Blessings and curses

The power went out in our neighborhood around 10:30 this morning — a noteworthy occurrence, since blackouts have become quite rare in the last month (though apparently the problems at EDM, the state electrical utility, are far from over). The power was still out a couple of hours later when I went to Friday prayers near the Badalabougou market with my friend Lassine. We sat sweating in the sweltering mosque and listened to the imam deliver his wajilu, his Friday sermon.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the sermons. While I can get the gist of them, to be honest my Bamanan isn’t good enough to help me follow the finer theological points, so I tend to tune them out. But a few minutes into today’s wajilu I heard the imam utter the word CEDEAO (“sedeyawu“), the French acronym for the Economic Community of West African States.

Now I was interested. Why was the imam talking about ECOWAS in his sermon? This is a preacher who often urges parishioners in general terms to join together and work for unity, and to overcome petty differences. But I had never heard him venture into such explicitly political territory before. It soon became clear that he was coming out in full support of the agreement signed last weekend between ECOWAS and Mali’s military junta, the CNRDRE. Mali’s leaders and ECOWAS would never advocate anything that was against the nation’s interests, he said. He condemned the recent disturbances in Bamako and admonished us not to follow those who seek to destabilize the country.

(This last was probably a reference to diehard opposition leader Oumar Mariko, who is persisting in his bid to make the CNRDRE’s Captain Amadou Sanogo the new president of Mali. The fact that Sanogo has completely ignored this campaign is further evidence that Mariko inhabits his own parallel universe, where the March 22 coup d’état was actually a people’s revolution that will finally usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat.)

No sooner was the sermon concluded than the power came back on, and we were able to finish Friday prayers under the draft of ceiling fans. It was as though the imam’s words had the power to cool our hearts.

From the international news media one often hears about firebrand imams throughout the Muslim world using their pulpits to whip their congregations into a political frenzy. In Bamako, however, I rarely hear imams address overtly political topics in Friday sermons. Which made the Badalabougou imam’s message this afternoon all the more powerful.

Outside of worship services, religious figures have been playing significant and generally responsible roles throughout Mali’s political crisis. They have repeatedly held public inter-faith prayers for peace. They have organized humanitarian aid convoys to help those suffering in Mali’s rebel-held northern regions. They have condemned violence and called for dialogue. At a time when political authorities are severely distrusted, various religious leaders have been suggested as neutral figures to lead the transition. Monsignor Jean Zerbo, the Catholic Archbishop of Bamako, recently had to disassociate himself from an effort to draft him as transitional president. That his name could receive serious consideration in a country where perhaps five percent of the population is Christian attests to the ecumenical nature of Malian society.

Then there was the recent visit to Captain Sanogo by the Chérif of Nioro, head of an influential Sufi brotherhood known as the Hamalliyya. We can only speculate on the nature of this private visit, but many Malians are convinced that the Chérif persuaded the junta leader to abandon his political ambitions and to sign the agreement with ECOWAS. If this is true, the Chérif rendered an inestimable service to his country by achieving something legions of diplomats and politicians from across the region had failed to do.

Popular interpretations of political events here often contain a spiritual element. The belief in djinn — immortal creatures inhabiting the invisible world — is widespread here. People don’t necessarily situate these beliefs within an Islamic context; they may also be associated with what are locally known as “traditional religions.” Djinn are thought to exist everywhere but may have special affinity for specific places. (One Malian friend recently revealed to me that his workplace, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bamako office, is full of djinn.) Mortals may need to placate a djinn linked to a particular locale from time to time with ritual offerings, in order to “stay on its good side.”

Lately on Bamanan-language radio we’ve been hearing some analysis that Mali’s current woes, from the northern rebellion to the coup d’état to the violent demonstrations that rocked Bamako this week, are the result of failing to assuage certain local djinn. Effectively, the city (perhaps the whole country) has been cursed by offended spirits. Representatives of Bamako’s founding families have reportedly met with leading marabouts (mystic specialists, most often working at least partially within the framework of Islamic beliefs and scriptures) and political figures to ascertain which djinn must be placated and how. Many Bamakois believe that as soon as the djinn are properly taken care of, everything else will fall into place. Such beliefs fit with a longstanding pattern of thought here that human events are driven primarily by invisible forces, with their proximate, visible causes being merely of secondary importance.

