Dianne White Oyler, Ph.D.

Fayetteville State University.

* N'ko & oral tradition     * N'ko literacy &  guinea    * Songs of Souleymane Kanté


 African scholars have struggled with issues of decolonization since African independence, and while the major focus has been economic and political, cultural issues have often become a significant part of the debate.  Central to the cultural debate has been the issue of language.  Several African authors have questioned the practice of writing in European languages, thereby impoverishing the autochthonous ones because these have become the official languages of African nations, and in the modern period they have also become the literary vehicle of writers.  One could argue that in earlier times there were few African publishing houses, and, therefore, African authors had to publish in the European languages of the colonial publishers who perceived the readers of the printed word to be non-African.  While post-independence publishers and audiences continue, for the most part,  to be non-African in nature, there is today an increasingly literate African audience for European language-based publications; furthermore, because of a resurgence of African cultural nationalism, authors have begun writing more often in their indigenous languages.

Insinuating itself into this debate about language usage has been the little known phenomenon of writing African literature in indigenous African scripts.  Although many African specialists are familiar with the ancient and pre-colonial indigenous alphabets and scripts found across the continent, the introduction of new alphabets during the contemporary period--late colonial through independence--has gone largely unreported in the literature about Africa.  One of these is N’ko, an alphabet created in 1949 by the Guinean Souleymane Kanté.  N’ko has inspired a heightened sense of cultural identity among the speakers of Mande languages across West Africa.  Paradoxically, the N’ko  phenomenon, a grassroots movement toward literacy, has also generated a new, written oral tradition surrounding its creator, Souleymane Kanté, as an intellectual hero.[2]  Consequently,  given this phenomenon it is important that we address and analyze the  relationship between the orality in  maintaining oral tradition and the literacy that would replace it. The N’ko example, therefore, will allow us to consider the impact of literacy upon orality by considering the following questions about the history of N’ko and the impact the script has had on both oral and written traditions in the Mande world today.   Who was Souleymane Kanté?  Why is he considered a cultural hero?  What is his contribution to the debate about writing in African languages?  What were his intentions in creating an alphabet?  How has a literature in that alphabet been generated and disseminated?  What is the impact of literacy on the transmission of oral tradition?  This study will seek  to answer the questions, first, by situating Kanté’s experience within the African context of the current debate and, secondly  by reexamining the history of N’ko and the story of Souleymane Kanté himself.

The historical context of the debate arises during the late colonial period when African intellectuals began challenging the negative stereotypes that had been imposed on them by the European pseudo-scientific racism of the era.  One example of the prevailing view of African culture from Kanté’s period can be summarized by the following metaphor:  “African voices [languages] are like those of the birds--impossible to transcribe" (Personal Interviews 08, 22,46, 70).  These seemingly innocuous words printed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa enraged a young Guinean working in colonial Côte d’Ivoire so much that he changed his life’s purpose because of them.   Rather than feel disempowered by the insult, as other people may have, Souleymane Kanté ( 1922-1987) accepted the words as a challenge, and the result of that is that he created in 1949 the N'ko alphabet for his own Maninka language (see fig. 1 and fig. 2).

A few years later, in what may seem like a historical déjà vu, another writer, Chinua Achebe, an  Igbo-speaker from Nigeria, reacted to misconceptions found in a Time Magazine article in a similar manner and thus sought to correct narratives about Africans and Africa; he became troubled by an article in Time Magazine which termed Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1951) "the best novel ever written about Africa” (118). This second story is better known.  Achebe refers to  Mr. Johnson in the following manner:   “‘. . . it was clear to me that it [Mr. Johnson] was a most superficial picture of--not only of the country--but even of the Nigerian character, and so I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside’” (Duerden, quoting Achebe, 4).  As with Kanté, Chinua Achebe took up the challenge by writing Things Fall Apart in 1958 to dispel inappropriate views about Africans. Achebe observed that “the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted and well-intentioned” (Morning Yet on Creation Day, 123).

 Another well-known writer to jump into the fray is Ng_g_ wa Thiong'o, a Gikuyu-speaker from Kenya, who, after having written in the colonizer's language of English for years, begins  in 1977 to publish his literary works in his own language. Ng_g_ feels bound to do for Gikuyu         ". . . what Spencer, Milton, and Shakespeare did for English . . . which is to meet the challenge of creating a literature in them . . ." (Decolonising the Mind, 29).

