Saturday, 22 October 2016

Koumen: First Clearing

Silé Saajo was looking for his lost cow when he heard the following:

“My voice, my voice calls out: I am here, I am Koumen. The heaven smiles above my head. The earth trembles underfoot. My very breath makes the branches sway. I am at the entrance to my turf. This is the first clearing, constructed from the branching web of the marvellous kelli and the virtuous nelɓi, famous for its healing.[1]The over-grown delɓi bush[2]has spread across the latticework of my enclosure. Its rare flowers smile and sing for my herd of cattle. Sing for my herd, birds of the trees…
Counterclockwise: nelbi (crossberry), delbi (gardenia) & kelli (jackalberry) on the pastoral path
I am sovereign of pastoral things. The ndurbeele cow, who bodes well, bellows in the midst of my herd. She is chief of my animals, a fadaletodde, a rare beast indeed.
Hurr! Hurr! Hurr!
Fita! Firaa! Fiti! Fiti! Firi.[3]

The males and the females possess in their loins the sperm of calves and bull-calves, future cows and bulls, a brilliant demonstration of my good fortune.[4]

Come on out fat cattle and full-bodied cows... Jump over the spells. It pleases me that you will graze in the grasslands and drink from the watering hole of the “seventh sun”.[5]I am Koumen of many forms: a whirlwind raising the dust, a flood drowning the high grasses. As for my proficiency, I take hold of a man and plunge him into the watering hole of the sun where my cattle drink. I whisper into his right ear the true-secret name of the cow. It is a magical word which multiplies the cattle and ensures the milking is good. I am Koumen. I let my tongue suck from my nursling. I communicate to him by means of my saliva the spell that fertilises the cow.[6]

Guéno knows me.[7]From up high, he made me an eternal child. The earth obeys me because I have descended from heaven through the air at the moment when the oceans were boiling, pregnant with the motherlands which gave birth to pastures and crops. I am Koumen, the Magician.[8]I transform all animals, the twisted and the humped back, into fat and nice-looking cattle. What is more, when I whistle to an angry herd, they turn into domestic livestock or else disappear into the foliage.

Shepherd! Would you like to hear me? Hunter! Would you like to see me? Get yourself treated by ear doctors and eye doctors, the former residing in the “black termite mound” and the latter under the “single baobab tree”[9]planted in the mysterious land where the stars are whitened before being embedded into the sky and sent into orbit in space. I know the initial temperature of the oceans, the nature of the stars and the purpose of their existence. I know the secret of the moon when as a growing crescent it pierces the clouds, or when “round as straw” it lights up the spring nights and extols the virtues of butter and milk.[10]

Enter, while leaving… On leaving, enter…”[11]

In this manner, Koumen was speaking to himself when Silé Saajo took him by surprise as he lay under a great tamarind tree at the edge of the Toumou pond in Jolof.[12]Silé Saajo grabbed hold of Koumen. He imagined him to be an abandoned child whose mother had been devoured by wild beasts, but he saw on him the half-greyed beard of a patriarch. He was overwhelmed with amazement.

Koumen said to him, “Silé Saajo! I am Koumen the Magician. I initiate men gradually to the example of the genies of Solomon who temper steel.[13]I am Koumen. I sit on the bull’s neck, my two feet between its horns. The beast goes about its grazing without minding or disturbing me. I shall make a second appearance in the valley of Boukoul.[14]But before that, carry me on your back and let us go visit the domain of Guéno, my Master and yours…

Silé Saajo! Make yourself at home. You are here at the threshold of my domain. Tell me what you want from Koumen, Master of magic rites?”

“I desire to know what will make me a better pastor and increase my skills and knowledge of the pastoral way.

“I would not have walked with you another step had you asked for anything else.”[15]

The people inside do not go outside and those outside do not go inside. The area is guarded by an old man wearing nothing but for his black hair.[16]

Silé Saajo perceived a light rising out of an urn full of water. A snake, facing this urn, was playing melancholic tunes on a flute carved out of the hollow of a sorghum stalk pierced with seven holes to modulate its sound.[17]

“O fire!” hissed the reptile, “Why are you not extinguished by the water? Is it that the sounds that I draw from my flute do not produce a gust to diminish the force of the flame and kill it?”

“Lie down, serpent!” Koumen commanded.

Silé Saajo overcame the abode of the snake with fear suppressed at the bottom of his heart.

Images: (A) Maxine Stussy, The Guardian
(B) Evelyn Pickering de Morgan, Mercury.

