MODERN EPIC OF SOULEYMANE KANTE
scholars have struggled with issues of decolonization since African
independence, and while the major focus has been economic and political,
cultural issues have often become a significant part of the debate.
Central to the cultural debate has been the issue of language. Several African authors have questioned the practice of
writing in European languages, thereby impoverishing the autochthonous
ones because these have become the official languages of African
nations, and in the modern period they have also become the literary
vehicle of writers. One
could argue that in earlier times there were few African publishing
houses, and, therefore, African authors had to publish in the European
languages of the colonial publishers who perceived the readers of the
printed word to be non-African. While
post-independence publishers and audiences continue, for the most part,
to be non-African in nature, there is today an increasingly
literate African audience for European language-based publications;
furthermore, because of a resurgence of African cultural nationalism,
authors have begun writing more often in their indigenous languages.
itself into this debate about language usage has been the little known
phenomenon of writing African literature in indigenous African scripts.
Although many African specialists are familiar with the ancient
and pre-colonial indigenous alphabets and scripts found across the
continent, the introduction of new alphabets during the contemporary
period--late colonial through independence--has gone largely unreported
in the literature about Africa. One
of these is N’ko, an alphabet created in 1949 by the Guinean
Souleymane Kanté. N’ko has inspired a heightened sense of cultural
identity among the speakers of Mande languages across West Africa.
Paradoxically, the N’ko phenomenon,
a grassroots movement toward literacy, has also generated a new, written
oral tradition surrounding its creator, Souleymane Kanté, as an
Consequently, given this phenomenon it is important that we address and
analyze the relationship
between the orality in maintaining
oral tradition and the literacy that would replace it. The N’ko
example, therefore, will allow us to consider the impact of literacy
upon orality by considering the following questions about the history of
N’ko and the impact the script has had on both oral and written
traditions in the Mande world today.
Who was Souleymane Kanté? Why
is he considered a cultural hero? What
is his contribution to the debate about writing in African languages?
What were his intentions in creating an alphabet?
How has a literature in that alphabet been generated and
disseminated? What is the
impact of literacy on the transmission of oral tradition? This study will seek to
answer the questions, first, by situating Kanté’s experience within
the African context of the current debate and, secondly
by reexamining the history of N’ko and the story of
Souleymane Kanté himself.
historical context of the debate arises during the late colonial period
when African intellectuals began challenging the negative stereotypes
that had been imposed on them by the European pseudo-scientific racism
of the era. One example of
the prevailing view of African culture from Kanté’s period can be
summarized by the following metaphor: “African voices [languages] are like those of the
birds--impossible to transcribe" (Personal Interviews 08, 22,46,
70). These seemingly
innocuous words printed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa
enraged a young Guinean working in colonial Côte d’Ivoire so much
that he changed his life’s purpose because of them.
Rather than feel disempowered by the insult, as other people may
have, Souleymane Kanté ( 1922-1987) accepted the words as a challenge,
and the result of that is that he created in 1949 the N'ko
alphabet for his own Maninka language (see fig. 1 and fig. 2).
few years later, in what may seem like a historical déjà vu, another
writer, Chinua Achebe, an Igbo-speaker from Nigeria, reacted to misconceptions found in
a Time Magazine article in a similar manner and thus sought to
correct narratives about Africans and Africa; he became troubled by an
article in Time Magazine which termed Joyce Cary’s Mister
Johnson (1951) "the best novel ever written about Africa”
(118). This second story is better known.
Achebe refers to Mr.
Johnson in the following manner:
“‘. . . it was clear to me that it [Mr. Johnson]
was a most superficial picture of--not only of the country--but even of
the Nigerian character, and so I thought if this was famous, then
perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside’”
(Duerden, quoting Achebe, 4). As
with Kanté, Chinua Achebe took up the challenge by writing Things
Fall Apart in 1958 to dispel inappropriate views about Africans.
Achebe observed that “the story we had to tell could not be told for
us by anyone else, no matter how gifted and well-intentioned” (Morning
Yet on Creation Day, 123).
Another well-known writer to jump into the fray is Ng_g_ wa
Thiong'o, a Gikuyu-speaker from Kenya, who, after having written in the
colonizer's language of English for years, begins in 1977 to publish his literary works in his own language.
Ng_g_ feels bound to do for Gikuyu
". . . what Spencer, Milton, and Shakespeare did for English
. . . which is to meet the challenge of creating a literature in them .
