The Chameleon

On June 3, 2004, at a Commemorative Mass that was dedicated to Jean Rouch at the Eglise St. Merri in Paris, Inoussa Ousseini read a text in Jean's memory, Les Cinq Enseignements du Cameleon (The Five Teachings of the Chameleon) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Jean Rouch had recognized himself in this text, and Inoussa Ousseini considers it a wonderful portrait of him.

Amadou Hampâté Bâ was the great defender of the African oral tradition to UNESCO. It was his famous sentence that Jean Rouch quoted often: "In Africa, when an old person dies, it is a library that burns."

Amadou Hampâté Bâ was born in Mali in 1901, in Bandiagara, the heart of Dogon country. He was a talented writer, historian, ethnologue, poet and storyteller. His most celebrated work includes L'étrange destin de Wangrin (1973), which won the Grand prix littéraire de l'Afrique Noire 1974 from the ADELF/Association des Ecrivains de langue française. Hampâté Bâ published several books with narratives based on the oral tradition, among them Contes initiatiques peuls (1993). He published his memoires in two volumes: Amkoullel, enfant peul (1991) and Oui mon Commandant! (1994).

Inoussa Ousseini studied sociology and anthropology in France, under the direct influence of Jean Rouch. For years he was Director of the Cinema-section of the I.R.S.H., the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Humaines à Niamey, which was created by Jean Rouch. Ousseini made Paris c'est Joli about one man's journey from Côte d'Ivoire to France, and a magnificant short film, Feu de Paille, about a popular street ritual in Zinder. Later he became Minister of Culture in the government in Niger. In that position he gave the Highest Order of Niger to Jean Rouch for his contribution to the culture of Niger. Ousseini is now Ambassador of Niger to France, "Délégué Permanent du Niger, auprès de l'Unesco." In Philo Bregstein's film Rouch and his camera in the heart of Africa, Ousseini described Rouch's influence upon his life.

It was Inoussa Ousseini who organised the retrospective this year in Niamey of Nigerien films, with a special section on films by Jean Rouch. Tragically, Jean was killed in a car accident on his way to the retrospective.

— Philo Bregstein and Brenda Baugh

The Five Teachings of the Chameleon

Printable Version

If I have any advice to give you, I would tell you: Open your heart, and above all, learn from the Chameleon. It is a great teacher. And if you follow this advice, you will see what the Chameleon is.

  1. When it decides on a direction, it never turns its head. Therefore, have a precise objective in your life, and don't let anything distract you from that objective.

  2. It is not its head which turns, but its eye. It looks up, it looks down. Find out. Don't believe that you are the only living being on the planet. The whole world surrounds you.

  3. When it gets to a place, the Chameleon takes on the color of that place. This is not hypocrisy. More than anything, this is tolerance, as well as a savoir vivre. Fighting with each other doesn't settle anything. Nothing ever gets built up in fighting. Fighting destroys. So, mutual comprehension is an important duty. In all situations, we must seek to understand our fellows. If we exist, we must admit that others exist also.

  4. When it lifts its foot, it will sway back and forth so as to know whether the other two feet it has already put down are not giving way. It is only after this that it will put its two feet down. It will sway again, then lift the other feet. This is called walking with care. Since its tail is prehensile, the Chameleon will anchor it so that if its front end gives way, it will still be hanging by its tail. This is called "covering your back." Don't be careless.

  5. And what does the Chameleon do when it sees prey? It doesn't just pounce on it. Instead, it sends its tongue. It's the Chameleon's tongue that goes out to find prey. After all, it's not the prey's small size that will tell you it's not going to kill you. If the Chameleon's tongue can fetch its prey, it reels it in slowly. This way, it always has the option of withdrawing its tongue and avoiding harm. Therefore, go easy in everything you do. If you want to create a work of lasting significance, be patient, be good, be easy to get along with, be humane.

So, this is what the Chameleon teaches you. Should you cross the African bush and ask those who know, this is what they would say about the chapter on the Chameleon.

— Amadou Hampâté Bâ
translated from the French by Wanda Boeke