[1] These two trees are respectively the white cross-berry (Grewia tenax Fiori / Grewia betulifolia Jussieu) and the African jackal-berry / West African ebony tree (Diospyros mespiliformis Hochst). They have mythical status on the pastoral path, associated with the female and male respectively, and they are the two trees from which the shepherd’s staffs are made.
[2] This is Gardenia erubescens Stapf. or Hochst or some other variety of gardenia bush.
[3] This incantation is untranslatable: fitaa (to be ejected, to come out), firaa (to fly off), fiti (to be ejected, thrown out), filti (to have surrounded), firi (to be blown off). It evokes perhaps the skewering of a cock which precedes any important sacrifice and has an important divinatory function: the bonds of the dying animal as well as its final position once it is dead are interpreted to determine if the sacrifice to be offered after its immolation will be accepted and beneficial.
[4] It is a hermaphrodite beast, called ndurbeele because of its gender and fadaletodde because of the flecks on its skin.
[5] Each sun corresponds to a universe akin to our own star system as well as to one of the aspects of the initiation. The seventh is the sun of highest degree.
[6] This is a metaphor for the initiation process. The initiator puts his tongue for a moment in the mouth of the initiate pupil who sucks it, next he gives the teaching, transmitting therefore first saliva which tranfers bodily fluid, then the “word”.
[7] Guéno denotes God. He is supreme, immortal, omniscient and omnipresent. He is also called by the name of Doundari. Though ever present, he remains invisible and does not show himself on earth.
[8] Koumen is an Elder being with natural wisdom, like the character Tom Bombadil in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
[9] The black termite mound, out of which the jackal-berry tree (nelbi) often grows, and baobab are both medicinal, associated with the healing of hearing and seeing it would seem from this tale. When combined, they also have divinatory associations.
[10] The three days around the full moon are known as “milky days” (nyalɗe kosamaaje).
[11] This incantation refers to initiates who, having left the first stage without having broken any prohibitions, return again to instruct those that follow after. Those who would like to penetrate the path of knowledge without going through the successive levels of initiation are excluded.
[12] The tamarind tree is a symbol of life and regeneration. It is a common ingredient in all medicines. To encourage the ill to get better, it is said: “Catch the roots of tamarind” (nangu ɗaɗi ɗammi).
[13] The Fulɓe make constant allusion to events at the time of Solomon, who appears in legends and historical traditions as a master and source of certain initiations. This passage shows the association of the Fulɓe with the art of blacksmiths. During his pastoral trips, Koumen is sitting on the head of a bull, whose two horns symbolize a hakille spirit and a wonkii or yonki soul, from wonde(to be) and yonde (to be worthy).
[14] The valley of Boukoul is in modern-day Senegal.
[15] If the initiate asks for anything apart from knowledge, then he is not able to enter the first clearing, symbolising the entry into initiation, nor of course any of the others.
[16] This man at the threshold symbolises one who “knows but one word, but can keep it secret (in darkness)”. The hair is a symbol of his masculinity. Its blackness despite his age symbolises the perennial nature and unity of the science of initiation.
[17] The snake in this passage is Caanaba who guards access to knowledge: he plays a flute with seven holes which represent the range and unity of sounds. The four elements at the basis of creation are represented in this scene by the urn (“earth”) containing “water” topped by a “fire” on which the snake breathes a melancholic “air”. If Silé Saajo had not been worthy of knowledge, the water or the breath of the snake would have put out the fire. The stability of the four elements demonstrates that the initiation can be conducted on him. The snake will therefore lie down under Koumen’s command. Meanwhile, just as a snake sheds its skin each rainy season, Silé Saajo must also “shed his skin” on the spiritual plane. One who finds a snake’s moulted skin rubs it twice over his body: the first time to protect against the bite of the mythical snake “coiled around what is perishable” and the second time to evolve spiritually.

A. Hampâté Bâ & G. Dieterlen (1961)

Text in French:

Amadou Hampâté Bâ

English Translation:
First Clearing 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Koumen, Initiatory Texts of the Fulɓe Pastors: Introduction