. ." (Decolonising the Mind, 29).
one takes the chronology into account, it is Souleymane Kanté’s
action which predates a series of uncoordinated responses by African
writers and intellectuals to western misconceptions about African
culture. These writers’ intention has been to depict African culture
as being neither stagnant nor impoverished.
Souleymane Kanté’s importance is that he stands at the
juncture between Achebe and Ng_g_, for he created a writing system that
allows the written word to truly represent the Maninka spoken word.
In other words, Kanté created an African script which fits an
African language, and thus he stands as a central figure in what will
become a polemical argument about writing in African languages, whose
parameters were set by Obi Wali at the 1962 Makerere Conference.
Writing in Transition Wali declared " . . . the whole
uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for
educated African writing is misdirected, and has no chance of advancing
African literature and culture" (14).
is known about Souleymane Kanté’s creation of the N'ko
alphabet and what may be his seminal contribution to the idea of
intellectual autonomy for Africa. A legend has arisen surrounding Souleymane Kanté's creation
of the N'ko alphabet, and Maninka-speaking
intellectuals of Guinea have generated a modern, oral epic tradition
surrounding Souleymane Kanté's invention of the N'ko alphabet.
His actions within this new
tradition emerge as the center of a heroic tale which elevates Kanté to
the status of a Mande cultural hero.
The words eulogize Kanté's
intellectual exploits as an affirmation of Mande culture and the
culture's resistance to foreign cultural domination.
As with the Sundiata epic, an account of the origins of the
ancient Mali empire and a representation of its founding, the Kanté
tale is transmitted in verse form.
Unlike the Sundiata epic, however, which remained as an oral
tradition for centuries until it was transcribed, the Kanté tale was
immediately transcribed and preserved in the Maninka language using Kanté’s
own creation--the N'ko alphabet.
Speakers of Mande languages have had access to the
"Souleymane Kanté Tale" since 1958 through a communications
network established and operated by those who are literate in N'ko.
When asked about the N'ko alphabet and its dissemination,
each one of my informants,
who were all a part of this N'ko network, reproduced the same
"creation tradition" almost verbatim. It was as if the text had been memorized.
Additionally, poetic forms of the Kanté story are being sung by
little children. They have also become part of the N'ko literacy
network as they commemorate Souleymane Kanté's creation and his
contribution to his own local community and its greater sense of Mande
cultural heritage. The Kanté
tale has proliferated so rapidly among the speakers of Mande languages
that the phenomenon may be considered a grassroots movement.
"Souleymane Kanté Tale" is one whose hero, Kanté,
is larger than life.
Kanté has become a cultural hero because he accomplished feats of
According to the story repeated by members of the N'ko
literate community, Souleymane Kanté (see fig. 3)
accepted a challenge posed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist
Kamal Marwa in his racially offensive and culturally insensitive remarks
published in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya
[We are in Africa] (Personal Interviews 46, 8).
Having conducted research on African culture in British and
French colonies (Personal Interviews 22,70),
Kamal Marwa concluded that Africans were inferior because they possessed
no indigenous written form of communication.
Marwa's position reflected the prevailing views
of many colonial Europeans.
Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a
syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it
incomplete (Personal Interview 8, 9).
Kanté had left his home Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin
in 1942 bound for the colony of Côte d'Ivoire, at that time one of the
focal points of commercial activity in French West Africa. While visiting Bouaké, Côte d'Ivoire in 1944, Kanté came
across Kamal Marwa's "infamous" publication in the market
(Personal Interviews 17,59).
Shocked by what he read and believing that the article gravely
insulted Africans, Kanté sought to discuss his grievances with the
author (Personal Interviews 22, 32, 35, 59). Marwa, however, had already returned to Lebanon (Personal
Interviews 9, 59). The tale
then relates that Souleymane Kanté began a silent reflection upon his
own Mande language, Maninka. Without
a word to anyone, it seems, Kanté embarked on the long and arduous
process of creating and controlling his own language in a new form of
Souleymane Kanté had been educated in Quranic school and could read and
write Arabic fluently, he had not yet learned French.
According to a traveling companion, Kanté purchased a French
language text. Then with the help of a French speaker in the household
where he was staying, he taught himself French in a little over a month
(Personal Interview 18).
