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.

       Table des matieres      


1. Ba: “Le Sage de Marcory”

Amadou Hampaté Bâ has been known and revered for decades in the francophone African community. Although his many writings have been published in French, none has been translated into English; it is with pride that we present here, in English, his rendering of the Fulani initiatory account Kaidara. A second volume will treat The Radiance of the Great Star, also for the first time in English. In many respects, The Radiance of the Great Star is a close sequel to the Kaidara, and the two together make a coherent whole. The Kaidara is discussed here in a separate introduction by Lilyan Kesteloot, with additional material — in appendix form — providing wider views of Bâ. We await with impatience a third initiatory account, the Njeddo Dewal*.
Bâ is often referred to by West Africans as “the Sage of Marcory,” after the district in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he has settled after eighty years of travel with residences in Upper Volta, Senegal, Paris, and Bandiagara and Bamako in his native Mali. Religious leaders and students, academics, friends, and those drawn by curiosity have been making their way there to visit him in recent years, in a kind of pilgrimage. So did the translator in February of 1979. Following the text in this edition, a transcript appears of my conversation with Bâ on the afternoon of February 25.
Before this interview, I had last seen Bâ in 1973 in Paris, where he had spent eleven years as Mali's delegate to UNESCO. At that meeting my desire one day to translate his works took root, and his gracious welcome six years later was one of the most satisfying moments I can remember. In 1979 especially, at a robust seventy-eight, he seemed the very incarnation of Hammadi's mentor from the final scenes of the Kaidara, “the wise man whom one rarely meets, perhaps once or twice, but never three times in one's life.” His innocence, his virtuosic mental agility, his penchant for teaching in the best sense, and his simple hospitality reconfirmed my sense of being in the presence of one of the more remarkable men of our age.
Bâ has long served as a cultural crossroads. His life of constant travel has helped assure this role; so has his being reared in a region of Mali that brought him in contact with many languages, religions, and ethnic groups. He has sponsored and published discussions and research on the three major Western religions, and has had a role in reconciling, even minimizing, their liturgical differences. His activities have spanned too wide a range to permit an easy characterization. Is he a linguist? Historian? Teacher, novelist, griot, preserver of the oral tradition, religious theorist and leader, administrator, diplomat, adventurer? He is and has been none of these things alone, all of them together. He is a global humanist in an age of specialization, whose broad outlook gives him a depth of discernment and feeling even for cultures and systems he has had little contact with. The broadly encompassing themes of Kaidara — the wedding of the spiritual to the material, of knowledge to power, of wealth to wisdom — could only be transcribed for more modern minds by an individual with the wide embrace of Bâ.

