Characterisation in Camara Laye’s “The African Child”

Camara Laye, the narrator and protagonist, shares his journey from childhood to adolescence in the city of Kouroussa, French Guinea.

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Some of the characters in The African Child are Camara Laye, Laye’s Father, Laye’s Mother, Laye’s Maternal Grandmother, Marie, Kouyate, Uncle Sekou, Uncle Mamadou, Young Uncle, Uncle Lansana, and Fanta.

We shall discuss some of these characters in this particular blog post. For an overview of what the novel is about, read the plot summary of The African Child.

Camara Laye

Camara Laye, the narrator and protagonist, shares his journey from childhood to adolescence in the city of Kouroussa, French Guinea. Born in 1924, Laye, a Malinke, attends the Technical College in Conakry before studying Engineering in France. His close bond with his mother is evident, and his uncle describes him as her spitting image. In the course of the narration, Laye experiences significant events that shape his character and worldview.

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As a young boy, Laye encounters a snake in his father’s workshop and narrowly escapes being bitten. Later, he becomes intrigued by a mysterious little black snake that visits his father regularly. Laye spends hours observing his father’s gold-smelting and trinket-making process, which involves supernatural elements associated with the snake.

Laye frequently visits his mother’s rural home in Tindican, where his maternal relatives reside. He cherishes these trips and stays for extended periods due to his strong attachment to his mother. He also takes part in the rice-harvesting festival, further connecting him to his cultural roots.

Laye’s education begins in Kouroussa, starting with a Muslim school and later transitioning to a French school for his primary education. He eventually attends the Technical College in Conakry before pursuing higher studies in Argenteuil, France. These experiences play a significant role in his development.

As Laye grows, he undergoes customary initiation rites into manhood. This process involves encountering the fearsome Konden Diara and undergoing circumcision, both of which he remembers vividly.

While in Conakry, Laye falls in love with Marie, the daughter of a family friend. Their affair is passionate but innocent, leaving a lasting impression on Laye.

Laye experiences profound grief when his close friend, Check Omar, dies. Alongside another friend, Kouyate, they attempt to save Check’s life but are unsuccessful.

Laye’s most agonizing departure occurs when he leaves home for Argenteuil, France, to pursue higher education. This separation deeply affects him and his family, especially his mother.

Laye’s perspective offers insights into his multicultural upbringing, encompassing various religious and cultural influences. Laye’s story reflects the experiences of a typical African child, incorporating elements of traditional ceremonies, religious diversity, and the challenges of pursuing Western education. Ultimately, Camara Laye embodies the essence of an African child.

Laye’s Father

Laye’s Father, described as slender yet agile, possesses a calm and introverted demeanor but displays resolute decisiveness when necessary. He is married to two women, Laye’s mother being the first, and has approximately twelve children.

Orphaned at the age of twelve, he had to forge his own path in life, initially working as a domestic labourer for the Syrians under the exploitative guardianship of his uncles. Despite his hardships, he eventually becomes a highly accomplished blacksmith and renowned goldsmith, commanding authority over all blacksmiths in the five cantons.

He operates a distinguished workshop in Kouroussa, known for its exceptional craftsmanship.

The author intricately describes his father’s private dwelling, a round structure with a proud thatched roof, featuring a rectangular doorway and a small window that allows slender beams of daylight to penetrate. Inside the hut, various items hold significance, such as a bed made of compacted earth, adorned with a simple wicker mat and a kapok-stuffed pillow. Tool-boxes are meticulously arranged at the rear, while prayer rugs and traditional garments known as boubous are placed to the left. Over the pillow, a series of pots hang, containing extracts from plants and tree bark, serving as guardians during his father’s slumber. Before retiring for the night, Laye’s father applies different liquids onto his body, each possessing distinct properties associated with charms.

Laye’s father is believed to possess supernatural abilities, amplified by his ownership of a little black snake, which he considers the guiding spirit of their lineage. He shares the details of inheriting the snake and highlights its invaluable assistance in his role as a goldsmith. The snake also plays a significant role in his clairvoyance, providing foresight into future events.