Re-told in French by 
Amadou Hampâté Bâ (see also our earlier post here) and Germaine Dieterlen in 1961, Koumen is the initiatory text of the Fulɓe pastors, perhaps still preserved today in Senegal, but its traditional form altered in most regions of West Africa following the advent of fundamentalist Islam. According to Fulɓe tradition, the Fulɓe divide themselves into four ancestral groupings, or tribes in the broadest sense of the term: Jal, Ba, So and Bari although these have changed over time following external domination or other historical upheavals.[1] Each grouping is associated with one of the four basic elements (fire, air, water, and earth respectively), one of the cardinal directions (East, West, South, North), and one of the four basic colours of cattle hides (yellow, red, black, white). Each is also renowned for one or more of the eleven sacred crafts. These are sacred because in all African spiritual traditions, the master of a craft is not just a skilled worker but also a priest and conductor of ceremonies affecting the lives of men and nature at important times. These eleven are the blacksmith, gold-panner, potter, weaver, shoemaker, woodcutter, mason, hunter, shepherd, farmer and tailor. The shepherd and the blacksmith were especially important to the Fulɓe and owed each other absolute mutual assistance. There was a time when the pastor would not sell milk to a blacksmith but provide it free. Conversely, anyone bringing milk to a blacksmith was given priority service. Another example of this alliance is that the shepherd’s ritual stringed instrument was entirely self-made except for its metal strings.
Samuel Palmer, The Golden Valley
The initiation in Koumenintroduces the shepherd into the pastoral way so that he may learn how best to care for his animals, leading gradually to the prestigious title of silatigi, a master of all things pastoral and of the mysteries of the bush, so that he can guide his community in pastoral affairs and perform rituals to ensure the health, fertility and safe seasonal migration of the herd. Knowing how to care for the animals means he also has knowledge of the cycles of nature, of plants, of their medicinal properties and how to help people as well. Moreover, this immersion in the pastoral path is intensely spiritual. The accumulation of external skills and knowledge is reflected in an internal spiritual journey and keeping to a moral code and discipline so that the heart is purified and open to receive inspiration and guidance from higher friendly spirits. Most notable among these pastoral guides is Koumen, who is likely a primordial “bush spirit”. Koumen takes many forms, but appears most often as a child-like dwarf with a half-grey beard. Koumen’s Master is the supreme creator God of the universe, omnipresent and omniscient which the Fulɓe call Guéno (the Eternal) or Doundari (the All-Powerful). Guéno never manifests himself upon earth. More closely associated with the mundane world is Caanaba who has the form of a snake and who is believed to have emerged from the ocean accompanied by the 22 first cattle entrusted to him by Guéno. Caanaba is seen as the owner of the cattle, but it is Koumen who is in charge of both wild and domesticated animals.

The Koumentale is the story of the initiation of Silé Saajo who will go on to become a silatigi. Guided by Koumen and eventually by Koumen’s wife Foroforondou, Silé Saajo must overcome a series of tests to penetrate through the twelve clearings of initiation which symbolise both the twelve months of the year but also knowledge of different aspects of the self and the structure of the universe (its elements, space and time). For the Fulɓe, the world created by God (Guéno) has come from “a drop of milk” (toɓɓere ɓira) containing the “four elements”, which then formed the “hermaphrodite bovine”, symbol of the universe. There are cosmic correspondences at the heart of all things depending on the elements which make it up. The initiate must therefore come to know the interplay and harmonisation of these correspondences between stars, animals, plants, minerals, time, location, and for human beings: their family status, social function, skills, character and ultimately their destiny. The process of initiation brings the initiate into contact with mythical characters from whom he must learn as well as wild animals, symbolic of the forces which he must fight against, and plants and incantations which he will use as a pastor.

It would be worthwhile to say a few words about some of the Fulɓe pastor’s highest concerns to which we have so far alluded: (1) their herd, (2) milk, (3) plants and (4) sacramental objects.

(1) There are three kinds of herd and so three kinds of shepherd: for goats, for sheep and most importantly for cattle. Cattle are not considered as property or riches, but kin. The colour of their hides marks the ancestral grouping to which they belong and thus links them to the ancestors. In addition, they are branded by their owners, originally using a combination of sixteen different ritual symbols to each of which was associated a prayer for the protection and fertility of the herd. Once adopted, an owner’s brand never changed though its location on the body was supposed to depend on the “fortune” specific to each animal.  Only fourteen of these original sixteen “magical letters” survive (see figure left). Cattle could also be identified by the combination of colours on their hide, and on the position and shape of any spots or stripes. In particular, the black cow with a white stripe on its back is considered the prime beast of the herd and called the fadaletodde.

(2) We have seen already the importance of milk from the Fulɓe creation myth. When the Fulɓe make an oath, they swear “by milk and butter”. As well as its ritual functions and prohibitions, milk was traditionally the Fulɓe’s main currency of exchange and the fundamental element of their diet. There was a time indeed when the Fulɓe never ate beef and hardly ever ate the meat of other animals.