Malians often hesitate to speak of such beliefs, and in truth I hesitate to write about them because of the way they can exoticize and mystify culture and society here. But I don’t think beliefs in djinn, or in baraka (the blessings conveyed by holy figures), even though they’re quite common, mean Malians perceive of their problems solely on a supernatural register. The world of the invisible is a parallel world that can influence the visible world, but does not always do so.

As for me, I’m hoping that Oumar Mariko and his band of unruly spirits continue to ensconce themselves in their own parallel world, leaving the world inhabited by the rest of us in peace. Though we may need to go placate them every now and again.

Update, Monday, May 28: A long piece published in Info Matin today discusses the question of spirits that need to be placated in and around Bamako, and their role in the nation’s current political crisis.

Update, Friday, Nov. 30: Bamako newspaper La Nouvelle Patrie writes that one of Bamako’s best-known clerics, Cherif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, interceded with the Kati-based junta on multiple occasions following the coup to obtain the release of political prisoners and obtain financial support for the wives of soldiers arrested by the junta.

Update, March 25, 2014: Another Malian editorialist, writing in Tjikan, suggests that all of Mali’s misfortunes in recent years may be due to overeager religious leaders seeking to invoke curses upon political leaders whose positions they oppose. “According to certain traditionalists we approached, Power is a creation of God. For whatever reason, it does not like for leaders to be humiliated, let alone cursed,” he writes, hinting that the country’s luck might turn if these same religious leaders returned to the site of their original sins (the Stade du 26 Mars, where they took part in mass political rallies) to seek divine forgiveness.

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22 Responses to Blessings and curses

  1. Rastalion1 says:

    Truly insightful

  2. Gini TOURE says:

    A few days after the March 22 coup, I heard an Imam stating that the muslim community had spent several nights cursing president ATT and his government for trying to modernize the “code des personnes et de la famille”, thus enacting a legislation contrary to Malian culture and giving more power to women .
    This very Imam added that the muslim community condemned president ATT and cursed him for ignoring the precepts of Islam when the president appointed a woamn as Prime Minister!
    My understanding is that the unrest in Mali is just a consequence of these curses!!

    They wanted to curse ATT and they incidentally cursed the whole country!
    Best.

  3. Jennifer2838 says:

    Interesting that the animists are calling on “leading marabouts” to help. One of the biggest, and richest, in Bamako today is none other than Moussa “Balla” Traore, former putschiste/colonel/head of state. Wonder if they are consulting him. ;-)

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  5. Gimmi Dolo says:

    I appreciate much your perspective on the influence of the religious and spiritual forces on the political events and the perception of political events by the people. Both the animistic background of the people and the syncretism of Islam using these basic beliefs from animism is very insightful. It is difficult for Westerners raised in a Occidental viewpoint based in observation and faith in the scientific method to understand the depth of the influence of the spiritual on the Malian mind. This viewpoint that the spiritual plays a greater part on physical events than the material is also a traditional Christian perspective though with many variances, but plays a much less role to the Western Christian on the whole, than this perspective for the born and raised Malian.

    It is interesting to me to see how this is often ignored by policy makers in Western cultures, when making decisions both domestically and internationally. It is the belief system that rules the people not the money, and gives value to life to the point of sacrificing ones life for that belief system. Any NGO/ONG personnel recognize that “it is not enough to teach a person how to fish,” but to first understand what a person believes about fish. For example: Ask a Bozo fisherman where fish come from and he will tell you that they come in the rain by God’s hand, subsequently conservation of fish populations are not much of a priority in traditional Bozo communities. It is the value systems that drive change or hold up change.

    Thanks again for your insight on this subject. It is helpful to know what is being said by the leaders at this level.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I appreciate your feedback, Gimmi. When you write that Malian society is driven by a belief system rather than money, though, it suggests that money is somehow outside the belief system. I wouldn’t put things that way. In fact if that were true, the problem of corruption wouldn’t be as serious as it is! Money and material things are very much part of the belief system here, and people value them as much as they do anywhere else. What’s different, in my view, is local interpretations of how money and possessions are obtained and what having them signifies about an individual. Also, if you look at literature from the United States or Europe of 150 years ago (I’ve been reading Mark Twain lately), you can find plenty of references to spiritual belief systems for explaining everyday events. These systems once dominated but have subsequently faded, if not entirely disappeared.

