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Maryse Condé: Ségou (Segu)

This is the book that brought Maryse Condé to prominence and deservedly so. It tells the story of the Traoré family who lived in Segu, between Bamako and Timbuktu (now in Mali). The action takes place from the end of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Two major external events influence their lives – the arrival of Islam and the arrival of the white man (and Christianity). The Traoré are a well-to-do, aristocratic family so they get very much involved in the internal politics of Segu but Condé cleverly balances the books between their family issues and the larger political issues and shows how the Africans were unprepared for the two invasions that hit them. The book is, of course, told entirely from the African perspective which, for us Westerners, is fascinating, particularly for those of us who have grown up with the standard imperialist view. The first white man to see Segu or, at least, to record the fact was Mungo Park and we get a quick glimpse of him in this novel. For an entirely different perspective, however, read T Coraghessan Boyle‘s Water Music, which is a fictionalised account of Mungo Park’s last journey.

Condé is not afraid to face the issues, such as slavery, the role of women and religion, all of which get a full work out in this novel. We also learn a whole lot about the culture of Segu, from their currency (cowrie shells but replaced by Western money) to their eating habits. Even if historical novels are not normally your thing you will enjoy this one.

Publishing history

First published by Laffont 1984 (Ségou: Les murailles de terre (Segu)), 1985 ( Ségou: La terre en miettes (The Children of Segu))
First published in English 1989, 1990 by Viking
Translated by Barbara Bray (Segu); Linda Coverdale (The Children of Segu)