Waiting for Heroes
San Francisco State University
When the written word was imposed upon African storytellers, their voices became distant echoes in the emergent textual representation of their histories. Like a Trojan horse, the printed page brought with it an invincible enemy: the Eurocentric point of view. In the European Age of Exploration, the earliest literature about Africa, first penned by travel writers, explorers, and missionaries, painted a bleak picture of a
dark continent, inhabited by savage men and women, who at best, could find redemption by way of the cross or the gun, and be reshaped into a labor force to serve European economic interests. The African oral tradition was muted in this reincarnation. A dignified, noble African Self was written into exile, and thus was born a European Other–defeated and diminished by a war on spoken words. First imposed, this Adam-like being born of binaries would, over time, be internalized by the African. His darkness, ignorance, sloth, and decline were a living monument to the whiteness, intelligence, industry, and progress of his masters. In effect, the written word not only served to justify the plunder of an entire continent for centuries to come, it created a psychological noose around the African psyche—one that would help him to hang himself.
The disruptive impact of writing on African storytelling can be observed through all phases of colonial rule: pre, active, and post. The most obvious mark is language itself. On a continent where no fewer than six-hundred languages are spoken, access to European knowledge, via education, would necessitate a command of English, French, German, or Portuguese. Schooled in the art de plume in European missionary schools, the most privileged African storytellers began to write down their tales, but they had to channel their creative energies through the language of their oppressors. On a more subtle level, but no less profound, one may observe the evolution, or to be more precise, the revolution of the tales themselves. The emergent African canon moved from protest literature, to resistance literature, to national literature—somehow always in function of a colonial curse. Nonetheless, pre-literate rhetorical forms would survive these permutations.
What is perhaps the most important form, the historical epic, made its way from the realm of the oratory into what is now known as orature.1 The main protagonist in these tales, the African epic hero, has also endured, however, his (and I mean
his; with few exceptions, these heroes are men) qualities have changed over time. It is as if the process of natural selection has engendered a new breed of hero—a hybrid of sorts—whose character bears the noble qualities of his predecessors but also carries the burden of a colonial imprint. An examination of three African works seems to confirm this observation. The first, Sundiata, is an oral testimony about the history and legend of the 13th century leader of the Malian Empire, later transcribed and written down in the early 20th century. Another, Amkoullel l'enfant Peul is a mid-20th century memoir written in French by Malian writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ. In it he recounts the history his family beginning with the Peul Empire of Macina, the subsequent conquest and occupation of the French, and the impact of World War I. He ends with his own metaphorical passage into manhood. This work would definitely be classified as historic, but not necessarily epic; and its heroes are tripartite: his grandfather, his father, and his mother.
Hampaté Bâ was born at the dawn of the 20th century, on the cusp of oral tradition, and his story is a product of oral recitations passed down in his family over generations and observations during his own life. He privileges orality over the written word and insists that it shaped his perception and that of his entire generation. Finally, the most recent novel, En Attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, (Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals), by Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Korouma, grafts the traditional African formula of the oral epic onto the traditional Western literary epic. He borrows the language of the French, infuses it with imagery and narrative Malinke style, and retells the history of the Cold War through the exploits of the African
noble savage. The resulting hybridization finally turns the traditional notions of the epic hero on its head. Instead of illuminating physical strength, divine intellect and profound, cultural pride, as did Sundiata and Amkoullel, l'enfant Peul, Korouma's hero is a beacon of shame. And, unlike his illiterate predecessors whose heroes were unbound by scripture and the constraints of place and time, Kourouma's protagonist emerges from the written page and is sealed therein—fixed in time by a Eurocentric linear view that remains pathetically colonial.
