Storyteller traces route of African culture's decline
Abidjan, Ivory Coast — Maryse Cond'e's love affair with Mali began in 1976, on her first trip to the country that was to become the venue for her novel, ``Segu,'' which chronicles the rise and fall of a West African city-state. The idea for the book, often called ``the `Gone with the Wind' of West Africa,'' was born while she steamed up the Niger River on a riverboat.
As the landscape changed from the sand dunes of Gao and Timbuktu to the green delta marshes further south, Mrs. Cond'e was impressed both by Mali's physical beauty and by the deep-seated dignity of its people. It was a dignity that made her want to find out more about Mali's ancient civilization, which enjoyed its golden age long before Christopher Columbus set sail for the new Caribbean world - where the Guadaloupean author was born.
``In Mali, you still have the remnants of the old renowned cities of Djenne and Timbuktu, which were once the center of Islamic learning in West Africa,'' Cond'e said in a recent interview here, where her daughter lives. ``You know right away that you are in a country that made great contributions to the world.''
Before the discovery of the new world, the ancient empire of Mali - which covered most of western Africa - was the center of the world's gold trade. Through the 13th and 14th centuries, it controlled the southern portion of trans-Saharan trade routes, and Arab traders used its gold to finance the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East.
``But as I began researching the country,'' Cond'e said, ``I found that Mali is now classified as one of the 15 least-advanced countries in the world. I was shocked that a region with such a highly-civilized ancient culture could be termed `less advanced.'
``I wanted to write a thesis on this contradiction,'' remembered this author and college professor, who received her PhD in West Indian literature from the Sorbonne. ``But then I decided that a novel would be a better vehicle for getting my message across to more people.''
Her message is found in the story of Segu's destruction and the diaspora of its once-colorful Traore family. The tale symbolizes how outside forces came in and tore apart the fabric of traditional culture all over the African continent.
``By writing about what happened to the Traore family, I was describing the misfortunes of families all over Africa,'' she said. ``The book is a metaphor for the decline and fall of indigenous culture and values throughout the continent.''
Segu was a wonderful example of a well-balanced small kingdom, practicing its traditional religion and dealing with its neighbors relatively peacefully, she said.
Then, like the rest of Africa, Segu was dealt three massive blows from which it never recovered: the coming of Islam, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and colonization.
The first onslaught was the forced conversion to Islam, first by Moroccan invaders and then by converted Africans dedicated to wiping out animism. ``Many people were forced to convert or they were killed,'' she said.
Some Islamic scholars criticized Cond'e's book, claiming it portrayed the Islamization of West Africa as more violent than it actually was.
``When I was doing my research, nobody wanted to talk about the violence that occurred during the jihads, or holy wars,'' she said. ``Nobody wanted to challenge the popular notion that Islam brought peace and unity to West Africa. People kept saying to me, `Why do you want to dredge up all that? Forget about it.'''
Just as the people of Segu were recovering from Islam's arrival, European slave ships arrived on the West African coast.
``Men, women, and children were captured and sold to Europeans,'' she said, ``sometimes wiping out whole villages.''
The transatlantic slave trade, Cond'e contends, was far more destructive to native civilizations than the trans-Sahara slave trade, conducted by Arab traders for centuries via camel caravans across the desert.
The third and final blow to Segu - and the continent - was the arrival of European colonizers, with armies, missionaries, and schools. ``They killed all the traditional African culture that still survived,'' Cond'e said.
``The French finally brought in gunboats and destroyed the famous mud walls of Segu,'' she said, describing what happens in the sequel of ``Segu,'' ``The Crumbling Earth,'' soon to be published in English by Ballantine Books. ``Until then the people believed that the walls of Segu could never be destroyed. Yet the French did it with cannons within a matter of hours.''
Throughout the continent today, she said, Africans are still reeling from the same triple whammy that destroyed Segu. ``Today, Africans are full of questions about who they are, how they should live, what values they should adopt. They are still trying to recover a sense of identity,'' she said.
``The people lost confidence in their traditional gods, kings, and chiefs, who were not able to protect them from the three-pronged assault,'' she said. ``Their chiefs were defeated by something as simple as the knowledge of the written word, brought in by the Muslims.''
And equally as confusing for Africans today is the struggle to find a religious identity.
There are people all over contemporary Africa, Cond'e said, who still live in three religious worlds. ``When someone gets sick they go to the mosque and to their church to pray, and then consult their traditional animist healers, just for good measure,'' she said.
Cond'e does not have solutions for Africa's identity crisis. ``I don't know the way out of this situation,'' she said. But she hopes modern-day Africans will learn one lesson from her books.
``Africans were too tolerant, too eager, and curious about things coming from the outside world,'' she said. ``They did not see that by gaining imported fabrics, spirits, and weapons, they were losing something valuable ... that in the end they would be the losers.''
Cond'e said she did not write the book to discover her own roots, but so that Africans could recall their own rich cultural heritage. ``I wrote it so that African people will know who they are,'' she said ``why they were defeated, and that Africa's decline is not due to a lack of energy, or personality, or dynamism on the part of Africans.''
Unfortunately, Cond'e says, illiteracy is rampant in most African countries, so the average man in the street, for whom she wrote the book, probably will never read it. And she feels that most whites who read the book miss the point entirely.
``I don't think that `Segu' was acclaimed because of the deep meaning of the book. People were more enchanted with the adventure and the romanticism. They were surprised to find that Africa had a glorious past.
``But black Americans who read the book saw it like I wanted them to see it,'' she said.