Amadou Hampaté Bâ

Amadou Hampaté Bâ (1900-1991); photo credit

Born in 1900 in Bandiagara (Mali), Amadou Hampâté Bâ was the heir of two eminent families of the Peul (aka Fula) people who are located throughout West Africa. His path to manhood had been marked by the combined influence of a triple heritage: Malian, Muslim and French cultures. It was at the court of his father and step-father that Bâ gained extensive knowledge of the culture of various ethnic groups of Mali. This also helped him develop a real appreciation for the oral traditions typical of this region of the world. Koullel, a reknowned African traditionalist and family friend, passed on the knowledge of his people to his protégé Amadou or Amkoullel (little Koullel) as he was then called. Tierno Bokar, another friend of the family and highly respected sufi mystic, developed another facet of Bâ’s personality. Bokar’s teachings centered on tolerance, love and respect of all beings, gave Amadou unique qualities that manifested through his later work and relations with others. Contact with French culture proved to be more traumatic for Bâ.  This contact really began in 1912 with “l’école des otages” (literally the school for hostages) that all sons of African notables had to attend by order of the French colonial administration. It was there that Bâ would meet for the first time the real “Wangrin”, then an interpreter.

In 1922, after several surprising changes of fortune, Amadou was finally ordered to begin his career in the French colonial administration with a punitive assignment in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) as a “ Ecrivain temporaire à titre essentiellement précaire et révocable” (a temporary scribe with an essentially precarious and revocable appointment). He remained there until 1933, making his way up the colonial administration while keeping a record of the customs of the various ethnic groups with whom he came in contact. During this period he also met, for the second time, the real “Wangrin” who was then a ruined man who instructed Bâ to write Wangrin’s life story.

From 1933 to 1942 Bâ continued his career in the French colonial administration until Théodore Monod, a French ethnologist, hired him at “L’institut Français d’Afrique Noire”(IFAN). Bâ also worked as an ethnologist and led numerous missions throughout Western Africa to gather information about folk customs. After the end of the Second World War, his work at IFAN focused on a research project that was dear to his heart, writing about the history of his people, the Peuls (The Fula Empire of Macina, 1954).

Now a respected ethnologist and historian, Bâ entered a new career as a cultural ambassador for African culture.  He was a member of UNESCO from 1960 to 1970, where he brought to light a serious threat to an essential aspect of African cultures, oral traditions. Bâ’s most famous quote illustrated perfectly the situation which he found disturbing: “In Africa, when an old man dies, it is a library burning.” He then relentlessly worked to record and inscribe African oral traditions as one of the treasures of our World’s heritage.

One of the greatest ambassadors of African cultures, Amadou Hampâté Bâ spent the rest of his life sharing the wealth of oral traditions to the world in his writings. He died in 1991 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

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