Laye’s autobiographical novel The Dark Child follows one boy’s journey from his earliest memories at age five or six to his first moment of definite adulthood—the day he leaves his native Guinea for Paris, where he will study and ultimately decide his destiny.
Camara Laye’s earliest memories revolve around his father’s forge, where he listened to the sounds of anvils and customers. He remembers seeing a snake and being fascinated with its glittering eyes. He offers a reed to the snake. The snake takes the bait and the boy’s fingers are nearly consumed before his father notices the danger and sweeps the little boy off his feet and away from the danger. Laye remembers his mother’s shrieks and a few hard slaps.
The forge is a busy place, for Laye’s father is well known far and wide for his superior skills as a blacksmith. Parents send their sons to him as apprentices, and customers come every day requesting delicate mechanisms, tools, and even jewelry. Some linger around the shop just to watch him work. Laye enjoys crouching in a corner of the workshop to see the comings and goings and to watch the fire blazing.
Laye’s father is a generous man and his mother is forever having to feed unexpected visitors. To complicate her work, their huts are located close to a railroad, and sparks from the trains frequently set fire to their fence. These fires must be put out quickly so the entire concession doesn’t catch fire.
After the snake encounter, Laye finds it amusing to yell to his mother, “There’s a snake!” She runs to him to see what kind of a snake he’s found and then she becomes a woman possessed, beating the snake to a pulp. One day, when Laye finds a snake to report, his mother says that this snake, a little black one with a strikingly marked body, is a special snake and should never be harmed.
Everyone in the concession seems to know about this snake. Laye’s mother explains that this snake is his father’s guiding spirit. Laye is confused, so later in the day he asks his father about the black snake. Laye’s father doesn’t answer right away but seems to be considering how much to tell his son.
Finally he says that the snake is the guiding spirit of their race, that it has always been with them, choosing one of their race to guide. In their time, the snake has chosen Laye’s father. The snake first appeared to Laye’s father in a dream and explained that he would be coming to visit the next day. That next day, the snake did appear, but Laye’s father was initially afraid of it. The following night, the snake once more appeared in his dreams, asking why he had been received unkindly. After that, the snake appeared on a regular basis, helping Laye’s father know the future and guiding him in all of his endeavors.
Laye’s father attributes all of his good fortune and prestige to the snake. He explains to his son that he tells him all of this because he is the eldest son and fathers should keep no secrets from their eldest sons. He also explains that Laye ought to conduct himself in a careful manner if he is to inherit the gifts of the snake. He fears, however, that Laye will not have the gift and that he hasn’t spent enough time in the presence of his father.
That night, while waiting to fall asleep in his mother’s hut, Laye feels sad and recognizes some sadness in his parents, too. He wishes he could be in his father’s hut. That day is the last time they speak of the black snake.
Chapter 1 Analysis
By opening the novel with his earliest memories, Laye sets the structure for the rest of the story. The story is told chronologically, beginning with early childhood and ending as the main character officially enters adulthood and leaves home for good. This structure allows readers to better relate Laye’s experiences to their own. As Laye goes through developmental stages, the readers remember their own childhoods. If Laye had written the novel in a series of flashbacks, the theme of growing up wouldn’t be as obvious.
Laye claims that he has always been familiar with the supernatural; nonetheless, he is surprised by his discovery that his father has a God/prophet relationship with a snake. In the novel, Laye never actually uses the word prophet, but that is exactly what his father is. The snake reveals the future to his father and people acknowledge and seek out his father’s spiritual gifts because they have learned to trust and rely upon his prophet status.
Even as a child, Laye seems to understand that his father is special, and this knowledge makes him feel both proud and nervous. Laye realizes that his father’s gifts may not be passed down to him, possibly in part because he does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be a spiritual leader among their people in Kouroussa.
This element of the supernatural is a theme that is followed throughout the book. In later chapters, Laye describes his mother’s supernatural powers and tries to explain how such things could be. However, he seems content and humble enough to accept the supernatural for what it is. He does not require empirical knowledge to back up his acknowledgement of the supernatural. His faith is enough.
The chapter ends with the black snake curling up near his father in the blacksmith shop. In this image, the snake represents Laye’s father’s power. His father is powerful enough to not be afraid of a snake, which is highlighted by the fact that earlier in the chapter Laye’s mother hacks a snake to pieces for fear it will hurt one of her children. Laye’s father has no reason to fear the snake. In fact, he seeks out the snake and treats it like a treasured friend. Laye paints his father as larger than life
Chapter 2 Summary
Laye watches with great curiosity and satisfaction as a woman brings some gold into the blacksmith shop. Such an occurrence happens from time to time as people in the village find gold in the mud, sometimes spending months on end gathering the gold grains. This woman, a representative of all the women who come to the shop with gold, wants the gold made into a trinket. Generally, the women want trinkets made for a special occasion, such as the festival of Ramadan or the Tabaski. In order to have the trinket made well and on time, the women hire a praise-singer to act as a go-between.
In Laye’s culture, praise singing is a full-time, respected profession. In this chapter, the praise-singer pulls out his harp and begins singing the praises of Laye’s father. The praise-singer tells of the lofty deeds of Laye’s ancestors, going on and on about people Laye has never even heard about.
