Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Translated by Daniel Whitman
With “Kings, Sages, Rogues: The Historical Writings of Amadou Hampâté Bâ”

Washington, D.C. Three Continents Press. 1988.

       Table des matieres      

Daniel Whitman
Interview of Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Conducted in French at his home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Feb. 25, 1979

(The interview addresses themes both from the Kaydara, presented here, and from The Radiance of the Great Star, soon to be issued in English translation by Three Continents Press as a companion volume. Though some of the questions pertain to the future volumes, the discussion is presented here in its entirety in the interest of preserving its coherence.)

DW: Maybe we could begin by having you read some passages from the Kaydara. Bâ: Do you want me to read a passage in Fulfulde or French?
DW: Both, if you would.
Bâ: All right [reads the beginning passage of Kaydara in Fulfulde and then in French.]

DW: Thannk you very much. Now that we have listened to the sound of the Fula, I wonder if you could comment a bit on what the versification is; how it compares to French, or European versification.
Bâ: I cannot, because I know nothing about European versification. This may come as a surprise to you; in fact I didn't do my studies at a French school. In those days (I'm now into my 79th year) there weren't schools as there are today. On the contrary, sons of important families were taken and kept hostage. In those days, once you had the certificate of studies (which was called “native primary level,” since European children were not admitted), once you completed that certificate with no more or less than the four mathematical operations [addition, subtraction, multiplication and division] that was all you got. Then you could be a copyist or interpreter, or nurse, or one of the most subordinate positions. In that way there was a personnel that was bright enough to understand, but not intelligent enough to enact … not cultivated enough to demand more, or…
DW: … or practice the professions that are recognized by the Europeans.
Bâ: Yes, yes. So among these, I was part of that group. But I was fortunate enough to have both a European and an African teacher. The European was François Primel.
DW: In your biographical résumé you mentioned a Monsieur Monod. Bâ: That was when I was at the IFAN 2.
DW: Oh. so that was much later.
Bâ: Yes, much later, in 1940, or '42 or '43; while M. Primel was during my earlier schooling. So then, he liked me very much, and told me I mustn't give up, but must go on, go on. My teacher, the last African teacher I had, was Nyagui Fadiga, and Nyagui Fadiga was a very cultivated man. Though an African, he had been to the teacher training school at St. Louis, which was run by the friars of the Catholic mission, who gave a very solid background. I was fortunate enough to pass my certificate of studies with this teacher. Afterwards, he instilled in me a taste for reading. I was supposed to go to the teacher training school at Goré, where I was transferred, but my mother was against my going. So, since with us one never disobeys one's mother, I cut off my studies. And my teacher, Nyagui Fadiga, told me it wouldn't matter as long as I kept reading.
Later I became a civil servant and was given a position in Upper Volta. Not far from Bamako, in fact. There, after a year at the Bureau of the Registry of Deeds, I was transferred to the Governor's office. The Governor took a liking to me, so I was made his secretary. Then all reports passed through my hands. I read, then I ordered more books, and became a devourer of books. I read anything and everything, and since I was born curious, my reading only heightened my curiosity.
DW: Then came the episodes of your academic career; I think it's fair to say you underwent many unexpected changes, even an escape…
Bâ: Oh yes, yes, yes, there were many. I'm now writing my complete biography, and I am up to my 47th year.
DW: I see. So you're going at it systematically, year by year.
Bâ: Yes, since I don't really have to think. It's like a film that unfolds before me; I am in fact the film. Since I'm a traditionalist. For us there is no method of classifying this and that. There is only the scene which is depicted such as it happened.
DW: In fact I think the notion of “memory” figures completely differently in your tradition.
Bâ: That's right. For us, it is a matter of memory. So I know, I remember all the important acts of my life, and only since 1970 has my memory begun to slip somewhat. But up until 1970 I remember everything.
DW: And not only series of events, I think, but whole texts you learned by heart.
Bii: Yes, all the Fulfulde texts. Because I loved my language very much, and am a poet in my language.
DW: I want to ask about Tierno Bokar, to situate him in your life. You spoke of a series of changes, you didn't go to Gorée, you went from St. Louis to Upper Volta
BA: To Bamako. From Bamako to Upper Volta.
DW: Yes. At what time did you contact Tierno Bokar?
Bâ: Oh, Tierno Bokar, I never ceased being in touch with him.
DW: So it was from early childhood …
Bâ: I was, as it is sometimes said, I was born in his hands. Then I grew up in his hands, he was not only my Koranic master, he was my sheikh, my initiator to Sufism, and to the Muslim tradition. Even when distance separated us, we always kept corresponding; no, I never broke from him.
