Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane; translated by Katherine Woods (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2012; originally published 1962.
176 pp)

Cheikh Hamidou Kane was born the son of a local chief in Senegal in 1928. He studied philosophy and law at the Sarbonne in Paris and later at the École Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer. While in Paris, Kane wrote Ambiguous Adventure basing it on his experiences. Upon returning to Senegal, he published his novel to considerable acclaim winning the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noir. Kane garnered employment in the Senegalese government in multiple ministerial positions. Kane lives in Dakar, Senegal.

Besides her translation of Ambiguous Adventure, Katherine Woods is best known for her translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

A Western-Centric Education 

Enveloped in study during my college years, I often overlooked the narrow focus of my discipline. To me, philosophy meant the study of the question, “Why?” No matter the source of the question, philosophy dove deeper than a simple explanation.

In retrospect, my program specifically dealt with analytical philosophy. As students, we dove into philosophy from a deductive approach, setting aside much of European existentialism and Eastern philosophy. While it may have seemed those angles were less worthwhile, we just didn’t focus on them.

Understanding the narrow focus of my studies, I find the philosophical tension in Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure intriguing.

The Studies of Samba Diallo 

The story follows a young, Senegalese boy, Samba Diallo—a devout Muslim born and raised in the Diallobé country of Senegal. While in his homeland, Samba Diallo learns the culture, tradition, and faith of his people.

Photo by Steve Mohundro

At the behest of the Diallobé milieu, Samba attends college in Paris studying philosophy. For Samba—ever the excellent student—this opportunity allows him a chance to continue learning. For the Diallobé community, Samba’s encounter with the Western world will provide answers about the current political pressures the community encounters from all sides.

“The men of the Diallobé wanted to learn ‘how better to join wood to wood.’ The mass of the country had made the reverse choice to that of the teacher. While the latter was setting at naught the stiffness of his joints, the pressure on his loins, setting his cabin at naught, and recognizing the reality only of Him toward Whom his thought mounted with delight at every instant, the people of the Diallobé were each day a little more anxious about the stability of their dwellings, the unhealthy state of their bodies. The Diallobé wanted more substance” (29).

Tensions between Past and Present 

Yet, Samba’s studies carry consequences. The more he learns of the Western world, the less he associates himself with his Muslim faith and his cultural tradition. While never outright disowning his past, he finds the tension between past and present difficult to maintain.

“The West is in process of overturning these simple ideas, of which we are part and parcel. They began, timidly, by relegating God to a place ‘between inverted commas.’ Then two centuries later, having acquired more assurance, they decreed, ‘God is dead.’ From that day dates the era of frenzied toil. Nietzsche is the contemporary of the industrial revolution. God was no longer there to measure and justify man’s activity. Was it not industry that did that? Industry was blind, although, finally, it was still possible to domicile all the good it produced… But already this phase is past… After the death of God, what they are now announcing is the death of man” (91).

In the end, the more Samba learns, the more he realizes life is ambiguous.

Pondering the Value of Broad-Ranging Study

Photo by Jeff Attaway

These conclusions resonate with my experience as a former philosophy student. Much like Samba, my philosophical studies carried an immensely Western influence. Whether intentional or unintentional, the program implies an inconsequential view of non-Western worldviews.

Even though I greatly appreciate my education and credit it for sharpening my critical reasoning skills, I feel unbalanced. For this reason, I find immense value in reading non-Western views and rebalancing the way I comprehend the world.

Ambiguous Adventure is a short-but-dense philosophical read. It doesn’t offer a fast moving plot, but its thought-provoking motifs offer much for a curious reader. If you are interested in non-Western views on life, check out Ambiguous Adventure.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

What about you? Has your education been Western-centric? If it has, does such a focus bother you? What sort of value do you find in learning about other cultures?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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