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Segu Literary Analysis

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The historical novel Segu by Maryse Condé is set in the African country of Segu during a time of great cultural change. The African Slave Trade, the spread of Islam, and personal identity challenges were all tremendous and far-reaching issues facing Africa from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Condé uses the four brothers of the Traore family, Tiekoro, Malobali, Siga, and Naba, to demonstrate the impact that the issues of Islam, slave trade, and identity had on African people through the development of each character. The oldest of the sons, Tiekoro exemplifies the influence and spread of Islam through out Africa at the time.

When the reader is first introduced to Tiekoro, he is portrayed as a boy unhappy with his religion and desperately searching for one that focuses on love rather than fear like the native religion he was raised with. Tiekoro is intrigued by a new religion and in Condé’s words, “Islam was new to the region, brought there by the Arab caravans like some exotic merchandise! (Condé 22).” In this way, Tiekoro saw Islam as a means of escaping from a world of sacrifices and old ways to one that offers an exotic, loving appeal. With Tiekoro, Condé is able to show how Islam spread through trans Saharan trade routes, as well as the opportunity it provided for Africans during the time period. Tiekoro ventures off in pursuit of Islamic studies and after being expelled from an Islamic university begins to teach Islam in the city of Jenne. It is in Jenne that Tiekoro states, “How strange that the name of God is should divide people when god is love and power. The creation of all living creatures comes from His love, and not from any other power… (Condé 149).” It is in this insight that Tiekoro again demonstrates the nature of Islam.

Unlike the religion he was born into in Segu that focused on sacrifices and ancestor worship, Islam is a religion of love that offers him comfort and strength. It is because of this new knowledge and faith that Tiekoro is unable to fathom how religion could split people apart instead of bringing them together. Upon his return to Segu, Tiekoro is praised and respected for his journey to distant lands. He is also made a member of a high council and consulted on issues of relations with neighboring people (Condé 163). The respect and admiration given to Tiekoro demonstrates how Islam was eventually perceived. Tiekoro, much like Islam as a whole was eventually respected for his worldly knowledge and different opinions, which made him a very powerful person in his community. In this sense Islam, although at first different to the people of Segu, provided helpful diversity to the people of Africa. In the same way that Tiekoro exemplified the spread of Islam in Africa, his younger brother Malobali is a symbol for the treatment of women in African society, as well as one aspect of the African slave trade. First, Malobali’s attitude toward women in Africa will be examined.

In her first description of Malobali, Condé writes, “He was a violent, quarrelsome little boy, completely spoiled because of his extreme good looks (Condé 127).” Malobali is a violent boy who will ultimately reach his end because of it, and after he leaves Segu, Malobali joins a group of warriors with his friend Kodjoe and falls into a world of immoral behavior. While digging yams from the ground that did not belong to them, Malobali and Kodjoe came across a girl wandering in the field. As she ran away Malobali chased her and he pinned her down; “She flashed him a look of defiance unusual to anyone so young. So he penetrated her. (Condé 231).” This is not the first woman Malobali has raped, and in doing so in such a casual way, he demonstrates his lack of respect for women. During this time especially in Africa, women as a whole were not respected when compared to men. Malobali’s actions therefore represent this generally held belief by Africans at this time that women were inferior to men.

Eventually Malobali evolves as a character and makes smarter decisions regarding his treatment toward women. When in the presence of the woman Romana trying to attack him, Condé writes, “He was about to throw himself on her, knock her down, kill her perhaps, when a voice reminded him of his difficulties in the Ashanti kingdom after the rape of Ayaovi. What would happen if he now committed murder? (Condé 265).” In two ways here, Malobali has grown up. First he realizes that all his actions have consequences and that he must realize them before making unwise decisions. In realizing this, Malobali represents Africans evolving as a whole to recognize that they must work together as a people. Secondly, Malobali realizes that Women are people too who can be reasoned with and respected rather than literally beat into submission. On a grand scale, Malobali’s second revelation represents a change in attitude toward women by African people. Still, more important is Malobali’s evolution in the context of the African Slave Trade.

Later in the story Malobali gets involved in the slave trade. Condé writes, “So Malobali was to be seen being rowed out to the slave ships, coming back with their captains… and going with them to inspect human cattle whom he himself had made presentable beforehand by various tricks (Condé 271).” Here, by assisting the slave ship captains, Malobali is playing an active role in the propagation of the African Slave Trade. Malobali’s actions and active involvement in the slave trade as demonstrated above, point to the idea presented in class of Africans as active agents in the slave trade. This idea of agency focuses around Africans actively manipulating the slave trade for economic gains because they knew how to work the system. With this understanding of agency, it can be understood that Malobali was definitely acting as an agent in the African slave trade.