DW: You mention initiation. I would like to know what initiation means in the Sufi context. With certain religions there is a ceremony where you enter and re-emerge, changed. I think this is not the case with you.
Bâ: That is not the case. With us, we don't know words. There is one thing you must always bear in mind with traditionalists who have learned to speak French, without having learned Greek or Latin: they don't know the real meaning of [French] words.
DW: Derivation, that is.
Bâ: Derivation. The radical derivation of words. But they have been taught the meaning. Now as for us, personally I think in Fulfulde or in Bambara. Because these are two languages that are equal to me, since one is my mother tongue and the other was my acquired language. So I think either in Fulfulde or in Bambara, and I transpose my thoughts into French. You see what acrobatics I get myself into? It's a real tour deforce. So I'm not always sure of the words I use, or whether the French word means what I think it does.
DW: Especially, perhaps, with the word “initiation.”
Bâ: Yes, well, “initiation” for me, for example, involves a teaching you know nothing about, where the master gives it to you in its entirety, then he sets out to explain parts of it that aren't explained to just anyone.
DW: I see. When there is a “lesson,” might it consist of texts like the Kaydara, in fact?
Bâ: Exactly. Here is all of Islam in 15 points (he brings out an esoteric chart). This is a graphic image created by Tierno Bokar for use by the unlettered. This is the oral tradition, the teaching of Islam. So you see, for example, this is a figure within which you have the nine first numbers. Unity, within which is two (since it is unity which has added itself to itself to form the two), and this is unity which has added itself to two to form three, and this is unity again which joins with the three to form four … and, once you have four, then you have all the others, so it's a procession. Then there is nine, and whoever said there were nine gods wasn't telling the truth. He who said there are eight took a step forward, but he wasn't telling the truth either. He who said there were seven, he who said there were six, he who said there were five, four, three, two … Only he who said there was one God was telling the truth.
DW: Do you mean that all these figures are from a multiplicity …
Bâ: Derived from a multiplication of one unity, which is to say that it is not a number, it is a source. But when it wanted to become known, then it was one. It is said that one multiplied by one stays one. This He will not accept, God cannot be many. Multiplication does not come out of His secret. One divided by one is still one. So He cannot be divided. Therefore there is no one who shares divinity with Him. Then one minus one is the negation of God. Then you have zero, and what is zero but one that put its alpha within its omega. People say, “oh that has no value,” they say, “it's zero, it has no value.” But that isn't true. All you need is to put it to the right of a number, in order to make it ten times stronger.
It's zero that allows one to become ten. Why? Because in fact it is the mystery of becoming. It's the mystery of becoming because the one was like that. It put itself upside down in such a a way that it cannot be known where it began and where it ended. It becomes a wheel. So we enter into a vicious circle, we can no longer keep the head from the tail.
DW: You know that in many religions there is the image of the serpent swallowing its own tail.
Bâ: Exactly. And so it's all the same idea of circularity. The secret that puts its inside within its outside, and its outside in its inside.
DW: If I can touch somewhat more on this idea of “secret”: in certain religions the idea of secrecy is crucial in initiation. In your training with Tierno Bokar, was the notion of secrecy important — that is, of a learning process that proceeds over a long period of time?
Bâ: It is a secret initiation in that there are two stages: the outer and inner stages. Or in Arabic, the wahil and the bagui. Or in French, the esoteric and the exoteric. [referring to the chart] So, this is the exoteric teaching of Islam. But condensed into 15 points.
DW: So, what you just explained would be an exoteric explanation.
Bâ: Exoteric.
DW: And then it might have taken years and years …
Ba: Years to pursue a point. He'll come back, he'll take the number nine, he will tell you all the secrets of the number nine. For example he will tell you in the way you saw in Kaydara. Because there is a teaching that was very useful to Tierno. Everything that isn't directly contrary to Islam and that is instructive, Tierno adopted. This is according to the teachings of the Prophet himself. So, he accepted many customs as long as they didn't deny the unity of God.
DW: Could I ask you, in his esoteric teachings, for an idea of how much time it took
Bâ: Oh, that depends first of all on intelligence, on assiduousness, and on the amount of time available. And especially since you can't tell if it comes to an end. Why can't it end? Because the meditation of the adept is very important in secret initiation in Islam. Each time, apart from what the teacher imparts, he gives the keys. He opens and enters the house. First the teacher tells him how to open the house. He opens the house. He goes in where the rooms are. With each room he chooses to go in, he must discover himself, and find knowledge within … andthen ask the teacher for confirmation of what he has seen … This is how he learns the eleven basic names of the 99 divine names — there are eleven that are basic — so he gave me this problem: “Go, take apart the names, then put them back together in the form of a face.” [Indicating the picture of a human face, composed of Arabic letters]. This is the outcome of that problem. So this was my thesis, as it were. So when you see it and don't know what it is about, you might think it were an African figurine. But there are the eleven names of God … taken apart and put back together. This was a way for him to know if I had matured or not.
