Title Page
 Table of Contents
 Askia Mohammed in context
 Scribes, bards, and griots
 The birth and rise to power of...
 The reign of Askia Mohammed
 The famous and infamous
 The fall of the Songhay Empire
 Challenging the past
 Literature, orality, history, and...
 The epic of Askia Mohammed
 The transcription: Mamar Kassaye...

Group Title: Mamar Kassaye deeda
Title: Scribe, griot, and novelist
Publisher: University Press of Florida
Full Citation
External Link: http://www.upf.com
 Material Information
Title: Scribe, griot, and novelist narrative interpreters of the Songhay Empire
Uniform Title: Mamar Kassaye deeda
Physical Description: xiv, 313 p. : maps : ; 24 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Hale, Thomas A ( Thomas Albert ), 1942-
Malio, Nouhou, d. 1986
Publisher: University of Florida Press
Center for African Studies, University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: c1990
Copyright Date: 1990
Subject: Songhai (African people) -- Kings and rulers -- Biography   ( lcsh )
Songhaï (Peuple d'Afrique) -- Rois et souverains -- Biographies   ( rvm )
Songhai Empire   ( lcsh )
Songhaï (Empire)   ( rvm )
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
individual biography   ( marcgt )
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references (p. 293-300).
Statement of Responsibility: Thomas A. Hale. Followed by The epic of Askia Mohammed / recounted by Nouhou Malio.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00100334
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University Press of Florida
Holding Location: University Press of Florida
Rights Management: Copyright 1990 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida. This work is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/. You are free to electronically copy, distribute, and transmit this work if you attribute authorship. However, all printing rights are reserved by the University Press of Florida (http://www.upf.com). Please contact UPF for information about how to obtain copies of the work for print distribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the University Press of Florida. Nothing in this license impairs or restricts the author's moral rights.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 20853528
lccn - 89020664
isbn - 0813009812 (alk. paper)
alephbibnum - 001685611

Table of Contents
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        Page ii
    Title Page
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    Table of Contents
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    Askia Mohammed in context
        Page 17
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    Scribes, bards, and griots
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    The birth and rise to power of Askia Mohammed
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    The reign of Askia Mohammed
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    The famous and infamous
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    The fall of the Songhay Empire
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    Challenging the past
        Page 135
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    Literature, orality, history, and society
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    The epic of Askia Mohammed
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    The transcription: Mamar Kassaye Deeda
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Full Text

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist
Narrative Interpreters of the Songhay Empire

followed by
The Epic of Askia Mohammed
recounted by Nouhou Malio

Thomas A. Hale

University of Florida Press / Center for African Studies

The University of Florida Press is a member of University Presses of Florida, the scholarly
publishing agency of the State University System of Florida. Books are selected for publi-
cation by faculty editorial committees at each of Florida's nine public universities: Florida
A&M University (Tallahassee), Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton), Florida Inter-
national University (Miami), Florida State University (Tallahassee), University of Central
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sonville), University of South Florida (Tampa), University of West Florida (Pensacola).

Orders for books published by all member presses should be addressed to University
Presses of Florida, 15 NW 15th St., Gainesville, FL 32603.

Copyright 1990 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
Printed in the U.S.A. on acid-free paper

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hale, Thomas A.
Scribe, griot, and novelist: narrative interpreters of the
Songhay Empire / Thomas A. Hale: followed by The epic of Askia
Mohammed / recounted by Nouhou Malio.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-8130-0981-2 (alk. paper)
1. Mohammed I, Askia of Songhai, 1443?-1538. 2. Songhai (African
people)-Kings and rulers-Biography. 3. Songhai Empire.
I. Malio, Nouhou, d. 1986- Epic of Askia Mohammed. II. Title.
DT532.27.M63H35 1990
966.2'018'092-dc20 89-20664 CIP


Acknowledgments, ix

Introduction, 1
Literature, History, and Verbal Art, 1. African Literature
Today, 5. Scribe, Griot, and Novelist, 7. Verbal Art and Sahelian
Societies: For an Interdisciplinary Approach, 13. Notes to the
Reader on Documentation and Orthography, 15.

1. Askia Mohammed in Context, 17
The Ghana Empire, 19. The Mali Empire, 20. The Songhay Em-
pire, 22. From Sonni Ali Ber to Askia Mohammed: The Change
in Dynasties According to the Chronicles, 24. Nobles, Freemen,
and Captives: The Structure of Songhay Society at the Time of
Askia Mohammed, 25. The Family Coup d'Etat: The Songhay
Empire after Askia Mohammed, 26. Muskets Versus Arrows:
The Moroccan Invasion and Songhay Resistance, 27.

2. Scribes, Bards, and Griots, 30
Scribes and Literacy in Arabic, 30. The Symbiotic Rapport be-
tween Griots and Kings, 34. The Uneasy Relationship between
Scribes and Griots, 45.


3. Sources, 47
The Chronicles: Itineraries of the Written Word, 48. The Oral
Narratives: Contemporary Windows on the Past, 54. Literary
and Performance Considerations, 58.

4. The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed in the Chron-
icles and the Epic, 68
Ancestry: The Sonink6 Heritage, 69. Birth: The Intercession of
the Spirit World, 74. Childhood: The Suspect Toddler, 75. Ado-
lescence: In Search of a Father, 75. Rise to Power: Coup d'Etat
against the Devil, 76.

5. The Reign of Askia Mohammed: From Gao to Mecca and Back
According to the Scribes and the Griot, 82
Askia Mohammed's Piety and His Pilgrimage to Mecca, 82. The
Spread of Islam by Military Conquest, 90. The Overthrow of
Askia Mohammed by His Children, 94.

6. The Famous and the Infamous: Literal and Symbolic Portrayals
of Rulers Descended from Askia Mohammed, 1528-1591, 97
Askia Moussa, 1528/29-1531, 98. Mohammed Bounkan, 1531-
1537, 102. Askia Ismail, 1537-1539, 104. Askia Ishaq, 1539-
1549, 105. Askia Daoud, 1549-1582/83, 107. Askia el-Hadj,
1582/83-1586/87, 110. Askia Mohammed Bani, 1586/87-1588,

7. The Fall of the Songhay Empire: Two Explanations for Deca-
dence and Decline from the Scribes and the Griot, 115
Sibling Rivalry and Immorality as Causes of Decline According
to the Chroniclers, 116. Disrespect for the Social Hierarchy as
a Cause of the Fall According to the Griot, 123.

8. Challenging the Past: A Modern Interpretation of the Songhay
Empire in Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence, 135
Africa and the West: Close Encounters of a Literary Kind, 136.
Links between the Novel and the Songhay Empire, 139. Sonni
Ali Ber and Askia Mohammed, Models of Evil and Good, 140.
The Chronicles as Sources of Sex, Violence, and Decadence for
the Novelist, 143. The Dynasty and the Jews: Traces of the Dias-



pora in the Sahel, 148. Political Revisionism and the Novelist:
Ouologuem's Use of the Nineteenth-Century Modifications to
the Tarikh el-Fettdch, 151. Manipulation of the French by Afri-
can Rulers, 152. The Multiple Voices of Ouologuem's Narrator,
154. The Attack against Islam and the Social Hierarchy, 156. Vi-
olence and Humanity, 157.

9. Literature, Orality, History, and Society, 160
Complementary Views of the Past, 160. Medium and Message:
Evidence for the Ideological Theory of Social Communication,
163. Epic, Genre, and Geography, 166. The Dynamic Nature
of the Sources, 167. Belief as Social Fact, 170. The Survival of
the Social Hierarchy, 173. Ethnicity and Cultural Diffusion,
175. Verbal Art and Human Values, 176.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed, Recounted by Nouhou Malio, 178
Introduction, 178. The Transcription: Mamar Kassaye Deeda,
and the Translation: The Epic of Askia Mohammed, 184. Notes,

Works Cited, 293
Index, 301

Map of the Songhay Empire, ii
Map of the Niger River Bend, xvi



Anyone who has worked on a project involving the oral traditions
of another people quickly discovers that the task of collecting and
processing texts takes much longer than anticipated and requires a
variety of assistance from those who grew up in that culture. For this
study, which draws not only on oral performances but also a distant
written tradition and information from a variety of disciplines out-
side of literature, my debt is considerable. If the acknowledgments
and thanks that follow seem overlong, it is because I have had to
call upon specialists and assistants in so many areas. Without their
help, I could not have completed this project. This list of thanks will
also give the reader some idea of the lengthy itinerary that the oral
text of Nouhou Malio has taken from the performances in his com-
pound to the printed page.
I begin by thanking the late Seyni Kountche, the former presi-
dent of the Republic of Niger, who signed the research authorization
enabling me to carry out my work in his country in 1980-81. Presi-
dent Kountche, by his example, served as a model of administrative
efficiency that I found emulated at many levels of the Nigerien bu-
At the University of Niamey, many people contributed directly
or indirectly to my research: Gaston Kaba, former head of the En-
glish Department, and Robert Nicolai, former head of the Linguis-
tics Department and author of the definitive study on Songhay dia-
lects (1981), along with Mary White Kaba, a former professor of
linguistics who continues to work on the Songhay language, sup-
ported my requests for funds to carry out fieldwork. Abdou



Hamani, then dean of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences,
gave these requests the further approval necessary for acceptance
from higher authorities. The responsiveness I found in his office at
that time and later when he became rector of the University of Nia-
mey, along with his own scholarship on the Zarma dialect of the
Songhay language, contributed significantly to the success of my
In the field, Souley Zanga, diesel mechanic at the National Office
for Administration of Hydroagricultural Projects, Yacouba Nouhou,
then driver at the American Embassy and a man who has a deep
interest in the preservation of his culture, Hamadou Adamou, an old
friend then employed at the Sonni Ali Ber Pharmacy, and Zakary
Hamani, a molo player and apprentice bard from Ouallam, assisted
me in making contacts with griots, arranging for recording sessions,
and many other details.
Janet Beik, at the time a graduate student from the University
of Wisconsin completing fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation on
Hausa theater, provided invaluable advice on recording procedures
and assisted with the first recording session I had with a griot in
Diould6 Laya, director of the Center for the Study of Linguistics
and History by Oral Tradition, known by its French acronym as the
CELHTO, a regional agency of the Organization of African Unity,
offered a cordial welcome, use of the CELHTO library, introduc-
tions to other scholars, invitations to attend meetings of oral litera-
ture specialists, permission to copy and study recordings by griots
he had known many years ago, and a variety of other services too
numerous to mention.
Boube Gado, director of the Institute for Research in Social Sci-
ences of the University of Niamey, also provided a warm welcome,
access to oral and written archives, advice, and encouragement.
Oumarou Issa, Songhay-Zarma transcriber and translator at the
CELHTO, accompanied me on several field trips, transcribed some
texts, and helped draft a list of questions for interviews with griots.
Nouhou Hassane Inti, international telephone operator at the
Central Post Office in Niamey, also transcribed and translated a se-
ries of interviews and other texts.
Mounkaila Saidou Boulhassane Maiga, former transcriber/
translator at the Lexicography Laboratory, Faculty of Letters and
Social Sciences, University of Niamey, transcribed many of the re-
cordings I made in 1980-81 and, in particular, did a preliminary


transcription and translation into French of The Epic of Askia Mo-
hammed by Nouhou Malio published in this volume.
A working group sponsored by the Linguistics Department at the
University of Niamey assisted me in spring 1981 with polishing the
French translation of the first draft of the oral narrative. Meeting
weekly with me, Fatima Mounkaila, then censeur at the Lyc6e
Kassai and now a professor in the Department of Modern Literature
at the University of Niamey, Abdoulaye Dan Louma, then professor
of modern literature and now censeur at the Lyc6e Issa Korombe
in Niamey, and Djibo Moussa, then a student in English at the Uni-
versity of Niamey and now an instructor at the Lyc6e Kassai in Nia-
mey as well as the American Cultural Center, helped me to focus
more clearly on many of the problem areas of the narrative.
After my return to the United States in July 1981, Glen Kreider,
director of the Liberal Arts Data Laboratory, designed a program
that permitted entry of each line of the epic in four versions-
Songhay, word-for-word French, literary French, and English. Rina
Searfass typed the first version of the text into the mainframe com-
puter at Penn State.
As I began to compare the oral narrative with the written chroni-
cles and the novel, scholars in literature and many other disciplines
contributed comments and suggestions after reading part or all of
the manuscript.
Paul Stoller, professor of anthropology at West Chester Univer-
sity, provided early drafts of his manuscripts on the Songhay belief
system as well as a variety of advice from his twenty years of experi-
ence in Niger.
John Hunwick, professor of the history and literature of religions
at Northwestern University, was especially helpful with many lin-
guistic problems in the French translation from the original Arabic
of the chronicles as well as with questions on the history of the Sahel.
David Robinson, professor of history and African studies at
Michigan State University, and Daniel McCall, professor emeritus
of history at Boston University, offered a long list of useful sugges-
tions based on their deep knowledge of Sahelian history.
John William Johnson, associate professor of folklore at Indiana
University, contributed much expertise in folklore, especially from
his work with griots in Mali. He helped me to avoid several pitfalls
and to place my work in a broader regional context.
George Lang, Canada Research Fellow of the Social Sciences
and the Humanities Research Council and assistant professor of



comparative literature in the Comparative Literature Department at
the University of Alberta, made a series of suggestions on the link
between Le Devoir de violence and the two other texts analyzed in
this study.
As the project neared completion, a considerable number of
problems remained in the oral narrative. By comparing the original
recording to the first draft translation, I discovered that there were
many, many lines missing from the version on which I was working-
nearly 300 out of an eventual total of 1,602.
Many of them were in Soninke, or combinations of Soninke with
Songhay and other languages. During a month in Niamey in Febru-
ary 1987, I was able to identify and translate some of these difficult
lines with the aid of Djibo Moussa. The fall of the same year,
Ousmane Mahamane Tandina, assistant professor in the Depart-
ment of Modern Literature at the University of Niamey and a spe-
cialist in the oral tradition of the Songhay and Zarma, came to Penn
State for a semester and was able to spend many hours with me lis-
tening to the tape and making corrections. His help, at this stage,
was essential. Without it, the narrative would have suffered from a
considerably higher number of undecipherable lines and incorrect
In February 1988 a Mandinka griot from Gambia, Papa Bunka
Susso, visited Penn State for two days to lecture in my courses on
African literature and to perform. During a brief break, he was able
to go over the narrative, confirm my reading of some Soninke terms,
and propose readings of others based on his knowledge of the lan-
guage acquired when he grew up in a Sonink6 village in eastern
Gambia. Manthia Diawara, assistant professor of French and a
knowledgeable African literature specialist at the University of Cali-
fornia at Santa Barbara, who also happens to be of Sonink6 origin,
assisted too with deciphering some of the Soninke terms.
In April 1988, after I had processed many of the corrections, I
was able to pinpoint a short list of remaining problem areas and for-
ward it to Professor Tandina. He and Soumana Abdou, the former
molo accompanist for the late Nouhou Malio, were able to decipher
a few more of these enigmatic lines by reviewing the tape and con-
sulting with other griots. Soumana Abdou, I should add, has also
helped broaden my understanding of the griot profession by arrang-
ing meetings with other bards.
During the fall semester 1988, Oumarou Watta, former assistant
professor of English at the University of Niamey and a scholar of



the oral tradition in Niger, contributed several ideas about the mean-
ing of some terms and shared the results of his own fieldwork on
the Songhay-Zarma oral tradition while in residence at Penn State.
In February 1989 I returned to Niger to reexamine the entire nar-
rative with Diould6 Laya at the CELHTO. He confirmed the signifi-
cance of the text I had recorded from Nouhou Malio and, during
a line-by-line analysis, offered a variety of refinements in both the
translation and the interpretation.
Fatima Mounkaila, the most assiduous member of the group that
worked with me at Niamey in 1981, came to Penn State in August-
September 1989 for a visit that happened to coincide with the last
stage in my handling of the manuscript. She was able to clear up
some minor problems in the transcription and translation of the epic
as well as contribute a series of insights to my analysis of social rela-
tionships in the Songhay-Zarma world.
I am indebted to several other people for their assistance in solv-
ing particular problems that seemed to arise at the most unexpected
times: Abdoulaye Harouna, a Nigerien graduate student in compar-
ative literature at Penn State, helped to clear up a several ambigui-
ties in the English translation; Chester Smith, assistant professor of
computer science and a consultant at the Penn State Computation
Center, resolved a difficulty in downloading the transcription from
the mainframe computer to my own equipment; John Hale, an
eighth-grade wizard with computers, more than once came up with
quick solutions to time-consuming problems facing his father.
Tamara Mistrick, cartographer at the Deasy GeoGraphics Labora-
tory of the Geography Department, was able to make sense out of
often conflicting information from a wide variety of maps that I sup-
plied to her.
Several institutions merit special thanks.
The United States Government, through the Fulbright-Hays Pro-
gram administered by the United States Information Agency, ena-
bled me to return to Niger in 1980-81 to conduct my fieldwork. The
USIA University Affiliation grant linking the Pennsylvania State
University and the University of Niamey also supported my return
trips to Niger in 1987 and 1989 as well as the residencies here of
scholars from Niger who work on the oral tradition: Ousmane
Mahamane Tandina in 1987, Oumarou Watta and Chaibou Dan-
Inna in 1988, and Fatima Mounkaila in 1989.
The Pennsylvania State University provided assistance in a vari-
ety of forms. Sabbatical leaves in 1980-81 and 1989 enabled me to


xiv Acknowledgments

conduct the initial fieldwork and the necessary follow-up as the study
approached completion. The Institute for the Arts and Humanistic
Studies granted a Faculty Fellowship in fall 1986, which lightened
my teaching load and enabled me to concentrate on this project. The
Liberal Arts Research Office provided a grant to have the maps pre-
Finally, the University of Florida Press and the Center for Afri-
can Studies of the University of Florida deserve thanks for their will-
ingness to follow the advice of one of their readers who recom-
mended that the Songhay transcription of The Epic of Askia
Mohammed accompany the translation. At a time when American
university presses appear to be drifting farther away from their orig-
inal mission of publishing scholarly works, Florida's effort to
meet the highest international standards merits both praise and

This book is dedicated to three people:
my grandfather, Ralph Tracy Hale, whose career as a publisher
and writer was marked by an unending fascination for the many
forms of narrative and for those who produced them
my father, Albert Greenleaf Hale, whose love of literature and
history continues to enrich both his life and that of his family
and Nouhou Malio, jeseredunka, a master griot who made the
Songhay past come alive for me.







The subject of this study is African literature and what it can reveal
about Sahelian peoples in both the past and the present. To under-
stand the approach here based on three rather diverse texts, several
basic concerns must first be discussed: how I view the relationship
among literature, history, and oral art; what I mean by African liter-
ature today; who are the sources-scribes, a griot, and a novelist-
we shall read; and what I see as the significance of verbal art for
understanding Sahelian societies today.

Literature, History, and Verbal Art

Until fairly recently in the twentieth century, the words "African lit-
erature" as well as "African civilization" did not often appear to-
gether in works by writers from the world outside the Dark Conti-
nent, the common term for sub-Saharan Africa. One reason is that
literature calls to mind written products of the imagination. Few
people had ever heard of literature from any part of Black Africa.
In the last quarter century, however, scholars from many parts of
the world have begun to learn about the many different literatures
of Africa. The award of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature to the
Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka promises to awaken an even broader
range of readers to the fact that Africans do, indeed, write.
The notion of literature, however, defined here in broad terms
for the purposes of this study, will take us, author and readers, a
few steps outside the traditional boundaries of text and imagination
to include material from history and other disciplines. From this ex-
panded view of literature, we shall learn more about peoples of the

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

West African Sahel, in particular those from the Songhay-speaking
areas of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria.
The idea that literature, as much as history, sociology, anthropol-
ogy, and archaeology, can serve as a source of information about
a people is hardly new. To understand the evolution of nineteenth-
century French society, one can learn much from the novels of Sten-
dhal, Flaubert, and Zola. But when we consider the resources avail-
able to us about African peoples, we tend to revert to descriptions
sketched by anthropologists. An African novel, however, no less
than its Western counterpart, may reveal as much about its creator
and his or her culture as it does about the main character. For ex-
ample, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) portrays with re-
markable economy and clarity the rise and fall of a pillar of a small
Nigerian community on the eve of colonial occupation. This widely
studied work also provides the reader with a key to the values of
an Ibo-speaking people. Finally, Achebe's first novel stands as one
of his earliest responses to another well-known fictional account set
in Africa, Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad.
Part of Achebe's success in reaching a large and diverse audience
lies in the fact that he wrote in a Western literary genre, the novel,
and used an international language, English, as the vehicle for his
creative imagination. Although his work is fictional, he portrays as
skillfully as any historian of the colonial era what Russel B. Nye de-
scribes in his essay "History and Literature: Branches of the Same
Tree": "human actions, passions, motives, and conduct so complex
and variable that they cannot be precisely measured, predicted, or
manipulated" (Bremner 1966, 152).
For Nye, the writer and the historian share a common approach
to the past in their use of selectivity, imagination, and interpreta-
tion. Both are committed, commented George F. Kennan in his 1986
address to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters,
"to the task of helping contemporary man to see himself: the one
through the searching prism of personal experience, the other
through the revealing footprints that his ancestors-men, after all
like himself-can be shown to have left on the sands of time" (Ken-
nan 1986, 42).
Both Nye and Kennan were referring to the written literary tradi-
tion of the West, but both would agree with many scholars who have
studied Achebe that the Nigerian writer, working in a different cul-
tural context, was highly successful in demonstrating to his non-
African readers that Africans are, indeed, as human as Europeans.