Informants call Kanté an autodidact because he educated himself through
intensive reading of Arabic and French works rather than through formal
to N'ko informants, Kanté devoted the next two years (1945-1947)
to writing the Maninka language using Arabic script (Personal Interviews
49, 59). The twenty-eight
letters of the Arabic script, however, could not accommodate the
tonality of Mande languages. One
family member reported that Kanté traveled to Ghana and Senegal on
business in 1947 (Personal Interviews 9, 49).
While in Ghana, he supposedly witnessed Ghanaians reading and
writing their own languages using the Latin alphabet. He is even
reported to have learned some English (Personal Interview 59).
Beginning in November 1947 (Personal Interview 8), Kanté then
attempted to use the Latin alphabet for writing Maninka.
He discovered, however, that while the Latin alphabet
accommodated the use of accents adequately, it also could not capture
the tonality of Maninka. He concluded
that there were still many Maninka words that were too difficult to
discern properly through using Latin script (Personal Interview 59).
considerable trial and error, Souleymane Kanté finally concluded that
it was impossible to write African languages accurately utilizing
A Mande proverb
demonstrates Kanté's thinking: "If one takes the roof of one
villager's house to cover the house of another villager and it does not
fit, then one must build a roof that will fit" (Personal Interview
This sentiment guided him in identifying the need to create an
indigenous alphabet, one which conveyed the nuances of his own Maninka
words. Thus Kanté embarked
upon an entirely original project, the creation of a writing system that
reflected the specific characteristics of the spoken Mande languages,
including its intricate tonality (Personal Interview 32).
As a result, the promoters of the
N’ko alphabet have assigned April 14, 1949 as the
official birth of Souleymane Kanté’s alphabet (Kaba, 33; Personal
developing an alphabet with twenty-seven letters (see fig. 1 and fig.
2), the story says Kanté then gathered a group of illiterate children
and adults and asked them to draw lines
in the dirt. Because seven out of the ten drew the line from right to
left, according to Kanté's supporters, he settled on a right to left
orientation for the alphabet(Personal Interviews 9, 62, 70) .
Finally, because he wanted to unite the speakers of all Mande
languages, he provided his script with a culturally significant name,
that of N'ko. He
settled on this word for two reasons. First, he observed that in all the Mande languages the
pronoun "N" means "I" and the verb "ko"
means "say." Secondly,
he believed that all Mande speakers shared the same heroic/historic past
of the Malian Empire. In
the oral tradition of Sundiata the founder of Mali, the jeli
refers to the speakers of Mande languages as
". . . all those who say N'ko. . . ." They also
designated N'ko as being ". . . . the clear language of
Mali" (Niane, 55; Personal Interview 70).
"Souleymane Kanté Story" goes on to explain the rationale for
using the new writing system when two others, the Latin alphabet and
Arabic script, were already in use. One group of explanations was
expressed in the early 1950's by Kanté himself to his cadre of
supporters as being the need for Africans to become literate in their
own languages (Personal Interview 45). He saw the need for Africans to
learn western knowledge in their maternal languages thus accelerating
its control (Personal Interviews 17,26), the need to conserve knowledge
for future generations by recording local history from elders and
knowledge controlled by specialists such as healers (Personal Interview
5), and perhaps the need to disprove the pervasive, prevailing opinion
that Africans had no culture. Although
those who were gathered at the 1962 Makerere conference might not have
known about Kanté, his stance regarding African literacy and literature
is certainly one of the earliest statements on the issue of writing in
one's maternal language. Even more significant is his status as a pioneer of
explanations by Kanté's supporters about the rationale for learning to
use the N’ko alphabet are religious in nature reflecting their
Islamic orientation. Many members of his family, his friends, and his supporters
believe Souleymane Kanté to have been divinely inspired. Some accept
that Allah gave Kanté the power of intelligence and also the power to
understand and effect change. Others
attribute a more direct intervention on the part of Allah who, they
believe, placed Kanté in the right place at the right time and gave him
the inspiration for the alphabet (Personal Interviews 26, 27, 51, 68).
"Souleymane Kanté Tale," (see fig. 4 and translation in
Appendix A) is a eulogy which affirms Mande culture and Kanté's
resistance to foreign cultural domination.
The language revival which was instituted by Guinea’s First
Republic and the subsequent cultural renewal it generated has elevated
Kanté to a hero of mythic proportions. Maninka-speaking intellectuals are the ones responsible for
establishing the Kanté tale. It is a modern oral tradition composed and
transmitted orally in a cultural format along the line of the epic of
the Sundiata and Kanté stories focus on the fight against oppression.
