Over the past week I read Le Roi du Djadjo by Bali Nebie. I met Bali in February, when Jean-Pierre Jacob, the anthropologist, suggested we have a beer with him. Jean-Pierre had found his book in the FAVL library we keep at headquarters, and had really been impressed. Bali had come by and given it to our former representative Monique Nadembega. Anyway, we met Bali and had a great conversation, mostly between him and Jean-Pierre about the “secret man-lion societies” that were (and remain) prevalent in many villages in Africa. This is a central element of the story Le Roi du Djadjo.
While I enjoyed the conversation I also could not help thinking to myself “anthropology stuff…” Growing up in the Catholic Church, every Sunday for about 15 years I was fully immersed in myths and ritual behavior. While there were no exorcisms, I was constantly exposed to group-think. Indeed, the whole experience of mass is a collective and deliberate “We believe…” I’ve always then been a bit bored rather than fascinated by the arcana and mechanisms of belief. If a fully “scienced” society like the one I grew up in had collective shared beliefs about magic and magical happenings, why wouldn’t a society where almost no one was literate? I have no doubt that some shared beliefs are “better” than others. In some ways that was the power of Jesus, Buddha and other major figures of world religions, to offer compassionate and subtle shared belief systems as opposed to tight and exclusionary ones (never mind that major religions often turned that compassionate and tolerant impulse into a justification for conquest “you really do need to hear the good news whether you like it or not…”). And many small local religions have powerful lessons to teach about spiritual practices and respect for nature and insights into our common human dilemmas. But at some level the arcana is all the same… transubstantiation… is it really so different from “eating souls”?
So finally last week I got around to reading Le Roi du Djadjo, and what a breath of fresh air. Prose-wise, it is no great shakes. Adequate. But it is a deliberate de-mystification, and for Burkina Faso, that is a huge deal. Bali has written a major work, and I’m surprised at how little it is known. The fact that he has met with complete indifference I can only attribute to the continued stake that many (most?) Burkinabè have in leaving magical practices as social domain where explicit inquiry and critical thinking are impolite. In much the same way that questioning the basis of Catholicism was impolite when I was growing up, and is still considered by almost everyone to be rude behavior today. I have no compulsion to be rude, and neither does Bali… I think. But he puts it out there and hopes his book will testify and transform. No compulsion in religion! Anyway, if you read French, I definitely encourage you to read Le Roi du Djadjo, available here in Kindle edition.
Here’s a nice appreciation of the book:
Un soir que j’étais fatigué, trop pour prendre mon livre d’histoire en cours, je me suis mis à feuilleter le vôtre, dans mon idée c’était seulement pour le regarder un peu et non pour le lire, comme il me plaît de le faire avant mes lectures. Ensuite, Je n’ai pas pu le quitter et je suis allé jusqu’à m’endormir de fatigue dessus, je ne voulais pas le lâcher ! Félicitations ! Ce livre, d’abord dans la forme, donne une écriture plus souple que le 1er, le style est bien travaillé et il est agréable à lire. Quant au fond, il n’est rien de moins que remarquable. Je pense que vous êtes un homme d’avant-garde, éclairé par la rationalité et votre vision est alimentée par une connaissance sociologique très pertinente. J’ai adoré votre livre, vraiment.