If, now, we shift our focus not simply from the West to Africa, but
also from the written to the oral tradition, the frontier between liter-
ature and history begins to blur. African audiences may hear the oral
narrative as both literature and history, or what Paul Zumthor has
described in reference to the African epic as "a truth perpetually
recreated by song" (1983, 109). Western historians who rely on docu-
ments may find it difficult, however, to draw any conclusions from
such apparently ephemeral evidence. Yet Jan Vansina, in his study
Oral Tradition as History as well as in his earlier writings, makes
a strong case for the use of oral information by historians. In his
chapter "The Testimony as Mirage of Reality," he emphasizes
both the limitations of the oral source, influenced by social, cultural,
and personal factors, and its significance. "Every testimony and
every tradition has a purpose and fulfills a function," he argues
(1985, 76). "Whatever the private interests may be which one is ana-
lyzing, it has to be remembered that they are always socially condi-
tioned" (78).
Vansina's definition of oral tradition covers a variety of genres
from proverbs and riddles to kinglists, personal testimony, praise
poetry, and long narratives. But much of his argument in favor of
oral traditions as sources applies to the larger world of what Walter
J. Ong calls "verbal art." We usually associate the term with mate-
rial recorded from the oral tradition. In his study Orality and Liter-
acy: The Technologizing of the Word, however, Ong argues persua-
sively for a view of verbal art that includes "both oral forms and
those composed in writing, and everything in between" (1982, 14).
For our purposes, what comes in between depends on how we view
a text. As Terry Eagleton points out in Literary Theory: An Intro-
duction, "A piece of writing may start off life as history or philoso-
phy and then come to be valued for its archaeological significance.
Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some
have literariness thrust upon them. . What matters may not be
where you came from but how people treat you" (1983, 9).
Drawing on Ong's wide-ranging concept of verbal art and
Eagleton's interpretive notion of what constitutes literature, our
purpose in this study is to compare three narratives that portray
Askia Mohammed, a great fifteenth- and sixteenth-century ruler
from the West African Sahel region, as well as the events that led
to the decline of his empire after he was overthrown by one of his
sons in 1528. We shall see Askia Mohammed and his successors
through the eyes of scribes who served as some of the ruler's most

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

trusted servants; hear about this dynasty from bards, known region-
ally as griots, whose profession is to recount the past; and, finally,
read about a close fictional copy of the internationally recognized
ruler in the prose of a modern African novelist. Each picture of
Askia Mohammed and his time conveys a different message to its
audience, and each links the past to the present.
Today historians view the Tarikh el-Fettdch and the Tarikh es-
Soudan, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Arabic-language ac-
counts of medieval Sahelian empires, as the building blocks on which
rests our knowledge of the early Sudanic empires, Ghana, Mali, and,
above all, Songhay. The Songhay Epic of Askia Mohammed, which
I recorded in many versions from griots in Niger in 1980-81, counts
as one of the most important chapters in the oral tradition of many
different peoples whi claim roots in the Songhay empire. Finally,
Le Devoir de violence, published in English as Bound to Violence
(1968, 1971), by the Malian author Yambo Ouologuem, focuses a
highly critical gaze on the political and social structure of the region.
Since winning high literary honors in Paris and New York in 1968
and 1971, the novel has generated without doubt more controversy
about its composition and content than any other piece of African
fiction appearing in the last quarter century.
The immediate-goal in juxtaposing three generically unrelated
West African narratives is to examine the literary and historical link-
ages between them. But through our "interpretations," in the
Foucaldian sense of the term, of African verbal art, we shall arrive
at some new insights about the cultures that produced these texts as
well as the relationship between the literate and oral ways of viewing
the world. These diverse narratives appear as a series of strata, each
related to the other, each revealing facets of the past. For example,
the oral narrative will show more clearly the limitations of the
Islamic-oriented chronicles in conveying the cultural values of the
Songhay-speaking peoples. At the same time, the extremely detailed
chronology of the early written accounts will give new support for
a symbolic interpretation of the oral version. The novel, which draws
upon the chronicles for its introductory chapters and on the author's
familiarity with a region dominated by the Songhay empire, will il-
lustrate the existence of many aspects of the social structure evident
in the oral narrative and criticize the modern survival of these ele-
ments in Sahelian society today.
These comparisons will provide keys to understanding how the


Songhay-speaking peoples in the Sahel see the past and how that
past influences the social and spiritual beliefs of some segments of
society today. The insights gained will contribute to a new historical
paradigm now taking shape for the region, thanks to the research
of a generation of scholars best exemplified in the imaginative and
exciting work of archaeologists Roderick and Susan McIntosh in the
Middle Niger. Finally, the dialogue between the written and oral tra-
ditions will offer support for a new "ideological" theory of literacy
as a phenomenon imbedded in social institutions (Street 1984).
Brian Street's view counters that of Jack Goody and others who have
viewed literacy as an autonomous phenomenon that distinguishes in
a variety of ways literate from nonliterate societies.
But before we can explore the texts on which these comparisons
are based to see how they may fit into a coherent matrix, we need
first to step back for a moment to view African literature today in
a broader context.

African Literature Today

When scholars speak of African literature, they usually refer to fic-
tion in European languages by Africans. There are many reasons for
such a Euro-centered approach to contemporary African literature.
Most African writers choose to compose their verbal art in Euro-
pean languages because they want to reach national, pan-African,
or global audiences. The majority of their literature is published in
Paris, London, Lisbon, or New York.
Few researchers working on African literature today are familiar
with texts in African languages, either written or recorded from the
oral tradition. More material is available in Western languages. Only
during the last decade have scholars produced useful surveys of the
lesser-known literatures (Gerard 1981; Andrzejewski, Pilaszewicz,
and Tyloch 1985).
Those interested in a particular African literature developing in
a European language, such as French, could afford to ignore
African-language works as long as writers answered in the narrative
or in footnotes those questions about local customs and terms that
the reader, especially the Western reader, might ask. This was the
case with Camara Laye's landmark autobiographical novel (or ro-
manced autobiography) L'Enfant noir, published in Paris in 1953.
But in the last two decades, as novelists, dramatists, and poets have

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

begun to experiment with new forms, and as they have drawn on ele-
ments of verbal art that are more firmly rooted in their own culture,
students of African literature have had to probe more deeply in
order to understand the works they are reading. It is at this point,
then, that we find the literary scholar seeking out the historian, the
anthropologist, and the linguist in an attempt to grasp more fully the
meaning of a piece of fiction about Africa composed in a European
language and in a European form.
The interdisciplinary encounter need not, however, be a one-way
transaction, for the student of literature seeks, in a broad sense, the
same goal as those from other disciplines: greater knowledge of the
people who are the creators in a culture, people who ultimately may
reveal to us something about ourselves. In other words, African lit-
erature may illuminate some aspect of culture that a more scientific
study cannot convey so effectively. To paraphrase an anthropologist
colleague who has routinely recommended Achebe's first novel to
his students, Things Fall Apart provides the single most effective por-
trayal of catastrophic cultural change in an African village.
If my primary concern in this study is literature, I come to the
subject from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective. I am
interested in the texts and their contexts, or what critic Jerome K.
McGann terms the "referentiality of communicative action" (1985,
15). Edward Said, a comparatist whose concerns include both litera-
ture and culture, put the matter in simpler terms: "My position is
that texts are worldly, to some degree they are events, and, even
when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the so-
cial world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which
they are located and interpreted" (1983, 4).
If I shall draw on existing information about Askia Mohammed
and his time, my concern is not so much with history as it is simply
with story, and in particular the way a dynasty of Songhay leaders
appears in several forms of verbal art, medieval and modern, oral
and written, during the last five centuries. The narratives of three
different kinds of Sahelian wordsmiths, the chronicler, the griot, and
the novelist, remain the starting point of the venture. I am interested
in their texts as the creations of individuals or groups who wrote,
revised, translated, or spoke them. My goal is neither to rewrite the
history of the Sahel nor to provide a line-by-line analysis of these
narratives. Instead, I want to explain what the texts say to each other
and to the peoples who produced them.


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Chapters 1 and 2 describe in detail both Askia Mohammed and the
kinds of people who created verbal images of him through the cen-
turies. But before going any farther, I need to introduce briefly both
him and our sources.
Askia Mohammed was a lieutenant for Sonni Ali Ber, a powerful
and combative Songhay ruler who laid the foundations of an exten-
sive empire during his reign from 1463 to 1492. After Sonni Ali Ber's
death, Askia Mohammed defeated the former ruler's son in 1493,
took control of the government, and brought the Songhay empire
to its apogee during an administration that lasted until 1528.
We owe much of what we know about these rulers and their suc-
cessors to African writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
These men were Moslems who at some point lived at or close to the
Songhay court in Gao, a town on the left bank of the Niger River
in eastern Mali, 424 kilometers downriver from Timbuktu and 443
kilometers upriver from Niamey, the capital of Niger. In the Tarikh
el-Fettdch, the Tarikh es-Soudan, and other manuscripts from the pe-
riod, we see Askia Mohammed assume the leadership of the
Songhay empire, make the pilgrimage to Mecca, return home as the
caliph (or Islamic governor) of the Sudan, and then set out to con-
quer vast areas of the region. He spreads Islam to the peoples who
owe him fealty and produces a line of descendants who maintain the
empire until 1591, when the Moroccans send an army to defeat the
As men of the written word-the word of Islam-those who
wrote these chronicles held a respected place in society. They helped
diffuse Islam and administer the empire through the practices of the
religion and the written language in which it was conveyed. Their
writings carried a triple religious significance. Not only did they de-
scribe in positive terms the growth of Islam in the region, but they
used the language of Islam, Arabic, to record their observations,
and they frequently invoked the name of Allah. These texts symbo-
lized the power of Islam to communicate, not only between their au-
thors and their eventual readers but also between the authors and
Allah. The language was not that of the people but that of an outside
culture which had gained a firm foothold among the elite in the
Sahel. To peoples who did not distinguish clearly between religious
and secular authority, the intruding system of belief and literacy was
far more than a religion. It represented a new way of apprehending

Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

the world that, through prayer, writing, reading, religious practices,
and pilgrimages, could strengthen the power of the adherent.
The two most significant texts by these scribes to come to the at-
tention of modern scholars are the Tarikh el-Fettach, initially attrib-
uted to Mahmoud Kati, and the Tarikh es-Soudan, attributed to
Abderrahman es-Sa'di (referred to from here on as TF and TS).
They were translated into French nearly a century ago by Octave
Houdas, a French orientalist. In translating the TF, Houdas was as-
sisted by Maurice Delafosse, a French administrator, ethnologist,
and linguist. Since then a growing corps of historians has been focus-
ing on other, less well-known manuscripts written in Arabic. Ad-
vances in understanding the Arabic and the cultures portrayed, the
discovery of other fragments, and new insights about nineteenth-
century revisions of the TF by a Fulani ruler, Sekou Amadou, who
decided to write himself into history, have caused these later schol-
ars to be increasingly aware of the limitations of the French transla-
tions. In the scholarly discourse among Arabists there is still debate
over the authorship of different parts of the TF. The complex issue
of who wrote which chapters at which times does not concern us di-
rectly. I shall therefore refer to the creators of this text as simply
"the authors" or "the narrators." I shall return in more detail to the
texts as sources in chapter 3.
Although this study is based on the French translations, I have
sought the guidance of scholars familiar with the original Arabic for
more precise versions of key terms such as that for griot, which
Houdas and Delafosse rendered simply as "singer." John Hunwick,
one of the world's most knowledgeable specialists on the Arabic
texts of the Sahel, has been particularly helpful in this respect. He
expects to complete and publish the first English translation of one of
these texts, the TS, by the mid-1990s. In the meantime, however, the
first French versions provide a basis from which we may make our
comparisons. I have translated into English all the excerpts from the
French versions of these texts with the exception of those provided
by John Hunwick.
The TS and TF amount to 850 pages in published translation.
One reason for the great detail is that the earliest authors held a vari-
ety of positions in the society of their day. They were religious lead-
ers, teachers, secretaries to rulers, and administrators. These func-
tions often overlapped. But the scribes-this term will be defined
in more detail in chapter 2-were not the only specialists of the word


among the peoples who built the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay em-
pires. Bards, known today as griots, a term of uncertain origin, or
among their own peoples in the singular form as jali, jesere, mabo,
nyamakala, and others, held a special place too. But they conveyed
their words by voice, not by writing. They too witnessed the events
marking the rise and fall of their rulers. Their words have survived
many centuries, passed on to modern descendants of the peoples of
the empires. In the last two decades scholars have begun to study
the verbal art of griots and the information that these keepers of
the oral tradition have received from preceding generations. At the
same time, governments of Sahelian countries have shown new in-
terest in the social status of griots. For example, in Niger there is
now an officially sponsored organization of three thousand bards.
The griots constitute, then, another rather distinct class of
timebinders. But today, if civil servants in ministries of foreign af-
fairs, information, and culture have supplanted the diplomatic,
record-keeping, and communications functions of the scribes, the
griots continue to perform many of the activities on which they built
their reputations as a specialized group many centuries ago. During
the last decade, however, they have expanded enormously the di-
mensions of their oral performance context. They may recount or
chant their narratives of the past via a variety of modern media-
radio, tape cassettes, and even television.
If it appears that griots are prospering-and that is discussed fur-
ther in chapter 2-there is a tendency among scholars, especially his-
torians, to refer to information from them as simply "the oral tradi-
tion," with no identification of a particular bard or a version of a
narrative. From the diverse writings of the late Nigerien scholar
Boubou Hama to the more rigorously documented studies by the
younger generation, represented so capably by the Malian historian
Adam Konar6 Ba, rarely is there a reference to a particular text
from a named source. Hama, in fact, in a mimeographed account
entitled Askia Mohammed Aboubacar a travers la tradition et Le
Fettach and published in 1980, did not mention any of his oral
sources. Yet the oral tradition is no more than the sum of those who
convey it. Each griot, each teller of tales, puts his or her own mark
on the narrative recounted. Although the Western reader may not
understand an African language, he or she can appreciate the rich-
ness of this diversity in the many versions of one particular Sahelian
epic, the Mande story of the founder of the Mali empire, Sundiata


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Keita. John Johnson (1986) lists nearly two dozen editions that have
appeared to date.
The number of published narratives from the Mande led me to
ask if the Mand6-speaking peoples, descended from the Mali em-
pire, represent a uniquely endowed Sahelian culture, or if other eth-
nic groups linked to later empires also produced stories that recount
the rise and exploits of their leaders. Inspired by the work of John
Johnson, Charles Bird, Lilyan Kesteloot, and Djibril Tamsir Niane,
as well as by visits to my university by griots from Gambia and Mali
in 1978 and 1980, I decided to go back to the Songhay-speaking peo-
ples for an answer to this question. In a broader sense, my goal was
also to deepen my knowledge of written African literature by learn-
ing more about the oral narrative form that influenced writers as di-
verse as Ahmadou Kourouma from the Ivory Coast and Ayi Kwei
Armah from Ghana. For this reason, I returned to Niger in 1980-81
after a fourteen-year absence to see if, in fact, the griots I had en-
countered there during service as a Peace Corps Volunteer were still
practicing their art, to find out what sort of portrayals of the past
they conveyed to their modern listeners, and to record a particularly
detailed version of an epic about the rulers of the Songhay empire.
During a year while serving as a Fulbright senior lecturer in Afri-
can literature and American civilization at the University of Nia-
mey, I traveled throughout the 90,000-square-kilometer Songhay-
speaking area of western Niger, from Ouallam and Ayorou in the
north, near the border with Mali, to T6ra in the west, not far from
the border with Burkina Faso, to Say in the south, north of the
Benin border, and Dosso, the crossroads town to the east near the
border with Nigeria. This region included the heartland of those
Songhay who fled south after the fall of Gao in 1591 to an invading
force directed by the Moroccans. The Zarma, a people who speak
a dialect of Songhay, occupy a large part of this region, mainly on
the left bank from Ouallam south to Dosso. Although their history
is distinct from that of the Songhay, griots today claim that the
Zarma participated in the Songhay resistance against the Moroccan
occupiers of the region.
My goal was to locate griots who could recount the story of Askia
Mohammed and also, if possible, the epic of Mali Bero, the legen-
dary leader who led the Zarma to their current location in a migra-
tion that many scholars believe took place during the sixteenth or
seventeenth century. I encountered over twenty griots and recorded
ten versions of each story. By comparing these different versions



with each other and with narratives recorded by Jean Rouch and
Dioulde Laya from the late griot Badie Bagna in Niamey during the
1960s, I chose to focus my efforts on the longest and most detailed
account of Askia Mohammed, that by Nouhou Malio, a professional
bard from Saga who died in 1986. He narrated this version to me
and a small audience in his hometown, three kilometers downriver
from Niamey, during two recording sessions in December 1980 and
January 1981. It is his version, published at the end of this study,
that provides the basis for the comparisons presented here. In the
introduction to the text, I shall provide more information on him and
the circumstances of the recording. But it is important to note here
that the griot's narrative in the Songhay language, like the chronicles
in Arabic, represents a special form of speech. As we shall see later,
words have power, especially those of griots, healers, magicians and
others whose ritual language is often marked with vocabulary from
Sonink6, another, secret tongue used by the Songhay. In this sense,
the griot's language stands in counterpoint to that of the scribes.
Each represents a distinct tradition and system of beliefs.
During the years after my first recording sessions with Songhay
griots, many colleagues assisted me in the difficult and time-
consuming task of transcribing, translating, and analyzing the narra-
tive. As the text emerged from the recorded blend of Songhay and
archaic Soninke, I began to see a variety of similarities and differ-
ences between the image of Askia Mohammed in the chronicles and
that appearing in the oral narrative. At this point I had to choose
between a more narrowly focused project (an edition of The Epic
of Askia Mohammed following the model of John Johnson and Fa-
Digi Sis6k6 with The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition)
and a comparative study of broader scope that would make the kinds
of connections which scholars in different disciplines might take
years to discover.
The decision to opt for a comparative, diachronic approach
stemmed from two concerns. The first is that Askia Mohammed, un-
like Sundiata, the founder of the earlier Mali empire, appears in
some detail in the Arabic-language chronicles as well as in a modern
novel. The obvious links between past and present, oral and written,
need to be explored now, at a time when scholars from Africa, Eu-
rope, and North America are beginning to understand more clearly
the cultural linkages across the Sahel, rather than later. The second
is that very few of my colleagues in folklore, history, anthropology,
linguistics, and literature have ever read the chronicles. They are fa-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

miliar with the broad outlines as conveyed in historical surveys, but,
aside from the Arabists and an occasional West African scholar with
more than the usual year or two of Koranic education, very few can
read the Arabic and rare is the individual who has been able to digest
the 850 pages of French translation.
Situating the oral narrative in a broader literary perspective that
reveals more about both the heroes, the society that produced them,
and the peoples who remember them today, however, raises two
other concerns. First, there is a danger in relying on dated transla-
tions of texts that have undergone modifications over the centuries.
By viewing the chronicles more as story than as history, and by
drawing on the assistance of Arabists familiar with these texts, this
problem is diminished, at least in part. Second, there is a risk of dis-
appointing colleagues in other disciplines, each of whom seeks some-
thing different from a text. But for our more limited purposes, the
opportunity to establish a dialogue across the centuries between
these diverse narrative forms promises to reveal more about the
subject-the view of the Askias and Songhay society in the Sahel
today-than we can find in any single text. At the same time, such
an approach should provide the inspiration for more detailed studies
by scholars in different disciplines.
The two portrayals of Askia Mohammed and his descendants
that are linked directly or indirectly to his contemporaries, the
scribes and the ancestors of the griots I recorded, raise an obvious
question about the relations between these two kinds of sources, to
be addressed in more detail in chapter 2. It is worth noting from the
outset, however, that there are few references to griots in the
scribes' writings. But from those rare comments it is clear that the
scribes drew upon the knowledge of the bards for some past infor-
mation. On the other hand, I cannot say to what extent the narra-
tives of the bards today have been indirectly influenced by the
scribes' written accounts. But the existence of the Arabic manu-
scripts was fairly well known among the intellectual elite of these
peoples in the centuries following the fall of the Songhay empire.
The situation there illustrates Paul Zumthor's observation that in
many cultures, "in each period co-exist and collaborate men of
orality and men of writing" (1983, 35).
In both cases, the narratives that they created evolved over time.
I have already mentioned briefly Sekou Amadou's efforts to have
himself written into the history of the Sahel. The bards' narratives
were also subject to a revisionist view of the past. If it is difficult,



however, to measure with any great precision the extent to which
the oral tradition of today varies from that of the past, we may never-
theless conclude that both the written and the oral traditions reflect
the forces of history and the fortunes of their creators during the
last four centuries.
Finally, both the written and oral traditions have served directly
or indirectly as sources for modern writers. The most striking and
controversial example of this phenomenon is Le Devoir de violence,
a novel published in 1968 by the Malian author Yambo Ouologuem.
In the last chapter I shall examine the way Ouologuem has drawn
upon both the content and the form of the chronicles to create char-
acters based on Sonni Ali Ber, Askia Mohammed, Askia Moussa,
and others of the period in order to criticize today's Sahelian aristoc-
racy and Islamic religion. His evident knowledge of the oral tradition
of a region once dominated by the Songhay and his use of the chroni-
cles enabled him to respond in a modern European literary genre
to narratives rooted in other times, other languages, and other
It is from the blend of information available in this range of
Sahelian verbal art that we may arrive at a more complex and bal-
anced view of the man who extended the frontiers of the Songhay
empire at the turn of the sixteenth century. In the process, we
should also develop a keener sensitivity to the deepest stratum in
the archaeology of belief systems that the Songhay-speaking peoples
maintain today. Beneath the relatively recent layer of French culture
and the many centuries of Islamic customs lies an aquifer of tradi-
tional beliefs that continues to sustain the roots of life in the Sahel
today. In the conclusion, I shall give examples of just how some of
these beliefs are flourishing in a society dominated by Islam and the
West. In so doing, I shall also contribute to a recent debate over the
significance of that belief system for the everyday lives of the

Verbal Art and Sahelian Societies:
For an Interdisciplinary Approach

Knowledge of this multilayered world view serves not just the inter-
ests of the long-term scholar of the Sahel but also those of expatri-
ates assigned to work there on a more short-term basis, especially
diplomats and aid administrators who want to learn how their Afri-
can interlocutors understand their cultural heritage. For example, if


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

representatives of foreign countries posted in Mali sought to uncover
the deeper meanings of the 1968 coup d'6tat that replaced Modibo
Keita with Moussa Traor6, they needed only to begin with a reading
of a narrative about the thirteenth-century founder of the Mali em-
pire, Sundiata Keita, whom the Malian president claimed as an an-
cestor, before moving on to the story of Tira Maghan Traor6, one
of the generals who rebelled against Sundiata.
From a broader scholarly and professional perspective, one les-
son of recent scholarship on the region is the necessity of viewing
the area as a whole both in the diachronic and in the synchronic
senses. To understand one piece of the puzzle, many others must be
examined. One ethnic group may be related to another in a rather
mysterious way. Such is the case of the Songhay-speaking peoples
and the Sonink6. The language, geography, and history of the
Soninke are far removed from that of the Songhay-two empires
away in time and space. Yet today Soninke is still the secret language
of the Songhay.
Songhay bards, as well as healers and magicians, sprinkle their
verbal art with an archaic form of Soninke overlaid with Bambara
or Fulani. The literary scholar who seeks an answer to this and other
mysteries must draw upon the expertise of the linguistic anthropolo-
gist, the ethnologist, the historian, the Arabist, the sociologist, and
representatives of many other specialties. As readers shall see from
the many undecipherable lines in the text of the epic at the end of
this study, we have only begun to understand this particular linguistic
We need, then, to build new bridges across disciplines if we are
to understand the Sahel. Nowhere is this more true than in the area
of verbal art. When the texts that fascinate scholars in literature, his-
tory, anthropology, or folklore are viewed in a comparative perspec-
tive and analyzed with information from recent work by archaeolo-
gists, climatologists, and other scientists, they promise to give us a
clearer contemporary portrait of the peoples in the Sahel. This com-
parative literary analysis may serve, then, to contribute a small piece
to the vast Sahelian puzzle on which researchers from many disci-
plines are working today. By examining and reinterpreting the vari-
ous images of Askia Mohammed that we find in the literature of the
Sahel, I hope to provide a more informed view of peoples who have
migrated during the centuries from west to east and from north to
south as the result of changing political, economic, and ecological



To begin, I shall situate Askia Mohammed in the context of his
own time, the development of the empires of the western Sahel dur-
ing the first half of the second millennium.

