Ambiguous Adventure

by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

Samba Diallo

Samba Diallo, a young man of the Diallobé aristocracy who is perceived by all to represent the future of his people. For this reason, the older generation of the Diallobé people struggles to influence the course of his life. As a child, Samba evinces a profound sense of the spiritual beauty of Islam and of the Koran, the words of which he repeats without understanding them. When it is decided that he will attend a French school, he becomes enamored with the Western alphabet, philosophy, and scientific method, all of which suggest that everything can be expressed, analyzed, and mastered. Undertaking university studies in philosophy in Paris, he suffers deeply over the loss of the spiritual plenitude he had known before his contact with the West. As he discusses philosophical, spiritual, and political issues with those he meets, he realizes that in the course of his “ambiguous adventure” he has internalized aspects of both cultures and is no longer completely at ease in either. Recalled to Africa by his worried father, he seems to seek out his own demise and apparently experiences a return of faith at the moment of his death.


Thierno (tee-EHR-no), a teacher of Islam in the Koranic school and spiritual master of the Diallobé people. The fragility and stiffness of his aging body make a vivid contrast with the ethereal joy in his soul. Thierno declines to help the Diallobé decide whether to send their children to the colonial schools. With his preferred successor, Samba, away in Paris, he designates Demba, a pragmatic youth of peasant stock, whose first official act is to allow the Diallobé children to attend the French school.

The Knight

The Knight, Samba’s father, so dubbed by a school friend of Samba (Jean Lacroix) because of his stature and noble bearing. Although he works at a civil service post in the colonial administration, his contact with the West has not altered his deep faith. Indeed, he asserts that Africa’s urgent mission is to restore a sense of spirituality to an impoverished Western civilization obsessed with scientific and technological progress.

The Chief of the Diallobé

The Chief of the Diallobé, the secular leader of his people, brother of the Most Royal Lady, and Samba’s cousin. The Chief represents a middle ground, a locus of indecisiveness in an era in which important decisions must be made. A lucid and profoundly human character, he clearly feels inadequate to play the role assigned him by his historical era.

The Most Royal Lady

The Most Royal Lady, Samba’s aunt and the Chief’s sister. Sixty years old but looking twenty years younger, she radiates the beauty and strength of the Diallobé aristocracy. Her principal role in the novel is to exhort her people to attend the French school. In an eloquent speech, she acknowledges that the consequences of this decision cannot be predicted; precious elements of cultural or spiritual heritage may be lost, but the Diallobé must move forward.

The Fool

The Fool, a friend of Thierno. His daring gaze, strange clothing, odd speech, and marginalized position in Diallobé society have earned for him this title. His reasons for having visited the West are unclear, but he seems to have fought in World War I and to have been permanently traumatized by his experiences. The West he describes to Thierno is a cold, hard, mechanized, dehumanized world, and he opposes any contact with it. He is grief-stricken at Thierno’s death, and his efforts to force Samba to pray on the holy man’s grave precipitate Samba’s apparent death at the end of the novel.

(This entire section contains 846 words.)

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The Fool, a friend of Thierno. His daring gaze, strange clothing, odd speech, and marginalized position in Diallobé society have earned for him this title. His reasons for having visited the West are unclear, but he seems to have fought in World War I and to have been permanently traumatized by his experiences. The West he describes to Thierno is a cold, hard, mechanized, dehumanized world, and he opposes any contact with it. He is grief-stricken at Thierno’s death, and his efforts to force Samba to pray on the holy man’s grave precipitate Samba’s apparent death at the end of the novel.

Paul Lacroix

Paul Lacroix (lah-KRWAH), a colleague of the Knight. His principal importance is as a participant in a conversation with the Knight as the two men observe a magnificent African sunset; that sight causes them to reflect on “the end of the world.” The men represent two radically different belief systems. Lacroix fears the end of the world, feeling that it could only signify human failure and would end the infinite continuation of enlightenment and scientific progress. The Knight looks forward to the end of the world as the moment when all questions and uncertainties will be resolved.

Paul Martial

Paul Martial, a middle-aged Protestant pastor. A sympathetic and enlightened Westerner, he discusses philosophy with Samba. As a young man, he dreamed of going to Africa as a missionary. He perceived such a mission as only a spiritual exchange between cultures and would have refrained from the Westerner’s frequent practice of combining proselytizing with “gifts” of medicine and technology.

