Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Translated by Daniel Whitman
With “Kings, Sages, Rogues: The Historical Writings of Amadou Hampâté Bâ”

Washington, D.C. Three Continents Press. 1988.

Lilyan Kesteloot
Kaydara. An Introduction

       Table des matieres      

Kaydara is the title of an initiatory account which forms a part of Fulɓe traditional literature of the Ferlo region of Senegal, as well as of the Maasina.*
Amadou Hampaté Bâ, who renders it for us here, had first provided a prose version later refashioned into verse; in this his methodology is perfectly in line with that of Fulɓe traditionalists who compose janti 1, the literary genre to which this account belongs.
In fact, all stories which were told during long African evenings of story-telling used to be categorized pell-mell under the improper heading of “tale.” More thorough recent study, however, distinguishes between epics and cosmogonic accounts. The publication of Kaydara enables us to distinguish the following, in Fulɓe imaginative literature: the jantol, the taalol, the tinndol, the mallol, each of which has its own characteristics.
What, then, specifically characterizes janti?
First the jantol is a very long account and whose characters are human or divine; its subject may be a mythical adventure, an exemplary, didactic, instructive story, or an initiatory allegory as is the case here. (The animal fable, humorous or caustic accounts, on the other hand, belong to the heading of taalol) 2. Moreover, the jantol, unlike the taalol, can be composed in verse or prose, and may be written. Certain traditionalists write it first in Arabic script, then commit it to memory and become so renowned for the perfection of their text that students will come to learn it from them. However, these are only versions of a story which is known and related by others, and therefore ever subject to being recomposed, rewritten, or otherwise reinterpreted by an inspired artist.
The jantol, then, is a product of Fulɓe men of letters, for it necessitates a culture, a knowledge and skill which the ordinary narrator does not usually possess ; indeed, Kaydara is a literate poem, conceived to the glory of the literate, where the superiority of knowledge over fortune and power is brought out.

Amadou Hampate Ba reading Kaydara - Abdijan Feb. 1979
Amadou Hampate Ba reading Kaydara. Abidjan, Febr. 25, 1979

Amadou Hampâté Bâ, who is recognized as a traditionalist man of letters in all of Mali, only followed the tradition of his masters and peers, then, in setting down two successive versions —one in prose, one in verse— of Kaydara (for that matter, he could have set down two more!) and he has in no way gone beyond the normal liberties of the traditional African author.
But what exactly, one might ask, does the artist's liberty “with the text” consist of?
First of all, it must be borne in mind that with oral literature there is, at the outset, no text as such, no “first manuscript,” because there is nothing written.
Nevertheless, a uery precise story exists and, in the instance of an initiatory account — in a religious and esoteric framework — as is the case here, the story's progression, stages, symbols and significant factors must remain strictly unchanged. What is more, it includes certain fixed parts which will be unswervingly followed by the memory or pen of the authors; these are often a sort of refrain with mysterious or oracular turns of phrase containing within themselves the basic principles of traditional philosophy. For example, in Kaydara, the litanies begin:

Throw down my “eater.”
Another day, the earth will eat it.
Life is like that.
The termite gnaws at roots, eats them.
The hen, in turn, swallows the termite.

Or in another passage:

Life and death wage their struggle within us.
Torso to torso, they fall on each other, they wrestle.
Like water against earth, they battle without rest.
Each victory won on the right
Turns to defeat on the left.

Thus the author absolutely may not change the content of his story, any more than he may change the significant details or the fixed elements which are the idea in concrete form. However, he is free to choose the form which is pleasing to him according to his talents, his temperament, or his audience, it is his prer4gative; he may say it, sing it, or write it in prose or verse; he may lengthen or shorten certain parts, not giving an explanation of certain symbols; he may abridge the commentary, developing it sometimes according to his mood or circumstances, interrupting it, as he will, with questions or riddles asked of the audience, or with a didactic digression of botanical, zoological or religious nature…
In sum, it could be said that janti are accounts with fixed themes and groundwork, and variable forms; if one compares the two versions of Kaydara that Hampâté Bâ relates, one will notice, in fact, that they differ only in their rhythm and in nuances of style without any change in their meaning.
Once the jantol has been composed, the traditionalist will tell it during evenings of story-telling before an audience made up of children and adults, though most often, he will only relate fragments of it. The usual situation is that he arrives in the circle of villagers, sits down, and performs as much as he cares to. After halting he departs, not taking up his tale for some three months later if he wishes. It may also happen that he tells the entire tale during “the long nights of the cold season,” accompanied by a hoddu or lute player. Or, he may suddenly undertake to explain one of the symbols, on the occasion of an event which uncovers analogies to that symbol.
For, it is expressly said at the beginning of the account:

I am futile, useful, instructive.