Notes to the Reader on Documentation
and Orthography

Throughout the text there are neither footnotes nor endnotes. All
references appear in the narrative, and they direct the reader to the
list of works cited at the end of the study. While this format offers
a simpler, more immediate, and in some ways more convenient
method of identifying sources, it requires a compromise on paren-
thetical information that might normally be shifted to a note. At sev-
eral points-for example, in the discussion about ethnic terminology
for griots-I indicate in the narrative that the rapid or nonspecialist
reader may want to skim or skip a particularly detailed section.
The reader will also discover some variation in the spelling of
personal names, toponyms, and ethnonyms. The problem stems
from the fact that the diverse texts compared here convey informa-
tion in different systems of orthography: English, French, and
Songhay-Zarma. Although logic suggests that names and places be
spelled according to English orthography, for two reasons I have
adopted the French version in the body of this study.
First, one of our major sources is the French translation of the
chronicles. With few exceptions (the draft excerpts that Hunwick
communicated to me), in my translations into English of citations
from the chronicles I have kept the original French spelling in order
to avoid creating any confusion about the identity of people and
places. The French versions from the original Arabic have posed
enough difficulties, and it would be risky for me to attempt to con-
vert them into English, especially since some of them are little
known. Also, many of my secondary sources are in French and use
the French orthography.
One of the exceptions is "Timbuktu." The French spell it "Tom-
bouctou." Pascal James Imperato, the American author of the excel-
lent Historical Dictionary of Mali, argues for "Timbuctoo" as a form
that reflects both local pronunciation and usage by many anglophone
authors. "Timbuktu," he adds, however, is a "German spelling" and
"has been widely used in English in recent years especially in popu-
lar and journalistic stories about the city" (1977, 1986, ix). Two of
the sources on which I rely heavily for information, Hunwick and


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Saad, use this widespread form. To avoid confusion here I have also
adopted it.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations into English from the
secondary sources are mine.
Second, countries in the geographical area covered by these texts
are almost entirely francophone. I would prefer therefore to main-
tain the identity, including the orthography, of people and places in
this region in forms that do not conflict with local ways.
Any such attempt at conformity leads inevitably to ambiguity at
some point. Hence the reader will note that Askia Daoud in the
chronicles is called Daouda in the epic. The reference to Sora Musa,
the Gambian name and spelling for Mali's most famous pilgrim, re-
fers us to Mansa Moussa.
Another ambiguity appears in the spelling of koy. The chroni-
clers use both koy and koi.
The transcription of the epic text raises another set of ambigui-
ties, but they should not cause insurmountable problems for the
reader. I have attempted to follow closely the orthography estab-
lished by the Literacy Service of the Ministry of Education in Niger.
There, for example, we find Muusa. In the English translation on
facing pages, I give the name in the form in which it is most com-
monly spelled throughout the Sahel: Moussa. More details on this
system of orthography appear at the beginning of the epic.


Chapter 1

Askia Mohammed in Context

Askia Mohammed's achievements are the culmination of many cen-
turies in the development of what Paul Stoller has called "deep
Sahelian civilization" (Hale and Stoller 1985, 164), rather than the
creation ex nihilo of a kingdom by one extraordinarily talented
The notion of depth in Stoller's term takes on both figurative and
literal connotations when we consider the variety of new evidence
indicating that the cultures of the Sahel were more interconnected
and much older than we have thought previously. The history and
archaeology of the region in both the prehistoric and precolonial pe-
riods offers much evidence of widespread cultural diffusion (Clark
1970; Levtzion 1980). Philip Curtin (1975) has written convinc-
ingly of the migration and cultural impact of those Soninke who
established communities in the Senegambian basin more than four
centuries ago, while Boube Gado (1980) described the migra-
tion in the Songhay and Zarma areas of Mali and Niger during the
same period. But more recently Susan McIntosh and Roderick
McIntosh (1980; 1981; 1983; 1986) have uncovered archaeological
evidence to show that there has been significant sociocultural diffu-
sion along the Niger from Djenn6 to south of Gao before the time
of Christ.
According to the Mclntoshes, the long-respected historical para-
digm that bases development of cities in the Sahel on Islamic influ-
ences must now give way to a historical view that sees the Moslem
influence as just one of many different cultural forces in an already
flourishing region marked by many cities and much commerce. Re-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

viewing the evidence from a variety of sources, art historian Werner
Gillon argues that the "similarities in style, iconography and decora-
tive motifs point to a close relationship between conquerors and con-
quered, traders from closely related tribes and nations, and with itin-
erant artists. This brought about an acculturation which makes it
possible to speak of a common heritage in the art of the Western
Sudanic peoples" (1984, 103).
From Senegal to Niger during the last millennium, common social,
economic, political, and linguistic structures developed as the result
of trade, wars, changes in climate, and other causes. It was common
to find a social hierarchy composed of three basic classes, the aristoc-
racy, freemen, and those of captive origin. The feudal system of
larger political units exacting tribute and fealty from smaller units
prevailed in many areas. Complex relations between clans were
rooted in interpretations of past events by elders and also by profes-
sional keepers of the oral tradition whom we call griots. Even the
customary way of addressing the ruler appears similar from Ghana
to Songhay: A person demonstrated respect by pouring dust on his
or her head.
The evidence suggests that amid the great ethnic diversity in the
region there was, and still is, much cultural uniformity. But we are
just beginning to learn about the deepest roots of the peoples in the
Sahel. The three largest empires we know anything about during the
period from the second half of the first millennium to 1591 represent
the best-known and most complex social organizations in the Sahel.
Thanks to the chronicles of the Middle Ages and accounts by Arabs,
we have some idea of the nature of these empires. Of the three, the
last, Songhay, was probably the most elaborate. Against this back-
drop, it appears that Askia Mohammed ruled at the apogee not only
of the Songhay empire, but of a Sahelian civilization whose origins
we are still in the process of discovering.
In this chapter, the goal is not to rewrite the early history of the
region. I shall leave that task to those scholars who have already con-
tributed much to our knowledge there, among them Michel Abitbol,
Adam Konar6 Ba, David Conrad, Philip Curtin, John Hunwick, Ne-
hemiah Levtzion, Roderick McIntosh, Susan McIntosh, Jean Rouch,
Elias Saad, and Se6k6n Mody Cissoko. Instead, my purpose is to
offer a brief overview of the three empires. The focus will be on sev-
eral features that will interest us later on in the study.


Askia Mohammed in Context

The Ghana Empire

What, then, are the ties that link Askia Mohammed and the court
of Gao at the end of the fifteenth century to the empire of Ghana
in Kumbi Saleh, six hundred years earlier and 1,500 kilometers to
the West? To understand this linkage, we need to look more closely
at the rise and fall of Ghana, the first of two powerful political units
preceding the Songhay empire.
Drawing on both oral and written sources, Nehemiah Levtzion
(1980) dates the origins of the Ghana empire to the first millennium
A.D. "By the end of the eighth century, Ghana was known in the
Muslim world as 'the land of Gold.' Al-YaC'qibi, a widely-traveled
official in the service of the Abbasid caliphs during the 9th century,
described the Kingdom of Ghana 'whose king is also very powerful.
In his country are the gold mines, and under his authority are a num-
ber of kings. Among them are the kingdom of cAm and the kingdom
of Sdma. Gold is found in the whole of this country'" (Hopkins and
Levtzion 1981, 21).
According to the written sources, in the second half of the ninth
century Kawkaw (an early version of the term for modern Gao) and
Ghana were the two powerful kingdoms of the western Sudan, each
with vassal chiefdoms under its dominion (Levtzion 1980, 22). In
1067-68 the Arab geographer al-Bekri, drawing on accounts by trav-
elers and other written sources, wrote an oft-cited description of the
capital of Ghana. The city was divided into two towns, one for the
Moslems, the other, ten kilometers away, for the ruler and his en-
tourage. Archaeological work begun in 1913-14 by A. Bonnel de
M6zieres and continued later by Lazartigues, Thomassey, Mauny,
and Szumowski points toward the remains of Ghana at Kumbi Saleh
in southeastern Mauritania.
Although we must await more information from the continued
excavation of Kumbi Saleh and other sites in the region, several fea-
tures of culture from the Ghana empire should be mentioned here.
The first is its location.
Ghana lay far inland from the west coast of West Africa. Its main
cities were Awdaghost, situated almost 500 kilometers from the
ocean, and Kumbi Saleh, the capital, 300 kilometers farther east.
It sat astride the trade routes for gold shipped from the sources of
the Senegal and Niger northward via Walata to the Maghreb and for
salt from Teghazza, a city 600 kilometers to the north, which was
transported throughout the region.


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Because of its location and its powerful army, Ghana was able
to remain outside of the wars and social dislocation generated by the
migrations and conquests of the nomadic Almoravids in northwest-
ern Africa until the middle of the eleventh century. By controlling
trade in the region, the empire developed a reputation for prosperity
throughout the Sahel and the larger Islamic world.
Moreover, the rulers of Ghana were able to maintain their own
belief system while allowing that of Islam to develop in their cities.
In his description of the two towns that make up the capital, al-Bekri
underscores the freedom allowed to believers of Islam and those of
the local religion. When the Moslems came to greet the Tounka, or
ruler, they were allowed to do so in their own manner. If, after the
apparent fall of Kumbi Saleh in 1076, the ruler was required to con-
vert to Islam and pay material tribute to the Moslem invaders from
the north, the degree of Islamization in the region remained minimal
until the nineteenth century (Pollet and Winter 1971, chap. 10). Re-
cent scholarship based on readings of newly discovered Arabic texts
and reinterpretations of the oral tradition reject the entire notion of
a conquest and argue instead for a more gradual Islamization of the
leadership of Ghana (Conrad and Fisher 1983; Hiskett 1984).
With the decline of Ghana, the Sonink6-speaking peoples began
to disperse eastward until the nineteenth century. Today pockets of
Soninke speakers can be found as far east as Niger-for example,
in Birni n'Gaour6, 150 kilometers east of Niamey. This dispersion,
which parallels in some ways that of the Fulani, although for differ-
ent reasons, stands as one of many cultural bridges across empires
and centuries to the present.
Whatever the cause of the decline of Ghana, by the late twelfth
or early thirteenth century the remaining dependencies of the em-
pire fell under partial control of the Sosso kingdom from the south.
Under the leadership of Soumaoro (or Sumanguru) Kant6, this rem-
nant of the Ghana empire sacked Kumbi Saleh in 1203. Eventually
the Sossos' brief rise was cut short by the development of the second
great empire of the Sahel, Mali, led by Sundiata Keita.

The Mali Empire

Early written sources provide limited information about the origins
of the Mali empire. Levtzion (1980, 53-54) cites two writers, al-
Bekri (1067-68) and al-Idrisi (1154), who refer to the land of the
Malink6 when describing peoples who were early converts to Islam.


Askia Mohammed in Context

On the other hand, Mand6 griots provide detailed accounts of the
rise of Soumaoro Kante and the rebellion of Sundiata Keita to the
south of Ghana. The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition,
chanted by Fa-Digi Sis6k6 and translated by John William Johnson
(1986), appears as the most recent of two dozen variants now in
print. But Johnson correctly notes in his introduction that the oral
version must be viewed not as history but as a portrait of how people
today view their culture hero.
By the fourteenth century, when the empire reached its peak
under the rule of Mansa Moussa, Mali's reputation had spread
throughout the Moslem world, not only because of commerce in
gold, slaves, and other commodities but also because of the ruler's
impressive pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-25. Ibn Battuta visited the
court of Mali ih,1352-53. He described the reigning sultan, Mansa
Suleiman, and reported on the pilgrimage of the ruler's more illus-
trious predecessor. The writers of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-
century chronicles that we shall study in more detail in subsequent
chapters drew on Ibn Battuta, as well as oral sources, for their por-
trayals of the Mali empire and its leaders.
But as is the case with the Ghana empire, the conversion to Islam
in the Mali empire did not extend to the masses until the colonial
era. The traditional belief system apparently survived nearly intact
until then. Today, as Johnson points out in the introduction to The
Epic of Son-Jara, many elements of that system remain in place.
In Ghana, the traditional system of belief of the Sonink6-
speaking peoples who trace their heritage to the beginnings of the
empire legitimized relations between clans. This belief system was
strong enough to maintain some distance, physical and cultural, be-
tween the Moslem traders and the rulers-at least until the rulers'
apparent conversion to Sunni Islam in 1076 (Hiskett 1984, 26). In
Mali, the founder of the empire, Sundiata, appears to combine at
least a nominal belief in Islam (Hiskett 1984, 29) with strong attach-
ment to the traditional system of beliefs. Johnson explains the rela-
tionship between the Mand6 hero and these beliefs.

The local Mand6 version of occult power, called nyama, is con-
ferred upon the hero in the traditional Mand6 method through his
mother's ancestry, and is accomplished in the epic through geneal-
ogy. . Thus he is viewed as the one culture hero of the Mande
destined to have more occult power than any other hero before
or after his time. Significantly, he is not the founder of the country


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

of the Manden or of the Mand6 peoples, but he is their greatest
culture hero, for he is believed to have harnessed great occult
power. .. Kankan Musa [Mansa Moussa], who ruled Mali from
1312 to 1327, is probably better known than Son-Jara outside
Mali. .. Yet no epic amongst Mandekan speakers celebrates
Musa's exploits. (1986, 5)

I shall return to a discussion of nyama as it affects Mande bards
in chapter 2. For now, it need only be noted that by 1375 the rulers
of Mali began to lose whatever power they had over peoples on the
eastern fringes of the empire. With the rise of the Sonni dynasty in
Gao, which survived until 1493, Songhay began to overshadow Mali.

The Songhay Empire

The writings of an Arab geographer, al-Khuwarizmi, who lived in
Baghdad in the early ninth century, provide one of the earliest refer-
ences to Gao, capital of the Songhay empire (Hopkins and Levtzion
1981, 7). John Hunwick (1985, chap. 1) suggests that the original
town of Gao, located in a zone too arid for agriculture, developed
as a commercial center in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The in-
habitants of a small fishing village on the right bank of the Niger
began to trade grain, obtained from more fertile areas downriver,
for salt brought in from the desert. Gao developed a close relation-
ship with Koukiya, 150 kilometers downriver and the capital of the
Za dynasty, according to the TS. Eventually Koukiya extended its
control to Gao, and trade expanded to include slaves captured by
the army of the growing Songhay state.
Al Yacqibi, writing in the late ninth century, described Kawkaw,
an early name for Gao used by Arab travelers, in the following way:

Then there is the kingdom of the Kawkaw, which is the greatest
of the realms of the Sudan, the most important and the most pow-
erful. All the kingdoms obey its king. Al-Kawkaw is the name of
the town. Besides this there are a number of kingdoms of which
the rulers pay allegiance to him and acknowledge his sovereignty,
although they are kings in their own lands. (Hopkins and Levtzion
1981, 21)

References to Gao by the Egyptian geographer al-Muhallabi in
the late tenth century indicate that the city's ruler pretended to be


Askia Mohammed in Context

a Moslem. Al-Bekri, the Andalusian geographer, adds in the late
eleventh century that traditional customs continued to play an im-
portant role in court life. Although the narrator of the TS reports
that rulers of Gao converted to Islam during the reign of Kossoi in
1009-10, Hunwick, citing another Andalusian geographer, Ibn
Said, suggests that the degree of Islamization was probably minimal
at least until the end of the dynasty in the thirteenth century (1985,
9-11). During this period of Malian dominance in the region, the
state rulers probably retreated downriver to Koukiya. Hunwick
notes that other Arabic sources (Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun) un-
derscore the links between Gao and North Africa. The discovery by
Georges de Gironcourt of Arabic inscriptions on tombstones at
Bentia, thought to be the site of Koukiya, suggests that the Islamic
influence extended farther south in the late fourteenth and early fif-
teenth centuries (1985, 12).
Hunwick judges the "thinness of the Islamic veneer" by the ex-
tensive material on local religions collected by Jean Rouch in the
1940s and 1950s. But David Robinson questions if the low level of
Islamic activity can be equated to the maintenance of traditional
practices (letter to the author, February 26, 1988). As we shall see
in the conclusion, Paul Stoller has continued Rouch's work and pro-
vides still further evidence for the maintenance of traditional sys-
tems of belief even as Islam spreads more widely in Sahelian socie-
ties today.
In the thirteenth century, Mali extended its sovereignty to in-
clude the Songhay area and, according to the chronicles, took two
noble hostages. One of them, Ali Kolon, escaped and returned to
found the Sonni dynasty. Between this ruler and the apogee of the
Sonnis under Sonni Ali Ber in the fifteenth century, it is difficult to
pinpoint the shift in regional power from Mali to Songhay, or the
reversal that led the people of one area to hold greater sway over
weaker groups in the region. There may even have been a temporary
power vacuum at some time. But by the mid-fifteenth century, the
Malians had withdrawn from the relatively independent city of Tim-
buktu, leaving it to the Islamic Sanhaja, a nomadic Berber group
with roots in Awdaghost. With the apparent return of the Songhay
court to Gao (Hunwick 1985, 21), and the installation of Sonni Ali
Ber as the new ruler in 1463, the Songhay empire began to command
much greater attention in the region while Mali's power continued
to wane.
Islam's influence in the area, with a flourishing base in Timbuktu,


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

appeared as an obstacle to Sonni Ali Ber's plans to exert more com-
plete control over the entire region. According to the chronicles,
Sonni Ali Ber was a lukewarm Moslem at best. He delighted in mis-
treating the intellectual and religious elite of the city. The recent
portrayal by Ba (1977) suggests that Sonni Ali Ber was as devout
a Moslem as one might expect and that his differences with the rulers
of Timbuktu were simply a matter of politics involving the leader-
ship there, the growing Tuareg influence in the region, and a variety
of other factors. Hiskett observes that

The Sanhaja culamd' of Timbuktu and Walata-the descendants
of the Almoravids and their Ghanaian allies-had long been
strengthening their influence in these two centres. As their com-
mercial prosperity and power increased, they become aware of
their own strength and were thus tempted to interfere in the poli-
tics of the Songhay state. They were also reluctant to submit to
the authority of a ruler whose Islam was suspect. Moreover, their
close and growing links with Islamic North Africa and their ever-
widening command of Islamic literacy served to stiffen their oppo-
sition to the mixed Islam with which they were surrounded. Per-
haps these links also helped to sow in their minds the conviction
that political power belonged by right to them and not to a mere
illiterate magician. . Clearly, these culama' presented a chal-
lenge to Sonni Ali's authority, the more so since they had close
links with and supported the Tuareg, who were his enemies. (1984,

Sonni Ali Ber is discussed in more detail in chapter 4. The debate
over his reputation will take on great significance for our under-
standing of Askia Mohammed because the succession from one dy-
nasty to another was marked by violence and a new period of Islamic

From Sonni Ali Ber to Askia Mohammed:
The Change in Dynasties According to the Chronicles

According to the chronicles, Askia Mohammed was the governor,
or koy, of the Hombori mountains region, 300 kilometers southwest
of Gao, just north of the border between Mali and Burkina Faso.
Askia Mohammed was one of Sonni Ali Ber's most trusted aides.
The narrators of the TF state that Sonni Ali Ber died in mysterious


Askia Mohammed in Context

circumstances on the way home from a war somewhere in the vast
,_Gourma region, which extends down the right bank of the Niger
River from eastern Mali to western Niger. Askia Mohammed chal-
lenged Chi Baro, Sonni Ali Ber's son and successor, to embrace
Islam more fervently than his father had. Chi Baro reportedly re-
fused, and Askia Mohammed attacked and took over as ruler of the
SSonghay empire. He then went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, launched
a series of military campaigns to expand the empire, and spread the
word of Islam throughout the region. His only failure was against
the Bargantche, downriver from Niger in northern Benin. Accord-
ing to the chronicles, he showed exemplary devotion to the Moslem
religious leaders in Timbuktu and corresponded with Islamic schol-
ars and holy men throughout the Maghreb. His most notable
achievement, many scholars believe, was the establishment, on the
foundation created by Sonni Ali Ber, of a system of administration
for the empire that seems to have functioned with some effective-

Nobles, Freemen, and Captives: The Structure
of Songhay Society at the Time of Askia Mohammed

I shall give examples to illustrate the complex relationship among no-
bles, freemen, and captives in chapter 7, on the end of the empire,
where, for the oral version, these distinctions will play a significant
role. But it is useful at this point to sketch what most historians be-
lieve are the broad outlines of Songhay social structure at Askia Mo-
hammed's time.
Songhay society, particularly in the urban context, was patriarchal
and communal, notes Seken6 Mody Cissoko (1975). Citing examples
of the Askias described in the chronicles, Cissoko explains that hus-
bands in the ruling class had both wives and concubines, a system
that produced hundreds of children. Younger brothers inherited the
goods and wives of older brothers. The eldest son inherited family
leadership from the father. From the correspondence between Askia
Mohammed and the North African scholar al-Maghili, we learn that
other peoples maintained a matrilinear system and that al-Maghili
condemned this form as anti-Islamic (Cissoko 1975, 167-68). (For
the full text of al-Maghili's responses on this issue, see Hunwick
1985, 87-88.)
From the same sources, Cissoko cites two other kinds of families:
first, those of the marabouts, such as the Aqit family in Timbuktu,


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

who held a near monopoly on the most important religious posts,
and second, those of captive origin, who owed subservience to indi-
viduals or clans of higher social status. These servile families ranked
at the bottom of a hierarchical social system that survives in much
of the region today.
At the top, among the Songhay and elsewhere, we find a noble
class based, as Cissoko (1975, 167) points out, on birth or on liberty.
If captured during battle, one could lose one's nobility. Cissoko dis-
tinguishes between the imperial nobility, which governed and main-
tained its economic position by large slaveholdings, and the local no-
bility, which carried out the government's policies.
One notch below the nobles were the freemen, loosely defined
as all those who were neither of noble nor captive origin. By their
rights and privileges they were much closer to the noble class than
to those of captive origin.
Below the freemen came those of captive origin. Their condition
and status varied widely. One might be a farmer who was a member
of a captive clan that paid an annual tribute in the form of goods
and services. Another might be a servant in the home of a noble,
often nearly indistinguishable from the masters. Finally, a captive
might be simply a laborer who worked in a master's fields.
A separate category, the traditional artisans griotss, weavers,
smiths, carpenters) is more difficult to define. Long considered as
lower in status than freemen (Vaughan 1970), they are now viewed
by some scholars as a separate element of society that held a monop-
oly on certain kinds of activities.
As we shall see later in all three narratives, the matter of social
hierarchy is somewhat more complex than this brief sketch sug-
gests, especially the permutations resulting from marriage between

The Family Coup d'Etat: The Songhay
after Askia Mohammed

Chapters 6 and 7 compare the written and oral accounts describing
those who succeeded Askia Mohammed in the leadership of the em-
pire. But to understand the broader context of events in the region
as reported by the narrators of the chronicles, here I shall sketch
briefly the succession until the fall of the empire in 1591 and the sub-
sequent rule by the Moroccans.
Askia Mohammed ruled until 1528, when his eldest son, Moussa,


Askia Mohammed in Context

seized power and exiled him to an island in the Niger River. After
Moussa's assassination in 1531, Bounkoun Korei, known as Askia
Mohammed Bounkan II, assumed leadership. He lasted until 1537,
when he was forced by his brothers to abdicate. He was replaced
by another son, Askia Ismail, who governed until 1539. The chief
of the plotters against Askia Mohammed, he nevertheless agreed to
allow the exiled former ruler to return to Gao in exchange for more
official recognition of his own regime.
Askia Ismail's reign was marked by severe famine. Askia Ishaq
followed him and extended the empire as far as Niani, the capital
of Mali. In 1546 he refused demands of the Sultan of Morocco to
cede control of the salt mines at Teghazza, and in 1549 he died.
Askia Daoud, viewed by the chroniclers as one of the most talented
rulers since Askia Mohammed, took over and was successful in cam-
paigns against the Mossi and the Malians. After his death in 1583,
a series of weak rulers governed: Askia el-Hadj for four years, until
he was overthrown by Askia Mohammed Bani, who lasted for little
more than a year before dying in 1588. Askia Ishaq II served for
three years.

