The dark child Essay Example

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L’Enfant Noir (The Dark Child) by Camara Laye was written in the year 1953. The story initially tells of Laye’s childhood in the village of Kouroussa, located in Upper Guinea where he lived with his parents.

The story is told by a grown-up narrator-protagonist who recalls his years as a young boy. The autobiographical characteristic of the novel leads the reader to assume that this young boy (Fatoman), who is the main character of the book, is Camara Laye himself. The other main characters are Laye’s father and mother (both unnamed), Marie (Laye’s love), his uncles Mamadou and Sekou, and his aunts Awa and N’Gady.

The major theme of the book revolves around Laye’s unfolding of his various feelings about his kinfolk and friends and of their behavior is affectionate and skilful at the same time, and the delicate passion with which he describes his love for Marie crystallizes an exclusive phase in the emotional development of the human male. Laye portrays his father and mother in very noble terms; his final interview with them before his departure abroad is wonderful in its imaginative understanding of their feelings as well as in its natural rendering of his own.

Both the supernatural realm and traditional Muslim religion are depicted as minor characters orchestrating Laye’s evolution from young boy to adult male, and provide a rich backstory to the narrative. West African women (epitomized by Laye’s mother) play similar roles in their relationships with their sons and husbands. Although theirs is a patriarchal society in which, in theory, the father presides, in reality Laye’s mother had the stronger authority. Laye says of her influence: “I realize that my mother’s authoritarian attitudes may appear surprising; generally the role of the African woman is thought to be a ridiculously humble one, and indeed there are parts of the continent where it is insignificant; but Africa is vast, with a diversity equal to its vastness.” (Laye 69).

Laye uses simple language, leaving much to the imagination of the reader. He renders the story from the first person point of view, and we receive only a picture of his experience growing up in Guinea, without an exploration into his immediate and extended family’s perspective on life in Kouroussa. However, the first person point of view invokes a comfortable intimacy to follow Laye as he guides us almost two decades of his life within and outside the Malinke.

A beautifully textured, fluid and lucid autobiography, “The Dark Child” is a distinct and graceful memoir of Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Kouroussa. In the book he portrays nostalgically his happy childhood, his parents, his initiation of Malinke culture, end of his youth, and his education. He captures the layered tradition and culture of his Malinke community, deemed, perhaps by most, to be simplistic or primitive compared to today’s modern standards.

Laye is very proud of his father and mother, depicting both as outstanding characters. Both are endowed with spiritualistic powers. Snakes play an important part in the ancient ritualistic society of the Malinke. His father, a reputed blacksmith in his community, tells him: “The snake is the guiding spirit of our race. Can you understand that?” (Laye 24). Laye’s mother has supernatural powers such as persuading animals and being able to approach crocodiles without being harmed. “It was due also to the strange powers she possessed.” (Laye 69).

He depicts village life in Kouroussa with nostalgia. “In December, everything is in flower. Everything is young. Spring and summer seem inseparable and everywhere, the country, which, until now has been drenched with rain and dulled by heavy clouds, lies radiant. The sky has never been clearer nor brighter. Birds sing ecstatically. Joy is everywhere, erupts everywhere, and every heart is moved by it. This season, this beautiful season, stirred me deeply. And so did the tom-tom and the festival air that our march acquired. It was a beautiful season, and everything in it – what wasn’t there in it? What didn’t pour forth in profusion – delighted me.” (Laye 57).

Strongly influenced and confused by French education, Laye himself is in a dilemma about the supernatural and his own identity. He is of two minds – whether to follow his father’s footsteps or continue to attend school. “I was no longer sure whether I ought to continue to attend school or whether I ought to remain in the workshop: I felt utterly confused.” (Laye 27). It reveals inklings of an inner struggle with his own identity formation. He questions rhetorically his father’s identity, then his own. “Was it not my father who had a authority over all the blacksmiths in our district? Was he not the most skilled? Was he not, after all, my father?” (Laye 24).

Education first takes him away from Kouroussa to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. By this time, the now adolescent Laye had been already initiated in his community through circumcision. One of the most poignant descriptions in the book occurs with Laye’s unabashed tale of this tribal initiation into manhood. He describes it in painstaking detail, as though wanting his readers to understand the beauty and compassion behind his tribe’s secrets. The circumcision rituals, public and private ceremonies followed by physical healing process takes over one month. He had never been separated from his mother so long, and when he sees her he keeps repeating “Mother! Mother!” (Laye 130).