As soon as Laye’s father’s vanity is sufficiently stroked, the praise-singer begins making arrangements for the trinket, discussing the fee, how long the process will take, and other details. The woman assures Laye’s father that she is in a great hurry. Laye’s father remarks, “I have never seen a woman eager to deck herself out who wasn’t in a great hurry.”
The deal is struck and all the apprentices and workers in the blacksmith shop turn their attention to the production of the trinket, for gold work is both rare and fascinating, though difficult and expensive. Laye’s father always does the gold work himself, never leaving it to the apprentices or other workers. Nobody argues with this, for Laye’s father’s special powers are readily acknowledged and everyone believes that a man must be not only a good blacksmith to work with gold, but also a good man. He must have purified himself with a special ceremony for such a task. Laye’s father has already dreamt about this specific task, so Laye assumes that his father underwent the rituals of preparing to work with gold before he even stepped foot in shop in the morning.
Such preparatory rituals include washing himself all over and abstaining from sex during the whole time he will be working with the gold over several days. His body would be smeared with secret potions hidden in his numerous pots of mysterious substances. Laye’s father is unbending in his respect for ritual observance.
Laye himself, though a child, finds a way to watch the process and wants to shout for joy when he sees the gold begin to melt in the clay pot. Laye finds it extraordinary and miraculous that the black snake is always present, coiled under the sheepskin, when his father works with gold. His father breathes unknown cantations as he works with the gold, and Laye knows these mysterious words must have something to do with the black snake.
After the trinket is completed, the woman returns to the blacksmith shop and trembles as it is presented to her. The men like to watch the women in such a state, and they laugh at them. The praise-singer at this point can no longer contain himself and bursts into the douga, the great chant and dance reserved only for celebrated men. The douga is rarely sung, for evil genies may be set free. However, when Laye’s father hears the douga he cannot keep from dancing.
Laye leaves the blacksmith workshop to tell his mother about the gold and the douga. His mother is not impressed and worries that her husband will ruin his health. Gold causes his eyes and lungs to suffer, for there is so much smoke and blowing involved when working with the metal. Although she is a strictly honest woman, she does not complain about the custom that the blacksmith leaves half of the gold out of the final product because other metals have been mixed with the gold to strengthen it.
Chapter 2 Analysis
After having shown his father to be almost godlike in the last chapter, Laye shows his father to be human when gold arrives on the scene in chapter 2. Still, Laye’s father recognizes worldliness and its effects on people when he comments on the great haste shown by the woman who wants her gold trinket as soon as possible. He recognizes her vanity and even points it out, but then, when the praise-singer flatters him, he succumbs to the flattery, even dancing the douga, which is reserved for exceptional achievements.
Laye is ever impressed with his father’s uprightness and integrity. He whole-heartedly believes that the snake has shown his father that this woman would come into the workshop requesting a gold trinket, so he assumes that his father has already performed all the rituals required to properly work with gold. Ritual and spirituality are inextricable to Laye, so the stricter the observance to ritual, the stronger Laye believes convictions to be.
Also striking in this chapter is the awe exhibited when people see gold. Gold is treated reverentially, but nearly worshipped. This theme appears several times in the book as characters can’t help but feel blessed by the beauties around them. It is logical to Laye that the omniscient godlike snake should be present when the gold trinket is being produced
Chapter 3 Summary
Laye’s mother grew up in a tiny village west of Kouroussa called Tindican. Laye loves to take the two-hour walk to Tindican to stay with his grandmother and uncles. His youngest uncle, a teenager, comes to fetch him occasionally from Kouroussa, and together they turn a two-hour walk into a four-hour walk, enjoying the peaceful trip in the countryside.
When Laye arrives in Tindican his grandmother embraces him and asks about his health and how his parents are doing. She always tells him that he’s too skinny from being in the city. She takes him around her village, telling everyone that her “little husband” has arrived and shows him off.
Laye’s uncle Lansana inherited the concession when his grandfather died. Lansana has a twin brother but was born first. Under Lansana’s jurisdiction, the concession has grown large and prosperous. He is a quiet man, content to spend his time alone in the fields with his thoughts. Lansana’s twin, on the other hand, is restless and never stays in one place very long. He has a taste for adventure, and when he shows up at Tindican, Laye loves listening to the stories of his adventurous uncle.
While in Tindican, Laye stays in his grandmother’s hut. He notices that it is almost exactly like his mother’s hut. It is clean and has ropes hung in exactly the same way for hanging garlands of ears of corn to keep them away from the farm animals. His grandmother also has a calabash just like his mother’s for storing milk.
Laye’s grandmother always washes him as soon as he arrives. She soaps him down from head to foot and rubs him vigorously until he is pristine. After he is clean, Laye finds his friends. The boys talk about how they look and whether or not they’ve grown since Laye’s last visit. They play with their slingshots and do their best to keep the birds away from the crops.
Laye feels self-conscious in his school clothes because they look different from the other boys’ clothes. He wears a short-sleeved khaki shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. He also has a beret, but he hardly ever wears it. While in Tindican, Laye despises his school clothes, for he has to be very careful with them. He can’t get too close to the fire or help clean the lizards the boys catch and cook over live coals. He has to take care that his clothes don’t get caught on the rungs of ladders, while the other boys run around with abandon, never worrying about their clothes. Laye doesn’t have such freedom because he doesn’t have anything else to wear besides his school clothes.
