Generational Clashes in the Retold Epic Story of “Keita! The Heritage of the Griot” (1995) by Dani Kouyaté

Curator's Note

Although the film recounts the epic story of Sundiata Keita the miraculous child who did not walk until several years after his birth, the Director Dani Kouyate stresses the dichotomy between the world of African ancestors and that of the modern Africa inherited from colonization. One of the clashes between the two views of the world is symbolized by the Griot Djeliba (Praise singer and depository of African Traditions) and the school teacher Fofana with regards to Mabou’s education. In the piece posted, the Griot conspicuously puts down the so-called formal education while promoting African oral tradition. He positions himself as an established teaching authority by making the illusionary and idealistic school teacher realize his ignorance and aberration for he does not even know the significance of his own name “Fofana”. According to the Griot, knowledge evolves around generations and is passed on from the periphery (past) to the center (present and future). He views African oral tradition as quintessential unlike the western teaching style and he proves it by attracting Mabou’s attention to the detriment of the school teacher. This case show is similar to the scene between Baroka the old village Chief and Lakunle the Schoolmaster in The Lion and the Jewel (1963) of Wole Soyinka with the victory of tradition over modernity (Baroka wins over the heart of the beautiful girl Sidi to the disadvantage of Lakunle). In this film, Dani Kouyate portrays some of the tensions that still exist and mold African people’s lives. The calmness of the Griot contrasts the agitation (and later on the resignation) of the school teacher during the ideological battle over education and who controls who and what, raising thus the problematic of African identity crisis as it is lived nowadays. I believe that if a just argument should be made about “Keita! The Heritage of the Griot” it must be focused on the dichotomy and the disunity of the world in which Africans live; they are “neither black nor white” as James Patty put it talking about Tamango in Tamango (1829) of Mérimée.


Thank you Ibrahim for this nice post. I agree with the way you describve the conflict between these two protagonists. What strikes me is the way in which Kouyate uses myth in this and other films. The story of Sundiata, the character of the griot, and the archetypal teacher have been built into means of subverting the educational choices of the state. The two sides perceive themselves as competing interests, bent on winning the mind of the young Mabo. One may argue that, in the end, the magic of Djeliba wins since Mabo himself turns into a teacher for his friends, but it is unlikely that he will turn his back on what he has learned at school. Above all, this is film which like Laye's Le maitre de la parole, re-energizes the image of the griot. The film resonates with the content of several novels and film in various parts of the continent. One thinks of Ngugi's The River between, Achebe's Things fall apart, perhapos Laye's L'enfant noir or Kane's L'aventure ambigue but also the more recent Aminata Sow Fall's L'appel des arenes. As for films, Teno's Afrique, je te plumerai comes to mind. There are others!

Kouyate’s film is very powerful also because it demonstrates how school curriculum, in many places in Africa, serves as a decoy to enforce an articificial distinction and perpetual miscomprehension between the so-called “Civilized Africans” and “The Village folks” who are continually patronized as illiterate second class citizens. Kouyate’s film, and I can also add many others such as, Sango Malo, Chef, Vacances au Pays, The Silence of the Forest etc…, historicizes these processes pointing out that this artificial distinction has merit only for cynical politicians and confused self-hating “civilized” Africans .

I am glad to see both Sada and Olivier making references to other works, especially the interlink between film-makers and novelists both francophones and anglophones. This proves to some extent how african cultures cross one another and shows that in the end African writers and film-makers feed one another consciously or unconsciously in order to inform/educate. It also calls on the critics of african works to have an open mind and reconsider the spational parameter beyond the boundaries drawn during colonial times. Your comments (Sada and Olivier) to me stand as a guiding light for the adepts of African films and you've been able to come to your remarks thanks to the powerful thought of Kouyate. His film is carefully crafted and has about 4 layers or sub-stories: 2 sub-stories directly related to the coming to being of Sundiata in the past and the last 2 sub-stories about Mabou in the present, the moment the story is retold by the Djeliba. The organization of these 4 sub-stories to make one is I think, one of the reasons it encompasses a number of writers and film-makers as you noted.

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