The Fortunes Of Wangrin


The Fortunes of Wangrin
Amadou Hampaté Bâ [note special accents on the "e" in Hampate and "a" Ba not correctly reproduced here—see ms.]
Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor with an Introduction by F. Abiola Irele

Winner of the Grand Prix Litteraire de l’Afrique Noire

"I think this is perhaps the best African novel on colonialism and it draws very richly on various modes of oral literature." —Ralph Austen, ...

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The Fortunes of Wangrin
Amadou Hampaté Bâ [note special accents on the "e" in Hampate and "a" Ba not correctly reproduced here—see ms.]
Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor with an Introduction by F. Abiola Irele

Winner of the Grand Prix Litteraire de l’Afrique Noire

"I think this is perhaps the best African novel on colonialism and it draws very richly on various modes of oral literature." —Ralph Austen, University of Chicago

"It is a wonderful introduction to colonial rule as experienced by Africans, and in particular, to the rule of African middlemen." —Martin A. Klein, University of Toronto

"The Fortunes of Wangrin is not only a wonderful novel by one of Africa’s most renowned intellectuals, it is also literally filled with information about French colonization and its impact on traditional African societies, African resistance and collaboration to colonization, the impact of French education in Africa, and a host of other subjects of interest." —Francois Manchuelle, New York University

Wangrin is a rogue and an operator, hustling both the colonial French and his own people. He is funny, outrageous, corrupt, traditional, and memorable. Bâ’s book bridges the chasm between oral and written literature. The stories about Wangrin are drawn from oral sources, but in the hands of this gifted writer these materials become transformed through the power of artistic imagination and license.

The Fortunes of Wangrin is a classic in Franchophone African literature.

Amadou Hampaté Bâ was a distinguished Malian poet and scholar of African oral tradition and precolonial history.

Aina Pavolini Taylor is an independent translator with wide experience of Africa, now living and working in Italy.

F. Abiola Irele is a professor in the Department of Black Studies at Ohio State University.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A searing fictional indictment of colonialism and its corruption of both its French citizens and African subjects, this novel written by the late Malian scholar presents the life of Wangrin, a child of great intellect and promise, who veers from the traditional customs of his West African society to embrace the worst characteristics of his foreign benefactors. Determined to exploit his education, he gains employment as a primary school teacher through an assist from the district officer, but he has his eye on life's better things. The wily and resourceful Wangrin seizes every opportunity to advance himself, running several ingenious scams on both his French employers and his own people. His jealous rivals and outmaneuvered European foes repeatedly try to get the elusive rogue arrested and humiliated, but the African finds ways to beat back their assaults, overcoming every attack from the relentless Count de Villermoz and his ally, Remo. Skillful in his detailed characterizations of the Africans and French, Hampat B uses each of Wangrin's skirmishes with the law as a chance to explore harsh bigotry and blind nationalism, which served as the pillars of colonial rule. His best work surfaces in his depiction of Wangrin, whose cunning and clever tongue are only a part of the man's complex personality. Ultimately, the continual struggle to keep his enemies at bay while acquiring more wealth takes a fateful toll on Wangrin, and his fall is as sensational as his rise. Though the plot's momentum is occasionally slowed by the narrator's asides, this award-winning novel, first published in French in the '70s, is memorable for its trenchant political and cultural commentary on the effects of colonialism in Africa. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Caryl Phillips
. . . widely considered to be Hampaté Bâ's masterpiece. . . . a remarkable work of fiction 'rescued' from a dying oral tradition, a work that, if we meet it on its own terms, will help us to understand better not only the colonial adventure but the extensive roots of African belief systems.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253212269
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 470,993
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Amadou Hampaté BÂ was a distinguished Malian poet and scholar of African oral tradition and precolonial history.
Aina Pavolini Taylor is an independent translator with wide experience of Africa, now living and working in Italy.
F. Abiola Irele is a professor in the Department of Black Studies at Ohio State University.

Indiana University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Birth

    It was the hottest time of the year; on that particular Sunday it was even hotter than on previous days. When the sun reached the middle of its parabola, all shadows withdrew underneath whatever object had been projecting them. Having attained its highest temperature, the sun shone implacably, blinding man and beast alike and making the gaseous surface that envelops the earth boil as if it were soup in a cauldron.