In the evenings, Laye loves to sit with the whole family at mealtimes and study everyone. He wonders what his Uncle Lansana is thinking about now and what he has thought about all day long by himself in the fields. Laye’s grandmother urges him to eat more and more. Laye does eat a lot and then gets drowsy sitting around the fire.
Chapter 3 Analysis
The story switches scenes in chapter 3, transporting the main character from a city to a rural setting. The foot journey with his uncle between his city home and his grandmother’s country home makes a wonderful transition. Laye expresses his childlike wonder at the animals and plants he sees along the way, and his uncle finds great amusement in this.
Once in Tindican, Laye’s compare and contrast method of writing continues. He notices how similar his mother’s hut is to his grandmother’s, establishing a firm family connection in this somewhat foreign place. The reader also notices similarities between the characters of Uncle Lansana and Laye’s father. They are both strong, humble men, successful and well respected.
The greatest contrast is seen in Laye’s comments about his school clothes. His clothes are a constant reminder that he is different from the rural boys of Tindican. They can play and work as carelessly as they want to without worrying about spoiling their clothes. Laye, however, because he attends a structured school where uniforms are worn, must always be careful lest he ruin his clothes.
It’s telling that Laye doesn’t have another set of clothes besides his school uniform. Economics surely dictate this, but this set of school clothes symbolizes his place in the world. Although he feels jealous of the simple country life, he realizes from a very young age that his life will not and cannot be like theirs. Nonetheless, he finds great pleasure in his stay at Tindican. At the evening meal, surrounded by loved ones at the campfire, he feels full of good food lovingly prepared and full of love from these kind people.
Chapter 4 Summary
In Tindican, rice season always occurs in December, so Laye manages to find a way to be there at that time. On the day of the harvest, the head of each family rises at dawn to cut the first swath of rice from the field. As soon as the first swaths are cut, the tom-tom announces that the harvest has begun.
Laye doesn’t understand where this tradition came from. He considers that the first swaths destroy the inviolability of the fields but admits that he never bothered to ask and didn’t spend enough time there to learn much about the traditions. Once the tom-tom sounds, the reapers head out to the fields to begin their arduous work. These reapers are sturdy young men, precise in their movements and not easily tired. They sing as they work, their sickles rising and falling, naked to the loins.
Laye’s young uncle, the one who fetches him from Kouroussa, is a reaper. Laye follows him proudly and bundles the stalks of rice as they are cut. He also transports the tied bundles to the middle of the field to get them out of the men’s way. As the morning sun rises, the reapers need water and Laye runs to fetch it.
Laye wishes that he could be a reaper, but he knows he probably never will be. In the rice fields he begins daydreaming, wondering which life would be better, the life of a scholar or the life of a farmer. The farmer’s life seems so picturesque to him. The reapers sing in harmony as a chorus, united in their movements and their voices. Instead of competing with each other they adjust their different rates and strengths so they can all stay together. Laye’s uncle slows down so he doesn’t get too far ahead of the rest of the reapers. He tells Laye that he doesn’t want them to feel bad.
Laye feels that country people are often misrepresented. Many people think that country people are uncivilized and coarse, but in Laye’s experience they are far more dignified and considerate than city people. Their slowness of speech and simplicity are often mistaken for lack of intelligence, but Laye attributes their slowness to careful consideration of the effects of their actions.
At noon the women bring platters of couscous to the men. The men are famished and eat until they’re stuffed. Then they lie down in the shade to rest for a full two hours. Some sleep and some sharpen their sickles. The afternoon’s work is much shorter than the morning’s. They return to the village in the evening preceded by the tom-tom player and then everyone sings the song of the rice.
Chapter 4 Analysis
The imagery in chapter 4 is idyllic with its pastoral descriptions of the golden rice fields. The people are also portrayed as beautiful and godlike, their muscular torsos bending and moving in harmony as they harvest the rice. In a way, these descriptions are reminiscent of the socialist propaganda artwork of the mid twentieth century, especially as produced by eastern bloc countries. Laye’s descriptions, though, come off as pure and free of political intentions. Indeed, his memories are touched with nothing more sinister than nostalgia.
As in the previous chapter, the main character compares his city life with the rural life he admires. Instead of his clothing as the counterpoint, this time he compares the work. Laye idolizes the reapers as they labor and sweat. He wants to be like them but then gets lost in thought, thinking that he probably will never be a reaper.
The theme of tradition runs through this chapter, too. Laye notices the traditions, especially with the beginning of the harvest and the tom-toms, but he doesn’t understand them. In not understanding the local tradition he feels like an outsider, just as he felt like an outsider in the last chapter in his school clothes.
People and nature work in harmony, an attribute of country life unfamiliar to a city boy. To Laye, the brilliance of the blue sky and sun are connected to the happy singing of the reapers. The flowering plants of December respond to the exciting sounds of the tom-tom. The scent of the flowers “clothe [them] in fresh garlands.” This interconnection of humanity and nature makes the world seem peaceful and unified to the main character. He feels that he has never been happier. The idea of unity is also represented in the way the reapers work. As they sing in harmony, their bodies bend and straighten and their sickles work at exact angles
Chapter 5 Summary
The huts in Kouroussa are so small that not all of Laye’s brothers and sisters can sleep in their mother’s hut. Some of them must sleep in their father’s mother’s hut. Laye sleeps in his mother’s hut but he doesn’t get his own bed. He must share his bed with his father’s younger apprentices.
