The Dark Child


The Dark Child is Camara Laye's autobiography, tracing the development of his cultural and personal values as a young man coming of age within the Malinke tribe of Upper Guinea during the 1930's. After his death, Guinean writer Camara Laye was rightfully acclaimed by The New York Times Book Review as “his continent's preeminent novelist.” He is the author of several well-known pieces of literature, the most widely-read and taught being The Dark Child (1954) and The African Child (1953, translated in 1955 into English).

No where in his autobiography do we see evidence of the primitive, dark, "uncivilized" culture of Africa as depicted in classic colonial works like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but instead encounter a quiet, solid, emotionally-scaffolded narrative, in the context of sophisticated nonfiction that calmly relays milestones in the author's childhood and young adult experience. Both the supernatural realm and traditional Muslim religion are depicted as minor characters orchestrating Laye's evolution from young boy to "adult male" and provide a rich backstory to the narrative.

One of the more poignant descriptions in the book occurs about midway through the biography, with Laye's tale of his tribal initiation into manhood by enduring the circumcision ritual during his earlier teen (approximately 14-15) years. He participates in a festival consisting of public and private ceremonies for "several days" and later a period of physical healing and recovery from the circumcision itself for over one month (Laye 112, 130). Laye spends his days of recovery lounging on a mat with the other young men, isolated from his family for the most part, allowed only to visit with his mother and father from a distance between the end of the ceremony and the day he is able to walk home comfortably (130-132).

Upon his return, he is moved to his own hut, separated from his mother and father though, "still within earshot" of the family hut, as his mother tartly reminds him (134). Here the separation between parent and child evoke a felt sense of the anxiety present as Laye accepts his hut and new "men's clothes" with quiet gratitude (134). This pivotal scene closes with Laye turning to his mother to thank her, who he finds standing quietly behind him, "smiling at [him] sadly" (135).

Shortly after moving into his hut, Laye leaves at 15 years of age to attend "Ecole Georges Poiret, now known as the technical college" in Guinea's capital city of Conakry (136). 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, sadly (144). 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 (155). In some sense it is a metaphor for the psychological and sociological systems under which he finds himself strained.

He laments, "without them [my uncles] I should have been really miserable, lonely, in that city whose ways were foreign to me, whose climate was hostile, and whose dialect I could barely follow. All around me only Soussou was spoken. And I am a Malinke. Except for French the only language I speak is Malinke" (154-55).

Colonialization is more evident in Conakry than in Koroussa. French is the dominant spoken and written language, and Laye's school is being revamped under French reform to include both "technical and practical training" and not just trade skills (157). Laye lives the life of a typical college or boarding school student, studying at the school's campus and returning home to Koroussa during breaks.

Interestingly enough, as Laye experiences and more European education, adopting the ideas and appearances associated with it, the decor of his hut become altered by his mother to, "acquire a European look" which he notes he is aware of because the changes were making "the hut more comfortable," and also offered "tangible proof of how much my mother loves [ed] me" (157).

Several years after leaving for Conakry, Laye returns home with his "proficiency certificate" and a "troublesome" offer from the director of his school to continue his studies through a scholarship, in France, many hours from Koroussa (179). While his uncles and father support and encourage him to take the foreign study opportunity, Laye's mother is less enthusiastic, forbidding him to accept the offer. Laye accepts the offer despite his mother's resistance to the idea, and parts with her and his father during a heartbreaking scene with Laye's mother shouting insults and pushing him away, then falling into a heap of tears, grasping her son and turning her anger instead to the European influences she perceives as taking her son away to France- justifiably so (186). The disruption of family life in the push-and-pull created by Europe's French Colonial rubbing against existing culture in Guinea in 1947, is most evident during the last few chapters of the book.

Laye's father arms him with a map of city transportation of the Paris Metro in France. The map is an extremely powerful symbol to carry as he leaves the land of Guinea completely, and for a time, the continent of Africa (187). His father gives him the physical, practical tools for surviving in the city, but with that comes a compass directing the learning and success of his son. The fear, excitement, anxiety and sadness culminate in the last vignette of the autobiography, with Laye crying as he goes to exit the plane, lightly placing his hand over the map in his left shirt pocket (188).



