Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Dirty Little Secret

Sanadougou is a religiously diverse society by Malian standards. If asked, about 80 percent of the population would identify as Muslim, 20 percent would call themselves Christian. And in addition to the globally-established creeds to which all Sanadougoukaw will profess, there is a long and proud tradition prior to any of these religions which is truly more fundamental to local spirituality. The Christian pastor in town calls it “une réligion paganiste”, others might object due to the lack of any formal god or gods in this belief system and refer to it as a mere “animist practice”, monotheist chauvinists might impugn it as a mere “fetishist cult”. Whatever it is, the ancient traditions of the Minianka subgroup of the Bambara tribe are not what you would assume to find in a country that considers itself monotheistic.

The first inkling of Bamana tradition I could glean was when I and saw a guys at market selling a strange cornucopia of snake skins, monkey heads, dead parrots and ram horns, etc. At first I thought these wares were mere hunting trophies, but in fact, they were fetishes endowed with spiritual powers. The powers attributed to each individual fetish are generally those attributed to the living animals; e.g. the head of a West African night adder could be channeled to inflict harm upon an enemy, a dog’s paw could augment a woman’s fertility, cowry shells can be used to divine the future and the hair of a white man can aid its holder to find great wealth and love. Devout Muslims and Christians might cite the parable of Ibrahim to condemn such idolatry, but they have to really know who they’re talking to because a lot of people who regularly pray at mosque or church also invoke the power of fetishes in the privacy of their own homes.

When people conduct the Bamana tradition they do not “worship” the fetish, it certainly could not be defined as “polytheism” because they are not “deifying” the late monkey or parrot as something beyond this world. The most proper term to describe this tradition would be “animism”, because they are attributing spiritual properties unto objects of this world. Magic has a great deal to do with it, but the kind of white magic practiced by the likes of Dumbledore and Sabrina Spellman. Whatever you do, don’t call it “witchcraft” – because unlike one who supplicates fetishes for benign magic, a shubaga is one who conjures the fetish spirits and black magic powers for malicious ends.

Though when you see all of these juju skins and claws at market, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal. Usually the fetishtigi gets their hands on their wares by the vagaries of hunters’ success, but every January they are guaranteed a new shipment of inventory after the annual N’yaa ceremony. Like most celebrations in Mali, there were no formal invitations mailed out or even uttered, but those in the know just happen to know. One afternoon last January I heard a hypnotic drumming, balaphone (xylophone) and singing out by the market area; I asked Karitie what the celebration was all about, and he told me “Les paganistes font leur sacrifice!”

“… Quel sort du sacrifice?” I asked.

Les chiens et les poulets!”

So last year I spent the annual sacrifice ceremony at home guarding my puppy from the clutches of the local witch doctor. But this year I planned in advance and chained Snoop Doggy Dogg up within the confines of my chain-link fence so I could attend without fear. I was told that I probably wouldn’t want to show up until after dinner, because until then full participation in the ceremony is mandatory to all attendees.

Asides from all the singing and dancing, the centerpiece of N’yaa is the slaughtering of dogs and chickens and the ritualistic imbibement of their blood. As the head fetishtigi explained, men must drink the blood to obtain the animals’ power and good fortune for the next farming season. This year was a particularly poor harvest, so the villagers of Sanadougou were willing to sacrifice many more animals than usual: 10 dogs and 30 chickens.

I could almost understand the transubstantiation of dog power into human power, but I had a difficult time stomaching the chickens. “Seriously, chickens are small and weak. I can’t imagine getting a lot of power by sacrificing a chicken.”

“You’re right – that is why we sacrifice 30 of them.”

So I fortunately missed out on the actual slaughter and blood-drinking rites per se, but I stuck around for the beer-drinking rites. By nightfall there were still drums banging and trance-like tunes on the goni, tin can guitar and balaphone and drunken old men doing this clumsy Moonwalk-like dance. And a grizzled old woman sold me an empty Seltzer bottle full of chimichama – home-brewed, millet beer. It looks and tastes like what I imagine apple juice would taste like if it was left to ferment and sour; it’s nothing that I would pay more than a little nominal change for just to say that I partook in a local cultural experience. I wouldn’t even drink it to get drunk for cheap – chimichama is only about 2 percent alcoholic content and the rest is barely-palatable deadweight water.

That doesn’t mean that the hardly-alcoholic qualities of chimichama prevent the local men from getting drunk – they just have to drink an obscene amount of it. They fill 10-liter jugs with this cheap home-brew and chug it all as fast as possible – they would use a beer bong if only American frat boys would join the Peace Corps en masse and show them how to make one. And since there is so much water to alcohol in this millet beer, the N’yaa celebrators pee like broken fire hydrants. Even before I had arrived, the ceremony grounds were full of shitfaced old men stumbling around looking for a good place to take a whizz, a lot of them passed out in the positions they fell in, a lot of them passed out stinking of the 98 percent of chimichama that their bodies no longer had any use for.

