The Politics of Religious Change on the Upper Guinea Coast: Iconoclasm Done and Undone 0748635157, 9780748635153

Ramon Sarr? explores an iconoclastic religious movement initiated by a Muslim preacher during the French colonial period

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‘A wonderfully subtle account of social change among the Baga-speaking people of coastal Guinea. Broad in scope, erudite, and elegant in presentation, Sarró’s book has wide significance for debates about conflict as performance, while being a pleasure to read.’ Paul Richards,Wageningen University

‘Under the successive mid-twentieth century urgings of Muslim iconoclasm and state socialism, it seems as if some coastal Baga of Guinea became willing accomplices in the destruction of their own revered customs, chiefly authorities, and material culture ... Sarró demonstrates why modernizing processes have been fractured, fractious and fracturing in the experience of African people.’ Richard Fardon, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) The Politics of Religious Change on the Upper Guinea Coast offers an in-depth analysis of an iconoclastic religious movement initiated by a Muslim preacher among coastal Baga farmers in the French colonial period.With an ethnographic approach that listens as carefully to those who suffered iconoclastic violence as to those who wanted to ‘get rid of custom’, this work discusses the extent to which iconoclasm produces a rupture of religious knowledge and identity, and analyses its relevance in the making of modern nations and citizens.

Ramon Sarró is an anthropologist at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.

INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN LIBRARY Editors J. D.Y. Peel, Suzette Heald and Deborah James The International African Library is a monograph series from the International African Institute and complements its quarterly periodical Africa, the premier journal in the field of African studies.


‘In this fascinating ethnography, things are never what they seem at first. Sarró sets secrets and revelations, ruptures and continuities, past and present into turbulent motion.This is the study of West African iconoclasm against which all others will be measured.’ Michael McGovern,Yale University


Ramon Sarró



Cover image: drawing of a Baga headdress, known as Nimba, and an important icon for the Baga people.The design is copied from a t-shirt worn by men and women during the celebration of a football tournament in 1994. ISBN 978-0-7486-3515-3

ISBN 978 0 7486 3515 3 For further details of the International African Institute, London, visit their web site at

9 780748 635 1 53


Edinburgh University Press 22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF


International African Library 38 General Editors: J. D. Y. Peel, Suzette Heald and Deborah James

the politics of religious change on the upper guinea coast The International African Library is a major monograph series from the International African Institute. Theoretically informed ethnographies, and studies of social relations ‘on the ground’ which are sensitive to local cultural forms, have long been central to the Institute’s publications programme. The IAL maintains this strength and extends it into new areas of contemporary concern, both practical and intellectual. It includes works focused on the linkages between local, national and global levels of society; writings on political economy and power; studies at the interface of the socio-cultural and the environmental; analyses of the roles of religion, cosmology and ritual in social organisation; and historical studies, especially those of a social, cultural or interdisciplinary character.

Titles in the series: 1 Sandra T. Barnes Patrons and power: creating a political community in metropolitan Lagos 2 Jane I. Guyer (ed.) Feeding African cities: essays in social history 3 Paul Spencer The Maasai of Matapato: a study of rituals of rebellion 4 Johan Pottier Migrants no more: settlement and survival in Mambwe villages, Zambia 5 Gunther Schlee Identities on the move: clanship and pastoralism in northern Kenya 6 Suzette Heald Controlling anger: the sociology of Gisu violence 7 Karin Barber I could speak until tomorrow: oriki, women and the past in a Yoruba town 8 Richard Fardon Between God, the dead and the wild: Chamba interpretations of religion and ritual 9 Richard Werbner Tears of the dead: the social biography of an African family 10 Colin Murray Black Mountain: land, class and power in the eastern Orange Free State, 1880s to 1980s 11 J. S. Eades Strangers and traders: Yoruba migrants, markets and the state in northern Ghana 12 Isaac Ncube Mazonde Ranching and enterprise in eastern Botswana: a case study of black and white farmers 13 Melissa Leach Rainforest relations: gender and resource use among the Mende of Gola, Sierra Leone 14 Tom Forrest The advance of African capital: the growth of Nigerian private enterprise 15 C. Bawa Yamba Permanent pilgrims: the role of pilgrimage in the lives of West African Muslims in Sudan 16 Graham Furniss Poetry, prose and popular culture in Hausa 17 Philip Burnham The politics of cultural difference in northern Cameroon 18 Jane I. Guyer An African niche economy: farming to feed Ibadan, 1968–88 19 A. Fiona D. Mackenzie Land, ecology and resistance in Kenya, 1880–1952 20 David Maxwell Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe: a social history of the Hwesa people c. 1870s–1990s

21 Birgit Meyer Translating the devil: religion and modernity among the Ewe in Ghana 22 Deborah James Songs of the women migrants: performance and identity in South Africa 23 Christopher O. Davis Death in abeyance: illness and therapy among the Tabwa of Central Africa 24 Janet Bujra Serving Class: masculinity and the feminisation of domestic service in Tanzania 25 T. C. McCaskie Asante identities: history and modernity in an African village 1850–1950 26 Harri Englund From war to peace on the Mozambique–Malawi borderland 27 Anthony Simpson ‘Half-London’ in Zambia: contested identities in a Catholic mission school 28 Elisha Renne Population and progress in a Yoruba   town 29 Belinda Bozzoli Theatres of struggle and the end of apartheid 30 R. M. Dilley Islamic and caste knowledge practices among Haalpulaar’en in Senegal: between mosque and termite mound 31 Colin Murray and Peter Sanders Medicine murder in colonial Lesotho: the anatomy of a moral crisis 32 Benjamin F. Soares Islam and the prayer economy: history and authority in a Malian town 33 Carola Lentz Ethnicity and the making of history in northern Ghana 34 David Pratten The man-leopard murders: history and society in colonial Nigeria 35 Kai Kresse Philosophising in Mombasa: knowledge, Islam and intellectual practice on the Swahili coast 36 Ferdinand de Jong Masquerades of modernity: power and secrecy in Casamance, Senegal 37 Charles Gore Art, performance and ritual in Benin City 38 Ramon Sarró The politics of religious change on the Upper Guinea Coast: iconoclasm done and undone

the politics of religious change on the upper Guinea coast iconoclasm done and undone

ramon sarró

edinb u rgh u ni v ersity press for the International African Institute, London

For Marina

© Ramon Sarró, 2009

Edinburgh University Press Ltd 22 George Square, Edinburgh

Typeset in Plantin by Koinonia, Bury, and printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham, Wilts

A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library


The right of Ramon Sarró to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

978 0 7486 3515 3 (hardback)

For other publications of the International African Institute, please visit their web site at


List of Maps and Photographs Acknowledgements About the Author Glossary

viii ix xii xiii

1 Introduction: Cassava Fields, Sacred Woods On ruins and landscape On African religion and iconoclasm The living space as a remote area Ethnography as the art of being late Landlords, citizens and iconoclasts: introducing the actors   and the events Ethnography and iconoclasm: a Rashomonian view

1 1 2 6 10

2 Rivers and Motorways Language and population on the Guinean coast The language of the spirits Mangrove rice: a tale of two species The river bank The open road The missing wood: Baga parents and Susu children

22 22 30 31 33 38 41

3 Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Coastal Mangroves in  Pre-Colonial Times Uncles and nephews: the logics of asymmetric settlement Landlords, strangers and spirits No room for slaves? Contested spiritscapes The crown of Timbo: exploring pre-colonial political imagination

49 51 55 61 65 68

4 Chiefs, Customs and Territory: the Legacy of French Rule On cultural fatigue The delimitation of a ‘Baga’ territory Chiefs, taxes and strangers

73 73 75 78

11 17


the politics of religious change

The rise of Christianity Fula hegemony Revolt and takeover Despotism and political awareness The burden of being Baga Conclusion

80 82 86 91 93 97

5 Running and Hiding: the End of Colonialism and the Arrival   of the Iconoclasts Youth and dance: a prelude The rise of Islam The stranger and the end of death Spiritual encounters Spiritual encounters of a different kind Farewell to the Baga

99 99 103 106 108 114 117

6 Mande Tricksters and Transformations: from Iconoclastic  Preachers to Iconoclastic Politicians The marabout who came from the east Revisiting the spiritual encounters Routinised iconoclasm Once there were landlords On religious convergence

122 122 130 138 142 144

7 Surviving Iconoclasm From children’s games to elders’ secrets: the story of the alipne   Excursus I: iconoclasm and the centripetality of knowledge An urban social form: the story of the ressortissants   Excursus II: iconoclasm and the centrifugality of knowledge A crisis of mediation: the story of women   Excursus III: iconoclasm and the gender of knowledge Conclusion

148 150 156 158 160 162 165 167

8 Harlem City and the Ancestral Village: Youth and the  Politics of Culture Today Football and carnivals: a tale of three villages Boffa vs Boké: competing constructions of cultural identity Elders’ successes and youths’ failures The wide world and the closed earth

169 171 181 184 187

9 Conclusion: Iconoclasm Undone Sacred woods and cassava fields: renewing the spiritual contracts Flow and closure, the state and autochthony Not quite there but there: silence as heritage Iconoclasm and the making of the future

192 192 196 199 200


Appendix: Archives Consulted Notes Bibliography Index


204 205 219 234

1 list of maps and photographs


1 2 3 4

West Africa Coastal Guinea, with the different Baga-speaking groups Coastal Guinea: Baga Sitem, Baga Pukur and Bulongic-speaking villages Trajectories of Asekou Sayon and his disciple Asekou Abdoulaye in their jihad

xviii 26 29 128


Young girl playing with a Dimba dacol headdress 1.1 Nimba headdress 1.2 Sailing to Kamsar 2.1 Baga men ploughing mangrove-swamp rice fields with the kop 3.1 A strangler fig on a palm tree 5.1 Asekou Sayon and his followers 6.1 Asekou Sayon’s certificate 6.2 Asekou Sayon in 1994 7.1 Children making a tolom with an oil bottle and cloths 8.1 Woman wearing an airplane headdress in Kawass 8.2 Woman wearing a boat headdress in Kawass 8.3 Woman ‘filming’ the carnival of Kawass in 1996 8.4 Young woman in Mare’s carnival

xix 2 20 25 60 116 127 130 151 178 179 180 190

1 AcknowledgEments

It is difficult to acknowledge help in a work that took so long to complete and led me to so many different countries. Let me briefly revisit them. In Guinea, my thanks go primarily to the people who accepted my stay among them in the Baga and Susu villages and in the cities of Kamsar, Boffa and Conakry, as well as to Asekou Sayon Kerra, the preacher the reader will soon meet. The staff at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Conakry were always very supportive. At the University of Conakry, Dr Erhard Voeltz initiated me into the study of Baga language. Dr Marie-Yvonne Curtis was an excellent co-researcher both in Guinea and later in France. Professors Ismael Barry and Aboubacar Touré made very useful comments on a paper I gave in 2001, which provided me with very good ideas as to where to go next. Above all Guineans, Aboubacar Camara – ever since we met in a wedding ceremony in 1993 – has been an extraordinary colleague with whom to conduct fieldwork, learn the language and discuss personal and anthropological issues. This study emerged after a long gestation in Anthropology, British style. Over the decade of the 1990s I was linked to University College London, at the time undoubtedly the Mecca of West Africanists, and later to the LSE and to Oxford, as well as spending the best part of a year in Paris as an exchange PhD student. Acknowledgements in London are due first and foremost to the Africanist team that every Friday night used to gather around the charisma of Murray Last in the West Africa Seminar – supervisors, mentors, examiners and friends: Philip Burnham, Barrie Sharpe, Richard Fardon, Paul Richards, Barbara Hendrie, Mike Rowlands, Richard Fanthorpe, Nick Argenti, Marie-Nathalie LeBlanc, Kate Longley, Christopher Fyfe, John Peel, James Fairhead, and non-Africanist colleagues such as Josep R. Llobera and Allen Abramson. They all read or heard parts of this book and gave me hints on how to improve it. Charles Jedrej and Richard Fardon examined my PhD thesis in 1999. Together with excellent verbal comments, they both provided lengthy reports raising questions and providing suggestions that were later very helpful to my later field visits and in the preparation of the book. While in Oxford I often discussed aspects of my work with David Parkin, Wendy James and Hélène Neveu Kringelbach.


the politics of religious change

They not only managed to make Oxford feel like a warm city but brought valuable ideas and suggestions to the seminars I gave and the chapters they read. St Anne’s College, where I was the Ioma Evans-Pritchard Junior Research Fellow for two years, proved to be a wonderful place to think about the research and prepare future fieldwork. Their financial help towards two months of fieldwork in 2001 is gratefully acknowledged. Among my Oxford colleagues I would like to single out André Celtel, who convinced me that I needed a personal copy-editor before even thinking of sending so much as a chapter to anybody else, and offered his services. I thank St Anne’s College for making this hard work worth his time. Little did I know that, in addition to correcting my grammar, André would be such an astute reader of my earliest manuscript, which he very elegantly improved. David Berliner has been a companion in Guinean studies ever since 1998. Without the long discussions with him in Oxford, Conakry, Lisbon and Brussels, my knowledge of both Guinean issues and anthropology in general would be much more limited and much less interesting. The fact that his fieldwork took place among the Bulongic, a group of Baga farmers I could only visit superficially and whose language is completely impenetrable even to other Baga-speaking groups, has greatly improved my knowledge of the whole region and provided me with very interesting comparative insights. In Paris, gratitude goes first and foremost to Roger Botte, without whose encouragement and hints I would never have started to work on coastal Guinea. Marie-Paule Ferry spent hours discussing with me our respective linguistic material on Baga Sitem. The late Father de Banville, who in 1996–7 was in charge of the archives of the Congrégation des Pères du St-Esprit (Chevilly Larue), was an intelligent partner with whom to discuss the material I was consulting, as was his successor Father Vieira. Other French scholars who have helped me at different stages, giving feedback on papers or draft chapters, include Jean-Loup Amselle, Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem and the knowledgeable historian Michel Brot, who guided me through the rich material at the Archives d’Outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence) and through Guinean colonial history. On the other side of the Atlantic, Bruce Mouser read the entire manuscript at a truly incredible speed and made very valuable contributions, as did Mike McGovern, whose landmark work on Guinea and perceptive views on recent Guinean history, and on political anthropology in general, have been of the greatest importance to me. Victoria Coiffam offered very timely advice when we coincided in Chevilly Larue in 1995 and in Conakry in 2001. In Barcelona, Joan Bestard, Josep M. Casasús and Xavier Barnadas were very supportive and critical readers, as were (equally supportive, though less critical) my parents Artur and Irene. I also thank Professor Ferran Iniesta for inviting me to participate in his research project on democratisation in



Africa, thanks to which I could fund two months of fieldwork in 2003, and to CIRIT, who funded my initial fieldwork in 1993–5. The final manuscript has been written at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. I am grateful for many comments on the late versions by my colleagues João Pina-Cabral, João Vasconcelos, José Mapril, Ruy Blanes, Susana Viegas and Wilson Trajano Filho. I also thank the Institute of Social Sciences for human and financial support, and for allowing me to conduct fieldwork in Guinea in 2003. And I thank Ezequiel Correia for the preparation of the maps. Preparing this edition for the International African Library has been a big challenge, and the very prudent and careful advice, criticism and suggestions of the series editor, Professor John Peel, are fully acknowledged. Benjamin F. Soares and Louis Brenner were, as I later learned, the two anonymous readers of the manuscript I first submitted. I could not have hoped for two more helpful readers, who prompted me to great lengths of clarification and improvement in a very demanding and at the same time constructive way. Mike Kirkwood, copy-editor for the International African Institute, has offered excellent help, going well beyond the call of duty in the preparation of the final manuscript. Of course the usual disclaimers apply. Last, and probably first, it is my pleasure to express my gratitude to Marina P. Temudo, who not only read every single chapter as many times as I wrote it, but on many occasions helped me express my own ideas in sharper ways than initially occurred to me. More importantly, she came to Guinea in 2003 and, as an accomplished ethno-agronomist specialised in the rice-farming communities of Coastal West Africa (mostly those of GuineaBissau), she helped me design the last interviews and surveys and corrected misconceptions I had built up over the years. The argument presented in this book would not look very similar to the one the reader is going to read without her input, both during fieldwork and while I was writing up the final version. I hope that by dedicating this work to her I may start to express my gratitude for her presence in this study and in my life.

1 about the author

Ramon Sarró read social anthropology at University College London (PhD 1999). In 2000–2 he was the Ioma Evans-Pritchard Junior Research Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Since 1992 he has conducted extensive field research in Guinea. His other works include Learning Religion: Anthropological Approaches (with David Berliner). He is based at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, where he leads a European (NORFACE) project on African Christianities in Europe.

1 glossary

a n o t e o n o r t h o g r a p hy

In order to make this book more fluent for English readers not familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, I have used an approximate spelling of Baga Sitem words and names of places using the Latin alphabet. I ask the reader to meet me half-way in one respect: the letter c in Baga Sitem words is to be pronounced as the English ch (in ‘chat’). In this glossary, however, I include, in brackets, the correct pronunciation using the following symbols from the International Phonetics Alphabet:

Consonants k – voiceless velar stop, as ‘c’ in English ‘car’ or ‘k’ in ‘okey’ c – alveo-palatal voiceless affricate: as ‘ch’ in English ‘chat’ ŋ – velar nasal, as ‘ng’ in English ‘sing’ The other symbols used for consonants (‘p’, ‘f’, ‘t’, etc.) are pronounced as in the usual Latin alphabet, except for the symbol ‘gb’ in the word gbenka, which in Baga Sitem is one single plosive consonant with double articulation.

Vowels In the Baga Sitem language, eight vowels are regularly noted (Ganong 1998: 11–12): i ə u

e ε


o ɔ

ə (schwa) – high central unrounded vowel i – high front unrounded vowel u – high back rounded vowel e – mid front unrounded vowel o – mid back rounded vowel ε – low front unrounded vowel ɔ – low back rounded vowel a – low central unrounded vowel

The language spoken by Baga Sitem, called by its speakers ‘cəbaka cətem’, is a Niger-Congo language with noun classes. In general, when using the plural I have followed Baga Sitem rules (thus, I write one abanka, ‘ward’, but


the politics of religious change

several cibanka, ‘wards’). Yet I have not applied this rule when speaking of ‘Baga’, ‘Fula’, ‘Bulongic’, ‘Malinké’, ‘Susu’, or any other ethnic group wellknown to the English readership, whose plural forms may be constructed in many different ways, according to the grammar of each language. In some rare instances, when introducing terms from different languages, I have constructed the plural simply by adding an ‘s’ at the end, as other authors working on the same region have done before me. glossar y of ter ms used in this book

Singular/Plural [Phonetic]


abanka/cibanka [abanka/cәbanka] abol [abol] acol/col [acɔl/cɔl] acen/cen [acen/cen] afan [afan] amanco/manco [amanco/manco] amanco ngopong [amanco ŋɔpɔŋ] ane [anε; contraction of ana ε] aparan/aparanga [aparan/aparaŋa] antof/ntof [antɔf/ntɔf] ateken [atεkәn] atof/tof [atɔf/tɔf] capafo [capafɔ] dacar [dacar] dare/sidare [dare/sәdare] Dabaka [dabaka] dalε/sәdalε [dalε/sәdalε] defi [defi] derem [dεrәm] deser [deser] dimba/sidimba [dәmba/sәmba] dinda [dәnda] dukulum/sukulum [dәkulum/   sәkulum] dim/sim [dim/sim] dim din [dim din] fum/afum [afum/fum]

ward; courtyard a female spirit and a male cult around it medicine; ritual object dog sacred wood spirit in charge of a ‘spirit province’ or of a region within it male initiatory spirit, also known as kakilambe (its Susu name) who grandfather (in some villages, aparen) earth a cult for married women territory hidden or indirect speech; the skill of speaking about something through allegories and metaphors slavery village the place where the Baga people live rice field death oath; contract with a spirit witchcraft a headdress; also known as nimba there bush voice one voice; consensus person


gbenka [gbεnka] kanu/canu [kanu/canu] kel/cel [kel/cel] keleser [kәlәsәr] kesoto [kәsɔtɔ] kibere [kәbεrε] kiderem [kәdεrәm] kides [kәdәs] kides wube [kәdәs wәbε] kikenc [kәkәŋc] kidi [kәdi] kidi molom [kәdi molom] kile/cile [kilε/cilε ] kilop [kәlop] kicere [kәcәrε] kicerene [kәcәrεnε] kitam [kәtam] kiyi [kәyi] kiyi de [kәyi dε] kor/cor [kor/cor] kop/cop [kɔp/cɔp] kibok [kәbok] kele/cele [kεlε/cεlε] kilo/wolo [kәlɔ/wɔlɔ] kilo disre/wolo disre   [kәlɔ disrε/wɔlɔ disrε] kilo kupong/wolo wopong   [kәlɔ kәpɔŋ/wɔlɔ wɔpɔŋ] kinger (kәŋεr) kifontre [kifәntәrε] kilip [kәlip] kipise [kәpisε] kiserε kiyo [kәyɔ] komne [komnε] kota [kɔta] kosu


a young men’s cult god hoe to break up; to destroy to obtain to enter to make a contract; to swear an oath to settle; to ask someone to sit down ‘to settle a chief’, a crowning ceremony for colonial (and probably precolonial) chiefs to circumcise; initiation dance to eat initiation (literally: ‘to eat secrets’) work group strangler fig (Ficus spp.) to know to know each other to be able to; to be stronger than to be to be there; to exist; to be alive belly; patrilineal descent group plough to cry; to wail granary house; patrilineal descent group patrilineal descent group (literally: ‘inside the house’) oldest house of each descent group and ritual centre of the group (literally: ‘big house’) to close; the ritual actions glossed as the ‘closing of the earth’ to go to bed to finish to dance; dance to be a wuser to have; to do a children’s male cult (Susu borrowing) a specific object of item of knowledge held as a private (or family) ‘secret’ our


the politics of religious change

kusunka/cisunka (kusunka/cәsunka) doorway; patrilineal descent group kusumpur to catch, to seize teleng/meleng [teleŋ/meleŋ] song tes/mes [tes/mes] thing, deed malo [malɔ] rice malo mabaka [malɔ mabaka] floating rice (literally: ‘Baga rice’ or ‘rice of the Baga’) mangrove swamp rice (literally: ‘rice malo madale [malɔ madalε] of the rice fields’) mes mabaka [mes mabaka] ‘the things/deeds of the Baga’, i.e., Baga history and customs moko [mɔkɔ] today ncoko/anco [ncɔkɔ/ancɔ] mother’s brother nde [nde] over there ngonk/yonk [ŋɔnk/yɔnk] spirit nɔ here nonofor [nɔnɔfɔr] pity; sympathy powolsene/yowolsene toy   [pɔwɔlsεnε/yɔwɔlsεnε] somptup the name amanco ngopong receives in some villages tewe/mewe [tewe/mewe] name; reputation tolom/molom [tolom/molom] secret; mask; pain; cult tonkure [tonkurε] a young men’s cult wan/awut [wan/awut] child wan wurkun [wan wәrkun] boy wan wuran [wan wәran] girl weker/ceker [wεkәr/ cεkәr] monkey wube/abe [wәbε/abε] chief wubakcerne/abakcerne landlord   [wәbakәcәrnε/abakәcәrnε] wucar/acar [wәcar/acar] slave wucikra/acikra [wәcәkra/wәcәkra] stranger, visitor wuder/ader newcomer wufo wubaka/afo abaka ‘non-Baga’ (expression used by   [wufɔ wubaka/afɔ abaka] elders to refer to non-initated younger people) wuka dotof/aka dotof native to a village (as opposed to   [wuka dɔtɔf/aka dɔtɔf] wuder and wucikra) wumen/amen [wәmεn/amεn] ritual specialist who counteracts the evil actions of the wuser wuran/aran [wәran/aran] woman wurkifin/arkifin [wәrkifin/arkifin] spirit (different to ngonk)


wurkun/arkun [wәrkun/arkun] wurok/arok [wәrok/arok] wulipne/alipne [wәlipnε/alipnε] wutem/atem [wәtem/atem] wutemp/atemp [wәtεmp/atεmp] wuser/aser [wuser/aser]


man sister’s son elderly man who has completed the initiation cycle (literally: ‘he who has finished’) old man young, unmarried man witch

Map 1 West Africa

Young girl playing with a Dimba dacol headdress

A revolution can demolish cathedrals, but one cannot see how it will deter children from playing with marbles. (Griaule 1938: 2)

1 Introduction: cassava fields, sacred woods

And, thus, inhabited ruins take on this problematic, uneasy, sometimes unbearable aspect of being places from where life has been withdrawn and that, however, appear as places and frameworks of a life. Georg Simmel, ‘The Ruins’1 on r uins and landscape

In 1993 I was walking with my friend Lamin around his native village in Guinea when he pointed towards a cassava field and said: ‘And this is where our sacred wood used to be.’ ‘Used to be?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it was here that we used to do the initiations into manhood, but Asekou, a Susu man, cleared it in 1957; he put an end to our custom.’ It was this comment that triggered my interest in the iconoclastic movement. Lamin was a Baga man, a member of that Guinean group of coastal rice farmers who carved a series of famous objects that we in the West consider beautiful ‘African art’: the nimba or dimba (Figure 1.1), the dimba dacol (Frontispiece, p. xix), the banda headdresses, the acol or elek figurines, or the serpentine bansonyi. Baga material culture, well represented in Western museums since the turn of the twentieth century, was at the forefront of the interest in non-Western art characteristic of many modernist European artists: both Picasso and Matisse, for instance, owned pieces from this Guinean group.2 However, what to Western eyes were beautiful works of art were part and parcel of a ‘landscape of fear’, to use Yu-fi Tuan’s apt terminology (Tuan 1979), in the perception of many young Baga men and women. These masks, sculptures and headdresses were in fact steeped in contradiction and an ambivalence common to iconic representations in Africa in general (Goody 1991): they could protect and heal, but they could also punish and kill. Many of us naturally abhor iconoclasm because it entails the destruction of an embodied cultural ‘heritage’, but we must also try to understand the perceptions of those living with these objects. In my research on the iconoclastic movement, I made a conscious effort to listen to the voices of the iconoclasts (including the charismatic leader who started the movement, whom I interviewed several times in 1994), as well as to the voices of those who suffered their violent attacks and who hid objects away from them.


the politics of religious change

Figure 1.1 Dimba headdress (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Tolkoc, Guinea, 2001) on african religion and iconoclasm

Lamin’s reference to a religious movement in which Baga people destroy sacred woods and ritual objects should not surprise us too much. Many of the African religious movements appearing throughout colonial and post-colonial times were initiated by charismatic leaders who, in the name of a monotheistic creed, persuaded people to destroy objects attached to non-Christian or non-Muslim practices. The destruction of such objects became a symbolic and integral part of the cleansing of society and the creation of a new social, religious and political order. Unlike other forms of iconoclasm in which people destroyed images because they represented a spiritual reality that ought not to be represented at all, in most African iconoclastic movements images were destroyed because of what they made present: because they materialised invisible forces that maintained social control and oppressed people.3 Normally, and certainly among Baga, these iconoclastic movements sought to destroy the power of elderly ‘big men’, and they mobilised groups of youths, women and strangers to accomplish their aims. Maybe the uniqueness of the case analysed here is that this was a religious iconoclasm that paved the way for an overtly political one. In 1956/7, when it took place, Guinea was still a French colony. From 1958 to 1984, however, Guinea was ruled by a modernising socialist regime which prohibited past religious practices and organised demystification campaigns to suppress any possible return to the old, ‘irrational’ religion.

introduction: cassava fields, sacred woods


The literature on African religious innovation and religious movements (millenarian, prophetic or revivalist orientations are common, but many others have been studied) has been huge. In colonial times, movements like the one we meet in this study were common across the continent, and they have drawn the attention of researchers at least since the days when Audrey I. Richards and M. G. Marwick worked on the modernity of anti-witchcraft cults in Central Africa (Richards 1935; Marwick 1950). Then came more ambitious articles on the politics of prophetism and millenarianism such as those by Roger Bastide (1961), George Balandier (1953, 1955) or Thomas Hodgkin (1970). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African prophetic, anti-witchcraft and revivalist movements, together with Melanesian Cargo cults and American prophetic movements, were systematically studied by scholars; the intention was to build a body of theoretical work on the relationship between colonial oppression and religious innovation (Köbben 1958; Lanternari 1960; Thrupp 1962; Queiroz 1968; for a specific survey of African cases, see Barrett 1968). Several detailed case studies also shed light on these new religious manifestations. In the African continent, studies such as John Peel’s Aladura (Peel 1968), James Fernandez’s Bwiti (1982) or Wyatt MacGaffey’s work on Kimbanguism (1983) showed us different ways in which Africans enduring harsh colonial rule used their religious imagination to create a ‘space in which to meaningfully dwell’, to borrow an expression from historian of religions J. Z. Smith.4 Together with these in-depth case studies, several reviews appeared that tried to make sense of the impressive data now available by suggesting theoretical angles from which the diversity of religious innovation in Africa might be studied (see, for example, Dozon 1974; Balandier 1976; Fernandez 1978; MacGaffey 1981). Probably the major problem with the literature on religious movements was the very concept of religious movement, which somehow suggested that African religious cultures could be neatly divided into traditional ones (best studied under a Durkheiman lens) and ‘new’ ones, mostly created by charismatic leaders and of a prophetic nature (for which Max Weber clearly offered a more fruitful approach). The latter included movements that were a ‘consequence’ of, or a reaction to, colonial oppression. This divide was seriously questioned by several authors. In 1972 Terence Ranger and Isaria Kimambo edited a collection in which the authors argued that African religion in general had to be studied historically and, more importantly, that it would be methodologically naïve to assume that only under direct colonialism did Africans think of rebellion or protest; accordingly they offered a wider picture of revolutionary action through religion, beyond the purely anti-colonial aspect of it. This text was followed by a long and well-received article – perhaps not as influential but certainly as deep – in which historian Yves Person (Person 1973) criticised the ahistorical aspect of most studies


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of African traditional religions. In 1976 Willy de Craemer, Jan Vansina and Renée C. Fox wrote a seminal article arguing that the manifestations known as African religious movements, which according to most anthropologists at the time were typical of the colonial situation, were not as new as such views assumed. As far as Central Africa was concerned, there was good evidence that socio-religious movements of the kind described existed in pre-colonial times too (de Craemer, Vansina and Fox 1976). A second problem with the study of innovation in Africa was its tendency to see religion as a liberatory practice or a result of the modernisation of African societies. To see religious movements, especially those born around charismatic leaders, as liberatory appeals to many scholars and is usually a fair assumption about the nature of such movements: thus the importance of religion is unmistakable in many of the essays in the volume on protest and power in sub-Saharan Africa edited by Robert I. Rotberg and Ali A. Mazrui (Rotberg and Mazrui 1970); in that on the colonial situation edited by Immanuel Wallerstein (1966); or, more recently, in the review of sources on rural protest written by Allen Isaacman (1990).Yet this tendency has two pitfalls. First, it does not account for the fact that although in colonial times religious movements were mushrooming across the continent, the African religious imagination – including charismatic trends – is proving equally inventive now that we are no longer living in the colonial situation: this has led authors to look for alternative interpretations beyond the ‘religion of the oppressed’ and modernisation theories in order to account for it (see Ranger 1986 for a thorough, if now dated, review of alternatives). Second, the obsession with the liberating element of religion in colonial times risked – as do many of the authors working on contemporary religious trends – displacing attention away from the religious. A Mozambican student of mine expressed this in a tutorial a few weeks ago: why is it that students of African religion, he asked, are always trying to say that religion is about something else, and not about people’s beliefs, emotions, convictions, transformations and world-views? This risk has also been signalled by John Peel in the introduction to his work on the encounter between Yoruba and Christians (Peel 2000: 2–9). A study of African religion must keep the religious at the centre of the analysis, while of course incorporating the historical, social and political elements. The literature on religious innovation in Africa has probably been more attentive to the impact of Christian-oriented religious movements, one more indication of that invisibility of Islam in Western accounts of African religion recently denounced by Robert Launay (2006). Yet a significant literature also exists on movements oriented towards religious revitalisation from a Muslim perspective, whether they address the renovation/‘purification’ of the creed or (if only in popular perception) the liberation of colonised Africans. In West Africa, the interface between Islamic renewal and the

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politics of liberation goes back to the jihads of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which gave rise to some pre-colonial communities (for general overviews of these jihads, see Last 1974; Robinson 2000). As we shall see in this study, the movement instigated by Asekou Sayon was perceived (by himself and by those who followed him or were persecuted by him) as a jihad, and was indeed one of the last efforts to incorporate into a Muslim community a region (the coast of today’s Guinea) against which previous similar campaigns had been launched, never entirely successfully.5 In late colonial times the potential of Islam to articulate protest was well known to administrators and to scholars. Pierre Alexandre wrote an article on Hamallism (Alexandre 1970a), a reformist movement within the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood that particularly worried the French colonialists and about which there exists a large literature (see, especially, Soares 2005). French scholars and administrators, particularly fearful of Islam, wrote extensively on the ‘danger’ of this religion and its capacity to mobilise people – even if, paradoxically, they also knew they had to rely on Islam in order to administer the colonies (a good review of the attitudes of early French colonialists, written by one of them, is to be found in Gouilly 1952: 247–66; more recent works on this theme will be invoked in different parts of this study). In 1954 the French administrator Marcel Cardaire wrote a short study of different Muslim movements born under colonial circumstances, several of which are similar to the movement around Asekou Sayon (Cardaire 1954). That many of the Muslim movements arising in colonial times were iconoclastic towards non-Muslim shrines and objects is explicit in some of the literature (Froelich 1966; Royer 1999) and, given the general attitude of Islam towards images, logically to be suspected in many of the movements referred to in other sources. However, despite the material destruction they often entailed, African religious movements, far too often studied as ‘anti-witchcraft’ cults, have rarely been seen from the iconoclastic, heritage-destroying angle (notable exceptions include Janzen’s (1971) studies of Kongo religious renewal). This, as Zoe Strother recently pointed out to me (personal communication, December 2005), has restricted Africa’s presence in wider discussions of iconoclasm and destruction of objects, a trend that is only recently being reversed as more African case studies appear in general books on iconoclasm (Strother 2002; Sarró 2002, 2007). Prior to this, in his study on Christianoriented prophetic movements in Côte d’Ivoire, Jean-Pierre Dozon (1995) offered one of the deepest theoretical analyses of iconoclastic politics in West Africa, one that has greatly influenced my own way of thinking about the relationship between iconoclastic fanaticism and public sphere making. What makes the revolt instigated by Asekou Sayon stand out, then, is not its iconoclastic form, its political dimension or its religious innovation – all common to so many social movement in late colonial times – but its precise

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timing: the fact that this was a religious iconoclasm that paved the way for an overtly political one, namely President Sékou Touré’s ‘demystification’ policies (1958–84) as well as his land reforms that took land from Baga to be claimed by Susu (previously the ‘strangers’ of Baga ‘landlords’). But of course this event also enforces attention because colonial Baga were so famous for their rich religious and ritual culture: iconoclasm has thus meant a rupture in the knowledge chain and in perceptions of pastness, a theme in the work of most scholars dealing with Baga issues over the last twelve years (Lamp 1996a, 1996b; Curtis 1996; Sarró 1999; Fields 2001; Berliner 2002b; Akré 2005). The work of these authors dovetails well with research done in other parts of Guinea (Højbjerg 2002, 2007; McGovern 2004), which also shows that the effects of ‘demystificatory’ socialist policies upon societies previously based on ritual initiations have made of the Republic of Guinea a special case, one in which iconoclasm became crucial in the making of the modern state and its citizens. the living space as a remote area

Buscas en Roma a Roma, ¡oh peregrino! Y en Roma misma a Roma no la hallas6 Quevedo

Lamin’s introduction to Baga territory and religious history was interesting for several reasons. First, in 1957, when the events he referred to took place, Lamin was only three or four years old, and therefore did not remember these events very well, if at all.Yet in 1993 he knew exactly where the ‘sacred bush’ was, even if by that time it had become a cassava field. Second, the very transformation of the infamous wood into a productive cassava field epitomises the kind of ‘rationalising’ transformation that the landscape suffered as a consequence of the 1957 iconoclastic movement and the policies of the subsequent political regime. And, third, Lamin got Asekou’s ethnicity wrong. Asekou Sayon was not a Susu man, but a Malinké (and so from much farther away), but in today’s memory this is not relevant: for Baga, Susu has become almost a synonym of ‘stranger’, and what really matters now is the stranger factor in the movement. Finally, Lamin’s comment was the first step in my learning to observe Baga landscape with ‘second sight’: from that day onwards, I had to look at a cassava field and see an elders’ wood; to look at the present and see the past; and to be aware that, as an elderly Baga man once told me, whatever appears immediately in front of our eyes is deceitful – truth always lags behind. The trick, in fact, is not to look at a cassava field and see an elders’ wood, but to perceive the elders’ wood and the cassava field simultaneously, to see one without losing hold of the other. Lamin went on to deplore the lack of the ‘sacred bush’ in question, explaining to me that, in the days when Baga were governed by custom, everything was much better and all Baga were connected to one another in a

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large, invincible community. Like many other Guinean friends, my nostalgic interlocutor was implying that had I visited Guinea in ­pre-iconoclastic times I would have known Baga in their full sense and I would have been amazed at the richness and coherence of their culture and social institutions. Today, this line of reasoning continues, Baga live in a landscape profoundly transformed by iconoclasm, one in which it is unfortunately too late to study ‘true’ Baga culture. This was a constant impression I gained from my initial period of fieldwork: I was there, in the Dabaka (as Baga speakers call their territory, but not only the territory, for the Dabaka is also a space with no neat boundaries), but the real Dabaka was elsewhere. Where exactly? I could never quite figure this out. Sometimes I thought it was only in people’s imagination, in their memories and their representations of the past. At other times I was given hints that it was there, inside some ritual houses, in some woods I could not enter, in discussions from which I was excluded, in sacrifices to which I was not invited. In any case, it was not in the phenomenal world that I could perceive through my five senses. The ‘real’ Dabaka was kept remote from me, as well as from most of my Baga friends. Perhaps the most wonderful example is this one: in 2003 I interviewed an old man in a village I know very well. Because I knew that some ten years earlier the youths of the village had made a football pitch in precisely the spot where the sacred wood was located in the past, I asked him about his feelings when confronted with this encroachment by the youths on previously consecrated space. He did not seem very worried: ‘The youths think that this is where our sacred wood was located; but in fact the most important part of the sacred wood remains intact: it was not quite there, but a few metres beyond today’s pitch’, he clarified, with a proud laugh and using an ideophone: ‘Bafo dinda, nde!’ (Not there, over there!).7 On another occasion, the same man was talking to me about the river separating two ‘spirit provinces’ (a concept that will be clarified in Chapter 2) and the way the spirit of the water had to be summoned by male ritual specialists of the two provinces on celebratory occasions. To the best of my knowledge, the stretch of river he was referring to had become the sacred place of a female cult. When I asked him how he felt about the fact that women had occupied a men’s ritual place (not an uncommon consequence of the iconoclastic movement), he replied in a similar way and with the same ironic ideophone: bafo dinda, nde! The precise place where the water spirit lived (and, to be sure, lives) was not quite where women of today take their ritual bath, but a bit further up the river. Through this, and hundreds of similar examples, I realised that the Dabaka was not only being kept remote from me, but that keeping it remote was a very valuable ability and probably the only way, paradoxical as it may sound, to keep it somehow present. Indeed I realised that the question of whether it was there, hidden some-


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where, or completely destroyed by the iconoclasts, was not only a nagging doubt of mine but also a lively – and unresolved – topic of debate among Baga themselves. ‘Dabaka de yi de’ (Dabaka is here), said someone; ‘Dabaka delece’ (Dabaka is broken up), said someone else. Sometimes the interviewee could say one thing now and the opposite a few minutes later. In any case everybody seemed convinced enough that, if it existed, it existed only in concealment: the debate used to be about the capacity or lack of capacity of Baga to bring it back to light. ‘Dabaka is there,’ said an old man one day, ‘we are just waiting for the right conditions to make things be like before again.’ Like before … and how was this Dabaka so rich, so coherent, and so full of meaning, objects, sacred woods, palm wine, and rice for everybody? Sometimes I gave in to my own researcher’s melancholy: why wasn’t I old enough to have gone to Guinea to do fieldwork in the first half of the twentieth century instead of at the end of the millennium? Here I have been using the concept of remoteness in a phenomenological sense, following Edwin Ardener’s concept of a ‘remote area’ even if in some respects I have adapted his insights. Ardener defined such an area as a place that is imagined before it is made accessible to the senses (Ardener 1987). Places like ‘the Antipodes’, the ‘Island Brazil’ or ‘Ethiopia’ were imaginary places, remote to our senses, even if some of them were later converted into places of geographical concreteness. In this phenomenological usage, ‘remoteness’ has little or nothing to do with geographical distance. Remoteness is a fiction, an ‘as-if’ world constructed through mastery of the verbal arts. It gives the impression that things (or reality) are not quite there but elsewhere. Remoteness is, in fact, the consequence of the adequate performance of secrecy, a successful performance that renders the lived world of the Baga at once there and not quite there. The Upper Guinea Coast is indeed famous for being a region of secrecy and impenetrable initiation cults. First and foremost, the region in its largest sense houses the poro and sande, two institutions that have become paradigmatic of West African ‘secret societies’. The poro and sande complex does not extend to the Baga region, although in the past a common misrepresentation accorded the region a similar secret society known, in Susu, as simo. Frederick Lamp proved this not to be the case when, after researching the poro cultural area, he started to scratch the surface of coastal Guinea and wrote a preliminary essay on Baga art (Lamp 1986). However, apart from such formal institutional links to secrecy, more generally the region is wellknown for the pervasive presence of the arts (material, verbal, political) of dissimulation, and for the accompanying general notions that knowledge is to be secret and that strangers are not to find out the exact nature of the society’s dispositions. The prevalence of such notions has to do, I believe, with the logics of a very complex ritual and political incorporation – described in chapters 3 and 4 for the Baga Sitem case.

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Not surprisingly, then, some of the most innovative recent work on secrecy has been produced by scholars of the Upper Guinea Coast, from Beryl Bellman (1975, 1984) and William Murphy (1980) to more recent contributions such as those by Marianne Ferme (2001), Christian Højbjerg (2007), Eric Gable (1997) or David Berliner (2005b). The points made by these authors are very different, but all would agree that secrecy is a powerful resource linked to hierarchy, age and gender differentiations, to community creation and to the making of powerful spiritual entities and religious knowledge. I think it would be fair to say that all the authors mentioned followed Simmel (1950) in pursuing the sociological dimensions of secrecy, its interactive and knowledge-generating nature, and resisting an obsession with what (if anything) is being kept secret. I also think it would be fair to all of them to say that they are describing techniques of ­dissimulation that ultimately consist of creating remoteness: the feeling that things are not as they appear and that the real ground is elsewhere: behind what we see (as Baga often told me) or underneath it, to cite the epistemological claim of Mende-speaking peoples of Sierra Leone that provides the title for Mariane Ferme’s ethnography (Ferme 2001). In any case, bafo dinda, nde! Maybe the most telling example of the interactive nature of secrecy was provided in 1993 by Albert, a local historian. Later he was, and still is, a very helpful and trustworthy interlocutor – but it took me almost two years to gain his trust. In the beginning he was very distant and off-putting. I first met him in 1993, when I had just settled in a Baga village. He came to me and said: ‘Ah, you are the anthropologist, I’ve heard about you. I feel sorry for you. You came here to obtain information, but Baga are very secretive and you will not get away with it. For instance: have you already learnt what the word baga means?’ ‘No,’ I answered, stung by the realisation that I had never given any thought to the etymology or meaning of baga. ‘Well, you will never do,’ he said, and walked away. Needless to say I felt desperate and discouraged (this was not the only off-putting interaction I remember in my early days of fieldwork; there were all too many of them). For a long time I interpreted the words of Albert and his attitude as an explicit repellent, which in many ways they were. Yet they were also part of a strategy to create a mystique, a ‘secretion’ of secrecy, as Andras Zempléni (1976, 1983) would have it, meant to convince me that there was something about Baga that remained hidden and remote.8 Because of that, of course, it was also an invitation to keep learning – hard as that would be. My later interactions with Albert have been kinder and smoother, but learning with him has always been ‘edification through puzzlement’, to use Fernandez’s phrase (1986).


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e t h n o g r a p hy a s t h e a r t o f b e i n g l a t e

I often wondered whether the feelings of belatedness and remoteness I was commenting upon were especially characteristic of my own fieldwork, or if they were more generally related to Africa’s recent history and the way in which we, as anthropologists, approach it. After several years of turning this issue over in my mind, I was pleased to have the opportunity in April 2000 to discuss the topic with Eric Gable. Gable had dealt with a similar concern in his study on the Manjaco of Guinea Bissau (Gable 1990, 1995). ‘Being late’, he had written, was a built-in characteristic of ethnography (Gable 1990: 12); it had been a ‘problem’ for Evans-Pritchard, whose book on Zande witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1937) was simultaneously a work on how witchcraft worked in the author’s ethnographic present of the early 1920s, and how it had worked before the whole political system and settlement patterns of the Azande people had been brought to an abrupt conclusion by Anglo-Egyptian colonialists in 1905. Today, anthropologists are still bemused by the constant confrontation, evident in interviewees’ responses, between the seemingly incoherent world of the present and a fully integrated world vividly present in people’s imagining. In my case, this was exacerbated by the tendency of many interviewees to open their answers to my questions with a formulaic: ‘When this was the Dabaka …’ or ‘When we were Baga …’, as though I was asking not about them, but about an ideal world that they invariably projected onto the past. The fact that they had gone through an iconoclastic movement precisely at the juncture between colony and post-colony (the movement took place in 1956–7; Guinea became independent in 1958) made the transition between ‘before’ and ‘after’ very distinct in people’s memories. Once the initial feeling of ‘too-bad-I-came-too-late’ has been overcome, one realises that being late, apart from the epistemological awkwardness of the concept, has, if taken literally, some distinct advantages: it helps to put things in perspective and to situate the present in relation to things that happened a long time ago. I went to Africa willing to do a study on how Baga people lived today, but with Lamin’s reference to the cassava field/ sacred wood, I soon realised that I would have to situate the living present within myriad references to the past; that my ethnography would have to address not only the way farmers lived today, but also how their living today related to colonial histories and memories. I learned to combine my ethnographic everyday life with an interest in the past: not only with my interest, but also with the fact that people in Guinea have a very historically oriented way of thinking and talking about themselves. They have an interest in their own representations and interpretations of past events. However, I also tried not to gather information on the past so compulsively as to render invisible all that was going on around me. I am reminded here of a situation in the film Men with Guns (John Sayles, USA, 1994). The protagonist, a

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medical doctor, finds refuge from a violent political situation in an unnamed country of Central America within the ruins of an ancient temple. While at the temple, he meets two tourists who explain to him the value temples like this had possessed in the past as places of refuge. Long ago, they explain to him, people built such places in remote highlands and dense forests in order to escape the violence of oppressors. These tourists are enthralled by a pre-European past now made present to them in the form of noble ruins: their infatuation with the search for refuge in an adventurous past leaves them pathetically unaware that the human situation they are describing is as inescapable today. Indeed, they are blind to the social reality that forces an old, worn-out man to hide in the ruins they are walking through and telling him about. Simmel was right: we have some difficulty in accepting that life and ruins may coexist. Who has not gone to a foreign country and become so infatuated with the past as to lose touch with the continuities between past and present? In Quevedo’s pilgrim to Rome or John Sayles’s tourists to Palenque, this may be forgivable. As ethnographers, however, we must read the past with one eye, while keeping the other wide open to the present, noticing the worn-out people hiding in the ruins. We have to combine the knowledge we gather from the past with the experiences we have of the present, so that present situations help us understand the past, and accounts of the past help us understand the lived world we share in the field. In becoming preoccupied with ancient migrations, völkerwanderungen, proto-linguistic groups, pure African varieties of crops (or ethnic groups), and other extremely distant factors that may or may not explain the present Upper Guinea Coast’s social disposition, we risk repeating the mistake of the tourists in Sayles’s film. We may not see, as Marianne Ferme (2001) has warned us in her study on violence in Sierra Leone, that forced movement and refuge searching are not only things of the past, but that they also have their mirror image in today’s real world. Indeed, people today are moving, settling, searching for refuge, escaping injustices, creating new languages, inventing communities, and looking for new crops, just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Most probably, they are doing these things for similar reasons: because they are human and want to create a world in which to meaningfully dwell. landlords, citizens and iconoclasts: introducing t h e a c t o r s a n d t h e e ve n t s

The main theme of this study is the relationship between iconoclasm and political transformation. Iconoclasm in the coastal regions of Guinea, marginal to Islamic centres such as the Fouta Djallon or the Mande states in the hinterland, goes back a long way. We have evidence of religious movements with an iconoclastic element among coastal farmers from the early


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twentieth century. In this study, however, I focus on a later example: that which took place between 1956 and 1957, and was started by the Muslim preacher Asekou Sayon among Baga people and, particularly, among Baga Sitem, the ethno-linguistic sub-group among whom I lived. This iconoclastic movement resulted in the abandonment of customary initiation and other mechanisms of religious learning. In pre-colonial and colonial times, Baga rice farmers were, from a strictly religious point of view, conspicuously non-Muslim and they were known for their rich ritual life and associations (sometimes referred to in the literature as ‘secret societies’), most of them linked to unique forms of art and material culture. There are disagreements in the sources about the political structure in pre-French times. Some indicate that Baga were acephalous, while others seem to suggest that they had chiefs appointed by land-owning descent groups. Probably, I shall argue, the reality was an oscillation between these two modes of political organisation. What seems clear from oral history and regional comparison is that the prevailing system was based on what I call here an asymmetric settlement pattern, according to which groups of putative ‘first arrivals’ (although this is a manipulable category) accumulated more land, people and power than those considered ‘late arrivals’. Whatever the case, after 1886 Baga were ruled by a chief appointed by the French, sometimes referred to in colonial sources as the ‘Baga king’. In 1922, the French created a ‘Canton Baga’ and until 1958 they continued to appoint elders to be ‘traditional’ or ‘customary’ chiefs of the canton. The institution of traditional chieftaincy as promoted by French administrators soon became tyrannical. It reified notions of gerontocracy, patriarchy and ethnic territory that most likely had had a long history in the Upper Guinea Coast, yet never been as rigidly applied as in colonial times, when they were sanctioned and enforced by French laws and officers. Under this regime, youths had to work hard at ‘customary’ celebrations of marriages, funerals and initiations, as well as the visitations of chiefs and colonial officials. For youths, Baga ‘custom’ became increasingly oppressive: not only were they required to tap massive amounts of palm wine for all the celebrations, but they were also subject to forced labour, ‘rice campaigns’ and other abuses that were channelled through the customary chiefs and therefore perceived – and today remembered – as part of ‘Baga custom’. Under French rule Baga were closed in on themselves in their Canton Baga, which effectively worked both as a magnifying lens and as a fence: it amplified the local reality and prevented the entry of other forces, particularly those of Islam, which since the early twentieth century had become a strong alternative voice in many other Guinean cantons. Traditional rituals legitimating the status quo in which chiefs and their relatives were able to enrich themselves and oppress the youths were clearly protected by the French colonialists, who were particularly worried about the anti-colonial content of some varieties of Islam. Interestingly,

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among Baga Sitem, Catholicism became an unexpected ally of ‘tradition’. Many land-owning elders converted to Christianity in order to articulate an opposition to Islam, the strongest critical voice against tradition, palm-wine drinking, secret cults and unfair chiefs to be heard in the colonies. After the Second World War, a fresh wind was felt all around French West Africa; and from 1946 the anti-colonial movement Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) fought for the full citizenship of Africans, as promised by de Gaulle at the Conference of Brazzaville (1944). Although in the beginning the RDA had links with European left-wing parties, in some parts of West Africa it was to find that Islam was a dependable medium through which to propagate anti-colonial messages (Morgenthau 1964: 237; Schmidt 2005). In much of West Africa, Islam became a strong agent in the modernising and opening up of villages. Its followers proclaimed the establishment of a community based on universal values and denounced unfair chieftaincies as well as all those ‘customs’ that were keeping Africa backward: alcohol, masks, ritual elders and secret societies. Committees of the RDA became, in every Guinean village, a parallel and antagonistic institution to the increasingly obsolete ‘customary chieftaincy’ endorsed by, and in the Baga instance created by, the French. In this volatile situation, in 1956, at the very end of French rule, appeared the iconoclastic jihadist figure of Asekou Sayon. Sayon marked the junction of two eras in Baga history, and he is remembered as an agent of transformation, almost like a ‘trickster’ figure, as Charles Jedrej kindly pointed out to me, thus suggesting the title of one of my chapters. Sayon was a Muslim missionary, a witch-finder, a fetish destroyer, an RDA sympathiser, a dissatisfied people’s leader. Almost immediately following the work of this influential jihadist, President Sékou Touré deployed the state in a forceful campaign to establish the reality of a Guinean national identity and to ban regional forms of either ethnic or religious identity (it was only possible to be Guinean and Muslim, although local forms of Christianity were also accepted, as long as they were not under foreign missionary control). Given changes in land tenure regulations under the socialist regime and the fact that they were actually outnumbered by Susu and other people they had long considered to be their guests and strangers, Baga found themselves in a situation in which they were no longer the landlords of Canton Baga, or of any ethnic territory for that matter. For all that, the deeds of Sayon, which overlapped with Sékou Touré’s policies, are recalled today as a turning point in the history of Baga. His movement was a complex one within which religious, political and other agendas were being pursued. It was ‘destructive’ in that it brought about the end of some rituals and of the religious identity linked to them. The sites of ritual woods were now to harbour Muslim mosques, modern schools or plantations. However, it was also a ‘constructive’ movement in that it contributed to the creation of a Guinean space; it was a shared experience


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that articulated people’s action against colonialists in those promising and enthusiastic days of positive decolonisation. Little did Guinean citizens know that the public space they were building together through iconoclastic movements, decolonising religions and anti-colonialist political parties was to become the oppressive setting they would have to endure for 26 years until Sékou Touré’s death in 1984. Against the background of Sékou Touré’s repressive regime, Guinean society after the installation of the Second Republic by President Lansana Conté in 1984 (and the Third Republic in 1994, again with Lansana Conté as President) displayed a striking trend towards democratisation and decentralisation. What I experienced in Guinea in the 1990s was the engagement of specific ethnic groups in the reappropriation of what they perceived as their own cultural heritages. Many of them were publicly resuming the initiations and other rituals which had been banned under Sékou Touré’s policy of repressing cultural particularism and ‘irrational’ religious practices. In the 1990s Baga were undoubtedly one of the groups eager to express their cultural difference by any possible means in the new political ambience. However, the specific question as to whether they were engaged in what we could call a cultural ‘revitalisation’ is a complicated one. Concepts of Baga culture are hotly contested, not only among researchers but also among Baga villagers. What may seem to some a sign of ‘revitalisation’ – the creation of a folkloric troupe to perform ‘traditional’ dances for tourists, say – may to others be an indication of ‘cultural loss’. A word of caution needs to be voiced about the application of the concept of ‘revitalisation’ to the reintroduction of practices that have been out of use for a fair period of time. Despite its frequent mention in anthropology, ‘revitalisation’ is a problematic concept. Anthony Wallace, who coined the term ‘revitalisation movement’, defined it as ‘a conscious, organised effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture’ (Wallace 1956: 265). In many cases, this effort implies a rupture with the past and an engagement with new practices such as literacy or conversion to universal religions, rather than the reactivation of abandoned indigenous rituals or beliefs. Despite its destructive aims, Asekou Sayon’s jihad and the rejection of the past that it entailed could probably be regarded as a genuine revitalisation movement in a strictly Wallaceian view, and so could the engagement of today’s Baga youths with Catholicism and new forms of popular culture. Today, however, there is an increasing tendency to use ‘revitalisation’ to express exclusively the resumption or reinvention of native practices that have been neglected, banned or forgotten. In the view of the Swedish scholar Anders Salomonsson, ‘if an isolated object or phenomenon, such as an older dish typical of a certain region, is taken up and used again, this should be viewed as an indication of the revitalisation idea’ (Salomonsson 1984: 34). I think many contemporary anthropologists would agree with

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him without taking into consideration earlier usage in which ‘revitalisation’ meant rather more than the ‘resumption of older cultural features’, this author’s minimal definition of the concept (Salomonsson 1984: 47). This switch in the anthropological application of the concept of ‘revitalisation’ may testify to how movements in search of ‘a more satisfying culture’ in the 1950s and today may differ – and particularly, how local appreciations of the past have changed at a global level during the second half of the twentieth century. In this sense, Baga history, from the jihad in 1956 to the current display of heritage in the ‘carnivals’ discussed in Chapter 8, offers a concrete illustration of a much wider trend in the global politics of culture. Yet, as we shall see, beneath this historical structure, which would regard Baga post-colonial history as a movement from ‘cultural destruction’ to ‘cultural revival’, there are important qualifications to be made: first, Asekou Sayon’s jihad was not as ‘destructive’ as many would think; second, today’s cultural revitalisation is difficult to assess, given the ambiguity of the concept. The conscious recreation and display of tradition, which to some would suggest an index of revitalisation, remains in fact a programme often announced but difficult to implement for reasons discussed in Chapter 7. At the same time, the involvement of Baga elite groups in their native regions and the decreasing strength of the Guinean state are accompanied by the reintroduction of ritual practices and by the reinforcement of village age and power structures. Here we do have a revitalisation, albeit one that is not addressed to external audiences but meant to secure some elementary structures of power and knowledge. As I write these lines the fate of Guinea is becoming more and more compromised. I started my fieldwork in 1993 at a time of optimism, when post-Sékou Touré Guinea was heralded as an example of a successfully democratising West African state, entering the path of liberalism and decentralisation that was characteristic of much African politics across the continent. One of the legacies of the socialist period, often discussed by Guineans and by external analysts alike in those days, was a strong sense of national unity; voices from the midst of crisis in neighbouring Liberia or Sierra Leone seemed to be speaking from another planet. Today, as President Lansana Conté becomes older and his health deteriorates, as the country seems set to inherit the worst legacies of the Sierra Leone and Liberia conflicts, as the indecision about Conté’s succession drags on, and as the state remains unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens, the feeling of uncertainty and of state failure steals up on everyone, from external analysts to local peasants.9 News about communities taking local issues into their own hands and not trusting political institutions is common on the web pages dedicated to contemporary Guinea. This might be seen as a victory of ‘civil society’ over the ‘state’, but not precisely the one happily celebrated or looked forward to


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by theoreticians of civil society in the 1990s. What we have is people doing whatever they think is right to secure their access to land and to cover basic needs. As in other parts of Africa, the failure of the democratisation that promised so much at the end of the Cold War has resulted in a recrudescence of exclusivist ideas and narrowly local policies, a trend discussed by social scientists across the continent.10 African conflicts may take us by surprise, especially in countries that only a few years ago had given the impression that conditions were calm and peaceful – but conflicts do not develop in a vacuum. This is not a study of a conflict situation, and I only witnessed some very isolated cases of violence in my fieldwork in Guinea. Here, however, we will trace a complex genealogy of tensions, some of them linked to status (first-comers vs latecomers; landlords vs strangers) or even to the legacies of slavery; others to access to land, to religious ideologies, to colonial and post-colonial rulers, to ethnic identities or ethnicised differences; and still others to structural gender and above all age differences within local communities. In other parts of the Upper Guinea Coast, especially in the Mano River conflicts (as observers now call the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone), Paul Richards has shown how a dispute over rights to land and resources, combined with a legacy of structural differences among categories of people, can easily lead to a volatile situation in which manipulation by external agents creates a generalised violent conflict (Richards 1996, 2005; Richards et al. 2004). Studies by Marianne Ferme (2001) and Rosalind Shaw (2002) have added ethnographic and historical insights that link the violence of the present to the conflictive histories and socio-political structures of the region. In studying the recent conflict in Guinée Forestière, the rain forest area whose ethnic groups overlap in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Michael McGovern (2004) has shown how the violence in the region, often viewed as ethnic conflict (Loma vs Manya, for example), can be better explained in terms of land access and the instrumentalisation of symbolic cultural resources such as local notions of autochthony and seniority, of ‘wifegiving’ vs ‘wife-taking’ status, of land-owning vs client descent groups, of members of secret societies vs strangers, and so on. The ethnic idiom in which the conflict is normally discussed in Guinea and abroad is not so much the cause as the effect of a violence whose genealogy McGovern traces to colonial and pre-colonial political cultures and to manipulations of notions of local warlordship and local techniques for gathering wealthin-people. Added to that, the modernising socialist ideology of Sékou Touré, with its land tenure, anti-ethnic and anti-religious policies aimed at counter­balancing local political cultures, actually proved more damaging than helpful. This applies to Loma as well as to Baga and probably to many other Guinean people. Of course, I hope to be wrong, but rumours I have heard on many occa-

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sions about hidden guns abounding in coastal Guinea, plus the generalised dissatisfaction I observed among Baga farmers during my recent field trips, together with the land conflicts and hunger they are experiencing, make me fear that this part of Africa may become fertile soil for another violent conflict. So these rumours have also encouraged me to try to make the present study a contribution to the understanding of the historical dimensions of this regional instability. Should we fail to keep an eye open to the past – fail to see the elders’ wood behind the cassava field – this violence would probably appear as one more irrational ‘African’ barbarity. Barbarities there have been in the region, but only by looking at them historically will we be able to discern the different agents involved in their making. Their encounters, their dialogues, their agreements, their disagreements and the historical sedimentation of it all will yield a valuable picture of today’s fragile reality. e t h n o g r a p hy a n d i c o n o c l a s m : a r a s h o m o n i a n v i e w

This study is based on several sources, foremost among them my ethnographic fieldwork among Baga Sitem-speaking people in Guinea. This fieldwork was conducted in 1993–5, with additional short visits in 1996, 1997 and 1999, and two longer visits in 2001 and 2003. Fieldwork involved living in two Baga villages, learning the Baga (Sitem) language, spending a four-month period in Conakry in 1994 working on Baga linguistics at the Centre d’Étude des Langues Guinéennes (created at the University of Conakry by linguist Erhard Voeltz), as well as meeting Asekou Sayon, the man who launched the iconoclastic movement in 1957, and recording his life story in a series of intensive conversations held during those four months in 1994 and some shorter visits one year later. In order to obtain as many testimonies as possible about Sayon’s movement, as well as about colonial, post-colonial and, to a very limited degree, pre-French history, I interviewed a number of people from 18 villages, as well as many others in Conakry. Most were interviewed twice, and some several times. With some of them I developed long relationships and enduring friendships. Several of my interviewees spent whole days with me, not only being interviewed about specific items, but also discussing many things in an informal way after a dish of rice or over a glass of palm wine. Some of these interviewees proved to be more open in my last visits – in 2001 and 2003 – than in previous encounters. Like other peoples of the Upper Guinea Coast, Baga are extremely secretive, and it took me nearly seven months to prepare the ground for proper fieldwork and interviews. My early months in the field consisted primarily of ‘hanging around’, learning the language, talking to people, spending long hours observing rice farming or drinking palm wine, and allowing myself to be the researched rather than the researcher. Doing fieldwork in such circumstances was tiresome


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and even depressing, especially during the early stages. If I may refer to the famous comparison Evans-Pritchard made between the way he was treated by Nuer and Azande (Evans-Pritchard 1940), I would say that methodologically speaking Baga farmers reminded me of the Nuer: they accepted me very quickly, they invited me to join a descent group and they encouraged me to do things with them, from playing football to participating in their farming. Yet, when it came to obtaining explicit information about their doings – silence. My initial learning came in ‘secretions’, little by little, and fragmentarily. I think most of my early fieldwork, especially in 1993–5, was done in this ‘Nueresque’ way, the only possible outcome given a pattern of interaction exemplified in the ‘meaning-of-Baga’ conversation with Albert in 1993.Yet in my later visits (1996, 1997, 1999 and especially those of 2001 and 2003) I adopted – thanks to the human capital built up over the years ­– a more inquisitive attitude. Without breaking social rules or local norms of etiquette, I managed to persuade the Baga farmers to moderate their Nuer-like reticence and provide me with longer, Azande-like explanations and explicit accounts. I succeeded but, as at least three Baga elders told me in my most recent visits, I managed to get all this information because prior to my studying what they do and are like, they had been studying what I was like and what I was really up to in their villages. Despite their secrecy, Baga value curiosity and keenness to learn. I noticed that the more I knew about Baga things and history, the more my interlocutors relished correcting me or forcing me to develop or support my points with further data. In 1999 and 2001 I spent several days reading my PhD (completed in London in 1999) with some Baga men who corrected much of the information I had given in the text and who were sometimes surprised I had known ‘so many things’. To my pleasant surprise, they did not seem to be angry with me for having unveiled their secrets, a legitimate fear given the fact that in Baga society any bit of knowledge can be considered a secret at some point or another;11 rather, the opposite seemed to be the case: the thesis provoked an immediate and fruitful discussion, a much more respectful, deeper and detailed exchange than I had previously been able to attain. I realised then how many many things I had got wrong and was grateful that they had been corrected. Knowing that the same may well happen when I take this book to Guinea is a very unpleasant feeling, but such is the nature of knowledge, especially in communities where the learning is so gradual, and where in order to obtain information you have to show that you already have some information, even if it is wrong. I do not imply, of course, that the information given in this study is the ‘official’ version of Baga history or culture. I have been rigorous about gathering, double-checking and presenting the data, but not naïve to the point of believing that there is one version of history with one set of ‘facts’, and one testimony that should be privileged in its reconstruction. In this sense, I

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tried to avoid what appeared to be a common methodology in Guinea: that of going to a village, informing ‘elders’ that one wanted to record the history of the village or know about its structure, and then waiting for several hours or a day until the elders had met, discussed among themselves and finally come back with a univocal story, stripped of all contestations or contradictory interpretation. This may be a valid methodology sometimes, and I did follow it on one occasion in the village of Bukor with a selected group of elders known as the alipne, who generally refused to be interviewed individually. Normally, however, I was more interested in recording a multiplicity of interpretations than in recording the official history of ‘the group’. I followed, I now think, a rather ‘Rashomonian’ methodology, one in which I was more interested in knowing why someone was saying what they were saying than in searching for cultural coherence or for absolute objectivity behind the different voices or renditions.12 Because of that, some chapters, especially those dealing with Asekou Sayon’s movement, are not exact historical accounts, but a joining together of several sources with the aim of providing a conjectural history, one in which the structures of inequality behind the movement are brought to light, but where the details, despite my efforts at double-checking and comparing different versions, may be more revealing about the particular interest of the person speaking than about exactly what happened on that day in 1956. A further note along these lines: when colleagues ask me, ‘Do Baga agree with what you are writing?’ (or even more simply, ‘Do they know what you’re writing?’), my answer is that they do – in part. Some know some parts of what I am saying, and I never made public any bit of information if the interviewee told me ‘Do not write this’ or ‘Do not say that’ or ‘Now switch off your tape recorder please’, which happened on many occasions. Yet, I doubt that any one person knows the content of all my interviews or of my research, and I cannot rule out that somebody in Guinea may judge that someone else told me ‘too much’ about a sensitive issue, even if the latter authorised me to use the bit of information at issue. To protect the potential cases in which the knowledge given by someone might create an unpleasant situation for someone else, I have changed the names of almost all interviewees, with the exception of Asekou Sayon and some persons who have become historical characters in Guinea and about whom there already exists some literature. I have invented Christian names for Christian interviewees and Muslim names for Muslims, as I think it is important to know the religion of the speaker, together with his or her age and gender, if we are to understand a particular ‘take’ on the issues relevant to this study. Years of participant observation, friendships and confrontations with Baga farmers have been supported, in preparing this study, by detailed archival research in Guinea (especially in the prefectural archives of Boké and Boffa) and for a whole year in France, mostly spent reading through


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Figure 1.2 Sailing to Kamsar (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Guinea, 2001) accessible material at the archives of the Pères du Saint-Esprit, the Catholic congregation that, from 1875, was in charge of evangelisation in coastal Guinea. Many of its priests in Guinea became keen (if highly unreliable) ethnographic sources. In particular, I should like the reader to keep the names of Raymond Lerouge and Marius Balez in mind, since they will appear several times in this study. Both of these priests (the first became Bishop in Guinea, the second Superior Father at the Mission of Katako, a Baga village) spent more than forty years in Guinea and wrote many articles on Baga and on Guinea in general, either published in the parochial journal La Voix de Notre-Dame (1924–39) or held in the Congregation’s archives in France. I have tried not to present the oral and written sources as two separate bodies, but to weave them into a single fabric. Some chapters, particularly Chapter 3 on pre-French settlement and political culture, are mostly conjectural; I present them not as historical reconstructions, but as elements that may help in developing a fuller explanation of the origins of certain social, religious and political structures. Although in general the narrative is historical, I opted to begin with a chapter, general in scope, that situates Baga farmers in the socio-cultural and ecological setting of the Upper Guinea Coast. I have entitled it ‘Rivers and Motorways’ not only in homage to Walter Rodney, the founding father of Upper Guinea Coast studies, who likened coastal rivers to motorways, but also because the two

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images mirror one another in providing mutual notions of ‘remoteness’. Mangroves and tidal creeks once captured the Western imagination in a powerful way, to the point that Denise Paulme, author of the first scholarly articles on the region, wrote that the mangroves where Baga live made her think of the landscapes described by Joseph Conrad in his novels (Paulme 1956: 98). Rivers penetrating the interior of the continent were for her, as they had been for many others for many centuries, a powerful image of Africa’s fascinating and remote inner secrets. Likewise, today’s roads and bridges cutting across rivers and tidal creeks and going from small ricefarming villages to the industrial centre of Kamsar, to its airport, or to the invisible city of Mpame, are equally fascinating for many a mangrove dweller. Such is the ‘moral geography’ (Thomas 2002) in which coastal farmers have constructed a world for themselves. It is also here that most of the historical events analysed in this study have taken place. A final note on geography: in this study I mention many villages, ‘spirit provinces’ and administrative regions. I ask the reader to keep in mind the difference between two sets of them: the spirit province of Mantung (with its capital, the village of Bukor) and the spirit province of Tako (capital Katako, but also including villages such as Mare). Mantung lies in today’s Prefecture of Boffa, while Tako is in the Prefecture of Boké. Because Boké also contains the modern city, port and airport of Kamsar, while the province of Mantung holds rather strongly to local cults, the difference in terms of ‘moral geography’ and the effects of iconoclasm between the villages in Boké and those of Boffa is relevant to several lines of argument in this study. Although my objective is not a comparison of the kind that Olga Linares established among the Diola of Casamance, between villages with a stronger and a weaker Muslim presence (Linares 1992), the contrast between the two prefectures will be invoked regularly to explain the politics of religious and cultural change in the whole Baga region.