DW: So this was your own creation that indicated that you had absorbed an esoteric teaching. And it wasn't inevitable that it come out as it did, perhaps? Bâ: No, no. If someone else had done it, it would have come out differently. But only for him. There may be symmetry … there, for example, there is a yaye. [He enumerates the Arabic letters in the portrait.] There, the curve is a mim, the point is a ba. The nose is a nûn and the nostril an alif.
DW: So it is entirely constructed from letters, from writing.
BS: From Koranic writing.
DW: Koranic writing that constitutes an image.
BS: That's right.
DW: I see. In the Kaydara — if I may move to another question — there were certain equivalencies, that is, the number six represented something specific.
Bâ: Yes.
DW: Well, I am not an initiate. In reading the Kaydara do I offend the notion of secrecy when I see that the six represents the chameleon (to cite one example)?
Bâ: No, no, no. You can read it and even understand it in your own way. That is why he says “I am the futile, the useful, the instructive.” He is futile for those who are futile. Then he is only a tale. He is useful for those who are at the beginning stages of reflection. And he is instructive for the so-called “rough-heels,” that is, the mature man who has walked far, who has seen much: that is what we mean by the rough-heels.
DW: Which means that when I read the Kaydara I find an exact presentation of exoteric knowledge, and I do with it as I can.
Bâ: Just as it speaks to you. It is like the holy writings: when you are reading through the scriptures, of course there is the surface meaning, but it can happen that a verse can mean something to you that it means to no one else.
DW: So it could be said that I lack no information. When I read the Kaydara, all the details are there.
Bâ: All the details are there.
DW: Nothing is hidden.
BA: Nothing is hidden from you. Nothing is hidden, nothing is apparent. You will know only what you are destined to know.
DW: Which brings up the question of fate: can assiduousness suffice in reaching esoteric knowledge — or must one be granted the congruence of many different elements?
Bâ: It is very difficult to give a precise answer to that, concerning the rules and regulations. Because… they say that God can not be set in a frame. He cannot be constrained. Within three months He can inspire you, leaving you with knowledge that others would not have after … thirty years [laughs].
DW: It has nothing to do with personal shortcomings.
Bâ: It can be said that God does not give vent to fantasy [laughs].
DW: So there is a question of chance.
Bâ: No, chance does not exist. Because for us chance is the meeting, the coinciding of things whose law, whose mechanism, we are unaware of. It is the law of meetings which we do not know. So let us not accept chance.
DW: We call it “chance” only because we don't understand.
Bâ: Exactly. So, you see, a French word in initiation may not mean what it does otherwise. That's the way it is. You leave from there, you meet something or somebody in a place. For you, that is chance. But for the Lord there is a reason why He had you meet at that place on that day of that month. And that law was not given to man, all of its mechanisms were not given to man. So, as soon as you begin to know these laws, you already become what is known as a clairvoyant. And there you already begin to advance up the steps to sainthood [laughs].
DW: So, it becomes less a question of chance.
Bâ: Yes, yes. When you bear witness to a coincidence and can't explain it, you may say it is chance. Well, I'm telling you that no, chance does not exist. Chance is a coinciding of events whose mechanisms, whose laws, we are ignorant of.
DW: Before moving on I wanted to take up the idea of information, of details that are manifest in the Kaydara. In a footnote on the Kaydara [95], there is a discussion of the tendency to “keep knowledge under cover, to disseminate it only one drop at a time or else lose it … to entrust it only to those who are worthy of it.” Doesn't this entail a notion of limitation… ?
Bâ: … of selection.
DW: … of selection? And yet, in addition, there is the other idea of free learning of details which are given out equally to all. I don't quite follow how that …
Bâ:… how that can be reconciled?
DW: Yes.
Bâ: Well for example you have Tierno who had close to 95 disciples in the Zawiya.
DW: In Bandiagara.
Bâ: In Bandiagara. So, yes, he gave out his teaching to everyone in the same manner. And everyone did not always understand. So, often he chose his questions, he selected them. And it was in this way that from selection to selection he got to the point of finding a handful to whom he would give the secret teachings.
Because … you don't give a machine gun to a child! [laughs]
DW: Then, a secret teaching does exist.
Bâ: Yes, a secret teaching exists.
DW: And certain ones are chosen for …
Bii: Are chosen for their aptitude.
DW: Then it is not a teaching that would be disseminated in a certain work.
Bâ: That's a hard question. It is disseminated in such a way that not everyone can understand. Because, within the ordinary and apparent there is also what is secret and what is much more philosophical and esoteric.