Bâ was born in 1901 in Bandiagara, Mali, chief town of the Dogon area and former capital of al-Hajj Umar's Toucouleur empire of the Macina**. His father Hampâté, from a Fulani family of religious Muslim leaders, some of them marabouts, was a warrior in the Fakala region. He died two years after Bâ's birth. Bâ's mother, Kadidja Paate, was the daughter of a notable Fulani initiate, Paate Pullo, a close companion of al-Hajj Umar. Kadidja remarried, and Tidjani Amadou Ali Thiam, chief of Louta province, became Bâ's adoptive father.
Bandiagara was taken by the French in 1893. The area was still under military occupation at the time of Bâ's birth, though it was gradually being handed over to a civilian administration. Civilian French administrators, however, were usually discharged army officers — the same individuals who had previously administered the area. It was French policy to remove sons of important native families from their homes and forceably place them in French institutions officially known as “schools for hostages.” There they were trained as medical aides, postal officials and administrative clerks, but were barred from further European studies. The purpose of the removal was to exert maximum influence on the younger generation, while minimizing traditional local authority.
As adopted son of a chief. Bâ was taken hostage by the French in 1912. He was fortunate, at least, not to be removed from Bandiagara and to be able to maintain close ties to his family there. Although later sent to Djenné to French school, he managed to continue his traditional education as well. In 1915, after passing his certificate of studies, Bâ escaped from school to rejoin his parents in Kati, some 700 kilometers away. The trip took him a month —he crossed 500 kilometers on foot, 150 in a boat up the Niger River, and 50 by train.
Koullel, a tale-teller and traditional educator who lived in B&acir;'s father's household, had a significant influence on young Bâ. Koullel gave him his first lessons in the oral tradition, and B&acir; later earned the nickname Amkoullel (“Little Koullel”). Seventy youngsters formed an association and learned from Bâ some of the oral tradition Koullel had taught him, including history, myth, initiatory tales, the occult, historical chronicles, genealogies, poems, satires, and practical teachings. At this same time, Bâ received initiation in both the Fulani and Bamara traditions.
Bâ received his Islamic education, including theology, literature and Islamic jurisprudence, from Tierno Bokar. Tierno, who seldom left Bandiagara, spoke fluent Fula, Arabic, Moorish, Hausa, and Bambara. Bokar had a gift, says Bâ, for “rising to a higher level while maintaining a lower level, teaching seven-year-olds as well as doctors at the Mosque.” Throughout Ba's childhood and early adulthood, and during his travels, he maintained close contact with Tierno Bokar.
In 1918 Bâ voluntarily returned to a French school, this time in Bamako, at the Ecole Regionale. After a competitive exam in 1921, he was admitted to the Ecole Normale de Gorée, but then refused to go to Dakar when his mother denied him permission. This second “escape” was brought to the attention of the Governor, who as punishment sent 135 to work in Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, some 900 kilometers away. He was made to take the trip on foot, escorted by a police officer. His official title in Ouagadougou was “Auxiliary Temporary Writer on Precarious, Revokable Status.”
Bâ spent from 1922 to 1932 in Upper Volta, but even then was not entirely cut off from his tradition. An uncle, Babali Bâ, a traditionalist and marabout, had taken refuge with the Moro Naba, Emperor of the Mossis in Upper Volta. There he was counselor on Muslim and Fulani affairs.
In 1932 Bâ obtained his first leave of absence, which he spent entirely with Tierno Bokar. During that time he learned Tijani practice, the symbolism of letters and numbers, and aspects of the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism.
In 1933 he returned to government service, this time in Bamako as “First Class Expeditionary Clerk.” He spent four years as interpreter to the Governor and principal secretary to the Mayor of Bamako. During this time his association with Sharif Hamallah, the leader of the “Eleven Grain” Hamallist movement, to which Tierno Bokar also subscribed, caused him considerable difficulty. The Hamallist movement, primarily a spiritual variant of conventional Islam, found itself in a political conflict contrived by the French. Followers of the movement were deported, or in some cases executed. Sharif Hamallah was deported to France, where he died in Montluf on in 1934. Bâ attributes his professional and personal survival at this time to the intervention of his French teacher, Théodore Monod, founder of the Institut Francais d'Afrique Noire (IFAN). Monod also succeeded in having the French administration re-evaluate its position regarding Tierno Bokar and Sharif Hamallah.
In 1951, Bâ went to France for the first time on a UNESCO scholarship. In 1958, two years before Mali's independence, Bâ founded, and was the director of, the Institut des Sciences Humaines in Bamako. In 1962 he was named Malian ambassador to Ivory Coast, where he remained for four years. That same year, he was elected to the Executive Council of UNESCO, on which he served until 1971. In this capacity at UNESCO he gained wide recognition for his efforts to preserve the oral tradition in Africa; he became known for his phrase, “an old man dying is like a library burning.”
Now in retirement in Abidjan, Bâ is working on:

2. The Initiatory Texts: The Hero as Spiritualist

A second volume to this work will present The Radiance of the Great Star, a sequel to Kaidara. It will be useful to discuss the two here as a unit; they are treated as such in the interview with Bâ at the end of this volume.
As Lilyan Kesteloot's introductions and notes show us, the initiatory texts are of considerable value not only because of their haunting beauty, but also for the information they reveal about the Fulani 1. They contain evidence of at least some contact with Mediterranean cultures, in their references to Solomon as the first initiate, the strong and repetitive theme of the eastern origins of the Fulani, and the use of the six-pointed star. Certain esoteric elements, though less well understood, also indicate likely links to the Fertile Crescent. These include references to a trinity (and numerous forms of triads), and to apocalyptic-messianic occurrences. In Kaidara, the ability of the deity to turn a serpent into a stick and vice versa, is reminiscent of, though of course not unique to, the Pentateuch.
Also reminiscent of other cultures oral traditions, as well as events described in Exodus, is the notion of Baataasari in The Radiance of the Great Star. This is, in fact, one of the aspects of the account which the translator initially found the most intriguing; the notion of Baataassari, the three-day period when the sun did not set, causing widespread destruction and giving rise to a secret order charged with remembering calamities of a distant past.
Could the events depicted here refer to an actual incident, perhaps the appearance of a bright comet? Can the starburst described here be based strictly on fancy, when it so closely approximates descriptions in other, unrelated, popular, oral cultures? The fact that this three-day period is institutionalized by the Fulani in a monthly, three-day fast surely must indicate more than a fanciful (though now forgotten) origin to this belief The interview with Bâ at the end of this volume goes into the matter of Baataassari at greater length; at the very least, these descriptions seem to indicate some link — whether on the level of the subconscious, or of style, or interpretation of factual events — between the Fulani oral tradition and others.
The two principle Fulani initiatory texts which have been previously published are the Kaidara and Radiance of the Great Star. Somewhat more esoteric, and therefore more difficult, is Koumen 2, which attempts to reconstruct the basic steps of the initiation undergone by the first initiate, Solomon. In addition, Bâ has published, in the same volume as The Radiance of the Great Star, a group of Fulani ritual songs, Lootoori (Le Bain rituel, “The Ritual Bath”) which celebrate the most important annual Fulani festival.
The Kaidara traces the spiritual quest of a hero, specifically the quest for profound though useful knowledge. Knowledge, a goal precious enough in this tradition to be surrounded by secrecy and ritual, can exist only in a social context, which establishes the reason for the hero's quest for spiritual knowledge: to qualify him as a leader. The premise of the text is that political power can be legitimized only through spiritual enlightenment, while this enlightenment is best expressed and realized through leadership. Reference to material means and power do appear in the text, but only as attributes of the weaker characters juxtaposed with the hero as demonstrations of the spiritual quest manqué.

