Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“God, give me attentiveness.”
“Now go back to your verse.”
Trembling and submissive, the child took up the impassioned intoning of the incandescent text. He repeated the verse over and over until he was close to losing consciousness.
The teacher, his equanimity restored, had plunged into prayer. The child knew his lesson for the morning.
At a sign from the teacher, the boy had put away his writing-tablet. But he did not move from where he was sitting. He was engrossed in a scrutiny of his schoolmaster, whom he now saw in profile. The man was old, emaciated, withered and shrunken by mortifications of the flesh. He used never to laugh. The only moments of enthusiasm that could be seen in him were those in which, lost in his mystic meditations or listening to the recital of the Word of God, he would stand erect, all tense, and seem to be lifted from the earth, as if raised by some inner force. There were many times, on the other hand, when, driven to a frenzied rage by the laziness or the blunders of one of his pupils, he would give himself up to outrageously brutal outbreaks of violence. But these outbreaks of violence
were factors in, expressions of, the interest he took in the disciple who was at fault. The more he held him in esteem, the wilder were his rages. Then switches, burning faggots, anything that might come to hand would serve as instruments of punishment. Samba Diallo remembered that one day, in the throes of a mad rage, the teacher had thrown him to the ground and had furiously trampled on him, as certain wild beasts do to their prey.
The teacher was from several points of view a formidable man. Two occupations filled his life: the work of the spirit and the work of the field. To the work of the field he devoted the strict minimum of his time, and he demanded from the earth no more than he had to have for his extremely frugal nourishment and that of his family, not including his pupils. The rest of his days and nights he consecrated to study, to meditation, to prayer, and to the education and molding of the young people who had been confided to his care. He acquitted himself of this task with a passion which was renowned through all the country of the Diallobé. Teachers from the most distant regions would come periodically to visit him and would go away edified. The greatest families of the Diallobé country contended for the honor of sending their sons to him. In general, the teacher would commit himself only after seeing the prospective pupil. When he had refused one, no pressure would ever have made him change his decision. But it might happen that when he had seen a child he would ask that he be allowed to educate him. He had done this in the case of Samba Diallo.
Two years before, the little boy was returning with his father from a long river journey through the Diallobé country. When the boat on which they were traveling
drew alongside of the quay, a large group of people assembled in the cabin occupied by Samba Diallo’s father. The visitors, filing into the cabin one by one, were coming courteously to salute this son of the countryside whose administrative duties used to keep him far from his own territory for long periods of time.
The teacher was among the last arrivals. When he came into the cabin, Samba Diallo was perched on the knee of his father, who was sitting in an armchair. There were two other men in the room: the director of the regional school, and Samba Diallo’s cousin, who was by custom the chief of the province. As the teacher entered the room the three men rose. Samba Diallo’s father took the newcomer by the arm and made him sit down in the armchair from which he had just got up.
The three men talked at length on the most diverse topics, but their words would regularly return to a single subject: that of the faith and the greater glory of God.
“Monsieur School Principal,” the teacher was saying, “what new good are you teaching men’s sons, to make them desert our glowing hearths for the benefit of your schools?”
“Nothing, revered master—or almost nothing,” the school principal answered. “The school only teaches men to join wood to wood—to make wooden buildings.”
Pronounced in the language of the region, the word “school” means “wood.” The three men smiled, with an air of understanding and slight disapproval of this classic play on words in connection with the foreign schools.
“Certainly men ought to learn how to construct dwelling houses that resist the weather,” the teacher said.
“Yes,” agreed the principal, “that is especially true of
those who did not know at all how to build houses before the foreigners came.”
“You yourself, chief of the Diallobé, does it not go against the grain with you to send your children to the foreign school?” the teacher asked.
“Unless there is pressure, I shall persist in the refusal to do that, master, if it please God.”
“I am quite of your opinion, chief”—it was the principal of the school who was speaking—“I have sent my son to the school only because I could not do otherwise. We have gone there ourselves only under pressure. Our refusal, then, is certain … The question is disturbing nevertheless. We reject the foreign school in order to remain ourselves, and to preserve for God the place He holds in our hearts. But have we still enough force to resist the school, and enough substance to remain ourselves?”