DW: Then one speaks so that everyone has the notion presented to him, but only certain ones are given to understand; and this is done purposely.
Bâ: It is up to themselves to reveal that they have understood. It's like a garden. All the seeds have the right to be planted. But those that grow … why, why do they grow? And if, among those that grow, there is one that grows up to be a tree, and to bear fruit, huh! [laughs]
DW: And it's not a matter of chance!
Bâ: It's not a matter of chance. So there you have a selection.
DW: In the Kaydara there is the triple notion of the quest for spiritual content, material wealth and political power. Could you speak somewhat on how the three fit together, especially in the case of Hammadi, the initiate who reaches the goal?
Bâ: Yes. For us, the initiate who reaches his goal is considered a being capable of commanding spiritually and temporally, without his temporal commanding causing him to lose his spiritual sense, and vice versa. That is, he is an accomplished man in the two areas, in the material and spiritual areas. So Hammadi is an accomplished man [un homme réalisé]
DW: So one element cannot exist without the other.
Bâ: if it does, then the balance will reflect it.
DW: Might this be a lesson or manual for the political person of the twentieth century, the leader of any given country?
Bâ: I certainly think so. Because, you see, traditional teaching is privileged to be as eternal as mankind. Even as it was necessary for the old leaders, so it remains necessary for political men, and especially now, with material development, with great desires. Because — what is the source of friction between men, in fact? It can never truly be because of God. Men of God should never fight amongst themselves. Why? A man of God who is known as such will do no wrong to anyone. If someone does wrong to him he offers pardon. There are no fights possible [laughs]. But then, why are there fights? There are four sources of fighting. Sexuality is one cause that can even degenerate to armed struggle. There is another: money. Then there is “get out so I can get in.” That is putting oneself first. My nation must come first; within my nation my party comes first; within my party … so in reality it is man himself who wants all this. It is he who wants to come first, so he says he wants his family to come first, whereas it all comes from him, and it is he who is elevated.
DW: He says so in the name of others, but it is his own ego.
Bâ: So there is sexuality, financial gain, putting oneself first (that is, “give me the highest place,” or “get out so I can get in”) and then, mutual misunderstanding.
DW: That is perhaps the most common one.
BA: That's right. Those are the four sources of fighting in the world. And for all time. Now, whenever there is fighting on account of one of those four causes, people appeal either to religion, or to the fatherland, or to the family in order to say how they have been insulted, they have been this, they have been that, when in fact no, it is Paul who can't agree with Jim. But each appeals on behalf of his family, or his country. But aside from that, men of God do not fight. Men of God cannot fail to come to an agree ment. But men who seek the world will never agree. Jesus-Christ said “If you are struck on the right cheek, offer the left one for it is jealous.” Is such a man going to order war?
DW: Of course not.
Bâ: [laughs] Of course not. But the principle of religion must not be confused with the application of these principles by religious men in time and space. Those who practice religion are people above all. And in people there are too much viscera for them to be angels. The intestines, the stomach and all the rest secrete things which aren't always very, very … adorable (laughs). So we can't very well be saints. We have to keep that in mind. The faults of the religious should not be attributed to their religions. Unfortunately, this is done.
DW: Where will it lead?
Ba: Oh, it will work out. One should never, never despair of the Lord, or of mankind. Because man is both an angel and a demon. Perhaps we are purging something or other, something that will come to light at the time of our death. DW: Angel and demon, you say. Which reminds me of the idea of the mbeelu in the Kaydara. That is, man's double. Might there be a relation between the Fulɓe notion of the mbeelu and the notion of the double that is in fact universal, but especially prevalent in many African groups?
Bâ: Like the dya, in Bambara.
DW: Could you clarify this notion? I'm not sure it is a familiar one to the West.
Bâ: No, it is not. Because even ethnologists who have sought to explain it have failed to seize its meaning. There is a saying in Bambara to the effect that, “the being of man is multiple in man.” That is, man isn't only himself. There is an Hampâté such as you see him now, but there is another Hampâté, subtler than the gross one you see before you; there is another one within, a more refined one; in other words there is this Hampâté, but there is inside that one the ethereal double that he can see once in awhile in his dreams.
DW: Is this different from what Europeans call “soul,” or “spirit”?
Bâ: In fact I'm not sure what “spirit” is [esprit], because I never really grasped the distinction in French. That is, I understand the meaning, but I don't sense it as I might have, in my mother tongue. You see, they can say “spirit, spirit,” to one and I can say “spirit, spirit,” and they can say “soul, soul,” and I can repeat it, but what is the differentiation between “soul” and “spirit”? So I cannot understand it by the explanations offered to me by my tradition.
