Nyamakalaw of Mande : a comparative Rhetoric Revealed

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Justin Lewis

Final Paper

Dr. Rebecca Jones

December 6th 2006

Nyamakalaw of Mande : A Comparative Rhetoric Revealed
In 1998, George Kennedy, well known for his analysis of classical rhetoric in such works as The Art of Persuasion in Greece (1963), The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300 (1972) and Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (1980) embarked on a discipline changing mission to redefine the limits of rhetoric in contemporary Western university research. His book, Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction initiated an inquiry into the cross-cultural rhetorical elements that exist in spoken and written discourses trans-globally. While Kennedy’s prior scholarship had concentrated on a rhetorical analysis of classic Greek, Roman and Christian works, the effects of a changing, global world politic increased his awareness of the importance of cross-cultural communication and enhanced his desire to begin an inquiry into the pragmatics of cross-cultural communication.

In his groundbreaking study, Kennedy defined four justifications for the creation of a discipline of Comparative Rhetoric. First, Kennedy sought to discover what is “universal and what is distinctive about any one rhetorical tradition in comparison to others” (Kennedy 1). Next, the author stated that comparative rhetoric would seek to “formulate a General Theory of Rhetoric that will apply in all societies” (1). Third, Kennedy posited that to discover these cross-cultural elements, researchers must “develop and test structures and terminology . . . to describe rhetorical practices cross-culturally” and finally, scholarship must “apply what has been learned from comparative study to contemporary cross-cultural communication” (1). It is my intention to continue Kennedy’s call to cross-cultural rhetorical inquiry in West African Mande societies in order to develop a theoretical analysis of Mande social structures to reveal the universal rhetorical implements at work before the age of colonialism in the Sahel and in today’s postcolonial, postmodern highly polemicized West African world. By utilizing the rhetorical theories of Bakhtin, Foucault and others, this paper expands segments of a heretofore undeveloped comprehensive theory of universal, cross-cultural discourse. It is not my intention to create a universal framework for comparative rhetorical analysis; rather, I wish to contribute to the elements of rhetorical universality by highlighting power structures and speech acts inherent in Mande culture in an effort to link them to ecumenical rhetorical frameworks that underlie all rhetorical realms. To quote Kennedy, the founder of this comparative rhetorical inquiry, “I argue. . . that rhetoric is a natural phenomenon”; hence, certain rhetorical strategies buttress the basis of all communication. An identification of universal rhetorical implements will encourage a global discourse that must occur in order for humanity to effectively communicate beyond the contemporary discriminative conversations about geopolitics and global terrorism.

The History and Social Structure of West African Mande Society


In order to begin an inquiry into the specific and universal aspects of Mande rhetoric, an investigation into the history and anthropology of peoples of West African society will be beneficial. West African Mande society is organized based on what many scholars have deemed a “caste system.”1 Though the power structures inherent in Mande culture seem to contradict this claim, outsiders have long oversimplified the social organization in terms of codified “castes.” The first recorded mention of the stratification in wealth and vocation in West African societies was transcribed by the noted Arab traveler Ibn Battuta. He noted, while traveling through the Sahelian region in the fourteenth century that the kings of the region always spoke through an interpreter; in addition, the court musicians and noble intermediaries were also classed under the same linguistic sign: djeli2. The first Europeans to record a hierarchy in the social structures of the Senegalese were the Portuguese explorers of the fifteenth century. Further elaborations on the differences between West African “castes” were recorded with increasing frequency with the onset of the Age of Discovery. Valentim Ferdenand, a Portuguese explorer, observed that sixteenth century Senegalese of noble birth never left their home without the accompaniment of a musician-interpreter. Cape Verde merchant Andre Alvares de Almada in 1590 observed a “severe social segregation” between the nobles and the artisans (Talmari 233). Mainstream European cognizance of a class of musician-bards did not occur until the publishing of Le Baron J.F. Roger’s Fables Senegalaises Recueillies de L’ouolo Imitees en Vers Francais in 1820 (Finnegan 23). Though the imposition of Colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to destroy most of the existing social paradigms of African life, the social “caste” system that embraced a class sponsored social differentiation between nobles and musician/bards exists unto this day in the majority of sub-Saharan West African nations.

Evidence of Social Stratification

There are over 50 endogmatic3 West African societies that practice some sort of social differentiation based on profession and heredity; therefore, it is necessary to focus our inquiry on a specific ethnic group of West Africa – the Mande4. Noted West African scholar Nicholas Hopkins refers to the Mande cultural area as “an area which covers western and southern Mali, northeastern Guinea, and some parts of Cote-d’Ivoire, Senegal and neighboring countries” (44). Despite the imposition of ethnically/culturally artificial borders during the French colonial period, the modern Mande ethnic area today extends over a vast portion of West Africa roughly the size of Alaska.

