Fali - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Fali believe in a single god, Faw, as creator and organizer. A male being, he has willed order and harmony, and he intervenes only when they are disturbed. He is a just god, rather far away, and one whom human intelligence is incapable of depicting. Prayers are not addressed to him, but to the consecrated ancestors, who are the intercessors of men with him. Ona, the earth, is the mother goddess, around whom supernatural beings can be ranked: sacred crocodiles of heaven; guardians of light and thunder; the black snake, master of darkness; and the Genies and the bad spirits. Revealed religions have as yet had only a slight impact; there is some interest in Christian teachings, but Islam also attracts some people by appearing to be locally liberal.

Religious Practitioners. In each village there are one or several "masters of earth," a "master of rain," and a "master of hunting," as well as, in each clan, a therapist-diviner ( tondji pangu ). On the lineage level, there are also priests. The priests are more particularly responsible for domestic worship, and they should not be confused with malignant beings like sorcerers, the servants or the reincarnation of the bad dead, who are unmasked by means of ordeals. The members of a secret society—Niakt Kolshondba ("that which is not talked about now")—used to have (or may still have) the responsibility of ridding society of these injurious beings. In general, the Fali are not enclosed in the magic universe, which differentiates them considerably from members of nearby ethnic groups.

Ceremonies. All major life events are marked in a ceremonial way. Presentation to the ancestors occurs in about the sixth month of a person's life, and initiation between 12 and 17 years; in the same period and later, at about 45 years, death is endured through the ceremony of the Bashta (gift). Boys are not circumcised; girls are not excised. These characteristics again differentiate the Fali from neighboring peoples. Initiation (Tshêta Ao) consists of two parts. The first, primarily didactic and ritual, has as its setting the sacred enclosure of the clan. The second consists of a retreat in the bush of about ten days, a kind of combatant's road, which is followed in the company of an older sponsor, the yum. Ordeals that are extremely harsh from a physical and moral point of view introduce young people to the adult state ( tondji ). Each year, at the beginning of the dry season, the ancestors of the clan are worshiped. The ceremonies that coincide with the end of the harvest have often been confused with an agrarian religion. Ceremonies are also directed toward the Genies. Festivities of friendship, Silu Bolotmji, like the preceding manifestations, call for music and dancing and are accompanied by joyful drinking of millet beer.

Arts. Sculptures are rare except for funerary representations, statuettes of baked earth, and baked zoomorphic or anthropomorphic modelings that are used as toys. Formerly, the walls of dwellings were decorated with paintings, which were mostly geometric motifs of more or less symbolic character. Sacred music, profane music, music for close by or for large spaces, vocal music (both solos and ensembles), and instrumental music are all highly developed. The principal instruments—whistles, flutes, harp-lutes, horns, drums with two laced skins—are related to paleonegritic cultures.

Medicine. The Fali make a distinction between natural illnesses (for which the physical relationships from cause to effect are known) and illnesses of supernatural origin. The former are cared for without the intervention of a specialist. The latter, which represent nearly all internal pathologies—attributed in increasing order of seriousness to ancestors, to Genies, to sorcerers, and finally to Faw—require recourse to a specialist, who is considered indispensable. He is actually the only one who can name the malady, making it possible to identify the responsible agent by divining procedures. The task thus comes back to the therapist-diviner. There is one in each clan, but his medical specialty must be practiced for the benefit of the whole village community. He recommends medications in terms of the supernatural agent that is held responsible and also of the symptoms that are observed. His services are recompensed only by modest gifts. The practice of minor surgery is fairly common. The practitioner has no other qualification than his ability.

Death and Afterlife. When death takes place, it affects only the material part of the individual. The purpose of the extremely complicated funeral rituals is to permit the soul to leave the body under conditions that are satisfactory for reaching the abode of the ancestors. The rites are also an homage to the deceased. After being washed and sometimes smeared with ocher, the corpse is placed in a sitting position with arms extended forward. It is then enveloped in strips of cotton and oxskin thongs. The hands and feet remain uncovered. While the swathing is being done in a covered enclosure, the mourners dance outside. Funeral procedures last an average of one to two days. The corpse is then lowered into a funerary well in sitting position. The festivity of the dead (Hatshu Wuta), held one month later, marks the reincarnation of the deceased as an ancestor ( manu). Henceforth he will live out eternity under the ground, whence he will be able to come back by means of the Mask (Tiwot'u Manu). Secondary funeral procedures take place three years later for a man, four for a woman. They consist in removing the skull, which is preserved in an earthenware vessel carefully hidden in the bush. It is into the skull that thought and knowledge will be able to come back when they are entreated. These, together with vital breath, constitute the tripartite soul ( djumjum ). A period of deep mourning follows the interment until the deceased's festivity. The wife or wives, who revert to the son or brother of the deceased according to the practice of levirate, are subjected to very strict sexual prohibitions during this period of three months. These blur and disappear when the skull has been removed. Nowadays the Fali tend more and more to simplify the ritual part of the actual burial. Since 1990, some have omitted the wrapping of the corpse in strips; others have been satisfied to put the body down into a simple ditch. Three reasons can explain this abandonment of custom: the cost of the funeral procedures, the actions of Christian missionaries, and the ceaselessly growing influence of Islam.


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