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.