The historic epic, as a literary genre, predates writing. Its form is borne from orality and is by no means limited to African tradition. Stories like Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia and the Irish epic of The Tain (translated from Tain Bo Cuailnge) have survived the ages from orality to transcription. But while the written word would arrive early on and overtake these oral cultures, giving rise to more preservation, more transcription and still more printed histories, most of what we know of pre-colonial Africa comes from oral recitations that were converted to data and written down much, much later. For centuries, western historians discounted this information as insufficient and inexact and relegated much of it to the realm of folktales. In the 1960s, however, Belgian anthropologist/historian Jan Vansina began a comprehensive study of these oral histories and helped to validate them as true historical documents in the eyes of his Western contemporaries. In De la tradition orale, essai de méthode historique (Oral Tradition, A Study of Historical Methodology), he maintains that some oral histories, specifically the religious, esoteric ones, may be even more reliable than similar written histories found in the West because they held such an important place in African society.
Vansina breaks down oral tradition into a chain of testimonies. The original phenomena or event is first observed. This is called the
initial or proto-testimony (Vansina 21). Then the chain of transmission ensues. In the case of the more didactic, esoteric traditions, they are
only transmitted by certain persons attached to a particular institution, or are the property of a special group. No one else is allowed to transmit them, even if he should happen to be well informed about the tradition. (Vansina 25) Then we move to the stage of the final informant, where the last or final testimony occurs before finally, the recorder takes over and produces the earliest written record.
Thus, the transmission of verbal testimonies concerning the distant past, whether spoken or sung, has come to constitute Africa's oral tradition. It is hardly limited to religious or esoteric beliefs and, according to Vansina, can be divided into five categories: formulae, poetry, lists, commentaries and tales—the category from which emerges ancient stories like Gilgamesh and Beowulf, and later Sundiata. They were first spoken or sung, and then, long after they originated, memorialized on paper; hence, they survived through the ages.
Central to all of these historic epic tales stands the epic hero. Through his adventures, we witness amazing physical exploits and feats of magic, peppered with elements of the supernatural, rhythmic incantations, music and verse. He takes the listener/reader on a journey. Sometimes he is accompanied by a friend, a partner (human, animal or otherwise), and there are often lovers along the way. At the end, the hero returns with a boon—some sort of gain or blessing. It is through that boon, and the journey the hero makes, that we understand the African's true nature; we understand African humanity.
Sundiata is both the hero and title of the West African traditional epic about the first known king of Mali. According to oral history, he was the youngest son of Emperor Nare Maghan. His ascendance to the throne is heralded by a traditional African storyteller, or griot who uses songs, prose, and proverbs to animate his tale. Hampaté Bâ is a descendant of a double heritage—the noble Peul2 ancestry of his mother, and the Toucouleurs3 of his father. The historic information about his family is told in great detail. Hampaté Bâ credits oral recitations for this:
La mémoire des gens de ma génération, et plus généralement des peuples de tradition orale qui ne pouvaient s'appuyer sur l'écrit, est d'une fidélité et d'une précision presque prodigieuse. Des l'enfance nous étions entraîne à observer et à écouter [. . .] tout événement s'inscrivait dans notre mémoire comme dans une cire vierge. (Amkoullel 11)
(The power of recall of my generation, and in general, people of the oral tradition who cannot rely on a written text, is so precise and accurate it's almost phenomenal. As early as childhood, we are trained to observe [. . .] to listen [. . .] events are implanted in our memory as if it were virgin wax.)4
Many of Hampaté Bâ's stories have been passed on by his griots Dieli Maadi and Wangrin.
