Monday, 28 July 2014

Magic for beginners: The Griot (or The Magic of Words)

[Translated from the original spanish entry by Nuria. Thank you Nuria!!]

We got to the end of our adventure.

(Aaaaaaawww, I can hear you shouting out of disappointment. But I just meant our adventure… in the traditional villages of Senegal ;-))

After spending the night at the police station…!

(Guys, if you don’t keep it down I can’t move on! Goodness me, you are really pushing it today! It is true, though, that I went a bit too far ahead of the story… Let’s go back then!)

When we said goodbye to the villagers who had treated us so well, we left without The Fighter. Already purified over ritual baths, protected by his gri-gri and honouring his hot-headed character (“all of you fighters are crazy”, he greeted the wizard!), he headed back to Dakar in the hope that he would get his wife back and he wouldn’t be caught again dressed up as a woman and saying weird things in the river…

Problem is that I had run out of water the night before, so I’d been drinking from the well whose water had been boiled in the all-sorts-of-old-flavours-tasting pot and just kindly “filtered” for me with the first t-shirt they grabbed. Add that to the smoked taste of firewood, and that water was… it was… the opposite of an add by Coca-Cola, to put it mildly. So when we arrived in Fatick and I spotted an ATM (we also had run out of money, hehe), I leaped on it and, as soon as I left, I started dropping that delicious liquid to the four winds while shouting “we are rich” and “no more misery” while Pape was roaring with laughter!

Good stories of my journey. But we were not caught by the police because of that! Basically Pape bumped into a friend who was on his night shift that night at the police station, and since he was on his own, we made him company over tea and slept “locked up” in the police mosquito net. 

(Sorry, back to the point… Let’s talk about African minstrels, the great storytellers, and about dynasties… the griots!)

We need to wake up early today as we’ll finally arrive in Diakhaw, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Sine (from the ethnic group of Serer), whose royal family are the ancestors of… my friend Pape! And because we belong to the family, we gain access to the grounds of the old Palaces, surrounding the Baobab and the tombs of the legendary kings who had ruled over this region since the 14th century. But we didn’t come here to see some tombs. We came to see this lovable woman.

It’s my great honour to introduce you to Princess Coumbody, daughter of Mahecor, the last King of Sine. And as you can see from the picture… she actually looks like him!

It is touching to hear this woman saying that for his whole childhood she couldn’t cry. Although it was not due to obligations of the post, but because “my dad was so good, he loved us so much, that commanded for us to have everything we wanted: clothes, sweets, toys… And I remember how the griot would take me over his lap and tell me the most amazing stories until I would fall asleep. It’s only now, when I see that my sons and grandsons won’t be able to enjoy the same life of absolute happiness I had, when I really feel like crying…”

And just to avoid the ocean coming through the beautiful blue eyes of this last Princess of legend, I take out my phone to show her the picture of her cousin, Pape’s grandma (to whom we went to ask for permission in Dakar to attend the rituals, and who suggested us to do the “sweet” sacrifice of inviting children in the neighbourhood for lunch). What is my reaction when I see her taking my phone over and kissing the screen, a great expression of happiness on her face. (My grandma, la Elvi, could have done exactly the same thing ;-) )

We leave her memories behind and the Palace too, looking for N’ deye Faye, a griot we heard about because of her great musical talent. However, we could have never imagined she was actually going to sing for us the history of Coumbody, the last Princess of Sine!!!

Pape is genuinely touched. He couldn’t believe he would be able to gather the best griot women in the historical capital to sing about the feats of his family. The magic in those words and music are touching a secret fibre inside him, a fibre that connects him to his ancestors, his land and, if may say, to the millenary oral tradition of the African continent (and Mankind!).

N’ deye Faye’s powerful voice revives in front of us not only the wise King Mahecor, but also Coumbody’s mother, and the father of her mother who fought for his ancestors’ beliefs and for freedom in the bloody battle against the Muslims who wanted to impose their religion. Her voice, supported by her partner sitting next to her and repeated in a surrounding eco by the other two, is as if Ceddo was being projected in front of us, a movie by the great Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène (you have to watch Xala, by the way).

And after she finishes, she also begins to recall her childhood and tells us about how her father (last official griot of one King of Sine) used to leave the house early to gather the rest of the royalty griots over the rhythm of his drums to sing at the gates of the Palace, which however they wouldn’t be allowed to enter. Or how her grandfather used to wake her up some times in the middle of the night to test her on the genealogies they’d been studying during the day. “But what I liked the most was to help the griot women in the family so that I could learn their songs and have fun singing with them”.

