#15 responsibility
Lena Wendt

Remembering How They Lived

In Senegal, the influence of religious animism is declining as newer generations enter the internet. Dioula Frederic is conserving the custom in his private museum.

“I have three fetishes. But I can and may activate only two. The third is too dangerous and I could never control it.” Frederic stands respectfully before a small human form bent forward on its knees. Smoke swirls all around as the tall, slender Senegalese man pours water into the hole framed by fish bones in front of the small clay figurine. The slave’s fetish has been activated.

Frederic grew up in a culture that is now dissolving all around him, bit by precious bit.

Fetishes – the fascinating spirits of the animists of West Africa. Equally feared and worshiped by believers, they have ruled the peaceful interactions of the Dioula tribes around Senegal, Gambia and Guinea since time immemorial.

Frederic’s parents were members of the two largest Dioula groups. His father was a Dioula Fogny, his mother a Dioula Casse. Frederic grew up in a culture that is now dissolving all around him, bit by precious bit. “Many people have converted to Islam and animism has no space in their lives anymore. Others pray to Allah and still cling to their fetishes. But pure animism is very rare these days.”

The way Frederic is standing, with a long scarf wrapped around his neck and the wooden staff boys in his tribe are given when they enter manhood in his hand, he looks a bit like the Pope. A gaunt animist pope – reverential and proud.

Like the man in his mid-40s, anyone who grew up with the spirit of the fetishes believes in their influence. The fetish of the slaves, for example, ensures certain rights are upheld. When a village is attacked and prisoners are seized in the battle for land and livestock, they receive good treatment at the hands of faithful animists. “A slave is like a guest who is not allowed to leave.

Six head of cattle are the price to free a slave. If the prisoner’s village is not willing to pay, the fetish will ensure that six of their cattle die.

We have to cook for him, give him something to drink, and take care of him until his village pays the ransom. Otherwise the wrath of the fetish will be upon us”, Frederic explains. Six head of cattle are the price to free a slave. If the prisoner’s village is not willing to pay, the fetish will ensure that six of their cattle die. “A fetish enforces rights and does not permit injustice,” Frederic explains.

Anyone in serious need also seeks out the assistance of one of the numerous fetishes.

“A woman who loses her baby, for example, goes to the holy forest to perform rituals with all the women from her village. She returns from the forest wearing a nutshell decorated with clay beads on her head. The shell is a fetish that protects her until she bears a healthy child. Then she must return the shell to the forest.”

The magic can quickly become a curse though too. If the baby survives and grows into a difficult, rebellious or criminal child, this is often blamed on the enchantment performed. In the worst case, the child is deemed possessed, kept alive only by the enchantment: An allegation that is not particularly healthy for the child’s psyche.

…on no other continent is the split between the traditional and the modern quite as wide as it is in Africa.

But since the internet and mobile phones have arrived in West Africa, tradition is giving way to the modern. Out of the round huts, away from the natural spirits and into the World Wide Web – on no other continent is the split between the traditional and the modern quite as wide as it is in Africa. “It really scares me to watch how our beliefs, our traditions, our values are simply being erased. Our everyday structures are changing, tradition is out and the modern is in!”

Frederic is a bright man, a thinker, and above all a doer. In the fight to preserve his culture, he has turned his house into a museum. It took a lot of effort, sweat and courage to solicit the collection that includes three of the uncountable number of fetishes and many everyday items. “A Dioula never asks for anything; it is just not done. Either you voluntarily offer something you own to someone, or nothing happens. But if I had not asked for all these objects, no one would have known that I needed them.” Today musical instruments, cooking implements, baskets, weapons and much more hang on display in two round huts. Every piece tells a story from the everyday life of Frederic’s parents and grandparents. Every bowl, every basket preserves a small piece of tradition.

…young Dioulas find their way into Frederic’s museum to learn about their culture even less often than tourists.

“Old things are dusty and not interesting. Useful objects like the woven basket my mother strapped to her back to work in the fields and protect me and my siblings from the rain and sun. The young women today often don’t know how to weave one, or even that such baskets once existed.”