Kourouma's protagonist, Koyaga, is a master hunter, and his feats are also sung by
a bard (known as the sere) who recounts the exploits of the hunter and praises their heroes (3). He calls himself Bingo, and he is accompanied by an apprentice responder, or koroduwa, named Tiekura. Bingo explains at the beginning that the story is structured according to the traditional
purificatory narrative or epic, known in Malinka as a donsomana, Malinka works not only to authenticate Koyaga's tale, they infuse its structure. Instead of chapters, the novel is comprised of six sumu (translated from veillées in French), or ritual gatherings of hunters' societies. Kourouma makes use of African cosmogony, or kuma, to drive his plot. The ultimate duty of the sere is to articulate the kuma. Amadou Hampaté Bâ reiterated the deep-rooted meanings behind these traditional forms an article on African orality entitled Life Force, written for UNESCO:
La tradition de Bambara [. . .] enseigne que le Mot, Kuma, est une force fondamentale émanant du Suprême Est Ngala de se-Maa, le créateur de toutes choses [. . .] Maa Ngala, il est enseigné, est déposé dans Maa les trois potentialités de capacité, disposée et savoir. Mais toutes les forces à lesquelles il est le mensonge d'héritier muet à l'intérieur de lui [. . .] Ils sont statiques, jusqu'à ce que le discours vient et les règles dans le mouvement. Alors, vivifié par le Mot divin, ils commencent à vibrer. À une première étape ils deviennent des pensées, à un deuxième son, et à un troisièmes mots [. . .] La tradition, alors, confère sur Kuma, le Mot, le pouvoir non seulement créatif mais une fonction double d'économie et de détruire. (
In Bambara tradition Kuma is a fundamental force emanating from the Supreme Being, Maa Ngala, creator of all things. Maa Ngala deposited in Maa the three potentialities of ability, willing and knowing, but all the forces to which his is the heir lie dumb within him. They are static until speech comes and sets them in motion. Animated by the divine Word, they begin to vibrate. At the first stage they are thoughts, the second, sound, and the third words. Kuma designates any articulated human utterance or thought.5
Ultimately, kuma is the very premise of Kourouma's novel because
everything must be told in order for his story to end (Kourouma 264).
Bingo tells Koyaga,
we are going to sing and dance your donsomana during five festive sumu. We shall tell the truth. The truth about your dictatorship. The truth about your parents and your collaborators. All the truth about your filthy tricks and your bullshit; we shall denounce your lies, your numerous crimes and assassinations. (4)
The Malinka have an unusual rapport with the spoken word, which was their sole form of expression until the Islamic conquests of the fifteenth century. Trustworthiness is equated with the degree of interiority of the parole—the part of the body from which it originates. For example, one may speak from the heart, or simply give lip service. Furthermore, as Vansina's study pointed out, only a certain class of people is deemed worthy as
guardians and manipulators of the word (Miller 134). They are the Jeli, or griots. Griots are one of several classes in the nyamakala caste. They fall somewhere between the noble and the slave. Nobles are expected to refrain from excessive speech so as to
avoid contamination by contact with it. The griot linguist listens to them and speaks loudly for them
car un Mansa ne parle pas comme un crieur publique (because a Mansa doesn't speak like the town crier). Griots are the keepers of all things private, and will guard their secrets until the grave. The Manding6 warns never to try and grasp what is hidden from words. To better understand this distrust of the word, consider that
while orality is perceived in Western metaphysics as the immediacy of the voice, in the Malinke tradition, orality is already a duplicitous betrayal of silence (Miller 136).
The infusion of Malinke and French (English) lend authenticity to Kourouma's tale, as does his use of oral storytelling devices. They create ritual in the novel. First, a description of the hunters' gathering inaugurates each sumu: music is played by the koroduwa, who like a court jester, sometimes gets carried away. His antics may take the form of
grotesque and salacious jokes (Kourouma 121). Then, the sere recites a proverb that bears some specific connection for the sumu text that follows. Proverbs are mnemonic devices; simple phrases that illuminate the six sumu themes: tradition, death, destiny, power, treachery, and
everything has an end (223). Kourouma says he uses them to enrich meaning in the same way the old storytellers relied on them to impress their listeners. The proverb is a very common rhetorical form in African language and consistently finds its way into the texts of Sundiata, and Amkoullel, l'enfant peul, as well.
The [African] proverb can be considered as practically a genre in itself and it enters as a device into almost all kinds of speech activity (Irele 80).