Muskets Versus Arrows: The Moroccan
Invasion and Songhay Resistance

On April 12, 1591, a Moroccan-led army of three to four thousand
soldiers equipped with muskets attacked and defeated the Songhay
near Tondibi, 95 kilometers upriver from the capital at Gao. The re-
treating troops replaced Askia Ishaq II with Askia Gao, but he was
captured and assassinated by the Moroccan forces. This event
marked the end of the independent Songhay empire.
Some of the remaining Songhay fled south into what is known
today as western Niger, while the Moroccan governor established
his headquarters in Timbuktu. Although the Songhay were able to
wear down the Moroccan-directed forces by sustained campaigns of
resistance, especially that led by Askia Nouhou, they were unable
to reestablish a strong presence. In the century following the battle
of Tondibi, the population of Timbuktu gradually absorbed the Mo-
roccans and their colonial army. During this time two Songhay re-
gions evolved: the rural Dendi in the southeast, under the leadership
of Askia Nouhou, and the more urban Moroccan regime in Tim-
buktu under the rule of a pasha. Nouhou was finally defeated in
1595. The link between Timbuktu and Morocco weakened over


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

time, with the result that the ruler of the city, supported by descen-
dants of the Moroccans and their soldiers, changed 128 times in
ninety years. In the meantime, the two halves of the empire began
to divide into smaller principalities. It is likely that the oral tradition
in the Dendi region developed relatively independently from the
written tradition flourishing in Timbuktu.
From this brief overview of Askia Mohammed and his context
reported by the chroniclers, several themes emerge that will concern
us later on.
First, in all three empires, and especially the Songhay empire,
Islam played an increasingly important role. But the spread of that
religion generated a series of paradoxes in the relations between
those who practiced it within the Sahel, those who promoted it from
outside, and those who, though conquered, refused to accept the
new dispensation. We shall examine these paradoxes later in more
detail. In the meantime, it must be remembered that the most de-
tailed sources for this period, the chronicles and other Arabic-
language texts, bear a marked Islamic perspective.
Second, because only the elite practiced Islam, we learn rela-
tively little about the masses and the social structure that stands be-
tween the rulers and their people. We shall see later a striking differ-
ence between the way the chroniclers define social standing and the
way the griots portray the subtle differences between people of dif-
ferent origins.
Third, the Islamic view also excludes, quite naturally, much de-
scription of the traditional system of beliefs and of the keepers of
those beliefs. Although the chroniclers do cite magical occurrences,
we shall discover in the oral tradition a much greater variety of fan-
tastic events rooted in a pre-Islamic world view that survives today.
Finally, in both the written and oral sources the notion of ethnic
identity becomes at times very fluid. Peoples in the region migrate
as the result of wars, trade, and other factors. The Soninke dispersal
to the east and the constant movements up and down the Niger
River during the reign of the Askias are just two examples. Although
the sources distinguish between the Mossi and the Gourma, the Tua-
reg and the Songhay, and other groups, ethnic identity within a
group may depend on where one is located at a particular time. Elias
N. Saad, author of the most detailed study of Timbuktu (1983, 32),
comments on the remarkable ethnic diversity in the city, which de-
veloped as diverse groups moved into the area at different times.
Askia Mohammed, ruler of the Songhay, appears to be of


Askia Mohammed in Context 29

Soninke origin, and thus may trace his origins to the founders of the
Ghana empire, although it is more likely that he is from a nonroyal
but probably noble family. Soninke, however, is one of the Mande
languages spoken by a variety of peoples who consider either Ghana
or Mali to be the source of their heritage. Askia Mohammed's ethnic
identity, I should add, is more than just a personal feature, the prod-
uct of a Soninke couple isolated or dispersed from a larger group.
The chroniclers Mahmoud Kati and his descendants are Soninke, the
griots are Soninke, and Soninke is the secret language of these keep-
ers of the oral tradition as well as that of magicians and healers.
When conducting expeditions ranging across the Sahel, Askia Mo-
hammed and his followers took wives from each region they con-
quered and thus contributed further to the area's ethnic mixing.
We shall return to these themes as we examine both the written
and oral sources for this study. But we must first look more closely
at the professional artisans of the word who drew the portraits of
Askia Mohammed and the Songhay empire.

Chapter 2

Scribes, Bards, and Griots

When I use the words scribes and bards to designate those who
wrote or recounted stories about the past, I need to qualify consider-
ably these Western terms. In English, a scribe is someone who
makes copies or serves as a public clerk. The religious connotations
of the term appear in the fifth century B.c. with sophers, Palestinian
scholars and teachers of Jewish law who transcribed, edited, and in-
terpreted the Bible. A bard was a member of an ancient Celtic order
of poets or, in a more general sense, a person who composed and
recited epic or heroic poems, often accompanying himself on the
harp. If these terms are applied to wordsmiths in the West African
context, we find a variety of matching characteristics, but also some
variations that require explanation.

Scribes and Literacy in Arabic

I have chosen to use the term scribe rather than chronicler because
those who wrote the Timbuktu chronicles held many other positions,
which depended to some extent on their ability to write. Egyptolo-
gists have long used the term scribe for a class of literate function-
aries. In many parts of the Sahel today, and in other Islamic parts
of the world, a scribe is someone who has acquired literacy in Arabic
and who earns a living by copying manuscripts and by writing and
reading letters. In some post offices in West Africa today one may
still find professional scribes who write and read letters in French,
English, Arabic, or Portuguese for illiterate clients. In Ousmane
Sembene's novella Le Mandat (1966) as well as in his film of the
same title, we witness a violent confrontation between an indignant


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

scribe and the main character, Ibrahima Dieng, a man who fails to
pay for having a letter in French read to him. But the notion of
scribe, one who can write, may also include the 'ulamd', or religious
scholar of some distinction who directs the work of other scribes.
The task of writing is simply a means toward the end of administer-
ing and spreading Islam in a given area. In his Social History of Tim-
buktu, Saad lists some of the many kinds of literate people in that
intellectual capital of the Sahel at the time of the Askias.

A key to understanding the position of scholars in Timbuktu lies
in the existence of a pyramidal socio-educational order in which
the criteria of respectability and status ranged from mere com-
mand of literacy at the base to full erudition at the pinnacle. To
begin with, there were great distinctions in prestige among the
learned themselves including the possibility already mentioned
that full-fledged jurists (fuqahd') were more highly honored than
the main body of scholars (culamd'). Secondly, there was another
socio-educational stratum comprising elementary school teachers
(mucallims), mosque functionaries (especially mu'adhdhins),
scribes and governmental secretaries (katibs) besides a horde of
Alfas whose livelihood was partly enhanced by their education.
(1983, 81-82)

The author of the Tarikh es-Soudan, Abderrahman es-Sa'di, ap-
pears himself as a striking example of 'ulamda who serve a variety
of roles. In the 1630s he was a religious leader for Djenne, a major
city 300 kilometers upriver from Timbuktu, until he was fired by the
local governor. In 1646 Pasha Mohammed-ben-Otsman, ruler of
Timbuktu and of the northwestern half of the former Songhay em-
pire, named him secretary. In this position he was obliged, much
against his better judgment, to write a less-than-accurate letter
dated August 3, 1647, from the succeeding Pasha, Ahmed-ben-
Abderrahman-El-Hayyouni, to the people of Gao to report on an
expedition against the Hombori-Koy, governor of the Hombori
mountains, (TS, 432-37). Finally, as a chronicler, his written ac-
count of events and people in the region stands as a major contribu-
tion to our understanding of the history of the Sahel. All three of
these roles depended on his ability to write. But if we call him a
scribe, we must understand that this term connotes far more than
simply a copyist of manuscripts.
The chronicles reveal that writing was used for a wide variety of


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

purposes: issuing safe conduct passes (TF 27, 138), keeping genealo-
gies (TF 30), preparing manumission papers (TF 192), transmitting
requests for favors (TF 200), conducting diplomacy (TF chap. 15,
TS chaps. 16, 38), prayer (TF 297), drawing up contracts (TS 51),
requesting the hand of a woman (TS 52), composing religious poetry
(TS 61, 332), keeping inventories (TS 360), and drafting wills (TS
The ability to read and write was not limited to a small circle of
Moslem scholars, though we may assume that those who served as
scribes had a particular talent. Saad gives some sense of the degree
of literacy in Timbuktu during the rise of the Songhay empire. Ac-
cording to him, the majority of citizens were literate to some extent,
largely in order to conduct business of one kind or another. Those
who combined literacy with scholarship in the Moslem religion were
accorded special status, with a variety of gradations in ranking. He
estimates that there were between two and three hundred of these
scholars in Timbuktu during the sixteenth century (1983, 82).
They owed their loyalty, he points out, to the city and to their
colleagues, not to a particular regime or ruler. For this reason they
represented a power base that kings respected. Some served as advi-
sors to kings. For example, Mahoud Kati, the apparent narrator of
part of the TF, portrayed himself (or was portrayed by later narra-
tors) as very close to Askia Mohammed. He appears as one of the
ruler's representatives in negotiations with Chi Baro. Later Kati de-
scribes his trip with Askia Mohammed to Mecca.
The scribes, in my broad definition of the term, supported them-
selves from a wide variety of activities, ranging from teaching to
farming and tailoring. The TF indicates that Timbuktu had 150 to
180 Koranic schools in 1591. The most prestigious were supported
by Askia Mohammed, and, as Saad notes, "contributed to the suste-
nance of a large number of needy students and Alfas" (1983, 88).
Saad defines alfas as belonging to "an intermediate rank between
fully qualified scholars and the whole range of literate persons in the
city" (1983, 85).
The environment in Timbuktu that fostered the growth of such
an important class of literate people was in many ways unique to the
region. Gao, 424 kilometers downriver, also had a variety of con-
tacts outside the Sahel. But as Hunwick points out, the Islamic and
scholarly tradition was much weaker there, and hence, one may as-
sume, there was a comparatively lower rate of Arabic literacy than
in Timbuktu.


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

North African sources .. throw some light on Moroccan partici-
pation in religious life at Gao. Ibn Battuta, who visited the city
in 1353, mentions Muhammad al-Filali (i.e. of Tafilalt) who was
imam of the mosque of the Whites (al-bidan-Arabo-Berbers), so
there was presumably a "mosque of the Blacks" with a Sudanic
imam. Judicial functions were also in the hands of a southern Mo-
roccan. . Even if Gao were, by the fifteenth century, essentially
a Muslim town, it does not seem at this time, or even later under
the askias, to have had any reputation as a place of learning ....
We hear of no scholar or teacher who was regularly resident in
Gao other than the khatibs. Gao was essentially a political centre,
and the scholars and ascetics preferred to keep aloof from the po-
tentially corrupting influence of politics. This they were largely
able to do in Timbuktu . (1985, 11-13)

If Gao lacked the intellectual and scholarly tradition of Tim-
buktu, its rulers did rely on secretaries, or khattbs, for the conduct
of state business. Sonni Ali Ber, the last major figure of the dynasty
that preceded Askia Mohammed, depended on Ibrahim-El Khidr,
his secretary, for a variety of services. After ordering that the man
be killed because of some failing, the ruler later regretted his deci-
sion. He revealed that he needed the Moroccan to read the Rissdla,
a text that explains the basic elements of Islamic belief. (In this case,
add the translators in a note on page 178 of the TF, the text is proba-
bly by a tenth-century religious writer, "the Rissdla of Abou-Zeid
El-Qairouani, who shows the agreement between the four orthodox
rites by emphasizing above all the malekite rite." See Al-Qayrawani
for a 1975 edition of this text.) Fortunately, Sonni Ali Ber's aides
were accustomed to his whims and had spared the secretary (TS
110). One of the ironies in this incident is that it was Askia Moham-
med, one of Sonni Ali Ber's lieutenants, who played a key role in
saving the secretary's life. Although it is not clear why the ruler at-
tempted to take such action against a key servant, the incident seems
to reflect in a broader sense the distrust Sonni Ali Ber manifested
toward the culama', and particularly those of Timbuktu, whose alle-
giance rested with their city, their religion, and the cultures of the
The question of the relationship between Sonni Ali Ber and the
scholars raises the larger matter of the world outlook of these men
of the written word. If both they and their rulers were able to de-
velop a world view that extended far beyond the confines of the em-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

pire, this vision modified also their perspective on their own people.
The notions of ethnicity, social standing, and ideology appear some-
what blurred in their broader, Islamic view of the world. In his study
of the diffusion of Islam in West Africa, John Ralph Willis explains
that the acceptance of the religion in some ethnic groups "served to
break the distance between the social classes of these Sudanic peo-
ples. Membership in Islamic communities, in theory, was open to
individuals from all levels of society-slaves, artisans, the poor, and
the rich" (1979, 14). Whether or not this was entirely true then or
today remains open to question. But in the chronicles we do tend
to see people and events through a lens polarized by the two con-
cerns that mark the narrators' view: all that supports Islam is good,
that which militates against it is bad. In the multi-ethnic environment
of the region, especially in sixteenth-century Timbuktu, the origin
of those in power, those close to the rulers, and others is not always
clear. People who have not embraced Islam are simply branded as
"pagans" and fetishistss," terms charged with negative connotations.
Thus the chronicles afford little information on elements of tradi-
tional culture in their account of everyday life. This is particularly
true for healers, magicians, bards, and other specialists concerned
with the customs of particular ethnic groups. One cannot say, of
course, that Islam rejected outright witchcraft, magic, oracles, and
divination at the time these texts were written. We shall come upon
examples of some of these activities later in the chronicles. But as
I. M. Lewis points out, these forms of metaphysical intervention de-
pend for their validity on Moslem sources and goals (1966, 65).

The Symbiotic Rapport between Griots and Kings

Important as the scribes were for the functioning of society
at Askia Mohammed's time, they drew in part on the talents of those
other artisans of the word, the bards or griots, for one role that inter-
ests us here, that of recording events. Before discussing this relation-
ship, however, we need to examine more closely the two terms, bard
and griot.
According to the dictionary, bards produce poetry. Poetry is the
creation of verbal art, written or oral, patterned according to a sys-
tem of prosody. While no one now contests the assertion that Afri-
cans create poetry, it was scarcely more than a decade ago that
scholars of oral literature still debated the existence of the kind of
long narrative poetry in Africa that the Western world calls epic.


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

For Lilyan Kesteloot, in the Sahel it is the griot who transforms long
narratives into poetry by his singing (1971, 3). With Charles Bird's
discovery of complex systems of prosody in some long Mande narra-
tives (1972, 1976), as well as more recent work by other scholars,
the question has now been settled. Isidore Okpewho's Epic in Af-
rica (1979) and, in a more detailed way, John William Johnson's
"Yes, Virginia, There Is an Epic in Africa" (1980) offer comments
on the issue.
Even if most students of long African narratives accompanied by
music agree that the texts are poetic, we still have some distance to
go in defining the nature of these systems of prosody, which are quite
different from those at the roots of Western poetry. Johnson has de-
fined eight characteristics of Mande oral poetry (1986, chap. 3) and
his current work in progress on scansion systems of Somali verbal
art reveals enormous complexity in the way an African people hear
poetry. As we shall see later, in the Songhay world, a collection of
terms for telling history, reciting genealogy, and chanting praises
gives us the equivalent of what we know as epic.
Although the term epic is Western in origin, it does seem to de-
scribe fairly well the long African narratives that interest us here.
What, then, of the appellation griot, another foreign term used here
as a synonym for bard?
No one knows the origin of the word griot. In a seventy-page
glossary of African terms that he published in 1952, the French
scholar Raymond Mauny offered a definition in the form of a ques-
tion: "Griot (Ouolof, guewel, Toucouleur, gaul? or Port. Criado-
servant of the master, client?). Member of a despised but feared
caste of musician-genealogist-sorceror parasites existing in a large
number of West African peoples, living at the expense of chiefs for
whom they sing praises and recite genealogies" (40). Sory Camara,
who has written the most detailed study of griots in a particular eth-
nic group, the Malinke, notes that the term first appears in late
seventeenth-century travel accounts under the spelling guiriot (1976,
5). Vincent Monteil, a French scholar of Islam with a long interest
in Africa, provides a more detailed listing of early references to
griots in his excellent article, "Un cas d'economie ostentatoire: les
griots d'Afrique noire" (1968). More recently, the Nigerien re-
searcher Oumarou Watta has suggested in his doctoral dissertation
that the term griot is a French deformation of the Fulani term gawlo,
which, as we shall see shortly, appears in a variety of ethnic groups
to designate different kinds of bards. He points to the g, j, and o


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

sounds that survive in the term griot as evidence for an African root
to the term (1985, 86). But each ethnic group in the Sahel has one
or more words for people who carry out the functions associated
with the term griot: entertainer, musician, singer, genealogist,
spokesman, historian, and teacher. The term griot, as Watta sug-
gests, "is a French rendering of a cluster of conceptual referents"
(1985, 85). A more detailed listing follows for those who are particu-
larly interested in the complex nomenclature one finds across the
Among the Wolof gewel is the term for praise singers, while rabb
designates a griot subgroup that has given up secular praise-singing
(Irvine 1973, 483). Among most of the Mand6-speaking peoples it
is jeli or gawlo, the term for the lowest class of griots who insult peo-
ple to obtain rewards (Delafosse, cited in Seydou 1972, 21). The
Gambian Mandinka, according to Gordon Innes (1974, 3-4), use the
term jalo for griot, but qualify it several ways to indicate certain spe-
cial classes: danna jalo for hunters' griot, mbo jalo for itinerant en-
tertainer, and fino jalo for griots whose perspective is more deeply
rooted in Islamic studies. For the Sonink6, the term for griot isjesere
or kusatage, ("smith of the Kusa," according to Meillassoux,
Doucour6, and Simagha 1967, 13), depending on which clan the
griot represents. Jesere-dunka, master griot, time, descendant of
master griots, and simply jesere, ordinary griot, are terms the
Songhay have adopted, along with the generic Mande term for arti-
sans who must possess occult power to carry out their work,
nyamakala. In my interviews with more than a score of Songhay
bards in Niger, I could not find one who differentiated between
jesere and nyamakala, although Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan
(1982), a French anthropologist who draws on a wide range of infor-
mants, reports that the latter term is used primarily in the Zarma
area. For the Songhay, the word gawle indicates the lower-class griot
who seeks only to make money with his songs (157). Among the Fu-
lani in the Fouta Toro region, the generic term for bard is gawlo or,
less often, mabo, but farba designates master griot, while the awlube
knows the genealogy and praises for a particular family and the
nyamakala is simply a wandering singer and instrumentalist (Seydou
1972, 15-24). The same terms take on slightly different meanings
farther east, with the mabo speaking to nobles and the gawlo inter-
acting with other classes. But Christiane Seydou, quoting Henri
Gaden (both scholars with considerable experience studying the Fu-
lani), suggests that the mabo is actually of Mande origin. Moving


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

more to the east, we find that the Mossi use the term bendere for
griot, while the Hausa term is marok'a (Irvine 1973, 10). David W.
Ames and Anthony V. King, in their Glossary of Hausa Music and
Its Social Contexts (1971), list a variety of specialized functions des-
ignated by particular terms within this broader category.
Although the local word for bard may differ from one ethnic
group to another, and a comparison of the roles of bards may un-
cover a variety of functional differences, the griots seem to consti-
tute a significant human element common to diverse peoples from
Senegal eastward at least to Lake Chad. The earliest written refer-
ence to griots I have managed to locate dates back to the account
of Ibn Battuta's visit to the court of Mali in 1352-53. Battuta was
amused by what he viewed as the griots' bizarre behavior.

