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  • The Epic of Kelefaa Saane
  • Ralph A. Austen
The Epic of Kelefaa Saane EDITED AND TRANSLATED BY Sana Camara Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. 224 pp. ISBN: 978-0-253-35463-1 cloth.

This volume provides a very valuable transcription of a classic African oral text. The epic of Kelefaa Saane is performed throughout the Gambian region by Mandinka griots. The text presented here, based on recital by the late Sirifo Camara, is many times longer (3,202 vs. 534 lines) than either of the previous two versions of the same epic published in 1978 by Gordon Innes and includes more passages of poetry along with the prose narrative. The translator, Sana Camara, has also added a valuable set of introductory comments and textual annotations. These notes are essential because Camara, admirably, reproduces the text (in both Mandinka and English) as performed rather than rearranging or altering its content so as to make it immediately comprehensible to a non-Mandinka audience. At the level of individual verses, however, the work reads very well.

Readers (and especially teachers) of the Camara translation are still advised to look at the Innes volume in order to understand the context in which this, and presumably all other versions of Kelefaa Saane’s story, are presented. For one, as Gordon notes in discussing his two variants (and is even more obvious in comparing them both to the present one), the accounts produced by different Mandinka griots vary very widely, not only in their narrative content but even in the praise poetry associated with their hero. Innes explains this in contrast with both the more widespread Sunjata epic and the local epics of the Senegambia Kaabu Empire that he previously recorded. As Innes points out, Kelefaa Saane differs from the central figures of these other texts in not being the founder or ruler of a major state. One could go farther and state that he is not a historical personage at all but rather (as Camara also recognizes) the embodiment of a precolonial warrior ethic whose comportment is more important than any specific events with which he becomes associated. The claim, in the second sentence of Camara’s introduction, that “[h]e helped rally the Mandinka people to defend their region against the threat of an invasion” (ix), is not even consistent with the political conflicts alluded to in his own text (Fulani raids and a rather undramatic war between two Mandinka states).

Camara’s notes do a good job of explaining many terms used in the text, particularly those derived from French and Arabic (he is a professor of French who [End Page 202] has also translated Wolof poetry dedicated to leaders of the Sufi Murid order). His introduction also draws upon the work of John William Johnson (an editor of the series in which the book appears) to explain the literary genres incorporated into the epic as well as its overall structure. One might wish that he had attempted more comparisons with not only the versions of Kelefaa Saane published by Innes but also general folkloric archetypes and historical/cultural references in his text. What is most striking in the Camara version is the great attention given to jinn (local spirits) in controlling the hero’s life and the very unapologetic discussion of slave-trading as a source of revenue. But if Camara has not done all the analysis one might desire, he very effectively presents the literary material from which others may undertake their own investigations.

Ralph A. Austen
University of Chicago


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pp. 202-203
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