The proverb represents a kind of compaction of reflected experience and functions as a kind of minimalism of thought [. . .] summoned up by a Yoruba proverb (i) Owe l'esin oro; ti oro ba sanu, owe l'a fi nway (proverbs are the horses of thought; when thoughts get lost, we send proverbs to find them). (Irele 80)
After the proverb, Korouma's sere addresses the people; his voice employs imperative:
Your name: Koyaga! your totem: the falcon! You are a soldier and a president, which evoke a sense of immediacy. He often repeats phrases. This is no accident. Kourouma points out how repetition is part of orality and his native Malinke, as well:
When we talk, in an oral setting, we use a lot of gestures, and repeat ourselves twice or three times for fearing not being understood the first time around [. . .] the reader [. . .] can always go back to a sentence that was not fully comprehended (Ouedraogo 1339). He also uses repetition in cases when he cannot find the exact word capturing the term he wishes to bring forth. The reader is called upon to ask what he is trying to express or highlight:
This becomes my way of saying to the reader: I bring to you all I have to say on the subject, but I am consciouos not having found the right word. Kourouma blames this on the inability to translate certain concepts from one language to another. There are concepts in Malinke that he says simply do not exist in French.
Sundiata and Gilgamesh are imbued with all the characteristics of the traditional epic hero: noble ancestry, mystery surrounding his birth and early youth, supernatural powers, his emergence as a hero, divine connections that aid him in achieving his destiny, and marital prowess. Gilgamesh is king of Uruk, son of goddess Nunsun and a priest of Kallub. He is endowed with divine powers, being two-thirds god, and one third man. Sundiata is a son of an emperor Nare Maghan and Sogolon, the mysterious
buffalo woman who endows him with her mystic powers. And while Amkoullel's origins are far less auspicious, his mother is also cast in a divine light—the saint who guides him through life and into manhood. She is a rare representation in African Literature, the African matriarch—a heroine, whose good deeds touch everyone in her world. She saves the life of her husband, protects all those who surround her and commands the respect of the French occupiers. Ever the good Muslim, Hampaté Bâ honors her:
Tout ce que nous sommes et tout ce que nous avons, nous le devons une fois seulement a notre pére, mais deux fois a notre mére (Amkoullel 53) (All that we are and all that we have, we give thanks just once to our father, but twice to our mother). Juxtapose Hampaté Bâ's words against this near-identical passage in the Koran:
A man came to the Prophet Muhammad and said, As in Sundiata, the negatively connoted African is practically absent in Hampaté Bâ's tale. A few secondary characters demonstrate weak or traitorous qualities, but they are cast in a ridiculous light and always lose. His heroine and his heroes are depicted as survivors of the colonial conquest; they carry within themselves a vibrant legacy that harkens back to the pre-colonial era of Sundiata.
O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? the Prophet said,
Your mother. The main said
Then who? The prophet said,
Then your mother. The man asked again,
Then who? The Prophet said,
Then your father. (
Koyaga also bears the qualities of the traditional epic hero, but Kourouma presents him through the prism of colonialism. He descends from the Naked People, or Paleos, who were considered
as savages among savages by the Europeans (Kourouma 5). Bingo, the sere, repeatedly denigrates them throughout the story, calling them cannibals, imbeciles, strange and stupid. It is as if he is channeling Leo Africanus, who lived in the fifteenth-century and wrote The History and Description of Africa. His work was perhaps the most comprehensive account of Africa for sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Europeans. In his text we find extensive accounts of the flora and fauna of the continent, as well as the earliest writings about the kingdoms of the Malinde. Consider the words in light of Bingo's:
They are a wilde and lawless people [. . .] of stature, tall, and countenance most terrible, making lines upon their cheeks with certain iron instruments and turning their eie-lids backwards, wherey they cast upon their enemies a most dreadful and astonishing aspect. They are maneaters, and courageous in bataille [. . .] these cruel savages. (Africanus 60-61) Africanus was a North African Arab who was captured by the Venetians and given as a present to Pope Leo X. His writing, perhaps helped to redeem him in the eyes of his captors by portraying the African as barbarous, brutish savages and gave Europeans cause to invade, conquer and
get their hands on the gold of Manding. But what does Kourouma gain by his heteroglossia7—his use of the voice of the griot to parody the language of the oppressor? He sheds that voice in his other descriptions of Africans. In fact,
he has said that he consciously allows confusion as to who is speaking at times (Kourouma 264). The resulting cacophony, in speech, thought and point of view, seems often deliberately obscure.