2 rivers and motorways

Without a doubt, whether used for good or ill, the rivers were the autobahnen of the Upper Guinea Coast. Walter Rodney (1970: 17) language and population on the guinean coast

The coastal region of the Republic of Guinea, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Fouta Djallon massif some 200 km inland, is home to a great diversity of ethno-linguistic groups. Today, the largest of these is the Susu, a Mande-speaking people whose presence on the coast is recorded at least as early as the sixteenth century (Hair 1967a; Bühnen 1994). Linguists have established that the Susu language is very similar to that of the Jallonke, a people who were living on the Fouta Djallon before the massif was populated by the pastoralist Fula, who have inhabited it since the sixteenth century. It is likely that many people making up the Susu group today are descendants of former occupants of the Fouta pushed to the coast by the arrival of the Fula – and as we shall see, this applies to other coastal groups as well. Susu are predominantly Muslim upland farmers, mostly of rice, which they intercrop with other rain-fed produce. The spread of Susu people on the coast, into Sierra Leone to the south and Guinea-Bissau to the north, is accompanied by a phenomenon often called ‘Susu-isation’, by which groups of people who belong to other ethno-linguistic and religious groups in the region convert to Islam and adopt Susu language and manners. This is part of a wider process of Mande-isation observed among non-Mande-speaking groups in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Gambia, amply discussed by scholars working on these regions (Mota 1948: 101–2; Wright 1985; Crowley 1990: 73–5; Linares 1992: 147–59; Cormier-Salem et al. 1999: 172; Hawthorne 2003: 32). The opposition between Mande and non-Mande peoples (the latter living mainly on the coastal fringes) and the Mande-isation process have been at the centre of scholarly interest in this part of Africa – although the distinction between the two population categories is much more blurred, processual and overlapping than many authors might lead us to think. It is difficult to establish exactly when Susu became the lingua franca of the Guinean coast, but it had this role by the second half of the nine-

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teenth century (Corré 1879: 329; Coffinières de Nordeck 1886: 278). In 1895 Claudius Madrolle wrote that there were more than 400,000 Susu on the coast of Guinea (Madrolle 1895: 88–9; Machat 1906: 244) and in 1897 the medical doctor Paul Vigné d’Octon expressed the view that Baga language and culture were greatly endangered by Susu encroachment (Vigné d’Octon 1897: 264). As we shall see, this ‘pessimistic’ interpretation has been reproduced often throughout the twentieth century and is important in understanding the perceptions with which Baga farmers are entering the twenty-first century. Today – when the capital of the country is the coastal city of Conakry and the current President, Lansana Conté (in power since 1984), is a Susu – Susu language is becoming widely spoken throughout Guinea, even in regions far from the coast. Susu farmers share the coastal region with other peoples whose ancestors were there before the arrival of the Susu and who, unlike them, speak nonMande languages. These include the different Nalu-speaking groups, the Beafada, the Landuma, the Tenda, several groups known as ‘Baga’, recent newcomers from Guinea-Bissau such as the Balanta or the Mandjak (today clients of the Baga) and even more recent newcomers from Sierra Leone who in the late 1990s sought refuge in Guinea from civil war in their own country. These non-Mande groups are mostly rice farmers, many of whom have specialised in the exploitation of the mangrove swamps. The interplay between the non-Mande coastal groups, the centralised Mande and Fula states of the hinterland, and the Atlantic arrivals (from slave traders to colonial administrators and missionaries) has been the object of many historical works, either dealing with the Upper Guinea Coast in general (Rodney 1970; Barry 1998; Brooks 1993; Lopes 1999; Cormier-Salem 1999) or with particular groups (see a good collection of case studies in Gaillard 2000). These coastal groups, from Casamance in the north to Sierra Leone in the south, live within a similar ecosystem, and the pressures they have experienced from the Mande, Fula and Atlantic intruders have shaped a similar ethos in all of them. Yet, despite these common factors, collapsing all the non-Mande coastal groups into a single unity is misleading. Groups that are very similar in, say, rice-farming techniques, such as Baga and Diola, are very different in other aspects (political culture or language, to stick to the Baga–Diola comparison); others that are very similar in language (Baga Sitem and Landuma, for instance) are very different in their rice-farming techniques, political culture or kinship. The two neighbouring groups, Baga Sitem and Nalu, are very different in virtually every aspect (rice farming, language, political history) except their religious and material culture; until very recently they shared some important cults and the ritual objects associated with them, to the point that African art specialists often found it difficult to ascertain whether an object linked to a cult belonged to Baga, to Nalu, or to both these groups (Curtis 1996). Rather than seeing the Upper


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Guinea Coast as populated by discrete units, it is better to describe the region, from Casamance to Sierra Leone, as a continuum of overlapping mangrove swamp rice farmers and upland rice farmers who present ‘family resemblances’ in Wittgenstein’s sense, which poses problems to those who try to classify these groups according to exclusivist categories such as ‘ethnic group’. These categories are bound to become Procrustean beds that fail to capture either the fluid and overlapping social reality itself or the local epistemologies with which people think and talk about this reality. On coastal Guinea, despite the strong tendency towards cultural and linguistic homogenisation to Susu, there still exists a high cultural diversity among the non-Mande speaking groups, among whom one should also count the Fula. The latter do not live on the coast, but every year, between January and April, Fula herders leave the Fouta and go down to the coast to graze their cows on the rice fields, which at that time of the dry season are not in use (for a good, albeit dated, description of Fula transhumant cycles on the Guinean coast, see Champaud 1957). There are also at least two big communities of Mande-speaking, Muslim peoples other than Susu: Jakhanke and Mikhifore, both living among Baga. Jakhanke have been living among Baga Sitem since the mid-1950s, farming peanuts and working as religious specialists; they have been instrumental in the spread of Islam on the coast. Mikhifore were given lands by the Baga Sitem in the midnineteenth century, when many of them arrived as runaway slaves from the Fouta Djallon (N’Daou 2000). The lands they were given belonged to the Baga Sitem, but the Mikhifore specialise in upland rice farming whereas Baga Sitem farmers use the lands closer to the sea, where they grow mangrove swamp rice. Giving upland farming lands to Mikhifore, Jakhanke and Susu farmers has been a common strategy among different Baga groups, who prefer to clear and farm the mangrove swamp. This practice was not ­problematic in the past when there was a vast amount of wild mangrove swamp that could be utilised. Today, however, it is creating more and more land constraints and many conflicts are arising as Baga claim from Susu and Mikhifore farming lands they see as ‘their’ property. Of all these coastal groups, Baga are the ones occupying the part of the ecosystem closest to the Atlantic; indeed a plausible, albeit contested, etymology of the word ‘Baga’ would make it mean ‘the people of the sea’ in Susu (ba can be translated as ‘sea’, ‘big river’ or ‘tidal creek’; ka is a suffix meaning ‘people of’). The fact that Baga speak non-Mande languages and live on the very edge of the coast has led Guinean and other scholars to assume that they belong to the ‘autochthonous’ peoples of the Guinean coast (Arcin 1907: 176–89). Yet Baga elders, when interviewed about their ‘origins’, claim their ancestors had come from elsewhere, most typically from the Fouta Djallon massif, where many coastal groups place their origin. Narratives of coastal autochthony, such as the ones obtained among

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Figure 2.1 Men ploughing mangrove-swamp rice fields with the kop (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Mare, Guinea, 1993) Koonjaen in Casamance (Baum 1999: 68–9), have not been reported among Baga. In fact, the status of ‘first arrival’ is among Baga as important a resource as the status of ‘autochthonous’ seems to be among other African groups, but it is important to note that ‘autochthony’ and ‘first arrival’ are based on different philosophies of place and belonging. Baga make the point that, in order to be an ‘authentic’ coastal dweller, it is crucial to come from elsewhere. Coastal identity is thus a composition of ‘routes’ and ‘roots’, to play with James Clifford’s famous pun (Clifford 1997): they are the people of the sea, but they come from the hinterland. Apart from this shared migration narrative, exactly what the different Baga groups have in common is difficult to tell, yet I think any visitor to Guinea would agree with me that there is such a thing as a ‘Baga identity’ shared by the different groups. Over the years I interviewed people from all the Baga sub-groups along the Guinean coast, and they all admitted to belonging to the major group of the Baga. Today some of the Baga groups are surrounded by vast Susu-speaking areas. Yet many of my interviewees claimed that, despite geographical distances and discontinuities, in the past the links between different Baga groups were very strong; they often projected a unity and integration onto the past that was in sharp contrast with the fragmented and mostly anomic reality of the present. Most interviewees insisted that this common identity was based on what they called ‘custom’, a concept by which they referred to the non-Muslim religious


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Map 2 Coastal Guinea, with the different Baga-speaking groups culture that prevailed in the region before the arrival of Islam.1 Apart from the religious culture, they also claimed that what gave Baga groups a sense of unity was their mangrove swamp rice-farming methods, and especially the use of the kop (pl. cop) (Figure 2.1). Olga Linares once aptly described this plough, almost three metres long, as a ‘fulcrum-shovel’, with reference to the particular bodily technique in which the tool is used to lift up clods of earth while resting on the farmer’s knee (Linares 1992: 19). Although Linares was on that occasion describing the kajandu, the fulcrum-shovel of the Diola of Casamance, the Diola kajandu is very similar to the Baga kop both in its shape and in the techniques involved in its use. Yet it became apparent in interviews that the kop was not a necessary condition for a group of farmers to be Baga; Landuma, who are upland farmers and therefore do not use the kop but the hoe, were nonetheless considered as Baga by many of my Baga interviewees. From a linguistic point of view, scholars have established that there are different Baga groups, spread along the coast from Conakry to the border between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, almost 300 km to the north (see Map 2). The southern Baga Kalum and Baga Koba appear to be variants of the same

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language,2 and Baga Kakissa and Baga Marara are also very similar. Baga Sitem, which has five dialects, and Baga Mandori could be considered as the same language, too.3 All these languages are closely linked to each other and appear to be mutually intelligible. The language of Bulongic and that of Baga Pokur, however, while related to each other, have nothing in common with any of the other Baga languages. In fact, one scholarly tradition has claimed that they could be related to Nalu languages spoken on both sides of the border between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau (Houis 1950: 43–6; Voeltz 1996; Fields 2004). Despite the linguistic differences, interviewees – whether Baga Sitem, Bulongic or Baga Pukor – always insisted that the three groups were equally ‘Baga’.4 According to local classificatory systems (at least those of Baga Sitem speakers), the Landuma and the Nalu also belong to the Baga category. In fact, well into the twentieth century it was common for travellers and scholars to describe the Landuma as ‘Baga Landuma’ or to claim that they were part of the Baga (Corré 1879: 335; Méo 1919: 342; Arcin 1907: 178; Portères 1955: 540). Even in 1966, Théodore Camara, himself a Baga Sitem, wrote: Among the Baga groups, the Landuma are the most vulnerable; both Islam and Christianity penetrated them long ago and in the end steered them away from Baga concepts and traditions, at least from those considered ‘animist’. They abandoned them many years before Guinean independence. The same thing happened to their neighbours the Nalu. (Camara 1966: 28; my translation) Théodore Camara thus subscribed to the view that the defining ‘concepts and traditions’ of Baga people were ‘animist’, by which he meant a religious culture neither Muslim nor Christian. Most historians (whether Western or Guinean) as well as my interviewees in Guinea agreed that in pre-colonial times Baga was essentially a non-Muslim society, always in tension with the Muslim Fula and Mande peoples from the hinterland. The pressure of the Fula, in particular, has been highlighted frequently in literature and in oral traditions. In the eighteenth century, the Fula created a theocratic state on the Fouta Djallon and started slave raids on its frontiers (for an overview of the jihad, see Diallo 1972: 29–35; McGowan 1978: 17–88; Botte 1988). According to oral traditions gathered among both Fula and Baga, the latter were the people that the Fula chased away from the Fouta as a result of their jihad against the non-Muslim inhabitants of the region. Unwilling to convert to Islam, the Baga left and lived on the periphery of the Fula state. As we will see, not all Baga actually trace their ancestry to the Fouta; many of those I interviewed acknowledged other origins. Whatever their multiple origins may have been, however, life on the periphery of a slaving, centralised society in pre-colonial times was an important shaper of Baga institutions and ethos.Yet an interesting and paradoxical fact about the rela-


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tionship between Baga and Islam is that, despite having resisted religious and political pressure from the Fula for almost two centuries, many Baga ended up being Islamised rather quickly in the mid-twentieth century by Mande religious agents.5 Some Baga groups, particularly Baga Kakissa, Baga Koba and Baga Kalum, are experiencing a rapid process of language abandonment. Their regions are today inhabited mainly by monolingual Susu speakers, although among Baga Koba many elders still speak the Baga language among themselves. The causes and mechanisms of this linguistic and cultural transformation have not been fully explained. Since 1954, when some Baga Kakissa youths told Denise Paulme that ‘our fathers were Baga, but we are Susu’ (Paulme 1957: 277), the cultural and linguistic assimilation into Susu has been taken for granted without any further research being carried out on the semantics of ‘Baga’ and ‘Susu’ in this kind of sentence (see the last section of this chapter). No doubt the transformation of non-Susu populations into Susu is an ongoing cultural process on the coast of Guinea, but it is not the only one. In some cases, more than a transformation of Baga into Susu, there was a real replacement of Baga by Susu-speaking farmers. Thus, colonial documents I examined regarding the Baga Kakissa disappearance testify to a real out-migration of Baga peoples from the then Canton Sobané into other areas, either to the north or the south, and the replacement of their empty villages by Susu-speaking newcomers in the 1930s and 1940s.6 According to the documents they were escaping the tyrannical rule of Chief Amara Soumah, the authority that French administration had imposed upon them. Similarly, the region of the Bulongic also experienced a massive outmigration in colonial times: many Bulongic went to other parts of Guinea and to the then Portuguese Guinea-Bissau. According to some sources, they were escaping from adverse ecological conditions (Dresch 1949: 311); according to other sources, they were fleeing forced labour and despotic colonial chiefs.7 These two explanations are not incompatible; indeed, adverse ecological conditions in the 1930s and 1940s led to an increase of forced labour, as will be shown in later chapters. Today, the only groups whose linguistic, geographical and cultural boundaries overlap to create a territorial unity are the Bulongic, the Baga Pokur and the Baga Sitem. These three groups occupy a single territory called Dabaka in Baga Sitem or Bagatai (‘Bagaland’) in Susu. Because these three groups speak three different languages, they use Susu as the lingua franca, although I noticed that the Baga Sitem language was widely understood by most speakers of the other two languages. Some hints were given to me that the Baga Sitem language was learnt by the other Baga groups during their initiations, as a ‘secret language’, but I could never obtain confirmation of this. From the perspective of historical linguistics, Edda Fields has recently reactivated research on the history of these three groups. She

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Map 3 Coastal Guinea: Baga Sitem, Baga Pukur and Bulongic-speaking villages has concluded that there are two big linguistic groups in the area: the one including languages spoken by Bulongic, Baga Pukur and Nalu she calls the ‘coastal group’, and that spoken by Baga Sitem, Baga Kakissa, Landuma, Temne and other groups she calls the ‘highland group’. According to her findings the ‘coastal group’ constituted the older language, and, therefore, its hypothetical ‘speech community’ was the ‘autochthonous’ group of the Guinean coast (Fields 2004). It seems to me that in Fields’s work, as in most scholarly views of coastal Guinea, language and population appear as discrete, clear-cut units, and I fear that such studies create – between a ‘language’ and a ‘population’ – a confusion of the kind Edwin Ardener was trying to prevent in his innovative article on coastal Cameroon (Ardener 1972). If we could dissociate a language from the people using it, we would probably get a processual dimension mostly absent in the scientific literature. By and large, the only process that scholars seem ready to admit is that of ‘Mande-isation’ (or its variant, ‘Susu-isation’, taking place in the Republic of Guinea, as already discussed). Far too often, the assumption underlying studies is that while Mande identities are something that people can acquire or ‘convert’ to, the rest of the coastal categories, such as ‘Baga’, ‘Balanta’, or ‘Nalu’, refer


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to fixed and taken-for-granted primordial entities. Therefore processes of ethnic incorporation (such as Baga-isation, Nalu-isation or Balanta-isation) are rarely discussed.8 Yet just by listening carefully to the insights provided by the coastal dwellers themselves we get a much more fluid version of linguistic, ethnic and cultural acquisitions and transfers. the language of the spirits

Among Baga, in particular, the stereotyped version that a researcher is bound to obtain when doing oral history in a village or among Baga scholars is that Baga ‘firstcomers’ arrived from the Fouta Djallon. But underneath these stereotyped, almost ‘official’ versions, there are other discourses and voices about origins that deserve an audience; but these only emerge occasionally, since they unearth social differences that people usually do not want to discuss. In an earlier article I discussed two narratives, one of them previously published by Sekouba Sinayoko (Sinayoko 1938: 57–8) and the other collected by myself in 1997, in which Bulongic presented themselves as an explicit mixture of elements from the coast and from the hinterland (Sarró 2000). Back in 1954, Denise Paulme had been told that people making up the Baga groups had different ethnic origins: she mentioned Nalu, Balanta and others (Paulme 1956: 104). More recently, David Berliner has documented that, in some of the narratives he obtained among Bulongic, some elders claimed to be of Fula origin, and others that among Baga one could find Mandjak, Susu, or Jakhanke (Berliner 2002b: 66–7). Other researchers were told by Bulongic speakers that their ancestors were Pepel, a coastal group from Guinea-Bissau.9 In the villages where I lived, members of several Baga Sitem-speaking descent groups revealed to me that they were Nalu; others told me they were Baga Koba; someone said that his neighbours were not Baga but Landuma; and someone else suggested that such-and-such a descent group was actually Loma, and that the whole population of such-and-such a Baga Sitem village was made up of Fula people who had been initiated into Baga cults and thus ‘made’ Baga.10 Some of the people making these revelations about their origins had previously told me they were as Baga as everybody else and had subscribed to the ‘official’ history of a massive migration from the Fouta. The fixity of the Baga concept dissolves when these multiple voices are heard, giving rise to a much more fluid picture. Likewise, as far as language is concerned, indigenous views could also help us unpack the problematic fixed identification between a ‘language’ and a ‘population’ that pervades much of the literature on the region. It is true that many interviewees told me that their ancestors were speaking a ‘Baga’ language before arriving at the coast. Yet other, normally older interviewees argued that before people arrived at the coast they were speaking a different language to the one they speak today; once on the coast, however, everybody had to

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learn the language of the amanco, the spirit of the place with whom the first arrivals had to ‘sign a contract’. If there are so many coastal languages, these interviewees claim, it is because before the arrival of humans the coastal regions were populated by different spirits, each one in charge of a territory (a ‘spirit province’, as I explain below). The first arrivals to each territory had to learn the language of its particular spirit. This explains not only big differences such as that between Baga Sitem and Bulongic (two mutually unintelligible languages) but even the difference between the Sitem dialect spoken in the Tako province and that spoken in Mantung (two varieties of the same language, with small variations): the spirits of Mantung and Tako spoke (slightly) different languages. Dialectal provinces coincided with ­spiritual provinces. No matter how difficult it may be to interpret statements of this kind, they should at least remind us that oral history makes a distinction between people’s geographical origins and the language they speak today – and make us more open to this distinction. m a n g r ove r i c e : a t a l e o f t wo s p e c i e s

Along with other names, the part of the Upper Guinea Coast we are dealing with appears in some historical sources as the ‘rice coast’. According to some authors, individuals from this region were particularly valuable to traders and to owners of slaves in America because of their knowledge of rice farming, which they could apply to specific regions of the New World (Littlefield 1981; Opala 1987; Carney 2001). However, most of these groups are also reported as little affected by the slave trade; indeed, many of them, especially Baga, are renowned for having had nothing to do with it. Rice is known worldwide, of course. Yet in the Upper Guinea Coast it has a double significance. First, the way farmers have learnt to convert the mangrove swamps into lowland paddy fields is unique and has attracted the attention of observers since at least the eighteenth century. Second, the region has been identified as one of the secondary cradles of the indigenous African rice (Oryza glaberrima), whose primary cradle was, most likely, the inner delta of the river Niger. This African species of rice is still planted today on the Guinean coast, but the Oryza sativa species, of Asian origin and probably introduced to West Africa by Portuguese or other Western newcomers some centuries ago, is nowadays much more widely used. At any rate, whether O. glaberrima or O. sativa, rice is so central to the peoples inhabiting the coastal mangroves, that the Portuguese geographer Francisco Tenreiro spoke of a cultural ‘rice complex’ that, much like the East African ‘cattle complex’ described by Herskovits, would have moulded all the farmers’ habits, social lives and cosmologies (Tenreiro 1950: 19–20; Mota 1954, vol. I: 292). The importance of mangrove rice farming and of the kop in framing Baga identity should not be underestimated. The technique, carefully described


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in 1794 by Samuel Gamble (Mouser 2002), consists of reclaiming rice fields from the tidal creeks after cutting the mangrove trees, and then protecting these fields with dikes. The process involves a highly specialised knowledge of salt and fresh water management. Mangrove-swamp rice farming requires transplantation. Seeds are first transmitted into a nursery at the beginning of the rainy season. Some weeks later women transplant these seedlings into the mangrove fields, which by then have already been ploughed by the men. Men plough with the kop (which is also used in dike construction) and sometimes with water up to their knees (see picture). Although the technique is known to northern farmers in Guinea-Bissau and Casamance, in Guinea it is perceived as a purely ‘Baga’ activity. Théodore Camara, for instance, recalls a saying of the neighbouring Susu that sums up the perceptions of mangrove-swamp rice farming held by neighbouring upland farmers: ‘We are not Baga sorcerers’ – they said – ‘who, with their kop, have “aquatic” supplementary eyes to see and work into the water’ (Camara 1966: 161; my translation). Mangrove-swamp rice farming is a highly demanding activity, and in many facets (dike construction and maintenance, ploughing, transplanting) it requires large groups of either male or female farmers working together. The organisation of collective labour has been a constant challenge for farmers. As I shall argue in Chapter 3, assembling ‘wealth-in-people’ has been a major priority in the region and this probably explains why these groups were so receptive to strangers until very recently. There is room to presume that in the past the organisation of work teams based on age groups and residential units, sanctioned by ‘custom’ and organised by strict ritual elders, was more effective than today. Today, indeed, the organisation of work teams is one of the big challenges for Baga communities: it is impeded by high levels of anomie, especially in the villages closer to Kamsar, where youths refuse to work in the paddy fields unless they are paid. Despite the importance of mangrove-swamp rice for providing a sense of Baga-ness, this is not the only type of rice known to Baga Sitem farmers. Most of them farm two different types of rice: the ‘rice of the field’ (malo madale), which is mangrove-swamp rice, and another kind called the ‘rice of the Baga’ (malo mabaka), which is floating rice farmed in inland swamps using the hoe (kel, pl. cel) instead of the kop. According to narratives I gathered among different Baga groups, malo mabaka was the rice brought by ancestors in their migrations from the hinterland. In 1955, the ethnobotanist Roland Portères wrote an influential article in which he argued that the floating rice of the Baga had its likely origin, as mentioned above, in the inner Niger delta and that its use among Baga could therefore be taken as evidence of human migrations from the hinterland. According to Portères, Baga would have carried a floating variety of Oryza glaberrima with them, but they would have learnt the technique of ploughing with the

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kop on the coast, probably, according to him, among the Diola of Casamance. The fact that Baga call the Oryza glaberrima ‘Baga rice’ is not a rare phenomenon in the region. This ‘ethnicisation’ of either a species or a variety of rice, particularly of an ancient one, is common. Thus, Balanta in Guinea-Bissau know a variety of rice they call ‘Balanta rice’ (Hawthorne 2003) and Diola of Senegal also call their Oryza glaberrima varieties ‘the rice of the Diola’ (Linares 2002). What is surprising in Guinea is that even neighbouring groups such as Susu or Mikhifore, who today practise floating rice production more than Baga, also call the floating rice ‘Baga rice’ (Baga male in Susu). In terms of identity and ethnohistory, it is significant that Baga give the name malo mabaka to the floating rice, whilst what really defines them as coastal mangrove farmers is the mangrove-swamp rice with its combined techniques of ploughing and transplanting, rather than the floating rice and the hoe. As Christine Akré has put it, aptly applying Pierre Nora’s concepts, the kop and the malo mabaka are, as far as Baga cultural history goes, two different ‘memory sites’ (Akré 2005): while the kop defines what Baga farmers are today, the malo mabaka reminds them of where they came from. Even in villages or in periods when malo mabaka becomes scarce, this rice is still of paramount importance in the celebration of certain ceremonies. In each Baga village there is one descent group whose eldest members are in charge of performing a combination of two ceremonies, one to mark the beginning of the ploughing season and another to mark the beginning of the harvest. In order to perform these ceremonies, malo mabaka is needed as an offering to the spirits of the place and is consumed by some selected members of the community. In the village of Bukor, for instance, where the floating rice had been abandoned many years before, a small plot of this particular variety of rice was maintained to ensure that a sufficient supply was available every year at the time of the ceremonial performances. Interviewees insisted that practising such ceremonials with rice other than malo mabaka would be out of the question. t h e r i ve r b a n k

Baga Sitem is the biggest of all Baga groups and the one where Baga language is still most in use, although Susu is widely understood and spoken in all villages. Today, 17 Baga Sitem villages (listed in Appendix 1) straddle the two coastal prefectures of Boffa and Boké. A large number of Baga Sitem people live in Conakry as well (see the section on ressortissants in Chapter 7). A Baga Sitem village (atof; pl. tof, a word they normally gloss as ‘territory’) is divided into the village stricto sensu (dare; pl. sidare) and the rice fields (dale; pl. sidale), situated in the alluvial lands not far away from the dare. Many villages that are now connected to others through wide dikes were in


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fact separated by rivers and tidal creeks only thirty years ago, when canoes were needed to travel from one village to another. Nowadays only three or four villages are isolated from the rest. But even if most villages can now be accessed on foot (at least in the dry season), all villages are also connected through the rivers, and canoes are still the commonest form of travel between them. The modernity of Walter Rodney’s rivers/motorways metaphor (Rodney 1970: 17) was probably unintended, but looking at it in retrospect it proved to be a thought-provoking comparison. More recent work by Rosalind Shaw has indeed shown that among Temne in Sierra Leone, coastal rivers were endowed with the ambiguity later associated with roads (Shaw 2002). Roads, world makers and world destroyers, introduce some things but also take others away. This ambiguity has been abundantly described in Africanist literature (Masquelier 2002), and it was clearly present in the Baga village where I started my fieldwork, since at this time many roads and bridges were being built, some by the Guinean state and others by the international mining corporation based in Kamsar (see below). The same ambiguity applied to rivers and tidal creeks. Like roads, these appear in mangrove people’s imagination as a mixture of blessing and despair, bringing goods and spiritual renewal to the land while taking away its riches and precious human lives. The village (dare) consists of a cluster of mud-brick houses of homogeneous rectangular construction. There is photographic evidence that they were once elliptical, but such houses no longer exist among Baga Sitem.11 In front of the house there is a courtyard (abanka; pl. cibanka) and to the rear a backyard harbouring the kitchen, to which, a bit further away, is added the enclosure where people take their baths and the latrine. Houses are surrounded by oil palms, fan palms, coconuts, raffia palms and fruit crops such as banana, papaw, orange, lemons and mango trees. Like many other mangrove-swamp rice farmers, Baga Sitem were in the past known as cattle keepers. The French lieutenant Coffinières de Nordeck confirmed in the 1860s the presence of cattle in Baga Sitem villages (Coffinières de Nordeck 1886: 279) and herds still roamed in the memories of many of my interviewees. Yet, at some point in the last century, herds were abandoned. Why and when they were abandoned has become a delicate subject. In 1994, someone in the village where I was living told me: ‘My granddad used to have cows; I would like to explain to you why Baga gave up having herds, but I am afraid of speaking too much.’ Being ‘afraid of speaking too much’ was a common attitude, whether the discussion was on cattle, land, kinship or just about any other topic. But clearly some things were more secret than others. My impression was that villagers avoided discussing herds because they were linked to wealth differences, one thing they did not want to unveil to strangers like me. Baga had to portray a stereotype of egalitarianism and anybody not willing to subscribe to this stereotype, revealing social, ethnic

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or other differences, could be severely punished. Hence my interlocutor’s and other people’s fear of ‘speaking too much’. Each Baga village is divided into different quarters called, like the individual courtyard, abanka. Many interviewees expressed the view that a Baga village should ideally contain three cibanka. Many villages today contain more than three, but in these cases it is noteworthy that, according to these interviewees, only three were the original ‘Baga’ cibanka, and the rest were later attached, made up either of strangers or of resettled individuals from one of the main cibanka. Each abanka is home to several (again, three seems to be the ideal number) exogamous, patrilineal descent groups called kor (pl. cor), a word also meaning ‘belly’. The apical founding ancestor of each descent group, always a man, reportedly came from elsewhere, but his origins and life appear not to be as important as his death. Indeed, what defines a group as a kor is the fact that the founding ancestor died in the abanka in which, for one reason or another, he chose to live, and that he is buried in the kilo kipon of the kor he founded. The kilo kipon (pl. wolo wopon), literally ‘big house’, is the house where the apical ancestor lived and where he was buried; members of the descent group meet on ritual occasions to offer libations of palm wine to their ancestor, and certain ritual objects are kept in the ‘big houses’. ‘Big’ is here a metaphor denoting importance; in fact, the ‘big house’ is more often than not much smaller than any other house of the descent group. Which particular house in an abanka is a ‘big house’ is far from evident, and people are normally very reluctant to tell strangers which houses are ‘big houses’ and which ones simply houses. Since kor also means ‘belly’, it has been suggested that Baga descent groups were once matrilineal, the word kor testifying to the fact that all their members came out of the same belly, i.e. the same mother (Bangoura 1974: 23). However, we do not have any other evidence about this transformation from matrilineal to patrilineal succession. Other than expressing unity in descent, the metaphor of the ‘belly’ also indicates unity in consumption, and consumption seems to be an essential trait of the human person, as much as descent is.12 A kor may be seen as a belly because it is made up of people who eat together, and certainly its members do eat together in sacrifices and other ceremonies. In any case, the word kor stresses the substantial unity of the members of the descent group. Yet a crucial aspect to keep in mind is that many cor are in fact fusions of two different groups. In these cases, one of the groups is considered the original kor while the other is regarded as having been created by a stranger (wucikra) who was integrated into the original kor. These fusions of descent groups, while numerous, are silenced; they were only discussed with me by people with whom I had got quite close over the years. Many descent groups I had assumed to be one single descent line became, on closer examination, fusions of two groups, one normally defined as the ‘landlord’ to the other, its ‘stranger’. This rela-


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tionship between ‘landlord’ and ‘stranger’ is fundamental to Baga ethos, political culture and social structure, and someone suggested to me that all Baga descent groups are in fact a fusion of a landlord and his stranger (or strangers; I know of one kor that consists of three different descent lines fused into one). We shall see more about the politics and ethics of this relationship in the next chapter. The consumption unity that descent groups constitute also has its counterpart in the mysterious world of deser, a word normally glossed as ‘witchcraft’, although ‘witchcraft’ does not capture its complexity and ambiguities, and certainly not the positive side of deser, mostly absent in Eurocentric notions of witchcraft. In some cases, deser means the power of the elders, and this power can be used for positive things. But the concept is very ambiguous and, despite its positive side, in Guinea one mostly uses deser to refer to clearly evil things. Equally, the concept of wuser (pl. aser; ‘witch’) could be used to refer to elderly initiated people with no particular evil intention, but a more common meaning today restricts it to that of members of the community who, instead of eating rice, as humans should do, eat people. This is not a literal eating, but a ‘distant symbolic one’, as Walker has put it (Walker 1980). Thus, when someone dies it is not uncommon to hear the expression ‘she has been eaten by the aser’. Who the aser in a descent group are is not known, although sometimes there are clear suspects. In any case, they are held responsible for the deaths or misfortunes of young members of the descent group. Only the aser of one descent group can do harm to members of that group. Witches can only ‘eat’ (kisom) people from their own kor. Deser needs, and expresses, co-substantiality,13 and it also expresses the ambivalence of the descent group: belonging to one offers protection and identity to its members, but it can also annihilate them if they do not act in a way conducive to the well-being of the group. If members of a kor excel in anything, they will fear that the aser of their descent group will try to annihilate them, either as a ‘punishment’ for their individualism or out of sheer envy. But their own enrichment will also cause other members of their kor to suspect that they are themselves aser, and deaths and misfortunes of younger members will be related to their success. ‘This is an egalitarian society’, a Baga man once told me, ‘we all keep our heads at the same level; if someone wants to raise their head above the rest of us, they will have it chopped off.’ Perhaps one could describe it as a ‘jealously egalitarian’ society, as Edwin Ardener once put it in relation to the Bakweri of Cameroon (Ardener 1970: 146). The Baga notion of the person lies in a delicate equilibrium between centrifugal forces toward individual success (being an extraordinary rice farmer, for example) and centripetal forces toward group cohesion, and the individuals who have ventured into individualistic lifestyles, giving up rice farming and going to the cities to get paid jobs, have to learn to cope with this equilibrium (Sarró 2005).

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Despite the importance of birth and blood links in concepts of personhood, the concept of abanka seems to prevail over that of kor. When going from village to village, people are normally asked what village and what abanka they come from, and only rarely what their precise descent group is. The abanka suffices as a marker of social identity. Because of this corporativeness, some early visitors to Baga territories assumed the abanka to be the ‘village’. For instance, the village of Katongoro, composed of the three cibanka of Kawtel, Pintankla, and Kondeyire, was described as three ‘rival villages’ in the early twentieth century (Méo 1919: 343). In this village, as in many others, the three cibanka are separated from each other by long distances, thus reinforcing the appearance of independence. The centrality and corporativeness of the abanka is not unique to Baga Sitem and is probably a legacy of a time when compactness was highly valued in a region infamous for its insecurity. Already in the late sixteenth century the concept of atabanka, meaning ‘fortification’, was alluded to by Álvares de Almada (Almada [1594] 1964: 34), and a bit later, in 1625, André Donelha spoke of tabankas, meaning ‘fences’ or ‘walls’ (Donelha [1625] 1977: 102). In the nineteenth century the concept of kebanka was reported among the Temne in Sierra Leone and translated as ‘war-fence’ (Schlendker, quoted in Thomas 1921: 183). In today’s Guinea-Bissau the Kriol concept of tabanka means ‘village’. In his work on Balanta, Walter Hawthorne has discussed the centrality of the tabanka for this mangrove rice-farming group, which he aptly glosses as ‘compact village’ (Hawthorne 2003; for further scholarly discussions of tabanka and similar concepts, see Hair 1967b: 46; Rodney 1970: 61). Hawthorne argues that Balanta farmers lived in a much more scattered pattern before the upheavals provoked in the region by the slave trade forced them to move toward the mangrove in search of refuge. It was in the mangroves that they learned how to farm mangrove-swamp rice and created the compact tabanka, which favoured both protection from slave raiders and a close organisation of labour in the mangrove rice fields. I was not able to reconstruct such a history among Baga, nor was I able to marshal any evidence to suggest that the Baga Sitem abanka has ever been fortified, but the compactness of Baga Sitem settlements has been pointed out by early travellers like Coffinières de Nordeck, and it is likely that the reasons given by Hawthorne for the creation of compact tabankas by the Balanta (protection from raids and organisation of intensified work in the paddy fields) also applied to Baga Sitem settlement patterns. The Baga abanka, like the Balanta tabanka or the Temne kebanka, would have been one efficient mechanism of protection in times when the tidal creeks of the Upper Guinea Coast were part of the ‘landscape of fear’ whose memories, deeply embedded in rituals and landscapes, Rosalind Shaw has so pertinently and painstakingly unearthed (Shaw 2002). Graphic evidence of the


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late nineteenth century clearly shows that the villages in the Rio Nuñez area were surrounded by fences.14 The word tapad or tapada (probably of Portuguese origin), meaning a fence surrounding a village and found in many languages of the area since the early seventeenth century, is still used in Baga Sitem to mean any area enclosed by big fences. In the past ritual links between villages were very strong and they created territorial divisions that are still relevant today. Much as cibanka are clustered in villages, so villages are clustered in broader units I call ‘spirit provinces’.15 Thus, Katako, Mare and Kakilenc form one such province, called Tako. The villages of Bukor, Kufin and Kalikse form another, called Mantung; Kawass and Katongoro form one called Atifin. There were five such provinces. Although people in Mantung speak Baga Sitem, their dialect, Cimantung, is different to that spoken in the Tako province, called Citako. According to oral history each group originated in a different place in the Fouta Djallon: the founder of Tako, for example, came from Labé, while Mantung’s founder was from Timbo.Yet it should be emphasised that when conducting research using oral history, people from one group do not normally want to discuss the origins of the other provinces; each group, it is thought, should discuss only its own issues. Until the late 1950s, the villages of each province came together to celebrate the kikenc (a male ceremony which included circumcision). The last initiation in Tako took place in 1948; the last one in Mantung in 1954. There have been no initiations since. Each spirit province has a spirit (ngonk; pl. yonk) with whom the firstcomer to the area had signed a ‘contract’ upon arrival (see next chapter). This spirit belongs to the category of amanco (see below), although each province’s amanco had its own name, sometimes a Christian or a Muslim one; thus, one spirit may be called Pierre, another Oumar. The strong sense of moral community that each province gives to its members should not obliterate the fact that each abanka has its own spirit, which is also an amanco; thus one hears of ‘the amanco of Tako’ but also, for example, of ‘the amanco of Karonta’ (Karonta being one abanka of the villages of Tako province). the open road

Upper Guinea Coast dwellers live in what Eric Gable, working among Mandjako of Guinea-Bissau, has called ‘ruptured landscapes’ (Gable 1995). In the Baga Sitem case the rupture is dramatised not only by the memories of the violent history we are going to deal with in this book, but also by a geography that actually brings together this violent history with a more recent, but equally violent, introduction of industrial modernity. All Baga Sitem villages lie along the Rio Kapatchez, which could be considered the spinal cord of the Baga Sitem land. Their inhabitants could be considered as mere rice farmers living on the river bank if it was not for the fact that one of these villages – Kamsar – suffered a clearly distinct fate. Up to 1973,

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Kamsar was just one more Baga Sitem village, somewhere between the Rio Kapatchez and the Atlantic Ocean. Then, in 1973, it became the site of the Compagnie des Bauxites Guinnéenes (CBG), an international mining consortium exploiting the bauxite mines of Sangarédi, some 130 km in the hinterland. The bauxite, the most important aluminium ore on earth, is treated in Kamsar’s plant and then exported from its harbour to the US, Canada and Europe to be refined and smelted into aluminium. Between the port and the plant, the CBG boasts about 4,000 workers. All in all there are about 30,000 people living in Kamsar, most of them in the informal sector and not officially linked with the CGB. Despite this ‘informality’, Kamsar is a burgeoning city which offers to many of its inhabitants a higher life standard than any other Guinean town, including the capital. Today, its Baga inhabitants are a tiny minority, both in the city and in the workplaces. The corporative, centripetal ethos of rice farmers discussed in the previous section was used by many interviewees as an explanation of why they, or their parents, had not been interested in job opportunities in Kamsar. Obtaining a job in the factory or in the port would be tantamount to becoming richer than your fellow farmers and so evoking envies and jealousies. Instead of promoting themselves to such jobs, the inhabitants of the original Kamsar village preferred to abandon the region altogether and move to other Baga Sitem villages where they could continue doing their thing: farming mangrove-swamp rice. The original Baga village disappeared in 1973, with its inhabitants scattering to other villages. Kamsar has changed the human geography of the region, particularly of the surrounding Baga Sitem villages, but also of Susu, Mikhifore, Landuma, Nalu and many other peoples living on both sides of the Rio Nuñez. Not only has it connected these villages to the wider world through its roads, bridges, boats and airport (located in the village of Kawass); but it has also changed the economic relations in the region, allowing people to buy and sell in its daily market as well as providing the region with goods that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. Additionally, Kamsar has introduced new values and notions with which Baga farmers are still learning to cope. As I will discuss later, Baga villages situated closer to Kamsar, such as Kawass, Katako or Mare, have been strongly affected by its presence, and there are today significant differences between these villages and those situated much farther away, such as Kufen, Kaliske or Bukor. The distance from Kamsar is not the only variable that can explain these differences, but it is certainly a very important one. As an example, in the villages that are closer to Kamsar land has become a commodity to be bought and sold, whereas in other Baga villages interviewees insisted, even in 2003, that ‘Baga do not sell land’. Interestingly, the fact that their relatives from areas directly influenced by Kamsar are changing so quickly and doing things they deem to be against Baga custom provides the rationale


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for these villages to claim that they are more ‘true’ to such customs than their neighbours. Because of Kamsar, a new road, mostly tarred, was built in 1994 to connect Kamsar to Conakry, and it passes right through several Baga Sitem villages. This road includes the first bridge ever to span the Kapatchez, built in 1993 and fully funded by the CBG. The bridge was built between Katako and Kawass, precisely where people used to cross by canoe up to 1993. Bridges are powerful transformers of landscape, even more so than roads; and, as T. S. Eliot reminded us, they may be a huge problem for their builders, but ‘the problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten’ (Four Quartets). The drowning of one of the builders when the bridge was being erected was interpreted as a punishment inflicted by the vengeful spirit living in the Rio Kapatchez. Every time I passed the bridge on my way to or from Kamsar with Baga friends, they reminded me of this death and thus remembered, honoured and recreated the spiritual world literally underneath us. The bridge, to return to the poet, not only led to the forgetting of the god; it also became ‘a reminder of what men choose to forget’ (ibid.). This spiritual dimension underneath the industrial landscape is not limited to the bridge over the Kapatchez, but extends to the city of Kamsar itself. As has happened to other African cities, Kamsar, the modern city, is not just a city; it has an invisible companion, a city where aser from the whole Baga territory meet, and even those from other ethnic groups from Guinea and Guinea-Bissau come too, using invisible airplanes and invisible boats, in a second, invisible reality called dabal, which is only accessible to the aser and to certain other people with second sight. This invisible city is called Mpame, and its fame reaches far beyond the Baga territory. In fact, the first time I heard about Mpame was in Conakry, and it was not Baga people who were talking about it, but people from Guinée Forestière who were discussing the mysterious powers of Baga. While one might expect the industrialisation introduced by Kamsar to create a rational landscape around Baga villages, the parallel building of the unattainable Mpame by the Baga imagination creates a spiritual landscape that is even more awesome than their mangroves, silk-cotton trees and huge ritual objects. One might also expect the creation of Kamsar and the arrival of a galloping globalisation to threaten the Baga locality. However, very little wealth, ‘modernity’ or ‘development’ from Kamsar really reaches any Baga farmer: for most of them the city is just one more shop-window to lick (lécher la vitrine), to use the metaphor often attributed to Achille Mbembe. As Peter Geschiere and Mike Rowlands elaborate, if there is globalisation in Africa it is, at most, a ‘globalisation of dreams’ (Geschiere and Rowlands 1996: 553).

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t h e m i s s i n g wo o d : b a g a p a r e n t s a n d s u s u c h i l d r e n

In 1954, Denise Paulme and her husband, ethno-musicologist André Schaeffner, were among the first social scientists ever to visit the Baga, and the first to produce scholarly work about them (Paulme 1956, 1957, 1958; Schaeffner 1962, 1964). At that time the Baga were famous in the West for their art and ritual objects, but the social context of the objects stored in Western museums was not well known. Unfortunately, Paulme and Schaeffner could make only a few short visits and left with a rather pessimistic feeling not dissimilar to that gathered sixty years earlier by Vigné d’Octon, who had lamented the Susu-isation of Baga populations already under way. Paulme wrote that many of her interviewees were starting to feel detached from their own past. When she asked a young Muslim man about the culture of his elders, he expressed his distinct lack of interest in the telling comment quoted earlier: ‘Our fathers were Baga, but we are Susu’ (Paulme 1956: 102). Paulme and Schaeffner took the young interviewee’s statement to mean that Baga culture and society were disappearing. Accordingly, they wrote some rather pessimistic articles announcing their imminent dissolution. Whilst these articles show a lucid understanding of the tensions Baga were experiencing under French rule, the prediction proved wrong. Baga people did not disappear, although it must be said that in 1956–7, only two years after the visit of Paulme and Schaeffner, the internal tensions that they so perceptively noted led to an iconoclastic movement that completely altered Baga religious culture. In 1996, a year before she died, Paulme told me how surprised she was to know that the Baga were still alive and kicking, and she became very interested in the work that Frederick Lamp, Marie-Yvonne Curtis and I were producing on Baga topics. And alive and kicking they certainly were. However, in 1999, an elderly man, a Christian school teacher, was talking to me about the past of the Baga Sitem, precisely around the time when Paulme was there, when men were initiated in the sacred bush, when people did not tell lies, and when overall – he clearly thought – everything was better. He had been initiated when he was twelve years old, in 1948, in what was the last manhood initiation of the Baga Sitem of his village. Like Denise Paulme, the man finished his discourse with a rather pessimistic statement: ‘This is the past. Our generation was the last one to be initiated. This is why we say that we are Baga, but our children are Susu.’ This was a statement about the loss of cultural values. Indeed, Baga elders view their Susu neighbours very negatively. They claim that the Susu lack moral education; that the Susu do not know what ‘Baga’ means and that they ‘cannot keep secrets’, an essential feature of any grown-up Baga man or woman. According to Baga, Susu are mostly liars and, properly speaking, they do not grow up. Thus, when children are very tall for their


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age, Baga elders will say humorously that they are ‘growing up like a Susu’, meaning that there is no correspondence or equilibrium between the physical growing up and the process of becoming a thoughtful adult human being (which is, according to many, what the word ‘Baga’ means). They are growing up too fast. The statement that the elders are Baga and the children are Susu is quite a common one. Men and women repeat it often in conversation, always with reference to a lack of moral integrity and the inability to keep secrets. ‘A Baga knows how to shut up, a Susu does not’ an elderly woman told me in April 2001. Indeed secrecy seems to be at the core of the generation gap between youth and elders and between Baga and Susu. Contrary to what one might expect, the youths, too, are quite convinced about the Baga–Susu divide. Even if they speak Baga, and even if they think that there is an objective cultural and historical difference between their community and the Susu’s, most Baga young people agree with their elders that they are becoming Susu. ‘Our elders had a tolom [cult] called amanco that made them Baga; we do not have it anymore and we do not know our customs,’ a forty-year-old man told me in 1999, referring to the cult of amanco ngopong (see below) and placing it at the core of the difference between elders and youths. Seniority is thus a fundamental aspect of Baga Sitem identity. The very word sitem stems from the root tem, which means ‘old’ or ‘elder’. Thus, the Baga Sitem say that all the Baga are Baga but that they alone are the abaka atem (sing. wubaka wutem) the ‘elderly Baga’. From this point of view, not only are the Susu seen as junior and inferior, but even other Baga are looked down upon as not being as elderly – and therefore not as Baga – as the Baga Sitem. Being (or becoming) Baga is a process of maturation. From a Baga point of view, those who do not achieve this state, are just ‘Susu’. Probably Paulme’s mistake was to take the statement about the Susu-ness of youngsters too literally, as though ‘Baga’ and ‘Susu’ could only be used as ethnonyms (which is the case in our Western languages). When Baga claim that their youngsters are Susu, not Baga, they probably do not mean by ‘Susu’ the same thing we do, and therefore we should not conclude too hastily that the coast is Susu-ising without further examining the contested meanings of these concepts that we use exclusively to designate ‘ethnic’ groups. As with many African societies, the ‘becoming-a-Baga’ process involved in the past an initiation cycle composed of many stages. This initiatory cycle was called kidi molom, literally ‘to eat molom’. The concept of tolom (pl. molom) is quite difficult to translate since its semantic field does not match that of any Western concept. For our various purposes, it could be translated roughly as ‘secret’, but also as ‘cult’ or, again, ‘ritual object’. In an interesting conversation I had in 1996, an interviewee glossed tolom as ‘pain’, and pain was indeed an essential component of most initiations of the cycle.

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When speaking in French, Baga translate kidi molom either as manger les secrets or, more commonly, as initiation. From a Baga point of view, then, ‘initiation’ is not just a learning process, but one in which knowledge is eaten and embodied. For men, the most important initiation was the kikenc (also meaning ‘to circumcise’), which implied a six-month seclusion in the afan (sacred wood). It was during this seclusion in the wood that boys suffered the circumcising operation. During the first three months of the initiation, the seclusion was complete; during the last six months it was partial: boys could go out to the village, but they had to do so in full disguise so as not to be recognised by their mothers (who, nonetheless, would recognise them by their feet, as they told me); besides, they were unable to speak, having to communicate with each other using a whistling language. Whatever happened in the wood during the kikenc is a difficult question to answer. For me it was an embarrassing one to pose, too. Beyond some generalities, people did not want to discuss it, mostly because there was a formal ban on doing so. I also think that to a certain degree they were unable to discuss it. Whatever happened in the bush was a painful experience, and pain and verbal communication do not easily go hand in hand. Although many interviewees and many people writing on initiation presented the sacred bush as a ‘traditional school’ and the kikenc as part of the ‘traditional education’, we might also argue that the sacred bush was not the site of any substantial transmission of encyclopaedic knowledge, but a process with little or no doctrinal content, whose aim was not to transmit notions but to construct social differences. In Bourdieu’s words, it was a ‘rite of institution’ (Bourdieu 1990) that would seal the differences between those who had been initiated and those who had not. But this would have to be nuanced in two ways. First, the experience of being transformed should not be taken too lightly. As I have already said, the word tolom was once glossed as ‘pain’. ‘Tolom is each one’s pain, and nobody else can feel it’ someone told me. Initiations used to be very painful, even cruel, and I was told of cases in which boys had died as a consequence of the hard physical and psychological trials they had to endure. The ‘eating’ of the tolom was at the same time a collective experience and a profoundly individualistic one, the hard way towards selfmastery and self-control. Second, we would probably be missing something quite central to initiation if we kept contradicting the interviewees’ claims according to which there was some knowledge learnt in the bush: about medicinal plants, about the history of the village and about its social structure. This knowledge was probably not taught as in a classroom, but rather embedded in songs, rhythms, games or proverbs, as Blez Bangoura documented in his unique document on Baga Sitem male and female initiations (Bangoura 1974).


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Among other types of knowledge, one that was always singled out as linked to initiations was that of the structure of society. As has been said, despite introducing themselves as a homogeneous and egalitarian society, Baga Sitem villages are in fact composed of people with different status. Status can be referred to in ethnic terms (Baga vs Susu); in terms of ‘ethnic purity’ (Baga vs not-so- Baga people); in terms of human ownership (Baga vs strangers ‘of’ the Baga); and, more than anything else, in terms of order of arrival (firstcomers vs newcomers). ‘There is always a first Baga and a second Baga’ is a phrase I heard on many occasions, with which interviewees tried to sum up this seniority-based ethos; one of them once told me ‘here we are all Baga, but there are Baga and Baga’. I was consistently told that firstcomers had more land, more power and more rights than late arrivals. And while this is generally true, one should not therefore be persuaded that a ‘positive’ chronology of arrivals can explain everything. In fact, the ‘first arrival’ status is a very valuable cultural resource and a negotiable one too. One does not only become a ‘first arrival’ just by arriving ‘before’ others, but also by manipulating oral history, associating oneself with external power structures such as colonial chieftaincies and sometimes by converting to the right universal religion – in colonial times, in particular, there was a complicity between having ‘arrived first’ and being Christian. Sometimes, however, the status was non-negotiable, most notably in cases of an unambiguously ‘late arrival’. Some descent groups are made up of descendants of slaves bought by Baga (although slavery was consistently denied, a matter that I shall discuss in the following two chapters); others are composed of descendants of people who sought refuge among Baga Sitem but who came from elsewhere, for Baga Sitem boast a long tradition of granting asylum to refugees. In cases such as these there could be no manipulation of status, since everybody knows who these late arrivals are. Seniority lies, thus, at the heart of Baga Sitem identity and cultural history, no matter how strongly scholars have tried to present Baga Sitem as a homogeneous group. Among Baga themselves, social differences were never to be discussed in the abanka or public space, where all the members of the community were to be regarded as being equally ‘Baga’. It was only in the elders’ wood that one could discuss issues of hierarchies among descent groups. Let me provide an example to illustrate how complex and delicate these issues can be.The song that the initiates of a Baga Sitem spirit province I know of (province A) would sing at the end of the initiation (their teleng ta kikenc, or ‘song of the initiation’) clearly made fun of another spirit province (province B), because, so the song had it, the latter had initiated slaves in their kikenc. In the 1920s someone told the song to a French missionary, who spent many years in Guinea and who, like many others missionaries, wrote extensively on Guinean societies. He transcribed the lyrics of the song and published them in a missionary journal in 1927, in what ironically

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became the first text ever written in the Baga Sitem language. I later came across this journal in Paris. In 2001, some Baga elders from province A were very surprised to realise that I knew the lyrics of their kikenc song, and asked me not to repeat the words in the presence of people from province B because the latter would be greatly vexed. Issues of slavery are indeed very sensitive, and when I told them I had found the words written down in a missionary publication, they judged the missionary’s publication of the song to have been very irresponsible. A question I often discussed with interviewees was how this knowledge would be learnt (if at all) now that there are no longer initiations or afan. For instance, when I discussed the initiation song referred to above with elders from province A, I asked them whether the lack of the initiation ceremonies meant that future generations would not know about the ‘unclear’ origins of some of province B’s descent groups. Interestingly, one of them told me that this was the whole point about having given up initiations: so that Baga would become more egalitarian. Yet another told me that, despite the lack of initiations, people will always know that such and such a person is a descendant of first arrivals and such and such a person is a descendant of newcomers, non-Baga refugees or slaves. Significantly, perhaps, the first of these views came from a Muslim man who belonged to a descent group of newcomers that had been incorporated into another group three generations ago; while the second view was expressed by a Christian who belonged to the descent group that, oral history has it, founded one of the biggest spirit provinces – a landlord if ever there was one. While the first view claimed that by giving up initiations social inequalities had also been given up, the second perspective hoped that Baga will continue to find ways of reproducing such inequalities. Not surprisingly, whether Baga should return to initiations is still a lively debate. Together with kikenc, Baga Sitem youths had other cults, such as kebere acol (‘to enter medicine’), a cult for both men and women in which they learned to speak a secret language and they were given an additional name by which they would be known for the rest of their lives.16 There were some exclusive masculine cults such as kibere abol (‘to enter abol’), kidi amanco (‘to eat amanco’), or ter, a cult that only applied to some villages. Women also had their cult, called ateken, which only mothers could join and which was in charge of initiating girls into womanhood. Unlike boys, girls were only secluded for one month. For men, the highest cult was kidi amanco, to which they were initiated at a late stage in life. Once a man had ‘eaten amanco’ he was considered to be a wulipne (pl. alipne), someone who had ‘finished’ all the rituals to become a proper elder. Today, however, the concept of wulipne is only used in the village of Bukor, where the alipne constitute a distinguished group of elders quite important in the regulation of village affairs. Many told me


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that, in the past, only he who had been initiated into amanco could be said to be a real wubaka (pl. abaka, ‘Baga’).17 Thus, men use their initiation to stress their Baga-ness, and therefore sometimes imply that women are ‘less’ Baga than themselves. This is rather common in African notions of initiation and constructions of personhood. According to Françoise Héritier, for instance, Samo of Burkina Faso wonder whether women as persons are quite as complete as men (although it is not clear whether this worry was expressed to her by men, women, or both) (Héritier 1977: 73). Other ethnographic texts describe a similar lack of full personhood in women (cf. the Lugbara and Taita cases, as discussed in La Fontaine 1992: 92). Among Baga, things are slightly different. I have never heard any woman agree with men in this respect. They know that men boast about becoming Baga in their initiation, but they adopt a rather sarcastic attitude towards it. As a woman once told me: ‘Men can eat as many secrets as they want; they will never have the biggest secret of all.’ She was clearly referring to the ability to bear children. Initiation into manhood appears to be, among other things, an attempt by men to appropriate the reproductive forces of women. Women give birth, but men produce wubaka. Women’s relationship to Baga-ness, as mediated by the production of people, seems to be opposite to that of men. Men are made Baga by being initiated. Women have to make Baga in order to be initiated into their own cult, ateken. A woman with no children is not accepted into ateken; in fact, she is not considered a woman, wuran (pl. aran) but a child, wan wuran (pl. awut aran). Initiation puts a seal on womanhood, and so it is important that the children born are integrated within the social community. A woman who leaves a village and marries an ethnic stranger will not be accepted into ateken, even if she has children. The fact that today ateken is still a very active cult among women, while manhood initiation has been abandoned, makes people (including men) say that Baga traditions are today better kept by women than by men, a point I return to in Chapter 7. Of particular and crucial importance in Baga religious culture is the male spirit amanco ngopong, also known as kakilambe (its Susu name). It is difficult to know things about amanco ngopong (the ‘big amanco’) because he is always surrounded by a thick cloud of secrecy; in fact I am inclined to believe that he is a big cloud of secrecy – that secrecy is the very mechanism through which amanco ngopong is socially constructed in everyday interactions. People rarely mention his name, but use euphemisms such as wutem (‘old man’), aparan (‘grandfather’) or wurkun (‘man’). In the past, so people say, amanco ngopong appeared at the end of each initiation to welcome the initiated back into the village after their seclusion in the wood. Many people who saw these masquerades in the 1940s and 1950s say that amanco ngopong was represented as an imposing raffia-and-wood construct that could measure up to twenty metres in height. This object

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was last seen in 1948 in the province of Tako and 1954 in Mantung. On top of the construct was a wooden head, sometimes described as shaped like the head of a bird. Whenever amanco ngopong appeared in a village, the earth had to be ‘closed’. This ‘closing of the earth’ (kinger) meant that the village had to be ‘pure’ for a considerable period of time. During a kinger, people had to fast, they could not lie, they could have no illicit sexual activities, they could not cry and they could not mourn. Mothers, therefore, were unable to mourn children who had died during the six months’ seclusion in the bush, since the end of the seclusion coincided with the kinger and with the arrival of amanco ngopong. The good thing was that people could not die through witchcraft during the kinger. Amanco ngopong, like most Baga men, was very fond of palm wine, a beverage that is still considered part and parcel of Baga Sitem identity, even if many Baga are today Muslim and therefore do not drink alcohol.18 Whenever he appeared in a village at the end of a kikenc, part of the reception ceremony consisted of giving him huge quantities of palm wine poured from a high tree. According to some interviewees, the palm wine, introduced through his mouth, was then collected and drunk by some elders who were hidden inside the amanco ngopong construct. Some told me that the men inside the amanco ngopong formed a human tower, sitting on each others shoulders. The order in which they were located was hierarchical, the man sitting on top of the tower being a representative of the oldest descent group of the village or region at stake, and therefore the ‘owner of amanco ngopong’s head’. One of my interviewees, who is old enough to remember the 1948 and 1954 masquerades, told me that ‘the man sitting on top could do whatever he wanted, even urinate over the ones underneath him, and they would have no right to complain’. Thus the verticality of amanco ngopong sharply contrasts with the horizontality and egalitarianism with which Baga portray their councils of elders and their society in general. In this instance, the hierarchy of descent groups is expressed in terms of ownership of amanco ngopong’s head.19 The head is probably a real object, although it is difficult to know what kind of object. Someone once told me that any acol figure could be used as amanco ngopong’s head. Acol figures are the well-known bird-like sculptures kept in the ‘big house’ of each descent group, and used in a variety of well-being rituals (acol also means ‘medicine’).20 If it were true that the head of amanco ngopong was an acol figure, this could be a cunning example of Baga semiotic mastery at dissimulating, making an object be one thing in one context and a different thing in another context. We may have reservations about the reality of amanco ngopong’s physical appearance, since the descriptions we have are based on what people saw in 1948 and 1952, when they were very young and had just endured a sixmonth traumatic seclusion in the bush. Their memories of a twenty-metre


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high construct – let alone other reports based on hearsay – may be exaggerated. It is important to note, however, that this is how amanco ngopong appears in today’s religious imagination. People also recall that amanco ngopong had a voice, usually described as a howling. Sometimes amanco ngopong did not come into the village, but made himself known as a voice that could be heard from the bush. This voice had then to be interpreted and translated into Baga Sitem by an interpreter. According to many of the villagers, although amanco ngopong has not reappeared since the 1950s, his voice has been heard in recent times, showing that there is more ritual activity than meets the eye. There is room to suppose that amanco ngopong has always been based more in sound than in materiality, that it was in fact an ‘acoustic mask’, not uncommon in Africa (Lifschitz 1988). Certainly for those who have heard his voice in recent times (as recently as 2001) it is much more fearsome than any story about the materiality of amanco. In any case, we will never know of what the amanco ngopong performances of the past really consisted, but we know that today it is quite important for Baga people to remember, whether based on personal recollections or on other peoples’ stories, that amanco ngopong was a twenty-metre-high construct, with people inside drinking palm wine. All these initiatory cults were abandoned in 1956, mostly as the outcome of the iconoclastic movement led by the Muslim charismatic preacher Asekou Sayon. This iconoclastic event marked a transformation in Baga society and especially in its religious culture. It is therefore legitimate for Baga elders, especially those who lived in pre-iconoclastic times, to think that people born after 1957 are not as well-versed in the ‘mysteries’ of being Baga as they are.