When it is a festival day . the poets called the julda (and the
singular is jail) come. Each one of them has got inside a costume
made of feathers to look like a thrush with a wooden head made
for it and a red beak as if it were the head of a bird. They stand
before the sultan in that ridiculous attire and recite their poetry.
It was mentioned to me that their poetry is a kind of preaching.
In it they tell the sultan that this banbt (described by the translators
as a sort of platform) on which he is, such and such of the kings
of Malli sat on it, and such and such were the good deeds of one,
and such and such another's. "So do good, that good will be re-
counted after you." Then the archpoet mounts the steps of the
banbt and places his head on the sultan's lap. Then he climbs to
the top of the banbi and places it on his right shoulder, then on
the left, meanwhile speaking in their tongue; thereupon he comes
down. I was informed that this performance is old amongst them;
they continued it from before Islam. (Hamdun and King 1975,

If Ibn Battuta did not understand much of what went on in this
ceremony, his report contains a brief example of one of the least-
known functions of the griot, that of inciting listeners to action. In
this case, the call is for the ruler to measure up to his predecessors.
In the epic of Sundiata, we find a more striking example of this hor-
tatory phenomenon when, on the night before a battle of Krina, the
griot Balla Fasseke reminds Sundiata and his warriors of their place
in history and asks them what he will be able to tell future genera-
tions about their deeds (Niane 1965, 114-116). In the version of the


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

epic chanted by Fa-Digi Sis6bk, we see a similar situation when the
griots incite Sundiata to respond to an insult from the Jolof king
(Johnson and Sis6k6 1986, 179).
S The bard, then, is a master of the spoken word, a phenomenon
that may be both ephemeral but also is quite powerful. One reason
for verbal power stems no doubt from the ancient Sahelian tradition
that words, like many other materials worked by man, are endowed
With an occult power, known as nyama among the Mand6-speaking
I peoples. In chapter 1 we saw that Sundiata built his reputation on
his nyama. The nyamakala possess or deal with great nyama. But
this power extends to many other kinds of people and materials in
the Mande world. A smith, for example, when working with gold,
may go to great precautions, including special incantations, absti-
nence from sexual activity, and anointment with powerful unguents,
to ensure that he has sufficient protection from the nyama that will
be unleashed when he smelts the precious metal. In L'Enfant noir,
the Guinean author Camara Laye (1953) offers a detailed portrait
of his father taking just such precautions before working gold. Pat-
rick McNaughton, in his recent study The Mande Blacksmiths:
Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (1988), provides a wide-
ranging discussion of the subject.
When the Mande bard chants and plays the twenty-one-stringed
kora, he generates nyama that could, according to traditional belief,
Skill an ordinary mortal. Johnson notes that "many people believe
Sthe power of the occult is conveyed in the bard's words, demon-
Sstrated vividly by the formula people often recite when giving gifts
Sto the bard after a performance: 'May the occult power be taken
away!' (Johnson and Sis6kb 1986, 23).
Among the Songhay, the word, as spoken by griots as well as
healers, diviners, and other specialists in the practice of their arts,
also conveys power. Jean Rouch points out that the Songhay re-
ceived considerable religious influence from Mali (1960, 12). Rouch
(1960), Paul Stoller (1980, 1989), Stoller and Olkes (1987), and Oliv-
ier de Sardan (1982) give a variety of examples of the powerful use
of the word among the Songhay, particularly the jindiize, or magic
formula. Boubou Hama, the late dean of scholars on the peoples
of Niger, refers to the importance of the word in many different
forms in almost every one of his diverse works. I shall return to
this topic in more detail in chapter 4.
Two centuries after Ibn Battuta described griots, we find in the
chronicles several references to griots and to the power of the spo-


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

ken word. In the TS, when Askia Ismail comes to the throne,
Houdas translates as "chanteur" a word for a man who proclaims
the importance of the event in such glowing terms that Ism'il suffers
a violent emotion and begins to bleed from the anus. In a striking
linkage of the oral and the written, the ruler blames the sudden mal-
ady on the Koran. "It happened only because of the Koran on which
I had sworn fidelity to Askia Mohammed Benkan. The holy book
exercises thus its punishment against me" (TS 171).
In response to my query about the basis for the French transla-
tion of the Arabic into "singer," Hunwick explained that the term
Houdas translated and that appears frequently in the TS is qayn,
which in Arabic means blacksmith, artisan, or by extension slave.
He adds, "I think al-Sacdi chose this word as a translation of
gyesere-'griot' since semantically it contains both the notions of so-
cial inferiority and (at least in the masculine) singing" (letter to the
author, June 17, 1987). Hunwick's interpretation fits the popular no-
tion of griots as members of the caste of artisans, nyamakala, and
in particular the griots who are often considered to be of lower social
status. I shall return to the matter of the social standing of griots
later in this chapter. But it is worth noting here, thanks to Hunwick's
new reading of the text, that this reference to the Soninke and
Songhay term for griot recurs in other contexts in the TS. See, for
example, an earlier reference to Askia Mohammed Benkan (chap.
14, p. 145) who likes fancy clothes, music, and "singers." There are
also references in chapter 16 to the "former singers," Mahmoud
Yaza and El-Amin Yaza. In chapter 17, where the booty of an expe-
dition includes Fulani bards, the narrator refers to them correctly
in the plural as mabi. In the same section he also mentions
"chanteurs and chanteuses."
Another example of the power of griots in the TS links the word
of the griot to the death of a ruler. When Daoud asks the musicians
to salute Askia Mohammed Bounkan, "upon hearing the cries of
these people, Askia Mohammed had a ruptured aneurism which led
to his sudden death" (171). Hunwick offers a slightly modified read-
ing of the original Arabic as follows: ". .. he ordered all the musi-
cians to greet Askia Muhammad Bunkan [Hunwick's spelling] by
playing their instruments. When he heard the sounds the veins of
his heart were severed and he died instantly" (letter to the author,
June 17, 1987).
The ruler's griot held a special relationship to his master. The
translators of the TF were puzzled by the term guissiridonkd, used


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

by both the Soninke and the Songhay to mean chief griot, and there-
fore included it in the original without translation. The sentence on
page 14 states that the head griot is the only one who may address
Askia Mohammed by his name. In the account of the reign of Askia
Mohammed's most respected son, Askia Daoud, who took power
in 1549, one of the authors of the TF observes that "Guissiridonke
Dako, son of Bounkan Fata, told me that this prince knew the Koran
by heart." Finally, the role of the griot as advisor appears in chapter
14 of the TS where the personal griot ("his singer") persuaded one
of Askia Mohammed's sons, Otsman, to reverse his decision to sub-
mit to another son, Askia Moussa, and thus saved his patron from
imminent death. The story of the griot's life-saving role is worth a
brief summary here.
In order to carry out a plan to strengthen his position, Moussa,
who had overthrown his father, Askia Mohammed, planned to kill
as many of his brothers as he could. Some of them fled upriver to
the Tendirma region and the protection of their brother Otsman
Youbabo, who held the next highest position in the government, that
of Kourmina-Fdri, governor of the western provinces. Moussa sent
letters both to Otsman and to the brother's mother requesting that
the Kourmina-Fdri come to Gao to demonstrate his loyalty to the
new ruler. Otsman ignored the first letter but was persuaded by his
mother to submit to Moussa. En route to the port on the Niger
where he would embark for the trip downriver to Gao, Otsman
heard his griot protest loudly: "Have the boats unloaded," he cried,
"everything in the boats. By my head, the one who speaks to you
will never place dust on his head for anyone."
Convinced by the griot that he should not make the trip, Otsman
returned home and prepared to demonstrate his rebellion against the
new ruler in such a way that one could no longer doubt what was
happening. The messenger of ruling prince Moussa returned to Gao.
He told his master what had happened, and the ruler prepared to
march on the Tendirma region (TS 136).
From the chronicles, then, we have a mixed picture of the social
standing of griots. The authors tell us that griots had very good ac-
cess to rulers, provided advice, and could even address their patrons
by their first names. But there are also references to the unreliability
of the oral tradition, which is discussed in the section entitled "The
Uneasy Relationship of Scribes and Bards." In other words, griots,
according to the authors of the chronicles, had much knowledge, but
it had to be verified. When this view is juxtaposed with the modern


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

urban attitude that the griot is a social parasite, it is difficult to un-
derstand just where the griot sits in the hierarchy of Sahelian society.
The confusion about the griots' status stems from two problems: a
misunderstanding about the meaning of caste in West Africa and the
modern economics of griotage.
The notion of caste, borrowed from India, implies the existence
of social hierarchy. Scholarship on West African castes has empha-
sized the low status of certain groups. Fatima Mounkaila points out
one widely held view that people of caste were originally of captive
origin. They raised their standing in society by acquiring skills that
were essential for the survival of the collectivity (interview with the
author September 11, 1989). Several paradoxes remained unex-
plained, however. For example, if griots were of such low status,
why, asks Bonnie L. Wright, an American researcher who has stud-
ied Wolof society, do people of ostensibly higher standing fear them
so much? In "The Power of Articulation," she responds: "It is my
contention that the West African caste system, rather than being
composed of hierarchically ranked groups, is really best understood
as a set of groups differentiated by innate capacity-or power-
sources. The inequalities of the system are less ones of rank than
of culturally defined realms of power, the conjunction of all these
realms constituting the social universe" (Wright, 1989, 42).
Although Wright's research was limited largely to the Wolof of
Senegal, Johnson draws the same conclusion when discussing the
Mande world. The endogamous groups that control certain occupa-
tions (weaving, metalworking, leatherworking, praise singing, etc.)
"are not 'despised,' as is the case in areas of the world such as India.
In Mali, they are more correctly described as socio-economic family
monopolies, and not hierarchical pecking orders" (Johnson and
Sis6k6 1986, 22).
Sory Camara points out that the nyamakala among the Malink6,
known popularly as people of caste, are neither noble nor captive.
He explains that the view of griots as inferior comes from the obser-
vation that they lack the social mobility of members of the noble and
captive classes. But in fact they share some traits of both of these
groups. It is for this reason that he places them in a separate cate-
gory, outside of the hierarchy composed of nobles and captives
(1976, 65-66).
In his analyses of Songhay society, Olivier de Sardan concerns
himself more with the matter of class than with caste (1982, 1984).
But he does distinguish between ordinary griots and master griots.


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

His sources term the ordinary griot, or jesere, a parasite, but place
the master griot, or jesere-dunka, in a much higher category. These,
they report, come from Mali (1982, 224-25). As Olivier de Sardan
points out, however, the distinction is quickly disappearing because
the conditions are no longer what they were centuries ago when war-
riors and kings directed the course of events.
Caste, then, appears to be a less useful concept for determining
the status of griots today than the social conditions in which they
operate. From my research in Niger and a survey of others who have
worked with griots, it is apparent that the social status of these word-
smiths depends to a large extent on their talent, their relationships
with others who have high status, and their income. Society provides
great rewards for highly qualified griots. From my recent survey of
the economic situation of griots, based on my contacts and those of
other scholars who have worked with bards in Senegal, Mali, and
Niger, it is clear that many talented griots have done extremely well
financially from their performances. This success has, in some mea-
sure, attracted new recruits to the profession. People who have
power-either from birth into the traditional aristocracy or from ed-
ucation and position in the newer business and administrative
hierarchy-seek to legitimize their status by calling upon the ser-
vices of the best griots. Modern technology, from the airplane to tel-
evision, radio, the cassette tape recorder, and the video camera ena-
bles griots to reach not only these people, who have relatively great
financial resources, but much larger audiences in their own countries
and abroad.
One consequence of these rapidly changing conditions is that a
large class of fake or second-rate griots has emerged in urban areas,
eager to help people celebrate the special events of life and, of
course, anxious to share in the rewards these occasions generate. Al-
though I have not been able to document this apparent increase, the
situation became so bad that, in Niger, the late President Seyni
Kountche expressed his concern about griots as sources of economic
waste in his annual message to the nation on December 17, 1979.
Three months after his speech, four scholars from different disci-
plines produced a series of recommendations in a mimeographed
document entitled "Reflexions sur l'integration des griots dans le
processus de developpement economique, social, et cultural du
Niger." The proposals of Kel6tigui Mariko, Ousseini Abdou, Andre
Salifou, and Dioulde Laya were discussed at a weeklong seminar in
January 1981, presided over by the Minister of Youth, Sports, and


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

Culture, then Commander Moumouni Adamou Djermakoye, and
including representatives of the government, the griots, and other
interested groups. The first proposal approved was to replace the
term griot with three words: artist, singer, and musician. Other rec-
ommendations adopted included the establishment of an association
for these professionals of the word; a school to train them; a medal
to recompense the best performers; departments of national lan-
guages, African literature and philosophy, and ethnomusicology at
the University of Niamey; and a national conservatory of arts and
The reputations of some of the great bards who perform for pres-
idents, travel abroad, and make recordings has been untarnished by
the increase in the number of urban griots. Djibo Badie, known pop-
ularly as Djeliba, and before him his late father, Badie Bagna, per-
formed for and traveled with the leaders of Niger during the last four
decades. In Mali, Ban Soumana Sisobk and other griots were in-
vited to chant and play at the presidential palace. Griots now appear
frequently in Europe. Malian master griot Batourou Sekou Kouyate
made a highly successful tour of the United States in 1978, thanks
in large part to the efforts of Charles Bird. He visited many univer-
sity campuses and offered an extraordinarily successful performance
in Washington at the American Museum of Natural History of the
Smithsonian Institution. In 1979 Gambian griot Al Haji Bai Konte
was the subject of a short film shot in his hometown of Brikama by
Oliver Franklin and Marc Pevar. The following year Konte and his
entourage performed throughout the United States and made re-
cordings. In fall 1986 Gambian griot Amadou Djobate taught at
Washington State University, and today one of his compatriots,
Foday Musa Suso, has established himself in Chicago. One reads
often in the entertainment pages of American newspapers reviews
of performances by griots as well as other kinds of African musi-
cians. The difference in audiences, of course, is enormous. When
these bards perform for their own people, they convey a cultural
heritage that their listeners can understand. In Europe or North
America, it is the delicate sound of the kora that attracts the atten-
tion of listeners interested in new forms of instrumental music.
One exception to the usual monolingual performance is the Gam-
bian griot Papa Bunka Susso, Foday Musa Suso's cousin. Papa Susso
was born in 1947 and grew up in Sotuma Sere, a village 360 kilome-
ters upriver from Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. The son of
Bunka Susso and nephew of Bamba Suso, whose version of the


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Sundiata epic was published by Gordon Innes in 1974, Papa Susso
attended local primary and secondary schools and then earned a
scholarship to study accounting at Cuttington College in Liberia.
After returning to The Gambia in 1977 with a college diploma, he
worked as an accountant for seven years in the Ministry of Finance
and Trade. Dissatisfied with a civil servant's low pay, he returned
to his father's home to become a full-time griot, a profession for
which he had already qualified. He worked first for two years as chief
kora player with The Gambian National Troupe and then went off
to establish his own group, the Sora Musa Troupe, named after
Mansa Moussa, the Malian ruler who traveled to Mecca. Performing
at hotels, weddings, naming ceremonies, and other events, he has
prospered and now has a studio in The Gambia. What distinguishes
Papa Susso from every other griot I have encountered is that he is
the most capable of bridging the linguistic gulf between his tradition
and anglophone audiences.
During a brief visit to the Pennsylvania State University in Feb-
ruary 1988, he gave a public performance in Mandekan but paused
between songs to explain in English what he was singing. He demon-
strated the workings of the kora, described his training, and com-
mented on the art of the griot. In addition to the performance, he
gave two radio interviews and lectured in five courses in literature,
mythology, and history.
A weeklong return visit in January 1989 allowed him to meet
with many administrators at Penn State. He also conducted lecture/
performances in classes at the university, the local secondary
schools, and a nursery school. Finally, he participated in a ninety-
minute interactive performance and interview via satellite with stu-
dents from six other campuses of Penn State in other parts of Penn-
sylvania. Of the three griots who have visited Penn State in the last
decade, Papa Susso was the most effective in educating his audiences
about his verbal art.
Papa Susso, a modern griot who can be reached by direct-dial
telephone from almost any point on the globe, appears to operate
in a world far removed from his ancestors. His verbal art may often
be "mediatis6," to use the French term Paul Zumthor prefers for
oral art that reaches its audience through another medium (1983,
62). But he still builds his own instruments and sings songs that con-
vey the Mande oral tradition. In spite of the differences in communi-
cations, transportation, rewards, and performance context, we may


Scribes, Bards, and Griots

conclude that in the sixteenth century, as now, master griots com-
manded great respect in society.

The Uneasy Relationship between
Scribes and Griots

The two types of masters of the word offered services that some-
times overlapped. For example, according to the authors of the TF,
Askia Mohammed is supposed to have sent Mahmoud Kati, one of
the narrators of the chronicle, to Chi Baro three times to convey a
demand. But he might well have sent a griot instead, just as, at the
end of the nineteenth century, the last Mand6 rebel, Samory Tour6,
sent a griot to France to negotiate with the French (Camara 1976,
208-11). A scribe might know the genealogy of a family as well as
a griot, but, of course, the public recounting or singing of that line-
age would have a much broader and more immediate impact than
a mere listing in Arabic on paper. One might well ask, then, if there
was competition between the scribes and bards for the favors of their
patrons and just what was the relationship between the two kinds
of wordsmiths.
On several occasions, the narrators of the chronicles acknowl-
edge bards as sources of information. For example, in chapter 1 of
the TF, the author announces that he will describe Sonni Ali Ber
by drawing upon both written and oral sources. Although there is
little doubt that this first chapter is a nineteenth-century addition to
the original seventeenth-century version, this pattern of reliance on
a variety of sources, written and oral, is maintained throughout the
parts of the document that appear to have been written earlier. But
we also encounter reservations about oral sources. For example, in
chapter 5, devoted to Sonni Ali Ber, the author distinguishes clearly
between what he is about to report of the Songhay era and accounts
of the earlier empires, Ghana and Mali, which come exclusively from
the oral tradition (TF 80). Later, in relating the loss of Askia Mo-
hammed's sword during the reign of Askia Ismail (1537-38), he re-
ports what he considers to be an untrue legend about the origin of
the sword. He also cites three versions of its loss. Even when he re-
lates an account provided by a griot-whether it is about Daoud's
ability to read the Koran (TF 177) or the lengthy and tragic story
of Ishaq II, the ruler defeated by the Moroccans in 1591-the narra-
tor points out that he has corroborated the story from other sources.


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

In the case of Ishaq II, the narrator explains: "I report these details
from the chief griot Boukari, who gave me the account of these
events; others in whom I have complete confidence have also told
me the same story" (TF 276).
The message appears to be that a chief griot is a worthy source
primarily because of his relationship with the ruler, but between the
lines the scribe seems to hint that one cannot rely solely on such a
These two specialists of the word, scribes and bards, carried out
different but related functions in the service of the empire's leaders.
Neither one was obliged to focus entirely on the maintenance of his-
tory. Those scribes who happened to have used the written word to
record events of the day played many other roles. Both appear to
have enjoyed considerable respect from their patrons, the rulers. We
find numerous examples of kings coming to visit scholars, rather than
vice versa, in the chronicles. And, as I have mentioned earlier, a nar-
rator of the TF reports that the griot is the only man who is allowed
to address the ruler by his first name. What links the two, then, is
their service to the elite and their reliance upon the word to describe
the world in which they and their leaders lived.
There are some similarities and a variety of fundamental differ-
ences between the two kinds of media the chroniclers and the griot
employ to describe the Songhay and their leaders. In chapter 3, I shall
compare the sources, the chronicles and the oral epic, before pro-
ceeding, in chapter 4, to a closer examination of just how each por-
trays the Songhay.


Chapter 3


The description of Askia Mohammed and his time in the first chapter
came from written and, to a lesser extent, oral sources that historians
have examined in order to reconstruct the Sahelian past. Scholars
who contributed to this description had to weigh carefully the infor-
mation available from these diverse accounts in order to establish
the most plausible version of events and descriptions of people.
Given the limited number of texts from the region in comparison
with what is available in, for example, Europe, this formidable task
could be likened to assembling a very large puzzle for which nearly
all the pieces have disappeared.
If, however, we view our sources from a literary instead of hist-
orical perspective, the question of the missing pieces is no longer rel-
evant. We shift from an incomplete portrait of the past to complete
tableaux in different styles that have survived to the present. One
feature of the chronicles that encourages us to make this shift from
a historical to a literary interpretation is their multigeneric nature.
When we look more closely at them, we discover a great variety of
verbal forms: eyewitness accounts of some events; stories and leg-
ends obtained from griots, relatives, and friends; excerpts and sum-
maries from written sources of many kinds; genealogies and dates;
texts of letters, passes, and other documents; prayers; and prophe-
cies. Each invites a different type of interpretation.
As might be expected, the chronicles, especially the TF, also con-
tain numerous internal contradictions. They come to us in the form
of many layers of verbal strata. We find words in African languages
that the scribes have transcribed directly into Arabic. Copyists,
in turn, have made revisions and inserted marginal notes. A


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

nineteenth-century ruler has added a layer of politically motivated
modifications. The French translators have included these revisions
but skipped other parts of the texts. What we find before us, then,
are several centuries of textual readings, each calling for a new inter-
pretation. It is for this reason that when I quote from the TF it is
difficult to distinguish between the authors of the text-authors from
the sixteenth through the nineteenth century-and the narrator who
may be either a real or a fictive eyewitness to events.
My purpose here, then, is not to deny the historian the challenge
of sifting this heterogeneous mass of material for new insights on
Sahelian history. Instead, it is worthwhile to step back from the text
in order to view the whole as a collective interpretation of the past
with a significance that does not depend entirely on what the West-
ern world would interpret as historical verity. My concern here in
discussing sources stems from the way they reflect the past through
the prism of time to the present. I shall trace briefly what little is
known about the transformations the chronicles have undergone
over the centuries and explain how they came into the hands of Eu-
ropean scholars. Then I shall situate the narrative by Nouhou Malio,
which I recorded in 1980-81, in the context of others collected and
published to date.

The Chronicles: Itineraries of the Written Word

Although scholars know much about the particular manuscripts that
serve as the basis for the French translations used today by most his-
torians, information about the path from the seventeenth century to
the turn of the twentieth century, when these texts were collected
and sent to Paris for publication, is much less clear. Here I shall re-
port what is known about the way these texts came into European
hands. The generalist as well as those who have read the French in-
troductions to these texts may want to skip ahead to the next section
on oral sources.
The TS bears the name of Abderrahman es-Sa'di, a religious
leader and, later, chief secretary in the Moroccan-controlled admin-
istration of Timbuktu. He was born in that city in 1596 and appar-
ently wrote his account during the mid-seventeenth century. Histori-
ans view the TS as the most detailed and accurate account of the
Songhay empire and the Moroccan protectorate that followed.
Heinrich Barth, a German scholar, discovered a copy of the manu-
script in Gwandu, located in the northwestern corner of Nigeria, in



1852 during a wide-ranging trip in West Africa that lasted for five
years. Gwandu, less than 100 kilometers from the current border
with Niger, is in an area that was once influenced, if not controlled,
by Songhay-speaking peoples. The evidence comes in part from the
Songhay place names in the region, notably Argungu ("Island in the
water" in Songhay), a town on the Sokoto River 40 kilometers to
the northwest of Gwandu. Barth was able to draw much information
from the manuscript, as well as copy excerpts for his Travels and Dis-
coveries in North and Central Africa (1857-58). Felix Dubois, a
French traveler to Timbuktu at the end of the nineteenth century,
was the first European to obtain a copy of the narrative. Octave
Houdas published a translation in French, dated 1898-1900 and
based on three manuscripts, the oldest of which, notes Hunwick
(1973), was copied in 1792. This French version, then, is based on
a copy of the Arabic text. We do not know how faithful was the copy
brought back by Dubois, nor if the original was a copy of an earlier
The TF has a somewhat more complicated origin rooted in sev-
eral manuscripts. Houdas, a professor at the Ecole des Langues
Orientales Vivantes in Paris, and his collaborator Maurice
Delafosse, listed as an instructor at the same institution but who is
better known as a former colonial governor and professor at the
Ecole Coloniale, explain in the introduction to the French edition
that Dubois encountered many references to this chronicle in the
course of his travels in the late nineteenth century but had been un-
able to locate a copy.
A. Bonnel de Mezieres, a French scholar sent on a mission to
Timbuktu and Taod6ni in 1911 by Governor Frangois Clozel, admin-
istrator for the Upper Senegal-Niger region, managed to locate a
copy of the TF in Timbuktu, reputedly the only one remaining in
the city. The manuscript, however, was lacking a cover page and
what the translators later termed the first chapter. Bonnel de
M6zieres persuaded the owner of the manuscript, a Moslem scholar
named Sidi Mohammed El-Imam ben es-Soyouti, to allow a copy to
be made. Houdas and Delafosse explain that this copy was sent by
Governor Clozel to the Ecole des Langues Vivantes Orientales in
Paris for possible translation and publication before being deposited
in the Bibliotheque Nationale. The translators describe this as manu-
script B.
Houdas and Delafosse, seeking a second copy to compare with
B, requested via Bonnel de Mezieres that Sidi Mohammed El-Imam


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

ben es-Soyouti locate another manuscript. Es-Soyouti was unable to
find another, so he sent his own to Paris. Houdas and Delafosse
note, however, that this rare copy, the oldest they were able to ob-
tain, "is certainly not the original manuscript of the author, but it
constitutes a copy which is assuredly quite old, if one can judge from
the state of the paper and the color of the ink" (TF, viii-x).
Manuscript A revealed two kinds of new information. First, re-
ported Houdas and Delafosse, it showed that copy B contained a
number of omissions and errors. Moreover, A had numerous mar-
ginal notes of great value for the translators. Finally, although the
translators do not mention it, these differences between the two
copies-the second made from the first under the supervision of the
first's owner-demonstrate just how much a manuscript could
change from one copying to another.
In 1912 the translators obtained a third manuscript, C, from an-
other colonial administrator, Jules Brevie, who had had it made
from a very old manuscript in Kayes, a town in Mali 1,000 kilometers
west of Timbuktu near the border with Senegal. Dated May 29,
1912, this version was a copy of an old and deteriorating example.
The task of copying was supervised by Abdoulaye Waly Bah, a mem-
ber of the local Moslem elite. This text, similar in many ways to A
and B, contained the entire manuscript, including additional parts
not included in A and B, especially an introductory chapter on Askia
Mohammed, as well as a chapter on Sonni Ali Ber apparently copied
from the TS or vice versa. The additional sections, suggest the trans-
lators, are those inserted or modified by the Fulani cleric Sekou Am-
adou (1755-1844), who ruled the Macina area of Mali from the
mid-1820s to 1844.