The strategy brings a fresh breath [. . .] and involves features of the novel described by Bakhtin; the
dialoguization or intertextuality [. . .] by virtue of the distance created by the main narrator and his character, are more carnivalesque and baroque. Here the epic has lost its place; it becomes farcical, tragic and comical. If Kourouma borrows from techniques inspired by oral literature, it is difficult to say if these borrowings are conscious or not. Kouraouma has generally experienced storytelling evenings or tales, epics, or hunting songs. (Biswana 86)
Looking through the prism of the African, the sere portrays Koyaga's father as a hero—a fighter, who died a humiliating death at the hands of the Europeans. His mother, Nadjuam, is portrayed as a skilled fighter as well,
an expert in geomancy (Kourouma 43)—her divine powers were attributed to her having a meteorite. Like Sundiata, whose gestation took years, Koyaga's mom carried him a full twelve months; her labor lasted an entire week. Sundiata was often referred to as the
lion king; Koyaga was as
heavy as a baby lion at birth (12). Like the mothers of Sundiata and Gilgamesh, Nadjuma confers her divine powers on her son for his entire life. She is assisted by her confidant, master and friend,
a marabout with no father or mother and who possesses a venerable Qur'an (43). According to Tiekura:
Not a day dawns or ends that she does not make live sacrifices for you in your name, in the name of her only son. Destiny has never surprised those who perpetually engage in blood sacrifices. Misfortune avoids them. The Magic here should not be confused with the magical realism oft associated with the European aesthetic. It is present in all three of the African works examined herein, and has its roots in oral tradition.
The absurd, in particular, a prime technique of modernism is present in oral tradition in terms of hyperbole, irony and satire (Hampaté Bâ
Life Force). These techniques serve to reinforce meaning in orality, not dilute or undermine it. For the African storyteller, every living entity has a soul and a voice—flora, fuana, and humankind. The living and the dead exist simultaneously, for through the storyteller they can speak and be heard forever.
The connection between man and beast is a reality in Africa and reflected in its stories Like young Sundiata, Koyaga proves himself as a master hunter early on. Kourama says he chose to situate his novel in the midst of a hunting community—to revive that world and establish a link between the human and animal communities. Kourouma unveils the theosophy of the hunter's brotherhood, or donsoton in the fifth samu when he recounts the Koyaga's formation as a young boy, referring to it as
freemasonry, a religion [. . .] created at the time of the Pharoahs by a Paleo mother and her son:
The brotherhood was established to resist oppression by rulers and to combat slavery. It preached equality and fraternity among all men of every race, social origin, cast, belief and duty. For fifty centuries it had remained that way to rally all those who under regimes, said no two times: no to oppression and no to renunciation in the face of adversity. (Kourouma 212) As a master hunter, Koyaga had killed more than 155
black game animals, not to mention sharks and other
non-classified beasts (215). He was credited with having
the most diversified hunting tablet in Africa after the pharaoh Ramses II. However, the nobility of the hunter is lost on our protagonist. He is an authoritarian
like a wild animal, as mendacious as an echo, as brutal as the lightning, as bloodthirsty as a lyacon (222). As Head of State, Koyaga brutalizes the peasants, forcing them from their lands, so that he could create a giant theme park—
the greatest hunting preserve in West Africa (215). Kourouma reflects on the numerous characters from the animal world that populate his stories. A master hunter in his own right, he recalls the profound connection between community life and the fauna of the bush.