Recognizing that Laye’s education will eventually lead him away from home, Laye’s father prepares himself for this eventuality. He confronts the bullies at Laye’s primary school in Kouroussa, engaging in a memorable altercation with the headmaster to address the issue. He also guides Laye through the various stages of initiation into manhood, offering him the necessary courage.

When Laye departs for Conakry, his father accompanies him part of the way and advises him to conduct himself with dignity. During this moment, he reveals his own challenging upbringing as an orphan.

When Laye prepares to journey to France for further studies, it is his father who, alongside Laye, attempts to console Laye’s distraught mother, displaying his understanding and vision for his son’s role in the country’s development.

Laye’s father wields significant influence over his son, instilling both fear and respect, shaping Laye’s beliefs and religious perspectives. His connection to the supernatural world, particularly through the little black snake, captivates and mystifies Laye.

Laye’s father harbours deep affection for his son, though he strives to maintain emotional restraint as a man. His reactions to Laye’s departures for Conakry and France, as well as their intimate conversations, demonstrate his genuine care and concern for Laye’s well-being. Laye’s father exhibits greater foresight and understanding compared to Laye’s mother, recognising his son’s potential contribution to the country’s progress and emphasizing the importance of his educational accomplishments.

Similar to Laye’s mother, Laye’s father contributes significantly to the novel’s mystical atmosphere through his workshop activities and involvement in supernatural practices

Kouyate

Kouyate, also known as Kouyate Karamoko, is the author’s closest friend and schoolmate. He is of extremely small and thin stature, often jokingly teased about having a stomach as small as a bird’s gizzard. Kouyate has a strong liking for fruits, particularly guavas, oranges, lemons, and sour, acidic flavours.

One day, Kouyate decides to rebel against the tyranny of the older boys by reporting one of them, Himourana, to his father, who is a respected member of the community. Kouyate cleverly invites the bully to their home for a “dinner” that turns out to be a severe whipping administered by Kouyate’s father.

Kouyate and Laye go through the night of Konden Diara together, a significant event, and discuss their experiences afterwards.

Kouyate’s father, due to his age and social standing, is the only person in the community allowed to lead the “coba” chant and teach the boys about to undergo circumcision how to dance to it.

After leaving the primary school in Kouroussa, Kouyate continues his studies at the High School in Popoda. However, he frequently meets Laye and Check during holidays to spend time together. They become known as the inseparable trio, often playing and singing along the streets of Kouroussa.

When Check Omar falls ill, Kouyate, Laye, and their mothers provide support, but Check ultimately dies despite following Kouyate’s advice to seek medical help at the dispensary. Check’s death deeply impacts both Kouyate and Laye.

Kouyate holds great significance as Laye’s closest friend and confidant. They share numerous experiences throughout childhood and youth. Laye even entrusts Kouyate with the secret of his father’s permission for the trip to France, demonstrating the depth of their relationship.

Kouyate’s courageous act of reporting the bullying at the primary school in Kouroussa leads to an end to this harmful practice. As a result, the learning environment becomes healthier and more peaceful.

Laye’s Mother

Laye’s Mother, born immediately after Laye’s twin uncles in Tindican, holds a significant role in Laye’s life and the narrative.

Laye’s mother displays strictness and reproves him, even resorting to a few sharp slaps, when he innocently plays with a snake as a child.

When Laye encounters the little black snake later on, his mother warns him against interfering with it, emphasizing that the snake serves as his father’s guiding spirit.

Laye acknowledges that he would have remained perpetually hungry if his mother hadn’t set aside his portion of food. Laye’s father’s inclination to share their meals with others is seen as excessively generous.

Laye’s mother frequently expresses concern that Laye’s father’s work as a goldsmith may harm his eyesight. She advises Laye to avoid the workshop due to the detrimental effects of gold soldering on the lungs and eyes.

As the first of Laye’s father’s two wives, Laye’s mother assumes a firm and effective control over the household. She manages numerous children, including apprentices, creating a united family environment where the apprentices are treated as equals to the master’s children. Laye perceives them as his elder brothers, thanks to the care and attention bestowed upon them by Laye’s parents, particularly his mother.

