I'm reading Camara Laye's novel L'enfant noir, translated in English as The African Child or The Dark Child. At the end of chapter 5, one can read:

Mais le monde bouge, le monde change, et le mien plus rapidement peut-être que tout autre et si bien qu'il semble que nous cessons d’être ce que nous étions, qu'au vrai nous ne sommes plus ce que nous étions, et que déjà nous n’étions plus exactement nous-mêmes dans le moment où ces prodiges s’accomplissaient sous nos yeux. Oui, le monde bouge, le monde change ; il bouge et change à telle enseigne que mon propre totem – j'ai mon totem aussi – m’est inconnu.

In the simplified English version by Sally Lowe, this is rendered this way:

But the world rolls on, the world changes. Perhaps my own world changes faster than anyone's.
      Yes, the world rolls on, and changes. I, too, had my totem. But I no longer remember what it was.

I have the feeling that the last sentence of this passage (I mean the original one, of course) has a symbolic meaning. What does the author mean by it?


1 Answer 1


L'enfant noir is an autobiographical work, describing Laye's life growing up in French West Africa. In chapter V, from which the piece of text in the question is taken, he describes his life with his mother and his younger siblings, as seen through the eyes of a young child. He describes his mother as having magical powers, in particular:

My mother had other powers that came to her from her father... It was she who received my grandfather's totem, or guiding spirit, which was the crocodile. Whoever had this totem could take water from the River Niger in safety.

(quoting from Sally Lowe's simplified translation.)

Totemism is system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant. In the case of Laye's mother and grandfather it was the crocodile. This is a religious belief descended from animism, which continues even to the present day. Because his mother's totem was a crocodile, she was able to draw water from the river at flood season when all the other villagers had to use the springs, for the crocodiles would not harm her - "the totem cannot eat itself".

Layes sadly notes that "I too had my totem", but because of how he has changed and evolved during his life, he has lost it. This is a regret that he has lost contact with his cultural roots. As we see in the rest of the novel, the process of education in the western mode, caused him to make a "geographical and intellectual transition to Europe"1. Occupying this new cultural space has caused him to lose contact with his culture, so that although he can still fondly recall some aspects of it, it is not part of his true identity any more.

  1. Cultures in Motion: The Negotiation of Identity in Francophone West African fiction, Jonathan Carr-West, PhD Thesis, University of London, 2002.

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