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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

African Library: Caught in the storm

Annie Gagiano - 2011-07-01

Caught in the Storm
Author: Seydou Badian

Seydou Badian wrote the text under discussion in this issue of The African Library in 1954 – when his country, Mali, was still known as French Sudan – and composed it in French, the language of his colonial education. It was first titled Kany (after the young woman who is one of its leading characters) and later on, Sous L’orage. The edition used for the discussion here is the English translation by Marie-Thérèse Noiset, published by Lynne Rienner’s Three Continents Press in 1998.

Badian’s own history – especially beyond the writing of this first novel – is extremely interesting. He was born in 1928 in Bamako (still Mali’s capital); had his primary schooling there; then went to France for his high school years, subsequently qualifying as a medical doctor at the University of Montpellier in 1955. (This means that he must have written Caught in the Storm while in France.) He returned to French Sudan and in 1957 was appointed minister of rural economy and planning in its government. When Mali was given independence in 1960, he retained this ministerial post; in fact he wrote the words for the national anthem. The first president of the Republic of Mali adopted socialist policies and ran a one-party state; Badian was at the head of the radical Marxist faction in this government. In 1962 he was made minister of development, resigning in 1966 to resume his practice as a medical doctor. The government had in the meantime run into trouble and the economy was plummeting. In 1968 Keita (the head of state since independence) was toppled in a bloodless coup. Even though he had left the government a while before, Badian was arrested and jailed for seven years, until 1975, after which he was deported to (or went into exile in) neighbouring Senegal.

Besides Sous L’orage/Caught in the Storm, Badian wrote four other novels, published in 1965, 1976, 1977 and 2007 (these works are all in French). He also wrote plays, the best known of which evokes South African history in the figure of King Shaka; it was titled Le Mort de Chaka (The Death of Shaka) (1961), while an early political essay, “Les dirigeants africains face à leur people” (1964), won the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire.

Despite this fairly prolific literary output, Badian’s first novel remains his best known. Even in translation the clean lines of its narrative, the purity and lucidity of its style and the complex, nuanced compassion of the narrative perspective remain perceptible. What the text explores is the age-old “generation gap” in its African dimensions (wearisomely identified as the tradition/modernity binary), but it does this so even-handedly and with so much humane understanding of the various cultural, political and even ideological differences (as embodied in the deftly sketched characters) that the eventually successful, painful search for a position accommodating the seemingly irreconcilable attitudes and life choices of a range of personalities engages the reader’s interest and concern from the very start. What also aids the sense of a both convincing and aesthetically shapely story is the fact that the city and village settings are connected along familial lines, and that the characters are presented in roughly concentric circles, with Old Benfa, the patriarch and Kany, his eldest daughter by his first wife, at the very centre of the dramatic tension.

The novel opens on a very early morning scene: Old Benfa (as he is always referred to, even though he has an elder brother who has remained in the village where they grew up) is delightedly contemplating the social splash he intends creating when the marriage between his beautiful, educated eldest daughter Kany and a wealthy local businessman takes place – finally agreed to the previous night, after a lengthy wooing process that never addressed the young woman herself, only Old Benfa and his confidantes. The fact that the young woman has a boyfriend with whom she attends high school and that she would be the third wife of a middle-aged man, and particularly the point that she is completely unaware of what has been decided on her behalf, do not matter at all to Benfa. He and his extended family may live in the capital, but city life in all significant ways (to a man like Benfa) mirrors the village ways. A daughter has no say in whatever strategic alliances or advances in prosperity her marriage may mean to her father and paternal family, who assume complete control in choosing her marriage partner. And Old Benfa has now given his word to Famagan, the merchant to whom he has betrothed his daughter, and he is convinced that this is a morally and traditionally apt choice. The narrator assures us:

Old Benfa was very fond of Kany. He told all the old people of the neighbourhood about her knowledge. He told them how well she could handle the white man’s writing and how easy it was for her to read letters, wherever they came from. Time and again, he had her come to the mosque, and there, among his friends, he made her read and translate everything he could lay his hands on. Then, he would say in a mysterious tone: “She can read what has been written by the machine.”