3 Between a rock and a hard place: coastal mangroves in ­pre-colonial times One of the most interesting paradoxes in Baga historical accounts, whether oral history or scientific scholarship, is that between ‘continentality’ and ‘coastalness’. Baga farmers live and work in coastal mangroves, and specialise in swamp rice; they speak Atlantic languages and make ‘contracts’ with local spirits; they are good fishermen and excellent navigators in the tidal creeks, and in the past they believed that newborn babies came from the sea in canoes (Bangoura, M., no date: 34). Yet they also claim to come from elsewhere, especially from the Fouta Djallon highlands; the rice they call ‘Baga rice’ is the floating rice, which they believe is continental, not the mangrove-swamp rice; their most sacred tree is the silk-cotton tree, not the mangrove tree; and migration from the hinterland is such a fundamental identity characteristic that to most of my interviewees questioning Baga migrations was tantamount to a grave offence. Baga migrations have been explored by many authors and I offer no further analysis here.1 In this chapter I want to downplay migrations and highlight the importance of the mangrove ecology, with the Fouta Djall on its periphery, in shaping a distinct cultural identity. I want to show that the mangrove zone inhabited by peoples described in the sources as ‘Baga’ since the late fifteenth century (Hair 1967a, 1997) has been crucial in providing them with a distinct cultural identity. I also show that their peripheral connection to a pre-colonial Fula state is as important as the ecology. The presence of the Fouta on Baga geographical, social and historical horizons is so important that the historian Mohamed N’Daou once suggested to me that ‘if the Fouta did not exist, Baga would have had to invent it’ (personal communication, 1997). Paul Hair was the first scholar to prevent us from going too far in pursuing migration as an explanation for Upper Guinea Coast history, suggesting that we look instead at the genesis of communities on the coast itself (Hair 1967a: 268). The work of Eve Crowley on the coast of Guinea-Bissau was probably the first serious ethnographic attempt to look at things from such an angle. Her analysis, strongly motivated by Kopytoff’s model of the ‘social frontier’ (Kopytoff 1987), aimed at analysing the ‘distinctive social processes of community incorporation and differentiation’ in an area in which, traditionally, religious shrines ‘serve as a pole of attraction of outcasts, exiles, and refugees and provide the basis for their incorporation into small localised


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frontier provinces, existing on the margins of larger polities’ (Crowley 1990: 15). In the nineteenth century (and certainly before) similar processes of community incorporation were happening in the mangroves of what was to become ‘French Guinea’. From what we know, in pre-French times the coastal regions were beset with conflict, danger and uncertainty. In 1726 Muslim Fula launched the jihad in the Fouta Djall on that destabilised the whole region and is said to have pushed many unconverted non-Fula peoples to the coast. But the Fula were not the only predators in the region. People on the coast, especially in the big centres of Boffa and Boké, were engaged in slave trading.2 And to slave traders and Fula warriors we should add the upheavals caused by middlemen such as the Nalu, Landuma or Susu kings, all of them at variance with each other as well as with the Fula and with the traders and other early colonisers. A cursory look at Arcin’s monumental books on the Guinean coast (Arcin 1907, 1911) should convince anyone that at least in the nineteenth century the region was full of conflicts, litigations, wars and forced displacements. It seems that in those uncertain times, people escaping adverse situations were rather welcome in the mangroves, situated between the rock of the Fouta and the hard place of the slave traders, never fully controlled by nor completely out of reach of either. Baga farmers appear to have remained ‘free’ from these pressures most of the time, but this does not mean they did not participate in the general picture. As I shall show, far too often Baga have been portrayed as passive refugees in the mangroves (to some extent, a stereotype of their own making), and their very significant agency in the making of the Atlantic coast has not been recognised. The interface between passivity and agency is yet another interesting tension in the Baga historical imagination. This community incorporation was not achieved at random. Although oral traditions have a tendency to present the mangroves as previously inhabited, the fact is that the mangroves had been inhabited for many centuries, and therefore the incorporation of arrivals must have been, more often than not, a social fact and not the individual exploit of a lone adventurer. Utilising McGovern’s concepts (2004: 61), I want to postulate that this incorporation was achieved according to the ‘gerontocratic hierarchy’ principle3 in which seniority became a fundamental engine of political incorporation; strangers were welcomed because they increased the landlord’s wealth-in-people, necessary for mangrove clearing, rice farming, salt extraction and other coastal activities. Because of this mode of incorporation, there was always a built-in inequality between landlords and strangers, an inequality of which colonial and post-colonial times are the direct heirs. This chapter is an exercise in knitting together oral history and written documents to discover some elements in the region’s pre-French history that are crucial in understanding the historical developments discussed later in the book. First, I want to unearth the inner logic of community incorporation

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as described by Baga themselves. Second, I shall analyse the difficult issue of slavery among Baga, which so far has remained under-explored in Baga studies and feeds into the paradox of passivity and agency mentioned above. Third, I intend to show the importance of a landscape and its religious significance in the making of a distinct, non-Muslim, ‘Baga’ identity. Finally, I shall explore the paradoxes evident in pre-French political culture: while on the one hand Baga may be seen as a typical ‘decentralised’ society, on the other hand the presence in their narratives of pre-French ‘chiefs’ and ‘crowns’ may be a helpful clue to the relationship between the Baga and the Fouta, and the plausible genealogy of the French-imposed chieftaincies after 1886. uncles and nephews: the logics of asymmetric settlement

In her articles on Baga, Denise Paulme perceptively argued that Baga society was built upon a dualistic social structure, especially visible among the Bulongic.4 As for the Baga Sitem, she wrote that in several villages there were two categories of inhabitants: the Asuto and the Kulokinkaykosi. According to the information she was given, the Asuto were descendants of the first arrivals, ‘owners of the land’ and wife-givers, whereas the Kulokinkaykosi were newcomers and wife-receivers. Being landowners and wife-givers, the Asuto (or ‘parents-in-law’ as Paulme refers to them) had an ascendancy over the other group (their ‘sons-in-law’), and they were in charge of performing certain rice-related rituals that marked the opening of the sowing period as well as that of the harvest (Paulme 1956: 110). Paulme suggested that the word asuto stemmed from the verb kesuto, which she translated as ‘to find’, because these people would have been the ones who had found the place – the first inhabitants of the territory. Paulme reported that a third group of people, the Keita (a common Mande surname), had arrived later and had been incorporated into the dual structure. Thus, contrary to other Baga groups, which were organised on a strictly dualistic basis, the Sitem would have a tripartite organisation with the Asuto as first arrivals, the Kulokinkaykosi as second arrivals and the Keita as a third incoming group. Interviewees in Baga villages told me that the Keita were incorporated into the structure so that they could mediate in conflicts between the two main firstcoming groups. A similar point is made by Sankhon (1987: 20) about the Soumah (also a Mande surname), who are found as a characteristic ‘third element’ in southern Baga villages. In Baga political culture there seems to be an oscillation between ‘two-ness’ and ‘three-ness’, common to other political cultures of the Guinean region.5 While the presence of two elements seems to be enough to explain what one author has called the ‘asymmetric complementarity’ (Leopold 1991), a third, mediatory element, seems to be equally necessary in many instances to make the system work properly. I shall give more examples of mediation, and of ‘mediation crises’, later in this study.


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Paulme’s stay among Baga was a short one, and she even admitted having qualms about publishing what she considered to be mere provisional field notes (Paulme 1958: 407). We must be most grateful that she did decide to publish them, since she gave us the first serious description of how Baga farmers were living under colonial pressures. But with respect to the distinction between Asuto and Kulokinkaykosi descent groups, her picture is very unclear. When I double-checked her conclusions in Katako and surrounding villages, I came up with a different picture. Paulme was right in that there was a category of people called the Asuto, by which my Baga Sitem interviewees referred to a set of descent groups who claimed a common origin and who lived in the villages of Katako, Mare, Kakilenc, Bukor and Katongoro. In narratives I obtained in these villages the Asuto were portrayed as members of an association of hunters coming from Suto (whence their name),6 whose role was very important in some pre-French and early French colonial events. As far as Kulokinkaykosi were concerned, they were not, according to my findings, a category of people. Kulo kin kay ko siyi is simply a Baga Sitem phrase meaning ‘we are one single house (kulo)’7 and it is a statement often mentioned by members of a descent group to stress their corporate unity. Paulme probably misunderstood her interviewees. Furthermore, it was clear to me that the ascendancy of the Asuto descent groups over other people in the mid-1950s, when Paulme and Schaeffner stayed in Katako, was due to the colonial situation rather than to pre-colonial settlement patterns. In 1954, in fact, the chief of the colonial administrative unit ‘Canton Baga’ was Donat Camara, a direct descendant of the Asuto hunters as well as Paulme’s and Schaeffner’s host.8 This may serve as proof that the status of firstcomer, a most valuable symbolic resource, can be manipulated according to the general political context. The Asuto hunters were crucial in the creation of the village of Katako. They helped the men from Katambe and Kansomble – the oldest descent groups in Katako, according to many – chase away the Abunu, the inhabitants of Tolkoc, who wanted to invade them in Katakdare, a small hamlet in which the earliest inhabitants of Katako were living before founding the village. These wars are well remembered in both Katako and Tolkoc and are part of common lore, having gone into songs and proverbs as well as into the broad historical imagination. With the help of the Asuto, the Katambe and Kansomble won the war against the Abunu and founded Katako. As a token of gratitude, they gave a portion of land to the Asuto, who thus became their clients, and they also ‘gave’ them wives, thus making them their in-laws (their ‘nephews’). Before the appearance of the Asuto hunters in the story, there were only two main actors on the Katako side: Tepiri (first ancestor of the Katambe) and Sampil (first ancestor of the Kansomble). The two lived together in

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what appears to be a rather ‘symmetric’ complementarity, since they were described to me as living on equal terms. In these early days, Katako did not exist; it was just a bush into which the two ventured to hunt. Being a thick place it also offered protection against the fierce Abunu warriors. One day Tepiri, fearing an Abunu attack, decided to move to the bush with his wife and children, leaving Sampil behind. Only later did he invite the latter to joint him, and this is why today Katambe are considered as the ‘first arrivals’ in Katako, and Kansomble the ‘second arrivals’. Thus, the ‘symmetric’ complementarity was broken and an asymmetric one took over. Sampil was reported to me as a very intelligent man, who was fluent in Susu as well as in Baga Sitem, and he acted as intermediary between Tepiri and neighbouring peoples. One day, the story goes, Tepiri lost his flint stone and could not cook his meat; he and his family were condemned to eating raw meat and fermented rice for a long while. Sampil found the flint stone and bargained it back to his host. To retrieve the flint, Tepiri had to give the chieftaincy (debe) to Sampil. This nomination of Sampil as ‘chief’ of Katako accords to the rule, common to many African political cultures and also found in some written documents on Baga, that the chief (wube) of a village should never be a member of the founding descent group, but someone appointed by the founders (Bangoura 1972: 12). With the help of the Asuto, Tepiri and Sampil chased away the Abunu. Katako became a village with three main groups: the Katambe, the Kansomble and the Asuto, who were renamed Dikawe (lit. ‘under the silk-cotton tree’, since this is the area where they were placed by the Katambe landlords).9 Eventually, the chieftaincy was again transferred, this time from the Kansomble to the Dikawe. Why? Interestingly, I know two versions of events that account for this second transfer of power, and both of them give the lion’s share of the responsibility to the agency of women. The first version is to be found in a manuscript written by a Baga Sitem (Camara 1990: 65–6). In this version, the last Kansomble chief was married to a Dikawe woman. Following patrilineal succession rules, their son would have been the successor of the chief. However, they did not have any male children, and the woman stole the ‘crown’ from her husband and gave it to her brothers. Thus, the descent group of Dikawe became the ruling line. The second version, which I collected in Katako in 2003, openly contradicts the first. Again, it has it that the last Kansomble chief was married and that he and his wife could not produce any male offspring. However, in this instance the wife was not a Dikawe. Rather, it was the chief’s sister who was married to a Dikawe man, and she had a son. This son, the chief’s uterine nephew, became very fond of his mother’s brother and looked after him in his last days, when the chief was old and blind (the mother insisted that her brother should live with them in Dikawe because no one in their native Kansomble was looking after him properly). Because he was living with


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his sister’s family when he died, the ‘crown’ passed down to the nephew, Baki Camara, who thus became, according to this version, the first Dikawe chief. These two versions reflect different aspects of the relationships between husbands, wives and sisters. In the first version, the woman steals her husband’s crown and gives it to her brothers. This narrative accords to the general view that husband and wife, despite living together, are strangers to each other and, more generally, that a woman is a stranger in the descent group into which she is married. Yet this should not make us think that Baga men mistrust their wives because the latter are more loyal to their own descent group. This is sometimes the case, but as often mistrust is aimed in another direction: Baga men mistrust their sisters because they are married to another descent group and become the mothers of people belonging to another group. This is clear in some oral traditions in which women, in times of war, ‘betrayed’ their brothers to support their own children.10 This view is implicit in the second version of the power transfer, in which it is through the Kansomble sister that the power goes from her descent group into that of her husband and son. All the versions I obtained in the field were variations of this last one, agreeing that the Asuto were not the first arrivals but the ‘nephews’ of the Kansomble people. Still today, the descendants of Baki address any member of Sampil’s descent group as their ‘mother’s brother’ (ncoko, pl. anco), and the latter refer to them as their ‘sisters’ sons’ (wurok, pl. arok). Because the uterine nephew is regarded as a mediator between descent groups,11 Baga historians see the nomination of Baki, nephew of the previous chief, as perfectly legitimate, whatever the reasons behind the uterine transfer of power were. As one interviewee put it: ‘we Baga did not like the chieftaincy, this is why we gave it to our nephews’.12 The tendency to describe landowners as ‘uncles’ and subordinate descent groups as ‘nephews’ is common to many West African societies. To some extent this is because landowners’ classificatory sisters married the strangers. But the metaphorical idiom of ‘uncles’ and ‘nephews’ goes beyond strict kinship ties and is used to express power relations between different layers of people, living on what Leopold, working on Loma, has called an ‘asymmetric complementarity’ (see Leopold 1991 on ‘uncles’ and ‘nephews’ among Loma; cf. McGovern 2004). According to some written sources, however, the nomination of a Dikawe chief had nothing to do with women and a lot to do with Nalu and French rulers. According to some sources, it was the Nalu king Youra Towel who, in 1863, in a successful attempt at reinforcing his power on the coast to contest Fula hegemony, nominated Baki as one of his chiefs (Camara, E. S., no date: 27). Youra Towel eventually signed a treaty with the French in 1866, which made him the king of the Rio Nuñez (Arcin 1911: 336). The authority of Youra Towel over coastal peoples may have been so weak as to encourage

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revolts against him: certainly one such revolt was led by Baga farmers in 1869 (Méo 1919: 289). But in 1885 the French sent Lieutenant Coffinières de Nordeck to the Rio Nuñez. In his presence, several Baga, Nalu and other coastal chiefs signed treaties in which they admitted that France possessed ‘suzerainty’ and that Youra Towel was the king of the whole region of the Rio Nuñez on behalf of the French (for a detailed account of these treaties, see Figarol 1911 and Diallo 1974: 74–7). As from 1886, Baki appears in several French sources as the first ‘Baga chief’. Despite my disagreement with Paulme’s view of the Asuto (‘firstcomers’ according to her interpretation, later arrivals according to mine), I hasten to add that her articles were very innovative in highlighting the layers of arrivals and in fuelling the study of Baga settlement patterns, breaking up the meta-narrative of a massive migration from the Fouta. They helped me to be wary of too stereotypical historical versions. Although I was often told in Guinea that Baga had come from elsewhere, my interviewees were reluctant to discuss the order of arrival. There was a tendency to present the Baga as a homogeneous group, with no internal differences, and as more or less having settled in the region at the same time. Because seniority is such an important aspect of Baga ethos, pointing out who the first arrivals were in a village would be tantamount to unearthing social differences. ‘A Baga person will never tell you they are “strangers” of someone else; everybody here wants to be a firstcomer’, old Albert told me in 2003. This seems to be the main structural problem among Baga: everybody is searching for ways to climb from strangerhood to nativeness, and the first step is to deny social differences to strangers like me. It took me many months to start collecting notions of village history, as well as to learn that history was not to be explicitly told, but that one had to gather it from disseminated clues. ‘I am not going to tell you who the first inhabitants of this village were, but if you look at the way houses are laid out in the village, you should be able to gather it for yourself’ an elderly man (about 70 years old) told me in 2003. Yet things were never that easy, for Baga people were far too smart to lay out their villages in such a way as to be read like a book by a stranger. landlords, strangers and spirits

Central to Baga historical notions is the ‘landlords and strangers’ pattern, typical of the political culture of the Upper Guinea Coast (Dorjahn and Fyfe 1962; Rodney 1970; Mouser 1975; Brooks 1993; Richards 1996). According to this pattern, people placed themselves under the aegis of a host or landlord who offered protection while building up his social capital. When discussing the relationship between landlords and strangers, Mahmoud, a Muslim man, told me in 2003 (when he was around 75 years old) that most of the people composing any Baga village today were late arrivals. ‘Now we are outnumbered’ he concluded, meaning that there were


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more late arrivals than landlords. And he added: ‘We say we are all Baga, but in reality there are more strangers [acikra] than Baga.’ He also insisted that everybody in the Dabaka was landlord and stranger to someone else, a point to which I shall come back. According to his explanations a person in need of protection might go to a village and place himself or herself under the protection of a descent group or of a whole abanka. If the people of this abanka accepted the stranger, their amanco would grant protection over them. Even if the person had strong enemies in their original village, or if they were escaping punishment, nobody would do anything to them once a descent group had promised protection. The model implied that if people from descent group A incorporated individual B, who later incorporated C, then A would be responsible for the wellbeing of both B and C. B could give C a portion of his dry land, but if he wanted to give mangrove fields as well he would have to ask the permission of A. A would then decide whether the land for the new stranger should come from his own land or from the lot A had already given to B. The chain of landlord/strangers could be much more complex (C could have a stranger, D, and decide to give him some land too), but the original landlords had to be well informed of who had incorporated whom and who had given rice fields to whom. In one of the conversations with Mahmoud, he told me that since landlords were now disappearing, nobody could know any longer who gave land to whom, and the ones who could settle such disputes were dying out, making conflicts very difficult to end. ‘Being a landlord is very hard,’ he told me, ‘because it is not just about being above your strangers; it is about looking after their welfare too.’ In a later conversation on what I would call the ‘ethics of landlordship’, he told me that this was the difference between Baga landlords (wubakcerne, pl. abakcerne) and current administrative and political chiefs (wube pl. abe). Unlike Baga landlords, modern abe no longer care for the welfare of the land, but only for their own benefit. Obviously he was presenting a very ideal picture of what a landlord is like. Unfortunately, he could not conceal the inequalities inherent in the system: ‘I have the whole territory in my hand’ the old man told me, opening out his hand towards me. I have no doubt that he meant that, as a well-intentioned ‘big man’, his humane duty was to look after ‘his’ people, but as I looked at his opened hand in front of me, I found myself reflecting on the image of the Sierra Leoneian ‘rebels’ cutting off the hands of their enemies in a conflict that, as some recent analysts have argued (Richards et al. 2004), owes quite a lot to the built-in inequalities of pre-colonial political culture.13 As we shall see, until the end of colonial times public chiefs, including clearly pro-colonialist ones, were appointed by land-owning descent groups. For instance, the chiefs of the Dikawe descent group – Baki’s descendants – were all ‘crowned’ in a rather complex and discreet ceremony by the members of the Katambe descent group who were the landlords of the Tako spirit

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province.Yet, this crowning ceremony was no longer performed following the arrival in power of Sékou Touré in 1958. The chiefs imposed by Sékou Touré’s party (PDG-RDA) were seen as so blatantly illegitimate that Baga landlords refused to have anything to do with them. As I explain in Chapter 4, this had not been the case with their predecessors, the chiefs imposed by the French in colonial times, whose authority had always been sanctioned by what Baga called their ‘custom’. In an interview with Albert, a Christian man (around 65 years old in 2003), I was told that Baga had three different categories of people: first, there were the aka dotof (sing. wuka dotof, lit. ‘those of the territory’), although literal autochthony was always denied and oral history, no matter how contested, clearly had it that everybody arrived from elsewhere. Second, there were the newcomers, ader (sing. wuder, lit. ‘those who come’), who were clients of the first group. Third, there were the strangers, acikra (sing. wucikra), who were also subordinates to the Baga. This category, in this particular classification, included people from other ethno-linguistic groups who lived among the Baga, such as the Balanta, the Jakhanke or the Susu (in most Baga villages people from other ethnic groups clearly outnumbered the Baga population).Yet other interviewees used the category of wucikra to mean ‘stranger’ in general, and sometimes to mean anybody incorporated into Baga-ness and dependent on a landlord. When I asked other Baga interviewees about the ader, they told me that these were the people who lived among Baga but whose true ethnic identity was another. As we have seen in the previous chapter, among Baga Sitem one could find people whose ancestors had been Nalu, Landuma, Susu, Fula, Baga Koba, Bulongic and even Loma – a group living on the border between Guinea and Liberia, more than a thousand kilometres away from the Baga regions. Following yet another classification, other interviewees told me the ader could also include Baga Sitem people who, for personal reasons, had decided to leave their village and placed themselves under the tutelage of a descent group in another village. According to explanations obtained in Baga villages, there were two modes of ethnic incorporation. In the first mode, the person to be incorporated lost their ethnic identity; learned to speak the Baga language; learned to work in the mangrove rice fields as Baga do; moved to a Baga abanka; married a Baga person; and, put simply, became Baga. In the second mode, the person kept their distinct identity and became a public stranger of the landlord; lived at a distance, in a separate abanka; and, typically, farmed upland rice. It was never fully clarified to me what factors determined which modality of incorporation was to be applied. Some Baga interviewees told me that this depended on the will of the person to be incorporated, while others told me it depended on the will of the landlord. In general, though, my interviewees agreed that for a male stranger to be fully incorporated he had to show appropriate behaviour: be respectful of Baga customs; be keen on learning; and


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show a secretive attitude. Once the landlord had observed the stranger for a few years and become convinced of his will and aptitude to become Baga, the former would discuss the matter with other elders of the descent group. If it was agreed that the stranger deserved it, they would initiate him into Baganess, although only very rarely would a stranger be admitted into the highest male initiations. Apart from giving them ritual knowledge and shelter, landlords also arranged marriages between these strangers and women from their descent group, and through these women they gave land as well. This way of transmitting land was against the normal run of things (normally, a woman would never take land from her descent group to the descent group she was marrying into) and it was not really a gift: if the woman and the stranger did not have male children, the land would return to the land-owning descent group. If they had male children, then the land would be inherited by these. In principle, members of the descent group of the woman through whom land had been bestowed could not claim the land back; in some of the land conflicts that have come to my attention recently, however, people have been claiming land given by their ancestors to strangers some generations ago. The elderly Baga I interviewed respected an unwritten understanding that land leased more than thirty years before could not be claimed by the land-giving descent group; it became the property of the man who had borrowed it (or of his descendant). Yet, as land has become a scarcer resource, more and more conflicts have arisen between landlords and late arrivals, whether incorporated into Baga-ness or not. Apart from the general division between landlords and different categories of strangers discussed here, other categories of inhabitants should be brought into the picture. Below, I discuss the case of the slave (wucar, pl. acar). For now, suffice it to say that although Baga present themselves as a homogeneous group, underneath the stereotype of homogeneity there is a complex reality that conceals many inequalities. As a Baga man once told me, ‘Here we are all Baga, but there are Baga and Baga.’ Another one, less cryptically, said: ‘We are all Baga, but there are the first Baga and the later Baga.’ This is one aspect of Baga ethos that should not be ignored lest we give too naïve a view of Baga society. Recently, a Guinean agronomist working on a project in the Baga region told me (reporting a conflict in which some Mikhifore people were asked to give land back to their Baga landlords) that Baga were a very generous people, but that they liked being reminded that they were the landlords of the region. As I said above, I was once told that everybody, whether landlord or stranger, was a stranger to someone else. This claim may seem to contradict the classification according to which some Baga people were native (wuka dotof).Yet, the point my interviewee was making was that even the first human arrivals had to admit being strangers to the spirits of the territory (ngonk nga dotof; pl. yonk ya datof) who were the real autochthons, since they, as opposed

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to humans, did not come from anywhere else. Most of the Baga narratives I collected insisted that when the first human beings arrived in the region inhabited today, there was nobody there. Most of these narratives spoke of a solitary hunter who discovered a place while hunting, and then went to fetch his brother or brothers further into the hinterland and they all cleared the place and settled it. But in order for people to be able to live in this area the first arrival or arrivals had to sign a contract (kiderem) with the spirit of the earth, who most of the time was associated with a silk-cotton tree. This contract, I was once told by an elderly man, was signed using the leaf of the kilop tree, the strangler fig (Ficus spp.), an epiphyte that grows up using the trunk and branches of an older tree of any other species (see Figure 3.1). The contract implied that the ngonk would let humans live in the region, but they would have to give several things in exchange – chicken, goats, palm wine, kola nuts – depending on the importance of the ngonk. Contracts with the ngonk had to be renewed periodically in order for the land to remain in good condition. Ignoring a contract could have disastrous consequences, and indeed disastrous situations have recently been interpreted as neglect of overdue spiritual contracts. The territorial scope of a spirit followed a segmentary logic. For instance, the three Baga Sitem villages of Katako, Mare and Kakilenc formed a unit that Baga called Tako. Likewise the three villages of Bukor, Kufen and Kalikse formed another one called Mantung. People in Tako claimed that the first arrival in Tako signed a contract with the ngonk of Tako. Yet this did not preclude people in the village of Mare, for instance, from claiming that they had their own ngonk with whom the first arrival to Mare had signed a contract. But they admitted that their ngonk was subordinate to the ngonk of Tako, which lived in a silk-cotton tree in the village of Katako (the central and oldest of the three villages) and who owned the whole of the Tako territory. The same structure applied to Mantung. Thus, while the border between Mantung and Tako was a natural one (a river), it also coincided with spiritual boundaries. This segmentary spiritual structure implied that the descent group that was in charge of the ngonk of Tako could intervene in land conflicts within the Tako province, but not in Mantung. In the past, conflicts between Mantung and Tako were resolved by an intermediary spirit living in the river that separates the two territories. This spirit was a snake that, properly invoked, could become a bridge so that people from one territory could go to the other.14 It was through progressive incorporation, following this landlord-andstrangers chain, that the mangroves were populated and that such a difficult ecosystem was domesticated and converted into a place where humans could live, work and find some protection and shelter. Both Atlantic slave traders, on the one hand, and Muslim slave raiders on the other seem to have stopped at the muddy doors of the Baga territory. But in this uncertain frontier, things were always more complex than they looked.


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Figure 3.1 A strangler fig on a palm tree (Photo: Marina P. Temudo, Mare, Guinea, 2003)

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n o r o o m f o r s l ave s ?

No matter what their diverse origins are, the coastal peoples seem to have constructed their ethnic identity by expressing opposition to external pressures. Baga reaction to these agents has been more often than not to hide deeper in the mangroves rather than to engage in open rebellion. This is particularly true of the northern Baga, those occupying today’s Dabaka. This group has developed what Murray Last, in his work on the non-Muslim Maguzawa of Kano and Katsina in northern Nigeria, called an ‘isolationist rationale’ (Last 1980: 6). One of the legacies of this rationale, as far as Baga are concerned, was a denial of anything related to slavery. When, intrigued by Albert’s challenge (p. 9) I started to ask what the very word wubaka (‘Baga’) meant, the answer I often obtained was ‘a Baga is a free person’. Eventually I was given many different opinions about what this word meant and I came to the conclusion that the meaning of wubaka is one of the hardest things to grasp in Baga notions of the person (Sarró 2005). Yet, the explicit opposition between wubaka (pl. abaka) and wucar (pl. acar; slave) came up in many interviews. Many insisted that the difference between Baga and other people of the region was that Baga had never bought or sold human beings. Accordingly, and basing my knowledge on both oral and written sources, I was led to believe that, despite living on the African coast and surrounded by peoples who were actively involved in the slave trade, Baga had nothing to do with it.Yet at some point during my fieldwork I heard about a man who had died in unclear circumstances. The event had happened only a few years before my arrival. The man had publicly announced that he would not let his son marry his girlfriend because she was, according to him, from a descent group of slaves. Some time later the man died, and his death, according to various interviewees, was a punishment of amanco ngopong for having said things in public that ought to be discussed only in the seclusion of the sacred bush, if at all. This made me realise that I was basing my perceptions on stereotypes, not on facts. Later I heard of many other examples testifying to social inequalities provoked by the presence of slaves (or descendants of slaves) in the community. In 1994, Aly, an old Muslim man who had been particularly open with me about social inequalities, recalled with pity the death of a friend of his who, several years before, had committed suicide because his slave origin was one day revealed publicly. The old man told me that one of the problems of Baga society is the fact that people do not always want to admit having been involved in slavery. But stereotypes are not only found in oral accounts. Like many other coastal groups, Baga have been consistently reported in the scholarly literature as not having had anything to do with the slave trade, even if they were producers of commodities linked to the trade (such as rice and salt) and if they were living very close to major slave-trading ports. For many


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authors, mangrove dwellers were people who had sought refuge on the coast, escaping different adverse social conditions in the hinterland. They were, as French scholarship had it, refoulés, people pushed towards the coast by Mande and Fula pressures from the hinterland (see Cormier Salem et al. 1999 for a thorough review of how mangroves have been perceived at different times). For authors subscribing to this view, the slave trade did not much affect the mangroves: it was something that had to do with Europeans, on the one hand, and Fula and Mande centralised states on the other, with the big coastal ports in between. If they counted at all, the mangroves were a reservoir which Fula and Mande slave raiders could tap for slaves, or a refuge area where the latter could hide. Some historians have chosen the Baga as an example of a people who ‘refused to participate in the slave trade’ (Iliffe 1995: 129) or who ‘resisted’ it (Carney 2001: 71). There are sound reasons in the sources to support these views. The lack of involvement of the Baga in the slave trade and/or their dislike of slaves had been observed, for instance, at the end of the eighteenth century by the British slaver Samuel Gamble (Mouser 2002) and the British traveller Thomas Winterbottom (Winterbottom [1803] 1969). But most of the accounts are ambiguous enough to invite us to rethink the delicate relationship between Baga and slavery. A good, and indeed ambiguous, description of the isolationist and elusive attitude of coastal Baga is given by the slave trader Theophilus Conneau, who was based in Boffa during much of the first half of the nineteenth century. He paid a visit to the Baga people in 1827 and described them as those ‘worthy Africans, which in honesty could be compared with the most civilised nations of the world’ (Conneau 1977: 99). Conneau went on: This Bager [sic] nation have a language of their own … They live and intermarry in their own solitary tribes, they inhabit the muddy shores of the rivers, and as their occupation is boiling salt in the dry season and making palm oil in the rainy, their abodes are necessarily built in the flat and swampy entrance of the river borders …   After a very tedious pull we arrived at a narrow creek, and with difficulty pushed our canoe through the mangrove branches which intercepted it and finally landed on a mud bank which we had to waddle through knee deep before we reached the more solid shore … The old gentleman … said that they, the Bagers, were neither Sosoos nor white men; that a stranger’s property was as safe as their own; that their labor supplied them with food and all the necessities of life, that they had no need to steal from their guests or to sell one another. The Bager man is of a dark color and middling in size, but broad in shoulders. They are neither brave nor war like, and as they live separate from the contact of other tribes they are never at variance.   A Foulah [Fula] law protects them from foreign violence (being salt-makers, this is their prerogative). Salt is regarded in the Interior

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as one of the greatest necessities of life, and its makers are under the safeguard of this law …   I have said that they do not sell one another, but they often buy children of both sexes and adopt them, and I am not aware that they dispose of them afterwards. (Conneau 1977: 99–103) This passage contains some interesting contradictions. On the one hand, Baga are described as a people living ‘in their own solitary tribes’ and ‘separate from the contact of other tribes’. Yet, on the other hand, the reference to a ‘Foulah law’ that protected them as salt producers hints at a closer contact with peoples of the interior. Furthermore, despite indicating that Baga did not marry outsiders, Conneau mentions that Baga bought slave children of both sexes to adopt them (and hence, one may speculate, eventually to marry them). This is a crucial point that hints at the paradox of Baga slavery, the way in which it is both documented and denied: they bought human beings, but it was to make them Baga, not slaves. The paradoxical view of Conneau, far from being an exception, offers a very early example of the contradictions and ambiguities still found in current discourses about ‘Baga-ness’. Baga, and certainly Baga Sitem among whom I lived, have internalised this stereotype of a mangrove people apart from the rest, and this is what they are inclined to present to the foreigner: an isolated, elusive, endogamous, and highly secretive Baga. It is my contention, in fact, that Baga have found a refuge not only in the mangroves of the coast, but also in the stereotype of a mangrove people: a stereotype that they have learnt to cultivate and manipulate in order to maintain and present the ideal of an ‘independent people’. The situation is similar to the case of the Maguzawa mentioned above, for whom ‘the pre-­ Islamic “bush image” turns out to be a consciously cultivated stereotype and serves as a protective camouflage, while the interest in innovation serves to develop their existing “niche”, not to transform it’ (Last 1980: 6). Fifty years after Theophilus Conneau visited the Baga, another French visitor, the above-mentioned Lieutenant André Coffinières de Nordeck, pointed out that the Baga land offered asylum to other peoples of the area, which again gives some support to the idea that ‘protection’ was based not only on a natural ecosystem, but also on certain associated social understandings: In these lands, the Bagataye [‘Bagaland’, in Susu] is considered as a place of asylum. One cannot fight in it, and indeed I have never seen a Baga with weapons. It is for this reason that the Baga did once give the territory of Kassan to the [Nalu] families of Camfarandi and Catinu so that they placed their slaves in complete security. When these two villages were destroyed, their inhabitants moved to Kassan. That explains the presence of this Nalu village among the Baga. Dinah


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[the Nalu king] told me a more convincing example of this right of asylum: … According to the laws of the country, his sister Mahmadi, widow of the late [Nalu] chief Bundu, should have married Bundu’s son Karimu, but she refused to abide by such customs and fled to the Baga with her children. Karimu has promised to kill her if he ever finds her. (Coffinières de Nordeck 1886: 292; my translation and parentheses) When discussing the formation of the Mikhifore group, Claude Maclaud also noted that Baga (and their Landuma neighbours) granted asylum to slaves fleeing Fouta Djallon (Maclaud 1906: 22). And in the same year the French colonial administrator A. Chevrier wrote: [Baga] do not admit slavery and prefer death to the loss of freedom. They claim that they cannot live in captivity and that those among them who have been taken as war prisoners and who have not been re-bought by their family have not lived long. The runaway slaves from neighbouring countries who have come here asking for asylum, or those that they have bought, are admitted in the community as free country men. (Chevrier 1906: 370; my translation and parenthesis) That Baga were ‘protected’ by the mangroves was a typical nineteenthcentury opinion. Similarly, in late-colonial administrative documents one often reads about the anger of administrators over Baga ‘anarchy’ and their use of the mangroves as a refuge from colonial control.15 And in 1957 Jacques Champaud wrote in a historical review of sources that Baga, unlike other groups of the region, were ‘protected by the forest and by the swamps’ and could, therefore, ‘maintain a certain independence and escape from [Fula] control’ (Champaud 1957: 7; my translation). This is mostly true, but ‘natural’ protection might be a slight exaggeration; more ‘institutional’ aspects, such as the ‘Fulah law’ mentioned by Conneau or a possible ‘right of asylum’ suggested in other sources, need to be further explored to know exactly how Baga interacted with their neighbours so as to lead most visitors to believe they had nothing to do with the major events around them. All these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century views on mangrove protection have created the image that mangrove dwellers were just refugees living outside major historical trends. Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem has identified this view as a major pitfall in the historical reconstruction of the Upper Guinea Coast (Cormier-Salem et al. 1999: 160–3). Another pitfall, however, is the insistence of some authors, including to some extent Cormier-Salem and her team, on presenting the decentralised coastal societies of the Upper Guinea Coast as egalitarian and without slavery, in strong contrast to the centralised states of the region; in this they follow a classic, if somewhat rigid, political divide between coastal (decentralised, egalitarian,

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with no slaves) and hinterland (centralised, hierarchical, slave-trading) societies typical of surveys of the region (Rodney 1970; Barry 1998: 31; Cormier-Salem et al. 1999: 162). Only recently have these models been challenged by studies that present coastal dwellers as both refugees and active makers of the history of the region. Walter Hawthorne’s study of Balanta history is a case in point (Hawthorne 2003). He argues that even the most decentralised groups in the mangrove region, such as Balanta, normally portrayed in the literature as providers of slaves, were also engaged in raiding and selling. It was not a properly organised slave economy like that of the Fula, but at certain times, for example, Balanta might sell as slaves people from their communities who were tried and found guilty of anti-social behaviour, a procedure also reported among Nalu and Landuma, closer to Baga.16 Hawthorne collapses the rigid divide between refuge and agency in such a way that his work opens up an entirely new line of research as far as the Guinea-Bissauan/Guinean coast region is concerned. He shows that Balanta searched for refuge in the mangroves, and yet were actively involved in the political economy of the region. The two things were not incompatible. Another interesting point he makes, again useful for scholars on Baga history, is that it would be impossible to think of Balanta as completely isolated in their mangroves without contact with other peoples, when they actually needed iron to produce the digging edge of their kayendo (a very similar plough to the Baga kop). Hawthorne argues that Balanta were probably selling slaves for iron.17 Robert Baum’s study of Diola of Casamance (Baum 1999) and Rosalind Shaw’s study of Temne of Sierra Leone (Shaw 2002) are two further innovative analyses of the legacy of slavery among coastal peoples that many authors, following Rodney’s historical model, had considered largely unaffected by the trade. Although it is difficult to assess the degree of involvement of Baga farmers in slavery in pre-French times, I think we ought at least to suspect that, like everybody else in this uncertain region, they were living under the general ‘political economy of predation’ (McGovern 2004: 52–82) and that they probably participated in it in a much more active way than is normally acknowledged. Only if we take into account this involvement, together with the asymmetries inherent in the landlord/stranger model, will we be able to consider from a suitably longue durée perspective later violent developments, such as the iconoclastic movement at the end of the colonial period or tragic everyday events such as the ones with which I opened this section. contested spiritscapes

Eve Crowley has reminded us that the coastal forests ‘served as a shield against European intrusions from the Atlantic ocean’ (Crowley 2000: 116).


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Oral traditions testify to the exploitation of the mangrove environment as a means of protection, notably against Fula raiders. Here I would like to highlight the religious dimension of this protective landscape: it is not only that the landscape protected in its ‘nature’, but also that it was populated by spirits that often took a particularly anti-Fula and anti-Muslim angle. Among Baga Sitem, for instance, a legend refers to the tidal creeks that separate one village from another. Whoever tries to cross the creek speaking Fulfulde (the Fula language) will be drowned instantly by the spirit of the waters (cf. Bangoura, no date: 14). As stated above, a key element of the Baga landscape is the silk-cotton or kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra). This tree is not only present in many narratives of the making of Baga cultural and geographical identity,18 but also became a bone of contention in the iconoclastic movement of 1956, in which huge silk-cotton trees, associated with the ritual powers of the elders, were violently destroyed in the making of a Muslim public space by the rebellious Muslim youths. In his dissertation on Baga rice farming, Théodore Camara described the silk-cotton tree as a crucial element in the making of a distinctive Baga territory and in monitoring control over ‘strangers’: This enormous sacred tree that has always provided refuge to the Baga people; it is under the silk-cotton tree that most Baga ceremonies would take place, so that other ethnic groups would not dare to approach whenever they were in the Baga land. In fact, approaching most silk-cotton trees was forbidden to most strangers, wherever they came from. (Camara 1966: 50; my translation) Avelino Teixeira da Mota also wrote on the cultural significance of the silk-cotton tree for the Upper Guinea Coast. Drawing on unfinished and unpublished research by the geographer Jacques Richard-Molard,19 Teixeira da Mota observed that the word polom, which means silk-cotton tree in Guinea-Bissauan Kriol, is possibly linked to the root bulom found in different languages along the whole Upper Guinea Coast to designate either the swampy low lands, the tidal creeks, the flooded rice fields (bolanhas in Kriol) or the people living in these areas: In Guinea-Bissau one finds furthermore that the root bulom designates some irãs [spirits] among the Papeis and Beafades, which allows us to conclude that the word poilão (polom in Kriol), used to designate the sacred trees (Ceiba pentandra) that protect the houses and villages and constitute refuge for spirits as well as ritual places, is also derived from it. Geography, way of life, and animism are thus intimately linked through this curious root! (Mota 1954, vol. I: 286; my translation from Portuguese)

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It is precisely this religious landscape, this mixture of mangroves, silkcotton trees, and oil palms (as well as palm wine) that has given the Baga their coastal character. We shall see that while the Muslims took a rather aggressive stance against this religious landscape, Catholic missionaries, who started proselytising the Baga in the late nineteenth century, took a rather sympathetic view of what, following Teixeira da Mota, we might call the ‘animistic geography’ and its anti-Fula elements. In the mid-1990s, when drinking palm wine with some Catholic interviewees in a Baga Sitem village, I was told of a Baga hero who, in the days of slave raiders, deflected a team of Fula invaders by placing a huge container of recently tapped palm wine in the middle of the road. Because palm wine is white, and because of its quick fermentation upon extraction, the liquid looked as though it was boiling milk. The Fula horsemen, bemused because they did not understand how milk could boil without any fire underneath, feared the Baga mystic arts and left the area. Another story that testifies to this alliance between Baga and the environment had a more tragic ending for the Fula horsemen. The story was written down by the missionaries Arsène Mell and Raymond Lerouge, and is still told in the regions of Bukor, Monchon and surrounding villages. According to this story, a group of some thirty Fula men got lost in the mangroves and were killed by Baga men in an ambush. The skulls of these Fula, together with a horse’s head, were kept in a hut under the supervision of Kamphori Youra, a famous ritual specialist who died in the late 1920s and whose feats remain alive in Baga memory.20 ‘They are here’, said Youra to Lerouge when he first showed the skulls to him, ‘to remind the Baga of the protection that they have been granted against their enemies from the east’ (Lerouge 1917: 103; my translation). In a later visit, Youra explained to Lerouge: These Fula wanted to kill us, but they did not know our swamps; they sank into the mud. When all of them were stuck in the mud, the elders from Monchon came with large knifes and killed them as easily as when we cut the heads off the rice plants when they become yellow … Later on the vultures had a feast. They did not leave anything but the bones. There they are … Allah nun Porto-Mori Foulahs mabiriria! (‘God and the Priest against the Fula!’). (Lerouge 1930a: 10–11; my translation )21 In an annual ritual, according to a description found in the journals of Father Mell, who became well acquainted with Kamphori Youra, Baga men gathered in this hut and drank palm wine using one of the skulls as a vessel (Lerouge 1927: 150). However, it is also worth noting that this interesting story has come to our notice via two Catholic missionaries who befriended Youra, a heavy palm-wine drinker who in the last year of his life converted to Christianity. It


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is more than likely that Youra told them such an anti-Muslim story because he knew they would like it. In fact, as we shall see in the next chapter, the French missionaries who, after the 1870s, began to approach the Baga populations between Boffa and Boké became very active agents in the making of a distinct Baga history. In particular, they quickly learned to manipulate to their own ends the opposition between the ‘animistic’ mangroves and the Muslim highlands. An equally revealing missionary narrative, also opposing mangrove to Fouta and ‘west’ to ‘east’, was gathered by Balez – another important shaper of a distinct Baga identity who, significantly enough, was the author of the first map of the Baga territory, today adorning a wall at the Mission of Katako: One day, says the legend, a small group of Baga who had, a long time before, left towards the west were possessed by the need to go back eastwards, or rather to see once again their birth land. But were they just responding to this feeling? It seems not.  We find here, once again, the traditional, general idea about the great feats of a tribe. ‘The second year after they left Egypt’, we read in the Bible, ‘Moses sent twelve men in advance … in order to consider the land of Canaan. Forty days later, they came back and showed the fruits of the [Promised] land to the whole crowd …’   Our maritime Baga, in order to encourage their relatives, accomplished a similar demonstration. They went eastwards with some boughs of a mangrove tree. It was meant to tell their relatives: ‘See the good place, the good soil, the Promised Land’. Well, they did not need more than that to start the migration.  What does it matter whether this legend is true or false? The fact is that, for at least several centuries, the Baga have created in the swamps some magnificent farming areas. (Balez 1930a: 8–9; my translation) This is a typical example of how Catholic missionaries helped Baga to make a synthesis between historical and religious narratives. In the next chapter we shall see that, particularly among Baga Sitem, French missionaries such as Lerouge, Balez, Montels and many others became instrumental in reinforcing an anti-Muslim sentiment and a Baga identity – especially, curiously enough, among landlords’ descent groups. Today, most narratives about a distinct Baga history are produced by people educated at missions. t h e c r ow n o f t i m b o : e x p l o r i n g a p r e - c o l o n i a l political imag ination

We saw at the beginning of this chapter that Baga make a distinction between landlords and chiefs. I have also mentioned the transfer of the crown in the Tako spirit province from the Kansomble to the Dikawe descent group. Elders from different villages told me, in all sorts of detail, how the two-day

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crowning ceremony (kides wube, ‘to settle a chief’) was done until 1958 (post-colonial chiefs are not settled by landlords, but voted in by villagers). Although they were talking about colonial chiefs, they insisted that the ceremony had been inherited from pre-French times and that Baga had always had chiefs. If questioning migration was tantamount to an insult, so was questioning the existence of a pre-colonial central power and describing Baga society as ‘decentralised’. Although I doubt we can ever have a clear picture of pre-French political systems, I want to explore here how the scant information we have about chiefs and crowns relates to our understanding of the political culture of the Baga frontier. In general terms, as has been argued, Baga villagers make a clear opposition between the place where they live (Dabaka) and the place where they come from (Fouta), which they were forced to leave for religious reasons. A good example of this view is found in the compilation of oral history edited by Mohammed Bangoura: The Baga [when they were still in the Fouta], aware of the Fula threat, decided to strengthen the unity around their Supreme Spirit Amantsho [amanco ngopong] and to reject any tendency towards reconversion suggested by the sovereign of the Fula. They decided to use all their fetishist power in order to respond to the attack of the Fula strangers. (Bangoura, no date: 10; my translation and parentheses) Although the Fula jihad cannot be the ultimate explanation of where ‘the’ Baga came from, the Fouta narratives probably express some precolonial relationship between Baga and the Fouta. Collecting oral history in several villages, I realised that villagers tended to group Baga villages in sets of provinces described in the previous chapter as ‘spirit provinces’. The reasons behind this territorial partition were never clarified. Various explanations were advanced: that the partition was purely linguistic; that it was done according to the order of arrival of ancestors; that it corresponded to who the male initiatory spirit was and to whether initiations into manhood were celebrated together; that each province was created according to the place of origin of its founding ancestor. Thus, Tako would come from Labé, Mantung from Timbo, the Baga Pukor from Binani and the Bulongic, or at least some of them, from Timbi-Madina. As for the Abunu, living in Tolkoc, they would be from Bundu, not a Fouta place, but again an important Muslim centre in West Africa, with which the Fouta kept religious and trading links. The exact relationship of each of these groups with their ‘place of origin’ in the Fouta is not clear. It seems to me that the Fouta horizon works like a totemic reference grid to differentiate groups that are also different in terms of language and initiation rites. It is possible that the straightforward narrative of ‘origins’ hides a much more complex set of political and trading relationships.


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To support this, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to a few scattered references to Baga royal crowns, linked in one way or another to the Fouta. In a letter written in the early 1950s, representatives of Dupuru (a Baga Kakissa village) asked the commandant de cercle of Boffa to recreate the then recently annulled Canton Sobané, which comprised the Baga Kakissa villages. In the letter, they explained that they did not want to be part of Canton Monchon (in which many Baga Kakissa villages had been included after Canton Sobané was annulled) because there were too many Susu people there, and the Susu were, according to this letter, the ‘guests’ of the Baga. They claimed that theirs was an area inhabited only by Baga people, and recalled having had too many wars against the Susu. The letter finished with an interesting reference to these wars and to an enigmatic crown: We have had wars against Kolissokho and Lakhata. Thia? No wars with them. It is they who have crowned us. They themselves have the crown of Timbo … The Baga must have a Baga chief.22 (my translation) This letter testifies to an intermediary political role played by the Susu kings of  Thia between the Baga Kakissa and the Fula from Timbo, a situation that needs further examination. I should add that Baga Kakissa villagers I was able to interview in Guinea claimed that the origin of their group was also in Timbo. In the Baga Sitem village of Bukor (in Mantung spirit province) I was also told that there is a crown that the people of Mantung had carried with them in their migration from the Fouta. I comment below on references to other crowns. What exactly was the political situation of the Baga prior to the impositions of chiefs by the French? Information is often blatantly paradoxical. Peter McLachlan, who visited the Baga in 1821, wrote that ‘The natives who reside at Capachez are … poor and miserable, and in a shocking state of barbarism; they have no kings nor headmen’ (McLachlan 1999: 13). Yet in another part of his narrative he had written that ‘the only Mahometans among the Bagas are the chiefs’ (McLachlan 1999: 8). I suspect that we cannot reconstruct with certainty the so called ‘pre-­ colonial’ political system, not only because we lack the necessary elements, but also because it most probably was a very fluid situation, and one in which generalisation can only be made from a very ‘ethnicised’ view of ‘the’ Baga, which probably would not work in pre-French times. Not all Baga groups lived under the same pressures; even a single group, like the Baga Sitem, sometimes lived under the political domination of the Fouta (or, as was the case when the French arrived, of the Nalu), while at other times they may have escaped such control. In today’s historical and political imagery, Baga present themselves equally as having been ruled by chiefs and as having been

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decentralised and ruled by more or less democratic ‘councils of elders’. Sékou Béka Bangoura observed this paradox: Timbo would come from the deformation of the Sitem word for ‘cap’. For the holders of this hypothesis, the cap is the symbol of the crown, of the chieftaincy. Thus, all the Baga coming from Timbo would be the holders of the power to enthrone the chiefs of their village (but they could not be chiefs themselves). As far as we are concerned, this hypothesis appears difficult to subscribe to in as much as we observe the absence among the Baga Sitem of a centralised political power. The second hypothesis seems likely … Timbo would come from the deformation of timba or tamba, a sacred drum of Baga sacred bushes. This agrees with the etymology given by the Nalu, who claim that timbo comes from the word matimba, equally the sacred drum of Nalu secret societies. Whenever there is a ritual ceremony, the timba and matimba would call the initiated into the sacred forest. (Bangoura 1972: 12; my translation) These kinds of etymologies are of course very unconvincing, but let us retain the association between the capital of the Fouta state (Timbo), Baga sacred bushes (timba) and Baga ‘caps’ (timbi). Caps and turbans are powerful Muslim symbols, and it is likely that if ever Baga chiefs have been imposed by Fula overlords, they would have been ‘crowned’ with a turban or a cap. If Baga of Mantung relate Timbo to their sacred wood, so do Baga of Tako, when they say that ‘Sebe Labé’ (a cryptic phrase mixing the concept of sebe, ‘writing’, with the name of the biggest city of the Fouta) was an important element of their sacred wood. In many migration narratives, Baga of Mantung are said to come from Timbo, while those of Tako come from Labé. The Islamic centres of the Fouta Djallon appear as totemic referents to distinguish spirit provinces of the Dabaka: Timbo for Tako, Labé for Mantung, Timbi-Madina for another spirit province. The cities of the Fouta map the Baga religious landscape. One wonders whether this Muslim map of the spirit provinces may be the memory of a pre-colonial regional system of trade and political connections between the Fouta and the coast. Interviewees were in general unable to develop this point any further. Besides, being information acquired in the sacred wood it was not a topic they wanted to discuss with strangers beyond the superficial level I have just described. The most explicit reference to a crown among Baga, and to its direct links with the Fouta Islamic and trading centres, is to be found in a story collected by Sekouba Sinayoko (Sinayoko 1938). This story recounted how three Fula men left the Fouta and settled in the region of Monchon in order to monitor the trade between Timbo and the port of Yampon. When the oldest of these died, their sons, who despite being Fula had become palm


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wine drinkers and mangrove rice farmers (or, to put it in a nutshell, ‘Baga’), broke all links with their metropolis. This was perceived as an outrage by Timbo’s authorities and accordingly they sent an army to regain control of the frontier region. At first, the Fula army was defeated by the defectors of Monchon with the typical trick of the ‘palm wine boiling’, but eventually Timbo’s warriors managed to regain control of the region. They selected a man from the descent group of Ndiopon to be the chief and ‘the Baga Fore [Bulongic] entered under the tutelage of the Fula’ (Sinayoko 1938: 60). The crown mentioned in this story had a limited sovereignty over the province of Monchon. Unfortunately, how long this ‘Fula tutelage’ of the Bulongic lasted was not recorded in the story. It is not difficult to imagine that this new chief appointed by Timbo’s overlords, or his sons, would eventually start to drink palm wine and to farm mangrove rice. Jack Goody, discussing a similarly fluid situation between the largely acephalous Tallensi and the neighbouring centralised state of Mamprusi in the north of Ghana, spoke of an ‘ebb and flow of boundaries (or rather of control areas)’ of centralised states (Goody 1977: 344). It is equally possible that some Baga groups, given a similar ‘ebb and flow’ of Fula-controlled areas,23 had been controlled directly at some point by Fula authorities who would have nominated a man to be their chief. Goody, anticipating Kopytoff’s influential 1987 article, drew a parallel between this political culture and the typical frontier culture Frederick Turner had described. Gradually the uncertain frontier was given an increasingly ‘concrete’ reality: gerontocratic relations of power became reified with the imposition of the French rulers; ‘Baga’ territory became geographically defined and fixed; the opposition between Baga and strangers, particularly Susu, was essentialised; and the opposition between Islam and ‘paganism’, supported by French colonialism and French missionaries, became more and more violent. It is to this more concrete, well-remembered and better-­documented history that we shall now turn our attention.

4 chiefs, customs and territory: the legacy of french rule

on cultural f atigue

Many of my interviewees, when I asked them why they joined Asekou Sayon in his 1956 jihad, replied with statements such as ‘because we were tired of our custom’ or ‘because our custom was too heavy a burden’. By ‘custom’ I am either translating what French speakers call coutume or what Baga Sitem speakers call mes mabaka (literally ‘the deeds or things of Baga’). Baga Sitem also use on occasion the hybrid expression kutum kabaka, testifying to the role of the French in formulating the concept (kutum being of course an adaptation of the French coutume). Since the passage of Sayon is interpreted by Baga as the end of a period and of certain customs, it is necessary to describe this period and these customs in order to contextualise the movement and to understand why Baga youth were tired of what they perceived to be their customs in 1956. The twin concepts of ‘chieftaincy’ and ‘custom’ epitomise the pressures under which Baga lived from the early twentieth century until 1957. Indeed, it was no coincidence that the main objective of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), the leading agent in the anti-colonial movement, was the abolition of the despotic ‘customary chieftaincy’ created by the French. The RDA even created a martyr to its cause in M’Balia Camara, a female militant who died after being wounded by a customary chief in the coastal region of Dubreka early in 1955 (Cowan 1962: 185; Rivière 1977: 72). Although, at the political level, the abolition of the system of colonial chieftaincies in Guinea (an aim achieved in December 1957) has been the focus of specialised political studies (Ameillon 1964; Suret-Canale 1966; Ramsis 1993), the actual ethnography of how Guineans lived under French-imposed chiefs and of how the RDA and other political agents tried to undermine chieftaincies remains something of a lacuna in Guinean historiography, with some notable recent exceptions (McGovern 2004; Schmidt 2005). In this chapter I show how Baga farmers became ‘tired’ of their custom and why they craved social change at the end of the French period. While providing a background for the events that follow, this chapter will also try to exemplify the contradictions of French colonialism, offering a concrete picture of what Balandier called the ‘colonial situation’ (Balandier 1955), but also showing that this colonial situation needs to be historicised,


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as Frederick Cooper has recently argued (Cooper 2005a). French colonialism was not the same thing before the First World War as after it, and this is equally true of the periods on either side of the Second World War. As a constantly changing process rather than a ‘thing’, French colonialism was very important for the making of Baga (and many other peoples) as a contemporary ethnic group in post-colonial Guinea. A proper understanding of the reception of Asekou Sayon requires a knowledge of the burden farmers suffered in colonial times, but also of their own strategies to embrace at village level the politics of citizenship promised by de Gaulle in 1944. As Cooper has cogently argued, the practice of this politics is a crucial, albeit somewhat neglected, aspect of the process of decolonisation in French-speaking Africa (Cooper 2005b). I start my analysis with the effects of the territorialisation along clearly ethnic lines that the French attempted with the creation of the territorial units called cantons. The intentions behind this territorialisation are not quite clear. Some authors, including Mamdani in his influential book on late colonialism (Mamdani 1996), seem to believe that the rationale for the cantons was ‘divide and rule’. However, the work of one of the theoreticians of territorial administration in French West Africa, William Merlaud-Ponty, suggests that behind what the French called ‘the politics of race’ we might also find a more humane motive, more in tune with the general notion that a ‘civilising mission’ directed French colonialism and aimed at helping minor ethnic groups to administer themselves and at protecting them against the tyranny of larger (and, very often, Muslim) groups such as the Fula and the Malinké (cf. the famous circular written by Merlaud-Ponty in 1909, first made available in Marty 1915 and thoroughly discussed in Conklin 1997: 109–19). It is also true, however, that these intentions did not deliver the ‘democratic’ goods that the theoreticians of French colonial rule seem to have expected. Crucial to my analysis is the notion of custom as a hybrid result of colonial rule and native agency. I do not mean, of course, that before French colonialism there were no customs (in the sense of rules to govern behaviour and social order) or that Baga customs (or ethnicity) were an ‘invention of tradition’ in colonial times. Obviously such an argument would be difficult to sustain, and there is sufficient evidence that ethnic divisions and differentiations existed well before the creation of French cantons. Yet Baga culture as it exists today can only be seen as a product of historical sedimentation and not as a primordial entity continuing to drive social and religious change. With colonialism came several things that are now part and parcel of Baga identity: world religions, a strong sense of Baga ethnicity, a notion of territory. Colonial rule also produced among Baga farmers the awareness that there was something explicitly ‘customary’ in their doings, and the conviction that it was this ‘customary’ aspect of their lived world that was

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keeping them ‘behind’ and clearly disadvantaged vis-à-vis the world that now surrounded them. There was a burden they needed to shed: they had to get rid of their ‘custom’. the delimitation of ‘baga’ ter r itor y

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the French had signed a series of treaties with the Nalu kings and some Baga leaders, by means of which Baga were placed under the rule of the Nalu king Youra Towel and his minister Dina Salifou. The most explicit of these treaties was that of 1885. According to documentation in the Boké archives, the French began to administer Baga Sitem villages in 1886, when they nominated Baki as Baga chief.1 Yet Baga territory was only very loosely defined in those early days. French documents sometimes speak of a ‘Baga region’, other times of a ‘Baga province’, and sometimes of a ‘Baga canton’. I return to this point below. After the First World War, however, a new, better-defined territorial administration appeared. The French divided their African territories into cercles, each one containing various cantons. While each cercle was to be ruled by a French commandant de cercle, each of its cantons was to be ruled by a native chief, who in turn would have as his subordinates the chiefs of the villages under his territorial sovereignty. Although the French referred to the cantons as ‘traditional’ or ‘customary’ chieftaincies, they were aware that in many cases cantons were created where no centralised political unity had existed before. The Guinean coast between Rio Pongo and Rio Nuñez was divided into two cercles, Boké and Boffa, each with several cantons. Those that contained Baga people were Canton Koba, Canton Sobané, Canton Monchon and Canton Bigori (these two later became a single canton, Monchon-Bigori) in the cercle of Boffa, and Canton Baga in the cercle of Boké. When we look at the archives of these cantons, it becomes apparent that the appointment of canton chiefs created despotic rulers. But people’s memories inform us more vividly than documents that chiefs were despots who stole land, rice and often women belonging to farmers. As a Baga Sitem school teacher remembered in 2003: ‘When a chief had to settle a land conflict between two parties, he often resolved to keep the land for himself; and the same thing applied to women wanting a divorce: he would settle the problem by keeping the woman for himself.’ In fact, many land conflicts today go back to the times when colonial chiefs applied this rather un-Solomonic strategy of conflict resolution and appropriated the disputed lands for themselves. An extreme example is that of Canton Sobané of Boffa, which housed the four villages that comprised the pre-colonial territory known in the sources as Kakissa. Under the leadership of the Soumah chiefly descent group, by 1938 Canton Sobané had become such a difficult place to live in that


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most of its population had fled elsewhere, either to other parts of Guinea or abroad to Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau.2 According to documents consulted in Boffa, the main complaint addressed to the French administration was that ‘Bokary Soumah [the canton chief from 1932 onwards] is chasing the strangers out of the canton.’ It is difficult to establish who these ‘strangers’ were. In any case, by 1945, when the canton had been officially abolished and the possibility of attaching the four villages to Canton Monchon-Bigori (then ruled by a Susu chief) was seriously contemplated, the elders of one of the four villages wrote letters to the commandant de cercle of Boffa insisting that they did not want to be ruled by Susu. They stated that the Susu were strangers to the Baga, and that their own region was ‘pure’ Baga and should be ruled by Baga. Although extreme, this case shows the contradictions of canton administration.Whatever the intentions behind the creation of the cantons, in reality, French colonial administration created an ideal situation for some sectors of the population to claim ritual or historical ‘seniority’ and despotically to subordinate the ‘strangers’ of their canton. I am not claiming that before the French administration subordination did not exist, or that strangers were not perceived as outsiders. In fact, structural inequalities were included in the very processes of community incorporation, as has been argued in the previous chapter. The French, however, supported the divisions between natives and strangers and provided a whole set of strategies to legitimise them. One such strategy was preferring ‘customary’ chiefs to strangers and forcing people to legitimise their candidacies to chiefdoms by proving their links with chiefly native descent groups. The region we know today as the Dabaka, shared by Baga Sitem, Baga Pokur and Bulongic, was in colonial times divided into three different cantons. In the cercle of Boffa, Canton Monchon housed mainly Bulongic people, while Canton Bigori housed the Baga Sitem villages of Bukor, Danci, and Kalikse. These two cantons became a single entity in 1927, Canton Monchon-Bigori. Canton Baga in the cercle of Boké housed about fifteen Baga Sitem villages and two Baga Pokur villages, plus the Susu village of Bintimodia, then an important maritime port. A complete historical reconstruction of the Dabaka would include archival research on Canton Monchon-Bigori, but such research has become virtually impossible: most of the archival material regarding this canton, previously housed in the prefectural archives of Boffa, has been lost. A careful analysis of Canton Baga of Boké, however, will provide sufficient insight into the legacy of the colonial administration and explain both the singularity of the Baga Sitem vis-à-vis other Baga groups and the conditions that made them feel so ‘tired’ by the end of colonial times. One of the aspects that distinguish Baga Sitem/Pokur history from that of their neighbouring Bulongic was the incorporation of the so-called world

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religions during cantonal times. Like other Baga groups, the Bulongic had been approached by missionaries from the Mission of Boffa before the end of the nineteenth century – ‘successfully’ approached, from the missionary point of view. Yet by the early twentieth century the missionaries had abandoned all efforts in Monchon (as well as in Sobane, which had also been a promising centre for the missionaries of Boffa in the late nineteenth century) and concentrated instead on the Baga Sitem, whom they approached through the Mission of Boké. In the early 1970s, the historian Djibril Tamsir Niane led a research team that conducted valuable oral research on the history of the different Baga groups and produced a series of unpublished texts about them. These documents reveal that the first chief of Canton Monchon, Almami Oumar (or Oumaourou),3 a Bulongic man, made a vigorous attempt to introduce Islam into the region and to ban, with violence when necessary, many aspects of the non-Muslim religious culture which marked the identity of the Bulongic both for the French and for the surrounding Muslim peoples. In one of the documents collected by Niane, the rhetoric attributed to Almami Oumar is clearly ‘developmentalist’: Oumar saw the religious cults as keeping his Bulongic subjects backward, and he wanted them to move forward, from a past night of darkness towards a future day of light: … I would like every effort to be made to place those of Monchon’s children living in the locality into the Qur’anic school. Everybody knows that the days follow each other and they are not alike. So, every man living in the dark night of unknowing that characterises our time must strive so that our children do not fall into that abyss, offering them the favourable conditions for their future blooming, so that each father avoids a bitter regret tomorrow. (Anon. n.d.: 4; my translation from French) In this quotation, purportedly Almami Oumar’s own words as recalled by his son Demba Camara (interviewed by Niane’s team in the early 1970s), we can see Islam and Qur’anic education invoked as a progressive path to the future (we must take acount, however, that the words recalled by Demba, were filtered through Sékou Touré’s rhetoric). As part of this ­religious effort, in 1929 Oumar took violent action against Bulongic cults, destroying important ritual objects and worship places. This religious ‘cleansing’, however, was limited to the Bulongic villages and did not concern the Baga Sitem villages of Bukor, Danci or Kalikse, even though at that time they were under Chief Oumar’s rule. According to a document I found in the Boffa prefectural archives, in 1927 the Catholic Baga Sitem community of Bukor forbade Almami Oumar to enter their village. It is interesting to note that, according to David Berliner, who conducted fieldwork in Monchon, Oumar is remembered among Bulongic in rather positive terms (Berliner


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2002b), while in my interviews with elderly people in Bukor he was remembered with clear disgust and as a very despotic chief. Thus, while for Bulongic Islam appeared as a modernising force, with an explicitly negative view of local cults, Baga Sitem seemed not to accept this religion (even if, as I will show, there were attempts to introduce it) and instead kept a very strong attachment to Christianity, an institution that also had a rather derogatory opinion of Baga cults but seemed more interested in protecting Baga individuals from Islamic encroachment than in destroying their non-Christian cults. I shall argue that this not only helped keep Baga Sitem away from Islam, but also contributed to isolating them and to hardening the ethnicised geographic limits imposed by the French. c h i e f s , t a xe s a n d s t r a n g e r s

Ruling Baga was far from easy. Arcin noted that by 1898 the French administrator Commandant Milanini found it very difficult to obtain taxes from Baga. In one of his visits to Baga Sitem villages, Milanini was threatened with death by Baga women who wanted to attack him with their pestles, and he had to spend a night in his canoe (Arcin 1911: 647). In Tolkoc, Kuffen and Monchon, farmers did not want to be counted in a census. They presented Milanini with a stalk of rice, a palm leaf and a drum, to show him that all they wanted to do was to farm rice, drink palm wine, dance to music – and not be involved in French politics (Arcin 1911: 647). Taxes had been introduced in Guinea in 1892. In the beginning, they were set at two French francs per person, or ten francs per ‘house’ (under the assumption that there was an average of five people per ‘house’ – however, how French administrators defined an African ‘house’ is far from clear). According to Arcin, by the end of the nineteenth century there were many Sierra Leonean traders who supported Baga and encouraged them not to pay taxes (Arcin 1911: 647). Yet in an earlier book the same writer had offered a somewhat different view of the traders. He had explained that Baga, who collected palm nuts at the end of the dry season to make palm oil, did not let traders collect such nuts for themselves during this time. Only after Baga had finished collecting the palm nuts could traders start collecting the leftovers for themselves, well into the rainy season. According to Arcin, traders obtained their revenge by buying rice from Baga cheaply at harvest and then reselling it at a great profit months later when rice was scarce; traders could only do this, he added, because they could count on the support of the French (Arcin 1907).4 Despite these discrepant views of the trader–Baga relationship and the lack of further information (it is not even clear whether Arcin is talking about the same category of traders), it is clear that the introduction of cash taxes created upheavals, social cleavages and periods of hunger which still live in people’s memories. I gained valuable historical insights into the consequences of the intro-

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duction of cash taxes from the elderly Mahmoud in August and September 2003. He started by telling me that when cash was introduced, there were people who took advantage, giving farmers tiny amounts of money in exchange for large quantities of rice. ‘This made granaries go empty,’ he insisted, against other interviewees who claimed that in the past such periods of hunger were unknown to the Baga. The new tax regime affected the neighbouring ethnic groups even more, since their rice fields were smaller. Therefore, people from other regions started to come to the Baga Sitem territory and pawn their young boys and girls in exchange for either rice or money (it is not clear which: in one conversation, Mahmoud told me that Baga gave money for children, but in another he told me they could only give rice). In this way, Baga landlords increased their labour force and their wealth-in-people. But we should not make a clean distinction between Baga as buyers and other ethnic groups as sellers. Social inequalities struck at the very heart of Baga groups. Many Baga farmers were also compelled to entrust their children to wealthier farmers, who in return would pay their taxes. This was not slavery (dacar), Mahmoud insisted, because at the end of an agreed period, the boys would return to their houses, but it was vexing all the same and eventually Baga made an oath (derem) to ban this exchange. According to Mahmoud, Baga never sold people (nor were they ever sold to anyone), but they did buy people.5 At first, individuals bought by Baga farmers would live in a separate hamlet: ‘If you go to H. [the name of one such hamlet]’, Mahmoud told me, ‘you will still see the mango trees that my grandparents’ slaves planted.’ Eventually, however, many of them would be incorporated into mainstream descent groups, either because Baga farmers wanted them in marriage (in the case of young women) or simply because they had grown to care for them. Feelings of pity (nonofor) were cited by Mahmoud as instrumental in compelling people to free slaves. Freeing them was a complex ceremony: it implied the sacrifice of a cow and much rice and palm wine.6 ‘This is why today there are many strangers among us,’ he concluded. And later, when I was struggling to obtain further clarification, he added: ‘Now that we have made an oath [derem] not to speak of slavery or to identify who the slaves were, it is difficult [cuncufa] to speak about it.’ Because of this difficulty, obtaining information about slavery was almost impossible. Yet Mahmoud was not the only one to talk about it, and the valuable information he shared with me was mostly consistent with similar conversations I had had with an elderly Muslim man from Katongoro, who told me that slaves cost four French francs. The late Father Pierre (a Baga Catholic priest), told me in 1996 that even nowadays, when you go to the Dabaka, people often point out the places where slaves were sold and bought – never in Baga Sitem villages, but in neighbouring Susu ones. Some other interviewees were also relatively open about the topic. Of course this is a very delicate issue that I did not pursue too far, but even the scanty infor-


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mation obtained suffices to show that early French colonialism resulted in an increase in the social inequalities that lie at the root of the upheavals we are going to examine in this and the following chapters. But first we must consider another source of social differentiation linked to the arrival of the French: religion. the rise of christianity

Baki Camara, on whom the French relied heavily from 1886 onwards and to whom they often referred as ‘the king of Baga’, was not the only person the French trusted. Another very important chief of the pre-canton years was the Muslim Amara Touré, chief of Katongoro between 1909 and 1919 (with interruptions), whose qualities convinced the French that ‘this village chief would make a good canton chief’.7 It is worth noting that the degree of ambivalence in French cultivation of both the Touré of Kondeyire (one of the three cibanka of Katongoro) and the Camara of Katako was accompanied by religious tensions between these two descent groups. The Touré were in fact a Bulongic descent group which had been incorporated into Baga Sitem relatively recently (probably one generation before Amara), and they were, according to oral history, the first Muslim people among Baga Sitem. Touré is not a Baga family name but a Mande one, and this descent group is the only one to bear this name in the whole Baga Sitem territory. Some interviewees told me that the Touré converted to Islam and changed to a Mande name so as to escape their junior ritual status among Baga Sitem and acquire seniority through Islam. In 1909, the year of Amara’s appointment, the Touré built in Kondeyire the first mosque among Baga Sitem and they started to Islamise the population of Katongoro. In 1913 a woman, probably a Touré, was killed in that village for attempting to introduce female circumcision,8 and in 1914 the Touré housed a sharif who led a revolt against French administration.9 Although the chief of the abanka of Pintankla, Youssouf Camara (like Baki Camara, a member of the Asuto discussed in the previous chapter), wanted the missionaries to settle in his abanka, the missionaries wrote, as early as 1909, that Katongoro was ‘too contaminated by Mahometanism’10 and started to cultivate their relations with Katako, where they would eventually build a big mission. Baki Camara, like his relative Youssouf Camara from Pintankla, was also growing closer to the missionaries. In this crucial year of 1909, he gave some land to the missionaries to build a case de passage in Katako; in 1912 a small chapel was built in his territory; and in the late 1920s he was christened shortly before he died. His brother Tongo was reported by Raymond Lerouge to be the missionaries’ best ally and the ‘strongest enemy against Islam’ in the region.11 According to an interviewee, Tongo was christened by Lerouge upon his deathbed, as Baki had been.

