…Segu by Maryse Conde Narrative Landscape Press, Lagos: 2020, 497pp
May 09, (THEWILL) –In one of his lectures at Freedom Park Lagos sometime in 2013 NLNG poet laureate Tade Ipadeola told his listeners that right from the very beginning, Africa has always given to the rest of the world. From the first contact with either Arabs from North Africa and beyond or Caucasians from Europe, the African continent – sub-Saharan Africa that is – has always been welcoming with open arms.
Perhaps because of this generosity (or was it naivety?) the visitors began to systematically plunder the continent for its human and natural resources, reducing the population by several millions and shipping them as slaves to plantations in the Americas and elsewhere. But the most damaging of all was literally leaving the natives nothing to call their own, leaving them rootless, severing them from their original culture and imposing new ones on them.
History books on slavery in Africa have devoted thousands of pages to this ignoble period in the continent, following caravans from North Africa across the desert down to the hinterland then back again; next were the rigs from Europe, muskets and Maxim guns showing the way into homes and palaces, felling emirs and sultans, deposing Obas, Osei Tutus and Mansas. But none of those publications match in terms of scope, ambition and historical sweep, the power of Segu by Maryse Conde.
Though it is reputed to be the first authentic African novel, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is no match to this historical novel about a certain period that was at once tragic and glorious for the once powerful kingdom of Segu. While Things Fall Apart deal specifically with culture clash between the Igbos of South east Nigeria and Europeans, Conde broadens her canvas to include Africans in the diaspora, from Segu itself to neighbouring cities and empires from Ghana to Yoruba land up to Sokoto Sultanate.
It is a story well told by a non-African black born in far-away Caribbean. No wonder Maya Angelou, African American poet, memoirist and civil rights crusader wrote so glowingly of Segu. The novel, she is quoted in the blurb is “rich and colourful and glorious. It sprawls over continents and centuries to find its way into the reader’s heart.”
Bowled over by the sweep and range of Sugu, The New York Times Review of Books declared Segu as “the most significant novel about black Africa published in many a year.”
Both praises are well-earned by the author – and for good reason. Segu opens with a major character and noble man Dousika Traore, in quiet contemplation at home. News filter in that a foreigner had arrived the city, which causes something of a stir and commotion among the locals. Time was 1797 and Segu was at the height of its power, having subdued neighbouring towns and cities. In short, the dominant tribe in Segu – Bambaras – were feared and respected by all.
But then, it was not the foreigner who caused the most problem in Segu. It was the new religion from the Orient – Islam. Supercilious like camels in their relationship with the natives, proselytizers of Islam looked on the people of Segu as a duke will the unwashed. They consider them barbaric forever steeped in their fetish ways. Unless one became a convert, you were nothing but dirt before the jihadists.
Of course, there was bound to be a collision between the old ways and traditions of Segu and the new one Islamic crusaders wants to impose on the citizens. Of course, the first casualty is Dousika himself. Like Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son in Things Fall Apart, Dousika’s first son Tiekoro from his wife Nya is the first convert and he is parceled off to an Islamic scholar El-Hadj Baba Abou in Timbuktu. At the time in Segu, the nobility were allowed concubines who were sometimes slaves or presented as gifts from other aristocratic families to cement and strengthen their relations.
When Dousika’s chief diviner, Koumare, tells him his other first son Siga from his Fulani wife must accompany Tiekoro on his religious quest, he does not object. Thus the two half-brothers set out for and settle in Timbuktu – both with opposing views about the new religion already pitting brother against brother and so on.
Being a Bambara, Tiekoro is scorned by the more civilized students of El Hadj Abou. They laugh at him. The scholar himself is equally scornful of his new student but brightens up suddenly when Tiekoro informs him he has some money to pay for his tuition.
“Where is it,” El Hadj asked. “For the first time,” Conde tells readers, “a smile lit up the teacher’s austere countenance, and he seized the pouch.”
Tiekoro and Siga’s odyssey in this far away city, far from their beloved Segu will shape their future lives, one going as far as Fez and the other finding solace in religion that he so much professes. Self-exiled to different parts of the world, both long for a return home to Segu. They do but as different individuals, different from what they were when the left.
Segu is not so much about the peregrinations of the brothers and their sons but the interaction between the natives and visitors. On one side you had the Fulanis, the Arabs, the Tuaregs, Bedoins and Moors from North Africa. On another side were the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese many of them fathering children – Mulattos – through African women slaves or mistresses.
Just as you had the changing physiognomy of the residents of the ancient city itself, there was also changes in the architecture and sartorial preferences. With the writer’s eye for detail, Conde recreates all of that so beautifully making readers feel the pulse, the smell and sights of the ancient city as if they were right there.
Like the Islamists, the Christian preachers were no less enthusiastic in finding converts for their religion in Segu. But unlike the fanatical Islamists, they were more tolerant of the locals adopting gentle persuasion than putting infidels to the sword. But there was one exception when Naba a Bambara from Segu was executed for sorcery. While the Muslims conquered territory after territory under the banner of Mohammed the Prophet, Europeans carried out their own campaign with the motto “the plough and the cross.”
There were converts aplenty, substituting their traditional names for Christian and Muslim monikers, adopting the affected speech and manner of their conquerors and some finding their way to schools modelled on European institutions or Islamic education.
Conde’s second publication after Heremakhonon (1976) is a historical tour de force that recounts the history of one of the greatest empires in West Africa in the late 18th century. By this time,too, slavery was coming to an end, it had been abolished by the English. Even so, the French and Portuguese continued the trade in collaboration with African chiefs and warlords. But there had to be a replacement for the inhuman traffic. Something had to be done. Trade in palm oil that would oil the wheel of Industrial revolution that had started twenty or so years before in England.
Born on February 11, 1937 at Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe, a group of six islands in the Caribbean and an overseas region of France, Conde was the last of eight children. By her own account, she started reading from a very early age and even writing a play at 12. Her education took her to the Sorbonne in Paris, then teaching jobs in Ghana, Guinea and Senegal and three or so universities in California, Virginia.
First published in 1984 in French as Segou by Editions Robert Laffont, it was translated into English by Barbara Bray for Viking Penguin in 1987. The Nigerian edition by Narrative Landscape Press in 2020 was made possible by UBA Foundation under the Read Africa project. UBA has done the continent and readers who had heard of the novel but not read it a great service. But the greater service is by none other than the author herself.
Like the people in Segu after Christianity and Islam, Conde has had influences in four or more continents becoming, in the process, something of a world citizen. True, Segu won her world recognition and prestigious awards. But this combination of diverse influences certainly helped in writing Segu.
In one interview, for instance, reflecting on how the diverse infulences in her life contributed to writing the novel Conde explained thusly: “To be part of so many worlds—part of the African world because of the African slaves, part of the European world because of the European education—is a kind of double entendre. You can use that in your own way and give sentences another meaning. I was so pleased when I was doing that work, because it was a game, a kind of perverse but joyful game.