This book arises from the time I lived, taught, and walked in North and West Africa. The photos and narrative are only partially about me. Above all, they testify to the persistence of memory – a traveler’s memory and a people’s memory. They present faces and voices of Africa: modern men and women of Morocco; a Sufi master of the Riff Mountains; and West African mask carvers and artists who preserve their ancient traditions in wood and clay. The magnetism of the masks binds the story I tell and determines the road I take.
Beginning in Rabat, as a way of introducing the reader to why I may travel, I write of my personal loss, the death of my wife, Isabel. I am the timeless traveler in this book who begins in Morocco and ends there. Each change of country is prefaced by a journal entry and a map which I created in order to detail where I will be going. These entries are the heart of each chapter. Chapter One begins in the city of Rabat where I visit colleagues with whom I once worked while teaching African literature at the University of Ibn Tofaïl in Kenitra.
In Chapter Two, I move on to Burkina Faso where I have been invited to attend the Festival International des Masques et des Arts (FESTIMA). While watching the performances, I am introduced to some of the well-known masks of West Africa. Here in Dédougou, I meet the organizers of the festival, mask carvers, and a group from the Swiss canton Le Valais. (The Swiss perform with their Fastnacht masks.) Through long conversations with mask dancers and others who participate in the festival, I learn of the supernatural powers that these masks embody. My stay in Dédougou, however, is too brief to answer two questions I have: What is the role of these masks in present-day villages? And what is the relationship between carver and mask? For this reason I accept the invitation of Yacouba Bonde, chief and mask carver of the village of Boni.
The Catholic mission priests welcome me in Boni. I stay with them while I absorb the history of the village and its two principal clans. Spending time with Yacouba Bonde and his assistant Abdoulaye Ouedraogo, I observe village life and attend the ceremonies of purification and initiation. I forge friendships with the carvers and artists in Boni and in the neighboring village of Oury. The interviews with Yacouba Bonde and Tankien Konate, master blacksmith of Oury, take weeks to prepare. I need time to confirm that I have understood correctly all that they share with me. (Interviewing has always been a part of my research in Africa. It is a thoughtful art that can create – in the checking and rechecking of details – a cycle of human warmth that cements a relationship of trust.
As I travel from Burkina Faso to Mali, I expand the number of interviews in the text.) My stay in Burkina Faso ends in Ouagadougou, a center of African film.
From Burkina Faso, I travel to Mali where I meet my friend and guide, Pebelou Dolo. We hire a 4X4 and drive to Dogon country via Djenne where I visit the famous mud mosque and view the manuscripts preserved in the city’s museum. Many of these ancient manuscripts descibe the magical arts of Muslim holy men. In Dogon country, Pebelou and I converse with Dogon elders, carvers, artisans, and senior guides in the villages of Songo, Sangha, Tireli, Koundou, Yougo-Dogorou, among others. In each village, I inquire about the masking tradition and, when possible, speak with carvers.
This section on the Dogon country underscores the present reality of the dancing masks and their impending disappearance as modernity, Christianity, and Islam sweep across these arid lands of the Sahel. My time in the Dogon villages, with the many interviews, is a meditaton on the nature of change there and the current tensions between religious orthodoxy and Dogon traditions. I present this drama through photographs and Dogon voices; I listen, transcribe, ask questons; listen and distill. The Dogons invite me back, day after day. I show them their photographs, read to them what I have written, and ask them for their assent.
Leaving the Dogon country, I chronicle my trip on the Niger River to Timbuktu. Timbuktu – once described as a fabled city of boundless riches – is now a dusty town haunted by ghosts of European explorers and plagued by persistent ethnic and political strife. Some of this I attempt to capture in the photograph of the Moorish door through which the French explorer René Caillié passed and in the description of a young Touareg dancing in the sweet-scented darkness.
I end my journey in the Riff Mountains, in Chefchaouen, with a visit to Sidi Ali Raisuni’s home and the tomb of Moulay Abdessalam ben M’chich Alami, patron saint of this part of Morocco. A well-known Sufi scholar, Sidi Ali Raisuni speaks to me of the saint’s message of harmony and peace among all peoples. The words of Sidi Ali are more gentle than those heard in other parts of today’s world.
The journal entries end in Rabat with memories of past trips, and the evocation of dancing masks, their richness and power.
James Gaasch is an Emeritus Professor of Francophone post-colonial literature at Humboldt State University in California. When not traveling or living in Europe and Africa, James resides in Ashland, Oregon. He has published a number of books—two with African presses and one with Houghton Mifflin of Boston—that have received significant recognition; one book, Diversité, is used as a text in more than one hundred U.S. universities.