Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, 1995

One day, in the rural village of Wagadu, a slumbering griot (traditional tale-teller) named Djéliba is visited by the spirit of an ancient hunter and oracle as he recounts in his dreams the legend of a tribesman on the dawn of civilization who rose up and proclaimed himself king of Mandé with the neutral consent of his village, assuming the name Konaté after their collective response, “konaté” (“No one hates you”), to his declaration of self-empowerment. Awakening with a sense of inexorable destiny and divine purpose, Djéliba decides to undertake a long journey into the city in order to begin the indoctrination of the king’s descendant, a young boy named Mabo Keita who, upon his initial encounter, is sitting on the front porch of his home reading the sterile and impersonal explanation of humanity’s evolution provided by Darwin’s Theory. Providing Mabo with a tantalizing glimpse of his ancestral history as a descendant, not that of apes, but of an ancient king named Sundjata, the son of Konaté and his second wife, an outcast hunchback who possesses mystical powers of natural transformation (nyama) named Sogolon, Mabo is immediately taken with the griot’s fanciful and exotic story that provides the contextual background for the origin of his name that, as Djéliba cautiously explains, would take nearly a lifetime to tell in its entirety. Soon, as Mabo becomes increasingly obsessed with the ancient tale on the meaning of his ancestral name, he begins to forgo his studies, daydream, and skip classes, creating a conflict within the Keita household between his traditionally-minded father who encourages Djéliba’s cultural initiation through oral history and his progressive-minded mother who believes that Mabo’s successful future rests on his ability to master a Western education. Interweaving episodes of the thirteenth century poem, The Sundjata Epic into the contemporary, cautionary tale of cultural marginalization in the face of increasing Westernization in Burkina Faso, Keita, The Heritage of the Griot is an evocative, elegantly conceived, and understatedly insightful articulation of the dilemma confronting many African countries at the turn of the century as they struggle to reconcile the influences of their post-colonial past and their pre-colonial history in their (inevitable) social mobilization towards industrialization, technological progress, and modernization. Filmmaker Dani Kouyaté elegantly (and ingeniously) structures the film to reflect the overarching theme on the virtues of an ethnocentric education as a means of preserving cultural heritage in an age of impersonalized globalization (note the film’s reference to Mabo’s traditional studies as a lifelong quest to know the meaning of his name, in essence, his identity). It is this innate search for reconciliation and preservation of indigenous history that is reflected in Mabo’s enlightened quest to know the origin of his name – the need for cultural integration as a means of cultivating and preserving native identity in a national climate of inevitable change, redefinition, and transformation.

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