Erik Heinrich heads into the hinterland to learn about one of Africa’s most captivating rituals
hree brilliantly decorated Bassari warriors thrust fly whisks made from the tails of roan antelope in front of their solemn faces. They punch the hot air as they dance in sync to an ancient rhythmic chant that these green hills of West Africa have echoed for centuries.
They are armed only with fighting sticks that rest against their free shoulder, and they wear beautiful tin girdles cinched tight around their waists. From the back plates hang long strands of yellow beads that sway back and forth to the rhythm of the dance. Their mahogany bodies are decorated with beaded headbands and belts, armbands and bandoleers.
The colourful regalia is there to help these young Bassari peacocks of the Sacred Forest proclaim their manhood for the village of Ethielo, for its pretty daughters and for the land the Bassari people have inhabited since time immemorial, here in the wild frontier between Senegal, Mali and Guinea.
Today this troupe – six young men and women – are dancing more or less just for me, the toubab, or foreigner, who has flown thousands of miles and driven off-road many hundreds more to be here.
I had travelled in the hope of witnessing the Koré initiation ceremony, one of Africa’s most captivating rituals. Unfortunately my timing was off by several months. So this special performance has been arranged for me by Balingho, an energetic village elder who I had befriended over many cups of palm wine the night before.
“Our animist beliefs are thousands of years old,” explained Balingho, as we sat beneath a full moon and a solar-powered electric light that has replaced the traditional campfire in the village of Ethielo. “They’re important because they give us strength. But they also guide us through life and teach us respect for the natural world.”
The Bassari are a little understood ethnographic group who have survived for centuries against overwhelming odds. They have resisted Islamification from across the Sahara, the European slave trade and warring tribes like the Fulani, who repeatedly tried to force the Bassari from their land.
They believe in a single creator god known as Unumbotte, under whose watchful eye they undergo seven rites of passage over the course of a lifetime, beginning with the first initiation into early adulthood at age 10.
This particular dance I am witnessing is normally performed during the second and most important initiation ceremony, when boys aged between 15 and 20 pass into adulthood during an elaborate ritual that lasts several months. Throughout this period they are removed from the village and live in communal huts with other bachelors, supervised by guardians.
I ask if some of the male dancers could wear the ceremonial masks for which the Bassari are famous, in particular the Lukuta mask, made from the leaves of the sacred akuf tree. But Balingho explains this is not allowed, because if the magical powers these masks possess are awakened for the wrong reason, they can bring bad luck to the village.
At times the young men forget the words of their chant and chuckle under their breath. The women, who have high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes, are adorned less elaborately. They wear yellow and black headdresses with a crown of beaded spikes and red pompoms, shaking batons with tufts of white animal fur. Their stoic expressions break only when they echo the warrior chant.
The ornamental spikes, resembling the crests that adorn Bassari ceremonial huts, symbolise the powerful chameleon deity Numba, who ritually devours young men and regurgitates them into warriors and husbands during the most secret part of the initiation ceremony.
We stopped at an unremarkable flat stone next to a hut. Balingho, who underwent his own rite of passage here more than 50 years ago, told me this stone has powers of divination and that cockerels are sacrificed on it, one for each young man being initiated. If upon examination of the cockerel’s entrails the omens are inauspicious, the candidate is taken aside to have evil spirits exorcised from his body.
The climax of Bassari male initiation is a duel between each candidate and someone wearing a Lukuta mask, representing powerful nature spirits. There is nothing symbolic about these stick fights, though: ceremonial masks are replaced by helmets resembling wasp nests to protect combatants from getting their noses broken.
The duels are raucous events with much cheering and yelling, after which the youngsters who have been regurgitated by the divine chameleon Numba return to their families as fledgling men, with new names, replacing the son each family has lost.
Back at the village, the performance winds down and I take a few minutes to chat with the dancers, who all speak impeccable French, a vestige of Senegal’s colonial past. Ethielo has an outdoor oven in which Parisian-style baguettes are baked, and some of its residents even drive SUVs with CD players.
Salif Badiane, founder of Dakar-based Africa Connection Tours, pioneered excursions into Senegal’s hidden pockets of tribal culture, including the Bassari village of Ethielo, years ago. “It requires a little more effort to get here, but the experience is worth it,” Badiane, who trained as an anthropologist, told me before I left Dakar. He was right.
The fact is that the dirt track into Ethielo gets washed out and a new route has to be macheted through rough terrain nearly every year. That means without an experienced guide and a solid four-wheel drive vehicle, it’s nigh impossible to find this mystical village.
Living in such isolation is perhaps the main reason the Bassari have been able to hang onto their secret customs and traditions for so long.