But Old Benfa did not like to see his daughter in the company of boys who went to school. He became very angry when Samou, the son of Coumba, dared to ask for his daughter’s hand. “Don’t let me see you two together anymore,” he ordered Kany; you will have the husband that decide to give you.” (6)

For all their “modernity”, the two youngsters, determined to fulfil their own vow to each other, consult the local soothsayer, who after a short ceremony requiring a drop of blood from each of them, declares authoritatively, “With you the powers of fire and blood, against you the power of death” (8). Reassured, they continue their meetings.

We learn that the issue of Kany’s future has divided the family: Old Benfa’s eldest son Sibiri, who, like his father, upholds the ancient cultural norms and practices, supports the betrothal to Famagan, whereas the three younger brothers (who are friends with Samou and go to school like him and Kany) passionately defend the validity of Kany and Samou’s relationship.

Mama Téné, Kany’s mother and Old Benfa’s eldest wife, is full of anxiety about the two irreconcilable marital scenarios. However, although she would have liked to discuss the matter with her husband, “she did not dare to”, for she “knew Old Benfa would believe she was acting in collusion with her daughter Kany and that he would put the blame on her” (21). Mama Téné therefore also resorts to “outside” spiritual aid; she goes to see “the sorcerer” (as he is known) Tiekoura. He notices her worry, but immediately promises her “peace of mind.” She puts the dilemma before him in a very balanced way:

For years now Famagan, a virtuous and worthy man, has been asking for the hand of my daughter. Famagan is everyone’s friend, I know; however, this marriage promises to be troublesome. My daughter goes to school. She judges things for herself, and, as you know, one can expect all kinds of things from children nowadays, I am afraid. That is why I am here. (24)

A mysterious ceremony ensues, after which Tiekoura speaks reassuringly to her, so that Mama Téné goes away “pleased, her mind at rest about the fate of Kany and the harmony of the family” (25). But she breathes no word to anyone about this visit or its outcome.

Soon hereafter, Benfa summons Sibiri and instructs him to inform the three younger brothers of the impending marriage between Kany and Famagan. Birama (Benfa’s second son, who goes to school and is friends with Samou) quarrels fiercely with Sibiri, expressing his outrage at the idea of a husband being chosen for and forced upon their sister, whereas Sibiri for his part considers the idea that a woman should be allowed to choose her own husband ridiculous as well as disrespectful towards her father and their family’s patriarchal traditions.

Interestingly, this scene is juxtaposed with another gathering, that of the school-going crowd, in the course of which it is revealed that Sadou – unlike his fiery friend Sidi, whose creed is “Let’s throw out all these customs” (31) – is known for his defence of the old ways of their people, even if in so many ways he opts for the adoption of new practices and lifestyles. When Sadou and Kany discuss the conflict between old and new ways, Sadou expresses agreement concerning the inappropriateness of the “traditional” denigration of women, yet adds that “the emancipated ones are not blameless either” (33), believing that the flamboyance, professional competitiveness and love of luxury on the part of the younger men ironically also often leads to the neglect of their wives, and of their children. The two happily walk hand in hand, admiring the European-owned houses in another part of the city (where Old Benfa, Sibiri or their allies are unlikely to see them), but the cry of a bird of ill omen disturbs their dreams and close communion, and they turn back home.

As Kany walks into her hut, her mother – who has been anxiously awaiting her – breaks the news to her daughter that her marriage to Famagan has been arranged. Kany, in tears and in shock, tells her mother that she “cannot be Fanagan’s wife” and “would rather die” (39). In attempting to salvage the situation, Mama Téné for the first time acknowledges how unhappy she herself has been in the polygamous marital set-up, stressing that Kany’s non-compliance with a similar arrangement will be blamed on her, the mother, and further worsen her present unhappy situation. This gives Kany the opening to beg her mother to allow her to continue her studies so as to spare her a like humiliation, but Mama Téné says and knows that this is not for her to decide. When Kany continues to assert her refusal of the match, Old Benfa (who has evidently been eavesdropping on their conversation) bursts into the room, reviling Kany as a “daughter of the devil” and her mother as a “hypocrite” and in fact the instigator of their daughter’s disobedience. Both Kany and her second brother, Birama (who opposes the planned marriage), will on the morrow be packed off to his older brother Djigui in the ancestral village, Benfa declares, evidently intending their cultural re-education in that centre of tradition.