If one takes the chronology into account, it is Souleymane Kanté’s action which predates a series of uncoordinated responses by African writers and intellectuals to western misconceptions about African culture. These writers’ intention has been to depict African culture as being neither stagnant nor impoverished.  Souleymane Kanté’s importance is that he stands at the juncture between Achebe and Ng_g_, for he created a writing system that allows the written word to truly represent the Maninka spoken word.  In other words, Kanté created an African script which fits an African language, and thus he stands as a central figure in what will become a polemical argument about writing in African languages, whose parameters were set by Obi Wali at the 1962 Makerere Conference.  Writing in Transition Wali declared " . . . the whole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing is misdirected, and has no chance of advancing African literature and culture" (14).

Little is known about Souleymane Kanté’s creation of the N'ko alphabet and what may be his seminal contribution to the idea of intellectual autonomy for Africa.  A legend has arisen surrounding Souleymane Kanté's creation of the N'ko alphabet, and  Maninka-speaking intellectuals of Guinea have generated a modern, oral epic tradition surrounding Souleymane Kanté's invention of the N'ko alphabet. His actions within this  new tradition emerge as the center of a heroic tale which elevates Kanté to the status of a Mande cultural hero.  The words eulogize   Kanté's intellectual exploits as an affirmation of Mande culture and the culture's resistance to foreign cultural domination.  As with the Sundiata epic, an account of the origins of the ancient Mali empire and a representation of its founding, the Kanté tale is transmitted in verse form.  Unlike the Sundiata epic, however, which remained as an oral tradition for centuries until it was transcribed, the Kanté tale was immediately transcribed and preserved in the Maninka language using Kanté’s own creation--the N'ko alphabet.  Speakers of Mande languages have had access to the "Souleymane Kanté Tale" since 1958 through a communications network established and operated by those who are literate in N'ko.  When asked about the N'ko alphabet and its dissemination, each one of my informants,[3] who were all a part of this N'ko network, reproduced the same "creation tradition" almost verbatim.  It was as if the text had been memorized.  Additionally, poetic forms of the Kanté story are being sung by little children. They have also become part of the N'ko literacy network as they commemorate Souleymane Kanté's creation and his contribution to his own local community and its greater sense of Mande cultural heritage.  The Kanté tale has proliferated so rapidly among the speakers of Mande languages that the phenomenon may be considered a grassroots movement.

The "Souleymane Kanté Tale" is one whose hero, Kanté,  is larger than life.[4] Kanté has become a cultural hero because he accomplished feats of intellectual prowess.[5]  According to the story repeated by members of the N'ko literate community, Souleymane Kanté (see fig. 3)  accepted a challenge posed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in his racially offensive and culturally insensitive remarks published in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We are in Africa] (Personal Interviews 46, 8).  Having conducted research on African culture in British and French colonies (Personal Interviews 22,70),[6] Kamal Marwa concluded that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication.  Marwa's position reflected the prevailing views  of many colonial Europeans.  Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete (Personal Interview 8, 9).

Souleymane Kanté had left his home Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin in 1942 bound for the colony of Côte d'Ivoire, at that time one of the focal points of commercial activity in French West Africa.  While visiting Bouaké, Côte d'Ivoire in 1944, Kanté came across Kamal Marwa's "infamous" publication in the market (Personal Interviews 17,59).[7]  Shocked by what he read and believing that the article gravely insulted Africans, Kanté sought to discuss his grievances with the author (Personal Interviews 22, 32, 35, 59).  Marwa, however, had already returned to Lebanon (Personal Interviews 9, 59).  The tale then relates that Souleymane Kanté began a silent reflection upon his own Mande language, Maninka.  Without a word to anyone, it seems, Kanté embarked on the long and arduous process of creating and controlling his own language in a new form of writing.

Although Souleymane Kanté had been educated in Quranic school and could read and write Arabic fluently, he had not yet learned French.  According to a traveling companion, Kanté purchased a French language text. Then with the help of a French speaker in the household where he was staying, he taught himself French in a little over a month (Personal Interview 18).[8] Informants call Kanté an autodidact because he educated himself through intensive reading of Arabic and French works rather than through formal instruction.[9]

According to N'ko informants, Kanté devoted the next two years (1945-1947) to writing the Maninka language using Arabic script (Personal Interviews 49, 59).  The twenty-eight letters of the Arabic script, however, could not accommodate the tonality of Mande languages.  One family member reported that Kanté traveled to Ghana and Senegal on business in 1947 (Personal Interviews 9, 49).  While in Ghana, he supposedly witnessed Ghanaians reading and writing their own languages using the Latin alphabet. He is even reported to have learned some English (Personal Interview 59).   Beginning in November 1947 (Personal Interview 8), Kanté then attempted to use the Latin alphabet for writing Maninka.  He discovered, however, that while the Latin alphabet accommodated the use of accents adequately, it also could not capture the tonality of Maninka.  He concluded that there were still many Maninka words that were too difficult to discern properly through using Latin script (Personal Interview 59).

