Photos The Bassari of Senegal have a comprehensive age grade system with major ceremonies marking the transition from one age grade to another. Bassari men pass through 7 stages, beginning at 10 years of age. The most important ceremony, called Koré, is the initiation of boys into adulthood. At left, a young Bassari initiate wearing a chicken feather headpiece contemplates his upcoming passage.Silently, young initiates enter the sacred forest where they will undergo rituals of transformation. They have been washed and rubbed with palm oil by ritual aunts, and their hair braided with feathers from sacrificial chickens. Once the feathers are put in place, the initiates behave as if they recognise no one.Sequestered together day and night, the initiates develop bonds with one another that will last for the rest of their lives. These bonds will be strengthened as the initiates join in ritual celebration each time they enter a new age grade.In the sacred forest, the initiates undergo the death of their childhood identity through a series of challenging rituals. During this limbo period lasting for one week, the boys are unable to fend for themselves and are cared for by the guardians who carry them, feed them, clean them, and even lay them down to sleep. This simulated regression recreates a state of purity, from which they will emerge as adults, ready to assume mature roles in the community.Deep in the sacred forest, the initiates are laid down side by side. They cannot talk, laugh, smile or even look from side to side. They must remain impassive and focus on their goal. These constraints teach them obedience and self-control.A gunshot fired by a village elder signals the dramatic arrival of a long line of masked dancers, called Odo-Kuta, who emerge from the sacred forest. As the masks descend the steep hill, walking in a manner of chameleons, they produce a cacophony of shouts and roars, punctuated with the blowing of whistles and ringing of bells.The Odo-Kuta dancers wear distinctive cartwheel masks fashioned from the fibrous leaves and bark of the Akuf tree, and coat their skins with ocher body paint. Their role is to oversee the festivities and insure that tribal traditions are being maintained. They are imbued with the power of the sacred chameleon, acting as a link between the Bassari and their natural environment. The circular design of the mask represents a model of the world with the individual within it. The face of the dancer is concealed by gauze to emphasize his otherworldly quality; the wisdom of the mask is believed to come from beyond the human realm.The climax of the Bassari male initiation takes the form of a duel between each new initiate and a Lukuta mask. This combat is viewed as the final measure of an initiate’s virility and courage. For the fight, the Lukuta mask removes his large cartwheel mask to reveal a protective hood and visor. He also wears a padded chest protector and carries a gauntlet that serves both as a shield and weapon. Each initiate must battle ferociously with his masked opponent.Whether or not the initiate wins the fight, that he has challenged the mask and fought like a man is considered proof that he has left childhood and been reborn as a man. Following this ritual he receives a new name, develops a new personality, and assumes a new status.The guardians of the initiates, called Odyar, are responsible for organising life cycle events. Each Odyar is distinguished by his intricate beadwork and the drapes of long woollen strips over his shoulders. A tight corset made from aluminum decorated with beads accentuates his physique and a tail of plastic strands (originally made from twine and tree fibres) hangs down from his belt, swinging to the rhythm of his step.The Odyar guardians perform the Okerehe dance to the rhythm of long wooden scrapers and iron bells. They also beat a large drum announcing that the chameleon has given birth to the initiates – his new ritual sons.Finely crafted aluminum belts and beaded girdles adorn the Odyar dancers who are the guardians of the initiates and responsible for arranging life-cycle events.Also subject to the age-grade system, Bassari women, like men, undergo initiation ceremonies every six years that define their transition to each new stage of life. At left, the Odogil age group celebrates the passage of the thirty to thirty-five-year group to the next age grade, called Odepeka. The women wear distinctive ritual attire comprised of aluminum belts, beaded bandoliers and headdresses that accentuate their movements.In a seemingly mesmerised state, the women dance in single file, taking tiny steps which give the impression they are dancing on the spot. They slowly move in a large circle carrying dance sticks topped with stylised beaded dolls in one hand and a horsetail fly whisk in the other.The Odoyil women wear intricately crafted headdresses styled to resemble the crests of birds. Their beadwork is recognised as one of the most beautiful and important expressions of Bassari material culture. As a woman matures, her beads become an increasingly important symbol of her escalting status.