The Intimacy of Belonging: Literacy and the Experience of Sunjata in Mali1

By Jansen, Jan | History In Africa, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Intimacy of Belonging: Literacy and the Experience of Sunjata in Mali1


Jansen, Jan, History In Africa


"We have to keep what we have lost."

"One misses most what one has never had."2

I

Literacy is a personally acquired skill, and the way it is taught to a person changes how that person thinks.3 Thanks to David Henige4 historians of Africa are much more aware of how literacy influences memory and historical imagination, and particularly how literacy systems introduce linear concepts of time and space. This essay will deal with these two aspects in relation to Africa's most famous epic: Sunjata. This epic has gained a major literary status worldwide-text editions are taught as part of undergraduate courses at universities all over the world-but there has been little extensive field research into the epic. The present essay focuses on an even less studied aspect of Sunjata, namely how Sunjata is experienced by local people.

Central to my argument is an idea put forward by Peter Geschiere, who links the upheaval of autochthony claims in Africa (and beyond) to issues of citizenship and processes of exclusion. He analyzes these as the product of feelings of "belonging." Geschiere argues that issues of belonging should be studied at a local level if we are to understand how individuals experience autochthony. Analytically, Geschiere5 proposes shifting away from "identity" by drawing from Birgit Meyer's work ideas on the aesthetics of religious experience and emotion; Meyer's ideas are useful to explain "how some (religious) images can convince, while other do not." From Foucault, via Jean-François Bayart, Geschiere adopts the concept of subjectivication- the way an object [of rule] becomes a subject, an individual, by changing techniques of the self that are centered on the body. This approach, Geschiere argues, "will help us to understand how the subject is both shaped by and participates in evolving processes of subjectivication," which is "a never-ending process."6 In a more recent article-inspired by Herzfeld,7 whose work was not used in his 2009 analysis-Geschiere emphasizes that at the local and personal levels one can trace processes of reproduction of national sentiments, with which he launches Herzfeld's notion of "intimacy" "as some sort of complement (or a correction?) to Ben Anderson's concept of the 'imagined community' as a key for understanding nationalism."8

My study of Sunjata follows Geschiere in his aim to include personal emotional and bodily aspects when trying to understand the political implications of feeling related to Sunjata. Although more political in content than many other "cultural" analyses of the Sunjata epic, my analysis is less "grim" than Geschiere's; whereas Geschiere focuses on witchcraft as a phe- nomenon that frightens and excludes people, and on funerals that draw people into processes they prefer to avoid-thus implicitly showing compassion with the victims of these processes-I take the perspective of those who joyfully experience feelings of interconnectedness and belonging through Sunjata, and I ignore the fact that this process of inclusion will-by definition-be at the expense of (yet undefined) outsiders. In my argument I illustrate the crucial role of historical images acquired in a process of literacy training: the combination of the knowledge about Sunjata that people have acquired from childhood with the literate data on Sunjata magnifies and deepens the sensorial experience of belonging to something intimate, joyful, truthful, and overwhelming, and this explains why these images of Sunjata "convince."

II

Since the Second World War, literate knowledge of Sunjata has been omnipresent in educational programs and mass media in West Africa, but it has acquired its form through a process of "invention of tradition." The colonial administration, and later the Malian government, successfully deployed the image of Sunjata as a medieval ruler who founded a predecessor to the administrative format they had imposed. This image of Sunjata easily fitted in with local images of Sunjata as an ancestor of the political elite of Keita families, to which the majority of the population feels related through the Sunjata epic. …

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