Niger: a great saga

I knew Niger was going to be a tough nut to crack when, in response to my searching for ‘Nigerien literature’, Google asked me whether I meant ‘Nigerian literature’ instead. Although I did eventually track down the names of several Francophone authors from the country, among them Abdoulaye Mamani, Amadou Ousmane and Idé Oumarou, none of their work seemed to have been translated into English.

This may be because, as AS Kindo Patengouh argues in his 2005 paper Literary production in Niger: The case of the novel, in this very ethnically diverse country only 30 percent of the population read and write French, meaning that the audience for works in the country’s official language, in which most if not all Nigerien novels are written, is relatively small. As such, it is probably difficult for the works to make enough of an impact to attract notice from further afield.

There was an outside possibility in the shape of Harmattan, a novel about child marriage in Niger, by Belfast-born Gavin Weston, who lived and worked in the country for several years during the mid-eighties. However, any whisper of an argument that the book might count as Nigerien literature for my purposes was silenced when my copy arrived bearing an endorsement from Kellie Chambers at Ulster Tatler, declaring it the harbinger of ‘a new era in Northern Irish literature’.

Reluctantly, I added the book to next year’s to-read mountain. There had to be something out there available in English by a storyteller more closely linked to Niger itself.

Then a colleague volunteered to see what he could turn up. Clearly, his research skills are better than mine because, within a couple of hours he was back with a possible solution. It wasn’t a Nigerien novel. But in many ways it was something even more exciting: the transcription of an epic story told by a Nigerien griot over the course of two evenings in the appropriately named village of Saga at the beginning of the 1980s.

Ten years in the transcribing, translating and annotating, Nouhou Malio’s account of The Epic of Askia Mohammed tells of the life and times of Mamar Kassaye (also known as Askia Mohammed), who ruled the Songhay empire between 1493 and 1528. Switched for his mother’s servant’s child when he is born to protect him from his uncle, who has killed all his older siblings because of a prophecy that one of them will kill him, Mamar grows up in a brutal and brilliant society. He dedicates himself to spreading Islam and prosecutes a holy war across the region, fathering a dynasty and leaving a legacy of brave and bloodthirsty deeds that ensures his life is the stuff of legend six centuries after his death.

Mamar’s world is at once strange and oddly familiar. Levitating cities and uncanny enchantments fill the text, while shocking deeds, such as cutting a horse’s tendons in a fit of pique and laying a trap to bury a rival alive, are narrated so matter-of-factly as to feel distant, as though the emotional compass of the epic is calibrated very differently from our own. Yet, every so often a line, image or event will strike a surprising parallel with the modern Western world. I particularly liked the description of the group of griots spreading rumours about Amar Zoubami’s prowess in the run up to a competition to win the hand of the richest woman in Gao – by the sound of it, it would have given the snappiest PR team a run for its money.

Throughout the narrative, the meticulous work that editor and translator Thomas Hale and his team of transcribers and scholars have done to preserve the character of Malio’s performance as faithfully as possible is clear. This comes across in the unusual use of repetition, both of individual words and complete phrases, which creates a strong sense of the rhythm and drama of the rendition. It is also clear in the ellipses, which mark words and lines that could not be made out on the recording.

Rather than give in to the temptation to create a polished, complete work at the expense of absolute fidelity to the original account, as I suspect Camara Laye may have done in The Guardian of the Word (my Guinean pick), Hale and his team present exactly what they heard. When it works best, it is as though we are sitting in Malio’s hut, moving up to let someone past and so missing the odd line. The flip side, of course, is that certain passages can be quite fragmented and hard to make sense of, although Hale has done his best to make up for this with a plot summary at the beginning.

Overall, this is a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nouhou Malio, translated from the Songhay by Thomas A Hale (Indiana University Press, 1996)

Guinea: history reclaimed

Guinean author Camara Laye is best known for his novel The Radiance of the King. In fact if you search for Guinean literature in English, you could be forgiven for thinking that this work is the only book from the Francophone African nation, which is made up of more than 24 ethnic groups, to have made it into the language of Milton, Shakespeare and Dan Brown.

I’ve certainly not been any able to find any other translated Guinean authors (although I’d love to hear about it if you have), so, in the interests of not making the most obvious choice, I decided to read one of Laye’s lesser known works: The Guardian of the Word.

Part anthropological account and part novel, with a dollop of sermonizing thrown in for good measure, the book focuses on the month Laye spent recording the stories of renowned Guinean griot (storyteller) Babu Condé in the village of Fadama in 1963. Beginning with the quest of brothers Moké Mussa and Moké Dantuman to hunt the fearsome Buffalo of Dô, the tales broaden out to bring in a huge cast of historical and mythic characters who contributed to the rise and eventual break up of the medieval Mali empire, and reveal a world of magic, mystery and rich heritage.

Laye makes clear from the start that he has high ambitions for the work. Through recording these stories, which to him ‘constitute the soul of ancient Africa’, he hopes not only to preserve the region’s history before development sweeps it away but also to prompt ‘the awakening of a new civilization’. As he explains at length in his opening his chapter, ‘Africa: Voices from the Depths’, Laye regards traditional stories as essential to his compatriots’ developing a sense of identity and a society that is more than a mere emulation of the European structures they had imposed on them until the mid-20th century:

‘Should not the wisdom of the Ancients and of their past serve as an example to our rising generations? In a continent where the heat in certain regions reaches 40° in the shade, should our African “emancipation” consist of the three-piece, all-wool suit and the bottle of scotch? Should it not rather have its source in our own deep roots in the distant past, and, at the same time, in the opening up of our new frontiers to universal values?’

However Laye’s impassioned appeals and his fascinating descriptions of the steps he had to take to win the privilege of recording the stories – from wearing certain garments to observing particular forms of etiquette – are just the prelude to Condé’s tales. Bristling with proverbs, rich imagery and bursts of humour, these accounts show storytelling at their best. As a Western reader, I found myself continually surprised by twists, turns and tropes that were like nothing I had come across before: where the hero would pick the wrong girl in the European fairy tale, he picks the right one and then comes to grief another way; where Western legends are usually content with mighty men having one formidable mother, here the tyrant Sosso is carried to term by three women, transferring between wombs every three months; and where marriage is usually a happily-ever-after scenario in the stories I grew up with, it is here the start of a battle of wits and (more often than not) sorcery between husband and wife.

Indeed the graphic nature of the storytelling, both sexually and in terms of the violence it involves, is often shocking. Maghan Kön Fatta’s eventual conquest of his wife Sogolon, who casts spells on him and refuses to sleep with him until he threatens to slit her throat ‘like a chicken’, makes for challenging reading, not least because the couple seem to get along very well after Fatta has his way.

Now and again, Laye’s passion for what he is doing threatens to overwhelm the narrative. At points in the stories where the rhetoric gets too grand or digressions with unnecessarily detailed cultural exposition and musings on the role of women creep in it’s tempting to wonder quite how much of the work is as Condé told it. More than once, Laye’s Uriah Heapish protest that ‘We are but the modest transcriber and translator’ seems to ring a little hollow.

But this does not take away from the book’s charm or how engrossing it is. If anything the subtle tug-of-war between oral storyteller and modern novelist adds to the richness of this fascinating text, which itself records a story that was shaped and embroidered over generations as the griots passed it down. I wonder what, if any, version of the saga is told in Fadama today.

The Guardian of the Word (Le Maitre de la Parole) by Camara Laye, translated from the French by James Kirkup (Fontana, 1980)