Lucienne Martial

Lucienne Martial, Paul’s daughter, a university classmate of Samba. She advocates a political (Marxist) solution to the social crisis in Africa. Samba admires her fervent commitment, observing that she has followed the road to Damascus in the opposite direction from that taken by the apostle Paul, that is, away from her Christian upbringing. Samba does not experience a similar conversion. He recognizes that for him the resolution of conflict lies in faith rather than in politics.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

Schooled in the rich oral tradition of the Peul and firmly grounded in the Arabic scripture of the Koran, Kane draws clearly on his own experience, having pursued a French education in Paris. His affinities with his protagonist, however, resemble only the general movement out of Senegal. The name “Samba” was a title bestowed on the second son of the family, and Kane employs it to suggest a second generation of Peul-Muslim Senegalese who have to come to terms with their identity as French colonial subjects. Kane himself served both as the French regional Governor of Thies and, after Senegal’s independence, as cabinet director in the Ministry of Development and Planning of the new government. Remaining a devout Muslim but acknowledging his pragmatic perspective toward the French, Kane would say of “Europeanized Africans” that “we are cultural half-breeds. If we feel as Negroes, we express ourselves in French, because French is a language of universal vocation.” That vocation, as writer and as political leader, however, serves only to arm Kane with diverse experience upon which he reflects in order to create the protagonist Samba and the other characters, all of whom are largely type characters who express distinct points of view through the complex discussions in the novel.

Of the West African characters, Thierno exercises the greatest determining influence on Samba, who serves as the conscience and identity upon whom all issues of the debates converge. Thierno is a stern, demanding master, shaping Samba’s early consciousness. He demands perfect recitations and does not hesitate to draw blood in order to punish mistakes. From hour to hour, he sustains the principles of suffering and martyrdom in his training of Samba. Yet Thierno is also quietly compassionate, struggling not to show favoritism despite his pride in Samba’s spiritual growth. When the fool returns to the village crazed by Europe’s materialism, Thierno provides sanctuary for him. Thierno’s world is entirely spiritual; he looks to God as “the totality of the world, the visible and the invisible, its past and its future.” Consistent with this absolutism, Thierno disdains material achievements, disclaiming any responsibility for advising the chief on matters of French influence through the schools.

Like the chief, who recalls an aristocratic heritage that has succumbed to superior weaponry, the Most Royal Lady represents a type. The chief, paradoxically, must yield even more of his control if he is to preserve the society which he rules nominally. The Diallobe economic woes are such that the chief can see only further degradation if the Diallobe refuse French education. By encouraging his people to learn the colonial language and, inevitably, to assimilate aspects of French culture, the chief also realizes that the traditional Peul and Islamic basis for culture will be further diminished. For the Most Royal Lady, the choice is clear: assimilate or perish. While the chief contemplates the wisdom of permitting the Diallobe to perish as they were and are, thus maintaining cultural integrity and gaining martyrdom, the Most Royal Lady does not hesitate to champion the disappearance of traditions in favor of material survival. For her, authority and power are the only means to salvation. Rejecting the chief’s contemplative understanding, she urges not the quietistic devotion to martyrdom, but a dedication to the “world of the living, in which the values of death will be scoffed at and bankrupt.” From her perspective, assimilation is the ascent to power: “[W]e must go to learn from them the art of conquering without being in the right.”

Of the European characters in the novel, Lucienne Martial poses the greatest challenge to Samba, for he harbors a romantic fascination with her. Yet her rigid Marxism, espousing atheism and scientific materialism, is a viewpoint which Samba cannot accept. When Lucienne argues the virtues of social and economic equality, Samba affirms his Diallobe faith in Islam:"As for me, I do not fight for liberty, but for God.” More compatible with Samba’s own spiritual devotion is Lucienne’s father, Paul Martial. His colonialism, however, is spiritual; he mourns the loss of faith in the West and confesses that his zeal for missionary work was motivated by the hope that the example of Islamic faith would revive Christianity. Paul Lacroix, steadfast in his own belief, represents a worldview which holds that the emphasis on materialism, science, and progress is evidence of reason’s “light.” For him the spiritual light and the scientific light are nearly identical: Technological superiority confirms spiritual authority. Each of these characters represents an intellectual stance which Samba must at least partially accept in order to comprehend its force. In so doing, he moves further into a dual consciousness that seems to him only confusion and chaos.


