Voice is the “essence of being.” (Mosto) Voice enables us to powerfully affect people. Voice enables society, it is the root of our understanding. Language is shaped by how we view the world and we are shaped by how language creates the realities around us. Thus, voice can be dangerous. Voice can be miraculous.
In Senegambia guewels (gender neutral) had the greatest verbal social influence. They were similar in nature to the bards of Europe. They sang, played music, and carried the oral history of Senegambians. They were feared, respected, cherished, and necessary. They were both the peoples’ voice and the leaders intermediary. A position of power that could do irreparable damage to the buurba’s (king) standing with his people. Little was more dangerous or more vital than voice because it could “convey curses or praises, denigrate and uplift, and arouse and mediate conflict.” (Mosto) Female guewels, called griottes, had this same power.
The Wolof’s understanding of voice combined with Wolof gender roles to create the unique role of “Signare” a position entirely separate from the caste system. This innovation arose because Senegambian women, as women, were in the unique position to forge more intimate relationships with other chiefdoms, peoples, and traders. This included Europeans.
Signares married Europeans, traded with them, created relationships through communication, mediation, and their ever powerful use of voice. They were diplomats for their people, much as griottes functioned as ambassadors for chiefdoms and kings. “The fundamental social unit” was family, they created families and forged a new culture. (Brooks) They smoothed cultural misunderstandings and ignorance to help create less prejudicial Europeans who adapted to Senegambia and grew to respect and love the region and its peoples.
These women helped shape a nation and are my role models in approaching African history. They taught me that learning and preserving history and mixing cultures was a community involvement. They taught me the power of communication, understanding, and teaching to help shape a nation in positive and powerful ways.
I call myself “The Signare Griotte” to remind myself constantly that I must approach my studies, research, and teaching with the values and principles I know these women utilized. I will say this time and time again but there is nothing so fundamental to the study of history as the ability to reach across the abyss of time, geography, culture, ethnicity, and language to understand and empathize with the people you study. When my honors director first taught us this it resounded in me. History matters. It matters because it helps us understand humanity and current issues; but, one step further, it matters because the process of historical research and learning, if executed to the best of its methodology, makes us more open, understanding, and empathetic.
Furthermore, signares and griottes existed throughout West Africa and play pivotal roles on my continuing research into caste rigidity through analyzing the Wolof language particularly as it pertained to women. They are the figures that loom largest and they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to uncovering the fantastic roles of African women in history. Women fill in so many missing pieces.
Storyteller. Communicator. Teacher. West African women innovated these; I stand on the shoulder of giants. Explore the Bright Continent with me!
Alvise de Cada Mosto, 1455
George Brooks, Landlords and Strangers