Nothing ever took place without animals playing a role in it: the proverbs, the conduct of daily life [. . .] We lived together with the animals. There was a symbiosis which the current environment does not allow (Oudraogo 1342). By situating his story in the world of hunters, Kourouma evidently feels he can revive that link.
The traditional epic hero has helpers who aid him in achieving his destiny. Gilgamesh's best friend, Enliki, l'homme sauvage, helps him to defeat the ferocious giant, Humbaba. Sundiata had his half-sister, who discovered that the way to neutralize his rival Sumanguru's power (nya) was with an arrow with a white cock's spur attached. Amkoullel's mother, Kadidja, was his father's soulmate. She alone nursed him to health remaining at his side during his years in prison, when all his other wives deserted him. He would have died without her. In the case of Koyaga, he is aided by his mother, the marabout, as well as Macledio, who
can obliterate the distinction between truth and lies and carry out the master's every whim for thirty years (Kourouma 267).
Macledio's story comprises the entire third samu. In a sense, his journey fulfills an important requisite for the epic hero. Kourouma presents, here, an epic within the epic. The journey motif is a vital part of African oral tradition. Storytellers regaled audiences with tales of their travels. In Sundiata, the journey is forced upon the protagonist when he is pushed into exile because his brother has usurpsed his throne. In Gilgamesh, the original impetus of his journey is vanity. Gilgamesh laments,
I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled (70). We can infer that he will use this wood to build temples in his own honor. His ultimate boon is Immortality, and when he returns he understands the secret of life. According to Mildred Mortimer, the itinerant epic protagonist uses the voyage as a pathway to intellectual and emotional maturity:
The voyager's goal is to acquire the knowledge and/or power that will allow him or her to rejoin the community and to enjoy a heightened status in it. The circular journey of hero ultimately leads to purification and a new life. It ends where it began—at home. However, in modern African fiction, the return is often impossible. That is because
the stability represented in (traditional) oral narrative no longer exists in African societies caught up in the rapid transformation engendered by colonialism and postcolonialism (Mortimer 172). Such is the case with Macledio. His journey is predestined because he is damned as a
devourer of souls (Kourouma 86). His quest for his
man of destiny takes him to the four corners of the Mande kingdom. But instead of returning, he becomes Koyaga's servant and mouthpiece.
Macledio is to Koyaga as the sere is to the master hunter (267).
The journey motif characterizes Koyaga's path as well, but it is not as linearly defined as that of Macledio. He is sent away to the military to fight wars abroad, and as Head of State, makes the rounds of the palatial compounds of fellow dictators. In a way, Koyaga's story is a constant negotiation between exile and return, isolation and connectedness, order and chaos. The final scene serves as testament. After surviving the final assassination attempt, returning from the dead and attempting to reconnect with his people, he witnesses fire, peasants, hunters, dictators, and
all the animals of the universe running pell-mell. Beasts, peasants, and hunters were pursuing each other, fighting and massacring each other in the plain and in the swamps (255). The symbolism of fire seems evident—to cleanse, purify, and destroy. In oral African cosmology, life began in Chaos; it seems fitting that Kourouma's tale would end likewise. It signals the end of the Cold War, and the dictatorial state of Africa and its leaders, no longer propped up by anti-communist, imperialist forces. Kourouma says he wrote this novel to denounce the horrors of the Cold War.
Nobody can fully grasp the impact of the cold war on the continent [. . .] the big dictatorships that we experienced, all the crimes, the Mobutus, the Bokassas, the Idi Amins, all are creations of the Cold War (Oudraogo 1338). His hero's dictatorial reign of 30 years bears a startling resemblance to Togo's leader, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who as
president for life was still in power at the time of the novel's publication.