According to my tradition we are three persons lodged in one. There is what is called “being,” which is my envelope. But in that envelope there is the wonkii. It is the wonkii that brings my body to life. And then, within the wonkii there is the haqqille. That is, there is the body, which is perishable, and there is what I believe to be the soul that nourishes, that gives movement. the motor; and there is the quintessence of the soul that is the spirit, and that directs the other two … Now, if there is no haqqille for some reason, the wonkii will fail to seek its passions.
It will push the body in any direction, without reasoning. The wonki does not reason. Or rather, it goes directly towards its passions. Whereas the haqqiII6 is the faculty that judges things, saying, “No, that's not it … nor that, nor that.” It is the horseman, then. So it has spurs, and reins, and it brakes the wonkii which in turn brakes the body.
DW: Are these the three elements intended by Freud, when he speaks of the id, the ego, and the super-ego?
Bâ: I don't know if that is the case or not. But when somebody blesses someone we say, “May God never trouble your spirit, your haqqille.” DW: Given all this, where can the mbeelu be found?
Bâ: The mbeelu is a copy of the three, and when you sleep, the mbeelu exits. You could say it is a projection of a number it is as though it were man and his image, projected on a wall.
DW: Of all three elements together?
Bâ: Of all three elements together. DW: Then it isn't the equivalent of what we call “spirit” or “soul,” after all. It's everything taken together.
Bâ: It's everything together. Everything together. Man is said to be one, but one divided by three. When I used to talk to Tierno about the Trinity — for I used to do that — when I explained it to him he would say yes, I think the difference is a matter of language. He would also say it is not only the Christian religion which is trinitary. He said it is our universe which is trinitary. He said everything is divided in three. Take time, for example: eternal time does not know yesterday, and will not know tomorrow. That is eternal time, the time of God. God does not know yesterday. There is no yesterday for God. Because, if there were a yesterday for him, yesterday would have preceded God. (laughs).
DW: Then, yesterday is contained within eternity.
Bâ: It's the permanent presence, God is in a permanent time. It is a permanent present. So it is us, it is our time, we, creatures who come with three divisions: yesterday (that is, before our birth, before our creation), today, and tomorrow (our destruction).
Then there is yesterday, today and tomorrow. Three. Take the tree: there are roots, the trunk and branches. Look in on a family, you have the father, the mother, and the child. There can be several children, or several wives in a [polygamous] family, but there is always the wife; that is why the first wife is considered the only one; the others are her sisters [laughs].
Likewise, the first son is considered the son — all the others are him. Then there are only three persons in a family: the father, mother and child. As soon as the child leaves the family, it is to begin another family. So in everything you see, there is always that triad. This you can read about in my pamphlet, “Jesus as seen by a Muslim.”
DW: Now, there is the Fulɓe people who are couched in mystery. It is unknown where they come from and in the Kaydara, Hammadi says, “I am descended from a chosen race, a race from the Levant.” There have been all sorts of assumptions, that it was a Roman legion lost in the desert, that it was one of the lost tribes of the Hebrews. Do you have a personal theory?
Bâ: In any case I do not agree with those Arab writings that have us descended from the Oqbata. That is Oqba 4, the Oqba of years ago. In the Ferlo I questioned Mamadou Gawlo 5, who gave me a genealogy of the Fulɓe. Now, those who are called the “red ears,” he gave me their genealogy and even figuring twenty-five years per generation, the genealogy has to go back some 2000 years. So, you can hardly be older than your grandfather, so that thesis just doesn't stand up. But what might be true: when the Arabs came, or even when Oqba himself came, he must have left mulattoes. And those mulattoes, though they were not initially among the clans that resembled them, might have superimposed themselves on the Fulɓe population. DW: So they were newcomers.
Bâ: Yes, a new Fulɓe branch might have descended from Oqba, but it is impossible for all the Fulɓe to have been descended from him.
DW: Then the Fulɓe are a much older group.
Bâ: It is an exceedingly ancient people. Discoveries of hieroglyphs in the Sahara, in caves, by Lhote 6, prove that there were Fulɓe back at that time. Their traces were found in caves, and if you take the Fulɓe as drawn in their caves, and the Fulɓe of the Seno 7 near Bandiagara, you find the same thing. Nothing has changed, they are the same — their style of boats, their instruments, up until 1918. Because after 1914 there was a rupture in Africa, when all those who would have been initiates were drafted for the war. This brought a cutting-off, even if not all at the same time. So then, at least ten years ago school came to intrude, so nearly everything was set aside. So the instruments found among the Fulɓe of that branch turned out the same as those found in the cave.
