Djibo Badjé, great Zarma griot and “father of the word”, dies with secrets of his people yet hidden from the world

Djibo Badjé, also known as Dialba, the last great Zarma griot historian died in the morning on Tuesday, 24 April at the age of 80. The Zarma people are an ethnic group predominantly found in westernmost part of Niger but also in significant numbers in the adjacent areas of Nigeria and Benin, along with smaller numbers in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

A great historian of the Zarmas, Badjé was the last to know all the genealogies of the great families of this Niger community—nearly 300 lineages—and was able to tell the great epics of the past among the Songhais and the Zarmas whose history is linked to the Songhai Empire which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century

Dialba Badjé was known to say “I am the mother, the father of the word,” accompanied by his three-stringed lute. Failing to see one of his sons succeed him, he spent time in his last years transmitting his oral heritage to Swiss ethnologist Sandra Bornand.

Djibo Badjé with his moola. Credit: RFI / Gustave Deghilage / AllAfrica

Badjé started learning the lineages at the age of 7 with his father, memorising all the genealogies of the noble Zarma and Songhai families of Niger night after night, around the doudal (fire), AllAfrica reports. His father Badjé Bannya taught him the genealogies of the traditional chiefdoms and the stories of the Zarma warriors.

Sadly, none of his 30 or so children, who had gone through the modern school, were interested in following this oral and traditional learning to the end, therefore Badjé has no successor.

Wanting to preserve whatever knowledge he could, he was only able to transmit a part of his knowledge to Bornand. He had met Bornand, a young Swiss student who came to spend a month in Niamey, in 1994. During this first meeting, Dialba explained to Bornand the importance of his work and made her record a first story.

Bornand now has about 500 hours of recordings she has been working on transcribing into Zarma and French and has already made some of these available including, “The speech of the genealogist griot Zarma Niger”, “Let’s talk Zarma, a language of Niger” and stories of the famed “Sunna Bonto” and “Hamma Bodeejo Paate”.

At a wedding, Djibo Badjé praises the father of the young husband by making his genealogy aloud. He makes kaayi ceeya: the calls of ancestors. Credit: RFI / Gustave Deghilage

“When we do not take a path, the road disappears,” Badjé is quoted saying. He was, in the opinion of all in Niamey, Niger’s capital city, the greatest “Jasar” Zarma of his time. Among the Zarma, the word “jasare” refers to the griot historian and genealogist.

Traditionally, he is invited to the ceremonies to remind everyone of who is being celebrated, and to praise and remind him of his obligations. Badjé was regarded as the most prestigious of the griots, the master of the word, respected and feared. He is the memory of the Zarma people. He will remain the last to be able to tell the full story of his ancestors.

Dialba with one of his sons, Boureïma Djibo. Credit: RFI / / Amélie Tulet

The mastery of the moolo is the last stage of the learning of Jasare Zarma. The moolo is the traditional instrument, a three-stringed lute made of wood and cowhide reserved for the Jasare Zarma.

The function of Jasare is transmitted from father to son and the families of the Jasare are related to the noble families whose history and genealogy they know.

Boureïma Djibo, one of the sons of Dialba, learned the moolo and some genealogies, but he did not follow in his father’s footsteps. Musician and couturier, he does not wish to take up the role of Jasare in ceremonies.

Bornand is said to attribute the gradual disappearance of the oral Zarma tradition to the influence of colonization, Westernization and the radicalization of Islam. Dialba, on the other hand, liked to remind people that he did not tell everything to his European friend. And that there are Zarma secrets that he will carry with him to the earth.