ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
I would watch her draw water from the part where there were crocodiles.
Naturally, I used to watch her from a distance, for my totem is not
my mothers, and I had every reason to fear those voracious beasts
Books by and about Camara Laye
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The Projection of Female Characters in Camara Laye’s Novels
By Arthur Edgar E. Smith
Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College
University of Sierra Leone
The first generation West African novelists have been largely regarded as allowing very little scope for the projection of female characters engaged in significant roles in their novels. Whenever that is the case, these female characters, as Larson states, play almost no significant part being mere objects performing a function (The Emergence of African Fiction). This could not however hold true for the two significant novels of the Guinean writer, Camara Laye, one of Africas most renowned Francophone writers.
Born in 1928 in Koroussa, Upper Guinea, Camara Laye was the first francophone West African writer to have caught the eye of the international literary scene and thus got translated into English amongst many other international languages.
Layes The African Child [sometimes translated as The Dark Child] published in 1953 continued the accumulation of new and compulsive literature from Africa like Things Fall Apart capturing the attention of the world. It tells the story of Layes childhood in his native Kouroussa village in Guinea in accessible language that appeals to a wide variety of readers including children. Its lyricism is enriched by its double perspective. It gives an insiders account of Camara Layes rich and interesting Mande culture, including the secrets of its initiation rites. According to Adele King in The Writings of Camara Laye , he was, “passionately concerned with preserving a record of traditional homeland.” He let his narrative and his gently observed characters speak of the warmth, wholeness, and deep piety of pre-colonial African culture and of the growing sadness of his people as their culture changed under both the curse and the stimulus of French rule and influence.
The book wins its audience through its tender but unsentimental treatment of the older African life and the dignity and beauty of that nostalgically lamented past. Laye expresses his deep anxiety at leaving his homeland, writing, “It was a terrible parting! I do not like to think of it. I can still hear my mother wailing. It was as if I was being torn apart.” However, this separation enhanced his appreciation for his home and his culture. He even brought Marie Lorifo, whom he had known from Conakry, to Paris and married her. Then in the later part during college abroad in France Camara Laye started feeling nostalgic about his past that he has left behind. He starts speaking from the detached position of one exiled in France with nostalgic longing, for the world he has left behind in Guinea,. To cure himself of this, he wrote The African Child based loosely on his own childhood. In 1953, he published it. An autobiographical story, it narrates in the first person a journey from childhood in Kouroussa, through challenges in Conakry, to France. The book won the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954.
Then followed The Radiance of the King, Layes second novel which was published a year later in 1954. It is a surreal allegory of the relations between the West and Africa. In it Clarence, a white man, is shipwrecked and abandoned as a result of his gambling debts on the African coast leaving him with nothing more than the clothes on his back. Flushed with self-importance, he demands to see the king. He was convinced of being engaged as his worldly adviser if he should see him. But unfortunately the king had just left for the south of his realm. So Clarence is left waiting in vain. To save his time from being further wasted he is then led south by an old beggar and two young but roguish boys. He goes through a grueling quest of discovery during which he undergoes various sexual scrapes, and is gradually stripped of his pretensions. He is sold to the royal harem as a slave and ends up giving up his white identity. His bewildering journey thus brings in revelation as he discovers the shameful but beautiful image of his own humanity in the alien splendour of the king.
He was born Malinke, a group that traditionally supplied the blacksmiths and goldsmiths of Guinea. His mother was from the village of Tindican, and his immediate childhood surroundings were predominantly uninfluenced by French culture. He attended both the Koranic and French elementary schools in Kouroussa. At age fourteen he went to Conakry, capital of Guinea, to continue his education. He did vocational studies in motor mechanics. In 1947, he travelled to Paris to continue studies in mechanics. There he worked and took further courses in engineering and worked towards the baccalauréat.