Upon his return, Laye is moved to his own hut. This pivotal scene closes with Laye turning to his mother to thank her, only to find her standing quietly behind him “smiling at (him) sadly” (Laye 135).

Shortly after moving to his hut, Laye leaves at 15 years of age to attend “Ecole Georges Poiret” (now called ‘technical college’) in Conakry. Like any mother, Laye’s warns him to “be careful with strangers” and sends him off on a train to live with his Uncles Sekou and Mamadou in Conakry sadly. (Laye 144). Laye’s two aunts (Awa and N’Gady) at Conakry, both wives of his uncle Mamadou, welcome him, and they take the place of his mother, giving him love and care. “Yes, my aunts really put themselves out to take my mother’s place. They did so all the time I was with them.”

Laye’s confusion increases with his new experiences in Conakry. He is racially black but culturally undecided. He shifts from a fixed, knowable identity to something much less integrated, even fractured. “I was in Conakry and yet I wasn’t….I was really at Kouroussa. But, no – I was in both places. I was ambivalent.” (Laye 148). In spite of his confusion, there seems to be no ways to go back.

Laye meets Marie. He describes her as “a half-caste, with light skin that is almost white, and long hair that falls down to her waist. She is “as beautiful as a fairy”.(Laye 158). Marie is a student at a high school for girls, and her father is a good friend of Laye’s uncle Mamadou. Marie is also an extension of Laye’s mother because she is important in his life. Marie and Laye fall in love. They listen to records, dance, go on bicycle rides, study together, and particularly enjoy looking at the sea. “He (Mamadou) used to leave his phonograph and records for us, and Marie and I would dance. Of course we danced very circumspectly. In Guinea it is not customary for couples to dance in each other’s arms. We danced facing each other, but without touching. At the most we held hands, though this was not usual. Need I say that in our shyness we desired nothing better? Would we have danced together otherwise? I hardly know. I think not, although like all Africans, dancing was in our blood.” (Laye 161). Laye’s two aunts encourage the relationship between Laye and Marie. “They loved us both and they would have liked us to become engaged despite our youth.” (Laye 159).

With his burgeoning academic success and grade-level promotion, Laye consequently spends more time in Conakry with his studies and as a result, recedes physically from the native environment. His identity issue becomes more pronounced and we sense he’ll never belong fully to the indigenous realm of his parents. Several years after leaving for Conakry, Laye returns home with his “proficiency certificate” and a “troublesome offer” from the director of his school to continue his studies through a scholarship in France. His mother is against it. “To France?…So you are going to leave us again…You’re not going!” (Laye 180). However, his uncles and father support and encourage Laye to take the foreign study opportunity. Laye accepts the offer despite his mother’s resistance. His decision, in some ways, is a political decision as well. By accepting the offer, he sends a message of support for French values despite objection by his mother. He parts with her and his father during a heart-breaking scene with Laye’s mother shouting insults and pushing him away, then falling into a heap of tears, grasping her son and turning her anger instead to the European influences she believes are taking her son away to France.

Laye’s father gives him a map of city transportation of the Paris Metro in France – the best support he can offer from thousands of miles away. The fear, excitement, anxiety and sadness culminate in the last vignette of the novel, with Laye crying as he goes to the plane, lightly placing his hand over the map in his shirt pocket. (Laye 188). Camara Laye’s departure to Paris at the end of his novel is the metaphor of the social and cultural oblivion of his African roots.

As a American coming from a different cultural background, I find Laye’s book has not portrayed the social injustice of colonization. The book starkly contrasts with the situation of so many children in the African continent today. Recent events demonstrate that the present day African environment denies the African child any true joy of living. The African child continues to suffer the effects of war, poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, under-nutrition, starvation, exploitation, oppression, neglect, and diseases (especially AIDS). I put forward two examples in this connection. The first is a recent ILO report estimated 60 percent of sex workers in Italy come from Nigeria; Africa has become a “supplier of fresh flesh” for countries in the European Union via pedophile and prostitution rings. The second example is the finding that out of 100,000 child soldiers around the world, 120,000 are African children who have been forcibly recruited.

I feel that the world in general, and the U.S in particular, has shunned responsibility towards African children for too long. Genuine interest in their plight is called for.

References used :

  1. Autobiography of an African Boy by Camara Laye (1953)

Retrieved 11/08/2005 from U.R.L

  1. Camara Laye’s The Dark Child

Retrieved 11/08/2005 from U.R.L

  1. Native Identity through the Eyes of Camara Laye

Retrieved 11/08/2005 from U.R.L

  1. The Dark Child.

Retrieved 11/08/2005 from U.R.L