Having heard about the prophecies contained in the TF, he no
doubt wanted to modify them slightly so that they could be applied
to him without any doubt and it is quite possible that he had all
the unmodified copies destroyed or at the least the parts of those
copies which could be compromising for him. This would explain
why the manuscript of El-Imam ben es-Soyoiti appeared without
its first chapter and how all the passages of the Fettdssi which we
had heard about until now were only those dealing with the arrival
in the Macina, at the beginning of the 19th century of our time,
of a caliph named Ahmed, these passages having been distributed
widely by Sekou Hamadou for his own interests. If this is the case,
it is highly probable that the copy acquired in Kayes by Mr. Brevi6



is from a copy modified by S6kou Hamadou, which renders credi-
ble the perfect exactness of the prophecy going back several cen-
turies. This thing, moreover, has very little importance from a
historical perspective, the prophecy being, in the work which con-
cerns us here, an appetizer which is more of a curiosity than some-
thing which really interests us. (TF, xii)

David Robinson (n.d.) refers to this incident as "the most ambi-
tious forgery in African history." He explains that the revision of
history "contained two parts, both placed in the words of the impor-
tant Egyptian scholar, al-Suyuti (d. 1505), to Askia Mohammed dur-
ing the latter's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1495-97. The better known
prophesy established the Askia as the eleventh caliph of the Islamic
world and Seku Amadu as the twelfth and last. The lesser known
but equally important declaration gave the Askia and Amadu con-
trol of 12 'servile tribes'; groups of artisans and other producers es-
sential to the economy of the Middle Niger."
There is some debate over the extent of the modification to man-
uscript C. Levtzion, notes Robinson, has discounted all of manu-
script C as contaminated. But Robinson (n.d.) suggests that "some
of the material is almost certainly authentic and may even once have
been part of the original Ta'rikh al-Fattash." The Beninois historian
Zakari Dramani-Issifou argues that the editor/translators should
have given much more attention to this introductory modification
because it is here that we find the only reference to the servile castes
in the Sudan, "one of the basic elements of the social and economic
life in the Songhay empire" (1982, 29).
According to Houdas and Delafosse, the French version of the
Tarikh el-Fettach is based on the three different manuscripts, A, B,
and C. They describe the procedure they followed in comparing
each manuscript. Although C was signed by a Mahmoud Kati, inter-
nal evidence reveals that probably his grandson edited notes Kati
had left. In fact, the manuscript begins in 1519 and includes events
that took place as late as 1665-ten years after the last date cited
in the TS. Hunwick and Levtzion, two scholars who are among the
most familiar with these texts, argue that the Kati listed as author
in C is not a contemporary of Askia Mohammed but rather a man
born in 1525 who served as an advisor to Askia Daoud, the best-
known son of Askia Mohammed, who ruled from 1549 to 1582. The
text that has come down to us today was apparently edited by Ibn
al-Mokhtar, one of Kati's grandsons, who brought together informa-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

tion from many other members of the Kati family (Hunwick 1969;
Levtzion 1971; Dramani-Issifou 1982).
Houdas and Delafosse's impact on the TF appears in two layers.
First, these scholars established a printed Arabic version of the text
by selecting from all three manuscripts. This version, then, is a distil-
lation, in one sense, of manuscripts A, B, and C. Their translation
of this text into French constitutes another layer of interpretation,
marked by the limitations of contemporary Western knowledge
about this form of Arabic writing and the peoples they described.
The TF appears, then, as a product of many people over the cen-
turies, from Kati to his grandson, the copyists, the scribes of Sekou
Amadou (the S6kou Hamadou listed earlier and, finally, Houdas
and Delafosse. But in spite of inevitable changes produced by such
a lengthy itinerary, both the TF and the TS have acquired great
value for historians of West Africa precisely because they offer some
of the earliest and most detailed portrayals of life in the Songhay
empire five centuries ago. Dramani-Issifou argues that these texts,
in spite of the problems in them that we are beginning to discern
more clearly, "have constituted the essential of our authentically Af-
rican sources of information about the internal and external history
of the countries in the Niger River region of the Sudan" (1982, 27).
But only a handful of scholars with the specialized training necessary
to decipher Arabic from the medieval period can read them in the
original. The French translations thus provide the only access for the
vast majority of researchers in the world today. For this reason, Ar-
abists who work with the original versions usually take pains to in-
clude page references to both the Arabic and the translation.
The French versions constitute, then, the most recent "interpre-
tation" of the West African past and cannot be dismissed because
of the presumed political ideology of the translators or because of
their errors. It is true that the French colonial policy toward Islam
at the time these translations were being made was to favor tradi-
tional Islamic tendencies as well as to counter both African belief
systems and those who sought to bring what were termed radical or
reactionary interpretations of Islam to the people. In this context,
Dramani-Issifou (1982) has argued that the efforts of French admin-
istrators to collect and forward these texts contributed in a small way
to the broader colonial policies of France. These policies were out-
lined by Robert Arnaud, chief of the Moslem Affairs Section for
French West Africa, in a 1912 publication, L'Islam et la politique
musulmane frangaise en Afrique occidentale frangaise. Dramani-



Issifou links the inclusion of the nineteenth-century revisions to the
TF to this policy by pointing out that the short-term goal of the
French, when confronted with the difficulties posed by resistance
from Moslem leaders such as Samory Toure, was to gain the support
of more conservative local Moslem leaders who might believe in the
prophecy inserted by Sekou Amadou that announced the arrival of
a new caliph of the Sudan in the nineteenth century who would rule
over certain "servile" peoples.

We think .. that to deal tactfully with the concerns of these Mos-
lem chiefs, 0. Houdas and above all M. Delafosse did not seek
to stigmatise the contradictions and the fraudulent character of the
prophecies contained in manuscript C. It is in this spirit that one
must quite certainly understand the dilemma which the French co-
lonial administration encountered in the middle of the 19th cen-
tury, confronted with the widespread practice of slavery in West
Africa and which is underscored in the letter of Governor of Sene-
gal [Louis] Faidherbe to his minister, April 30, 1865: "Should we
have, as we were annexing territory since 1848, enforced the
emancipation decree? . Rigorously, it is what the spirit of the
law requires." But "this measure which would have produced a
great disruption" was not, alas, taken. (1982, 30)

One could argue that French control over the area was minimal
in 1865 and that the manuscripts were the most interesting artifacts
these isolated colonial administrators encountered at the time.
Whether or not one agrees with Dramani-Issifou's interpretation of
the inclusion of the Sekou Amadou fragment in the TF, we cannot
deny that the French editors and translators left their mark on the
manuscripts that passed through their hands. But as Arabists begin
to understand the manuscripts themselves and compare them with
more recently discovered texts, we are reminded that the French
translations are only one part of a much broader range of problems
inherent in these chronicles, beginning with the transliteration of Af-
rican terms.
Hunwick (1973) lists a variety of phonetic, orthographic, and se-
mantic obstacles in the texts. Among them are the deformation of
words by copyists, missing vowel markings, and integration of mar-
ginal comments into the body of subsequent copies. With advances
in our knowledge of the Arabic used in the region at the time the
chronicles were composed, the discovery of new manuscripts, and


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

the reexamination of those that have served as the basis for the cur-
rent translations, we can expect the resolution of a number of ambi-
guities in the interpretation of these texts.
For example, Hunwick reports the existence of an Arabic history
of the Askias in the de Gironcourt collection at the Bibliotheque de
l'Institut de France. It was collected in 1910-11. This version includes
the names of some rulers not listed in the two major chronicles on
which I have based this study (letter to the author, February 18,
1988). Although I look forward to more information about these
lesser-known texts and the publication of new translations of the
more familiar ones before the year 2000, we must make do with what
African and French interpreters of the past have left us, the aging
but still valuable editions of the TS and the TF.

The Oral Narratives: Contemporary Windows
on the Past

The story of Askia Mohammed is well known in Mali and Niger,
but unlike the epic of Sundiata, for which we have many, many pub-
lished versions today, there are no long published narrative accounts
of the ruler of the Songhay empire. There are numerous references
to Askia Mohammed and a handful of much shorter versions. What-
ever the form or length, each represents an interpretation of the
past. For the people claiming Songhay ancestry who settled in the
region of T6ra and along the Niger River, known as Maamar hamey,
or descendants of Askia Mohammed, the text stands as more than
their own link with the past. Olivier de Sardan suggests that these
people "constitute the dominant class in pre-colonial society . and
have therefore oriented the oral tradition in their direction and for
their benefit, confusing the history of the country with the history
of their own group" (1982, 285).
If, then, we seek the truth about the past via the oral tradition,
following Olivier de Sardan's view, one would expect to encounter
the same kind of evolution or modification over time-although per-
haps more gradually-as we saw in the chronicles. As we shall see
later in the different portrayals of the Songhay past, the griots, in
fact, do telescope history to reveal a view of the aristocracy that
glosses over the major catastrophe in Songhay history, the fall of
Gao. Instead of focusing on a defeat that, according to the chroni-
cles, was the fault of the ruling class, the griots prefer to emphasize



the valor of those Songhay who mounted a stiff resistance to the in-
vaders after 1591.
In Niger, one of the earliest published versions appeared in brief
form in the reports produced by the Tilho Mission to West Africa
between 1906 and 1909. A primary goal of the trip was to define the
frontier between Niger and Nigeria. But in the course of the mission,
the leaders collected a variety of information on the local people.
Volume 2 of Documents scientifiques de la mission Tilho (1911) con-
tains a section on the history of local peoples written by the inter-
preting officer for the mission, Moise Landeroin. We learn that in
the Dendi region the chiefs claim descent from Askia Mohammed
and that they are able to recount their history as far back as Sonni
Ali Ber. The two-page summary of the life of Askia Mohammed re-
corded from local informants includes the trip to Mecca but omits
any other information on the ruler's reign.
The only published oral narrative account of Askia Mohammed
from an identifiable source was chanted by the late griot Badie
Bagna, patriarch of a family of griots from Libor6, a small town 15
kilometers south of Niamey. Recorded by Jean Rouch in 1962, it
covers Askia Mohammed's birth and rise to power in a little over
four pages of prose (Laya 1978, 28-34).
There are also numerous references to the oral tradition in the
works of the late Boubou Hama. With few exceptions, however,
there are no indications as to the date, location, and informant. One
of those exceptions is an account of three trips by Askia Mohammed
told by Diori Binga, a businessman in Bouake, Ivory Coast. He
comes from the town of Kokoro in the T6ra region of western Niger,
a postempire principality, but grew up in the Boboye area east of
Niamey. He describes Askia Mohammed's expedition to the Bargou
region in northern Benin, a second expedition to northern Nigeria,
and a third south toward the Dendi region and then east toward
Bornou (Hama 1968, 157-62). Another exception is a long excerpt
from a version recorded in Tera by a French administrator named
Larue which matches that recounted by Nouhou Malio. I shall re-
turn to this version in chapter 7. Hama also composed a series of
poetic dialogues about Askia Mohammed, Askia Daoud, and other
figures of the Songhay past in Manta Mantaari, a fifty-four-page
mimeographed text entirely in Songhay published in 1969. He later
wrote two long poems, "Kassey ou la femme au destin tragique" and
"La Force du lait et la guerre du Bargou," (1972, 165-86). In 1980,


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

with Andree Clair, he published a fifteen-page narrative in dramatic
form that recounts the birth of Askia Mohammed and takes the
reader to the battle against the Bargantche. The title reflects the
text's emphasis on the ruler's mother Kassaye and her magic power:
"Kassey et le secret des Soniankes."
In 1977, according to Hunwick, a version of the epic of Askia Mo-
hammed was presented in mimeographed form at the Socie6t
Commercial de l'Ouest Africain (SCOA) Foundation colloquium
in Niamey. He believes that it was recently collected and little more
than a reworking of information from the chronicles (letter to the
author, February 18, 1988). I have not yet consulted this text.
In 1982 Zakari Dramani-Issifou cited several oral traditions from
T6ra concerning the birth of Askia Mohammed, including informa-
tion collected apparently by Alou Himadou in 1947 under the title
"Traditions orales du T6ra sur l'empire Songhai par Alou Himadou
(1947)." This information was reported by French scholar Rene
Dutel to Felix Iroko, author of a doctoral thesis entitled Gao des
origins a 1591 (cited in Dramani-Issifou 1982, 52). Iroko also in-
cludes a description of the fall of Gao he recorded in that city from
an informant listed as Ganda Naiga, probably a misspelling of
Maiga, a common Songhay name of those who claim descent from
Askia Mohammed (cited in Dramani-Issifou 1982, 52).
In 1983 Malian scholar Mahmoud Abdou Zouber published a se-
ries of short Songhay texts recorded in 1981 in Tindirma, Morikoyra,
Arham, and Dire, upriver from Timbuktu in the region that re-
mained under Moroccan control or influence for the longest period
of time. The sources are not griots, but local elders and others famil-
iar with the history of the region. The focus in several of the conver-
sations is on Askia Mohammed's brother Amar Komdiago, his
teacher and cousin Mori Hawgarou, and the ruler's pilgrimage to
The versions I collected in 1980-81 vary greatly in length, from
ten minutes to two hours. The location of the sources varies too,
from several griots in Niamey as well as from their counterparts in
Say (50 kilometers south of Niamey), Saga (3 kilometers downriver
from Niamey), Karma (40 kilometers upriver), Kwarey-Haoussa (55
kilometers upriver from Niamey), Garbey Kourou (62 kilometers
upriver, then 5 kilometers east along the Sirba River), Darkinde (15
kilometers east of Gotheye on the road to T6ra), Dibilo (20 kilome-
ters north of T6ra), and Firgoun (200 kilometers upriver from Nia-
mey). In my search for griots capable of recounting the story of the



Songhay ruler, I found that not all admitted to knowing it. In several
cases a griot of apparently modest talents referred me to a master
griot who, more often than not, knew a version of the story of Askia
Mohammed. This was the case for Nouhou Malio. A griot in Niamey
to whom I had been referred said that he did not know the story
of Askia Mohammed well and that I should therefore see the master
griot in Saga, Nouhou Malio, for a more complete version.
While it is possible that some of these griots simply did not want
to chant the epic for me, an outsider in their society, my impression
was that those who knew the text were proud of their knowledge
and seemed eager to reap whatever rewards they could from narrat-
ing a version of it for a visitor. At no time did I approach a griot
directly. A third party, nearly always a Songhay or a Zarma with
a strong interest in the oral tradition of his people, served as an in-
Some of the episodes are found in all versions-for example, the
story of Askia Daoud killing the lions. But Nouhou Malio was
the only one to provide a detailed account of the story of Askia
Mohammed's birth. Other griots-such as the brother of the late
Badie Bagna, Garba Bagna from Libore-listed more peoples con-
quered and emphasized to a greater extent the violence of Askia Mo-
hammed in spreading Islam. Garba Bagna also included the alliance
with the Zarma and the defeat of the invading Arma. Other griots
used a higher percentage of Sonink6 in their narratives, especially
Ayouba Tessa in Garbey Kourou and Tahirou Mossi from Darkind6.
But Nouhou Malio was the only one to recount a relatively coherent
series of episodes beginning with the birth of the ruler and continu-
ing down to the death of Yefarma Issaka. The only griot to come
close to the version narrated by Nouhou Malio was the late Badie
Bagna in the version published in the collection Textes Songhay-
Zarmas (Laya 1978).
While I cannot claim to have contacted all the griots in western
Niger who might know the epic, Nouhou Malio's version was the
most detailed available to me at the time. This impression comes
from a combination of factors: my travels over a wide area of
Songhay-speaking peoples during a yearlong period of research;
comparisons not only between those versions I collected but also
with two recorded from Badie Bagna, the master griot cited above
(the first the version published in 1978 and the second a recording
made by Dioulde Laya in July 1969, a copy of which was provided
to me by the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the Univer-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

sity of Niamey); and discussions with griots about their colleagues.
As the result of these sessions, by May 1981 I had developed a
sharper awareness of the difference between master and apprentice
griots in western Niger. Finally, my sense that I had chosen for
closer analysis the most appropriate recording of the many I had
made in 1980-81 was confirmed by Dioulde Laya, the scholar with
the broadest background in the oral tradition of Niger.

Literary and Performance Considerations

Orality in the chronicles. Until now I have distinguished between the
terms oral and written to designate two rather different forms of
communication. But in fact, as Zumthor reminds us, they simply
represent extremes on the same spectrum (1983, 35). It is useful to
point out here, however, several similarities as well as differences
between the two forms.
First, the written nature of the chronicles should not obscure the
fact that they stem from a tradition that combines both the written
and the oral in the recitation of texts. In her recent study entitled
The Art of Reciting the Qur'an, Kristina Nelson points out that "the
transmission of the Qur'an and its social existence are essentially
oral. Qur'anic rhythm and assonance alone confirm that is is meant
to be heard. But the oral nature of the Qur'an goes beyond euphony:
the significance of the revelation is carried as much by the sound as
by its semantic information. In other words, the Qur'an is not the
Qur'an unless it is heard" (1985, xiv).
Although there is no evidence that the chronicles were recited,
given the limited number of manuscripts and the low level of Arabic
literacy in the Sahel, it is highly likely that, at least on some occa-
sions, these texts were read aloud to small groups. The European
tradition offers a parallel that invites further analysis of the West Af-
rican manuscript tradition. Zumthor observes that in Europe the ev-
idence "of this practice [of reading aloud] is uninterrupted, from the
5th to the 16th centuries" (1987, 117). Certainly the narrators, espe-
cially es-Sa'di, Imam of the Mosque of Sankore in Timbuktu and
holder of many other religious offices, were well versed in the art
of religious recitation.
In a broader sense, as Harold Scheub emphasizes in a major arti-
cle entitled "A Review of African Oral Traditions and Literature"
(1985), the link between the written and oral tradition in the Islamic
African world was very strong. Although Scheub refers primarily to



the poetic tradition in his discussion, many aspects of the chronicles
would fit his notion of the relationship between the oral and the writ-
ten tradition. The chronicles reflect a high degree of piety on the
part of the narrators, which they express frequently in forms with
strong oral connotations, particularly the exclamations and prayers
to Allah. It is the oral style of the narrators that gives an aura of
sanctity to their accounts. From the many "indices of orality"
(Zumthor 1987, 37), we may make what Zumthor terms a "presump-
tion of orality" (46) and hypothesize that the chronicles were read
One of these indices appears in the occasional addresses to the
reader. In the first chapter of the TF, the narrator refers to "our lan-
guage," as if addressing those of other ethnic groups. At the begin-
ning of chapter 5, the narrator speaks both to his audience and to
Allah in a manner that is both informal and pious. We, the readers,
are, as it were, at his feet listening both to the narrator and to his

It is time now that we return to our subject which is the biography
of the Askias. We went on about all these important people, fol-
lowing a path which we had not planned to take; probably no good
will come from it because it is likely that most of the tales re-
counted earlier are untrue. We ask the pardon of God the most
high. Lord, be praised and glorified! I declare that there is no di-
vinity other than you, I ask pardon, and I return to you. (TF 80)

Later in the chapter, the reader is told in an aside, presumably
by Kati's grandson, that the entire story has been transcribed to that
point from his grandfather's book, which was written following di-
rections by one of the elder's students (TF 92). The purpose of the
aside appears to be to emphasize the veracity of the account, but
it also brings the narrator closer to the reader.
The TS contains many of the prayers and exclamations also found
in the TF. But Houdas, translator of the TS, describes the style of
the first part of this chronicle as "a bit dry and laconic" (TS ii). The
second part is "quite lively and appears with a certain abundance
of details" (TS iii). He attributes the stylistic variation to the
sources. The first part draws on rarely identified oral accounts, while
the second relies on what the author and his sources have seen. Com-
menting on the lack of form and plan for the narrative, the translator
notes finally that "one gets the impression from time to time that


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

he thinks in the idiom of the Sudan and that he is not writing in his
maternal language" (TS iv). Zumthor explains how this phenome-
non operates in cultures where the oral coexists with the written: "In
a culture of mixed orality, the subjects read-and conceive-texts
through a grid supplied by the oral tradition, interpreting the writing
in terms of the values attached to the voice" (1987, 243).
In spite of these examples of orality in the chronicles, the narra-
tors are writing for unknown audiences. They are links among a dis-
tant and ill-defined past, a present that they are most skillful at re-
porting, and a future that remains unclear. In another sense, by their
prayers, they serve as an intermediary between their unknown read-
ers and Allah.
Oral artist and audience. Several features distinguish the oral
narrative from the orality of the chronicles. The most obvious differ-
ence was the musical accompaniment. Nouhou Malio's performance
was typical of many I witnessed by Songhay griots. Soumana Abdou,
the molo player, accompanied the griot with a form of background
music that, though it did not often appear to match in any regular
pattern the delivery of the lines, lent an aura of performance to the
The molo is a three stringed guitarlike instrument similar to the
Mande ngoni. It has a hollow, oblong wooden body covered with
cowhide and fitted with a wooden neck 50 centimeters long topped
by a rattle made of a piece of sheet metal fringed with small wire
Two ethnomusicologists, Roderic Knight, professor of ethnomu-
sicology at Oberlin University who has done extensive work on
Mande music, and Samuel Bayard, professor emeritus of English
and comparative literature at the Pennsylvania State University, lis-
tened to samples of the recording and drew a preliminary conclusion
that the griot's performance was what one would call spoken narra-
tive with musical accompaniment. Further ethnomusicological stud-
ies of both the words and the music are needed before we can arrive
any final conclusions about the relationship between these two basic
elements of the performance.
The griot remained in his chair, declaiming the lines of the narra-
tive in a style somewhere between what Zumthor terms the "dit"
or "spoken" and the chantt" or "sung" (1983, 178). This difference,
for Zumthor, defines the notion of performance. But such a dichot-
omy does not take into account a variety of other features that, to-



gether, contribute to the impression that we are witnessing a perfor-
mance, not simply a telling of a story.
Nouhou Malio varied his rate of delivery considerably, some-
times running several lines together, sometimes repeating them
slowly and rhythmically, especially where he was describing events
occurring in parallel-for example, the birth of Kassaye's child,
Askia Mohammed, and that of her Bargantch6 servant, lines 43-49.
For the linguist Roman Jakobson and R. Schwab, notes Zumthor,
these kinds of recurrences and repetitions are the basis of poetry:
"Jakobson saw in them the basis of all poetic language. R. Schwab
takes them as characteristics of non-European poetry" (1983, 141).
During his performance, Nouhou Malio used gesture only once,
when he described Askia Mohammed at the tomb of Mohammed.
The lack of other gestures does not seem to stem from any taboo
such as we find for performers in other cultures in particular con-
texts. Other Songhay griots used gestures freely to underscore names
in genealogies. Often a griot employed gestures only toward the lat-
ter part of a session when he had become totally immersed in verbal
expression and wanted to emphasize a point. Here, however, the
griot appeared to want to let the words themselves do the job. His
physical strength was no longer as great as when he was younger and
could accompany himself on the molo while recounting an epic. The
choice of the one notable gesture to portray how Askia Mohammed
put his hands down into the tomb of Mohammed appears to reflect
the need to explain and to underscore the bizarre nature of the
event. This gesture brought the past to the present in a way that
words could not.
In the epic, however, it is the griot's use of a variety of verbal
devices typical of oral narratives that, more than any particular as-
pect of the performance itself, helps his listeners to bridge the gap
between the present and the events described, which took place
many centuries earlier. Of the diverse techniques used, the most ef-
fective in capturing the audience's attention appears to be the fre-
quent changes in narrative voice. Nouhou Malio recounts the story
in the third person, but slips occasionally into other voices. At one
highly significant point he assumes the role of a character in the
crowd, taking his listeners back to the scene. This occurs when Askia
Mohammed approaches the prayer ground to kill his uncle. We
are there, so to speak, because the griot, now playing the role of
a bystander, remarks in the present tense that he too has noted