About the entirety of N’yaa celebrators would probably identify themselves as Muslim – a good deal of them will also slaughter a sheep as well at Eid al-Iftar and Eid al-Adha, but even an infidel like me cannot fathom how a bunch of old men who gather to drink dog and chicken blood and invoke the power of fetishes and get trashed on millet beer can say with a straight face that they belong to the pointedly austere monotheist religion that is Islam. Muslim doctrine here is generally more liberal than it is elsewhere in the Islamic world, but a religion which is can be summed up in the Shahada that “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” cannot be so liberal that it can also incorporates explicitly animist sacrifice and idolatry. This is less like someone who calls themselves Jewish eating a bacon cheeseburger and watching The Charlie Brown Christmas Special than it is like someone who calls themselves Jewish regularly attending mass and receiving Communion and praying to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

When you contextualize the founding of Islam in the 7th century and grasp that Muhammadd and the original jurists of Islam were developing their belief system at roughly the same time that the militant wing of Islam was busy expanding the Caliphate into North African territory, it makes sense that the writing of certain laws was just as much political as it was religious. For example, the code of Halal prohibits Muslims from the consumption of alcohol, the consumption of meat that was sacrificed in the name of pagan gods or idolatry, and it very explicitly prohibits the drinking of blood – i.e. it is forbidden for Muslims to partake in animist sacrifices like N’yaa. Though they might not have had the rites of the distant, isolated Bambara tribe in mind at the time, the Islamic jurists of a millennium ago knew enough of world religions to craft a law of hygiene and cleanlinesss directly and intentionally incompatible with the practices of takfir Arab, Persian, Turkish and African tribes.

I must reiterate the fact that very few Malians would publicly identify themselves as a follower of these rites; it is by no means a secret, but asides from the association with drunkenness and obvious reasons the attendees would like to keep the fact to themselves. The various tribes of the Sahel have spent millennia conquering and enslaving their neighbors, and once Islam arrived between the 10th and 12th centuries many clans converted as a guarantee of freedom – the Qur’an specifically forbids Muslims to enslave fellow members of the Umma but leaves idolaters and deniers of the faith to the whims of unregulated capitalism. Though chattel slavery does not really exist in southern Mali anymore (it does in the northern Songraï and Tamashek lands), Bambara, Minianka, Fulani and Malinke tribesmen alike find it at least in their social interests to publicly present themselves as Muslims – even if they drink millet beer, pray to fetishes, sacrifice dogs and chickens and drink their blood.

Yes, there are some Malians who still conduct ritualistic human sacrifice. To my understanding human sacrifice is significantly rarer than the sacrifice of dogs or chickens, but it is not as rare as it should be. People generally sacrifice other people for the same reason why they sacrifice monkeys or sheep, only this is considered to be a very dark practice associated only with the most evil of evil sorcerers. Albinos are in great danger of being targeted for human sacrifice as their abnormally-pigmented appendages are thought to bring good luck and a dismembered albino head is thought to be able to reveal the future like a really morbid Magic 8-Ball.

Apparently human sacrifice is most common amongst the Bobo tribe of northern Ségou province – a tribe which is distinctly more animist than the rest of the country. In recent years there have been a few Volunteers posted in Boboland who were solemnly warned that a very important festival coming up – though no one could tell when exactly this festival would be, and that when the festival occurred it was absolutely important that they stay in their house and never go outside especially at night because… well… no one would say... But the villagers would continue to reiterate emphatically that during the week of this ceremony they must never go outside. Donné donné villagers started to explain more and more about this mysterious festival until the Boboland Volunteers respectively decided it was time to pack up their bags and move to a different site.

Human sacrifice is allegedly confined to the most isolated, very least cosmopolitan and most animist villages where the rule of law and modern civilization don’t have too much sway. But there was even a human sacrifice-related incident pertaining to a Volunteer posted to a small village on the road to the Peace Corps training center Tubaniso – so close to urban culture that one could get there from Bamako by taxi. So this female Volunteer developed a close friendship with a spinster neighbor, and one day she realized that she hadn’t seen Bintu for a very long time. She was worried, and so she asked all of her other friends in village “Hey, do you know where Bintu is?”

For weeks she couldn’t get a straight answer; some villagers said that Bintu just got up and left, others said that she was “traveling”. Over time the villagers decided to level with their adopted Volunteer;

“Bintu is never coming back… because we sacrificed Bintu… and we ate her.”

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