"The Past to Future Keita," by Dawn Hendrix (HUM 211, Fall 1998)
Student Writing, Hum 211, Fall 1998

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[Keita: the Heritage of the Griot, ten years later:] Camera focuses on Mabo Keita, a handsome young man, graduating from college with a degree in literature and film. He has a far away look in his eyes. The camera zooms into the audience to Mabo’s aging proud mother and father. The camera zooms back into the back of the crowd to the out of place Hunter of Do and Djeliba, who have not seemed to age. Mabo steps from his peers and accepts the degree. The crowd cheers. Later that night, as Mabo is returning from a party,  he sees a strange shadow pass his window. Then he hears a sound like the wind rustling the palm leaves. He rises from his bed and goes into the night. Djeliba is waiting.]

"Greetings Mabo," says Djeliba in his native Jula language.

"Djeliba, is that you? You are looking well. Why have you come so unexpected?" Mabo says in astonishment.

"The world is mysterious. It is time for you to know another truth. You are a man now," Djeliba smiles.

Mabo smiles too. Is this one of the many true stories he has been searching for all these years? Can he become a great man in whom the old traditions still stand yet are mingled with the art/technology of the modern? Can he heal within himself the rupture caused by colonization? Can he recover the Mande cultural inheritance that was seemingly lost? Can Mabo become a man of many truths?


The ideological system of colonization has been a violent destructive force on the world, as we know it. The cruel reality of colonization is its precise history of slavery, murder, violence, rape, and torture of non-European peoples by European nations1 with the motives of sheer greed. This hostile take over was rationalized through the racist ideology that native peoples were inferior savages.   Aime Cesaire describes its damaging effects, ". . .millions of men have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, and abasement" (qtd. in Fanon 7). Can such a vile legacy ever be overcome?

The effects of colonialism did not end when African countries claimed independence from the colonizer. Two (or more in some cases) cultures clashed and were changed forever. A. Holla states, "Colonialism---which brings new values, new beliefs, foreign languages, alien traditions---cannot be shed like the skin of a snake and then tossed away and forgotten" (par.3). Something is always left behind. Holla goes on to describe the lasting effects of an imposed alien culture as "colonial residue" (par. 3). For example, this "residue" is especially obvious in young Mabo Keita’s life in the film, Keita: The Heritage of the Griot, by the fact that the official language (as sanctioned by the government) is still French all though Burkina Faso is no longer a colony.

As it is not possible to completely eradicate Colonial residue; it is also not plausible that the cultural traditions of Africa, before the colonial intrusion and subjugation of its people, can fully be regained. Entire languages have been wiped out. Villages and ethnic groups have been destroyed and with this destruction certain knowledge has disappeared. Ideas and traditions have been lost in the abyss of time. But it is indisputable that the spirits of tradition have survived. Perhaps, there are ways of accessing the past in which the West is unaware. In the film, Keita: Heritage of the Griot, Djeliba Kouyate has a proverb, "the world is full of mysteries. Not everything can be seen. But everything exists" (qtd. in Agatucci 78).

Mabo Keita must recreate for himself his own unique image and being. But how will he create that image? He must grab a reality in each hand and do as his ancient ancestors did in the spirit of the blacksmith. To make an iron that is strong enough to hold the two. In Keita: Heritage of the Griot, the magic iron staff is broken in two when the lame ancestor Sundjata tries to stand for the first time. Mabo is like his ancient predecessor in that he is not whole. The long reaching effects of colonial rule have crippled him. It is a seemingly weak but flexible branch of the sun sun tree---imbued with powers of nyama---which the mythic Sundjata uses to walk like a man for the first time (Agatucci 82). Nyama is the magical creative/destructive power also termed occult powers (82). It is the raw material in which the universe is forged. When a person, namely a Griot knows how to control nyama it is creative; it has the power to change. If an inexperienced person handles the nyama force it can be destructive (57). With the concept of nyama, is it possible for Mabo forge his own identity/ story? Chinua Achebe says, "story [is] really the basis if our existence---who we are, what we think we are, what our people say we are, what other people say we are. . ." ("If One" 27).

Creative arts such as film making and writing are a few of the ways that truth is being generated. Both these methods reincarnate the art of story telling. Oral story telling is way of communicating knowledge, morals, and lessons (Achebe, "If One" 25). Film and literature are essentially western art forms that have taken on fresh meaning in the context of African artistic expression. African directors and writers have taken European mediums of art and transformed them into an answer for their own needs. They have created images in their own likeness. The novel has been used to write back to the failing empire---voices were none was heard before. In his book of essays, Hopes and Impediments, Achebe warns, ". . . let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard things with it" (76).