DW: How old might tales be, such as Kaydara and The Radiance of the Great Star? Bâ: Truly, I have no idea. I think they must be as old as the Fulɓe themselves. I think, at least as old as the period when they began domesticating bovines.
DW: Do you mean we can't really know …
Bâ: No, I can't tell, I really can't tell. With the studies currently being done, with Lhote's discoveries, maybe we will be able to find out. But archaeology will just have to unearth something one day, in order to fix them in time.
DW: I had a certain reason for asking, which leads me to the question of The Radiance of the Great Star. In that account, there is a description which corresponds to certain incidents in Exodus, and to other accounts found in many cultures. This is the matter of the sun which stops during three days. This is a notion which exists in many different cultures, dating about from the time of the Exodus, which leads us to believe that the phenomenon did in fact take place. So, can we say that the Fulɓe oral tradition goes back at least as far as the time of the Exodus?
Bâ: Oh, I should mention that Lhote's discoveries date it at 6000 years ago … Because all the paints which were noted by a team of artists are now owned by the Musée de l'Homme [in Paris], where a period known as the Bovine Period has been outlined; this is the period which concerns the Fulɓe in particular.
DW: What importance do you give to the Baataasari, the period of three days? Bâ: Along with Islamic mysticism there is the Fula tradition, where the Baataasari came to play a part in the teaching of the light. For example, it is said in the Sato Oudie [Scriptures], “God is the light of Heaven and Earth.” So, then, “Allaahu nuuru samaa waati wa lardi,” or “God is light.” Now, earth and heaven are complements to each other. But in fact God is light. So, that light may be found by searching … the Baataasari is the 13th, 14th and 15th of each lunar month.
DW: Is it in fact celebrated?
Bâ: No, it's not celebrated by everyone.
DW: Then it stands as an idea …
Bâ: It is an idea, but it comes every month. And each time it comes up, for the shepherds who have gone through initiation, for them it was a crucial period, whether for picking plants, for gathering strength It is a period of light, therefore of strength.
DW: If we could situate the notion of the Baataasari in the context of the tale of The Radiance of the Great Star: as a reader, I was somewhat confused at a certain moment. At the beginning, Baagumaawel explains to Jom-Jeeri, or begins to explain, the importance of the Baataasari. But at a certain moment I lose the thread of what happens. I believe it was during that period when he taught him the right eye, the right ear and the right nostril. But there is a certain moment in the account when we lose sight of this.
Bâ: That's why it is said that there must be a master to teach. It's a labyrinth… You don't know where you're going and not only that, there are certain passageways you must follow. You absolutely must learn all the senses and then find them when they are dispersed in chaos. Because nature loves chaos [laughs]. On the other hand, when you've got something that is systematized, it will always tend to be the fruit of the West. It is the West that loves right angles [laughs], and this and that. Whereas nature is chaotic. Go into the bush, and immediately you'll find such and such a tree growing next to such and such another, when they have absolutely nothing in common, you'll see grass next to grass, so everything is chaotic. You find the papaya tree, which is very sweet, next to the cailcédrat 8 which is as bitter as glue dye [laughs]. You'll find them on the same plot of ground, watered by the same water, breathing the same air. Why is one sweet and the other bitter [laughs]? DW: At least it's not a matter of chance.
Bâ: [laughs] It's not a matter of chance. It's ourselves, we who don't know the law that goes along with the situation.
DW: Because in the tale, at the beginning, we are led to expect an explanation of this Bitdssari, because at the beginning, that is the question. Whereas by the end…
Bâ: … There's no trace of the question. Right, because in fact what you have to learn by the tale, or shall we say, what the beginning student can gain from it, is the Baataasari — the word Baataasari. We keep passing over it in such a way as to demand our attention. But in an advanced course the Baataasari itself will be discussed. This is an introduction, notions are presented, an inventory, and afterwards they are developed at the same pace as the students themselves develop.
DW: And yet, the tale of The Radiance of the Great Star is, in spite of appearances, a discussion of the Baataasari.
Bi: Yes, it's a discussion of the Baataasari, but it is up to you to find what is said within, or what is not said; that is the effort one needs to bring to it. That is why all African tales, since we weren't used to writing, were all “oral” books. Like braille, it rises above the pages.
DW: I'd like to move to another topic and have you speak a bit about the Hamallist 9 movement. In its relationship to religious and political notions, and in the reconciliation of these two aspects. Can the question be considered that way?
Bâ: In fact the Hammallist movement was a Western phenomenon. The affair simply does not exist. It was a creation of the administration. There is the Daal family, from whom we in Bandiagara are descended, and they brought the Tijani rosary to the country [he takes out his “rosary”]. The whole secret is here. Here you have the whole explanation not only of Harnallism, but of all of esoteric Islam. Of all Muslims, the Shi'ites, like Ayatollah Komeini, in fact it is the Shi'ites who hold the esoteric element of Islam. I am Sunni myself, not Shi'ite, but it is the Shi'ites who hold the esoteric element of Islam. And this is their rosary.