The three men fell into a heavy silence. Then Samba Diallo’s father, who had remained lost in thought, spoke slowly—as was his habit—fixing his eyes on the floor in front of him, as if he were talking to himself.
“It is certain that nothing pervades our lives with such clamor as the needs of which their school permits the satisfaction. We have nothing left—thanks to them—and it is thus that they hold us. He who wants to live, who wants to remain himself, must compromise. The woodcutters and the metal-workers are triumphant everywhere in the world, and their iron holds us under their law. If it were still only a matter of ourselves, of the conservation of our substance, the problem would have been less complicated: not being able to conquer them, we should have chosen to be wiped out rather than to yield. But we are among the last men on earth to possess God as He veritably is in His
Oneness … How are we to save Him? When the hand is feeble, the spirit runs great risks, for it is by the hand that the spirit is defended …”
“Yes,” said the school principal, “but it is also true that the spirit runs great risks when the hand is too strong.”
The teacher, wholly given over to his thoughts, slowly raised his head and considered the three other men.
“Perhaps it is better so? If God has assured their victory over us, it is apparently because we, who are His zealots, have offended Him. For a long time, God’s worshippers ruled the world. Did they do it according to His law? I do not know … I have learned that in the country of the white man, the revolt against poverty and misery is not distinguished from the revolt against God. They say that the movement is spreading, and that soon, in the world, that same great cry against poverty will drown out the voice of the muezzins. What must have been the misbehavior of those who believe in God if, at the end of their reign over the world, the name of God should arouse the resentment of the starving?”
There was a silence, and then Samba Diallo’s father spoke: “Master, what you say is terrible. May God’s pity be upon us … But must we push our children into their schools?”
“It is certain that their school is the better teacher of how to join wood to wood, and that men should learn how to construct dwelling houses that resist the weather.”
“Even at the price of His Sacrifice?”
“I know also that He must be saved. We must build solid dwellings for men, and within those dwellings we must save God. That I know. But do not ask me what should be done tomorrow morning, for that I do not know.”
The conversation continued in this way, gloomy and interrupted by long silences. The Diallobé country, helpless, was turning around and around on itself like a thoroughbred horse caught in a fire.
The teacher’s gaze had returned at intervals to Samba Diallo, who sat attentive and silent. Now he pointed to him with his finger and said to his father,
“How old is he?”
“In another year, according to the Law, he must begin his quest for our Lord. I should like to be his guide along that road. Will you allow me? Your son is, I know, of the seed from which the country of the Diallobé produces its masters.”
After a pause, he added,
“And the masters of the Diallobé were also the masters whom one-third of the continent chose as guides in the way of God, as well as in human affairs.”
The three other men were plunged in meditation. The boy’s father spoke:
“If it please God, teacher, I confide my son to you. I shall send him to you at the Glowing Hearth next year, when he will be of the proper age and I shall have prepared him.”
So it happened that in the following year Samba Diallo, accompanied by his mother, went back to the teacher, who took possession of him, body and soul. Henceforth, and until he would have completed his classical studies, he belonged no longer to his family.
“THE PEACE OF GOD BE UPON THIS HOUSE. THE poor disciple is in quest of his daily pittance.”
The sentences, plaintively spoken in a quavering voice by Samba Diallo, were repeated by his three companions. The four youths, shivering in their thin rags of clothing under the blast of the fresh morning wind, stood at the door of the Diallobé chief’s spacious dwelling.
“Men of God, reflect upon your approaching death. Awake, Oh, awake! Azrael, Angel of death, is already breaking the earth for you. It is about to rise up at your feet. Men of God, death is not that sly creature it is believed to be, which comes when it is not expected, and conceals itself so well that when it has come there is no longer anyone there.”
The three other disciples took up the refrain in chorus:
“Who will feed the poor disciples today? Our fathers are alive, and we beg like orphans. In the name of God, give to those who beg for His Glory. Men who sleep, think of the disciples passing by!”
They fell silent. Samba Diallo spoke alone:
“Men of God, death is not that night which traitorously floods with darkness the innocent and lively ardor of a summer day. It warns, then it mows down in the full mid-day of the intelligence.”
Again came the chorus from the other three:
“Men and women who sleep, think of peopling by your benefactions the solitude which will inhabit your tombs. Feed the poor disciples!”