In 1956, Laye returned to Africa, first to Dahomey (now Benin), then Gold Coast (now Ghana) and then to newly independent Guinea, where he held government posts. In 1965, he left Guinea for Dakar, Senegal because of political reasons, never to return, presumably on exile because of his political views expressed in his third book. . He would later become a writer of many essays. In 1966 his third novel, A DREAM OF AFRICA, 1968 was published. The arrest of his wife on her return to Guinea to visit her ailing mother led him to stop his political writings .In 1978 his fourth and final work was published, The Guardian of the World, based on a Malian epic, as told by the griot Babou Condé, about the famous Soundiata Keita, the thirteenth-century founder of the Mali Empire.
Camara Laye died in Dakar, Senegal of a kidney infection.
Unlike other West African novels in English, in these two novels female characters are given prominent and active roles in the unfolding plots. In The African Child, though the novel revolves around Camara Laye exploring his growth as a young boy in the Guinean hinterland, it gives much room to Layes mother and his girlfriends, Fanta and Marie. The Radiance of the King, though exploring the quest and exploits of Clarence, gives much attention to the dancer-girl, Akissi, the Fish Women and Dioki.
In The African Child the importance of Layes mother is primarily because of her role as the heros mother. She becomes even more note-worthy because of her inordinate hold over the hero from the novels very start. From that point she is presented as being thrust in a struggle for maintaining her control over the fate of the young Laye. She thus becomes embattled against all other characters who show the slightest sign or intention of controlling the boys world. This does not exclude Layes father.
Layes mother wields a significant place and role throughout the work thus holding the readers attention most of the time. The narrator therefore goes at great length to draw up an authentic and full portrait of her. She thus comes off as a powerful and authoritative woman, the precursor of the present womens liberationists. Her powers are mostly magical. We witness with awe her success at reviving an apparently dying horse. After Layes mothers reciting her magical incantations “the horse got up without any further delay and followed his master” (p59 TAC). She also shows evidence of possessing occult powers as exemplified when she denounces the witch-doctor for his nocturnal activities which had been revealed to her in her sleep. Laye himself even goes on to confirm the wide recognition of this power in his mother; “we never wakened her, for fear of interrupting the course of the revelations that flowed through her dreams. This power was well known by our neighbours and by the whole community: no one ever doubted it” (p61).
She had inherited other powers, we are also told. These include the ability to draw water from the Niger with impunity. Her bravery is seen in the context of Layes concern or fear for her:
I would watch her draw water from the part where there were crocodiles. Naturally, I used to watch her from a distance, for my totem is not my mothers, and I had every reason to fear those voracious beasts; but my mother could draw water without fear, and no one warned her of the danger, because everyone knew that the danger did not exist for her. Whoever had ventured to do what my mother used to do would inevitably have been knocked down by a blow from a powerful tail, seized in the terrible jaws and dragged into deep water (p62).
The heros mother is also presented as authoritative and stern as “she . . . had great authority and kept an eye on everything we did; so that her kindness was not altogether untempered by severity” (p55). Evidence of her authoritativeness is in the scrupulous details with which she ensures that things are done. For instance when presiding over meals she forbids the young Laye from gazing at older guests. Laye was also forbidden to talk, for his attention must always be fixed on the food in front of him. Her authority is so pervading that she seems to be keeping a hold not only over the young boys but on Layes father as well. In fact. Layes father because of such control wielded over him by his wife seems reduced to insignificance in the novel. Comparatively little space is devoted to his portrayal, The mother thus emerges as the supreme character as important as the narrator himself with whom she is so closely linked.
Her incessant and largely uncontrollable love for her son often borders on jealousy. After the sons circumcision we notice her welcoming him possessively:
My parents held me tightly in their arms, particularly my mother, as if she was waiting secretly to proclaim that I was still her son, that my second birth had done nothing to alter the fact that I was still her son (p112).
Even after his formal induction into manhood on his initiation she still continues to exert great influence over him. She thus used to enter his hut without any warning to check his female friends, swiftly showing the door to any she disliked. If she “did not make off fast enough or if she did not extract herself quickly enough from the jumble on the divan, [she ] would pull her out by the arm and thrust her towards the open door.”