DW: This is the “eleven-bead” rosary?
Bâ: Yes, the eleven-bead rosary. It's called the eleven-bead rosary because of this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. But, no you musn't do that… [gestures not to be photographed while wearing the rosary]… because I don't… even though I have the right to wear it, I don't. Why? Because the name of God is written in it. It is a symbol. So I cannot, by my soul and conscience, wear the name of God like that, and then go on to tell you [laughs] tall tales.
DW: That would be like making an image of God.
Bâ: [explaining the chart] This one corresponds to that one Now, in the middle there is a hexagram. From here to here there are these lines, and these lines join here… and then you have the hexagram.
DW: And here, what does this represent?
Bâ: Well, each bead represents a name of God [he begins to recite the various names of God]… and so on, up to 99. But when you ge to there, that is the 100th, and that is called, “the name of God that has no name.” Because you may not pronounce it. So it becomes the name of God without name, darkness more brilliant than light.
DW: A notion that exists in Christianity. The mystics of the thirteenth century, the School of Chartres, speak in these terms.
Bâ: Yes, yes. The name of God without a name; darkness more brilliant than light.
DW: [Returning to the question of Hamallism]. Didn't these matters apply to other groups as well?
Bâ: The thing was, the Tijaniyya was the only sect opposed to colonization. There came a time when it had taken up arms. So there were some fights with the Europeans, and one thing led to another.
DW: But not as a religious act?
Bâ: Yes, in fact, because the Sharif was a religious leader. But in fact when we speak of “national” heroes in Africa, it is something we have to make up. Nations didn't exist, so there can be no national heroes, can there [laughs]? But it was some thing we made up so as to have a Samori, an al-Hajj Umar to compare to Vercingetorix 10 or to whomever,so that we could say, “look here, we have our Vercingetorix,” but it wasn't an historical truth. It was a political creation that was indispensable at the moment to provide the masses something to rally around. So, according to this idea, it was our own heroes who fought. But each one of them fought for his own group, or for his crown, for his command.
DW: So it was the French who projected.
Bâ: Well then, since the Tijani were the sect that was the most vehement in its opposition to French penetration, when the administrator came he made an enemy of it. So, within this sect there are several branches, especially those who repeat the same prayer, but who repeat it eleven times, while others repeat it twelve times. But the eleven times, that was what was stipulated in the Holy Book. But certain students raised the number to twelve for Kabbalistic reasons. That is how the Kabbala works. Whereas eleven is an esoteric number. For example, the Holy Ghost descended to the apostles only when Judas has betrayed Christ.
DW: Then there weren't twelve any more.
Bâ: There were only eleven pure ones, as they say. It was only afterwards that they adopted a twelfth, to replace the one who had left. So you can see that this matter of eleven and twelve goes far beyond Hamallism. But since Sharif Hamallah came to get the Tijaniyya to apply what was written in the Tijani scriptures, the [French] administration took advantage by pitting those who advocated twelve grains against those who advocated eleven. It did everything to stir up the situation, to get the two groups opposed to each other, and it turned into a fight. Well, they further took advantage by arresting all the Harnallists, because in order to further their careers the administrators needed to find enemies of France, and then to write up reports giving the impression that they had defeated them. That's all there was to it. I was secretary to nine governors, and I saw every possible report.
DW: Then these were groups that would have gotten along together.
Bâ: Absolutely. But wherever the French administration didn't stick its nose in, the two groups prayed together. And at the present time, since the end of the colonial period, the whole matter has been dropped. Why? Because it was a creation of the administration. In every respect. I'll tell more about it one day, in any case my book on the life of Tierno Bokar is soon to come out, in Editions de Seuil. Le Sage de Bandiagara 11.
DW: The same one that came out ?
BA: Yes, because at the time it came out I didn't have the right to express myself. There was Captain Cardaire who had come especially to arrest me.
DW: Oh? And then ended up your collaborator!
Bâ: Yes, because the administration was never able to hang any charge on me to send me to jail. [laughs] So then, Cardaire is a very smart man who had been through the Algerian war, who had done everything; they sent him to Bamako to take care of the Harnallists.
So, thanks to Griaule 12, his teacher, Griaule said look here, in this matter I think it would be best if you went to Amadou Hampâté Bâ. You see, that was the cornerstone of it all… So he came, and undertook an investigation which lasted about a year. It was after this that he came to tell me “How wrong they've been against you!” He wanted the administration to understand the truth, nothing more. So he became my friend, and we worked together. However, he was under pressure to make certain observations in the book, for if he hadn't, the book would never have been published. So I went along with it, they never showed me the manuscript, they published it with things he never understood very well; he explained some things his own way, and there are some observations I don't approve of, because they aren't right, and even if they were I wouldn't want them to be said.