However, Kaydara will not be told the same way in front of children and the learned. A summary of thejantol exists for listeners who are not well versed, and an esoteric version which is referred to only in front of those who have the necessary background to understand it 3. Anyone may have access to it. All depends on the degree of intellectual maturity. This explains how a captive or servant can often become the spiritual heir to his master, having had the time to listen to him more often than anyone else.
A master without an heir can also leave his knowledge to his daughter who, in turn, will initiate the gathering 4. This is but one indication of the status of the Fulɓe woman, who is singularly privileged among African women. Nevertheless, there are few woman initiates in Fulɓe society.
This matter aside, women generally show little interest in the mystical sciences and prefer devoting themselves to the secrets of cooking (which is, incidentally, sacred, involving a whole ritual of its own).
Thus, in principle, any individual of the group may become an “initiate,” depending upon the time he devotes to listening to the master and the degree of comprehension his intelligence is able to reach. Following these two criteria, a natural selection occurs, whereby, out of ten adepts, only one or two will make the grade in the hidden aspects of the master's teaching. In fact, though the instruction may be oral, “classless” and anecdotal, this does not make it thereby simple.
Indeed, the master speaks almost exclusively in images, for he knows that the African can listen without tiring of them, whereas abstract ideas seem dry and wearisome. But make no mistake: like a trap, nearly every image conceals some symbol; and behind the symbol is an idea which is often complex. The same symbol may sometimes lie behind a dozen different ideas (take for example the attributes of the cameleon) without even taking into account the very frequent esoteric references to numbers.
Isn't it asserted that number is the “kernel of mystery” and that, if there is sign or cumogal and word or woffide, then number or limngo is the result of word and sign, and thereby numbers are more fundamental, and more mysterious? Like the image, the number must therefore be held in the mind and delved into, for in initiation nothing is ever left to chance.
Thus, under the guise of an almost naive fairy-tale, the initiatory account demands the constant attention of the disciple, along with astonishing intellectual gyrations on the part of the one who, in solitary meditation, will have to extract the “substantive marrow.”
In the Fulɓe pantheon, there is first of all Geno 5 the Eternal, the All-Powerful, the Creator, Maintainer and Destroyer, He who gives life and takes it away. Evil as well as good comes from Geno and the prayer states clearly: “Give me Thy good, not Thine evil; and if Thou givest me Thine evil, give me the strength to sustain it.” Laziness, vice, war, all come from Geno. And this is considered normal, for His authority is incontestable and Geno no more has to be accountable to humans than does a father to his children.
According to traditional upbringing, in fact, a Fulɓe never questions his parents, never finds them unfair, no matter how they might harrass him. His notion of what is fair depends on his notion of rights. And the parents, the chief, the eldest, hold all rights 6. If one of these takes more than his share of something and a younger one claims his own, they will tell him:
— Is Geno's share equal?
—Well, then, take what you're given and when your turn comes to portion things out, you'll have your way.
In the Fulɓe tradition there is no notion of a Satan polarizing evil intentions, as in Islam or Christianity. In this narrative, when the devil is mentioned, an Arabic word is used. In fact the devil is a mere, lowly spirit; for Geno does not descend into direct contact with humans. First of all there are certain “emanations,” supernatural sorts of spirits which are like the “offshoots of Geno.” This is the case with Kaydara the initiator, with the malicious Jeddo Dewal, or with the gods of origin to whom sacrifices are offered, such as Ham, Dem, and Yer. In addition, an infinite number of specific spirits of the elements (spirits of air, water, fire) exist. They serve one of the supernatural spirits (Kaydara's sprites) or else, at large in nature, they manoeuver either to help man or to torment him. A beautiful dream will be sent by a good spirit; a creeping suspicion will emanate from an evil spirit. And finally, there are spirits with specialized roles: spirits of cooking, of the hunt, of the fields, spirits of cattle of whom Kumen 7 is the most important. This provides an occult population where spirits of all sorts, invisible but subject to incarnation, live hidden or suudhɗiiɓe.
