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Birago Diop (1906-1989)


Senegalese poet and story-teller, a prominent African francophone writer, who recorded traditional oral folktales of the Wolof people. Birago Diop's work helped to reestablish general interest in the African folktales published in European languages. 'Souffles', perhaps his most famous poem, is considered the "poetic exegesis of animism" within the Negritude movement (Wole Soyinka in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, 1999).

Ecoute plus souvent
les choses que les êtres.
La voix du feu s'entend,
entends la voix de l'eau
écoute dans le vent
le buisson en sanglots.

(in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, ed. Léopold Senghor, 1948)

Birago Diop was born in Ouakam outside Dakar, French West Africa (now in Senegal), into an influential Wolof family. Diop's father, Ismaël Diop, a mason, disappeared two months before his birth. Diop grew up in the district of Ouakam with his mother's side of the family. In his childhood he heard stories told by his family's griot, which he later used in his own literary work. Moreover, his two older brothers, Massyla and Youssoupha, encouraged from early on his scholarly and literary pursuits. Diop attended a Qur'anic school and in 1921 he moved to Saint-Louis, then the capital of Senegal, where studied on a scholarship at Lycée Faidherbe, and wrote his first poems. A voracious reader, he frequented libraries. His favorite authors included Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. After obtaining his baccalauréat and serving a year in the colonial army, Diop went to France to study veterinary medicine at the University of Toulouse.

In Paris Diop met many African, Black American, and Caribbean students. Among them was his fellow countryman and poet Léopold Senghor, who later became the first president of independent Senegal. Diop participated actively in the Negritude movement created by these young poets, artists, and intellectuals - the concept of négritude was elaborated by Aimé Césaire, Senghor, and Léon-Gontran Damas and defined as "affirmation that one is black and proud of it". Diop contributed to Léopold Senghor's newspaper L'Etudiant noir and several Diop's early poems appeared in 1948 in Senghor's famous Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, an important landmark of modern black writing in French. 'Souffles' (Breaths / Spirits / Forefathers), with the theme of unity of all things – living and dead – with nature, became one of the most anthologized poems of the movement: "Listen more often to things rather than beings. / Hear the fire's voice, / Hear the voice o water. / In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees, / It is our forefathers breathing." (in 'Forefathers', An African Treasury, selected by Langston Hughes, 1960)

Diop graduated in 1933 and after completing his studies, he left Paris for Senegal. In 1934 he married Marie-Louise Pradére, a white French woman - such marriages were rare in those days. During the early 1940s, following the Nazi occupation of France, he spent involuntarily two years in Paris. Because of the travel restrictions, he was unable to return to his home country until after the Liberation. Diop contacted again his old friends, Damas, Senghor, and Alioune Diop and devoted his time to writing folktale adaptations, which first appeared in literary journals. 'Un Jugement' and Sarzan' appeared in La Revue du Monde, edited by Paul Morand and Ramon Fernandez. In May 1944 he gave a talk on 'Le folk-lore noir' and the tales and legends of the Afrique Occidentale Française.

Here, far from my home in Senegal, my eyes are surrounded by closed horizons. When the greens of summer and the russets of autumn have passed, I seek the vast expanses of the Savannah, and find only bare mountains, sombre as ancient prostrate giants that the snow refuses to bury because of their misdeed... (in 'The Humps', Tales of Amadou Koumba, 1947)

Diop returned to West Africa to inspect cattle and treat sick animals in French Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Niger, and Mauritania. After a long career as a government veterinary surgeon, Diop served as Senegal's ambassador to Tunisia from 1961 to 1965. He then settled in Dakar and opened a veterinary clinic.

Since then I go
I follow the pathways
the pathways and roads
beyond the sea and even farther,
beyond the sea and beyond the beyond;
And whenever I approach the wicked,
the Men with black hearts,
whenever I approach the envious,
the Men with black hearts
before me moves the Breath of the Ancestors.

(from 'Viaticum', 1960)

While working in the colonial service and traveling in the rural areas by canoe, horseback, car and foot, Diop encountered bush people and learned of the Wolof traditions and oral literature. The most important contact for him was the 60-year-old griot Amadou Koumba Ngom, a professional storyteller and oral historian, whom Diop met in the late 1930s. His tales Diop incorporated in the award-winning Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1947), Les nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1958), which included an essay by Senghor, and Contes et lavanes (1963), which contained new material, Wolof riddles, and aphorisms. (The Wolof is the most prevalent indigenous language spoken in Senegal.)