Because, you see, if someone is introduced to you as a man of God, if he has nine faults and one good quality, you leave him his nine faults and share his good quality with him. In fact, take him just for his quality. This is why I decided to take up the book again after Cardaire's death. There is no way for me to do him any harm at this point. So I took up the book while thanking him for his collaboration, since without him the book would never have become known. It brought many things to light, but now I would like the true teachings of Tierno to be known. So the edition which will soon come out is strictly my own, with only my own work, though I quote some passages of Cardaire's which are remarkable. Remarkable in his European way of thinking, which has more meaning to Europeans than if I were to try to explain myself. So I will keep those passages and the book will be entirely redone; it is now being discussed with the editor.
DW: Aside from that, perhaps we might close by asking you about your plans for the future.
Bâ: My plans for the future are these. I am taking certain steps in Mali, where I've bought three hectares and built two houses. There are at least 700 mango trees, there is everything — but what I wanted was to set up a sort of institute for the preservation of African traditions. Where I would teach Fula, Bambara and Sonrai. And where I would welcome anyone, without distinction of race or religion. If someone has some thing to tell us, let him come, he'll be given a room where he can present his story. Unfortunately, my government was afraid of the venture. I had spent 80,000,000 Malian Francs [about $200,000] and our young officers didn't even have the fortitude to write me to tell me no, and the matter is now shelved. But the technocrats there see me as a threat, because they've been there for years and yet they know nothing. They are paper-pushers, after their salaries. They would rather continue in the old ways of the Musée de I'Homme, where ethnologists wrote about us, rather than looking among us for the elders, whom they could ask directly. So when they found out that I had written in Arabic, to boot! I invented a vernacular alphabet in Arabic script so that those who had been to the Koranic school could read the Koran without necessarily speaking Arabic — for Fula and Bambara, Sonrai — all Muslims. With this alphabet they can write all they know about. My [Malian] government, speaking out against illiteracy, won't have anything in Arabic script!
DW: Then where do things stand at this point?
Bâ: Well, nowhere. But things will happen.
DW: They will happen?
Bâ: Yes, oh là là. Whether it happens in my time or afterwards, it will happen. As for me, it isn't a question of harvesting power or wealth … So as not to make things worse, I would prefer to let them lie dormant. But the technocrats are opposed, since they feet this will set up some sort of rivalry. They only think of themselves, they don't think of the masses.
So as for now I am here, where President Houphouet [Boigny], who is my friend, has been willing to help me. It is he who has helped me do what I've undertaken at Seware. So I'm planning to resume my project, but in Ivory Coast. I've chosen an island some 30 kilometers from here which is surrounded by an 800-hectare lagoon. I would like to apply to to be able to raise crops and cattle here, and at the same time transmit all I've learned over the past fifty years. That's what I know I must not give up. Because in France there are people who are interested, people who have already told me, “If you start it up, we'll come.” There are even people who say, “We'll come and work as volunteers to help you in building.” There is a Fulɓe proverb which goes:

Nangu ko keeɓɗa hadema dañde ko njiɗɗaa.
Take what you have, before going after what you wish for.

. If you don't seize what you have, what is offered to you, and if you wait for what you most want, you'll lose both. You will not have what you want most, and you'll lose what is offered. Since the Ivory Coast is offering itself to me to set up in Ivory Coast, well, that won't keep me from opening another, somewhere else.

Abidjan, 25 February, 1979.

1. See translator's Foreword.
2. Institut Français de l'Afrique Noire, changed after independence by President Senghor to Institut Fondamental de I'Afrique Noire, to preserve the same initials. (All footnotes to the interview are the translator's.)
3. Jesus vu par un Musulman. (Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1976).
4. Legendary ancestor of the Fulɓe.
5. Gawlo, “griot” in Fulfulde.
6. Henri Lhote, French archaeologist at the Musée de I'Homme in Paris. Specialist on the Fulɓe, he maintains that they come not from the east, but from the desert.
7. Seno, the highlands, distinguished from Waalo, the valley.
8. Khaya Senegalensis.
9. Hamallism was involved in religious civil disturbances of the 1930's.
10. Vercingetorix, French national hero of the period of the Roman conquest, who rallied Celtic resistance against Roman penetration.
11. The first edition had been co-authored in 1957 with Marcel Cardaire (Paris: Présence Africaine).
12. Marcel Griaule, the French ethnographer who pioneered work on the much-studied Dogon of Mali.