“I got married and went to live with my husband, an amazing griot too, but I didn’t work as a griot. It was only after the death of my husband, because I needed to feed my children, that I started to go back to the old words and rhythms, and started to sing at weddings or baptisms from families that were linked to my family as griots. And every time I sing and bring the old stories back, I feel the same joy I had as a child. I think I’ve always wanted to be a griot…”

We say goodbye in fascination. As we are leaving, Pape, who is still impressed, tells me that he cannot believe how I dared to ask them about the “burials” inside the Baobab! This is one of the most enigmatic facts about the “caste” of griots. So close to royalty, but at the same time with so many rules to remind them about their inferiority. In the royal family’s environment we had been told that if a griot was buried like the others, the land would turn infertile. Something they could not confirm is if that was meant to be derogatory, but N’ deye’s version is quite different:

“Only the greatest griots were granted the post-mortem right to have their bodies sheltered inside the trunk of the Holy Baobab.” And it seems that his grandparents’ generation was the last one to be granted that honour.

So I grin at Pape and leave thinking that only big poets, those who have the power to revive the great feats of their ancestors, deserve to be close to their God, embraced by the Holy Baobab…

Friday, 25 July 2014

Magic for beginners: The Mask’s Dance (in the amazing Dogon Country)

[Translated by Bisila Noha from the original entry in spanish. Thank you Biso!!!]

“The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.”
Arrow of God, Achebe 1964

Through the writing of Chinua Achebe, the recently deceased writer considered the “father of African Literature”, we are going to discover one of the most fascinating aspects of African culture: the power hidden behind its masks. This discovery will take place in one of the most amazing sceneries, the Dogon Country, which may represent the very best of the continent: Serengeti – the savanna and its “Land of Endless Space”, its massive fault with the small “Victoria falls”, the villages and their architecture, and the traditions of its kind people. Wanna find out more? ;-)

After leaving you breathless with the picture of the Bandiagara fault, I think you should wander around one of the villages that are embedded in the cliffs. To do that, though, you will first have to hop onto a truck’s roof, walk through several villages, and then do some climbing.

Once we get to the villages “at ground level”, we learn many things about their culture, the supremacy of the sacred snake Lébé, how spiritual leaders or hogons are chosen in accordance with the cycles of the star Sirius, and that assemblies take place in the toguna. A toguna is a building whose roof is so low that no one can stand up when discussions get heated. In fact, Dogon people only consider valid words those said quietly when sitting. Fair enough!

Most of their windows and doors are masterpieces: sculptures on wood depicting Dogon cosmology or the history of a given tribe. I cannot help but share the picture below with you, as it is a toilet door. Imagine what a palace door might look like!

But let’s get down to business. The word mask comes from the Latin word Masca, witch, and according to Roger Caillois (preface of Masques de O. Perrin’s book), the basic functions of a mask, like those of mimicry with insects, are:

- To disguise, hide or protect rather than portray.
- Metamorphosis. To turn into something else, to be possessed by a superior spirit whose energy or advice is needed. At the Mask Museum in Lomé, we were told that masks were originally used to ask the Spirit who was responsible of someone’s death, but also to hide the person accusing in the name of the Spirit or god, so that the culprit’s family could not take revenge. The masks are therefore linked to the death of both men and the fields, as they also are used to pray for rain.
- To drive others away. “To wear the mask, to be entitled to do so either via an induction, tests or a purchase, means to no longer belong to the frightened group but to join the FRIGHTENING ones.” This strengthens hierarchy and social cohesion.

As we have already been “inducted”, we now can wear the Kanaga Mask, the sacred crocodile. Let’s get possessed by its Spirit… Are you ready? 

Now that we are the “Mask” and that we have spent a couple of days in the forest preparing and speaking only mask language, we can follow the Chief of the masks to a terrace where we will perform the Dance which is used to pray for rain. Women and children have already left, afraid of being punished by the “police masks”. Only real men can see us and present us with offerings. We start to feel the “burden”, the presence of something superior to us and with the music and screams of our Chief we dance faster and faster and our body keeps spinning incredibly, covering the four cardinal points, as if the mask was no longer heavy and we had turned into the sacred crocodile, the world and the rain that is to fall…

Back to Achebe’s novel, in which the Mask, Agaba in this case, appears for the first time. There is a “massive stampede”, as it “was not a Mask of song and dance. It stood for the power and aggressiveness of youth”. When it gets closer to the main character the following ritualistic conversation takes place:

-Ezeulu, do you know me?
- How can a man know you who are beyond human knowledge?

