Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Hunter Griots in Mali - 2000

Greetings from Mali, West Africa! Last weekend some rather strange-looking but proud people began descending upon Bamako. Dressed in bologan cloth adorned with tiny pockets or fetishes, and carrying either a gun, a tail of an animal, or even a snake, it was obvious that these men were something special. Hunters from all over West Africa came to Mali for a convention of sorts.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to learn a little more about the hunters. Balla, a Malian university professor, told us what he knew about these mysterious people.
Hunters in Bambaran and other West African cultures have a sort of mystic meaning and presence about them. The only way to know the many secrets was to be a hunter yourself - and even then, you did not reveal the secrets. Hunters, therefore, are a closed type of culture. Way back in the 7th century at the time of the Ghana Empire, hunters had already firmly established themselves as the hunters and warriors of society.
To be a hunter, there were a few rules. First, you had to respect your master hunter. A master hunter was any hunter that had more years of experience and membership in the hunting organization. If a father joined after his son, the son would be the master. Typically, when you joined, you chose a particular hunter to be your master - a Karamogo. You would learn from him and he would reveal knowledge and secrets. Some of this knowledge included navigation (how to find out your location and get around using the stars) and medicine using plants.
The hunting organization is open to everybody, including women and children (16 years and older). All castes were invited as well- so it didn't matter how much wealth or social status you had. Women often don't hunt but keep the secrets. Typically they are the wife of someone who is a hunter, and she helps reinforce the hunter rules and modes of conduct. It is very important that you don't betray others in the hunter society. Trust, including the ability to keep secrets is a requirement. Also, it is forbidden to run after another woman (who is not your wife).
Balla (as an interpreter) had the opportunity to witness a hunter initiation. Again, it was impressed upon the inductee that one must be trustful and willing to keep secrets. After agreeing to this and expressing a sincere desire to join and become a hunter, the inductee was instructed to go out and get a rooster, hen and some kola nuts for the initiation fee.
Hunters in the past were a main source of wild meat. They would kill an animal and bring it back to the village, sharing it with his family or other village members. Now, animals are killed for food and sometimes for money. Animals are not killed simply for a part of the animal i.e. tail or tusk and the rest left to spoil. All the parts are used. However, the hunters do like to kill animals known for their ferocity, as it is a symbol of the hunter's bravery. Some might even do poaching to kill an animal such as a lion even in a protected area like a park, believing that as a hunter, their skill and magic or sorts will help them be successful without getting caught. There is a deep respect for the animals though. Being animistic in religion, hunters and the average West African attributes powers and spirits (good and bad) to animals and other living things. Many of the hunters I saw were proudly carrying a tail of varying lengths and sizes, some looking as if they were lion tails. The larger the tail was, the more proudly they seemed to carry it. Some of the hunters I saw were also carrying snakes, monkeys or holding on to hyenas that were on a leash. Such things demonstrated the hunter's ability and knowledge to control animals. As one person noted, the hyenas almost looked and acted like dogs - quite unlike their normal behavior.
Throughout the week-long event, several people went over to observe the happenings and the hunters themselves. You could find men, women and children there. Women (of course) were doing the cooking. Some of the older children were with their fathers and other hunters, as if they too wanted to become a hunter. You could see hunters of all ages including some with white beards and wrinkled faces. Some were obviously of higher rank than others. Those of higher status were often carrying the larger tails and had elegant bogolan cloth outfits full of little pockets and ju-jus, essentially good-luck charms. Some students from our school even got to meet the "head" hunter, who was very warm and eagerly showed the kids around. Some hunters were selling some things such as fetishes, ju-jus, or medicinal stuff. People all over the place were sharing stories and showing off. Later in the evening (typical to West African entertainment), music and dancing would occur.
Just another interesting note: a lot of the guns here are the musket typye that use gunpowder. Gosh, do they make a loud noise! In Dogon country, they were shooting off the guns as part of their masked dance celebration.
It will be interesting to see what happens to the hunters in 20 years or so. Many West African countries and their varied cultures are beginning to drop some of their traditions and instead adopt more Western beliefs and practices.

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