Mande society is based on patrilineal decent. There are extensive local and regional clans. Marriage inside the clan is forbidden; hence, this taboo creates a tribal interdependence that helps sustain the existence of the Mande group by hedging warring impulses through intertribal familial kinship. Mande societies also practice a division of labor based not on gender, but heredity5. The Mande social structure is segregated into the following three hereditarily inherited divisions:

  1. Horon – The Horon are the noble, warrior and farmer class and form an overwhelming majority of society6. The Horon are free to hold office, marry into any class (though this practice is not always smiled upon) and accrue great amounts of wealth.

  2. Wuloso – The Wuloso are the slaves. The members of this class are usually captured through warfare. The Wuloso are not considered human beings and can be traded as a commodity. Though slavery is not permitted in Mande countries today, the existence of the Wuloso class certainly remains.

  3. Nyamakala – The Nyamakala are the artisans. The members of this class are believed to wield a power not available to the other classes. Members of this caste are griots7 (djeli’s)8, smiths (Numu) and leatherworkers (Garanke). While the members of this class actually hold more ephemeral power than any of the other classes, they are unable to intermarry; additionally, the Nyamakala must live in segregated portions of the village unit to ensure that they do not taint the Horon with their magical powers. The Numu are granted the important task of preparing cultural items from raw materials. The ability of the Numu to transform raw materials into culturally important constructs imbues power in their transformative abilities and creates fear among the Horon. The Numu are the subject of Camara Laye’s masterpiece The Dark Child. The Garanke operate in much the same fashion as the Numu. In terms of a rhetorical inquiry, we are primarily concerned with the function of the djeli.

The Mande Djeli – West Africa’s Heteroglossic, Polyphonic Meaning Maker

I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, son of Bintou Kouyate and Djeli Kedian Kouyate, master in the art of eloquence. Since time immemorial the Kouyates have been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali; we are vessels of speech, we are the repositories which harbor secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.

Niane 1
Thus begins Sundiata, the cultural creation myth of the Mande in West Africa. West African djeli, or the plural djeliya, are representative of a socially constructed subset of society that “traffics” in the power of the linguistic sign. Before the spread of Islam to West Africa, the oral traditions of the Mande people were encapsulated by the djeli to determine meaning and reality. Walter Ong notes that “[O]ral peoples commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power” and nowhere is this notion more profound than in the inherent power of the word in Mande society (Ong 32). In Mande culture, djeli are responsible for creating meaning through the recitation of oral epic poetry and through praise singing. The most obvious example of the djeli’s ability to create meaning and shape reality is revealed in the aforementioned oral epic, Sundiata; however, praise singing and other forms of communicative intermediation provide the djeli in Mande culture the ability to shape the discourse and opinion of the entire culture.9 Though the bardic function appears fairly straightforward, when one considers the social stature of Nyamakala in general, and djeli in particular, in Mande society, one questions from what authority the griots draw their agency and ability to Signify.

Bakhtin best describes the mechanism that enables djeli to enact authority in a society that constantly reinforces their caste-bound inferior social status. In The Problem of Speech Genres, Bakhtin describes the speaker in a conversation as:

[N]ot, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe. [H]e presupposes not only the existence of the language system he is using, but also the existence of preceding utterances—his own and others’—with which his given utterance enters into one kind of relation or another. . . . Any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances. (69)
Obviously, immediate connections can be drawn between Bakhtin’s ideal description of the function of an interlocutor and the arrival of the participant in the Burkian parlor. Burke’s discourse metaphor, and the authorial dynamics implicit in Bakhtin’s description of the role of the interlocutor, adequately describe the ephemeral constant from which djeliya in Mande society draw their impetus to agency. In the passage that began this section, Mamoudou Kouyate, the djeli from whom Niane draws his transcription of the Sundiata epic, references both his father Bintou Kouyate and grandfather Kedian Kouyate as a starting point from wince to continue his utterance. While the social structure of Mande culture does not simply allow for the “others’” Bakhtin describes, the authority established by referencing other members of the culturally constructed “caste” entrusted in Mande society with the manipulation of the power of words provides Mamoudou with the linguistic warrant to further explore the Nyamakala-bound jurisdiction of orally recited history. As society reinforces class structures that prevent djeliya from ascending or descending social class, they also place the onus of authority on the djeliya to traffic in the modes of meaning. The polyphony that Mamoudou Kouyate depends on for the authority of his utterance is a part of Bakhtin’s endless flow of utterances that are “preceded by the utterance of others, and . . . followed by the responsive utterances of others” (71).

