Nouhou Malio was a griot — a “historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician” — from the nation of Niger. In 1981, he sat down with Thomas Hale and recounted The Epic of Askia Mohammed, which Hale then recorded, translated, edited and annotated. But it wasn’t easy: Much of the epic was told in the Songhay language, but one in five lines were “in archaic Soninké, the occult language of the Songhay, and perhaps other languages.” With help, Hale got almost all of this epic into English. Askia Mohammed was a ruler of the Songhay empire, based in Gao (a city in present-day Mali) from 1493 until 1528. The story is a wild ride. There’s a levitating city, protected by a hen (along with a python and an ox, but I was really focused on the bodyguard hen). Somebody gets called the “hat of a wild boar.” My favorite line, perhaps, was, “It is his head that is really a big head.” I know, I’m probably reveling too much in the different-ness of the story, but part of the pleasure here is the fact that the tale is so distinct from most modern fiction. It’s a unique, intriguing tale, and Hale provides both an essential summary in the introduction and detailed annotations for the reader who wants to dig deeper.
Ann Morgan gives a longer review: She concludes that The Epic is “a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.” Isidore Okpewho writes a critique of the book (which I can’t immediately access since I don’t have a subscription to Research in African Literatures), to which Thomas Hale responds.
This book is #39 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.