Maryse Condé’s novel Segu is set in the kingdom of Segu (1797) on the Niger river in what is mainly present-day Mali, but was once the empire of the Bambaras. Condé dedicates the book to her Bambara ancestress. The book is the story of the Traore family, Bambara royalty. We follow the lives of the patriarch, Dousika and his four sons from four different wives.
The Segu of the Traores is a land of griots (storyteller singers) and villagers living in a compound sprawling with groups of conjoined huts separated by courtyards full of wooden stools, watched over by the “dubale tree: the witness and guardian of the life of the Traores. The tree’s foliage forms “a dome of greenery supported by some fifty columns, roots grown down from the main trunk”(Segu 4).
“Beneath its powerful roots the placentas of many of their ancestors had been buried after a safe delivery. In its shade the women and children sat to tell stories, the men to make family decisions. In the dry season it gave protection from the sun. In the rainy season it provided firewood. At night the spirits of the ancestors hid in its branches and watched over the sleep of the living. When they were displeased they showed it by making faint sounds, at once mysterious and as clear as a code. Then those experienced enough to decipher them shook their heads and said: “Beware—tonight our fathers have spoken!”(Segu 4).
Also in this community are “fetish priests” or diviners, who use kola nuts and cowrie shells to “interpret the signs of the visible and the invisible”(Segu 13). The diviners sacrifice chickens onto the shrines as offerings to their deities and listen for which ancestor has been reincarnated when a baby is born.
This reality is about to intersect with the arrival of Islam, the slave trade, Christianity and white colonialism.
We follow each son as they interact in their own individual stories with this changing reality. And as we do, we learn the history of this time period in West Africa.
It is a vast and sprawling tale of war, kingdoms losing their power and land, and the people caught up in this crazy quilt intermixing of beliefs, languages and conquerers sweeping the land. The complexity captured in this novel is mind-blowing. And the writing rises to match it.
Women do not have power in this story, often throwing themselves into wells out of desperation. Their fates are owned by their fathers, the men who marry them or sleep with them. The children conceived and birthed in these alliances are many and far-flung geographically yet intersect in their biographies throughout the book. The story continues in the sequel, The Children of Segu, picking up where Segu leaves off.
As the youngest son, Malobali, flees the turmoil of the continent he has this reflection:
“The whites had come, cadged a little land to build their forts, and then because of them nothing was ever the same again. They had brought with them things never heard of here, and people had fought over them, nation against nation, brother against brother. And now the whites’ ambition knew no bounds. Where would it end!” (Segu 247).
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is Condé’s fictionalized re-telling of the story of the woman from Barbados caught up in the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The story is narrated by Tituba after her death and therefore has the objective distance of time intertwined in it.
In the forward to this stark and graphic novel, Angela Davis writes:
“Tituba looked for her story in the history of Salem witch trials and could not find it. I have looked for my history in the story of colonization of this continent and I have found silences, omissions, distortions and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. Tituba’s quest for recorded evidence of her existence as a living, feeling, loving, active individual, who was as much a part of the Salem witch trials as her codefendants of European descent, leads her to a belittling, cursory allusion: “Tituba, a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing ‘hoodoo.’” She counters this footnote that condemns her to insignificance with a strong, self-affirming “I, Tituba . . .Witch.” Maryse Condé lends her the words that assist her to tell you and me her story, speaking her life in her own voice—from the womb to the realm of the dead”(I,T. xi).
Here are the first few lines of the book:
“Abena, my mother, was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16** while the ship was sailing for Barbados. I was born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt”(I,T. 3).
Fasten your seatbelts, it doesn’t become any less intense.
Tituba’s mother is sold into slavery but finds love with a man who willingly takes her on as his own daughter. When the plantation owner tries to rape her, Abena stabs him and is punished with a public hanging after which her husband, Tituba’s stepfather, commits suicide. Tituba, left alone, is taken in by Mama Yaya, a Nago woman sold into slavery who has brought her medicine with her from the West Coast of Africa. She cares for and heals Tituba. After Tituba receives a visitation from her dead parents, Mama Yaya initiates her into her medicine.
“From that moment on Mama Yaya initiated me into the upper spheres of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honor their memory, if we place their favorite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them. They are all around us, eager for attention, eager for affection. A few words are enough to conjure them back and to have their invisible bodies pressed against ours in their eagerness to make themselves useful. But beware of irritating them, for they never forgive and they pursue with implacable hatred those who have offended them, even in error. Mama Yaya taught me the prayers, the rites, the propitiatory gestures. She taught me how to change myself into a bird on a branch, into an insect in the dry grass or a frog croaking in the mud of the River Ormond whenever I was tired of the shape I had been given at birth. And then she taught me the sacrifices. Blood and milk, the essential liquids. Alas! Shortly after my fourteenth birthday her body followed the law of nature. I did not cry when I buried her. I knew I was not alone and that three spirits were now watching over me”(I,T. 10).
Indeed Mama Yaya and her parents continue to guide Tituba and teach her from the other side.
How Tituba ends up in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 (which Condé lets us know is really Danvers, Massachusetts. The trials were in Salem but the accusations and occurrences took place in what is now Danvers) being one of the women accused and tried for the crime of witchcraft is the trajectory the novel follows. But that is only half of the novel. Tituba’s life continues after this episode. Eventually she returns to her beloved Barbados.