In Discourse in the Novel, Bakhtin notes that “The processes of centralization and decentralization. . . intersect in the utterance” (668). While Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony provides an apt descriptor for the authorial agency provided Nyamakala in Mande society, his concepts of the centripetal and centrifugal nature of utterances suitably describe the role of the griot as intermediary between the Mansa, or king and his subjects. Since the time of Sundiata10, the djeli functioned as the public mouthpiece of the Mande aristocracy. In social situations11 the djeli served as the oral representation of the Mansa.12 To fully understand the stabilizing-destabilizing dialectic that exists in the utterance of the djeli, one must consider the etymology of the word nyamakala itself.

Etymologically speaking, the word Nyamakala can be broken down into two distinct parts: Nyama and kala. Nyama is understood, in Mande societies, to mean “natural force” while kala means “stick,” “twig,” or “straw” (Conrad and Frank 28). Further Mande shades in the complexion of “natural force” in the word nyama include: “evil or satanic. . . dangerous. . . polluting. . . [and] necessary for action” (28); furthermore, “possible meanings for kala. . . . [include] powerful agent. . . antidote or remedy” (29). McNaughton further explores the “power” involved in Mande Nyamakalaw societies thusly, “At sorcery’s base lies a phenomenon that generates its own fair share of ambivalence and disquiet among the Mande. It is perceived as the world’s basic energy. . . . It is the force the Mande call nyama. . . and which most Westerners would call the supernatural” (McNaughton 15-16). While the nature of the term differs somewhat between various ethnic groups of the Mande cultural assemblage, the term nyamakala could be understood, etymologically, as the “powerful agent that manipulates natural force.” As the term is used to describe a caste bound minority, the meaning of the word itself implicitly acknowledges the role of the djeliya in Mande society to act as manipulators of an ephemeral, raw force that exists in nature. The power to manipulate raw materials such as the spoken word to achieve predetermined goals essentially marginalizes a portion of Mande society because they are ostracized for their ability to regulate and dispense unrefined organic force. The “natural force” employed by the djeliya in Mande culture is representative of an internal dialogism in the utterance in which the centrifugal pressures that arise from the djeli’s position as a moral barometer conflict with the centrifugal pressures of the dominant discourse of the horon, thereby creating a “double voice” in any nyamakala speech act.

Bonnie Wright, in The Power of Articulation, notes that many griots purposefully act “loud, mischievous and provocative” when in the presence of horon (Wright 52). Further, Barbara Hoffman has argued that djeli “openly criticize nobles in public as well as in private” and observed “young noblewomen in Bamako being publicly rebuked by their griot elders for overstepping the bounds of nobility (horonya) by dancing too much like griots” (Hoffman 37). In these cases, the djeliya of Mande society are privileged to a similar position of the Medieval European court jester13. In Hoffman’s case, the djeliya’s first voice acts in the interest of the stabilizing force of utterance (Bakhtin’s centrifugal) by admonishing the noblewomen’s inappropriate behavior, thereby maintaining the status quo; however, the djeliya’s second, or double voice, implicitly questions the dominant discourse and related class structure by providing the voice to critique horon by caste-bound, oppressed nyamakala (Bakhtin’s centripetal).

It is clear that the concept of nyama and its manipulation in sub-Saharan West African culture provides a model of discourse that depends of polyphonic, heteroglossic elements for its recitation and agency; however, the underlying power structures that buttress horon dominated Mande society appear to rely upon a double-voiced discourse that operates in a system wherein the oppressed utterances of the nyamakala provide the motivation for action and social function of society as a whole. Michel Foucault discusses, in The Discourse on Language, an aspect of discourse that I would liken to the concept of nyama and the subsequent fear of the horon concerning it. Foucault claims:

[I]t seems to me, a certain fear hides behind this apparent supremacy accorded, this apparent logophilia. It is as though these taboos, these barriers, thresholds and limits were deliberately disposed in order, at least partly, to master and control the great proliferation of discourse, in such a way as to relieve its richness of its most dangerous elements; to organize its disorder so as to skate round its most uncontrollable aspects. (158)

Power to the Oppressed: The Nyamakala’s Rhetorical Authentication of the Horon Caste

There is undoubtedly in our society, and I would not be surprised to see it in others, though taking different forms and modes, a profound logophobia, a sort of dumb fear of these events, of this mass of spoken things, of everything that could be violent, discontinuous, querulous, disordered even perilous in it, of the incessant, disorderly buzzing of discourse. (Foucault 158)

Extending our discussion of Bakhtin’s centrifugal/centripetal inner dialogic of the utterance into Foucault’s realm of disciplining discourses will reveal the curious social power relations of West African Mande society wherein the powerful, centripetal leaning, discourse fearing, horon caste oppresses the discourse creating, centrifugal celebrating, nyamakala.

On the outskirts of accepted discursive practice in contemporary West African society, there lurks the potential for the destabilizing affect of a nyamakala uprising. Through the manipulation of nyama, djeliya throughout the Mande social system could usurp the rhetorical power of the horon by refusing to authenticate their claim to authoritarian legitimacy; however, the normalizing effects of horon influenced history and the accepted social hierarchy of the Mande caste system have, as of yet, prevented any such disintegration of discourse relations and power structures.

