Camara Laye’s autobiography, The African Child, recounts the author’s childhood and youth in the Malinke region of Upper French Guinea. The book differs from a biography as it is written by Laye himself, providing a firsthand account of his life. Set in a traditional and predominantly agrarian community undergoing influences from Islam and France, the novel follows Laye’s early experiences and impressions of his immediate world.
The African Child was first published in French in 1954, before it was translated into English by James Kirkup.
The narrative covers approximately thirteen years of the author’s childhood, beginning when Laye is around six years old and encounters a snake, leading up to his emotional departure from home at nineteen to pursue further studies in France.
The African Child encompasses Laye’s childhood and teenage years. Laye, the eldest son in a polygamous family with two wives, depicts a harmonious and stable household. Laye fondly refers to his father’s second wife as his “second mother,” emphasizing the family’s tolerance and unity. Laye also considers his father’s apprentices as his elder brothers, highlighting the inclusive nature of the family.
While the story contains occasional moments of nostalgia and separation from loved ones, particularly Laye’s affectionate mother and his close friend, Check Omar, it primarily focuses on positive experiences. These include visits to Laye’s maternal home in rural Tindican, where he engages in fascinating rice-harvesting activities. The narrative explores the fear and pain associated with initiation and circumcision, as well as the bittersweet aspects of school life in both native Kouroussa and the distant Conakry.
Of all the individuals Laye encounters, his greatest attention and affection are reserved for Marie, a beautiful half-caste student at the Girls’ High School in Conakry. Laye develops a passionate yet innocent love affair with Marie, leaving a lasting impression on his mind alongside his unique love for his mother.
The story fittingly concludes with Laye tearfully leaving home for the third time, embarking on a journey for Western education and temporarily parting from Africa and his loved ones. However, he holds onto the hope of a joyful reunion in the future.
Chapter to Chapter Summary of The African Child
- Chapter One to Chapter Six Summary
- Chapter Seven to Chaper Twelve Summary