After considerable trial and error, Souleymane Kanté finally concluded that it was impossible to write African languages accurately utilizing borrowed alphabets.[10]  A Mande proverb demonstrates Kanté's thinking: "If one takes the roof of one villager's house to cover the house of another villager and it does not fit, then one must build a roof that will fit" (Personal Interview 59).[11]  This sentiment guided him in identifying the need to create an indigenous alphabet, one which conveyed the nuances of his own Maninka words.  Thus Kanté embarked upon an entirely original project, the creation of a writing system that reflected the specific characteristics of the spoken Mande languages, including its intricate tonality (Personal Interview 32).[12]  As a result, the promoters of the  N’ko alphabet have assigned April 14, 1949 as the official birth of Souleymane Kanté’s alphabet (Kaba, 33; Personal Interviews 9,32).

After developing an alphabet with twenty-seven letters (see fig. 1 and fig. 2), the story says Kanté then gathered a group of illiterate children and adults and asked them to draw  lines in the dirt.  Because seven out of the ten drew the line from right to left, according to Kanté's supporters, he settled on a right to left orientation for the alphabet(Personal Interviews 9, 62, 70) .[13]   Finally, because he wanted to unite the speakers of all Mande languages, he provided his script with a culturally significant name, that of N'ko.  He settled on this word for two reasons.  First, he observed that in all the Mande languages the pronoun "N" means "I" and the verb "ko" means "say."  Secondly, he believed that all Mande speakers shared the same heroic/historic past of the Malian Empire.  In the oral tradition of Sundiata the founder of Mali, the jeli[14] refers to the speakers of Mande languages  as ". . . all those who say N'ko. . . ." They also designated N'ko as being ". . . . the clear language of Mali" (Niane, 55; Personal Interview 70).

The "Souleymane Kanté Story" goes on to explain the rationale for using the new writing system when two others, the Latin alphabet and Arabic script, were already in use. One group of explanations was expressed in the early 1950's by Kanté himself to his cadre of supporters as being the need for Africans to become literate in their own languages (Personal Interview 45). He saw the need for Africans to learn western knowledge in their maternal languages thus accelerating its control (Personal Interviews 17,26), the need to conserve knowledge for future generations by recording local history from elders and knowledge controlled by specialists such as healers (Personal Interview 5), and perhaps the need to disprove the pervasive, prevailing opinion that Africans had no culture.  Although those who were gathered at the 1962 Makerere conference might not have known about Kanté, his stance regarding African literacy and literature is certainly one of the earliest statements on the issue of writing in one's maternal language.  Even more significant is his status as a pioneer of indigenous scripts.

Other explanations by Kanté's supporters about the rationale for learning to use the N’ko alphabet are religious in nature reflecting their Islamic orientation.  Many members of his family, his friends, and his supporters believe Souleymane Kanté to have been divinely inspired. Some accept that Allah gave Kanté the power of intelligence and also the power to understand and effect change.  Others attribute a more direct intervention on the part of Allah who, they believe, placed Kanté in the right place at the right time and gave him the inspiration for the alphabet (Personal Interviews 26, 27, 51, 68).[15]

The "Souleymane Kanté Tale," (see fig. 4 and translation in Appendix A) is a eulogy which affirms Mande culture and Kanté's resistance to foreign cultural domination.  The language revival which was instituted by Guinea’s First Republic and the subsequent cultural renewal it generated has elevated Kanté to a hero of mythic proportions.  Maninka-speaking intellectuals are the ones responsible for establishing the Kanté tale. It is a modern oral tradition composed and transmitted orally in a cultural format along the line of the epic of Sundiata. 

Both the Sundiata and Kanté stories focus on the fight against oppression. While the outcome of both contests are viewed as being determined by some form of divinely inspired destiny, Kanté's weapon was the written word rather than the weaponry of war. In the Sundiata epic, individuals from the royal and noble lines of the Mali empire demonstrated leadership for the speakers of Mande languages.  Sundiata's lieutenants were his immediate family and his age set/mates who had grown up with him at court.  Modern leadership, on the other hand, came at the grassroots level of Quarnic-school-educated, Mande-speaking society.  While Kanté's lieutenants were also drawn from among the members of his extended family, many more were drawn from all those who had become his students either directly or indirectly.