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Catholic missionaries had been active among Baga Sitem since 1898. They were quickly accepted by many land-owning descent groups, and an interesting combination of Christianity and local cults took place. Christian missionaries disliked many aspects of Baga culture, yet they never tried to ban initiations or palm wine drinking. Some Baga saw in Christianity an ally in facing Islam, which as we have just seen was mounting strong pressure in Katongoro as well as in surrounding non-Baga villages. In 2003, Albert, the local historian whom we have met in earlier chapters, explained to me that the members of the descent group of Katambe realised very early that by converting to Christianity they were protecting themselves against the increasing presence of Islam in neighbouring villages such as Katongoro or the Bulongic regions. They gave lands to the missionaries, trusted them with their children and converted to their religion. The first Baga catechist in Guinea was Eugène Caro Bangoura, a man from the Katambe descent group. Eugène was responsible for a unique synthesis between the Baga and Christian religious cultures. Because he had been initiated into the highest cults, Eugène was allowed to enter the afan in order to continue to catechise the young boys who were secluded in the sacred bush during their six-month initiation, and who in this way could follow a double religious instruction: they were introduced into Baga and Christian mysteries at the same time.12 Eugène Caro died well before I started my fieldwork, but in 1995, while doing archival research at the archives of the Pères du St-Esprit in Chevilly Larue (France), I had the opportunity to meet with the old Monsignor de Milleville (b. 1912) who had been a priest at the Mission of Katako between 1945 and 1953 (Vieira 1999: 226). De Milleville described Eugène’s synthesis; he also told me that, as well as entering the forest to instruct the children in Christianity, Eugène also managed to get authorisation from the ritual elders to allow the children to leave the forest at Easter and follow the Christian services – although they had to do so in full disguise and at times when non-initiated children and women would not see them. Albert told me that from the beginning people who converted to Christianity had the advantage of being exempt from forced labour, and even the ‘customary’ duties imposed upon them by ritual elders were lower than those expected of unconverted people. That there was an alliance between Christianity and ‘custom’ is quite a common statement among Baga Sitem today. I heard it in 1996 from the mouth of an elderly Muslim man from Katongoro (but not a descendant of the Touré) who was complaining that, because of this alliance, Islam had long faced obstacles within the Dabaka. More precisely, his argument was that had Baga of Katako not been supported by the French missionaries, the chieftaincy would have been given to the Touré, and today Islam would be stronger in Baga territory. The last testimonies I collected on the combination between Christianity and ‘custom’ came in 2001 and 2003, on both


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occasions from elderly Christian interviewees. Both drew my attention to the fact that the descent groups who first introduced Islam among Baga Sitem were late arrivals who lived under the ritual pressures of the landowning descent groups, and who saw in Islam a religion that would ‘liberate’ them. It is true that in the village of Katako the first people to send children away from Baga territory to study Islam (in Gabu and the Fouta Djallon) belonged to a descent group that was clearly a client of the Katambe. This group, moreover, eventually changed the name of its abanka to Missira, a clearly Muslim name and one which was also adopted by the people of Kabace, a small hamlet next to Katongoro (although recently people have reverted to using its Baga name). A similar pattern applied to Mare, as well as to Bukor. In any case, people sent to Gabu or to the Fouta did not return until the early 1940s, and the first Qur’anic school in Missira (Katongoro) was only opened in 1948 (it was not very successful, closing in 1952). Yet we should not assume a direct link between being a landlord and being Christian. Landlords became interested in Christianity because they saw in it a way to keep their prerogatives, but I suspect (although I cannot marshal evidence to support this) that some converted to Christianity, or became attached to the mission, precisely to gain power in a society where they had a junior status. This was probably the case with the Asuto men from Katongoro and from Katako we have just discussed. From being the junior group vis-à-vis the Katambe and the Kansomble, the Dikawe and other Asuto descent groups soon became the chiefs. By 1912 there were chapels in many Baga Sitem villages, and by the late 1920s almost all villages (except for Katongoro) had a strong Christian presence. It is quite common today to hear Christian people say that Christianity was more tolerant than Islam towards Baga cults, and to blame Muslims for the final abandonment of Baga cultural heritage. Christianity, they say, had many points in common with Baga ritual life: for instance it did not forbid the palm wine drinking which played an essential role in Baga cults. Another element often mentioned in support of this encounter between Baga cults and Christianity is the use of palm leaves. As in many other West African societies, palms leaves were used in Baga religious culture to mark a sacred spot, to forbid entrance to non-initiated people, and to celebrate the arrival of masks, headdresses and other ritual presences. The fact that palm leaves also play a very significant role in Christian symbolism and narratives, especially those associated with Easter, is seen by local interpreters as an element that facilitated the incorporation of Christianity into their local world-view, and vice versa. f u l a h e g e m o ny

What needs be recalled, in order to return to our main narrative, is that before the creation of cantons in 1922 the French were very imprecise about

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territorial limits and sovereignty. In some documents, for instance, ‘Katako’ was used not only to refer to what was later to be the village of Katako, but also to what the French called, very vaguely, a ‘group’, containing Bintimodia (by then an important port of the cercle of Boké), Mare, Kakilenc, Katongoro, Kawass, and Kamsar.13 In another document, Amara Touré of Katongoro was called ‘provincial chief’ without any explanation of what a ‘province’ or, more particularly, ‘his’ province was. In 1915, according to a missionary source, there was a political division among Baga because the administration appointed Amara as chief ‘not only of the village of Katongoro, but of the whole Baga-ta, who do not want anything to do with him’.14 The fact that both Baki Camara and Amara Touré ruled at certain periods over such huge territories created confusion later, and still in 1938 French texts talked about Baki Camara as the ‘first canton chief of Baga’, which may or may not be true, depending on what we understand by ‘canton’. At the same time, people from Katongoro were (and still are) convinced that the first canton chief was Amara Touré, probably because the French identified him by soubriquets such as ‘chief of the Baga province’ or ‘chief of Baga’. Both Amara and Baki were very good chiefs by French standards – collecting taxes, increasing rice and palm oil production, and conscripting so-called ‘volunteer’ soldiers in 1916 and 1918. However, in 1922, when the cantons were officially created and delimited, Amara Touré was already dead and Baki Camara was far too old to be a chief. Although Amara’s brother, Ibrahima, then chief of Katongoro, was a good candidate, the French by then had realised that Baga villagers were very reluctant to accept the authority of chiefs. Baga were reported to be ‘undisciplined and individualist’, ‘anarchist’, and reluctant to accept ‘their own chiefs’. ‘Baga had no chief previously and our organisation has created an artificial canton,’ as Jean Romieux, commandant de cercle of Boké, acknowledged in November 1934. He insisted that in order to maintain the unity of the canton it was better to maintain a stranger as canton chief, as ‘Baga chiefs would be vexed to obey one of their own.’15 For reasons that are difficult to establish, the French decided not to appoint anybody related to either Baki or Amara, and opted instead for the Fula Bakar Sidi Bary (whom Baga remember as Almami Sidi), who had been working for the administration as an interpreter in the Fouta Djallon and as a chief of the village of Kawass. Sidi was a native of Timbo, where his cousin was also chief, and a descendant through his mother of the Alfayas (one of two families who traditionally provided the almamis or leaders of the Fouta Djallon). That he was chief of Kawass illustrates how confused the issue of Baga ‘customary’ chiefdoms was. Until 1922 Kawass did not exist as a village. It was a name used to refer to two cibanka, most probably


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formed out of fissions from Katongoro. When the French decided to call it a ‘village’ and looked for descendants of the village founder, both cibanka claimed such descent and therefore the right to the chieftaincy.16 Unable to discover the truth and to decide which one of the two cibanka was the chiefly one, the French decided to appoint someone who had nothing to do with the village at all – the Fula Bakar Sidi, who only a few months later was promoted from village chief to canton chief. There is an unfortunate lack of documents from 1922 to explain why the French appointed a Fula, no less, as chief of the whole Canton Baga. Maybe the reason was similar to that which had led them to chose Sidi as chief of Kawass in the first place: unable to decide whether the chiefly descent group of Baga as a whole was that of Baki Camara of Katako or that of Amara Touré of Katongoro, the French decided to appoint a stranger to avoid jealousies and political divisions. However, a document written by the commandant de cercle of Boké in 1936 provided an additional dimension to Sidi’s appointment, relating it to the anti-clerical nature of the French colonial administration.17 According to this report, the French decided to appoint a Muslim Fula to counterbalance the actions in the region of the Pères du St-Esprit, who by the early 1920s had already established a strong presence in Katako. According to this report, the missionaries were not quite loyal to France, creating a ‘fief’ out of the Dabaka and keeping for themselves the benefits that should have made their way to the Republic. The document hints (without actually framing an accusation) at a possible retention of taxes by the missionaries, who in effect acted as administrative intermediaries between the illiterate population and the administration, as testified to in various entries of the Journal de la Communauté du Sacré-Coeur de Boké. The reign of Almami Sidi lasted fourteen years, from 1922 to 1936. The French had an ambivalent attitude towards him. On the one hand, he always managed to deliver taxes within prescribed terms. On the other hand, however, the French knew that many difficulties ensued from the rejection of his authority by Baga. As early as January 1923, Almami Sidi wrote a letter to the commandant de cercle tendering his resignation (indeed he signed it as ‘ex-chief of Bagas’) and arguing that he could not satisfy the French since Baga did not like him despite all his efforts. In February 1924, Commandant Albert Casterman wrote a letter to the Governor of French Guinea in Conakry in which he accused Almami Sidi of being an ‘undisciplined, lazy coward, reluctant to obey orders, who has not been able to gain the confidence of Baga despite my support, hence showing not only bad faith, but also worse intelligence’.18 Therefore, he suggested that Almami Sidi should be removed, but he could not find any suitable replacement and Almami Sidi was kept in office. We have, then, quite a paradoxical situation in which a canton chief wishes to resign and the French authorities are also

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unhappy with him, yet nothing is done. That Baga did not like Almami Sidi was still mentioned by my elderly interviewees. I collected memories about him among Baga, Susu and even among Malinké people living in Bintimodia, and all of them remembered him as more or less a ‘dictator’ who would use his power to force people to work for him and to enrich himself. In fact, this is pretty much how all chiefs were remembered. In connection with the tensions between the Catholic Pères du St-Esprit and the French administration, it is worth noting that Adolphe Kande Camara, who has written a helpful (although a little unclear) reconstruction of the history of the Canton Baga, states that some Catholic Baga elders went to see Raymond Lerouge, then Bishop of Conakry, in search of support against Almami Sidi’s abuses. Yet Lerouge could not do anything for them. The complaining elders then went to visit the commandant de cercle in Boké, who listened to their complaints, but eventually backed Almami Sidi and imprisoned those who had complained about him (Camara 1990: 76). This episode, which I have been unable to confirm in either missionary or administrative sources, could be quite significant. It not only illustrates the tension between the Catholic missionaries and the French administration but also reveals how useless and even dangerous it was in the 1920s and 1930s to try to bypass the canton chief and to complain about him elsewhere. It was only after the Brazzaville Conference of 1944, with the creation of the French Union and the constitution of a Territorial Assembly, that people could gradually start to challenge the power structures that were oppressing them. Before that, when Africans were subjected to the inhuman code of the indigénat, any opposition to the canton chief could be punished by the commandant de cercle without any further justification (‘refusing to acknowledge authority’ was in itself a criminal offence). Needless to say, this was a perfect recipe for allowing the chiefs to become absolute tyrants. However, aware of Almami Sidi’s unpopularity, the French decided to move his headquarters from Kawass to Katongoro, thinking that the change would both do him good and serve to keep a closer control over the Katongoro people, especially the descendants of Amara Touré, who were reputed to be troublemakers. In fact, it turned out not to be such a good idea. As soon as Almami Sidi moved to Katongoro, in 1926, the villagers burned down his house. His headquarters were then transferred to the edge of the Dabaka, to the trading centre and port of Bintimodia.19 This was the only village in the canton not founded by Baga people and in which there were virtually no Baga inhabitants.20 Sidi was based in Bintimodia from 1926 to 1936, trying to be as little involved in Baga affairs as possible.


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r e vo l t a n d t a k e ove r

No matter how hard Almami Sidi tried to remain detached from his recalcitrant subjects, he did not fully succeed. In May 1936 the French sent a deputy administrator to carry out a census of Canton Baga, and Almami Sidi’s presence in this team was officially requested. On 26 May, after the team had been in the village of Kufen, where it had already met with a very hostile attitude, an event took place in Tolkoc that was to change the history of Canton Baga: the attempt by a group of Baga men to murder Almami Sidi. When the census party arrived in the village, they encountered a very antagonistic attitude among ‘all Baga inhabitants of the village, plus fifty inhabitants of Kawass and Katongoro’.21 The village denied hospitality to the team; in the words of one of its spokesmen, ‘there is neither house nor water for the canton chief; we are going to tear him to pieces and he will never see Bintimodia again’. The tumult was eventually controlled thanks to the presence in the village of a few French-speaking elders who introduced themselves as anciens combatants (First World War veterans) and who proposed to act as intermediaries between the deputy commandant and the Baga. After a long discussion, the elders managed to calm down the crowd, but as part of the improvised negotiations Deputy Commandant Lefevre had to promise the agitated Baga that Almami Sidi would ‘go back home and then to the Fouta’, as he explained in his report. (Incidentally, he did not fulfil his promise, and Sidi stayed on the coast till the end of his days.) According to French documents, the murder of Almami Sidi had been planned by Youssoufou Touré, chief of Katongoro, and his brother Ibrahima, and was supported by the chiefs and elders of Kawass, Katako, Mare and Tolkoc, and probably other villages too. The conspirators had met secretly on several occasions in order to plan it. The most important of these meetings took place in Boké in February 1936. In the subsequent trial, also in Boké, the accused men admitted that in this particular meeting they had made an oath to amanco ngopong: ‘let kakilambe [amanco ngopong] destroy the family of whoever follows the canton chief’ (according to the written confession of Youssoufou Touré). In his statement, Touré also clarified that the oath to amanco ngopong did not include the Muslims: they shared a few kola nuts and read the Qur’an.22 As a matter of fact, it is not as clear as the French thought that the murder had been planned by the Touré brothers. From reading the confessions of the elders implicated and tried in Boké, it seems that the decision to kill Almami Sidi was made in common or, more precisely, by a council representing ‘all Baga’. Some of the documents clearly state that nobody could claim any particular responsibility. Yet, the French seemed reluctant to accept that responsibility for a crime could be allocated to a whole ethnic group or even to a council of elders and, by asking some leading questions, managed to identify Youssoufou Touré as the main perpetrator of the

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revolt. Having said that, my personal feeling when reading this fascinating material was that Touré seemed happy enough to be considered as having played this leading role. Because he was found to be the ‘leader’ of the rebellion, his sentence (two years in prison) and his brother’s (a year and a half) were much longer than any of the others convicted (six months for each). This was the end of the chieftaincy of Almami Sidi. After the event, he was removed as canton chief, although he remained as village chief of Bintimodia for another year, before retiring to Tougnifili (in Boffa), where he died some years later. Both the Baga and the French drew lessons from these events. It proved to the Baga that, in their struggle with the canton chief, secret meetings and oaths to amanco ngopon were of little consequence. It is possible that before Almami Sidi, the power of the chiefs was limited or checked by a council of elders, or at least by the chief-appointing landlords. But the power of this new institution, the canton chief, was of a different nature: it was unrestrained, and the complaints of the population would not affect it too much provided he accomplished his duties vis-à-vis the commandant de cercle. As for the French, the lesson they learned was that in order to rule Baga, a Fula chief was perhaps not the best option. After Almami Sidi’s attempted murder, the administration became determined to find a Baga chief. They even resolved to find the ‘customary’ rules used for appointing a chief and ‘discovered’ that the underlying principle was very simple: the chief must already belong to a chiefly descent group. This principle, which previously had been applied so loosely – as in appointing a Fula as canton chief while insisting on the descent principle when appointing individual village chiefs – was to be enforced strictly from 1936 onwards. In 1928, the commandant de cercle could still write: ‘Baga have no aristocracy and no serfs. No family has a monopoly concerning the choice of chiefs. Very independent as they are, they choose whomsoever they consider best qualified to be on top and rule them.’23 Ten years later, the French were convinced that the opposite applied, and that their role was to find out which ‘families’ had the ruling ‘monopoly’. After long consultations with selected members of the local population, unfortunately not well documented in the archives, the French appointed as canton chief Salou Camara, from Katako, son of Baki Camara, whom the documents still wrongly referred to in 1936 and 1938 as ‘the first chief of the Canton Baga’, and even as ‘the ancient Baga king’.24 Salou was a First World War veteran and had had nothing to do with the Tolkoc rebellion against Almami Sidi. Being a war veteran was to become something of an unwritten requirement for a canton chief, since only veterans were ever contemplated by the commandant de cercle as possible candidates. Not that this made shortlisting much easier, for the number of veterans among Baga has always been surprisingly high, after both the First and Second World Wars.


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The supporters of the Touré, in Katongoro and surrounding villages, were not very pleased with the new appointment. They claimed that Amara had been the first chief of the Canton Baga and that the chieftaincy belonged to them.Yet, since both Youssoufou and his brother Ibrahima were imprisoned, there was not much that could be done. Other villages with which the Touré had established alliances (especially Kawass, Tolkoc and Kufen) were likewise averse to being ruled from Katako. Salou Camara ruled from 1936 until his death in September 1942. When he died, a number of Baga men from various villages applied either to the commandant de cercle or directly to the Governor in Conakry for the chieftaincy; to the point, in fact, that the former wrote (in a letter of 7 January 1943) to the latter, that ‘All Baga want to be canton chief!’25 From reading the candidates’ letters and the answers to them, one gets a sense of the increasing importance of proving links with chiefly descent groups as a principle of eligibility. In March 1943, the commandant de cercle, after consultation with different village chiefs, appointed Kande Camara, younger brother of Salou Camara and hence also the son of Baki Camara, as canton chief. The commandant de cercle wrote with a tone of satisfaction: ‘Appointment according to tradition. Normal succession of his brother. Both descendants of ancient king of Baga.’26 And ‘according to tradition’ he ruled indeed. Kande was even more despotic than his predecessors, though he managed to keep the commandant de cercle happy since the so-called ‘rice campaigns’ (collections of massive amounts of rice during the Second World War) were very satisfactory under his rule. As many of my interviewees noted, the so-called ‘war effort’ – the increased production and exportation of rice during the Second World War – was one of the reasons why chiefs had to become despotic, and this is what created a general feeling of oppression and resentment. An anonymous letter (31 August 1947) signed by ‘your Baga children’ and addressed to the Governor of Guinea in Conakry said of Kande: ‘He wants nothing but to enrich himself. He turns people against their chiefs. Examples: Katongoro and Missira, Kawass and Katakodi. He kills big men who might become canton.’27 The accusation of canton chiefs killing their potential rivals, which had been made earlier against Salou, was to be repeated later against Donat Camara, Kande’s relative and successor, but I do not think that it was ever substantiated with any evidence. Despite all these accusations, the French kept Kande Camara in power until his death in 1950. Kande’s rule traversed the biggest watershed in French colonial history. In 1944, General de Gaulle held the Brazzaville Conference, which brought to an end many of the injustices associated with colonialism and promised full citizenship to all French Africans. This, however, was only in principle, for in fact colonialism continued unaltered for many years, even if chief-

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taincies were becoming more and more obsolete from a juridical point of view (Alexandre 1970a: 41–8). In 1946, the Congress of Bamako gave birth to the Rassemblement Democratique Africain, an anti-colonial movement that set out to fulfil Brazzaville’s promises to all Africans. The movement quickly spread in West Africa, and as we shall see, it reached Baga territory in the early 1950s. Kande’s rule, however, seemed little affected by these political developments, and his government, as well as his successor’s, basically reproduced a pre-1944 political culture. Kande’s death, like his brother Salou’s, provoked another big succession dispute. Again, many candidates applied for the chieftaincy. This time, those who could not prove their kinship links with the Camara of Katako were sent a formal letter simply stating that ‘the current guidelines foresee that only members of the families of original canton chiefs can be candidates’,28 or that ‘not being a member of the traditional family of the chieftaincy you cannot be a candidate’,29 or other similar phrasings. This strong official insistence on chiefly lines was particularly unfortunate for the non-Baga members of the community, especially for the Susu, who, from Bintimodia, were establishing themselves in every Baga village. In fact, by arguing that the village of Bintimodia had been founded by a Susu man (Binti Moudou), Thierno Kaba, grandson of Binti Moudou, managed to get support from the Conakry authorities, who admitted that he had ‘a certain customary right’ to be chief. In a long letter, Kaba had explained that Canton Baga had always contained a big Susu contingent – together with, he added, Malinké, Jakhanke, Fula and Mikhifore – and that the succession should alternate between the Susu of Bintimodia and Baga of Katako as it did, according to him, in Canton Monchon, part of the cercle of Boffa.30 Yet, in the end, his candidature was still refused by the commandant de cercle on the simple grounds of his not being ‘a member of the traditional family of Katako chiefs’.31 Other applications were explicitly ruled out because the candidate was Susu and not Baga. Candidates had to make it clear in their letters that they were not strangers but natives to the Dabaka. Some people claimed they were not strangers but no less than ‘Baga nobles’32 – so much for a people who, according to the French, had no aristocracy. In the midst of Kande’s succession problems, in November 1950, Philippe Gennet, commandant de cercle of Boké, wrote a report concluding: first, that Katako was the most important Baga village and ‘the most representative village of Baga customs’; second, that even before the French, the chiefs of other Baga villages were appointed by the chiefs of Katako; and third, that the Touré of Katongoro were in reality Bulongic from the Rio Pongo (that is, Boffa) who had been settled in the region by Baga Sitem of Katako in the days of Yayo Camara, father of Baki Camara, at the end of the nineteenth century.33 Not surprisingly, this preference of Gennet for the Camara of Katako worried many people. In another letter, signed by


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the village chiefs of Kamsar, Calgbonto, Tolkoc, Kufen, Minar and Mbotin, the commandant de cercle was asked not to appoint any more chiefs from Katako.34 A letter sent to Gennet by a man from Kawass (1 November 1950) argued that the French had not quite understood that before their arrival the Dabaka had two kings: one in Katako (Baki Camara) and another in Kufen (Bakoumé). According to this text, Mange Baki35 ruled over Katako, Mare, Kamsar, Katongoro, Kawass, and Bintimodia, while Mange Bakoumé ruled over Kufen, Tolkoc, Minar and Mbotin.36 Indeed, the French administration placed Katako in an overall position of authority that it had never enjoyed before. Under the French, not only were Katako’s chiefs meant to rule the whole Baga territory, but they were also given the responsibility of choosing and appointing the village chiefs. As soon as Kande was elected as canton chief in 1943, he nominated in Kufen, the very village where Mange Bakoumé had allegedly ruled, a new village chief, Moussa Bangoura, who was not a direct descendant of Bakoumé, and whose position was revoked by the French in 1948 for ‘lack of authority’ and ‘hostility to the commercialisation of rice’. In fact, during the first year of his rule, Kande had managed to change virtually all the chiefs of village, appointing men favourable to him. At the same time, people from Katongoro strongly emphasised in a letter to Gennet that after Kande’s death the chieftaincy should return to Katongoro, ‘where it was created’, or at least that it should alternate between the two villages.37 The dispute between the two villages, that is, between the Touré of Katongoro and the Camara of Katako, became increasingly nasty. The final contest between the candidates Gatien Camara of Katako and Fode Touré of Katongoro even turned violent, and Fode Touré would have won had Commandant Gennet not been convinced that the Touré were the ‘strangers’ of the people of Katako and that Katako was the village that deserved the ‘customary’ chieftaincy. In fact, the whole matter of Gatien’s election remains very obscure. It seems that it was Commandant Gennet who forced Gatien to put in his candidature. Gatien was not living in Guinea but in Casamance (Senegal), where he was a policeman. He went to Boké and Katako for the election in December 1950, but, as soon as he won, returned to Senegal and a few weeks afterwards renounced his candidature, preferring to remain a policeman. Some oral accounts I gathered had it that Gatien was afraid of witchcraft. After Gatien’s short rule, Donat Camara, also from the Dikawe descent group, was elected chief. He ruled from 1951 to 1957 as the last of the canton chiefs. He was no better than his predecessors. Even the French administrators expressed a clear aversion to his authoritarian methods.38 Donat, who died around 1990, was remembered with disgust by many of my informants. Like his predecessors, he managed to engineer the appointment

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of village chiefs, and was particularly hostile towards Islam. In 1954 he even succeeded in putting an end to the Touré chieftaincy in Katongoro and appointed instead Gaspard Camara, from the abanka of Pintankla, who was his relative and a Christian. Gaspard had the Qur’anic school at Missira closed. In fact, having a Christian village chief was in due course to be of benefit to the people of Katongoro: once the most Muslim village of all, Katongoro was to be the only Baga Sitem village in which the Christian community managed to obtain a formal ban preventing the entrance of Asekou Sayon and his followers in 1957. It was in Donat’s time that the RDA came to Canton Baga. This was at the end of 1952 when Siriadou Diallo, then secretary of the RDA, introduced it clandestinely. He was then working in the colonial administration and did not want his RDA activities to be known. He and other Muslim men of Bintimodia, together with some men in Katako and Mare, started to spread the RDA ideals in the different villages of the canton – particularly among the Susu population, though many Baga youths found it very appealing, too. Already in February 1953 the movement had taken such a strong hold in the canton that Sékou Touré himself, then Secretary General of the PDG-RDA (the Guinean chapter of the RDA) paid a visit to Bintimodia to explain in an open meeting the programme of his party. d e s p o t i s m a n d t h e r i s e o f p o l i t i c a l aw a r e n e s s

In order to understand why people became so eager to put an end to the institution of chieftaincy, we need to look more attentively at chiefly abuses. A letter sent from Missira in 1951 accused the chief of imposing illegitimate taxes in the form of eggs,39 and another one in the same year accused him of asking for money for a customary celebration. ‘C’est la coutume’ (‘it is the custom’) was all that the chief had to say.40 A letter from the elders of the four cibanka of Kawass, written in 1952, denounced the village chief for keeping for himself what the villagers were giving to the Société Indigène de Prévoyance (SIP); for asking people to pay 750 francs every time they had to bury someone; for forcing women to sleep with him; and for ‘not listening to the elders’.41 In a letter written to the Governor of Guinea in 1954 by the council of elders of the Baga Pokur village of Mbotin, they complained about their village chief for demanding taxes from non-taxable individuals; for forcing people to work in his personal plantation (at a time when forced labour had been abolished, as they were at pains to remind); and, more generally, for making daily life difficult. The letter finished by accusing the canton chief, Donat Camara, of being the cause of the general upheaval taking place in Canton Baga.42 Another document from Missira (1954) testifies to the severe beating inflicted by a chief on a villager who had refused to pay a tax.43 A letter signed in October 1956 by 13 men from Kufen accused the


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village chief of harassing any beautiful woman he encountered; of living ‘in a European style of family life’;44 of drinking too much; of dressing too beautifully; and of a marked disinclination to work. Interestingly, in the same letter the petitioners asked the commandant de cercle to change the chief and proposed instead a certain Bamoky Bangoura, who was not only a member of their RDA committee in Kufen, but also a ‘descendant of the only royal family of the village’, that is, a descendant of Mange Bakoumé, the descent line whose rule in Kufen Kande Camara had interrupted. It is interesting to note the evolution of the language used in the letters sent by Baga villagers. In the letters written in the 1950s, one can see how a post-1946 political awareness begins to make itself felt. Thus one writer’s theme was the impossibility of forcing people to work against their will, against their conscience, and against the spirit of the 1946 Constitution – which, he pointed out, was ‘against the exploitation of man by man’.45 In another bold letter, written on 7 February 1953, the elders of Kufen not only accused the village chief of imposing taxes on children under 14 years old (for which the elders demanded he should be sent to prison), but actually charged the commandant de cercle himself with being an accomplice: We now start to understand your ways. You seem to push your canton and village chiefs to trade on us. We are no longer in Vichy times and we demand that justice and peace be done … If you are incapable of doing justice according to common rights and of judging problems impartially, then we will go elsewhere so that justice be done.46 Of course, it was only because they had ‘elsewhere’ to go (political parties and the Territorial Assembly) that they dared to address their commandant de cercle in such threatening terms. Another letter from the same village to Commandant Kergomard opened as follows: ‘It is because we know of your indulging goodness and your sympathy for human peasants, that we dare to write to you …’ The authors went on to complain about the canton chief stealing tax money and of not being: a good representative of France and of the French Union … We must go to the Territorial Assembly47 to appeal for our peace … [Donat] has robbed us poor peasants too much … M. Kergomard and M. Donat will soon know what we Baga are like.48 Two things are evident in these selected letters (and there are many more examples). First, in the 1950s the villagers had learned how to use the institutions they had at hand in order to fight the oppression they lived under (although without full or immediate success). Second, these letters and their language of ‘common rights’, ‘poor human peasants’, ‘conscience’ and ‘exploitation of man by man’ seem to indicate a collaboration between farmers and a group of people who had undergone a wider political

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education. In fact, very few farmers could speak French, let alone write it (not even a canton chief like Kande Camara could speak French). The letters, dictated in Baga, were obviously translated and written down either by a public scribe or a relative who could write in French, and who could change the phrasing as he saw fit. I am not saying that Baga farmers were not politically minded, or that they were unaware of the colonial situation they lived in, but only that the writing and phrasing of these letters testifies to a complicity between farmers and educated members of their communities. One letter in the archives of Boké explicitly states that in Canton Baga ‘the majority are intellectuals’ and that therefore it is no longer as easy as it had been to exploit the peasants.49 According to educated interviewees in Conakry, the number of ‘intellectuals’ among Baga contributed to certain developments during the last year of colonialism – especially the welcoming of the Muslim preacher Asekou Sayon to the villages and the consequent abandonment of many Baga ritual practices and objects that came to be perceived as negative for the development of the community. Apart from these educated people, there were also many war veterans who had been abroad, many of whom had converted to Islam during their service. These people realised that there was a connection between the ‘paganism’ imputed to Baga, the despotic rule of chiefs and elders, and the alleged ‘backwardness’ of their region.50 Like the magus of T. S. Eliot’s poem, the war veterans returned to a homeland they could no longer recognise as their own; they were ‘no longer at ease here,/In the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods’ (‘The Journey of the Magi’). It is worth noting that, already at the start of the 1950s, candidates for canton chief who were based in Conakry or elsewhere (one wrote from Freetown) insisted on their potential as developers of the region, where they would introduce ‘modern crops’ such as oranges, avocadoes, limes, mangoes and kola.51 But in order to conduct this agricultural modernisation the forest first needed to be cleared, a difficult undertaking when a huge part of the forest was perceived as a ‘sacred’ place. the burden of being baga

Jean Suret-Canale singled out three major areas of colonial pressure by chiefs, and three reasons why they became so unpopular: tax collection, forced labour recruitment and military conscription. On top of these, chiefs demanded to be transported in hammocks and liked to live ‘in a European way’, with big houses, cars, and other forms of wealth. But the rise of despotic rulers was not the only oppressive development Baga people experienced in colonial times. We have already noted the problem of relations between natives and strangers. We have also seen in this chapter that the French used the concept of ‘custom’ to legitimise the institution of chieftaincy. In the remainder of the chapter I want to


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address the question of what Baga meant when they said they were ‘tired’ of custom, and thus to understand why the Muslim preacher Asekou Sayon was generally welcomed within the Baga community. One despotic characteristic of the colonial state was that it endowed itself with the capacity to decide both what was and what was not customary. In 1950, for instance, Commandant Gennet wrote: ‘The normal rule of succession is from uncle to nephew’ and he ruled out at least two Susu candidates by informing them that ‘customary rules’ forbade Susu to be chiefs of Baga. But why should the colonial state inform its subjects of their own customary rules? If they were really customary, there would be no need for the state to act as an authority. The political scientist Mahmood Mamdani (1996) has argued that the redefinition of customary rules and precepts served both as a legitimisation of colonial rule and as a way to ‘contain’ ethnic groups within their own little worlds. I think Baga, especially those who lived through late colonial times, would agree with this assessment, as they also perceive their customs as something keeping them behind the flow of modernisation, something they had to get rid of in order to fully belong to the alternative community represented by the RDA. In fact, when interviewees said that they were tired of their customs, they did not only mean that they were tired of the oppression of customary chiefs. They also seemed to say that they were tired of everything that was defined as customarily Baga, and especially initiations and everything else relating to the sacred wood and to the demands of the elders who met there. Most of the accounts of what Baga society was like before colonial rule portray an unjust gerontocracy, a regime in which youths and women were severely oppressed by senior males. One gets the picture of a society in which elders did nothing but drink the palm wine that youths had to tap for them. This had already been noticed in April 1913 when a Catholic missionary visited Katako and attended an abol masquerade: In Katako, Father Labiouse has attended the ceremony of aboul [sic], a god that appears only every fifteen years; the fifteen or twenty elderly men who tyrannise the village seize the opportunity to make the youth tap all the palm trees in the neighbourhood.52 Even forty years later, the amount of palm wine that youths had to tap was limitless. ‘We could never rest;’ recalled a man from Mare, ‘in the morning we had to go to the rice fields, and then, as soon as we arrived back in the village, we had to go and climb the palm trees in order to tap the wine for the elders.’ This man, incidentally, who was about 17 or 18 years old in 1956, joined the movement of Asekou Sayon and converted to Islam shortly thereafter. He has not drunk palm wine since, and only climbs palm trees to collect palm nuts, not wine.

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Palm wine drinking was central to any elders’ meeting and to Baga ritual and social life in general. When a man and a woman from different cibanka were about to be married, the groom and other peers from his abanka had to tap palm wine not only for the young woman’s descent group but for her whole abanka – and not only once but on many occasions. Nor were marriages the only social events during which one abanka had to present palm wine to another. Such an exchange was involved in any ceremony, and of ceremonies there were many, far too many: marriages, funerals, dimba masquerades, acol masquerades, amanco ngopong masquerades, amanco gnacol masquerades, abol masquerades, the ‘closing of the earth,’ the ‘opening of the earth’, and so forth. All these ceremonies took place in different villages and people were under much greater pressure to participate in other villages’ activities than they are today.53 ‘Customary’ life was hard work for the youths and very pleasant for the elders as recipients of the youths’ labour. It is not surprising that Islam, being a religious discourse that not only forbade masquerades and sacred bushes but also the tapping and drinking of palm wine, was increasingly attractive for the strata of society that felt (and were) abused by the elders. It should be remembered that all this was happening at a time when ‘youth’ was becoming a very selfconscious category, not only in West Africa but at the global level (Goerg 1989), and that this self-consciousness was brought into the villages by youth organisations, and especially by the Jeunesse du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (JRDA, the youth wing of the RDA), which was not only opposed to French-endorsed chiefs, but also openly receptive to Muslim attitudes. I was once told that the reason why marriage payments were made with palm wine and not with money was that palm wine was something that people had to share. It was given in public and in very large quantities (several vessels, each containing at least twenty litres), and by its very nature it stimulated sharing (lone drinkers being rather unusual, even today). ‘With money,’ I was told, ‘you can never be sure that what you give to a representative of an abanka is really going to be shared by the whole abanka and is not going to stay in his own pocket.’ This is an interesting interpretation, one which opposes palm wine to money, communality to individualism, and custom to selfishness. But the 1950s were years when money was increasingly used in marriage payments, and when people started to think that there was no need to compensate a whole abanka for a woman of one of its descent groups. It was a time when a number of people were earning money in the towns and there were those in the villages who were eager to get their hands on some as well. In the making of Baga ‘custom’ French and native agencies are so intertwined that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. In fact, the very landscape Baga farmers lived in was partly made by the French. In 1951, for instance,


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Commandant de Cercle Louis Mangin wrote: ‘The efforts that the administration has made for the development of palm trees in this canton urge us to put an end to its increasing anarchy.’54 The same goes for many of the customary occasions on which palm wine was used. Although referred to as customary celebrations, many celebrations were in fact instigated by the French authorities or by the local chiefs. Even the missionaries complained about the number of masquerades that Baga were required to perform for the French authorities of the cercle.55 In 1955, when it was clear that Muslim ideals were behind many of the anti-colonial movements, a note written by the Bureau des Affaires Musulmanes said: ‘In Guinea, the animist populations of the forest and of the coast, visited by Christian missionaries, must be urgently preserved against Muslim proselytising’ (quoted in Triaud 1997b; my translation). In fact, the support (even military if necessary) of ‘pagan’ societies and their ‘preservation’ against Islam-inspired changes had always been implicit in the administration of West Africa, both as a tool to counterbalance Islam and as part of the more or less humanitarian agenda of the politique des races (Harrison 1988: 29–56). Administrators like Maurice Delafosse and Jacques Brévié wrote specifically on this issue from a relatively early date (Delafosse 1922, Brévié 1923; the two authors mention the Guinean coast as a particularly ‘animistic’ region). Some of my Baga interviewees told me that one of the reasons why Sayon was so welcomed was because there was a connection between colonial chieftaincy and ‘paganism’, and an awareness that the two things had to be terminated together. According to many, the individuals behind Asekou Sayon’s invitation were not only those close to the RDA, but more precisely those individuals who were anciens combatants (war veterans) and had been away from the villages during the Second World War. Upon their return, these veterans, many now converted to Islam, became outsiders in their own villages and adopted very critical attitudes towards local custom. It was mostly they who wanted to end the ‘containerisation’ of their society, which they perceived as keeping it backward, and who wanted to belong to a much broader community. And this was precisely what the PDG-RDA and Islam, or a combination of both, could offer. Although the RDA was not a religious movement (in fact it had strong communist associations), in many places Islam became the means by which RDA leaders could reach the population. Mosques were created and used as meeting places, and Friday prayers were the main occasions to spread RDA ideology. Ruth Morgenthau has written that ‘in the mosques, prayers drew an implied parallel between the community of the RDA and the community of Islam’ (Morgenthau 1964: 237). The RDA was instrumental in bringing the discontented Baga together and making them work towards specific purposes. Even before the elections of January 1956, in 1955 the missionaries of Katako wrote, following a visit to Bukor, that

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‘This “society” [RDA] seems to be the only one able to get Baga organised and working together.’56 This is indeed an insightful remark, which should be kept in mind in order to understand the developments discussed in the next chapter. conclusion

In this chapter I have examined several political developments that occurred among Baga, and especially among Baga Sitem, under French rule. I have singled out the despotism of chiefs and the reification of customs as the main oppressions that Baga suffered, as these are the two factors most likely to be mentioned by Baga elders today. In the last analysis, both of these factors were manipulated by the French. Yet, as far as I have been able to make out, Baga villagers were never really interested in getting rid of the French. What oppressed them was less the French than their own chiefs and customs. In this, I agree with Mamdani, for whom chieftaincies and customs were institutional ‘shields’ that absorbed the shocks from the discontented population, leaving the European colonisers reasonably well protected (Mamdani 1996). This is why it was not the French that the people wanted to get rid of, but rather those Baga cultural elements that they felt to be so oppressive.57 The best way of obtaining a feel of what Baga society was like in the 1950s is by reading the articles in which Denise Paulme and André Schaeffner recorded their experiences. The pessimistic prognosis of dynamics in Baga society which Denise Paulme formed in 1954, and which she confirmed to me in 1996 (see Chapter 2) can be gauged in a few quotations: Pressed from every side, Baga society appeared to be torn to pieces: village chiefs against canton chief, family against family, youth against the elders, the latter intractable, everyone exhausted from the battles for prestige where every new incident reignites quarrels poorly extinguished.Virtually no authority had succeeded, except that one time the administration named a foreigner as canton chief, without agreement among the notables. More and more numerous are the young men who abandon their village for a nearby urban environment, where they hope to escape all control. Those who remain marry strangers, convert to Islam, and reject their former identity. (Paulme 1956: 101; cited in English in Lamp 1996b: 224) Paulme went on to offer a very gloomy prediction: Baga society appears condemned by a lack of solidarity, by a lack of internal cohesion, and by a lack of natural pride too; neighbouring, healthier societies will soon have absorbed it. As it is now, one can still observe some institutions that the sociologist will regret not to have studied in more detail. (Paulme 1956: 102; my translation)


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In another article, Paulme again pointed to the prevailing anomie and expressed her concerns with regard to the future: A Baga can only conceive of his society in terms of divisions: the Bangoura against the Camara, the asuto against the kulokinkaykosi, youths against elders, men against women, the atmosphere is one of constant rivalry. Let a pressure from the exterior intervene and switch on this factor of internal disunity and the explosion soon follows. (Paulme 1957: 277; my translation) We have to give much credit here to Denise Paulme as an ethnographer. In a few weeks of fieldwork she was able to assess the social preconditions of the religious movement that two years later would ignite this fragile situation, fuelling rivalry between the RDA and the chiefs, between youths and elders, between women and men, and between Baga and strangers. The following chapters consider the onset of this religious movement, its nature and its aftermath.

5 running and hiding: the end of colonialism and the arrival of the iconoclasts yo u t h a n d d a n c e : a p r e l u d e

The 1950s witnessed a rise in young people’s awareness of their rights. Although this awareness was linked first and foremost to the RDA and especially to its youth and female wings, some youths were also ‘empowered’ by the Catholic youth movements. In 1956, at the invitation of the Catholic Church, Maurice Humbert came to Guinea to organise a local branch of the international youth organisation Jeunesse Agricole Catholique (JAC, one of the wings of Catholic Action) – an intervention which contributed to the rise of a whole new popular culture.1 In some narratives I obtained in Katako, Mare and Bukor, the Christian youths of the time appeared as quasi-heroic nonconformists willing to undermine, through activities organised by the JAC, the very foundations of the age-based status quo; their new forms of dance, music, instruments, dress and body language challenged the old people’s rules and regulations. Although it became apparent that the JAC and the JRDA were often at variance, it is also true that sometimes they worked together. They certainly shared an enthusiasm for the soirées dansantes (dancing parties) based on new form of dances Baga Sitem speakers referred to as bal (from French le bal, the ball) and saw as something completely different from the kipise kabaka (Baga dance). Soirées were organised by the JAC or the JRDA, or as joint ventures. These new dance forms contained elements that were very problematic from a male elder’s point of view. First, boys and girls danced in physical proximity and contact. This was a provocation to the male elders and, as some interviewees told me, aroused their jealousy. In such a gerontocratic society, elderly men considered that young women were for themselves, not for their juniors.2 Second, the new dances included new musical instruments, and in particular the use of the flute, a sound that infuriated the elders. At the time, the youths did not know why the flute was so problematic but, as some of them told me in 1995, they eventually realised that, to an elder’s ear, the sound of the flute echoed far too closely the awful howling of amanco ngopong in the elders’ wood. By playing flutes in the abanka, the young men were recreating in a public acoustic environment a sound that had so far belonged to the wood and to the elders. In early 1956, a council of elders in Bukor decided to ban the bal, whether


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it was organised by the JAC, the JRDA or – as it frequently was – by both. They announced that whoever played a new instrument would invite deadly consequences: if it was a flute, the player would find his lips stuck to the mouth piece forever; if it was an accordion, he would find his hands glued to the instrument forever; if a drum, he would find his fingers stuck to the beating sticks forever, and so on. More alarmingly, all boys and girls found dancing together would be plastered to each other forever. According to the accounts I obtained in Bukor, the youths asked the elders to lift the ban and let them get on with their bal.3 Elders said they would, provided the youths gave them enough palm wine. This was of course one way of reimposing the waning status quo: youth tapping huge quantities of palm wine for their betters. However, instead of tapping the palm wine, the youths went to the trading centre of Bintimodia and bought a container of red wine. They took it to the elderly men, waiting for them in a wood whose entrance was forbidden to young people. The elderly men took the wine inside the wood. The young men waited outside. And they waited … Some hours later, a man who was acting as mediator between the two groups came out of the wood and told the young men that the elders inside were very angry. ‘They claim you have insulted the old man by saying he has red eyes.’ The ‘old man’ (wutem) was a common euphemism for amanco ngopong, a metaphor that encapsulated the seniority principle ruling Baga society: men could be old and some were older than others, but the spirit regulating this age system was older than any of them. The elders, I suppose, were offended that the youths had not tapped the wine themselves, but bought it in a shop instead – thus evading the painstaking labour the elders were seeking to exact. For the youths, or at least for the elders who in 2001 and 2003 told me the story, this was the very last straw. Obviously the elders had drunk the wine, found the excuse of it being ‘red’ and not ‘white’, and had not granted permission for the dancing party. Fearing that the elders would try to steal their instruments, the youths took them to the Catholic mission, at the time the only religious space that could represent a clear-cut alternative to the wood of the elders. The elders men sent two men to steal the instruments from the youngsters, but they did not dare do so. Every time they tried to take the instruments, the young men would make a similar threat: ‘If you touch these instruments, your fingers will stick onto them forever’; or again: ‘If you take these instruments away, you will know who we are’. The two old men were afraid and went back to the wood. Why old men should fear the threats of young men will be revealed later. In the end, other elders came to help, and together they all managed to steal the instruments from the Catholic mission and take them to Dalence, an open bush that belonged to the elders, but was not as ‘secret’ as others in the village. The elders placed

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the instruments there together with a tumbu mask that, so they thought, would keep an eye on them. Our brave youngsters, however, did not consider the matter finished. At night, they prepared their own mask and, thus empowered, went to Dalence to get their instruments back. The next day, they organised a big party. The team of youths went from one abanka to another announcing the event. They visited the whole village, containing six cibanka. In the abanka of Mambre, young Emmanuel, who had made some braids in his hair so as to challenge his elders, told his grandfather, Paka: ‘Granddad, it is me; today we the youths are going to dance the bal; if you want to deliver me to your friends, do it, but I am in the bal group.’ The elderly Paka granted his grandson due permission. Then they went to Morcok. A young man called Jean told his grandfather Sékou Moroma (today a well-remembered ritual specialist of the late colonial times): ‘Grandfather, it is me, Jean; this is a revolt: we are going to continue the bal; if you want to give me to your friends, do it, but the bal is going to continue.’ Sékou Moroma said that, as far as he was concerned, the young men could dance the bal. The young men then went to Motiya. Pierre was from that abanka. He talked to his grandfather Ali Nene, but before he could talk to him, the old man said: ‘No need for you to bother me with this; come on, go on and dance your bal’. In Sonta, the young boy Omar was getting ready to speak to one his elders, but before he could begin the latter came out of the house with a stick to beat him. He did not succeed; the young men headed him off and started to throw sand at him while shouting aparen esere, aparen esere (‘the old man is a witch, the old man is a witch’), forcing him to retreat into his house. Then the young men went to Kapinta, and young Kande talked to his grandfather in much the same fashion as the others had done, with the same result: he obtained permission for the bal. In general, as we can see, it was a ‘teaming up’ strategy, as if they wanted to show the elders that ‘unity is strength’. In the exchange, there was direct emotional blackmail: each young man talked to his own grandfather, convincing the latter that if witchcraft reprisals were attempted against the youths, he, his dear grandchild, would die as well. In effect, they were emphasising their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the cause – and so consolidating the unity of youth while undermining the solidarity of grandfathers. They went back to Motiya, the most central abanka in Bukor, where the dancing party was to take place. This was in itself a violent affront to their elders’ religious landscape, albeit a subtle one. Motiya, we read in Bangoura’s dissertation (1972: 71–2), was not only the geographical centre of Bukor, but also its historical centre, the very spot where the first contract with the spirit abong, owner of the place, had been signed by Bukor’s first human arrivals. As a memorial of this contract, right in the middle of the


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abanka there used to be an African fan palm (Borassus aethiopicus) of special significance to the elders. By holding their dancing party in that place, the youth were appropriating not only a noise (accentuated by the sound of the flute), but a very significant place in the elders’ ‘spiritscape’. The fan palm, incidentally, was later to be cut down. But I am jumping ahead. It was late afternoon, and the young people were getting ready to open the bal. Because the bal was danced one couple at a time, it was a couple of brother and sister who opened it. ‘Look, granddad,’ said the valiant grandson, ‘I am dancing with my sister; if you want us to be glued to each other forever, do it now.’ Nothing happened. The young couple danced their morceau and after them other couples came out to the dancing ground. In this way, today remembered in the form of a semi-incestuous mythic beginning, the youngsters made their elders understand that times were changing and that bal and soirées were being introduced among them. A short time after this revolt in Bukor, the youths of the neighbouring village of Kufen, in Canton Baga, did more or less the same thing and, encouraged by their age mates in Bukor, introduced the bal in their village too. These were big changes, yet no more than a prelude to even bigger ones. In this narrative on the bal, no matter how much it may have been exaggerated in its transit to us, we find a series of elements that may help us to understand the changes taking place at the end of the colonial period. Older men appeared to be losing control of the ‘patriarchal’ status quo: young women did not belong to them any more; new musical instruments appeared that challenged notions of power, bringing to the abanka the sound of the wood; and, as if all this ‘modern’ soundscape were not enough, men now danced with their own sisters! How on earth could all this happen? My explanation is twofold. In the first place, as has been established in earlier chapters, challenging gerontocracy was not something necessarily new in the region. I do not know of any youth revolt among Baga Sitem in earlier colonial times, and certainly not in the pre-French period discussed in Chapter 3. Yet there are sound reasons to suspect that, as with many other African societies, accumulation of power by male elders could be challenged by younger strata of the population from time to time, according to the two principles singled out by Michael McGovern (2004) and discussed in Chapter 3. Here I should answer the question asked earlier: why did some elders become afraid of the threats of the young? The answer lies in the fact that, according to notions of personhood prevalent in the whole Guinean region and probably beyond, some young people have more mystical power than elders: elders may acquire mystical powers with age – they may be initiated, they may even buy membership of some cults – but some people are simply born with powers, and these people become potentially dangerous, even to older men. This is what was going on in that group

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of youngsters: some of the young men sitting next to the instruments at the Catholic mission of Bukor were regarded as innately powerful. In the second place, the power of youth in the late 1950s came from certain organised sources and not only from inherited notions of power and personhood. Youths, whether Muslim or Christian, whether belonging to the JAC or to the JRDA, were actually encouraged to disobey, to antagonise their elders. Obviously, having conducted my fieldwork in the 1990s and 2000s, I could never interview any person who had been an elder in the 1950s; but I could imagine that they found themselves living in a very strange world. ‘Bukor’s alipne [initiated elders] were worn out’, old Charles told me in 2001. Indeed they were. Young men outnumbered them; they had the support of women; they could count on the support of new political institutions; new religions appeared that encouraged them to abrogate their ritual obligations; and in their fight against the power of elders, they counted on the support of strangers, too. Elders tried to hang on to their power as much as they could, but to no avail: all the religious and political agitations of young people were creating ideal conditions in which a decisive agent of change might get a grip and cause an even bigger commotion. Early in 1956, this decisive element was embodied in a charismatic preacher just a few miles away across the mangroves from Bukor – although the religious discourse he was introducing may not have been as ‘new’ as some authors have argued. the rise of islam

In the previous chapter we have dealt with the relationship between Christianity and Islam. We have seen that, at least as far as Canton Baga was concerned, Islam had experienced a false start, and we have also seen that the coast (and other regions) was in fact shielded by the French administration from Muslim ‘intrusion’. Yet it would be simplistic to say that Baga did not know Islam before the arrival of Asekou Sayon. In Canton Baga in the cercle of Boké, Islamisation took place first in Katongoro through the Touré descent group and, second, in Bintimodia. Conversion to Islam had also occurred during much of the colonial period in other villages of the canton, especially among descent groups who felt oppressed by others, but no mosques were built during the colonial period apart from those of Katongoro and Bintimodia, the biggest villages in the canton. Bintimodia’s history, one could argue, epitomised the whole history of Baga. Bintimodia had been founded by a Susu man called Binti Moudou on land belonging to the Baga Sitem of Katako.The few Baga living there left and went to other Katako lands. For Baga farmers, that bit of dry land was not interesting: at that time they could afford to give their upland farming lands to Susu and go and clear more mangroves for themselves; after all, they were mangrove-swamp rice farmers, and clearing mangroves was probably


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what they had been doing for centuries. Susu, however, made of Bintimodia a very prosperous trading centre and one of the biggest ports of Boké in colonial times. As we have seen, later some Susu would claim that they had founded Bintimodia and that, therefore, they had the right to become canton chiefs. Strictly speaking they were correct (it all depended on how you defined ‘foundation’) but the French had decided that only Baga were ‘native’ to Canton Baga and that only ‘native people’ could become chiefs. Susu could not claim ownership of Bintimodia, because they were strangers to (or ‘of’) ‘Baga’ landlords. Bintimodia consequently became the centre of settlement for Susu, who were much more trade-oriented than Baga and were attracted to the benefits of living in the harbour, while their landlords, ironically, were experiencing increasing constraints in the mangroves. Indeed, if history was being harsh to everybody in those years, so was nature. In the early 1940s something started to happen that was to have major consequences for the history of both Canton Baga and Canton MonchonBigori: the Kapatchez estuary, which some authors had described as ‘the river of the Baga’ because most Baga villages stood on its banks, started to silt up. By the 1950s the river mouth was completely blocked with silt (it still was in 2003, despite colonial and post-colonial interventions aimed at opening it again). In less than ten years, farmers from the two villages of Katako and Kawass lost many hectares of mangrove rice fields. This meant a shortage of land and therefore of rice (Hiernaux 1955: 5; Paulme 1957: 272; Vieira 1999: 261). Denise Paulme, who was there in 1954, noted that Susu traders were taking advantage of the situation created by the Kapatchez, by having Baga farmers pawn their upland rice fields for small amounts of money (Paulme 1957: 277). Kawass, whose farmers had also lost many hectares of rice fields, was also quickly settled by Susu. As Paulme noted, Susu were not only trading agents, but also bearers of Islam among the Baga of Katako and Kawass. A little later, we know now, they would also introduce new political discourses and ideas – we saw in the previous chapter that Bintimodia was the place where the RDA first took hold and from where it spread through the rest of Canton Baga, mostly among Susu, but also among Baga youths and women. In the village of Bukor the situation was different from that of Canton Baga. Although a Baga Sitem village, Bukor belonged to Canton MonchonBigori, where there was a large population of Susu people, apart from the Bulongic who in any case were not well-regarded by Baga Sitem. In general, Sitem-speakers looked down upon their Bulongic neighbours, even if they considered them to be Baga like themselves. Bukor felt so isolated in colonial days, according to people I interviewed in 2003, that its elders made a ritual prohibition against leaving the village: they would punish by any possible means not only people leaving the place, but even those refusing to provide the forced labour. One of my interviewees from Bukor told me they did

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not want the Baga Sitem territory to suffer the same fate as the Bulongic, where farmers had left massively due to the despotism of the canton chiefs (Almami Oumar and his successor, the Susu man Almami Salifou) and the hard demands of forced labour.4 In particular, Almami Salifou’s regime (1947–57) meant an increase of Susu-speaking Muslim people in the villages of Canton Monchon-Bigori. The presence of Susu meant a faster adoption of both Islam and the RDA in that canton than in Canton Baga. As for the RDA, it was probably introduced in 1952 or 1953 and quickly became a well-organised movement. In 1955, one of the Catholic priests of Katako (not the kind of person one would expect to have RDA sympathies)5 went to Bukor and reported that the RDA was ‘the only organisation able to bring people together’ and make them collaborate in an unheard-of way; in particular he noted the hard work of the Société RDA Bigori-Danci in the building of a solid embankment between the villages of Mankountan, Danci and Bukor, which for the first time allowed cars to enter Bukor. Opening up the ‘enclosed’ Baga was indeed one of the major goals (and achievements) of the RDA in the region.6 Through the RDA, many of the oppressed peoples, and in particular Susu-speaking inhabitants, managed to reverse the exclusion that local politics and land tenure rules had inflicted upon them. In 1956, for instance, a letter written by a Baga man in Bukor to the French commandant in Boffa testified to the fact that he had found some Susu men working in a plot he had ‘trusted’ to Almami Salifou for him to work. When he asked the Susu farmers what they were doing there they threatened him with death; they claimed the canton chief had given them the land and therefore they had the right to work it. The man then called the RDA, trusted the plot to them and asked the French commandant to tell Almami Salifou not to go there anymore. Because the archives in Boffa have been very badly kept, I could find no further correspondence and I do not know how the story ended. In any case, sometimes the involvement with the RDA could backfire and create further problems for Susu-speakers. Thus in 1956 Susu farmers belonging to the RDA in Bukor were found in a field that, according to my interviewee René Amadou, then a young but quite influential Christian man, belonged to his descent group. Asked what they were doing there, the farmers replied that they were working in ‘RDA’s lands’. René Amadou went to the colonial authorities to find out whether RDA had the right to withdraw land from people. He was told that RDA was a political organisation with no such rights, went back to the village and eventually managed to retrieve the land. As we shall see, he would pay a price for this victory. If the RDA was not yet strong enough, it was getting stronger. It still needed what any Weberian would deem necessary for a major change in people’s rationalities to occur and for powerless people


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to become stronger: charisma. Let us stay in Bukor to see how the tide of change entered the Baga Sitem villages. the stranger and the end of death

At the end of July 1956, some of my eldest interviewees recalled, the youths of Bukor heard of a man who was performing kalimas7 in the village of Yampon, a bit further south. They heard that he was a man with powers, able to detect and destroy evildoers. As the social inequalities arising from the colonial situation intensified, so did accusations of witchcraft. Some of my interviewees told me that one of the rumours circulating about the man, Asekou Sayon, was that he would ‘put an end to death’. This is a particularly difficult statement to grasp. When pressed for clarification, some explained that they thought Sayon was going to stop people from being killed by witches. In these cases, defi (death) becomes synonymous with deser (‘witchcraft’).Yet with some other interviewees it rather looked as though their expectations at the time were that people would actually stop dying. Thus, Lansana, from Mare, and Mory Yafisou, from Yampon, told me similar things in their respective interviews: that they stopped believing in Sayon’s powers when they realised people still died after his passing. In the same vein, Mamata, a female interviewee who back in 1957 was a young follower of Sayon but, like so many elderly people, had changed her views over the years, told me in 2001: ‘Sayon came to stop people dying, but look around you: there is more death today than ever in the Dabaka.’8 It was still not clear what kind of death she was referring to, because the fact was that in the early 2000s deser was a major preoccupation for Baga Sitem people. Whatever kind of ‘death’ interviewees meant, it was clear that the late 1950s were times of anxiety, and that it was this anxiety that Sayon brought to an end, at least temporarily. The Baga youths heard that Sayon was teaching beautiful religious songs to his followers, and some of them became very curious about it. As has already been said, youths were at odds with their elders for many reasons, but one of them appeared in many interviews as the main reason why they went to search for Sayon: the opposition of elders to the soirées dansantes, and particularly to those of the JRDA. In these accounts, the RDA and Sayon’s team were hand in glove, and in fact it became obvious in my interviews that Sayon was always invited by the RDA committees in the villages. By August or September 1956, when Asekou Sayon was performing the kalima in Yompon, the situation in Bukor had become very unstable. Some young people, angry at their elders and encouraged by the president of the RDA committee in Bukor, a Muslim man, went to attend the kalima at Yampon and invited Sayon to go to Bukor and perform it there as well. Asekou Sayon agreed to their request and told them that in a few days he would be going to their village, provided they brought him enough wood

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and money. The exact amount of money he asked for a village to invite him I do not know. Wood was needed to keep the fire going during the all-night kalima and also to build fences around other appropriated sites intended for mosques. Whenever he arrived in a village, Asekou Sayon created a space surrounded by a big fence. In the middle of this space he sat, wearing a red robe representing, according to many, the purifying fire of his action, and holding his trident and his sword, next to a white flag and a tabala (the drum used in colonial times by canton and village chiefs). Each morning the women of the village had to ‘hail the flag’, bringing water, rice and five francs each. Women, like strangers and young men, acquired a strong role in this movement, in strong contrast with male predominance in political and religious life in general. I discuss some of the pressures they suffered in colonial times in Chapter 7. Men and women were all encouraged to buy an asmani, a liquid people had to wash with and drink in order to cleanse themselves. Those who refused to buy or drink the purifying liquid were accused of evil thoughts. In the villages, Sayon nominated a few young men and women to be his ‘police’. Not too surprisingly, all the ‘police’ members I met were, in fact, Susu, Nalu and other strangers living among Baga. These people had whistles and were in charge of finding out, by torture if necessary, which houses were the infamous wulo wopon (‘big houses’) of the Baga, where the ritual objects were kept. Sayon then entered the ‘big house’ and took possession of the objects. It may be worth noticing that whistles, flags, ‘policemen’ and tabala, some of the elements used in Sayon’s movement, were also typical signifiers of the colonial state power. To a degree, Asekou Sayon’s movement mimicked the colonial power, a process common to many religious movements in oppressive situations all over the world. Anti-witchcraft movements in colonial Africa were marked by an explicit imitation of the rationality linked to the colonial state that was oppressing Africans, as was clear in the earliest descriptions of such movements by scholars like A. I. Richards (1935) or M. G. Marwick (1950), who highlighted the ‘modern’ elements of the cults (uniforms, chemists’ bottles for the purifying liquids, lining people up) as well as the connotations of ‘backwardness’ they projected onto traditional practices. There has been a substantial literature on mimesis and religious movements in Africa and in colonial situations in general (for Africa, see especially Kramer 1993, Stoller 1995, Behrend 1999, Argenti 1998). Recently James Ferguson has written an insightful article on mimesis (Ferguson 2006), drawing our attention to the fact that in many cases the collective behaviour we call mimesis is a not an ‘appropriation’ of the oppressor’s power through some sort of mimetic magic, but a political claim on the right to dwell in public space from which the colonised were excluded. If we could put this in directly Platonic terms, for Ferguson this behaviour is not about mimesis


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(imitation), but about methexis (participation). In our case, indeed, Ferguson’s ideas take hold: through movements like the one orchestrated by the RDA’s political ideals and Sayon’s new religion, the colonised subjects of Guinea were creating a space in which to meaningfully dwell, home to a political life from which they would not feel excluded. The punishments imposed by Sayon were very hard. They were almost always monitored by young men and women and inflicted mainly on elderly people, mostly men but also women. Sylla mentions elderly childless women being severely punished by younger ones (Sylla 1986). Tortures could consist of making elderly people run for hours. Adolphe K. Camara describes women tying up elderly men and then pulling them along while singing victory songs (Camara 1990). Descriptions of the punishments are really unsettling and by and large I did not want to make people recall all these painful details in our conversations. Sylla and Camara claim that some people died from the harsh punishments, a claim also made by my interviewee Mahmoud who, despite being a Muslim man, was vigorously opposed to the admission of Sayon to his village. Sylla even mentions one suicide, that of the imam of Kanfarandé (a big village on the right bank of the Rio Nuñez). The imam, according to this author, was afraid of being severely punished by Sayon because, despite being the community’s religious leader, his Islam was not quite as ‘pure’ as the Qur’an prescribed – indeed he was, so the story goes, leading the prayers over a human-skin carpet instead of the goat-skin one expected of a good Muslim. As we shall see, however, Sayon’s own interpretations of Islam were far from being purely Qur’anic – some people accused him of not being a proper Muslim. At any rate, the story of the alleged suicide and the typical ‘human-sacrifice’ gossip attached to it is in itself a good indicator of the levels of anxiety lived at the time, beyond the truth or falseness of the rather unlikely report.9 spiritual encounters

While Asekou Sayon was still in Yampon, the elders of Bukor sent a young man there. He was their ‘spy’. This man was René Amadou, the young Christian who had just had the land conflict with the RDA referred to above. He came back from Yampon, I was told, and exhorted the elders with these words: ‘Asekou Sayon is coming to Bukor; take care about the way you go to bed, so that he finds you in a good position.’ This is the kind of hidden speech Baga value and call capafo, and by its very nature a capafo utterance has different readings. ‘Take care about the way you go to bed [kifontre]’ can be a direct exhortation, since for Baga it is at night, when people are in bed, that witches abandon their human bodies and go to celebrate cannibalistic feasts in the second reality dabal, which is also the realm of dreams. To find someone literally sleeping in a strange position may denounce his or her evil dreams. But the virtuosity of speaking in capafo is that the message can

