The Baga-speaking people live in Guinea. They include the Baga, Landuma, and Nalu. As people of the southern swampy lands of the low coast, between the sea and Conakry, the Baga are an important agricultural people. They are rice growers who have occupied the coastal area for many centuries. In fact, the low coast, named for the fact that one cannot tell from the air where the water ends and the land begins, is a region of palm groves, salt ponds, and rice fields.
Although the Baga culture has been in flux for many years because of the inroads being made on their land by Fula and Susu cultures, as well as by Christian and Moslem missionaries, there are still elders who retain an attachment to the rich culture of the people. In the 21st century, the rapidity with which the young Baga have given up their language to speak Susu, to convert to Islam and Christianity, and to turn their backs on their own customs means that there will soon be a majority of Baga who do not know Simo, a secret society written about more than 100 years ago.
The Simo was a society that came alive during the ancient rice harvests. The Baga people keep shrines of their ancestors and carve elek symbols to protect the family and represent the lineage. When people gathered to thresh the grain, it was a religious occasion when masked initiates would dance the ancestral dances around the elek, the head of a bird with a long beak or a horned animal, to celebrate the ancestors in the presence of the family relic.
The largest and most well-known mask of the Baga people is called the Nimba, goddess of fertility. The great tragedy of this culture is that this mask, the largest in the African world, has few adherents in Guinea. Almost all the sculptures have disappeared from the villages, taken by missionaries, broken by votarists of new religions, or simply abandoned by the descendants. Because the Baga no longer celebrate the rituals of their ancestors, some of which have been taken up in the Americas, the authentic Nimbas are difficult to find.
These magnificent sculptures are made of one solid piece of wood. The face is carved quite narrow with a hooked nose and a thin, almost nonexistent chin. The huge head is held by a proportional sized neck that is then joined to two enormous breasts with a hole, for eye holes, in the center. When the dancer wears this mask as a head piece, he is able to see through the hole in the breast. Raffia covers the sides of the mask concealing the identity of the dancer who wears it. This is important because the person who wears the mask is not the spirit of the mask; the mask has its own spirit, and the wearer of the mask is merely a conveyer for the spirit of the mask.
To know the mask wearer in his ordinary state is to know something about the human person, but it confuses the religious situation. Hence, the African tradition of concealing the identity of the wearer is to provide the viewer with the opportunity to suspend the ordinary sense and experience the spiritual sense of the mask spirit. One does not need to know the carrier of the mask; this is not the most important element in the religious sense.
A second mask is the huge bansonyi used during male initiations. This mask is made with a painted pole, decorated with colors, and culminating into a triangular human face, with a calico flag. Most of these poles and the artwork on them reach to nearly 20 feet tall. Because the Nimba mask is large in bulk, the basonyi is tall and colorful. The dance of this mask is ritualized by the dancing of two people, each with a pole mask, to represent the necessity of a husband and wife to champion their half of the village. Each one represents half. The women and the men are represented. It is a form of teaching gender complementarity.
There is a profound philosophical idea in the gender positions of the Baga. They respect both genders and believe that a community is without direction if one part of the community is unrepresented. Africans have practiced these types of ritual dances for thousands of years, and the Baga are some of the most storied people in West Africa. Even among the Baga, however, one sees the invasion of Western or Islamic cultural forms to the degree that neither the Nimba nor the Bansonyi are regularly practiced because of the cultural inroads into their religion and culture.
Among the Baga people, the kinship lineage is important because it dictates the religious life of the people. For example, the creator-god is Kanu, but the most significant deity for the male lineage is Somtup, the founder and spirit of the male initiation society. His wife is a-Bol, who governs the female initiation society and who is the most important deity for the female lineage of the ethnic group. Thus, each sex has its own allegiance to a deity for that particular sex.



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Further Reading

  • Balandier, G., and Maquet, J. (1974). Dictionary of Black African Civilization. New York: Leon Amiel.
  • Lamp, F. (1996). The Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention. Washington, DC: Museum of African Art.