The historical novel De zwarte Napoleon by Vamba Sherif is now published in an English version, titled The Emperor's Son. The author tells in this essay how the novel grew and how the story of the extraordinary leader Samori Touré came to dominate it.
Some years ago, while researching my family story, I stumbled upon two pieces of information that would change the trajectory and form of what would later become my novel, The Emperor’s Son. I discovered that a relation of mine in the distant past was married to the daughter of a man who single handedly determined the course of African history in the second half of the 19th century, Samori Touré. I realized immediately that the novel I would write would have to involve the story of this extraordinary and enigmatic man.
How much Samori’s story would shape and dominate my novel was not apparent to me at first, until I began to dig deeper into his life. I read various books and articles written about him, in the process unearthing gems of historical facts that astounded me. Here I was dealing with a man who was larger than life, a man who, according to Yves Person, the biographer and the authority on Samori, triggered a renaissance and a revolution.
The story of Samori Touré is well known in West Africa, especially in Liberia, where I was born, but also in Guinea, his birthplace, and in Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia. But I assume that is the case in other parts of Africa as well. In these countries mentioned, whenever the griots or the djelis – 'the guardians of the word', as novelist Camara Laye aptly called them – tell the story of Samori Touré, they almost always equate his deeds and achievements with those of one of the greatest men in history, Sundiata Keita. He is the founder of the Malian Empire, The Lion King, whose grandchild Mansa Kankou Musa is now regarded as the richest man in history.
Griots told superlative stories about him
I grew up hearing stories about Samori. Griots told superlative stories about him. Epics songs were composed about his exploits and about his best friend and griot, Morifin-Djan Diabate, but equally about his brother, Kemeh-Brimah, who is well known in Mali, much more than in Guinea and elsewhere in West Africa. One of my childhood teachers, a man of great talent as writer and teacher, would often play the classic song about Samori composed by the legendary Demba Camara, Regard sur le passé. But the story that stayed with me most of the Samorian lore was the one about his epic encounter with one of his greatest adversaries, Saaye of the Gbanguno Mountain or Gbanguno Saaye. Moreover it was common knowledge that the first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, a revolutionary himself, was related to him.
Of Samori’s humble beginnings, I knew little. Stories of grandeur tend to overlook these minor details. I also didn’t know the efforts and genius it took to enable him to rise from those humble beginnings to become an emperor who, as no other leader in African colonial history, faced the might of the French and the English, dazzling both powers with his prowess and ingenuity. I was amazed to discover how much Samori achieved, how much his influence is still felt in the countries I visited while researching my novel: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana. I realized that the Samorian history is in fact the history of West Africa, for his efforts and conquests touched and altered lives in all those countries, including those who were not part of his Faamaya Empire.
How to capture such a man in a novel that would have to include a huge cast of characters? This was the question that I wrestled with in the early phase of writing. The more I learned about Samori, the more daunting the task became, if not impossible. Until one day I made my second discovery, which was in fact a breakthrough. I discovered that there was someone before me who had attempted to capture Samori Touré by employing a medium as alluring as literature.
Sembène's life mirrored Samori's
That medium was cinema. My predecessor was a man who exhibited several uncanny similarities with Samori and whose life in fact mirrored Samori’s. Both men were ambitious, single-minded and stubborn. Both hailed from humble beginnings, and both were formed by women: Samori by his mother, and the man by his grandmother. I am referring here to Sembène Ousmane, the man who dominated African cinema for so long that he became known as 'the father of African cinema'. Sembène was a great novelist in his own right, and I believe that had he written in English, he would have won a Nobel Prize.
More than I would ever be, Sembène Ousmane was obsessed with Samori Touré. Legends had it that in his studio in Dakar, Senegal, a portrait of Samori hung, which was in fact true. For forty years, Sembene labored incessantly to make an epic film about Samori Touré. To realize this colossal project, Sembène solicited and was granted the cooperation of such great artists as the late Miriam Makeba, the English actor Peter Ustinov, and the Ivorian actor Sidiki Bakaba. Sembène envisioned a film in which thousands of people would participate, a film as huge as the ambition of the man whose life was being captured in that form for the first time.
Such a film would be magnificent and epic on the grandest scale. It was not an impossible task, because Sembène has shown himself capable of making such a film. Indeed he was a master of the art of cinema. He had given the world such classics as La Noire De, Mandabi, Le Camp de Thiaroye, Xala, Emitai and many more.
The fact that a man of Sembène's caliber could attempt to make a film about Samori made me realize that I was not alone in taking up such a daunting task, and that, like him, I had to give it my all. However the great cineaste passed on before completing the film, a loss that further inspired me to go on with writing my novel. As a kind of tribute to this father of African cinema who admired and accumulated so much knowledge about Samori. It’s believed that the main character of his most famous novel God’s Bits of Wood was inspired by Samori.
Samori's mother was related to the people in the forest, now in Liberia
In writing the novel, I decided as my starting point to turn to a historical fact that is largely overlooked and that is rarely mentioned in writings about Samori: the fact that Samori’s mother was related to people from the forest in what is now Liberia. That’s how the main protagonist of the novel was born. The result is The Emperor’s Son.
In one of his last interviews Sembène Ousmane was asked to explain his fascination with Samori. Why didn’t he attempt to make a film about other great leaders of Africa’s colonial past who left their mark in their resistance to colonial powers? ‘There was no one in African history like Samori,’ Sembène answered. ‘Samori was a leader in whom the qualities of four rulers converged: Napoleon, Peter the Great, Charles the Great and Atilla the Hun. That’s how we want to present him to the world. We make no apologies.’
These are the words of a man who knew Samori better than most. In my novel, I wanted to reflect some aspects of Sembène’s words, but I also wanted to go beyond that to include my own family history and to especially honour Samori’s mother - who profoundly shaped his life – by introducing a character from her world, from the forest of present day Liberia.