The book, originally written in French by Camara Laye under the title “l’enfant noir” in 1954 (the dark child), was translated by James Kirkup.
In The African Child, Laye describes life, growing up as an African child in Guinea, West Africa. Deeply nostalgic, the book is an autobiography portraying a vision of Islamic and ancient African community in the pre colonial era, a time when tradition engendered mutual understanding and respect for all.
Laye grows up in an environment where he is greatly loved. Both his parents have something supernatural about them. His father is a Malinke by tribe, and a blacksmith who makes ornaments out of gold, inspired by the power of a black snake, which visits him in his dreams and daily life.
His mother, too, has special powers. One time, she is called to help a horse get back to its feet. As if by magic, the horse rises up after she says a few words to it. His mother is of another clan whose totem is the crocodile. While people fear to fetch water from the river infested with crocodiles, she does so and none touches her.
Laye grows up alternating homes between Tindican and Kouroussa. In Tindican, where his mother’s home village, he lives with his grandmother. There he and his age mates watch over the fields, harvest rice and graze animals. Laye starts school, first in a Moslem school and then at a French school. He is fond of one girl, Fanta, a friend of his sister’s. At one point, Laye and his friend Koyate are bullied by the big boys at school but that comes to an end when his father beats up the headmaster.
Away from school, Laye undergoes circumcision, a key ritual in many parts of Africa signifying the passage into manhood. For Laye, the circumcision transforms him into a grown man, and he begins to stay in his own hut.
At fifteen, Laye leaves home for Conakry, Guinea’s capital, to pursue a course in technical studies. He stays with his uncle Mamadou, and his two aunts. Every holiday he goes back home. In his third year of technical college, he wins a scholarship to France.
Laye is extremely sad to leave his country, his family, and his girl friend Marie.
The African Child (published in the US as The Dark Child) is a great read, and is recognized as one of the best novels to come out of French-speaking Africa. The book won the Prix Charles Veillon writing prize.