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have different readings, and this one in particular has other meanings, as will be shown. Asekou Sayon arrived in Bukor in September 1956, surrounded by the youths from Yampon singing religious songs. Wearing a red boubou, his head turbanned, bearing trident and sword, his body adorned with medicines and amulets, he was a striking, intimidating figure. That his language was Mandekan increased the aura of awe surrounding his entry. At that time, Mandekan-speaking people were seldom encountered in that part of coastal Guinea (a tiny community of Jakhanke lived in Mare and there were some Malinké in Bintimodia). According to one of my interviewees, some people believed that Mandekan was a language of non-human agents sent by God. Sayon spoke always in his mother tongue, with the aid of a translator. According to some accounts, he was very fluent in Susu too, but preferred to speak in Mandekan because it amplified his power to deceive and control. When he arrived in Bukor, Sayon stayed for a few days in the Susu ward, not in one of the six Baga cibanka. He stayed there with the youth team who had come with him from Yampon and were teaching the songs to Bukor’s youth. The team returned to Yampon a few days later and were replaced by Bukor youths who had learned the litanies. This was the pattern in Sayon’s journey: the youth of a given village would go with him to the next village to train the local youths. A few days or weeks later, they would go back to their own village; this made Sayon’s following huge, probably hundreds of people, ‘all living together at the edge of a village’, as one of my interlocutors put it.10 When we consider that Asekou Sayon arrived in Bukor at the height of the rainy season – when Baga young people were supposed to spend the whole day in the rice fields, when the consumption of rice was considerably larger than during other periods of the year, and when the rice from the last harvest started to run out (in living memory September and October have always been the ‘hungry season’) – we begin to appreciate the difficulty imposed by a religious preacher who not only withdrew the services of the most active segment of the labour force, but furthermore represented a high hospitality cost for the village, yet was nonetheless difficult or impossible to resist. This concern was voiced by the representatives of Baga and other ethnic associations in Conakry and Boké, who complained to the authorities about Sayon (and other jihadists) and their exploitation of the population (Sylla 1986). Asekou Sayon stayed in Bukor for almost two months, performing the kalima, converting people to Islam, clearing the sacred bush, cutting down the big silk-cotton trees, and destroying whatever objects or products were surrendered to him. My interviewees in Bukor agreed that he destroyed many objects. Most were indigenous medicines (woods, roots, lianas), but other were masks, sculptures and headdresses, some of which were thrown


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into the waters separating Bukor from Kufen, according to witnesses. Unfortunately, however, material destruction was not his only intervention in the village. As has been said, he and his followers were also very aggressive towards people unwilling to surrender the objects. The abovementioned René Amadou was one of the first men accused of sorcery by Sayon’s followers in a Baga Sitem village (he himself considered his accusation a direct consequence of the land conflict referred to above). When I interviewed him, in 2001, he told me they accused him of having invisible radios, airplanes, telegraphs and other typically ‘modern’ things that he was using to enrich himself. Then as now, sorcery was viewed as an illegitimate means by which individuals acquired things for themselves at the expense of other people. René Amadou was beaten almost to death, and was left badly injured in a stream.11 One of the leading men who officially invited and welcomed Asekou Sayon to Bukor was Sékou Amadou Haidara, the imam of the misside, or little praying place of the village.12 He formed a close friendship with Sayon and even an alliance, since Amadou’s sister married Asekou Sayon. Although they had been born in Bukor, the Haidaras’ position in 1956 was quite marginal, and they remained Susu-speakers even though born in a Baga Sitem village.13 Their father, Bakar Sidi Haidara, a renowned Tijani sheikh, had arrived in Bukor from Senegal, where he returned at the end of his life. Theirs was a family of influential Tijani sharifs (that is, descendants of Mohammed). In 1956, the young Sékou Amadou was not only a well-educated Tijani, but also a member of the RDA committee in Bukor. This confluence of religion and politics, although not always as clear as in the case of Haidara, should not surprise us. In many ways, it was the very zeitgeist of the late colonial period, at least in that part of French West Africa where the RDA had the upper hand in local politics. When I interviewed Haidara in 1994 and again in 2001, he explained to me that he had invited Sayon to Bukor because the latter was, like himself, a Tijani and because he, Haidara, found life among so many kafir people intolerable. He also drew my attention to the fact that in those days the Baga of Mare and Katako (in the cercle of Boké) incorporated in their villages the Jakhanke, a Mande-speaking religious community who introduced the Qadiriyya brotherhood as well as groundnut farming and trading. The possible rivalry between the two brotherhoods over the control of local Muslim policies and the reconstruction of pre-colonial trade networks is yet another theme to be explored. In any case, the truth may be very different from what Haidara told me. In my interviews Asekou Sayon strongly denied belonging to any particular Sufi brotherhood. Besides, other Tijani imams of the region expressed strong opposition to Sayon. The late Aboubacar Yuuf, imam of the small hamlet of Yenguissa (attached to Mare), probably the most popular Senegalese Tijani in the Baga region until his death in

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1996, explained to me that in his view Sayon was nothing but a thief. He insisted that the jihad of Asekou Sayon and his disciples among Baga was contrary to the spirit of the Qur’an and that, accordingly, he prohibited their entry into his hamlet. According to a Malinké interviewee from Bintimodia, where Asekou Sayon stayed for three weeks or so, the imam was appalled at the fact that Sayon did not even know how to lead the basic prayers.14 According to missionary sources, curiously enough, it was the other way round: Sayon, or his followers, found skulls and non-Muslim ritual objects inside the mosque, and this was a big scandal in Bintimodia. There is room to suppose that the versions of Islam prevalent in coastal Guinea in the 1950s were very syncretistic. That might help to explain the irruption of so many ‘purifying’ movements known on the coast in those years. In fact, Sayon’s own version of that religion – he did not have any qualms in mixing the letter of the Qur’an with a red boubou, a sword, a trident and magical products – was criticised by other Muslims for being too close to the religious ideas of those he attacked. I shall come back to the problem of Muslim-ness in the next chapter. Staying for the moment in Bukor, where Sékou Haidara represented (at least when I met him) a different version of Islam, one distant from skulls and red robes, I am personally inclined to think that he invited Asekou Sayon to Bukor not because Sayon was a Tijani, but because being trained in the arts of the jihad he would accomplish what Haidara’s teachings by themselves had not achieved and end all non-Muslim practices: sacrifices by the silk-cotton trees, initiations in the woods, masks and sorcery, all that frantic palm wine drinking, and the hegemony of Baga chiefs and elders over Susu-speaking strangers like himself. Most of the discussions I had with Baga people concerning Asekou Sayon’s stay in Bukor inevitably revolved around the issue of whether he had destroyed amanco ngopong or not. Some elders of Bukor recalled the first encounter with Sayon in the following anecdote. As soon as Sayon arrived in Bukor, he asked them to bring amanco ngopong to him. In a rather apologetic manner, someone answered that this would not be possible, as amanco ngopong was not a ‘thing’ that could be carried from one place to another, but rather a being with his own will, who went to the village whenever he wanted and not whenever they wanted. According to these interviewees, Sayon believed them, forgot about amanco ngopong and dedicated his energies to destroying other objects – but this was by no means how Sayon himself presented things, as we shall see in the next chapter. Sayon and Amadou marked the spot where eventually (in 1958) the villagers were to build the big mosque of Bukor. The spot was precisely the place where the performance of amanco ngopong used to take place. This appropriation of sacred spaces is typical of the movement, and of religious expansion across cultures. In Minar, where the jihad was conducted by


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Sayon’s disciple Asekou Abdoulaye, the mosque was built over a recently cleared elders’ wood. In Kufen we obtain the same pattern, and again in the village of Tolkoc. In other villages people constructed the school over the cleared wood, thus transforming a space reserved for secret Baga initiations into one dedicated to national public education. I shall comment later in this chapter on this appropriation of spaces previously consecrated to amanco ngopong or to other spirits. Shortly after Sayon left Bukor, one of the Catholic missionaries of Katako visited the village and was surprised to see the results of Sayon’s passage. He wrote: The great silk-cotton trees of Bigori [Bukor] have been cut down by the karamoko.15 In certain places the sacred bush has been cleared. The damage is bigger than I had first thought. Another result: In the middle of the village, a place surrounded by wooden sticks has become the place of prayer of the new converts to Islam. It is still difficult for us to make up our minds about this movement, which in order to achieve its current breadth can only be inspired by a political party. [It is made clear in other parts of the journal that he is referring to the RDA.] As for us, we have ‘retrieved’ some people; we must take advantage of the ambience. Yet, there is room to be a bit worried, because people walk like sheep and we may have difficulties in the future …16 According to some interviewees, when Sayon left Bukor after a long kalima (he was probably there for as long as two months, if not longer), he entered Canton Baga in a canoe his followers carved out of one of the big silk-cotton trees they had cut down in the village, as this journal entry records. The felling of the huge sacred tree, one of the most conspicuous elements of the ethnic and religious closure Baga were experiencing during the colonial period, was thus being transformed into the opening of a conduit through which Islam and RDA propagated from one cercle to another. According to these interviewees, Kufen was the first village Sayon visited in Canton Baga. Other interviewees claimed that he went to Mankountan and then to Kalikse, and that Kufen was in fact visited by another Asekou, Asekou Abdoulaye Camara (on whom more below). Be that as it may, in Kufen the followers of Sayon cleared the elders’ wood and started the building of the mosque over it. Luckily for us, a few days before the arrival of Asekou, Kufen had been visited by the deputy commandant of Boké. It seems that the jihad had been denounced by a certain Robert Thomas, a Christian man and then president of a Baga Sitem ethnic association, the Union des Baga Sitémou (UBS), based in Conakry. Robert Thomas had complained to the French administration about the ‘destruction of the Baga custom’ by a Sékou Bokary Kuressi, from Kindia.17 The French administration sent F. Calisti, deputy commandant of Boké, in search of the

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villagers’ opinions. The main objective of his visit, according to the documentation, was to find out whether the Islamisation respected freedom of belief, in which case the French would not be in a position to censure. But it is clear that they also wanted to know whether this jihadist was impelling people not to pay taxes to chiefs, a common strategy used by RDA agitators to delegitimise that oppressive institution.18 Here is what, according to the report, farmers in Kufen told him: We know that the marabout is now in M’bottini [Mbotin] and that he is working towards the demolition of the power of sorcerers. We fully agree with him on this point. Here in Kouffin [Kufen], as elsewhere, we have our sorcerers who in the past have never hesitated to use their artefacts and their poisons to kill those among us who attempted to fight them. The youths of the village have not been dancing for more than a year now; they cannot even play the flute because the féticheurs have forbidden it. We know this Robert Thomas, he is from Kouffin. We know that around ten years ago he abandoned the village and fled to Conakry because he had had problems with our féticheurs. We know that he went to M’bottini and tried to chase the marabout, and that the population over there threatened to harm him if he did not leave immediately. We do not understand why he is now defending the féticheurs; here in Kouffin we have all agreed to ask the marabout to come to our village as soon as he will have finished in M’bottini.19 The president of the UBS withdrew his complaint, though not without stating, according to the report by Calisti, that ‘the Baga will later regret having abandoned their custom’. It is very significant that it was a Christian who said these words. First of all, Christians were more tolerant than Muslims towards what Thomas called ‘custom’; second, the people who later regretted ‘having abandoned the custom’ were, indeed, mostly Christian. Robert Thomas’s reaction was also an early example of a trend very common in my own days in Guinea: while villagers tended to have a negative, or at least an ambiguous view of the ritual objects and other aspects of their own lived-through culture, people living in Conakry, being more detached from these objects and sacred woods, seemed to have a more positive view of them as part of a ‘cultural heritage’ to be preserved, not abandoned. The letter by Calisti is also the first source in which Sayon appears as a marabout. This is a concept that takes different meanings and nuances in colonial documents. It stems from the Arabic murâbit (a person who lives in a ribât, a convent-fortress) and was used in North Africa to refer to living or dead people who consecrated their lives to prayer and mysticism and whose tombs becames places of popular piety (Caspar 1984). The term became a very imprecise one when used by the French in relation to West African Islam, which, according to the French, was essentially very different from


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North African Islam (Soares 2000). Most of the time, the concept was used to refer to Muslim influential leaders in general. The term grand marabout was used to refer to immensely popular sheikhs upon whom the French relied to keep the population under control. In some West African countries, the concept is used nowadays to refer to Muslim individuals who provide spiritual advice to someone else, and more often than not the concept has a derogatory connotation, as though these people, because of their instrumentalist approach to religion, are not as ‘good’ Muslims as those who maintain a more devout attitude. Scholars tend not to use these concepts other than in colonial historiography, but in Guinea, as I shall explain in the next chapter, the concept has had a particular fate. Calisti then went to Mbotin to meet the marabout.20 The latter (whether he met Asekou Sayon or Asekou Abdoulaye is not clear) told him that he was in Mbotin because he had been invited to go there, and that he was forcing no one to convert to Islam. He was there only to fight what he called ‘fetishism’ and to remain at the disposal of those who would want to know more about the Qur’an. He also clarified that he was not urging anybody to refuse to pay taxes. He even asked the commandant to give him a letter in order to support his actions (which Calisti did not do). This may have been a cunning manoeuvre by Asekou to obtain support from as many fronts as possible – and, if so, it worked, for although he did not obtain a letter from Deputy Commandant Calisti, the latter went back to Boké fully satisfied, and without any further anxiety about the Islamisation of the Baga. Not, that is, until a few months later. spiritual encounters of a different kind

After Bukor, Kalikse and Bintimodia, Asekou Sayon travelled towards Mare and Katako. Katako was a particularly difficult place for him, since it was the headquarters of both the chieftaincy and Catholicism. The two things operated in harmony, since Chief Donat was a Catholic. Sayon sent one of his talibs21 to Katako and he went to Mare – according to many interviewees – or to Bintimodia, according to many others. As stated in missionary records, this talib and his followers arrived in Katako on 14 February 1957, to be received by the RDA committee based in the abanka of Taitagui, one of the first cibanka to have converted to Islam and a focus of opposition to the Katambe and other land-owning descent groups of that village (as one might expect, ‘Taitagui’ is a Susu word). They began to celebrate kalimas while waiting for Sayon to join them. Meanwhile, however, Sayon met stiff opposition from the Catholic community of Mare. Mare was quite close to Katako, and the Christians there were well prepared to face an opponent whom they saw as no more than a troublemaker. The village, according to the memories of some interviewees, was divided in two halves: the Christian population lived together around the

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small Catholic mission, and the followers of Sayon lived in their own space, just adjacent. When a Catholic priest, Father Le Perec, went to meet Sayon in Mare and complained that his all-night lailas22 made people tired and prevented children from attending school, Sayon apparently replied: ‘Close your school if you wish! The sorcerers do their evil by night; it is by night that they must be caught.’23 He then threatened the whole village with a malediction if the Christians did not help him clear the sacred forest, although, in his characteristic syncretic way, he allowed them to attend church first and clear the forest later, according to the same source. Emmanuel, one of my Christian interviewees in Mare, told me that many Christian youths participated out of fear, but also, he insisted, out of their being as tired of ‘custom’ as any Muslim could be. This was a point made by many interviewees and in fact registered in missionaries’ sources too: that, despite being Christian, many youths thought it was a good idea to get rid of fetishes (one might suspect that, at the bottom of their hearts, the missionaries thought that too). This is what we could call the ‘religious evolutionist’ dimension of the iconoclastic movement. Echoing the words attributed to Almami Oumar some 20 years earlier, in 1957 youths, whether Muslim or Christian, wanted to move from the ‘darkness’ of the past towards the ‘enlightenment’ of the future: they were ‘modern’ subjects and were thinking of their place in the world in terms not only of a geography much wider than the containerised canton, but also in terms of a progressive temporality that was moving subjects from traditional pasts to modern futures. How to combine this with anti-colonialism (how to be ‘modern’ without being ‘Western’, and how to be African without being ‘traditional’) was a major theoretical preoccupation of pro-independence thinkers, and particularly of Sékou Touré. I examine his modernising project more closely in the next chapter. When the young people were ready to clear the woods, Emmanuel told me, an interesting compromise was reached: while Muslim youths cleared the wood dedicated to amanco ngopong, Catholic youths cleared the wood dedicated to abol, amanco ngopong’s ‘female’ counterpart. Although I did not obtain any further clarification of this interesting division of iconoclastic labour, my personal interpretation is that it was due to the fact that amanco ngopong, by any standard a much more important cult than abol, was in the hands of land-owning descent groups who, as in other Baga Sitem villages, had become Christian. Abol, although also a very ancient cult (we have evidence of its existence since the seventeenth century), was at the time in the custody of subordinate descent groups who were Muslim. By focusing on abol, the Christian youths were keeping Sayon happy while avoiding future punishments by the elders in charge of amanco ngopong. And it seems that they had a point. Some years after the iconoclastic movement, a man of the descent group in charge of abol died from bee stings and many interpreted this tragedy as a punishment for his involvement in the clearing of amanco ngopong’s wood.


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Figure 5.1 Asekou Sayon and his followers (Photo: Maurice Nicaud, Mare, Guinea, 1957, courtesy Marceau Rivière, Paris) One of my interviewees who took part in that same clearing told me that many of Sayon’s followers were surprised not to have found amanco ngopong inside the wood. We will see that a similar reaction was reported in Katako. At the time, it was strongly believed that elders kept their objects (masks, headdresses, sculptures) in the secluded woods. Maybe we should recall here a common Guinean saying which inspired the title of this chapter: ‘Children know how to run, but only elders know how to hide’. After staying in Mare for one month, Sayon went to join his team in Katako. The attitudes of the large Catholic community in Katako were diverse. On the one hand, many of them complained that the night-long kalimas had made it difficult for people to sleep and, besides, Christian men were afraid that their wives felt attracted to the movement. A Christian elder even promised the missionaries he would forbid women in his descent group to go to Taitagui. On the other hand, however, many Catholics felt more and more compelled to join the kalimas because otherwise they risked being accused of evildoing. Again, many Catholics in Katako thought it was not such a bad idea to clear the woods and get rid of the ‘fetishes’, and followed Sayon without converting to Islam. According to Antoine, who had been an active member of the JAC, this organisation decided that it too would collaborate with the clearing of the woods because the young men and women of the JAC wanted to join forces with the JRDA as much as possible. After all, he said, the movement

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was about getting rid of the very evil elements that were dividing Baga instead of uniting them. Other Christians, though, refused to join, and in order to escape the violence they all moved to the mission, which by then was already a large one. Chief Donat himself moved to the mission for three months. When Sayon arrived, after a month of kalimas by his talib, he found a huge team ready to clear the woods. Oral history has it that he went to the mission and that either Father Meuss or catechist Eugène Caro – depending on the version – received him with a gun at the ready. Although the vignette was remembered by many people, I for one had my doubts about its accuracy. It did not fit the pattern, rather paradoxical as it is, that despite all the violence implied in the movement, Sayon only went where he had been invited, and since he certainly would not be invited into a Catholic mission, I could not see why he would want to go there. The very day of his arrival in Katako, Sayon and his followers went to a wood belonging to the Kansomble abanka and cleared it. One of the missionaries wrote in his notebook that ‘strangers’ were disappointed not to find amanco ngopong there (it is not clear whom he meant by ‘strangers’; most probably, he was referring to Susu-speaking peoples living in Katako and surrounding villages). They also went to the ‘big house’ of the descent group that had custody of abol and demolished it after the owners of the house had surrendered the awesome ‘fetish’ to Sayon.24 Or did they? We shall learn more about the personal encounter between Sayon and abol in the next chapter. But it was in Katako that something went awfully wrong. During the clearing of one of the elders’ woods in that village, a young Christian male member of the JAC (he was around 16 years old) who, like other members of this association, had joined in the clearing of the wood, was bitten by a poisonous snake. He was taken immediately to Asekou Sayon, whose attempts to heal the boy failed. The boy died and people started to question Sayon’s powers against evil. Sayon found himself in a very difficult situation. Besides, he tried to pray over the boy’s body, but was vigorously challenged by Father Kerloc’h. Despite the tragedy, Sayon stayed in the village for another two months, mainly building the mosque and fortifying the Muslim population around the abanka of Taitagui. He left Katako, we read in missionaries’ journals, on 15 May 1957. f a r e we l l t o t h e b a g a

Sayon did not go to the northern Baga villages of Katongoro and Kakilenc, but eastwards, to the Mikhifore villages. Katongoro and Kakilenc were the only two villages that neither Sayon nor any of his talibs entered, mainly because the Catholic communities there mounted a very strong opposition to those who wanted to invite Sayon. Gaspard Camara, the first Christian village chief in Katongoro (and the first non-Touré chief since his father’s brother Youssouf Camara had been chief briefly before 1920) promised


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the missionaries he would not ‘sign any paper authorising [Sayon] to enter the village’.25 After the death of the young man in Katako, besides, Sayon probably did not want to have more confrontations with Christians. The Mikhifore, who by and large were mostly Muslim but who, like anybody else, also needed to be cleansed of evil, seemed a much easier option. It was not. After a few months of conducting the jihad among the Mikhifore, Asekou Sayon suffered another grave setback when an old man, accused of being a sorcerer, died after being beaten by Asekou Sayon’s followers. The episode was reported to the French authorities in Boké, and Asekou Sayon’s activities were brought to an end. He was tried, condemned to prison and only freed when President Sékou Touré declared a general amnesty at the onset of independence, in autumn 1958. Earlier in this chapter I mentioned briefly another Asekou who conducted a jihad parallel to that of Sayon. His name was Abdoulaye Camara (a Susu man from the region of Boffa), and he was sometimes described to me as a talib of Asekou Sayon and at other times as a co-talib of their common master. While Asekou Sayon was visiting the Baga villages of Bukor, Kufen, Kalikse, Bintimodia, Mare and Katako, Asekou Abdoulaye was doing the same in the villages of the west, those deeper in the mangroves: Minar, Mbotin, Tolkoc, Kamsar and Kawass. The passages of the two Asekous are difficult to differentiate because Asekou Abdoulaye used the name of his master Sayon and they both used the name of their master Shaykh Kuressi (see below), known in the region of coastal Guinea as Sékou Boubacar. In addition they sometimes used the name of Fanta Moudou (the wali of Kankan, with whom they wanted to be associated).26 These chains of identification of students with masters may correspond to Islamic notions of learning, but in Africa they are also to be found in Christian-oriented religious movements. In the regions of Côte d’Ivoire most affected by Harrism, apparently, it is not so easy to know whether a village was visited by the prophet Harris or by one of his disciples using his name (Dozon 1995). Asekou Abdoulaye, like his master, also had problems in dealing with the Christian Baga. After his visits to Minar Mbotin, Tolkoc and Kamsar, Asekou Abdoulaye encountered serious opposition in the village of Kawass, where the Christian young men had made themselves ready to face him and his followers. When Abdoulaye reached Kawass, he and his followers burnt the house of the chief of the village, by then a Christian, and beat up an old man, a ritual specialist who had remained unconverted to either world religion but whose sons were Christian. One of these sons, whom I interviewed, did not hesitate: after personally fighting with Abdoulaye, he went to Boké and reported the violence against his father and other offences to the authorities. The gendarmes came to the village and took Abdoulaye with them to Boké. A few weeks later, his master Sayon would join him, accused,

running and hiding


as we have seen, of involvement in a murder. I could never clarify in what precise months the two men were stopped. Considering Sayon visited five or six Mikhifore villages after leaving Katako in May 1957, and considering that he normally stayed one month in each village (although in Katako they stayed for more than three), we can reckon his campaign was halted at the end of 1957 or the beginning of 1958. The period could not have been more symbolic: 31 December 1957 was the date of the official abolition of the institution of customary chieftaincy. The imprisonment of Asekou Sayon was not only the end of his jihad but also the end of a whole period of the history of Guinea. Sayon, Asekou Abdoulaye and their talibs left the Dabaka in 1957. In only a few months, they and their followers had burned sacred bushes and destroyed ritual objects; cut down huge silk-cotton trees; beaten people (sometimes to death); led witch-hunts against elderly men and sometimes young men too (as in the case of René Amadou); promoted the activities of women, strangers and youths to counterbalance the hegemony of elders and chiefs; transformed and rationalised a ‘landscape of fear’; and converted many people to Islam. The destructive aspect of their deeds could not be minimised; anyone who has done fieldwork in coastal Guinea since that time will no doubt concede that this extremely disruptive social movement left deep scars in peoples’ memories and self-perceptions. When I started my fieldwork among Baga, I quickly became aware that Baga had been damaged culturally by the iconoclasm of 1957. Male initiations into the wood, which many Africans and Africanist anthropologists alike deem so indispensable in providing a sense of cultural identity, had not been taken up again; Baga material culture, probably one of the most exuberant continent-wide, had virtually disappeared; woods were cut down, and particularly the great silk-cotton trees were not as common as they had been in the past; on top of this transformed landscape, and quite unlike other groups in Guinea, Baga seemed to have no great desire to revitalise their ethnic particularity in the 1990s – a time when Guinea was experiencing a regional ‘re-ethnicisation of the state’ so common in democratising African countries. The ban on traditional initiations had been lifted and many peoples, from Landuma on the border with Guinea-Bissau to Loma on the border with Liberia, were reactivating initiations in sacred woods, yet Baga did not. Sayon’s movement had refused to become an ‘extra-­processual event’ of the kind described by Paul Bohannan (1958) – one which eventually would have fed energy back into the ‘normal’ work of Baga religious institutions. Instead it had been a turning point that oriented Baga history into an altogether different direction. In 1993 I started to collect oral histories in many Baga villages about Sayon’s deeds, talking to Christians and Muslims, youths and elders, Baga and non-Baga, men and women, people who followed Sayon and people


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who were against them. Interestingly, the impressions I gathered in my first year of fieldwork were mostly an endorsement of the ‘cultural destruction’ thesis. Some regretted it, some were happy about it, but everybody agreed, when first interviewed, that Asekou Sayon, Asekou Abdoulaye and their followers had succeeded in their iconoclastic intentions. Yet I interviewed most of my interlocutors twice, and some of them more than twice, and the figure that emerged as we maintained these conversations was more and more unsettling: the more I learned about Sayon, the more unsure I was about the possibility of ever obtaining a clear picture of ‘the event’. Things that I thought had been established for certain had to be constantly revisited; people who first had claimed one thing would later acknowledge having misled me in the first interview; more annoyingly, people who in one interview affirmed that Sayon had ‘destroyed’ Baga things would say later (sometimes only a few minutes later) that, despite all the iconoclasm, Baga things had remained undestroyed. In the end, it became clear to me that if the movement had been a very complex event, its interpretations were even more so: I came to realise, in fact, that while Sayon’s movement was something I was willing to place in ‘the past’, for Baga people it was so present to them that it did not make much sense to talk about it as an ‘event’. To many it was a critically important part of their lived world, so much so that it was (and probably is) still an ongoing, self-generating event that leaves them with unfinished business. In 2001 I went to Bukor to interview, once again, the old man René Amadou. As usual, I greeted him with the customary ‘Tana teyi fe e?’, which means ‘Is there anything out there?’ ‘Nothing’, he replied, ‘apart from truth and lie.’ This was in fact a rather common answer among elderly people. So I asked: ‘If there is nothing out there but truth and lie, how do you tell them apart?’ ‘That’s not difficult’, he replied. ‘Lie always comes first, truth lags behind. Should we meet tomorrow?’ We did, but the reader will have to wait until Chapter 7 to learn what we discussed. René Amadou’s wise and witty words reminded me of my own process of learning among Baga, and particularly learning about Asekou Sayon and the contested legacies of his deeds. Had I left the village nine months after I started my initial fieldwork, I would have been convinced that Asekou Sayon and iconoclasm had put an end to Baga religious culture, or at least to its material side and to its exuberant ritual paraphernalia. This was pretty much what Baga men and women wanted a stranger to think about them, masters as they are of the stereotypes they want to project. As the reader will see, I eventually learned that this was not the case and that the ‘destruction

running and hiding


of Baga things’ (leser mes mabaka) so commonly heard in my early conversations, was in fact a capafo, a way of speaking about a much more complex situation, a typically ‘Baga’ one in which truth – not that I claim an absolute possession of it – was slowly lagging after the initial, misleading lie. Not everything was as ‘gone’ as I had been told; in fact, many things were not gone at all. But in order to learn all that, I had to learn something else first. Indeed, almost a year into my research, and contrary to what many people had already told me, an old interviewee revealed that Asekou Sayon was still alive, and living not far away from Conakry. Having heard so much about him, I thought I would like to meet him and elicit, if I could, his own vision of these matters. So I did. In March 1994 I, too, said farewell to Baga for a while, and moved, together with Aboubacar Camara, then my fieldwork assistant and language trainer, to Conakry for a few months. The plan was to work on Baga language at the Centre of Studies of Guinean Languages, which had been created just a few months before by linguist Erhard Voeltz. For almost four months we worked every morning at the Centre, creating a Baga lexicon, writing texts, and gaining an understanding of Baga nounclass and verbal systems. It was while I was in Conakry, too, that I met the old man himself, Asekou Sayon, and went to visit him almost once a week during my stay in the capital. Perhaps the reader would like to meet him too.

6 mande tricksters and ­transformations: from ­iconoclastic preachers to ­iconoclastic politicians Our society is achieved by getting rid of the failings inherited from the past: from the fetishist past, from the colonial past, and from the feudal past. Sékou Touré (1976: 90; my translation) t h e m a ra b o u t w h o c a m e f r o m t h e e a s t

Asekou Sayon Kerra,1 the man who introduced the big upheavals among Baga we have analysed in the previous chapter, was a Malinké from Passaya, in today’s prefecture of Faranah. The name Asekou was an idiosyncratic transformation of Sékou, the Mande equivalent of sheikh. As for ‘Sayon’, in many Guinean languages it is a name given to a child born after twins. Among many West African groups, it is generally assumed that someone born after twins has supernatural powers and, most especially, the power to mediate between twin brothers, between people in conflict and between different realities.2 It was almost an irony that the person who caused such a radical transformation among Baga was a sayon. Indeed, for them he was a mediator between religions, between geographies, between political systems and between historical times. Recall Charles Jedrej’s suggestion, mentioned at the beginning of this book, that Sayon could be seen more as a ‘Mande trickster’, an agent of historical transformation among Baga, than as a religious leader. The old man and I met in 1994 in the village where he was living, not far from Conakry. He was a rather poor, forgotten man, very surprised to learn that a foreign student should want to hear about his deeds in the colonial period, and even more surprised to see a picture of himself, taken in Mare in February 1957 and just published in a book on Guinea that I showed to him (Lamp 1992). In our regular meetings during my four months in Conakry Sayon was very helpful and kind, in sharp contrast to most of my secret-­oriented Baga interviewees and friends. His mastery of the verbal arts, much in the vein of a true griot, made him a god’s gift to the rather desperate anthropologist I was at the time. He was not a griot in the strict sense of the word, but being a sayon, and therefore regarded by his family and community as a natural-born mediator, he had developed the power of speech. Of course this did not mean that everything he said was true,

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but what I present to the reader here is a distillation of hours of transcribed tapes containing – I am inclined to believe – mostly factual information. Whenever there is room for doubt, I make this evident. The objective of the chapter is not to encapsulate Asekou Sayon’s biography, but to look at the movement he provoked among Baga as a juncture in Guinean history: the moment when Baga were incorporated into a bigger political and religious community that was spreading from the east at the same pace as Asekou Sayon. Through the RDA, Islam and iconoclasm, the marginal regions of the coast – up to then abandoned to ‘heathen’ forces, Christian missionaries and colonial chiefs – were being incorporated into a new political community whose epicentre was in the Malinké regions of Kankan and Faranah.3 Sayon, however, did not introduce himself as an agent of political change. First and foremost, he clearly stated, he was a talib of Sheikh Bakary Kuressi, also known in Guinea as Sékou Boubacar Gouressi.4 According to Sayon, he was a talib of Sekou (or Shaykh) Fanta Mohammed Sherif of Kankan (also known as Fanta Moudou), although this may have been an exaggeration enabling Sayon to place his master, and therefore himself, under the umbrella of the highly venerated wali of Kankan (Kaba 1997; 2004). In the 1940s and 1950s, Fanta Moudou was one of the most respected holy men in West Africa, equally admired by French colonialists, Catholic missionaries (in particular, he was a regular interlocutor of Lerouge, who wrote extensively on him) and nationalist leaders like Sékou Touré and even Kwame Nkrumah, who visited him in Kankan. In many ways, Fanta Moudou was instrumental in the making of Guinea. Not only was he the homonym of President Sékou Touré, but he was also the son of Sheikh Sidiki, who had been the spiritual adviser of Samori Touré, the famous Malinké leader who had created the empire of Wasalou and was defeated by the French in 1898. In the 1950s Samori was a model Sékou Touré could follow in moulding the Guinean nation (a task which to a certain extent could be interpreted as restoring Samori’s empire). Sayon claimed to be 76 years old in 1994. This would mean that he was born in 1918, a date congruent with details of his life story and with his consistent way of referring to Sékou Touré as his young brother.5 His education consisted of a ten-year Qur’anic training under his father’s brother Fode Amadou Kerra in Passaya and later Sheikh Kuressi, who specifically trained him for the jihad. ‘They chose me to do the jihad,’ he said. These words may have been an indication that both Kuressi and Amadou had concluded that the young Sayon was not suited for in-depth Qur’anic study and that his strength and his inborn powers would be better used for the more practical aspects of Muslim proselytising. Sayon himself acknow­ ledged that he was not as versed in the interpretation of the Qur’an as was Sheikh Kuressi. According to some interviewees, and as mentioned in the previous chapter, his Qur’anic knowledge was indeed limited.


the politics of religious change

We do not have much information about Sheikh Kuressi. According to Asekou Sayon, Kuressi was a very popular marabout who had thousands of followers in the 1940s and early 1950s. Sayon did not know where Kuressi came from, but this should not surprise us. My experience in Guinea was that Islamic students did not normally ask their masters where they came from. Some of the imams I interviewed on the coast did not know Sayon’s ethnic group or birth region, nor even his family name, even though they had been his talibs. All Sayon knew was that Sheikh Kuressi came ‘from the east’, and insisted upon his links with Kankan, and especially with Fanta Moudou. More precise written information about Kuressi is to be found in Issiaga Sylla’s thesis (Sylla 1986) and in Lansine Kaba’s book on the Wahhabiya (Kaba 1974). Despite the fact that Sylla mixes up Kuressi with his talib and the image one gets is rather unclear, his thesis provides useful insights. Sylla suggests a Malian origin for Kuressi. Kaba gives more detailed information. According to him, Kuressi was a Sarakolle grand marabout who, until the mid-1940s, was based in Bamako. He was visited by people from all over French territory in search of Qur’anic instruction and spiritual guidance or advice (Kaba 1974: 89–90). Kaba insists that, like many other grands marabouts, Kuressi was well-versed not only in the interpretation of the Qur’an but also in Sufi mysticism and divination. He had more talibs than other grands marabouts of the region (Kaba 1974: 90), but his capacity to mobilise people, like that of other religious leaders of his kind, did not concern the colonial authorities, at least not while he was in Bamako. But the mid-1940s were bad times for Kuressi and other grands marabouts, even if, or precisely because, they were supported by French administration. These religious specialists, who relied too much on African nonQur’anic practices and on Sufi mysticism, and who were close to the French powers, were attacked by Wahhabist reformers who settled in Bamako from 1945 onwards. The main objective of these reformers was to purify Islam according to the Wahhab doctrine that they had learnt in Egypt, as well as to use Islam as an anti-colonial discourse, something they had also learnt in Nasser’s Egypt. Maraboutism and Sufism became their strongest enemies, both for religious and for political reasons.6 Although we do not have any details about his life, there is room to presume that, under Wahhabist pressure in Bamako, Kuressi left and went westwards, towards Kankan. Kankan was then a major Muslim town in West Africa, to the point that, according to Kaba, the first Wahhabist leaders had thought of it as their most appropriate West African base. That they chose Bamako instead was due, among other reasons, to the fact that Kankan was the headquarters of Fanta Moudou, too respected and venerated a wali for the Wahhabists to confront. According to Sayon, before turning up at Kankan, Kuressi had disappeared for three years. Whatever the reasons

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for his disappearance, his re-emergence in Kankan was interpreted, Sayon told me, as a miracle, and his popularity increased enormously. Perhaps not too surprisingly, this characteristic pattern of concealment and reappearance gave rise to a mahdist belief, and the French authorities became very nervous about it. It was one thing to be a popular grand marabout and another to be taken as a mahdi who, by definition, would excite anti-French feelings.7 Sayon recalled that the French authorities went to meet Fanta Moudou and asked him whether it was true, as people said, that Kuressi was the mahdi. Fanta Moudou, whose diplomacy and wisdom became proverbial in Guinea, answered them: ‘Bring everybody in the world in front of me and I will tell you who the mahdi is.’ According to Sayon, he meant that it was impossible for a human being to say who the mahdi was. With these wise words, it seems, Fanta Moudou calmed both the enthusiasm of the population and the fears of the colonial administration, and Kuressi escaped trouble. Sayon emphasised that Kuressi never considered himself a liberator from the French. He would rather say such things as (I am quoting Sayon): ‘My name is Sékou Boubacar. Another Sékou will come after me. I am here to help you get rid of the “fetishes”; the other one will come to help you get rid of the French.’8 Whether or not he was referring to Sékou Touré was not clear, not even to Sayon, but the phrase encapsulated the intimate connection between Islam and anti-colonial politics, as well as the connection between anti-fetishist practices and the building of independent Guinea. Apart from these specific words, the proposition that there was a personal link between Kuressi and Touré (as well as between them and Fanta Moudou) was asserted strongly by Sayon: ‘They knew each other very well, but I do not know what sort of pact they had signed.’ Asekou Sayon provided me with a very long narrative describing all the villages in which he had conducted the jihad. This narrative was difficult to double-check, and he often got the dates wrong (some dates, like those for his time among the Baga Sitem, I could double-check in archival sources). At times, he obviously used his name to appropriate the actions of his talibs, and probably those of his master too. I think that the narrative he provided represented ten years of activity, or maybe more than that. I determined that he started his jihad in the late 1940s, when he met Sheikh Kuressi in the region of Faranah. Sayon would have been in his late twenties or early thirties at that time. After conducting the jihad in Faranah he went towards Sitakoto, on the border of Guinea with Sierra Leone, and then on to ‘the English country’ (the colony of Sierra Leone). Why he ventured into Sierra Leone was not clear. While he said he only went to a village if it had invited him, it is possible that problems in Guinea forced him to leave French territory and go to Sierra Leone.9 Whatever the reasons, in Sierra Leone he conducted


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the jihad among Limba who, according to him, were the hardest people to convert in his entire jihad, and then among Loko. He then went to several other regions in Sierra Leone before returning to Guinea, this time to the Susu region in order to destroy their seri (ritual objects, medicines). After performing the kalimas in several Susu villages around Kindia, he went down to the coast, to Conakry’s Kalum Peninsula. In Kalum he conducted the jihad in the villages of Camayene, Koleah, Gbessia and Kaporo, today wards of Conakry. In Kaporo a crocodile had killed a woman and the neighbours, convinced that the crocodile was in fact a sorcerer, asked Asekou Sayon to exorcise it. This exorcism made him particularly famous on the coast, and was recalled vividly by interviewees in that ward of Conakry in 1994. I do not know whether Kuressi was with him during the whole journey or whether his trajectory from Kankan to the coast was a different one. On one occasion Sayon told me that Kuressi and he did the jihad together and that their tasks were different: I did the first part, the superficial one: I got rid of the ‘fetishes’. Then Sheikh Boubacar would come and do the more important one: the explanation of the Muslim doctrine. He also had the power to destroy, but was not as dangerous and courageous as I was. I was much younger and stronger than he was. When a village was in need of Boubacar, he would send me first. But he also told me that when they reached the coast they trained the Susu man Asekou Abdoulaye Camara, and that Kuressi did not continue with them. It was as though the Kuressi–Sayon duo was now to be replaced by the Sayon–Abdoulaye combination. Kuressi stayed permanently in Souguéta (in today’s Kindia Prefecture), some 130 km into the hinterland from Conakry, where he opened a Qur’anic school. From Souguéta he sent his talibs to do the jihad among the populations of the coast. However, Sayon told me, in some parts of the coast, especially in Conakry and the Islands of Los, in front of Conakry, the jihad was conducted by Kuressi himself. In February 1956, Kuressi wrote a certificate for Sayon in which we can read: I, Cheik Gouressi, based in Souguéta, acknowledge Asekou Sayon Kerra as one of my talibs. He is authorised to take to the authorities whomever he will find in the cantons acting in my name without a certificate. (My translation from the French.) How many talibs conducted jihad with Kuressi’s approval I do not know. Nor do I know how many people were doing it without his approval or certificate. What is clear is that in the late 1950s there were several jihadists working in the Boké cercle. We know of Sayon and his disciple Asekou Abdoulaye among Baga; we read of a Sékouna Bayo who conducted a similar jihad

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Figure 6.1 Asekou Sayon’s certificate (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Conakry, Guinea, 1994) among Beafada, on the right bank of the Rio Nuñez (Gaillard 1995); Nalu, neighbours of the Beafada, had their own jihadist (Sylla 1986; Marie Yvonne Curtis, personal communication); and Asekou Sayon told me that he had other talibs apart from Abdoulaye, such as the one he sent to Katako while he was in Mare. Almost all the villages in Boké were visited by one Muslim jihadist or another in the late 1950s, including, according to witnesses, the town of Boké itself.Whether all these jihadists were interconnected and linked to Kuressi’s headquarters in Souguéta is difficult to tell. Taking the political developments of the time into consideration, the proliferation of Muslim iconoclasm in a region previously famous for housing so many non-Muslim groups deserves special attention. Interviewees in Guinea often made a straightforward cause–effect connection between the actions of the jihadists and the agenda of Sékou Touré. Hence, according to many, Sayon had been ‘sent’ by Sékou Touré to destroy Baga cults because Touré was afraid of their ‘secret’. ‘He had to destroy the Baga in order for him to become strong’, a Baga man told me in 2003. One interviewee put it in a very revealing way: ‘Only later did we understand that Sayon had been sent by Sékou Touré.’ With these words, he meant that while he (and others) had followed Sayon in 1956–7, because they wanted to get rid of evil things, much later, when they were living under Sékou Touré’s oppressive regime, they had second thoughts about it and believed that they had been fooled by a man sent by the oppressor as part of his scouting party.

Map 4 Trajectories of Asekou Sayon and his disciple Asekou Abdoulaye in their jihad (1a. Sayon in Guinea; 1b. Sayon in Sierra Leone; 2. Asoulaye)

128 the politics of religious change

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In fact, however, it is difficult to imagine that Touré would have been sending iconoclastic preachers on tour. He actually had a very low opinion of this kind of maraboutage, for we will see later that as soon as Guinea became independent he launched official campaigns against it.Yet I do think that there was a relationship, more complicated than a direct personal link, between the Guinea that Sékou Touré was fighting for politically and the destruction of the ‘fetishes’ undertaken by jihadists like Sayon. The RDA local committees were on many occasions the link between the two spheres. It is my contention that they were using the jihadists in the same measure as the jihadists were using the RDA’s political programme and infrastructure. To clarify the Sayon–Touré connection in the interviews with Sayon proved particularly difficult. He told me that before setting out towards Boffa and Boké, he was advised by Sheikh Kuressi to obtain a PDG-RDA membership card. Sayon went to Conakry and met Sékou Touré; but, for reasons that were not clear from my interviews, he did not obtain a card and decided to continue, trusting that Kuressi’s certificate would provide the accreditation he needed to conduct his jihad. Not being officially affiliated to the PDG-RDA would prove even more problematic than his first misgivings had suggested, however – especially when he was arrested in Boké and the RDA withdrew its support. The last episodes of Sayon’s long jihad were, in his version, rather different from the accounts gathered elsewhere. He never mentioned any violent episode, let alone any death. According to him, he was in a Mikhifore village when he was summoned for an RDA meeting in Boké. Apparently, during his jihad in the cercle of Boké, he was frequently visited by a certain Moustafa, a Malinké candidate of the Bloc Africain de Guinée (BAG), a conservative, pro-chieftaincy party vigorously opposed to the PDG-RDA.10 Moustafa probably went to visit Sayon to get some guidance or some asmani to help him fulfil his political ambitions, a help that Sayon, being a freelance marabout, naturally provided. Sayon claimed that the RDA authorities in Boké accused him of supporting Moustafa and the BAG, and that was why they sent him to prison. Needless to say, this could not be true. If he was sent to prison, it must have been for something that French criminal law viewed as punishable, something other than supporting the ‘wrong’ political candidate. According to Adolphe K. Camara (1990), he and Asekou Abdoulaye were accused of ‘swindling’. Whatever the charge, the reasons behind his detention may have been multiple. In the first place, there was the murder we know about. In the second place, there is the probability that Asekou Abdoulaye (who had been arrested shortly before Sayon) may have mentioned the name of his master in his interrogation. In the third place, there is the fact that influential Baga people living in Conakry were not all that happy about what was going on up-country in their villages. They argued to the authorities that these two men were exploiting the local population (Sylla 1986). One may also speculate that


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Figure 6.2 Asekou Sayon in 1994 (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Guinea, 1994) the feelings of RDA leaders towards the jihadists in Boké were ambivalent. On one hand, the jihadists were bringing the youth together around the building of mosques, the burning of chiefs’ houses, the delegitimation of local powers, and so forth. On the other hand, however, they represented an Islam that the RDA headquarters in Boké, some of whose members were Wahhabist, did not want to endorse. Once their mission was accomplished (as it had been when they were stopped), their contribution became superfluous. Sayon and Abdoulaye left prison at the end of 1958 to find an independent Guinea that had no use for them. In this country, the age of the grands marabouts ended with colonialism (Triaud 1997a). It was the onset of the age of grand politicians. If the triad Shaykh Kuressi, Asekou Sayon and Asekou Abdoulaye (and many others) had been able to thrive in the earlier period, they could make no headway in the later. The vocation that had supported them in the 1950s was no longer viable after September 1958, and poverty and oblivion awaited them. Kuressi and Abdoulaye died in the 1980s. revisiting the spiritual encounters

The intense conversations I had with Sayon provided new insights into his jihad, sometimes different from the ones gathered in the villages he had visited. Sayon always insisted that he never used any violence to enter a village, claiming that he was always invited. He never used violence to force people to join his kalima, although he admitted to beating ‘sorcerers’.

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Whether he beat them or not, what seems to be particularly important is that his final objective was to make them confess. Our jihad was oriented towards those who do evil. We never used violence. When we went to a village we built a big fire in the centre of the village. Then the sorcerers would come with their fetishes. Once they had confessed to being witches I did no harm to them. Some of them would come without the fetishes, but after a while they would go and fetch them from their houses. Then they would present them to me and explain each fetish’s peculiarity.11 Others would not come, hiding in their houses, but in the end all of them came. I never left a village without destroying all the objects. In some villages that could take me up to a month … I would destroy all those who could do evil. This was the power to destroy by God’s grace that had been given to me by Sékou Boubacar. I was against all those who do not respect God’s prohibitions … When I entered the village, I stuck my trident on the ground and, no matter how powerful a sorcerer was, he would come to surrender his fetishes. Those who stayed close to me were the pure ones. Those who ‘know the two’ [those who are Muslims and yet hold to their previous religious practices and beliefs] did not have the strength to stand next to me. They stood always at a distance. Sayon threatened that all those who housed ‘fetishes’ would find their houses burnt down if they did not deliver them. ‘I used to have this power of burning houses just by saying “fire”,’ he said, ‘but I do not know whether I still have it.’ I had particularly interesting conversations with Sayon about his passage through Bukor, the first Baga Sitem village he visited. Sayon claimed that the first thing he did upon arrival was to go to the male elders’ wood – forbidden to women, strangers and non-initiated – and go in and out of it several times. People who saw that, according to him, were astonished because they thought that only initiated elders could go into the bush and return alive. He then invited the youth of the village to follow his example. ‘I always addressed the youths.’ Once the space was desacralised, he started the process of destruction, aimed particularly at amanco ngopong and the beating of the elders who were its custodians. Sayon revealed some information about amanco ngopong that no Baga had told me up to that time. From him I learned that inside the towering bulk of amanco ngopong seven men were hidden, sitting one on top of the other, each man from a different descent group of the village. Later I discovered, as mentioned in Chapter 2, that this was how many people among Baga Sitem thought of amanco ngopong too. Yet, in general Sayon’s knowledge of Baga ritual life was tenuous. He only knew that Baga had this awful thing called kakilambe and that it should be destroyed. When I asked him what other things he destroyed, he did not


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know the names of the objects. To him, they were just ‘fetishes’ and it was his duty to destroy them. We have already seen that, according to the villagers’ accounts, when Sayon arrived in Bukor he immediately asked people to bring him amanco ngopong, to which they replied that amanco ngopong was not a thing that could be carried about. It is possible that this exchange between some Baga and Sayon took place. It might also have been a metaphorical way of telling me that they were clever enough to deflect Asekou Sayon’s destructive intentions. Whatever the case, Asekou Sayon explained things in a completely different way. He acknowledged that he was after kakilambe, of which he had heard much before arriving in the Baga region, but he also claimed to have destroyed it. He gave me a vivid image of the encounter: according to this description, inside the wood there was a hut surrounded by human skulls and guarded by some very old men with long beards. It was inside this hut that amanco ngopong’s head was kept. Sayon gave orders to some of his followers to burn the head, which they did (or so he was led to believe). In the village, he entered the ‘big houses’ of different descent groups and took out many of their objects, including the rest of amanco ngopong. (According to many interviewees, amanco ngopong had three parts, once described to me as the ‘head’, the ‘trunk’ and the ‘feet’; each one of them was guarded by a different descent group and therefore kept in a different ‘big house’.) ‘When I did that,’ Sayon recalled – reliving his triumph in the telling – ‘people said that the Baga fe were finished’ (in Susu Baga fe means ‘things Baga’). It is worth emphasising, implicit in Sayon’s words, an identification of amanco ngopong with ‘Baga-ness’ that Baga in general would endorse. Asekou Sayon was sure that he destroyed the ‘things Baga’ by destroying amanco ngopong, but most of my interviewees in Guinea, especially when I interviewed them after meeting Sayon, emphasised that Sayon did not destroy amanco ngopong, precisely because that would have meant destroying ‘the Baga’, which he clearly did not … In fact, Sayon frankly acknowledged that the head of amanco ngopong was burned not by himself, but by his followers, who afterwards showed him the ashes. But what ashes, I wonder? Sayon was clearly convinced that his followers were faithful to him and that he had converted them to his particular way of seeing and valuing things. But my impression was that many of the youngsters who followed him did so reluctantly and with fear. On the one hand, they were eager to see changes and to rid themselves of sorcery, elders’ abuses, and many other things, but on the other hand many of them could not stop believing in the power of such spirits as amanco ngopong. In my view, rather than a complete destruction, what they really wanted was a compromise. And compromise is probably what they obtained. We have seen that while Asekou Sayon was still in Yampon, a young man from Bukor who had been spying on him told the villagers: ‘Asekou Sayon is

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coming to Bukor; take care about the way you go to bed, so that he finds you in a good position.’ The first time I was told this capafo, my understanding of it was rather literal, as an invitation to abandon certain Baga practices and beliefs. Yet, the capafo has other readings; an alternative interpretation was given to me by the very person who had told it to me in the first place, but only a year later, when my relation to him became much closer. According to him, what the young man had meant was that Baga elders had to pretend to be asleep while in fact being wide awake; in other words, they would have to pretend to follow Sayon while still keeping their secrets. In Mare I had a similar experience. The first time I gathered a narrative about Sayon’s stay there, my interviewee told me: ‘Asekou Sayon did not do any harm to us because he found that we were sitting properly.’ The pattern of disclosure I had experienced in Bukor was exactly repeated: the interviewee revealed to me, in a second conversation, that while Sayon was in Kalikse (one of the Baga Sitem villages he stayed in before entering Mare) a man from Mare went to spy on him and came back to Mare advising people ‘to sit properly’, an expression that, the first time he had used it, simply meant to be a good Muslim, but that now indicated a much more complex situation. Months later, after my stay in Conakry and my sessions with Sayon, I often met this interviewee. One day, we were discussing Sayon’s deeds thirty-five years earlier, as we had been doing a year before. While the first time he had told me that ‘by the time Sayon arrived we were all good Muslims’, this time he revealed that to ‘sit properly’ meant to be prepared not to let Sayon and the youths following him get away with their plans: they were planning to hide things, to construct a scenario so as to please the iconoclasts. In other words, they wanted Sayon, but did not want to get rid of amanco ngopong. ‘What we liked about Sayon,’ he clarified, ‘was that he was going to help us cut down the woods so that we could plant fruit trees instead.’ In Katako, an even clearer case of reluctance to follow Sayon obtained. In this village, the head of the Jeunesse Agricole Catholique wrote a letter to the Catholic missionaries in September 1956, when Sayon was about to leave Bukor and enter the cercle of Boké.12 He was asking them to go to the French authorities so that Sayon’s entrance to Canton Baga would be forbidden. Needless to say, the French authorities did not do anything; Asekou Sayon entered the cercle of Boké and in five months he reached Katako itself. But five months is a long time to learn to sit, to use the Baga expression. Now the descent group of the very man who had written the letter were the custodians of abol, the female spirit we have discussed elsewhere. Sayon, who knew it, immediately went to their ‘big house’ and demolished it, and then asked them to surrender abol. They accepted, but instead of abol, they gave Sayon an ordinary piece of wood, slightly similar in shape to the real thing. Sayon and his followers happily burnt the object,


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probably thinking they were, once again, destroying ‘Baga culture’ when they were instead just burning a piece of wood. Two questions come to mind. First, what happened to the real abol, the one Sayon did not burn? Second, why did Sayon’s followers not reveal that the owners of the cult were fooling Sayon? The answer to the first question is that the real abol, like so many other objects that Sayon did not take, was probably put somewhere safe. Albert, the Baga local historian with whom I have discussed ‘things Baga’ most exhaustively, explained to me that by the time Sayon arrived in Katako not only the custodians of abol, but almost everybody else who had charge of important objects had hidden them elsewhere; they did not deliver them to Sayon, or else fooled him with other things. ‘This is why we tell you’, he said, ‘that everything is there.’ I shall comment later on this phrase. The answer to the second question is twofold. On the one hand, some of Sayon’s followers knew that he was being fooled, but did not reveal this knowledge because they were afraid of future retribution. On the other hand, however, we must take into account that many of those who followed Sayon, being for the most part youngsters, women and strangers, were probably as unaware of the true appearance of abol as Sayon himself. But even if many knew Sayon was fooling people or being fooled by them, who could short-circuit the movement? Sayon’s religious movement created a circular momentum that compelled people to join his group. Not to join – not to bring wood, water and money, not to buy his purifying perfume – would have been to lay down a bold challenge, risking identification as an evildoer and a beating. This was a big risk, since we know that under the effervescent effect of the kalima the youth could become so frantic as to kill people. Yet I would not say that fear and social pressure were the main reasons why people joined the kalima. Among them there was a strong yearning to dispose of many evil things, and sorcery above all. In a missionary’s diary, we read the words of a Christian man who, contrary to the missionary’s expectations, was exhorting people in Katako to invite Sayon: ‘Let him come and help us destroy all the bad things and finish with sorcery and fetishism. After his passage, every one will be free to follow his own way [Christian or Muslim].’13 In fact, whatever the intentions of Sayon, and whether he was remembered as a ‘false’ or a ‘real’ man of God, after his iconoclastic movement a Baga could be either Christian or Muslim, but no longer animist. It really was the end of Baga animism. There is one aspect of Asekou Sayon’s iconoclasm that requires special attention, namely its commercial dimension. I do not think it is a coincidence that the picture of Sayon in Mare (Figure 5.1) was taken by Maurice Nicaud, a French adventurer and art collector. Nicaud was living at the time in Guinea, and he would go to visit Asekou Sayon in different villages and buy some of the objects he confiscated from the locals. Many of my

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interviewees insisted that Sayon did not burn all the objects: ‘He burnt some of them, but many of them we would put in a van and he would take them to Kindia, where his master Sékou Boubacar was living. Sékou Boubacar would then sell them to the whites.’ I learned this from a man who had been one of the ‘policemen’ that Sayon nominated in each village. And the truth is that even today – as I was able to verify in Paris – one can still buy objects in international art galleries that originally came from Nicaud’s collecting in the wake of Sayon’s jihad.14 I do not mean that Sayon was essentially a dealer in African art. In my view he was many things at the same time: an art dealer, a freelance marabout, an RDA ally (more so, I believe, by context than by political conviction), an anti-witch by birth, a jihadist by training. The exact nature of his beliefs is not for me to determine. To say that he was a swindler and that he was exploiting the population would be to indulge in a value judgement beyond the remit of a sociological description. Undoubtedly, he took advantage of the gullibility of the rural population, but maybe he was also sincerely convinced that his anti-sorcery powers were given to him by God. Then again, maybe he relied much more on his anti-witchcraft perfumes and amulets than on God and the Qur’an. In any case, he clearly had no problem in mixing the two, the Qur’an and anti-sorcery charms. By looking at his picture, taken by Maurice Nicaud in Mare, we can easily see how much he relied on amulets for protection. Apart from these charms against evil, his red dress and his trident were also rather unusual for a Muslim preacher (in general red is associated with non-Muslim religious cultures). Asekou Sayon represented a variety of Islam quite distant from the ideal endorsed by Wahhabist reformers. For this reason he was criticised by some imams, as we have seen. If he had not worn all those amulets he would probably have been accepted, even by the most demanding imams of the region. But then, we may ask, would people have followed him if he had not spoken a language that was convincing to them, one linked to the materiality of charms and not only to the word of the Qur’an? This leads me to a particularly problematic aspect of this study: how to assess Sayon’s Islam. The problem, to use Michael Gilsenan’s phrase, of ‘recognising Islam’ – of how to accept Islamic practices in their plurality – has been a topic in anthropological studies of this religion since at least the days of Gilsenan (1982), Gellner (1983) and, long before them, of Geertz’s comparative study (1968). The problem is particularly acute in French-speaking West Africa, not only because of the plurality of discourses found in the region (both Muslim discourses and discourses about Islam and Muslims), but also because the ambivalent attitude of French colonialists towards this religion led them to heroicise some Muslims and distrust others, seeing some forms of Islam as dangerous and some as more or less innocent, a problem elaborated by many scholars (Triaud 2000;


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Soares 2000). Broadly speaking, the Islamic trends in the region are divided between reformist ones, trying to either convert ‘pagans’ or to purify Muslim zones, and forms of Islam practised by people who, unlike the former, rely on the materiality of amulets or on ritual practices (from mystical Sufism to spirit possession) that the reformists disdain. While it is relatively easy for external observers to perceive the difference between the two trends, at least as ideal types, it is also too easy to fall into the trap of seeing the reformists’ religion as being more faithful to the true spirit of the Qur’an than other ways of being Muslim. Thus Robinson, for instance, writes in no uncertain terms that ‘Islamic communities in West Africa can be divided between the more orthodox and the less orthodox, or between the more learned and the less learned’ (Robinson 1991: 109). Other scholars of Islam, however, suggest that we ought to be extremely careful in this respect. Thus, Benjamin F. Soares, referring to the kind of practices that many would consider ‘less’ Islamic, has warned us: ‘While many Muslims have taken the position that these practices are either unorthodox or not part of Islam, this decidedly “modernist” view of such phenomena fails to deal with the fact that many Muslims in West Africa do not see them in contradiction with Islam. In fact, they are an important part of what constitutes orthodoxy for many Muslims’ (Soares 2005: 35; cf. Soares 2000). Following Soares’s caution, I shall confine myself to saying that Sayon saw himself as a Muslim, and certainly not as one of those who ‘follow the two’, as he referred to those Muslims who are evildoers and whom he attacked. As I suggest at the end of the chapter, maybe the most productive angle for us is not to decide what is Islamic and what is not (or less) so, but to look for the continuities between Sayon’s practices and the local religious culture of the Guinean coast. It was these continuities that made it possible for Sayon’s new religion to be received, interpreted and accepted by a large majority. Leaving Asekou Sayon’s beliefs aside, the truth is that, at a superficial level at any rate, his iconoclasm was very effective. In many villages his jihad resulted in the clearing of the elders’ bushes, whose locations subsequently were dedicated to the building of mosques, schools or plantations. ‘Muslims have always had the monopoly of communications and of the opening-up [of communities]’, wrote Jean-Luis Triaud (quoted in Larrue 1988: 87; my translation). This relationship between religious movements and the construction of a ‘modern’ landscape has been the object of much discussion of religious movements all over the world, from ‘cargo cults’ to prophetic movements in Africa. Jean-Pierre Dozon, in the study of a series of movements that bear a strong resemblance to the jihad in Guinea, cogently argued that iconoclastic movements work towards the creation of a ‘public space’ beyond the boundaries of small cults and initiatory provinces, an idea that Bayart also explored in his analysis of religion and civil society

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(Dozon 1995; Bayart 1993a, 1993b). According to Dozon, in societies where spirits were held responsible for people’s misfortunes, the destruction of objects (perceived to be the ‘causes’ of misfortunes) became the basis for the restoration of a healthy community. Since most prophetic, iconoclastic movements are conducted by Christian or Muslim religious leaders, the new religious community will be universal and macrocosmic by comparison with the old one.15 Dozon analysed the relevance of prophetic movements in the making of an ‘Ivorian space’, shaping people’s common interests, experiences and anti-colonial struggles in Côte d’Ivoire. On the whole, the history of Guinean iconoclastic religious movements remains unwritten, although we know that there were many such movements between 1907 (or earlier) and 1957. The specific case of Asekou Sayon’s jihad, however, tends to support Dozon’s and Bayart’s views, and to indicate a connection between the opening-up of a community (the Baga) and the creation of a broader Guinean space by the PDG-RDA. From the point of view of the cultural dynamics of Baga society, I think that the aftermath of Asekou Sayon’s actions would not have been so traumatic had it not been a prelude to the implementation of Sékou Touré’s political agenda. Iconoclasm in itself was not necessarily an irreversible process. Icons could be destroyed, but they could be remade too. Not far from Guinea, J.-C. Froelich mentioned a Muslim preacher, Sékou Sangare, who in 1948, also with RDA support, undertook a jihad against the ‘fetishes’ and worship places of some ‘pagan’ societies in Côte d’Ivoire. According to Froelich, the French authorities decided to support the ‘pagan’, even with weapons. The iconoclastic preacher was chased away from the region and shortly after, this author tells us, ‘the masks were remade’ (Froelich 1966: 236–7; my translation). Even among Baga, we read in Mgr de Milleville’s journal that in Tolkoc, in March 1957, only a few months after the passage of Asekou Abdoulaye, the population had remade some of their dancing masks. ‘May the karamoko come back!’ wrote the ironic archbishop after his visit to the village.16 That coastal peoples in Guinea knew how to recover from iconoclastic movements could be illustrated by the very fact that Asekou Sayon was not the first twentieth-century Muslim renovator they had known. We saw in a previous chapter that in 1914 a sharif undertook a jihad among the Sitem supported by the Touré of Katongoro, and it is certain that the arrival in the region of Senegalese Tijani sheikhs like Aboubacar Yuuf and Sidi Haidara provoked iconoclastic upheavals in the 1920s. We have also heard of an iconoclastic movement started by Almami Oumar among Bulongic in 1929. As for Baga Koba, as early as 1907 they had an iconoclastic Muslim preacher (Tibini Camara) who gathered four thousand followers – yet did not mark such a juncture in their history as Asekou Sayon was for Baga Sitem.17


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If Sayon’s actions were so ‘terminal’, so unforgettable in comparison to earlier iconoclastic movements in the same region, it was not because of the jihad itself: what made the difference was what happened afterwards. We have seen that some people in Katako hid their abol before Sayon’s followers demolished their ‘big house’. We know how well prepared Baga were to receive the iconoclast (in Mare they ‘were sitting properly’; in Bukor they were careful to go to bed so as to be found ‘in a good position’). It all seems to indicate that they would have returned to their pre-Muslim religious practices, and who knows what sort of conflict this might have occasioned. According to many interviewees, many of the men and women who followed Asekou Sayon died later in doubtful circumstances, as a punishment for having joined the iconoclasts and for having participated in destroying Baga things. In the previous chapter, I mentioned a Baga Sitem descent group who abandoned their village and went in search of refuge in a Bulongic village because, I was told, ‘they betrayed custom’ by following Sayon in 1956. Probably, had the Baga come back to any sort of pre-iconoclastic ritual life, accusations like this one would have been commonplace. But the political situation in which they found themselves after the iconoclastic movement was such that, while accusations were made, they took an unexpected direction: they were precisely targeted at those who attempted to re-introduce previous ritual life. They found themselves living in an iconoclastic state and, as my interviewee said, they understood then that ‘Sayon had been sent by Touré’. Only he had not. routinised iconoclasm

‘When I arrived in the Baga villages’, Sayon told me, ‘there used to be some round huts with no doors or windows; it was in these houses that sorcerers met.’ When I said I had never seen such a house in the Baga territory the old man replied: ‘No, they are not there anymore; I destroyed them all.’ Some of my interviewees in the Baga villages also told me that such huts existed in the past, and that they were destroyed by Sayon and his young followers in 1956–7. Beyond its historical reality and function the image of the hermetic hut works as a wonderful metaphor for the secrecy that pervaded much of Baga society, as well as for the closure Baga were experiencing in colonial times. The destruction of such huts, on the other hand, epitomises the construction of a wide, open space, far away from secret meetings and unchecked decisions by ritual elders. The Republic of Guinea that Sayon and many others had helped to build by destroying the ‘fetishes’ and creating a common Guinean public space was not going to permit such huts to be rebuilt or their rituals to return. The tragedy for Sayon was that while he helped destroy the ‘fetishes’, he did it from the wrong side. To Touré and other politicians, men like Sayon were considered ‘obscurantist’. In a modern state there was no room for them.