“Men of God, you are warned,” Samba Diallo took up the theme again. “One dies lucidly, for death is violence in triumph, negation imposing itself. From now on, may death be familiar to your spirits …”
Under the morning wind, Samba Diallo improvised edifying litanies, with interpolations by his comrades, at the closed door of his cousin, the chief of the Diallobé. The disciples would go about so, from door to door, until they had collected victuals enough for their day’s nourishment. Tomorrow the same quest would begin again. While seeking God, the disciples would know no other way of supporting life than by begging, whatever their parents’ wealth might be.
At last the chief’s door opened, and one of his daughters appeared. She bestowed a smile on Samba Diallo, but his countenance remained expressionless. The girl set down on the ground a large plate containing the left-overs from the evening before. The disciples squatted in the dust and set to on their first meal of the day. When they had eaten enough to satisfy their hunger, they put the rest in their wooden bowls, against possible future need. With his bent index finger Samba Diallo thoroughly cleaned the plate, and put the little ball of food, thus recovered, into his mouth. Then he got up and handed the empty plate to his cousin.
“Thank you, Samba Diallo. May you have a good day,” she said with a smile.
Samba Diallo did not reply. But Mariam was
accustomed to his taciturn and almost tragic humor. When she had turned her back, Demba, the oldest one of the four disciples in Samba Diallo’s group, clicked his tongue and burst out laughing, striving after vulgarity.
“If I had a cousin with such dainty dimples,” he began.
Then he interrupted himself, for Samba Diallo, who had already taken some steps toward the outer portal, had paused, and was fixing his calm gaze upon the other boy.
“Listen, Samba Diallo,” said Demba now. “I know that if it weren’t for you my food for the day would be considerably reduced. No one among all the disciples in this countryside would know so well, by inspiring these worthy folk with a salutary fear of Azrael, how to wrest from their selfishness the alms on which we live. This morning, in particular, you have attained a peerless tragic art. I confess that I myself have been on the point of stripping myself of my rags to make you an offering of them.”
The other disciples burst out laughing.
“And so?” inquired Samba Diallo, in a voice which he controlled with considerable effort.
“And so, you are the strongest of all the disciples, but you are also the saddest, assuredly. They smile at you after they have fed you, but you remain morose. What is more, you understand nothing of any joke …”
“Demba, I have already told you that nothing keeps you here with me,” Samba Diallo replied. “You can go away with someone else. I shall not hold it against you.”
“What magnanimity, my friends!” Demba spoke mockingly to the other disciples. “What magnanimity! Even when he dismisses me, he dismisses me nobly. ‘Go,’ he says to me, ‘Desert me. And if you die of hunger I shall not hold it against you.’ ”
The group broke into loud laughter.
“Good, good,” declared Demba. “It is understood, great chief. You shall be obeyed.”
Samba Diallo gave a start. Demba was seeking a quarrel with him: he could no longer have any doubt of it. All the disciples knew how much it displeased him when anyone called attention to his patrician origin. Certainly he was the best born of all those at the Glowing Hearth, the household of the teacher of the Diallobé. When he begged his food, and, as this morning, went to all homes from the most humble to the most prosperous, everyone, in bringing him the half-spoiled remains of the family meals, would show by a sign or a gesture that under his rags the countryside recognized and was already saluting one of its future leaders. His noble origin weighed upon him: not as a burden he was afraid to carry, but in the manner of a diadem which was too cumbersome and too much in evidence. It was in the manner of an injustice also. He desired nobility, to be sure, but a nobility more discreet, more authentic: not something acquired without effort, but hard-won, and more spiritual than material. He had humiliated and mortified himself, as a means of exercise, and also to show plainly that he insisted on being placed at the same level as all his co-disciples. But nothing had come of this. It seemed, on the contrary, that his comrades bore him a grudge for what, in relation to themselves, they were not far from regarding as the pinnacle of pride. Not a day passed that someone did not remark on the nobility of his bearing or the elegance of his deportment, in spite of the rags in which he was clothed. It even happened that they held a grievance against him for his natural gestures of generosity, and his very frankness. The more he stood
guard over himself, the more he was denounced. He was exasperated with it all.