Laye’s mother defies conventional expectations of the humble role assigned to African women. She upholds strict table manners and exhibits authority, even when Laye’s father appears more indulgent due to his preoccupation with work.

Laye recalls instances where his mother demonstrates unusual abilities. She commands a stubborn horse to stand using her powers and can receive spiritual visitations while asleep, enabling her to confront and denounce involved witch doctors. Her heritage as the daughter of a skilled blacksmith grants her typical powers associated with that caste.

When Laye departs for Conakry and later for France, his mother organises grand feasts and provides him with a magic brain-enhancing potion, symbolising her love and desire for his success. These farewells evoke intense emotional agony for Laye’s mother, highlighting her deep attachment to her son.

Laye’s mother’s affection for him borders on protective jealousy, particularly towards his female friends. This possessiveness occasionally leads to Laye feeling suffocated, as she embarrasses female visitors and grants his closest friends, Check and Kouyate, more freedom than him.

Laye’s mother embodies a loving and dedicated mother, adept at maintaining order within the household and instilling discipline in all the children, including Laye and his father’s apprentices.

Laye’s mother holds immense significance in his life, as she is the single most important figure. The autobiography is even dedicated to her, underscoring her pivotal role.

Uncle Sekou

Uncle Sekou, one of Laye’s paternal uncles, holds a special place in Laye’s life due to their close age proximity and their bond resembles that of siblings.

Laye considers him more of a brother than an uncle. Uncle Sekou is known for his liveliness, talkativeness, and an exuberance of spirit that delights Laye. Despite his energetic nature, Uncle Sekou speaks with wisdom and sense, captivating Laye with his inexhaustible flow of words. Similar to Young Uncle, he is also unmarried but engaged.

Uncle Sekou takes care of Laye in Conakry and supports Uncle Mamadou’s guidance. He advises Laye to continue his studies at the Technical College, which proves beneficial to Laye’s future.

When Laye is hospitalised, Uncle Sekou frequently visits him to provide companionship, alleviate feelings of loneliness and nostalgia, and uplift his spirits.

Laye and Marie often retreat to Uncle Sekou’s apartment for privacy and leisure. Due to his frequent absence, their meetings in Uncle Mamadou’s house on Sundays offer them the desired privacy. They enjoy playing and dancing to music on Uncle Sekou’s gramophone.

Uncle Sekou accompanies Laye and Marie to the airport when Laye finally departs for France from Conakry, along with Uncle Mamadou.

Uncle Sekou fills the void of companionship for Laye that Uncle Mamadou, due to their significant age difference, cannot fulfill. Their close age proximity allows for a strong connection and makes Laye feel at home in Uncle Sekou’s presence.

Laye mainly remembers Uncle Sekou for providing the opportunity for him and Marie to have privacy in his apartment. This desirable privacy contributes to the strengthening of their relationship, even though their love affair remains innocent and platonic.

Uncle Sekou acts as a brotherly figure, offering companionship, advice, and a space for privacy. His presence brings joy and comfort to Laye, and his apartment becomes a haven for Laye and Marie to foster their relationship.

Uncle Mamadou

Uncle Mamadou is described as a tall, imposing man, strong both physically and in character. He is always impeccably dressed, calm, dignified, and instantly commands respect. Deeply religious, he follows the teachings of the Koran with utmost sincerity. Uncle Mamadou is known for his honesty, patience, and self-control. He is held in high esteem in Conakry, and Laye views him as a saintly figure. Despite being younger than Laye’s father, he is a source of guidance and inspiration.

Uncle Mamadou personally receives Laye at the train station during his first trip to Conakry, immediately making him feel at home. He assists Laye in settling quickly into his studies.

Laye’s aunts, Awa and N’Gady (Uncle Mamadou’s wives), develop a strong affection for Laye, treating him as their own child rather than distinguishing him from their biological children.

When Laye initially feels disillusioned with the educational standards at the Technical College, Uncle Mamadou encourages him to persevere. He also informs Laye about the impending reorganization of the school. Uncle Mamadou emphasises the value of sound technical training over a general liberal education.

