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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 211-212

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Book Review

Contes tendres, contes cruels du Sahel nigérien

Contes tendres, contes cruels du Sahel nigérien, by Geneviève Calame-Griaule. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. 290 pp. ISBN 2-07-076397-8 paper.

Geneviève Calame-Griaule asks the reader in her preface to keep in mind that the texts published in Contes tendres, contes cruels du Sahel nigérien were collected some twenty to thirty years ago during five successive trips [End Page 211] to the village of In Gall and Tegidda-n-Tesemt, in central Niger. While we may surmise that some things have changed over the last three decades for contemporary Tasawaq-speaking Isawaghen living in what were once prosperous communities—mention is made of the disease-ridden date-palm grove of In Gall, youth unemployment, and depleted markets—the tales presented and annotated by Calame-Griaule remain as fresh and relevant today as they were when the ethnolinguist heard them live. This is partly due to Calame-Griaule's strategy of privileging the authority of the storytellers—three old widows and a blacksmith—whose specific life circumstances and narrative styles serve to frame their oral performances. The result is a valuable corpus of Tasawaq tales that provides glimpses of the physical and moral world the Isawaghen inhabit while also testifying to the complex sets of cultural influences (Hausa, Songhai, etc.) That have shaped this region of the Sahel. Given the scarcity of ethnographic works on Ingelshi society—of which the Isawaghen are a subgroup occupying a historically subaltern position—this anthology should prove rewarding to those interested in both African oral literature and the culture of Tuareg and Ingelshi populations.

Particularly appealing is the book's format that highlights each storyteller's particular style while also allowing for common themes to emerge between some of the tales. The jackal, for instance, figures in several stories. He is the trickster who, like the lion, ostrich, or the elephant he deceives, embodies a particular moral configuration because, in Levi-Strauss's words, he is "good to think with." Interestingly, many of the tales are woven around the destinies of strong-willed, independent women that redress the pervasive notion that Isawaghen daughters and wives are a uniformly powerless class in what has traditionally been portrayed as a male-dominated society. Following two chapters on the Isawaghen people and their oral tradition, each of the four sections of the book is devoted to a storyteller and a selection of his or her tales. The lion's share of printed pages goes to Taheera, a blind widow who, in addition to being a famous storyteller, was also the best singer in the region. While Khadi and Aminata, the two storytellers Calame-Griaule met after Taheera's death, became valuable informants, it is the old blind singer who appears to have inspired the author to publish these tales. So rich and diverse is Taheera's repertoire that the book could have focused exclusively around her tales and her technique for bringing stories to life. We learn much, for instance, about her embodied performance. Drawing together tales from four distinct storytellers has its usefulness, however. Among other things, it lets differences emerge between the performers; while the women narrate detailed stories filled with complex dialogues, the male storyteller tells short, condensed stories stripped of nonessential information.

In short, Calame-Griaule's book has much to recommend it. She serves as an insightful guide and translator in what has remained until now a virtually unexplored cultural world. Contes tendres, contes cruels is a valuable work and a welcome contribution from an acknowledged expert.


Adeline Masquelier

Adeline Masquelier is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans.



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