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Social changes: of the tradition of Islam in Mali
[ Drissa KANAMBAYE ] -
The Inner Niger Delta, vast alluvial plain of which two thirds are flooded each year by floods of the Niger and its tributary the Bani, was crucial in the history of West Africa. The birth of the great empires of Ghana, Mali and the Songhai and the beginning of urbanization are the phenomena directly related to the existence of the Niger River. Its strategic position for trade and the natural wealth of this region (arable land, pasture, fish, game, birds) attracted many populations who each occupy a different ecological niche: - The Bozo and the Somono, sedentary or semi-nomadic groups, live principally from fishing in villages and fields near the Niger and the Bani, all the way to Lake Debo. The Bozo were, according to tradition, the earliest inhabitants of the region. - The Fulani, nomadic cattle herders, have had their transhumance routes set by Cheikou Amadou in the early nineteenth century. Currently, almost all are settled and lead their herds across the Inner Niger Delta, in search of pasture and ponds. - The Bamanan, essentially sedentary, grow millet and work in areas that emerged during the annual flooding of the Niger. - The Songhai, fishermen and rice farmers in flood-prone areas, are concentrated in the north of the delta, in the Gimbala and along the river beyond Timbuktu. - The Bwa are primarily grain farmers and regroup in the southern delta. - The Dogon, also millet growers, occupy the central Nigérien plateau, the region of the Bandiagara escarpment, adjacent to the southern margin of the delta. The Inner Niger Delta is the birthplace of the Fulani empire of Macina, founded by Cheikou Amadou in 1818. The birth of this empire marked the settlement and the intense Islamization of the Fulani ethnic group and caused a radical change of lifestyle of delta people. The early history of the delta is above all known thanks to archaeological excavations. Some historical details are noted in the accounts of Arab travelers and local chronicles: the Ta'rik es'sudan, written in the 17th century by es'Sa'di, imam in Djenné and Timbuktu, and the Ta'rikh el-Fettach of Mahmoud Kati, of which a part was also written in the 17th century. Oral tradition keeps very few memories of the distant medieval times, but it demonstrates especially the period of state restructuring that affected the region between the 17th and 19th centuries. The Fulani kingdom of Macina is particularly rich in local reports, known thanks to family Ta'rikh, or registrant traditionalists, the griots. (...) At this time when Islam invaded more and more land in Africa, it is good to record without delay the traditions that are not yet quite changed in countries that have converted to Islam and that, in areas still intact, have conserved or nearly so their purity. These traditions are the supreme vestiges of primitive beliefs of the black race and, as such, deserve to be saved from oblivion. They deserve it also from a literary standpoint. The background of these stories and how they are treated maintain the level of popular Indo-European or Semitic folk tales with which, moreover, they offer obvious similarities. 2 In the areas under investigation, Islam is mixed with a double animism. This double animism includes, first, the soul that these populations recognize and who is a reviving fragment of the soul or spirit of this family ancestor signaling this ancestor and, secondly, the spirits acting with others, and the spirit of the tribal ancestor, then, above all, a higher spirit, divine, that is God. In a certain way, populations just as easily assimilate to Mohammed, Buddha or Zeus, because they withdraw into their inner self, and this explains in particular the orientalism of their way of life. In Africa, tradition encompasses all human knowledge. It is defined as all facts which are practiced from generation to generation in specific conditions. Tradition, linked to ethnic groups, religion, locality, is a fact of life. This is why it varies by society and it is best known for its iterative nature: it is repeated in specific conditions and events. The tradition in its diversity can be written or oral. It is thus, due to lack of writing, that Africa has long been regarded as a continent without history, because all its knowledge is transmitted by word of mouth and the griots or masters of speech played a dominant role in society to this effect. The African tradition is thus a story of memory. However, all the peoples of the world passed at a point in their history through oral tradition, although it has long remained the only means of knowledge transmission in Africa. Moreover, as stated by Amadou Hampâté Bâ: Writing is no more than speech sleeping on paper.