Since early in the year we’ve heard the sound of distant explosions. Sometimes it sounds like thunder, others like there’s a war going on. Guests would look a little anxious, I’d wind them up for a minute or two, before explaining that actually it’s part of the preparations for the boukout in the village of Mlomp. I saw some preparations in Kassel earlier this year – you can scroll through some images below:
Boukout (sometimes spelt bukut or called futampf) is a diola initiation ceremony practised since at least the 12th century and before colonisation it was the only formal method of education teaching men political, economic and religious independence, their place in society as well as how to defend it.
A group of us, including Gulliver and Japanese guests Myuki and Hitoshi, set off in Kermit towards Bignona, before which we turned on the road towards Thionk Essyl.
I say road. There was possibly more pothole than tarmac and the going was slow. Five years ago, this route was pretty good – I’d taken it en-route to Khady’s ancestral village of Kagnebon. There were clouds of butterflies fluttering everywhere all along the route.
There was a steady stream of public transport on the road and Diola’s from the surrounding villages and as far away as Dakar, as well as diaspora from overseas.
The crowds grew as we turned off of the semi-paved road onto a bush track taking us across the green rice fields and into the village. Every compound had several tents outside, small make shift stalls lined the road and the sound of bells, clanging, whistles and chanting filled the air.
Each diola person has an ancestral village. Abene is a relatively new village and every diola there will tell you they’re from somewhere else, even if born in Abene. For example, Khady was born in Dakar, grew up in Albadar (a village a couple of kilometres from Abene) and her mother now lives in Madina Daffe, but she’s from Kagnebon – even though she’s only been there a few times on visits.
Each ancestral village will hold a boukout every couple of decades, or sometimes longer. For Mlomp, it’s the first in 35 years. Village elders decide when following a series of phenomena that give the necessary signs. Khady tells me there’s a particular bird in the forest which makes a specific call, but as woman she’s not been told exactly.
Another reason for the large gaps between ceremonies are the huge expenses incurred with plenty of cows and goats to slaughter and the large group of initiates needing to be fed whilst in the forest for their ceremonies.
We were here to celebrate preparations for the boukout. For several days, everyone gathers and there are large numbers of drumming circles, processions and dancing, partying through the night all accompanied by non-stop explosions. One of these bowel loosening bangs went off just a few metres away from me.
Men stuff a mixture of sulphur, couscous and petrol – I also saw leaves – into a metal tube, light a fuse and then watch everyone in the immediate vicinity evacuate (in more ways than one). At one point, there was so much smoke that with the surrounding palm trees I felt like I was in a Vietnam war battle.
Initiation bestows men masculinity and they go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate this. Almost everyone carried a knife, some swords, as well as rifles, and to prove their strength as well as the protective powers of their gris gris and herbal medicines, they were all busy slicing, slashing and stabbing themselves.
I’ve always been certain that some kind of trickery is afoot – trick joke shop knives, or very blunt ones surely? But they were all letting me handle the knife and test it, slicing effortlessly through cucumbers and so on.
Perhaps they’ve managed to perfect the art of not pressing too hard, but the way their muscles strained that’s hard to believe. Whatever, no blood was shed.
After much dancing, cutting and merriment, the initiates gathered in a fenced off field where the elders shaved their heads.
We walked back to my friend Baks’s family house where we’d pitched tents. Even here, about 100km from Abene, I couldn’t go more than about two minutes without hearing the cry of “Simon.” I must have bumped into about 50 people I knew, many from Abene but also Gambia, Ziguinchor and some who say they met me two or three year ago but I embarrassingly had no recollection.
The house we were staying in belonged to people from Guinea Bissau. As a mainly muslim village I’d expected to spend a dry evening but was handed a bottle of ice cold gazelle as I walked in. Happy days. We gathered around bowls of rice drizzled with a minuscule amount of sauce and hunks of melt in your mouth tender beef. Gulliver, although slightly nervous at first, was now excited to be staying in a tent with daddy.
It was boiling hot though and, given the mosquitoes, I had to keep the tent door zipped up. Coupled with non-stop explosions, chants and the sound of clattering metal of the dancers, sleep was a fanciful notion. And then there were the falling mangos, some of which hit me through the tent walls. Who’s idea was it to pitch a tent under a mango tree. Oh yes, it was mine.
When I opened the door in the morning, there was a funny little man half dancing, half walking towards me brandishing a knife. He was nearly upon me when he raised his arm and stabbed it into his eye socket, seemingly with full force.
We managed to procure some tapalapa (bread) and cafe touba for breakfast. The rest of the celebrations weren’t due until late afternoon and I was told it was more of the same, so we returned home – I was hosting ten guests that night so needed to be on hand.
After further dancing, the initiates would be led into the sacred forest for their ceremonies and education. They are highly secret and only initiates and the initiated know what happens. I know one Dutch anthropologist who’s lived here many years and is, according to him, the only toubab to have undertaken the ceremony (although my diola friends say it would have been a very selective initiation) – when I asked if he recommended I let my sons do it, he very firmly said no, it’s brain washing. In the olden days time in the forest would last for months but in the modern age, where the costs are prohibitive and many are working or studying, it lasts a couple of weeks. After completion, they are considered men and only then can they marry or receive land.