Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wall of Gris-gris

I am in the middle of conducting my interviews with pastoralists in the Gao Region of Mali but with this posting I wished to share with everyone the bizarre experience I had conducting formalities with the local authorities when I started my research in December. I will catch up to the present and share with you some of the findings I have with food security issues among pastoralists but for now, enjoy this anecdote.

When one walks into the Sergeant’s office at the Gao Police Station, it is difficult to avoid the sight of Gris-gris hanging on a green board facing the entrance. For those who are not aware of what Gris-gris are, they are talismans that many Africans wear to protect them from a variety of things such as bad luck, sorcerers, evil and ill health. Gris-gris originally come from African indigenous religions but the practice has also carried on into both Islam and Christian faiths. With Gris-gris used by Muslims, often the talisman is a leather pouch or pocket that contains an Ayat (Chapter or verse) of the Quran. There are some Africans that do not wear Gris-gris, but in Islam they are known as the Du’at, the reactionaries. Many Muslim Africans, whether they have Berber, Arab or African origins, wear Gris-gris.

What is a little haunting and certainly interesting about this wall is that the Gris-gris come from people who have been arrested, incarcerated and in some cases killed by the local authorities over the past twenty years. Notice the Gris-gris on the bottom, second on the left. It is a toy gun from either a G.I. Joe or other military action figure. Obviously this was a talisman for a rebel either caught or slain in the Touareg Rebellion of 1990-1994. Suspects’ rights are certainly different in Africa as compared to those in Europe or North America, so items such as these are removed and in the case of Gao displayed for the public to see. Perhaps this is a warning to those who break the laws or challenge the authority of the State.

When tourists come to Gao, Timbuktu, or other major draws in Mali and the larger region of West Africa, local artisans do their best to sell brightly colored Gris-gris to them, often with vivid dyes of green, blue, red and yellow. Notice in the photo the simplicity of Gris-gris worn by Africans. They are most often brown or black depending on the nature of the leather used in making the talismans. But then for the tourists the Gris-gris have another purpose, to be the souvenir of an African trip and not the protective talisman that Africans use it for.