Segu by Maryse Conde
Published: 1984 (first published)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Segu, Mali
Rating: 3 Stars
The year is 1797, and the kingdom of Segu is flourishing, fed by the wealth of its noblemen and the power of its warriors. The people of Segu, the Bambara, are guided by their griots and priests; their lives are ruled by the elements. But even their soothsayers can only hint at the changes to come, for the battle of the soul of Africa has begun. From the east comes a new religion, Islam, and from the West, the slave trade. Segu follows the life of Dousika Traore, the king’s most trusted advisor, and his four sons, whose fates embody the forces tearing at the fabric of the nation. There is Tiekoro, who renounces his people’s religion and embraces Islam; Siga, who defends tradition, but becomes a merchant; Naba, who is kidnapped by slave traders; and Malobali, who becomes a mercenary and halfhearted Christian.
Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervor, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national rivalries, racism, amid the vagaries of commerce.
It’s not every day that you find historical fiction set in 1700s Africa and I was super excited to start on Segu, this epic tale of pre pre-colonial African Kingdoms. But let me set the stage with a few disclaimers that I ought to have been privy to before I indulged. Consider this my service to humanity:
If you’re from the “Africa was perfect before the coming of the white man” school of thought; if you’re from the “Africa had perfect Kingdoms and powerful Queendoms” school of thought; if you’re from the “Slavery was forced upon Africa and Africans were stolen” school of thought; or any such like romanticised notions of pre-colonial Africa, this book will destroy them and make you uncomfortable. I suggest you shed off these ideations before embarking on the book.
Segu is based on the ancient powerful Bambara kingdom of Segu, located in present day Mali. The Kingdom was founded along the Niger River stretching from Bamako to Timbuktu and became prominent as a merchant town. The Kingdom fell between 1861-1862 to Muslim religious leaders who ruled for about 30yrs before the Kingdom was conquered by the French in 1890.
The book traces the decline of this once powerful Kingdom, reflecting on the influences of Islam from the East and North, and of Christianity and Slavery from the West. It begins with a curious scene of a white man citing along the river in 1796, this man referring to Mungo Park, who is said to be the first European known to have visited the kingdom in 1796. Through the family of Dousika Traore, a powerful King’s advisor who has fallen from grace, we follow his descendants, particularly his patrilineal lineage as they navigate the new changing Segu as it is pulled in a variety of directions by outside forces. Will Segu continue to thrive or buckle under these forces? And how will it change or be changed in the process?
Conde writes an expansive book that I found quite intriguing and illuminating. For one thing, it puts a lot of things in perspective regarding a period in Africa often told to us through a Western gaze. I love that she gives agency to Africa. Conde completely and unapologetically dismantles the theories and assumptions that Africans were simpletons with no culture, no organization (political or social), no belief systems and no religion. She paints a wholistic picture of Africa and even more profound, she does not absolve Africans from our complicity, our faults and fickleness.
It’s a book you love to love, but here is why I didn’t completely fall in love with it;
None of the female characters have agency. There are deeply disturbing misogynistic views on women, I had to do a double take to reconfirm that the author is indeed a woman. The female characters are all portrayed as weak with absolutely no control or power. They are Moi Roy condemned to a life of subjugation either as concubines or slaves. And they all seem to either fall in love with their rapists, commit suicide or lose their sanity.
On the converse, all the men are unremorseful rapists who are unable to control their violent sexual urges. All save one male character are guilty of rape and/or subjugating women either as slaves or concubines. But even in their unrepentant ways and inability to view women as full human beings, the author is still able to portray them as multilayered worthy of pardon. Why this same benefit is not granted to the female characters baffles me.
Islam does not fair well at all in this book. You almost sense the author’s aversion or disdain for Islam. Whilst Segu had multiple influences - from tradition to Islam to christianity, Islam seemed to be the only one with a target on its back.
When I finished this book, it left me with a deep sense of relief. And a prayer, thanking God that I was born in the 21st century because this Africa described in Segu, is one I’m lucky not to have been born in.