Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Origin of the Kala Nation.The Nyamakala'The craftmaker system'

Magic and Art in West Africa

West African culture is a fusion of traditional customs and the modern influences of the Western world. The creation myths of these societies give rise to several beliefs and traditions that are governed by what one might call magic.

Magic in West Africa is associated with many different things. In some cultures it is the ability to use witchcraft or to cast spells. Other peoples view magic as a force that transforms. The point is that magic, like the rituals and practices of African cultures, is quite diverse. This diversity can be illustrated if one looks at each of the cultures interpretations of magic and makes some interesting parallels.

The Mande people are very magical in nature. This can be mostly attributed to the nyamakalaw subgroup; an endogamous people who are born with the inherent ability to control nature. The power they are able to wield so well is called nyama. In fact, their name nyama-kala could be translated as handlers (kala) of nyama. The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature. Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth. It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that. It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe.

While nyama molds nature into it's many forms, the nyamakalaw can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards.

No matter what occupation the nyamakalaw chose the products they create can undoubtedly be considered art. If a bard plays an instrument and sings, that music is art. If a blacksmith forges an iron staff for the king it is art. The nyamakalaw make a great deal of art for the Mande people but some are more central to their practices than others. A ritual mask like those used in the Ci Wara agricultural celebration is a necessity to the non-nyamakalaw peoples of Mande. As much as the horonw despise the nyamakalaw, they are forced to respect them and their art because it is vital for their own needs.

The full impact of Mande art can hardly be expressed in this web page at the present time. We suggest exploring the wonderfully rendered site Museum of African art.

The Yoruba have a slightly different understanding about magic which they call ase. Ase is also present in all things and can be either good or evil. Our focus on the Yoruba peoples was mostly in the realm of performance or play. This being the case, ase is most closely related to the griots (bards) of the Mande and their ability to make their nyama flow directly out of their body rather than into a sculpture or sword.

Along with ase there is what the Yoruba call aba or the ability to display one's ase. This is central to the performer as the essence of Yoruba play is to relay one's own interpretation of tradition to the audience. Ase, therefore, plays and important role in shaping Yoruba ritual and thus Yoruba society.

Women also possess a special kind of power called aje. This vital force is what enables women to make things happen weather it be childbirth of witchcraft. Just as ase is a transformative power, women with aje are supposedly able to morph their bodies into other creatures. Women in Yorubaland are treated with a great deal of respect which probably stems from, among other things, their magical powers.

As an in class assignment we attempted to interpret the meaning of a Yoruba proverb. We will present the proverb with a short summary of our understanding. What do you think the ancient saying means?

Why do we grumble because a tree is bent,
When, in our streets, there are even men who are bent?
Why must we complain that the moon is slanting?
Can anyone reach the skies to straiten it?
Can't we see that some cocks have combs on their heads,
but no plumes on their tails?
And some have plumes in their tails, but no claws on their toes?
And others have claws on their toes, but no power to crow?
He who had a head has no cap to wear, and he who has a cap
has no head to wear it on.
The owa has everything but a horses stable.
Some great scholars of Ifa cannot tell the way to Ofa.
Other know the way to Ofa, but not one line of Ifa.
Great eaters have no food to eat, and great drinker no
wine to drink:
Wealth has a coat of many colours.

We feel that this proverb reflects some general views of the Yoruba culture. There is an overtone of transformation that is indicative of the Yoruba concept of ase. The proverb is divided into two sections. One asks several questions and the other is the moral of the proverb. The first part questions the individuality of the Yoruba peoples. In one way, the proverb tells of how nature and the People of Yorubaland are one. But the proverb then goes on to say that although the Yoruba should realize they are one people, they are each individuals with their own contributions to society. The second part of the poem emphasizes this fact by stating that the Yoruba need each other to survive. No one person, even the king, can know and have everything. The Yoruba culture is a conglomerate of different people that contribute to the essence of the society.
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