Similar to the Sundiata epic, the Kanté story is also told in verse and/or prose and appears in many versions possessing the same textual outline.  Sundiata was preserved within an oral tradition performed by the jeli, versions of which have been later recorded in written form or in oral form on audio tape.   Souleymane Kanté's story, however, differs from its predecessor because it was immediately recorded in written form, preserved in N'ko.  While the jeli had controlled the specific knowledge of Sundiata, any speaker of Mande languages who has acquired N'ko literacy would have access to the newly written oral tradition of the invention story through the communications network operated by those who are literate in N'ko.   For the purposes of this paper, written oral tradition is defined as an oral tradition that has been formally recorded, thus making specific knowledge available to a wider audience.  For those in the performance arts, written oral tradition provides an opportunity for a reliable basis for a performance although at the same time diminishing the aspect of that performance by changing its original mnemonic character.  Consequently, it seems that all oral traditions, not just the Kanté tale, may be affected by the intrusion of the written word.  For example, in his oral tradition performance giving the history of Kankan, Jeli Sandaly Kouyaté had added a written outline as a guide to telling of the tale (see fig. 5).

Souleymane Kanté created the N'ko alphabet as an act of defiance against the intellectual and cultural denigration of Africans who were living under European cultural domination.  While acknowledging the necessity of acquiring and controlling knowledge through the dominant group's language and through their literacy, Kanté promoted his alphabet as a way to acquire and reclaim control over knowledge in the maternal language.  The control over knowledge would extend through the transcription into Mande languages of Mande history, literature, customs and traditions, and family events.  He wished to help Mande speakers escape from all forms of foreign domination. Therefore, he translated religious texts written in  Arabic script as well as modern works of science and technology.   He then wrote  textbooks for teaching the N'ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, he created  a dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language. 

Kanté’s commitment was unparalleled.  After hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, he would transcribe copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N'ko literacy within the Mande community.  Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn reproduced additional books also by hand-copying. Kanté consequently directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N'ko, and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism which gave people the pride of having a language that could stand in words and script alongside any other.   Kanté envisioned the ability of N'ko to help Mande speakers focus on their shared cultural coherence, thus  restoring Mande civilization to its earlier preeminence within West Africa.

In addition, Kanté was concerned with the loss of important indigenous knowledge especially in the healing arts.  To this day, many indigenous Mande healers are losing their apprentices to foreign cultural influences.  Without apprentices, healers cannot pass on their specialized knowledge.  In many cases, this expertise is dying with them.  For that reason, Souleymane Kanté spent much of his life traveling throughout the Mande world collecting the knowledge of healing techniques and medicinal plants.  He is also, therefore, an early proponent of naturopathy. Believing that his culture was of equal stature to any western culture, he proceeded to catalogue in N'ko cultural knowledge of tremendous scientific importance.  To accomplish this task, he had to convince each individual, aging healer of his own altruistic intentions in the preservation of their knowledge.  One important point which allowed him entry was that by using N'ko to transcribe the knowledge, only those who were literate in N'ko could have access to it.  To many healers, writing down their knowledge in N'ko was similar to preserving it in a secret code.  Kanté compiled a book of pharmacopia which Mande healers use today to treat those who are sick.  Due to their literacy index.htm, many of Kanté's immediate and  paternal family members have chosen the occupation of Pharmacopia, a field that would have previously been denied to them.

Souleymane Kanté has become a Mande cultural hero of the same stature as the political hero Samori Touré who had resisted the French incursion in the nineteenth century and also of Sékou Touré who in the twentieth century demonstrated resistance to colonialism by orchestrating Guinea's "No" vote to the French Community.  One must clarify, however, that Kanté's resistance was intellectual. He was reacting against a cultural imperialism that imposed western values over autochthonous values. His resistance was for the spirit and soul of taffinity with writers and intellectuals than he did with political leaders.  Furthermore, anticipating ideas of westernization, Souleymane Kanté had opposed Sékou Touré's post-independence educational policies because he felt they continued European cultural domination through language and literacy.  He was one of the key thinkers who believed that Guinea needed to break all the links in the chain that formed imperialism--the break needed to be political, economic, and cultural.