The Dark Child fits well with a number of postcolonial works of literature, both within the continent of Africa and in the world at large. Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God or Things Fall Apart, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness can work well to create a multi-layered, polyvocal conversation with The Dark Child. Achebe's work is similar to Laye's in that we receive detailed accounts of family and tribal rituals, customs, and ceremonies through the stories the characters tell us. Laye's autobiographical narrative differs from Arrow of God for example, in that he renders the story from the first person point of view, and we receive only a picture of his experience growing up in Guinea, without an exploration into his immediate and extended family's perspective on life in Kouroussa.

The perspective Laye uses to track the story behind growing up in rural and later urban Guinea, is similar to I, Rigoberta Menchu where the Guatemalan woman tells her coming of age story in a similar way, though the motives for constructing each novel are vastly different.

Menchu's book is more an autoethnography, and from the cultural examples she chooses to include, it acts more as resistance literature where she attempts to expose the heinous treatment of her people by the Guatemalan government, in hopes that the injustice suffered will not be continually repeated in future generations. The Dark Child's motive is not so ominous as it chronicles the "ancient ritualistic society of the Malinke," in an attempt to keep this history alive and portray its role in giving shape to the consciousness of its sons (Laye, back cover).

Laye does not appear reluctant to tell his society's secrets as Menchu does, but instead shows them to readers through vivid, painstakingly detailed scenes like the complete sequence of the circumcision ritual (93). He seems to want readers to understand the beauty and compassion behind his tribe's secrets, and speaks of his journey into manhood unabashedly. The first person point of view invokes a comfortable intimacy to follow Laye as he guides us almost two decades of his life within and outside of the Malinke.

Achebe creates more distance between readers and the novel's characters through his use of the third person point of view, making it slightly more like a chronology than story at times. Achebe exposes several dimensions of African colonization, involving both the "native" and British colonizer's sides as contributors to a base plot. The action takes place during the 1920's implementation of indirect rule, as it altered the social and political structures of the Ibo tribe in Nigeria, run by leaders like Achebe's Ezeulu. The motives and actions of the British officers controlling the Ibo's land, Captain Winterbottom and Tony Clark, are highlighted against the life we witness through the eyes of Ezeulu's family. This European vantage point of colonization does not surface as strongly in The Dark Child, but acts more as a back story to the action Laye takes to attend school, leave home, etc.

We can certainly speculate the role of the French colonizing Guinea, but actual French personas are not revealed. He seems somewhat unaware of the magnitude of the French influence until he leaves to attend school in the capital of Conakry. There he finds a separation between "industrial" or "trade" schools like the one he attends, and "classic academics" of more affluent schools where economically well-off children are places.

The divisive, controversial debate over whether their sons should attend European (or missionary) schools is a point of convergence between Arrow of God and The Dark Child. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu's son Edogo also leaves his immediate home to study at the Christian missionary school to be educated by the British (Achebe, 46). Laye's father too agrees to send him to Conakry and pushes him after secondary school to accept the scholarship to college in Paris. Ezeulu sends his son off with feelings of hope and anxiety, knowing his "blessing" to attend the school has sent a strong political message to British colonizers. Laye's father experiences similar feelings, sending him away with a map- the best support he can offer from thousands of miles away. Laye's decision to attend the Paris college is, in some ways, a political decision as well. By accepting the offer, he too sends a message of support for French values despite objections by his mother.

Edogo and Laye, as sons, each face similar struggles in becoming more educated (see also the text, I, Rigoberta Menchu who also struggles with the ideology behind learning the Spanish language of her government, and attending school despite the wishes of her ancestors) to help protect the culture of their tribes, yet also risk "selling out" the ancient traditions and values of their elders as they slowly embrace British and French educational ideals and approaches to life. Laye's mother and Edogo's father each grieve silently, later overtly, as their anger out of the fear of losing their sons to another culture's way of life erupts into several heated verbal battles.

These battles later take on more of a sad tone than that of anger, as each parent relinquishes control over their son, and allow them to operate independently, as their own chiefs, even if it means separation from their native society.

The theme or idea of education in each novel are also like that of a game, on the side of both European colonizers and native people in each region of Africa. With the offer for education comes political, social, and religious strings that create a push-and-pull between the boys and their families. Education and religion appear less as intangible ideas and more as functional tools that act as means of control, domination and to display a type of psychological representation to colonial powers in Guinea and Nigeria.

This theme is also explored in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood.


I. In Arrow of God, the concept of polygamy is depicted among Ezeulu and his several wives. Women are more or less property for Ezeulu, and all Ibo men for the most part (172). Ezeulu utilizes his wives to carry out daily life activities for his extended family, giving each a separate hut within his large compound of dwellings. The women each take on separate duties each day, and switch up their responsibilities throughout the weeks (64-65).