Because his father is so well known, there are always many apprentices staying at his forge. These apprentices are treated like children of the family, eating and sleeping with them. Laye thinks his mother treats the apprentices better than she treats her own children, but he doesn’t hold a grudge about this.
Laye remembers one particular apprentice named Sidafa. Laye and Sidafa like to stay up late talking about their days, Sidafa having spent the day in the forge and Laye having been at school. Laye’s mother doesn’t like to be kept awake by the chattering of young boys and yells at them to be quiet.
In the morning, Laye’s father presides over breakfast but it is Laye’s mother who makes the meal special. Of course she prepares the food, but it is her presence that maintains order and tradition. She is very strict about the meal and how it is served and eaten. Laye is forbidden to look at guests older than him and he is also forbidden to speak. Being a temperate man, Laye’s father makes sure that his children don’t take too much food. At the end of the meal, Laye bows to his father and mother and thanks them for the meal. All of his brothers and sisters and the apprentices do likewise.
Laye talks about his mother’s authoritarian attitude, which isn’t uncommon in their part of Africa. Women have a fundamental independence and inner pride that people may not expect from their part of the world. Beyond this, Laye believes that his mother has special powers.
One day, some men come and request Laye’s mother to use her powers to get a horse on its feet after they have tried everything they could think of. The horse is lying out in a pasture and refuses to move. Laye’s mother agrees to go look at the horse. After examining the horse, she forbids the men to hit the horse, saying it won’t do any good. She walks up to the horse and says, “If it is true that from the day of my birth I had knowledge of no man until the day of my marriage: and if it is true that from the day of my marriage I have had knowledge of no man other than my lawful husband—if these things be true, then I command you, horse, rise up!”
The horse gets up and quietly follows his master away. Laye wonders where his mother’s powers have come from. He explains her powers this way: His mother was the next child born after his twin uncles in Tindican. Legend says that twin brothers are wiser than other children, practically magicians. The child who is born directly after twin brothers, however, is also endowed with magic and may in fact be considered more powerful than the twins. His mother is this child. Besides being wise, the sayon, the child born after twins, has the added responsibility of settling disputes between the twins, thus making her even wiser.
Laye also sees his mother using her special powers as physical protection. Normally, everyone draws water from the river. The Niger flows slowly, so people feel safe drawing their water and even bathing freely there; but when the water rises the crocodiles are abundant and dangerous and everyone keeps away from the river—everyone except for Laye’s mother. Danger doesn’t seem to exist for her. She doesn’t fear the crocodiles and they don’t even seem to notice her.
Chapter 5 Analysis
By introducing daily culture and family legend, readers come to better understand the characters. Knowing how the family eats and how they explain themselves to each other does not further the plot, but it adds immeasurably to characterization. For example, knowing that Laye loves to talk with the apprentices far into the night lets us know that he is a talkative child. Therefore, when he doesn’t speak a word at mealtimes other than a polite “thank you” at the end of the meal, we understand that he is strictly obedient to his parents and that his parents are authoritarian and well respected.
The theme of the supernatural integrating with everyday life continues in this chapter where it was left off in chapter 2. In chapter 2, Laye describes his father’s god/prophet relationship with the black snake. In this chapter, Laye retells stories about his mother’s magical powers. Laye’s mother seems willing to drop whatever she is doing to use her powers to help others, as she does when the men come to ask her help with their horse. Using powers to help others is another attribute of a prophet, as is seeing the future like her husband does. However, being unafraid of crocodiles is a departure from the prophet symbol. Laye attributes her lack of fear to her inherent privileges as sayon, younger sibling of twin brothers. Laye admits that he still doesn’t understand his own privileges, his own totem. His lack of understanding about his role is foreshadowing.
Chapter 6 Summary
Laye is very young when he first starts attending the Koran school. Shortly thereafter he transfers to the French school. Every school day, as soon as they finish breakfast, Laye and his sister start out for school carrying their books and notebooks with them. Laye participates in the childish games of pulling girls’ hair until one day a friend named Fanta asks him why he always pulls her hair. He says he pulls it because she’s a girl. She reminds him that she doesn’t pull his hair. After this conversation he feels foolish about pulling her hair and doesn’t do it anymore. Laye’s sister notices that he’s feeling awkward around Fanta and makes fun of him for it.
The schoolteacher is more than strict; he beats the students and abuses them for the slightest infraction. The children wouldn’t think of interrupting him. If their handwriting on the chalkboard is not precisely exact, he deals out blows. Besides corporal punishment, the students also receive work-related punishments, such as sweeping the schoolyard, working in the kitchen garden, and herding the unruly school cowherd.
Years of abuse wear on the children, and the older children begin to take their frustration out on the younger children, stealing their lunches and forcing them to do their physical work. The older boys whip the younger boys and extort from them anything they can. Occasionally, a child complains to the director, but this only brings more abuse from the older boys.
