'In richly imagined detail and beautifully evocative language, Condé immerses the reader in historical events with immense wit, pace and intelligence.'
Heather, Campaigns Manager
Maryse Condé’s bestselling epic historical novel comes very highly recommended by our Campaigns Manager here at Foyles. It’s also a bestseller and last year Condé won the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature. The African kingdom of Segu was at the height of its power in the late eighteenth century, but the following decades were ones of tumult and devastating change. Segu captures this time of upheaval brilliantly, and brings the region during this period of history into the spotlight. Read an extract from the book, below.
Dousika was a nobleman or yerewolo, a member of the royal council, a personal friend of the king and the father of ten legitimate sons, ruling as fa or patriarch over five families, his own and those of his younger brothers. His compound reflected his standing in Segu society. Its tall facade overlooking the street was ornamented with sculptures as well as triangular patterns carved into the clay, and surmounted by turrets of varying height and pleasing effect. Within were a number of flat-roofed huts, also of mud, connected by a series of courtyards. The first contained a magnificent dubale tree whose foliage formed a dome of greenery, supported by some fifty columns, roots grown down from the main trunk.
The dubale might be called the witness and guardian of the life of the Traores. Beneath its powerful roots the placentas of many of their ancestors had been buried after a safe delivery. In its shade the women and children sat to tell stories, the men to make family decisions. In the dry season it gave protection from the sun. In the rainy season it provided firewood. At night the spirits of the ancestors hid in its branches and watched over the sleep of the living. When they were displeased they showed it by making faint sounds, at once mysterious and as clear as a code. Then those experienced enough to decipher them shook their heads and said: ‘Beware – tonight our fathers have spoken!’
Anyone who crossed the threshold of the Traore compound knew at once what sort of people they were, guessed that they owned plenty of good land planted with millet, cotton and fonio, worked by hundreds of slaves – house slaves and captives. There were storerooms crammed with bags full of cowrie shells and gold dust lavishly bestowed by the king, the Mansa. In a paddock behind the huts were Arab steeds, purchased from the Moors. Signs of wealth were everywhere.
And why was the outer courtyard empty now, which was usually swarming with people? With girls and boys, all naked, the first with a string of beads or cowrie shells around their waists, the second with only a cotton string. With women pounding or sieving millet, or spinning cotton as they listened to the jokes of a jester or the epics of a griot singing for a dish of gruel. With men chatting together as they sharpened arrows for hunting or whetted farming implements. Dousika, getting more and more vexed, went on into the second courtyard, overlooked by the huts of his three wives and of Sira, his concubine.
He found the latter lying prostrate on a mat, her beautiful face gleaming with sweat and distorted with suffering. ‘Where is everyone?’ he barked.
She made an effort to sit up, and said in her imperfect Bambara, ‘By the river, koke.’
‘By the river?’ he almost yelled. ‘What are they all doing there?’
‘A white man!’ she managed to murmur. ‘There’s a white man on the bank of the Joliba!’
A white man? Was the woman delirious? Dousika looked down at her belly, which was enormous under the loosely tied pagne, then up, apprehensively, at the clay walls of the hut. Alone with a woman about to give birth!
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he asked roughly, to hide his fear.
‘I think my time has come,’ she stammered apologetically.
For several months, out of regard for the life she bore within her, Dousika hadn’t been near Sira, now pregnant for the second time. Similarly he was supposed, throughout the birth, to stay away from her, and only put in an appearance after the delivery, with the fetish priest, when she was already holding the baby in her arms. Might it not vex the ancestors if he were there while she was in labor? He was just hesitating about retreating and leaving her alone when Nya appeared, with one child on her back and two more clinging to her indigo cotton skirts.
‘Where were you?’ he exploded. ‘I can understand everyone else here losing their heads. But not you!’
Without a word of explanation, still less one of apology, Nya moved past him and bent over Sira.
‘Have you had the pains for long?’
‘No,’ whispered the other. ‘They started just now.’
From anyone else but Nya, Dousika wouldn’t have put up with such off handedness, verging on impertinence. But she was his first wife, his bara muso, to whom he had delegated part of his authority and who could therefore address him as an equal. Moreover she’d been born a Kulibaly, related to the ancient ruling family of Segu, and noble though he himself was, Dousika couldn’t boast of such distinguished origins. It was Nya’s ancestors who had founded this city on the banks of the Joliba, which soon became the heart of a vast empire. It was the brothers of her ancestors who ruled over Kaarta. So the love Dousika bore her contained a large element of respect, almost fear. He withdrew, and in the outer courtyard ran into a messenger from the palace. The man threw himself down in the dust as a sign of respect, and from there saluted him.
‘You and the light!’
Then came the motto of the Traores: ‘Traore, Traore, Traore – the long-named man need not pay to cross the river.’
Finally he delivered his message. ‘Traore, the Mansa wants you to come to the palace as quickly as possible!’
Dousika was surprised. ‘The palace? But it’s not the day for the council!’
The man looked up.
‘It’s not for the council. There’s a white man by the river, asking to see the Mansa . . .’
‘A white man?’ So Sira wasn’t delirious! And Dousika had already heard of this white man. Some horsemen coming from Kaarta had said they’d met him riding a horse as exhausted as himself. But Dousika had thought it must be one of the stories women amuse children with in the evening, and had taken no notice. Now, putting on his conical hat, for the sun was beginning to rise in the sky, Dousika left his compound.
Maryse Condé was born at Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1937 and spent most of her life in West Africa (Guinea, Ghana and Senegal), France and the US, where she taught at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA and Columbia. The publication of her bestselling third novel, Segu (1984), established her pre-eminent position among Caribbean writers. She won Le Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986 as well as Le Prix de L'Académie Française in 1988 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015. In 2018 she was awarded the alternative Nobel prize for literature and described as a 'grand storyteller who belongs to world literature'.