- The Politics of Religious Change on the Upper Guinea Coast: iconoclasm done and undone
In 1956–7 the Muslim cleric Asekou Sayon and his disciple Abdoulaye Camara engaged in a campaign to destroy traditional Baga religion and convert villagers to Islam. Working separately in about a half-dozen villages each, and with the cooperation of disaffected local youth, the marabouts directed the cutting down of sacred groves and the removal or destruction of masks, sculptures and other objects related to spiritual activities. Baga material arts and ritual suffered an additional devastating blow when, following Guinean independence (2 October 1958), President Sekou Touré introduced his ‘demystification programme’. In an effort to create a new national identity, traditional religious practices were declared illegal, public manifestations of indigenous ritual were forbidden, and masks, songs and dances were to be appropriated by the state.
Those were the iconoclastic events on which Ramon Sarró bases his study of political circumstances involving the mid-twentieth-century destruction of Baga material art and culture that had defined their society for centuries. According to oral tradition and probably some time before the fifteenth century, Baga ancestors from the Fouta Jalon mountains migrated to the islands and mangrove swamps of present-day Guinea’s Atlantic coast. Today’s Baga elders explain that their ancestors left Futa Jalon because they refused to convert to Islam: ‘the Fula wanted us to pray, and we only wanted to dance’ (reviewer’s interview with Koutoubi Bangoura of Katako, 31 December 2007). Baga informants claim that the ancestors carried masks and ritual practices with them to the coast, but additional art and ritual institutions were doubtless created during the centuries following settlement in the marshy lowlands refuge. As Sarró observes, the resulting isolation of Baga villages contributed to the survival of an extraordinary amount of artistic production into the twentieth century. The great variety of masks and dances articulated a complex socio-religious system that involved an unusual number of initiation rituals. In some villages circumcision was only one of a series of painful ordeals endured by local youth (which is said to be one of the reasons they helped iconoclasts locate hidden ritual objects). Apart from normal rates of attrition and change, Baga artistic culture seems to have survived pretty much intact into the first decades of the twentieth century, when French colonial looters began removing substantial numbers of objects. However, it was the Muslim missionaries and Touré government policies that seriously damaged Baga cultural institutions.
Ramon Sarró introduces some original perspectives on previously discussed issues about Baga history and culture that one hopes will now give rise to productive debate. Frederick Lamp unequivocally regards Asekou Sayon’s attack on local ritual life as ‘the final, disastrous disruption of Baga culture’ (Art of the Baga, 1996, p. 224), whereas, in Sarró’s view, Sayon’s movement was destructive in the sense that ‘it brought about the end of some rituals and of the religious identity linked to them’. Sarró also sees the replacement of sacred groves with mosques, schools and plantations as ‘constructive’ in the sense that it ‘contributed to the creation of a Guinean space [and] a shared experience’ during decolonization (pp. 13–14). More reflective of deep-rooted local values [End Page 332] is the Baga attitude that the harm done by Asekou Sayon and his disciples was not great because the invisible spirit embodied by the material objects could not be taken away or destroyed (pp. 156–7).
One could, if space allowed, cite many examples of Sarró’s innovative conclusions based on several years of intensive field research, enhanced by his effective style of exploring issues on multiple levels. For example, commenting on the standard view of the Baga as a remote, solitary people living far from contact with their neighbours, Sarró suggests that ‘Baga have found a refuge not only in the mangroves of the coast, but also in the stereotype of a mangrove people: a stereotype...