Achebe, in order to show us that post-independence societies are dominated by consumerism and that in those social circles where people ask about the “health” of their Mercedes Benz when they greet each other, people cannot reply that they have sold it as they could not afford the insurance, gives us the following example: it would be as if a Mask were asked a ritual question and replied “I do not understand what you are saying, I am nothing but a man with a mask”. Both things are unthinkable in their respective worlds.

This is why we understand why Achebe, in order to explain different things at once, as only he can do, says:

White man is the masked spirit of today” 

What a different view from the unconditional love expressed towards France following its military intervention.
Oddly enough, this man is an initiate in the mask’s dance…

In case Achebe is right, I will close this post with this pic ;-)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Magic for Beginners: The sacred Baobab

[Translated by Aixa de la Cruz from the original blog entry and published in her magazine Indias/Indies. Thank you Aixa!!]

The adventure began one morning when I woke up and saw that the family was in the living room in a quieter mood than usual. One of the cousins, whom I had already met, was completely off on the sofa, expressionless, and he mechanically gave me his hand without saying a word. It’s because of Ramadan – I thought – and went to the shower. But when I came back, I found that there were more and more neighbors on the living room and my enquiries about their presence only met evasive answers, so I went out to look  for my friend in the hope that he would solve the mystery. 

It seemed that the cousin - a tough wrestler of Senegalese wrestling, jobless at the time, hardly supported by his fan club while his wife, together with his daughters, lived with her parents while filing the papers for divorce- had been found that morning, without warning, looking carefully for something on the banks of the river and dressed in drag.

While I was sleeping, they had burned some branches in the house to shoo the devil and by the time I woke up, I could see neither the devil nor the cousin dressed in drag; he was just catatonic. Little by little, after being locked down in his room, he recovered. And though he didn’t remember what happened that morning, he laughed when he was told about it and said something like:

- It must have been that bastard of my mother-in-law. She must have asked a marabou to put a spell to get my wife to divorce me.

Leaving aside whether it was really necessary to hire a wizard for his wife to divorce him, the question was: what now?

- We need to go to the village of our ancestors to ask for the protection of its god – fetish, they call it-.​- Can I go too? – I couldn’t help but ask.

And although they said I could right away, being white, the situation was more complicated than it seemed and we first had to speak with the oldest person in the village, who was in Dakar. Luckily, it was Djike, the admirable maternal grandmother of my friend Pape.

In the lively conversation that followed the initial greetings, after we told her about our intentions, I kept on hearing, after the name of the fetish, the sentence “bugul toubabs” whose meaning I happened to know: our ancestor’s god does not like whites. (I don’t blame him). Pape, without setting deference aside, explained to her that I was practically a member of the family so there surely was a way to make an exception. Djike didn’t seem too convinced and kept on giving him examples of another village where a nun had been spooked by the sight of the god who, in its animal form, came running to her because she had approached the sacred baobab.

To help defuse the conversation, we told her anecdotes of the family and showed her pictures, which she loved. Thus, when I told her everything I know in wolof, she eventually softened her position and told me that before I left Dakar I had to make a sacrifice to the fetish for him to expect my arrival.

A sacrifice!

I was already picturing myself in the middle of the city wielding a knife to cut a rooster’s throat at the location indicated… but not. It was much simpler than that. As the god happens to be fond of children, the sacrifice consisted of cooking a kind of rice pudding, though without the rice, and inviting the kids in the neighborhood to eat it. On the day of our journey, we just had to step out the door and invite them, for the bowl to be clean and shiny.

Thus, with the hope that this precaution would be enough and fighting the torrential rain as we could, we set off. Everything was slightly weirder than usual, like when we met a man who had a huge finger.

Once in the bus, while my two fellow travelers were sleeping and I looked at the landscape that became greener and wilder as we moved inland…


We had got a flat tire just beneath our seats. We were all safe and sound but… was it a bad omen?
To answer the question, we moved a bit away and the wrestler took some shells out his backpack, tossed them three times on the sand and after signaling two that were parallel but in opposite directions he told us it symbolized the departure and the return and that the disposition of the shells in-between augured the success of our purpose.

So we continued on our journey, now all of us awake. And after reaching the bus stop of the region of Fatick we had to ride some motorbikes to - through footpaths surrounded by baobabs and fields of a fresh and exuberant green color – get to the lovely village of the ancestors.

