The Mandé Ritual Clown

“To understand comedy is to understand humanity, for the comic sense is central to what it means to be human”.

― Conrad Hyers, The Spirituality of Comedy, Comic Heroism in a Tragic World

Photography of the chief korèduga of Mimana in Mali. The clown or buffoon is wearing strips of torn cloth and a colorful monkey mask.
Yakouba Boirré, chief korèduga of Mimana, Mali by Jethro Massey.

Predestined to Provoke

Comedians, contrarians, jokesters and tricksters have made their appearance in all human societies, from the more or less secular, bell-capped court jesters of the English Royal Court to the humorous but hallowed heyókȟa in Native North America, where comedy steps into the spiritual, the ceremonial, and the sacred.

Much like the rag-draped Lakota heyókȟa whose fate is determined by mighty, celestial thunder beings, or even the black-and-white-striped Pueblo payakyamu who is initiated into his divinely comic role by Kivas (sacred, secret societies), the West African buffoon is mystically chosen and ceremonially groomed by the hands of destiny itself. The Senufo ritual clown is singled out by a foretelling, transcendental, and sacred chain of events ― a succession of misfortunes, an ailment, subsequent healing and divination:

“As for me, I was born with closed fists; no one knew what was clenched in them for three days. It was my mother who at last opened them and found a ‘goussogo’ grain. It took my falling ill ― a toe that would not heal ― [and an augur] to reveal that I was a buffoon. Accordingly, my parents brought me a goussogo-beaded necklace and the tattered pieces of cloth, retrieved from a garbage heap, that would be my costume.”

― Amidou Baki Dembele, Ritual buffoon of Natindougou, Burkina Faso*

With the prerequisite goussogo seeds, ramshackle clothing, one white rooster, one white hen ― and the predestined permission to provoke, parody, taunt, tickle and titillate ― formalized initiation can begin. The ritual clown must master the burlesque art of travesty, must learn to embody the ludicrous, the incongruous, the backwards, forwards, and upside-down. For it is with inversion, the turning of cultural norms inside-out and wrong-side up, that traditional, spiritual, and societal values are, with hilarity and irony, reaffirmed.

“Horseplay”, Comedic Contraptions and Contrivances

While the antics of the Burkinabé Senufo clown are accompanied by his iconic kané — a curved, saw-toothed musical instrument —, the mischief of his more northern counterpart, the korèduga of Mali, is ushered in by his ancestral and symbolic wooden stick horse, the niokala so.

Photography of a wooden stick horse, or Niokala So, used by Mande clowns or korèdugaw.
The “Niokala So” by Jethro Massey.

“Among the artistic objects of Mali and the countries bordering the southern Niger River, the horses of the korèdugaw constitute a curious calvary. These wooden horses for those already grown […] are the emblem of a category of sages [the ultimate ‘cousins in jest’] that have the privilege of deriding everything and everyone.”

― Anthropologist Jean-Paul Colleyn, Horses of Satire: the Kórèdugaw of Mali

Like the farcical Dogon aramóngu-nan, the Mandé korèduga indulges in wild scampers, parodying horsemen, particularly in precarious times: uncertain harvests, suspicious deaths, moments of conflict. Juxtaposing adversity with absurdity, the solemn with the satirical, the problematic with the preposterous, the ever witty and wise buffoon probes, reveals and reconciles, an ancient art ― dating back to the kingdom of Ségou ― that is, at least for the Bambara, refined within male Korè initiation societies.

Black and white photography by anthropologist Marcel Griaule of a korèduga, a Mande clown in his ritual equine costume, riding a wooden horse, holding a sword and wearing a horse mask.
Image: Korèduga in his ritual equine costume. The horse, or “so”, is symbolically associated with intelligence, spirit and intuition. Photographed by the anthropologist M. Griaule (1930s) / Photothèque du Musée de l’Homme, Paris.

But it is behind a broken, disheveled, unpolished sowei mask, that the gonde clown makes her appearance in the ritual masquerades of the secret, all-female Sande society of Sierra Leone. Indelicate, undignified, and audacious, she is the very antithesis of the Mendé ideals of grace and beauty, felling all cultural paradigms only to watch them, paradoxically, soar.

The Ritual Rectifier

Sepia photography of a Mande clown in the Segou region, laughing. He is dressed in traditional rags.
Thread-worn, vacuous names, given to buffoons at birth, flip the tradition of name-giving inside-out: Sekinkolon (old basket), Nyamakolon (worthless power), Tietemalo or Malobali (without shame). Image: Korèduga of Mimana, Mali by Photographer/Filmmaker Jethro Massey.

Although the village buffoon can appear as a down-to earth town crier, a day-to-day mediator, or a carnavalesque prankster, his ceremonial presence is “both subversive and moralizing, derisory and fundamental, profane and religious, droll and frightening”**.  He is eccentric and whimsical, daunting and disturbing, and perhaps, against all odds, the ultimate rectifier. Paralleling the sacred Lakota heyókȟa known as “the Straighten-Outer”, who hectically runs around with a hammer flattening out whatever is round or curved, West Africa’s clown is hilariously bent on setting things straight.

Sources and Further Reading

Books:

  • Hyers, C. (1996). The Spirituality of Comedy, Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. New York, US: Routledge.
  • Colleyn, J-P. (2011). The Horses of Satire: the Kórèdugaw of Mali. Paris, France: Gourcuff Gradenigo.
  • Janik, V. (Ed.). (1998). Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Online Articles: 

  • Phillips, R., Cosentino, H., Busselle R. (n.d.). Women’s Art and Initiation in Mendeland. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from The University of Iowa’s
    Art and Life in Africa.
  • Carbonnel, L. (2018). Intrusions bouffonnes au Mali dans le quotidien et dans les cérémonies : la question de l’échelle dans l’analyse des ambiances. Communications, 102(1), 123-135. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from Cairn.Info.**
  • Carbonnel, L. (2016). Les rebuts captivants. Techniques & Culture, Online, 65-66. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from OpenEdition.

Websites:

  • Histoires du Pays Senoufo. Centre de Recherche pour la Promotion et la Sauvegarde de la Culture Senoufo à Bobo-Dioulasso. Retrieved February 24, 2019.*

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