Friday, June 17, 2005

Sniff My Freedom

I am truly enjoying this book right now, by Max Rodenbeck.

My good friend Gordon over here decides to do something and by golly he sticks with it, through thick and thin, including putting up pictures and words every day for those of you who make it a habit to wander from one of these blogs to the next, while at work or play. Me, not so good: Some people not have way, I guess.

But below, in lieu of freshities, and again in honor of Gordo's stick-to-itness, another excerpt from the long lost Mali book (I will honor the dailies soon with fresh words):

I happen one day across a group of musicians I know gathered casually around a checkerboard and so I sit and play with them while they pass the ngoni from one person to the next. Chris and Tabb are walking through the marché together and I am excited to be able to yala---to wander---by myself. A young unsmiling man in bubu who will not tell me his name, calling himself only Le Vieux (The Old), takes the ngoni from my friend Amadou’s hands. The other players whisper behind their hands, “Donso.”

Within Banimotie and Wasulu society the donsos are given a great deal of respect for their very devotion to the donso lifestyle, to the sacrifices they make, and for their dedication to that part of the donso’s code that disallows them from entering mainstream Malian society. Hardcore donsos don’t run cigarette stands, they don’t sell bread, they don’t fix bikes. In short, they don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Being a donso is not a hobby but a complete lifestyle choice, and clearly Le Vieux is having second thoughts about playing for the curious tubab. He doesn’t sing and seems caught between wanting to impress me with his skill on the ngoni and breaking the donso’s code of performing during the day without his uniform. At first he plucks sheepishly at the ngoni, not even opening his mouth, avoiding my gaze. I play the nkerenye with him, using a blunt homemade knife in lieu of a nail, and soon he is playing dizzying runs on top of a low E drone that sounds like a harmonium. Upon finishing he hands the ngoni to someone else and walks away without a word.

Not too long ago I was invited to a donso ceremony in Kolondieba, where the barefooted donsos, all wearing brown mudcloth uniforms with the odd, baggy jodphurs, hats, and matching frocks, fetishes dangling from their lapels, gathered behind a central leader holding an ngoni, who began to play. They commenced to shuffle forth, snaking through the crowd in a neat half-step dance, some playing nkerenyes, ngonis, some holding their muskets aloft, huge and ancient with primitive handmade stocks and long scarred barrels. The leader sang the first few lines of the song. His fellow donsos added a repeated vocal chorus, sometimes consisting of a line from the song, sometimes a nasal whine consistent it seems with a gospel chorus’s amen, naamooaaah or namooo. A sort of secondary donso’s acknowledgement of the primary singer’s vocal and intellectual power, the phrase, I am told by a regional Peace Corps volunteer, might also be a slang version of I hear you. An emcee with an ancient microphone and a long cord walked next to the hunters, holding the mic up to the lead ngoni player. A distorted howling came from the single horn speaker placed above the crowd.

Throughout the ceremony, the hunters reached into pouches hanging around their waists to retrieve goathorn-fulls of homemade gunpowder, which they dumped by the ounce into the barrels of their guns. They’d squeeze off a shot, another, as great billowing revolutionary booms whose echo had the percussive depth of a cannon rolled like great iron drums across the expanse. Kids scattered with cries and regrouped holding hands to ears, now transfixed upon the hunters. Rings of smoke drifted upwards and directly I smelled the pleasantly acrid scent of gunpowder. Incidentally, when hunting en brousse, each load is handpacked with powder, wadding, balls and ignited by what in many cases appears to be a flintlock. I am sure I have seen flintlock rifles out here en brousse, and I could see many of the old donsos in Kolondieba thumb-cocking their pieces before they held them up in the air. Surely some of the men have come across more contemporary firearms but others, without question, are using rifles that are all but homemade. Bullets are expensive: they only fired blanks during the show, just powder and wadding. Off to the side an old man followed them with a large tray of black powder. Presently he put it on the ground nearby so they could easily scoop into the powder and refill their pouches without much interruption of their progress through the crowd.

I am reminded of a story an American who worked for a small company that supplied funds for building rural schoolhouses told about a donso he met while building a new schoolhouse. Naturally, the villagers said to him, it is tradition in most villages to invite local hunters to any important ceremonies to sing and to play their ngonis and nkerenyes and to have a feast. The American agreed to pay for the donsos, a few chickens and bowls of rice.

So, as he said, one afternoon out among a low collection of mud huts in another village outside of Bougouni, the hunters gathered, already drunk, in a cluster of rare shade and without any acknowledgement to one another the ngoni began and a strong voice rose from the crowd. They began to parade in a tight circle in the courtyard of the village. Between them lay the communal pan of gunpowder, from which they periodically filled their muskets. Some were too elderly to do more than shuffle along, heads down, while others danced foot to foot. Some punctuated the singing with enormous blasts from their rifles.

