Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“Samba Diallo is your child,” he said to the chief. “I shall give him back to you as soon as you express that wish.”
The teacher’s voice was a little husky as he gave voice to this decision.
“In any case, that is another problem,” responded the chief.
SAMBA DIALLO HAD A VAGUE PRESCIENCE OF the importance of the problem of which he was the centre. He had often seen the Most Royal Lady stand up, alone, against the men of the Dialloubé family. At the moment she was always victorious, because no one dared hold out against her for long. She was the first-born. So then the Most Royal Lady carried off Samba Diallo, almost by force, and kept him in her home, sending back all the emissaries that the chief despatched to her. She kept Samba Diallo for a solid week, making much of him in every way, as if to correct the effects of the education of the Glowing Hearth, by going to whatever extremes she could.
Samba Diallo let himself be pampered with apparently the same profound equanimity of soul as when he submitted to the hearth’s bad treatment. Incontestably, he felt happy in the Most Royal Lady’s house. But nevertheless he did not experience that plenitude of spirit he had felt at the hearth, which would set his heart to beating, for instance, when under the teacher’s formidable eye he would pronounce the Word. Life at the teacher’s hearth was unceasingly painful, and held a suffering which was not of the body alone.
It was acquired like an aftermath of authenticity.
When at the end of a week the Most Royal Lady let him
go, satiated with over-indulgence, the chief of the Diallobé and the teacher subjected him to redoubled severity, as if to make him expiate that week of well-being.
It was in the course of one of those weeks of concentrated severity that he found a retreat where no one would ever have dreamed of coming to look for him.
For some days, now, it had been extremely painful for him to live in the village. The teacher had become eccentric in his behavior, and it seemed to Samba Diallo that he was at once less severe and more distant. It was only the Most Royal Lady who did not seem to avoid him a little. This situation persisted for such a long time, as the boy saw it, that one evening when he could not stand it any longer he made his way to his refuge.
“Old Rella,” he was thinking, as he stretched himself out by her side. And then, “Good evening, Old Rella, if you hear me.”
It was thus that he announced himself every time. He scarcely doubted that she heard him.
Naturally, she had never made any answer, and this was a weighty argument in favor of doubt. Samba Diallo even knew that within these low heaps of earth rested only little piles of bones. One day when he was drawing near to Old Rella he had inadvertently stepped on a mound similar to that beneath which his silent friend reposed, and it had yielded under him. When he raised his foot he noticed an excavation at the bottom of the hollow he had just formed there. He leaned over, and in the dim light he perceived a whiteness that was gleaming slightly. So he had learned that under all these mounds there was no longer any flesh, no more open eyes, ears attentive to the step of passers-by, as he had imagined, but only
laid-out chains, as it were, of whitened bones. His heart had beaten a little faster: he was thinking of Old Rella. So even the eyes, even the flesh, would disappear? Perhaps in sufficiently ancient abiding-places the bones themselves would vanish? Samba Diallo never verified this last, but he remained convinced of it. When the boy became aware that Old Rella had been physically engulfed, so to speak, it had the effect of bringing her closer to him. What he lost in her material presence it seemed to him that he gained in another way, and this was richer.
He began to address her, silently:
“Old Rella, good evening. If you hear me, Old Rella … But if you do not hear me, what are you doing? Where can you be? This very morning I saw your daughter Coumba. You loved Coumba very much. Why have you never come back to see her? Yet you loved her very much. Or perhaps they are holding you somewhere. Tell me, Old Rella, are they holding you somewhere? Is it Azrael, perhaps? No, Azrael could do nothing. He is only a messenger. Or perhaps, Old Rella, you do not love Coumba any more? Perhaps you are no longer able to love …”
Samba Diallo felt no fear of Old Rella. Rather, she caused him a certain mental disquiet, and tormented his curiosity. He knew that she was no longer flesh, nor bone, nor anything that was material. What had she become? Old Rella could not have ceased, finally, to be. Old Rella … She had left traces. When one has left fat Coumba behind, and when one used to love fat Coumba as Old Rella had loved her, one cannot have ceased to be. How can the memory of this love still endure if the love itself has completely, finally, ceased? For the memory still lived in Coumba. From time to time she wept. Samba Diallo
had seen her weeping one evening as she came home from the cemetery. Why should she weep if everything was finished, finally? Everything was not finished … But why, then, had Old Rella never come back? He, Samba Diallo, knew that he loved his father and mother so much that if he should ever die before them, and it might be possible for him to return, or make them a sign in some fashion, he would manifest himself to tell them what he had seen, to give them news of Paradise. Unless? … Yes, perhaps, perhaps one does forget. But now Samba Diallo felt himself on the verge of tears, merely in thinking that he might be able to forget his father, and his mother too, both of whom he loved so much. “Old Rella, Old Rella, does one forget?”
