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Biography of Birago DIOP

Senegal > Literature : Birago DIOP

Birago DIOP
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Biography :

Birago Diop (1906-1989). Senegalese writer

Senegalese poet and story-teller, who recorded traditional oral folktales of the Wolof people. Birago Diop's work helped to reestablish general interest in the African folktales published in European languages. Diop was also one of the most prominent African francophone writers.

"Since then I go
I follow the pathways
the pathways and roads
beyond the sea and even farther,
beyond the sea and beyond the beyond;
And whenever I approach the wicked,
the Men with black hearts,
whenever I approach the envious,
the Men with black hearts
before me moves the Breath of the Ancestors
(from 'Viaticum')

Birago Diop was born December 11,1906,in Dakar, French West Africa (now in Senegal), into an influential Wolof family. Diop's father died prematurely and he grew up with his mother's side of the family. In his childhood he heard stories told by his family's griot, which he later used in his own literary work. Diop attended a Qur'anic school and in 1921 he moved to Saint-Louis, then the capital of Senegal, where studied on a scholarship at Lycée Faidherbe, and wrote his first poems. After obtaining his baccalauréat and serving a year in the colonial army, Diop went to France to study veterinary medicine at the University of Toulouse.

In Paris Diop met many African, Black American, and Caribbean students. Among them was his fellow countryman and poet Léopold Senghor, who later became the first president of independent of Senegal. Diop participated actively in the Negritude movement created by these young poets, artists, and intellectuals-the concept of négritude was elaborated by Aimé Césaire, Senghor, and Léon-Gontran Damas and defined as "affirmation that one is black and proud of it". Diop contributed to Léopold Senghor's newspaper L'Etudiant noir and several Diop's early poems appeared in 1948 in Senghor's famous Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, an important landmark of modern black writing in French.

Diop graduated in 1933 and completed his studies in Paris. In 1936 he married a white French woman-such marriages were rare in those days. Diop returned to Senegal in 1934. He spent involuntarily in the early 1940s two years in Paris. Because of the war, he was unable to return to his home country and devoted his time to writing folktale adaptations, which first appeared in literary journals.

"Here, far from my home in Senegal, my eyes are surrounded by closed horizons. When the greens of summer and the russets of autumn have passed, I seek the vast expanses of the Savannah, and find only bare mountains, sombre as ancient prostrate giants that the snow refuses to bury because of their misdeed..." (from 'The Humps')
After a long career as a government veterinary surgeon in The Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and Mauritania, Diop served as Senegal's ambassador to Tunisia from 1961 to 1965. He then returned to Dakar and opened a veterinary clinic.

While working in the colonial service and traveling in the rural areas of West Africa, Diop learned of the Wolof traditions and oral literature. The most important contact for him was the 60-year-old griot Amadou Koumba a professional storyteller and oral historian, whom Diop met in the late 1930s. His tales Diop incorporated in the award-winning Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1947), Les nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1958), which included an essay by Senghor, and Contes et lavanes (1963), which contained new material, Wolof riddles, and aphorisms. The Wolof is the most prevalent indigenous language spoken in Senegal.

Diop reworked Koumba's tales but used the griot's style, rhythm, daily expressions, puns, and repetitions. He was also faithful to the typical performance principles alternating prose with poetry and songs sung by the audience and the narrator. Diop himself disowned authorship of the tales, explaining that he only transcribed them and made them accessible to the French public.

Diop's tales blended realism, humor, and fantasy and expressed in allegorical form the human condition. The protagonists are men, supernatural beings, and animals like in the Fables of La Fontaine or tales of Aesop. One central cycle of stories dealt with the eternal combat of Leuk, the cunning and malicious hare, and Bouki, the dull-witted and cowardly hyena. In 'Mother Crocodile' precolonial period and Western colonialism is viewed anthropomorphically from an animal point of view. Diassigue, the Mother-Crocodile, tells the little crocodiles of warriors, gold, of the first white men, and the upcoming war. One of the youngest asks: "What difference does it make to us crocodiles if the Wolofs of Walo fight against the Moors of Trarza?" In the following war the heir to the Moorish kingdom is wounded. An old woman prescribes an effective remedy to the sore-a fresh brain of a young crocodile.

Diop's collected poems, Leurres et Lueurs, written between 1925 and 1960, appeared in 1960. His memoirs, La Plume raboutée, was published in 1978. It was followed by A Rebrousse-temps (1982). Diop died in Dakar on November 25, 1989.

Selected works

Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba, 1947 - Tales of Amadou Koumba
Sarzan, 1955 (play)
Les nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba, 1958
Leurres et Lueurs, 1960
Contes et Lavanes, 1963
Contes d'Awa, 1977
La plume raboutée, 1978
A rebrousse-temps, 1982
A rebrousse-gens: épissures, entrelacs et reliefs, 1985
Et les yeux pour me dire, 1989

Last update : 06/28/2007

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