Taliη Taliη: Storytelling in the Casamance

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By Meaghan McArdle
July 9, 2019

The sun went down a few hours ago but it’s hot.

Hot season in the Casamance: the time of year where being indoors is insufferable. The whole family has dragged chairs, mats and even some old foam mattresses out to the concrete porch in front of the house. We’re lounging under the mango tree.

My host mom is fanning herself and chatting with my host brothers about politics. My host brother’s wife is still preparing dinner, which we always eat later this time of year. I’m sitting, reading a book and enjoying the gentle evening breeze.

Bijou, a cousin, is visiting for the night, and she’s laying on a foam mattress, playing with the kids. They’re being chatty as usual, giggling and teasing her.

Bijou says “taliη, taliη.”

My ears perk up and I lose my place in my book.

The kids respond excitedly “taliη diima.”

She continues :

“suluu niη saη

I tataa deemo la.”

I turn my head to face them, listening intently at this point. I know this one.

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She continues with the story as usual and I try to follow as best I can. The language in these stories is more complex than the Mandinka I use on a daily basis. When I ask for translations, even my family isn’t always sure of the meaning of certain words - it’s a Mandinka that comes from the bush and from decades ago. Pure and du­­re. It’s beautiful.

Taliη diimalu are traditional fables in Mandinka culture. I live in a city, so I don’t hear them often. But on nights like this, when the heat draws us out of the house and away from the television, the kids and I share in the delight of hearing these ancient tales.

This one is about a hyena and a hare who both go hunting. The hyena only finds toads to eat while the hare goes to the big tree, which bends down to help him climb up and hunt the birds in its branches. When the pair meet again, they wind up tossing their lunch, so each can see what the other has eaten. The hyena asks the hare how he managed to find such good meat.

The hare tells the hyena to go to the big tree and to ask it to bend down. When it bends, he’ll be able to climb up to reach the birds in the tree. He does so, and it works at first, but after the hyena has had his fill of birds, he asks the tree to bend back down, and it doesn’t respond. So, he falls out of the tree and dies.

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The simple stories are riddled with morals and cultural nuance. You can learn so much about a culture from the stories that they tell their children.

So, what’s the moral of this one? I’d be lying if I were to say that I was sure. The dangers of overindulgence, or of not thinking things through, perhaps. Maybe it’s to avoid jealousy, to be contented with your lot in life.

In any case, the morals, I assume, are similar to the language and culture here in the Casamance - deep and complex and just beyond my grasp. It’s been almost a year and a half, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Some other volunteers, I suppose, hear these stories more often. There are still many places in Senegal where development has not yet flourished – villages without electricity or running water, where children will sit by a solar lamp at night and older siblings will tell these stories, or maybe riddles, or sing traditional songs. I’ve visited these places and, while conscious of the relative poverty found there, I’ve found them full of riches: the slower pace of village life, elders with a wealth of knowledge on traditional medicine or cultural history, the breathtaking Senegalese bush filled with ancient Baobabs, termite mounds taller than trees and acres of cashew and mango orchards.

But in my rapidly developing town, there is a fascinating mix of traditional culture and global influence - a new and different culture in and of itself.

Sometimes, especially when I see hints of globalization – evidence of my society invading this one, I worry about Mandinka. Of course, it’s a naive and irrational worry, as if I had the power to preserve it. But it’s true that the language is changing. Especially in cities, where cultures mix and life moves faster, Mandinka is taking on more Wolof, French and even English influence.

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But then I consider the Mandinkas in my community and their reputation in Senegal. They are a people known for their pride in their language and culture. They are warriors, descended from the great Mali and Gabu Empires. They are musicians and dancers and artists and storytellers. On hot nights, they still use their magic folklore to carry their children off to the bush to learn life lessons from a simpler time.

It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, I didn’t know that Mandinka is a language and a people; or that they have charming fables stacked full of life lessons; or that Mandinkas are masters of riddles and metaphors and proverbs; or that there is a traditional West African instrument called the Kora, which is often accompanied by Mandinka lyrics that will break your heart, if only you can deconstruct them.

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