      • Gimmi Dolo says:

        Yes Bruce, I believe you are correct on the importance of money even with the belief system. My thinking was that it would take alot of money to stop a suicide bomber, who is motivated by belief rather than money. That is interesting concerning the importance of belief in Mark Twains time as opposed to now. I am sure it has “faded” in this day, but I think that this aspect is still hugely underestimated in the political arena even in our country.

  6. nancy says:

    Another superb post. Thanks, Bruce.

  7. Ian Stewart says:

    Was just reading in the news this morning that the two rebel groups in the north have merged. Any impact from this in Bamako this morning?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Mali govt. characterized it on ORTM as a “non-event” since they don’t recognize either group to begin with. Most of us see it as the MNLA being forced to recognize the de facto supremacy of Ancar Dine.

  8. Johanna says:

    Having spent most of the last three years with studying ” Traditional African Religions” I feel the need to mention, that none of the TAR I came across has anything to do with animism. This is something that anglo- and francophone anthropology just recently started to point out, I guess. In Germany we’re making this difference for quite some time.
    The definition of animism as the belief that animate as well as inanimate objects can have souls is simply wrong for TAR since all the TAR I know of might belive that a spirit or soul is temporarily located/living/resting in an inanimate object (like a stone f.i.) but none would say, that the stone IS that spirit or soul. According to that, animism can be seen as a not very pc term since it’s always connected with Tylor’s somewhat discriminating theory of the evolution of religion…
    This is not at all important for what goes on in Maly at the moment, but it’s my personal aim to get that animism-stamp off TAR – so please excuse this slightly off-topic input!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      This is why I tend to avoid using the word “animism” when discussing such topics, and no, I don’t think the weakness of the animism concept is something anglophone anthropology has “just recently started to point out.”

      • senemali says:

        When trying to get one stamp off something, one should avoid creating new ones :-).
        Anyway, thanks again, Bruce, for this report. I admit that I often heard people say that especially the mosque near the Badala market had an imam with fundamentalist tendancies. I am glad to read about your experience that is totally different. It gives me hope.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Sorry to be a party pooper, but actually there are two mosques near the Badala market. There’s the one I went to on Friday, and there’s the other one, which has an imam who has told me he wants sharia law to be applied in Mali.

        What do you mean by your reference to avoiding the creation of new stamps? Is there some other dangerous term taking the place of “animism”?

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  11. senemali says:

    The mosque I was talking about is the one opposite to the commissariat (or approximately, as far as I remember), on the “goudron” that makes a left turn, direction university. Is this the one you have been to last Friday? I’m just interested because I know some people who avoided this mosque and I would like to get an idea for their possible reasons.

    My other remark was in fact adressing Johanna, and the other “dangerous term” is “anglophone anthropology”….

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      The two largest mosques in Badalabougou are within 200m of each other and on the same road (rue Gama Abdel Nasser), which is one paved street west of the one the Commissariat is on. The mosque I mentioned going to last Friday is on the north/river side, while the other one (where I’ve also gone for many Friday prayers) is on the south/colline side. I don’t know what the formal name of either mosque is. The former (the one I mentioned in this post) is more associated with what Ben Soares calls “the Sufi tradition” but its membership seems quite heterogeneous to me. The latter is still known as Mahmoud Dicko’s mosque (he of Haut Conseil Islamique fame), although he hasn’t preached there for a while as far as I know; it is associated with what Soares calls “the reformist tradition” in West African Islam, which many gloss as “Wahhabism”.

  12. pacha says:

    moi je fais partis de ceux qui pensent que les hommes religieux doivent beaucoup peser leurs opinions quant ils sont en face des fidèles car, a mon avis, les fidèles prennent vraiment au sérieux tout ce que les prédicateurs les recommande surtout les musulmans. donc avant qu’un prédicateurs ne se lance sur un terrain politique, je pense qu’il doit d abord connaitre l’effet de ses propos sur les fidèles aussi sur la société.en définitive je suis d’accord que les hommes religieux jouent le rôle de médiation ou conseiller mais pas faire de la politique car la politique a mon avis n’a rien à avoir avec la religion.

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