Face to face with the descendants of the elite force of the Malian empire
Photographer Philippe Bordas spent several years with Mali's hunters capturing on film their mastery of their trade. Now he brings some of his wonderful prints to Paris
They belong to an ancient, secret brotherhood with chivalrous practices and spectacular costumes. They parade with wild animals, wear richly decorated garments and amulets, and are armed with rifles from the distant past. They are highly respected for their hunting skills and for their faith-healing and magical powers.
Three of them attended the opening of the show by the writer and photographer Philippe Bordas, as part of the Rencontres de Bamako (Biennial of African photography). Bordas has brought back an impressive series of portraits of the hunters. It is one thing to see huge prints of his pictures at the Institut Français in Paris, but it is quite different to meet the men face to face with their leather garments, plaited hair and antiquated weapons.
"I come from the village of Kouligaro [in Mali]," Sidiki Traoré explains in French. "I became a hunter when my father died." Only one of his children has carried on the tradition. He had to lay down his arms after a stroke made him an invalid. "I used to be so strong," he adds sadly. "I was taken bad during a ceremony. Everyone thought I was going to die. Hunting is a thing of the past for me, but I still go into the bush to watch the animals ... I feel really pathetic."
Bordas has produced an astonishing account of his meeting with the hunters. It started in 2001 when the government of Mali invited the hunters to gather in the capital, for the first time since the middle ages. Some 30,000 hunters travelled to Bamako on horseback or by bicycle, filling the streets with their weapons, traditional garb and living trophies: snakes and hyenas that they exhibited without muzzles, to demonstrate how well they had them under control. "It was an incredible sight. It could have been something out of a Spielberg blockbuster," Bordas says. He photographed the parade but was unable to make contact with these secretive men.
But a job photographing the fire station in Bamako opened the way. "While I was there, someone told me about a heroic firefighter who wore no protective clothing, going so far as to climb onto burning storage tanks," Bordas says. "When I met him, he said he could take no credit for such exploits. He was afraid of nothing because he was protected, being the disciple of a hunter." It was through this man that Bordas met Traoré, a hunter unlike the others, who was in the process of trying to save their heritage. The hunters, who co-opt followers on the basis of individual merit, were finding it increasingly difficult to find new recruits. Many of their number had died, taking with them their learning and secrets. Equipped with a tape recorder, Traoré travelled all over the bush on a moped to record the lore accumulated by the elders. For several years Bordas accompanied him. "Thanks to him I was able to enter the brotherhoods. We organised a celebration in honour of his departed father and sent out an invitation to the hunters. Two hundred attended the gathering."
The hunters follow a precise ritual to prepare their arms, depending on which kind of game they are targeting. They kill porcupines, snakes and hippos to feed their villages. "The prime cuts are given to the poor, old people and widows," Bordas says. But the photographer has rarely taken part in hunting parties: "It's really tough-going. They have an extraordinary understanding of their game, based on interpreting tracks and smells ... whenever I turned up the animals would run off."
A copy of the Mandé charter that inspires the hunters hangs on the wall in a room at the Institut: "The Mandé [ethnic group] is based on understanding and agreement, love, liberty and fraternity. That means there can be no ethnic or racial discrimination among the Mandé." This text, considered by some to be the world's first constitution, dates from the rule of King Soundjata Keïta (1190-1255), himself a master-hunter. Today's hunters are the descendants of this elite force of the Malian empire, which put an end to slave-trading.
There are hunter brotherhoods in most of western Africa. They were mentioned recently in reference to Ivory Coast: the newly elected president Alassane Ouattara belongs to the same Senufo ethnic group as the hunters in Mali, who supported him. Amnesty International has accused them of perpetrating massacres, an allegation they strongly deny.
The Hunters of Mali is at the Fnac store, Forum des Halles, Paris, until 21 December.