Monday, May 27, 2019

The Epic of Kelefaa Sane (Following folktales around the world 108. - Senegal)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Since, despite my best efforts, I could not find a book of folktales from Senegal, I decided to read a folk epic instead.

The Epic of Kelefaa Saane
Sirifo Camara
Indiana University Press, 2010.

The Mandinka epic that is presented in this book in Mandinka and English mirror translation is about the great 19th century hero, Kelefaa Saane, who protected the kingdom of Kaabu (currently parts of Senegal and Gambia) from a foreign invasion. The epic is more than 3200 lines long (took two and a half hours to sing), and was recorded from a griot (jalóol) named Sirifo Camara in Dakar in 1987. The storyteller passed away in 2003, but he expressed his wishes that his story be made available in print to a wider audience. This is the longest version of this epic recorded so far. Kelefaa Saane is presented as a great and powerful warrior - he is a historical character, but we don't know much about his life from historical sources.
The book has a detailed Introduction with maps, photograps, and historical-cultural context about African epics. We can also read about the life of Sirifo Camara, who sang various hero epics, and performed on the radio for decades. This performance of his was being sold on casette tapes at the market. The translator admits that he could not reproduce the original alliterations, rhymes and rhythms. The book comes with pronounciation guides and notes for the Mandinka text.


I really enjoyed the scene where djinn visited the newborn hero in the shape of various animals, to give him powers - the chameleon djinn gave him the ability to change (which he used later to hide from a shapeshifting enemy), and the monitor lizard gave him the power to live both in water and on land. I also liked the part where Kelefaa met a pack of hyenas, and convinced them (and their female leader) he was not afraid of them, so they elected him as their leader, and gave him magical gifts in the hopes of getting a lot of meat under his leadership.
One of my favorite moments of the epic was when a djinn girl fell in love with the young hero while he was herding sheep in the woods. She asked him if he'd fear her if she showed her true form, and he asked her to show herself in any form she wanted. After a series of shapeshifting, Kelefaa told the djinn that he was not scared of her. They got married.


Like in the case of many other heroes around the world, the father of Kelefaa Saane doesn't live to see his son grow up. Fulfilling a prophecy, he dies before he can name his son (this reminded me of Fionn Mac Cool's father). There is also a magic weapon featured in the epic - in this case, in a modern fashion, a magic gun with a magic tracking-and-returning bullet, taken out of the mouth of a crocodile (or rather, a sorcerer turned into a crocodile). Shapsehifting was an important part of the story; Kelefaa defeated his own uncle, the king, in a shapeshifting fight.

Where to next?
The Gambia!