Amadou Hampâté Bâ: Open Letter to the Youth

Elders are considered the repository of wisdom in West African societies. It’s fitting then, that, in 1985, the widely-traveled and wise Malian humanist, writer and ethnologist, Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991) addressed the upcoming generation with a touching, timeless letter that is just as relevant today.

Three paintings of youth by Olivia Pendergast. On the left, a painting of a black girl dressed in a white dress, in the center a painting of two schoolchildren in school uniforms holding books, and on the right a boy sitting on a barrel.
Paintings of youth by Olivia Pendergast.

An open letter to the youth

My dear young people,

He who speaks to you is one of the first born of the twentieth century. He has therefore lived a long while and, as you can imagine, has seen and heard many things across this vast world. For all that, he doesn’t claim to be a master of anything. Above all, he only ever wished to be an eternal seeker, an eternal student, and even today his thirst for learning is just as alive as it was in the first days.

He started by looking inside himself, taking great pains to discover and know himself well, so that he might recognize himself in his fellow man and love him as a consequence. He can only wish that every one of you will do the same.

After this difficult quest, he undertook many journeys throughout the world: Africa, the Middle-East, Europe, America. As a student with no complexes or prejudices, he solicited instruction from all of the teachers and all of the wise people that he was lucky enough to cross paths with. He listened to them attentively. He faithfully recorded their words and impartially analyzed their lessons, so that he could understand the different aspects of their cultures and, in that way, the reasons for their behavior. In short, he always made the effort to understand people because the great problem in life is mutual understanding.

Of course, whether it be individuals, nations, races, or cultures, we are all different from one another, but we all have something similar as well, and that is what we must look for to be able to recognize ourselves in others and be able to communicate with them. Only then will our differences, rather than separating us, become complementary and a source of mutual enrichment. Just as the beauty of a carpet comes from the variety of its colors, the diversity of humanity, of cultures, and of civilizations create the beauty and richness of the world. How boring and monotone a uniform world would be, one where everyone, cut from the same cloth, thought and lived the same way! Without anything to discover within others, how would we enrich ourselves?

Painting of a tired black girl hiding her face in her hands by Olivia Pendergast.
Painting by Olivia Pendergast.

In these times, so full of threats of every kind, human beings must stress not that which separates them, but the things they have in common, all the while respecting each person’s identity. Meeting and listening to others is always more enriching, if only for the blossoming of one’s own identity, than fighting or having sterile discussions in order to impose one’s own point of view. An old teacher of Africa once said: “There is ‘my’ truth and ‘your’ truth; they will never meet. ‘The’ Truth can be found in the middle. To approach it, each one must take a small step out of ‘their’ truth towards the other…”

Young people, last-born of the twentieth century, you live at a time that is both frightening, for the menace that it hangs over humanity, and fascinating, for the possibilities that it opens up in the realms of knowledge and communication between people. The generation of the twenty-first century will know a fantastic meeting of races and ideas. Depending on the way it assimilates this phenomenon, this generation will either guarantee its survival or provoke its destruction through deadly conflict. In this modern world, no one can take refuge in their ivory tower. Every state, whether strong or weak, rich or poor, is, from this point forward, interdependent, whether on the economic front or in the face of the dangers of international war. Like it or not, humanity is aboard the same raft: it only takes one hurricane to rise up and threaten all humans at once. Wouldn’t it be better to try and understand and mutually help each other before it is too late?

It’s this very interdependence of states that necessitates the vital complementarity of people and cultures. Nowadays, humanity is like an assembly line: each piece, small or big, has a defined role to play that might determine the smooth operation of the whole factory.

These days, as a general rule, interest groups fight and tear each other apart. It might be up to you, O young people, to pave the way, little by little, for the emergence of a new way of thinking, one oriented towards complementarity and solidarity on the individual level, as well as on the international level. This will be the condition for peace, without which there can be no development.

The traditional civilization (I speak especially of the African savanna, south of the Sahara, that I know particularly well) was above all a civilization of responsibility and solidarity at all levels. In no way was a man, whoever he may be, isolated. We would never have left a woman, a child, a sick or old man live on the margins of society like a spare part. We always found a place for them in the heart of the great African family, where even a stranger passing through could find shelter and food. The spirit of community and the sense of sharing presided over all human connection. All could partake in even a modest plate of rice.