While these females are cast into the role of servant for the most part, it is interesting to observe the subtle ways in which they resist this societally dictated role for them. For example, Ezeulu's senior wife, Matefi, repeatedly prepares his dinner at a later hour than he has dictated she should serve it. Matefi continues to bring his dinner later than he pleases in nonverbal resistance to Ezeulu's demands, and later offers subtle, but bitter diatribes to him at his rebuke concerning her tardiness. She and Ugoye (the younger wife) resist Ezeulu's authority throughout the story by altering the duties and tasks assigned them to care for the compound and its members.

These women have a definite "felt" sense of community, built up from their daily work together and separation from men during preparation for feast days and festivals celebrated in conjunction with the days of the week and calendar months. They are often depicted preparing their bodies for the festivals, teaching younger women cooking traditions, and bantering back and forth over the daily compound and village life.

In The Dark Child, West African women, namely Laye's mother, play similar roles in their relationships with their sons and husbands. Laye claims early in his autobiography that his mother has separated him from her other children and keeps him close by in her hut. He is privileged among his other siblings, and speaks little of them throughout his story. His father usually undermines the feelings and authority of Laye's mother, openly vetoing her decisions to keep Laye from attending school in the city, or playing with groups of village boys and girls.

Laye's mother differs from Ezeulu's wives in that she does not appear to resist the authority exercised over her, at least overtly. As Laye matures, he develops more of a dismissal of his mother's protective instincts over him and while he fears disappointing and hurting her to leave and study school in Conakry and later France, he disregards her concern to pursue the educational opportunity offered him.

His mother's fears are perhaps less about him leaving home at 18, and more about him losing his connection to the Malinke society and not carrying on the traditions she had so hoped he would carry with him into his own family long after her own life. Western values of a solid education slowly trickle into Laye's mind and he finds himself caught between what may honor his ancestors and what may provide a more prosperous future for him, but could mean divorcing himself from fully experiencing coming of age as a Malinke, spending a significant amount of his "growing up years" in Conakry and later Paris.

A comparison/contrast between the lives and roles of women in relationship to their resistance or acceptance of authority would make for an interesting research and cultural exploration writing assignment for any secondary to higher education student.

II. In Research in African Literature, in an article by Patricia Duffy, "To Paris and Back: Seeking a Balance," a thorough discussion develops around Laye's struggle with assimilation into French culture- against several other African postcolonial autobiographies. In it, she examines the wisdom or rather naivety, of Laye's commentary as he leaves Koroussa for Paris. She suggests he is more displaced than anything else, citing examples from the end of the book where he locates the subway map given him by his father, and sits in confusion on the plane, pondering his next course of action. The "balance" she refers to is finding a middle ground of truth considering Laye's bias and naive age, the Colonialism coloring his experience, and his experience weighed against other African writer's coming of age chronicles. The article has rich potential for setting up a comparison/contrast writing assignment or essay questions. It would also be a good piece to weigh against Laye's autobiography after it has been read as a class, to create discussion around where the "balance" does lie.


Links to Information on the Author

1. Summary of works & brief biography of Laye. Includes text extracted from The African Child and notable information about the author's life. ***

2. Brief biography & bibliography of Laye.'s thumbnail sketch of the author's writing life and bibliography of links to several of his more well-known works. **

3. Purchase The Dark Child at Link to buying information for new & used copies of the book, and customer reviews.*

4. Biography and index of works by Laye. A thorough biography, list of works by Laye, links to The Dark Child information, and recommendations for newer readers of authors similar to Laye for additional reading.***

More on Guinea, its geography, arts & people

1. Map of Guinea, & facts about Guinea climate, people, political system and more. An excellent site with many links to maps, climate reviews, political profiles and much more. Very easy to use.***

2. Guinea information page from African studies department at University of Pennsylvania. Diverse information about the country of Guinea from an African studies position. Provides many links to more in-depth information on the country and its people, as well as native art. ***

3. Archive & information about Guinea music. Highlights some of the more popular musical composers and performers from Guinea, and includes sample lyrics and music reviews.**

4. List & facts about Guinea universities. Interesting demographic information from the few universities in the country, a good place to begin a comparison between Guinean and American universities. *

5. Weather forecast (daily) for Conakry, Guinea. Your traditional Yahoo weather page, but for the capital city of Guinea. Neat to see how it stacks up against the weather in our home country.**

