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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.45 n.2 Pretoria Jan. 2008


Literary strains of négritude and consciencism in Joseph Brahim Seid: Envisioning nation and a new multicultural Chadian identity



Karen Haire

Karen Haire has just completed a stint as postdoctoral research fellow at North-West University in Potchefstroom and will shortly be taking up a position within the Unit for Academic Literacy at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. E-mail:




This study introduces Joseph Brahim Seid, one of Africa's intellectuals of the first generation of independence, in relation to the idéologisation of his contemporaneous counterparts, to Léopold Sédar Senghor's négritude and Kwame Nkrumah's consciencism. Two stories from J. B. Seid's 1962 collection, Au Tchad sous les Etoiles (translated as Told By Starlight in Chad, 2007) are read as envisioning nation and a new multicultural Chadian identity at the moment of independence. Unpacking literary strains of négritude and consciencism lays bare neglected and overlooked tensions that thwart reconciliation of the different segments of Chadian society: African/tradition-Arab/Islam-Western/Christianity. One story envisions modernisation in the reconciliation between Africa and the West, but in real life modernisaton does not occur within the context of African communalism as the story has it, but in the neo-colonial context, where it benefits the few, and mostly international stakeholders. Possibly with the intent of building nation, Seid tends to harmonize African-Arab cultures and traditional-Islamic religions, neglecting the tyranny of Islamisation and Arabisation in the past. In the present, as we know, rivalry between Arab and African populations in the Chad region has resurfaced. Superimposing Biblical motifs and understating traditional African beliefs and religious practices in a story that tends to reconcile Christianity, Islam and the traditional society, Seid overlooks the colonial context in which "civilising" Christianity is implicated, especially the distaste it engendered towards the traditional society and religions. Double-standards result from the higher prestige attaching to Islam, associated with literacy, and Christianity, associated with modernisation, thus African societies have yielded to the perceived progress imperative. While J. B. Seid's stories elevate the traditional societal value of communalism, portrayed with positive affect, in real life it has not transformed itself into a socialism sufficient to build nation and promote the multiculturalism envisioned and desired.

Key words: négritude, consciencism, Joseph Brahim Seid, Chadian identity



Full text available only in PDF format.