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Sayon became a marginal nuisance, and could consider himself fortunate not to have been imprisoned like many other marabouts (Kaba-41 1998: 65). No words could express better what Sékou Touré and his Party thought of the marabouts than this official note written as early as 1959: We must fight against swindler marabouts, fight against religious fanaticism, in essence a factor that opposes and destroys fraternity and solidarity, fight efficaciously against maraboutage, maraboutisme, charlatanism and all the forces of exploitation linked to obscurantist entities, in sum, we must attain what we could call the de-maraboutisation and de-intoxication of the masses.18 This circular, which has attracted some attention in the literature (Rivière 1971: 331–2; Kaba 2000: 192–3), provides good evidence of the ambivalence of the concept of marabout in the early post-colony. In this particular context, we could argue, it did not mean a Muslim man of learning or a charismatic leader, as it might do in other contexts, but someone who under the appearance of teaching Islam was in fact reinforcing beliefs in magical and other ‘irrational’ practices – the very kind of religious specialist that Sékou Touré’s demystificatory agenda set out to punish. Strictly Qur’anic masters were tolerated by the regime. Yet Kaba argues that by the time this circular was issued, Sékou Touré and his Party were maintaining an attitude towards Islam probably as ambivalent as that of the French before them, and for similar reasons: the fear that through Islam an opposition to the Party could be articulated. Although there is some literature on Sékou Touré, the RDA and Islam, more research needs to be done on the relationship (which changed enormously over time) between the leader and the religion, and particularly on the implications of the fact that in some parts of coastal Guinea, the concept of marabu has taken on the meaning of Muslim (even in French when spoken by someone who has not mastered it). In Sitem, for instance, Islam is referred to as dine da marabu (the religion of the marabu) and Muslims simply as marabu. Whatever the semantics of the concept, it is no surprise that in such a ‘de-maraboutising’ context, shortly after leaving prison in 1958 Asekou Sayon tried as hard as he could to maintain a low profile and to live off peanut farming instead of charms and anti-witchcraft rituals.19 Asekou Sayon’s life and deeds represented the transition from one time to another. He was born and educated at a time and in a region of grands marabouts, and he used (and was used by) the RDA. He learned how to use the oppression people felt and their thirst for social change, and in so doing he collaborated in the creation of a new political order in which, however, there was no room for himself. For RDA leaders, early promoters of the kind of ideology and social engineering James Scott has called ‘high authoritarian modernism’ (Scott 1998), traditional beliefs and the modernity of the state could not go hand


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in hand. Moreover, according to the general philosophy of the PDG-RDA, these beliefs were no more than a ‘mystification’ practised by male elders to maintain control of gullible young men and women. Consequently, in independent Guinea a strong programme of grassroots ‘demystification’ was put to work, which in many cases was as violent as Sayon’s movement, if not more so. There is some confusion among scholars as to when exactly the campaign started. Rivière, who wrote what for many years was the only available source about this largely undocumented campaign (Rivière 1969), said it had started in 1961. In a more recent case study, however, Michael McGovern has argued that by early 1959 there were demystification policies in the region known as Guinée Forestière (McGovern 2004). Sankhon claims that from 1960 to 1968 there were reforms aimed at putting an end to customs, but they were not taken too seriously by local populations, and therefore a proper ‘campaign’ followed the socialist cultural revolution (inspired by the Chinese one) that was launched on 2 August 1968 (Sankhon 1987). In writing about the Guinean Cultural Revolution, Sékou Touré explained: Cultural Revolution had to attack fetishism, charlatanism, religious fanaticism, any irrational attitude, any form of mystification, any form of exploitation, with the aim of liberating the energies of the People and engaging them in the consolidation of the rational bases of its development. (Touré 1978: 33; my translation) Abdoulaye Tyam argued that the ‘educative’ programme of the RDA to demystify local practices and beliefs had several phases; he singled out 1960, 1961, 1963 and 1975 (Tyam 1975: 73). By 1975, he wrote, anybody found wearing amulets, or practising any sort of either ‘fetishism’ or maraboutism would be sentenced to fifteen years in jail.20 Many other practices were also deemed against normal rationality and banned: long and expensive funerals, ‘irrational’ agronomic practices and polygamy. In these demystifying programmes, officials were sent to the villages to prove that elderly men were using masks, initiations and ‘irrational’ beliefs to empower themselves and keep other people under their control. The men sent to the villages could not come back to their bases, as Sankhon says, without having disclosed ‘the nimba [mask, spirit] in its true nature of man’ (Sankhon 1987: 42), otherwise they would be in trouble vis-à-vis their superiors in town. Following a common Guinean usage, Sankhon is using the word ‘nimba’ as a generic concept for ‘mask’, ‘cult’ or ‘spirit’: in any case nothing but a disguised man. It must be said that ‘man’ here means a male individual, not the generic human being. As Sankhon recalls, women were actually happy to be shown by the forces of the state that men had been fooling them and they felt quite empowered by this unexpected knowledge. Neither the ‘popular’ iconoclasm instigated by Sayon nor the ‘state’ version ordered by Touré had women’s cults as targets for destruction, and, as some authors have argued, this has

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actually greatly intensified the strength and importance of women’s cults in post-colonial Guinea (see Berliner 2005a for the Bulongic; McGovern 2004 for a similar development among Loma). State-monitored iconoclasm seems to have been particularly intense and violent in the forest region bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, especially among Loma (Højbjerg 2002; McGovern 2004). Among coastal Baga, probably because of the thoroughness of the iconoclastic movement of Sayon only one year before decolonisation, there was no need for the state to pursue iconoclasm, and demystification campaigns were not as strongly remembered among my interviewees as they were among those interviewed by Højbjerg or McGovern. Educational theatre was to replace ritual initiations. This theatre was to show that marabouts were nothing but swindlers and that traditional healers had no reason to exist, since the state had hospitals and doctors. In any case, should traditional healers have any effective secret plants or products, their duty was to deliver them to the state for it to deal with them scientifically (Sankhon 1987: 43). Masks and other ritual objects, together with dances and songs, were to be appropriated by the state with the purpose of creating a ‘national’ folklore, in what Wolfgang Bender has called a ‘bureaucratisation of culture’ (Bender 1991; for the making of Guinea’s folklore see also Kaba 1976; Miller 1990; Lamp 1996b). It was mostly a folklore made up of elements from different regions, publicly displayed in national museums and projected to an international audience via Keita Fodeba’s famous company Les Ballets Africains (for a history of this company, see Rouget 1956; Miller 1990) and Bembeya Jazz National, the orchestra led by Aboubabar Demba Camara, the country’s official griot. Despite the iconoclasm in the villages, a new hermeneutic project arose at state level, one in which masks and other objects were going to be interpreted according to the true spirit of the Guinean people: not as representations of obscure bush spirits, but as manifestations of the people’s struggle for cultural liberation. If initiations and masks were one mark of the ‘irrational’ elements that a modern nation could not accommodate, so was ethnicity. The constitution of the newly independent Guinea made ethnic particularism illegal. Article 45 declared that ‘every act of racial discrimination as well as all propaganda of a racial or regional character shall be punishable by law’. By 1962 President Sékou Touré could write that: There is no more in the Republic of Guinea the Malinké race, the Susu race, the Fulbe [Fula] race, the Guerzé race, the Landuma or Kissi race. The Susu, Malinké Toma, Guerzé, Fulbe, Landuma or Kissi have taken up their language differentiation as a means of communication between men. Thus, every youth of Guinea, every adult of Guinea asked about his race will reply that he is an African. (Touré; cited by Mazrui and Tidy 1985: 91)


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The impossibility of returning to previous initiation practices was stronger for the Baga than for other Guinean groups, especially those living closer to boundaries. Loma, for instance, could continue their initiations by sending their children to their relatives’ villages in Liberia, even if this was subject to legal punishment (McGovern 2004). The Bassari could go to Senegal to have their initiations, and maybe people along the Guinea-Bissau border also went to their neighbours in that country. Unlike them, Baga had nowhere to go, other than to their memories. At times, Baga tried to bring these memories to life. Sékou Beka Bangoura mentions and analyses a solemn sacrifice that took place in Bukor in October 1971 in which people had to perform the ritual according to ‘custom’ and not to Muslim sacrificial rules (Bangoura 1972: 71–2). There were probably other such attempts, but they were dangerous. In Mare, roughly at the same time, some men trying to revive a cult were denounced by some vigilante neighbours, good Party men, and punished by the state, as one of them explained to me in 2003. If iconophilic Baga had thought they only had to hide their objects, wait for Sayon’s departure and then bring them back again, they were wrong. After Sayon’s exploits, another kind of iconoclasm arrived, and it arrived to stay. o n c e t h e r e we r e l a n d l o r d s

In their effort to destroy any sort of inequality or ‘feudalism’, the PDG reversed the power of the old canton and village chiefs. Descent groups that had held power in colonial times (and most probably in pre-French times too) had no say whatsoever in the appointment of chiefs in post-colonial days. When I asked old Mahmoud why there had been no more ‘crowning’ ceremonies (kides wube) since the arrival of the PGD, he replied: ‘You need a [secret] place to do the kides wube; with colonialism we had such a place, with the RDA we did not have it anymore.’ Distinctions between ‘Baga’ and ‘stranger’, which in colonial times had been so relevant in mapping out the political field of coastal cantons, were becoming politically unsound and dangerous. All Guineans were now to be seen in equal terms. There were to be no ethnic differences, and certainly no differences based on seniority of any kind: neither age, gender, ethnicity nor migration narratives were to be used to differentiate Guinean citizens. As Sékou Touré wrote against Senghor and other négritude intellectuals, in an Africa of human beings not even colour could make people different (Touré n.d.: 188). The discourse against feudal prerogatives was particularly humiliating for those groups who in the recent past had based their ethos on genealogy, land accumulation and ethnic seniority. Geopolitical divisions also played an important part in this delegitimisation of inherited privilege. The independent Guinean state accepted some of the colonial boundaries. For instance, the two cercles of Boffa and Boké were transformed into two prefectures with the same names. ‘Cantons’ disap-

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peared, however, and they were replaced by arrondissements whose boundaries did not match the previous cantons. Villages also disappeared and were transformed into ‘districts’, each one divided into sectors (villages became PRLs – Local Revolutionary Powers – from the Socialist Revolution of 1966 onwards). Democratically speaking, each sector was to have the same equal representation: this meant a complete reversal of power relations in Baga Sitem villages. In colonial times, we have seen, Baga Sitem lived in some 15 villages in Canton Baga. This canton became the arrondissement of Bintimodia, with the capital in Bintimodia. Each Baga village was divided into secteurs. Take the village of Mare. In colonial times, this village had three cibanka: Kareka, Kambota and Katengne. Each one of these cibanka had some adjacent inhabited territories. For instance, some people in the abanka of Kareka were the owners of Dukulum (literally, ‘the bush’), a place where some Susu men had settled, as well as Bakiya, the place Jakhanke had settled in the mid-1950s. The people of Kategne and Kabota also had their own strangers’ areas. These places belonged to Baga, and to some extent so did their peoples: they were strangers of Baga landlords. With the new political structure, however, Mare found itself divided into eight secteurs, of which only three were inhabited by Baga farmers (the three original cibanka) and the other five by Susu, Jakhanke and other strangers whose lands had previously ‘belonged’ to Baga. But such phrasing was not to be admitted by the new government. Baga could still think of, say, Dukulum as being part of Kareka, but the new administration made Dukulum a proper secteur, and its citizens had the same importance, rights and duties as those from Kareka. The situation created by the new administration of the 1960s is still reproduced today. In 1994, I met a Baga man in Katako who heard me say that Mare had eight wards (we were speaking in French and following a common usage, I used the word quartier instead of the administrative secteur). He said ironically: ‘Mare grew up fast; it only had three last time I was there.’ I later realised that most Baga think of their village in a very different way from its Susu inhabitants. For Baga, there are only three main divisions in Mare (with subdivisions); for Susu, there are eight. The few Baga people living in Dukulum, to stick to our example, say they live in Kareka because that is where the ‘big house’ of their descent group is located and because they see Dukulum as part of Kareka. Susu people living in Dukulum insist that they live in Tanene (the Susu name of Dukulum; it means ‘new village’) and speak of the three central secteurs of Mare as the Bagatai, as though they were not living on the Baga territory. This example applies to all Baga Sitem villages. As some interviewees put it, the tragedy for Baga was that they became a ‘minority group’ in their own villages. Furthermore, land was nationalised in a series of decrees starting in 1959 but culminating in 1967. There was no longer any way for Baga to prove that they were the landlords of the lands


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on which the Susu were working. One of the outcomes of the new political conjuncture was that being ‘Baga’ in independent Guinea was not a great advantage. If in the past there had been conversions from stranger status to Baga-ness and if in the colonial period being Baga meant being closer to power, in post-colonial Guinea, strangers in the Dabaka were clearly better off if they remained strangers and accused Baga (ex-) landlords of trying to be their ‘feudal’ seigneurs. o n r e l i g i o u s c o nve r g e n c e

At the end of the colonial period, all Baga had converted to either Christianity or Islam. Nobody would claim attachment to local cults, make sacrifices, ‘eat secrets’ or sign contracts with the spirits. These practices were no longer possible, and in any case they had to be made compatible with a Muslim or Christian religious identity. New beliefs inscribed themselves in social logics: as we have seen, both Christianity and Islam became in different ways instrumental in the politics of chieftaincy and in contesting the exclusion of juniors, women and strangers. No doubt social and political aspects have to be taken into account, but here I would like to highlight the fact that had the new religions not been expressed in terms that made sense to a people who already had convictions about the nature of the world and about the relationship between visible and invisible realities they probably would have had little effect. Scholars of African Islam have argued that the continuities between non-Muslim beliefs and practices and those of Muslim preachers have to be taken into account in order to explain the acceptance of the religion (Lewis 1966: 58–75). More recently the point has been made by Louis Brenner, for whom ‘[i]f a major part of Islamic doctrine is addressed to converting unbelievers to the religion of Islam, … similarities in religious concept and practice seem to suggest that on another level Muslim and non-Muslim may have shared some similar forms of religious experience’ (Brenner 2000: 347). Brenner goes on to invite researchers to explore these similarities and continuities between Muslim and non-Muslim religious cultures. Although not in a Muslim context, Wyatt MacGaffey (1983) also offers a model that we could invoke here. In his work on Central African religious movements, this author has suggested that instead of looking for ‘causes’ – as was the main paradigm in theoretical approaches to the study of religious innovation in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s ­– we ought to be paying more attention to the cultural and cosmological bases making up the conditions of possibility and plausibility for the acceptance of ‘new’ movements. In particular, the way he explored the main categories of Kongo cosmology in order to understand how prophets such as Dona Beatriz in the eighteenth century or Simon Kimbangu in the twentieth were accepted and inter-

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preted should be useful to any scholar working on religious innovation in Africa. Inspired by this and similar models, in the last chapters I have tried to unearth some continuities between the pre-Muslim religious culture of the Baga – as we are very cautiously able to reconstruct it – and the way Asekou Sayon introduced Islam. To external observers these may look like two different religious realms, but for people with regionally based cosmological convictions who were present at the time there was a great deal more osmosis and cross-over, more convergence than conversion in the sense of radical change. We have seen in the last two chapters the materiality of Sayon’s religion, as material as the ‘fetishes’ he wanted to destroy. The redness of his boubou would no doubt resonate with local religious ideas; the fact that his kalima is recalled as happening at the edge of the village and at night is similar to the way initiation and other solemn ceremonies are remembered – also at night and at the village margin; the importance he gave to drinking the asmani is also strikingly similar to notions of religious empowerment through swallowing, as expressed in the very notion of ‘eating secrets’. And, of course, his being a sayon was a major point in common between Baga, Mande and other religious cultures of West Africa. The continuities in belief and practices may be more relevant to understanding Sayon’s acceptance than the newness of his religion, although newness was also a very appealing aspect of his presence. Such is the double-edged nature of Sayon’s deeds and trickery. On the one hand they could be seen as the transformation through which Baga were finally incorporated into a Guinean, mostly Muslim community in the making. On the other hand, however, he could only be accepted and his message interpreted according to local models of religious experience. In this sense, the fact that he was an anti-witch specialist is probably more relevant to understanding the transformation he effected among Baga than his being a Muslim preacher. Sayon was not the first anti-witch specialist Baga knew. I was told that in the past there was a category of ritual specialist called the wumen (pl. amen), whose specific role was secretly to force evil people to surrender their objects and destroy them. The last wumen died at a ripe old age in the mid1970s. Denise Paulme, when she visited the Baga Sitem in 1954, described anti-witchcraft practices and recorded that the Baga had a word (kalma) meaning ‘the clairvoyant powers of witch detectors’ (Paulme 1958). To the best of my knowledge this is not a Baga word, but interestingly enough the Susu word khalima (pronounced kalima, and very often just kalma in the northern dialects, such as the one spoken by bilingual Baga Sitem farmers) means the spoon used either to offer libations out of calabashes in the sacred woods or to serve big amounts of rice to huge communities in religious ceremonies (including, today, Muslim and Christian ones).


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Interviewees did not consider this the same word: they knew that the ritual spoon is one thing and the Muslim kalima another. But even today interviewees make connections between the two words: thus, someone told me that the ceremonies Muslim men like Sayon perform were called kalima because big amounts of rice, served with the khalima spoon, were shared by his followers. I wonder whether the word Paulme registered as kalma was linked to the Arabic word karamat, the word used for the thaumaturgic power of sheiks and not to khalima, but even if this was the case it would indicate an osmosis and convergence between Muslim and non-Muslim concepts of the kind I am trying to highlight. If there is one important element in any convergence between religions, it is the notion of God. In African studies this has been explored even since Robin Horton wrote his seminal articles on conversion and rationality (Horton 1971, 1975a, 1975b). A dormant, distant High God, according to Horton, was present in West African traditional cosmologies, although in daily interactions and in the cognitive control of the environment people related to lesser spirits and not to God. Only when communities entered into contact with each other would the High God become more salient and conversions to universal religions happen. In this view, conversion is not about acquiring knowledge of a ‘new’ God, but rather about recognising one’s own. Baga insist that before Asekou Sayon, before Islam and before Christianity, they knew Kanu, a spiritual entity entirely different from the categories of amanco, ngonk, wurkifin or tolom. Religion (dine, in Baga Sitem), I was often told, is about ‘knowing God’ (kicere Kanu). Baga speakers normally get very offended if one suggests that before the arrival of Christianity or Islam they did not know Kanu. They did, and they prayed to Kanu, they insist. The fact that some prayers I know of start with the formula canu ca aparanga (‘gods of our grandfathers’), using the plural canu (‘gods’) instead of the singular kanu testifies to a more complex story than a clear-cut pre-colonial monotheism. Yet it is probably true that notions of God spread by Christian or Muslim proselytes in the first half of the twentieth century resonated with notions of divinity already known to Baga farmers in a distant way, similar to the one alluded to by Horton. Whatever the case may be, ‘religion’ (whether dine damarabu, Islam, or dine dakatolic, Catholicism), understood as a separate field of action, morality and belief is there today, and it is there to stay. Baga use it not only to give themselves a religious identity and to interact with other Muslims and Christians in Guinea and beyond, but also to think about their past in clearly religious terms. Not only do they consider that both Islam and Christianity are religions on equal terms, but many interviewees also consider that the molom were also a religious system, a dine. It is very doubtful that Baga could categorise their molom as dine before the arrival of Islam in the

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region, since it was Islam that introduced the very concept of dine there (from Arabic al-din, a concept relatively similar to the Christian notion of ‘religion’). Yet, we cannot claim that we know better than they do what is and what is not religious. When Baga elders today describe the content of their molom in religious terms, they make very deep points about the experience and the moral content of their traditional rituals, and very often they use the identification between molom and dine as a powerful tool to criticise perceived hypocritical aspects of today’s Islam and Christianity. Among many other things, religion is a technique to think through and rethink one’s past, to build a ‘chain of memory’ – if I may use the felicitous expression of Daniele Hervieu-Leger (2000) – and to make a synthesis between what is inherited and what is received from outside. Using today’s explicit notions of religion, Baga have learnt to look at their past from a new point of view, to understand their history as a religious history. In the next chapter we shall trace further historical connections between the pre-iconoclastic past and today’s social and religious reality.

7 surviving iconoclasm

In 1957 the iconoclasts cut down the sacred woods (the ‘black box’ of elder power) expecting the spirit amanco ngopong literally to ‘be’ there. It was not. They demolished round, windowless, hermetic houses hoping, once again, to find ‘the ghost in the machine’ in them. Again they found nothing.The secret remained intact, and the only thing iconoclasts found was the beginning of their own ‘melancholy and gloom’, just as Baudelaire’s child opened up the toy only to find that its soul had fled (Baudelaire 1953; cited in Schaffer 2002: 498). Today, Baga live in what, following Eric Gable (1995), I have called a ‘ruptured landscape’ through whose fissures past glory leaks out. As in the past, the ‘device’ of power remains hidden; not beyond a dense wood; not inside a hermetic hut; but just underneath a landscape whose religious meaning is taught – as an art of reading – by elders to younger people. A cassava field is a cassava field, but everybody knows it used to be an elders’ wood. A mosque is a mosque, but everybody knows it used to be a place where masquerades took place, and sometimes a stone is there to remind those offering prayers of the pre-Muslim awe. Indeed, together with silkcotton trees, stones were a common element in pre-iconoclastic religious culture. Many post-1957 mosques were built over such awesome stones (Bangoura n.d.: 36). In some villages I visited, the stone was still there, next to the mosque, and was used by the elders to make obscure comments, of the capafo genre, on the ritual past in front of their youths. The same applies to other places related to amanco ngopong and to other spirits. Sacrifices in the silk-cotton trees continued to be performed; but while before the silk-cotton trees were marked by a visible shrine, nowadays the maximum information one will be able to gather about these sacrifices and about the spirits that live in the trees is going to be some obscure capafo overheard when walking around the village with the villagers. The one example that stuck in my memory was that of the silk-cotton tree in Katako: the tree was cut down by Asekou Sayon’s followers in 1957, but although it was horizontally down, until at least 2003 it refused to rot and nobody would ever dare take any wood from it. This fallen tree offers a metaphor for the religious landscape in general: like amanco ngopong and other spiritual entities, the tree has lost its verticality, but its life continues. To return to an earlier example, in 1994 a football pitch was built over

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what any young man knew was an old sacred wood (although, as we have seen, the elders immediately reacted to this appropriation by claiming that the sacred wood was not quite there, but a few metres beyond). How do young people know the religious significance of such places? In 1994, a thirty-five-year-old friend of mine told me that some time previously the elders of his descent group had taken him on a tour around the village and neighbouring regions, and explained to him the meanings of each tree and of each rock and their relationship to amanco ngopong and other spirits. The elders’ wood exists no longer, but its very absence is now used by elders as an initiatory tool: they are the masters of decoding the signs scattered around the lived world; by doing so, they ensure that the spiritual beings so necessary to elder power remain present to all. Some scholars (Lamp 1996b; Curtis 1996) have assumed that, because it implied the end of initiations, masks, objects and woods, iconoclasm disabled the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next – and indeed, many practices, places and objects are gone, probably forever. If, however, instead of seeing religious knowledge as a ‘corpus’ to be passed down, we look at its role in recreating structural differences between youths and elders, and between men and women, we reach less pessimistic conclusions.1 Discussing the persistence of religious beliefs among Loma despite iconoclastic politics, Christian Højbjerg (2002) has argued that iconoclasm among Baga was ‘effective’, whereas among Loma it was not; Baga abandoned their pre-iconoclastic rituals, while Loma took them up as soon as Guinea became more open towards religious pluralism after the death of Sékou Touré in 1984 and, especially, with the democratising processes of the 1990s. Højbjerg is right in that there are divergent politics of cultural revival in Guinea, and one must exercise the greatest care in comparing whatever happens in Loma country to what is going on among Baga. However, I think that if Baga did not resume initiations and replant their sacred woods it was not because iconoclasm had been ‘effective’ in effacing peoples’ beliefs, as he seems to imply, but rather because what obtained among Baga in post-iconoclastic times was an attitude similar to what one scholar has termed ‘silent iconoclasm’ (Apostolos-Cappadona 2005: 4282) – not active destruction, but simply passive rejection of images, a point I shall come back to in a later section of this chapter. Today there are vivid discussions among Baga regarding the convenience or otherwise of returning to old ritual practices. Some see the silent iconoclastic attitude of their betters as capitulation to ‘cultural loss’. Others, however, know that silence can also lead to empowerment, and prefer to let the spirit lurk behind a tree or underneath a rock, rather than masking it again and so provoking yet another stranger to uncover it ‘in its true nature of man’. When discussing the somewhat paradoxical fact that amanco ngopong continues to be so fearsome in the absence of initiation, my field assistant


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Aboubacar Camara once told me: ‘It is the very way the word amanco is pronounced by the elders that is fearsome.’ And he added: ‘It is like the chameleon: some people say that it is not a dangerous animal and that no harm will come from touching it, but most of us do not want to waste our time verifying whether this is true or false; we just hear the word “chameleon” and we avoid the place where the animal has been spotted.’ Indeed, avoidance is what references to amanco ngopong or to other entities provoke among young people. This is what is transmitted: neither religious practices nor legends and myths, but a grammar of fear that makes the words amanco ngopong prompt an immediate reaction. In this respect, there is a big difference between educated Baga living in Conakry and their village counterparts, something that I discuss later in this chapter. The former did not live in the ‘landscape of fear’ inhabited by village people and sometimes it seemed to me that they did not recognise how different the management of knowledge in the village and in the capital had to be. According to their grammar, amanco ngopong could (and should) be pronounced, designed and even materially recreated. The tension was made explicit one day in Conakry, when I showed a publication written by a Baga author based in Conakry but originally from Mare to two young men from the village of Bukor. In the text, a fascinating recreation of Baga history (Bangoura 1989), this author wrote about somtup, the name that amanco ngopong received in the Tako province. The two younger men reacted angrily and refused to continue reading, saying that nobody should write about these things so flippantly. Apart from their being from the village and the writer being based in Conakry, the fact that they were from Bukor whereas the author was from Mare should also be taken into account. People in Mare were probably more prone to transform somtup and the like into items of discourse than their relatives of Bukor, for whom these concepts, like the ‘chameleon’ word, have performative power rather than conveying ‘information’. It is precisely this kind of tension in knowledge distribution and management that maps out the cultural life of Baga today. In the remainder of the chapter I introduce three groups of actors (the initiated elders, people living in the capital, and women). These three groups of stakeholders, together with today’s young people, are crucial in understanding the long-term effects of the iconoclasm analysed in the previous chapters. f r o m c h i l d r e n ’s g a m e s t o e l d e r s ’ s e c r e t s : the stor y of the alipne

Pre-colonial and colonial Baga custom is today remembered by local peasants, city dwellers and scholars as having consisted of a large body of masks, headdresses, masquerades and initiations normally referred to as tolom. Some of these cults had different versions according to the age

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Figure 7.1 Children making a tolom with an oil bottle and cloths (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Bukor, 2001) of their users. Thus, the famous dimba headdress, for instance, had two versions: dimba detemp (literally, ‘dimba of the young men’) and dimba defet (‘small dimba’), the first being for the use of the youths, the second one, much smaller in size, for the elders (Curtis and Sarró 1997). Similarly, I was told, the fearsome amanco ngopong, represented by a huge construct, had a small version for children to play with (called tamanco, literally ‘small amanco’). Other cults were clearly meant for children and had no equivalent in the adult’s domain, like pende-pende or wakarba (Bangoura 1972; Bangoura 1974; Lamp 1996b) and they are referred to in the literature as the first steps of what is loosely termed ‘traditional education’. Many of the children’s cults were probably invented through imitation by children, but children’s cults, like children’s games, could have their own reproductive logics. During my stay in Guinea, I often saw Baga children playing with any found object with some herbs on the top of their heads, dancing and singing tolom tosu or tolom to (‘this is our tolom’ or ‘this is a tolom’). Despite the fact that most of us would consider children’s activities as ‘imitations’ of adult’s ones, children’s agency sometimes makes things work in the opposite direction. The relationship between adults’ cults and children’s games is in fact a dialectical one: sometimes children appropriate powers of the elders; sometimes, however, it is the elders who appropriate the powers of the youths. In this section I discuss the relationship between children’s and adults’


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cults by looking at three different examples originating in colonial times but still very much alive in the memories of villagers today. By looking at these cults, we shall be able not only to reconstruct what pre-iconoclastic youth ritual practices were like but also to establish the genealogical links and structural continuities between past and recent generations. The three cults at stake were linked to each other and were crucial in the genesis of a powerful contemporary association, alipne, which is central to life in Bukor, the only village in which it operates: a clearer understanding of alipne is the aim of this and the next chapter. Komne was a children’s cult that appeared in the late 1940s among noninitiated children (wan, pl. awut) in the village of Mare. Some children decided to disguise themselves with herbs, and they called their disguise komne, which literally means ‘self-born’, thus denying affiliations to any adults’ cult. They used to play with it in the abanka, claiming, as children do, that it was their tolom. One day a young girl challenged them: a pre-iconoclastic ‘demystificator’, she bravely approached the boys and unmasked the one wearing the disguise so as to show the other girls that the so-called tolom was … just a boy. That provoked a big laugh among the girls. The humiliated boys, angry at them, and especially at the one who had unmasked their ‘secret’, went to visit the older boys of another age group, the atemp – the unmarried but already circumcised young men. Like the children, the atemp had their own cult, called gbenka, which, unlike komne, had its own wood on the edge of the village. And, the story goes, gbenka promised to help komne … The next day, the girl who had unmasked komne went to fetch wood in the bush of Kuncele (an area that at the time was associated with the women’s cult ateken) and accidentally injured her foot badly with a hatchet. She became ill for a few days, until one day one of her elders wondered whether her state might not be a consequence of her having unmasked the children’s komne. After some inquiries, it became established that because of the girl’s profanation of the headdress, both komne and gbenka had ‘caught’ (kusumpur) her, and that her descent group had to pay a kiyaine (a meal to beg for pardon) to gbenka if they wanted her health back. A massive amount of rice, palm wine, kola nuts and cigarettes were given by the men of that descent group to the boys of komne, who at their turn took it to the boys of gbenka, who consumed it. The very day they had the meal the girl started to walk. Three days later, she was fully recovered. Thus komne became respected in the village. From then onwards not even the older men and women would dare get close to wherever the boys were performing. Properly speaking it was no longer a children’s powolsene (‘toy’ or ‘game’) but a tolom. According to the memories of one of my oldest interviewees, it was the boys of gbenka who had transformed komne from powolsene into tolom. ‘We [the boys of gbenka] introduced adulthood into komne’, an old man told me, presenting

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gbenka and the atemp as a mediatory group between the adults and the youngest boys. The story of gbenka was quite different. Its birth was prior to that of komne. According to my interviewees in Mare, gbenka had started in the village of Bukor and it was brought from Bukor to Mare by a young man called Alpha Papaya. A native of Bukor, Alpha had been taken to Mare at an early age to be trained as a tailor by his mother’s brother. One day he went back to Bukor to visit his parents, and was introduced by the boys of the village to their cult. When he came back to Mare he told his age mates that he had encountered this cult in Bukor, and thought it would be a good idea to have it in Mare as well. The main idea was to bring together the different secret powers (kota) of the village in order to make one single, huge one. So each boy was required to bring one kota. Among Baga, secret knowledge was not centralised: each descent group (and sometimes each individual) had one particular kota – knowledge about a plant, an illness or a spirit – that was transmitted individually to younger generations. Gbenka wanted to fight against this fragmentation of knowledge and power by bringing together all the different forces with influence in the villages. An essential part of the material paraphernalia of gbenka was a piece of iron, which was rather unusual for a Baga cult, given the ritual ‘iron-phobia’ already mentioned in this study. Apart from the individual kota, the boys had to assemble three stones, one from each abanka. With the stones, the iron and the accumulation of kota, the group of gbenka became very important in Mare, and soon after its creation the young men started to be invited to other villages of the Tako province. This was clearly an anti-witchcraft cult: gbenka’s mission was to protect the youths and to prevent the elders from doing any harm to their children. Gbenka became powerful and feared, and it was remembered by my older interviewees as a very positive cult that was indeed successful in preventing deser and protecting the youths. But because notions of deser were so closely linked to more general notions of seniority, gbenka became a very subversive cult. Its three stones, I was told, could inform the young atemp about any secret happening, including the meeting of old men in their wood and the resolutions of women in their ateken meetings in Kuncele. It became so very disruptive that the elderly men decided to fight it. A decision was announced to the boys of gbenka that nine elders, one from each descent group of the village, wished to be initiated into the cult of gbenka. The young atemp, believing in the good faith of their elders, accepted the nine men – only to discover later that they were straightforward ‘spies’. The story goes that in this way the nine descent groups of Mare came to know the secret of gbenka, which meant its very end. Gbenka lost its power and shortly after was formally forbidden by the elders in the village. This was in the early 1960s, more than fifteen years after the arrival of the cult in Mare and well into Guinea’s independence


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era, when many cults were being denounced and the social distribution of knowledge was being modified severely by the presence of the state in each village. These were times of radical change, when denunciations were common and ritual activities were punished. The cult may have ended in Mare, but things were quite different in Bukor. As has been said, gbenka (according to the story recorded in Mare, that is) had been created by the youths of Bukor and taken to Mare by Alpha Papaya. Yet in Bukor the elderly men told me a story which was incompatible with this one. In their version, Alpha Papaya (who was already dead when I started my fieldwork) took a cult from Mare to Bukor – in the opposite direction to that recorded in the story collected in Mare. The cult he brought was not gbenka but a modification of komne, and in Bukor it received the name of tonkure (unknown etymology). The elderly men I interviewed still remembered the cult’s motto: ‘Old man tonkure, thing of the sand; thing of the highs; thing of the earth’. In Bukor, unlike Mare, communication between youths and elders seemed to be rather fluid: the youths, I was told, informed their elders that they were going to have their own cult, a decision to which the elders gave their full endorsement. Unlike komne, but like gbenka, tonkure had its own wood, and like gbenka in Mare, the atemp watched over the youths so that no harm could happen to them. Therefore, despite the early support of the elders, tonkure followed a similar fate to that of gbenka: the elders became so anxious about its presence that they decided to put an end to it. One of the elements of tunkure was a dance performed by a young man holding a mortar with his teeth while others were beating drums with palm leaves. The most adept dancer of tonkure was René Amadou, whom we have already encountered in previous chapters. One day René Amadou became seriously ill, and gossip spread among his age mates that the elders were responsible for his illness, that they were punishing the youths for having created tonkure. Yet the elders accused the youngsters, claiming that René Amadou’s illness was their own fault for having created a cult that was too powerful for them to control. Finally, the tonkure team met in their wood and made an oath to their spirit: ‘If René Amadou’s illness is our fault he will recover; if it is not, he will also recover.’ Next day the boys went to René Amadou’s house; they started to beat the drums, they put the mortar on his veranda and they leaned a spear against the door. When he heard the noise, René Amadou, who had been ill for many days, woke up and walked; he came out to the veranda, took the mortar with his teeth and started to dance. A few days later he was fully recovered. It was then that the elders realised that tonkure was a serious cult, something they had to come to terms with, and therefore they decided to negotiate with the atemp rather than antagonise them. Thus, the elders resolved that the tunkure team would eventually become their ‘replacement’. As an

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elderly man told me in 2001: ‘They were happy to know that when they die, the village would be in our hands, because we were a team that was watchful over the village’. Another one added: ‘Tonkure was the JRDA of the Baga.’ This was a contradictory metaphor; in fact, as we have seen, the elders and the JRDA were largely at odds. What the old man meant was that tonkure practised constant surveillance: they controlled the rest of the youths and informed the elders of their whereabouts, but they also controlled the deeds of the elders so that they would not abuse their power. The relationship was not perfect: in an ironic exchange, the elders told the youngsters that they had to stop the youths of the village from stealing rice, but the youngsters replied ‘Tonkure does not have the power to establish tonc [ritual prohibitions]; this is a power that belongs to the elders.’ In another exchange, the youths of tonkure asked the elders to help them make war against the ayecra (unmarried young women) because the latter were laughing at them, but the elders told them that young men were not supposed to make war against women; they had to live together. By mutual agreement, the tonkure became a subaltern power of the elders. The people making up the tonkure generation were thus properly initiated into the cults, which included initiation into amanco as well as ter, the two highest cults on the male side. Eventually they became the alipne, ‘those who have finished’, meaning those who have accomplished the whole initiation cycle. Today the alipne are a group of some twenty men in the village of Bukor. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are all Christian. Other villages see the presence of alipne in Bukor with ambivalence: they respect them and envy the power they have over youngsters, but many of my interviewees from other villages also considered that such an institution should have disappeared long ago, because it is ‘backward’ and because it is linked to ambivalent forces of deser. The truth is that the alipne keep a tight control of youths in Bukor: some of their prohibitions are indeed creating problems today and are perceived as abusive even by Bukor’s younger inhabitants. If we compare the fate of gbenka in Mare with that of tonkure in Bukor, it is interesting to note that gbenka finished with a complete rupture between the young men (atemp) and the elders (atem). The elders stole the youngsters’ secrets and forbade gbenka. In Bukor, despite great tensions between the atemp and the atem, the final story was that the elders accepted tonkure, domesticating it. Communication between the two groups became fluid, with the elders monitoring the development of the tonkure and initiating their youths so that they could be their eventual replacement. The legacies of this situation were still tangible in the 1990s and 2000s. In Mare, as well as in many other villages, the gap between generations and between genders seems to be immense and frozen. In Bukor, the alipne still initiate new men into their association when one of them dies and monitor the activities of younger members of the village very strictly. In many respects this makes


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Bukor work better than other villages; in particular, the organisation of work groups under the command of the alipne is certainly better and more effective in this village than in others where youths find it easier to refuse to work and where partly as a consequence anomic behaviour can lead to alarming food insecurity. Yet Bukor’s youths feel under a strong pressure that is probably not very different from the pressures youths were experiencing back in the 1950s. The alipne do not allow certain forms of dances to take place in the village and although some of their actions are meant to counterbalance witchcraft, they are often judged too severe. A few years ago, for instance, a man asked his classificatory sister, who was living in Kamsar, to bring him new shoes from that city. She refused, and a few days later she died in Kamsar. People in the village thought she was killed by her envious brother. He was therefore admonishingly addressed in public by one of the alipne, who told him that this time he would not get away with his actions (similar allegations had been made against the man before). Shortly after, the man died. To many people, it was clear that justice had been done by the alipne. When I discussed this event with my young friends in Bukor I found that they thought that despite the evil directed by the man towards his sister, the intervention of the alipne had been too drastic. Despite being proud to live in a village with such respected old men, my younger interviewees also thought, generally, that the presence of the alipne was at times a burden.

Excursus I: Iconoclasm and the Centripetality of Knowledge The reader will recall my visit to René Amadou in 2001 and our brief conversation on lies and truth and the necessary ‘lag factor’ that separates them – a conversation that ended with an agreeable invitation: ‘Should we meet tomorrow?’ As a member of the alipne, René Amadou could not speak without other members of the association being present. Therefore he organised a meeting with nine other alipne in a grove where we spent the day drinking palm wine and talking about komne, tonkure, Asekou Sayon, secrecy and several other issues. It was the first time that they were so open towards me. Normally they are extremely secretive and, I always felt, anxious about ‘talking too much’, even if they are on top of the power structure and should fear no one – no one, that is, except themselves, which is why they only agreed to talk to me in a group, so that they could not be accused of having said things without approval. When discussing the exploits of Sayon among Baga Sitem, I was surprised to learn that, according to the alipne, Asekou Sayon and his followers did not do much harm to Baga because, they clearly told me, the objects that were destroyed or taken away could not be identified with the spiritual agencies behind them. Amanco ngopong, they said, was not an object, but a spirit who lived in dabal, and in order for any object to embody amanco ngopong, the

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appropriate words had to be pronounced by the ritual specialists. According to the alipne, Sayon thought that the object and the spirit were one thing whereas they knew the object was a simulacrum and that the real thing remained invisible in dabal. ‘Sayon could not do anything to us; he took away our objects, but he could not open up our bellies,’ one of them said. When I asked him why, then, the cults did not return after the iconoclastic movement in 1957, he replied: ‘We swore an oath over amanco; let anyone who would go back to the public use of our tolom be killed by amanco’. By getting rid of the objects, they made sure that their religiosity could not be taken away from them. Thus, iconoclasm became their final way to ‘eat the secrets’; nowadays, if anyone wanted to steal their molom, they really would have to open their bellies. Indeed Baga of Bukor did not go back to the public uses of amanco ngopong. Its invisibility became one astute way to manage ambiguity and to live in a world of dissimulation and double meanings. To a visitor who did not know about the alipne, Bukor today would give the impression of being the village most detached from Baga Sitem’s past. Whereas in other villages such as Katako, Tolkoc or Mare, closer to Kamsar, the youths started in the 1980s and early 1990s to create theatre troupes and to reconstruct what they saw as ‘traditional’ masks and masquerades, researchers like myself and others found it difficult to prod people of Bukor to discuss their memories, let alone have them objectified in material representations. I later found that it was not detachment or the impact of iconoclasm that kept people from reviving their past, but the very presence of the alipne. In actual fact, what some of us thought of as belonging to the past of Baga was for the villagers a very vivid present. The importance of the alipne seems to have increased year by year since the end of Sékou Touré’s iconoclastic policies. Already in 1986 they organised a solemn ceremonial known as kibok (literally, ‘wailing’) in order to bless the ancestors and to protect the inhabitants of Bukor, and particularly Bukor natives living in Conakry, against witchcraft. More than twelve bulls were killed for the sacred meal and, for the first time since pre-iconoclast days, Baga heard the awesome howling of amanco ngopong coming from outside the village. In 1994 and 1995, when I was conducting research in Guinea, the importance of the alipne became crucial to the organisation of football tournaments and cultural festivals and, in my last field trips to Guinea in 2001 and 2003, I witnessed their growing relevance to local politics. Interviewees from other villages who a few years before had condemned the alipne told me in 2003 that some of the prohibitions and measures of social control the alipne were implementing in Bukor were very good; they wished they could have them in their own villages. Whether in the future there will be an ‘alipne-isation’ of the whole Dabaka is a speculative question to which I shall return.


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an urban social for m: the stor y of the ­r e s s o r t i s s a n t s

In strong contrast to the alipne of Bukor, an altogether different group of actors – whose views about the past were, when I interviewed them, quite homogeneous and whose role in the dynamics of cultural transmission and recreation has been largely ignored by the existing literature – was that composed of men and women living in the capital. In French they are referred to as ressortissants (literally ‘those who come from’) because, although they live in Conakry, they define themselves as being from such and such a village, ethnic group or geographical region. In the 1990s, most Baga Sitem ressortissants I met were people who had abandoned the village when they were young. The majority were educated, and some of them belonged to the political elite. We know that in the mid-1950s ressortissants from the Baga region were already grouped in ethnic associations in Conakry – we have already encountered the Union des Baga Sitémou and their president in Chapter 5. But the members of these ethnic associations in colonial times were probably very few, since all the middle-aged ressortissants I met in Conakry in the 1990s and 2000s had been born in their villages, and only their children belonged to a second generation of ressortissants. Most of the ressortissants I met had been sent to Conakry between the late 1950s and the late 1960s, right at the beginning of the independence era. All of them kept strong links with their original villages. In the 1990s these links seemed to be undergoing a process of reinforcement parallel to the political developments of the time: with democratisation, political decentralisation and the strengthening of local forms of government, Guinean urban elites were following a process of ‘regional reorientation’ similar to that of other African democratising states.2 More and more of the ressortissants were investing in their villages, building retirement homes and planning to have plantations of bananas, dwarf palms or other crops on lands that belonged – so they claimed – to their descent groups. This increased the pressure on land and by the early 2000s I had heard of conflicts, particularly between Baga and Susu, that had arisen as a result of the ressortissants’ claims. Most of the ressortissants I met were instrumental in helping their kin in the village, sending money and goods and fostering as many village children as they possibly could in their houses in the city. Yet they were wary of showing off their riches to their village kinsmen. Of course Baga are not the only ‘jealously egalitarian’ people on the Guinean coast whose centripetal tendencies towards the group tend to absorb centrifugal individualistic ones. What is surprising among Baga Sitem is that despite this ethos their contingent of ressortissants is much more conspicuous than those of their Nalu, Beafada, Landuma and other neighbours. There is today a strong contrast between ressortissants’ ideas about what being Baga is about and

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local notions of knowledge and ethnic identity. Even if they are Baga, ressortissants sometimes find it difficult to sustain fondness for the home village when reacting to the ambivalent attitudes towards them expressed by their village fellows. A tragic example of the pressures under which ressortissants must live is that of the late Conrad. Conrad was born in the late 1930s. He never liked living in his native Baga Sitem village: he was bullied by other boys because he was fat and could not plough. He was, however, quite adept at school. In the late 1960s he obtained a job in Kamsar, which was then being built. He was one of the few men from his village, or from any Baga village for that matter, to work for the Compagnie des Bauxites Guinéennes. He lived in Kamsar for several years, but always felt that his relatives in the village, only fifteen kilometres away, were very demanding, asking him far too often for money and goods from Kamsar. He opted to move further away to feel more at ease and therefore went to Conakry, where he was employed at the harbour. When I met him in 1993, Conrad, then in his early sixties, was starting to build a house in his native village, so as to move there when he retired from his job in Conakry. He was very aware of the envy that his status could awake in the village, as he openly told me. Accordingly, every time he went to the village to spend some time building the house (normally around Christmas vacation) he took a fair largesse of money and presents to share among people from his and his wife’s descent groups (most of the villagers helping him build the house were his in-laws, and were doing it for free). Conrad was a Christian, and sometimes when he went to the village he made libations in the bush, an attitude that, as far as he was concerned, was not contrary to his religion, but that was criticised by his brother Lansana, a Muslim who had followed Asekou Sayon in 1957 (at the time Conrad was not in the village; he was already studying at the Catholic mission in Boké). Lansana anxiously thought that such an attachment to ritual activities was too dangerous. In 1999, when the house was virtually finished and he had already retired from his job and was looking forward to moving to the village, Conrad died suddenly in Conakry. Despite all his efforts to avoid arousing envy while building his house, his death provoked all sorts of gossip and even a serious allegation of deser against a younger member of his own descent group who was accused of having killed his classificatory father out of sheer envy. The case of Conrad and his brother Lansana gives us a good illustration of the different attitudes towards religious practices. Both had been initiated in 1948, but shortly after Conrad left the village; Lansana stayed, converted to Islam and became involved in the iconoclastic events of the 1950s. When commenting upon his brother’s reaction to his willingness to libate in the bush, Conrad told me: ‘I do not know why he gets like that; there is nothing evil in wanting to greet the elders [that is, the ancestors].’


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Many ressortissants I met were initiated in 1948 or 1952, but because they left the village they came to be excluded from ritual knowledge and practices and were considered as ‘juniors’ even by their brothers who had been initiated with them. Whenever they were in their native village, they became ‘internal strangers’, to borrow Richard Werbner’s category (Werbner 1979). Yet, despite this internal strangeness, ressortissants are today crucial in the remaking of a Baga identity in democratising Guinea.

Excursus II: Iconoclasm and the Centrifugality of Knowledge A paradigmatic example of the ‘internal strangeness’ of ressortissants was that of Marcel, who was not only a ressortissant but belonged to the political elite in Conakry, too. Marcel had been initiated in 1948, but later he left the village, going first to Conakry and then, in the 1960s, to study economics in Europe. He was a keen reader of history and in the late 1990s was conducting library-based research in order to write a book about Baga history – the second ressortissant I met willing to undertake such a project. However, his access to oral history was impaired by the fact that, being a ressortissant, village elders thought he was too ‘junior’ to obtain knowledge about the past. As he told me with regret, even his own brothers who were initiated with him in 1948 refused to tell him things they had learned because, unlike them, he had not stayed in the village. This comment was quite revealing; it indicated that what his brothers were keeping from him was not knowledge acquired during initiation (the famous ‘secrets’), but knowledge learnt elsewhere, in daily interactions that took place after formal initiation. Like most other ressortissants, Marcel felt excluded from what he thought was a source of deep knowledge, to the point that he even asked me to try to convince his brothers in the village to be more open towards him. I tried, but I always suspected that he was not so much being excluded from a corpus of knowledge (in fact, in terms of factual historical knowledge I think he was more knowledgeable than them) as suffering from the fact that the villagers excluded him generally, not only in terms of knowledge, but in more practical terms too; quite simply, he was no longer one of them. Together with the fact that he had not stayed in the village, his very ambition to write books on history blatantly contradicted local notions of secrecy. This was a good example of the tensions found in the social distribution of knowledge: while many ressortissants wanted things to be public, known and ‘centrifugally’ propagated, most older men and women in the village thought that secrets were something to be ‘eaten’ and ‘centripetally’ guarded. The latter thought that if notions of secrecy were given up, people would stop being Baga altogether and would start becoming Susu instead – which, according to many, is already happening. Ressortissants like Marcel thought that unless Baga culture were propagated and known to national

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and international spheres, Baga identity would be in serious danger and, alas, Baga would start becoming Susu … The two contested notions of knowledge and of ethnicity rarely met, and the gap between ‘eating secrets’ and ‘writing books’ seems to be becoming wider. Yet there were interesting mediating cases, like Albert’s. Albert had been in the past a ritual specialist in charge of making sacrifices to the spirit with whom the owners of his spirit province had signed a contract. He later went to Conakry where he stayed for many years as a ressortissant and was trained as a school teacher. He was later sent to a school in his native region, and reintegrated himself successfully with the village. Albert acted as an intermediary between the knowledge of the villagers and that of the ressortissants and foreigners. Not only was he an excellent interlocutor for researchers like myself, explaining Baga customs and history that villagers found difficult to make verbally explicit, but he was also a good translator of written knowledge, spreading among villagers things written by missionaries, ressortissants, anthropologists or art historians. He represented a rare combination of secrecy and public knowledge. The first time someone mentioned his name to me was in the village where I was living in 1994. A man who was very kind, but always reluctant to tell me explicit things, one day came to me and said: ‘If you want to know about our history you ought to go to Kariya and meet Albert; he knows a lot, he has kept books and manuscripts from the missionaries, including a sketch of amanco ngopong that he shows to selected people; go there, but do not tell him it was me who told you to go.’ I did follow the instructions, but to no immediate avail. For more than a year, Albert seemed adamantly opposed to helping me in my research. Yet, as he came to know me he eventually became an excellent collaborator, a uniquely open person on very delicate topics (such as slavery and inequality issues) and a very intelligent interlocutor. Gossip according to which he had a ‘secret library’ that included a sketch of amanco ngopong first led me to suspect that Albert had in his keeping the lost notebooks of Raymond Lerouge; according to Lerouge’s own writings, these included one with a sketch of amanco ngopong made by him in 1927. While most of Lerouge’s notebooks are in the archives of the Pères du St-Esprit in France, some – and certainly the one containing this sketch – are missing. Some people had told me that one of the indigenous catechists who had inherited Lerouge’s material had left all his documents to Albert. Albert, however, always denied having any such secret library: ‘My knowledge comes from having listened very carefully to my elders; they chose me because they saw I was very keen on learning,’ he once told me. In any case, as he also said, the issue as to where Lerouge’s sketch may be is now irrelevant, since it has been reproduced in Frederick Lamp’s book on the art of Baga (Lamp 1996b: 59)3 and, as Albert said, ‘all the secrets are now out’. Not that he regretted it much:


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being quite a modernist, Albert always told me that secrecy was very bad and that the best thing that could happen to Baga would be to spread their knowledge since, as he put it last time we met, ‘secrets and democracy do not go together’. The ‘secret library’ of Albert, whether it exists or not, exemplifies the interface between oral and written modes of cultural transmission. Given how prolific Catholic missionaries were on the subject from the 1920s onwards and the vast number of university dissertations on Baga Sitem written by ressortissants since the mid-1960s, today the quantity of written sources literate Baga can access is huge, providing Baga with a series of narratives that are helping them secure a peculiar sense of identity and place in the world. Literacy and written texts are fundamental in creating a sense of community, in allowing people to imagine themselves as part of a community, as Anderson argued in a very influential work (Anderson 1983). Albert’s story is an example of how texts are incorporated into the lived world of the peasants and the compromises that arise between centripetal notions of secrecy and centrifugal notions of writing. a c r i s i s o f m e d i a t i o n : t h e s t o r y o f wo m e n

How did the iconoclastic movement affect womanhood? We have already seen that in 1956 and 1957 women became keen followers of Asekou Sayon – even Christian men had difficulty in restraining their wives from joining the kalima. This interest in the iconoclast preacher could be explained in two ways: we could claim, following Dozon and others, that in patrilineal societies women, together with young men, are structurally excluded and therefore see in religious movements a means of contesting this exclusion and achieving some empowerment (Dozon 1995). Or we could say, with Knibiehler and Goutalier, that colonisation was an ‘essentially masculine act’ and therefore particularly oppressive to women (Knibiehler and Goutalier 1985: 82–3). This view, however, has been qualified by more recent studies on colonialism and women (Hodgson and McCurdy 2001; Allman et al. 2002). Colonialists relied more on men than on women, but we cannot deny women’s agency in the making of the colonial and anti-colonial world, or consider them as mere ‘resistants’ of colonial and masculine hegemony. Baga Sitem women were under heavy pressure in colonial times. How much of this pressure was ‘indigenous’ and how much of it was ‘colonial’ would be difficult to gauge. As I have argued in Chapter 4 we cannot separate these two agencies in the making of Baga custom: it was a hybrid result of the encounter between colonial action and native interpretations, appropriations and contestations. What is clear is that if being a colonial subject was not very pleasant for anybody, being a female one was particularly burdensome. Even my male interviewees agreed that ‘custom’ was

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very unfair to women. They could not divorce, they were heavily punished if caught in adulterous relations, and they were generally excluded from public space and decision making. Furthermore, as Father Balez denounced in a detailed article (Balez 1930a), women in Baga country had to do much more work than men: they had to be rice farmers, builders of granaries (in a more distant past, they were also builders of houses), processors of palm oil and salt, long-distance bearers of heavy amounts of roofing thatch, anglers for fish and crabs in the tidal creeks – and they had to look after their orchards, too. Apart from all that, of course, they had to raise their children. Balez’s worries were precisely that the amount of hard work women had to do rendered them unable to care adequately for children. He saw this situation as the main cause of high child mortality. Women did not own rice fields then, any more than they do now. Upon marriage, a woman was put in charge of the cultivation and yield of one or several of her husband’s rice plots. The rice plots that a woman tended were later inherited by her male children. Paulme interpreted this as symbolising the importance of women in Baga society (Paulme 1957), but in fact it makes them mere conduits through which land is passed down patrilineally – although they are in effect the main supporters of households. Men were responsible for the organisation of household labour and the management and hiring of workgroups to do the ploughing and dike maintenance, the only gender-specific tasks in mangrove-swamp rice production. Harvesting and threshing were mostly men’s responsibility, too. Women were in charge of the sowing, planting, weeding and, more to the point here, the domestic organisation of rice storage and consumption, albeit under her husband’s control. Food security was a female responsibility. Unlike today, men had only a small rice field (or, sometimes, no field at all) and a small granary for exceptional expenses (some men, I was told, did not even have a granary): it was a woman’s full responsibility to provide rice for household consumption as well as rice to be sold for any other expenses, from taxes to their husbands’ and children’s clothes. Each woman had one granary (kele; pl. cele) where she kept rice for the dry season. That granary was called the kele karan, or ‘female granary’. Women had to be extremely careful not to waste that rice. If a woman’s rice reserve became insufficient to nourish the household (or to provide rice for ‘the war effort’ and other colonial demands), she had to walk to Susu, Mikhifore or Landouma villages, sometimes far away from her own village, bearing a heavy burden of salt, pottery, basketry, fish or palm oil to exchange for rice. Women therefore had to be not only adept rice farmers, but also producers in these supplementary activities too, some of which were very demanding. The preparation of salt, in particular, required women to spend almost a whole month at the peak of the hottest season in salt-making areas located near tidal creeks.


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Each household also had one or several granaries called kele karkun (pl. cele carkun; ‘male granary’) where rice was stored to be used in the rainy season (mid-May ­to mid-November). Some households had a single kele karkun for the whole house; in others, however, each wife had in her room both a kele karan and a kele karkun. Given the difficulties inherent to that period of the year (a good farmer must be well fed, much rice is needed for work-group hiring, and rice to buy or exchange is very difficult to obtain), a proper management of the kele karkun was crucial for the maintenance of a household. Despite its name, the rice in the kele karkun came from the fields of women, and they should be particularly careful not to waste it. If wasting rice in the dry season was bad enough, running out of it in the rainy season, also known as the ‘hungry season’, could be even worse. In the article mentioned, Father Balez recalls the painful pilgrimages of women who had to leave their village and go to Landuma or Mikhifore areas, where they would not even have a place to sleep, bearing salt, fish and craft products to exchange for upland rice (Balez 1930a). These journeys to neighbouring areas were still alive in people’s memories and came up often in interviews conducted in 2003. Together with – or in between – these two gendered granaries there was another institution that has disappeared since the late 1950s (although in some households in Bukor it lasted until the early 1980s): the mediating figure of the man’s sister ­– normally an elderly one, or at any rate one who had been married for a while and knew about rice management. Every year, after the beginning of the rainy season in May, the sister went period­ ically (roughly every month) to her brother’s house in order to open the kele karkun and measure out for the wife or wives the exact amount of rice they could consume to ensure the household’s survival to the end of the season and the new harvest. It was also the husband’s sister who, after the threshing of harvested rice in the fields, divided the amounts to be kept in the kele karan and kele karkun respectively. The kele karkun was sealed, literally and ritually, and only the husband’s sister could unseal and enter it (most cele carkun were big enough for a person to enter and withdraw rice from inside). When I asked a man why a wife could not enter her own household’s kele karkun, he replied: ‘It is not your wife who is going to know your secret; only your sister.’ This system made sure that the household did not experience hunger, but it also made women feel under the strict control of her husband and her husband’s descent group, and increased the feeling of strangeness and alienation inherent in marriage. This system was particularly oppressive for younger married women, many of whom were married to men who already had other wives. The rice field they were allotted was smaller than that of the first wives, who normally got bigger plots and therefore had more rice, and therefore they might have to go and sell their produce more often than older women. Besides, the system

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excluded them from social responsibilities, for being so young they were neither in charge of their own rice nor of the cele carkun of their brothers’ households. All in all, women were under very strict rules in colonial times. It is not surprising, then, that when the RDA arrived Baga Sitem women, like Guinean women in general, found its liberating discourse attractive and many became very active in the organisation of the RDA movement across the colony (Schmidt 2005). Late colonial times were periods of female empowerment, and the first Republic of Guinea was also a time of consolidating women’s rights (Rivière 1969). As a consequence of the iconoclastic movement, the kele karkun and the role of the husband’s sister in regulating access to it were abandoned. Baga men generally blame the long periods of hunger today on the mismanagement of rice by women. Granaries are disappearing, and women keep their rice in bags, making control by husbands much more difficult. When asked about rice management, both men and women today answer that it is women who know the ‘secrets’ of rice. Because there is indeed today a shortage of rice (a combination of mismanagement, labour absenteeism on the part of young people and natural disasters), Baga men are keeping for themselves ever larger rice fields to counterbalance the power of women. Many Baga men told me in 2003 that the institutions of the kele karkun and the husband’s sister role in household management should be restored.

Excursus III: Iconoclasm and the Gender of Knowledge In their seminal articles on Baga, Denise Paulme and André Schaeffner unearthed an oscillation between complementarity and competition in masculine and feminine ritual activities. After witnessing some ceremonies in Katako and Katongoro, Schaeffner noted that during boys’ initiations women occupied masculine spaces and played with musical instruments traditionally belonging to men. The abol ritual, on the contrary, consisted of men imitating women in dress, instruments and rhythms. We have already seen in this study that there was tension in relation to the production of people: while men boasted that they made Baga men in their initiations, women countered that no matter how many molom men ate, it was only they, who had ‘eaten ateken’, who knew how to produce people. Tensions between the genders started at an early age: narratives about children’s and young men’s cults, such as komne or tonkure, always contain an element of inter-gender as well as intergenerational competition. This competition became an open struggle during the iconoclastic movement and the political period that succeeded it. Men’s initiations came under vigorous attack during Asekou Sayon’s jihad: elders’ woods, ‘big houses’, masks and headdresses were all men’s spaces and all were under fire. In Sékou Touré’s own demystification campaigns, women’s cults


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were largely spared whilst men’s cults were the main target. Sékou Touré sympathetically acknowledged the pressures that women had endured in traditional-cum-colonial times and was determined to give them the equality they deserved. Michael McGovern has analysed how Sékou Touré’s sparing of the women’s cult has empowered women’s associations in the Loma country (McGovern 2004); much closer to Baga Sitem, among their neighbours the Bulongic, David Berliner has argued that there is today a feminisation of ‘custom’ (Berliner 2005b): many areas of knowledge and ritual and many places belonging to men and male associations are now linked to women and to their own associations (called kèkè among Bulongic). Like Schaeffner in Katato and Katongoro in 1954, Berliner describes ‘big houses’ and other male spaces becoming places for meetings of women’s kèkè. There is no doubt that, like Bulongic women with their associations, Baga Sitem women have had much greater success in keeping their ateken alive than men with their cults. I often saw them go to the ateken meetings with their children, and I wondered what effect this could have on the latter. I think that children learn not because elders want them to learn, but rather as a spin-off of elder’s conversations and activities that they conduct freely in front of children, convinced as they are that the latter are incapable of learning unless they want them to do so. In a similar vein, Marianne Ferme talks about the ‘social invisibility of children’ and explains that on one occasion she came to know about a poro (male association) meeting because a young boy whispered it to her (Ferme 2001: 217). She was surprised that such a young boy should know the arrangements for something as secret as an elders’ poro séance. It turned out that the boy had overheard a conversation of elders who probably assumed he was not paying attention to what they were saying. When I discussed similar issues with my interviewees, I found that most adults were convinced that a child who is under the age of seven (why seven I do not know) is incapable of retaining any information, and therefore that they could talk freely in front of them. Remember the vignette I offered in Chapter 2 of the old man Jean talking to me about ‘the past of the Baga’ and insisting that young children today know nothing about it – when in fact we were surrounded by children who were very clearly overhearing the conversation. Given the twin facts that women’s cults are much more active than men’s ones, and that women spend much more time with children than men do, we can guess that women become important agents in the informal instruction of boys and girls. As Murray Last once pointed out to me when commenting on the Griaulian epigram which I have placed at the front of this book (p. xvii), we could take the ‘cathedrals’ destroyed by iconoclasts as a metaphor for men’s cults, whereas the ‘marbles’ that children keep in play despite this destruction could stand for women’s more subtle ways of transmitting religious culture even at times

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when initiation cults are officially banned (Murray Last, personal communication, 2001). Whatever the role of women in religious transmission, men tend to minimise it using two main rhetorical devices: first, by saying that the spiritual agency women deal with in their ateken meetings is not really a yonk (a category of spirits discussed in Chapter 3), but a wurkifin (pl. arkifin) which is, so men explained, a ‘wilder’ kind of spirit, living in the bush and subordinated to the yonk (while all the yonk that were described to me had the appearance of a man, and sometimes of a white man, the arkifin were described as shorter beings with dog faces). Someone told me the wurkifin was the ‘pagan’ yonk, playing with the phonetic similarity between the words wurkifin and wukafir (from Arabic kafir, ‘people with no religion’). Second, several old male interviewees told me that women’s ateken was destroyed by Asekou Sayon’s iconoclastic followers as much as men’s cults, and that women today are only ‘imitating’ their mother’s ateken. In my conversations elders used ‘imitation’ very often to exclude other people’s ritual activities: women’s ateken is an ‘imitation’ of the ‘real’ ateken of the past; young men’s cults are ‘imitations’ of elders’ cults, and so on.4 Whether it is true or not that ateken suffered from the iconoclastic attacks, we cannot distinguish ‘imitation’ from the ‘real thing’ so simply: imitation sometimes leads to empowerment and the fact is that women, whether ‘imitating’ or performing an ‘authentic’ ritual (assuming such distinctions have any analytical value) are today engaging quite openly in ritual activities while their husbands prefer to keep an iconoclastic silence. Old Mahmoud once acknowledged that women were keeping up their ritual lives much more actively than men (despite the fact that he, too, in a previous conversation had said that women today are only ‘imitating’ their forebears). He told me: ‘If our children are to learn something about the mes mabaka, they will have to approach women and sit down next to them.’ That was indeed an explicit reversal of the history of Baga rituals. In the past, women were excluded from the elders’ wood and from manhood initiation; however, according to some sources, in every village there was a descent group that provided one woman to be initiated with the boys so as to mediate in future conflicts between genders.5 Mahmoud’s suggestion was that boys should sit in women’s initiations so as to learn about their past. What Mahmoud did not know was that this may already be happening, and children may be listening to their mothers and grandmothers more than he realised. Like many people, he was too worried about the disappearance of the ‘cathedrals’ to realise that children were still ‘playing with marbles’. conclusion

In this chapter we have seen what the distribution of knowledge was like at the time when I conducted my fieldwork, keeping as a backdrop the


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iconoclastic movement of 1957 and its effect on today’s male elders, women and ressortissants. In the next chapter, I introduce another group of stakeholders: the youths I lived with in the 1990s, when Guinea was experiencing important political changes: it was a time of decentralisation and democratisation, and Baga were claiming their place in the second (1984–94) and third (1994– ) republics (both with Lansana Conté as president). Most cultural, religious and political developments I witnessed in Guinea had to do with the general question of whether Baga had abandoned their custom in 1957 and whether it was possible to bring it back. Responding to Marcel Griaule’s provocative epigram, I shall argue that cultural destruction does not occur as readily as some ‘pessimistic’ analysts have thought. In the 1940s and 1950s youths and children used their imagination and inventiveness to create their own cults and engage with their elders in struggles and appropriations. Today’s children are not that different from children of the past: they also like to invent things, and they too have to come to terms with their elders’ authority and power. But despite the structural similarities, today’s generational dynamics could not explain much in themselves. Things happening in the 1990s and today would be impossible to understand without invoking the perspective of the iconoclastic movement to reveal a generation game taking place between elders who had been involved in the iconoclastic movement and youths born afterwards. In the next chapter we are going to witness these new generational dynamics at play.