One day, Laye’s friend Kouyate Karmoko says that he’s had enough after a particularly cruel beating. He is very small and thin and has been forced to give up his lunch many times. Kouyate tells his father what has been happening to him at school. Kouyate’s father is one of the most respected praise-singers in the district and has a good standing in the community. The next day, Kouyate invites the boy who beat him to dinner at his house, saying that his father wants to meet the upper form boy who has been kindest to him. That evening at the Karmoko house, after the older boy confesses to being unkind to Kouyate, Kouyate’s father gives the boy a thrashing and then permits him to leave.
The next day at school, the story spreads like wildfire, and Kouyate and his sister Mariama are ostracized. The older boys tell everyone, even the younger children that they should not associate with them, but Laye defies the order and is beaten by a group of older boys. Laye runs off crying, and Fanta brings him a wheat-cake. Laye tells his father about what has been happening at school, and the next day his father and his apprentices accompany him to school. The apprentices beat up the meanest culprit and then Laye’s father goes to talk with the director.
Until this point, the parents have been unaware of the brutal atmosphere at the school. Laye’s father explains to the director that he is sending his children to school to learn, not to be treated like slaves. Laye’s father hits the director in the jaw and knocks him down. The next day, the director’s motorcycle shows up at Laye’s home and the men appear to have a friendly conversation. A few months later, however, the director is forced to resign because of a petition signed by all the parents. Rumors of his treatment of the students had gotten around. After this turbulent school year, the younger boys are never again bullied by the older boys.
Chapter 6 Analysis
The innocent hair pulling at the beginning of the chapter foreshadows the chapter’s end. The boys and girls flirting by pulling each other’s hair is innocent, and readers smile at the scene, but when the violence turns serious in the chapter, readers wonder where the line was drawn. Is violence a slippery slope that begins with seeming innocence?
Fanta’s character is further developed when she offers Laye one of her mother’s famous wheat-cakes after he has suffered a beating at the hands of an older boy. Laye and Fanta are the same age, but Fanta gives the appearance of being older and wise, more like a mother figure than a childish playmate. She makes him think twice about pulling her hair; she makes him examine his motives and actions and then comforts him later on.
Laye’s father’s character also takes on a new dimension. We have seen his spiritual side from the first chapter. He observes ritual religiously and is gentle enough to co-exist peacefully with a snake. In this chapter, however, he hits the school director without missing a beat. Beneath the calm, cool exterior, Laye’s father has passion when he feels his family has not been treated justly.
Chapter 7 Summary
Laye is now a teenager and must prepare for his culture’s important rite of passage: circumcision. Along with other twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds, Laye begins the ritual one evening before the feast of Ramadan. As soon as the sun sets, the tom-tom begins to beat and the crowd of villagers follows the tom-tom player from hut to hut as he gathers the boys to take them away. The tom-tom strikes fear into Laye’s heart because he has heard the tales of Konden Diara.
Konden Diara is a terrible bogeyman, a lion that eats little boys. Laye isn’t sure if Konden Diara is a man or an animal or maybe half-man, half-animal, but he is certainly afraid of it. Laye’s father asks if he is afraid and then tells him he must not be afraid, reminding his son that he, too, went through this test. Laye is instructed to control his fear and control himself. His father says that Konden Diara will do nothing more to him than roar.
Toward the middle of the night, the procession around the town finishes, and all the boys are led out into the brush. The women and girls go home, and the older boys and men stay out for the night. Laye notices that the women and girls look afraid, and he imagines that they are making sure their huts are securely locked for the night to ward of Konden Diara.
The boys follow their leader out to an enormous bombax tree. They walk in silence, always on the lookout for the great beast. Then their leader tells them to kneel and put their heads right on the ground as if in prayer. They hide their eyes and begin hearing terrible roars. It sounds like twenty, maybe thirty lions, right on the other side of the bonfire in front of them. Laye is sure that Konden Diara can leap the fire in a single bound and eat up all the boys. Laye remembers the reassuring words of his father and tries to be as brave as possible, though he trembles from head to foot. He wonders if people can die from fright.
Then, suddenly the roaring ceases and the boys are commanded to get up. They spend the rest of the night learning the chants of the uncircumcised. Laye’s joints are cold and stiff, and he is ever so grateful to see the dawn. When the sun comes up, the boys see white threads hung from the bombax trees and huts. They walk back singing their new songs and trying to figure out how those threads got so high up in the trees. Laye’s friend Kouyate says that swallows tie the threads on the trees. An older boy says it is their great chief who does it. The great chief turns himself into a swallow during the night and flies from tree to tree and from hut to hut. Laye’s mother is happy and relieved to see him. She says all the men are mad and it’s foolish to take such risks, that little boys should not be made to stay awake all night. She sends him to bed right away.
Later on, Laye learns the secrets of the ritual. The older boys make the roaring sound by swinging ellipsoidal-shaped boards around with a sling. The threads in the trees are not so easy to explain. The men of the village put the strings on the trees, but Laye, never having seen it done himself, wonders how they could get the strings so high. The men never breathe a word about the ritual to the women or children. The ceremony of the lions is a test. It gives the boys confidence and courage for their circumcisions, which will soon follow.