While the outcome of both contests are viewed as being determined by
some form of divinely inspired destiny, Kanté's weapon was the written
word rather than the weaponry of war. In the Sundiata epic, individuals
from the royal and noble lines of the Mali empire demonstrated
leadership for the speakers of Mande languages. Sundiata's lieutenants were his immediate family and his age
set/mates who had grown up with him at court.
Modern leadership, on the other hand, came at the grassroots
level of Quarnic-school-educated, Mande-speaking society. While Kanté's lieutenants were also drawn from among the
members of his extended family, many more were drawn from all those who
had become his students either directly or indirectly.
to the Sundiata epic, the Kanté story is also told in verse and/or
prose and appears in many versions possessing the same textual outline.
Sundiata was preserved within an oral tradition performed
by the jeli, versions of which have been later recorded in
written form or in oral form on audio tape.
Souleymane Kanté's story, however, differs from its predecessor
because it was immediately recorded in written form, preserved in N'ko.
While the jeli had controlled the specific knowledge of Sundiata,
any speaker of Mande languages who has acquired N'ko literacy
would have access to the newly written oral tradition of the invention
story through the communications network operated by those who are
literate in N'ko. For
the purposes of this paper, written oral tradition is defined as an oral
tradition that has been formally recorded, thus making specific
knowledge available to a wider audience.
For those in the performance arts, written oral tradition
provides an opportunity for a reliable basis for a performance although
at the same time diminishing the aspect of that performance by changing
its original mnemonic character. Consequently,
it seems that all oral traditions, not just the Kanté tale, may be
affected by the intrusion of the written word.
For example, in his oral tradition performance giving the history
of Kankan, Jeli Sandaly Kouyaté had added a written outline as a guide
to telling of the tale (see fig. 5).
Kanté created the N'ko alphabet as an act of defiance against
the intellectual and cultural denigration of Africans who were living
under European cultural domination.
While acknowledging the necessity of acquiring and controlling
knowledge through the dominant group's language and through their
literacy, Kanté promoted his alphabet as a way to acquire and reclaim
control over knowledge in the maternal language.
The control over knowledge would extend through the transcription
into Mande languages of Mande history, literature, customs and
traditions, and family events. He
wished to help Mande speakers escape from all forms of foreign
domination. Therefore, he translated religious texts written in
Arabic script as well as modern works of science and technology.
He then wrote textbooks
for teaching the N'ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah
Webster, he created a
dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language.
commitment was unparalleled. After
hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, he would transcribe
copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N'ko
literacy within the Mande community.
Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn
reproduced additional books also by hand-copying. Kanté consequently
directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N'ko,
and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism which gave
people the pride of having a language that could stand in words and
script alongside any other. Kanté
envisioned the ability of N'ko to help Mande speakers focus on
their shared cultural coherence, thus
restoring Mande civilization to its earlier preeminence within
addition, Kanté was concerned with the loss of important indigenous
knowledge especially in the healing arts.
To this day, many indigenous Mande healers are losing their
apprentices to foreign cultural influences.
Without apprentices, healers cannot pass on their specialized
knowledge. In many cases,
this expertise is dying with them.
For that reason, Souleymane Kanté spent much of his life
traveling throughout the Mande world collecting the knowledge of healing
techniques and medicinal plants. He
is also, therefore, an early proponent of naturopathy. Believing that
his culture was of equal stature to any western culture, he proceeded to
catalogue in N'ko cultural knowledge of tremendous scientific
importance. To accomplish
this task, he had to convince each individual, aging healer of his own
altruistic intentions in the preservation of their knowledge.
One important point which allowed him entry was that by using N'ko
to transcribe the knowledge, only those who were literate in N'ko
could have access to it. To
many healers, writing down their knowledge in N'ko was similar to
preserving it in a secret code. Kanté
compiled a book of pharmacopia which Mande healers use today to treat
those who are sick. Due to
their literacy index.htm, many of Kanté's immediate and paternal
family members have chosen the occupation of Pharmacopia, a field that
would have previously been denied to them.