He banished this idea, and thought of Paradise. Yes, that was the explanation: Paradise. Whatever might be the reason for their silence, their absence, it could only be beneficent, it could only belong to Paradise. They had not disappeared into an obscure nothingness, they neither felt hatred nor were they forgetful. They simply were in Paradise.
For a long time, near his dead friend, the child reflected on the eternal mystery of death, and, on his own count, rebuilt Paradise in a thousand ways. When sleep came to him he had grown entirely serene again, for he had found the answer: Paradise was built with the Words that he used to recite, the same glowing lights, the same deep and mysterious shadows, the same enchantment, the same power.
How long did he sleep thus, close to that absolute which fascinated him and which he did not know?
He was awakened with a start by a loud cry, which set him to trembling violently. When he opened his eyes he
was already surrounded by people. A storm lantern held at arm’s length lighted the mausoleum over the mound where Old Rella lay. The entrance to it was blocked by an increasing company of men. Samba Diallo closed his eyes again. He heard words.
“But it is Samba Diallo … What can he be doing here?”
“Perhaps he is ill? A child in the cemeteries, at night …”
“We must call the chief.”
Samba Diallo had quietly covered his face again with a fold of the ragged clothing he wore. Silence fell around him. He felt that someone had leaned over him and uncovered his face. He opened his eyes, and his gaze encountered that of the chief of the Diallobé.
“See, my child, don’t be afraid. What is it? What are you doing here?”
“I am not afraid any more. A great cry woke me. I must have frightened someone.”
“Get up. How long have you been here?”
“For a long time … I do not know.”
“You are not afraid?”
“That is good. Get up. I am going to take you back to the house, where you will stay from now on.”
“I want to go to the Glowing Hearth.”
“Very well. I will take you back to the Glowing Hearth.”
The men around, who had come to a night interment, slowly dispersed. They were mildly amused by the misadventure which had befallen Hamadi, Coumba’s husband. It was he who, discovering the form of Samba Diallo stretched out against the tomb of Hamadi’s mother-in-law, had cried out. Why had he done so?
There was a brief muttering, then a muttering that was
long drawn out. The tone changed, it rose in the scale, there was a brief muttering, then a long muttering. The two tones blended, there were two simultaneous voices, one long, the other short.
Sudden movements began to be noted in the surge of sound. Something unguessed started to rush through each muttering’s whole spinning sound. The spinnings were multiplied. The drive was a paroxysm. Samba Diallo woke up. The earth was being shaken by beatings on the tom-tom.
Samba Diallo remembered. “This is the day,” he said to himself, “that the Most Royal Lady has convoked the Diallobé. The tom-tom is calling them.”
He got up from the beaten earthen soil where he had been sleeping, made a brief toilette, prayed, and went out of the teacher’s house to go to the village square where the Diallobé were assembling. The square was already full of people. When he reached it, Samba Diallo was surprised to see that there were as many women there as men. It was the first time he had seen anything like that. The gathering formed a large rectangle, several rows thick, the women on two sides, the men on the other two. They were all talking in low tones, and this made a permeating murmur, like the voice of the wind. Suddenly the murmur fell away. One side of the rectangle opened, and the Most Royal Lady entered the arena.