Without either electricity or tap water but with impressive kindness and the welcoming beauty of the mud walls and the thatched roofs that surrounded us in the middle courtyard of the family concession, night fell while we chained the suspension of our fasting with the greetings, and the dinner and the stories of kings and the starry night and the grandmother telling us about that one time in which the fetish, in its serpent form, appeared to her in the barn… And little by little we fell peacefully asleep with our dreams only upset by maybe the encounter that would take place in the morning under the sacred baobab.

At dawn, with the rooster crowing and the movement that began to be felt in the family concession, the three of us woke up and got out of the bed with mosquito net we had shared.

During breakfast, we were informed that they had already spoken to the guardian of the sacred serpent, the old man in charge of the rituals beneath the Sacred Baobab.

- He’s so old that when he talks to you, you are going to be under the impression that he’s about to die at the end of each sentence.

It perhaps is necessary to clarify that in the Senegalese tradition, some trees are the official residence of many supernatural beings such as the djines, but above all, the baobab is the link with the ancestors: it is the place to which they came to make their sacrifices to the protectors. Thus, unlike Eastern and Southern Africa where the ancestors are directly invoked – they sometimes even speak through the shaman, in a trance -, here the god or the protector is invoked and he becomes the mediator between them and their ancestors.

But the question was still in the air: was a white going to be allowed to the rituals to which – as I was told – no other toubab had ever been allowed to? We didn’t have much time to wonder because they soon came and told us that the old man was waiting for us at the Sacred Baobab.

Once again Pape had to make use of his good manners and diplomacy to convince the old man, who only gave in when Pape accepted – not without fear - to take the consequences that might derive from the transgression.

So I followed them to the Baobab where, first for Pape and later for the wrestler, the guardian would open the little thatched hut where the pumpkins that contain the water mixed with the sacrifices offered to fetish were kept. He would directly address the god pronouncing the name and family of the person that was about to perform the ritual bath, asking him first permission and then his protection and blessing.

The solemnity of the situation was perceived in the delicate sound of the leafs beneath the baobab, in the silence as Pape retreated behind the screen to perform the sacred bath in which he couldn’t get either his hair or his face wet, as the tradition commands. Then it was the turn of the wrestler, the true reason of this journey to the heart of Senegal, who repeated the ritual to cure himself of the outbreak of insanity that had supposedly been caused by a marabout at the request of his mother in law to prompt a divorce.

Everything seemed to have successfully concluded but the old man stayed seated beneath the baobab and surprised us all with the question:

- Does the toubab want the blessing of Loungoulgne too?

They all remained speechless and turned to me. This wasn’t planned. We were hoping he would let me see the ritual, but it didn’t cross our minds that he would let me perform it. I gladly accepted although – I was told – first they would have to ask for the permission of the fetish that, if denied, would manifest somehow, for example by tainting blood red the water of the sacrifices in the pumpkin.

I nodded again, left Pape with my camera and approached the sacred Baobab, still bathed in light, as a requestor.

Everything went smoothly. The water didn’t turn red, so the god had accepted that I performed the ritual. After listening to the words of the old man, I went to the wooden screen on which I left my clothes and took a bath as indicated. Although a bit  nervous, I felt as if I was bathing at the same time with the water and with the rays of light that seemed to fall warm and generous on us, blessing us too.

The ceremony was over and, when I tried to thank the old man with my just learned words in Serer – here they didn’t speak wolof any more – he burst into laughter and told us again, apparently touched, that it was the first time in his life that he or his ancestors had allowed a white to perform the ritual. He seemed really content and relieved that everything had been OK.

Once purified by the ritual, we went out to walk through the fields that seem to share the magic of the sacred baobab. The limpid, somehow primordial green seems to surround the men that work the soil in the company of their children in a magnificent vignette amidst the infinite plains.

Little by little the night fell and with it came the stories, but this time we were at the neighbor’s house because she was famous for her skills as a narrator. The surprise – in addition to the woman’s proposition that I married one of her youngest daughters – came when it was the children who - one after another, occupying the center of the group and following their mother’s indications – told the stories. About the clever hare who fooled the rabbit by pleading his hair with the branches; or about the father who tried to impose the rule that nobody who was late for lunch would eat and eventually he was the one who got punished…  All of them were told in a mixture of serer translated to zolof and then to French, striving to preserve the songs and gestures and the magic.

With these stories night fell and dreams came. And I remembered the sacrifice I had had to make before starting the journey, inviting the children in the neighborhood.

And just before I fell asleep, I wondered whether these children would be the true god of the sacred baobab.