8 harlem city and the ancestral village: youth and the politics of culture today Cen comoko cencerene ko ceker comoko. The dogs of today and the monkeys of today know each other.         (Baga Sitem proverb) As we have seen in previous chapters, the first Republic of Guinea (1958–84) was hostile to notions of ethnic difference as well as to certain notions of political culture that lay at the basis of the community incorporation process in coastal regions. Upon the death of Sékou Touré in 1984, Colonel Lansana Conté took over as President. After 26 years of socialist policies and closure to most of the Western world (apart from Soviet-oriented countries), a period of openness and liberalism started. As far as Baga were concerned, this change of power had several consequences. First, Lansana Conté was a Susu from Koba, a region that was also the home of Baga people. In strong contrast to the Malinké-oriented policy of his predecessor, the new President saw the coastal regions as a focal point of the new, remodelled political landscape. Baga, considered in Guinea as the original inhabitants of the coast and of its capital Conakry, came to enjoy an increasing presence in the public sphere. The fact that Lansana Conté’s first wife was a Christian from the Baga Sitem village of Tolkoc also had its influence upon perceptions of Baga-ness in Guinea. She would play a part in recognising the presence of the Baga in the new public space and extending the reach of the Guinean state to the Baga Sitem villages. Second, in the 1980s the new government opened up a process of political regionalisation and decentralisation. Guinean citizens no longer had to hide their ethnic identities. Instead, the 1980s saw a re-emergence of ethnic particularisms in striking contrast to the previous homogenising nation-making process under Sékou Touré. This re-ethnicisation of the Guinean territory was at first rather superficial, but it became increasingly explicit and even exclusivist. In the mid-1990s Baga Sitem ressortissants proposed the creation of a ‘Baga Prefecture’ out of the sub-prefecture of Kamsar, which also happened to be the richest sub-prefecture of the country. The rationale behind this political project was that Baga regions housed too many non-Baga elements and that the situation was unfair to


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its Baga inhabitants. It was to be the first prefecture with a clearly ethnic name, one which would resonate with the previous Canton Baga created by the French administration. More recently, I have heard of similar processes among other groups, namely of an intended ‘Kissi Prefecture’ out of a subprefecture in the Kissi-speaking forest region of Guinea. Another direct consequence of the change of political climate in the 1980s was the reacceptance in Guinea of Western missionaries and a revival of Christianity. Christianity had not been forbidden during Sékou Touré’s time, but was heavily Africanised. Non-African priests and mission staff were expelled from the country in 1966, and as a consequence Catholicism experienced a huge recession in most of the territory. One of the few exceptions to Sékou Touré’s expulsion was Father Marius Balez, the French priest who had been living in Katako since the 1920s. He personally asked Touré to let him stay there, since, being a very old person in 1966, he had nowhere else to go. This fact has also contributed to the high standing of Baga Sitem within Guinea’s Catholic community. In the 1980s a new generation of Western priests arrived in Guinea, and in February 1992 Pope John Paul II visited the country. The coast, which from pre-colonial times had been one of the main meeting points of missionaries and Africans in Guinea, became again a strong locus of Christian identity and proselytising. The city of Boffa, home of one of the oldest Catholic missions in Africa (founded in 1875) became particularly active, and since the mid-1980s has been a major pilgrimage site for many West African Catholics, receiving thousands of pilgrims every year on the first weekend of May. Baga, and particularly Baga Sitem, who live relatively close to Boffa town, have been centrally involved in this annual pilgrimage. As a result of all these changes in the 1980s, the region saw the emergence of practices and discourses aimed at making the Baga presence in the Guinean state more visible. One of these new practices was an annual football tournament that, as I was insistently told, was meant to bring together all the Baga villages. One of the characteristics of the tournament was that it was opened by what in Guinea they call a ‘carnival’. ‘Carnival’ may refer to any joyful celebration, but in this case it meant a cultural festival in which the different villages that would participate in the tournament (normally around fifteen to seventeen) had to display their material culture to an audience that included, apart from the villagers, many regional and national citizens, politicians and other visitors. One could see these ‘carnivals’ as a process of ‘folklorisation’, as defined by Hermann Bausinger (Bausinger [1961] 1990): the process by which cultural goods become items to be displayed as part of a people’s common ‘traditional culture’, ‘heritage’ or ‘cultural identity’ – what later authors referred to as the ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). The notion of an ‘invented tradition’ might aptly describe what some Baga are trying to do –

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except that it forces us to think of cultural ‘inventors’ as building their past out of nothing. No doubt people invent things; we have seen some cases in this study. But people’s inventions interact with pre-existing realities, and the result will always be a negotiation between creativity and inherited representations and experiences.1 I prefer to follow Bausinger’s terminology not only because it avoids the epistemological pitfalls of ‘invention’, but also because it accords with Baga Sitem speakers’ own way of discussing what they are doing: consciously recreating a ‘folklore’ so as to show the world who they are. In West Africa, this process has been analysed, also under a Bausingerian perspective, by Peter Mark in his study of the Diola of Casamance (Mark 1994). Every year, Diola celebrate a ‘cultural week’ in which they display many of their dances and masks – including the initiation dance, of particular importance to them given the identification they make between initiation and ethnicity. Some Baga, treading a similar path, have converted their initiation dance into an item for display, but others find it difficult to do so. Indeed, unlike Diola and other West African groups, post-iconoclastic Baga of the 1980s and 1990s view the display in a public space of ‘secret’ things such as masks, headdresses and initiation dances as a highly contested issue. f o o t b a l l a n d c a r n i va l s : a t a l e o f t h r e e v i l l a g e s

In 1989 Catholic youth representatives, boosted by the readmission to Guinea of the French Pères du St-Esprit, invented a football tournament that was to become an increasingly popular annual event. The tournament was to take place every year in a different village and was designed to bring together all the Baga villages. The organisers soon discovered that defining ‘Baga’ was not as easy as they thought, and finally decided to limit the tournament to the three overlapping groups of the so-called Dabaka: Baga Sitem, Baga Pukur and Bulongic. The cup for the winner of the tournament was baptised Coupe Bienvenu in honour of Father Gustave Bienvenu, then Superior Father of the Mission of Katako. Father Bienvenu had been a priest in Katako from 1958 to 1966 and had come back when French priests where readmitted in 1985. The tournament was officially named the Jeux du littoral (coastal games) in order to stress that ethnic identities should not be an impediment: whether Baga or not, everybody living in coastal Guinea would be welcome to participate in the games. However, this turned out to be mere rhetoric. Nobody I met in Guinea ever referred to the games as the Jeux du littoral: it was always ‘the Baga tournament’ and, as I will show, defining Baga-ness was pretty much what the events were about. When discussing this tournament, both youths and elders often make direct or indirect comparisons with pre-iconoclastic times and activities, especially masquerades. The tournament was seen as similar to the


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masquerades of the past, especially the famous dimba. The logo of the tournament (on T-shirts, directional signs, etcetera) usually combined a dimba headdress and a football. That was the case in four of the five tournaments I attended: Mare (1994), Bukor (1995), Kifinda (1997) and Tolkoc (2001). In Kawass in 1996 the logo was, rather significantly, just a football without any concession whatsoever to older forms of material culture, for reasons we shall discuss below. The dimba headdress (Figure 1.1, p. 2), which in pre-iconoclastic times used to be danced on fertility-related occasions (marriages, harvest), is a particularly beloved icon among Baga. Unlike other masks and headdresses, its uses did not have anything to do with witch-cleansing, initiation rituals or anything of the sort; it was not a headdress that expressed differences among categories of individuals but rather one that brought them together in joyful celebrations. It was clearly not a tolom, but a powolsene, as some interviewees liked to insist. Dimba masquerades used to attract and gather people from different villages, and although their playful aspect was beyond any doubt, there was a certain competitive element in the performance, especially in the beauty of the headdress itself (Curtis and Sarró 1997). According to the memories of elders, headdresses used to be individualised by having a single female name, and some of them were memorably attractive. Thus, in the village of Bukor people told me as recently as 2003 that the Dabaka never knew a more beautiful dimba headdress than ‘Cissé the Black’, which was sculpted in the 1950s and disappeared in the 1956 events. Its name, normally expressed in Susu (Cissé Foré), was an interesting statement: Baga consider blackness a sign of beauty, while for Susu blackness is a metaphor for backwardness, and, as we have seen, until at least the mid-twentieth century Muslim Susu used to refer to different Baga groups as Baga Foré in order to stress their cultural and religious distance from them. One thing that interviewees often said was that in the past (‘when Baga used to be Baga’ or ‘when this was the Dabaka’, as they sometimes put it), there was much more fluidity among the different villages than in the present. People travelled from village to village, and masquerades and other celebrations were occasions for people to do so and meet one another. When pondering the virtues of the tournament, the disappearance of these intervillage links was insisted upon by one of my older interviewees, a Muslim man from the village of Katako: People no longer know which their corresponding descent groups in other villages are, because we have been too isolated for too long. Now this football tournament forces young people to go to other villages and know their people there as they have to stay in the house of their corresponding descent groups when they go to another village. When they go to another village, Baga individuals must be incorporated

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into a descent group whose members will behave towards them as though they were from the group, providing shelter, food and juridical status, even if they have never met them before. Any Baga Sitem man or woman has such a corresponding descent group in any other Baga Sitem village, and some have corresponding descent groups among Bulongic too. This network of corresponding descent groups had been much eroded. I noticed that while my elderly interviewees were able to name each kor that would automatically incorporate them in any other village, youths rarely possessed this knowledge. Since the tournaments required youths of every village to go to all the other villages, they did induce a reactivation of this network. I met some young people who hoped to stay with a friend when visiting another village to attend the tournament, but upon arrival found that they were forced by an unknown elder to stay with the corresponding descent group and not with the friend. In this sense, the tournament brought to life kinship ties among villages that had been neglected. However, it not only reactivated a common identity that had been ‘dormant’ for many years, as the straightforward ‘cultural revitalisation’ thesis would have it; it also gave expression to a redefinition of identities that increasingly took on a territorial and regional dimension. Thus villages that had previously been considered as Baga were left out of the tournament, either because they were too far away for the majority of Baga youths to travel there, or simply because they were not considered ‘Baga’ enough. In 1994 I heard of an unsuccessful request to take part in the Mare tournament from some villages belonging to the ancient Kakissa region. ‘Maybe they were Baga in the past, but they are not Baga today,’ replied Essain, then president of the Youth Committee of his village, when I asked him about the refusal of the application. The football tournament also created divisions and alliances between villages or clusters of villages, which may have had a kinship rationale. They were more strongly marked by a politico-territorial element, however, than by kinship links. For our purposes, the most interesting thing about the football tournaments I witnessed was that, year after year, the organisers announced that the opening would be accompanied by a cultural fair or ‘carnival’. This would involve the display of Baga masks, headdresses, dances, games and other cultural goods, especially those considered ‘traditional’. That ‘traditional’ masks or headdresses were going to appear in the opening carnival was particularly insisted upon by the respective village’s ressortissants, who played a very important role in these events, especially in mobilising financial support, and who saw the opening carnival as more important than the three weeks of football that would follow. The youths in the villages, on the contrary, were by and large much more excited about the game than about the masks. In fact, as far as they were concerned, masks and the knowledge related to them belonged to the elders of the villages, who had


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been initiated in pre-independence times and who did not allow youths to play with them, since they were not things to play with. The third stakeholding group, the elders, did not share the enthusiasm with which some youths and most ressortissants (who, in the eyes of the elders, are also juniors) greeted the public display of Baga culture, and did not see why football and masquerades should go together. As a consequence, the annual process of preparing for the tournament consisted of long negotiations between the youths, the elders and the ressortissants, a three-tier dialogue common to the cultural performances of Africa in general (see Rea 1998 for a similar dialogue among Yoruba). At first, so I was told when reconstructing the history of the tournament, village elders did not really want to become involved in the games. They considered that these were for the young and should not concern them. Yet, little by little, they came to realise the importance of the tournament for the collective development of the villages; and the ressortissants, who normally were quite respectful of the elders’ actions, became more and more insistent that the event should be staged with the help of the elders, or under their instructions. The elders, both men and women, became increasingly involved; they offered sacrifices and prayers, and performed certain preparatory dances to empower the young players of their respective villages, or to ‘prepare the soil’ on which the games were going to take place. Thus both youths and elders came to be equally involved in the tournament, with separate but integral roles. While the youths played the actual games, the elders were instrumental in ensuring that the tournaments would happen under the best auspices. Youths played for the cup and for the possibility of promotion to Guinean league teams. Elders became involved, as a wulipne of Bukor once put it to me, because it was the reputation (tewe, literally, ‘name’) of their village that was at stake. I think this was a partial explanation, however: behind it we should see the need of the elders to control young people’s activities when they became too powerful, much in the way that elders had reacted to youthful inventions such as gbenka and tonkure in the 1950s. I shall come back to this double activity of youths and elders later, but let us first look at the explicit cultural programmes of the opening ‘carnivals’, which worked as a counterpoint to this double game of juniors’ football and elders’ ceremonial participation. In what follows I am going to describe three consecutive tournaments – Mare (1994), Bukor (1995) and Kawass (1996) – and their respective carnivals.

Mare (1994) The preparation of the tournament of April 1994 in Mare coincided with my ethnographic fieldwork in the village, started almost one year earlier. Some people were very insistent on the ‘folkloric’ aspect of the tournament, both in Mare and elsewhere. ‘You are very lucky,’ said Lamin, ‘because your

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stay coincides with the tournament, and you are going to see things that otherwise would not be shown.’ I became quite excited about the carnival as comments of this kind became more and more frequent. Some Conakry ressortissants told me that the tournament in Mare would be opened with a display of ‘traditional’ Baga culture, and even a few Europeans based in the capital went expectantly to the village to attend this display of ‘African culture’. They were to be disappointed when they realised that football and not ‘traditional masks’ was what a football tournament was about. The only item that might have formed part of what could be called a ‘traditional’ performance was a dimba headdress shown by a Katako troupe (later the performers were criticised by several spectators for not having done it well enough). One of the ressortissants of the village who had written a long text on Baga history, customs and culture (shown to me in Conakry a short time before the tournament) had promised to read from it on the opening day, but to my surprise he did not. I never had the opportunity to ask him why, but I imagine that once in the village he had been left in no doubt that ‘history’ and ‘culture’ could be considered by his village fellows as secret things not to be given away in public speeches. While in the city ressortissants could talk and even write about somtup and other delicate matters, once in the village they had to switch codes and abide by the strictures of ritual knowledge: junior people are not to challenge the knowledge of their ritual elders. This lack of ‘folklorisation’ and of reflexivity (by which I mean the use of the occasion by Baga to explain to themselves their history and culture) was accompanied by a recrudescence of deser gossip. Soon after its opening, the tournament, which as I have said lasted for three weeks, was tainted by a tragic event: the death of a young boy who fell from a tree while watching a match. Immediately after the tragic accident, I heard some people make an explicit connection between that death and Bukor’s people. A young woman of Mare told me that the inhabitants of Bukor had made a sacrifice to amanco ngopong to win the tournament. The fact that Bukor (a village particularly plagued by witchcraft gossip in 1994)2 did win the cup reinforced this thesis, which was shared by many people I talked to in Mare. But Bukor was not only the winner of the 1994 tournament; by a decision taken before the tournament itself, it was also the village that was to organise the next tournament, in 1995. Therefore, all the rumours about their deser had to be dealt with very carefully by the organisers. And, as we shall see, they were.

Bukor (1995) At the beginning of my fieldwork, while I was based in Mare, Bukor was a village about which people in Mare and surrounding villages often talked with an air of mystery. Lamin, from Mare, once told me that in the


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mid-1980s he went to Bukor and was forced to stay indoors because a certain masquerade was being performed in a witch-cleansing séance and he, not being initiated, was not allowed to behold the mask – a situation, he confided, that would never arise in Mare. Bukor was indeed a unique village, as we have seen, having retained a pyramidal age structure with the alipne at its apex. The village was also unique, of course, thanks to the presence – or rather, the significant absence – of amanco ngopong. Friends from that village were often terrified by the readiness with which people in other villages dared mention the name of amanco ngopong. ‘In Bukor you cannot mention his name so flippantly, certainly not in the presence of the alipne,’ one of them used to say. The preparation of the tournament in Bukor in 1995 was even more interesting to follow than the events of 1994 in Mare. To start with, and as a direct consequence of what had happened in 1994, many people were afraid of going to Bukor to attend the tournament because of deser actions and sacrifices to amanco ngopong. Some young people from Mare and other villages told me that they would not go to the tournament. People from Bukor had to take action against this predicament – the point of the tournament being, of course, to gather as many people as possible and not to scare them away. To bypass the problem, Bukor’s ressortissants in Conakry decided that in order to prevent the occurrence of witchcraft attacks during the three weeks that a tournament normally lasted, they would ask the alipne take care of things. The alipne, accordingly, performed the kinger (‘the closing of the earth’). As we know, kinger was a very solemn action, very rarely performed, which theoretically made it impossible for people to die from deser attacks. In colonial times, when Baga people had long initiation rituals, the ‘closing of the earth’ was linked to these rituals and to the appearance in the village of amanco ngopong (these two things going hand-in-hand, since amanco could only appear on a ‘closed earth’). To the best of my knowledge, the last time the earth had been closed had also been in Bukor, during the 1986 kibok mentioned in Chapter 7. The closing of the earth for the 1995 tournament had little to do with amanco ngopong but rather with the prevention of deser during the tournament, but of course the association between the two elements (kinger and amanco ngopong) was in the minds of most potential visitors. And the fact that the alipne of Bukor dared to close the earth in order to hold a football tournament did indeed frighten many of them. The outcome was that some villages did not allow their children to compete in such a ‘dangerous’ village. This may seem a bit contradictory to us, since the ‘closing of the earth’ was nothing ‘bad’, but we have to bear in mind that the elders of these other villages were afraid that their ‘irresponsible’ kids would not know the importance of a kinger and would not respect it, having to suffer deadly consequences later. When a village was on a ‘closed earth’, for instance, unmarried people were not

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allowed to have sex, nor could any married person have illicit adventures. Yet sex was obviously part of the fun youths searched for on occasions such as a football tournament. It was also decided that the alipne should be in charge of the preparation of the carnival, so that the outcome would be better than the ill-prepared dimba performance by the Katako troupe in Mare the previous year. This year it had to be done properly. When the opening day arrived, there were a few dances and two masks: dimba and sibondel, which were danced under the direct control of the alipne and, as many people interpreted, ‘in the old way’. But for the ressortissants of Conakry, these two headdresses were not enough. I remember interviewing a few of them before the tournament took place. They insisted on the inclusion in their carnival of the old initiation dance (kikenc), which had not been performed in the village since the early 1950s. They went to Bukor to discuss the issue with the alipne, who at first did not show open opposition to the idea. I was somewhat hastily told by one of the ressortissants that the alipne had chosen a group of young villagers to be taught how to dance the kikenc. Baga young people of Katako had already ‘folklorised’ their kikenc and had performed it on many occasions (indeed I even saw it once on Guinean TV) with a troupe de théatre created almost ten years before with the help of some men who had been initiated in 1948 and, against rules of secrecy, agreed to teach the basic steps and songs to younger generations in the 1980s. The ressortissants from Bukor wanted to do the same and they obtained authorisation from the alipne to do so. But then, as the tournament approached, the alipne refused to teach the youths the secret kikenc. They said that football was just a game and that in consequence only games should be played: dimba and sibondel. And even these had to be danced according to their strict directions. The kikenc was a dance for initiates and, by definition, youths of today are not initiated. Despite the lack of the kikenc, however, the outcome was a success of which the Baga of Bukor felt very proud. The visit of Guinea’s first lady and national TV coverage also played their parts.

Kawass (1996) In 1996 the tournament was held in Kawass. Kawass was as different a Baga village from Bukor as one could imagine. Whereas in the 1990s Bukor was still an enclave in the mangroves only reachable by boat during many months of the year, Kawass was only eight kilometres from Kamsar, on the main road between Kamsar and Conakry. The little airport of Kamsar, at the time already proposed for development into an international facility, was in fact in Kawass. The Catholic community was quite large there, and since 1995 it was also the base of the Protestant group Bible Translators, who have been working steadily on Baga Sitem linguistics and Biblical translation since that time. In addition, the social tissue of Kawass is very


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Figure 8.1 Woman wearing an airplane headdress in Kawass (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Kawass, Guinea, 1996) different. Half the population are Susu, and Baga inhabitants have not kept the structure based on age and ritual knowledge that remained so influential in Bukor. As I have said, the tournament in Kawass did not have the dimba as a logo, but just a football with a palm tree and the Baga Sitem phrase pankon Kawass, ‘let us go to Kawass’. The tournament of Kawass was also accompanied by a ‘carnival’, albeit a rather short one. Two headdresses were shown and dances around them were performed by some young Baga women: one of them represented an airplane, the other one a helicopter; a third woman with a wooden boat in her hands was dancing around the first two. That people from Kawass chose to display such consciously modern items was criticised by people from other areas: they had ‘forgotten their roots’, as a ressortissant from a neighbouring village told me a few days later in Conakry. I remember an expatriate visitor who was there and who, at the end of the carnival, asked one of my friends: ‘So, when are the traditional masks coming out?’ He was, I imagine, disappointed when he realised that that was it: the carnival was over and stretching ahead were three long, dusty and mostly boring weeks of plain football. I must say here that I personally disagree with these critics of local forms of modernity. I thought we could see Kawass’s headdresses as a sign of cultural vitality, a proof that people in Kawass have learnt to live with the proximity of Kamsar, whose galloping modernity they have incorporated and learned to use as an expression of their own distinct identity.

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Figure 8.2 Woman wearing a boat headdress in Kawass (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Kawass, Guinea, 1996)


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Figure 8.3 Woman ‘filming’ the carnival of Kawass in 1996 (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Kawass, Guinea 1996) By doing so they may be closer to the true spirit of material presentations of the invisible than their critics might realise. The ‘world structure’ (to use another of Ardener’s concepts) underneath these new headdresses and objects was not all that different from that underneath older ones such as headdresses with crocodiles or bird shapes. Much as these headdresses of the past established connections between different realms and were based on ‘transitional’ shapes (animals that could connect different elements and places), airplanes and boats are also meant to express connections between different geographies and ontological domains. It is by plane that people go from Kawass to Conakry and vice versa; it is by boat that people and goods go and come between Kamsar, America and Europe. It was quite daring of these young women to appear in a public space with their airplane, helicopter and boat in a context where enriching tendencies are closely checked. As we have seen, René Amadou was accused of using invisible airplanes (and radios) by Sayon’s followers in 1956. Women who were dancing with these airplanes and helicopters were ‘making present’, to return to Vernant and Stéphan’s terminology (see Chapter 1), a reality that was phenomenologically remote from them, even if it was geographically so close: Kamsar, its airport and its wealth, with which today’s youth associate themselves but from which they feel so unjustly excluded. What was really new in these headdresses and dances was the fact that women were dancing with these transgressive and provocative objects; this

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was an appropriation of masculine space and activities, since I do not know of any ‘traditional’ headdress danced by Baga women. To make this ‘feminisation of custom’ (Berliner 2005a) even more feminine, a woman was ‘filming’ her friends’ dances with a splendid make-believe video-camera made out of wood and painted in such a perfect way that I thought when I first saw it that it was a real camera (Figure 8.3). Some Baga men told me these women were not really being modern but imitating modernity, much as others had told me that women do not perform but imitate ateken. But then again, this was nothing but a rhetorical argument to deny the inevitable: that women have invented new forms of dance and headdresses that men have not yet found a way to appropriate. boffa vs boké: competing constr uctions of cultural identity

One important characteristic of the Kawass tournament was that it very soon became a fight between two different geographical regions: Araponka vs Kakande. Araponka and Kakande are the vernacular names of the territories around, respectively, Rio Pongo (the region around Boffa town) and Rio Nuñez (the region around Boké town). Boffa and Boké are nowadays different prefectures. Boké is the prefecture where Kamsar, together with Katako, Mare, Kawass and many other villages, is located. Baga villages in Boffa Prefecture are not reached by development agencies based in Kamsar. Furthermore, while most villages in Boké are Baga Sitem, villages in Boffa are mostly Bulongic, except for Bukor and Kalikse. The crudeness of the opposition between Araponka and Kakande was new to me, as was the use of these two words to refer to what were normally called Boffa and Boké. The previous year, in the Bukor tournament, the cup had been won by Kufen, which in terms of kinship and migration narratives was a village very close to Bukor. According to oral tradition, Kufen was founded by the younger brother of Bukor’s founder and the two villages (together with Kalikse) belonged to the spirit province of Mantung, although the fission of the latter into Mantung (village of Bukor) and Simantor (villages of Kufen and Kalikse) was already achieved in colonial times. This victory of Kufen was at first very much welcomed by people in Bukor, who considered that since Kufen was their younger brother, the victory somehow belonged to them as well. This followed the widespread West African custom according to which, whenever anything is given to someone, his older brothers have full rights over it; some Bukor interviewees told me that Bukor had ‘allowed’ Kufen to win. However, administratively Kufen belongs to Boké, while Bukor belongs to Boffa, and therefore people from Kufen started to celebrate their victory together with people from other villages in Boké. This endorsed the claim that it had been a victory of


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Boké over Boffa. It was also one of territory over kinship and representations of pre-colonial pastness. Many of the people from Bukor I interviewed were very disappointed by this and considered Kufen’s victory as a young brother’s betrayal. In fact, it was somehow ‘decided’ by people in Boffa that in 1997, the following year, the Bienvenu Cup had to return to Boffa, where, besides, the tournament would take place (the 1997 tournament had already been scheduled to take place in the Bulongic village of Kiffinda). During the first days of the Kawass tournament I went to Bukor and attended a night meeting where the alipne, together with a group of old women, reassured the rest of the population that the cup was to come to Boffa Prefecture; whether it had to be Bukor itself or any other village in Boffa was of secondary importance (although Bukor was preferable, of course).3 Even if it was a Bulongic village and not a Baga Sitem one, this was preferable to a victory for Boké over Boffa. Despite their linguistic and other characteristics, the Sitem-speaking Baga from Bukor felt closer to other Baga villages in Boffa (which were not Sitem but Bulongic) than to the rest of the Sitem villages of Boké, while the Baga of Kufen allied themselves with other Sitem of Boké and broke ties with their ‘older brothers’ from Bukor. This revealed the importance of territorial policies in the shaping of social identities. The 1996 tournament was also the first time that I heard about the project of making a ‘Baga prefecture’ out of Kamsar and the Baga villages around it (that is, the Baga Sitem villages in Boké Prefecture). People in Boké certainly did take advantage of the presence of Kamsar in their prefecture. The new road and bridge inaugurated in April 1994, mentioned in Chapter 2, had opened up a few villages and made it possible for their inhabitants (especially women selling fish, fruit and rice) to go to Kamsar. An important French agricultural project based in Kamsar was helping the Baga farmers of the area. Even the twin-engine airplane of the Compagnie des Bauxites Guinnéenes (CBG) enabled a few well-connected Baga people to fly to or from Conakry whenever they wanted in less than an hour. Boffa’s villages, on the contrary, had the feeling of being left out. Their chances to be opened up to external development did not depend on Boké or Kamsar and all the projects based there, but rather on Boffa’s prefectural authorities. One aspect of this new opposition between villages in Boké and Boffa prefectures was their competing constructions of Baga-ness. Although they envied the modernising element of Boké, villagers and ressortissants from Boffa villages were in fact very proud of being considered as more ‘traditional’ than their Boké neighbours. I think this is what they tried to prove with the rather spectacular carnival in Bukor in 1995, which, as I have said, was even filmed, shown on national TV and reported as an example of the ‘deep Bagatai’. They considered the Kawass carnival of 1996, with its

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airplane, helicopter and boat, as a preposterous travesty, an abandonment of ‘Baga-ness’. As one might expect, people in Boké did not share this view. They did not consider that either the Baga Sitem or the Bulongic villages of Boffa were better or more ‘Baga’ than themselves, but rather that they had not been successful in eradicating deser and evildoers, that is, the worst aspects of Baga society; they had been clumsy iconoclasts or poorly demystified. The mere fact that Bukor still had the alipne institution was strongly criticised by people from other villages. For them, and not without reason, alipne and deser were hand and glove. In fact, they considered the Baga of Boffa as a whole as the underdeveloped side of the Dabaka. ‘You have to clear that grove in the middle of the village,’ said an old man from Mare to a Bukorian friend of mine in 1994, referring to a wood existing in the middle of Bukor, where the alipne normally meet and nobody else can enter. Although my friend, being younger than the old man, showed due respect by listening without replying, and even agreeing, he later laughed at the old man’s admonitions, feeling as proud as ever of being a Baga from Bukor. It would nonetheless be untrue to say that Baga people from Boké had completely lost interest in their past. Quite the opposite: the ‘conscious searching for and excavation of the past’ characteristic of modern conceptions of tradition (Bausinger [1961] 1990: 64) was a strong feature of some villages of Boké. If a visitor today (say, an expatriate employee of the CBG) wanted to see a Baga masquerade, and if he was ready to pay for it, the chances are that his wish would be granted by the theatre troupes installed either in Katako or in Kamsar itself. These would be available to perform either dimba, sibondel or any other headdress or dance, including the kikenc or male initiation dance. Yet, these public displays of masks did not occur as often as one would expect, and certainly not as often as Baga ressortissants would like. We have seen that even the carnivals of Mare and Kawass, despite all the efforts and promises, were actually very frustrating in terms of cultural performance. In fact, one of the main reasons why people in Katako created theatre troupes in the first place was to satisfy Frederick Lamp’s visual demands in the 1980s, when he was interested in videotaping certain masquerades to document the uses of the objects he described in his landmark study of Baga art (Lamp 1996b). In this sense, Lamp was right when he wrote that, much against his will as a mere art historian, his presence and interests stimulated a cultural revival of pre-iconoclastic practices and material culture (Lamp 1996b: 256). However, once Lamp was gone, the interest in recreating the past decreased enormously. In any case, it is noteworthy in itself that the people in Katako agreed to display masks and dances for no other purpose than making a film. Certainly, to make a similar film in Bukor would have been impossible; many of the objects,


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songs or dances that could be shown to the wider public in Katako belonged to a much more secret realm in Bukor. Indeed, compared with Boké’s villages, Boffa’s can tell us a great deal about the politics of cultural performance. We have seen that in 1995 in Bukor, the alipne were asked to take charge of the event by the ressortissants and accordingly decided what was to be displayed. They allowed the nimba and sibondel headdresses to be danced, but not the secret kikenc; to give away this dance would be to give away too much symbolic capital. We have also seen that they performed the ‘closing of the earth’, which they probably would not have done were it not for the importance of the tournament, pressure from the ressortissants, and the rumours in other villages concerning Bukor’s deser. We could say that Bukor succeeded in 1995 because the generational structure allowed for a preparation of the tournament in which the alipne made decisions and the youths executed them, very much along the lines on which masquerades were prepared in the days when the alipne were young people. For the ressortissants it was a successful tournament – leaving Kufen’s ‘betrayal’ aside. Despite their obvious frustration at being denied a display of the kikenc, they nevertheless managed to show Guineans who the ‘real’ Baga are. But I think that the tournament was an even bigger success for the alipne, since they clearly used the situation to reinforce the hierarchical structure that maintains their control of decision making in the village. Whether there was ‘revitalisation’ is thus a double-edged question. An observer who considered revitalisation as a visual display and a return to masquerades would still have been disappointed by the Bukor tournament – one dimba and one sibondel may not even have been worth the trip down to the village, in this view. At the same time, as regards ritual practice, an interesting revitalisation did occur, although quite a secret one. Indeed, that the alipne performed the ‘closing of the earth’ was not something that either the villagers or the ressortissants boasted about, nor was it announced at any official level. It was just a rumour spreading from mouth to mouth and from village to village. e l d e r s ’ s u c c e s s e s a n d yo u t h s ’ f a i l u r e s

While living in two Baga villages I was struck by the incredible number of noisy dancing parties organised by young villagers almost every night throughout year; I was left with the feeling that village youths were not interested in what one could loosely call the culture of their elders. In fact, I was rather inclined to believe that they wanted to get away from it as much as they could, probably as much as their elders were escaping from their seniors when they converted to Islam and cleared the woods back in 1956–7. Even during the opening of the tournament, I gained the impression that they were looking forward much more to the dancing party that night than to the boring display of masks and players in front of the

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political representatives on the opening morning, which many of the youths did not attend anyway. Yet whether youths succeeded in escaping from their elders’ control by playing football is a difficult question. During the first years of the tournament the answer would probably have been affirmative. In fact, as elsewhere in the world, many young people saw in football a means to escape from their villages, hoping to be promoted to regional teams and perhaps even play for Guinea. But the tournaments gradually became too important an occasion for the whole village to leave it to the youth to organise and define. The elders stood behind it, as though it was they who were playing and not the youngsters. I have heard Baga elders on several occasions say that ‘The youths are never responsible for a success, but always responsible for a failure.’ The first time I heard this saying was in a discussion of why sacrifices could not be made by young people. But I also heard it in the context of the tournaments, where indeed it applied. In the eyes of the elders, if the ardently desired Bienvenu Cup came to a village, it was not due to the boys’ performance in the game itself, but to the elders’ actions (sacrifices, prayers, ‘closing of the earth’ etcetera). If it did not, then it was because the young were lazy and irresponsible and had not followed the elders’ instructions. An interesting account of this assumption of control by the male elders was given to me by one of my male elder interviewees in Mare, who suggested that the reason why they (men) started to care about the football games was the increasing involvement of women in the event: Women started, especially in Monchon 1993, to perform drumming and dances on the fields, during the matches, behind the goals. Women could not realise that all this is just a game; they are too proud of their children and they would do anything to help them succeed. That’s why we then decided to do something about it. But this was just one version of the story. As I have said before, in Bukor I was told that the elders decided to take control of the games with sacrifices and prayers because the whole name of a village was at stake. Other than a question of women’s and men’s pride and power, and beyond the reputation of the village, we should see other factors as well, namely pressures from the ressortissants and, especially, the need to counterbalance the agency of youth and to reinstate the principle of gerontocratical hierarchy over the centrifugal tendencies of today’s youngsters. Be that as it may, the comparison between the old masquerades (especially dimba performances) and football, insistently reiterated by interviewees, does take hold. Whenever I got old people to talk to me about the days when they danced the dimba, they always insisted that this was a dance for young people, done by young people away from the elders. But then again


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they admitted that they were only able to dance it thanks to the instructions given by the elders and to the sacrifices they made for them. Young people in the 1990s maybe thought they would escape from the elders by playing football and not masks. Yet, the football tournaments reproduced and reinforced the very structure they were trying to escape: one that made the elders decision makers and youths the more or less irresponsible executors of these decisions. As for the ressortissants in Conakry, the tournaments are not proving as useful as they had at first thought. They obviously thought that these events, especially through their carnival aspect, would revitalise the ‘folkloric’ aspect of the culture: traditional masks, dresses and dances for visitors and tourists. They were in fact much more interested in this aspect than in the football itself. Expressing this disappointment, one of them asked me in Conakry in 1997: ‘If our children are playing football instead of dancing with our traditional masks, how are we going to convince the international community that we are an ethnic minority in danger?’ For him, reaching the international audiences and gaining access to development aid should be a priority for Baga villagers, and ethnicity the best resource to attract them. Yet convincing people to play with tradition is not easy, certainly not when there is no consensus on what masks, headdresses and dances are for – or to whom they offer this meaning. In 2001, when I attended my last tournament so far, which took place in the village of Tolkoc, I heard a group of youths from Mare (unmarried men and women, between 18 and 30 years old) singing a song whose chorus repeated Dim din dabaka delip, ane otam aser e ‘the one voice (dim din) of the Baga is finished, who is stronger than the witches?’ They were expressing the general notion that today Baga live in a world of anomie, different from the world of the past, when their parents and grandparents had one voice (or so today’s youth believe). The irony is that in 1956 witchcraft was already a major malaise that today’s elders, then young men and women, were trying to fight by getting rid of ritual objects, cutting down sacred woods and beating ritual specialists. Each generation lives its problems and its reality, its inheritances and its expectations. As stated at the beginning of this chapter, a Baga Sitem saying has it that ‘The dogs of today and the monkeys of today know each other.’ Each ‘today’ has its rules and its games, its dogs and its monkeys: elders of today do not understand youths of today. These views on generation accord with the classic theory of generations as developed by Mannheim ([1927] 1952) or Ortega y Gasset (1933), which holds that, from a phenomenological point of view, different generations live in different worlds. Baga elders who had gone through the events of 1957 lived their own world, different from that experienced by today’s youngsters, and when they spoke of kiyo kosu (‘our way of doing things’, sometimes translated as ‘our secrets’), they were talking, much along the lines of the famous novel, of the past as a ‘foreign country’ where ‘they do

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things differently’.4 Having gone through the 1957 events was probably as relevant in the making of their peer group as the fact of having been initiated together in 1948 or 1954. The Dabaka they described to me, with all its masks, elders’ woods, headdresses, huge silk-cotton trees, palm wine, youth’s tolom and so forth, sounded like something completely different from the fragmented present we were sharing. It was almost like a mythical land, like British neo-Pagans talking about Avalon or Mande griots singing about the Mandeng: a utopia, a truly remote area. That they kept talking about it to me and to my young friends in terms of ‘when this was the Dabaka’ or ‘when Baga were Baga’ reinforced this feeling of the otherness of elders’ culture ­­– but then again, that displacement is probably what they wanted to produce. t h e w i d e wo r l d a n d t h e c l o s e d e a r t h

In the 1950s, in the village of Bukor, a children’s cult, tonkure, was absorbed into a learning cycle that made it possible for its members to take over their elders’ roles. Forty years later they were at the top of a structure of knowledge and power in the village and we have seen how, in coalition with the ressortissants, they managed to absorb new forms of youth culture like football and carnivals, much as the elders had absorbed their own youth association in the 1950s. Elders keep on appropriating children’s games, and the latter keep on reacting with their uniquely creative imaginative resources. Much as in the past there were two versions for many masks and cults, today’s football has also given rise to a younger version. Since 1999, there is in Baga villages a new kind of football game called bundes (the word stems from Bundesliga, the German league). It consists of a five-a-side game, played with no shoes on any open space by slightly younger boys than those in mainstream football games. In my last visits to the village of Mare (1999, 2001 and 2003) there were two main teams of bundes. One team was made up of young village boys and was called Harlem City. The other team was made up by vacanciers, ressortissant boys who studied in the capital but spent their school vacation (July and August) in the village. The team of the vacanciers was called Dare Dokur (‘ancestral village’). Dare Dokur is the name of a wood situated about one kilometre away from Mare’s centre. Oral history states that the original village of Mare started there and its inhabitants later moved to Mare’s current location. Some elders go there from time to time to make sacrifices, but youths never do, despite not being formally banned. The leader of Dare Dokur was a young man who left the village in 1996. I knew him quite well in 1993–5. He was often bullied by other boys and on at least one occasion was subjected to a prolonged birching because he had not shown up in a kile (work group). That was the first time he told me he wanted to leave the village. A year later he moved to Conakry. Before leaving


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the village he was Muslim and as far as I could make out he had no interest in Baga history or in the fate of his village.Yet once in Conakry he converted to Christianity, joined a Pentecostal church and ever since then has spent every school vacation in Mare, becoming more and more aware of what he saw as the loss of Baga language and culture and wanting to do something about it, like organising dancing parties and bundes tournaments during the school vacation (which in coastal Guinea coincides with the rainy season) so as to make it appealing for young people to be present in their villages at a time when there is a pressing need for their labour in the rice fields, or organising a cultural association of Baga Sitem youths in Conakry, which last time I met him he hoped would eventually become a registered NGO. The leader of the Harlem City team was his own brother, a Muslim boy who had stayed in the village, never expressed much interest in the fate of his people or culture, and whose only wish was to leave it altogether one day. Last time I met him many of the boys in his Harlem City team were systematically refusing to do any work in the fields. I visited them in August and September, the hardest months in the agricultural calendar, when men and women spend most of the day in the rice nurseries and fields. Most of the young men in the village did not want to obey their elders, work groups like gbonga or kile were almost impossible to organise, and sometimes when they were summoned the group simply did not show up in the fields – even if the money had already been paid and even if, as on one occasion I witnessed, the rice field to work on was in the care of the mother of one of the boys. Some of the elderly and middle-aged people I talked to in 2003 blamed the road to Kamsar as the cause of the disappearance of young people. The road, which connects Mare to the tarred road from Kamsar to Conakry referred to in Chapter 2, had been built in 1994 with the money collected in that year’s football tournament. Although villagers thought the road would bring them development and progress, it actually proved to be a rather ‘famished road’, to use the metaphor provided by Ben Okri’s novel (Okri 1992). It ate more that it brought. Having said that, the road also made it easier for vacanciers to return to their village every year at the end of school, so, in theory at least, it should keep the flow active in both directions and make it possible for a good contingent of young people to be there every rainy season for a combination of field work, bundes and soirées. Nevertheless, the poor functioning of the work group system was a cause for real concern during my last visits to the village in 2001 and 2003. This new ball game, bundes, expresses the strong cultural differences between the youth of the village, who identify themselves with Harlem City, and the youth of the capital who, following the pattern of village reorientation common among ressortissants, would rather reaffirm their links with the ‘ancestral village’. Like many other villages, Mare is a bipolar one, with the eastbound pole oriented towards Kamsar and the westbound one

harlem city and the ancestral village


towards dare dokur – my impression was that, at least in 2003, the pole of Kamsar was more ‘charged’ than the pole with the ancestral wood at the western end of the village. In sharp contrast to Bukor’s closing of the earth, Mare was opening up towards the ‘wide world’, to use the last of three categories that I have borrowed from Kenneth Grahame, whose characters use them to imagine the spatial dynamics of their landscape.5 Long ago the historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith explored the dialectic of closing and opening up one’s world in a seminal article (Smith 1973). He argued that living in an ‘open’ world or in a ‘localised’ one are not things that happen in historical succession, and tried to dissuade us from thinking history as the logical succession, from closure to openness. Conceding that the transition ‘from the closed world to the infinite universe’ (the title of a famous book on the scientific revolution by Alexandre Koyré) might be a wonderful metaphor to explain the evolution of science, he questioned the frequent use of these terms in theorising the evolution of societies too, as if the transition from past to present or from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ forms of social life was always a journey from closure to openness. Closure and opening, Smith pointed out, are two existential options that people reactivate at different times, and nothing prevents the two things from happening simultaneously. In fact, history provides some wonderful examples of periods where it would be misleading to separate openness from its twin concept of closure. As a Hellenist, Smith takes his favourite examples from ancient Greece: the coexistence of the enclosed Greek polis and the expanding Greek colonies, and the different religious cultures that result from these opposing but simultaneous social tendencies. The Upper Guinea Coast, I think, furnishes another paradigmatic example of the coexistence of openness and closure, of expansion and locality. For many centuries, the region has been at the very epicentre of a dangerously widening world; many metaphors we use today to think of ‘modernity’, such as ‘creolisation’ (Hannerz 1987) or ‘black Atlantic’ (Gilroy 1993), are geographically connected to the coast we have visited in this study. Yet, at the same time, the place has been home to notoriously ‘enclosed’, ‘enclaved’ or ‘deep rural’ villages, regions and peoples who seem to have been unaware of what was happening around them. We still have difficulty in coming to terms with the simultaneity of the two trends: globalisation and localisation, the raider and the refugee, the prophet and the initiator. In more recent times, the dialectic between ‘flow’ and ‘closure’ that, according to some authors, is characteristic of the globalising world (Meyer and Geschiere 1999) – though Smith invites to suspect that it is a much older phenomenon – has become more visible and better documented. In this study we have followed its unfolding from the French colonial period through decolonising movements and into the post-colonial politics of


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Figure 8.4 Young woman in Mare’s carnival (Photo: Ramon Sarró, Mare, Guinea, 1994)

harlem city and the ancestral village


culture and identity. The French enclosed their subjects in Canton Baga while the RDA opened up towards a post-colonial state of citizens; people destroyed their hermetic huts while hiding their religious icons; Christian catechists entered the elders’ wood and instructed there; alipne were simultaneously adept Christians and keepers of secret cults; ressortissants wanted to read Baga culture aloud to the wide world while their village fellows were banning material representations; young people wanted to return to the remote past of their ‘ancestral village’ while their own brothers were dreaming of Harlem City; men in one village danced with consciously ‘old’ objects and women in another one with airplanes and helicopters; farmers refused anything to do with Kamsar while elites tried to make a prefecture out of it. I must confess that it is impossible for me to answer the embarrassing question I am often asked: in what ‘direction’ are Baga going today? I rather think that the lack of one direction is probably a salient characteristic of contemporary Africa. Modernist thinkers and politicians such as Sékou Touré thought they had captured people’s subjectivities and made them move along a succession of ‘different days’, to borrow the phrase of an early iconoclastic chief. But as Baga experience new pressures and the enthusiasm for modernist projects fades away, it becomes clearer to many of them that at least some days of the past were better than some days of today – that being modern citizens and having an interest in tradition are not mutually exclusive. In the 1994 carnival I took a picture of a young female friend who had dressed up in a self-consciously ‘traditional’ way (completely obsolete in everyday life today) as part of the folklorisation of the event. She agreed to be photographed, but insisted that I took the picture of her standing next to a motorcycle that someone had parked nearby, which of course I did (see Figure 8.4). Like many other Guinean friends, she did not want me to show my friends in Europe that Guineans live in a ‘backward’ country where young women dress so awkwardly: they have moved away from that, she wanted to signify, and today they share with the rest of us a world in which the past is at times a burden to bear, but at other times a source of security and pride. Will the dogs and the monkeys of tomorrow live under such a successful combination of elements from the past with elements from the present, under a ‘re-traditionalisation’ in which the elders of other villages follow Bukor’s example and close their earth so as to control their youths? Or will they experience the fervour of another ruthlessly modernising iconoclastic movement aimed at jettisoning the burden of the past? This is the kind of question that an anthropologist of today simply cannot answer. Most probably, in any case, the outcome will be as polymorphic, conflictual and full of ambiguities as the ethnographic present I witnessed among my friends in Guinea, or as the past I tried to grasp with their and many other people’s help.

9 conclusion: iconoclasm undone

Dim din dabaka delip. The one voice of the Baga is over. (Song by young Baga men and women, 2001) Dabaka de yi no. The Dabaka is here. (Mahmoud, 75 years old, 2003) s a c r e d wo o d s a n d c a s s ava f i e l d s : r e n e w i n g t h e spiritual contracts

I opened this study with Lamin showing me a cassava field in 1993 and saying: ‘This is where our sacred wood used to be.’ I shall close it by recalling something else he said, several years later. In 2001, when discussing the relationship between Baga and Susu, Lamin told me that the problem was that they, the Baga landlords, had been too generous: they had given land and shelter to too many strangers and now the strangers thought they could ‘stand up’ instead of ‘remaining seated’. He concluded, rather assertively, that Baga and Susu would end up settling the matter with guns. I hoped he was exaggerating, but two days after this conversation we heard of a tragedy in a nearby village: a Baga man shot a Susu farmer dead in a dispute over land. Luckily, this remained an isolated event, but it was a direct consequence of the tensions Lamin was describing to me, linked to land constraints in the mangroves. After Sékou Touré’s death in 1984 and through the 1990s Baga Sitem were pleased that Guinea’s new President was a Susu man whose first wife was a Catholic Baga Sitem. This political ambience produced a favourable revaluation of the coastal region of Guinea and of its inhabitants, and for several years Baga held a privileged position in Guinean political and popular culture. In 1993 I witnessed meetings organised in several villages by Baga ressortissants at which Baga farmers were instructed to vote for the Party for Unity and Progress (PUP, Lansana Conté’s party) in the first democratic elections held in the country (1993). However, as time went on, more and more Baga realised that the new political regime was not really helping them, and that despite the ‘coastal’ identity of the President and the



Sitem-ness of his first wife, they were experiencing strong pressures in their mangroves. In particular, they felt that the government was not helping them regain the lands they had lost to their ‘strangers’ since the end of the colonial era: Baga continued to be a minority in their own villages. They also saw that the promises of ethnicising the territory and of making a ‘Baga prefecture’ around Kamsar were not materialising. In 2001 and 2003 most of my friends in the Baga Sitem villages of Boké were no longer supporting the PUP, despite efforts by the government to retain their loyalty. Many of the land conflicts I learned about in 2001 and 2003 were reported as being caused by Susu or Jakhanke using land that belonged to Baga descent groups. Because the city of Kamsar was growing rapidly, there was an increasing demand for land in surrounding areas. Many Susu and people of other ethnic affiliations were profiting from the post-Touré privatisation of land (one of the concessions Conté made to the international community) by claiming that because they had improved land use through their labour, the land was now theirs; accordingly they were now selling land that had been allotted to them by Baga landlords one or several generations ago. This was particularly the case in villages close to Kamsar. Baga interviewees described this sale as a betrayal by ‘their’ strangers. In one particular case, the people who were selling the land (or trying to, since the case was still unsettled) claimed that they were landlords and that they could dispose of their own land. In short, they were using the privatisation of land as a mechanism to climb the ladder from relative strangerhood to landlordship. In fact, most of the oral history I had gathered in that village since 1993 implied that these people were latecomers and had been the clients of others until recently. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were from a descent group that, back in 1957, had been instrumental in inviting Sayon to their village. As the old Christian man Balthazar told me: ‘Ansumane [the man from the descent group selling the land] is rewriting history to sell land.’ He was probably correct, but then again Balthazar came from a land-owning descent group whose first-comer status had probably been acquired by converting to Christianity in French canton days. Rewriting history is not a new pursuit. As well as land conflicts, Baga Sitem villagers in 2003 were also experiencing other strenuous difficulties. In most villages a plague of worms was damaging rice production – already in decline, as has been noted in the previous chapter, because in some villages youths were refusing to work for their elders. While drug abuse was not a typical symptom of Baga disintegration, consumption had increased since the days I began my fieldwork in 1993–5. Rumours of witchcraft were widespread, which led many elders to question, along the lines discussed in chapters 5 and 6, whether Asekou Sayon had really succeeded in getting rid of it. Old man Mahmoud thought things were coming to an end, even if he also knew that the Dabaka remained


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somewhere, just waiting to be reactivated one way or another. Perhaps this time was coming. One day in early 2003 he had a revelation: the cause of the predicament Baga were experiencing was the neglect of spiritual contracts. He knew that the contract with Omar Konor, the amanco of his abanka, had not been renewed since 1958, and he decided to go to the shrine and renew it. It took him several days to find the place; he had not been there since 1958 and did not remember well where it was. One night he dreamt the way, and the next day he found it: it was a cave next to a well, and in order to enter he had to make a sacrifice and a prayer to Omar Konor. Some days later he went there again with all the young men of his abanka, that is, all those who had not been initiated before 1956. When I asked him whom he meant by ‘youths’ (awut), he put it in these clear-cut terms: the awut were all non-initiated people, who were afo abaka (non-Baga) and whom he intended to make proper abaka. As far as he was concerned, whether the man at stake was twenty or forty-five years old was irrelevant: they were all afo abaka – but not for much longer. When they reached the cave, they were all washed with water from the well; they then confessed their evil thoughts (mostly envy of other abanka members) to Mahmoud. Once thus purified, they entered the cave, where one of them was seized by the spirit and thus selected as the initiate who would be responsible for contract renewal in the future. They took water from the well to the rice fields and watered them. Mahmoud was convinced that this renewal of the contract, and the re-initiation of young people into all-too-long-forgotten mysteries, would heal them and make them good farmers and good human beings – in short, good Baga. He was also persuaded that this would heal the rice fields. In Bukor, though social cohesion was greater and workgroups were functioning (even the ones that did not entail money payments), farmers were also experiencing great difficulties.The land issue was not expressed in terms of strangers selling landlords’ land, although I heard similar complaints in Kalekse, a village near Bukor that has a long history of confrontation between Baga and Susu. In Bukor, so far at least, no one considered land as something that could be bought or sold, but the village was in a dismal situation for other reasons: not only had it remained an enclave in the middle of the mangroves, but its water flow was jeopardised by the silting of the Rio Kapatchez, an unsolved problem that afflicts Bukor more than any other village. Its rice crop had also been hit by the worm pest, and conflict between Baga and Fula herders was increasing. Bukor has an immense plain (about 9,000 hectares) which, in the dry season between January and April, is visited by several thousand Fula cattle. Some farmers in Bukor, like their counterparts in other villages, thought that one way to solve the shortage of rice would be to diversify into bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes. These are crops normally grown in the dry season, when farmers do not have



rice-related work (harvest is finished and ploughing has not yet begun); but they cannot be cultivated while Fula cattle roam freely in the fields and villages during much of the period. Many farmers in Bukor, however, who run short of food during the dry season, find a solution in permitting Fula herders to enter the village. Every year, in December, these farmers go discreetly to the Fula highlands, meet herders and agree upon a price. For some of them this is the only way to bring in money with which to buy food. A month later they allow Fula herders to enter Bukor’s territory through their own lands. In recent years other Baga farmers in the village complained about this self-interested behaviour to either sub-prefectural or prefectural authorities, but there was little to be done through official channels because – so I was told by Baga farmers – many local authorities profited from or participated in these transactions. In 2003, realising that they could obtain little help from the state, villagers opted to go to the one institution that would not ignore or disappoint them: the alipne. A gathering took place in the middle of the village, in the abanka of Motiya, where in 1955 some of today’s alipne, then young men, had challenged the elders of those days by dancing the bal, and which, despite the missing African fan palm iconoclasts destroyed in 1956 (see Chapter 6), continues to be considered the central point in the village and the connecting point between human and spiritual domains. In this gathering, the alipne announced a decision designed to resolve the situation and established a series of rules: nobody was to leave the village for more than a week without authorisation of the alipne, and, in every abanka, a person would be nominated to inform the alipne of all movements of the inhabitants. Furthermore, everyone was to plant sweet potatoes and cassava and, of course, no one was to permit Fula herders to enter their lands. Those not abiding by these regulations would be ­prosecuted by ‘customary law’. I left Bukor in September 2003. The scant information I have been able to gather about the aftermath suggests that these new regulations were implemented in 2004 and 2005. Nobody in the village attempted to sign or renew contracts with Fula herders, but the latter tried to enter Bukor’s farming area from the adjacent village of Yampon. In 2004 the alipne instructed the youths of Bukor to kill any cow entering the village, and the result was a violent encounter between Bukor’s people and Fula herders after Baga youths killed twenty cows and an entire camp set up by Fula herders was burned. Several people were injured on both sides of the confrontation. In 2004, Baga of Bukor succeeded in farming bananas, sweet potatoes and cassava. Because that year the price of rice increased enormously across the whole Guinean territory, not only did Bukor’s farmers manage to secure their food, but many villagers in surrounding areas, unable to buy rice, went to purchase these alternative products in Bukor, too. The result,


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I have been told, is that Baga villages that were sceptical about Bukor’s ability to diversify and to oppose Fula land use now want to follow Bukor’s example. In 2004, after the violence between Baga and Fula, the ministers of Justice, Security and Agriculture visited Mankuntan, the capital of the sub-prefecture containing Bukor. Most Bukor villagers reported that the state was blaming them and supporting Fula herders: to them this visit was an outrage. The three ministers returned to Conakry without solving the problem. Later, a visit by Boffa’s Prefect and some soldiers to the area ended in further violence, forcing them to leave in the middle of the night. One outcome of these recent events has been a revival of tangible, physical limits to the territory: as a friend told me in a letter, Baga, whether from Boffa or from Boké, are now marking the boundaries of their own territory clearly for the benefit of authorities and surrounding peoples. These limits, I am told, stretch from Kital to Yonkosal and from Kabaca to Kakilenc. Kital is the name of a small river to the east while Yonkosal is an Atlantic port to the west, in the Baga Pukor village of Minar. Kabaca is the name Baga Sitem speakers give to the Bulongic area, the most southern part of the Dabaka, while Kakilenc is the most northern Baga Sitem village. The Dabaka is now neatly bounded by this rectangle delimited from east to west and from south to north, and including the three linguistic groups: Baga Sitem, Bulongic and Baga Pokur. Baga are today not only closing their land ritually, as the alipne did in Bukor’s tournament in 1995, but literally also, making publicly known to the authorities exactly where Baga land begins and where its farmers are empowered to decide whether Fula herders may enter or not. While they are not obtaining the Baga prefecture they asked for, they are marking the limits within which Baga ‘customary law’ is now to be applied. The Dabaka is here and not, as it still remains in some elderly people’s geographical imagination, a ‘remote area’ or a metaphysical notion flexible enough to include other distant peoples such as Baga Koba, Baga Kakissa, Baga Kalum, Landuma or Nalu. The days of fuzzy categories and overlapping geographies are going; what these recent events unveil is that the Dabaka is becoming a concrete geopolitical unit on today’s world map – or that this, at least, is the will of many of its inhabitants. f l ow a n d c l o s u r e , t h e s t a t e a n d a u t o c h t h o ny

These recent episodes are good examples of the dialectic between flow and closure referred to in the previous chapter. It is now widely acknowledged that dynamics of cultural flow and closure are in play around the world, a double-edged, somewhat paradoxical phenomenon studied by theoreticians of globalisation (Appadurai 1996; Hannerz 1996; Meyer and Geschiere 1999). Basing his argument on recent cultural developments in Guinea, Jean-Loup Amselle has produced a sophisticated and powerful vision of the connectedness (‘branchements’) of societies, showing how



people contest their marginalised predicament by appropriating the ways of life of surrounding people and expressing their identity by using elements learnt through these connections (Amselle 2001). Unlike (or against) some popular thinkers of globalisation who highlight today’s cultural flows and connectedness, many contemporary anthropologists are interested, instead, in exploring mechanisms of closure and deliberate disconnectedness that are, as Amselle argues, only possible because of the global connectedness in which we live. What I have been describing in this study and on this particular fringe of the Atlantic coast of Africa is a situation of simultaneous flow and closure. I have shown, however, that this simultaneity of flow and closure is not purely an effect of the post-colonial global world we live in (see Friedman 2002 for a criticism of authors who see the production of locality as a result of recent, ‘modern’ or ‘post-colonial’ connectedness). It has been a characteristic of the region’s history since, at least, the early Atlantic trade and subsequent French colonialism. I started this study by looking at the incorporation of people within the coastal communities of Guinea, a gradual incorporation that gave rise to the category today known as Baga. At the time of the slave trade and political upheavals in the hinterland of West Africa, the coast offered refuge and helped increase the wealth-in-people of landlords, who thus recruited manpower to convert such an inhospitable region into a productive farming system. This coastal incorporation produced what Richard Fardon, working in another context (but one also involving the incorporation of refugees from slave traders) called ‘ritual involution’ (Fardon 1988). Each descent group arrived at the coast from different geographic and ethno-linguistic backgrounds and each had their own spirits and cults, or developed a particular one based on a contract with local spirits. As a result of this mixture, a very complex system of religious and healing cults emerged (even today Baga are particularly renowned in Guinea for their medical skills, each descent group being specialised in a particular misfortune or illness). This ritual involution, which eventually produced a demanding initiatory cycle that, in combination with colonial policies, became particularly unfair to young people, was later to be reversed by the arrival of universal religions and especially of Islam. Combined with the political ideas of the RDA, Islam absorbed Baga farmers into an emerging (largely Mandeised) Republic of Guinea. The process towards religious centralisation in a context of cultic hyperpluralism is not unique to the Baga. Quite the opposite: the Baga offer one example of a trend that is common to all the rice-farming communities of the Upper Guinea Coast. There seems to be a pattern of religious renewal centred on charismatic leaders who unify a largely decentralised religious culture. In its intent to open up the communities of the Baga, Asekou Sayon’s movement is very similar to other religious movements known among


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mangrove dwellers of the Upper Guinea Coast in the twentieth century: Tabini Camara’s movement among Baga Koba at the turn of the century (Lerouge 1907); the Harrist church of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire around the same dates (Dozon 1995); Alin Situe’s prophetic movement among Diola farmers of Casamance in the 1940s (Baum 2000), and, much more recently, Maria Ntombikte’s movement in Guinea-Bissau, which started in the 1980s and aims at ‘developing’ Balanta mangrove farmers through religion (Callewaert 2000; Temudo 2006). In all these cases a universal religious discourse (whether Muslim like Sayon’s, Christian like Harris’s, centred on a vernacular notion of the High God like Alin Situe’s or a combination of all three like the highly syncretistic movement of Maria Ntombikte) appears to help farmers contest the marginalisation that their frontier situation has created. In the past this marginalisation protected them and helped them ‘develop their niche’, as Murray Last would put it (1980) – but it also became a burden of which, as Baga say, they eventually ‘tired’. Frontier, interstitial societies in Africa have been studied for a long time. While a model based on political evolutionism tended to see these societies as ‘prior’ to the formation of chiefdoms and states, a different historiography has shown that often these societies were not a ‘survival’ of a previous political stage but the result of historical dynamics involving centralised systems and continental and transcontinental exchange flows (Goody 1977; Kopytoff 1987; Last 1980). Working in the mountains of northern Togo, Charles Piot (1999) has argued that the acephalous Kabre do not represent a ‘pristine’ African society but are the outcome of a global interaction involving centralised states and slave traders; they are therefore a modern product and not the result of a purely endogenous historical evolution. While there may be room to question the claim that relating a society to the Atlantic slave trade allows us to describe it as ‘modern’, I agree with Piot that we have to see these ‘stateless’ formations in a wide picture and using regional models and longue durée perspectives. Some scholars have applied a similar perspective to the Upper Guinea Coast and thus helped us to see the importance of farmers’ agency in the making of this region (Baum 1999; Hawthorne 2003; Shaw 2002). Much like Kabre, Baga and many other Upper Guinea mangrove dwellers are neither a survival of pristine societies nor the passive sediment of a history that happened around them, but active makers of their own history, of their own predicaments and of their solutions. Among specialists on the Upper Guinea Coast, Paul Richards is perhaps the author who has proved most cogently that understanding the working of frontier or, as he prefers to call them, ‘maroon’ (escaped slave) communities such as the mangrove dwellers is important for our knowledge not only of how African societies worked or were created in a distant past, but also of how processes of community making, technical development and conflict



avoidance in contexts of warfare shaped many of these communities and maintains their existence today (Richards 2006). As I write this conclusion in February 2007, Guinea is going through the most violent period in its post-colonial history. I heard reports of people escaping Conakry and reaching the mangrove villages where they hope to find peace and rice. This is going to put a lot of pressure on the mangrove dwellers, and it comes as no surprise to discover that these fluxes towards the coast (as well as its increasing valorisation thanks to bauxite and oil finds) is accompanied by the recrudescence of spiritual contracts and autochthony discourses and practices that contrast with the religious movements described above. As some students of Africa have argued, the emergence of autochthony in contemporary Africa must be understood against the backdrop of globalisation, political decentralisation and neoliberal politics and economy (Geschiere and Gugler 1998; Geschiere and Nyamjoh 2000). not quite there but there: silence as her itage

In the early 1990s I was informed of a meeting in a village in which the elders were asked by the youths and the ressortissants to recreate amanco ngopong so that it could be displayed during a visit by President Lansana Conté. Showing important masks to honour political visitors is of course a widespread African practice.Yet in this particular case the elders decided, in the end, not to do it, and instructed younger villagers to show the often-seen nimba headdress instead. As I was told, the elders knew that reintroducing the amanco ngopong into the public arena would be to downgrade it from tolom (secret) to powolsene (toy) and for the elders to give it to the youths would be to lose the power they maintain by keeping it secret. Whether the meeting really took place or was just one way to let me know, as an external observer, that Baga could (if they so wanted) recreate such solemn things as amanco ngopong is impossible to determine, but it is also beside the point. Even if it was a rhetorical device, the effect was, precisely, to create the awesome presence of amanco ngopong in the imagination of those who were listening to the conversation, me included. It was, in fact, a group of elders (not from the village concerned) who reported the meeting to me, and they did so in the presence of some young people who, probably, felt simultaneously proud of their elders’ powerful ‘secrets’ and angry at their unwillingness to give them away. The cunning way Baga elders always get away with not materialising amanco ngopong reinforces the theoretical point made by Elisabeth Tonkin according to which non-material masks (Tonkin was referring to masks that are only heard and not seen, which is sometimes also the case of amanco ngopong) are in many ways more effective masks than material ones: material masks conceal through revealing something else. Non-material masks conceal through sheer concealment and by doing so they evoke truly awesome spiritual entities (Tonkin 1979). The subtle


the politics of religious change

way in which Baga elders refer to the landscape and assert that the Dabaka is not quite there but there, as explained in the introductory chapter of this study, is a good proof of the ‘silent iconoclastic’ attitude they maintain and through which, paradoxical as it may sound, their invisible culture remains present. The fate of Baga cultural heritage is inevitably linked to such entanglements between secrecy and display, between centrifugal and centripetal notions of knowledge. Some members of the community, especially the ressortissants, would like to have a cultural heritage displayed and propagated to the wide world. Others, however, have a centripetal view of knowledge, more in tune with initiatiory notions of secrecy and personhood. Accordingly, they prefer to keep things secret and to remain silent about their past and about their religious convictions. As one ressortissant pointed out to me in 1997, Baga will only get funds from international donors if they show that they are a minority ethnic group in danger, and they will only prove such a thing by performing traditional dances, not by playing football. Ressortissants may bring the elders to teach dances and performances to the youths, but this is like opening Pandora’s Box. By asking elders to do things that would have been punished by the demystification campaigns of Sékou Touré, the ressortissants have started a process explicitly opposed to such campaigns. While in the demystification campaigns state monitors were sent to the villages to police ritual activity and to make sure that nothing ‘irrational’ was taking place, in post-socialist Guinea ressortissants’ involvement in their villages often aims at reintroducing such practices and logics and at making sure that nobody is punished for that. National law and international sympathies are now with them. This spiritual empowerment may be saluted, especially since Baga have a rich heritage that they have unnecessarily despised for too long. Unfortunately, however, although he may have been wrong about much else, Sékou Touré was right in at least one crucial respect: in colonial times masks, rituals and spirits were used as mechanisms to oppress people (mostly youths, women and strangers) and were intertwined with local practices of landlordship. The challenge for Baga farmers is that they will have to learn to live with their rituals and with their spirits without claiming that these spirits are legitimating their claims to autochthony and their power over youths, women and strangers. If they do not meet that challenge, they will not be reclaiming their heritage but rather re-mystifying it. How to have one without the other is probably a challenge Baga share with many other peoples in today’s Africa. iconoclasm and the making of the future

Iconoclasm, as expressed in its etymology (Boldrick and Clay 2007), is about the breaking of icons, but unlike other forms of breaking, iconoclasm is not always only destructive. It has in itself the potential for renewal and



for recreation, for two reasons. First, because iconoclasm is always done in the name of a powerful conviction, be it religious or ideological, and more often than not iconoclasm leads to the emergence of new icons replacing the old ones. Quite aptly, Bruno Latour has advised us that rather than ‘iconoclasm’ we should speak of ‘iconoclash’ (Latour 2002). In similar vein, Stacy Boldrick and Richard Clay (2007) have reminded us that iconoclasm is always accompanied by ambivalence, contestation and recreation, not just ‘destruction’, and Dominique Colas has shown the intertwining between iconoclastic fanaticism and the constitution of civil society (Colas 1997). In this study we have seen that the demolition of the hermetic huts and other elements of a landscape of fear and secrecy facilitated the construction of the Republic of Guinea and its citizens. Participation in this iconoclastic movement was quite literally enthusiastic, since the youths were empowered by the charisma of Sayon and by the religious notions of Islam. Today, as Guinea becomes increasingly fragile as a state (although so far the will of the people to remain united proves stronger than the forces of dissolution), the iconoclasm continues. Thus, in a recent news report on the events of January 2007, I read of a young man from the hinterland who, upon being asked why he and others had demolished the house of the subprefect of the region, replied that he did not know, but that ‘il faut casser’ (‘it is necessary to break’). Today’s youngsters are not demolishing hermetic huts but they are certainly attacking the sites of power that they perceive as being at the root of their exclusion. Breaking and making, as a recent title on African youth indicates (Honwana and de Boeck 2005), are two sides of the youthful condition. Much as in the 1950s, in today’s Guinea the future lies in the hands of its younger citizens. Much as then, they are unsatisfied with the powers that be, and not without reason. Guinea is among the West African countries undeservedly plagued by a succession of bad and unjust politicians since the end of the colonial period – not to speak of the succession of bad and unjust chiefs it experienced, and deserved even less, in colonial times. The thirst for social change today is probably as strong as it was in the late 1950s, if not stronger. The difference between then and now, however, is that the iconoclasm of the 1950s was marked by an optimism towards the future that is in sharp contrast with the pervading demoralisation of today’s youths. The second main reason why iconoclasm has the potential for renewal is that, as my interviewees told me so many times, you cannot destroy a spirit by destroying an object. The spirit remains there, contesting the forces of iconoclasm, either materialising in new and inventive forms of art and material culture (such as the airplanes and boats of the previous chapter) or resisting materialisation, as is the case among those who endorse the ‘silent iconoclastic’ attitude discussed above. In either case it is a spiritual clash, in Bruno Latour’s word. The spirit of Baga culture, as shown in the


the politics of religious change

phrases used as epigraphs to this chapter, lies today in this clash of attitudes: between those who believe that the Dabaka is there, but hidden, and those who believe that it is not there anymore and that the ‘one voice’ of the Baga is ‘over’. In both cases, it is a nostalgic condition and if there is agreement on one thing, it is that in order to build a future one has to go back to the past first. The fate of Baga farmers and of their culture has been deplored by many authors. The ethnic and linguistic melting of Baga-speaking people into Susu was regretted by Vigné d’Octon in 1897, by Paulme and Schaeffner in 1957, by Lamp in 1996, and by ressortissants and villagers in 2003. It is undeniable that Susu-isation is an ongoing process and that many Baga groups of the past have lost their language and shifted towards Susu. Today, only those in the Dabaka seem to be able to retain a distinctive ethnolinguistic identification, and those who worry about the fate of this distinctiveness have a strong case. Be that as it may, my reservation about debates on ‘cultural loss’ is that they almost always centre on material culture, religion or language but rarely discuss political culture, inequalities or social exclusion. Beyond the more or less glorious fate of a Baga cultural heritage, other issues appear to me to be more worrying: what happens when a group of people fight their predicament by reinforcing traditional institutions that have little purchase in a state of citizens few of whom expect strangers to ‘remain seated’? And what is to be done when people begin to sell land that does not belong to them? In the 1950s Baga got rid of their sacred woods so that they could plant cassava and other crops. Today, they realise that in order to plant cassava, banana and sweet potatoes, they have to reintroduce sacred woods and ritual prohibition. The increasing importance of these local institutions in securing food variability, land tenure and work group organisation, in defining territory and in controlling mobility, demonstrates both their relevance to many problems Baga are experiencing today and the weakness of state solutions. Unfortunately, this rejuvenation of the past can also become a recipe for future clashes between generations, genders (for debates about reintroducing religious cults always turn on the reintroduction of abandoned male cults) and categories of inhabitants. But then again, the deficiency of the data available on what is going on right now in that fragile part of the Upper Guinea Coast leaves all predictions vulnerable. Looking forward to a future opportunity to resume field research there, I shall end this study with a more ‘timeless’ reflection suggested by spiders and their trickster-like agency in African folk tales. If ‘weaving the world’ is what humans do in their entanglements with one another and with material culture, as Tim Ingold has so cogently argued (Ingold 2000), then perhaps the huge presence of these miniaturist Penelopes in African myths and popular stories provides one more jigsaw principle in the ‘puzzlement edification’ to which such popular stories contribute: that there is no weaving



without unweaving, no doing without undoing. Guinean history, from precolonial times to the early twenty-first century, seems to be a clear example of the old African and Homeric lesson: that the burial shroud is woven by day and unwoven by night, never accomplished, yet never completely torn to pieces. What we have seen in this study is people picking up the stitch in their efforts – sometimes consensually, sometimes not – to embellish the bit of web they have inherited and whose weaving they share with many others. This is what we humans do, and maybe I was not attempting much more than that when I decided to sit down and write this book.


a r c h i ve s c o n s u l t e d

A. Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Chevilly Larue, France 1. Box 193 A 13. Lettres du Père Arsène Mell. 2. Box 674 A. Journal de la Communauté du Sacré-Coeur de Boké and Carnets des visites du Père. Montels à Binari, Kouffin et Taigbè. 3. Box 297. Mission Katako. 4. Box 296 A and B (Fonds Bernier).