Kanté has become a Mande cultural hero of the same stature as the
political hero Samori Touré who had resisted the French incursion in
the nineteenth century and also of Sékou Touré who in the twentieth
century demonstrated resistance to colonialism by orchestrating Guinea's
"No" vote to the French Community. One must clarify, however, that Kanté's resistance was
intellectual. He was reacting against a cultural imperialism that
imposed western values over autochthonous values. His resistance was for
the spirit and soul of taffinity with
writers and intellectuals than he did with political leaders. Furthermore, anticipating ideas of westernization, Souleymane
Kanté had opposed Sékou Touré's post-independence educational
policies because he felt they continued European cultural domination
through language and literacy. He
was one of the key thinkers who believed that Guinea needed to break all
the links in the chain that formed imperialism--the break needed to be
political, economic, and cultural.
articulation that developed between
Souleymane Kanté and Sékou Touré resulted in the First Republic's
National Language Program, 1968-1984 (Touré, 13-16).
The principal idea behind the National language Program was
teaching children in the mother tongue.
Eight such "maternal languages" were established for
the twenty languages spoken in Guinea;
however, these languages would be written in the Latin alphabet(Sano
3-4). Although Sékou Touré's maternal language program may have had its genesis in the ideas presented to him by
Souleymane Kanté in 1958, Touré rejected the use of the N'ko
alphabet in writing these languages
(Personal Interiew 64). While
Kanté did not embrace Touré's approach, he nevertheless tried to work
within the system to help the teachers who had been charged with the
standardization of the Maninka language, one of the eight indigenous
languages that had been chosen by the state (Personal Interviews 34,
Kanté continued to promote his own literacy program, not as an
alternative, but as an additional learning aid.
Souleymane Kanté kept a low profile, but he had to go into
self-imposed exile on many occasions to evade Sékou Touré's
retaliation directed at Kanté's lack of complete submission to the
power of the state. Kanté
had become a victim to the cultural imperialism mandated by his own
Touré, however, could not stop the grassroots movement.
The N'ko literacy movement had begun immediately after the
invention of the alphabet in 1949. It spread by way of the trade routes
through the Mande speaking area of West Africa (Personal Interview 8).
Initially, the individual
initiative of its practitioners transmitted the desire to become
literate in N'ko. After
Kanté's return to Guinea at independence in 1958, the slow spread of N'ko
literacy accelerated only slightly through further promotion by its
inventor. With the death of Sékou Touré in 1984, and because of the
precarious state of his own health, Kanté then helped to
organize a non-governmental organization, l’Association pour
l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko
(ICRA-N’KO) for the promotion of the alphabet.
This effort was sanctioned by Lansana Conté's Second Republic.
The goal of ICRA- N’KO has been to organize an N'ko
literacy campaign not only for the Maninka speakers of Guinea but also
for all other speakers of Mande languages across West Africa.
Kanté’s greatest contribution, one must observe, was
that he promoted Mande unity by using Mande language and an indigenous
created alphabet as the cultural thread to draw together and to focus
the speakers of Mande languages on the value of history and culture.
Prior to his effort, some of the knowledge contained in these
works had belonged exclusively to certain groups of intellectuals.
With the introduction of the N'ko writing system, however,
those who could read and write N'ko could then have access to
indigenous knowledge transcribed in N'ko and foreign knowledge
translated into the Maninka language and transcribed by N'ko.
Souleymane Kanté occupies a unique place in African intellectual
accomplishments, to say the least, constitute an intellectual effort of
Guinea, French cultural impositions did not immediately change the
methodology for transmitting oral traditions. Writing technology was
first applied to the foreign culture with which it entered
Mande-speaking societies. Over
time indigenous cultures adopted and adapted the new technology to their
own needs. Since the
performance of oral tradition was steeped in orality, it may have been
the last to be converted to writing.
Writing, however, has changed oral tradition in two separate
spheres--composition and performance.
methodology of composition reflects the oral or written nature of the
original composition and its transmission to the audience.
A composition may have been conceived and performed by the artist
orally, as in the performance
techniques of the jeli. With
the addition of the written form, however, such a composition may be
first conceived orally and then preserved in writing, but performed
orally, or else it might be conceived and written from thought to script
with no intention of oral performance (Bنuml,
the performance of an oral composition, the jeli,
or oral artist, interacts with the
audience, and both share the recreation of the oral tradition. In
contrast, for written compositions the reception of the content takes
place in the absence of the composing process (Bنuml,
the Sundiata and Kanté oral traditions were conceived orally and then
written down. While both
stories may be read, the focus of oral tradition is the transmission of
the story through oral performance. The jeli must use some combination of oral
mnemonic devices to recreate the story for a specific audience.
