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Maryse Conde’s “Segu” Essay, Research Paper


Using specific illustrations from Maryse Conde’s novel Segu, this is an essay that discusses how the coming of Islam to Bambar society affected that people’s traditional, political, social and economic practices as well as challenging the Bambaras’ religious beliefs.

Before the arrival of Islam, Segu and its people, the Bambaras, were extremely different world from what they became under Islamic rule. The Bambaras were proud people with a long history in farming, and the wealthy ones worked with hundreds of slaves and planted millet, cotton and fonio (p. 4). Their currency was cowrie shells and gold dust, and they hadn’t even heard of money, which came with the white man. With the coming of Islam, manufactured goods from Europe and North Africa were making their way into Bambara households (p. 324). Conde described it: “It was not unusual to see well-born young men in boots bought from some trader. Many families had silver dishes in their huts, and the Mansa proudly displayed to his friends a service of fine Chinese porcelain that he never actually used.” Fetishists, they turned to all manner of objects and all manner of gods to assure their good fortune. For example, Dousika used a tooth twig to increase his physical strength and sexual potency (p. 3). As Sira gave birth, Nya ordered plants be burned to drive away the evil spirts and help the milk come (p. 11).

Much of life was extremely magical, as evidenced in the way Tiekoro reacted when he first saw a man write with a pencil. The animist world of Segu was rocked when the Muslim religion took over. Segu was steeped in the traditions of story telling and the griot’s song was the way the society passed on its news and traditions. The Muslim religion looks down orality, while the spoken word has its mythology in Baharan culture. As Cilas Kemedijo explains in The Curse of Writing: Genealogical Strata of a Disillusion: Orality, Islam-writing, and Identities in the State of Becoming in Maryse Conde’s “Segou,” (Kemedijo, pp. 124), “The progressive placement of elements of a cultural, ethnic, and symbolic confrontation between the two worlds operates throughout the exchange between Tiekoro Traore, child of the spoken word, and the imam of the mosque of Somonos. The narrator subtly presents Allah’s disciple as the same age as Tiekoro’s father. Their belonging to the same age-group suggests a possibility of rivalry between the two “fathers,” with Tiekoro, the son, as the stakes. The two paternal references pertain to Segovian and Muslim cultures. Tiekoro emphasizes his social and political genealogy: he is the son of Dousika Traore, a yerewolo, whose genealogy is lost in time. By defining himself through his father’s lineage, Tiekoro obliges the other father to prove himself worthy of assuming virtual paternity. This challenge to paternity will be seen as an invention of the written word; that is, in order to keep score in the ongoing silent, symbolic battle, authority will be based on the prestige of writing. To the degree that Tiekoro presents his noble lineage and his family’s political status as incontestible elements of prestige and social legitimacy, so will the writing muezzin strive to deconstruct these references of legitimacy.” Writing could open up a new world to Tiekoro and others who become Moslems. The Bambaras believed that fetish priests could predict the future with kola nuts and cowrie shells, but that was to fall by the wayside under pressure from the Moslems.

Their clothing also changed. Monzon Diarra wore a white cotton tunic and white trousers with animal horns and teeth and adorned arms. The Moslems, on the other hand, wore white caftans and trousers (p. 26). Bambara women often went bare-breasted before the incursion of Islam, but the Moslem religion required women to cover fully and it was rare to see such dress in the cities.

In a related vein, sexual habits also changed as it had been the practice of a man to take a concubine or two as well as several wives. Islam required them to limit the number of wives. Monzon, for example, felt Islam castrated men and wouldn’t let them drink what they wanted (p. 28). Tiekoro had been used to having sex with his father’s young slaves from the time he was 12 and he found the purity and chastity required in the Islamic religion to be torture (p. 83). Yet, the Islamic faith taught that the sex act was a defilement even between married people (p. 481). Alfa Guidado questions his own religion as he is slumped beside Tiefolo’s corpse. “He suddenly understood there was no universal god; every man had the right to worship whomsoever he pleased; and to take away a man’s religion, the keystone of his life, was to condemn him to death. Why was Allah better than Fero or Pemba? Who had decreed it?” he wondered.

The family unit was much more closed. In native Bambara culture, all of brothers’ children called each brother father and all grew up under joint authority (p. 32). Under Islam, the family was much more separated. Women became what can only be termed uppety. “It had all started with Sira, going off back to Macina one fine day and breaking Dousika’s heart. Then came Maryem, gathering her children together and leaving, refusing the husband tradition ordained for her. And now here was Yassa, claiming rights for her child (p. 435),” Conde wrote Siga’s thoughts. The family was breaking down. “Naba had been taken to Brazil. Malobali had gone with the caravans to the Ashanti kingdom and found death in Abomey, a journey of days and nights away from home. Both of them had left sons who only half belonged to the clan, and who nurtured alien desires and aspirations (p. 324),” Conde wrote.

The world was changing. “In the past all a man needed was a bit of willpower to keep wives, children, and younger brothers in order. Life was a straight line drawn from the womb of a woman to the womb of the earth drawn from the womb of a woman to the womb of the earth. If you fought behind a ruler, it was simply to get more wives, more slaves or more gold. But now the menace of new ideas and values lurked everywhere,” Siga fumed (p. 429).

The architecture even changed. “There were new houses with their flat roofs and turrets with triangular loopholes. Not many straw roofs now (p. 430),” Conde wrote. Inside tradition Bambara huts, the furnishings were sparse, but carpets wre everywhere in the Moslem dwellings.

The approach to education also was quite different. Children went to Koranic schools rather than learning through the oral tradition (p. 430). It became much more of an urban-centered economy with the riches of lands taken away.

Items that the fetishists held sacred were burned, and people wondered what would happen as the Mansa turned his back on the gods of Segu and insulted the ancestors “What blindness, what folly! After such crimes the name of Segu would disappear off the face of the earth. Or else become the name of some miserable little hole dozing on the banks of its river, unheard of (p. 477),” Conde wrote.

The god they worshipped also changed. Fetishists believed that two gods were to be credited for the creation. The god Pemba whirled around and created earth while the god Faro took care of the sky and the waters (p. 14). Islam, of course, teaches that there is just one God, Allah.


Marys,Condee. Segu. Barbara Bray, trans. (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987).

Kemedijo, Cilas. The Curse of Writing: Genealogical Strata of a Disillusion: Orality, Islam-writing, and Identities in the State of Becoming in Maryse Conde’s Segou. Research in African Literatures 27. (1996, December 1): 124.

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