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Spirituality, occult knowledge, and secret societies-­strong forces in West Africa


In West Africa, matters involving development and security are affected to a considerable extent by domestic, traditional knowledge of the occult. This knowledge is safeguarded by so-called secret societies, which play a major role in society.

This anthropological study from Göteborg University in Sweden, deals with two such societies among the Sénoufo people of northern Ivory Coast and southern Mali.

One of the societies, Poro, initiates local adolescents in this knowledge in extended collective rituals; the other, ‘the society of hunters,’ is rather more comparable to a guild in which various ‘masters’ individually convey their knowledge to apprentices and journeymen.

The trained hunters, who possess a deep knowledge of nature, are specialists on natural medicines and have traditionally functioned as curers of sickness.

Researchers who observed long ago that these societies were involved in conveying esoteric knowledge, which in principle was inaccessible to the uninitiated, spoke of them as ‘bush schools’ or ‘secret societies.’ The societies have always been influenced by religious and secular impulses from the surrounding community and have thereby continued to play a major role in traditional contexts and in the encounter with contemporary, modern social problems.

In West Africa today highly educated government ministers and academics as well as local farmers can become members of these societies.

In Mali the ministry of culture has arranged major international conferences in recent years on hunters’ societies, with thousands of hunters and many researchers participating. Poro continues in many places to play an important role in local politics and in issues involving rural development and agriculture, whereas the hunters in Ivory Coast, since the 1990s, have come to play a considerable, and controversial, role in combating the exponential growth in crime.

Clad in their traditional costumes and armed with bows and arrows and muzzle-loaders, these hunters have deployed as security guards and bodyguards to protect lives and property, both for individuals and on assignment from entire villages and neighborhoods.

The dissertation shows that the general public, and gangs in particular, both admire and fear the hunters. This respect and fear is not so much a result of the effectiveness of their weapons but rather the fact that they are ascribed occult and spiritual knowledge that no one else can control.

Through their pursuit of criminals, instead of prey, these hunters have also come to challenge the monopoly of the state regarding the use of violence and have become more and more involved in conflicts between various factions of the political class in Ivory Coast, and the government has limited their activities to the northern part of the country. As a result, in the wake of the attempted coup in September 2002 and the subsequent civil war, some of the Ivorian hunters came to convert their struggle against gangs to a struggle against the army of the government.

Today, in various ways and in different roles, hunters and their knowledge are center stage in public affairs of both Ivory Coast and Mali.

Eva Lundgren | alfa
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