Director, Dani Kouyate, has used his film Keita to explore problems and possibly generate solutions. He has brought the Griot into the modern age of movies. One Griot, Djeliba Kouyate, can reach a large audience of modern day Africans and perhaps teach and involve people in the stories that are their traditional heritage. It is here that Mabo becomes the many. He symbolizes the choice of a generation to take up the challenge and integrate the Griot’s stories into his modern lifestyle (Reinwald par. 24).

In conclusion, what is the place, if any, of the western based culture in exploring and looking for meaning in the art, film, and literature of Africa? Achebe suggests, "that the European critic of African literature must cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to his limited experience of the African world and purged of the superiority and arrogance which history so insidiously makes him heir to" (Hopes and Impediments 73). We need to create a space in our selves where judgment is suspended for the "other" if we are truly to become whole beings. It is important to allow room for everyone if we are to truly have a multi-cultural world community.

Alternative Perspectives and Limitations

I live in a world that is economically rich. I can afford to study another people’s culture. I sit on a seat of privilege. I tried to approach this paper and the African works I encountered with an open mind and as Achebe suggests a "humility" (Hopes and Impediments 73).  This humility is not a weakness, but a humble tool to explore a culture rich in many ways. Why do we, as Americans, study these other cultures? Is it because we are lacking a richness of experience in our culture? Are we cultural vampires as well as material resource gluttons?

My views in this paper on African topics have ultimately been informed only by books and films I have encountered describing African cultures and literatures (And of course by my limited travel in Kenya). Though reaching out for understanding, I have to use my own cultural terms and conceptions. Is it possible to suspend our own cultural lenses while viewing the other? I don’t know if it is completely possible, but it is our duty to try.


1  Colonization is a force that has many victims. The colonizers and their descendants also suffer damage though in a different less immediate way. The colonizer is the victim of his own heartlessness. Through his ignorance and adherence to racist policy the colonist pays tribute to his own inhumanity. In the film, Chocolat, directed by Claire Denis there is a scene in which Protee, the house "boy", is banished from the house because he won’t lower himself to be the madam’s sexual slave. The young daughter, France, has forged a precious innocent relationship with Protee. France cannot understand the violent undercurrents of colonialism that are in effect (nor can she fully know that she is being indoctrinated into the colonial master / servant model of behavior). France cannot understand why her only friend is no longer waiting on her. Protee is working in the generator room. France asks if is it hot. Protee has a blank look on his face as he grabs the hot pipe. France also grabs it and is burned badly. This is a potent visual metaphor. When one is suffering from degradation and inhuman hostility we all suffer. Every one gets burned.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

---. "If One Thing Stands, Another Will Stand Beside It: An Interview with Chinua Achebe." Eds. Rob Baker and Ellen Draper. Parabola 17.3 (Fall 1992): 19-27.

Agatucci, Cora, ed. "Cultures and Literature of Africa." Course Packet for HUM 211. Central Oregon Community College, Fall 1998.
[Updated version available: Keita Film Notes & Study Guide: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/Keitafilmnotes.htm ]

Chocolat. Dir. Clare Denis. Perf. Giulia Boschi, Isaach de Bankole, François Cluzet, Cecile Ducasse, Mireille Perrier. Alain Belmondo et Gerard Crosnier/Marin Karmitz, MK2, 1988. Orion Classics, 1990. [105 min, French with English subtitles].

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Holla, Alaka. "Post-colonial Residue." Brown University, 1997. <http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/ …ndow/post/poldiscourse/holla4.html >.  [Accessed: Oct. 1998.]

Keita: The Heritage of the Griot. Dir. Dani Kouyate. Perf. Seydou Boro, Hamed Dicko, Abdoulaye Komboudri, Sotiguy Kouyate, Claire Sanon, Blandine Yameogo. Afix Productions, 1994. [Burkina Faso/France, 94 min., Jula/French with English subtitles].

Reinwald, Brigitte. "Film, Orality and Performance: Keita-L’Heritage Du Griot by Dani Kouyate." Workshop: Orality and Literacy in African Societies.  <http://www2.rz.hu-berlin.de/inside/orient/orality/13reinwa.htm > [Accessed: Oct. 1998.]

© 1998, Dawn Hendrix

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