Quite a number of literary critics have put up a spirited argument that most great writers usually do a very shoddy job when it comes to writing their autobiographies. However, this claim is far from what is actually on the ground, I believe that experience, contrary to popular belief, is mostly imagination; therefore in telling our life stories, we are at liberty to bring on board experience, creativity and imagination in order to make autobiography look quite appealing to the reader .
Camara Laye in his autobiography The African Child has successfully combined creativity, imagination and experience to write about his childhood experiences and his eventual alienation from his culture. It can be regarded as a coming of age’ narrative which gives the reader a unique insight into Laye’s childhood experiences, as well as his struggle with alienation. This novel is regarded as one of the best novels from the Francophone region and the most widely read African Autobiography. Set in the backdrop of the French occupation of West Africa, the writer utilizes literary devices like description and dialogue to make it an interesting read.
This being an autobiographical novel, Laye narrates his experiences from a first person point of view using a child narrator. This point of view is honest and reliable, though some of the stories sound fictional, for example the story about the black snake in the forge. He intertwines the cycle of life with a narration about deeply rooted African customs, such as entering secret fraternities (dispelling the myths about what is real and that which is simulated), circumcision, which marks the passage into manhood, local festivities and other African magical rites that are based on superstition.
Some rites imply the spiritual union with certain animals that act as totems or spiritual guardians. These totems might be snakes (the protective black snake plays a key role here) or crocodiles, among others. Nevertheless, being a child narrator, Laye is honest in so many other things which in a way renders the text credible, as we are able to see the story fairly objectively through the different instances of dialogue and the well-told actions of the other characters. In The African Child, Camara Laye’s youth and development of his cultural and personal values as a young man is explained. He is part of the Malinke tribe in the village of Koroussa in Upper Guinea and is eldest out of many brothers and sisters. In the beginning, he learns about many of the traditions and customs his people. He is told about Totemism-the fact that everybody has a spiritual animal that is chosen by the person’s character. While learning about his people, he attends a Koran school and then a French school in another part of town. Later in the book, he learns about Konden Diara- a ceremony that is a ritual used to conquer a boy’s fear before the initiation of circumcision. He undergoes the ritual and circumcision-represents a rite of passage -a boy is now a man. After graduating from his school, Laye leaves at 15 years of age to attend a 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 where he comes across many cultural changes. 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. He also seeks changes during the day where people at their work are dressed in a Western style, but in boubou’s when they come home from work. Laye lives the life of a typical college school student, studying at the school’s campus and returning home to Koroussa during the holidays. When he returns, he sees the transformation within his family and friends. It is ironical that once Laye enrolls in a French primary school instead of a Koran one his educational as well as cultural experience deteriorates. In chapter six he describes his school punishments as severe, and the lessons as quite difficult. He writes, I underwent a variety of punishments in that school, and only one thing did not vary”my anguish. One’s love of knowledge had to be very strong to survive these ordeals (Laye 80). Thus Laye hints that despite the apparent superiority of the French educational system, he faced many challenges as he quips, our love of knowledge had to be ineradicable to survive such ordeals. (Laye 59)The chapter also goes in detail to describe a strict separation by class, noting that there were fewer beatings in the upper classes (Laye 59). He then notes that the older student made the young ones suffer, Those older students”I refuse to call them schoolfellows-who were older and stronger than we, and less strictly supervised”persecuted us in every conceivable way (61). This description of his French primary school experiences can be used to imply existence of social class stratification among the Europeans, something unheard of in the African culture. The negative portrayal of the school and its headmaster enhances the alienation within the French educational system and his wish to return back to African traditional values.Throughout the book, Laye manages to vividly describe in detail the rites of passage undergone by the village boys. A devout Muslim, Laye fully participates in these rites, though he admits that he doesn’t understand all of the symbolism and tradition behind the rites.He does feel, however, that the ceremony and rituals instill bravery and confidence in him. Beginning with his earliest memories, Camara Laye takes readers through his childhood, as he grows older he writes about his ventures to his grandmother’s land with his uncles and his school days. The school he attends when he is a little older is a school by any means, but there is great turmoil. Often the older boys pick on the younger ones and while this may be brought to the attention of the director and the principal .The older boys would be punished but it would be so overlooked that as soon as they were finished being punished, they would return from their beatings and give them back tenfold to the young boys who told on them. As he grows older, his style changes and he sees the real world as it really is as opposed to his fantasies he had when he was younger. From that first chapter on, each chapter contains some lesson learned, some rite of passage to advance the coming of age idea. With each chapter he gets wiser and older. In his culture, Laye’s coming of age rites are mostly formalized. The ceremony of the lions, at age twelve, begins the journey from childhood to adulthood. In the ceremony of the lions, the boys must learn to face their fears and master themselves. They stay outside all night long, facing the possibility that lions could rip them apart at any moment. This is meant to instill a sense of bravery in them.Moreover, unlike most autobiographies which merely record historical facts in the subject’s life, Laye manages to present his autobiography in a fictional and creative way, he utilizes description as well as figurative language allowing the reader to be part of the narration. For example, he describes his father’s forge so vividly that the reader feels like watching the entire process, the griot’s praise songs, the process of purifying the gold as well as the presence of the black snake transforms the