To be human and to be alive...

The essence of Segu’s power and glory was war — and Condé’s work, published originally in French as two separate volumes, examines its varying fortunes through the lives of one family and its descendants.
Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 01:37 IST

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In 1797, the year when Maryse Condé’s epic novel Segu begins, the African city after which the book is named “…was at the height of its glory…and it was feared as far away as Timbuktu on the edge of the desert.” The essence of Segu’s power and glory was war — and Condé’s work, published originally in French as two separate volumes, examines its varying fortunes through the lives of one family and its descendants. Slavery, colonialism, and the expansion of Islam to the western reaches of Africa are all woven through the story Condé tells.

Condé was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1937. It was only when she reached France in her late teens to complete her schooling that she went through a political awakening, getting exposed to racial prejudice, the history of the slave trade and post-colonial thinking. When she went on to teach in West Africa, she met revolutionary political figures and her understanding of power imbalances in the world deepened.

She would go on to have a storied teaching career in the US but it took a while for her first novel to be published and it would take some more years before she tasted commercial success with the publication of Segu. It’s impossible not to be sucked into the world of Segu — the opening lines (translated into English by Barbara Bray) promise betrayal and drama in the pages that follow:

“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.”

Those lines are from the song of griots, the traditional storytellers of the region and they haunt the mind of Dousika Traore, a close advisor to the king or Mansa. He’s a patriarch heading five families, including those of his younger brothers, and as the story begins, he has 10 legitimate sons, three wives and a concubine. His status doesn’t last long though — he’s swiftly cast aside by the Mansa and the rest of the court for betraying tribal loyalties. Two of Dousika’s sons, Tiekoro and Siga, secretly convert to Islam, an act that goes against the grain of their tribe, the Bambara, who practice the old ways and worship the old gods. A white man is spotted close to Segu and more countries surrounding the Mansa’s kingdom are “won over to Islam”.

To keep the changes at bay longer and ensure that one of the leading families of Segu don’t perish, Dousika is advised by Koumare, the high priest, to send Tiekoro and Siga away to Timbuktu. Another of his sons vanishes when he goes off on a hunt. The family’s downfall seems precipitous: Dousika’s descendants are scattered across northwestern Africa. They experience slavery, violence, spiritual crises, heartbreak and worse. For long periods — the novel spans almost six decades — they are exiled from their home. Will they get back to Segu and will what they have experienced lead them to bring the winds of change there? As the story unfolds against seismic historical transformations, it’s impossible not to question the sincerity of some of the political actors (doubts that are as relevant now as they were in the 19th century). In the final pages, as yet another religious conversion is rumoured to take place, a character says:“Doesn’t it all disgust you… They’ll do anything to keep their empires — change their religions; fight one another and then exchange presents; do their best to slit each other’s throats; and then call themselves brothers.” When she passed away in April this year at the age of 90, tributes to Condé rightly called her a grand storyteller and one of the greatest-ever Caribbean writers. They also spoke of her clear-sightedness when dealing with the political realities of the world she wrote about. She was not one to romanticise its harshness — she preferred to look at its brutality and its corruption and lay it before the reader to say this is what it means to be human and to be alive.

The author is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — it takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great.

Published 23 June 2024, 01:37 IST

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