Layes mother being so powerful and authoritative it is then no wonder that she gets enmeshed in a psychological battle against her husband for control of the boy Laye. The conflict becomes evident from the novels very start when she caught the child Laye playing with a snake. She was said to be shouting harder than anyone else. This indicates her effort to assert herself above everyone else, even her husband. We are also told that she disliked the many guests entertained by him who if she hadnt put aside Layes share, would have eaten everything leaving the young boy “everlastingly hungry.” It is also significant to note that even though it was his father who in actual fact presided over meals, it was his mothers presence that made itself felt first of all. She controlled their conduct and etiquette throughout the process.
At the end of the novel the father has been reduced to virtual impotence. He has to go almost on his knees to his wife to let her see the promise and usefulness of Layes journey to Paris. The fear in Layes father is seen in his reply to Layes question.
Then my thoughts returned suddenly to my mother.
“Have you told my mother yet?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Well go together and give her the news.”
“You wouldnt like to tell her yourself?”
“By Myself? No, my son, Believe me, even if both of us go, well be outnumbered” (p154).
Even when she is found, the fear still has a hold over him. He stood “a long while watching the pestle rising and falling in the mortar. He hardly knew where to begin. “He stood there watching the pestle and saying nothing, and I dared not lift my eyes.” When finally she is faced she is furious, crying against the proposed move to take her son to Paris.
Laye eventually succeeds in going to Paris but that doesnt prevent his mother from gaining supremacy over everyone else. She is the one who struggles to shield him from being engulfed and devoured by westernization. His father on the other hand allows him to be let loose to Europe. Throughout the novel it is seen that Laye shows great affection for his mother. That might be the reason for her holding the readers attention almost all the time.
Not so much detail is given to portraying the other characters as is devoted to Layes mother. In spite of this the reader is still given a vivid picture of what they look like.
Fanta is one of the friends of Layes sister. She is usually amongst the many girls who accompany him and his sister to school. It is during such situations that they developed affection for each other. This gradually grows into love. When he fled from the tyranny of the older schoolboys, crying, she was the one who came to offer him solace. She brought him some wheat cake and later she could no longer control herself as she burst into crying in empathy with him. But the sooner he promises revenging his persecutors, “she stops crying, and looks up admiringly” at him. The next time she cried was when he was leaving for Conakry. These instances of crying indicate her great concern for him. However, very little description, less so physical description, is given of her. And all we get of her relationship to the hero is not explicitly stated nor adequately demonstrated, but only implied. In spite of all this we get the feel of an adolescent love affair in the games they play on their way to school, the resulting shyness and then the sheer emotion displayed especially when he is departing for Conakry.
Marie on the other hand is more explicitly portrayed. She is said to be a half-caste with a very light skin almost bordering on being white. She is “very beautiful, surely the most beautiful girl of all . . . in the girls High School.” She also has exceptionally long hair with her tresses hanging down to her waist. To the young Laye her beauty is like that of a fairy. “She was sweet and charming, and with a most wonderfully even temper.” She is also portrayed as being helpful, courteous and sociable. These qualities become evident through her conduct during her numerous visits to Layes uncles:
As soon as she arrived, she would make a round of the house, greeting everyone; after which she would sit usually with my Aunt Awa: she would put down her satchel, take off her European clothes, put on the Guinean tunic which allowed greater freedom of movement, and then she would help my aunt with her housework. My aunt liked her very much and treated her as they did their own, but often teased her about me (p132).
She would later help her with her housework. With time she becomes accepted as a part of the family. At the same time her love for Laye was strengthening. It grew to becoming so strong that she ignored all the other boys who were in love with her. So when Laye sat to his proficiency certificate she was even more anxious about his fate than his aunts, as we are told:
She did not attach much importance to her own studies, but I really do not know to what extremities she might have been driven if she had not seen my name among the list of successful candidates in the official newspaper of French Guinea. I learned from my aunts that she too, had been to see the marabouts, and I really think that touched me more than anything else (p140).
Such selfless love and the further revelation that she herself had been to see the marabout transforms her to a mother-figure.