Foucault states, in Truth and Power, that “What makes power really hold good. . . is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things. . . produces discourse” (61). Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sahelian Mande culture. The easiest way to discover the ways in which the horon caste has influenced hierarchical social structures is through an investigation of the discourse of the Sundiata epic. As this epic serves as the primary source14 from whence Mande peoples draw their accepted social framework and clan histories, a textual investigation of the piece will reveal the mythopoetic events that create the backbone of a social system of power that differentiates between castes based on logophobic tendencies.

The discourse produced in the introductory chapters of the epic of Sundiata cultivates the historical precedent for the existence and interdependency of the griot-noble dichotomy; in addition, the role of the djeli drives the vehicle of the narrative discourse. Early in the epic15, Sundiata’s father, Nare Maghan, tells Sundiata that, “In Mali every prince has his own griot. Doua’s father was my father’s griot, Doua is mine and the son of Doua, Balla Fasseke here, will be your griot” (Niane 17). Maghan’s discursive directive functions as the classical model from which all Mande society is predicated; furthermore, though Mande society operates on a system of patrilineal descent, it is through the words of Nare Maghan, the first mentioned Mande king, that a hereditary system rooted in vocation is codified. Later in the epic, the dependence of the noble on his griot is further reinforced in an episode in which Sundiata has his griot stolen from him. First Dankaran Touman, Sundiata’s evil half-brother, steals away Balla Fasseke (Sundiata’s djeli) from Sundiata’s service. Sundiata addresses his half-brother, “Dankaran Touman, you have taken away part of the inheritance. Every prince has his griot, and you have taken away Balla Fasseke. . . . [S]ince you do not want us around you we shall leave Mali” (27). In this passage, Touman, by usurping Sundiata’s griot, motivates the future king to leave his native Mali for exile; further, the griot-noble relationship is again described in ownership terms. The noble “owns” the griot; hence, he owns the griot’s discourse. Dankaran Touman, by stealing Sundiata’s griot, is usurping the existent authorial discourse and appropriating it for to his own end as the griot is needed to authenticate the legitimacy of the horon’s power in Mande society.

Through a series of rather unfortunate events, Dankaran Touman loses Balla Fasseke, Sundiata’s griot, to the sorcerer king Soumaoro. Once Soumaoro gains control of Balla Fasseke, Dankaran Touman, the illegitimate king of Mali, must cede power to the wicked Soumaoro. The epic tells of Touman’s fall from power and his loss of Sundiata’s griot:

Soumaoro let the rest of the Mandingo [Mande] embassy return but he kept Balla Fasseke back and threatened to destroy Niani if Dankaran Touman did not make his submission. Frightened, the son of Sassouma [Dankaran Touman] immediately made his submission. (38)

In this section of the epic, the metaphorical transfer of power over the Malian empire is carried out through the physical usurpation of the griot, Balla Fasseke. Later in the recitation, the epic relates Sundiata’s reaction to Soumaoro’s kidnapping of Fasseke:

Thus Balla Fasseke, whom king Nare Maghan had given to his son Sundiata, was stolen from the latter by Dankaran Touman; now it was the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante who, in turn, stole the precious griot from the son of Sassouma Berete [Dankaran Touman]. In this way war between Sundiata and Soumaoro became inevitable. (40)

Again, the power conflicts between horonya are manifested physically in the transfer of the griot, Balla Fasseke, between potentially warring powers. In this way, the power of the griot to authenticate the horonya and legitimate their rule is further underscored. As all Mande presumably knew that Balla Fasseke was Sundiata’s rightful griot, other potential heirs to the throne sought to seize the djeli in order to reappropriate his legitimating discourse. Fasseke, later in the epic, sings, “Griots are the men of the spoken word, and by spoken word we give life to the gestures of kings” (63). These power struggles, manifested in the words of Sundiata’s griot Balla Fasseke, drive the narrative of the Sundiata epic and codify the relationship between the griot and horon in Mande society. As Sundiata reflects upon Fasseke’s return to his service

He [Sundiata] now had the singer who would perpetuate his memory by his words. There would not be any heroes if deeds were condemned to man’s forgetfulness, for we ply our trade to excite the admiration of the living, and to evoke the veneration of those who are to come” (58).

