“One day you’ll come to Segu. You’ve never seen a town like it. The towns here were created by the white men—they were born out of the trade in human flesh… But Segu—Segu is like a woman you can only possess by force.” Segu p.417
Segu is a brilliant piece written by Condé, which is rich in historical facts. Originally written in French and was translated by Barbara Ray—Kudos to the translator! Without her, I might not have had the opportunity to read this beautiful work of art. It was recommended to me last year when I put up a post about some of my favourite books; so glad I bought and read it.
The book has 490 pages and is divided into five parts. It begins in Segu (situated in present-day Mali), the capital of the 18th century Bambara Empire and in between, you get to visit distant lands. Through the desert you find your way to Timbuktu (also situated in present-day Mali), have brief encounters with the Ashanti Empire (present-day Ghana), a bit of flirtation with 19th century London, you even get to spend some time in Freetown and trace the edges of Lagos! (Situated in present-day Nigeria). How beautiful is that?
The concept of writing about a certain part of African history is not entirely new. However, Condé takes on a period which is not touched by most authors. She takes us through the history of Segu and how it rose to fame and power. What it was before internal and external forces brought the empire to its knees leaving it with an uncertain future.
Condé’s way of unearthing long forgotten histories is superb. She gives a vivid description of the rich traditional/cultural life of the people of Segu without excluding the use of magical realism.
The story centres on Dousika Traore, his four sons and some grandsons (who become major characters towards the end of the book). We follow them on their journey throughout the book as the wind of change blows across their land and lives. Dousika’s eldest son to his dismay converts to Islam and goes to Timbuktu accompanied by his stepbrother who didn’t see the need to go on the journey but had to do as he was told. However, this stepbrother sticks to his traditional beliefs and refuses to acknowledge this new religion that causes disruption. The third gets kidnapped by slave traders and becomes ‘a half-hearted Christian’. The fourth leaves home to become a mercenary in another Kingdom. As they venture into a world different to theirs, they come in contact with different perceptions of their people, race and colour. Each character goes through life changing events and we see how they battle with self as regards what is right or wrong, by taking highly into consideration what society would make of their decisions than effects the decisions will have on them. This conflict with self extends to relationship with their siblings, God/gods and control over their desires.
“But more than anything Tiekoro was suffering from the anonymity that had engulfed him ever since the walls of his birthplace vanished in the distance. For all those around him he was just a Bambara, one of a people who were powerful perhaps, but regarded as blood thirsty and idolatrous.” Segu p.46
In this historical fiction, Condé captures the reader’s mind by taking us through four phases of Africa’s historic era –life before the arrival of alien religion, the advent/death of the slave trade, the advent of Islam from the East and the discord that came along with it, the introduction of Christianity from the West by forces aimed at ridding Africa of its barbarism and darkness — and changes that shook most importantly the Bambara Kingdom. A prosperous kingdom that withers into decline as a combination of events upsets its norms and traditional life.
She does not leave out internal cracks that contributed to the decline of the empire. Frictions arise and loyalties are tested. Condé portrays an Africa managing internal struggles, where the order of things was based on the survival of the fittest.
"Ah, but Islam! Said José. They’ve been converted to Islam, and they think it’s their mission to convert all of us, by fire and sword. Jihad they call it.” Segu p.205
The theme of the book stretches beyond past time heritage, culture and traditions. It also acknowledges racism within and without religion, class and hierarchy. It explores life before, during and after slavery without leaving out the effect of emerging new religious beliefs and the politics/division that accompanies it. However, there is a pronounced focus on the damaging effects of Islam expansionism than Christianity and slavery. Deceit, love and betrayal also play a role in the life of characters.
“Misfortune is like a child in its mother’s womb: nothing can stop it being born. It grows invisibly stronger and stronger; its network of veins and arteries develops. Then one day it appears in a deluge of uncleanness, water and blood.” Segu p.66
It is said that change is constant. However, it is not every time you are able to accurately predict what comes along with that change. The people of Segu knew misfortune lurked ahead but saw it as something they could overcome till it swallowed them whole.
This novel hits home and one is reminded that the consequences of the disruption caused by external forces (religion, slave trade and the likes) on the continent are evident till date.
Key Historical Figures that made appearances
Samuel Ajayi Crowther
I found it somewhat overly detailed/descriptive sometimes and I had to skip certain pages (If you love history very much, this might not bother you).
Large number of characters, which was quite confusing sometimes
Condé’s extensive research on the history, culture and traditions of Segu is relevant and brilliant! This book is highly recommended if you are interested in filling the gaps in your knowledge regarding a certain period of African pre-colonial history.
NB: This book has a sequel titled The Children of Segu, which covers the later part of the 19th century. It continues the tale of a troubled continent whilst following the grandchildren of Dousika on their journey. Amongst others, the book includes themes like; colonial invasion/expansionism (in Segu’s case French occupation), inter-tribal and religious wars.
“There are times when a man’s life disgusts him, staring at him in the face with its pitted skin and its bad teeth in their rotten gums. And he says to himself, No I can’t go on. Things have got to change!”