The Dark Child

by Camara Laye, translated by James Kirkup and Ernest Jones. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000 (originally published 1954). 188 pages.

Along with Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka, The Dark Child by Camara Laye is one of the classic accounts of growing up in West Africa. Told in a pure, sometimes biblical style, and suffused with a piercing nostalgia for a world that is slipping away, The Dark Child would seem to be a memoir written by an old man looking back after many years. It is startling to realize that the author was still in his twenties when he wrote it.

Camara Laye grew up in the town of Kouroussa on the inland plain of French Guinea. Though his father was a blacksmith (and goldsmith) and a man of tradition, he wanted a Western education for his son and never passed on much of what he knew of his people, the Malinké. Even as a child, it seems, Camara Laye was haunted by the sense that he was losing something. "What words did my father utter?" he asks himself about the incantations his father murmurs as he is smelting gold. Watching the start of the rice harvest in a rural village, he sees that the head of each family goes out at dawn to cut the first swath from his field. The old villagers no doubt knew the reason for this custom. "But I was not old enough nor curious enough to inquire, nor did I become so until I was no longer in Africa."

The center of this book is probably the chapters in which Camara Laye describes his initiation into adulthood at about the age of thirteen. Together with the other boys he sings, beats his coro (an instrument shaped like a miniature canoe), then enters the forest where he kneels with the others, eyes closed, while the roar of many lions surrounds them. On his return he sees white threads connecting the village huts and the tops of the bombax trees, which are too thick and too thorny to be climbed. Later he discovers the "rational" explanations for these frightening and mysterious events, but he is wise enough to recognize that for the boys who take part in it, the ceremony is still a true test of courage, and a real division between childhood and adulthood. The actual circumcision comes later, which he describes as "a really dangerous ordeal, and no game" (but without referring to the probably more painful and dangerous circumcision to which Malinké women would have been subjected). He returns proudly with the other boys to the village, where they are greeted by relatives holding up the symbols of their future professions, and he is embarrassed to see his father's second wife displaying an exercise book and a pen -- the marks, along with the school clothes he is made to wear in the country, of what divides him from traditional society.

Still, although Camara Laye is on the threshold of leaving traditional life, he has the sensitivity to recognize the hidden power it contains. His mother's totem is the crocodile (he never learns his own totem) and he watches her draw water from the crocodile-infested banks of the Niger, where the other women are afraid to go. He observes a "little black snake with a strikingly marked body" that comes and goes around his father's workshop and that his father explains is the "guiding spirit of our race." The snake, which has chosen to reveal himself to the boy's father, tells him what will come and gives him authority over all the other blacksmiths -- an honored profession among the Malinké.

The boy's departure from his village, when it comes, is heart-rending yet inevitable. Camara Laye has been fated, by his own talents and personality, by the way his parents raised him, and by the changes in Guinean society, to make his way in a wider world. Like his initiation into manhood, what he calls his "exile" is a painful yet necessary part of his development.

From The Dark Child:

My playmates were extremely kind. They were excellent companions though stronger than I and, indeed, rather tough. In deference to the city boy sharing their country games, they gladly kept their high spirits in control. Furthermore, they were full of admiration for my school clothes.

As soon as I had dried myself in front of the fire, I dressed. Filled with envy, my playmates watched me put on my short-sleeved khaki shirt, shorts of the same color, and sandals. I also had a beret, which I hardly ever wore. The other clothes made enough of an impression. These splendors dazzled country boys whose sole article of clothing was a short pair of drawers. I envied them their freedom of movement. My city clothes, of which I had to be careful, were a great nuisance, for they might become dirty or torn. When we climbed to the lookout posts, I had to keep from getting caught on the rungs of the ladders. Once on top I had to stay away from the freshly cut ears of corn which were stored there, safe from the termites, and which would later be used as seed. And if we lighted a fire to cook the lizards or field-mice we had killed, I dared not go too close lest the blood stain my clothes or the ashes dirty them. I could only look on as our catch was cleaned and the insides salted, preparatory to being placed on the live coals. And I had to take all sorts of precautions when I ate.