Frantz Fanon warns against the nationalist rhetoric in bourgeois neocolonial governments. He argues that it can result in
racism, territorialism, separatism, or ethnic dictatorships of one tribe or regional group over another [. . .] the national bourgeoisie replaces the colonizer, yet the social and economic structure remain the same (Lowe 1029). Such is the case in Kourouma's tale and Africa's reality. In one of the many traditional celebrations held by the Head of State, Koyago appears before the crowd, dressed elegantly in the khaki uniform of the white hunter. Unbeknownst to the African dictator, he serves as a mere placeholder. Unlike Sundiata and the heroes of Hampaté Bâ's Malian world whose valiant feats destroyed or disempowered their oppressors, Kourouma's epic hero confirms his masters. Koyaga seems to exist in function of his colonial predecessor—there only to serve him as his living metaphor. There is a saying often reiterated by parents:
I brought you into this world, and I will take you out. The power of Kourouma's hero lies not in his divine birthright, nor the secrets of his feticheurs, but in his pre–colonial master—the real patriarch of his imagined patriarch. The master may have freed the slave, but the slave clings to the master's coattails—in fact, he parades about in his clothes and enshrines his tyranny.
So does the new African epic hero exist only in function of a colonial past, post or present? Who will emerge from this narrative in a thousand years? Without the fluidity of orality, Kourouma's hero will stay as he is, forever emblazoned on the page. There is nothing the sere or griots can do to untarnish him in subsequent retellings. As literate Africa retakes and reshapes its narrative, wrestling the image of the noble savage away from its oppressors, will there ever be a hero to rival Mali's Sundiata, or Mesopotamia's Gilgamesh? Anne McCormick warns against the theoretical tendency to place African literature on a sequential, linear Eurocentric planes. She questions the term
post-colonialism for the same reason. By doing so, we are confined to the same trope of linear progress that held African creativity hostage.
All literatures are born out of orality. And all heroes are born out of conflict. Nawal El Saadawi speaks of the African writer and his role as a creative dissident. He draws a line between dissidence and heroism because unlike the hero, the dissident is often imprisoned, tortured or killed. Kourouma has paid a price for his criticism of modern African leaders, but he has survived. Saadawi says given the choice of lucidity and
following the traditions of our ancestor the [African] critical gaze that must be cast upon the self as well as the Other:
[. . .] we might say that the deheroization of self and other is at the core of real dissidence: of radical ethics, an aesthetics of creativity, or a critical ontology of self and other. Real dissidence avoids lapsing into the reverse essentialism of cult of self or the other. It avoids a one way reflexive self-monitoring by including the other in this process. It is thus that the analytical links between ourselves and our social context are maintained. (Saadawi 177) Perhaps it is too soon to search for epic heroes, let alone epics in the post-oratory African canon of literature. By doing so, perhaps we are still reading in function of the Western European Other—trying to fit the modern African experience into a non-African tradition. And speech is still a force to be reckoned with and preserved. As in an old Malian adage:
What puts a thing into condition? Speech. What damages a thing? Speech. What keeps a thing as it is? Speech (Hampaté Bâ
Life Force). Nonetheless, speech cannot coerce epics and heroes out of current, cruel realities any more than Writing can bring Africa back to the Edenic utopia it may have once been. Modern-day African orators and writers—as the current arbiters of politics and perception—may simply have to wait . . . and time will tell.
The majority of African cultural traditions were preserved and adapted over long periods by oral traditions which have had a great influence on their written literatures. Western academies have some difficulty adjusting their terms to fit this phenomenon. In an effort to denote an oxymoron like |
oral literature, Africanists have resorted to the neologism
Les peuls are an ethnic group present in about fifteen West African countries.
Toucouleurs are a West–African people who live principally in northern Senegal.
All translations are by J. Mabry unless otherwise noted.
Translated by UNESCO.
