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Speech and Ink The Word, said Ogotemmêli, is for everyone in this world; it must come and go and be interchanged, for it is good to give and to receive the forces of life.115 The West African thinker Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900–91) is often cited as having said ‘In Africa, an elder who dies is a library in flames’.116 This statement is so celebrated that it has gained the status of a proverb, in the sense that no one quite knows any more if it has a precise author. If this has occurred, it is because this statement perfectly expresses different elements that come to mind when one thinks of orality. First of all, there is the idea that orality is a fundamental characteristic of African cultures and even constitutes their spirit; then there is the idea that to think of orality is always to think in terms of the question of its transmission; and then, finally, there is the sense of an urgency today, linked precisely to this question of transmission: that orality is fragile like the memory of the ancestors; that the continuity of its passage is menaced by rupture, synonymous with death; that it must be preserved at all cost and that the inevitable disappearance of elders must not mean the destruction of the African library in the flames of forgetfulness. Each of these three aspects poses a set of questions for examination. THE INK OF THE SCHOLARS 50 Sense of Urgency and the Passage to Writing The sense of an urgent need to archive quickly, in a race with death, is also an anguish born from sensing the fragility of things, of memory first of all, but also of culture in general. In this spirit Amadou Hampâté Bâ assigned himself the task of being a traditionist, a transcriber and translator into French of West African oral literature. From the late 1930s, when he took the initiative of contacting Théodore Monod (who would bring him shortly thereafter to IFAN,117 which he directed) to ask for assistance in making the works of wisdom and beauty of Fulfulde culture known in French, and up until the publication of his memoirs, he himself was steadily becoming an elder; one who, for posterity, had transcribed into books and stored in the library what was living – and barely surviving – in orality. Texts in defence and illustration of a ‘Negro literature’ existing in the oral repertoire, or ‘orature’ as it is also called, were not something new. For instance, the Abbot Grégoire wrote a book with the title De la littérature des Nègres (On Negro literature). We find there, to cite just one example, the idea that what passes for literary and artistic creation in Europe always has its equivalent in African orature: ‘France had formerly herTrouveres andTroubadours’, Abbot Grégoire wrote, ‘and Scotland, her Minstrels. Negroes have theirs, named Griots, who attend kings, and like the others, praise and lie with wit’.118 The poet Blaise Cendrars evoked a similar principle of equivalence. At the end of the brief introductory ‘notice’ to his Anthologie Nègre, a collection of various myths, tales and stories that he published in order to demonstrate the ‘beauty’ and the ‘plastic capacity of the languages’ and oral literatures of Africa, he said that there was now proof of the ‘law of intellectual constancy glimpsed by Rémy de Groumont’,119 according to which the human spirit (and its production) was everywhere identical, in opposition to Lévy-Bruhlien ethnology which was dedicated to inventing different humanities. THE FORCE OF LIVING 51 Let’s return to Amadou Hampâte Bâ. In an interview he gave during the 1970s, he spoke of his religiously-inspired poems written in Peul as his only ‘creative works’.120 By this he suggested that in this language he had been able to participate in literature as creative activity, while in French he had only made an act of transcribing or translating. Birago Diop, another ‘transciber’ of orature, also expressed this opinion when he claimed to be only the translator of Amadou Koumba, whose name appears beside his, as a kind of co-author, on the cover of Contes d’Amadou Koumba and of Nouveaux contes d’Amadou Koumba. But Léopold Sédar Senghor warns us not to be fooled by these coquetries. ‘Birago Diop’, he wrote (and this would certainly apply to others, the Ivoirian Bernard Dadié for example, and also...


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