Research in African Literatures 36.2 (2005) 164-165
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This work contains a series of texts, mostly oral but some written, from a highly Islamaized Mande community in Senegal. They are published in the original Mandinka with facing English translations. The author is an anthropologist who co-produced a short ethnography of this region several decades ago (Matt Schaffer and Christine Cooper, Mandinko: The Ethnography of a West African Holy Land, New York: Holt, 1980). The present volume provides readers with some of the documentation of that project. It appears within a history series (the reviewer is a member of its board but had no role in the publication at hand) and the texts address mainly historical and ethnographic issues. They are clearly of value in these terms, but what makes them interesting from a literary perspective?
Schaffer himself seems of two minds on this subject. He tells us that the "traditions were not performed like a more formal griot song, or a formal recitation of the Sunjata epic" (2). But he also claims that one set of his narratives, "Legends of Great Warriors," constitutes "a new literary genre" (17). This last assertion seems questionable, since the texts in question are more what historians would call "oral history" than "oral tradition," i.e., they are not too far removed from the events described and contain little of the larger-than-life "legendary."
The stories are mainly about religious wars from the perspective of the jihadists and Schaffer tells us that Pakao contains an entire village of fino, a category of griots dedicated to Islamic themes. These bards have never been as fully studied as their more "traditional," instrument-playing counterparts. The only griot included among the performers in Schaffer's book, however, is from another village and "retired" because he considers his inherited profession incompatible with Islamic piety. In any case, he "sings" in what appears to be standard panegyric form (34-35). We are thus presented with some enticing data about the relationship between Islam and griot art, but left with too little documentation and hardly any analysis.
The sections of the book on hunting, witchcraft, and the founding of villages contain archetypal narratives familiar to students of Mande culture. In many cases, the origins of various dark and very local practices are linked to Islamic themes, but this is also not surprising. One interesting discovery by Schaffer (published earlier [End Page 164] and separately) is a written chronicle in the Mandinka language. Here again, however, there are broad statements about a language "written for centuries using Arabic script" followed by a disclaimer that the actual manuscripts "tend to be brief, like genealogies or honorific lists, much shorter in length than more discursive oral traditions" (7), In short, apparently not "literature."
It is not fair to criticize Schaffer for not undertaking something that is not really within the framework of his and his editors' disciplinary goals. Scholars of literature may nevertheless find much to stimulate their interest in both orature and writing here and perhaps Schaffer's work will inspire new efforts more dedicated to such issues in this and neighboring regions of West Africa.
Ralph A. Austen