Overview of The Fortunes of Wangrin

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In the novel “L’étrange destin de Wangrin ou les roueries d’un interprète africain” we are transported back to French West Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century. The author tells the true story of an African interpreter who described himself as follows: “I, Wangrin, formerly interpreter, capitalist, public scribe now story teller and entertainer without license.” (p.250). In the book, we follow the extraordinary adventures of Wangrin, a cunning man who made the best of his situation as an intermediary between colonial authorities and African populations. More than simply a captivating novel, this book is the work of a talented and respected writer, ethnologist and historian.

First published in French in 1973, the novel received the Grand Literary Prize of the A.D.E.L.F. (French Speaking Writers’ Association) and has since been considered the masterpiece of Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Written in French, the language of the former colonial regime, the perspective is that of an African who witnessed firsthand the foreign occupation. The style is lively, poetic and colorful and at the same time realistic as the author tries to stay true to the manner of speaking of Europeans and Africans. For instance, the use of African proverbs and “forofifon-naspa” (the language of the African colonial troops) adds a picturesque but also realistic quality to the narrative.

Always an ambassador for West African cultures, the author portrays a world lost to us but recreated and painted with accuracy. As an ethnologist, Hampâté Bâ described the mores, beliefs, habitats and clothing of Africans as well as those of the  Europeans with the most minute of details. His portraits encompass a wide variety of both male and female characters, ranging from the African chiefs and the marabouts to the colonial clerks, troops and officers. It is however, the role of the intermediary man, the interpreter, that ties together this complex picture of a world in transition.

Through the story of Wangrin, the historian gets to appreciate the dynamics at play in French West Africa.  All levels of the French administration and their interaction with the local chiefs or the indigenous population are presented in the book. The interpreter was the only connection between the colonists and the African communities and thus played a central role in the colonization process.  Like Wangrin, interpreters controlled the information reaching the European authorities, thus placing themselves in a position of power over both the African and European communities. It is no surprise that the tutelary deity of Wangrin was “Gongoloma soké,” god of opposites and ruse. Interpreters dealt with opposing worlds and used cunning to accumulate wealth and power. Wangrin was no exception, always scheming to acquire more wealth and using the services of marabouts and griots to increase his power and popularity. As an historian Hampâté Bâ also brings attention to the shameless exploitation of West Africa by the French authorities through the use of forced labor, conscription and the exportation of natural resources.

A demanding master, the French administration did not take kindly to the growing influence of middle men. It thus developed means to increase its control over its colonies by teaching French in schools and reinforcing the bureaucracy. Wangrin died in the 1930s, which was a transitional period leading to a new world in which the interpreter would never again have the same opportunities.