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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 75-93

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Re-Inventing Oral Tradition:
The Modern Epic of Souleymane Kanté 1

Dianne W. Oyler


African scholars have struggled with issues of decolonization since African independence, and while the major focus has been economic and political, cultural issues have often become a significant part of the debate. Central to the cultural debate has been the issue of language. Several African authors have questioned the practice of writing in European languages, thereby impoverishing the autochthonous ones because these have become the official languages of African nations, and in the modern period they have also become the literary vehicle of writers. One could argue that in earlier times there were few African publishing houses and therefore African authors had to publish in the European languages of the colonial publishers who perceived the readers of the printed word to be non-African. While postindependence publishers and audiences continue, for the most part, to be non-African in nature, there is today an increasingly literate African audience for European language-based publications; furthermore, because of a resurgence of African cultural nationalism, authors have begun writing more often in their indigenous languages.

Insinuating itself into this debate about language usage has been the little known phenomenon of writing African literature in indigenous African scripts. Although many African specialists are familiar with the ancient and precolonial indigenous alphabets and scripts found across the continent, the introduction of new alphabets during the contemporary period--late colonial through independence--has gone largely unreported in the literature about Africa. One of these is N'ko, an alphabet created in 1949 by the Guinean Souleymane Kanté. N'ko has inspired a heightened sense of cultural identity among the speakers of Mande languages across West Africa. Paradoxically, theN'kophenomenon, a grassroots movement toward literacy, has also generated a new, written oral tradition surrounding its creator, Souleymane Kanté, as an intellectual hero. 2 Consequently, given this phenomenon it is important that we address and analyze the relationship between the orality in maintaining oral tradition and the literacy that would replace it. The N'ko example, therefore, will allow us to consider the impact of literacy upon orality by considering the following questions about the history of N'ko and the impact the script has had on both oral and written traditions in the Mande world today: Who was Souleymane Kanté? Why is he considered a cultural hero? What is his contribution to the debate about writing in African languages? What were his intentions in creating an alphabet? How has a literature in that alphabet been generated and disseminated? What is the impact of literacy on the transmission of oral tradition? This study will seek to answer the questions, first, by situating Kanté's experience within the African context of the current debate and, second, by reexamining the history of N'ko and the story of Souleymane Kanté himself. [End Page 75]

The historical context of the debate arises during the late colonial period when African intellectuals began challenging the negative stereotypes that had been imposed on them by the European pseudoscientific racism of the era. One example of the prevailing view of African culture from Kanté's period can be summarized by the following metaphor: "African voices [languages] are like those of the birds--impossible to transcribe" (personal interviews 08, 22, 46, 70). These seemingly innocuous words printed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa enraged a young Guinean working in colonial Côte d'Ivoire so much that he changed his life's purpose because of them. Rather than feel disempowered by the insult, as other people may have, Souleymane Kanté ( 1922-87) accepted the words as a challenge, and the result is that he created in 1949 the N'ko alphabet for his own Maninka language (see fig. 1 and fig. 2). [End Page 76]

A few years later, in what may seem like an historical déjà vu, another writer, Chinua Achebe, an Igbo-speaker from Nigeria, reacted to misconceptions found in a Time magazinearticle in...


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