Text analysis from Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba (“The Humps”)

Later, when Koumba came into contact with grownups… the other, spiteful, cantankerous, and peevish as a bear with a sore head.

This text is extracted from the story “The Humps” in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba. The story tells of Khary and Koumba, two women afflicted with hunchbacks, and how they navigate the the world as girls and as married women. Their contrasting personalities leave their husband “half-happy” until a supernatural intervention renders judgment, saving one and destroying the other. This text is situated directly after a brief exposition detailing the background (i.e. childhood, and general outline of their married life) of the main characters, and informs us about the state of the house as Koumba enters it. It sets the stage for the rest of the story, explaining why Khary will be punished and Koumba rewarded. An appropriate title for this text could be: The Two Wives and Their Husband.

This text is divided into four parts. The first part ends with “she was just the same.” The subtitle for it could be “Immutable Nature.” As Koumba reaches adulthood, she finds that childish teasing has been replaced by spiteful adults, however she remains true to herself. This part sets up the idea that the way people are as children makes up their adult character where issues become more serious and consequences more severe. It is this underlying idea that sets the stage for the story’s conflict. 

The second part of the text ends at “and helped him with his work.” As a married woman, Koumba attempts to serve the first wife and the husband, the former because she considers her to be like her big sister and the latter out of love. The epitome of a loving wife and respectful sister, she does all of the heavy work in the house, washes the clothes, takes Momor’s food to him in the fields, and helps him work. As a representative of filial piety,  she is the hero of the story who embodies the customary values of the society: respect for the (broadly speaking) elders. This section can be entitled “Good Intentions” or “Filial Piety.”

The third part of the text ends at “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish.” In it we are told that Khary’s good works are reciprocated with spite by the first wife, Koumba. In spite of the respect and help rendered to her, and the fact that Khary has a larger hump in comparison to her own, and thus should be the one with an attitude, Koumba’s bad qualities worsen. In this section the human vice (i.e. Envy) which will be punished is introduced to us. This section may be titled: “Bad Seeds.”

The fourth part of the text ends with the words “peevish as a bear with a sore head,” and informs us of the social disorder caused by the previous section. That is, the house (or family), upon which African society is built, is in a state of disharmony, and the husband is only “half-happy,” sandwiched as he is between an affable wife and one who is spiteful and peevish. We may call this part: “A House Divided.”

This story deals with the human vice of Envy (also called Jealousy) which is punished at the end of the tale. It is also an etiological explanation for the two geographical features (i.e. humps) “at the extremity of the Cape Verde Peninsula”. The tone of the text is serious, and is told from an omniscient third person perspective that delves into the thoughts and motives of the characters involved. In this text Envy is personified when Amadou Koumba says, “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish,” a statement that is also a proverb, teaching us that Envy will rear its ugly head even against people who should not be envied, like Khary envying  Koumba despite the latter having a larger hump and being therefore undeserving of any envy. 

In addition, the text also employs a metaphor to vividly illustrate the trouble Khary is causing, when it lists her negative qualities and compares them to “a bear with  a sore head” using the word ‘as’. This events in this text set the stage for the rest of the story, give us motives for the characters’ future actions, and point out the conflict that is to be resolved at the end through the dance. The moral of the story is that no matter how bad our condition may be we should never envy others, because our condition could always be worse, and that the act of envying leads to a bad end: Khary ended up with an extra hump because of her Envy.

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