Chapter 7 Analysis
The ceremony of the lions is symbolic of Laye’s transition from childhood to adulthood. As a young teenager, he is still a child in many ways, but his life will not be so innocent and carefree after he has participated in the ceremony. The fear he feels during the ceremony is greater than any fear he has previously experienced, and he cannot regain the innocence he felt before.
The tom-tom weaves all the rituals together throughout the book. Readers can hear the tom-tom every time something important happens in the village, and important things happen quite often. The tom-tom accompanies the praise-singer to big events. It signals the beginning of the harvest and announces the ceremony of the lions and the beginning of the feast of Ramadan. Senses, such as smell and sight, allow readers to more fully enter a story. The tom-tom gives sound to the story, and acts as a sort of Greek chorus for this African story.
Chapter 8 Summary
Of course, following their encounter with Konden Diara, the young boys face the real test of circumcision. Laye is now in his final year of school and is apprehensive about his transition from childhood to manhood. All the young men feel nervous about the circumcision, but the outward manifestations of the ceremony are joyous. The main square in Kouroussa is filled with music and dancing all week long. The young men to be circumcised have special clothing made for the occasion. They wear a boubou, a long tunic that reaches to the heels but is split up the sides, a skullcap decorated with a pompom, and a brightly colored silk handkerchief tied about their loins. The handkerchiefs are given to them by their acknowledged sweethearts, so while they’re dancing they kick up their heels to make their boubous fly more freely so everyone can see their handkerchiefs.
From time to time, an older man will break through the crowd and pay tribute to one of the young men about to be circumcised. Also, guests shower the boys with gifts and hold aloft symbols of their future careers. Most of the boys will be farmers, so their families hold hoes up in the air. Laye’s father’s second wife holds up an exercise book and fountain pen as the symbol of Laye’s profession. He knows she means well but it embarrasses him. Laye’s mother doesn’t hold anything up but stands back and watches from a distance. Laye appreciates her discretion.
This dancing goes on for a week before the boys are taken to a special hut where they will stay for a month after the circumcisions to recover together. Their boubous are then sewn up along the sides, so they must take tiny steps when they walk. As the boys finally line up for their circumcisions, they do their best to be brave. They refuse to let anyone else see their fear, for a future father-in-law or future relative may be standing nearby.
The surgeon does his job quickly and then the blood begins to spill. They all feel sick to their stomachs. A messenger is sent to tell the families that all went well and that their sons were very brave. Food from the feast is sent to the boys, but they all feel too sick to eat much.
Over the course of the next weeks they are well cared for by their healer and his helpers. A helper stays awake all night to make sure nobody rolls over in his sleep and hurts himself. Their fathers come to visit, but any contact with women is strictly forbidden during the healing process, so Laye can’t see his mother. He misses her terribly. When his mother finally comes to see him after more than three weeks, he can see sadness in her eyes. He realizes that she is sad because he is a man now and not her little boy any longer. During his stay in the hut, his family has built him his own hut. His hut is very close to his mother’s, with the door facing her door. She has also provided him with real men’s clothing
Chapter 8 Analysis
The circumcision ceremony marks the end of Laye’s childhood with finality. He will no longer be living in his mother’s hut, and he will have all the markings and trappings of a full-grown man. The joyous parties and dancing leading up to the ceremony, the feasting and boasting, and even the triumph over pain in the circumcision itself, do not measure up to the emotion he feels at seeing his mother’s sad smile when he moves his things into his own hut.
Blood in this chapter symbolizes both new life and equality between women and men. During childbirth, blood flows freely and accompanies a child into the world, but the blood spilt is usually just the mother’s. In this ceremony, free-flowing blood also marks the beginning of a man’s reproductive life, putting men and women on a more level plane when it comes to reproduction. Besides giving birth to new humans, the blood in the circumcision ceremony also represents new life for the boy-turned-man. When he returns home after the circumcision he is not the same. He is a newly born man.
Chapter 9 Summary
Laye leaves home for Conakry when he is fifteen years old to attend a school called the Technical College. On the morning of his departure, Laye’s mother wakes him early. She is already suffering from the loss of her son but tries very hard to keep her emotions under control. She has obtained a bottle of liquid that is supposed to be good for the brain. It is made from the washing water used to clean small boards that have prayers from the Koran written on them. Honey is added to this water and an elixir is made and sold at a very high price. Laye’s father gives him a he-goat’s horn containing talismans to protect him against evil spirits.
Laye says goodbye to all the elders of the village and then returns to find his mother crying. He begs her to not accompany him to the station because he’s afraid he won’t be able to tear himself from her arms. She consents and his father takes him to the station. Laye cries on the way and his father reminds him that he’s a big boy now and that he must be brave. He also reminds him that he has tremendous opportunities that no one in his family has had before and that he needs to work hard and make something of himself. Several praise-singers have arrived to celebrate his departure. Their chants make him feel determined to do well in school so he doesn’t let them down. The praise-singers also make him feel sad. He thinks about Fanta and how he won’t see her for a long time.
The train departs the station and by midday he has regained an interest in what is going on around him. He is interested in the landscape as he has never before seen foothills. The mountains amaze and terrify him; he thinks the train may fall over the precipice. He hears different dialects he can hardly understand and then feels oppressive heat as the train makes its way into Conakry.
