“If, then, the griots, active today in towns and villages of the Sudan, are still carrying on all the popular culture of African tradition and making the ‘illiterate’ masses perfectly civilized and cultivated people who are conscious of themselves and respectful of others, we must fear what will happen when their voices are no longer heard, for their sons and [grandchildren] now attend the European school and the family profession is no longer handed on.
”As for the loss resulting for Africa and for the world we can only measure its importance if we are also aware of the importance of this heritage. For too many foreigners and African who are modern and ignorant, it is only a question of a few unimportant tales. […] However, on looking closer in certain areas of Africa, a very diversified literature is to be found, including different categories [and not only ‘tales’]: epics, cosmogonic myths, adventures, popular comedies, love poetry, oratory poetry (funeral, war, marriage, praise), ritual dram and religious songs, not to mention of course all the sayings, tales and fables, riddles and proverbs. All this forms a whole just as vast in importance and quality as the mediaeval literature of our ‘douce France’. [….]
”Every person of French culture should be asked to think for a minute about what a voice this would create and the fresh spring which would be dried up, if by misfortune, this ancestral heritage were lost and with it faith, history and poetry, grandeur, wisdom and experience. It is only after such reflection that one can wonder whether in the name of economic development and European-style education it is right to deny the African of today his foundations in his fundamental original culture.
”Theodor Monod said in 1934, not without humor: ‘The African did not come down from a tree yesterday’. Hampaté Bâ warns us today: ‘with the death of each old man, a library is burn’ and it is not a literary figure of style that he means!”
[As far as I know, this is, with its context, the first instance in which this much-repeated sentence was put in print, surely in the French version of the journal, which was published simultaneously to the English one. Kesteloot’s short article deals with the epics of West Africa. The English version is somewhat pedestrian, the last sentence meaning “he doesn’t mean it as a figure of speech” –Ed.]
Lylian Kesteloot, “The West African Epics”, Présence Africaine, vol. 30, 1966, pp. 201-202
Illustration inspired by a sculpture representing an ancestor from Indonesia