But young Dioulas find their way into Frederic’s museum to learn about their culture even less often than tourists. In the schools, their history has no place on the curriculum.

“My work here is just a drop in the bucket. But I have the feeling I owe this museum to my parents and to my mother in particular. No one should ever forget how they lived.”

Like in most African tribes, it is the women in his culture who manage the family business. They do the hard physical labour it takes to feed their families every day, bearing and raising their children along the way. And if there is not enough money, they also sell vegetables at the market on the side.

“During the week I would often not see my mother at all. She got up before the sun every morning, strapped the baby to her back and went to labour in the fields. She would work bent over in the rice field all day and not return home until sunset.
The best day for me was her one free day a week where she stayed home to spend time with us.”

They want to shake off the dust of life in a hut.

Grandmothers and elderly neighbours have always taken care of the children. But today the mothers are not just occupied with work in the fields. Many young Dioula women strive for a different way of life. A better life, with less work, higher social status, money for beautiful dresses, and a husband who provides financial security. They want to shake off the dust of life in a hut. Because the villages offer so few educational opportunities, women often leave their families to move to the cities. Others stay in the village, where they struggle with their unfulfilled hopes and desires.

The same is true of young men. They often have no role models for a modern life either away from or in harmony with tradition. The lost turn to alcohol, deaden their painful reality with cannabis, and vegetate with their friends in the village where they rap all day about business ideas they will never pursue. A whole generation seems somehow adrift.

“The fathers used to sit around the fire after a good day’s work was done, drinking from a bucket of palm wine; today the elders sit in their homes alone. This used to be a magical moment. The men from the village would bring out their instruments to pass on the traditions and ancient customs to their children in song. Here in the museum I can tell a lot about our culture. But in order to really understand it, you have to experience it. You have to feel the spirit to understand animism.”

A fetish serves as judiciary, no police or judges needed.

Frederic leads us to a huge tree root. It looks like filigree, dancing figure. The fetish of theft. “It is not a problem if you forget your mobile somewhere. In our culture, you can assume that the person who finds it will place it under this fetish. And you are the only one who can then retrieve your mobile. If someone else takes your phone, even if it is a friend or member of your family who just wants to return it to you, they have to pay six head of cattle as penance. Otherwise the fetish will punish them.” A fetish serves as judiciary, no police or judges needed.

“The third of my fetishes here in the museum is the most terrifying”, Frederic explains. “You turn to it when you have an insurmountable problem with another person.” The slender Senegalese man shows us a cuboid made of clay. It too is surrounded by fish bones. “The ocean stands for vastness and peace, which makes fish bones an excellent conduit for contact to the fetish.” Every Dioula village has a family responsible for metal work. This family serves as a kind of secretary to the third fetish. “You explain your problem to the fetish and ask him to solve it. But take good care; you must be very certain that you are not responsible for your own dispute. If you are not sure, the fetish will sense it immediately and turn against you.”

The fetish’s rough punishment is known as lepra. The complainant must inform the person the fetish is turned against of the threat that awaits them. The accused has two months in which to apologize and rectify the situation. “Anyone the fetish is set on will do anything to prevent the punishment. No one wants to endure lepra.” Frederic’s reverent face shows his deep respect.

…with the traditions, the fetishes are dying out too taking with them a precious system of values and justice that helped maintain social order.

But for the Dioula there seems to be no way back; the only path open is forward. And with the traditions, the fetishes are dying out too, taking with them a precious system of values and justice that helped maintain social order. According to their beliefs, the devout will enter paradise at the end of their lives. Frederic’s belief system places paradise practically next door in Guinea Bissau.

“When someone dies, you may even see him walking along the normal border road into paradise. But who knows who will still be admitted there after all the detours and wrong turns taken.”

For Frederic, purgatory lies between paradise and hell. A very worrisome image of the future, perhaps even worse than the penance meted out by an angry fetish.

Photo: Lena Wendt

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