Man was his word, which was sacred. Most often, conflicts would resolve themselves peacefully thanks to the “palaver”: “Gathering to talk”, as the saying goes, “is to put everyone at ease and avoid discord.” The elders, respected mediators, ensured that peace was maintained in the village. “Peace!”, “Peace only!”, are the key catchphrases of all African ritual greetings. One of the larger objectives of initiations and traditional religions was the acquisition, by each individual, of total self-mastery and internal peace, without which there would never be external peace. It is only in peaceful times that human beings can build and develop a society, whereas war ruins, in a few short days, what took centuries to build!

Painting of a black girl in a yellow dress sitting on a bench by Olivia Pendergast.
Painting by Olivia Pendergast.

Humans were also considered to be responsible for the balance of the natural world around them. It was forbidden to cut a tree without a reason, to kill an animal without a proper motive. The earth was not their property, but a sacred thing entrusted to them by the Creator and of which they were only the keepers. That’s a notion that takes on its full meaning today, when we consider the lightness with which humans of our time drain the riches of the planet and destroy its natural balance.

Of course, like every human society, the African society also had its flaws, its excesses, and its weaknesses. It’s up to you, young men and young women, adults of tomorrow, to let abusive customs disappear, all the while preserving positive traditional values. Human life is like a great tree and each generation is like a gardener. The good gardener is not the one who uproots, but the one who, when the time comes, knows how to prune the dead branches and, if needed, proceeds with caution to graft useful additions. Cutting the trunk would be suicide, would be to renounce one’s own unique personality in order to artificially assume someone else’s, without entirely managing. Here too, let us remember the old adage: “The piece of wood has long remained in the water, it may float, but never will it become a crocodile!”

Young people, be this good gardener who knows that to grow in height and spread out its branches in all spacial directions, a tree needs deep and powerful roots. That way, well rooted within yourselves, you will be able to open yourselves up, without fear and without pain, to the outside world, both to give and to receive.

For this hard work, two tools are indispensable: first of all, in-depth study and preservation of your native languages, irreplaceable vessels of our specific cultures; second, perfect knowledge of the language inherited from colonization, just as irreplaceable (for us, the French language), as it not only enables different African ethnic groups to communicate among themselves and know each other better, but also opens us up to the outside and allow us to speak with cultures from around the world.

Young people of Africa and of the world, destiny asks you, in this end of the twentieth century and at the dawn of a new era, to be a bridge thrust between two worlds: the world of the past, where old civilizations yearn to hand down their treasures to you before disappearing, and the world of the future, full of uncertainty and difficulties, no doubt, but also rich with new adventures and fascinating experiences. You must take up the challenge and make sure that there is no mutilating rupture, but a serene continuation, so that one era can fertilize the other.

In all the whirlwinds that will carry you, remember our ancient values of community, solidarity, and sharing. And if you are lucky enough to have a plate of rice, don’t eat alone. If conflicts threaten you, remember the virtues of dialogue and palaver!

And when you look to find employment, instead of devoting all your energy to sterile and unproductive work, think of coming back to our Mother the Earth, our only true wealth, and care for her so that we might draw from her what is needed to feed all humans. In short, be at the service of Life, in all its aspects!

Some among you might say: “You’re asking too much of us! Such a task is beyond us!” Allow the old man, that I am, to reveal a secret to you: just as there is no “small” fire (it all depends on the nature of the combustible), there is no small effort. Every effort counts and, you never know, from an apparently modest, initial action may come the event that will change the face of things. Never forget that even the king of the trees of the savanna, the powerful and majestic baobab, comes out of one seed that, in the beginning, is not much bigger than a small grain of coffee…

Painting of a black boy chewing the tips of his fingers as he thinks by Olivia Pendergast.
Painting by Olivia Pendergast.


Letter originally written in French (translation by Cultures of West Africa) for the “Lettres ouvertes à la jeunesse – Concours Dialogue des générations” organized by the ACCT (Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique) in the year 1985, the “International Year of Youth”. Original letter retrieved October 5, 2018 from Des Lettres.

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