In The African Child it is the warmth and conviction with which the characters are invested that endows them with such strength and credibility. The mother stands out as a forceful and loving woman. Marie is a kindly and motherly girl whose whole soul is devoted to the boy she loves, and Fanta is the young immature girl who falls in love with an equally immature boy. In The Radiance of the King, the female characters, if they could be so called, show little of such warmth and conviction. They fail to come off as real people. This might be due to the allegorical nature of the work which largely allows men and women to function as symbols and helps to steer the protagonist quest forward along its course rather than as human beings. Because of this they could not have been drawn at such depth as in The African Child. But in spite of this it could still be accepted that Laye makes much use of such female characters to build a work of art.
The first female characters to be encountered is the dancing girl from whom Clarence asked direction to the city gates. The first and only glimpse we have of her physical appearance is through a rather seductive description: “She was all the time dreamily stroking her breasts, that were naked and irrepressibly luxuriant.” Her gait and movement is equally seductive, swinging her hips and throwing out her chest emphasizing to all the prominence and pointed-ness of her breasts. But what is more important is the ease and vitality with which she helps Clarence to continue his journey, “speeding away with him through the narrow streets” crossing a number of streets and negotiating numerous crossroads and plunging determinedly ahead after breaking free of the grip of the leader of the gang. In the end Clarence arrives safely at her fathers house where her mother mends his previously lost coat and gives it back to him. Thus with her help Clarences spiritual quest is thrust one stage forward. From the house he is ushered into the fields leading into the forest.
One cannot get a definite picture of Akissi as she is not a definable person. She is more of a concept. For she is “Never the same for two days on end.” The truth is that Akissi is indeed a communal name for the Nabas harem. They have come to be made to produce a new species of mulattoes through Clarences effort. But their role is also spiritual. They are the way to Clarences spiritual rebirth. Through his involvement in sensuousness and his uninhibited sexual orgies, sleeping with the whole harem, he loses his original pride and feels disgusted with himself:
He knew quite well that he had become a different man since he had come to live in Aziana. But he detested the new man, he refused to countenance this new man who at night so utterly abandoned himself because of the odour of a bunch of flowers (p158 ROTK).
He loses his identity as a white man in the end, and except for his colour, becomes almost like a black man, “crouching in the manner of black men under the arcade,” dressing in a “boubou” and becoming less conscious of his nakedness. This spiritual rebirth is so effectively realized that he is purged of all his racial prejudices. In the end he becomes aware that difference in pigmentation does not matter and that “Its the soul that matters.”
It is again a female symbol the fish-women that is used to redeem Clarence from the depths of promiscuity. Clarences initial attraction to the fish-women is later transformed to revulsion, especially at the thought that some unconsidered movement might cause him to brush, in passing against the glittering opulence of those dead “white breasts.”
However, it is another woman, Dioki, who completes Clarences transformation, thus ridding him completely of his licentiousness. And Dioki is able to accomplish this because of her supernatural powers. Though she is reputed to be a “frightening creature surrounded by snakes.” “She is exercising supernatural powers both over people and as a visionary.” When Clarence, bound by a snake, sees the kings coming, Dioki is both exorcising Clarences shame and satisfying his desire. In the end he is rendered spiritually ready for the coming of the king and is therefore qualified to be accepted by him.
Laye also succeeds in giving us visual pictures of these last three female figures. Even Akissi who is never the same is given physical attributes which could be taken as holding good for all the girls who slept with Clarence. Though their faces were unrecognizable it was the same high, firm buttocks and the same pear-shaped breasts that became her identifiable mark. In effect she becomes little more than a sex symbol. Almost all his thoughts of her are as sensual as this:
He could only see her face, but in his imagination, he saw Akissis naked body, and he thought of the way in which their two naked bodies, his own and Akissis would lock together. He felt a dark fire smouldering through his legs, a fire as dark as Akissis naked flesh.