These aids might be of a formulaic structure which integrates
semantics, syntax, and rhythmical organization.
Since many of these oral texts like the ones about Sundiata have
existed for centuries, these cues may be designed to assist listeners in
recalling the story rather than to prompt the memory of the artist (Bنuml,
35). According to
Charles Bird, each epic possesses a similar structure:
a set of songs describing the principal characters and events
(19-20). The jeli
organizes the contents of the epic according to the make up of his
audience, drawing upon the relationships of the audience's ancestors to
the events being portrayed (Bird, 20).
audience then judges the presentation based on its ability to recall a
previous understanding of the subject and by its perceived relationship
to the events (Bنuml, 39).
Unlike the Kanté family members whose literacy in N'ko
has led them to choose new professions in the healing arts, no formal
cadre of N'ko literate story tellers grounded in the performance
arts has yet emerged. Perhaps
the nature of literacy does
not demonstrate a need for such orality-based occupations.
Consequently, in the cases where the oral composition has been
preserved in a written form, the oral performance will vary according to
the background of the performer. Jeliw,
for example, who use a written outline might employ both oral and
written mnemonic devices to communicate the story (Performance, Sandaly
Kouyaté Balaka, June 26,1993).
People who are not trained in the performance arts might only read the
story aloud. This action
may or may not affect the quality of the performance.
For cultures among the
speakers of Mande languages, the performance of oral traditions has been
the responsibility of the jeliw who are the genealogists and epic
poets of Mande society (McNaughton, 6).
Although their roles include control over powerful knowledge in
terms of society's history, secrets, and traditions and the maintenance
of social stability through mediation, the jeliw perform oral
traditions which remind society of its cultural integrity by
transmitting its history and values through speech and song.
According to Charles Bird, the "music and oral art are his
[the jeli's] very definition" (Bird, 17).
cadre of performers have been restricted to certain families in society
through which they learn the craft.
At first, training is conducted within the family.
Young children listen to the songs and epics as performed by the
older members of their family and experiment with rhythms on their own
makeshift percussion instruments. Occasionally,
they are exposed to various performances by visiting professionals.
The children learning to
play musical instruments
such as the kora and balafon, and they sometimes perform as part of the
family ensemble. They then
may act as the accompaniment for family members or act as an apprentice
to a relative. Further expertise in performance can be achieved in studying at regional training centers like the
one at Kéla in southern Mali. Skills
perfected at the regional training center often include poetic
construction, musical presentation, adaptation to specific audiences,
and rapid fire delivery (Bird, 18-19).
the transcription into the written record, oral traditions such as the
epic of Sundiata as transcribed by D.T. Niane in
Sundiata: An Epic
of Old Mali are increasingly accessible.
Anyone choosing "to perform" the epic could render it
from the printed page. The
"performer" reading from the printed page might have no
training or experience in story telling and/or musical accompaniment.
Performers might have problems in adapting the text to the local
history of the audience because of the new performing style. Even though
the performer may achieve memorization, the fixed nature of the text may
not lend itself to improvisation. Additionally,
concentration on the rendering of the written word can lead to loss of
rhythm and style, as many readers as performers are trying to
communicate information rather than render an artistic performance.
In the case of the "Souleymane Kanté Tale," the
performers may not be able to read well the hand-written document before
them and thus may stumble over the written form of the words upon which
they have become dependent (see fig. 6).
N'ko alphabet's importance to Mande culture rests in its creation
as the revolutionary vision of a Mande intellectual.
Souleymane Kanté invented an indigenous alphabet, devoted his
life to the production of important texts, and disseminated the alphabet
among speakers of Mande languages at home and beyond Guinea’s borders
throughout West Africa. By so doing, he promoted the cultural basis for a
transnational community, all of whom “say N’ko.”
For the speakers of Mande
languages, N'ko has revolutionized the way they gain access to
knowledge, by returning to them control over knowledge through
language--Mande in its written form.
However, Souleymane Kanté never
meant for writing the maternal language in the indigenous alphabet to
supplant literacy in other languages and scripts.