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

the resemblance between the unknown visitor and the ruler's
Occasionally he shifts out of the straight narrative mode to ad-
dress directly his listeners, as if to drive home a point with what
Zumthor terms a "dialogic intervention" (1987, 249). When he asks
his listeners if they have understood a key element of dialogue be-
tween Amar Zoubani and his father toward the end of the narrative,
he is really asking a much larger question: Have we understood the
complex lesson about the social structure in the Sahel, a lesson for-
mulated by the griot in a carefully drawn case study? At other, less
momentous occasions, he simply switches back and forth from the
past of the dialogue to the present of the audience-for example,
when he is reporting the etiological tales of how sorkos, sohancis,
and griots came into being. After lines 216-18, which contain re-
ported dialogue by one of Sonni Ali Ber's sons explaining why he now
praises Askia Mohammed, Nouhou Malio turns from the character
to his audience to add that this incident shows why he and others
like him are griots. The narrator also shifts constantly between the
past and the present by simply changing tenses. In the English trans-
lation, these variations make for a somewhat choppy style. Rather
than attempt to smooth out his tense patterns by keeping the narra-
tive in the past tense, however, I have chosen to follow his shifts as
closely as possible because they appear to fit into the larger pattern
of bringing the listener to the event.
Finally, Nouhou Malio often blurs the line between direct and
indirect discourse. For example, there are many lines in which the
speaker and what is spoken appear clear-a distinction noted by
quotation marks. At other times, from the griot's tone of voice I
have translated the line as indirect discourse and left out the quota-
tion marks. But often, in the original, the distinction is not always
clear from the context. On a few occasions the griot appears, then,
to be slipping into a form of free indirect discourse that, again,
brings the listener closer to the character in question.
In addition to these variations in narrative voice, all of which di-
minish the distance among the audience, the narrator, and the story,
the griot employs a variety of other rhetorical techniques to give life
to his account. Among them we find repetition, metonymy, compari-
sons, metaphors, ideophones, vocabulary from other languages, ge-
nealogies, and etiological tales.
Repetition is used both for emphasis and to indicate the passage



of time. Where in the translation I have given six or eight repetitions
of "until" or "quickly," the goal is to reflect more accurately, in a
word-for-word manner, the griot's own repetitions to emphasize his
point. On line 173, the griot uses "bal" six times to emphasize the
swiftness of a horse. Earlier, in lines 101-3, the same line is repeated
over and over to point out the passage of time during which Askia
Mohammed works as a groom for his uncle.
Metonymy is used to emphasize the subject's qualities. For ex-
ample, during the fall of Gao, the griot often refers to the cavalry
as horsemen, but at certain points, to stress the sheer power of so
many men on horseback-a power that comes from the fact that they
are mounted and not on foot-he refers simply to horses even
though he means both horses and their riders.
Comparisons are used to show more clearly how an action takes
place, particularly an unusual action. One striking example occurs
in lines 406-8 when the griot compares the flight of the sohanci with
both modern and traditional referents-the first an airplane, the sec-
ond a hawk swooping down to seize its prey.
Metaphors are used to emphasize a particular quality, but only
in the context of the zamu type of praise poem. After Askia
Mohammed's death, the griot shifts to this symbolic shorthand to
describe Moussa, a man of apparently great strength and power who
did not hesitate to use these abilities (11. 482-89; 638-82). We find an-
other example of this device in the description of Daoud (11. 507-90).
The confusion here in the chronology, with a brief reference to
Moussa (11. 482-89) followed by Daoud (11. 507-90) and then a return
to Moussa (11. 638-82), is explained by the fact that Nouhou Malio
used Moussa as a starting point for the second recording session.
After listening to the end of the first tape to remind himself where
he had stopped during the first session a month earlier, he returned
to the metaphoric description of Moussa, but this time with much
greater emphasis. In chapter 6, I shall discuss in more detail the zamu
praise poems that serve as the model for this form of description.
Ideophones, or "sound-ideas," untranslatable sounds that convey
in adverbial form the impression of an action, are also used. In line
173, "bal" conveys the movement of a horse. In line 190, "Yooo!"
expresses the movement of a group all at once. In line 1002, "jip"
signifies the motion of jumping off a horse. In line 1038, "urufo" ech-
oes the sound of falling into a hole. Ideophones appear to be a fea-
ture of African languages. Zumthor suggests that "the density of the


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

ideophone network is one of the characteristics of African poetic
language" (1983, 131).
Vocabulary from other languages serves a variety of purposes
for the griot. As Oumarou Watta points out, "the epic is poly-
glot" (1985, 65). The evidence from the version recounted by
Nouhou Malio here as well as from others in the region certainly
supports this view. Imbedded in the Songhay we find bits of French,
Sonink6, and other, less easily identifiable words from other lan-
French: The use of the expression lerfo represents a combination
of French (heure, meaning "hour") and Songhay (ifo, meaning
"what," 1. 395). It reflects the influence of Western culture, in partic-
ular the notion of time in a more precise sense. Other examples in-
clude finetro from the French "fenetre" for window and gufernema
from the French "gouvernement" for government.
Soninke: A much more significant linguistic borrowing appears
in the frequent insertion of Soninke words, which provide consider-
able difficulty when translating the narrative. According to Songhay
griots, their ancestors were originally of Soninke origin. The term
gesere, pronounced with a hard g, is the Soninke word for griot.
Among the Songhay from the T6ra region of western Niger, it is
jasare, while the Zarma pronounce it jesere (Boubou Hama, cited
in Rapport du Moyen Niger avec le Ghana ancien 1984, 7). In sev-
eral instances in the narrative griots take advantage of this language
to communicate secretly with their masters. Over time, griots have
come to convey the oral narrative in alternating verses of Soninke
and Songhay. But in the process, the Soninke has become archaic
and overlain with other languages-Bambara and Fulani. The result
is that comprehension remains quite limited between modern
Soninke speakers and griots from the fringe of the Mande diaspora
who use older forms of the language for occult purposes. At the 1981
SCOA Foundation seminar on relations between the middle Niger
and ancient Ghana, two griots, one a Soninke, Diarra Sylla, the
other a Songhay from Niamey, Djeliba Badi6, managed to exchange
a few words in Sonink6, but it was clear that communication between
them was quite limited.
In Nouhou Malio's narrative, some Soninke words are used in
alternation with Songhay. For example, when he recites genealogies,
he shifts back and forth between saara, the Soninke verb "to give
birth" or "to father" and hay, the Songhay equivalent. The noun



ndaba, a variant of debe, the Soninke term for village, alternates
with its Songhay counterpart, kwaara (Bathily and Meillassoux
The difficulty arises-evident from so many of the undeciphera-
ble or partially undecipherable lines-in those mixed verses that
contain bits and pieces of Songhay, what may also be Soninke, and
no doubt other languages, such as Bambara and Fulani. The prob-
lem occurs especially in what Johnson and Bird would describe as
the praise-proverb passages, poems the Songhay call zamu. Where
a word is of non-Songhay origin but appears to be translatable, I
have underlined it in both the original transcription and the English
translation. In all other places, the term undecipherable refers either
to words for which I cannot find a meaning or to occasional problems
in understanding the griot when his speech is rapid or not sufficiently
The deformation of Soninke (and apparently terms from other
languages) matches a pattern noted by Johnson in some of the dia-
lectical differences in the Mande world.

This is particularly common in praise-poems and praise-names,
many of which are from Soninke and Khasonke. Bards learning
texts, especially when they travel to areas where different dialects
are spoken, sometimes maintain an original form of a praise-name
they happen to hear. Often, they do not hear a praise-name or
understand it clearly, especially when chance does not permit a
repetition of the form. A bard sometimes learns a praise-name
from another bard who himself does not know its meaning and
who may be mispronouncing the original form." (Johnson and
Sis6k6 1986, 92-93)

As a stylistic device, the Soninke, decipherable or not, lends an
aura of mystery and magic to the narrative. In addition to the bards,
Songhay healers, sorcerers, and magicians use this language, called
sillance, sillince, or sonianke. These terms designate the words, the
griots themselves, and their clan origin. They are supposed to come
from the Silla clan of the Sonink6. Olivier de Sardan reports that
the Gourma designate some of the Fulani in the T6ra region, a
Songhay area, as Sillince, but adds that they do not seem to have
any link with the griots of Silla origin (1982, 331-32).
The use of the Soninke as a narrative device raises a much deeper


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

question about the reason for the appearance of Sonink6-speaking
griots in the Songhay region. In the conclusion to this study, I shall
propose an explanation for this phenomenon based on both the texts
we are comparing and recent work by Robert Nicolai.
Genealogies are used to tie the narrative down to a particular
lineage. After his recitation of the fall of Gao, when the Songhay
moved south to settle in different parts of western Niger, on several
occasions the griot traces a lineage down to a particular town or vil-
lage and names the current chief. The genealogy represents a shift
in the mode of transmission because each line constitutes only two
words: a name and a village. Such a paratactic style allows the griot
to develop a more rhythmic, declamatory delivery.
Etiological tales, cited earlier, are included to explain the origin
of different types of people concerned with the belief system, magic,
and history. The most notable examples appear at the beginning of
the narrative when the griot recounts the origin of the sorko, the
griot, and the sohanci. These tales also provide a momentary break
that enables the griot to address his audience directly.
The various devices just listed add up to what the Western world
calls epic-a long poetic narrative. In the Songhay world, however,
the verb to recount the past is deedee. Deedeyan is the narration of
a story. Deeda is the noun that describes most closely the kind of
long narrative I recorded from Nouhou Malio. But within that form,
where the griot is listing a genealogy or chanting a praise, especially
a zamu praise poem, he is literally "calling" forth names. The verb
"to call" is ce. The epic is a blend, then, of deedeyan and ceyan, re-
counting and calling. But as Oumarou Watta and Fatima Mounkaila
suggest (interviews November 1988, February 1989), when the griot
goes off to recount stories, he says he is going to fakaarey,
faajikaarey, or faajigarey, the verb meaning "to chat," "to make con-
versation." He may, however, use the word in a sense that reflects
the compound root-fagi, a term for isolation and boredom, and
gawey, the verb "to hunt." In this context, the term appears to mean
"to chase away or eliminate isolation and boredom."
Many of the same devices are found in other narratives from the
Sahel and from other parts of the world. A closer comparative study
of epics in the region may well reveal a pattern of verbal art that
is typical of the Sahel. For now, we may conclude that the griot's
diverse techniques add up to a form that is often more allusive than
that of the chroniclers. To understand, nevertheless, how that form


Sources 67

and the information it contains complements the chroniclers' much
more detailed accounts, in the next chapter we shall compare the
portraits that the scribes and griots give us of Askia Mohammed and
the Songhay empire.

Chapter 4

The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia
Mohammed in the Chronicles and the Epic

While both scribes and bards had frequent contact with their pa-
trons, there are considerable differences in their portrayals of the
people they served. What is important to the griot may be of little
significance to the scribe, and vice versa. From these differences
emerge a more complex portrait of the man who reigned over a large
area of West Africa. But the differences also reveal much about the
two aspects of Songhay culture-the Islamic and the traditional-
that contributed most to the ruler's education. In this and succeeding
chapters I shall compare the ways the two sources describe Askia
Mohammed. My goal is to draw insights not only about the ruler,
but also about the wordsmiths who convey images of him and the
society that produced both. Given the great detail provided by the
narrators of the chronicles in comparison with that sketched by the
griot, I shall begin with the written source.
Although the narrators do refer occasionally to Askia Moham-
med in the first five chapters of the TF, they devote chapter 6 entirely
to the Songhay leader. "What follows," we learn, "is the biography
of the prince of the believers, of the sultan of the Moslems, of Askia
Abou-Abdallah-Mohammed ben Aboubakar." While both the TF
and the TS are full of small details that give us a fairly well-drawn
portrait of Askia Mohammed, the narrators are somewhat reticent
about his birth. The keeper of the oral tradition, on the other hand,
focuses attention on that extraordinary event. As we shall see later,
that difference will explain much about the belief system of the


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

Ancestry: The Sonink6 Heritage

The narrators of the TF do provide a few details about the ruler's
origin. On the first page of chapter 6, we learn that Askia
Mohammed's father, Arloum, was of the Sylla clan. The Sylla are
Soninke, as were the members of the Kati family who apparently
contributed to the elaboration of the TF over several generations.
On the first page we learn that Sidi Mahmoud Kati is a member of
a family from the Kourmina region, just upriver from Timbuktu,
and is of "Oudkore," or Soninke, origin.
Es-Sa'di, in the TS, says that Askia Mohammed came from a dif-
ferent Sonink6 clan, the Toure, and was called "Mohammed-ben-
Abou-Bekr-El-Touri or, according to other authors, Es-Sellenki"
(117). In a note, Houdas offers a variant of this last appellation,
"Selenki." But there is much debate among historians regarding the
ruler's origins.
The Burkinabe historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo contests the attribu-
tion of Askia Mohammed's ancestry to the Toures by arguing that,
in translating, Delafosse misinterpreted the Arabic (1978, 145). Yet
Houdas was the sole translator credited with working on the TS. He
is the first to note in his introduction that the translation of the
names presented the greatest obstacle and may need reinterpreta-
tion. In the TF, for which Delafosse is listed as cotranslator, there
are no references to "Toure."
In his 1974 thesis, Hunwick sums up the debate and offers a new
reading of those passages dealing with Askia Mohammed's ancestry:

Charles Monteil ("La L6gende de Wagadou," [1953] 364) and
Trimingham (A History of Islam in West Africa, [1962] 95) have
proposed that his father Abu Bakr was a Soninke. More recently
Person ("Les ancetres de Samori," [1963] 127) and Vincent
Monteil (L'Islam noir, [1964] 77) have both insisted that his origin
was from Futa Toro in Senegal. Delafosse, while claiming that he
was a Soninke of the Silla clan also suggests that he was from Futa
Toro (Haut-Sdnigal-Niger, [1912] ii, 83, and note 2 on p. 114 of
the translation of the T/F). The Ta'rikh al-Sudan and the Ta'rikh
al-Fattash each mention his ancestry in two separate passages.
Since the French translations of these passages on which some
scholars have based their conclusions are misleading, new transla-
tions from the Arabic will now be offered. First the Ta'rikh al-


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

(p. 59) His father was called Barlum/Baru Lum, a clan of the
Sila, or it is said of the Jur and his mother was Kasay daughter
of Kura-koy Bukar.
(p. 71) Muhammad b. Abi Bakr al-Juri or, it is said, al-Silanki.
Ta'rikh al-Sudan:
(p. 71) Muhammad b. Abi Bakr al-Juri or, it is said, al-Silanki.
(p. 134) As for his father his name was Abu Bakr and he was
called Bar(u). It is said he was of (the) Juranki and it is said he
was from (the) Silanki. His mother was Kasay.
As will be seen from the above, both sources are in doubt as
to his precise origin, but both make him either from the Jure or
Sila which are both Soninke patronymics. (103-4)

His father, according to the TS, came from the Toro region. If
this is a correct reading of the Arabic, it would suggest, as the trans-
lators note, that his clan may in fact have come from the Fouta Toro,
a region on the border between Senegal and Mauritania, 180 kilom-
eters up the Senegal River and over 1,500 kilometers from Gao
where there are representatives of the Sylla clan (114).
His mother was named Kassaye and was the daughter of Boukar,
the Koura-Koi, or governor, of an island 45 kilometers upriver from
Kabara, the port for Timbuktu. The narrator notes that "we have
seen people who could retrace the genealogy of his mother to de-
scendants of Djabir ben Abdallah, one of the Ansar, but it would
divert us from our subject to go into greater detail here." The trans-
lators add, however, that manuscript C, which does not include this
line, gives a detailed genealogy of Boukar marked by "ben" to indi-
cate "son of." "Boukar ben Ali ben Abdallah ben El-Hassan ben
Abderrahman ben Idris ben Ya'qofb ben Ishaq ben Yofssof ben El-
Hassan ben Abdelaziz ben Sofian ben Salih ben Louai ben Moham-
med El-Yemeni ben Aboubekr ben Ali ben MoOssa ben Hossein ben
Elias ben Abdallah ben Djaber ben Abdallah El-Ansari (que Dieu
soit satisfait de lui.')" (114). As Hama points out, the last name in
the genealogy links the family to a companion of Mohammed (1982,
What interests us here in the information on both parents of
Askia Mohammed is the blend of Islamic and traditional beliefs sur-
rounding his birth. From the chronicles, we learn nothing about his
mother's ethnic background. She could have been Soninke too, or
Songhay, or of some other group. But today her name links her with
the Songhay system of magic, which may have come from the


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

Soninke. Hama asks if she is a Songhay woman or more specifically
a "Songhantchee" (1980, 11), ("gens du Songhay," or Songhay peo-
ple, according to Olivier de Sardan 1982, 335). Today the sohanci are
magicians for the Songhay who claim descent from Sonni Ali Ber.
As Hama points out, the cult's priestess is still called Kassaye today
in the "capital" of Songhay magicians, Wanzerbe, a small town lo-
cated near the intersection of the Nigerien, Malian, and Burkinabe
borders. He adds that a woman who carries the name Kassaye is also
called "Maamar Gna," or the mother of Mamar (1980, 11). Stoller's
account of his encounters with the current Kassaye (Stoller and
Olkes 1987), my recent meeting with her in Wanzerbe (February
1989) as well as reports about her from people in the region confirm
both her existence and her extraordinary reputation as a woman who
wields enormous occult power.
The name by which Askia Mohammed is known today is Mamar,
a regional diminutive of Mohammed. The oral tradition refers to
Askia Mohammed as Mamar Kassaye (Hama 1982, 11-12). This cir-
cumstantial tie as well as events described in the oral tradition that
I shall discuss later suggest that Askia Mohammed's mother was
firmly rooted in the traditional belief system of the Songhay.
The fact that Askia Mohammed's father was of Soninke origin
lends support to the theory that the ruler is the reason why the out-
side language has inserted itself into Songhay culture as a secret me-
dium of communication.
In the oral tradition, Askia Mohammed's father is not a Soninke
but a zin (also spelled djinn, genie in French, and jinn or genie in
English), a spirit who lives under the Niger River. The term zin is
rather vague, however, and requires some interpretation here. In
the Islamic world, the jinns were "unseen creations of Allah" made
from fire (Qazi 1979, 29). In the African context, J. Spencer
Trimingham notes that "the word jinn is employed by everyone in
contact with Muslims for spirits of all kinds" (1959, 35-36). Rouch
describes the cults of the zin as local and concerned mainly with the
protection and the free use of the land or the water:

The agents of the cult are the former masters of the earth or of
the water. .. The cult of these protective genies appears to be
quite widespread among the Songhay, but forms only a mosaic of
localized cults. These cults are also often integrated into Islam
(linking of the sacrifice of Tabaski with the sacrifice to the Zin),
to the cult of the Holey (considered as having control over the


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

local Zin), to magic (the Zin serving as guide for the magician).
(Rouch 1960, 31)

Today, as Olivier de Sardan points out, there is a blurring of the
difference between the zin, which is viewed by marabouts as Mos-
lem, and the spirits, or ganji, which they view as pagan (1982, 421).
That appears to be the situation in Nouhou Malio's oral narrative
because the zin who fathers Askia Mohammed appears at the end
of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. But because of the human
appearance of Askia Mohammed's father, he fits even more closely
the description of someone who is a holey, another group of spirits
to be discussed in more detail shortly. The griot portrays him at first
as simply a handsome, well-dressed man.

23 ... one day, much later in the middle of the night,
24 A man came who was wearing beautiful clothes.
25 He was a real man, he was tall, someone who looked good in white
clothes, his clothes were really beautiful.
26 One could smell perfume everywhere.

Only many years later, when the young Askia Mohammed asks
about his father in response to insults from his peers, do we learn
that the man is a zin who lives under the river in a town where he
serves as chief. The blend of the Islamic/Songhay zin and the more
purely Songhay holey here is quite significant because the holey rep-
resent a widespread element in the Songhay belief system that con-
tinues to evolve today.
Rouch (1960) explains that the holey were created either just be-
fore or just after man appeared on earth. They appear in human
form, and have human qualities, dress, and customs. In other words,
they are just like people-with one exception. They are normally in-
visible and are able to appear whenever they want in whatever
form-human or animal. Above all, Rouch adds, they may appear
in the bodies of possession dancers, people whose bodies become
inhabited or possessed by spirits during ceremonies to cause rain to
fall or to cure a sick person. "The holey have a well defined personal-
ity. The character of each one of them, his behavior, appearance,
dress, accent or pronunciation, and odor are clearly determined and
allow those who are familiar with them to recognize them easily
(1960, 47).
The holey are organized by families. In the hierarchy, the tooru,


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

spirits of the river and the sky, dominate the other families. Stoller
refers to them as among "the most ancient of the Songhay spirit
'families'" (1989, 25). One of the most important figures of the tooru
is Harakoy Dikko, spirit of water.
The holey spirits marry, produce children, and populate the
world of the invisible. Boulnois and Hama, in one of the earliest
analyses of Songhay mythology, reported that the Niger River be-
tween Gao and Say is the home of all kinds of spirits. Harakoy
Dikko, they explained, lives under the water and seduces unwary
fishermen (1954, 119). "She attracts those she has chosen and leads
them under the water into a fabulous world where shine magnificent
cities, and where she lets herself go in enjoying her loves to the
rhythms of the drums, the Songhay balafons [upturned calabashes],
and the violins [godjis]" (115).
The existence of a world underwater appears frequently in
Songhay mythology. Stoller reports several accounts from Sorkos,
or "masters of the river," who have walked beneath the surface and
discovered the underwater world. This paradise of the Sorko fisher-
men, as Boulnois and Hama describe it (1954, 116), differs slightly
from the underground world of Askia Mohammed's father, which
the griot portrays as just like any other world, with many cities and
people. The griot's emphasis is less on splendor than on quantity and
on similitude with the world above the water. In the griot's descrip-
tion, the underwater people are like those on dry land-they are
good Moslems and celebrate all the Moslem holy days.