Diop reworked Koumba's tales but used the griot's style, rhythm, daily expressions, puns, and repetitions. He was also faithful to the typical performance principles alternating prose with poetry and songs sung by the audience and the narrator. Diop himself disowned authorship of the tales, explaining that he only transcribed them and made them accessible to the French public. In speaking of his method he once said: "Whenever, while transposing my stories, a word or expression in Senegalese did not come spontaneously in French to my satisfaction, I did not look for the equivalent in some contemporary author. But, falling back on the little I had learnt, I hurried to Rabelais and Montaigne, sometimes to Corneille, rarely to Voltaire, occasionally to Anatole France." (in African Literature in French: A History of Creative Writing in French from West and Equatorial Africa by Dorothy S. Blair, 1976, p. 39)

Diop's tales blended realism, humor, and fantasy and expressed in allegorical form the human condition. The protagonists are men, supernatural beings, and animals like in the Fables of La Fontaine or tales of Aesop; also the tales often have a moral or ethical undercurrent. One central cycle of stories dealt with the eternal combat of Leuk, the cunning and malicious hare, and Bouki, the dull-witted and cowardly hyena. In 'Mother Crocodile', structured as a tale within a tale, precolonial period and Western colonialism is viewed anthropomorphically from an animal point of view. Diassigue, the Mother-Crocodile, tells the little crocodiles of warriors, gold, of the first white men, and the upcoming war. One of the youngest asks: "What difference does it make to us crocodiles if the Wolofs of Walo fight against the Moors of Trarza?" In the following war the heir to the Moorish kingdom is wounded. An old woman prescribes an effective remedy to the sore - a fresh brain of a young crocodile. The lesson of the tale is that children should listen to the wisdom of their elders.

Diop's collected poems, Leurres et Lueurs, written between 1925 and 1960, appeared in 1960. Though his subject matter was African, the poems were cast in classical style and form of the French tradition. His memoirs, La Plume raboutée, was published in 1978. It was followed by A Rebrousse-temps (1982). Diop died in Dakar on November 25, 1989. Diop was the most acclaimed African writer of folk-tales. He was awarded the Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Occidentale Française for the Contes d'Amadou Koumba in 1947 and the Grand Prix d'Afrique Noire in 1964 for Contes et lavanes.

For further reading: 'Birago Diop's Contribution to the Ideology of Negritude' by Sana Camara, in Research in African Literatures, vol. 33, no. 4 (Winter 2002); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness by Wole Soyinka (1999); 'The Animal Trickster as Political Satirist and Social Dissident' by James Gibbs, in The Growth of African Literature, by Idris Makwrd et al. (1998); European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, vol. 1, ed. Albert S. Gérard (1986); Mythology and Cosmology in the Narratives of Bernard Dadie and Birago Diop by Marie Tollerson (1984); African Literature in French: A History of Creative Writing in French from West and Equatorial Africa by Dorothy S. Blair (1976); "Les contes d'Amadou Koumba": Du conte traditionnel au conte moderne d'expression française by M. Kane (1968); Birago Diop, écrivain sénégalais by R. Mercier et al. (1964); 'Préface d'Amadou Koumba à Birago Diop' by Leopold Sédar Senghor, in Les Nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba by Birago Diop (1958) - For further information: Birago Diop

Selected works:

  • Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba, 1947 - Tales of Amadou Koumba (tr. Dorothy S. Blair, 1966)
  • Sarzan, 1955 (play)
  • Les nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba, 1958
  • Leurres et Lueurs, 1960
  • Contes et Lavanes, 1963 (contains Le Prix du chameau) - 'The Price of the Camel' (tr. Eileen Julien, in Callaloo, No. 8/10, Feb.-Oct., 1980)
  • Contes d'Awa, 1977
  • L’os de Mor Lam, 1977
  • La plume raboutée, 1978
  • Mother Crocodile = Maman-Caïman, 1981 (translated and adapted by Rosa Guy)
  • A rebrousse-temps, 1982
  • A rebrousse-gens: épissures, entrelacs et reliefs, 1985
  • Et les yeux pour me dire, 1989

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