Or rather two audiences and a big ceremony
25.11.2016 - 29.11.2016 40 °C
Early evening, on the same day I finished my Dogon Country trek, I left Mali to the relative safety of northern Burkina Faso. More precisely a town called Ouahigouya. Entering a new country means finding a new way to quell my Internet addiction, i.e. buy a new local sim-card and load it with data. Sure, travelling through West Africa would be a good way to get “off the grid”, but I’m not leaving the Internet behind for a whole year. Besides, the mobile 3G is the only internet down here fast enough for me to actually update this blog. Wi-Fi and internet cafés are painfully slow.
Walking into the nearest mobile company office, little did I know that I wasn’t just shopping a sim-card. I was making a friend. The guy selling me the sim-card, Sissoko, decided to help me out once we’d finished the formal business. He offered to take me to the guesthouse I wanted to stay in, so we jumped on the back of his scooter to find me a place to sleep. Things were pretty full, so we had to shop around. Having finally found a place, he not only paid for the first two night (so smoothly that I didn’t realise it and thus couldn’t complain/stop him), he also bought me dinner and paid my beer.
We met up the next day so that he could show me the town. As you might have guessed, he insisted on driving me around seeing stuff. Passing by the traditional king’s palace, I casually mentioned that we should go and visit the King. You know, as a sign of respect from a traveller passing through his lands. Sissoko wasn’t as keen as I was. Bursting in on the King unannounced apparently isn’t something you do here. He’s quite the powerful guy. Let me explain.
In Burkina, the old pre-colonial kingdoms still exist. The most powerful are in Ouagadougou – the capital. The second-most powerful is in Ouahigouya, and a third is in the eastern part of the country. These kings sort of have the role of civil society leaders. While they are all decedents of the original, pre-colonial kings, the modern state’s president and other political leaders wield the official political power. The Kings, wield unofficial power. They hold sway over dozens – if not hundreds – of village chiefs, who then have the respect of their villages. So the government have to consider their opinions during policy making.
Despite the unannounced nature of our visit, the King was happy to see us. Once he’d woke up from his nap, that is. So we had to wait a few hours. We used them pro-actively and did another tour of the town. When it was time to see the king, he was sitting in his courtyard on a white plastic garden chair. A few other guests were sitting on mats on the floor. This humble throne was the only thing physically distinguishing the king from his guests. As a foreign visitor, the king ordered for another throne to be fetched, and I was honoured with a white plastic chair opposite the King’s. Between Sissoko’s decent English and my basic knowledge of French, we did manage to tell the king that my visit was a show of respect. However, we didn’t get much further in the conversation. Asking questions about a Burkina king’s skillset, the secession order and the size of the realm were a wee bit too complicated with the languish barrier. Instead, the King asked us to come back the following morning with prepared questions and told his grandson to accompany us back to town so that he could answer some of my questions. Hashtag: Hanging out with a prince.
The king’s grandson, Tiraogo, had a bit better command of English, than Sissoko, and with a bit of help from Google Translate, I got explained, among other things, how succession works here. Not surprisingly, it’s agnatic primogeniture, meaning that the oldest legitimate son will take over the throne once a king dies. Interestingly though, an interim mourning period lasting between six weeks and six months have to be upheld before the new king can take to the throne. In this time the senior woman of the royal family will take over leadership of the kingdom. The senior woman being either the deceased king’s oldest living sister or his oldest daughter.
Returning to the palace the next morning, the King had changed his attire to a more royal rope. Formal audiences are held in a small building in front of the courtyard. Here the king was launching on a mat on a raised plateau, while his guests were sitting on mats on the floor. Again, I got a plastic chair. We exchanged some diplomatic pleasantries, like me thanking the king for his time and willingness to answer my questions, while the King expressed gratitude of my interest in learning more about the kingdom. Then, through Sissoko and Tiraogo, I had a chance to ask questions about the role and skillset of the king, the importance of the institution, and how it co-exists with the more formal political hierarchy. I’ve already summed up the answers in the beginning. The king also invited me to attend the “year’s first” ceremony that afternoon. My plan was to leave town after my meeting with the king, but I don’t know when I’ll be invited to a royal ceremony again and decided to stay for another day.
That afternoon me, Sissoko and his English teacher, which he had brought along to explain to me what was going on, once again returned to the royal palace. Traditionally the year in Burkina starts at the end of the rainy season. It is the king’s duty to scarifies and talk to the ancestors, in order to secure a good harvest during the rains. Thus, at the first part of the ceremony the king’s village chiefs thanked the king for the good harvest and donated some of it’s result to him. Either in the form of millet, firewood or cash. The king was back on this white plastic throne, wearing a white dress of peace (there’s also a red dress of war) and a red hat. Surrounded by his ministers, close family members and bodyguards, he took centre stage while a hundred or so village chiefs were sitting on mats and roughs to his sides. Like in a proper court. A few hundred spectators, mostly kids and women, had gathered to witness the ceremony and were standing on the edges of it all.
During the second part of the ceremony, the chiefs (on behalf of their villages) and individuals who wished to, could ask the king for good luck and safety for the coming year – at the token of a small donation. This pretty much worked out like this: gifts of money were handed to the king’s spokesman who would then announce the person’s or village’s name as well as the size of the donation to the crowd. Some social competition is a huge part of this. Figuring out that it would give the crowds a thrill I donated the equivalent of 3€ (about the median of the donations given) to the king and asked for protection, hospitality and good luck for any travellers, who is going to pass through the kingdom the rest of the year. Loud cheers and laughs from the crowd insinuated that I hadn’t been wrong about my participation being well recessive.
In general, this was a ceremony clouded in smoke from some heavy guns his bodyguards were carrying. Otherwise, everything was done in a quite formal and professional way. Every person taking part in the ceremony having specific and designated roles. Ceremonies here in Ouahigouya is apparently rare. But the king in the capital Ouagadougou hold a short ceremony every Friday morning should some feel like visiting.
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