Some semantic distinctions should be made about the distinctions between Mande and Malinke and Mali. According to James R. McGuire's Narrating Mande Heroism in the Malian Novel: Negotiating Post-colonial Identity In Diabate's Le Bouch Le Kouta, |
the Mande region is a fluid federation of culture and genealogy, held together by history, myth and structure; it is a sphere, a space an aire cultural [. . .] including all those peoples who trace their ancestry to the medieval empire of Mali. Mande peoples (Malinke, Bambara, Dyula, Kuranko, Wangara, Kasonka, Soninke) all of whom speak mutually comprehensible dialects of Mandekan are dispersed throughout the West African savannah from the Gambian coast to Central Burkina Faso, and from southern Mauritania to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Malians trace their own origins back to the Mali Empire. The Mande, then, is that region which, paradoxically and in spite of the arbitrary yet utilitarian borders drawn by the European project of divide and rule, is a bedrock for national literature.
Discourse in the Novel, M. M. Bakhtin shows how the comic novel appropriates and organizes differing linguistic styles and analyses various stylistic ways by which the author's voice is infected by them. Ultimately, the writer's primary source of language is the
common language which opens a lens on the
common view. This, coupled with the narrator's point of view, creates a diversity of language unknown to other forms like poetry, even drama. Bakhtin has coined several terms and codified different ways the
speech of another is introduced into the author's discourse.
Africanus, Leo. The History and Description of Africa. Trans. John Pory. Ed. Robert
Brown. Vols. 1 & 3. London: Hakluyt Society, 1896.
Thomas Mopoku Mofolo's Inverted Epic Hero: A Reading of Mofolo's
Research in African Literatures 28 (1997): 49–78.
Chaka as an African Folktale.
Discourse and the Novel. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin
and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 674–85.
Bhaba, Homi K.
Signs Taken For Wonders. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie
Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 116–84.
Bisanswa, Justin K.
The Adventures of the Epic and Novel in Ahmadou Kourouma's
Research in African Literatures 38.2 (Summer 2007): 81–94.
Canonizing Sundiata in Mande Literature: Toward a Sociology of
Social Text 31-34 (1992): 154–68.
Hadfield, Andrew, ed. Amazons, Savages and Machiavels: Travel and Colonial
Writing in English, 1550-1630: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
Hampaté Bâ, Amadou.
A Life Force (Africa: The Power of Speech). UNESCO Courier.
–––. Amkoullel L'enfant Peul. Paris: Editions Broche, 2000.
Illiffe, John. Africans: the History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Orality, Literacy, and African Literature. African Literature: An
Anthology of Criticism and Theory. Eds. Tejumola Olanyan and Ato Quayson.
Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 74–82.
Kourouma, Ahmadou. Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals. Charlottesville: Virginia
UP, 2001. Trans of En Attendant le vote des bêtessauvages. Paris: Editions du
Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.
Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 2006. 1031–50.
The Historical, Economic and Political Basis of France's African Policy.
Journal of Modern African Studies 23.2 (June 1985): 189-208.
The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term 'Post Colonialism'. Literary
Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 2006. 1185–96.
McGuire, James R.
Narrating Mande Heroism in the Malian Novel: Negotiating
Research in African
Postcolonial Identity in Diabate's Le Boucher de Kouta.
Literatures. 24.3 (Fall 1993): 35–57.
Miller, Christopher L.
Theories of Africans: The Question of Literary Anthropology.
Critical Inquiry 13.1 (Autumn 1986): 120–39.
African Journeys. Research in African Literatures. 22.2 (Summer
Muhammad. 16 May 2009. <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Muhammad>
Niane , D.T., ed. Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali. Longman, 1965.
An Interview With Ahmadou Kourouma. The French
Review 74.4 (March 2001): 772–85.
Saadawi, Nawal El.
Dissidence and Creativity. African Literature: An Anthology of
Criticism and Theory. Eds.Tejumola Olanyan and Ato Quayson. Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 2007. 172–177.
Sandars, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction. London:
Thevenot, Jean de. Voyages de M. Thevenot en Europe, Asie et Afrique, 3ème édition.
Amsterdam: Michel Charles le Cene, 1627.
Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Trans. H.M. Wright.
London: Aldine, 1965.
Back to top