Imagine you are in the city of Segu at the height of its glory. Your family is quite prosperous and lives in general peace. You pray to your gods and the spirits of your ancestors, and they reward you. Until one day, you wake up with a song in your head about bad things going on around you. And for the next hundred years bad things rain down on you and your family.
This is what happens to the family of Dousika Traore in the novel, Segu, by Maryse Condè. Besides being just a wonderful book and really entertaining (you can't put it down once you open it), it is a great book for better understanding some of the forces that have shaped the people of what is Mali today.
"A wondrous novel about a period of African history few other writers have addressed... Much of the novel's radiance comes from the lush descriptions of a traditional life that is both exotic and violent."
-New York Times Book Review
Check out these brief excerpts to get a taste of this novel, and of life in the changing land of Segu in the late 1700's.
In this first passage, Dousika awakes with a troubling song in his head:
Why couldn't Dousika get the song of the griots out of his head, the song he'd heard so often without paying any special attention? Why this fear, persistent as the sickness of a pregnant woman? Why this dread on the brink of day? Dousika went over his dreams for a sign, a clue to what might lie ahead. But there was nothing. He'd slept soundly and been visited by none of his ancestors. As he sat on a mat in the entrance to the hut, Dousika swallowed a mouthful of degue, the millet gruel mixed with curds and honey that was his favorite breakfast. It was too runny, and he shouted crossly for Nya, his first wife, to scold her about it. As he waited he inserted his tooth twig between his fine filed teeth: the sap from the wood, mixed with his saliva, would increase his physical strength and sexual potency.
Click image for larger view
As Nya didn't answer he rose, left the hut, and went into the first courtyard of the compound where his wives lived.
It was deserted. Deserted?
It turns out that the courtyard has been abandoned because something strange has occurred in Segu. Dousika and other respected men are called to meet with the Mansa (king).
"Master of energies," he said, "it is not long since your messenger reached me. See - I've come so fast I'm still perspiring..."
After this interruption Tietiguiba Dante, the head griot, who conveyed the Mansa 's words to the assembly, rose and said: "The master of gods and men, he who sits in the royal hide, the great
Mansa Monzon, has brought you here for a reason. There is a white man, white, with two red ears like embers, on the other bank of the river, asking to be received in audience. What does he want?"
"... The white man says he is not like a Moor. He does not want to buy or sell. He says he has come to look at the Joliba..."
There was a shout of laughter. Were there no rivers in the white man's country? And isn't one river like another? No, it must be a trap - the white man didn't want to reveal the true object of his visit.
Dousika asked leave to speak.
"Have the buguridalas and the moris [Muslim holy men] been questioned?" he said.
"...They haven't given any answer."
They'd given no answer? That showed how serious the situation was!
"They say," Tietiguiba went on, "that whatever we do with this white man, others like him will come and multiply amongst us."
The members of the council stared at one another in amazement. White men come and live in Segu among the Bambara? It seemed impossible, whether they were friends or enemies!
Besides the arrival of a white person - the first of many who later come to conquer the local people, send millions away as slaves, and trade them for all sorts of goods - there is also another powerful religious force sweeping the land. In this passage a respected local priest who is a friend of the Dousika family leaves the city to communicate with the spirits to discover what will happen to the family.
Click image for larger view
Koumare got into the little straw boat and rowed toward a small island in the middle of the river.
It was nightfall, for he needed darkness and secrecy for what he had to do. As they saw him embark, the last of the Somono fishermen taking home their catch prudently averted their gaze, for they recognized the redoubtable fetish priest and knew that what was about to happen was outside the ken of ordinary mortals...
He was soon at his destination. Hiding his boat among the reeds, he went over to a little hillock on which there stood a straw shelter like those of the Fulani herdsman. But everyone knew that this one was a temple where strange conversations were held with the unseen.
"Rich and colorful and glorious. It sprawls over continents and centuries to find its way into the reader's heart."
... He lost no time before starting to search among the plants growing around the hut for those he needed in his work.
It was a hard task that lay before him. An indeterminate mass of troubles and bereavements seemed to be in store for Dousika's family. Why? Because of the eldest son's conversion to Islam? In that case, why had the gods and ancestors agreed to his going to Timbuktu? Was it a trick? An even more deadly way of destroying Dousika? What other storms did they intend to unleash on him?...
Ke korte, father, ancestor,
There in the region below,
You see I am quite blind.
Ke korte, lend me your eyes...
The paste that resulted from his mixture he put carefully on a baobab leaf, which he folded in four and began to chew. Then he lay down on the bare earth and seemed to go to sleep.
In fact he was going into a trance. His spirit, leaving its human body behind, was traveling in the region below.
The journey lasted seven days and seven nights, but human time and the time of the region below are not measured in the same way. In human time, Koumare's journey lasted only three days and three nights.
And during those three days and three nights, Segu's life as a capital city went on as usual... There was no more talk of the white man. People had other worries, other subjects of conversation. Islam!
Now it had struck at one of the best families of the kingdom! It appeared that Dousika Traore's eldest son had been converted by the imam of the Somono mosque. Until now, by a kind of tacit agreement, the Muslims hadn't tried to make converts among the Bambara. But now that they were breaking the rule, the Mansa ought to intervene and strike a decisive blow: shut down all the mosques, persecute any who dared make the obscene profession of faith, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His Prophet."
...At the end of his journey through the region below, Koumare awoke, his ears still ringing with the tumult that prevailed there: the groans of spirits neglected by their descendents who omitted the necessary sacrifices and libations; the lamentations of spirits trying in vain to be reincarnated in the bodies of male infants; the angry cries of spirits outraged by the dreadful crimes that human beings ceaselessly commit. Koumare went out and fetched the roots he had left in the gourd. Powdered and chewed they would bring him back to the world of men.
At last he could read the Traore's future. The leniency of the gods and ancestors toward [the son of Dousika] was merely apparent... Things were going very badly for Dousika, and Koumare's hard work had been able to do little more than limit the damage.
That's all you get here! If you want to find out about all that happens to the Traore family, take our advice and read the whole thing!