A., the American, continued the story. He said that the donsos were very drunk and firing one salvo after the next. Huge fireballs of flaming wadding rained down on the group like spent fireworks as the hunters kept firing. He noted with concern that the calabash full of gunpowder seemed vulnerable to attack. Balls of fire were raining down upon all and it seemed only a matter of time…And of course a ball of expelled wadding eventually ignited the calabash of gunpowder. A crackling explosion followed. One of the hunters dancing close to the flaming pan reached for it, hoping to extinguish the fire in order to save precious gunpowder, and was burned horribly, third degree up both arms.

Our acquaintance watched, horrified. The man’s life was clearly threatened; he was clammy and going into shock. A., half-panicked, motioned to his nearby motorcycle but the hunter refused the two hour ride to Bamako, refused the thirty minute drive to the aid station at Bougouni, refused any sort of help from the American whatsoever. He was whisked off on the back of a bicycle by a brother donso, holding his streaming redblack arms into the air.

Later the American visited the hunter in a darkened hut. The man’s burns were severe, his arms caked and oozing pus. He moaned terribly and had a high fever, attended to by hunters with medicaments and powders. They brushed the flies away from his wounds with a goat’s tail. The American, smelling in the close air of the hut the reek of rot and death, asked again to help. Again the hunter refused assistance.

A month later the American returned to the village expecting to find the old donso dead. Instead, the American was greeted by the hunter, his arms scarred but fully healed.
“Needless to say,” said the American, “we don’t let the drunken donsos come to any more school opening ceremonies.
“And,” he added, “some villages have refused to allow us build schools there for that very reason.”

One afternoon Chris, Tabb and I pile into a Land Rover with literally twelve other Malians and leave Bougouni for a village called Bougoula. It’s about an hour and a half from Bougouni, and easily an hour of it is spent on one of the innumerable dirt roads crisscrossing the brousse. In the way back of the truck Malians are piled atop one another like luggage. At one point Tabb begins to look peaked; we unload him from the truck just as he vomits onto the ground. He is starting to get sick regularly, but we remind ourselves that he isn’t even two, and don’t all toddlers get sick? I clench my teeth as he retches again into the ditch, and as the haphazardly piled Malians in the back watch us through the window. Chris wipes his mouth with her shirt. We pile back into the truck.

We get to Bougoula when the sun is straight above us. It is unimaginably hot. Crowds of children gather around Tabb. What was once a cute ritual has become an invasion: initially Tabb loved the attention but now he is frightened when the crowds of children push in on us, and buries his head in my shoulder. Little brown hands reach in only to touch in what can only be described as a very unchildlike tenderness, a conscious attempt, it seems, to be delicate and to not paw. After the children rush him he looks over his shoulder and sees that the crush has dissipated. He climbs down from his perch and ends up playing unknowable games with other toddlers and young children, running through the shaded side of the courtyard of the village. Someone points to the kids.

“Ça c’est bon,” he says, winking at us. “Baashi-te. It is fine now. It is safe there.”
“Safe?” Chris asks. “What are you talking about?”
“Serpents,” he says. “The snakes are only deep in the forest, not on the edge.”

Presently a jester-donso bounds out from the forest. Two dancers wearing antelope-masks, the chiwara, follow closely behind. We hear the sound of drums and presently a three-man jembe and doundoun troupe lopes out of the shade. Chris, Tabb and I are seated in homemade chairs on the front row in a band of shade as just a foot from us the yellow earth seethes with heat. A woman griot follows the dancers and sings the praises of the VIPs in attendance, Bagayoko, Berthe, a few men from the cotton factory (this is after all a ceremony honoring the agricultural gods). We are the only non-Malians there. The great griots of Mali’s history, including Mali-founder and folk-hero Sunjata’s own Balla Fasseke, are men, though today the most popular singers in Mali are women, many of whom sing with pop-style accompaniment the long, oriental melody lines of what I hear in Bougoula; Oumou Sangare, Rokia Traore, Nahawa Doumbia, Djeniba Seck, all of whom have roots down here near Wasulu. In fact, Nahawa Doumbia lives not far from us in Bougouni.

The jester-donso begins to whip 2 antelope-masked dancers into a frenzy, helped by the syncopated explosions of the sweating drummers. One of the dancers spots us among the crowd—-a tubab man, woman and child—-and leaps towards us, curious, his head held cocked like a young goat. He clutches short poles on which he balances his muscular torso in an eerie and dead-on accurate portrayal of a bounding animal. He is channeling the chi wara—-chi means “men”, “between”, as well as “farming”, while wara means wild animal—-the mythical antelope-beast born of a woman and a snake who, some say, descended from the heavens to teach agriculture to the Bamana peoples. It is not yet hot season but already the villagers are preparing for it and for the rainy season following by beseeching the gods to be sure to send rain…Through the thin slits in his mask I can see his eyes wide and glittering, twitching manically to the beat of the drums. Behind him the drummers play a slow, loping beat, somehow ominous and off-kilter, like a wounded animal limping into the shade. The dancer peers at us more closely, his head turning eerily on his neck, as he becomes this curious spirit-animal. Dust clouds rise and billow across the yard. Tabb sinks into Chris and begins to wail.

