Out of Africa
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills” *…
Well, not exactly. Let’s start again …
I was a sojourner in Africa, kicking up clouds of red dust, so typical of the Sahel, with every step that I had the privilege of taking there. And my footprints, covered in sand by morning and by the multiple years of mornings that followed, were left, if only ephemerally, in a place that I called home, Mali, West Africa.
Flat, arid, baobob-ed … that is the Africa that I’d come to know. Dynamic, culturally vibrant, oozing with a sense of humanity … that is the Africa that I would come to cherish and respect.
I can still feel the throbbing of djembes piercing the night with each lunar eclipse, can still see the fluttering of crisp, almost technicolored cloth in winds from the more northern monochromatic Sahara. And then there is the faint whiff of Africa, acrid and earthy, that still lingers between the pages of books or photographs taken there.
I read everything I could get my hands on by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, “ Sage of Bandiagara”, while my children wandered through the wondrous world of the reknowned artist and storyteller Baba Wagué Diakité.
‘From old mouths to new ears’ [Malian Proverb]
Baba Wagué Diakité’s art evolved from the rich tradition of storytellers, musicians, artists and griots that is so pervasive, so beautifully resilient, in West Africa. From the fabled city of Timbuktu to Gao to Bamako, words from old mouths still resonate in ever new generations of ears. And traditional aesthetics, from the carved symbolism of ceremonial masks to the historical, mythological and utterly iconic patterns of Malian mudcloth [bogolan], now reverberate across borders through a more modern medium, the picture book.
‘Whenever an elder dies, it is a library burning.’ – Amadou Hampâté Bâ
Wagué, which means “A man of trust” in his native Bambara (a language which I struggled to master, if not for the long, eloquent salutations!), was himself entrusted with a ‘library’: his grandmother’s trove of traditional legends, oral histories, and folk stories, passed down from the most ancient vocal archives. It is through this artist’s murals, ceramics, and bogolanfini tableaux that a ‘library’ is ever preserved.
Our copies of The Hunterman and the Crocodile, The Hatseller and the Monkeys, and The Magic Gourd may have traces of fine Harmattan dust and years of page-flipping, but the tales, with such rich illustration, have lost none of their poignancy. Their utter universality, their Aesopian/La Fontaine/Slobodkinan resonance as if from a distant common voice, makes us aware that we truly are ‘one humanity.’
His work is grounded in a universal language of life’s celebratory nature, a lyrical dance of our collective experience. – Peter Held
And for a glance at our artist/storyteller at work, an absolutely captivating short film by OPB’s Emmy Award-winning “Oregon Art Beat“:
*Out of Africa by Danish Author Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen
On preserving these ‘libraries’:
- The Ko-Falen Cultural Center, founded by Baba Wagué Diakité and Ronna Neuenschwander, to promote cultural, artistic and educational exchanges between Malians and the people of the United States.
- Quand Le Village Se Réveille [When the Village Awakens], a project dedicated to collecting, preserving and diffusing Malian traditional culture through texts, recordings, videos and interviews of village elders.
On ‘reading Africa’ through children’s books:
- Children’s Books about Mali: Marie’s Pastiche, Exploring World Cultures with Kids
- 10 Great Picture Books to Learn about Africa: Mia Wenjen, co-founder of Multicultural Children’s Book Day [MCCD, Read your World]
- The Water Princess, newly released, by Susan Verde
- Doors to the World: International Picture Books as Mirrors, Windows and Doors towards Global Literacy
More about our ‘Man of Trust’:
- From Old Mouths to New Ears [Interview with Baba Wagué Diakité]: Send a Cow Blog [and discover, at the same time, Send a Cow’s sponsored initiative, “Read to Feed” created by Heifer International.]