Content Warnings: rape, violence, suicide
Set around the turn of the nineteenth century in what is now present-day Mali, Segu by Maryse Condé is a sprawling and epic tale that spans generations of the Traore family as momentous change is on the horizon – change that is threatening the way of life for the Bambara people. Dousika Traore, trusted advisor to the king, is the patriarch and is in the prime of his life. But a strong sense of foreboding is blowing from the east and from the west.
The novel opens with Traore’s youngest son’s birth by his beloved concubine, a Fulani outsider. On the same day a white man is spotted approaching the gates of the kingdom, perhaps the first sign that something is amiss. Traore is subsequently summoned to the palace. Meanwhile, his enemies plot his downfall.
What follows is a tragic tale of family betrayal, religious zeal and colonial expansion in and around the kingdom of Segu. As Dousika comes to a fateful end, the narrative is taken over by his four sons. Tiekoro, the eldest, turns his back on the religion of his ancestors and accepts Islam, travelling to Timbuktu to become a religious scholar; Siga, the son of an enslaved woman who kills herself when he is a baby, becomes a merchant in Fez, a profession seen as beneath his noble title; Naba is kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to Brazil; and Malobali escapes the stifling demands of his elders to become a mercenary and later converting to Christianity. At the heart of each character is this tug for home, for Segu, no matter how far they travel physically and emotionally. Even for those who are unable to return, this yearning flows down into the bloodline of the next generation.
Condé’s writing is masterful. One minute the language is lyrical and rhythmic, luring you into a false sense of calm. Then suddenly the prose switches, becoming more direct and uncompromising. Although the level of violence and tragedy is expected from the outset, Condé manages to shock with the force of it.
It’s really interesting to read about and listen to Condé’s own experiences of the reception her books received. Apparently upon its release Segu was criticised by some for its portrayal of Islam. Although Islam has a much deeper history in the African continent than Christianity, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was still expanding, with varying levels of success, from the coast of East Africa to the West. What Condé tries to reimagine is Segu as a contested area which holds value to both the Christian colonial expansion projects and the slave trade from Europe and the Islamic spread from the east.
Exploring the struggles to preserve a history, culture and tradition in the face of antagonistic forces within and without the community, Segu brings to life a rich reimagining of pre-colonial West Africa – with the Bambara people centre-stage – in a magnificent multi-generational epic that is compelling to read from beginning to end. Although the novel demands to be read slowly and carefully, it is very much worth the time and effort. I don’t know where this particular story in Segu will end, the sequel Children of Segu is much harder to come by in English translation, but I’m really intrigued to find out.
Published by Penguin Classics in 2017, translated from the French by Barbara Bray.
First published in French as Segou in 1984.
About Maryse Condé
Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupe-born novelist with over twenty books in her oeuvre. In 2018 she won the New Academy Prize for literature, a one-off prize to replace the scandal-ridden Nobel Prize for literature of that year. This was only the second time a writer from Guadeloupe had won such a prestigious award, the first being white Creole poet Alexis Léger in 1960.
Further Historical-Fiction/Multigenerational Novels Set On The African Continent
- The Old Drift by Nawali Serpell (2019) – A multigenerational epic entwining the lives of three Zambian families from the nineteenth century to the present-day, The Old Drift blurs concepts of genres. Historical, multigenerational, magical realist, futuristic are just some of the ways to describe Serpell’s impressive debut. A firm favourite I read last year.
- The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (2018) – I read this immediately after Segu as it’s set in and around the same time. Attah explores with skill and complexity the internal slave trade and the scramble for Africa by European powers through the point of view of two distinctly different young women. Aminah is brutally separated from her home and family; Wurche, the wilful daughter of a chief, is desperate for power and respect. Their lives converge at the height of conflict towards the end of the nineteenth century.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016) – Another novel with multiple viewpoints, Homegoing follows the descendants of an Asante woman from the late eighteenth to the twenty-first century. Spanning Ghana to the US, Gyasi’s debut explores the impact of slavery in modern life.
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (2014) – Makumbi’s debut novel follows generations of Kintu Kidda’s bloodline, from 1754 to 2004, in a tale of curses, transgressions, Baganda mythology and sexism. Winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013, it was then published the following year by Kwani Trust and by Oneworld in 2018. It was by far one of my favourite reads of last year.