 The articulation that developed  between Souleymane Kanté and Sékou Touré resulted in the First Republic's  National Language Program, 1968-1984 (Touré, 13-16).  The principal idea behind the National language Program was teaching children in the mother tongue.  Eight such "maternal languages" were established for the twenty languages spoken in Guinea;[16] however, these languages would be written in the Latin alphabet(Sano 3-4). Although Sékou Touré's maternal language program  may have had its genesis in the ideas presented to him by Souleymane Kanté in 1958, Touré rejected the use of the N'ko alphabet in writing these  languages (Personal Interiew 64).  While Kanté did not embrace Touré's approach, he nevertheless tried to work within the system to help the teachers who had been charged with the standardization of the Maninka language, one of the eight indigenous languages that had been chosen by the state (Personal Interviews 34, 55).[17]  Kanté continued to promote his own literacy program, not as an alternative, but as an additional learning aid.  Souleymane Kanté kept a low profile, but he had to go into self-imposed exile on many occasions to evade Sékou Touré's retaliation directed at Kanté's lack of complete submission to the power of the state.  Kanté had become a victim to the cultural imperialism mandated by his own state.

Sékou Touré, however, could not stop the grassroots movement.  The N'ko literacy movement had begun immediately after the invention of the alphabet in 1949. It spread by way of the trade routes through the Mande speaking area of West Africa (Personal Interview 8).[18] Initially,  the individual initiative of its practitioners transmitted the desire to become literate in N'ko.  After Kanté's return to Guinea at independence in 1958, the slow spread of N'ko literacy accelerated only slightly through further promotion by its inventor.  With the death of Sékou Touré in 1984, and because of the precarious state of his own health, Kanté then helped to  organize a non-governmental organization, l’Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) for the promotion of the alphabet.  This effort was sanctioned by Lansana Conté's Second Republic.  The goal of ICRA- N’KO has been to organize an N'ko literacy campaign not only for the Maninka speakers of Guinea but also for all other speakers of Mande languages across West Africa.

      Kanté’s greatest contribution, one must observe, was that he promoted Mande unity by using Mande language and an indigenous created alphabet as the cultural thread to draw together and to focus the speakers of Mande languages on the value of history and culture.  Prior to his effort, some of the knowledge contained in these works had belonged exclusively to certain groups of intellectuals.  With the introduction of the N'ko writing system, however, those who could read and write N'ko could then have access to indigenous knowledge transcribed in N'ko and foreign knowledge translated into the Maninka language and transcribed by N'ko.  Thus

Souleymane Kanté occupies a unique place in African intellectual history.  His accomplishments, to say the least, constitute an intellectual effort of epic proportions.

In Guinea, French cultural impositions did not immediately change the methodology for transmitting oral traditions. Writing technology was first applied to the foreign culture with which it entered Mande-speaking societies.   Over time indigenous cultures adopted and adapted the new technology to their own needs.  Since the performance of oral tradition was steeped in orality, it may have been the last to be converted to writing.  Writing, however, has changed oral tradition in two separate spheres--composition and performance.

The methodology of composition reflects the oral or written nature of the original composition and its transmission to the audience.  A composition may have been conceived and performed by the artist orally, as in the  performance techniques of the jeli.  With the addition of the written form, however, such a composition may be first conceived orally and then preserved in writing, but performed orally, or else it might be conceived and written from thought to script with no intention of oral performance (Bنuml, 37-39).    During the performance of an oral composition, the jeli, or oral artist, interacts with the  audience, and both share the recreation of the oral tradition. In contrast, for written compositions the reception of the content takes place in the absence of the composing process (Bنuml, 39). 

Both the Sundiata and Kanté oral traditions were conceived orally and then written down.  While both stories may be read, the focus of oral tradition is the transmission of the story through oral performance.   The jeli must use some combination of oral mnemonic devices to recreate the story for a specific audience.  These aids might be of a formulaic structure which integrates semantics, syntax, and rhythmical organization.  Since many of these oral texts like the ones about Sundiata have existed for centuries, these cues may be designed to assist listeners in recalling the story rather than to prompt the memory of the artist (Bنuml, 35).   According to Charles Bird, each epic possesses a similar structure:  a set of songs describing the principal characters and events (19-20).   The jeli organizes the contents of the epic according to the make up of his audience, drawing upon the relationships of the audience's ancestors to the events being portrayed (Bird, 20).