His father’s brother Mamadou meets him at the station, and Laye loves him from the moment they meet. Mamadou treats him like a son. Uncle Mamadou lives in a European-style house, and Laye sleeps in a large soft bed there. He doesn’t sleep well that first night, wishing he could be in his little hut with his mother just a few steps away.
The next day he visits the ocean for the first time. Of course, Laye had heard of the ocean but he hadn’t been able to imagine its vastness and movement. His Uncle Mamadou has two wives. Each wife has her own room that she occupies with her own children. The aunts are very fond of Laye and treat him like one of their own. Uncle Mamadou is a little younger than Laye’s father and works as chief accountant in a French business. His observance of the Koran is scrupulous. He doesn’t drink or smoke and is always honest. Laye stays at Uncle Mamadou’s home on weekends and during holidays, but lives at the school during the week.
After his first week of school, Laye is ready to quit. He is learning nothing and feels that the education is too elementary, that he is wasting his time. Uncle Mamadou encourages him to stay with it. He explains that great changes will be coming to the school and that he won’t want to miss it. He says the education will change drastically in the following year, that it will be as good as any other school in the country. Soon thereafter, Laye gets an infection, possibly from a splinter in the workshop, and must be hospitalized. He spends most of the rest of the school year in the hospital and when he is finally well he sets “off for Kouroussa as if for the promised land.”
Chapter 9 Analysis
Ever looking backward to his childhood, Laye finds leaving home very difficult. He is so attached to his mother that he fears he will not be able to get on the train if she accompanies him to the station. Young and malleable, however, the boy finds that once he is away from his family he can look at his journey as an adventure. It helps that his Uncle Mamadou and aunts accept him as one of their own.
The ocean at Conakry both symbolizes and foreshadows Laye’s future. Until he has seen the ocean, he hasn’t realized its possibilities. He hasn’t understood how vast and alive the ocean is, but once he has seen it, it has a powerful pull on him. Likewise, his future will be opened up to him at Conakry, though at first he feels that it’s a dead end. Later on he will find that his beloved ocean will even be crossed in his future paths.
Chapter 10 Summary
Laye returns to Conakry in October to find that, true to his Uncle Mamadou’s words, his school has been entirely reorganized. The instruction is now excellent in both technical and general subjects. He no longer envies any other students in the country. Laye works hard and finds his name on the honor roll every term.
This is the year that Laye meets Marie. Nothing in his school years means more to Laye than his friendship with Marie. Marie is a student at the girls’ high school. Her father is a good friend of Uncle Mamadou’s, so Marie spends her Sundays at Laye’s uncle’s house. Marie’s skin is very light and Laye thinks she is as beautiful as a fairy. Laye’s aunts tease him and Marie about each other and try to get them to be more intimate, but Marie and Laye are both reserved and don’t fall for the aunts’ manipulation.
Marie and Laye like to listen to the phonograph and dance. In Guinea, “it is not customary for couples to dance in each other’s arms.” At the very most they hold hands, but not very often. He pedals her to the beach and they sit and talk. He helps her with her homework, which makes him feel very smart and helpful. They love each other but feel they are not old enough to really love each other. Laye admits that most of the boys are in love with Marie, and they feel jealous when he puts her on his bicycle and takes her down to the sea. When Lay is around Marie time flies, but during the week when they are separated time drags on
At the end of Laye’s third year of school he takes his proficiency examinations. Laye is determined to do the very best he can, having never forgotten his promise to his father that he would work hard and make something of himself. His aunts and Marie offer up sacrifices and worry about his exams, which last three days. Of the seven candidates who pass the exam, Laye achieves the highest score.
Chapter 10 Analysis
With the ocean symbolizing Laye’s future, Marie adds another dimension to that symbol. Falling in love is the next logical step for a young man after having left home. It is on the coast, gazing at the waves rolling in, that Marie and Laye have their most heartfelt and meaningful conversations. Sitting on the shore they talk about the past, Laye’s holidays at Tindican, their schoolwork, their friends, their idle thoughts about islands and boats and fishermen. They gather up their young lives and send that communion out to sea.
They have a conversation one day about an island they can see from the shore. Laye wants to get a boat and row out to it, but Marie sees that the waves are large and quite rough and that the short journey would be dangerous and certainly not worth the risk. Laye suggests that they get a fisherman to take them. Marie says they don’t need a fisherman; all they need is their eyes, that if they stare at the island long enough, without blinking, it’s almost as though they’re on the island. Or perhaps they are the island. In this conversation, the two young lovers have projected themselves away from their current realities out to something greater and further where they can be alone, where they can enjoy the happiness they feel on weekends when their studies don’t interfere.
Chapter 11 Summary
Every time Laye returns home for vacation he notices that his mother has made improvements to his hut, and this touches him. He can see that his hut is gradually acquiring a European look. She has gone to great pains to make it exactly what she thinks he likes. She has even constructed a divan bed where he hangs out with his friends until late at night.
Laye’s mother is concerned about some of the young women he associates with when he is home. Being away at school most of the year, Laye doesn’t hear the local gossip, but his mother does. Being her authoritarian self, she has no problem pulling a girl out of his group of friends and shoving her through the door, telling the girl to go home and not come back. Laye doesn’t like this behavior from his mother. He finds it irritating, but he doesn’t argue with her about it. He notices that she is not as particular about his male friends. Laye’s mother often gets up in the middle of the night to see if he’s in bed alone. She strikes a match to light up his bed. Laye complains of this treatment to his friends Kouyate and Check Omar.
