Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure tells the story of Samba Diallo, a member of the aristocratic Diallobé in Senegal. It was originally written in French. Kane bases a great deal of the story on history, particularly on his own experiences. As a child, Samba Diallo is enrolled in a Koranic school, and he shows great ability to memorize and recite the Koran. However, the recently colonized community decides to send Samba Diallo to a French school. Samba Diallo is at first caught up in his studies but soon loses touch with his spiritual identity. These experiences make up his “ambiguous adventure.”
When Ambiguous Adventure opens, Samba Diallo is being taught to memorize the Koran. Although Samba Diallo does not understand what he is memorizing, he pursues his study with dedication, gravity, and natural talent. His teacher, Thierno, is “the teacher,” or spiritual guide, of his people. He is also very old, so much so that it has become a struggle for him to pray. Thankfully, he sees in Samba Diallo a promising successor. Thierno may see great promise in his pupil, but he maintains a strict code of conduct that is enforced through painful pinches and rages if Samba Diallo makes the slightest mistake in his recitation.
Usually, nothing would stand in the way of Thierno’s plans of grooming Samba Diallo as a successor, but life has recently changed for the Diallobé. The French have recently conquered Senegal and have set up a ruling bureaucracy in their new colony. The Diallobé now face difficult choices concerning their future. Perhaps the most pressing question is whether they should send their children to the French schools to learn from the foreigners. Thierno is often asked for his input, but the elderly teacher refuses to answer firmly one way or the other. The chief of the tribe is likewise cautious about committing to one decision or the other. Only the chief’s sister, the “Most Royal Lady,” has a firm opinion, which is that the Diallobé must send their best and brightest to learn from the French. Although Thierno refuses to offer firm guidance on how to proceed with the French, his relationship with the Most Royal Lady is somewhat confrontational, and she views Thierno as unduly obsessed with death and the afterlife.
The Most Royal Lady’s views are often controversial, and she possesses unusual status among the nation’s women. Her status comes in part due to her relationship to the chief. However, she is also respected for her clear mind and direct speech. To resolve the vacillation about Samba Diallo’s future, she calls a meeting of the people. Unlike most meetings, she invites women as well as men to attend. She explains that although she detests the foreign school, she urges the Diallobé to send their children there. She explains her position by likening Diallobé’s children to fields. The people plough their fields, which is destructive but ultimately necessary. No one speaks out against her suggestions, and Samba Diallo is sent to the French school.
The differences between the Diallobé and the French are outlined in a conversation between Samba Diallo’s father, who is referred to as “the knight,” and the director of the French School, Paul Lacroix. The knight explains that the Diallobé believe in the end of the world and suggests that it gives them a sense of comfort and purpose. Lacroix disagrees, though he is fascinated at this glimpse into the knight’s mind, in part because Samba Diallo’s father recalls a knight of the middle ages. From the shadows of the room, the knight explains that the French have studied...
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the “external” to guard against the chaos of the world but that they can no longer believe in things that they cannot see. During the conversation, Lacroix is tempted to fill the room with electric light.
Samba Diallo’s studies at the French school begin just as his studies of the Koran would have become more critical. Up to this point, he has memorized the Koran’s verses without fully understanding them. It is just at the point that he would start exploring the meaning of the verses that he begins to study at the French School. Meanwhile, Thierno’s decline begins to advance, and he now spends his time with a character known as the Fool. Thierno is getting so old that it is a great struggle for him to pray.
Thierno is aging, but Samba Diallo seems to be flourishing at his new school. He finds wisdom in the works of Pascal, and he discusses them with his father, the knight. His father explains that so long as people believe in God, their life’s work will become a form of prayer. Although the two converse deeply about philosophy, in some ways Samba Diallo has begun to notice that his worldview has changed. He now has thoughts and ideas that he recognizes would never occur to his father’s generation.
When he finishes his studies at the French school, Samba Diallo goes to France to study philosophy. He chooses to study philosophy because he feels that it will offer him a direct insight into the nature of the European mind. However, although he demonstrates great potential and ability, he has begun to lose his way. He finds that he no longer has the same devotion to his religion that he once had. Upon reflection, it occurs to him that it may be because there is no sense of death in France—it is kept too firmly at bay. Soon after he articulates his feelings to a friend, a young woman who distributes communist leaflets, he is called home.
Samba Diallo’s father communicates by letter that the time has come to return to the Diallobé regardless of whether he has completed his studies. Samba Diallo found love for France through its language and ideas. He also found a sense of despair there. That sense of despair and loss is not healed by his return to the Diallobé. He is now viewed as a new teacher of his people. However, just as Thierno was unable to offer the Diallobé firm advice about the future, so too is Samba Diallo unable to guide his people. He is now accompanied by the Fool, but he does not pray. When Samba Diallo and the Fool go to visit Thierno’s grave, Samba Diallo still does not pray. For this, the Fool stabs and kills Samba Diallo.
The story does not end with the death of its hero. In the final scene, Samba Diallo experiences an afterlife. A voice there tells him, “You are entering the place where there is no ambiguity.” He likens this new place to a limitless sea and concludes, “I wish for you, through all eternity.”