Kambili is a Mandinka epic poem of the Wasulu hunters of Mali. The small excerpt published here is from a version of the poem consisting of almost three thousand lines of verse. The poem concerns a heroic hunter, Kambili, and it is set during the reign of the Imam Samori Toure in the 19th century. Samori Toure founded the Wassoulou Empire, a short-lived (1878–1898) Islamic empire that was located in what is now north and south-eastern Guinea and included part of north-eastern Sierra Leone, part of Mali, part of northern Côte d’Ivoire and part of southern Burkina Faso.
The narrative of the poem describes the events leading up to the birth of Kambili, his first forays into the forest to hunt as an adolescence, his marriage to the beautiful Kumba and his battle against Kumba’s previous husband, the sorcerer and shape-shifting lion-man, Cekura.
The following excerpt is taken from a version of the epic performed by the famous Mandinka singer, Seydou Camara, in Bamako, Mali, in 1968. This version comes from Fritz H. Pointer’s book, A Translation into English of The Epic of Kambili (An African Mythic Hero).
For this performance, Seydou was accompanied by his wives, Kariya Wulen and Nunmuso playing on iron rasp scrapers, and Seydou’s apprentices playing on their lute-harps. This performance was recorded by Charles Bird and originally published by the African Studies Program, Indiana University.
Seydou was an accomplished player of the donsonkoni, the hunter’s lute-harp, and who, after a long apprenticeship of over a decade, went on to serve as a singer for the Wasulu hunters and a bard for the Komo blacksmith society. Unlike the hereditary poets born into the noble families of the Mandinka, Seydou was elected by the hunters society through competition with other bards to serve as their singer, reader of omens and as the priest who sings the praises of the kill after the hunt.
“Seydou sang in a sprung rhythm, usually at breakneck speed. The content of this mode of delivery consists mainly of proverbs, aphorisms, wisdom of the hunters and praise-line.”
Fritz H. Pointer,
The Epic of Kambili,
Oral Epics from Africa
Kambili’s father is the warrior, Kanji, who served as a general of the Imam Samori Toure. Kanji’s failed attempts with his wives to produce an offspring leads the warrior to invite various soothsayers to divine who amongst Kanji’s wives will bear his child and how conception can be guaranteed. Any soothsayer who fails in this task is immediately beheaded. After several soothsayers have lost their heads only two remain, Bari, the Truth-Seeker and an Imam. The Imam tries to deceive Bari but Bari’s enchantments reveals the Imam’s tricks, who then flees in disgrace.
Through divination, Bari discovers that it is one of Kanji’s wives named Dugo, who is disliked by the other wives and has been sent to herd goats by the headwife, who will bear Kanji’s son. Dugo gives birth to Kambili and Bari remains one of Kambili’s trusted allies as he grows into adulthood and throughout his heroic adventures.
We join the narrative at the stage of Kambili’s childhood, as he begins to display his innate talent for hunting all kinds of animals, with a careless cockiness that worries his father. Also introduced in this section is Kumba, a beautiful woman with her own magical talents, who is married to the sorcerer lion-man, Cekura. Kumba leaves Cekura to marry Kambili, leading Cekura and his lion-men to terrorise the inhabitants of the village where Kambili and Cekura live, devouring the citizens and leaving only bones that are described as merely toothpicks. Samori Toure, hearing of the fear that the villagers are living in, begins to question the ability of the hunters to deal with this problem, leading the hunters to unite with the Komo society of blacksmiths, to take the battle to the lion-men.
I shall publish excerpts from the marriage of Kambili and the final battle between Kambili and Cekura in future posts. The lines in italics are praise-proverbs of the hunters society.
Kambili the hunter spoke out,
“My Father, Kanji, he said: “Yes?” the reply.
“Tell the people of the smiths,
To make some young boy’s arrows,
And, to strike a young boy’s bow.
The rifle will never be for me.
I’m going off on a lizard hunt.”
He and his comrades went off,
Saying they were off on a lizard hunt.
Whenever Kambili saw a rabbit,
It would end up in his bag.
If he was given one look at a rabbit,
It was sure to become a corpse.
The rabbit on a leash, skittering from side to side behind Kambili.
The rabbit on a leash will never take a straight path.
Look to Mother Dugo the Owl for the Big-Eyed Nightbird. (1)
Death may reach a man; it doesn’t reach his name.
Eating the traditional dish is not an evil deed.
Words are beautiful from the father’s mouth more so than the uncle’s.
Learning something and doing something are not the same, Kambili.
He went out one morning.
He and the young boys went off,
Saying they were off to look for lizards.
There was a leopard down in the forest.
A leopard had given birth down in the forest.
Her two babies were down in the forest.
He put them both in his bag.
Ah! And then the mother leopard came.
She was coming to save her babies.
He pulled out his young boy’s arrows,
And put one into her nose,
And put another into her eye.
The beast cried out in pain.
The beast started to run off.
Kambili went on home
And took out the spotted beast’s babies,
And gave them to his true father.
“Father, your mother cat gave birth in the forest.
I have taken her two babies.”
“Ah! Kambili, won’t you ever stop?
These aren’t kittens, Kambili.
They’re the babies of the spotted beast, Kambili.
They’re the babies of the leopard
He called out the hunters.
They went out after the mother beast.
The beast had become a corpse.
And they brought the leopard’s body back,
And put the two leopard babies in a cage, Kambili.
When the sun was up the next morning,
He said he was off to the hunting ground,
And he went and found a female buffalo
Who had just given birth to a calf.
And, once again he took the buffalo calf,
Tying a rope around it’s neck,
And, dragging it along behind him, bumpety, bumpety.
The buffalo on a leash was behind Kambili,
Twisting and turning like that.