This is the middle ground between the land of light where visible beings of all species live, and the land of darkest night, resting-place of the souls of the dead and of beings not yet born, including not only human souls but also those of animals and plants. These are the three lands of the Fulɓe. When in the text the “country of the dwarf-spirits” keeps being mentioned like a refrain, this country will in fact be the penumbra and, specifically, the region inhabited by the Yaamana-Juuju or pygmy-spirits 8 who are Kaydara's servants.
Hence Kaydara is “a beam emanated from the hearth which is Geno.” Polymorphous when he makes himself visible, he chooses the guise of little, deformed old men or beggars, in order to confuse opportunists and superficial persons.
The total meaning of his name has not been determined with total finality. If the etymology is analyzed, dara means stop in either the transitive or intransitive sense (as the imperative of the Pular/Fulfulde verb daraade); Gay (of which Kay could be a euphonic distortion) means here. Thus Kaydara might mean stop here: goal, limit, boundary, end.
But why a goal, why the wish to reach the mysterious Kaydara at all cost, through a thousand trials? It is never mentioned at the beginning of the narrative why Hammadi, Hamtudo and Demburu undertake their astonishing voyage.
The simple answer might be: it is because Kaydara is nothing less than the god of gold and of knowledge.
As god of gold, he resides, as does gold, in the ground; and thus the entire journey of these adventurers will take place underground. They must cross eleven strata 9 corresponding to eleven symbols and eleven trials in order to find themselves before the supernatural spirit which will grant them the sacred metal.
Why was the royal metal, one of the essential myths in all of West Africa, esoteric well before being assigned a monetary value? “Because it neither rusts nor tarnishes”; because it is the only metal “which becomes cotton without ceasing to be iron” and because, “with one gram of gold, a strand as thin as a hair can be made which can extend around a whole village”; in the end, because “gold is the foundation of knowledge; but if you confuse knowledge with its foundation, it falls and crushes you.”
In this last maxim, the association goldlknowledge comes out clearly, united as it is in the god Kaydara.
But if gold attracts adventurers more than knowledge, it is knowledge that characterizes Kaydara and that even determines his appearance. This extraordinary being with seven heads, twelve arms, thirty feet, is perched on a fourfooted throne which rotates constantly; this is the structure of the world and of time, with the seven days of the week, the twelve months and the thirty days of the month; it is the perpetual rotation of the earth, the four primary elements and the four cataclysms which, according to predictions, will destroy the world of men.
Knowledge of the cosmic order, but also of disorder: a dualism in everything and annihilation of some beings by others. Knowledge of social laws, but also of psychological law: each symbol encountered on the way to Kaydara corresponds to a human type, with a positive and a negative side. The three words of advice offered by Kaydara himself aim at rendering absolute — without unmasking their secret — laws of nature and those of the ancestors. Woe unto him who fails to observe them. But pieces of knowledge of the god of knowledge are unfathomable and this no doubt is why he is called “limit,” for he is in fact the limit of human knowledge. He is “the far and the very near” both at once, for one feels one can understand him easily while in fact he is boundless. It is no coincidence if, at the end of the account, Kaydara 10 steps back three paces at the moment the man he has just initiated wants to embrace him in a movement of joy: mustn't the distance and the veil coming between master and pupil, remain between man's god and the awareness of his imperfect approaches?