The discourse of the Sundiata epic also shaped the social caste system observed by Ibn-Battuta and al-Umari in the early 13th and 14th century in another way. Soumaoro Kante, the evil sorcerer king who serves as Sundiata’s main foe in the saga is, by trade and hereditary right, a blacksmith. Talmari notes that Soumaoro “formed an alliance with divinities associated with ironworking, and thus iron, ironworking and certain iron objects were for him both symbols of mystical and political power” (Talmari 238). Based on the observations that serve as the system of caste differentiation in Mande society, the existence of a sorcerer-blacksmith king seems rather unlikely. In colonial and post-colonial West Africa, smiths fall under the Nyamakala caste; therefore, they are incapable of leadership or nobility roles. Soumaoro’s defeat, retold through the discourse of the Sundiata epic, codified the role of the blacksmith as a manipulator of magic and repressed their social status to that of Nyamakala16.

The Sundiata epic provides an insightful model from which the role of the dominant discourse in Mande society can be extrapolated. Nyamakala, through their role as praise singer, historian and interlocutor, authenticate and legitimate the powerful horon caste. Though oppressed and subjected to caste-bound social constraints that prevent their advancement from nyamakala status, djeliw in Mande culture glorify the deeds of those who repress them. The logophobic horon, incapable of trafficking the nyama inherent in the speech acts of praise singing and histriofictual recitation depend on the nyamakala to continue the discourse that keeps them in power.

This paper has heretofore investigated the role of the griot, or djeli, in pre-colonial West African Mande culture. It has been noted that the griot’s utterance, in its role as authenticator and legitimator, embraces the centripetal leaning horon discourse; in addition, the centrifugal nature of the griot’s words, as observed by Hoffman and Wright, provide a social critique of the horon. The codification of horon and nyamakala roles in Mande society relies upon the power relationships first described in the Sundiata epic. Though the dominant horon-defined discourse depends on the validation and endorsement of the djeli, contemporary nyamakala remain an oppressed, caste-bound sub sect of contemporary West African Sahelian society.

Contemporary African “Culture Producers17”: The Fate of Nyamakala in Postcolonial, Postmodern West Africa

The contemporary West African nations of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and The Gambia would appear foreign and familiar to Sundiata, the Mande culture-hero. The glitz and glamour of some sections of the modern day cities of Ouagadougou, Bamako and especially Dakar would bewilder the typical Mande from pre-colonial times; however, when one enters the countryside around the Niger river, the modern melts into the savannah and the ancient melds with the modern. Modern day West Africa is a bustling set of contradictions. In Bamako, colonial leftovers house the affluent, while poor slums dominate the suburban landscape. This is the case also in Senegal and Burkina Faso’s urban centers. In light of the culture eradicating policies of French colonizers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the social structure of traditional Mande culture has been eroded; however, the existence of the nyamakala/horon dichotomy exists in contemporary, anti-colonialist forms.

Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka described the French actions during the age of colonialism as “motivated from racism, opportunism, and cultural chauvinism. . . . [The French played] the unworthy game of placing entire peoples outside history” (Soyinka 114). Based on Soyinka’s dismal picture of French colonial policy toward indigenous Africans during the 1920’s-1960’s, one would assume that most social structures that existed before the advent of colonialism would have disappeared. Yet, the enduring existence of the nyamakala caste continues to serve the West African Mande people in developing an independent, culturally accurate portrayal of history, irregardless of imposed colonial and post-colonial constrictions.

The Nyamakala’s Voice in Contemporary West Africa

The bardic traditions of the nyamakala have served the peoples of Mande cultural descent since the onset of decolonialization. Ojoade has described the use of rhetorical praise singing in contemporary West Africa to rally the supporters of the Ghana-Guinea-Mali union of 1961. In the author’s words, the “folklore” of the nyamakalaw “enabled [Ghana-Guinea-Mali] to serve as the nucleus of a union of independent African states” and thereby lay a foundation for the pan-African independence movement (Ojoade 26). Panzacchi, in The Livelihoods of Traditional Griots in Modern Senegal, provides an insightful look into the role of the griot in contemporary Senegal. The author notes that the mainstream, government sponsored communications organization in Senegal, ORTS18, “employs a number of griots who are specialists in this discipline to lecture on history and popular wisdom in the national languages” (Panzacchi 193). Furthermore, griots in contemporary West African society take the role of party organizers and tourist guides (198). For many griots, however, the role of “Showbiz” is the most attractive and appealing of contemporary professions, as griots are given the opportunity to ply their traditional “wordsmithing” trade to embrace the governing discourse of the horon, while applying their “double-voice” to question the imperialist discourse of post-colonial tendencies toward Eurocentric governing policies and megalomania.