1. J. B. Seid (1927-80), is remembered mainly for his public roles, first ambassador to France after independence, 1960-66, and Keeper of the Seals and Minister of Justice 1966-78; he received his primary education in French colonial schools in N'Djamena and Brazzaville, Congo and secondary education in Cairo, Egypt. In 1955, he obtained his BA in Law in Lyons, France, distinguishing himself as Chad's first university graduate (Decalo 1997: 388).
2. My translation. "Nos ancêtres avaient une notion très haute de la justice. Ce mot est d'ailleurs synonyme de paix. Le juge est d'abord un conciliateur. Sa tâche consiste à apaiser les conflist à éteindre les haines et à amener ceux qui sont déchirés par la colère et la rancune à se réconcilier. Il est un homme de concorde" (Seid 1967: 95).
3. Among influences in his early life were a friend of his father, a Muslim fakih and miracle-worker, representing the Islamic presence; his friend and mentor, a Jesuit priest, representing the Christian and Western presence; and his future father-in-law, a rich source of traditional knowledge and cultural wisdom, representing the indigenous African society (Seid 1967: 35-44; 53-87 and 91-104).
4. "Sur l'autre rive du grand lac, le chef de la tribu découvrit une cité dont les cases étaient immenses et nombreuses. Quand ils débarquèrent, Alifa vit dans les rues avoisinantes des enfants, hauts comme des palmiers, partager leurs jeux avec des lions, des panthères, des rhinocéros ... D'énormes reptiles aux yeux verts phosphorescents se faufilaient autour de leurs membres, jouant avec eux une mystérieuse partie de cache-cache.
Sur des arbres démesurés, aux fondaisons épaisses, des myriades d'oiseaux chantaient en volant çà et là. L'air vibrait de leur suave musique.
Pays béni entre tous ! Là, bêtes et gens vivaient dans la plus parfaite entente. Le mal n'était point connu. La bonté animait tous les c
œurs. L'innocence se reflétait dans tous les yeux et nul parmi eux n'en avait conscience. Le travail était vénéré. La force, l'habileté, l'intelligence ou le génie, tout ce que l'homme possédait en naissant comme un don reçu de Dieu, était intégralement utilisé pour le bien de tous: ici, pour déraciner les arbres de la forêt qui bientôt feraient place à des champs fertiles; là, pour dévier le cours des fleuves afin d'irriguer les plantations; ailleurs, pour saisir la foudre du ciel ou les derniers rayons du soleil couchant afin d'illuminer les murs de la cité. Et cela partout, en tous temps et en tous lieux, pour mieux glorifier l'Eternel" (Seid 1962:16-7).
5. The 'communalism' of Africa, variously articulated by Africa's intellectuals, centres around the notion of "the common good." In a recent articulation, Tutu says: "Africans have this thing called UBUNTU ... the essence of being human [...] We believe a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up and inextricable in yours.[...] The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own community in belonging' (quoted in Mulemfo 2000: 57-8; italics mine)
6. Not only the proverbial "scramble" for territorial Africa in the 1880's but in the Cold War era, as African nations were gaining national liberation, Western capitalism and Soviet communism fought for the soul of the continent, a struggle which gave birth to African Socialism, variously conceived and articulated by Africa's intellectuals, as part of their nation-building vision. While drawn to communism, most could not reconcile with the atheism of Soviet communism.
7. "des jeunes filles au teint d'ambre et d'ébène chantaient la gloire du petit prince" (Seid 1962: 28).
8. It is interesting that Senghor, proponent of négritude, of reconciliation between Africa and the West, by 1961 had realized the need and had included in his model for national unity in Senegal the Arab/Islamic layer of culture (Irele 1990: 108).
9. "Une assemblée de fakihs, de devins, de sorciers et de féticheurs discuta longtemps du nom qu'il fallait donner au nouveau-né. Tout se termina par une heureuse conciliation. Tandis qu'un fakih écrivait une amulette pour la suspendre au cou de l'enfant, un sorcier exécuta une danse frénétique pour éloigner les mauvais esprits et un féticheur combina plusieurs racines réduites en poudre pour obtenir un talisman aux vertus singulières. Le petit prince fut appelé Mahamat Abd-el-Kérim ou le serviteur de Dieu" (Seid 1962: 28).
10. The problematic nature of reconciliation between traditional religion and Islam is evident in an incident Seid relates from his own childhood. As a young boy he became seriously ill with a fever and, we are told, his parents sent for the witchdoctor, the fetish doctor and the Muslim fakih, all of whom prescribed various remedies. The fever did not subside and his friend, the Jesuit priest, then took him to a European hospital for treatment. Two weeks later he recovered but when his immediate family discussed his recovery, each attributed the cure to a different cause. His mother believed: "When certain ancient gestures are carefully imitated, when we chant correctly without modulating the voice certain prayers, exactly as they were passed down by our ancestors, it is more likely that Allah will answer them [...] The living are links in a chain, a chain connecting those who have gone before with those who are yet to be born. The dead are the salt of the earth, the living taste that salt" (my translation). "Lorsqu'on reproduit exactement certains gestes millénaires, lorsqu'on psalmodie correctement, sans inflexion de voix, certaines prières telles qu'elles nous ont été transmises par nos ancêtres, il y a plus de chance qu'Allah les exauce [.] Les vivants constituent les maillons d'une chaîne qui relie ceux qui ne sont plus à ceux qui naîtront. Les morts sont le sel de la terre, les vivants en goûtent la saveur" (Seid 1967: 63). In the mother's belief traditional African religion and Islam coexist harmoniously but one wonders if, from the Islamic perspective, the key role of the ancestors in answering prayer, her belief in 'the dead as part of the living and of the unborn' which she retains from her traditional religion, is perhaps evidence of persistent "paganism". On the whole, traditional African religions have been high on tolerance and more accommodating of the world religions than the other way around - perhaps because of their polytheism, which has little trouble making space for a new god (Mazrui 1974: 6, 8, 33).
11. "Dans le domaine intellectuel, Saboun ouvrit partout des écoles et fit de la Mosquée d'Abécher le cerveau de l'univers, le plus grand foyer de la culture humaine où florissaient les arts et les lettres.
Sous son règne, l'Ouadaï était connu du monde entier. [...] On y venait [...] des horizons les plus lointains et les plus divers pour s'instruire des enseignements que donnaient des professeurs célèbres dont on ne saura jamais dire quel rayon d'infini ils savaient projeter sur les problèmes les plus obscurs de la philosophie, de la morale, de la religion et de la théodicée. Jamais la grandeur du Ouadaï n'atteignit une telle ampleur" (Seid 1962: 33-4).
12. "A une époque très lointaine, si lointaine que nul parmi nous ne peut en compter les lunes, un cataclysme providentiel bouleversa la terre. La terre était pleine de violence parce que les hommes avaient acquis, comme chacun sait, pour leur malheur et celui de toute leur descendance, la connaissance du mal. Dieu regarda la terre et voici qu'elle était corrompue !
Alors, les cieux grondèrent sans discontinuer et l'Eternel laissa tomber sur toute chose une horrible pluie de feu. Tout fut consume" (Seid 1962: 13).
13. Femme, allume la lampe au beurre clair, que causent autour les Ancêtres comme les parents, les enfants au lit (Maetso 1987: 59).


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