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 ;-)

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