b. 1901, Bandiagara, Mali; d. 1991, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
novelist, poet, ethnologist, traditionalist, and historian
The Malian novelist, poet, ethnologist, traditionalist, and historian, Amadou Hampâté Bâ is perhaps best remembered for the saying "An old man that dies is a library that burns." Promulgated to the level of a proverb and often cited, sometimes out of context, this saying has come to epitomize what Hampâté Bâ stood for: the defense and illustration of African traditional values. Born at the dawn of the twentieth century in Bandiagara in Mali, Hampâté Bâ constituted himself, well before his old age, into a "living library" for everything that touched on the source of African precolonial culture and history. Having lost his father at the age of 2, he was adopted by a provincial chief and at age 12 was sent to the French colonial school. Even as a student at the French school he continued his Koranic studies under the direction of his spiritual master, Tierno Bokar, and therefore stayed attached to the traditions of Islam and his ancestors.
During the period of French colonialism in West Africa (see colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism), Hampâté Bâ occupied several positions as an assistant and interpreter to the colonial administration before he was sent to Dakar in 1942, where, at IFAN (Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire) he undertook ethnological and religious research in the former French African territories. In 1951, a scholarship from UNESCO enabled him to travel in France where he worked with other Africanists at the Musée de l'Homme. In 1958 he founded the Social Science Institute in Bamako and became its director. From 1962 to 1970 he was a member of the Executive Council of UNESCO. In this organization, as well as through his other works, he became famous for his untiring struggle in the service of oral cultures (see oral literature and performance) and for his incessant call for dialogue among nations and peoples. Appointed Ambassador of Mali to the Côte d'Ivoire following independence, Hampâté Bâ never ceased to carry out, in addition to his administrative duties, a series of historical, religious, anthropological, and literary works that have made him today one of the most illustrious champions of the defense of African oral tradition.
Although his writings generally deal with traditional African stories and history, they can be grouped under certain specific headings. Among his initiatory stories are Koumen, textes initiatiques de pasteurs peuls (Koumen, Initiatory Texts by Peul Shepherds) (1961), Kaidïra (1964), L'Eclat de la grande étoile (The Brightness of the Great Star) (1974), and Njeddo Dewal, mère de la calamité (Njeddo Dewal, Mother of Calamity) (1985). In these initiatory stories, Hampâté Bâ continued the work that had been carried out for generations by griots and other traditional storytellers, the people he considered to be the keepers of African oral tradition. For him, the griots-composed of musicians, singers, and oral historians-were important in African cultures because they were the vehicles through which history was recalled, sung, and celebrated. He