The jester, thus emboldened by the cries of his prey, screams and leaps and following this sudden signal the jembes begin a furious salvo and catch the dancer’s feet. The chiwara dancer’s head remains completely still, his eyes locked on mine, as his feet thrum the ground below. Tabb is fully wailing now. Around the dancer’s ankles are braces of hundreds of bottlecaps, which hiss and shake like a prehistoric armored animal shimmying in the dust. The loud drums echo across the barren space while a hot merciless wind pushes rivulets of sweat into my eyes. The band of sun has crossed into our previously shaded spot. I can almost feel my bodily chemistry being re-worked by the heat, by the excitement of the performance, and I can almost hear the reversion of my molecules to some baser state. Sometimes I feel like I have to grip my chair all the more tightly or else I’ll find myself leaping up and dancing with the animal-man.

This is no show for the tourists; there are no tourists in Bougouni. This is no empty ritual, but instead is a mystical reconditioning of the people of this village to bear out the hot season once again with strength and patience, and a beseechment of the gods to bless the crops once the hot season ends. The Sahara is creeping ever closer. Little over a decade has passed since the last deadly drought resulted in the death of the majority of livestock in the entire country of Mali. Granaries stand empty in barren fields. Cows’ hips jut evermore sharply from their scarred hides. Children’s bellies protrude, phallic malformed bellybutton flesh dangling lewdly from drum-tight abdomens.

This is what we in the West have lost, completely.

Girls with buckets of water continue to follow the goat dancers, splashing it into the dust with their fingers. Still sizable clouds of dust rise angrily from the dancer’s feet. I have my shirt over part of my face but am staring at the mask hanging in front of my eyes; the jembe players behind appear to be rising from clouds of smoke. And before me the dancer remains planted, his powerful legs hammering the earth like pistons, his head yet unmoving.
Intimidation, standoff, the ancient peering into the future.

Late in the afternoon we eat tige dege na, a peanut-based stew, from the huge communal bowls with the villagers. As we eat with other village elders and Malian VIPs young village children stare at us from a few feet away. They will only eat after we have finished. It is difficult to break apart a large chicken breast with only one hand but every time my left hand drifts towards the bowl I can feel ten eyes instantly upon it. In any case Tabb reaches in to the bowl with both hands and shovels handfulls of rice into his shining lips, nodding with pleasure as the children point to him and laugh.

We arrive home as night is falling and collapse into our beds. The harmattan howls outside; next door the donkey knocks and snuffles against its stall. When the wind and the donkey calm there is little but a great, lonely silence.

I speak to Chris, telling her about my perceptions of the day, about the thrilling dancers, the jembe drums, the seriousness with which the villagers’ seemed to take both the chiwara ritual as well as our presence at it. It is more clear to me now how difficult it would be for someone like Moussa, or any other Malian student or teenager with a passing notion of the Wu Tang Clan or New York or Bill Clinton, who is interested in joining the modern world outside of Bougouni, to separate themselves from this powerful human magic in order to make better sense of the plastic modern world. There is something purely frightening and collectively nightmarish about this essence of man-as-animal, this shade of that dancing ur-beast lurking at the root of everyone’s heart, that forces one to recognize how easily our ancient past could obliterate our plastic future if we might, Kurtz-like, succumb to it. The ritual we witnessed today makes our contemporary world seem ridiculous. One feels one’s self being dragged backwards into the earth’s harsh breast; the modern world and all its glossy, repressed greed makes less sense.

I wonder about the donso-jester. He was wearing the donso’s uniform but didn’t play an ngoni, and seemed more an enabler, a guide, and less a real donso. Perhaps a bogolan costume festooned with gris-gris does not a donso make. The drummers were incredible, I say to Chris, eyeing the mosquitoes already gathering on the net, their hind-legs hiked up like elbows, working against one another like oil pumps. And did you see the beautiful jeli? Those infinitely black eyes, that knowing, pre-fall smile, but still so innocent somehow…a country girl who knows nothing of the world outside of this village but knows more, perhaps, of man…I wonder what’s going on with the band back in Baltimore. I’m in a sort of droning trance.

Then Chris twitches, snores; she is sound asleep.

But I cannot join her, not yet: I am unable to erase the frightening image of the dancer’s manic eyes from my imagination.

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