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Both Sides Then and Now

By Rustum Kozain

Perhaps too short for the reading pleasure it provides, the 50-year old classic Ambiguous Adventure follows the life of Samba Diallo, a child of the Diallobé elite. In many ways parallel to its Senegalese author’s life, the story tracks Samba from his days at the Glowing Hearth Koran school to being a philosophy student in Paris to his return to the country of his birth.

Set during the early parts of French colonial encroachment, Samba is a child when his elders address the central issue facing the Diallobé: stick to traditional modes of bringing up their children and face a form of obliteration, or enroll them at the new French schools so that they can survive and take on the colonial system of government; stick to a purist form of cultural survival (here Islam) and face material hardship, or engage with colonial systems and prosper. In the book’s allegorical lyricism – and put to Thierno, the Koran teacher, by the 60-year old Most Royal Lady, an elder cousin of Samba – the value of Koranic education has eroded: ‘Envelop yourself in shadow, retire into your own heart, and nothing… will bring good fortune to the Diallobé. Your house is the most scantily furnished in the countryside, your body the most emaciated, your appearance the most fragile.’

Thierno, in response, pushes his spiritual line, inspired by glories of the past. In Samba he has identified a prodigy and wishes to turn the boy into ‘such a man as the country’s past had produced’. He can only admit to himself the truth of the Most Royal Lady’s withering critique: the country needs the benefits of western medicine and technology. And the reader will cringe in sympathy with him, no matter how much one agrees with the Most Royal Lady.

The novel is essentially a collection of Socratic dialogues between various characters. Early on, Samba reveals himself as skilled in such intellectual combat, taking on his father (called ‘the Knight’) when he is still at (French) school. Here already Samba has to confront a dilemma: the division between Islam and western rationality, between tradition and modernity, may not be intellectually sustainable or defensible.

As a royal or elite role model, thus, Samba is eventually sent to Paris for his university education. Here he encounters various characters with whom he has further Socratic conversations about his dichotomous dilemma. There is the native French family, whose daughter, Lucienne, tries to convert him to Communism, but he maintains: ‘I do not fight for liberty, I fight for God.’

He befriends Pierre-Louis, the head of an immigrant African family and becomes friends with his granddaughter, Adèle, who is French-born and who eventually romanticises Africa based on Samba’s own homesick stories.

The tale is thematically similar to a host of novels from the same period, those which expressed a rising concern with colonial oppression and anti-colonial nationalism. In general didactic – raising awareness or consciousness and proposing remedies to the material inequalities and psychological malaise of subjected peoples – these novels were nevertheless written in the colonial languages, inhabiting, so to speak, the dilemma which they addressed: more specifically a call to national assertion, with its attendant appeals to pre-colonial cultural identities, expressed in a language that could be understood, not necessarily by cross-lingual local audiences, but by colonial audiences in the metropoles.

Ambiguous Adventure takes this existential and intellectual dilemma as its central theme. Unlike Thierno, who withdraws and seeks refuge in his faith, Samba wants to reconcile the knowledge of God with the very thing that challenges his culture. But such reconciliation is incommensurable and dramatised in the colonial subject as a deep ambivalence. Samba, from early days in the new school, recognises a split in himself; one that will eventually become two ineradicably intertwined traditions of epistemology. As he says to Captain Hubert (son of Pierre-Louis) later in Paris when he dismisses Samba’s anxiety with nonchalance:

On the contrary Captain, it is this attitude of yours which seems impossible to me… I am not a distinct country of the Diallobé facing a distinct Occident, and appreciating with a cool head what I must take from it and what I must leave with it by way of counterbalance. I have become the two. There is not a clear mind deciding between the two factors of choice.

More than there not being two distinct sets of traditions inside the person is the fact that there is no untainted position from which to choose between the two. As a thinker himself, Samba thus takes heed of Lucienne’s earlier words to him: ‘The intellectuals could neither answer these questions nor avoid them.’

The rumination on colonialism and its implications that make this novel is certainly didactic, but the author leavens this through the skilful use of dialogue. The conversations between characters may be set-piece Socratic dialogues, but Hamidou Kane writes them somewhere between speech and lyricism, so that characters’ words attain a kind of mysticism and wisdom that remain fresh 50 years on. Never does the reader feel that he/she is being preached to. The ending is tragic, but the novel does not blame this end on the particular direction that Samba followed – the insistence that he can get rid of neither traditions, that he is forever made up of the two.

Or does it? Fifty years on, the themes are still with us: opportunistic appeals to tradition and culture in order to foreclose on criticism and maintain power in the face of a growing African middle-class ‘modernising’ by way of the brutalities of a global neo-liberal settlement (what I call late-colonialism rather than post-colonialism), which ignores the humanising principles behind pre-industrial societies; and, in places, the rise of an anti-modernising Islam (or Christianity, for that matter) as political principle to counter the long-lasting effects of colonialism that survive in a national comprador bourgeoisie’s rule.

These themes provide Ambiguous Adventure with a prescience which recasts its tragic end. Does Samba’s end dismiss his conflict or does it cast judgement on the world’s dismissal of his conflict? Can we survive as humans by negating or embracing the dualities that colonialism blessed and cursed us with?

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