The audience then judges the presentation based on its ability to recall a previous understanding of the subject and by its perceived relationship to the events (Bنuml, 39).  Unlike the Kanté family members whose literacy in N'ko has led them to choose new professions in the healing arts, no formal cadre of N'ko literate story tellers grounded in the performance arts has yet emerged.  Perhaps the nature of  literacy does not demonstrate a need for such orality-based occupations.  Consequently, in the cases where the oral composition has been preserved in a written form, the oral performance will vary according to the background of the performer.  Jeliw,[19] for example, who use a written outline might employ both oral and written mnemonic devices to communicate the story (Performance, Sandaly Kouyaté Balaka, June 26,1993).[20] 

People who are not trained in the performance arts might only read the story aloud.  This action may or may not affect the quality of the performance.

            For cultures among the speakers of Mande languages, the performance of oral traditions has been the responsibility of the jeliw who are the genealogists and epic poets of Mande society (McNaughton, 6).  Although their roles include control over powerful knowledge in terms of society's history, secrets, and traditions and the maintenance of social stability through mediation, the jeliw perform oral traditions which remind society of its cultural integrity by transmitting its history and values through speech and song.  According to Charles Bird, the "music and oral art are his [the jeli's] very definition" (Bird, 17).

The cadre of performers have been restricted to certain families in society through which they learn the craft.  At first, training is conducted within the family.  Young children listen to the songs and epics as performed by the older members of their family and experiment with rhythms on their own makeshift percussion instruments.  Occasionally, they are exposed to various performances by visiting professionals.  The children learning  to play  musical instruments such as the kora and balafon, and they sometimes perform as part of the family ensemble.  They then may act as the accompaniment for family members or act as an apprentice to a relative.  Further expertise in performance can be  achieved in studying at regional training centers like the one at Kéla in southern Mali.  Skills perfected at the regional training center often include poetic construction, musical presentation, adaptation to specific audiences, and rapid fire delivery (Bird, 18-19).

With the transcription into the written record, oral traditions such as the epic of Sundiata as transcribed by D.T. Niane in  Sundiata:  An Epic of Old Mali are increasingly accessible.  Anyone choosing "to perform" the epic could render it from the printed page.   The "performer" reading from the printed page might have no training or experience in story telling and/or musical accompaniment.  Performers might have problems in adapting the text to the local history of the audience because of the new performing style. Even though the performer may achieve memorization, the fixed nature of the text may not lend itself to improvisation.  Additionally, concentration on the rendering of the written word can lead to loss of rhythm and style, as many readers as performers are trying to communicate information rather than render an artistic performance.   In the case of the "Souleymane Kanté Tale," the performers may not be able to read well the hand-written document before them and thus may stumble over the written form of the words upon which they have become dependent (see fig. 6).

The N'ko alphabet's importance to Mande culture rests in its creation as the revolutionary vision of a Mande intellectual.  Souleymane Kanté invented an indigenous alphabet, devoted his life to the production of important texts, and disseminated the alphabet among speakers of Mande languages at home and beyond Guinea’s borders throughout West Africa.   By so doing, he promoted the cultural basis for a transnational community, all of whom “say N’ko.  For the speakers of  Mande languages, N'ko has revolutionized the way they gain access to knowledge, by returning to them control over knowledge through language--Mande in its written form.  However, Souleymane Kanté  never meant for writing the maternal language in the indigenous alphabet to supplant literacy in other languages and scripts.  Instead, he provided a tool that would allow Mande speakers to learn and to communicate better by receiving and processing information in their own intellectual system. Souleymane Kanté never viewed himself as a religious reformer.  He had estimated that only two percent of the Muslim population in his corner of West Africa really understood the Arabic words they spoke when practicing religion.  If they were truly going to understand Islam, translating Arabic into the Maninka language was mandatory to get to all the levels of meaning  in the printed text (Personal Interviews 9, 62, 70).

Intellectual autonomy has allowed the speakers of Mande languages to determine for themselves what languages and writing systems are appropriate for educated Africans.  The issue was important to Africans across the continent as they discussed the issue of maternal language education at one of the first meetings of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the 1960's.  The concept of self-determination in the cultural sphere began with the key component to culture--language.  Souleymane Kanté added another dimension when he provided an indigenous alphabet for writing in the maternal language.

To commemorate the creation of this valuable cultural phenomenon, intellectuals have created an oral tradition surrounding the founding of the alphabet.  Self-selected, this story was composed orally and then preserved in N'ko.  Since it has been preserved in writing, anyone who can read N'ko may tell the "Souleymane Kanté Tale."  By writing the foundation story down in N'ko, the life and death of this specific knowledge about Kanté's invention  of the alphabet has not been left to chance.  Through their personal initiative, tellers of the Kanté tale have spread the story to individuals and groups at national celebrations, by radio and through print.  The change from dependence upon orality to that of literacy has changed the quality of the performance. [21]

Thus literacy is drastically changing the artistry of oral tradition, a long-cherished art form that has been passed down through centuries of Mande culture.  While Kanté’s  invention preserves and protects indigenous history and culture by fixing them to the printed page, the processes associated with literacy serve to undermine the indigenous culture it is intended to protect and serve.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975.