Laye, Kouyate and Check have been friends since primary school, but their real friendship began after Laye left to go to school at Conakry. While in school, the three write long letters to each other describing school life. During holidays the trio is inseparable. They disappear for entire days together and then show up at Laye’s mother’s hut for dinner one day.
Because of his illness in his first year at Conakry, Laye has lost a year of school and still has one year until graduation, while Kouyate and Check have finished and are waiting for teaching positions. This summer, Check looks exhausted. Kouyate notices that Check is losing weight and doesn’t have an appetite. Laye’s mother speaks to Check’s mother about his condition and Check is taken to the medicine men. Check doesn’t want to give the appearance of thinking the medicine men are charlatans; he doesn’t at all think this, but he realizes that he may need a doctor’s help.
Laye and Kouyate stay at Check’s bedside for a week, watching him grow weaker and weaker. After the week, Kouyate tells his friends how they should distribute his books and to whom they should give his banjo. Then he says goodbye to them and slips away. It is forbidden to speak the name of the deceased, but Laye keeps saying Check’s name over and over in his head. He wakes up in the night bathed in sweat. He thinks of that time as the most wretched he’s ever spent and feels like the happy days are all over.
Chapter 11 Analysis
Check’s death further divides into childhood and adulthood. Check’s death is the next-to-last transition between innocence and experience. The author enhances this contrast by beginning the chapter with the characters’ most carefree experiences of the entire story. They stay out for days at a time with each other. They sing and play the banjo late into the evening with groups of male and female friends in their huts. They show up to meals when they feel like it, never announcing their intentions ahead of time because their plans may change at a moment’s notice. So it is unexpected and particularly cruel that death strikes these young men at the height of their joy and freedom. The juxtaposition of death at the pinnacle of youth makes the loss all the more terrible and brings their youthful optimism to a screeching halt.
After Check’s death, Laye has nothing left to do but to grow up, to really grow up, not just in ritual and ceremony, but also in demeanor and attitude. With his youthful optimism gone, his fears return. He dreams terrible dreams about Check, so much so that he doesn’t want to sleep alone. These fears are different than his fears of Konden Diara, for Konden Diara is an imagined foe, and death is as imminent a foe as any on earth, and he has now experienced its cruel inviolability for himself.
Chapter 12 Summary
Before leaving Conakry upon successfully completing his exams, the director of the school asks Laye if he would like to go to France to finish his studies. Without thinking about his parents Laye answers yes, but as he returns to Kouroussa to celebrate his school successes he begins to worry about how his mother will react to such news. His relatives in Conakry have told him that he should not turn down such a unique opportunity, but now he’s not sure how his parents will react.
When he tells his mother that the director wants him to go to France her face falls and she tells him that he’s not going. Laye’s father is more supportive, and he tries to convince her that a year is not that long. Laye’s mother feels that there has been a conspiracy to keep her son away from her all these years and continues to oppose him leaving for France.
Laye speaks to his father alone, and his father agrees that he should not turn down such a rare and valuable opportunity, but they will have to try and convince his mother to see it their way. Father and son go together to talk to her. When they find her she is crushing millet with a mortar and pestle for the evening meal. As they speak she pounds the meal harder and harder. She rants that the people at that school must not have mothers for them to want to send boys so far away from their mothers. She doesn’t understand why he should want more schooling; he’s had so much already. When Laye tries to explain his viewpoint she tells him to be quiet because he’s just a little boy, a nobody. Finally, though, with her rage spent, she concedes and allows him to go. Laye describes that goodbye as being torn apart.
The director in Conakry explains the journey to France to Laye and gives him a map of the metro. Laye cannot vaguely conceive what the metro is like, but he takes the map and gets ready to leave for the airport. Uncle Mamadou and Marie accompany Laye to the airport. With tears in her eyes, Marie asks if Laye will be coming back. He says he will. Then he gets on the plane with tears in his eyes and tries to stifle the sobs that rack him. After he recovers he notices something hard in his pocket and pulls out the map of the metro.
Chapter 12 Analysis
For this final goodbye, the tables have turned somewhat. In the past, when Laye has had to say goodbye to his mother, he has all but fallen apart. This time it is his mother who can barely contain herself. However, when Laye has to say goodbye to Marie, he behaves more like his mother does during their goodbyes. His affections have been somewhat displaced from mother to lover.
This journey can also be compared to Laye’s first journey to Conakry. In his first journey to Conakry, the mountains and ocean amaze him. This time he is riding in an airplane and will see even more new and different sights in Paris. These new things are symbolized by the map of the metro, which links him from his current life to his future life.
The setting of this final scene completes the foreshadowing of the ocean from earlier chapters. In his conversation with Marie about the island, Laye wanted to travel across the waves to explore a new place. His achievements have sent him soaring above the waves to an even more magnificent and unknown place than he had dreamed of sitting on that shore. The praise-singers’ magnification of his achievements made him want to be better. Now soaring off into the clouds, their prophecies are fulfilled.