    Men drank in deep gulps, sweat poured from their bodies in large drops. Chickens, their wings slightly askew, breathed fast and loud. Dogs, with flopping tongues and palpitating sides, unable to find a comfortable spot, panted and shuttled to and fro between the underside of the millet granaries and the narrow awnings that had been set up in front of the huts. Close to these unhappy creatures, a woman in labor thrashed about, pacing incessantly between the pallet that had been placed in one of the corners of the hut and a cluster of earthenware pots, where water was kept, in another corner of the hut. This woman was Wangrin's mother, overwhelmed by thirst, heat, and atrocious pains. She was attended by a toothless matron, heavy with age, who watched the mother-to-be arch her body like a spanworm, yet did not provide any solace except for a soft psalmody of the matrimonial chant handed down for generations by Nyakuruba, goddess of maternity:

Wooy wooy kyakuruba: a tinti!
den wolo manndi Nyakuruba
den cee den wolo manndi Nyakuruba
a tinti!
Waay waay Nyakuruba, a tinti!
denwolo manndi Nyakuruba
den muso den wolo manndi Nyakuruba
a tinti!
Eeh Eeh Nyakuruba
on den fla den wolo manndi Nyakuruba
a tinti!
tin bee tinti Nyakuruba a tin tin
nta tin tinti Nyakuruba a tintin.

Wuy way o! Nyakuruba, push hard!
Childbirth is laborious, Nyakuruba.
Giving birth to a boy is laborious,
Push hard!
Waay waay o! Nyakuruba, push hard!
Childbirth is laborious, Nyakuruba.
Giving birth to a girl is laborious,
Push hard!
Eeh, eeh, Nyakuruba! push hard!
Childbirth is laborious, Nyakuruba.
Giving birth to twins is laborious,
Push hard!
Push hard all possible childbirths on earth, Nyakuruba,
Push hard!
Push hard this very childbirth,
Nyakuruba, push it hard.

    The chanting of the old woman helped the future mother to bear the blows the baby was dealing to her belly with head, hands, and feet, trying to break free from the cocoon that prevented it from being its own master, an independent being who could live and move without any help from others.

    Did Nyakuruba, goddess with great white eyes resembling huge rinsed cowries, hear the soft entreaties of the white-haired old woman? Whether she did or not, the delivery began. Maa Ngala, god of creation, parted the pelvic bones of the parturient mother and the head of the baby, soft as a wizard's egg, peeped out, followed by the rest of the body. Little Wangrin let out the cry that announces the arrival of all babies in this baffling world where everyone must endure a thousand and one discomforts and which no one ever leaves alive.

    The baby was draped all the way to the shoulders in a soft white tissue of flesh, supple and transparent. Even his head was swathed, as if he were sporting a bonnet. The "little brothers" followed soon after. The old woman found it very hard to cut the umbilical cord that kept the child tied to his "little brothers": in the end she was obliged to go off in search of Wangrin's father who, seated in the shade of a great silk-cotton tree, was awaiting news of the birth, which could be: "very good and double," "good and double," or the opposite.

    Traditionally, a woman in labor is compared to a soldier on the front line. When she has delivered, she is considered victorious, but if she dies in labor, it is said of her that she died honorably on the battlefield. The delivery of a boy is announced as being "very good and double news," that of a girl, "good news." The death of a woman and of her baby boy is termed a "double and very bad" announcement, while the death of a woman and of her baby girl is related as "double and bad."

    When Wangrin's father saw the toothless matron running toward him so fast that her toes hit and scattered about every little object that stood in her way, he tore out of his mouth his earthenware pipe, took it in his left hand, and looked at the old woman intently, with staring eyes, his beard pointing upwards and his lips slightly parted. Before she had time to utter a word he stretched the open palm of his right hand toward the messenger and said: "What news do you bring me, old woman?"

    "Very good and double," she answered, "but you must come at once; my knife is too blunt to cut through the vessel that joins your baby to his `little brothers.'"

    Wangrin's father ran into his man's hut. He brought out the fetish he kept in a black catskin, pulled out of his bag his sacrificial knife and a sachet full of active vegetable powder, and then followed the old woman to the spot where his helpless wife lay on her childbed, poignantly fearful for the life of her baby. Wangrin had been born, but not delivered. No one knew yet what his "little brothers" meant to do to him.

    The father went into the maternity hut, nodded quickly at his spouse, and picked up a new calabash which he filled with water. He sprinkled into it his vegetable powder and began to invoke Nyakuruba and all the gods who protect marriages and maternity. As he recited these ritual litanies, he spat lightly into the water. This done, he threw his sacrificial knife into the calabash. A few moments later he pulled it out streaming with water, and with an accurate and sharp blow cut the umbilical cord that joined Wangrin to his "little brothers." The aged woman grabbed the "little brothers" and placed them in the folds of a wrapper made of cotton strips sewn together. Then she added seven millet pancakes, seven cowries, seven balls of cotton fluff, seven kola nuts, seven small white pebbles, a tuft of hair cut from the head of the newly born baby, and finally a small strip of cotton stained with the baby's first urine and excrement. All this she buried in a place known only to herself and to the mother of the child.

    After dinner the god Komo came out of the sacred forest to Wangrin's father's compound. It was his way of welcoming a child into the community.