Instead, he provided a tool that would allow Mande speakers to
learn and to communicate better by receiving and processing information
in their own intellectual system. Souleymane Kanté never viewed himself
as a religious reformer. He
had estimated that only two percent of the Muslim population in his
corner of West Africa really understood the Arabic words they spoke when
practicing religion. If
they were truly going to understand Islam, translating Arabic into the
Maninka language was mandatory to get to all the levels of meaning
in the printed text (Personal Interviews 9, 62, 70).
autonomy has allowed the speakers of Mande languages to determine for
themselves what languages and writing systems are appropriate for
educated Africans. The
issue was important to Africans across the continent as they discussed
the issue of maternal language education at one of the first meetings of
the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the
1960's. The concept of
self-determination in the cultural sphere began with the key component
to culture--language. Souleymane
Kanté added another dimension when he provided an indigenous alphabet
for writing in the maternal language.
commemorate the creation of this valuable cultural phenomenon,
intellectuals have created an oral tradition surrounding the founding of
the alphabet. Self-selected,
this story was composed orally and then preserved in N'ko.
Since it has been preserved in writing, anyone who can read N'ko
may tell the "Souleymane Kanté Tale."
By writing the foundation story down in N'ko, the life and
death of this specific knowledge about Kanté's invention
of the alphabet has not been left to chance.
Through their personal initiative, tellers of the Kanté tale
have spread the story to individuals and groups at national
celebrations, by radio and through print.
The change from dependence upon orality to that of literacy has
changed the quality of the performance.
Thus literacy is drastically changing the artistry of oral tradition, a
long-cherished art form that has been passed down through centuries of
Mande culture. While Kanté’s
invention preserves and protects indigenous history and culture
by fixing them to the printed page, the processes associated with
literacy serve to undermine the indigenous culture it is intended to
protect and serve.
Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. New York: Anchor
Franz H. “Medieval Texts
and the Two Theories of Oral-Formulaic Composition: A Proposal for a
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VA: University of Virginia, 1984.
Belcher, Stephen. Epic
Traditions of Africa. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.
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Mande.” In Papers on
the Manding Carleton T. Hodge, Editor.
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Writers Talking. New York: African Publishing Corporation, 1972.
C.L. Chinua Achebe.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Johnson, John Willaim, Thomas A. Hale, & Stephen Belcher.
Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Djaka Laye. “Souleymane
Kanté: l’inventeur de l’alphabet N’ko.” L’Educateur,
No. 11 & 12, Avril-Juin, Juillet-Septembre, 1992.
Sandaly. “History of
Kankan” oral tradition performance, June 26, 1993.
Patrick R. The Mande
Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.
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the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London:
James Currey, 1986.
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Oral Narrative Research. Kirsten
Wolf and Jody Jensen translators. Bloomington,
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Those Who Say N’ko’: N’ko Literacy and Mande Cultural Nationalism
in the Republic of Guinea.” Ann
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Personal group interview 08, March 8, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal group interview 17, April 5, 1993, in Balandou.
Personal group interview 18, April 5, 1993, in Balandou.
Personal group interview 45, June 17, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal group interview 46, June 19,1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 05, march 3, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 09, March 11, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 22, April 9, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 26, April 26, 1993 in Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin.
Personal interview 27, April 27, 1993 in Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin.
Personal interview 32, May 8, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 34, May 10, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 35, May 11, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 49, June 20, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 51, June 22, 1993, in Djankana
Personal interview 55, June 24, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 59, June 28, 1993, in Kankan.
Personal interview 62, July 14, 1993, in Conakry.
Personal interview 64, July 15, 1993, in Conakry.
Personal interview 68, July 17, 1993, in Conakry.
Personal interview 70, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.
Mohamed Lamine. “Aperçu
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This paper is based on research
undertaken in Kankan, Republic of Guinea from 1992-1994 with the
assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for
1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the
summer of 1994.
fact, Kanté’s influence is so vast that his N’ko-written History
of the Mandingue for 4000
Years provides today’s N’ko readers with a fixed, prose narrative
of Mande history. Paralleling
Homeric question, one can ask whether Kanté’s recorded history will
eventually challenge and
with the memory of the Griot’s repertoire concerning the
cultural foundations of Mande
Kanté’s approach in his history is the merging together of
and unrecorded Mande oral traditions
with unspecified written historical accounts
West Africa in order to create his own Mande-styled history of the
region’s speakers of Mande
languages. This is a topic
I would suggest for further research.
The following account of Souleymane Kanté's struggles has been
drawn from conversations with family,
friends, confidants, those who worked to promote the alphabet, and
those who witnessed the promotion of N'ko from its inception in
1949. Kanté died of
diabetes in 1987, before my own research began.