Bنuml, Franz H.  “Medieval Texts and the Two Theories of Oral-Formulaic Composition: A Proposal for a Third Theory.”  New Literary History.  Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 1984.

Belcher, Stephen.  Epic Traditions of Africa.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Bird, Charles.  “Oral Art in the Mande.”  In Papers on the Manding Carleton T. Hodge, Editor.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Duerden, Dennis and Cosmo Pieterse.(eds.)  African Writers Talking. New York: African Publishing Corporation, 1972.  

Inne, C.L.  Chinua Achebe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Johnson, John Willaim, Thomas A. Hale, & Stephen Belcher.  Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Kaba, Djaka Laye.  “Souleymane Kanté: l’inventeur de l’alphabet N’ko.”  L’Educateur, No. 11 & 12, Avril-Juin, Juillet-Septembre, 1992.

Kouyaté, Sandaly.  “History of Kankan” oral tradition performance, June 26, 1993.

McNaughton, Patrick R.  The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Ng_g_ wa Thiong’o.  Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

Niane, D.T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali.  London: Longman Group Limited, 1960.

Olrik, Axel.  Principles for Oral Narrative Research.  Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen translators.  Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 19 .

Oyler, Dianne White.  “For ‘All Those Who Say N’ko’: N’ko Literacy and Mande Cultural Nationalism in the Republic of Guinea.”  Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilm International, 1995.

Personal group interview 08, March 8, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal group interview 17, April 5, 1993, in Balandou.

Personal group interview 18, April 5, 1993, in Balandou.

Personal group interview 45, June 17, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal group interview 46, June 19,1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 05, march 3, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 09, March 11, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 22, April 9, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 26, April 26, 1993 in Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin.

Personal interview 27, April 27, 1993 in Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin.

Personal interview 32, May 8, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 34, May 10, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 35, May 11, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 49, June 20, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 51, June 22, 1993, in Djankana

Personal interview 55, June 24, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 59, June 28, 1993, in Kankan.

Personal interview 62, July 14, 1993, in Conakry.

Personal interview 64, July 15, 1993, in Conakry.

Personal interview 68, July 17, 1993, in Conakry.

Personal interview 70, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.

Sano, Mohamed Lamine.  “Aperçu Historique sur l’Utilisation des Langues nationales en République de Guinée.”  unpublished paper. Conakry, Republic of Guinea, 1992.

Time, October 8, 1951.

Touré, Sékou.  “Débat culturel: Le Chef de l’Etat sur les langues africaines.”  Horoya, No. 2889, du 25 au 31 Octobre 1981.

Wali, Obiajunwa, “The Dead End of African Literature?”  Transition, Volume 4, Number 10, September 10, 1963.


[1].    This paper is based on  research undertaken in Kankan, Republic of Guinea from 1992-1994 with the assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for 1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the summer of 1994.

[2].In fact, Kanté’s influence is so vast that his N’ko-written History of the Mandingue for 4000

 Years provides today’s N’ko readers with a fixed, prose narrative of Mande history.  Paralleling

the Homeric question, one can ask whether Kanté’s recorded history will eventually challenge and

compete with the memory of the Griot’s repertoire concerning the cultural foundations of Mande

oral traditions.  Specifically, Kanté’s approach in his history is the merging together of

undocumented and unrecorded Mande oral traditions  with unspecified written historical accounts

of West Africa in order to create his own Mande-styled history of the region’s speakers of Mande

languages.  This is a topic I would suggest for further research.

[3].    The following account of Souleymane Kanté's struggles has been drawn from conversations with  family, friends, confidants, those who worked to promote the alphabet, and those who witnessed the promotion of N'ko from its inception in 1949.  Kanté died of diabetes in 1987, before my own research began.  While the informants drew upon their personal experiences with Souleymane Kanté, there appears to have been some kind of consensus that produced similar, if not identical, versions  of the "Souleymane Kanté Story."  The only variation to the general story line comes when informants could not remember the names of persons, places, or documents.

