At the turn of the 19th century in what is now southern Côte d’Ivoire, a West African trader sat down with the French colonial officer and linguist, Maurice Delafosse.
“This White man, while residing in Kofidugu, beseeched me to tell him a tale: the tale of Alimami Samori Ibn-Lafia. I told it to him.”
According to Delafosse, this story of Samori Ture (or Samory Touré) is his 1899-1900 transcription of the words of a certain “Amadou Kouroubari”, from Dabakala in the Gimini/Jimini region of northern Côte d’Ivoire, which was then dominated by the city of Kong. Indeed, his speech—as Delafosse notes in his introduction—is marked by many features of the form of the Manding variety of Jula which still today is associated with this city and spoken by its descendants across parts of northeastern Côte d’Ivoire and southwestern Burkina Faso.
Leaving aside its contents and the historical moment of its production, the narrative is an interesting sample of language in itself; it is long and of a genre that is absent from other earlier documentation of Manding: extended prose narration. In this respect, it’s important to note that it is also NOT from the epic or oral story-telling tradition of a griot (for which there exist a large number of more modern recordings and typesettings). Thus, while there is clearly an colonially-mediated audience-performer dimension to it, it closer to a quotidian register of the general populace than that used by a bard for a patron.
Kurubari’s narrative is nonetheless “epic”, coming in at roughly 19,000 words across 45 pages. In short, it instantly caught my attention when I stumbled across it in a 1901 Jula grammar, and for the last few years re-interpreting it with a modern orthography and an English-language translation has been been a back-burner project of mine. As it turns out however, I wasn’t the first to have such a thought. A 1991 conference presentation by a Polish academic pointed me to the existence of an edited and partial 1963 Russian translation of Kurubari’s narrative by one of the earliest Soviet researchers focused on Manding, Victoria Tokarskaya . Relieved that her translation was not only in Russian, but also only partial, I had continued thinking that the project would be worthwhile (potentially as a contribution to a larger book project that the historian David Conrad is working on). A recent visit to France has thrown another wrench in things though.
In November 2018, I visited the French Catholic missionary and Bambara lexicographer, Père Charles Bailleul (AKA Baabilen) outside of Paris. In discussing our current projects, I mentioned my Samori tale project and he replied that he also done some work related to a 1969 alcohol transfer copy of a hand-written Samori narrative that was produced at the request of a White man. Another one?! Yes, and he had already put the translation and typesetting up on his website (available here, via the Wayback Machine—Bailleul’s website bamanan.org website was down at time of writing).
Reading Bailleul’s brief introduction to his work, however, I realized things were more complicated since this Samori narrative had the same narrator (Amadu Kurubari/Kulubali) and was produced in “Kofidugu”:
L'histoire de l'Almamy Saamory est ici racontée en jula par Amadu Kulubali à la demande d'un 'toubab' de Kofidugu. Ce document a été retrouvé polycopié à l'alcool à la Mission catholique de Welesebugu. Il a été retranscrit en orthographe moderne par Baabilen Kulubali. Les historiens de métier devraient pouvoir dater d'une manière assez précise ce document et retrouver le nom du 'toubab' de Kofidugu. Si un navigateur avait des précisions, nous serions intéressés de les connaître
Following this and a review of parts of the text, Bailleul and I determined that his typesetting and translation were NOT of an independent Bamanan Samori Ture narrative of unknown provenance. The duplicated document that he found at the Catholic Mission of Welesebugu (viz. Oueléssébougou) was simply a Bambara-ized version of the Amadu Kurubari text that Delafosse transcribed and typeset in 1899-1900. Given that it was already Bambara-ized when Bailleul came across it, it is unclear who initially went about re-intepreting the 19th century Kong Jula of Amadu Kurubari into standard Bambara. And to what end? A Catholic missionary wanting to improve their Bambara? A Catholic Malian reviewing old French sources? And does the interpretation speak in any way to socio-political processes—such as the colonial army, Christian Churches and adult literacy programs—that have led to Bambara being the most prominently taught form of Manding?
In any case, while Bailleul’s translation is high-quality, it is clear that it is not based on the original text (which itself, of course, was Delafosse’s interpretation of Kurubari’s speech) so the question of its ultimate accuracy is still open, even if it is likely very faithful as far as a free literary translation. Nonetheless, the fact that his typesetting is of someone else’s Bambara-ized interpretation—instead of a faithful re-construction of Kurubari’s speech as represented in Delafosse’s original work—means, I guess, that the door is still open for me find time to work on this project even if it’s not quite as novel as I previously thought!
Thoughts? Comments? More information on the various characters involved — let me know! On my end, I need to reach out to Bailleul to get his introduction changed so people don’t believe that what they are reading on his site is in fact an original source.
: Interesting aside/Full disclosure: The study of Manding began at Saint-Petersburg’s Kunstkamera under the direction of Dmitry Olderogge — a tradition to which I am ultimately connected, it turns out, having studied Manding linguistics with Valentin Vydrin [formerly of the Kunstkamera but now at l’INALCO in Paris, France]. More information on this academic tradition and genealogy here)
Delafosse, Maurice. 1901. Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue : étude grammaticale du dialecte dyoula : vocabulaire français-dyoula - histoire de Samori en mandé : étude comparée des principaux dialectes mandé. Paris: Ernest Leroux. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5440988h.
Piłaszewicz, Stanislaw. 1991. “On the Veracity of Oral Tradition as a Historical Source: The Case of Samori Ture.” In Unwritten Testimonies of the African Past: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held in Ojrzanów n. Warsaw on 07-08 November 1989, edited by Rzewuski and Stanislaw Piłaszewicz. Warsaw, Poland.
Tokarskaya, W.P. 1963. "Istoriya Imama Samori", Afrikanskiy Ethnograficeskiy Sbornik, V: 190-199. Moskva-Leningrad.