THE HEART OF THE NGONI: Heroes of the African Kingdom of Segu by Harold with Ousmane Sako Courlander

THE HEART OF THE NGONI: Heroes of the African Kingdom of Segu

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A chronicle of the Bambara kingdom of Segu, from its early-17th-century dawning in magic and prophecy to its decline in the early 19th century as Muslims subdued the Bambara--with a final account of two cities' continued rivalry under French rule. Segu history is told in terms of conflicts between individuals and wars between cities, the wars in turn usually extensions of personal conflict. Except for a treacherous wife and a Judith figure, women haven't much of a role in these tales of contests and conquests; and the only children are sons who will inherit a kingship or threaten a line of succession. Many of the leaders and heroes are so designated in early childhood through some magical test, then plotted against by kings who see the chosen child's destiny as a threat. But plots are in vain, for destiny can't be averted. As is written, ""If you are born to be great you will be great. So let us not concern ourselves with questions."" Similarly, in this caste society, if you are born to be a blacksmith you will be a blacksmith, and so on. And though your father might have been born a noble elsewhere, if he has been taken as a slave, you are born to be a slave. In his foreword, Courlander refers to the Segu code of chivalry, one aspect of which was the strict set of rules by which wars were conducted. Appointments for attack are made in advance, and postponed if the city to be attacked is not ready. Contestants frequently allow their opponents to strike first and to prepare their magic before proceeding. And a hero out for cattle as a trophy will not take those cattle without calling out their owner's army to fight for them. Honor is paramount, and wars and matches are fought to establish or preserve it: in one case two Muslim cities attack two Bambara cities, not because they have anything against their victims but to establish which of the attackers is the more valorous. And like the European knights who lived by chivalry, Segu heroes go forth from their home cities bent on picking fights and wars to gain glory. As one passage of traditional song has it, ""War is not good./Yet without war there cannot be victory."" The immediate occasion might be as trivial as a king's wife's longing for the milk of another area. Whatever one makes of this scheme of things, the accounts with their personal focus maintain an unflagging narrative interest and are free of the grandiosity of parallel Western accounts. And, as Courlander's foreword modestly promises, they ""tell us a great deal about Bambara values and institutions.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1982
Publisher: Crown