Camara Laye / The Dark Child


CAMARA LAYE: The Dark Child

The Dark Child is Camara Laye's autobiography, tracing the development of his cultural and personal values as a young man coming of age within the Malinke tribe of Upper Guinea during the 1930's. After his death, Guinean writer Camara Laye was rightfully acclaimed by The New York Times Book Review as “his continent's preeminent novelist.” He is the author of several well-known pieces of literature, the most widely-read and taught being The Dark Child (1954) and The African Child (1953, translated in 1955 into English).

The Dark Child

One of the more poignant descriptions in the book occurs about midway through the biography, with Laye's tale of his tribal initiation into manhood by enduring the circumcision ritual during his earlier teen (approximately 14-15) years. He participates in a festival consisting of public and private ceremonies for "several days" and later a period of physical healing and recovery from the circumcision itself for over one month. Laye spends his days of recovery lounging on a mat with the other young men, isolated from his family for the most part, allowed only to visit with his mother and father from a distance between the end of the ceremony and the day he is able to walk home comfortably.

Upon his return, he is moved to his own hut, separated from his mother and father though, "still within earshot" of the family hut, as his mother tartly reminds him. Here the separation between parent and child evoke a felt sense of the anxiety present as Laye accepts his hut and new "men's clothes" with quiet gratitude. This pivotal scene closes with Laye turning to his mother to thank her, who he finds standing quietly behind him, "smiling at [him] sadly".

Shortly after moving into his hut, Laye leaves at 15 years of age to attend "Ecole Georges Poiret, now known as the technical college" in Guinea's capital city of Conakry. Like any mother, Laye's warns him to "be careful with strangers" and sends him off on a train to live with his Uncles Sekou and Mamadou in Conakry, sadly. In the school, in a new city for the first time in his experience, Laye encounters difficult language barriers and a hot, humid climate more taxing and oppressive than that in his Koroussa home. In some sense it is a metaphor for the psychological and sociological systems under which he finds himself strained.

He laments, "without them [my uncles] I should have been really miserable, lonely, in that city whose ways were foreign to me, whose climate was hostile, and whose dialect I could barely follow. All around me only Soussou was spoken. And I am a Malinke. Except for French the only language I speak is Malinke" .

Colonialization is more evident in Conakry than in Koroussa. French is the dominant spoken and written language, and Laye's school is being revamped under French reform to include both "technical and practical training" and not just trade skills. Laye lives the life of a typical college or boarding school student, studying at the school's campus and returning home to Koroussa during breaks.

Interestingly enough, as Laye experiences and more European education, adopting the ideas and appearances associated with it, the decor of his hut become altered by his mother to, "acquire a European look" which he notes he is aware of because the changes were making "the hut more comfortable," and also offered "tangible proof of how much my mother loves me".

Several years after leaving for Conakry, Laye returns home with his "proficiency certificate" and a "troublesome" offer from the director of his school to continue his studies through a scholarship, in France, many hours from Koroussa. While his uncles and father support and encourage him to take the foreign study opportunity, Laye's mother is less enthusiastic, forbidding him to accept the offer. Laye accepts the offer despite his mother's resistance to the idea, and parts with her and his father during a heartbreaking scene with Laye's mother shouting insults and pushing him away, then falling into a heap of tears, grasping her son and turning her anger instead to the European influences she perceives as taking her son away to France- justifiably so. The disruption of family life in the push-and-pull created by Europe's French Colonial rubbing against existing culture in Guinea in 1947, is most evident during the last few chapters of the book.

Laye's father arms him with a map of city transportation of the Paris Metro in France. The map is an extremely powerful symbol to carry as he leaves the land of Guinea completely, and for a time, the continent of Africa. His father gives him the physical, practical tools for surviving in the city, but with that comes a compass directing the learning and success of his son. The fear, excitement, anxiety and sadness culminate in the last vignette of the autobiography, with Laye crying as he goes to exit the plane, lightly placing his hand over the map in his left shirt pocket.

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