In a grander sense, Malobali thus represents Africans as a whole who acted as agents in the slave trade. These people did exist and Malobali’s character in Segu serves as an example of this idea. Malobali kept working his way up, and soon he managed slaves on plantations; “Now Malobali could be seen taking droves of slaves out of the town to the palm groves and supervising their work (Condé 272).” This further supports the idea of agency and demonstrates the effect of historical circumstances on everyday people’s lives. Malobali is a native African with strong community ties coming from being brought up in a small village. The historical progression of European involvement in Africa and within the slave trade however, provided the economic and personal incentives for Malobali to “turn against” his African brothers and become an active agent in the slave trade. In the same way that Malobali’s active involvement in the slave trade was a result of situational consequences, his brother Siga’s struggle with identity was a consequence of his birth.

Siga is unlike his brothers in the sense that his mother was a slave. She committed suicide when he was young, and through out the book Siga struggles with grasping the nature of his true identity. He feels neglected, not because he is treated poorly, but rather because he is simply ignored by everyone. He lives in the shadow of his “legitimate” brother Tiekoro and although they are the same height, age, and are often mistaken for each other, Tiekoro is favored over Siga. Condé captures Siga’s frustration by stating, “Alas, the hazards of birth! If he’d been born of this womb rather than that, his life would have been quite different (Condé 30).” This is the reason for Siga’s identity struggle through out the book. He is plagued by the constant reminder in Tiekoro of what he could have been, and constantly haunted by nightmares of his slave mother’s horrific suicide. Siga’s identity crisis presents itself in his struggle to prove himself to his father Dousika. Because Tiekoro always overshadows him, Siga is constantly struggling to gain his father’s approval.

Condé writes, “He had passed too soon, without waiting for him, Siga, to prove himself. Now Dousika would never know what his son was really worth, this son whom he regarded as a bastard (Condé 180).” Siga’s need for approval from his father is a result of his constant struggle with identity. Because of his insecurity with his own self, he longs for the approval of his father and is heartbroken when he realizes that he will never be able to prove himself. Siga’s Character in Segu parallels the struggle of Africans on the continent with their common identity. The disconnectedness of the regions and the intervention of Europeans on the continent serve to stratify Africans living on the continent. Siga serves as a metaphor for the African’s struggle with identity in the 19th century. The youngest brother of the Traore family is Naba who, in contrast with Malobali, represents the horrors of the African slave trade.

Naba is the youngest, and most reliant of the brothers. He tags along with Tiekoro until Tiekoro journeys to Jenne to study Islam. After Tiekoro, Naba begins to tag along with a peer named Tiefolo. Naba goes on a hunting expedition with Tiefolo one day and gets captured by slave traders. Naba is sold into slavery and lives as a slave. His journey is one from a child of wealth to a common slave, exemplifying the horrors of the African slave trade. After becoming a slave, Naba becomes a broken man. Before his death, Condé writes, “Ever since that fateful hunting expedition had parted him from his own people, he had lost interest in everything (Condé 215).” Slavery made Naba lose faith in everything. He once was a happy youth playing with his friends and brothers, but before he dies, he feels nothing. He does not even fight for his life because he feels that it is not worth anything.

Becoming a slave destroyed his spirits and even his will to live. Naba’s story shows the dark side of the slave trade. While his brother Malobali benefited from the same game of slave trade, Naba ended up paying the ultimate price. The same event had different consequences for both brothers, and in doing so, represents the two sides to the slave trade issue. Slavery can be beneficial to some in certain contexts, but at the same time there will always be those who suffered because of those who prosper. The Slave trade had dire effects on Naba, whose character served as an example of all those lost and forgotten in the African slave trade.

Africa in the late 1700s and early 1800s was a time of great significance. Religions and cultures were being fused, personal and generational identities were being developed and questioned, and the African slave trade was beneficial for some while proving detrimental to the lives of others. Maryse Condé’s Segu, uses the four brothers of the Traore family to embody the effects of these historical events and make grander claims about Africa as a whole. Through this story we are able to gain insight about Africa during this time period while seeing the effects these historical events had on the people of this time.

Maryse, Condé. Segu. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.

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