(3) Knowledge of vegetation is crucial not only to feed the herd, but also to make technological, medicinal and ritual use of the different plants the shepherd might come across. The most important of these are the kelli or white cross-berry tree (Grewia tenax Fiori / Grewia betulifolia Jussieu) and the nelɓi or African jackal-berry / West African ebony tree (Diospyros mespiliformis Hochst) out of which the staffs of shepherds are made. These two trees have mythical status on the pastoral path, associated with the female and male respectively. Many of the female objects in the home are made with kelli including the framework of the roof which is made by women and then covered with thatch. The nelɓi by contrast is said to “enforce pastoral virtues” and the shaft of the spear, the hilt of the knife or ax, and the bowl of the head of the family as well as most wooden utensils are made from this wood. All the work of men and especially of initiates derive “their strength and support” from it. Since one is associated with female and the other with male activities, their combination has a sexual symbolism. Meanwhile, the baobab is to vegetables what the bovine is to animals: every part of this plant can be used, so it symbolises the maximisation of utility. The kodyoli(Anogeissus Schimperi Hochst) is used to dye clothes yellow (wolo). The Fulɓe are usually dressed in white, or in fabrics dyed yellow. Other useful plants mentioned in the tale are the delɓi or mburri (which is Gardenia erubescens Stapf. or Hochst or some other variety of gardenia bush), the kooli or koyli (Mitragyna inermis O. Kuntze), the kombi, the ngelooki (Guiera senegalensis), the caski (Acacia albida), the kahi(Khaya senegalensis), the kohi (Prosopis africana Tomb.), the mbarkewi (Bauhinia Thonningi Schum), the ɗooki (Combretum ghasalense Engl. et Diels), the foogi (Saba / Landolphia senegalensis), the ndaaɓi (jujubier, Ziziphus jujuba Lam.), and the ɗammi (tamarind tree). The medicinal use of certain plants is still a subject for investigation today, so it would be interesting if the benefits of the plants mentioned in this tale continue to be recognised and re-discovered.

(4) The pastor’s equipment, including his staffs, ropes and gourds, is both practical and sacred, performing ritual functions. The shepherd has two staffs, the aynirdu made of kelli and the makanja made of nelɓi. As well as being walking sticks, one can “take an oath on the pastoral staff, on milk and on butter”. Once he is initiated he is given new staffs and the old ones are consecrated with a secret blessing relating to the secret name of the cow. There are also the ropes and belt of the shepherd used to tie the animals: the danngol or “lifeline” of the herds tied between two stakes, the rande which ties an animal to the danngol, the maagol or shepherd’s belt and the raɗoode or daaɗol with a loop knotted at each end which ties the calf to its mother’s front leg and used to keep it away from its mother during milking. These ropes are made from baobab fibres if possible or else from hemp (Hibiscus cannabinus). The sirgal or milk whisk is made from a stick at the end of which are attached four branches of the same wood, and the ɓirdugalis a bowl usually made of calabash for collecting milk during milking. Both of these objects are prohibited from being placed into contact with any substance other than milk.

(5) More sacred still are the shepherd’s sacramental objects, collectively known as ngaynirki, which are kept in a wineskin above the altar and promote the fecundatory power of the herd. The altar itself (kaggu) is made from a lattice of interlacing kelli and nelɓi branches, supported on wooden poles made of the same plants. Kept in the residence of the silatigi, it is through these sacramental objects that the master shepherd invokes the guardian spirits of the herd, the lareeji

Crossing the entrance into the first clearing marks the threshold from the disordered world of men to the knowledge of the bush which is Koumen’s domain leading to the “organised world of the pastorate”. The first four clearings correspond to the “four elements”, the fifth to spiritual struggle and the passage to becoming a complete person (neɗɗo kiɓɓo), a real human being, and the remaining seven correspond to the “lights of initiation” of the seven “suns”. The number seven may also symbolise the union of male and female which correspond to three and four respectively in certain African numerological systems. Having passed through all twelve clearings, the initiate will receive from Koumen’s wife the rope with twenty-eight knots symbolising the days of the lunar month. Thus the initiate is instructed in the mysticism of time that combines the solar and the lunar calendars. The unknotting of the knots symbolises the entry into knowledge and allows the initiate to receive the emblems of the pastorate. He must then prove himself in one final test and if successful he will thank the All-Powerful Doundari, God of creation. Once initiated, he can now initiate others.

The only published version of this tale was written in French by Amadou Hampâté Bâ who heard it recited by master Ardo Dembo in a gathering of the Fulɓe in the Linguère circle in Moguer, between Senegal and Gambia, near Tambacounda. Published in Paris in 1961, it has remained untranslated into English until now. Make sure you’ve drunk your milk and imagine yourself following in the footsteps of this magical journey of the Fulɓe initiate.

A. Hampâté Bâ & G. Dieterlen (1

[1] Jal has given rise to Jallo, Ka, Kan, Dikko and also Mayga; Ba has given Bal, Balde, Nuba, Jakite, Jagayete; So has become Sidibe; Bari has become Sangare.

Text in French:

Amadou Hampâté Bâ

English Translation:

First Clearing