbean woman, teaching in Paris, who travels to West Africa in search of her roots and an aspect of her identity she has no connection with.

It is an insightful and somewhat disappointing experience, however for Maryse Condé personally, it was a springboard to the research and work that would follow, as her subsequent novels explore issues of race, gender and culture in a variety of historical periods and locations.

From this context, we come to what is considered a significant and radiant accomplishment, Segu (1984), set in the 19th century Kingdom of Segu (contemporary Mali), entering the soul of the African continent, at a point of prophetic enlightenment, as multiple forces and influences enter into the lives of those, who until now have known great spiritual power and authority.

Review

SeguIn 1797, the kingdom of Segu is thriving, its noblemen are prospering, its warriors are prominent and powerful, at their peak. 

Their people, the Bambara are guided by story-telling griots and divining priests, their lives ruled by the elements and tradition. However their visions fall short in preparing their followers for what is to come.

From the East, religion revolutions have spread Islam across two-thirds of West Africa; from the West, despite laws passed to stop it, the slave trade continues to flourish, and from within merchants make new demands for tropical goods, developing legitimate commerce.

Segu follows the life and descendants of Dousika Traore. He is the king’s most trusted advisor and the fate of his four sons epitomise the challenges that threaten to tear their family and society apart, in this historical turning point of African history. 

Dousika falls out of favour with the King and his son’s each go off in search of adventure outside the kingdom, where they discover quite a different perception of their people and their race.

Tiekoro, renounces his people’s religion, travels North to become a religious scholar and embraces Islam. He is by turn revered, scorned, returns to his home and becomes respected. However his position is always in flux and the balance of power between peoples and their associated beliefs are continuously challenged, he falls in and out of favour.

Siga, initially accompanies his brother and must survive in the same town, but without the introductions his brother has received to help him, he retains his belief in the Bambara gods, defending tradition and becomes a merchant. Although he was born on the same day as Tiekoro, his mother was a slave, so he must accept a less ambitious, less well-connected future.

Naba, is snatched by slave traders and sold and somehow ends up as a slave on a plantation in Brazil. He escapes, only to live on another plantation, a kind of free slave, to be near the woman he loves, whose children will reconnect with the family through a series of coincidences.

Malobali, the youngest, could no longer bear to listen to his older prodigal brother preaching, storms off one day in contempt, never to return. He becomes a mercenary, spending a period of time in a makeshift army, eventually converting to Christianity to improve his chances and has an encounter with the spirit of one of his brothers.

Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervour, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national, tribal and family rivalries, racism and suspicion, amid the vagaries of commerce.

It shines a light on the impact of cross tribal marriage and partnership, of slavery, both that perpetuated by the Europeans and from within the African continent. The role of the son and the daughter, the rules of marriage, the perceptions of religion, the rise of Islam, the practices of fetishists and superstitions of their followers. The importance of relaying history through the storytelling griots, an inherited role, passed down from family member to family member.

Intuition

Just as with Condé’s previous work, here too there is communication and connections between family members not present, whether alive or manifesting as departed ancestors, they enter via dreams, intuition, providing guidance and reassurance. The presence and guiding voice of ancestors and the reincarnation of souls is important, as is the effect of love/lust on each of them.

As with the best of historical fiction, Segu takes us through a period of significant change, by engaging the reader with a family and its members, its traditions and those who wish to rebel against them, the will to modernise, to make their way forward in a world that is rapidly changing.

It engagingly portrays the balance of power and perceptions between people from different ethnic groups, where one is judged on everything except character. We encounter historic family feuds, feuds between peoples, religion and the rise of Islam, fetish priests, slaves, concubines and nobles, a complex society.

It was a deliberately slow read for me, but at the same time riveting, a book that scratches at the surface of a significant and fascinating subject and does wonders to assist in helping that era and people become more understood.

Buy Segu by Maryse Condé via Book Depository