149 Under the water there are so many cities, so many cities, so many
cities, so many villages, and so many people.
150 It is his father, too, who is the chief.
151 They too get themselves ready, they go out to go to the prayer

I shall return to a more detailed discussion of the Songhay belief
system later, but we may conclude here that in the oral tradition,
his position as chief in an underwater town affords Askia Moham-
med's father high social standing. He is a member of the extended
family of Harakoy Dikko, spirit of the water and a major figure in
the pantheon of the tooru family. But in keeping with the Islamic
atmosphere of the Sahel today, he appears also as a good Moslem.
From the chronicles and the oral tradition we see, then, two
views of Askia Mohammed beginning to emerge. In the chronicles,


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

his father comes from the Soninke, a people who received early Is-
lamic influence. His mother appears at this point without any partic-
ular cultural or religious orientation, although her father was some-
one of apparently high political status. In the oral tradition, both his
mother and his father claim close links to the Songhay belief system,
although in his father's case, the griot has added an Islamic overlay
that reflects current cultural values.

Birth: The Intercession of the Spirit World

The chroniclers' reluctance to report on the conditions surround-
ing Askia Mohammed's birth is typical of their accounts. They do
not concern themselves with the birth of any of the people they de-
scribe. The acts of the individual count most. But for the Songhay,
both heritage and the event of birth itself, with the ceremonies that
surround it, are of great importance, if only to ensure protection
Against harmful sprits. As in many other parts of the world, in the
Case of a hero, the circumstances of birth determine his destiny. To
portray in full detail the conditions surrounding Askia Mohammed's
birth, and thus to reflect the values of Songhay society, the keepers
of the oral tradition offer a more compressed version of past events.
One result is a more dramatic portrayal of the conflict between Sonni
Ali Ber and his lieutenant, Askia Mohammed.
In the summary in chapter 1, I reported that Askia Mohammed
challenged Sonni Ali Ber's son and successor then defeated the man
I and assumed leadership of the empire. In the oral tradition, Askia
SMohammed appears not as a lieutenant but as a nephew of Si (chi), the
title of Sonni Ali Ber. In the version by Nouhou Malio, as
well as in many others, Kassaye is a sister of Sonni Ali Ber. They
share the same mother and the same father, a distinction in a polyga-
mous society that makes them even closer. The Songhay express
such a close family link by calling children baaba-ize and nya-ize,
children born of the same father and the same mother (Olivier de
Sardan 1982, 140), or wafoize, children who have shared the same
milk. Kassaye bears seven male children. But Sonni Ali Ber, heeding
the diviners' prediction that a male child of Kassaye will kill him and
Stake over Gao, has all of her sons executed. This pattern of infanti-
Scide agrees with Sonni Ali Ber's bloody reputation in the chronicles.
We see echoes of this tendency later in the TF when a child (future
ruler Askia Mohammed Bounkan) is born to Omar Komdiago,
brother of Askia Mohammed. Sonni Ali Ber does not like the child's


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

crying and threatens to kill him (158). In chapter 5, I shall return
to this incident in greater detail.
In the oral version, when the well-dressed and handsome spirit
who lives under the river comes to see Kassaye, he promises that
if they make love, she will produce a child whom Si cannot kill.
Kassaye accepts his offer, conceives, carries the spirit's child, and,
at birth, manages to save the newborn by switching him with that
of her Bargantch6 servant, who gives birth to a girl. Sonni Ali Ber
has the girl child killed. Apparently he does not want to trust the
diviners' prediction entirely.
The description of Askia Mohammed's birth in the oral tradition
fills an important gap in his story as conveyed by the chronicles. It
is a gap that will explain much about his future behavior.

Childhood: The Suspect Toddler

In the chronicles, there are no references to Askia Mohammed's
childhood. The oral tradition reports that while under the daytime
protection of the servant and the nighttime care of his real mother,
the child aroused the suspicions of Sonni Ali Ber.

82 When he crawls, he climbs on the feet of Si.
83 He pulls his beard.
84 Si said, "Hey! This child is suspect."

Kassaye taunted Sonni Ali Ber by sarcastically telling him that
he should kill the boy child, supposedly the son of his captive, in
order to "improve" his reputation as a killer of children. In a more
realistic vein, she then proposed that the growing boy be assigned
to care for Sonni Ali Ber's horse. This incident foreshadows the close
but sometimes difficult relationship that we shall see later between
Askia Mohammed the soldier and his superior, Sonni Ali Ber.

Adolescence: In Search of a Father

The chronicles are silent about Askia Mohammed's adolescence,
but the oral tradition lays great stress on this period. Now Askia Mo-
hammed learns about his father's origin and acquires the power nec-
essary to carry out his destiny of overthrowing Sonni Ali Ber. When
other adolescents in the royal compound insult Askia Mohammed
by saying that he is the little slave of Sonni Ali Ber and has no father,


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

the young man asks his mother for an explanation. It is the eve of
the last day of Ramadan, and the mother advises him to wait until
the next day for his father's arrival. During the night, the spirit
comes, gives Kassaye a ring, and advises her to tell her son to go
down to the river the next day and then put it on his middle finger.
When the young man follows her instructions, the waters open and
he discovers both the underwater world, readying for the Ramadan
prayers, and his father, who gives him what he needs to kill Sonni
Ali Ber: a horse, two lances, a saber, and a shield. The oral version
announces thus in this shortened and symbolic form the conflict that
was to pit Askia Mohammed against the dynasty founded by Sonni
Ali Ber.

Rise to Power: Coup d'Etat against the Devil

With Askia Mohammed's rise to power Nouhou Malio begins to re-
join the narrators of the chronicles. While the griot portrays Sonni
Ali Ber's evilness in personal terms, the written account offers a
broader, collective, and Islamic view of the harm the ruler has done
to society. The TF narrator describes Sonni Ali Ber as "the tyrant,
the debauched, the cursed, the oppressor, the cht Ali, last king of
his dynasty. Great victor in all of the campaigns he undertook, he
was reputed to have thrown an infant into a mortar and forced its
mother to grind it up. He burned some of his victims, immured oth-
ers, and even ripped a fetus from the womb of a woman" (82-83).
Es-Sa'di in the TS is no less critical when he opens his section on
the ruler with the following words:

As for this master tyrant, this famous scoundrel, Sonni Ali, whose
name is written with an o placed after the s and an i after the dou-
ble n, according to the spelling which I found in the Dzeil ed-
dibaldj of the very learned scholar Ahmed-Baba (May God on
high have mercy on him!), he was a man endowed with great
strength and powerful energy. Wicked, licentious, unjust, oppres-
sive, bloodthirsty, he had so many men killed that God only
knows the number. He persecuted scholars and pious people by
attacking their lives, their honor or their esteem. (103)

According to es-Sa'di, Sonni Ali Ber invaded and burned Tim-
buktu in January 1468. But for the scribe and the populace, the inci-
dent that, more than any other, epitomized Sonni Ali Ber's wicked-


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

ness was his order to execute thirty virgin daughters of scholars from
the city. In her study of the ruler, however, Adam Konare Ba ar-
gues that Sonni Ali Ber was neither anti-Islamic nor fundamentally
animist (1977, 120-21). Instead, she perceives him as a patriot who
sought greater freedom for the Songhay by achieving control over
a region and a people whose loyalties lay elsewhere. In a more fun-
damental way, she sees the conflict arising from two different notions
of power.

One can therefore speak quite rightly of an opposition between
two philosophies of power, the philosophy of Islam according to
which the king is merely a delegate of God, and that of animism
according to which he is an "almost God." . The conflict for
a ruler like Sonni Ali Ber and at a period which was really his,
was inevitable. With Askia Mohammed himself, we arrive at com-
pletion. Zealous Moslem, but keeping a soul which was certainly
still animist at the time of his pilgrimage, he wanted, himself, to
bring together the two principal powers of the traditional king,
that is, the temporal and the spiritual, by seeking the title of Ca-
liph for the Sudan. There is quite clearly a conflict between animist
and Islamic values; and the repressive attitude of Sonni Ali Ber
toward the ulamas is definitely an act of self-defense. (Ba, 122-23)

I would prefer a different term for "animism" here-adherent to
a traditional belief system might be an awkward substitute, but it
eliminates the negative connotations of Ba's term. There is no evi-
dence, either, that Sonni Ali Ber or Askia Mohammed thought of
themselves as gods. However, I would agree that Sonni Ali Ber's
acts represented a self-defensive-even offensive-response to the
growing powerbase in Timbuktu. The best evidence, of course, is
that he spent nearly all of his time directing military campaigns
throughout the Sahel. One of his most trusted assistants in this enter-
prise was Askia Mohammed. He held the title of Tondi-Farma,
(or Tondi-Koy), governor of the mountainous Hombori region south
of Timbuktu and west of Gao. Es-Sa'di refers to him as "one of the
principal generals of Sonni Ali Ber" (TF 117). But he also reports,
as we saw earlier in the incident with the secretary, that Askia Mo-
hammed surreptitiously refused to carry out orders if he felt them
to be against the ruler's best interests. "How many times, having re-
ceived the order to put someone to death or to imprison him, he
did the contrary to what he was told. This Askia Mohammed acted


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

thus because he was very energetic and very courageous. God had
endowed him with this energy" (TS 111).
By countermanding orders from his superior, however, Askia
Mohammed often incurred the tempestuous ruler's anger. The situa-
tion was so bad that his mother, Kassaye, would travel from Gao
to Timbuktu to have prayers said for her son. The following passage
offers the only example of Kassaye's practice of Islam. "When he
became the object of the prince's wrath, his mother Kassaye used
to go to Timbuktu to find Nana-Tinti, the daughter of the scholar
Abou-Bekr, son of the cadi El-Hay; She would ask him to pray for
God to aid her son against Sonni Ali Ber. 'If God,' she used to say,
'grants your prayers, he will give you, if it please him, all the joys
for your children and for loved ones'" (TS 111).
Es-Sa'di notes that this promise was carried out when Askia Mo-
hammed came to power. As we shall see later in the oral narrative,
the closeness of Askia Mohammed to Sonni Ali Ber leads to a very
personal, one-against-one conflict that produces the change in dy-
nasties. But in the chronicles, the event that touches off the change
is Sonni Ali Ber's death by drowning while returning home from a
campaign against the Zeghrani and the Fulani in the Gourma region
(TS 116).
In the TF version of the change in rulers, Sonni Ali Ber died
sometime in October or November 1492 after a reign of nearly thirty
years. His son Aboubacar, better known as Cht Baro (TF 100) or
Abou-Bekr-Da (TS 116), had accompanied him during the final ex-
pedition. The army proclaimed the son successor on January 21,
1493. According to the narrator of the TF (self-identified here as
Mahmoud Kati), Askia Mohammed sent Mohammed Toule, a dis-
tinguished religious leader, to invite Cht Baro to embrace Islam
more warmly than had his father. In a town near Gao called Anfao,
Chi Baro refused, although the narrator suggests that this was a nat-
ural response given the politics of the situation. "He feared for his
sovereignty, as was natural for a king," notes Kati. Baro considered
the possibility of killing Askia Mohammed's messenger. Askia Mo-
hammed then sent another respected religious leader, the alfa Salih
Diawara, who received an even more obstinate response from the
new ruler. At this point, the narrator points out that all but one of
Baro's ten ministers, each with a special armed force, had remained
loyal to their sovereign. Diawara took back two warnings from Baro.
The next messenger might be executed, and Askia Mohammed
should prepare to fight. After a meeting with his advisors, Askia Mo-


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

hammed opted for a third attempt at diplomacy. He sent the narra-
tor, Kati, who, like his predecessors, was unsuccessful. Baro became
enraged and ordered immediate preparations for battle.
The battle between the two armies took place April 12, 1493.
Both chronicles report that Askia Mohammed won. But the TS de-
scribes two battles, the first a defeat for Askia Mohammed on Feb-
ruary 18 and the second a victory on March 3. The TF indicates that
Baro fled south to Ayorou, a river town just below the border be-
tween Mali and Niger.
In the oral narrative, the shift in power seems much swifter and
more personal. Sonni Ali Ber's son does not appear. Askia Moham-
med, still a young man, has just received the weapons he needs from
his father at the end of Ramadan. He heads immediately for the
people assembling at the prayer ground.

169 Then Mamar went around them and headed directly for them.
170 They were about to start the prayer.
171 They said, "Stop, just stop, a prince from another place is coming
to pray with us."
172 "A prince from another place is coming to pray with us."
173 The horse gallops swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, swiftly he
is approaching.
174 He comes into view suddenly, leaning forward on his mount.
175 Until, until, until, until, until, until, until he touches the prayer
skin of his uncle, then he reins his horse there.
176 Those who know him say that he is like the little captive of Si.
177 Actually, he does resemble the little captive of Si, he has the same
look as the little captive of Si.
178 Do you see him! When I saw him I thought that it was the little
captive of Si.
179 He retraced his path only to return again.
180 Until he brought the horse to the same place, where he reined it
181 Now he made it gallop again.
182 As he approaches the prayer skin of his uncle,
183 He reins his horse.
184 He unslung his lance, and pierced his uncle with it until the lance
touched the prayer skin.
185 Until the spear went all the way to the prayer skin.

The griot charges his description here with drama, irony, and a
sense of immediacy. By racing his horse to the spot where Sonni Ali


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

Ber is seated, and then stopping at the last second, Askia Moham-
med offers a traditional demonstration of princely loyalty to rulers
that is still carried out in some parts of the Sahel on ceremonial occa-
sions. Each sprint tests the rider's ability to stop his horse and, at
the same time, requires the ruler to show his faith in the vassal's
horsemanship. The third gallop reverses the meaning of the gesture,
providing thus the most dramatic setting for the assassination.
The irony in this passage is that Askia Mohammed kills his uncle,
the reported enemy of Islam, on the prayer ground while the victim
is about to display his adherence to the religion. If this is more than
simply a later Islamic overlay, then Nouhou Malio's oral version
appears to argue against the chronicles' negative view of Sonni Ali
Ber's fidelity to Islam.
Finally, the griot manages to bring his listeners to the scene of
the event by a rare variation from straight narration. On lines
177-78, Nouhou Malio shifts from the past to the present, playing
the role of one of the persons in the crowd, in order to give his listen-
ers the feeling of witnessing the event itself.
In the lines that follow, Askia Mohammed's mother orders the
crowd to release her son, who then demonstrates his piety and his
assumption of his uncle's throne by kneeling down on the prayer skin
to recite the prayers. When he gets up, the crowd proclaims him
ruler. In the response of Sonni Ali Ber's daughters to the change
in power, the author of the TS reports an etymology for the title
askia: "When they learned the news, the daughters of Sonni Ali
cried out: 'Askia!' an expression which, in their language, means 'he
is not it!' When the news was brought to Mohammed, he asked that
people give him no other title but this expression, and that he be
called Askia Mohammed" (TS 118).
Hama offers another etymology for the ruler's title from Bechir
Alkassoum, who proposes that askia is the diminutive of askou,
"captive" in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg. According to
this view, the name stems from the ruler's words when he conquered
the mountainous Air region, 750 kilometers east of Gao, between
1500 and 1504: "I am not here to open up the Air region to the little
captive, but to Islam" (Hama 1982, 29).
The overthrow of Sonni Ali Ber by Askia Mohammed described
by Nouhou Malio is all the more striking when we consider his birth,
apparent social origin, and his relationship to his uncle. As Fatima
Mounkaila has pointed out (interview with the author, September
13, 1989), Askia Mohammed, an apparent slave, has no legitimate


The Birth and Rise to Power of Askia Mohammed

claim to the throne of Sonni Ali Ber. After the assassination and the
revelation of his true mother, the people still do not know the name
of his father. For the Songhay and Zarma, a child without a father
has very low social status, and could not pretend to be the ruler of
anything. Finally, as the nephew of Sonni Ali Ber, he cannot make
a claim on his uncle. In the narrowest interpretation, the only king-
dom which he may demand is that of his father under the river. But
even here his status remains ambiguous. His father engaged in sex
with his mother but there was no marriage ceremony. From a tradi-
tional perspective, he could be viewed as an illegitimate child in each
of the worlds which his parents inhabited, the city of Gao and the
spirit kingdom under the river.
Although he gains his power by the spear, Askia Mohammed
cannot hold on to it without the support of those he has conquered.
The fact that this power is affirmed by the son of Sonni Ali Ber re-
flects both the acquiescence of the family's most significant survivor
and-because this man becomes a griot-the traditional tendency
of griots to support those in power.
The comparison between the written and oral versions of Askia
Mohammed's birth and rise to power reveals significant differences
in detail, but the broad outlines remain relatively unchanged. First,
the oral narrative, as might be expected, demonstrates much greater
interest in his birth than does that of the chroniclers. In this sense,
it reflects in a variety of ways the survival of pre-Islamic Songhay
Second, in both versions Askia Mohammed overthrows, directly
or indirectly, the regime of Sonni Ali Ber. If the compression of his-
tory effected by the griot in the account of this shift leaves out many
details found only in the chronicles, the narrative gains a more per-
sonal, human dimension. One reason for this difference is the matter
of audience. The griot cannot recount in a few evenings the equiva-
lent of the lengthy chronicles. But by using the devices of his oral
art-for example role playing-he can set the scene and then
breathe life into it as an indirect witness to the events.
Third, the lack of any reference to Sonni Ali Ber as an enemy
of Islam in Nouhou Malio's version supports both the TS view of
him as more than simply a lukewarm Moslem and later reevaluations
by modern scholars. I shall return to this issue later. In the mean-
time, in the next chapter I shall discuss Askia Mohammed's reign,
and in particular his efforts to impose Islam over a large part of the


Chapter 5

The Reign of Askia Mohammed: From Gao
to Mecca and Back According to
the Scribes and the Griot

Both the written and the oral narratives portray Askia Mohammed's
reign as marked by love for war and respect for Islam. The intertwin-
ing of these two themes in both texts reveals even more clearly the
significance of the traditional belief system that we saw earlier in the
descriptions of the ruler's birth and childhood. The juxtaposition of
Islam and pre-Islamic Songhay beliefs in the oral version will point
toward a basic contradiction that will become clearer during the dis-
cussion of the fall of the empire in chapter 7.

Askia Mohammed's Piety and His
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Both the chroniclers and the griot agree on Askia Mohammed's pi-
ety, a virtue confirmed by the correspondence between the North
African scholar al-Maghili and the ruler (Hunwick 1985) and height-
iened by the contrast with Sonni Ali Ber. The latter's bad qualities,
as described in the oral narrative, appear in personal, family
terms-for example, he kills Kassaye's first seven children-while
Shis portrait in the chronicles concentrates on the collective nature
! of the harm he did to the Islamic community-in particular, his
order to execute the thirty virgin daughters of Timbuktu. Another
reason for the emphasis on the collective in the chronicles, of course,


The Reign of Askia Mohammed

lies in the fact that the narrators were part of the Islamic elite that
suffered at Sonni Ali Ber's hands. By comparison, Askia Moham-
med appears saintly in the TF.

One couldn't enumerate all his virtues, all his qualities, such as
his excellent policies, his concern about his subjects, and his solici-
tude toward poor people. One could never find his equal either
among those who preceded him or among those who came after
him. He had great affection for the ulemas, the holy people, and
talebs [students of Islam]. He made many offerings, and carried
out, beyond the prescribed duties, supplementary acts of devo-
tion. He was one of the most intelligent men and one of the most
prudent. Full of regard for the ulemas, he generously distributed
to them slaves and riches to assure the interests of Moslems and
to help them in their submission to God and in the practice of the
religion. He abolished all the evil, cruel, and bloody practices of
the Chi [Sonni Ali Ber]. He gave more solid foundations to the
religion. He freed from slavery all those who could prove their
right to liberty and restored to owners all the property which the
Chi had taken. He restored the religion by installing cddis and
imams. May God reward him for his zeal in the name of Islam!
(TF 114-15)

Among the examples cited in some detail is a visit with the cddi,
or religious and political leader, Mahmoud ben Omar in Kabara,
near Timbuktu. Askia Mohammed asks why the man has not been
following the instructions he sent. In the long dialogue that follows,
the ruler reveals that he has forgotten his earlier vow of devotion
to the cddi for the Timbuktu area. The narrator cites Askia Moham-
med's humility toward Mahmoud as proof that the ruler is a man
with a pure heart who believes in God and his prophet.
The chapter on Askia Mohammed in the TF emphasizes exam-
ples of his generosity toward Moslem religious leaders and includes
the full text of a safe conduct pass he provided to some holy men
who had been the victims of Sonni Ali Ber. The narrator has heard
that it is the only decision, of all those made by Askia Mohammed,
that remained in effect through the succeeding generations of
Askias, including the period during which the Moroccan army con-
trolled the region. Despite this, the narrator reports that he himself
had seen the descendants of the beneficiaries sold as slaves in the


Scribe, Griot, and Novelist

market of Timbuktu during the reign of Askia Mohammed
Bounkan, who ruled twice, from 1621 to 1635 and from 1635 to 1642,
during the Moroccan occupation.
The most significant example of Askia Mohammed's piety, how-
ever, was his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1497-98. His travels recalled
the pilgrimage by the Malian ruler Mansa Moussa two centuries ear-
lier. While the written and oral traditions describe the event, many
differences illustrate the divergent world views of the two sources.
First, the chronicles present the pilgrimage as simply the normal
duty of a leader who is a good Moslem. But Nouhou Malio's version
portrays the holy voyage as a form of atonement for Askia Moham-
med's murder of his uncle. Second, while both versions report on
extraordinary and supernatural events that occur en route to Mecca,
each interprets them in a manner reflecting the two different belief
systems that governed Askia Mohammed's life, the Islamic and the
Songhay. Third, while both the oral version and the chronicles tend
to focus more on the events of the trip itself than on the activities
at Mecca, those events differ considerably. The oral version deals
with holy wars, while the written describes incidents. Fourth, after
the arrival in the land of Mohammed, each focuses on different
kinds of activities. The written accounts emphasize contact with
scholars and religious leaders rather than the details of religious ob-
servances; the oral version gives an astonishing description of Askia
Mohammed's descent into the tomb of the Prophet. Finally, no ver-
sion mentions the narrators of the other version of the trip. The TF
Describes the seven learned men who accompany Askia Mohammed
but makes no reference to griots. In Nouhou Malio's narrative, by
Sthe time the ruler reaches the Red Sea, he decides to cross with only
two companions, a marabout specialized in divination and a griot.
The narrator of the TF reports that Askia Mohammed left Gao
in September-October 1497, while es-Sa'di gives an earlier date,
October-November 1495. Both accounts present the trip as the nor-
mal pilgrimage to Mecca that every devout Moslem should make.
The pilgrimage was then, as it has been until only a few decades ago,
a rather hazardous journey for which many precautions should be
taken. The difference here between an ordinary pilgrim and a ruler
such as Askia Mohammed is one of scale and cost of those precau-
tions. These were no doubt influenced by the history of earlier West
African rulers who had traveled to Mecca. Aware of the economic
and social impact of Mansa Moussa's pilgrimage in the fourteenth
century, the narrators of the chronicles are careful to point out that


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