The Bamana people belong to the Mande group and can be found primarily in Mali. However, sizable Bamana communities also exist in neighboring West African countries, in particular, in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. There are about 2 million Bamana, making them one of the largest Mande subgroups, as well as the dominant ethnic group in Mali, where about 80% of the population speak the Bamana language. The Bamana, as they call themselves, are often referred to as Bambara, which is likely an inaccurate rendition on the part of the French of Bamana. This entry looks at their history and social organization, and then it turns to their religion and ritual.
History and Social Life
The Bamana emerged as a distinct Mande group when the Songhay empire dissolved, after being invaded in 1591 by troops from Morrocco. Some of the Mande people then turned inward and created the Bamana empire in the mid-1700s, with Segu and Kaarta as major centers of Bamana power and lasting influence. This explains how the Bamana came into existence as an autonomous group.
However, they do share with their Mande relatives many striking similarities. For instance, the Bamana social structure is patrilocal and patrilineal. The basic social unit is the family, which may include anywhere between 100 and 1,000 individuals. Families are formed on the basis of each one of its members tracing their descent from a common male ancestor. Families (or gwa) assume collective ownership of the land and work together to grow millet, rice, sorghum, peanuts, melons, and other crops. It is not uncommon for them to also raise cattle, goats, fowl, and sheep. Families then form villages, each with a central figure of authority.
One's position in the social hierarchy is predicated on one's position in the initiation groups, which play a major role in Bamana life and society. There are six initiation societies known as dyow. The main function of the dyow is to teach members of the Bamana society about critical issues, such as the dual (material and spiritual) nature of the world and ethical standards and expectations of the community. Without proper socialization, a person may hinder their own well-being, as well as the welfare of their community. The six societies correspond to different levels of education.
The Bamana religion is based on the belief in one supreme God, Maa Ngala, “Lord of All,” or Masa Dembali, “Uncreated and Infinite Lord.” God is responsible for creating the world and all that is in the world. It is both immanent and transcendent. As in other African religious traditions, however, once the initial creative process was over, the Supreme Being elected to reside in the sky and delegated the governance of the world to lesser spiritual entities. It is to those entities, rather than to God, that the Bamana men and women address their requests and make offerings. These include divinities such as Nya, Nyawrole, Jarawera, Ntomo, Nama, and Komo, which act as Maa Ngala's ministers and agents.
In addition to the divinities, ancestors also play a major role as intermediaries between the living and God. Ancestors are buried within the family compound because their involvement in human affairs remains constant. Libations must be poured to them regularly, especially before consulting with or requesting something from them. Upon dying, one is expected to become an ancestor. However, this is largely predicated on the performance of the proper funerary rites on the 1st, 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after death has occurred.
The Bamana believe in the existence of an intangible, yet powerful life force, residing in all that is. It is in every woman, man, child, animal, plant, and so on. It is life, and it is of divine origin. Nyama, as the Bamana understand it, is a sacred force that animates the universe. It is neither good nor bad, but may manifest itself under both aspects depending on the circumstances. Good behavior, in the form of morality, generosity, and compassion, will bring about a positive manifestation of Nyama. In contrast, offenses against morality and the community's traditions are responsible for causing great upheavals. Everything being interconnected, the violation of the social code of conduct will disturb the general equilibrium of the universe.
Different people control or inherit different amounts of Nyama. As one ages, for instance, one's amount of Nyama increases, hence the respect given to older people. Blacksmiths are also believed to inherit large amounts of Nyama from their ancestors. They undergo a long and arduous training to learn how to handle Nyama. The work of the blacksmiths is seen as sacred. The forge is therefore a spiritual sanctuary, with the day starting with meditation and sacrifice. In the forge, the primordial creative act is reenacted by the blacksmith, with the hearth as the female element and the mass of the anvil the male organ.
The fusion of the female and the male is indispensable to the creation of life. In a similar vein, women who are mothers are elevated to the status of semi-gods. It is through the woman's womb, indeed, that God continues its creative work, thus making motherhood sacred. It is in the woman's body that Nyama's power asserts itself, causing life to germinate and thrive.
Whereas God is associated with masculinity, the Earth is associated with the feminine. The sky, God, is her husband, fertilizing her when it releases its sacred semen, rain, and also when it allows its light to shine on her. The Earth goddess is known as Lennaya. The Earth is particularly revered by those who engage in agriculture. Sacrifices are offered to the Earth spirit to ensure fertile yields on which the survival of the whole community depends. Farmers will ask for permission before sowing and for forgiveness for breaking the ground to plant seeds. The women will have the responsibility of placing the seed in the Earth itself, as an analogy between the Earth's and their own creative power.
In as deeply religious an environment as the Bamana, life is quite naturally highly ritualized. As another example of this, before cutting a tree down, one must ask for permission from the spirit that lives in the tree. Also, prior to starting to eat while in the forest, one must throw a few bits of food to the four cardinal points in acknowledgment of the environment as the place that gives food, thanks to God's work. Rituals, indeed, conform to the religious and natural order of things, thus reinforcing it. As human beings engage in rituals, they become participants in the cosmic drama called life.
The Bamana are reputed for their beautiful pottery, sculptures, bokolanfini cloth, and iron figures. Bamana masking traditions are also extensive and impressive. An object of particular fascination is the intricately carved headdress representing Cbi-wara, a mythical and spiritual being who taught the Bamana the art of farming. The headdress amalgamates the horns of a big antelope, the body of an aardvark (a ground pig), and the scaly skin of a pangolin, all animals involved in digging the Earth. Chi-wara masquerades are often organized at the beginning of a new planting season to ensure a good harvest.
- forms of family
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