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Samba Diallo

Samba Diallo is a child of one of the elite families of the Diallobé. His father is a sophisticated and intelligent man who is so dignified that he reminds people of a “knight of the middle ages.” Samba Diallo has inherited many of his father’s gifts, and he is particularly erudite. As a child, he shows great skill at reciting the verses of the Koran. Although he does not yet have a great deal of understanding about what he is saying, he nevertheless feels a great deal of devotion through recitation. He is looked upon as a natural successor to Thierno, the teacher of the Diallobé.

However, the chief’s sister, the Most Royal Lady, sees additional uses in Samba Diallo. For her, he is the sort of boy who can be sent to the French schools to learn what the colonists know without being corrupted by it. Because he is a member of a leading family, she suggests, it is his responsibility to lead the Diallobé into this new and confusing world. The Most Royal Lady’s plans are accepted, and Samba Diallo is sent to the French School just as he is beginning to understand the Koranic verses he has memorized.

Samba Diallo shows great ability at his new school and is able to discuss metaphysics with his father. He goes on to study philosophy in France and again shows a natural aptitude for the subject. He reflects that the power of the French language was in many ways overwhelming to him. In particular, he explains how he was suddenly able to take thoughts from his head and transmit them to his father without speaking out loud. The power of the written language may have opened many opportunities, but it has closed off others. Samba Diallo is concerned that he no longer feels the same level of devotion to God that he once did. When he returns home, he no longer attends prayer and is murdered by the Fool for his lack of devotion. However, during a final scene, Samba Diallo experiences an afterlife that announces that he has entered a place that has no ambiguity.

There are many parallels between Samba Diallo and Cheikh Hamidou Kane. Both attended a Koranic school as children. Both studied abroad. Kane did return to Senegal, perhaps experiencing a similar sense of ambiguity that led him to write. In real life, he was not murdered but went on to work for the Senegal government. Since the novel’s publication, critics have discovered that Kane’s name in Poular is Samba Diallo.


Throughout Ambiguous Adventure, Thierno is generally referred to as “the teacher” of the Diallobé. He is a deeply devout man who prays every day even though his aching body protests. In Samba Diallo, Thierno sees a student with the ability to succeed him. Although he is often brutal in his tutelage of Samba Diallo, he admits to himself that he cares deeply for his charge. As he grows older, he becomes more despondent.

Thierno represents the history of the Diallobé from before the process of colonization. However, he is not a simple representation of traditional values pitted against the forces of the colonizing French. Thierno believes in the importance of Samba Diallo’s Koranic education. The chief of the Diallobé asks Thierno whether Samba Diallo should go to the French school, and he points out that the Diallobé will be swayed by Thierno’s answer. This speaks to the respect that Thierno carries, but Thierno refuses to take a firm side in this debate. He does not endorse the Most Royal Lady’s decision to send the Diallobé children the French school, but he does little to oppose it.

The Most Royal Lady

The Most Royal Lady is sister to the chief of the Diallobé. She enjoys an unusually high status in comparison with other women of the Diallobé, and the respect she carries comes from more than her family’s status. The Most Royal Lady is clear headed and insightful. She is also willing to make decisions when others around her deliberate. The most important decision the Diallobé now face is whether to send their children to the French school. The chief of the Diallobé has been reluctant to tell his people to choose one option or the other.

In contrast, the Most Royal Lady has made her decision. She calls the Diallobé together, men and women, and declares that although she detests the foreign school, she urges her people to send their children there. She likens the children of the Diallobé to a crop. Although people might want to eat all of the seeds of their harvest, they must bury many of those seeds in the ground so they can grow. No one can say for certain whether the French school will submerge the Diallobé’s children within new ideas and a new culture, but she believes that the best and brightest of the Diallobé should be sent to learn what they can of the foreigners’ ways. Her decision is what begins Samba Diallo’s “ambiguous adventure.”




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