6. French& English: Explore Personal Web Sites of Guinean people A get-to-know citizens placing biographical, personal, and professional information about themselves on the net for others to experience. A diverse offering of personal sites, some links don't work, but most do and those offer an interesting perspective from that you'd encounter in a history book. ***

7. Detailed information on the jembe, Guinean percussion instrument described by Laye in his autobiography, an article by Eric Charry, written for Percussive Notes, in April, 1996. The instrument's heritage has been associated with the class of professional blacksmiths ("numu") in the region of Guinea where Laye grew up, as a son of a numu.***

8. Essay on the concept of time as it's changed through artist's treatment of it in their literature. The articles touches on post-colonial literature, & specifically how Laye approaches the linear time concept in Le Regard du roi (1954).**

9. Art traditions of West Africa. A Guggenheim museum on-line preview of its exhibit. Includes historical information and West African sculptures and castings found through archaeological digs.***

10. The Advent of Islam in West Africa. The religion of Laye's childhood as depicted in The Dark Child. A brief history and map of where and how Islam established its roots in West Africa.***

11. African links to film, literature, and cultural information. A table of contents of major sites linking to a plethora of more specialized sites providing quality information on this amazing continent and its people.***

French Language Web Links
6. Profile of Guinee. Profile of the country, it's population, people, climate, etc. **

7. Educational System of Guinee. Articles & description of the public education offered to students in Guinee. ***

8. Guinee Government Official site (hear the national anthem). Even if you don't speak French, you can listen to the National Anthem of Guinea! Many links to more in-depth information about visiting and learning about the country. **


Relevant Teaching Web Sites:

1. Study questions & novel review. Chapter-by-chapter review questions from a professor of Non-Western literature. Highlights important characters, ceremonies, themes, and settings from the Dark Child.**

2. A student's reflections on The Dark Child. An interpretation by a university literature student of Laye's strategy in constructing this novel and speculation as to the author's views of God and African culture.**

3. Read student reflections on A Dream of Africa, compared against The Dark Child. A university literature student's book report.**

4. Curriculum unit on teaching African literature in English & study questions for The Dark Child, includes annotated bibliographies for teachers and students and activities that work well to introduce post-colonial themes when reading modern African literature texts.***

5. Chinua Achebe Information & Teaching Resources. A thorough overview of Achebe's life, literary works, themes in his writing, and links to more broad information on African politics, religion, history, etc. A very rich site. ***

Essay writing ideas:

Out of many postcolonial texts can come many interesting and critical student papers, ones that may relate well to student's own personal life experiences and cultural backgrounds. In Educating the Imagination, one of the contributing authors, Margot Fortunato Galt presents her ideas for writing a tall tale based on the American Frontier experience. I've adapted this to fit more of the Colonial experience, in Africa specifically.

I. Colonial Story in History: Writing a tale, or tall tale based on the Colonization of Africa

Read an excerpt from a true life account of African life to suggest some origins of the current or old views/stereotypes of African peoples. [Laye, Achebe, Conrad's work would all provide solid starting points for this writing.]

Step One: Create a French Colonial Character
Standard characters which students could choose from are: military officer, merchant or vendor, business/corporation owner, sailor or boatman, teacher, missionary, soldier, politician, farmer, natural goods harvester (lumberjack, rubber trade, ivory, etc.), or fisherman.

Step Two: Create names for the characters, perhaps humorous ones "linking an item from the person's life with a common suffix" (131). Such as: a teacher named Gweneth Rulerman; a boatman named Ted Sternfoot, etc.

Step Three: Prewrite for this assignment doing some word mapping. Students can place their character's name at the center of a blank sheet of paper, and brainstorm tools this character would use at work, making sure these are accurate to the time period and situation. Then, add features of the landscape: a canyon, high bluff, windy desert, road, worn path, etc. Finally, have students add weather and clothing to the character.

Step Four: Read models of student's character writing in peer review groups.
Develop response guides (sheets) that ask students to respond to the voice they hear when listening to the narrator for each student's character description. The narrations shouldn't be in the student's normal speaking voice, but instead act as a "fictitious persona, a garrulous talker who won't let the listener get in a word edgewise. In a sense, the narrator is a fast-talking con artist, aiming not so much to capture the listener's belief as to keep the listener so interested and so quiet that the question of whether the incidents really happened will never come up" (132-33).

Step Five: Shaping the Tale
Have students begin their stories by setting the scene and introducing their main character, asking them to emphasize one or two important characteristics about the person, using vivid details.
Then the exaggeration (in the case of a tall tale) or creative nonfiction, comparison/contrast, etc. writing can begin, depending on the historical/literary slant you take when developing such an assignment.

