Book reviews

Songhay-Kaado The storyteller Speak Zarma Zarma proverbs Sorcery's Shadow
Discourse of the genealogical storyteller by the Zarma of Niger

Written by Sandra Bornand


Photo of front page of Sandra bornand's book; click left mouse button to view enlarged.


The storyteller is an important figure in a society that is based, much more than our western society, on exchange of knowledge and customs via oral tradition. The narrator of history of lineage and heroism of ancestors of important leaders is at the forefront.

This book is a scientific work and therefore less accessible for the layman interested in this topic. Especially the considerations (dissertations) require knowledge of the anthropological jargon. Nevertheless, some parts of the book can be easily read by layman and are certainly interesting because the provide understanding of the tradition of the Zarma culture and its development.  


Structure of the book

This scientific book starts with an introduction describing in two chapters the context of the research. The first chapter discusses the problems of studying the oral traditions, the second sketches the history and language of the Zarma. The core of the book consists of four parts each discussing a specific topic of the research and containing 2-4 chapters. The first part is about the emic representation of the word, the memory and the types of discourse in Zarma society. The second part describes the Zarma society and the role of the « jasare », the holder of special oral traditions. The third part focuses on the power of denominate, being quoted in a genealogical tree or being told about. This part analyses the recorded discourses. The fourth part pays attention to the strategy of the « jasare » and way the nobility thinks about the « jasare » and how the listener physically reacts. The books ends with conclusions titled "From the power of the word to the power of the discourse".

The CD-ROM contains the recording of 17 discourses as well as the transcription of them in Zarma, a translation to French and a combined Zarma - French file. In addition three map are provided, two detailed maps, one east of Niamey and one northwest of Dosso, and one of the language regions in Niger. The CD-ROM also contains six photos of « jasare » and six flow charts of the structure of one the stories.


The author

Arts doctors at the university of Lausanne (Vice-chancellorship award 2003), Sandra Bornand, of Swiss nationality, inquires into oral traditions of the Zarma of Niger since 1994. Her training in literature and analyses of the discourse incited her to accentuate the relationship between word and power in her research. She is the author of several articles on the Zarma society, and currently she has a fellowship of the Swiss National Funds (FNS).


Text on back flap

« One night, while I attended a marriage in Niamey, I saw the young groom trembling while listening to his genealogy. They explained to me that what I saw was a natural effect of the discourse. I wanted to understand why these words made him react this way. »

This anecdote constitutes the starting point of the book. The author, after a long experience with the subject and meetings of training in the proximity of a great storyteller, proposes an initiatory voyage which includes several stages, corresponding to different levels of knowledge: the word, the memory, the oral tradition and the genealogical storytellers.

The heart of this subject constitutes the discursive skills of the genealogical storytellers, and in particular the relations of power they found with their interlocutors. To explain a situation, that is a priori unfavourable to her, as a « weak » reference, the author seeks to detect the traps which the speaker sets for the receiver. On the basis of the discourse, which constitutes an original corpus, she chooses for an approach that follows the the French ethno linguistic school by paying special attention to the situation of stating - more precisely, to the relation between speaker and listener -, in order to define that what is put on the line during the utterance of a discourse of genealogical storyteller. 


Book in a nutshell
original title: Le discours du griot généalogiste chez les Zarma du Niger
author: Sandra Bornand
ISBN : 2-84586-625-9
size: 464 pages (160 mm * 240 mm)
published: June 2005, in French, with Zarma glossary
publisher: Karthala
22-24 boulevard Arago
75013 Paris, France
on internet:

including a CD-ROM presenting a bilingual version of the studied speeches (French and Zarma) with music and photographs


Last updated: 11 februari 2012