Diop, Birago (Birago Ishmael Diop)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Diop, Birago (Birago Ishmael Diop)

Diop, Birago (Birago Ishmael Diop) (1906-1989) Senegalese storyteller and poet Through verse, drama, and fables and cautionary tales of the Wolof people, diplomat and ethnographer Birago Diop epitomized the resilience of the West African colonial. Born in Ouakam outside Dakar, Senegal, a French colony on the western horn of Africa, he acquired from his grandmother the oral skills of a village griot (storyteller). In libraries, he discovered the works of the French romanticists Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and Victor Hugo (1802-85). After an early education in a Muslim academy, Diop began writing verse at age 15 while enrolled at the Lycee Faidherbe in SaintLouis (at that time Senegal's capital). During an obligatory stint in the Senegalese army, he joined the medical corps.

At the Ecole Nationale Veterinaire of the University of Toulouse in France, Diop earned a veterinary degree while supporting the Negritude political and literary movement, which began during the 1930s. He, Martinican author Aime Cesaire, and other students from the French colonies, the Antilles, Guadeloupe, Guyana, and Madagascar affirmed black pride by submitting poems to the Parisian newspaper LEtudiant noir (the black student). One of Diop's animistic poems, “Breaths,” characterizes the West African terrain as the living repository of black ancestry and of the maternalism of nature. The verse implies not only immortality of the soul but the timelessness of culture, which survives the invasions of European outsiders. A more acerbic line from the story “Sarzan” (1960) declares that “The Toubabs, the Whites, wore masks for amusement and not to teach their children the rudiments of the wisdom of the ancients,” evidence of European devaluation and desecration of Senegalese customs (as translated in Sana, 2002, 113). Diop's amalgamation of rhythm, chant, and call and response earned the respect of the French critic Jean-Paul Sartre, who praised the Senegalese poet for his overlay of tension with calm, the controlling element of African survival.

Diop was 28 when he completed his postdoctoral training at the Institut de Medecine Veterinaire Exotique and Ecole Frangaise des Cuirs et Peaux. He left Paris for Senegal, but he returned to France during World War II. Because of travel restrictions following the Nazi occupation of Paris in June 1940, he dispelled homesickness for his seaside residence for two years by reciting Wolof folklore for friends and by transcribing it into French for publication. He returned to West Africa to inspect cattle and treat sick animals in French Sudan (present-day Mali), the Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, and Upper Volta (present-day Burkina Faso). Traveling by canoe, horseback, car, and foot, he encountered bush people and absorbed peasant entertainments, indigenous tunes, and chants. In his late 50s, he served as Senegal's ambassador to Tunisia (I960— 64). During this fertile period of his dual career, Diop published authentic Senegalese lore in Les contes d’Amadou Koumba (Tales of Amadou Koumba, 1947), Les nouveaux contes d’Amadou Koumba (New tales of Amadou Koumba, 1958), verse written between 1924 and 1945 in Leurres et lueurs (Lures and glimmers, 1960), and WISDOM LITERATURE in Contes et lavanes (Stories and commentaries, 1963). In old age, he completed an autobiography, La plume raboutee (The spliced pen, 1978), and a sequel, A Rebrousse-Temps (Backward time, 1982).

Critics admired Diop's ability to translate ancient oral style, repetition, and wordcraft onto the printed page. His poem “Viaticum” (1960) praises oral tradition as the souffle des ancetres (breath of ancestors) that protects him from “men with black hearts,” an allusion to French imperialists. His trickster tales and allegories, like those of the Greek slave AESOP and the French fabulist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, laud the cunning survivor for depending on wit rather than brawn. A standard feature of cautionary tales, the protection of the weak—Civet-cat, Leuk the hare, Palm-squirrel, Rat, Skunk—from the strong but simple-wit- ted hyena, dominates Diop's “Mother Crocodile,” an anthropomorphic depiction of the European usurpation of West Africa. Demand for his nativist stories resulted in publication of translator Rosa Guy's English version as a children's picture FABLE, Maman caiman (Mother Crocodile, 1981), winner of a 1982 Coretta Scott King Award.


Camara Sana. “Birago Diop's Poetic Contribution to the Ideology of Negritude.” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 4 (January 2002): 101-123.

Diop, Birago. Mother Crocodile. Translated by Rosa Guy. New York: Delacorte, 1981.

Djangrang, Nimrod Bena. “Africa: The Breath of Life.” UNESCO Courier 51, no. 3 (March 1998): 6-9.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.