"The Significance of the Griot," by Eli Smith
Hum 211 Student Essay, Fall 2000

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I read somewhere that when an old man dies in Africa, a library dies with him.  I think that is true with all cultures where oral tradition is prevalent.  When a culture relies on oral tradition to pass on legends, stories, and proverbs through many generations, the importance of the speaker is very essential to preserve one's culture.  In Western African cultures, griots were depended on by the culture to educate the folks of their history and traditions of the people.  Some of the many facets a griot had were to entertain and teach the moral lessons a culture had to the children.  The griot, a person who was soaked with his culture's wisdom, would also have the duty of preserving one's history and keeping traditions alive.  A Griot, who was not solely restricted to those responsibilities, was also a teacher, poet, musician, and participant in ceremonies that called for naming initiations and installations of chiefs. [See Cora's Note 1]

Griot, in French, is one of the names for an expert in oral performance.  This definition in itself can tell you that they are, above all, professionals who represent a group in a well-defined social order.  In Mabo and Djeliba's case with the movie Keita: The Heritage of the Griot, Djeliba Kouyate had a loyalty to Mabo Keita.  With Djeliba, who was a griot to Mabo's father, his grandfather, and now to Mabo, we learned that the Kouyates belonged to a caste where their social position was to tutor and counsel the Keitas.  Within the movie, Djeliba's mission was to tutor Mabo of his origin, as well as the meaning of his name.  But for Djeliba to reveal the unfamiliar answer of Mabo's descendents, he must take days to retell this epic story.  This surfaces to be a problem for the reason that it conflicts with Mabo's mainstream education from textbooks.  As the griot continues his story to Mabo, his interest and attendance to his mainstream school decreases until the teacher recognizes it as a problem.  When Mabo's teacher, who is Mr. Fofano, tries to explain to Djeliba that the mainstream education is all that matters, Djeliba, who still does not understand, responds by saying, "My son, knowledge is heavy with sense.  Knowledge is ungraspable, complex.  It might be in the breath of ancestors, in millet, in sand.  It passes from spirit to man, from the man to the spirit" (qtd. in Hum 211 Course Pack: Cultures and Literatures of Africa, page 65; [see Cora's Note 2] ).  This statement justifies the theory that the value of knowledge by griots does not come from a textbook and never has.  Djeliba's information comes from wisdom passed down generation from generation that challenges people's assumptions and invites their understanding.  But to some, the assumption of irrelevance comes into play.  When Mr. Fofano tries to explain to Djeliba that the old way has no play in today's society, Djeliba explains that he is only ignorant to two things on earth, one of those being the teaching of the original of Mabo's life by Mr. Fofano.  Mr. Fofano then replies with the assurance that if Mabo put that answer on his test, he would fail.  With the strong ignorance and stubbornness of both Mr. Fofano and Djeliba, and the lack of understanding of a school schedule by Djeliba, Djeliba in the end decides that the best thing to do would be for the bird to watch over Mabo for now.  Instead of assimilating the two cultures, old and new, together, Djeliba bids farewell with his final words to Mabo:  "Always remember that it's an old world and that the future emerges from the past" (qtd. in Hum 211 Course Pack: Cultures and Literatures of Africa, page 70 [see Cora's Note 2]).  

Another role of the griot was to preserve the oral traditions and ensure that the community knew well of its ancestors, as well as the function of the mainstream society.  The person, whom the griot was tutoring or counseling, would use his knowledge and apply it to everyday situations in hopes of making sense.  Griots present a situation from the past by telling stories, something the people can relate to, and teaching them how to apply the moral or lesson in the story to everyday situations.  Or as Cora [Agatucci] stated in the [Hum 211] course pack . . . about griots, "They were educated and wise, and they used their detailed knowledge of history to shed light on present-day dilemmas" (page 76 [See Cora's Note 1]).  These griots would remember and transmit the collective wisdom of the culture, which was sometimes utilized into spoken, sung, or drummed words.  Songs, dance and poetry were also used to convey cultural responsibility, customs, discipline, philosophy, and history to people of all ages.  Djeliba had this obligation to Mabo and some of the things that were taught were proverbs, history, and philosophy.  Such Mande proverbs stated are when Djeliba says, "An empty belly has no ear," and "Eat . . . you can't run and scratch your foot at the same time" (qtd. in Hum 211 Course Pack: Cultures and Literatures of Africa, page 58 [see Cora's Note 2]), to an eager Mabo, who wants to hear the story in its entirety with no breaks.  The history that was taught to Mabo had to do with his ancestry, which would in return help Mabo gain an understanding of where his name originated.  So with the epic tale of Sundjata, Mabo's distant ancestor, Djeliba brings the old world into Mabo's life so Mabo can emerge as a better person in the future.  One piece of philosophy that Djeliba states in the movie is when he speaks to Mabo one last time before he leaves.  [As quoted o]n page 70 of the course pack, Djeliba states: "Do you know why the hunter always beats the lions in stories?  It is because it's the hunter who tells the stories.  If the lion told the stories, he would occasionally win" [see Cora's Note 2].  This proverb explains that you have to create your own story, or hear the story from a[nother] person involved.  In this case, Djeliba represents the hunter who is telling the story, and the meaning is not a matter of win or lose, but the presence of fact and experience.  Another way to explain this proverb would be to look at Custer's last stand.  If the white people continued to tell the story, it would be considered a massacre, but when people heard the same story from Indians, everybody gained a whole new perspective on the situation as a whole.  With this newfound outlook on life, Mabo is told that this piece of information is valuable, for it will help become confident in the future.

Griots were in service for everybody, work for everybody, and are willing to explain the origin of somebody whenever time is willing.  In my culture, Indians were quite similar.  Both cultures, African and Indian, had no written history [of their own] prior to the 18th century.  both used oral tradition history to educate and tell history of local people, and describe the creation of earth, man, and the animals.  I do not think that my culture called them [a special name like] griots though.  Most people who passed down the tradition were likely to be storytellers: elderly people.  From all of the knowledge I have gained about my Warm Springs culture, I have attained none of it in textbooks.  I have talked with elders who have lived the history.  They have written an image in my mind of glorious unity and elaborate systems of order.  Not only are they historians, they have become a kind of genealogist, telling me about my ancestors, like who they were and what they were known for in the tribe.  Their words are potent with my history and tradition of my people, and for some, elders are the only path to take for understanding.  These walking libraries produce a rich, eloquent bridge to the past that helps us all acquire a perception of today's mainstream society.

Griots were a link to the past.  Their increasing, almost unattainable knowledge brought to light ancient solutions that alleviated modern-day dilemmas.  These designated chroniclers were respected well in their society because of their hard work and dedication to their culture.  Without these people, cultures would have been masked by a written tradition [not their own], possibly losing some or all of their culture.  This oral tradition protects the history and philosophy of each culture assuring the people that their stories are unpolluted with the mainstream society's views.

Works Cited

[Cora's Notes, Fall 2004:]  Updated versions of HUM 211 Course Pack documents cited by Smith are currently available on the following web pages:

1 Epic of Sundjata: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/sundjata.htm
2
Keita Film Notes & Viewing Guide: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/Keitafilmnotes.htm

2000, Eli Smith

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