Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Mali's Storytellers

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Mali's Storytellers

Article excerpt

Might the current crisis in Mali benefit from the soft touch of the griot?

I had been waiting close to an hour for my coffee date when I ran into the colonel. Like many of Bamako's power brokers, the 50- something officer, who is a friend, often conducts business on the broad terrace of the Lebanese cafe where we met. He always wears spotless gowns of the richest fabric and expensive European cologne.

I mentioned that I was waiting to meet a griot, a traditional storyteller. His boyish, bulging eyes were suddenly defiant.

"We don't have griots anymore. Not us. We left that behind," the colonel said, smirking.

She emerged from a taxi, spotted me, and advanced toward our table, squinting at the colonel. To my surprise, they embraced as old friends. He blushed as she sat down and took sudden control of the table, speaking loudly, blessing him, reminding him of shared history.

Her griot family, it turned out, has presided over his family's weddings, baptisms and funerals for hundreds of years, praising, representing, serenading and chastising the colonel's noble relatives. He submitted to her, putting cash in her hands and speaking by telephone with her griot father, who took the occasion to remind him of some grievance his family had committed against the community 70 years ago.

As the griot and I left for our meeting, the colonel seemed relieved to see us go.

From birth, Malian griots are taught how to flatter the wealthy and mend social ruptures. From domestic disputes to wars between clans, the griot calms tempers, tames egos, and enjoys immunity. Several years back, when a fight between farmers and nomads in Mali and Guinea erupted into armed conflict, griots from both countries held a summit meeting that produced a resolution.

Perhaps the current crisis in Mali -- more than six months ago the northern two-thirds of the country were seized by Qaeda-linked Islamists who are imposing a violent form of Shariah -- might benefit from the soft touch of the griot? …

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