All Mama Téné can do at this point is to tell Kany to trust in God and to allow her quietly to slip out to go and speak to Samou. Kany, in tears, tells Samou the devastating news and he can only weep, and “more than her father’s words, more than anything in the world, Samou’s tears pained her terribly” (41). Kany continues to reassure him that nothing can keep them apart, insisting that she will never marry the older man, no matter the pressure on her.

In clear contrast with the unhappy family scene in the Benfa compound we next see Samou (an only child) with his widowed mother, Mama Coumba. Terribly troubled after the sleepless night that followed Kany’s devastating news, the young man confides in his mother. She reassures him that “God is good. If He decides that Kany is to be your wife, nobody will be able to stop it” (46). Although she tests Samou’s commitment by offering to further an alternative match between him and his cousin, who would be an “obedient” wife, also questioning whether Kany knows the required courtesies and deep-seated values of their people, Mama Coumba is readily persuaded concerning Kany’s good qualities and of her son’s devotion to this young woman. “Samou had real respect for his mother,” we are told. “Ever since his father’s death, he had never wanted for anything” (47), so his recognition that he and Kany have his mother’s support means much to him. Mama Coumba knows that, had her husband lived, he (like Old Benfa with Kany) would have forced his child to marry the person he (the father) had chosen. But now that it is only the two of them, she gives him and Kany her wholehearted blessing.

Much of the second half of this brief, dense novel is set in the village of Old Djigui (Benfa’s older brother) to which Kany and Birama have been dispatched. Their train trip is vividly evoked as a sample or cameo of the Malian social spectrum at this time. In the carriage with them are two clerks in their thirties (full of complaints about their white bosses); a couple of dignified travelling merchants in boubous (the voluminous local dress), an old countrywoman with her baskets of goods, as well as a fashionably bejewelled younger woman, evidently from the city. The old woman complains teasingly because the clerks – to whom she refers as potential “husbands” – are conversing in French, which she cannot understand.

Her words and her attitude turn the chance collection of people in the carriage into a small, if temporary, social group. Soon they are all sharing the food they brought with them. The merchants, who have been to Ghana (at this time still called Gold Coast) and Nigeria, raise the topic of Africans’ social, political and economic advancement in these nearby countries, while they as natives lag behind in their own country. The male passengers discuss the advantages and disadvantages of their respective jobs, but all agree on how difficult the whites make things for them. The more vociferous of the two clerks in the carriage articulates the first clearly anti-colonial sentiments heard in the text; his colleague is more cynical, and the old countrywoman had earlier indicated a similar scoffing view of the French colonists’ ever granting them equality.

At the stop where they alight, Birama and Kany notice the liveliness of the evening market on the river bank. Their uncle’s village is on the other side and they have to cross there by barge. The two city youngsters suddenly feel severed from all things urban and familiar, “surrounded by people with whom they had nothing in common: boatmen with bare chests, village people dressed in coarse cotton clothing [whose] faces meant nothing” to them (57-8). They walk along silently until they come to the village, where the locals assume that the two strangers, clearly from the city, must be a government clerk and his wife. When they ask directions to Djigui’s house, they are told that he does not live there; only when it is revealed that they are his nephew and niece does their elderly grandmother welcome them and lead them to their uncle’s place.

Old Djigui, who has in the meantime been warned that “a government employee and his wife” are looking for him, remains imperturbable. The first impression we are given of the old hunter is vividly indicative of his character and social stature:

Old Djigui could do anything that a hunter can do, but it was against the beasts that he used his power. Among men, he remained a man. That is why he was not calling to his aid any of the supernatural powers which, since his great grandfather’s time, his family had possessed. (61)

This also shows us that government bureaucracy is regarded as a foreign imposition in this remote village, which has its own, different structures of authority.