    Komo announced to the father that his son would distinguish himself and lead an exciting life; his grave, however, could not be discerned among those of his ancestors. This prediction suggested that Wangrin would die abroad, far from the country of his birth.

    Wangrin was brought up like a good son of the Bambara people. He walked about naked, wearing a bandoleer from which hung a small sack made of strips of cotton. Around his neck he wore a flute carved from a piece of sculpted wood. During his wanderings, he learned to ride horses, to hunt with a bow and arrow, and to set traps for birds and other small animals. He helped his father to till the fields and fetched water from the well for his mother. He never came back from the bush empty-handed. He always carried something home to his mother. The least he ever had to offer was a bundle of wood or a load of millet stalks for the kitchen.

    There was no intimacy between the child and his father. Wangrin was deeply afraid of his father and before him lost all presence of mind to the point of not recognizing the objects that were placed in front of him. Yet he believed that his father was the strongest man in the world and thought with pride that some day he would be just as strong.

    At first Wangrin was inducted into the association of uncircumcised boys, devotees of the lesser gods Thieblenin and Ntomo, and when he became a stripling, to Ntomo-Ntori. During the year of his second initiation, he was summoned to an establishment called "The School for Hostages."

    His country was the sad arena where conquering Yorsam, who sought to carve an empire for himself by fighting against Nubigu, engaged in lengthy conflicts, waging war at the same time against the French so as to protect the domains he had already conquered. The senseless atrocities inflicted by Yorsam encouraged the people of Nubigu to welcome the French conqueror with open arms. Many young people joined the ranks of the military which had been organized for the indigenes, to become later the Senegalese Infantry.

    Although the population had sworn to capture Yorsam and deliver him to the Whites, this was only achieved after fifteen years of fighting.

    At the same time, the French feared that chiefs and leading citizens might offer their loyalty to Yorsam in case he should manage to establish the least military advantage over the French troops. As guarantee against this contingency, they founded the School for Hostages in Kayes and enrolled all the children of pre-eminent families either amicably or by coercion. Wangrin—then almost seventeen—and many other young boys from all the lands conquered by, or allied to, the French who controlled the "Upper Senegal to Niger" area, which in those days included the territory between Kidira and Zinder, were sent to this school.

    Young Wangrin learned to read and write very quickly, and also to do sums and speak French fluently. Every two years he would return to his native village, Ninkoro-Sira, for the holidays. His father took advantage of this break to have him circumcised and initiated into the society of Komo the god, thus conferring on him the status of a man. After that, it became possible for his father to discuss secret or intimate matters in his presence, and to speak openly before him of sexuality, of the symbolism attached to masks, etc.

    Wangrin was proud of being a "Kamalen-Koro," a boy who had been circumcised, but he was equally proud of being a pupil in the School for Hostages. He took just as much pride in wearing school clothes, especially shoes made by a French cobbler, as in his round, red chechia adorned by a pompon of blue silk. Each holiday represented a memorable event, one that was awaited impatiently. Everybody in Ninkoro-Sira longed for his arrival, but all the beautiful young girls even more.

    He completed his studies in the shortest possible time and was given the certificate for indigenes as proof that he had finished primary school. In those days no African was permitted to obtain higher diplomas. That bit of parchment—one of its corners crossed by the French stripes—was a miraculous key, an "open sesame." The Africans who owned this document were admitted into the lower cadres of Civil Administration and could be employed as instructors in indigenous primary schools, as office clerks—that is, secretaries entrusted with copying and dispatching correspondence—as telegraphists, nurses, etc.

    Wangrin, having obtained the highest marks in his final examination, became an instructor, an employment that was reserved for the most deserving pupils. For two years he carried out his duties to the greatest satisfaction of his superiors, especially of the Inspector of Schools. As a reward, he was directed to found and head a school in Diagaramba, capital of Namaci, an area which the French had taken back from the indigenous chiefs in 1893. It was in this handsome and large city that his adventures were to begin.

