In Spring of 2006, I embarked on a Study Abroad Trip with fellow students from Lewis & Clark College to Senegal, West Africa. Upon my return to the United States, I quickly found the means to return to West Africa as soon as possible through a grant fund at Lewis & Clark called S.A.A.B. (Student Academic Affairs Board). Below is my research proposal, intended to help anyone with similar goals, and those interested in the intricate, beautiful, and unique culture of West Africa.
The Griots of Senegal: The economy of their language and culture
Describe your planned project in detail. What is the purpose of your project? How did you come up with the idea? What are its applications in your field and beyond?
I plan to travel to Senegal to study a group of persons called griots (pronounced gree-ohs) and analyze my results with the ultimate goal of better understanding their integrative role in modern Senegalese society. Through my own studies of Wolof and my previous experience living in Senegal, I will examine their use of language from an anthropological and sociological perspective.
My research will focus on the Senegalese griots (gewel in Wolof, the local language and corresponding name for the dominant ethnic group), the lowest plan of persons in the Senegalese society. Griots are hereditary praise-singers, “historical relics” from the 16th century Mande empire. Griots are the only members in traditional Senegalese society that are allowed to speak publicly; their main role is to preserve oral histories and therefore serve as genealogical record-keepers.
These oral histories, as preserved by the griots, are especially important to the families that occupy the upper castes of society. An upper class family’s status is inherited from their ancestors, and it is the griot’s rendition of the family story that transfers honor from the ancestors to their descendants. Families pay the griots for this service; should the family decide to halt or reduce their griot’s compensation, it would represent a severance of a traditional relationship and, as a result, would compromise the family’s social index.
The griots are not serfs—they proffer their services for a financial return%u2014but the polarization of class between their patron and themselves reminds one of feudal Europe. Coming from a democratic, capitalistic society, we might expect the griots’ important social function to impart a higher social standing. The paradox, however, is that the griots maintain their patron family’s high status, and therefore their own lower status, by the very performance of their function.
Classical economic laws of supply and demand clearly do not apply here, but an influx of American and French culture through television, advertising, music, and dance are changing the lives of the griots. More and more Senegalese are moving away from their traditional societal structure. As a result, the relationship between upper-caste families and the griots is becoming less and less a part of Senegal’s cultural identity.
How is western culture affecting the lives of the griots themselves? As a new model of familial honor and tradition makes the griots increasingly obsolete, what is becoming of this lower class of persons? Is there a role for the griots’ story-telling abilities in the new order? I will interview both griots and non-griots in their native language to assemble a narrative of the griot’s changing culture in Senegal. Using the funds provided I will be able to travel to Senegal to perform place-based research using interactive and analytical research methods.
My ultimate goal is to better understand the role that griot’s language affects the social index and self-identity of different families. This research project is oriented towards a anthropological linguistic examination of how trends in the population, practice, and social appreciation for the griot function in relation to rapid Westernization in Senegalese society.
This inspiration for this project is founded on my fascination for languages and way it affects the functions and roles within our society. The success that I enjoyed in learning Wolof and thus being able to thoroughly communicate with Senegalese in a non-colonial language has made me want to learn more about what could not be initially translated into French. The magnitude of my experience in Senegal inspires me to ask many more pertinent questions about Senegal’s developing relations with a flourishing world. My academic interests in this project are vested primarily in the idea of sharing it with other people interested in West African and francophone culture. The anthropological importance of preserving and sharing the griot’s narrative voice also inspired me to apply for this grant. Personally, the aspect of employing and learning more Wolof would be a long-lasting investment in my linguistic education.
The passion that I feel about this project extends beyond the deadline that is printed at the start of this application. The moment that I left Senegal I knew that my relationship with the country had just started; I feel I have learned more about the society that I lived in after I moved away by trying to explain to others what I experienced. There is no better way to learn than by teaching.
What is the methodology of your research? What questions will you be asking? How will you be answering these questions?
