Historical Memory in the Oral Tradition of the Manden Peoples (West Africa)

Authors: Zavyalova, Olga (St. Petersburg State University)
Speaker: Zavyalova, Olga
Topic: Narrative and Metanarrative
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


For the peoples of Manden (West Africa), collective memory equals reality. Due to the fact that until recently history existed only in oral form, culture was forced to create certain mechanisms for its preservation.
At the heart of the oral tradition of the Manden peoples, and we are talking about the Bamana, Maninka living in Mali and Guinea, is the institution of griots. This is a professional group (caste) of storytellers, but not only. Griots are the keepers of history and “transmit the words of the rulers”, they can also advise rulers and patrons, they are mediators in resolving many issues. But griots also have their own rules: they “should say what they have to say, and be silent about what they shouldn’t say.” No one can tell them what to say, but during training, griots learn these important topics. The main forbidden topics are related to the family of the rulers of Keita and refer to the legends about the founder of the Mali Empire Sundiata and his entourage. The story of the Dogon people, who consider themselves the Keita brothers, is also connected with some secrets that we were told (in part) during the expedition to Mali in 2022.
The epic itself and oral history undergo changes over time. An example is the Manden Charter, which contains both traditional norms and articles that are clearly imbued with modern humanism. Both the Charter and the Oath of the Hunters are somewhat aimed at modern and even outside audiences. They paint a positive image of a modern person who does not fit into the norms of the past. Griots themselves are obliged to model the image of the people for its proper. An interesting rule, which, in particular, is transmitted through epics, proverbs: it is important not what the hero did, but what they say about him.
The Manden word is quite material, it transmits energy. The legends themselves in some versions directly contradict each other – their orientation depends on the place of residence of the griot and the time of transmission of the legend: some legends are more Islamized, others are focused on traditional beliefs.
Even the system of joking relationships changed due to the expansion of interaction with other peoples.
Today, it is interesting also to watch how oral history absorbs scientific, and more often near-scientific articles.

Keywords: Manden, oral history, memory