whole process from a mechanical one to an enjoyable creative work. This helps dispel the claim that Africans were ignorant savages a view held by the Western world. In addition, through dialogue, he allows the reader to interact with other characters in his life. For example, the dialogue between the narrator and his father after receiving his letter of admission to the French college reveals his father’s sentimental nature as well as her mother’s loving and protective nature. Laye effectively uses a metaphor to describe the destructive nature of the French culture in West Africa. The train that passes by the narrator’s home is said to occasionally cause a fire due to the friction between the wheels and the rails which ended up causing a fire that burnt the fence to the narrator’s compound. This not only symbolizes the destructive nature of the French culture but is also a symbol of cultural intrusion.Laye has effectively managed to show us the alienating effect of Western education, through the journeys he undertakes, this is clearly seen when he moves from home to Conakry to attend the Technical College where he takes four years. These years that he is away from home change him a lot as they almost alienate him from his culture and people. Many countries around the world have been influenced by the western ideology. Western Ideology includes components such as literary, education, political and philosophical views, and most of all, religion. In the autobiography, “The African Child”, Camara Laye, is a person who faces these types of challenges. He becomes stuck between his own traditional and the western ideologies. This alienating effect is best captured in the mother’s constant improvements to his hut to symbolize his slowly but gradual alienation from his culture. Originally it had been like the other huts, but gradually it began to acquire a European look” (169). His was trying to adapt to the style of the west through her son’s experience in Conakry. She was expressing not only her love for Laye, but also her feelings toward the western tradition. While he was in his village, one of his friends’ Chet was seriously ill. The medicine men gave him remedies and charms to help her but there was no significant change at all. Laye and his other friend knew that he had to see a white doctor at the hospital. Chet passed away after a week. Because of Laye’s education from the west, he knew that the medicine men were insufficient. From experiences and education of the west, he has become a man with wisdom of both cultures. “The African Child” is a wonderful journey through Camara Laye’s personal experiences. It shares many of his experiences and challenges through his life as a youth and young man. There is effective use various symbols to represent the idyllic African identity especially his desire to attain manhood. For example, the little black snake, unlike other snakes, which the men and women of the community kill at first sight, the little black snake that visits his father is different. His mother tells the young Laye, My son, this one must not be killed: he is not like other snakes, and he will not harm you; you must never interfere with him (Laye 22). She then adds, This snakeis your father’s guiding spirit When Laye then questions his father about the snake’s significance, he responds: That snakeis the guiding spirit of our raceThat snakehas always been with us; he has always made himself known to one of us. In our time, it is to me that he has made himself known (Laye 24). Throughout the autobiography, Laye portrays his father in an ideal, almost mystical light. It is obvious to Laye that the snake should show himself to his father, for he is the most skilled blacksmith, who appears to have authority over the other blacksmiths and”most importantly” Was he not, after all, my father? (Laye 24), we could therefore say that his father is the absolute conception of the manhood he hopes to achieve. Thus it is only natural that the little black snake, the guiding spirit of their race, would reveal himself to his father, the epitome of Laye’s idealistic African identity.One of the features of native African culture is belief in hoodoo or black magic. Laye gives numerous accounts of exhibition of magical powers by his father and mother. His father, for example, by virtue of belonging to the Malinke tribe, has the power to create gold out of iron. His father possesses the power of the black snake, which enables him to perform these supernatural feats. Though features such as these make the story interesting and add colour, we have to concede in the end that they are mythical. The proper way to understand these events in the book is to consider them as impressions’ in the naive and imaginative mind of young Laye. Likewise, the descriptions of powers’ wielded by his mother are equally mythical. For example, having been born in a tribe whose totem is the crocodile his mother will never be attacked by crocodiles in the dangerous river. Likewise, she has special powers to heal wounded animals. By treating these magical elements as myth, the reader can then sift out factual information from the book.Just as the magical elements throw light on African culture and belief, the factual elements help us understand the political and historical realities of Laye’s Guinea. The book is set in colonial Africa when Western thought and technology was just beginning to be introduced. Yet, most of the continent, including Guinea, remained firmly in the grip of ancient tradition. Superstition and ritual was rife at the time and it had a profound effect on all aspects of culture. For example, Laye himself had to go through a rite of passage as he entered manhood. The rite is to stay away in the open wilderness for a whole night, with a real risk of being attacked by lions. Having successfully fulfilled this challenge, he is accepted as a man in his community and is given the privilege of living in his own hut. These rites and rituals were integral to Guinean culture, even as Western methods of agricultural production and social organization were being implemented. These opposing tendencies were depicted well in the book.The Autobiography further reveals that Africans are more cultured and civil that the Whites, he says, I do not know how the idea of something rusticbecame associated with country people. Civil formalities are more respected on the farm than in the city. Farm ceremony and manners are not understood by the city, which has no time for these things. To be sure, farm life is simpler than city life. But dealings between one man and anotherare more strictly regulated. I used to notice a dignity everywhere which I have rarely found in the cities. The rights of others were highly respected. And if intelligence seemed slower it was because reflection preceded speech and because speech itself was a most serious matter. (Laye 62-63)In conclusion, we are able to feel Laye’s nostalgia for his homeland. A feeling that he has effectively communicated to the reader through his combination of creativity and childhood experiences. Thus making The African Child the most widely read autobiography