The very process and nature of learning is another important theme in this work. In an interview conducted in 1972 3, Bâ explained the Kaidara in terms of the three-fold process of education each person must go through: the teachings one receives from birth to age twenty-one, the continuation to age forty-two, and the obligation, after that age, to teach to others what one has learned. Teaching does not occur as in the West, but by observation of events, and by their application according to the level of the student. The Kaidara, says Bâ, is a symbolic form of teaching that follows this pattern. The three travelers depicted in the account represent the three states of man, the rough exterior (“bark”), an intermediate zone (“wood”), and an essential, central state (“core”). Of the three companions, only Hammadi attains the innermost state.
The events, objects, and animals encountered on their journey function “as mirrors which send back to man his own image, from various different angles (p. 42). ” Once the three characters reach the point of being able to enter into the land of Kaidara, the Supreme Being unveils certain secrets and bestows gold upon them; only Hammadi, however, succeeds in demonstrating that gold can be used for ends greater than its simple accumulation. The gold represents knowledge, of which evil as well as good use can be made. Hammadi, who uses the gold towards the end of penetrating into himself, becomes what the Fulani call “neddo,” the complete person.

On the Translation

Francis Poulenc used to say that setting words to music was a labor of love, but not marriage of convenience. The same could be said of the translation of this text. I tried to allow the original to do its own work wherever possible, and have not meddled with rearrangements of lines or meter. I hope to convey a tone which in the original is basically austere. Though a rhythm is at play in the original Fula, this English translation makes no pretense at reproducing it. I have used free verse, with the original lines respected except in rare instances when French syntax created awkward line endings in English. The Kaidara translation is taken from the Julliard, Classiques Africains, edition of 1968, which was a bilingual, Fula and French edition. Though my knowledge of Fula is inadequate and I therefore worked from the French, it can be argued that this is not therefore a “secondary” translation, in that the same author, Bâ, both wrote the Fula and supervised the French version.

I would like to acknowledge the encouragement I have received from many friends on this project; but I particularly wish to thank the following for their inestimable help:

M. Claude Tardits, Mme. Claude Perrot, M. Issa Baba Traoré, Dr. Oumar Bâ, Edwin Honig, Herbert Mason, Donald Herdeck, Richard Cornell, Akal Dev Kaur, Brigitte Lane, Steven Lonsdale. Also Molly Snyder and the Cummington Community of the Arts, for providing the space and time to do the translation. The photograph of Bâ is by Isabelle Houlbrèque. Much gratitude goes to Jane Sarnoff and Gene Ulansky, for their considerable efforts in helping to edit the manuscript. Finally, special thanks are due to Mme. Lilyan Kesteloot for her advice and support and, especially, for her introductions to Bâ's initiatory accounts. Mme. Kesteloot's introduction to Kaidara originally appeared in the French and Italian editions, but were not acknowledged until now as exclusively hers.

Daniel Whitman

* Portions of Njeddo Dewal appeared in Yero Sylla's M.A. thesis at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée de Dakar (CLAD - IFAN), under the direction of L. Kesteloot. The full edition was published by Nouvelles Editions Africaines, Abidjan, in 1985 and here on webPulaaku.
**Erratum. Hamdallaahi was the capital of Maasina. Bandiagara, instead, was the capital of the state — of the same name. It was founded by Tidjani Tall, nephew of Alhaj Umar, who defeated his uncle's victors in 1864. Subsequently, he destroyed Hamdallaahi and moved the seat of power to Bandiagara in Dogon territory. His cousin, Ahmad Shaykh — Umar's son and heir — ruled in Segou until Colonel Archinard forced him out in 1893. [Tierno S. Bah]
1. See the translator's afterword for further discussion on the Fulani.
2. Bâ and G. Dieterlen, Koumen: texte initiatique des pasteurs peul. Paris: Mouton, 1961.
3. In Bâ, Aspects de la civilisation africaine. Paris. Présence Africaine, 1972, pp. 38-46.

left       Table des matieres