Thursday, May 17, 2012

2012 Bassari Initiations

Last weekend I (along with half my village, a dozen other PCVs, a few European tourists, a handful of Canadians) went to the Bassari village of Ethiolo ("Etch-il-o") to see the annual coming-of-age initiation ceremonies for young Bassari men in the area. 
PCV Tatiana, AKA Taki Bendia, our gracious hostess
We started by hanging out with Tatiana's host family, greeting people, eating fried dough beignets and watching things get started. I don't have a super comprehensive understanding of all the aspects of the ceremonies, but one of the first things that happens is that people from each initiant's family bring out live roosters, slaughter them, and then hang them all from a tree. (The men in the photo below left are taking the roosters down, to pluck and butcher them.) The people running everything fire off blank shots to signal that the initiants have started coming down from the trees, dancing in lines that wind slowly though the crowd before heading off to a hill for the battle portion of the initiations. 

The battles take place a little ways off form the village, out of the sight of women; we heard that this is because it's embarrassing when a man loses a fight (and every fight, even the highly ritualized initiation fights, has to have a loser) and they'd rather not have the women knowing who all the losers are. In any case, while the guys all went off to the battles we passed the time looking at the jewelry vendors' wares until Marie Christine (our wonderful housekeeper at the Regional House) invited the ladies over for snack time. The snack turned out to be chunks of fresh bread with a sautéed onion and green pepper dipping sauce, and it was pretty fantastic. 

When the battles were over and then masked Bassari men and the younger initiants, lead by a man wearing a heavy-looking wooden mask, came streaming back up the hill. Many of the younger kids fled in terror (they are pretty intimidating up close) and everyone clambered up onto rocks and logs to get a better look. 

 After the frenzy of the arrival of the masks we retired back to Tatiana's family's corner to drink water and sample the Bassari palm wine, honey wine, and millet beer. (The Bassari are mostly somewhat Catholicized traditional animists, so there's no religious prohibition of alcohol in Bassari areas.) The honey wine is pretty good, as is the millet beer, but I'm not really a fan of palm wine and none of it is particularly easy on the stomach (especially if you're getting over some sort of stomach bug, which I was) so I didn't drink much.

 We ate a big chunk of peanut butter candy (above left) made from cornmeal, peanut butter, and sugar, and Tatiana's family cooked us a wonderful lunch of chicken and cabbage sauce over rice. Over the course of the day I ran into pretty much everyone I know in Salémata, including my friend's little brother (above right)who really wanted a photo of himself with the masked men. He's a good kid and his family hadn't come to watch the initiations, so we invited him to have lunch with us and he showed us the random things that the tourists had given him -- specifically, a pair of nice ladies' dress slacks and a navy blue skort.

This last photo is of an initiant with his family, standing on a mat with the gifts that have been offered to him to commemorate his achievement. He's standing in a tub of rice and onions, and there's a sack of rice, some corn, millet, and other foods on the mat as well. He's looking over at his family members who are in the process of slaughtering a goat in his honor. I lost count of the number of roasting goat (and sheep, even a cow) heads I saw over the course of the day. Most people don't eat meat or fish on a daily basis, but they really pull out all the stops for holidays and special celebrations.

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