While the informants drew upon their personal experiences with
Souleymane Kanté, there appears to have been some kind of consensus
that produced similar, if not identical, versions
of the "Souleymane Kanté Story."
The only variation to the general story line comes when
informants could not remember the names of persons, places, or
In Olrik’s discussion of European-based epics, the heroic
narrative epic only focuses on a single event which is its conclusion,
and the main character is larger than life. These figures are mainly
kings, but can include warriors for the king.
Axel Olrik Principles for Oral Narrative Research
translated by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen, (Bloomington, IN:
University of Indiana Press, 19 ), pp. 110 & 47;
Stephen Belcher defines epic,
specifically within the African context, as a term associated with
“a literary tradition of a larger than life scale of narrative that
may be tinged with divine inspiration.”
Stephen Belcher, Epic Traditions of Africa,
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. xiii.;
Johnson, Hale, and Belcher offer that “epics are multigeneric
and multifunctional, incorporating more of community’s diversity
than might have been expected; and they are transmitted culturally
‘traditional’ means. They
are not the overnight creation of visionaries . . . .”
John William Johnson, Thomas A Hale, Stephen Belcher,
Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent.
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1997. p. xviii.
While not told on the grand scale of the Sundiata epic, the
"Souleymane Kanté Story" follows oral tradition by
recording his heroic deeds in verse which have been preserved by
recording them in his creation, the N'ko alphabet.
See the beginning of the story written in N'ko and its
English translation performed by Kanté's grandchildren.
In interview 22, April 9, 1993, in Kankan, the informant
reported that the Lebanese journalist had traveled to several
countries and was visiting his brothers in Bingerville, Côte
Interviewee 59 lived with Kanté in the same compound during
his early years in Côte d'Ivoire.
This story is confirmed in the accounts from the maternal
family in group interview 17, April 5,1993, in Balandou.
In group interview 18, April 5, 1993, in Balandou, one member
had traveled with Kanté to Côte d'Ivoire and witnessed these events
Souleymane Kanté is reported to have been a premier scholar in
his father's Quranic school, functionally literate in Arabic, well
read across disciplines including twenty-seven translations of the
Quran, and a translator of the Quran into Maninka.
Informants credit Allah as bestowing on Kanté his unusual
According to Olrik, the narrative composition relies on
repetition rather than detailed description to stress important
components in the plot. Characteristically,
the event happens in a set of three--first attempt fails, second
attempt fails, and third attempt meets with success. p. 44.
Kanté's brother related the Maninka proverb in interview 59,
June 28, 1993, in Kankan, which was given in the following French
le toit de la cas d'un village pour couvrir celle d'un autre, si le
toit ne sera pas grant il sera petit."
Since proverbs state their meaning indirectly, the above
translation is my interpretation of its clarifying message.
The writer employs diacritical marks to indicate changes in
Souleymane Kanté's acquisition
of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, was probably more
responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation than
these experiments. It
cannot be known if this was a political statement rejecting African
deculturation by Europeans.
Although referred to generally by the European term “griot,” the jeli
(pl. jeliw) is an oral
teller among the Mande speakers across West Africa.
The jeli/jeliw transform(s)
remembered knowledge of family histories and epic poems into
performance art at the family,
or regional levels. He/she
educates and reinforces shared knowledge through the narration
of epics, praise singing at ceremonies for rites of passage, and
Informants discussed Kanté's capacity to invent N'ko.
Within the Islamic community, there had been dialogue among
early critics as to whether or not the invention had been sanctioned
The eight maternal languages were Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi,
Guerzé (Kpelle), Toma (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.
The informant explained in great detail the relationship
between the educational and political aspects of the National Language
program and Souleymane Kanté's role in helping to standardize the
Maninka language to the Latin alphabet.
According to the informants in group interview,
at the time only Maninka-speaking long distance traders were
merchants in Abidjan.
On June 26, 1993, in Kankan, I witnessed jeli
Sandaly Kouyaté Balaka's performance of this history of
Kankan. During his
performance he referred to written notes (see fig. 5).
was a witness to the national celebration for the creation of the
alphabet on April 14, 1993 in Kankan, when the grandchildren of
Souleymane Kanté performed the tale (see fig. 5).
The quality of this performance may have lacked the luster of jeli
presentations that I had previously witnessed because the
performers depended upon the skill of reading rather than the
skill of story telling.