Kaydara's initiation will involve three distinct phases:

• The first is entirely contained in the voyagers' quest in the country of the dwarfs. An itinerary filled with trials, during which beings appear who are charged with a meaning which escapes them: the cameleon, the bat, the scorpion, the snake pond, the lewd he-goat, the three wells… for all the symbols to which Kaydara holds the key, there are degrees of initiation which the adept must get past; blind obedience is demanded and every question remains momentarily unanswered: “it is the mystery of Kaydara,” “the secret belongs only to Kaydara.”
The voyage underground symbolizes penetration into the esoteric realm, while aerial and celestial space is the realm of the exoteric.
The first phase ends with the encounter with Kaydara and the effort rewarded by the gift of nine oxen laden with gold. But Kaydara will give gold at this initial phase, not knowledge.
• The second phase describes the return of the voyagers to the earth's surface; and during this second phase of trials, their comportment will determine their outcome; for the gold which is so sought after is ambiguous; it may serve towards the acquisition of wealth, power, or wisdom. Hammadi's two companions, their spirits dimmed by their recent fortune, will lose all prudence, and their eagerness will lead them to violate the forbidden. They will lose their lives on account of it. Thus gold will have become the very cause of their downfall.
• Only Hammadi keeps a cool head and, remembering that “gold is but the foundation of knowledge,” he puts his mind to using it in order to acquire wisdom. His attitude, which is full of attentiveness and respect for those he imagines to be the keepers of basic secrets, will enable him, without seeking them, to become rich and powerful, indeed the king of his country.
But the story does not end on this marvelous, yet somewhat childlike, note. The initiation is not yet complete. And Hammadi, instead of settling into a smug happiness, remains aloof from his situation and his role, and instead is eager to encounter the ultimate initiator who will reveal the secrets of Kaydara to him.
One day Kaydara appears before Hammadi in the form of a beggar, as is his practice. Suddenly, Hammadi senses the Master and receives him with all the necessary deference. The beggar is Kaydara himself and, this time, he will reveal to the persevering and deserving disciple the meaning of the symbols of the country of the dwarf-spirits. At last Hammadi will know true joy.
With this first approach, one can hardly tap the juice of this Fulɓe account. It goes so far beyond its story line!
First, in its manner of exposition, it is an expert teaching device which one seizes totally alive and in action. All that remains is to extract the theory from it. Is it then necessary to lay out in detail the richness of the content? This would be a long process indeed, for a whole ethic which is at the same time Fulɓe and universal, social and personal, is skillfully superimposed; an original typology of characters and temperaments, an initiation into the symbolic language of the spirits of nature. Finally, in counterpoint, the constant reference to an esoteric cosmogony, accessible only to “hairy-chins and rough-heels,” affords us a glimpse of those “higher realities” 11 whose importance evades the common man.
This initiatory account, then, is so mvstical and philosophical that one feels a bit confused in drawing attention to its formal beauty. Can one truly speak in terms of “mere” literature when standing before the depths of an African Weltanschauung?
On the other hand, it would be remiss to pass over the delicate poetry standing like a golden thread throughout the story line and scintillating with its fiery images and rhythms. It is this poetry which makes the story a “tale which is pleasant to listen to.”
Also, instead of saying, as is often the case, that poetry, and indeed the African aesthetics, are functional and therefore utilitarian, let us instead invert this reasoning and suggest that in Africa good actions and great wisdom are inseparable from the beautiful language by which they are memorialized.

In conclusion, our thanks go to Alfâ lbrahîm Sow, who helped us rework the French translation and who transcribed the Pular/Fulfulde text again, which he had earlier helped us with in the first instance, all according to scientific requirements of the 1966 consultative linguistic conference of Bamako.

Lilyan Kesteloot

*. In present-day Mali.
1. jantol (ngol); pl. janti (ɗi) designates a story which is learned and retold; this substantive is derived from the Pular/Fulfulde verb janngude: to study, to read; it is formed from the derived verb janngitude: to study again, to re-read; which yields, by transformations, janngitde or jannitude; jantude whose intermediary infinitive jantaade means to tell janti; and, by extension, to enumerate, recall or evoke.
2. taalol is derived from the Pular/Fulfulde verb taalude which means, to cite, to tell a tale; taalol (ngol); pl. taali (ɗi) designates the tale told, or story.
3. It goes without saying that the transcribed text here is the complete version of the tale.
4. However, she will wear men's clothing in that case, just as would the girl who is initiated in the secrets of hunters or shepherds; this was in order to show respect for the specific allotment of various tasks according to custom, at least in appearance. Among the Bambara where women's societies exist, the man initiated in their rites will conversely wear women's clothing.
5. Yenɗude: eternal being. Ngenndi: eternal city: Yene: cow-mother, ancestor of all cows; by extension, head of the herd.
6. For the economic and social organization of the Fulɓe of the Maasina, the reader will wish to read or reread the basic elements published in L'Empire peul du Macina (Paris/The Hague: Mouton, 1962) and in Koumen (Paris: Mouton, 1961), by the same author.
7. Koumen, by A. Hampâté Bâ and G. Wterlen (Paris: Mouton, 1961).
8. Pigmies: the theory that they were the first inhabitants of Africa would explain their supernatural role in legends.
9. The exact number of symbols is unknown; A. H. Bâ, after 25 years of research, managed to find 11. Since 11 is the sacred number par excellence, the key to all esoteric phenomena of Islam, the Fulɓe, the Bambara… might this be influence or coincidence?
10. Might there be influence or coincidence again with Khadru who is the initiator of all the prophets in Muslim tradition, including Moses? However, Kaydara was known in this Fulɓe tradition well before the Muslim penetration and, in any case, was unknown in neighboring nations such as the Bambara, for example.
11. Borrowing the felicitous expression of Mme G. Dieterlen in her Essai sur la religion bambara (Paris: P.U.F., 1951).