As the designation of nyamakala is passed down through patrilineal inheritance, it is easy to recognize modern day griots in West African popular culture based on caste-bound, griot-specific last names. Some of the most prevalent surnames commonly attributed to the djeli subset of the nyamakala caste include Diabate, Kouyate, Cisse, Konate and Sissoko. In contemporary West African pop music, the names of such artists as Balla Kouyate19, Djimo Kouyate20, Baba Sissoko21 and Abdoulaye Diabate22 dominate the pop culture landscape. Numerous West African nyamakala now act as the cultural ambassadors of their nations in the Western world. Youssou N’Dour, credited with the invention of mbalax, a percussion-driven sound rooted in traditional griot percussion and praise-singing, is West Africa’s best known musician internationally, and has created a genre of music that, since it’s invention, has spread worldwide and continues to influence the American and European hip-hop scene. While the proliferation of djeliw inspired music continues to spread internationally, West Africa’s most notable griots are practicing double-voiced heteroglossic discourse through the media of film. The work of directors Dani Kouyate and Cheik Omar Sissoko in particular serves the dominant horon discourse of traditional Mande life, while questioning the postcolonial practices of Fracophilic dictatorships and monologic, postcolonial bureaucratic structures.

If the act of Signifyin(g), a rhetorical action first described by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Signifying Monkey (1989), can best be understood as the use of communication to create new meaning out of old linguistic forms, contemporary West African cinema is actively engaged in the process of Signification to undermine the French colonial legacy present in post-colonial West African beuracratic structures and to critique the megalomania prevalent in many of contemporary Africa’s eroding dictatorships.

Dani Kouyate, director of Keita: The Heritage of the Griot (1994) and a griot by ancestral right, confronts the collision of modern day West African state-sponsored Eurocentric education programs and traditional Mande cultural education practices. Young Mabo, whose family once lived in the bush but has long since migrated to a large city, is visited by a djeliya, or master griot, to “teach him the meaning of his name” (Kieta). Due to an obligation to traditional Mande social structure and because of his own incapability to transmit the cultural education of the Mande – both because he is a horon by birthright and because he has embraced European culture to the extent that it has erased his own – Mabo’s father accepts the djeliya from his native village into his home to educate Mabo in the ways of the Mande. Mabo soon becomes consumed by the djeliya’s tale and begins skipping school to attend to the griot’s recitation of the Sundiata epic.23 In the film’s climax, the local government appointed schoolteacher denounces the “traditional” knowledge of the djeliya and admonishes Mabo’s parents for allowing him to take part in the griot’s utterance. The djeliya unceremoniously returns to the bush; however, in the film’s closing scene, Mabo begins educating other schoolchildren in the Sundiata epic, thus continuing the griot’s utterance. Keita: The Heritage of the Griot accurately describes a common problem in contemporary West African society. Kouyate utilizes his “double-voiced” discourse to Signify on the contemporary cultural landscape of Mali. The film’s centripetal discourse embraces and celebrates the traditional horon-nyamakala relationship through its optimistic portrayal of the bond between Mabo (horon) and his family griot (djeliya) and the implications of that union. The film’s centrifugal discourse, in contrast, lashes out against the post-colonial Eurocentric education practices of the Malian government in addition to criticizing Mabo’s parents for their lack of traditional Mande cultural knowledge. Kouyate, through the media of film, is Signifyin(g) in Gates’ sense of the term, on the contemporary situation of post-colonial African life. By utilizing the “old” linguistic forms of the nyamakala-griot dialectic – exhibited in the relationship between Mabo and djeliya - Kouyate creates new “meaning” by inspiring contemporary Africans to look not to Western nations for their political and social models, but rather to the return of pre-colonial modes of knowing and thinking to usher in a new era of Mande cultural independence and prosperity. As Kouyate is a griot by birthright, his message carries the rhetorical power24 needed to be deemed credible to his intended audience.

Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s Guimba the Tyrant (1995) undertakes a less explicit critique of the contemporary political situation in West Africa; however, the “double-voicedness” of Sissoko’s argument bites to the core of contemporary Africa’s “megalomaniac” problem.

Sissoko, whose surname is identified with the nyamakala caste, structures his film as the recitation of a traditional epic. The film’s action is framed in its opening scenes as a “word of warning” against despotic, tyrannical dictators. In the initial frames, a griot is seen walking along the Niger River playing his kora. The unnamed djeli notes that he depends on the “wisdom of ancestors” to guide his story before actually beginning the action. Sissoko’s film tells the tale of the rise and fall of Guimba, the mansa of a prosperous trading center in the West African Sahel. The narrative serves as an allegory for the contemporary problem of dictatorial, tyrannical rule in post-colonial Africa. Guimba, obsessed with wealth, torture and sex is the metaphorical conglomeration of despots such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Gabon’s Omar Bongo.25 Relying on juju, or magical powers, Guimba wrests power from the elders of Sitkali and begins a wholesale campaign of terror and torture. Much akin to Africa’s contemporary dictators, Guimba retains multiple wives, empties the town’s coffers into his own and murders his own kin to maintain control over his province of power. In the end, through the actions and efforts of the horon of the town, Guimba is vanquished. The concluding scenes of the film return to the banks of the Niger, where the djeli concludes his didactic tale.