Be warned: this is not a happy tale. Tituba is powerful and strong and her voice is fierce but the array of choices available to her given her circumstance in life are not good ones. Due to her race, color and the conditions of the world she finds herself living in, she can only choose from an assortment of bad to worse. This story is tragic from beginning to end. As readers, we cringe at some of the choices she makes and others she is forced to make. Her spirit is smart, wild, kind, rebellious and infectious. But she is angry (rightly so) and we get to feel and hear that and though it may challenge us as readers we want to stay with it because we are invested in her story and her life.
One compelling item to note about the way Condé has Tituba tell the story is that Tituba is, in fact, and unarguably, a witch. She has magical powers and access to other realms and while some characters in the book shy away from it, others move towards it. It is a relief to read a book about witch trials that does not try to convince the reader that the woman was not really a witch, rather that she was a fine, righteous and powerful witch. It is those who are calling it a crime and fearing it who are mistaken.
The cold, harsh life in the Massachusetts colony, the absolute destitution and repression of the villagers under the tyranny of the Calvinist belief system is the villain in this tale. Condé, through Tituba’s memoir, shows very clearly and astutely how this horror lies in these villagers’ souls, not the woman who has been trained to work with roots and herbs and conjure the dead.
“He was joking but it made me think. What is a witch? I noticed that when he said the word, it was marked with disapproval. Why should that be? Why? Isn’t the ability to communicate with the invisible world, to keep constant links with the dead, to care for others and heal, a superior gift of nature that inspires respect, admiration, and gratitude? Consequently, shouldn’t the witch (if that’s what the person who has this gift is to be called) be cherished and revered rather than feared?”(I, T. 17).
The portrayal of the whites in Barbados and the colony of Massachusetts is noxious and appalling. It makes the reader wonder how whites became so depraved and devoid. Tituba becomes a slave for an extremely poor minister who cannot even feed his family. His daughters are so neglected and desperate for any kind of affection and attention that engaging in the racism and fear the adults promote is a way for them to get any attention at all. People who treat other people in such a way are sick inside, and desperate but that is no solace to Tituba who must endure such treatment her entire life.
In an interesting plot twist, while in prison Tituba meets Hester Prynne, a character from Nathanial Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. The character in Hawthorne’s novel was based on an actual woman from the history of that time period who had an affair while married and was subsequently punished harshly as an adulteress. In I,Tituba, Hester has a feminist sensibility that is modern and a sense of humor that is wry. It made me hope the actual Hester was this fierce, free, open and emancipated. Hester gives Tituba tips for her testimony that help her eventually be released from prison.
“When we were not rehearsing my testimony, Hester and I talked about ourselves. Oh how I loved to hear her talk! “I’d like to write a book, but alas, women don’t write books! Only men bore us with their prose. I make an exception for certain poets. Have you read Milton, Tituba? Oh, I forgot you don’t know how to read. Paradise Lost, Tituba, a marvel of its kind . . . Yes, I’d like to write a book where I’d describe a model society governed and run by women!”(I,T. 101).
Maryse Condé was born on the Island of Guadeloupe in 1937, studied in Paris, earning a Ph.D in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She taught in Africa, France and the U.S., including Berkeley and Columbia Universities. Other novels include Heremakhonon, Crossing the Mangrove, Tales from the Heart, Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat? and The Story of the Cannibal Woman. She has also written plays, essays, and children’s books. In 2018 she was awarded The New Academy Prize in Literature, a newly created alternate award to the Nobel Prize in Literature, which, because of a sex-abuse scandal, was not conferred that year. She writes in French, her native language.
In her memoir What Is Africa to Me? Condé recounts her years in Paris and West Africa (Guinea, Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast) as a young woman trying to find her way in the turbulent times of 1950-1968. In this time period she births four children, experiences homelessness, struggles to feed her children and herself, as she works as a teacher of French. She embeds herself into the turmoil of the changing identities of these West African nations as they try to free themselves from the chains of colonialism.
It is here that Condé experiences the complexity of West Africa with its myriad combination of peoples and beliefs that she writes about later in Segu and The Children of Segu. The portrait of the brave woman that emerges from the pages of this memoir is astonishing. Her desire to understand these complexities—cultural, political and historical—while at the same time becoming cognizant of her own subjectivity and point of view as an outsider in Africa is instructive. The multiple love affairs that thread through this journeying expose layers of humanity not often seen or heard about in other texts and writings. Here she begins to find her voice as a writer and shape her own future destiny. Her interactions with and exposure to differing iterations of Black, African, Caribbean and French revolutionary thinking of the time educate the reader as well.
“Deep down, way down, in the minds of the long-colonized West Indians and African Americans, whatever they may say, wasn’t there still a good dose of arrogance with regard to Africa? An arrogance they never managed to get rid of? A feeling of superiority? I used to have my doubts. Shouldn’t I now admit it? Our education is partly to blame. Hasn’t it clouded our vision and made problematic and ‘objective’ comprehension?”(WIATM 155).
Condé’s self-reflective honesty helps the reader look at their own biases and, once again, as in all her books, forces them to search deeper into their own psyche for the misrepresentations and ill-informed notions hiding there. Maryse Condé’s writing is irreplaceable and outstanding in this regard. Her writing is a way in for those who wish to open themselves to the complex truth of humans who have been treated with disregard, racist stereotypes and colonized lies.
Maryse Condé is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Condé, Maryse, The Children of Segu, Penguin, 1989.
Condé, Maryse, I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Condé, Maryse, Segu, Penguin, 1987.
Condé, Maryse, What is Africa to Me? Seagull Books, 2017.