I will be employing a mélange of linguistic and social skills that I acquired in Senegal. I learned specific research techniques (including interviewing, both verbal and non-verbal analysis, important cultural background) for researching in Senegal in the course International Studies 240 which I completed last Spring. My professor, Josh Moore, is an LC alum who solicited $2,000 from SAAB in 1992 to travel to Senegal for an overseas program before it had been established at LC. Josh is excellent example of the lasting relationship this program instills in students. He worked as the Program Director at the African Consultants International for the last five years and has volunteered to place me with a griot family. Josh lived in Senegal for five years and is my main Wolof tutor. He will be helping me to translate and formulate specific questions for the griots. I will be asking many questions to the griots pertaining to their work while pursuing a more in-depth study through living with my griot host family. Such questions pertaining to their status as a griot shall include:
- When was the last time they performed?
- Was it a religious ceremony?
- Do you have children or someone who you are training to take up your tradition?
- How is this training accomplished and what does it entail?
- Do you know everyone’s oral history in the village?
- How do Griots associate with each other?
- How do patrons pay you?
- Are you able to marry outside of the caste?
My questions are in a pyramid formation because they must start broad to gain a less formal relationship with the griot. The concept of this methodology is linked with the Wolof language and the way in which people address each other in the society. I will in no way be withholding or misleading the griot in terms of my research and will clearly explain my academic, student-motivated and cultural interest in their art and ask that the griot share with me his perspective on his role and how he fulfills it.
Learning from my previous experience in Senegal, I will be prepared with the appropriate tools so that, should the griot decide to answer my questions in an artistic form (i.e. singing, dancing) I will be ready to use a tape recorder to keep as much information as possible without having to write everything down. To the extent that it is possible and using SAAB audio and visual equipment, I will be filming the interviews and taking photos of each village situation, recording the demographics of location and religion to make a broader evaluation of how different factors of environment affect the power and stature of the griot. I am competent in the manner of appropriately and courteously accomplishing the documentation after living with Senegalese for several months in both urban and rural evironments.
3) How is your project academic in nature?
I would like to highlight that my academic interest in this research subject is vested in my passion and excitement about foreign languages and therefore my desire to improve both my French and Wolof skills. Wolof is multi-faceted in its function and although only about ten million people speak this language in the world I will continue to use it as a foundation for the beginning of my studies in non-Romance based languages. The opportunity for me to use Wolof, instead of French or English, to research and study the griots would be indispensable to the establishment of a well-rounded career in Linguistics with an emphasis in Anthropology.
Funding for this project will mean that I can continue to invest myself in both Francophone and African societies and also to better understand how language is used, specifically with the griots, to communicate sociological differences. I am determined to contribute to other students a sliver of what I consider to be a very vibrant and significant culture.
4) What other research have you done on or relating to this project?
My previous research on this subject beyond that which I did in Senegal last spring is founded on several articles which illuminate the complex and paradoxical structure that griots create within their traditional, and in some cases, modern societies. In her studies about West African griots, and specifically Senegalese, Judith Irvine orients her research towards an ultimate goal that coincides with my general interest of linguistic research:
“Ultimately the goal%u2014which I do not pretend to have reached, though I hope to have moved in its direction%u2014must be a more comprehensive conception of “value,” so that the various kinds of sign-values and material values can be seen in their complex integration. Thus linguistic forms have relevance for the social scientists not only as part of a world of ideas, but also as part of a world of objects, economic transactions, and political interests%u2026These multiple functions may all co-occur, because they merely reflect the multi-functionality of language in general.”
Whereas I am principally interested in the griot caste and Westernization, Irvine’s analysis of the multi-functionality of language using the Wolof example inspires me to pursue this project in the general field of anthropological linguistics. This is the aspect of the study of languages to which I want to dedicate my advanced academic career.
Another inspiring article that I have read in relation to this topic actually comes from Mali. The author is a young Malian who represents the Westernization that I have mentioned I would study. He yearns and tries desperately to be a black American because “only black Americans have an authentic modernity, a culture capable of conquering America and the world.” The author achieves a bi-cultural account of language’s tools in society by elaborating what it is that has me so fascinated with the modern griot: “We [modern Africans] are trapped in a narrative of return, a permanent identification with the heroes of old griot songs. The heroes tell us to return to Mande: no one knows us as well as the people in Mande; no other place welcomes us as fully as Mande. We are kings in Mande, even if we wash dishes or clean toilets in other lands.” This excerpt illustrates one perspective that reveres the griot’s power and function as well as an aspect of the griot’s relationship with its patrons.
5) Please include a detailed timetable for your project.