The utterance of Sissoko’s film is also representative of Bakhtin’s “double-voiced” utterance. The centripetal force of the film’s message is observed in its redemptory portrayal of the Guimba-vanquishing horon; in addition, the values of non-despotic, prosperous horonw are celebrated throughout in scenes filled with prosperous traders and warrior nobles. In contrast, the centrifugal leaning message of the film, in its representation in Guimba, criticizes horon tendencies toward excess and punishment when placed in positions of power. Sissoko relies on his “rhetorical force” as a djeli to deliver a message of warning against newly independent despotic African politicians to pay heed to the traditional roles of mansas, horonw and nyamakala. In effect, Sissoko is Signifyin(g) on contemporary African megalomaniacs by utilizing the rhetorical force of the griot’s “old words” through the new medium of cinema.

Despite colonial policies rooted in assimilation and cultural eradication, traditional West African social structures remain. Film has provided new ways for nyamakala to act as the “social barometer” for Mande culture. The “rhetorical power” afforded griots in Mande society enables them to produce cinematic critiques of power-abusing horon and ineffective Eurocentric government structures. Through their utilization of technology, contemporary West African nyamakala still employ their “double-voiced” discourse to authenticate and praise horon, while at the same time acting as their proverbial “gadfly.”

Kennedy’s Call : Comparative Rhetoric or Cross-Cultural Rhetoric?

I stated in the introduction to this piece that I wanted to make a contribution to the field of comparative rhetoric. I believe, through my investigation of traditional and contemporary Mande social structures and linguistic/cinematic speech acts, I have made at least a meager contribution to that aim; however, I believe the real goal of both my and Kennedy’s scholarship remains unrealized. My understanding of the authentication process for people in power in both West African and American society is rooted in the same rhetorical apparatus. I believe, and will determine in future scholarship, that the authentication of power provided horon by nyamakala bears striking resemblance to the authentication of power provided American politicians by the masses. When American citizens exercise their right to vote, they are validating the power of an individual to work in their best interest; yet, oftentimes, the politician does not, thereby oppressing their constituents. Furthermore, the rhetorical “nyama” of the American masses lies in its unpredictability, while our “kala” just might be the democratic process. While this is simply one example of a cross-cultural rhetorical act, it is this kind of connection that must be explored in order to develop a better way to communicate in an increasingly globalized world. The aim of both Kennedy’s and my research should be to discover the relationships between interlocutors and their utterances in order to foster cross-cultural communication – not merely the wholesale cataloguing of independent, disconnected rhetorical acts.

Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: Texas UP, 1986.
---. "Discourse in the Novel." Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986. 665-678.
Conrad, David C., et al. Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.
Finnegan, Rugh. Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.
Foucault, Michel. "The Discourse on Language." Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986. 148-162.
---. "Truth and Power." The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 51-75.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Guimba. Dir. Cheick Oumar Sissoko. California Newsreel, 1995.
Hoffman, Barbara. "Power, Structure, and Mande jeliw." Status and Identity in West Africa : Nyamakalaw of Mande. Ed. David Conrad. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 36-46.
Hopkins, Nicholas. “Memories of Griots.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 17

(1997) : 43-72.

Keita: The Heritage of the Griot. Dir. Dani Kouyate. California Newsreel, 1994.
Kennedy, George. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
McNaughton, Patrick R.. The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power and Art in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.
Niane, D.T.. Sundiata : An Epic of Old Mali. Essex: Longman Group, 1965.
Ojoade, Olowo . "Oral Literature: A Manipulative Force in African Politics." International Folklore Review 4 (1986): 21-27.
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Orizio, Riccardo. Talk of the Devil : Encounters with Seven Dictators. New York: Walker & Co., 2003.
Panzacchi, Cornelia. "The Livelihoods of Traditional Griots in Modern Senegal." Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 64 (1994): 190-210.
Soyinka, Wole. "Twice Bitten: The Fate of Africa's Culture Producers." PMLA 105 (1990): 110 -120.
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History 32 (1991) : 221-250.
Wright, Bonnie. "The Power of Articulation." Creativity of Power: Cosmology and Action in African Societies. Ed. W. Arens. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.


This paper answers George Kennedy’s call for investigations into “comparative rhetoric.” By utilizing Bakhtin’s theories of utterance, Foucault’s ideas concerning logophobia and Gates’ concept of Signifyin(g), this paper performs an analysis of pre-colonial and post-colonial West African Mande social structures via their rhetorical apparatus’. The inquiry reveals that through traditional oral recitations, such as the Sundiata epic, and contemporary film productions, such as Keita and Guimba the Tyrant, West African bards perform a “double-voiced” speech act that both authenticates and critiques the dominant discourse of farmers, nobles and politicians in pre-colonial and post-colonial, post-modern Francophone West Africa.

