For All Nails #283: Ségou is Worth a Mosque

by Jonathan Edelstein

Ségou, Ghana
23 July 1912

The messenger had only three words for Gérard Fontaine: "Your Mother remembers."

Fontaine took in the messenger's uniform and laughed, startling the other petitioners in the audience chamber. "So the old putain remembers, does she? Tell me, Lieutenant, does my mother remember the death sentence she gave me? Does she remember how I told her to go to hell?"

The messenger took a hasty step back; the answer clearly wasn't the one he'd expected.

"Ha! Don't be afraid," said Fontaine, in the expansive manner that had won him the faith of his subjects. "You've come a long way, and you deserve an answer. Go now; I'll send for you later."

He sent for others first.

There were five besides Fontaine in the council chamber, the remains of dinner on the table between them. To his right was Aïchatou, the daughter of the old king of Bambara and the favorite of his four wives. All his marriages had been political, but this one had become rather more; he had found her possessed of a quiet intelligence and insatiable thirst for learning, and she had become the steady hand behind his throne. She was no longer young, but he would not suffer any concubine to take her place.

At Fontaine's left was Ibrahim, who was not the oldest of his sons but the most promising. He had given all of them a chance to prove themselves on the field and in public office, and had chosen the soundest as his heir. He was not Aïchatou's son, and it was a measure of both that neither resented the other's preference.

Prime Minister Prince Amadou Traore sat opposite. He was a wily old fox of sixty-five, the brother of the morho naba of Ouagadougou, and had occupied his family's seat in the House of Kings for more than thirty years. Next to him was Marcel Blum, a new-minted lieutenant when Fontaine had taken Ségou but now a colonel, the commander of Ghana's armed forces and a prince by marriage. He was a Jew, which was rare in Ghana but not unheard-of; there were Jews at both ends of the trade route with Algiers, and there was a small synagogue in Ségou's merchant quarter.

Imam Yousouf Sankara, Fontaine's chaplain, completed the company. He alone of those at the table had been born a poor man, but that mattered less to Fontaine than what he stood for. Fontaine had found it politic to embrace Islam, to pray at the great mosque of Djenné and rebuild the university at Tombouctou, but he also remembered how many cities had flocked to his banner because they chafed under the rule of Fodio's jihad. Sankara was a tolerant, modernizing imam, and Fontaine had given preference to such men; worship was free in Ghana, and those who held the old gods second to Allah or cast spells to make their land fertile were not molested. There were those who grumbled, but for Fontaine it had worked; for the past ten years, there had been no uprisings, and the League of Cities was at peace from Nioro to Niamey.

Now, it seemed, all that might change.

"So what does Fanchon want?" began Fontaine.

"Does he want anything?" Traore asked. "Don't his newspapers call us the United Townships?" He spread his hands to take in the window, where the fading sun illuminated the red-brown buildings and the dark waters of the Niger. There was still foot traffic in the streets; the business of a city of eighty thousand. "Who asks anything of a township?"

"He might ask its allegiance," said Aïchatou. "Fanchon wants to make France as it was, with an empire like the British or German. How better to recapture its glory than to bring the renegade major back into the fold, and half west Africa with him?"

"I think he wants more than that," Blum replied. "He's building an army, and we already have one. I know men like Fanchon -- he doesn't only want to make France as it was, he wants to make it greater. How do you think it seems to him that Portugal has African colonies and France doesn't? And who do you think can help him take them?"

"If he only wanted us to throw the Portuguese out of Guinea," said Fontaine, "that might not be so bad. With France standing behind us, we could do that. But I'm afraid he has more in mind -- Senegal, for instance."

"No," Sankara said, "we can't fight the Germans." Ghana's last clash with the German Confederation twelve years ago had gone badly; it had managed to harass the German forces enough to keep them from taking Ségou by the end of the campaign season, but the price of peace had been two provinces on the western border. If a Senegal campaign went wrong -- and it would -- then Fanchon would be too far away to save them.

"All the same, we can't refuse outright," responded Ibrahim. "We may want to join him later, so we wouldn't want to say anything that would foreclose our options."

"Very good," said Blum. "Make the price too high -- we can always come down if it suits us."

"Yes, the price," Fontaine agreed. "What are the things we would like to build now that our mother remembers us?"

"Paved roads," said Traore.

"Primary schools for girls," said Aïchatou.

"The radio," said Ibrahim.

"Clean water," said Blum.

"Free grain for the poor," said Sankara.

"All excellent and worthy things," answered Fontaine. "What would they cost, as livres are counted these days? Ten milliards? Twenty?"

"Thirty, I would guess," Blum said. "Maybe more."

"Then it's settled. Thirty milliards, and we will consider remembering our mother."

"Thirty milliards?" asked the messenger. "Surely you know we can't spare that."

"Nevertheless, that is our price."

It was late at night, and only he and Fontaine were in the room now; between them was a pitcher of the beer that Fontaine could only drink in private. They had spent some time talking of France and of Fanchon, who the messenger worshiped. They had spoken as well of Paris; the lieutenant's city was not the one Fontaine had known, but even revolution and civil war could not extinguish Paris.

Now, they spoke of business.

"If you asked for something less, like five milliards, I'm sure it would be granted..."

"And if it were? We take five milliards from Fanchon, and spend ten fighting his wars. Then he will come and take twenty more in taxes; our wealth will go to Paris like Guinea's goes to Lisbon. We will do all the things I just told you -- maybe we'll have to do them more slowly without your money, but at least nobody will take them away from us."

"The Maréchal would never do that! And surely you want to be a Frenchman again -- the Maréchal would pardon you if you asked. I've seen what you've done here; you're a builder, like he is. Don't you want to work with him?"

"Lieutenant ... Zimeray, is it?" The messenger nodded. "You're young, and you admire your Maréchal, and that isn't a bad thing. But one thing you will learn about a man like Fanchon is that he will never let there be another Fanchon. Give my friendly greetings to him, but tell him my price is unchanged. And ... give my greetings to your mother."

"You knew?" asked Zimeray.

"Of course I did! Didn't you think I would know who Mathilde married? And didn't you think I would notice when a lieutenant who looked exactly like her walked into my audience chamber? I suppose Fanchon sent you on purpose."

"Actually, no. I wanted to see you -- you see, my mother also remembers."

Fontaine finished the last of his beer. "Very well, then. And after you bring my message to Fanchon, tell Mathilde that of all the things I left behind in Paris, I only regret one."

The histories tell that in July 1912, the nation of Ghana responded to Maréchal Henri Fanchon's greeting with a request for economic aid. FN1 Of what passed between Gérard Fontaine and Lieutenant Zimeray, they choose to say nothing.

Forward to FAN #284: And This Bird You'll Never Tame.

Forward to 8 June 1922: The Revolution Will Not Be Vitavised.

Forward to Africa: Joining Up is Hard to Do.

Return to For All Nails.

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