When his brother’s children are finally identified to him as family and not officials, Old Djigui smilingly holds out his hand. The first thing he says to them is, “If you come to visit us, you will have to wear clothes like ours” (62). They are then taken around by him and introduced to all the other relatives and to his village friends, hearing the old complaints about children abandoning family and village for the city and the about the presence nowadays of strangers who govern them without understanding their ways.

Kany’s first night is an introduction to the strangeness, even eeriness, of village night life, when secret societies’ members take over the pathways, and insect sounds and animal calls, rather than urban noises, are audible in the quiet. The next morning she is terrified at the sight of a huge lizard, but the villagers are horrified that Birama thought he had to kill the creature to save his sister – “the lizard is part of our family,” they tell him (68). And so Old Djigui begins to educate Birama in the wisdoms of the village, its world view and humane morality, which insists (for instance) that food always be shared, even with chance visitors. We also learn about his friendship with Tiéman the Healer and the many amicable arguments between the two of them about right conduct and the advantages versus the disadvantages of modern technology. Tiéman, we learn, is a man who fought in World War II and saw many other countries, and who ended his studies just before he would have qualified as a teacher in order to return to the village and practise as a healer.

Old Djigui is the head of the Hunters’ Guild in the village, and on their second night there the siblings observe him participating in the ceremony that announces a major gathering of this group. Knowing that this is his family’s ancient association, and overcoming his timidity and anxiety that his uncle will rebuff him, Birama asks to be initiated into this Guild – as his elder brother Sibiri was, before him – because he has become so fascinated by their activities. At first, Djigui indignantly turns down his nephew’s request because (unlike Sibiri) Birama has “associated with the white people” and “[has] their manners”. Yet Djigui reminds himself that since he is the “master”, no one would dare to object and, in any case, he would tell them that the young man, despite “[having] been with the white men for seven years […] has come back to us”. Then he also thinks: “And I will add: ‘Soaking in water never turned a tree trunk into a crocodile’” (74). So it is settled. Awed and a little bit frightened, that very night Birama is taken along to the meeting by his uncle.

Kany, in the meantime, has discovered in Tiéman a very interesting village presence – she has also confided in him her objections to the marriage her father has planned for her, her desire to continue her studies and her determination to marry Samou. Recognising Tiéman’s unusual ability to reconcile, or at least amicably juxtapose, “modern” ideas and ancient ways, she sees him as “a wise man” and is greatly reassured by his promise to try to help her fulfil her own ideals, which he sees as justified. She dreams of and misses her boyfriend, but knows that communication with city dwellers, even by letter, is erratic and the post too unreliable to risk sending him news of this development.

The scene next shifts back to the city, where we see Samou moping disconsolately, fearing that his beloved Kany is forever lost to him. What brings him out of his shell is the epidemic of cerebrospinal meningitis that suddenly descends on the city, killing numerous children and devastating and terrifying the local families. Once this passes, he is brought back into social circulation by the ferment of political excitement brought on by the rumours of imminent independence for their country. “We will no longer be ruled!” is suddenly cried in the streets; the demands now are for “justice” and “equal pay for equal work” in this “new era” (81).

The students have passionate discussions among themselves with a sympathetic white former headmaster of theirs, but Samou relapses into sadness about Kany. Sidi, his best friend, reassures him, however, seeing in the new dispensation a scenario where educated young men like Samou will have a great role to play and insisting that even Old Benfa will now have to see Samou in a new light.

Maintaining the attractive pattern of interspersed scenes between the two settings, the narrator then takes us back to the village to witness the tom-tom ceremony through Kany’s and Birama’s eyes. It is Tiéman who invites them to attend the numinous twilight scene, where the hyena’s terrifying cries are interspersed with the laughter of women who have decorated their bare upper bodies for the event. An old man arrives next, producing a “roaring” sound from his gourd-like musical instrument, paying tribute to the lion: “The king has his scepter but you have mane, and your gait is as beautiful as the royal dance,” he sings. Wonderful, magical things happen during this thrilling event, so impressive yet strange that Tiéman can’t help boasting to the two young people: “You don’t have that in the city!” (86). He uses the opportunity to educate them, telling them not to “run away from [their] environment” and to make informed choices among customs and modern ways. He adds:

If you really love your people, if your claims of love are not born out of self interest, you will have the courage to fight all their weaknesses, you will have the courage to praise all their strengths. (87)

Further confirmation of Tiéman’s gentle wisdom and balanced value system is given in the next chapter, which contains a letter that Tiéman wrote to Samou, evidently on Kany’s behalf. He reassures Samou that he has asked Old Djigui (and the context here is the absolute priority given to the eldest male’s judgements in traditional families) to tell Kany’s father, his brother Benfa, to allow the young woman to complete her studies, and this, he assures Samou, makes his and Kany’s future marriage a certainty. But, he adds, “[R]emember this: your parents are in no way trying to do you harm.” He impresses on the young man to remember always that “Compromise is possible” (90) between the new ways and the old, and is necessary to ensure their survival as a people.

On the day of Kany and Birama’s departure by boat from the village to return to their home in the city, Tiéman gives Kany a surprise: a letter in which Samou tells Kany that her uncle Djigui has written to Old Benfa, telling him that he wishes his niece Kany to be allowed to complete her education. Upon hearing this, Famagan apparently declared that he could not wait that long for a third wife and now, it seems, their future together is assured. Knowing as she does that it was Tiéman that “engineered” the situation, Kany embraces the Healer in delight and takes a fond farewell of him, the village and her relatives.

Even though all now seems well for the young couple (who start going about together openly), one evening Kany sees Old Benfa, Sibiri, Famagan and several other older men emerging from her family’s compound talking and laughing. This (to her) disquieting sight means that her and Samou’s battle to be together is not yet won and, indeed, far from over. The basis of the new situation – or the resumption of the old – is that Benfa, on receiving his brother’s letter, had told Famagan not to worry, since he (Benfa) would “square” his brother with a letter in reply. Old Benfa’s stubbornness rests on his sense of honour, since he has earlier given Famagan his word that the latter could marry Kany. His family has also accepted many rich wooing gifts from Famagan. Disobeying his older brother’s wishes is not possible, hence Benfa’s seeming compliance and apparent acceptance of Samou. But Kany has guessed rightly, and her brother Birama is almost as depressed as she is at the revelation.

When their friend Sidi visits, he sympathises with Birama (and the other two), but relays to him the explanation another friend of theirs had given him to help him understand Old Benfa’s intransigence. “The elders see you young people as termites attacking the sacred tree,” this friend had said. If the young people had been prepared to compromise a little, or had at least been a little more tactful and less disrespectful and even hostile towards older people and old ways of doing things, the situation would never have evolved into the battle of wills and of prestige that it has, he says. “Old Benfa believes he is right [and that] he is defending from your attacks what his forefathers left him” (99).

A few days later Kerfa, the friend whose sensible words are quoted above, visits the newly despondent Samou and their other friends. He brings news that is at first reviled and then appreciated. He and Kany’s mother had over the previous few days gone around the settlement getting support for the idea of Samou and Kany’s marriage. Their strategy was: if public opinion among the old validates the match, Benfa will no longer see the youngsters’ union as a humiliating “generational” triumph of the young over the old. An eloquent speaker, Kerfa again takes the line that it is wrong for the young to see the old as their enemies and to treat them disrespectfully as foolish, outdated presences. Their humane family values should be honoured and differences of opinion negotiated to reach mutually accommodating results.

Not long after, a delegation of elders visits Benfa’s home. Their argument is similar, though inverted: “[R]ather than make these youngsters our enemies, let us help them,” they tell him; after all, there is continuity and an inextricable connection between the different generations of the same people precisely to ensure the survival of their culture. They cite a proverb that illustrates this: “From the root to the leaves, the sap rises and never stops” (113). Old Benfa sees their point, and when the delegation informs him that Famagan has agreed to withdraw his claim to marriage with Kany if her father agrees, Old Benfa is reassured and accepts the new situation. All is finally settled and, we are told, peace reigns in this compound. Now the state of “Héré”, “peace and happiness” (110), has been restored, or (as it would probably be said in English) harmony and serenity reign.

In this way this beautiful tale is brought to a satisfying close, leaving its lessons for Africa’s generational conflicts resonating in our minds.