1 Conrad and Frank in Status and Identity In West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande, pp. 2-10 describe the perception of early European explorers to the Senegambia and West African Atlantic coast through an analysis of Age of Discovery literature: “colonial literature [erroneously] tended to present Mande social structure as a codified system” (10).

2 For a more in depth discussion of the travels of Ibn Battuta in West Africa consult: Tamari, Tal. “The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa.” Journal of African History 32 (1991) : 221-250. Talmari provides information on both Ibn Battuta’s first encounters with West African Mande societies as well as Arab historian al-Umari’s account of the stratification of West African social structures.

3 Endogmatic is best understood as a society whose organization depends on the discriminatory tactics to reinforce caste structures. In the West, the best known existence of endogmatic social organization is the Indian Varnashrama dharma, or Varna caste system. It is important to note that the difference between the caste system of India and the caste system of West African Mande is significant. Indians differentiate based on a Hindu, and thus religious, tradition, while Mande differentiate based on vocation.

4 Talmari notes, in her examination of caste systems across West Africa, the existence of the Jula (Ivory Coast), Wolof (Senegal), Fulani (Senegambia, Ghana) and numerous other ethnic groups that embrace social stratification based on a noble-bard/blacksmith dialectic.

5 Hopkins provides a detailed anthropological examination of the composition and characteristics of Mande social structure, in: Hopkins, Nicholas. “Memories of Griots.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 17

(1997) : 43-72.. Hopkins provides extensive statistics that support the claim that Mande society is distinguished by its social stratification based on hereditarily gained vocation.

6 Hopkins’ field evidence suggests that horon compose roughly 75% of the population (45).

7 Griot is a French term best translated as bard or praise singer.

8 I will use the terms griot and djeli interchangeably for the remainder of this paper. Conrad and Frank discuss, at length, the subtle differences between griot, djeli and jeli in their discussion of the Etymologies of nyamakala in Status and Identity in West Africa pp. 26-35.

9 Kennedy provides a description, in Aristotelian terms, of praise singing as a form of rhetoric in traditional societies. He notes that, “Some societies have an epideictic tradition in which wealthy or influential individuals are praised by professional orators or singers in return for gifts” (75).

10 Sundiata is the first Mande king; hence, his example provided the model from which successive Mande rulers developed the structure of their court. While the existence of djeli in Mande culture existed before the rise of Sundiata (most notably at the court of Sundiata’s father where the djeli insisted that the king marry the “Buffalo of Do”), the first cross-regional Mande emperor codified the djeli-horon relationship.

11 Evidence on this point is weak, as anthropological evidence before the age of writing is sparse; however, most representations of Mande culture in print and film suggest the role of the djeli and horon as I have described. Reference – Kieta!: l’Heritage du Griot (1994), Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (1994), The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa (1995).

12 For example, in the film Keita!: l’Heritage du Griot, two hunters from the land of Do ask permission of the Mansa to pass through his lands. After conferring in inaudible voices, the djeli tells the hunters that they may pass through his kingdom unimpeded if they only provide tribute. In this conversation between two members of the horon class (the king and the hunters), the griot acts as intermediary, conveying the words of the king in an eloquent manner.

13 In addition to the Medieval European court jester, I would argue that the djeli functions as a “Signfyin(g) Monkey” in Gates terms. Through the discourse of the oppressed, the dominant discourse is challenged.

14 Talmari notes the historical importance of the Sundiata epic in The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa. She notes that, “The fact that the Sundiata epic is known to all Manding [Mande] speaking populations vouches for its great antiquity, while the fact that among over twenty available versions of the epic, there are very few differences in the characterization of political and military events or the main personages, again argues for its value as history” (236-7).

15 I use D.T. Niane’s transcription of Momadou Kouyate’s Sundiata for the textual analysis as it is generally agreed upon as the best Westernized version of the epic to read in order to gain coherency in the text.

16 In most Mande literature that follows the Sundiata epic, the blacksmith is accorded the role of a fetishist or magician. Camara Laye’s novella The Dark Child accurately treats the role of the blacksmith, or numu in West African Senegalese society.

17 I am paying homage to Wole Soyinka’s Twice Bitten: The Fate of Africa’s Culture Producers.

18 Office de Radiodiffusion et Television du Senegal

19 Homepage at : http://www.ballakouyate.com/index.html

20 Memoriam at : http://www.memoryofafricanculture.org/kf.htm

21 Homepage at : http://www.babasissoko.com/index1.html

22 Homepage at : http://mali-music.com/Cat/CatA/AboulayeDiabate.htm

23 Mabo’s surname is Keita, the same as Sundiata; hence, the djeliya is present to recite the history of Mabo’s ancestor, the great Sundiata.

24 In Yarborough’s sense of the term.

25 For further information of despotic African megalomaniacs, consult Riccardo Orizio’s book Talk of The Devil. Walker Publishing, 2003.

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