Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)

Agnès Kedzierska Manzon explores how Mande ritual specialists in West Africa, who own and manipulate power-objects called basiw, turn these objects into "gods forever in the process of construction" thanks to blood sacrifices and speech. While doing so, they construct at once these object's agency and their own identities as accomplished, powerful and respected individuals.

MLA citation format:
  Manzon, Agnès Kedzierska
"On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 June 2016. Web. [date of access] 

Among the Mande (Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire) the usage of a wide range of material artifacts manipulated on a regular basis to influence human life and destiny is well established. Such artifacts include, on the one hand, Arabic talismans or amulets (the Mande have been Islamized since the fourteenth century CE), and on the other hand, non-Islamic, primarily plant-based amalgams that are designated in Mande languages as boliw or basiw (singular: boli or basi). They may be of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, horns filled with substances, assemblages of separate elements such as shells, wooden statues, cola nuts, etc. (cf. Bazin 2008, Brett-Smith 1983, Colleyn 2001, 2009, 2010). Portable and pocket-size or stationary and as big as a table, they are entirely coated with many layers of coagulated blood. 

As with similar artifacts used elsewhere in Africa—for example Congolese “nail fetishes” (nkisi nkondi), Baule “spouse figurines” (blolo bian/bla), or Evhe and Fon vodun, to name only a few—they are addressed through sacrifices and with words, asked for protection and for help in difficulties. Their “users” or “masters” (tigiw) seem to conceive of them as a very special category of not entirely sentient yet autonomous entities, endowed with agency. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Kedzierska-Manzon 2013), they treat these objects as subjects with which one may enter into a genuine partnership. They engage with them in an ambiguous relationship that has an impact on their sexuality and affective life and that is locally conceptualized as an alliance between human and non-human lovers (Kedzierska-Manzon 2015). 

This relationship is instituted and perpetuated through the ritual practice consisting in sacrifices of cola nuts to begin and then poultry as well as, more rarely, cattle or sheep. The sacrifices – locally designated by the term sɔnni: literally, watering – are accompanied, preceded, and followed by speech. Both the words uttered in the direction of basiw, and the sacrificial blood poured onto them, are essential in the process of their construction, defining their identity and their potential for acting. 

Image 1: Continuous construction of the basiw through blood sacrifices. Photo by author. 

The blood constitutes more precisely the basiw’s "flesh", making their appearance amorphous and their surface uneven. This surface which stinks and attracts flies indexes their proper relationships with humans as well as their power. Without being “watered” regularly, they lose this power or worse, may turn what remains of it against their human partners. Why is it so? Drawing on the work of Martin Holbraad (2007, 2011), I would argue that their material aspects matter deeply for an understanding of the way humans think and feel about them. Holbraad shows, more precisely, in his study of Cuban divination rituals that if the Cuban divinities are said to appear as marks on the divination sand – as the displacement of powder in short – then, these divinities must locally be conceived in terms of motions or paths, highly ephemeral and virtual to some extent. They are not seen as stable entities inhabiting some far-away or transcendent locations but rather as potentialities realizing themselves only temporarily. Let’s now return to the basiw. The flow and the coagulation of blood are usually associated among the Mande, as elsewhere, with organic processes such as childbirth but also gestation (cf. Dieterlen and Dettwyler 1988). The fetus’ development in the uterus implies and relies on such a flow, as does the basiw. These artifacts may be seen as “loci of growth" (Ingold 2012) where as mounds or termite nests they are inherently unfinished and open-ended. This is why they must be watered. If one waters them, then, they may grow, as do the plants. The sacrifices are ways of cultivating them. 

The materiality of basiw informs us on the way they and their relation to humans are locally comprehended, in constant transformation. They are things rather than objects, if one were to apply to them the classic Heideggerian dichotomy, and to use the expression coined by David Graeber (2005), “gods in the process of construction”, never fully achieved, always in becoming. Through their continuous production, their partners seek new arrangements, establish new alliances, and perpetuate (social) life. By owning and watering them, their owners inscribe themselves into a larger, supra-regional network of relationships including humans and non-humans, thanks to which they may gain wealth and prestige, have access to secret knowledge and become powerful. Thus, the basiw seem to function as the “loci of growth” in a double sense: they grow physically and, while doing so, they make their masters grow economically and socially, helping them to become respected and fully accomplished personae. 

This mutual process of subjectivation of things and humans involved in the relationship relies, as I have demonstrated in detail in Kedzierska-Manzon 2016, on blood sacrifices, but also, as I will argue now, on the speech uttered within the ritual context. Such a speech situates each basi within the larger network, in respect to other similar artifacts and in relation to their “users” or “masters”, as well as these masters’ masters, apprentices and clients. Through speech, these artifacts are ascribed certain qualities and represented as potent, which in fact empowers them. At the same time, they are assigned to the position of interlocutors for humans, capable of listening, seeing and reacting. In order to provoke them to act on behalf of their allies, the words addressed to them are supposed to please them or even to enchant them while sometimes challenging them. The “enchantment” under question is thought to be achieved mainly thanks to their speech formal characteristics which include particular lexical choices driven by the phonetics as much as by the semantics, syntax parallelism, frequent use of neologisms as well as of the onomatopoeias, a certain a-grammaticality, all of which result in a partial unintelligibility. All of these characteristics, common to the various types of religious languages employed elsewhere (cf. Keane 1997), are supposed to contribute to the emotional destabilization of the addressee which in turn, provokes this addressee to act. Indeed, the basiw, in response to the speech uttered to them, are expected first to provide the elements of an answer to the question asked through the position of the colas nuts and the sacrificial victim on the ground. Then, they are expected to react by accomplishing what they were asked for. 
Image 2: Speaking to the basiw, engaging in dialogue. Photo by author.

In order to make sure that they will engage in action and in dialogue with humans, an adoption of a special way of speaking seems necessary. Together with blood sacrifice, speech participates in the emergence of the ritual landscape – visual, sound, olfactory, etc. – within which these artifacts assume the role of agents. Their perpetual creation from words and blood, linking past to the present, bush to the village, visible to the invisible, and last but not least, humans to their fellow humans, shape the Mande world in which people as well animals, plants, powerful things and some invisible entities dwell. 

Image 3: With Diakaridia, the hunter, Mande Montains, Mali. Photo courtesy of the author.


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