Bassari Age Passages
Living as hunters and agriculturalists, the Bassari inhabit the northwest foothills of Fouta Djalon in southern Senegal, straddling the border of Senegal and Guinea. The Bassari have a more comprehensive age-grade system than most other traditional societies.
For both men and women, the roles of behaviour and responsibilities are clearly defined at each stage of life.
Major ceremonies mark the transitions from one age-grade to another and prepare the Bassari initiates for their future roles. Bassari men pass through seven stages of life, beginning at 10 years of age and women pass through eight stages starting at the age of 12. The most important ceremony for Bassari men is their entry into adulthood which occurs between 15 – 20 years old. Women, in contrast, have their major ceremony at 35 years old celebrating the life they’ve already experienced and their new promotion to communal leadership.
The initiation of young men, called Koré, takes place over several months. During this time the boys are separated from their families, live in a communal house with other unmarried mates and have no contact with the opposite sex. They are supervised by older initiates who act as guardians. As the initiation process begins, the guardians take the boys into the nearby sacred forest. Legend has it that in the forest the boys meet their deaths at the hand of Numba, the mysterious chameleon deity of initiation, who devours them and then regurgitates them as fledging adults. The boys are regressed to babyhood, a state of purity, from which they will learn their new roles as men. The final test of their virility and courage is revealed through personal combat when they take on a dual with the Lukuta, a larger than life-sized mask. The most important female ceremony, the Ohamana, lasts for a day and a half, during which the age-group of women dance in mesmerizing trance-like states. Their beautiful beaded bandoliers and crest-shaped headpieces symbolise the important graduation into womanhood and the final stage of life. At this stage, Bassari tradition dictates they be as wise as their male counterparts are strong.