By Ken Bugul
The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. By Ken Bugul. Translated by Marjolijn de Jager. 159 pp. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books. Cloth, $18.95. Paper, $9.95.
The Abandoned Baobab is a testament to how the absence of a loving family can cripple a life. Ken Bugul entered the world in a small village founded at the base of a great baobab tree in a rural part of Senegal known as Ndoucoumane. The seminal moment of her life came at age five, when her mother left her, for what reason is unclear. They reunited a year later, but by then her mother had “replaced” her with a relative’s child. She fared no better with her father. Blind and aged, he concentrated his energy on prayer instead of his daughter. Ken Bugul felt so marginalised by her parents that she referred to them as “the mother” and “the father,” never “my mother” or “my father.” Even her siblings – all older by at least a decade – rejected her attempts to bond with them.
Emotional insecurity did not stop her from excelling at her studies in French school, and she earned a scholarship to a university in Brussels, Belgium. Although Ken Bugul doesn’t divulge the year, I’d wager that she arrived in Europe in the 1970s. Whatever the date, Africa and its people had captured Belgian imagination. Everyone in the city wanted to be seen with any African woman, much less one as smart, charismatic, and beautiful as Ken Bugul. Well aware that she was being used as a social and a sexual accessory, her craving for human connection made her unable to refuse attention from even the worst sorts of people.
Ken Bugul’s tales of the sexual and cultural exploitation she faced in Brussels, and her opinions on neocolonialism and feminism make her autobiography a standout. What I didn’t care for was the fractured chronology: she starts with the genesis of her village, cuts to her earliest childhood in Senegal, jumps to decades ahead in Belgium, then returns to her youth in Senegal, and finally picks up where she left off earlier with her life in Belgium. Another gripe: her childhood memories felt rushed and vague, particularly since she names no names and gives no dates. Maybe for good reason: without love, there’s nothing to remember but emptiness.
“Alienated, I bored my way into a world in which I didn’t feel things as deeply as I wanted to; I wanted to share them, but the necessary reference was missing. I was an orphan amidst friends who, when we were chatting, would tell parts of their family life. I’d boast about a brother, a sister, without being able to justify the ties. I wasn’t able to get excited like my friends about these bonds that would energise a person one way or another, no matter how things turned out. But I carried Ndoucoumane in my heart, the village down there.
I would throw myself in almost any relationship with tremendous enthusiasm. More often than not I was disappointed. I wanted to talk about my baobab trees, but the others, carried away by their alienation, would make fun of me and laughingly called me a kaw-kaw: kaw-kaws were the villagers who lived far away, lost in the savannah.”