He said, “Now that’s a scrambling thing!”
So he tied up its limbs,
And stuck it in his bag.
Its mother ran as if to die,
And went off after Dugo’s little child.
He offered her just one arrow,
And the buffalo became a corpse.
He continued on with the buffalo baby.
“Father, your big cow is really furious.
She gave birth to this out in the bush.
I have taken her newborn baby.
Ah! Father, your big cow is furious.
Your big cow is furious, I’m not kidding.”
He came with the buffalo baby,
And gave it to his true father.
It was none but his father’s voice.
He said, “Kambili the Hunter! Kambili Sananfila!
Man, you’re not old enough yet.”
He called out to Bari of the Omens, “Bari, (2)
You are to watch over my offspring
So that no buffalo cause this angel to wither away.”
Thus he became Bari’s student, Kambili Sananfila.
Kambili’s harp-player was Yala the smith. (3)
Look to the tracking dog for the hunting dog.
Yala the Smith was brought to sing his praise.
Mother Dugo the Owl, after he was circumsized,
Dugo’s Kambili and the game were not exactly like twins.
There was the buffalo on a leash behind Kambili
There was the buffalo calf on a leash behind Kambili.
The buffalo was on a leash behind Kambili every day.
The dwarf antelope was on a leash in Kambili’s hand.
He had finished killing all the kinds of game in the bush.
The only thing left was to catch them alive.
There was a lion falling on the people of Jimini.
A lion had begun to fall on the people of Jimini.
Don’t you know that slavery is hard?
Slavery is not good.
When the slave sacrifices a three year old bull,
He does so for his master.
Ah! Slavery will never succeed.
No matter how was the intestines,
They will always smell like excrement.
The Jimini nobles made a plan.
Cekura had a wife
His wife’s name was Kumba.
They changed her mind, taking her from Cekura.
Ah! They took Cekura’s wife from him.
And Cekura was a man who could change into a lion!
He sent word to all the lion people.
He said, “Lionmen!” “Yes?” the reply.
“Let us eat all the people of the village.
Let us eat all the cows of the village.
Lets us eat all the sheep of the village.
Let us eat all the dogs of the village.
Let us make this fight for my wife.”
The slave’s wife had been taken from him.
So the fight for his wife wasn’t pleasant around Jimini.
Don’t you know Cekura was deeply offended?
And so he sent word to the lionmen.
Whoever went out to defecate,
He was made into a toothpick.
Whoever was going out to the fields,
They turned him into a toothpick.
Whoever went to water the garden
They turned him into a toothpick.
And made it hot for the village people.
And made it hot for the herds of cows.
And heated it up for the flocks of sheep.
They really made it hot for the people.
Ah! There seemed no end to the bits of people around Jimini.
When night had fallen, Master,
As soon as you had closed the door of your hut,
He would pull out his stick-like tail
And bang on the door with it,
And do the best of greetings, Kambili.
No sooner would you say, “Be welcome,”
And open the door a crack,
Than he would jump in and grab one of you.
He would turn him into a toothpick, Kambili Sananfila.
Ah! The Jimini man-eating lion was really playing in Jimini.
The lion was going to eat up with whole army.
He had already finished with the water carriers,
He had finished the best of the farmers.
The lion had finished with the horsemen.
The lion had finished off the king’s children.
Ah! It was an awful situation in Jimini!
The voice of death was in Jimini.
It’s a story about Dugo the Owl, the soul-seizing angel.
There was no joy in the Jimini lion business
That lions name was Cekura.
His apprentice’s name was Faberekoro.
Cekura was seizing the people in Jimini.
Faberekoro would finish up their remains.
This created a serious problem for Samory,
And so he advised the hunters’ group.
“If you don’t apply yourselves, if you don’t apply yourselves,
I will come to doubt the hunters.”
This warning given once,
This warning given twice.
It was given before the harp-player, Yala the Smith.
Yala the Smith took his harp,
And went straight to Kambili
The son of Dugo the Owl Bird.
The son of Dugo the Night Bird.
The doubter doesn’t profit from his friend, Allah!
That is not easy for the harp-player.
A farmer dies for the glutton.
The holyman dies for the troubled.
The king dies for his people.
To each dead man his funeral song, Kambili.
Ah! And should an old bard die,
Call out the hourglass drummer.
Call out the iron pipe rhythm man.
Call out the jembe drummer.
Have them come sing my funeral song.
To each dead man his funeral song, call Kambili!
Ah! And should it come to the old smith, man,
And should it come to the old smith,
Don’t you know that should a smith die,
Ah! If one of my Wasula smiths should die,
If one of my smiths by the forge should die,
If the protector of the world’s stomach were to die,
If this man of the peoples’ hope should die,
Call out to the Komo man.
Have him bring a brilliant Komo.
Have him come with a good jembe drum.
Have him come with a true-ringing bell.
Have him come with a good rhythm rattle.
Have him come sing the funeral songs, Father.
To each dead man his funeral song, Kambili’s call.
It’s sorrowful thing.
I am afraid of the hunter’s death, Kambili.
Performed by Seydou Camara, in Bamako, Mali, in 1968.
Recorded by Charles Bird.
Translation by Fritz H. Pointer,
from A Translation into English of The Epic of Kambili (An African Mythic Hero),
Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd (2012)
- Mother Dugo the Owl for the Big-Eyed Nightbird: Refers to Kambili’s mother, whose praise-name is “The Owl”.
- Bari of the Omens: Refers to the soothsayer who correctly predicted who amongst Kanji’s wives would give birth to Kambili.
- Yala the smith: Refers to the blacksmith and head of the Komo society. The blacksmith in Mandinka communities plays a central role in almost all social activities, creating weapons for hunters, tools for farmers, utensils for cooking and instruments for musicians.