II. Writing Assignment: "The Folklore of Childhood."

Elizabeth Radin Simons devised a writing unit based on "The Folklore of Childhood," a fitting companion writing assignment for The Dark Child and many other colonial narratives or autobiographies (Edgar & Padgett, 149).
She breaks the assignment into process days, after providing students with a sense of what folklore is and looks like:

Day One: Begin with nostalgia. Ask the students to brainstorm after asking them to, "Tell [you] me about some of the games you played as a child, ones you learned from other children." Develop a list of the games and record on a board or overhead sheet. This is like an oral prewriting exercise, and answers like "Jacks? I used to play jacks." can be followed up with a request for more detail for future writing such as "what do you remember about playing jacks specifically?", "why do you think you remember this game?"

She reports these sessions as being a blast, because many young adults are still "nostalgic about childhood" (150). The folklore study moves from nostalgia to an understanding "that their early play was more than entertainment" (150). She explains that, "In their play they were getting an education, learning the values, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior that would continue into their adult lives" (150). Following the brainstorm, she breaks students into small groups to develop collaborative lists of games played, listing as many details as they can remember about each. Someone acts as a scribe, writing down the details, and save their results for the following class period.

Day Two: Creating the Master Game List
Students share their group lists out loud, and the class develops a master list of games on the board. They may list upwards of 100 different items, which "surprises students- they have remembered a lot of folklore from their childhoods" (150). The class speculates as to which of these games their parents and grandparents may have played, what age they played these games at, and which are gender-specific (150). Spend time speculating why children play these games and discuss issues surrounding them, to be discussed more in depth at a later time (151).

Day Three: Choosing a topic & Writing the First Draft
Simons instructs her students to work from the master list and "choose a game you liked to play when you were young" (151). Students work in small groups or with partners to do additional brainstorming/prewriting about their selected topics, and then begin writing down everything they remember for their first drafts (151).

Day Four: Responding and revising in collaborative groups. A first revision of the draft takes place, before moving on to the next day's assignment.

Day Five: Starting the Research- Interviewing: Students now work on obtaining interviews from three people: an older person who remembers playing their game as a child; a peer who also remembers the game; and a child who is currently playing the game. Devise the interview questionnaire in class, and have students practice asking these questions to one another.

Day Six: Scholarly Analysis of Children's Folklore: Examining the writing of published folklorists, and literary criticism on them. One suggested text by Simons is: "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" by Iona and Peter Opie.

Day Seven: Student Analysis of Children's Folklore. After writing memories of their own folklore topic, conducting several interviews, and examined work by professional folklorists, they are prepared to construct their own analyses. Simons suggests students using their own papers for starting texts as a prewriting activity. After exchanging their papers with another student, the reader writes down their impression of the function of folklore. Following this in-class analysis, students draft their own ideas on why the folklore they study has remained alive in oral or written tradition.

Day Eight: Writing the Final Draft. Some students turn in three drafts, and more advanced writers may turn in one incorporating their memory, description of folklore, and an analysis of it. She also publishes the final product in a class anthology at the end of the unit where students can showcase their best pieces and take home a personalized folklore collection.

Recommended Course Reader:
One possible companion text for the novels mentioned on our site is a multicultural reader from Allyn & Bacon One World, Many Cultures (Second Edition). This reader has sixty-eight nonfiction excerpts from writers like Rigoberta Menchu, Camara Laye, Jamaica Kincaid and many other well-known individuals from a broad span of cultures. These stories aid students in exploring different cultural perspectives and finding their own through writing, as well as providing a base for literary interpretation and criticism within the strategies present in each writer's piece.




Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1967, second edition, 1974. Originally published by The John Day Company, 1967.

Burgos-Debray, Elizabeth, ed. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. New York, NY: Verso, 1984.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1990. Originally published in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories. London, Great Britain: William Blackwood & Sons, 1902.

Edgar, Christopher and Padgett, Ron. Educating the Imagination, Volume Two. New York, NY: Teacher's & Writer's Collaborative, 1994.

Hirschberg, Stuart. One World, Many Cultures. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1995.

Laye, Camara. The Dark Child. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1954.

Stoller, Paul. Embodying Colonial Memories. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.


Duffy, Patricia D. "To Paris and Back: Seeking a Balance." Research in African Literature 31 (March 2000): 12-25.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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