vendredi, août 19, 2022

The Strange Fate of Amadou Hampaté Bâ in the Anglophone World

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By all accounts, Amadou Hampaté Bâ (1901–1991) ranks among the giants of African literature. This would no doubt remain true even if no other work could be credited to his name aside from his one and only novel, L’Étrange destin de Wangrin ou Les roueries d’un interprète africain (The Strange Fate of Wangrin, or the Cunning of an African Interpreter), which originally appeared in 1973 and received the prestigious Grand Prix de Littérature d’Afrique Noire in 1974.[spacer height=”5px”] But Hampaté Bâ’s reputation rests on a much wider base of accomplishments. In addition to penning what is indisputably one of the greatest African literary works of the twentieth century, Hampaté Bâ also spent decades researching and recording Fula (or Fulani; Peul in French) history, culture, and oral tradition. Following nearly twenty years of service within the colonial administration, Hampaté Bâ’s life changed dramatically in 1942, when French naturalist and explorer Théodore Monod invited him to join the Institut Français d’Afrique Noir (IFAN). Monod had served as the director of IFAN since its founding in 1938 in Dakar, Senegal. The institute’s primary mission was ostensibly ethnological — ostensibly because, despite aiming to study the languages, histories, and cultures of African peoples under French colonial rule, IFAN also served more paternalistic goals, such as providing the necessary understanding of West African peoples that would enable the French to establish a more effective mode of indirect rule over them.[spacer height=”5px”] IFAN’s imperialist undercurrents notwithstanding, Hampaté Bâ applied himself assiduously to his ethnological research, traveling throughout West Africa to gather information about local stories and customs. Over the years, he assembled a vast personal archive that he would draw from throughout his decades-long writing career, beginning with the landmark publication in 1955 of his first work, L’Empire peul de Macina (The Fula Empire of Macina). Many additional works of history, biography, and ethnography appeared in the years that followed. This steady stream of research and writing earned Hampaté Bâ a place on the UNESCO executive council in 1960, and he served as a cultural ambassador on that council until 1970, working hard to win African oral traditions recognition as significant artifacts of the world’s cultural and literary heritage. In his later life he even became a diplomat, serving as the Malian ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire.[spacer height=”5px”] [spacer height=”5px”]Perhaps more than anything else in his long career, it is a comment Hampaté Bâ made while in the service of UNESCO that made him an international name: “In Africa,” he declared, “each time an old person dies, it’s a library that burns down (En Afrique, chaque fois qu’un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui est brûlée). Since its initial utterance, this quote has appeared frequently to bolster claims for the value of African oral traditions, and it has become so ubiquitous that it is often wrongly attributed, if attributed at all. Strangely, Hampaté Bâ’s most famous remark seems to have transcended its speaker.[spacer height=”5px”] This is certainly more often the case in the English-speaking world than in the French-speaking one, where most of Hampaté Bâ’s works are still in print, or at least moderately accessible. By contrast, his work remains relatively unknown and under-read in anglophone circles.[spacer height=”25px”]  Taylor Eggan.
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