B. Prefectoral Archives of Boké, Republic of Guinea Box ‘Canton Baga’ Folders: CB 1 Almamy Sidi CB 2 Amidou Camara (Katako) CB 3 Salou Camara (Katako) CB 4 Succession d’Almamy Kande CB 5 Donat Camara (Katako) CB 6 Katongoro CB 7 Kamsar CB 8 Taïdi CB 9 Kakilensi CB 10 Kawass CB 11 Kouffin CB 12 Bintimodia CB 13 Binari CB 14 M’bottini CB 15 Missira

C. Prefectoral Archives of Boffa, Republic of Guinea Box ‘Canton Koba’ Box ‘Canton Sobané’ Box ‘Canton Monchon’

D. National Archives of Guinea, Republic of Guinea ANG. 108 G: Rio-Pongo-Boffa 1906–1907. Confrérie Musulmane, propagande islamique de Tibini Kamara 1906–1907.


CHAPTER 1   1. I have not been able to locate an English translation of this paper, first published in German in 1911. The German original is available at phil_kultur/kul_7.htm (retrieved March 2007). I thank Stephen Dix for having helped me locate and translate it.   2. For recent approaches to Baga art, see Lamp (1996a, 1996b), Curtis (1996), Curtis and Sarró (1997), Berliner (2002a, 2002b, 2007).   3. I base the opposition between ‘making present’ and ‘representation’ on the theory of ‘presentification’ as advanced by historian Jean-Pierre Vernant (1983) and applied to African material culture by Lucien Stéphan (1988).   4. The whole of Smith’s sentence may be worth citing: ‘Religion is the quest, within the bounds of the human, historical condition, for the power to manipulate and negotiate one’s situation so as to have “space” in which to meaningfully dwell’ (Smith 1978: 290–1). Smith was one of the first historians of religion to learn from the anthropology of religion as developed by Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz and James W. Fernandez, among others.   5. For an early jihad on the Upper Guinea Coast, albeit a bit further south than the region that is the focus of this study, see Mouser (2007).   6. ‘You look for Rome in Rome, O pilgrim, and in Rome herself you do not find Rome’ (my translation).   7. Ideophones are words whose meaning is not conveyed only by the semantic content, but also by the way in which they are pronounced by the speaker, and they are common in many West African languages. In this case, by saying nde in a higher pitch and with a longer vowel, my interlocutor meant that the place was not there, but a bit further away.   8. I thank Lluís Mallart-Guimerà for having introduced me to the work of Zempléni on secrecy, and to David Berliner for indicating that my conversation with Albert is a perfect example of Zempléni’s ‘secretion’.   9. See the reports ‘Guinea: uncertainties at the end of an era’ (Africa Report 74, December 2003) and ‘Stopping Guinea’s slide’ (Africa Report 94, June 2005), both produced by the West African Department of the International Crisis Group ( 10. Recent analyses have highlighted the increasing importance that idioms of ‘autochthony’ are obtaining in African politics (Bayart et al. 2001), the relevance of feelings of loyalty to local policies in the making of citizenship (Geschiere and Gugler 1998; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands 1998), and the recrudescence of ethnic allegiance in Africa after the frustration of the 1990s’ promises of decentralisation and democratisation (Berman et al. 2004). 11. Not only are delicate topics such as religion, social structure or history secret, but virtually everything can be. As my field assistant Aboubacar Camara once



told me, most people do not know what is to be kept secret and what can be public, and when in doubt they prefer to shut up rather than face fatal consequences for ‘speaking too much’. Thus, in 2003, when I went with ethnoagronomist Marina Temudo to villages I had known well since 1993, and we wanted to ask about rice farming and varieties of rice, men and women were very reluctant to discuss what they called the ‘secrets of rice’ with us. Marina, who since 1993 has been conducting field research on rice issues and farmers’ knowledge in southern Guinea Bissau, only fifty miles away from where we were, was astonished; she had never found such a reluctance to discuss rice issues among farmers in Guinea Bissau, who in fact rather enjoy discussing the topic with professional agronomists. While this is something felt strongly among Baga Sitem, similar attitudes are reported in the whole of the Guinean territory; part of the explanation may lie in local notions of secrecy common to the whole of the Upper Guinea Coast, but to be sure part of it lies in the repressive politics Guineans have experienced both in colonial and post-colonial times and the pervasive suspicious attitudes that have resulted. 12. Rashomon is a film by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1950) in which the death of a samurai is explained to a court by four different persons (including the samurai, whose soul is invoked by a shaman), and the trial is later explained by two different people to a third person who did not attend it. We (the film viewers) watch these secondary explanations, not the trial (and certainly not ‘the event’, the samurai’s death). The four versions reported are very different, and a factual ‘reconstruction’ of what really happened is impossible because of the interest each witness has in explaining it one way or another. Chapter 2   1. ‘Custom’ here is a shorthand term. When speaking in French, interviewees used the French word coutume. The Baga Sitem, when interviewed in their language, referred to their religious culture as kutum (a Baga-isation of the word coutume), mes mabaka (‘Baga things’ or ‘Baga facts’) or molom (‘cults’).   2. Baga Kalum, the dialect once spoken by the Baga living in what today is Conakry, is not spoken anymore. Yet the dialect was recorded by Sigmund Koelle in the comparative lexicon (Polyglotta Africana) he compiled in Freetown and published in 1854. Thanks to this lexicon, we can state that the language was virtually identical to Baga Koba, which in 2003 was still spoken, albeit only by elderly people, in the region of Koba.   3. Baga Mandori farmers live in 12 villages on the right side of the Rion Nuñez estuary. In 1996 Erhard Voeltz and Aboubacar Camara carried out a linguistic survey and reached the conclusion that Mandori should be considered as a dialect of Baga Sitem.   4. When speaking in French or in Susu, Bulongic speakers say they are ‘Baga’. Likewise, when speaking in their language they refer to the other Baga groups as ‘Bulongic’.   5. Not all Baga people are Muslim. Among Bulongic, Islamisation seems to be complete (Berliner 2002b). Among Baga Sitem, however, about one third of the population is now Christian, mostly Catholic.   6. Cf., among other documents, the two-page ‘List of migrants of the village of Sobané since July 3, 1933’ compiled by the commandant de cercle of Boffa (François Tönnens) on 17 July 1948 (Archives Préfectorales de Boffa, Box ‘Canton Sobané’). The document lists 48 ‘families’ (some of them rather numerous) that left the canton during these 15 years.   7. Interviews with two elderly men in Bukor, August 2003. In 2004, Marina



Temudo (personal communication) met some mangrove farmers in GuineaBissau who were Bulongic and who confirmed that many Bulongic farmers fled to Guinea-Bissau in French colonial times.   8. An exception would be the work of the geographer Francisco Tenreiro, who argued against the idea of a one-way ‘Mande-isation’ among Balanta, proposed by Teixeira da Mota (Mota 1948: 101–2). Tenreiro did not deny this process, but argued that its study should be accompanied by an analysis of the parallel process of ‘Balantisation’ of coastal Guinea-Bissauan farmers (Tenreiro 1950: 32). Teixeira da Mota, however, vigorously denied this possibility (Mota 1951: 670–5).   9. Unpublished document ‘Chronique historique du village de Monchon’, by Ibrahima Boffa Camara (Camara 1988: 16–17). 10. According to Madrolle, writing in 1895, in the Baga Sitem area of Kawass there was a community of some 2,000 Hubbus, or discontented Fula people who had left the Fouta in order to create a free community elsewhere (Madrolle 1895: 87, 274). The village that, according to information given to me in 2003, is composed entirely of Baga-ised Fula people is in fact a hamlet not too distant from today’s village of Kawass. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace a connection between these two pieces of information so far. 11. The transition from round to rectangular houses is a general trend of coastal groups, expertly analysed by Teixeira de Mota (1952). Théodore Camara claimed that the kulo kabaka (‘Baga house’) became rectangular to make it explicitly different from the Fula round houses (Camara 1966: 46). Thus, it was an instance of the ‘inversion of tradition’ (Thomas 2002) by which Baga constructed their identity in explicit opposition to Fula pressures. There are other examples among Baga of this phenomenon and I have discussed these in a previous work (Sarró 1999: Chapter 1). 12. The matrilineal connotations of kor contrast with the strict patrilineality of Baga lineages. Similarly, Robert Leopold reports that among the patrilineal Loma of Liberia, when a woman is about to give birth, the members of the lineage of the father of the child approach the lineage of the woman and perform a ceremony that literally translates as ‘to take the belly’, meant to appropriate the child into the father’s lineage (Leopold 1991: 96). 13. This co-substantiality is so strong that in those descent groups that are formed of fusions of previous groups, witchcraft cannot bypass these fusions. If kor A had kor B incorporated into it (no matter how many generations ago the fusion happened, or what its reasons were), witches from A could not ‘eat’ members of B, and witches of B could not ‘eat’ members of A, even if members insist that now they are one single kor. Witchcraft gossip sometimes offers hints of old fusions between descent groups, normally silenced in the public arena. 14. See, for instance, the detailed sketches of walled villages in Madrolle (1895), Vigné d’Octon (1897) and Coffinières de Nordeck (1886). 15. I take the concept from Eve Crowley, who defines it as a ‘ritual field containing several villages whose male residents are initiated at a common set of initiation spirits, and thereafter serve as intermediaries between these spirits and noninitiates’ (Crowley 1990: 9; Crowley is actually modifying a concept used by previous scholars). In the Baga case, each spirit province is linked to a central spirit and up to the mid-1950s boys were initiated together in a ceremony sealed by the physical appearance of the spirit. 16. Despite there no longer being initiations, these acol names (for example, Arronk and Bakome for men; Antese and Andosa for women) are still reproduced in Baga society as some young people inherit them through the usual practice of



namesakes, by which they are given their elders’ first names, either as a proper name or as a nickname. 17. Although massive public initiations such as kikenc or kebere acol were abandoned in 1957 and ‘custom’ was banned by the post-colonial state, some other initiations, especially those involving fewer people, continued to be practised, secretly, in the first years after independence. In one of the villages I lived in, to be sure, there was a kidi amanco ceremony in the 1960s. The politics of independent Guinea, however, made it impossible for this kind of ceremony to continue openly (see Chapter 5). 18. Ethnic stereotypes die hard. A matchbox that shows a man carrying palm wine has been popularly christened in the whole of the Guinean territory as les alumettes baga, ‘the baga matches’. Coastal Baga have acquired a wide national reputation as palm wine drinkers. 19. The ownership of the ‘head’ of a cult to express seniority or a high place in the social and ritual hierarchy is also found in other West African cults. See Bellman for similar examples among the Kpelle of Liberia (Bellman 1975). 20. According to oral accounts, acol is a long-beaked bird, probably a pelican, encountered by a Baga fisherman in a tidal creek. The bird was actually the manifestation of a spirit and after several encounters the man asked the spirit to move to the village with him. Eventually it accepted, and this is why Baga today live in their ‘big houses’ with acol, the life-giving spirit of the waters. Chapter 3   1. Stephen Bouju has summarised different migration narratives obtained in the written sources and in situ by himself (Bouju 1994); Lamp offers another good discussion on migration narratives and routes (Lamp 1996b). For more critical views see Hair (1997); Sarró (2000); Berliner (2002b); and Fields (2004).   2. Given the impenetrability of tidal creeks, Boffa and Boké were among the last places to abide by international prohibitions on human trade (Massinon 1965: 310). By far the best historical account of the trade in these two ports is the regrettably unpublished PhD thesis by Bruce Mouser (Mouser 1971). An excellent analysis of the role of the coast in mediating in the trade between the Fouta and Euro-Americans is to be found in Botte (1991).   3. McGovern (2004: 61–4) has argued that there were two contrasting principles in the socio-political organisation of Loma and other Guinean peoples: the principle of ‘gerontocratic hierarchy’ according to which people gather around bigmen, landlords or warlords and become their subordinates, and the principle of ‘entrepreneurial capture’, according to which people make their wealth (either in things or in people) by predatory means. The two principles operate simultaneously, and their interface explains the fact that despite the strong gerontocracy prevalent in the region, which ranks elders on top of the political structure, many revolts and political initiatives are undertaken by valiant youths challenging gerontocracy in their predatory exploits.   4. Paulme 1956; for a reassessment of Bulongic social structure, see Berliner 2002b.   5. Among experts on Toma ethnography there seems to be a debate between the dualistic model offered by Robert Leopold and the three-structure model defended by Christian Højbjerg (Leopold 1991; Højbjerg 1999), elegantly mediated – in keeping with the spirit of the region – by the third voice of Michael McGovern (McGovern 2004). For a deeper philosophical analysis of ‘threeness’ among the Toma’s neighbouring Mende, living in Sierra Leone, see Ferme 2001.



  6. Suto is a place in the Baga Sitem territory, not far from Kawass, although today there is no village there. Descent groups claiming to belong to the Asuto category are found in several villages.   7. Although, as we have seen in the previous chapter, the word for ‘descent group’ is normally kor, Baga Sitem speakers sometimes use the word kulo (‘house’) metonymically to refer to the whole descent group. Sometimes the expression kulo disre (‘inside the house’) is used to the same effect.   8. There is a telling contradiction between Paulme’s and her husband’s accounts. While Paulme situates the descent group of Chief Donat as the founder of the village, Schaeffner observed the chief ’s junior ritual status in recalling that the chief had to lock himself inside his house, like women and children, when an important masquerade was performed in the village (Schaeffner 1962: 391–2).   9. So far, I have summarised two versions of the story as I was told it in Katako in 2003 and again in Mare the same year; a slightly different version is to be found in Bangoura (1972: 10–12), who also obtained it in Katako. 10. A paradigmatic example of this mistrust is that of the foundation of Tolkoc according to a version I gathered in 1994. Two descent groups, who in the narrative appear as equals, had agreed to conquer the place together. Eventually, one of them conquered it without letting the other one know, and once the place was ‘theirs’ they invited the other group to come and live with them, thus making them their ‘strangers’ and breaking, in a similar way to the Katako story, their pre-conquest ‘symmetry’. Following the standard wife-giving rule, women from the first descent group married men from the second one. One of these women, fearing that her own children could die in a war against the landlords’ descent group, stole her brother’s ‘secret’, a magical weapon of sorts, and gave it to her husband. Eventually there was a war; her husband’s and children’s descent group won the conflict and chased away their landlords, thus betrayed by their sister. The 65-year-old man who told me the story was a descendant of this descent group, who now inhabit another village, far away from Tolkoc. 11. A Baga Sitem proverb I heard on several occasions expresses this mediatory role of nephews with a clear bodily imagery: ‘A wurok belongs to one descent group through his head and to another through his feet.’ 12. This interviewee belonged to a descent group of landlords who gave the chieftaincy to the nephews, although not in Katako. Note that, following a common identification between seniority and ethnicity, he is not only opposing ‘uncles’ to ‘nephews’ but ‘Baga’ to ‘nephews’ too. 13. In many narratives, human hands appear as metaphors of what I called ‘social joints’. The expression ‘to have a territory in one’s hand’ is quite typical of landlords, and the incorporation of an individual or of a whole group into another group was often glossed to me as ‘Group A extended their hand to Group B’. 14. I was told that this spirit has been neglected for too long, and according to my eldest interviewees, this is the major cause of the lack of understanding between Mantung and Tako today. 15. ‘Rapport spécial: le chef du Canton Baga’ (November 1932, Archives Préfectorales de Boké, box ‘Canton Baga’, folder Almami Sidi): ‘he is in charge of a canton which is very difficult to administer. The Baga can hardly put up with the least authority, and they can easily find refuge in their islands, where they are very difficult to find.’ (My translation.) 16. Corré 1888: 47.This author observed that, among Nalu and Landuma, individuals who revealed the secrets of initiatory cults were sold as slaves. 17. If Baga are reluctant to discuss issues related to slavery, they are even more reluctant to discuss issues related to iron. One could make the Lévi-Straussian



point that if Balanta, with iron and iron-shrines conspicuous in all their villages, are an ‘iron-phile’ people, their neighbouring Baga are an ‘iron-phobe’ one. One interviewee told me Baga could not smith iron ores because this was a ‘dirty’ job for them. I was twice told that, among the slaves Baga had, there were blacksmiths in charge of making the kop’s edge (afenc, pl. fenc) for Baga farmers. But since Baga decided at some point in time not to have slaves any more and to ‘bury’ the issue of slavery, they equally decided not to have blacksmiths either and to bury, almost literally, their forging tools. Yet, as one interviewee told me, ‘We all know who they are, and if necessary we can bring their tools back and show people who our blacksmiths were.’ 18. The planting of silk-cotton trees as boundary markers along the Guinean coast was observed and described by the Jesuit Manuel Alvares as early as 1611. Much more recently, Arcin collected a narrative exemplifying this on the island of Kito, in today’s Baga Koba region. A Susu man, in order to make the point that the island was Susu, cut down a silk-cotton tree, which infuriated the Baga chief. The council of elders met and decided that a Baga man and a Susu man would have to eat rice-bread ‘prepared’, Arcin wrote, by either a ‘sorcerer’ or a ‘marabout’. The two men ate the rice-bread and the Susu man died. This way Baga proved the island of Kito to be theirs (Arcin 1911: 145). 19. Jacques Richard-Molard, ‘Quelques variations d’un radical “Sénégalo-Guinéen” et leur intérêt pour la géographie humaine des Rivières du Sud’ (unpublished, 1947), cited in Mota 1954, vol. I: 285–6. After Richard-Molard and Teixeira da Mota, the theme of the ‘bulom root’ and the cultural unity that it supposedly reflects was taken up by Walter Rodney and, more recently, by Carlos Lopes (Rodney 1970: 16–20; Lopes 1999: 154–5). 20. A picture of this hut showing the human skulls and Youra is kept in the photography section of the Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, at the Congregation’s headquarters in Paris (No. B 765). 21. It is not clear whether the final Susu phrase, translated in brackets by Lerouge, had been pronounced by Youra or by Lerouge. 22. Letter signed by Soriba Bangoura Poukhoun from Douprou, n.d., but circa 1952 (Prefectural Archives of Boffa, Box ‘Canton Sobané’, 1 page). For the wars between the Baga Kakissa and the Susu mentioned in this letter, see the anonymous article in La Voix de Notre-Dame signed by J. B. (Bondalaz 1927; the author, Jean Bondalaz, was a French Catholic priest at the Mission of Boffa). 23. That the borders of the Fouta fluctuated at times is well described in McGowan (1978). Chapter 4   1. ‘Renseignements individuels: Manga Baki’, 10 April 1920, CB 2; in the remainder of the chapter, CB stands for the box ‘Canton Baga’ of the Prefectural Archives of Boké (A. P. Boké). See Appendix 3 for the exact folder in which to find the document (For example, CB 1 = Box ‘Canton Baga’, folder ‘Almamy Sidi’).   2. Cf. the documents in the A. P. Boffa, Box ‘Canton Sobané’.   3. In many West African countries, almami (a transformation through Fulfulde of the Arabic al-imam) is a religious title attributed to the man who leads the prayers in the mosques. Yet in Guinea the word appears to denote the administrative chief (even if he was not a Muslim), with no reference whatsoever to mosques or prayers. This may be an indication that in early times the French sought their chiefs among Muslim men (since, being literate and converted to a world religion, these were considered to be more equal to Frenchmen), even if at the same time they feared the power that Islam could exert in organising anti-



French activities.This ambivalence accompanied French colonialism throughout its course.   4. Coffinières de Nordeck (1986) also noted that Baga were subject to traders’ abuses.   5. All interviewees who acknowledged, contrary to the main stereotype, that there had been slavery among Baga told me that Baga bought people, but they never sold anyone. As one of them put it, buying was necessary for landlords to have people working in the rice fields for them (that is, to increase their wealth-inpeople). Yet, there is room to suspect that transactions went in two directions, or at least that the conceptual and ethical boundaries between ‘selling’ and ‘pawning’ children were not always very clear.   6. The freeing operation was more complex if the person who wanted to free the slave was the same person who had sold him or her in the first place. In such a case, they would have to approach the slave’s buyer, offer a cow, palm wine and rice and publicly declare that they wanted to free the enslaved person. The buyer, too, had to announce that he had bought such a person from such a seller but that now the latter had come to free them and that from that moment onwards the bought person was free. During the whole ceremony, the person who had been bought and sold sat in the presence of everybody, with their hair completely shaved. Then he or she would go with the seller back to where they had come from in the first place.   7. ‘Renseignements individuels: Amara Touré’, n.d., CB 6; my translation.   8. Journal de la Communauté du Sacré-Coeur de Boké, 2 (4 April 1913), Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, henceforth Journal Boké.   9. Journal Boké, 2 (28 September 1914). 10. Journal Boké, 2 (19 February 1909). 11. Lerouge, ‘Généalogie des Chefs de Katako’, in his ‘Micelanea quae …’, Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 296 A. 12. This combination of traditional and Christian initiation happened in two successive initiations into manhood in the Tako spirit province: that of 1933 and the next one, fifteen years later, in 1948 (de Milleville 1948). This was the last initiation ever in the Tako. 13. ‘Renseignements individuels: Manga Baki’, Boké, 10 April 1920, A.P. Boké, CB 2. 14. Journal Boké, 3, 17 April 1915. 15. Jean Romieux, ‘Bakar Sidi, Chef du Canton Baga’, CB 1. 16. For this conflict and Sidi’s appointment, cf. the letter sent by the ‘Notables Kawassi-Bagas’ to the commandant de cercle of Boké (14 June 1928) and the letter sent by Kalekè, Maliki et al. on 17 June 1928, CB 10. 17. Letter (17 June 1936) of Commandant de Cercle Martin-Chartrie to the Governor of Guinea, CB 1. 18. Letter of Commandant Casterman to the Governor of Guinea, CB 1; my translation. 19. ‘Renseigments individuels: Amadou Touré’ (28 July 1928), CB 6. 20. Bintimodia had been founded over Katbaka, a bush given by some Baga of Katako in 1886 to the CFAO (Compagnie du Sénégal et de la côte occidentale française). Cf. Anonymous 1929: 16; Lerouge 1935: 10–11. 21. ‘Procès verbal d’audition’, CB 1; my translation. 22. ‘Tribunal du premier degré de Boké (Matière répressive): audience publique du 2 juillet 1936’, p. 19, CB 1. 23. ‘Renseigments individuels: Nabbit Camara’, Boké, 1 December 1928, CB 7; my translation.



24. ‘Renseignements individuels: Salou Camara’. Boké (18 September 1936). CB 3; my translation. 25. A.P. Boké, CB 4. 26. ‘Renseigments individuels: Kande Camara’, n.d., CB 4; my translation. 27. CB 4; there is no mistake in the phrasing; still today, Baga people often use the word ‘canton’ as a synonym of canton chief. 28. Letter (8 November 1950) by Gennet to Karimou Sidibe, the Susu chief of Bintimodia, CB 4. 29. Letter (7 November 1950) of Gennet to A. Bangoura, CB 4. 30. Letter (17 December 1950) of Thierno Ousmane Kaba to the Chief of the Political Bureau, CB 4. 31. Letter (7 November 1950) of the commandant de cercle of Boké to Thierno Ousmane Kaba, CB 4. 32. See, for instance, the letter (28 December 1950) of B. Bangoura to the commandant de cercle, CB 4. 33. Philip Gennet, ‘Chefferie Baga et Mikifore’. Boké, 1 November 1950, CB. 4. 34. Letter signed in Tolkoc on 26 November 1950, CB 4. 35. Mange or manga means ‘chief ’ or ‘king’ in Susu and other Mande languages. Although it has a Baga Sitem equivalent (wube, pl. abe), Baga speakers always use mange when speaking or writing in French. 36. AP Boké, CB 4. 37. Letter (26 November 1950) from the notables of Katongoro to the commandant de cercle, CB 4. 38. Commandant Conso, ‘Bulletin individuel: Donat Camara’, 3 January 1953; Commandant Kergomand, ‘Services rendus et renseignements divers’, 10 July 1953, CB ‘Donat Camara’. 39. Letter (22 November 1951) of M. Tambassa to the commandant de cercle, CB 15. 40. ‘Compte rendu de Missira le 3 Decembre 1951’, CB 15. 41. Letter (4 March 1952) sent by Issifou Camara (Kawass) to the chief of the Canton Baga, CB 10; the SIPs were storing cooperatives imposed by the colonial state aimed at ‘correcting’ farmers’ tendencies to spend too much rice during the dry season, encouraging them to save some for the rainy season. In general, however, they became very disruptive and corrupted, and were cancelled in 1947. 42. Letter (16 February 1954) to the Governor of Guinea by the notables of Mbotin, CB 14. 43. ‘Gendarmerie Nationale: Plainte de M. Bangoura contre M’Bemba Keita’, CB 15. 44. Letter (7 October 1956) of the notables of Kufen, CB 11; Jean Suret-Canale pointed out that the opulence of chiefs and their thirst for European goods was one of the reasons why they became so detested by the population (SuretCanale 1970: 96). 45. Letter (17 March 1956) by the notables du village of Kufen, CB 11. 46. Letter by the notables of Kufen, CB 11; Vichy-oriented colonies had experienced a recrudescence of colonial rule and a hardening of forced labour. 47. From 1953 the spokesman of the RDA in the Territorial Assembly was Sékou Touré. In January 1954 there were legislative elections in which the RDA obtained a clear majority, although the results were falsified. As Suret-Canale has observed, the electoral campaign for this election ‘provided the occasion for the PDG to create among the peasantry the organised bases that had been so far impossible to create due to the terror inspired by the institution of the chieftaincy’ (Suret-Canale 1970: 161; my translation).



48. Letter (12 December 1954) by the village chiefs and notables of the Canton Baga, CB 11. 49. Letter (22 March 1956) to the Governor, CB 11. 50. For broader implications of the Second World War veterans’ reincorporation in Guinea and their conversion to Islam, see Goerg (1992) and Triaud (1992). 51. See the letter by M. Camara to the Governor of Guinea, Freetown, 29 December 1950, CB 4. 52. Journal Boké, 2, 24 April 1913; my translation. 53. This is an aspect of custom that people are particularly nostalgic for today. As stated in Chapter 1, in my very first week of fieldwork, when I was first told of Sayon and of the destruction of Baga customs, Lamin told me that custom was keeping the different Baga villages together and made it possible for people to go from one village to another, a statement that did not make much sense to me at the time. 54. Letter (14 Febuary 1951) to the Governor of Guinea, CB 5; my translation. 55. Journal Boké, 2, 14 and 15 July 1914. 56. ‘Mission de Katako: Cahiers de tournées’, Archives des Pères du Saint-Esprit, B 792. 57. I should point out that for some African intellectuals to describe the RDA as an ‘independentist’ movement is inaccurate, since the RDA’s main political objective, they say, was the application of the democratic citizenship promised in the Brazzaville Conference and not necessarily the end of French presence in Africa (Zinsou 1987). But from the little I know, I suspect this is a strongly contested subject and I am sure other intellectuals would argue to the contrary. In any case, it is also true that Guineans democratically decided not to be part of the French community proposed by de Gaulle in September 1958. Chapter 5   1. My information on Maurice Humbert is based on oral history among Guinean Catholics. Vieira mentions him, and the JAC and other Catholic youth movements, in the second volume of his history of the Guinean Church (Vieira 1999: 398, 489, 526).   2. In the past, young men had to wait many years before being able to marry, and they needed their elders to help them arrange the marriage and gather all the marriage payments. In the 1950s there was already a tendency for bridewealth to be paid with money and male elders were more and more excluded when youths made their choices. This was part of the general ‘mediation crisis’ that appears to have articulated Baga history over the last hundred years.   3. This case study on the introduction of the bal in Bukor is a summary of several conversations I had with villagers in Bukor in 2001 and in 2003. While it is not a verbatim reproduction, I have tried to present the material in an informal style rather closer to the narratives I gathered than to an academic analysis of them.   4. From the early 1940s, the Canton Monchon-Bigori suffered a massive landscape transformation. It was there that a big canal (the infamous Bongolon) was excavated to improve the rice fields of the region (Pré 1951; Ruë 1998; Akré 2005). People from all over coastal Guinea, but especially from the cercles of Boffa and Boké, were sent year after year to the Bongolon canal, remembered by my interviewees as a very unfair labour imposed by the colonial state. For mangrove-swamp rice farmers, such as Baga Sitem and Bulongic, the work in Bongolon was particularly upsetting because it was scheduled to happen in the rainy season, when they expected to be working in their own rice fields.



  5. French Catholics, both in the metropolis and in the colonies, were instructed not to mingle with the RDA, given the movement’s links with the French and other communist parties.   6. ‘Mission de Katako: Cahier de tournées’, 22–24 February 1955. Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 297.   7. Kalima is the basic form of the Islamic creed or shahada. It is recited in Arabic in this way: La ilah ill’Allah; Mohammed rasul Allah (‘There is no other God than Allah; Mohammed is the messenger of Allah’). It is possible that the ceremonies jihadists like Asekou Sayon (and many others) performed against the enemies of Islam were called kalima because that is what they kept singing while inviting people to surrender their evil objects, denounce evildoers, and so on.   8. In an early survey on anti-witchcraft cults in Central and East Africa, Mary Douglas noted the element of disappointment they left in their followers (similar to what I found among many of Sayon’s followers), which paradoxically also explained the recurrence of these cults (Douglas 1963). Many of the Central and East African cults she was writing about were in fact ‘instant millenniums’, as Roy Willis (1970) epitomised the Kampace movement: enthusiastic movements that created a feeling of anti-structural relief soon to disappear, permitting the social structure to take over again, sometimes with a vengeance. This may apply to earlier cults on coastal Guinea, but Asekou Sayon’s was certainly different because of the political changes that followed.   9. I did not conduct field research in the village of Kanfarandé and gathered no narratives there. I think it likely that it was not Sayon in person who went there, but one of his disciples or co-disciples (see next chapter). It is clear both from Sylla’s (1986) and Marie-Yvonne Curtis’s (personal communication) research among Nalu that the villages on the right bank of the Rio Nuñez received visits from an iconoclastic leader very similar to those experienced by the Baga Sitem villages analysed in this study. 10. Sylla (1986) gives the figure of four to five hundred. I could never visualise the number of people in a single kalima in the interviews I conducted, but they were always described to me as very large events. 11. The episode of René Amadou being beaten and left in a stream was related to me by himself, but previously it had been told – in a narrative that suggested an equally violent event – by someone who had been on Sayon’s side. These are disturbing memories, and it is no surprise that perpetrators and victims alike prefer, by and large, not to recall them in great detail. 12. Before building fully-fledged mosques, Muslims used to pray in open spaces simply marked out with stones or bricks and referred to as misside (Susu for ‘small mosque’). Such praying places existed in Katako, Mare, Bukor and probably in other villages too. In colonial times, the only villages with a proper mosque were Katongoro and Bintimodia in Canton Baga and Monchon,Yogoya and Mankountan in Canton Bigori-Monchon. 13. Not speaking Baga Sitem was their own choice, however, not a consequence of social exclusion. It was and still is quite common for Muslim strangers not to show much consideration for the language of Baga farmers. I found the same derogatory attitude among Jakhanke neighbours in the village of Mare where I lived. They had been born in the village, but had made no effort whatsoever to learn the language. 14. The 1957 imam of Bintimodia was already dead when I started this research. The man I interviewed in 1995 was a Malinké who had arrived in Bintimodia in the early 1950s. Despite being a Malinké like Sayon, he was overtly critical of the iconoclastic preacher’s standing as a Muslim. The words he reported from the



imam at the time (that Sayon did not even know how to lead the main prayers) were strikingly similar to criticisms that some Muslims had addressed against Haidara Kontofili, who in the 1930s had led a similar jihad in the border regions of Guinea and Sierra Leone (Brot 1994). 15. Karamoko (from karan, to learn [a word of Arabic origin], and moxo, man) is a Mande word meaning ‘teacher’, and normally ‘Qur’anic teacher’, although in Guinea it may also be used to refer to Christian catechists. 16. ‘Mission de Katako: Cahier de tournées’, 6 December 1956. Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 297; my translation. It was true, as the missionary wrote, that the missionaries ‘retrieved’ people: I heard of many people who converted to Christianity as a reaction to Sayon’s stay. In 1994, Father Bienvenu, then Father Superior at the Mission of Katako, acknowledged to me: ‘In fact, we ought to be grateful to Sayon, he did bring quite a few people towards us.’ 17. Sékou Boubacar Kuressi, one of the names both Asekou Sayon and his disciple Asekou Abdoulaye would use during their jihad, was in fact that of their master, who at that time was based in Kindia and who, to the best of my knowledge, did not go to the Boké cercle in person. See next chapter. 18. Although at that time it seems that Baga were reluctant to pay taxes, the delegitimising strategy normally followed focused less on not paying taxes and more on using channels other than the chief (such as the RDA’s committees) to convey taxes to the commandant. 19. F. Calisti, ‘Rapport de tournée’, 22 October 1956, 4 pages, CB 11, my translation. 20. I suspect he met Abdoulaye Camara, since he was the jihadist in Mbotin. Yet, it could as well be that Sayon was at that precise moment in Mbotin, since they used to visit each other. It is also possible that they met in Kufen, the only village for which I could not clarify whether the jihad had been conducted by one or the other. 21. Talib, talibe, talibé or talibi are terms used in West Africa to designate a Qur’anic student or a disciple of a sheikh. Although in Guinea most people say talibé, I will here use talib, as this seems to be the most correct form, and is the one given in Robinson and Triaud’s Islamic glossary (Robinson and Triaud 1997: 579). Harrison (1988), however, uses talibé. I will simply add an ‘s’ at the end in order to construct the plural (talibs). 22. Lailas and lailalas were the very derogatory terms Catholics used to refer to Sayon’s ceremonies, mocking the continuous, formulaic repetition of the kalima. 23. This exchange took place in Mare on 24 February 1957, as recorded in the Journal de la Mission de Katako. 24. Journal de la Mission de Katako, 27 March 1957. 25. Cahiers de tournées, 19–22 January 1957; my translation. 26. For instance, Théodore Camara recalls the passage of Fanta Moudou in his village of Bukor, where the jihad was undoubtedly conducted by Sayon (Camara 1966: 48). Chapter 6   1. Kerra is a Malinké family name. It is also spelt Keira, Keïra or Kera.   2. The Malinké writer Camara Laye, born in Kouroussa (not far away from Faranah), provided a thorough description of the sayon status and powers in his autobiographical work L’enfant noir (1953); Laye’s mother was a sayon. A further analysis is to be found in Ferme’s work on mediatory figures among Mende in Sierra Leone (Ferme 2001).   3. Like Sayon, Sékou Touré was born in Faranah. Because many of his RDA



colleagues also came from Faranah, in Guinea the expression ‘the Faranah clan’ usually refers to the early leaders of the independence movement. Yet Sayon was not linked with Touré organisationally and is not typically included in the Faranah clan.   4. Other names are Sheikh Kourris (the one he had on his personal stamp when he was a Qur’anic instructor in Kindia), and Sheikh Aboubacar. Sayon normally referred to him as Sékou Boubacar.   5. According to most of his biographers, Sékou Touré was born some time between 1920 and 1922.   6. For the fights between Wahhab reformers and followers of African sheikhs in Bamako under French rule, it is useful to compare Kaba’s sympathetic views of the Wahhabiya attitude (Kaba 1974) with Brenner’s vindication of sub-Saharan Sufism (Brenner 1984).   7. In Muslim theology, the mahdi is the divinely guided ruler who will come before the Last Day to bring divine justice upon earth and get rid of evil. This messianic hope has helped Muslims to endure hard times throughout their history. In oppressive situations, and certainly during colonial times, many Muslim leaders were perceived by their followers, or by themselves­, as the mahdi. The French were particularly worried about the upheavals such a situation could create.   8. It is interesting to note here a prophetic pattern common to Semitic religions. The prophetic words of a religious reformer announcing a more radical one remind us, first, of John the Baptist announcing the imminent coming of a second ‘baptist’; and second – much more to the point here – of the way Jesus himself, according to the Qur’an, announced the coming of a future prophet, the ahmed or ‘highly venerated one’ (Qur’an, Surate 71). ‘Ahmed’ was, precisely, the name Sékou Touré adopted from the mid-1960s onwards (Keita 1998).   9. According to French historian Michel Brot, the border region of Faranah/Sierra Leone was particularly agitated by Hamalists in the mid-1940s, although Asekou Sayon does not appear in the archives (Brot, personal communication). Sayon would not have been the first jihadist to cross the border there. Already in the 1930s a Muslim reformer of unclear origin, Haidara Kontofili, had conducted a jihad starting in Guinea and going to more or less the same regions in Sierra Leone that Sayon claimed to have visited (Brot 1994: 134–60). 10. In 1956 and 1957 the struggles between the two were violent, even deadly, especially on the coast. While the main objective of the PDG-RDA was the abolition of the chieftaincies, the BAG supported this institution. While the PDG-RDA was pan-Africanist and strongly anti-ethnic, the BAG was born out of the fusion of several ethnic unions and was not seeking independence. 11. Having people publicly explain how their private ‘fetishes’ or medicines work is a common demand of anti-witchcraft specialists across Africa. A Guinean colleague once told me this was a way for Sayon to learn about the witchcraft he was fighting and thus to become more powerful in the mystical arts. Another explanation would be that it was a way to make public that which so far had been ‘secret’. Ironically, the practice was later reproduced by Sékou Touré’s ‘demystification’ campaigns, in which holders of secret knowledge had to make their knowledge useful for the whole community. A similar pattern obtains in the way the Guinea-Bissau state dealt with the medicines given by the Balanta prophetess Maria Ntombikte in 1988, when a commission of doctors was sent to meet Ntombikte and forced her to explain the use of each medicine, in order to find out whether they had any scientific use or whether she was a swindler (Temudo, personal communication).



12. The letter is kept at the Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 792. 13. De Milleville ‘Visite de Monseigneur au Bagatai’. Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 792. 14. For the increase of Baga objects in Western museums and collections after 1957, see also Lamp (1996b) and Curtis (1996). 15. I am using ‘prophetic’ as a generic, analytical term for comparative purposes. In fact, as Douglas H. Johnson and David M. Anderson have warned us in their thorough review of prophetism in Africa (Johnson and Anderson 1995: 10), we should not use the concept to refer to Islamic movements, since from a Muslim point of view there can be, strictly speaking, no prophets after Muhammad. Nobody in Guinea referred to Asekou Sayon as a prophet. 16. Monseigneur de Milleville, ‘Visite de Monseigneur au Bagatai (1957)’ in Archives des Pères du St-Esprit, Box 792. 17. For Tibini, see the dossier in the National Archives of Guinea, ‘Tibini Kamara’ (A.N.G. SN 108 G) and Lerouge (1907). 18. Circular No. 21/BMP/PDG-RDA, 16 October 1959, addressed to all the sections of the Party. Cited in Sankhon (1987: 43) and in Rivière (1971: 331–2); my translation). 19. Sayon told me he still conducted two more kalimas in the coastal regions after his release from prison, on the instructions of Sékou Boubacar, but they soon realised times were not good for these practices and gave them up. 20. Horoya 2200 (November 1975): 40. Chapter 7   1. I have addressed the issue of religious transmission elsewhere (Sarró, forthcoming); cf. also the interactionist angle on religious acquisition among young Bulongic in Berliner 2005b; Berliner argues that we should pay less attention to the putative knowledge passed down than to the passing down of interactions between different actors, for it is these interactions that generate knowledge.   2. See Burnham (1996) for the Cameroon case and Rowlands (2002) for a comparison between Cameroon and Malian ‘elites’.   3. Lamp mistakenly attributed this and other paintings to Father Feuillet (Lamp 1996b: 59–60). Lerouge himself wrote (albeit in an unsigned article in La Voix de Notre-Dame) that the original sketch was done by him on a piece of paper (Lerouge 1930b). Being a talented painter, he later reproduced the sketch as a larger water-colour for a major exhibition on Catholic missions that took place in Rome in 1925, but he did not sign it. It was presented as the work of an ‘indigenous seminarian’, as can be read in the leaflet of the exhibition kept at the archives of the Pères du St-Esprit (Box 792). The precise reasons for his not wanting authorship of the amanco ngopong painting are unknown, but the late Father de Banville, archivist of the Pères du St-Esprit until his death in 1998, offered a combination of two hypotheses in a conversation in 1996: first, by 1925 Lerouge had already been reprimanded by his superiors for putting his interest in local religious cultures before the task of converting French Guineans to Christianity, and therefore decided not to sign this painting. Second, Father de Banville guessed, Lerouge did not want to appear in Rome as a rival to the talented Father Maurice Briault, an extraordinary painter who also belonged to the Pères du St-Esprit. It is the Rome version that Lamp reproduced in his book on Baga art and material culture. The original sketch is now lost – or may be held in a secret library in Guinea …   4. Local notions of ‘imitation’ are very complex and work in several directions. I often heard the category ‘imitation’ being used to describe what children and



women do. However, in some prayers to their yonk or to their high God kanu, male elders present themselves as ‘imitators’, in expressions like ‘here we come to offer this to you, look at us, we are children, we are just imitating what our ancestors did’.   5. Bangoura n.d.: 12; a similar mediatory institution exists in other West African groups; see, for instance, Ferme’s (2001) analysis of the Mende case. Chapter 8   1. See the criticism of a-historical notions of ‘invention’ by John Peel (1989) or even by Terence Ranger (1993), one of the ‘inventors’ of the early notion of ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).   2. 1994 was a very bad year for Bukor, since many people died in a cholera epidemic, and these deaths were associated with witchcraft.   3. I hasten to say that at the end of the tournament the cup did not ‘go back’ to Boffa but stayed in Boké, since it was won by Atnt, a new team composed of Baga boys studying in Kamsar but belonging to other villages.   4. The phrase ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ comes from the novel by L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953), and was used as a springboard in Lowenthal’s essay The Past is a Foreign Country (Lowenthal 1985). For the usefulness of the phrase to translate perceptions of pastness, see the debate between Lowenthal, Feley-Harnik, Harvey, Kuchler and their audience in the collection of key debates in anthropology edited by Tim Ingold (1996).   5. As some readers may have realised, the other two Grahameian categories I have used are, of course, ‘the river bank’ and ‘the open road’, both in Chapter 2. The three categories and their corresponding moods were devices used by the Scottish author of TheWind in TheWillows (1908) to map out the imaginary world of Ratty, Mole, Mr Toad and others. They are uncannily useful as metaphors by which to think the reality of contemporary coastal Guinea, torn between the centripetal forces of the river bank and the centrifugal attraction of the road and the wide world, with Kamsar and its airport as its immediate shop-window.


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marabouts: itinéraires et stratégies islamiques en Afrique occidentale française v. 1880–1960, Paris: Khartala. ——. 1997b. ‘Le crépuscule des Affaires Musulmanes en AOF, 1950–1956’ in D. Robinson and J.-L. Triaud (eds), Le Temps des marabouts: itinéraires et stratégies islamiques en Afrique occidentale française v. 1880–1960, Paris: Khartala. ——. 2000. ‘Islam in Africa under French colonial rule’ in N. Levtizion and R. L. Pouwels (eds), The History of Islam in Africa. Athens, OH, Oxford and Cape Town: Ohio University Press, James Currey and David Philip. Tuan, Y. 1979. Landscapes of Fear, Oxford: Blackwell. Tyam, A. 1975. ‘Les rites funéraires en pays baga (Baga Forè de Boffa)’, undergraduate thesis, Conakry University. Vernant, J.-P. [1983] 1996. ‘De la présentification de l’invisible à l’imitation de l’apparence’ in Entre mythe et politique, Paris: Seuil. Vieira, G. 1992. Sous le signe du laïcat: documents pour l’histoire de l’église catholique en Guinée, Vol. I (1875–1925), Dakar: Imprimerie Saint-Paul. ——. 1999. Sous le signe du laïcat: documents pour l’histoire de l’église catholique en Guinée, Vol. II (1875–1925), Dakar: Imprimerie Saint-Paul. Vigné d’Octon, P. 1897. Journal d’un marin, Paris: Société française d’éditions d’art. Voeltz, E. 1996. ‘Les langues de la Guinée’, Cahiers d’étude des langues guinéennes 1, Conakry: Université de Conakry. Walker, S. 1980. ‘Young men, old men, and devils in aeroplanes: the Harrist church, the witchcraft complex and social change in the Ivory Coast’, Journal of Religion in Africa 11 (2), 106–23. Wallace, A. 1956. ‘Revitalization movements’, American Anthropologist 58, 264–81. Wallerstein, I. (ed.) 1966. Social Change: the colonial situation, New York, London and Sydney: John Wiley and Sons. Werbner, R. 1979. ‘“Totemism” in history: the ritual passage of West African strangers’, Man (N.S.) 14 (4), 663–83. Willis, R. G. 1970. ‘Instant millenium: the sociology of African witch-cleansing cults’ in M. Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, London: Tavistock. Wilson, B. 1973. Magic and the Millennium, London: Heinemann. Winterbottom, T. M. [1803] 1969. An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd. Wright, D. R. 1985. ‘Beyond migration and conquest: oral tradition and Mandinka ethnicity in Senegambia’, History in Africa 12, 335–48. Zempléni, A. 1976. ‘La chaîne du secret’, Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse 14, 313–25. ——. 1983. ‘Secret et sujétion: pourquoi ses “informateurs” parlent-ils à l’ethnologue’, Traverses 30–31, 102–15. Zinsou, E.-D. 1987. ‘La décolonisation politique de l’Afrique’ in La décolonisation de l’Afrique vue par des africains, Paris: L’Harmattan.


abanka courtyard, 34, 35, 37–8, 56, 95, 194, 195 Abdoulaye, Asekou see Camara, Asekou Abdoulaye abol cult, 45, 94, 115, 117, 133–4 acol figures, 47, 208n20 administrative regions colonial, 75–6 current, 21, 169–70 post-colonial, 143 Akré, Christine, 33 Albert, Christian informant, 9, 57, 134, 161–2 Alexandre, Pierre, 5 alipne, 155–7, 176–7, 183, 184, 195 Almada, Álvares de, 37 Amadou, René, 105, 108, 110, 120, 154, 156, 180, 214n12 amanco ngopong, 42, 46–8 children’s version, 151 and ‘closing of the earth’ ceremony, 47, 176–7 fear of, 149–50, 176 and jihad, 111–12, 115–16, 117, 131–2 picture of, 161, 217n3 recreation of, 199 spirit of, 156–7 voice of, 48, 99–100 Amselle, Jean-Loup, 196–7 Arcin, A., 50, 78 Ardener, Edwin, 8, 29, 36 Asuto descent group, 51–5 Baga autochthony, 24–5, 29, 57, 58–9, 199, 200 chiefs, 68–72, 87–91, 142–4 Christianity, 67–8, 81–2 cultural fatigue, 73–5, 94 cultural ‘revitalisation’, 14–15, 170–1, 183–4, 202 cultural rivalries, 181–7 customs, 12–13, 73–5, 94–6 descent groups, 35–6, 51–5, 173, 207n12, 207n13

ethnic identity, 25–30, 57–9, 171–3 history, 12–15 landlords and strangers, 55–9, 192–3 languages, 26–9, 30–1, 206n2 material culture, 1, 23, 119, 183, 201–2 names, 207–8n16 origins of, 24–5, 30, 49–50, 69 political awareness, 92–3 post-colonial identities, 142–4 recent recognition, 169–70 religion, 27–8, 144–7, 206n5 rice-farming methods, 25, 26, 31–3 secrecy, 18, 34–5, 42, 160–2, 199–200, 205–6n11 and slave trade, 61–5, 79–80, 211n5, 211n6 and Susu, 6, 41–2, 192, 202 women’s role, 162–7 Baga Kakissa, 27, 28, 70 Baga Kalum, 26, 28, 206n2 Baga Koba, 26, 28, 137, 206n2 Baga Mandori, 27, 206n3 Baga Marara, 27 Baga Pokur, 27, 28, 76 Baga Prefecture, 169–70 Baga Sitem identity, 42, 44, 57 land conflicts, 192–3 language, 28–9 and missionaries, 77–8 ressortissants, 158–62, 200 ruptured landscape, 38–40, 148 social structure, 51–5 villages, 33–8, 143 Balandier, George, 3, 73 Balez, Marius, 20, 68, 163, 164, 170 Bangoura, Blez, 43 Bangoura, Eugène Caro, 81 Bangoura, Mohammed, 69 Bangoura, Sékou Béka, 71 Bastide, Roger, 3 Baum, Robert, 65 Bausinger, Hermann, 170–1 Bayo, Sékouna, 126–7 Bellman, Beryl, 9

Index Berliner, David, 9, 30, 77 Bienvenu, Gustave, 171 Bintimodia colonial period, 76, 85, 211n20 Islam, 103–4 jihad, 111 Susu claims, 89, 104 Bloc Africain de Guinée (BAG), 129, 216n10 Boffa colonial administration, 75–6 prefecture, 21, 181 rivalry with Boké, 181–4 slave trade, 50, 208n2 Boké colonial administration, 75 jihad, 127 prefecture, 21, 181 rivalry with Boffa, 181–4 slave trade, 50, 208n2 Boldrick, Stacy, 201 Bongolon canal, 213n4 Brazzaville Conference (1944), 13, 85, 88–9 Brenner, Louis, 144 Brévié, Jacques, 96 bridges, spiritual dimension, 40 Bukor alipne, 155–7, 176–7, 183, 184, 195 cults, 153, 154–6 football tournament, 175–7, 181–2 Fula herders, 194–6 Islam, 104–5 jihad, 108–12, 131–3 youth, 100–3, 106, 154–6 Bulongic language, 27 migration, 28, 206–7n7 and missionaries, 77–8 origins, 30 bundes football, 187–9 Calisti, F., 112–14 Camara descent group, 80 Camara, M’Balia, 73 Camara, Aboubacar, 121, 150, 205–6n11, 206n3 Camara, Adolphe Kande, 85, 108, 129 Camara, Asekou Abdoulaye, 112, 118–20, 126, 129–30, 215n21 Camara, Baki, 54–5, 80, 83 Camara, Donat, 90–1, 117 Camara, Gaspard, 91, 117–18 Camara, Gatien, 90 Camara, Kande, 88–90 Camara, Salou, 87–8 Camara, Théodore, 27, 32, 66 Camara, Tibini, 137, 198


Canton Baga chiefs of, 52, 75, 84, 87–8, 89 colonial administration, 76, 86, 143 creation of, 12 Islam, 103–5 political upheaval, 91–3 Sayon’s jihad, 112, 133–4 Canton Sobané, 75–6 cantons colonial administration, 74, 75–6 post-colonial dissolution, 142–4 capafo, 108–9, 121, 133, 148 Cardaire, Marcel, 5 Champaud, Jacques, 64 Chevrier, A., 64 chiefs abuses by, 91–3 colonial period, 12, 73, 83–91 overthrow of, 86–7 post-colonial, 142–4 pre-colonial, 12, 68–9, 70–2 children cults of, 150–2 knowledge of, 166 Christian missionaries anti-Muslim narratives, 67–8 and Baga culture, 81–2 and French authorities, 85 readmittance of, 170 Christianity rise of, 80–2 and Sayon’s jihad, 114–17 Clay, Richard, 201 Clifford, James, 25 Coffinières de Nordeck, André, 34, 37, 55, 63–4 Colas, Dominique, 201 colonial period Baga customs, 12–13, 73–5, 94–6 chiefs, 12, 73, 83–91 end of, 88–9 taxes, 78–9 territorialisation, 74, 75–6 women, 162–5 Compagnie des Bauxites Guinnéenes (CBG), 39–40, 159, 182 Conakry, ressortissants, 158–62 conflicts, 16–17 Conneau, Theophilus, 62–3 Conrad, ressortissant, 159–60 Conté, Lansana, 14, 169, 192–3 Cooper, Frederick, 74 Cormier-Salem, Marie-Christine, 64 Côte d’Ivoire, iconoclasm, 5, 137 Crowley, Eve, 49, 65, 207n15 cults abol, 45, 94, 115, 117, 133–4 children’s, 150–2


the politics of religious change

imitation, 167, 218n4 women’s, 45, 46, 165–7 youth, 152–6 see also amanco ngopong cultural flow, 189–91, 196–7 culture invented, 170–1 of youth, 99–103, 184–5 Dabaka boundaries of, 196 colonial administration, 76 remoteness, 7–8, 193–4, 200 dance, youth culture, 99–103, 184–5 de Craemer, Willy, 4 de Milleville, G., 81, 137 Delafosse, Maurice, 96 demystification policies, 6, 13–14, 139–42, 166, 200 deser, witchcraft, 36, 106, 153, 159, 176, 183 Diallo, Siriadou, 91 Dikawe descent group, 53–4, 56–7, 82 dimba/nimba, 151, 172, 175, 177, 185–6 Donelha, André, 37 Dozon, Jean-Pierre, 5, 136–7 elders cults of, 42 and football tournament, 174, 185–7 relations with youth cults, 153–5 ethnic groups coastal Guinea, 22–30 constitutional equality, 141–2 Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 10, 18 Fardon, Richard, 197 Ferguson, James, 107–8 Ferme, Marianne, 9, 11, 16, 166 Fernandez, James, 3 fetish objects see ritual objects Fields, Edda, 28–9 flow, cultural, 189–91, 196–7 football tournament Bukor (1995), 175–7, 184 cultural rivalries, 181–4 introduction of, 170, 171–2 involvement of elders, 174, 185–7 Kawass (1996), 177–81 Mare (1994), 174–5 as masquerade, 172, 173–4, 185–6 Fouta Djallon Baga origins, 69–72 significance of, 49 Fox, Renée C., 4 French see colonial period Froelich, J.-C., 137 frontier societies, 196–9 Fula, 24, 27–8, 67, 71–2, 194–6

Gable, Eric, 9, 10, 38 gbenka cult, 152–4 gender roles initiations, 165–7 see also women Gennet, Philippe, 89–90, 94 gerontocracy challenging, 99–103 hierarchy, 50, 208n3 globalisation, 40, 189, 196–7 God, notions of, 146 Goody, Jack, 72 granaries, 163–4 Guinea ethno-linguistics, 22–30 future of, 15–17, 201–3 political history, 11–15 Guinée Forestière, conflict, 16 Haidara, Sékou Amadou, 110–11, 137 Hair, Paul, 49 Hamallism, 5 hands, metaphors, 56, 209n13 Harrist church, 118, 198 Hawthorne, Walter, 37, 65 headdresses dimba, 151, 172, 175, 177, 185–6 modern, 178–81 Héritier, Françoise, 46 hermetic huts, destruction, 138, 148, 191, 201 Hervieu-Leger, Daniele, 147 Hodgkin, Thomas, 3 Højbjerg, Christian, 9, 149 Horton, Robin, 146 houses ‘big houses’, 35, 47, 107, 117, 132, 166 shape of, 207n11 taxation, 78 see also hermetic huts Humbert, Maurice, 99 iconoclasm history of, 11–15, 137–8 impact on women, 165–7 and knowledge transmission, 149 political motives, 138–42 reasons for, 2, 200–1 Sékou Touré’s policies, 138–42 see also ritual objects imitation, 107–8, 167, 181, 218n4 Ingold, Tim, 202 initiations, 38, 41–8, 119, 141–2, 165–7, 194, 208n17, 211n12 iron, Baga views on, 65, 153, 209–10n17 Isaacman, Allen, 4 Islam and African religious movements, 4–5

Index jihad, 106–20, 125–35 mahdi, 125, 216n7 praying places, 214n13 and RDA, 13, 96–7, 139–40 spread of, 13–14, 103–6 Islamic missionaries, 77–8, 80 Jakhanke, 24 Jedrej, Charles, 13, 122 Jeunesse Agricole Catholique (JAC), 99–100, 116–17 Jeunesse du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (JRDA), 95, 99–100, 155 Kaba, Lansine, 124 Kaba, Thierno, 89 kalimas, 106–7, 116–17, 214n7, 217n19 Kamsar attraction of, 188–9 modernisation, 21, 38–40, 177, 182, 193 Kansomble descent group, 52–4 Katako Baga descent groups, 52–3 chiefs from, 89–90 extent of, 83 Islam, 82 jihad, 114, 116–17, 133–4 loss of rice fields, 104 silk-cotton tree, 148 Katongoro Christian community, 91, 117–18 Islam, 80–2, 84–5, 103 village of, 37, 84 Kawass, 83–4, 104, 118, 207n10 football tournament, 177–81 kikenc dance, 177, 183, 184 Kimambo, Isaria, 3 kinger ‘closing of the earth’ ceremony, 47, 176–7, 184 knowledge gendered, 165–7 transmission, 149, 160–2 komne cult, 152 Konor, Omar, 194 kop, 25, 26, 31–3 kor, meanings of, 35–6, 207n12, 207n13 Kufen football tournament, 181–2 jihad, 112–13, 215n21 Kuressi, Sékou Boubacar, 118, 123–5, 126, 130, 135, 215n18, 216n4 Lamin, Baga informant, 1–2, 6–7, 174–5, 192 Lamp, Frederick, 8, 161, 183, 217n3 landlords, and strangers, 55–9, 192–3 Landuma, 23, 26, 27


languages Baga, 26–9 Bulongic, 27 Susu, 22–3 Last, Murray, 61, 166 lateness, ethnography of, 10–11 Latour, Bruno, 201 Launay, Robert, 4 Laye, Camara, 215n2 Leopold, Robert, 54, 207n12 Lerouge, Raymond, 20, 67, 85, 161–2, 217n3 Linares, Olga, 21, 26 MacGaffey, Wyatt, 3, 144 McGovern, Michael, 16, 102, 140, 141, 166 McLachlan, Peter, 70 Maclaud, Claude, 64 Madrole, Claudius, 23 Mahmoud, Muslim informant, 55–6, 79, 108, 167, 193–4 Mamdani, Mahmood, 74, 94 Mande-isation, 22, 29–30, 207n8 Mandekan language, 109 Mangin, Louis, 96 mangrove swamps pre-colonial identity, 49–50 as refuge, 62–5, 199 religious aspects, 65–8, 197–8 rice farming, 25, 26, 31–3 Mano River conflicts, 16 Mantung, 21, 59 marabouts, 113–14, 124, 139 Marcel, ressortissant, 160 Mare bundes football, 187–9 children’s cults, 152–4 football tournament, 174–5 jihad, 114–16, 133 post-colonial administration, 143 Mark, Peter, 171 marriage, customs, 95, 213n2 Marwick, M. G., 3, 107 masquerades, 46–8, 95, 172, 173–4, 183 Mazrui, Ali A., 4 Men with Guns, 10–11 Merlaud-Ponty, William, 74 Mikhifore, 24 Milanini, Commandant, 78 missionaries see Christian missionaries; Islamic missionaries modernisation, 187–91 ‘moral geography’, 21 Morgenthau, Ruth, 96 Moroma, Sékou, 101 mosques, on sacred sites, 13, 111–12, 148 Moudou, Fanta, 118, 123, 125, 215n27 Mpame, invisible city, 21, 40


the politics of religious change

Murphy, William, 9 musical instruments, 99–103 N’daou, Mohamed, 49 ngonk spirit, 59 Niane, Djibril Tamsir, 77 Nicaud, Maurice, 134–5 nimba see dimba Ntombikte, Maria, 198 Oumar, Almami, 77, 115, 137 palm leaves, ritual use, 82 palm wine, 47, 67, 72, 82, 94–6, 208n18 Papaya, Alpha, 153, 154 Parti Démocratique de Guinée-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (PDG-RDA), 91, 129, 216n10 Party for Unity and Progress (PUP), 192–3 Paulme, Denise, 21, 28, 30, 41, 51–2, 97–8, 104, 145, 165, 209n8 Peel, John, 3, 4 Pères du Saint-Esprit, 20, 84, 85, 171 Person, Yves, 3–4 poro secret society, 8, 166 Portères, Roland, 32 Ranger, Terence, 3, 4 Rashomonian methodology, 19, 206n12 Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) and Baga, 91 foundation of, 13, 89 and Islam, 13, 96–7, 139–40 objectives of, 73, 213n57 and Asekou Sayon, 129–30 and Sékou Touré, 91, 212n47 spread of, 105 and women, 165 see also Jeunesse du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (JRDA) religious movements and civil society, 136–7 coastal regions, 197–8 convergence, 144–7 literature, 3–4 remoteness, concept of, 7–8 ressortissants, 158–62, 174, 177, 200 ‘revitalisation’, cultural, 14–15, 170–1, 183–4 rice farming mangrove swamps, 25, 26, 31–3 women’s role, 163–5 Richards, Audrey I., 3, 107 Richards, Paul, 16, 198–9 Rio Kapatchez, 38, 40 silting up, 104, 194 ritual objects destruction of, 131–3, 138–9

as folklore objects, 141 preservation of, 133–4 remaking of, 137 trade in, 134–5 rivers, metaphors of, 20–1, 34, 40 Rivière, C., 140 roads, 40, 188–9 Rodney, Walter, 20, 34 Romieux, Jean, 83 Rotberg, Robert I., 4 sacred woods destruction of, 1, 7, 115–17, 131, 148 initiation rituals, 43, 71, 81 spirit of, 149 Salifou, Almami, 105 Salomonsson, Anders, 14 Sampil, 52–3 sande secret society, 8 Sangare, Sékou, 137 Sayon, Asekou anti-witchcraft methods, 130–4 Christian opposition, 114–17 end of campaign, 117, 118, 119, 129–30 ethnicity, 6 interview with, 122–30 jihad, 5, 13, 14, 106–20, 125–35 legacy of, 119–21 as marabout, 113–14 Muslim-ness, 111, 135–6, 214–15n15 and RDA, 129–30 and Sekou Touré, 127–30, 138–9 in Sierra Leone, 125–6, 216n9 as trickster, 13, 122, 135 Schaeffner, André, 41, 165, 202, 209n8 Schmidt, Elisabeth, 73 Scott, James, 140 secrecy, 9, 18, 34–5, 42, 160–2, 199–200, 205–6n11 secret societies, 8 Shaw, Rosalind, 16, 34, 37, 65 Sidi, Almami (Bakar), 83–7 Sierra Leone conflicts, 16 Sayon jihad, 125–6, 216n9 silk-cotton (kapok) trees, 49, 59, 66–7, 112, 119, 148, 210n18 Simmel, Georg, 1, 9, 11 Sinayoko, Sekouba, 30 Situe, Alin, 198 slave trade, 50, 61–5, 79–80, 208n2, 211n5, 211n6 Smith, Jonathan Z., 3, 189, 205n4 Soares, Benjamin F., 136 Soumah, Amara, 28 ‘spirit provinces’, 21, 38, 69, 207n15 stones, ritual, 148 strangler fig, 59, 60

Index Strother, Zoe, 5 Suret-Canale, Jean, 93 Susu and Baga, 6, 41–2, 192, 202 ethno-linguistics, 22–3 spread of Islam, 104–5 Sylla, Issiaga, 108, 124 Tako, 21, 59 talibs, 114, 118, 123, 126–7, 215n22 taxes, colonial period, 78–9 Teixeira da Mota, Avelino, 66 Temudo, Marina, 206n11 Tenreiro, Francisco, 31, 207n8 Tepiri, 52–3 territorialisation, colonial, 74, 75–6 Thomas, Robert, 112–13 tolom, 42–3, 150–1, 152–3 Tonkin, Elisabeth, 199 Touré descent group, 80 Touré, Amara, 80, 83 Touré, Fode, 90 Touré, Samori, 123 Touré, Sékou ‘demystification’ policies, 6, 13–14, 139–42, 166, 200 and RDA, 91, 212n47 and Sayon’s jihad, 127–30, 138–9 and women, 166 Touré, Youssoufou, 86–7 traditions, invented, 170–1 Triaud, Jean-Luis, 136 tunkere cult, 154–6, 187 Tyam, Abdoulaye, 140


Union des Baga Sitémou (UBS), 112, 158 vacanciers, 187–8 Vansina, Jan, 4 Vigné d’Octon, Paul, 23, 41 Voeltz, Erhard, 17, 121, 206n3 Wallace, Anthony, 14 Wallerstein, Immanuel, 4 war veterans, 86, 87, 93, 96 witchcraft anti-witchcraft practices, 106, 130–4, 145–6, 153, 214n8, 216n11 deser, 36, 106, 153, 159, 176, 183 women ateken cult, 45, 46, 165–7 colonial period, 162–6 and descent groups, 53–4 and football tournament, 185 headdresses, 180–1 wubaka, 46, 61 Youra, Kamphori, 67–8 Youra Towel, 54–5, 75 youth cults, 152–6 and modernisation, 187–91 power of, 102–3, 153 relations with elders, 153–5, 184–7 revolt by, 99–103 in Sayon’s movement, 109 Yuuf, Aboubacar, 110–11, 137 Zempléni, Andras, 9

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Beyond the State in Rural Uganda Ben Jones Hb 978 0 7486 3518 4 ‘An excellent critique. Jones portrays the weakness of the central government in the countryside and the deleterious effects of “external” development schemes. His focus is on change generated from within.’ Joan Vincent, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University In this innovative study, Ben Jones argues that scholars too often assume the state to be the most powerful force behind change in rural Africa. Using the example of Uganda, regarded as one of Africa’s few ‘success stories’, Jones chronicles the weakness of the state and the marginal impact of Western development assistance. Extensive ethnographic fieldwork in a village reveals that churches, the village court and organisations based on family and kinship obligations represent the most significant sites of innovation and transformation. Groundbreaking and critical in turn, Beyond the State in Rural Uganda offers a new anthropological perspective on how to think about processes of social and political change. It should appeal to anyone interested in Africa’s development. Key features • Offers a new approach to studying development and change • Gives a fresh perspective on Christianity in Africa • Looks at problems of international development assistance • Provides a rich ethnographic rural study from east Africa

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS International African Library Series Editors: J.D.Y. PEEL, SUZETTE HEALD & DEBORAH JAMES The International African Library is a major monograph series from the International African Institute. Theoretically informed ethnographies, and studies of social relations ‘on the ground’ which are sensitive to local cultural forms, have long been central to the Institute’s publications programme. The IAL maintains this strength and extends it into new areas of contemporary concern, both practical and intellectual. It includes works focused on the linkages between local, national and global levels of society; writings on political economy and power; studies at the interface of the socio-cultural and the environmental; analyses of the roles of religion, cosmology and ritual in social organisation; and historical studies, especially those of a social, cultural or interdisciplinary character. The International African Library complements the quarterly journal Africa, also published on behalf of the International African Institute.