During Laye’s prolonged hospitalisation in Conakry, Uncle Mamadou and his wives provide for him and uplift his spirits while he is in a foreign land.

Uncle Mamadou takes pride in Laye’s outstanding academic achievements. He encourages Laye to seize the rare opportunity to pursue further studies in France. When Laye prepares to depart for France, Uncle Mamadou, along with his wives, sees him off after Laye’s visit to the headmaster for last-minute instructions.

Uncle Mamadou leaves a lasting impression on the author, serving as an ideal and influential figure. Laye sees him as a saint and is deeply influenced by his lifestyle. Just as Young Uncle imparts rural cultural education in Tindican, Uncle Mamadou teaches Laye the best aspects of city life through his own exemplary conduct.

Laye’s Maternal Grandmother

Laye’s Maternal Grandmother is portrayed by the author as a tall, strong woman with jet-black hair. Despite her age, she appears youthful and maintains an upright posture.

Despite her sons’ objections, Laye’s grandmother actively participates in farm work, which the author believes contributes to her enduring vitality. Her commitment to physical labor sustains her youthful energy (unlike her sons who object to her involvement).

Whenever Laye visits Tindican, it is his grandmother who eagerly receives him. Accompanied by his young uncle, she meets them at the outskirts of the village, and together they walk back home. Along the way, the grandmother proudly introduces Laye to the residents of each hut they pass.

Upon Laye’s arrival, his grandmother ensures he receives a thorough bath and takes responsibility for his clothing. Laye stays inside her hut throughout his visit, which closely resembles his mother’s dwelling in the city. She also takes care to ensure Laye is properly fed during his stay, compensating for any weight loss he may have experienced in Kouroussa.

Laye shares a deep bond of affection with his grandmother. The author reminisces about her with warm and tender feelings. Laye’s love for his grandmother may stem from his love for his own mother, extending to this maternal figure in his life.

She symbolises the resilience and virtues of village life, while also fostering a loving and nurturing relationship with Laye.

Young Uncle

Young Uncle is the youngest among Laye’s maternal uncles, much younger than Laye’s mother. The author describes him as good-natured and naturally kind. Although he is engaged, he is yet to take a wife.

Young Uncle is the one responsible for fetching Laye from Kouroussa and bringing him to Tindican during his visits. Laye enjoys these treks due to his uncle’s caring nature. They walk hand in hand, with Young Uncle taking smaller steps to accommodate Laye’s young age, extending the journey duration.

During the trek, Young Uncle and Laye engage in various interesting activities, such as startling birds and animals from their hiding places and exchanging stories. Laye also receives updates about the farm from his uncle, making the journey more enjoyable.

Young Uncle plays a significant role during the rice-harvesting festival. He is exceptionally skilled at cutting rice, and Laye takes pride in following him, helping with tasks like stripping leaves and arranging sheaves. Despite their progress, Young Uncle humbly reminds Laye not to get too far ahead out of politeness.

Young Uncle ensures Laye’s comfort during the hot weather by requesting his water bottle, which Laye keeps cool under leaves. After drinking from it, Young Uncle shares the remaining water with Laye. During breaks, Laye and his uncle enjoy meals together, such as the hot and spicy ‘couscous’ on a platter.

Young Uncle holds a special place in Laye’s heart, and the author cherishes their relationship. The exciting treks to Tindican with his uncle are something Laye always looks forward to.

Laye learns valuable lessons about rustic manners and customs from his uncle. The author gains an appreciation for the civility and refinement present among country people, which he finds even more scrupulously observed than in the town. Young Uncle’s humility and consideration for others, such as not boasting about his lead in rice-harvesting, exemplify these manners.

Young Uncle acts as a guide, companion, and source of cultural education for Laye during their treks. The interactions with Young Uncle enable Laye to develop an understanding and appreciation for rustic manners, providing a contrast to his experiences in the city.

Uncle Lansana

Uncle Lansana is depicted as a reserved and timid man who speaks sparingly. The author describes him as someone who rarely makes direct eye contact, but when he does, his gaze is penetrating. Behind his serious demeanor, there is always a hint of a smile.