[4].    In Olrik’s discussion of European-based epics, the heroic narrative epic only focuses on a single event which is its conclusion, and the main character is larger than life. These figures are mainly kings, but can include warriors for the king.  Axel Olrik Principles for Oral Narrative Research translated by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen, (Bloomington, IN:  University of Indiana Press, 19 ), pp. 110 & 47;  Stephen Belcher defines  epic, specifically within the African context, as a term associated with “a literary tradition of a larger than life scale of narrative that may be tinged with divine inspiration.”  Stephen Belcher, Epic Traditions of Africa, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. xiii.;   Johnson, Hale, and Belcher offer that “epics are multigeneric and multifunctional, incorporating more of community’s diversity than might have been expected; and they are transmitted culturally ‘traditional’ means.  They are not the overnight creation of visionaries . . . .”  John William Johnson, Thomas A Hale, Stephen Belcher,   Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent.  (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1997. p. xviii.

[5].    While not told on the grand scale of the Sundiata epic, the "Souleymane Kanté Story" follows oral tradition by recording his heroic deeds in verse which have been preserved by recording them in his creation, the N'ko alphabet.  See the beginning of the story written in N'ko and its English translation performed by Kanté's grandchildren.

[6].    In interview 22, April 9, 1993, in Kankan, the informant reported that the Lebanese journalist had traveled to several countries and was visiting his brothers in Bingerville, Côte d'Ivoire.

[7].   Interviewee 59 lived with Kanté in the same compound during his early years in Côte d'Ivoire.  This story is confirmed in the accounts from the maternal family in group interview 17, April 5,1993, in Balandou.

[8].    In group interview 18, April 5, 1993, in Balandou, one member had traveled with Kanté to Côte d'Ivoire and witnessed these events first hand.

[9].    Souleymane Kanté is reported to have been a premier scholar in his father's Quranic school, functionally literate in Arabic, well read across disciplines including twenty-seven translations of the Quran, and a translator of the Quran into Maninka.  Informants credit Allah as bestowing on Kanté his unusual intellectual capacity.


[10].    According to Olrik, the narrative composition relies on repetition rather than detailed description to stress important components in the plot.  Characteristically, the event happens in a set of three--first attempt fails, second attempt fails, and third attempt meets with success. p. 44.

[11].    Kanté's brother related the Maninka proverb in interview 59, June 28, 1993, in Kankan, which was given in the following French translation:  "Prendre le toit de la cas d'un village pour couvrir celle d'un autre, si le toit ne sera pas grant il sera petit."  Since proverbs state their meaning indirectly, the above translation is my interpretation of its clarifying message.

[12].    The writer employs diacritical marks to indicate changes in tone.

[13].    Souleymane Kanté's  acquisition of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, was probably more responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation than these experiments.  It cannot be known if this was a political statement rejecting African deculturation by Europeans.

[14]. Although referred to generally by the European term “griot,” the jeli (pl. jeliw) is an oral

 historian/story teller among the Mande speakers across West Africa.  The jeli/jeliw transform(s)

the remembered knowledge of family histories and epic poems into performance art at the family,

local, or regional levels.  He/she educates and reinforces shared knowledge through the narration

of epics, praise singing at ceremonies for rites of passage, and maintaining histories.

[15].    Informants discussed Kanté's capacity to invent N'ko.  Within the Islamic community, there had been dialogue among early critics as to whether or not the invention had been sanctioned by God.

[16].    The eight maternal languages were Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi, Guerzé (Kpelle), Toma (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.

[17].   The informant explained in great detail the relationship between the educational and political aspects of the National Language program and Souleymane Kanté's role in helping to standardize the Maninka language to the Latin alphabet.

[18].    According to the informants in group interview,  at the time only Maninka-speaking long distance traders were merchants in Abidjan.

[19].       Plurarl form of jeli

[20].    On June 26, 1993, in Kankan, I witnessed jeli  Sandaly Kouyaté Balaka's performance of this history of Kankan.  During his performance he referred to written notes (see fig. 5).

[21].I was a witness to the national celebration for the creation of the alphabet on April 14, 1993 in Kankan, when the grandchildren of Souleymane Kanté performed the tale (see fig. 5).  The quality of this performance may have lacked the luster of jeli presentations that I had previously witnessed because the  performers depended upon the skill of reading rather than the skill of story telling.

  :ب ظامىَ خبَمىَ وطيْ علْ ظش زئْ

: كاِةب خيكئْ


: واَفبَةب كئْ


E-mail: nko@kanjamadi.com  Tel : ( +2) 0123349264

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