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Segu, by Maryse Conde.

September 7, 2014

Segu, by Maryse Conde.  New York, N.Y. : Penguin, 1996.


A sweeping family epic set in central West Africa in the early 1800s as slavery and Islam bring conflicts and changes to traditional life.

Segu, or Segou, is a town of Bambara people in present-day Mali.  Located on the upper reaches of the Niger River, it was the center of its own empire. Around 1800, when this novel begins, it was a relatively prosperous region where nobles used large numbers of slaves to farm the rich river land. Wealthy men had numerous wives and concubines living in their large compounds. Fetish worship, as it was called, is practiced, but as the book progresses, it is increasingly challenged by Islam. Tensions rise between the new religion and family and tribal loyalties. Slave trade with Europeans also rages, even after it is legally abolished. Reading Segu, we are immersed in the conflicts occurring throughout West Africa.

The novel centers on the Traores, a noble family of Segu. The patriarch of the family is removed from court, and his sons leave voluntarily or involuntarily. His eldest son converts to Islam and goes to study in Timbuktu, a city past its prime but still more cosmopolitan than Segu. Another of his sons accompanies him and makes a life for himself as a trader in fine goods in Morocco. Still another is captured and taken away as a slave going first to Goree Island and then Brazil. A younger son joins the Ashanti army as a mercenary and then travels along the coast of the Blight of Benin. All retain a sense of Segu as home. They or their sons return to Segu, a place changed by the increased availability of imported goods and the presence of more Muslims. Those within the family compound are divided by religious faith as well as by sibling rivalries. Conde follows each of the sons and grandsons, as they venture away from Segu and as they interact with each other.  It is the story of the sons that dominates the book.

Conde’s genius is her ability to describe the variety of life in West Africa in the nineteenth century, rather than in the development of her charters or plot.  While some of the characters are strong and praiseworthy, Conde never idealizes Africans or their lives in the past.   The book is about an Africa where Africans are fighting each other for domination, including the right to define religion for others.  They struggle with each other and even in peace, are sharply dismissive of those of different ethnicities or religions.  While some characters are pious Muslims, others are disillusioned by the greed and narrow-mindedness of other Muslims.   Religion comes to be about political power, and some Muslims do not follow the religion’s teaching about the equality of races.  Christianity is no better, but plays a less important role in the book.  Some whites, and “half-castes” appear in the later part of the book, but they are incidental to a variety of African characters.  This is a book about Africans, not their colonizers.

Romance is a minor factor in the stories told in Segu, and sexual desire is seen through the eyes of the male characters. Women are important, especially as mothers, but they tend to be passive figures yielding to the demands of the men. I did not appreciate the rape scenes in which the men are driven by allegedly uncontrollable desire for the women they eventually love and marry. Probably Conde has accurately described the gender roles understood by both men and women of that time and place, but I wish she had distanced herself from these attitudes, as she does when dealing with religious extremism.

A descendent of the Bambara people, Conde was born and raised on the French island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. She studied in France, earning her Ph.D. in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne. For a time she taught French in various West African countries. She has also taught at some the most prestigious universities in the United States. Segu is the best known of the many books she has written. It was originally written in French and translated by Barbara Bray. Maps and charts of family connections help readers follow what is happening. Unfamiliar words are explained in the text or at the bottom of the pages, and historical notes can be found at the end of the book.

I strongly encourage others interested in Africa to read this book, especially those interested in the African cultures and conflicts before the spread of colonialism. And I recommend it to all who enjoy historical fiction not set in Europe or the United States.

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