I propose to leave Portland immediately following the end of Final exams on the 21st of December to travel to Dakar, Senegal and begin by meeting with Maam Daawur Wàdd, a modern day storyteller who worked briefly with our Lewis & Clark group during our semester in Sénégal. Wàdd (spelled Wade in English) is a famous storyteller, cinematographer, and playwright who has made many scholastic contributions to the proliferation of Wolof. Wade, who is fluent in English, French, and Wolof will review with me specific Wolof phrases to help interview my subjects and avoid using the colonial language of French. I will also meet with Gary Engleberg, the director of ACI, and other very useful contacts and resources as provided to me by Josh Moore. These contacts will help me network with appropriate scholars and griots that will be of help to my research. Depending on the family that I am placed with and their location, I will probably spend 1-2 days in Dakar, staying with my host family from the Spring, and then will travel to my new host family’s respective village. This traveling can take up to three days to go 300 miles, but I estimate it will cost no more than $100 (see attached list of expenditures). The next two weeks will be spent living and interviewing all the griots (both active and non-active) in the village and surrounding areas. I know the Senegalese traveling system well enough to allot more time than necessary to travel. Josh has several griot families lined up, they range in distance from 50 to 200 km outside of Dakar. In relation to the funding that I am granted I will be able to travel to more griot families and therefore gain a broader perspective of how the griot’s function and role depends on their location.
Upon the completion of at least one extended homestay with a griot’s family, I will focus any remaining time to interviewing professional musicians in the greater Dakar area. In my remaining 2-3 days in Senegal I will meet with both Monsieur Wade and Mr. Engleberg to generally interpret my data in relation to the questions I asked. As I complete this research I will constantly be soliciting the opinion and advice of all my professors, friends, and colleagues at the Baobab Center in Dakar.
I have not yet petitioned for academic support from the Baobab Center because I am not asking for any tuition to be paid to that institution. Instead, I am soliciting the voluntary aid of my professors in an informal but academic manner.
6) How will your project benefit Lewis & Clark? How will you bring it back to the LC community?
Not only do I plan sharing my exciting research through a SAAB-sponsored meeting complete with video, photos, audio, and the interpreted results, but also I plan on contributing to the background knowledge that the LC Overseas program has to offer to students interested in studying abroad in Senegal. I have spoken with Rebecca Beaman about the value this would have for students considering which program suits their studies best. I would argue that the Senegal program is not only very language intensive, but it endows a student with a high level of cultural competency with the fusion of French, Muslim, and African cultures. I would like to help students better understand the nature of the culture they would be living in. By posting my research not only on the Senegal orientation website but also on other research databases, such as the ENVS Research database directed by Jim Proctor, my research will be easily accessible to students, faculty, and staff.
The Lewis & Clark overseas program to Senegal was one of the initial reasons I came to this school. The presentation of this research to future program participants would be very insightful to the foreign culture in which they would be living and will likely inspire them to continue their relationship the country they choose. The idea of becoming culturally and linguistically competent through immersion into any society is one of the most important cornerstones of an academic future. Furthermore I would add diversity to an already culturally competent liberal arts college. Just as I benefited from Josh’s excitement and devotion to his studies in Senegal, I would not think of applying for student-funded monies without firmly believing that our community and many after would greatly benefit from my research.
I also think the Lewis and Clark community would respond very positively to the concept of creating a symposium on Africa. I consider myself to be a responsible student leader and I would be an honored and driven candidate to conceive and organize an event, not only to display my own research, but also to share other students’ perspectives and interests of modern African culture and civilization. This is a lasting motivation inspired by my trip last spring that I will pursue regardless of funding. There are many students interested in African affairs at Lewis and Clark with experience from many different countries, not just Senegal. I envision this symposium for the Spring of 2007 as a visual and interactive representation of many different African experiences and perspectives from Lewis and Clark students and faculty.
Furthermore, my research will generate more literature and a more solid base of the Wolof language by establishing an English-based program of Wolof studies that would greatly help future Senegal program participants. During orientation meetings this Fall I have already initiated basic Wolof lessons to students that are traveling to Senegal in the springtime so that they are better equipped to gain a unique cultural perspective by communicating in the local language instead of French. By teaching Wolof to these students I have bettered my own skills, I only hope to continue this benefit to future students as well as inspire them to pursue their abroad experiences in student motivated research.
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