Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Suicide as Justice

From an interview of Maryse Condé (in Conversations with Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff):
Q: In Segu there are a fair number of suicides, whiche are not frequent in Afrian cultures ...

Condé: Actually, this impression is quite incorrect. I found that women often committed suicide in Africa and that 30 percent of them did it by throwing themselves down wells. Dr. Colomb, a well-known psychiatrist who headed a team working in a Senegalese village, found a frightful suicide rate there and observed that the most frequent way of committing suicide was to jump down a well. Women did this to prevent members of their community from drinking the well water, thereby punishing their group and retaliating against it.

Q: Why did these women commit suicide?

Condé: For various reasons: unfaithful husbands, co-wives who cast spells on them, not having children, and because of the tragedies inherent to African women in villages.
Segu is truly an impressive work: inspired by research that she intended for her dissertation, Condé creates a rich, multi-generational saga from Malian history. What's glaring is that her female characters are, in general, secondary figures and, more often than not, victimized. For Condé, realism is more important than idealism:
I was not interested in writing militant and exemplary stories about sword-brandishing women. I saw the African world as it was, with women standing almost always in the background. I simply narrated how things happen in most cases ... It is obvious that women are, for the most part, oppressed.
Her attitude stands in stark contrast to the women portrayed in Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé. Although one unwilling girl throws herself down the well rather than face ritual genital mutilation, the rest of the women of the village hold out against tradition until the men agree to abolish the ritual. Sembene's women are more heroic, but they really reflect his optimism in social solidarity (as in his novel, G-d's Bits of Wood.) Condé's women reflect constraints of cultural and social structures and the limited ability to imagine one's own agency.


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