The other two female figures, the fish-women and Dioki are also seen in sexual terms. But it is not like the sensual and seductive one of Akissi. Theirs is all-revolting. Whilst the fish-womens breasts are those of women, the head are those of fishes. The manner of their movement is also described in uncomplimentary terms. Dioki was so withered and emaciated that Clarence couldnt endure the sight of her”- “her buttocks . . . had collapsed long ago” and when she closed her eyes “it looked as if her face had become drained of all colour. But it did not turn white but a dirty and ashen grey.”
However, these descriptions should not blind one to the important role these characters play. They are all a part of Clarences processes of transformation. And indeed they determine their course. One could then conclude that Laye uses women as important vehicles of spiritual rebirth. Without Dioki, for instance, Clarence would not have been rendered completely ready [spiritually] for the kings coming. When one adds the foregoing to the role played by Layes mother in The African Child to prevent her son from getting into the grips of westernization and her unusual powers drawn from traditional religion, one could state that Laye sees women as capable of holding their own in a mans world. Layes mother for instance was the most authoritative and powerful member of the family, with her husband often deferring to her. Her exposure and threat to the male witchdoctor is also a significant symbol of her power and fearlessness.
In brief, Laye, unlike other West African novelists like Achebe invests his female characters with leading and challenging roles in his novels. He thus seems to be holding up womanhood as the most dependable custodians of the traditional culture.
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Brench, A.C., The Novelists’ Inheritance in French Africa. Oxford University Press, 1967.
Brench, A.C., Writing in French from Senegal to Cameroon. 1967
Carroll, David, Camara Layes African Child:: A Reply. ALT, No. 5
Larson, Charles, The Emergence of African Fiction.
Laye, Camara, The African Child. Fontana/Collins, 1954.
Laye, Camara, The Radiance of the King.
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Arthur Smith a Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and editor Sierra Leone PEN is available for public lectures as well as speaking tours. He also writes extensively. Visit him at his website at: www.arthuredgaresmith.net
Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He attended Holy Trinity Boys Primary and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. He did his sixth form at Albert Academy and went up further the hill to Fourah Bay College. He has taught English since 1977 at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education and now at Fourah Bay College again he has risen to the rank of Senior Lecturer of English. Mr Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally. He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006. His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C. can be read at lisnews.org.
He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006. His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C. can be read at lisnews.org. His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone’. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College. A recent story of his could be read at mabaylareview.org .
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Basil Davidson obituaryBy Victoria Brittain9 July 2010Davidson [(9 November 1914 9 July 2010) a British historian, writer and Africanist] was enthused early on by the end of British colonialism and the prospects of pan-Africanism in the 1960s, and he wrote copiously and with warmth about newly independent Ghana and its leader, Kwame Nkrumah. He went to work for a year at the University of Accra in 1964. Later he threw himself into the reporting of the African liberation wars in the Portuguese colonies, particularly in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. . . . In the 1980s, with most of the African liberation wars now wonexcept for South Africa’s Davidson turned much of his attention to more theoretical questions about the future of the nation state in Africa. He remained a passionate advocate of pan-Africanism. In 1988 he made a long and dangerous journey into Eritrea, writing a persuasive defence of the nationalists’ right to independence from Ethiopia, and an equally eloquent attack on the revolutionary leader Colonel Mengistu and the regime that had overthrown Haile Selassie. Guardian
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Basil Davidson’s “Africa Series”
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The State of African Education (April 200)
Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.
Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.
By Basil Davidson
By Basil Davidson
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music website > http://www.kalamu.com/bol/ writing website > http://wordup.posterous.com/ daily blog > http://kalamu.posterous.com twitter > http://twitter.com/neogriot facebook > http://www.facebook.com/kalamu.salaam
Men We Love, Men We Hate SAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.
An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men
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Video: “South Side Story” Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses Michelle Obama with Paul Coates an outspoken publisher and former Black Pantherhis father.
By Ta Nehesi Coates
When Michelle Obama told a Milwaukee campaign rally last February, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” critics derided her as another Angry Black Woman. But the only truly radical proposition put forth by Obama, born and raised in Chicago’s storied South Side, is the idea of a black community fully vested in the country at large, and proud of the American dream.
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”Lisa Adkins, University of London
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 13 October 2007
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