gueuuel: a griot, the traditional Senegalese oral storyteller

On our last afternoon in the Delta Saloum, after we have left Sangako and returned to the little inn in Sokone, a tiny city, we have the opportunity to listen to a griot (French) or a gueuuel (Wolof). Griots are the traditional Senegalese storytellers, and in a land where words are rarely written, histories and tales must be passed down by word of mouth. For these reasons, griots are revered, and are the only ones permitted to be buried in the sacred baobab trees.

In the late afternoon light, we sit on woven mats in the shade of the leafy mango trees of the inn’s grassy courtyard, forming a half-circle around the griot. Mamboi, everyone calls him. Grandfather.

He truly looks to be a grandfather, old and wizened, missing some teeth, swathed in traditional clothing and wearing traditional beads and necklaces. We sit waiting to hear what he will tell us. In my French textbooks in middle school, I always read about griots, and I cannot believe that a real live one is here before us now.

When it is all quiet, the air thick with waiting, Mamboi begins. Clear and loud, he begins to recite the famous poem Femme noire, written by the first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. We have all heard these words many times before in our classes, but it is different when Mamboi says them, more powerful. He gestures out the meanings of the words, tracing the verses of the poem with his hands.

And then suddenly, he begins to sing a traditional song. His voice is rough, but underneath all that roughness there is something smooth. Everyone is quiet, captivated, unable to move, even the village children who have come in to sit next to us are still with wonder. The song rings through the air, haunting and clear. And when Mamboi finishes, the last notes hang in the dying light like the dust motes, caught by the golden sun that spears through the leaves of the mango tree.

As the song ends, I reflect on the fact that I have come all the way from Hawaii to Senegal, that I am here, on this late afternoon, listening to a griot, something I had only read about in textbooks years ago. What a wonderful gift.


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