It was in the midst of a great silence, now, that she spoke:
“People of the Diallobé, I salute you.”
A diffuse and powerful hum of sound answered her. She went on:
“I have done something which is not pleasing to us
and which is not in accordance with our customs. I have asked the women to come to this meeting today. We Diallobé hate that, and rightly, for we think that the women should remain at home. But more and more we shall have to do things which we hate doing, and which do not accord with our customs. It is to exhort you to do one of those things that I have asked you to come to this meeting today.
“I come here to say this to you: I, the Most Royal Lady, do not like the foreign school. I detest it. My opinion, nevertheless, is that we should send our children there.”
There was a muttering among the crowd. The Most Royal Lady waited until it had died down, then she continued calmly:
“I must tell you this: neither my brother, your chief, nor the teacher of the Diallobé has yet taken a stand in this matter. They are seeking the truth. They are right. As for me, I am like your baby, Coumba.” She pointed to the child, while they all watched her. “Look at him. He is learning to walk. He does not know where he is going. He only knows that he should lift one foot and put it ahead, then that he should lift the other and put it in front of the first.”
Always with her eyes on her audience, the Most Royal Lady turned in another direction:
“Ardo Diallobé, you said to me yesterday, ‘Speech may be suspended, but life is not suspended.’ That is very true. Look at Coumba’s baby.”
All those present remained motionless, as if petrified. Only the Most Royal Lady stirred. In the centre of the company she was like a seed in its pod.
“The school in which I would place our children will
kill in them what today we love and rightly conserve with care. Perhaps the very memory of us will die in them. When they return from the school, there may be those who will not recognize us. What I am proposing is that we should agree to die in our children’s hearts and that the foreigners who have defeated us should fill the place, wholly, which we shall have left free.”
She was silent again, though no murmur had interrupted her. Samba Diallo heard the sound of someone sniffling near him, and raising his head he perceived two great tears coursing down the rough cheeks of the master of the blacksmiths.
“But, people of the Diallobé,” she continued after a pause, “remember our fields when the rainy season is approaching. We love our fields very much, but what do we do then? We plough them up and burn them: we kill them. In the same way, recall this: what do we do with our reserves of seed when the rain has fallen? We would like to eat them, but we bury them in the earth.
“Folk of the Diallobé, with the arrival of the foreigners has come the tornado which announces the great hibernation of our people. My opinion—I, the Most Royal Lady—is that our best seeds and our dearest fields—those are our children. Does anyone wish to speak?”
No one answered.
“Then peace be upon you, people of the Diallobé,” the Most Royal Lady concluded.
THE COUNTRY OF THE DIALLOBÉ WAS NOT THE only one which had been awakened by a great clamor early one day. The entire black continent had had its moment of clamor.
Strange dawn! The morning of the Occident in black Africa was spangled over with smiles, with cannon shots, with shining glass beads. Those who had no history were encountering those who carried the world on their shoulders. It was a morning of accouchement: the known world was enriching itself by a birth that took place in mire and blood.
From shock, the one side made no resistance. They were a people without a past, therefore without memory. The men who were landing on their shores were white, and mad. Nothing like them had ever been known. The deed was accomplished before the people were even conscious of what had happened.
Some among the Africans, such as the Diallobé, brandished their shields, pointed their lances, and aimed their guns. They were allowed to come close, then the cannon were fired. The vanquished did not understand …
Others wanted to parley. They were given a choice: friendship or war. Very sensibly, they chose friendship. They had no experience at all.
The result was the same, nevertheless, everywhere.
Those who had shown fight and those who had surrendered, those who had come to terms and those who had been obstinate—they all found themselves, when the day came, checked by census, divided up, classified, labeled, conscripted, administrated.
For the newcomers did not know only how to fight. They were strange people. If they knew how to kill with effectiveness, they also knew how to cure, with the same art. Where they had brought disorder, they established a new order. They destroyed and they constructed. On the black continent it began to be understood that their true power lay not in the cannons of the first morning, but rather in what followed the cannons.