    At that time Wangrin had already adopted one of the most significant of his pseudonyms, Gongoloma-Sooke, a legendary deity in Bambara mythology. This god could neither be soaked by rain nor dried by the sun. Salt could not salt him, and soap could not clean him. Although he was as soft as a mollusk, no metal, however sharp, could cut through him. The elements did not affect him in the least; he never felt hot or cold. When he slept, he closed only one eye; because of this, he was feared by night and mistrusted by day. Simultaneously, he married dawn and twilight and had his union blessed by the scorpion Ngoson, one of the oldest patriarchs in the whole world. Before the sun, Gongoloma-Sooke was lunar and before the moon he was solar. He took advantage of this confusion to create dissent between the two heavenly bodies symbolized by "Kalomina," the eclipse, but blamed this mishap on the cat. Moreover, he exploited the darkness caused by an eclipse to sow terror in the hearts of the hadama denw, or sons of Adam. Gongoloma-Sooke was also shepherd of the stars and took them to graze in the endless, uncharted plains of the cosmos. The Milky Way represented the bulk of his flock. Both kindly and ill-disposed, chaste and libertine, Gongoloma-Sooke, a weird divinity, used his nostrils to absorb drink and his anus to ingest solid food. His penis was planted right in the middle of his forehead. His mouth was tongueless and furnished with toothless maws—sharper, however, than a brand-new razor. These he used for sawing, cutting, sculpting, and digging, according to his needs. Each time that the news of a birth or a wedding was broken to him, Gongoloma-Sooke wept and wept until his tears eventually dried up; but when he heard of a demise, divorce, or any kind of calamity he laughed till he split his sides. He always walked backwards toward his destination, and rested with his head on the ground and his feet stuck in the air at right angles with his body. He hurled vulgar abuse at those who had been kind to him but warmly thanked and sang the praises of those who detested him and had caused him the worst kind of trouble. After the first crowing of the rooster at dawn and the last braying of the donkey at dusk, Gongoloma-Sooke climbed the vast mahogany in the sacred forest and shouted for all who wished to hear: "It is true that I am Gongoloma-Sooke, a weird divinity, but I also represent the confluence of all opposites.... Come to me and your wishes shall be granted!"

    At what stage had Wangrin heard that call? When he was still mere smoke, between heaven and earth, or a particle of liquid in his father's loins? Be it as it may, he chose Gongoloma-Sooke as one of his "patron-gods." Let us listen to him as he tells the story of his covenant:

    "Having decided to place myself under the protection of Gongoloma-Sooke, I procured a chicken with black and white feathers. Then I called the spirit of the god and invoked his patronage. I had already learned the appropriate sacramental formula; now I was to recite it; I slit the chicken's throat and let its blood drip on a stone that would symbolize the dwelling place of my chosen god. At this point I was to drop the chicken so that it should not die in my hands. Having accomplished this ritual, I let go of the bird, who leaped in the air, fighting against death. My heart was beating fast and large beads of sweat ran down my body; I feared that the god might reject me. But the chicken fell on its back for the last time, wings outspread and legs stretched in the air.

    "I was positively overjoyed! This meant that Gongoloma-Sooke had adopted me and ritually undertaken to protect me."

    Wangrin did not try to conceal the fact that he counted on Gongoloma-Sooke's inspiration and assistance for the day when he was ready to trigger off what he called the "stupendous enterprises that would place him in a good many awkward situations."

    Thus accepted by Gongoloma-Sooke, Wangrin adopted the name of that god as a pseudonym. Many more were to follow.

    After circumcision, and when Wangrin had been initiated into the society of Komo, his Sema, Numu-Sama, who had drawn up the horoscope of each newly circumcised boy, had warned him: "You, my boy, will have a successful life if you can persuade Gongoloma-Sooke to accept you, and your luck will hold so long as you have in your safe-keeping the pebble that represents your alliance with the god. I do not know how you will die, but I can see that your star will begin to set the day Ntubanin-kan-fin, the dove with a black ring circling half her neck, comes to rest on the dead branch of a kapok tree in full bloom, cooing seven times distinctly, then leaves that branch and alights on the left-hand side of your path. From that moment on you will become vulnerable. You will be at the mercy of your enemies and ill luck will dog your steps relentlessly. Guard against that moment; this is my advice to you."

    The narrative which is about to begin will show just how exact that prediction turned out to be.

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Table of Contents

1. The Birth
2. Diagaramba
3. First Confrontation
4. The Beginning of a Career
5. Where the Calamities of Some...
6. The Storm Breaks
7. The Count’s Messenger
8. The Trial
9. The Donkey Who Drank Honey
10. Romo’s Son and Beautiful Pugubila
11. The Death of a Great Chief and What Came Out of It
12. The Ambush
13. The Calamitous Bird’s Eggs
14. A Cumbersome Turban
15. Where Each Gets His Due
16. The Dream of the Fulbe Shepherdess
17. Pretty Much in the Lion’s Jaws
18. Where Wangrin is Off Once Again to a Good Start
19. A Profitable Pledge
20. The Reconversion
21. An Elephant’s Tale
22. A Disquieting Arrival
23. Pretty Doe of the Markets
24. Two Birds with One Stone
25. A Narrow Escape
26.... In Which Romo Keeps His Promise...and Wangrin His
27. A Souvenir That Bears Wangrin’s Trademark
28. First Warning: The Hausa Geomancer
29. Madame White-White
30. Second and Third Warnings: A Fatal Oversight and the Sacred Python
31. Madame "Good Offices"
32. The Irreparable Loss
33. Last Warning: The Dove with a Black Ring Circling Half Her Neck
34. Philosopher Tramp
35. The Three Bloods and Death
36. Adieu

Indiana University Press

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