Photo Essay: Tradition and the Sahel

The Sahel is in the headlines.  As the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya is linked to pan-Sahelian terrorist organisations and terrorism in Nigeria and Mali drifts further towards the front pages of western newspapers there is a need to look at some of the stories emerging from the region.  This collection of photos, taken by Jack Hamilton, looks at the changing nature of tradition in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.

By Jack Hamilton, 4th October, 2012


Great Mosque of Djenné – Djenné, Mali

Eradicating History

The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud brick building on Earth.  Like Timbuktu, it has been a centre of Islamic learning in Africa since the 13th century and a waypoint for trans-Saharan trade.  Now there is a different line of Islamic thought passing along the trade route as ancient shrines in Mali have been decimated by affiliates of al-Qaeda and there are fears that Djenné will be next.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar el-Dine and the Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) oppose the notion of Sufi saints and any monument erected in their honour.   That is the logic behind the continued destruction of Mali’s heritage and the fall of Douetza shows how close the militants are coming to the UNESCO site at Djenné.


Migration from Mali to Burkina Faso

Mass Displacement

The Malian regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal cover eight hundred thousand square kilometres.  It is a territory now controlled by jihadist movements whose extremist rule has caused many to flee.  The groups have recruited as many as 1,000 child soldiers, carried out public executions and amputations as punishment in addition to the systematic destruction of sacred shrines.

274,363 Malians have fled the country so far in the wake of the crisis and 118,795 are internally displaced according to UN figures.  The total number of Malian refugees now stands at around 400,000.  In an area that has been afflicted with drought the situation is critical, as demonstrated by these statistics:

4.99 million people affected by the crisis

2.97 million affected by drought

1.63 million affected by conflict

94% of the health centres are non-operational


Diola festival – Near Diakene Diola, Casamance, Senegal

Reforming Traditions

Thousands of men from the Casamance region of Senegal re-emerged last week after enduring one month of physical tasks and survival techniques.  The ritual takes place every 20 to 50 years and represents the transition of boys into men.  Men between the ages of 2 and 40 take to a sacred area of the forest to engage in these activities.  Some never return.

The last time the rituals were held was in 1962 and they used to determine whether or not a man could marry, a stipulation since dropped due to impracticality.  It is one of many facets of the trials that is rapidly changing.  Djola tradition stipulates that the men should spend three months in the wilderness, since shortened to one, and doctors keep a watchful eye as a precaution.  However, dangers remain and this year one man passed away.  In keeping with one tradition, his family were not informed until the rest of the men emerged from the forest.

Participation is not obligatory but a deep respect is the reward.  Those who choose to take part are forbidden to discuss what happens in the forest.  When the month is complete the men are rejoin with their partners and are given several days to celebrate their passage to manhood.


Palace of the Emir – Kano, Nigeria

The Erosion of Traditional Authority

Eyewitnesses to the recent assassination attempt on the Emir of Fika, Alhaji Mohammed Idrisa scampered away from his attackers, collapsing over his ceremonial robes before recovering to dart down the side streets with his turban flailing behind him.  The slapstick retellings of the story seem even more jarring when compared to the revered positions the northern leaders of Nigeria have held until recent years.  Traditional authority in northern Nigeria is changing.

This year, for the first time in over 200 years, the annual festivals of homage to the Emirs, the Sallah Durbur, were cancelled across much of the north, including Kano.  The official excuse was that the Emir was ill but subsequent revelations showed that Boko Haram had planned to use the celebrations to cause havoc with the royalty.  The terrorist organisation oppose the leadership of the emirs they deem to kowtow to a non-Sharia government of Nigeria.  To put this decision in perspective, even the British occupation and colonisation of Kano in 1903 did not halt the Sallah Durbur.

In the aftermath of the bitterly divisive election of President Jonathan in 2011, angry mobs attacked the palaces of the emirs over suspicions of bribery by the ruling party and the perception of systematic electoral rigging.  In recent years the failure to remove one’s shoes in the presence of district heads, let alone an emir, could have been interpreted as an act of rebellion.  Now the stories of the cowardly royalty scampering away from danger are told as a form of amusement.

The Emirs have not lost their power.  They remain a dominant presence in the social and economic policy of the north.  That being said their authority is being challenged in ways never seen before.  The perception that the Emirs provide huge sums of money to a government that does not represent the people of their Emirate is corroding their legitimacy and there may come a time in the near future when mass reform is necessary.

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