Uncle Lansana is the oldest among Laye’s maternal uncles, and his twin brother is often absent. According to tradition, as the first-born among the twins, he holds the elder’s position in the family.

Following the passing of Laye’s maternal grandfather (whom Laye never met), Uncle Lansana inherited the large compound where Laye’s grandmother’s hut is located. Laye frequently stays in this compound during his visits.

Despite spending most of his time working in the fields, Uncle Lansana’s affection for Laye is comparable to that of his grandmother. They always share mealtime together in the evenings.

Uncle Lansana assumes the role of the family head, taking charge of the fields. He traditionally cuts the first swath in his fields when the tom-tom signals the start of the harvest.

Uncle Lansana’s provision of hospitality during Laye’s visits to Tindican contributes to Laye’s pleasant stay. His presence ensures that Laye feels welcomed and cared for.

Uncle Lansana’s diligent work in the fields showcases his industrious nature. He serves as the typical head of the family in the well-organized rural community of Tindican, embodying the values of hard work and responsibility.

Fanta

Fanta is one year younger than Laye and becomes a close friend of his eldest sister. They attend school together, and Fanta captures Laye’s attention as someone special. Despite their age, Laye treats Fanta with tenderness and avoids engaging in hair-pulling fights with her like he does with other girls.

While walking to school, Laye often playfully pulls the hair of the girls, who retaliate fiercely. However, Fanta stands out as Laye notices her non-violent response. He starts treating her with tenderness, which his sister notices and teases him about. A love relationship seems to have developed between Laye and Fanta, although it remains innocent and is not taken seriously by either party.

During the fourth week of their circumcision, Laye catches sight of Fanta during an outing and she waves at him from a distance. Although contact between boys and girls is forbidden, Laye responds with a fluttering of his eyelids, contemplating his feelings for her. However, Laye’s departure for Conakry and his subsequent meeting with Marie may have affected the growth of his love for Fanta.

Fanta accompanies Laye to the train station when he leaves for Conakry. Alongside Laye’s eldest sister and younger brothers, Fanta bids him farewell. The author describes her tear-filled eyes and expresses Laye’s shared anguish at their separation. The departure marks the climax of their relationship.

Fanta represents Laye’s first experience of affection outside his immediate family. Their connection remains innocent and lacks serious attention from both sides. Fanta holds significance as a cherished childhood love interest.

Laye’s encounter with Marie in Conakry potentially impacts the growth of his love for Fanta. Although Laye continues to see Fanta during holidays in Kouroussa, he hesitates to deepen their relationship due to cultural customs that would prohibit it. The novel does not explicitly address how pursuing a deeper connection with Fanta would violate these customs.

Marie

Marie, a half-caste girl described by the author as stunningly beautiful, plays a significant role in Laye’s life and the narrative.

Marie captivates Laye with her almost white skin and enchanting beauty, making her the most gorgeous girl in their Girls’ High School. Laye compares her to a fairy. However, the author’s portrayal lacks insight into Marie’s inner emotions due to the first-person narrative technique.

Marie is the daughter of Laye’s uncle’s close friend in Conakry, and they often spend Sundays together. It is during these encounters that Laye and Marie fall in love, creating a deep emotional bond.

Marie and Laye frequently spend quality time together, often riding towards the sea to admire its beauty. Conakry, situated on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, adds to the charm of their shared experiences.

Marie shows genuine concern for Laye’s success in his proficiency certificate examination in Conakry. She goes to the extent of visiting marabouts on his behalf, impressing Laye deeply.

Marie holds a crucial position in Laye’s life, second only to his mother, particularly during his youth. The author remembers their relationship with a profound sense of tenderness and nostalgia, longing for a beautiful past that has now faded away.

Although it is evident that Marie cares deeply for Laye, the first-person narrative technique employed limits the reader’s access to her inner thoughts and emotions. The reader relies solely on the narrator’s subjective interpretation, hindering Marie’s character growth within the novel.

During Laye’s final departure for France, Marie accompanies him on the same plane until Dakar, Senegal, where she continues her studies. Their parting at Dakar is marked by tearful goodbyes, underlining the depth of their connection.

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