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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 14:41 GMT
Thousands celebrate hunting in Mali
Hunters marching
Many people fear the hunters
By Joan Baxter in Mali

They were taking pot-shots at the heavens even before they reached the presidential palace in the Malian capital, Bamako.

Thousands of men, armed with home-made shotguns or bows and arrows, their mud cloth outfits weighted down with fetishes, were on the march.

Traffic came to a standstill on the steep, winding road.

The invaders came from the far-flung corners of Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger and Senegal.

Outside the palace gates, some danced, while the trigger-happy continued to shoot at the sky.

One man wrestled a hyena on a leash, while others showed off their pythons, which were allowed to slither around the gardens.

Traditional hunting is about much more than killing animals. Hunters are healers, they are diviners

Tereba Togola, Director of Art and Culture in Mali

Week-long festival

This was the first-ever festival of traditional West African hunters.

The Malian organisers said the ain was to celebrate a 1,000 years, or more, of hunting culture.

The idea was also to find a role for traditional hunters in the third millennium, given that there really isn't much left to hunt.

Hunter at the presidential palace
Conservationists blame hunters for extinction of species
The hunters' ball at the presidency was the grand finale of the week-long festival.

The hunters were paying a visit to Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare in his splendid palace on the cliff overlooking the city.

Panicked officials tried urged them not to shoot when they were parading in front of the president, the prime minister, the cabinet, diplomats and other VIPs.

Contrasting views

Behind the noise and the spectacle, serious issues were being discussed.

Although some 40,000 people packed the stadium in Bamako for the opening ceremony, many said they feared the hunters because of their reputed occult powers that allow them to commune with the spirit world or transform themselves into wild animals.

One Malian journalist said he thought it "ridiculous to spend vast amounts of money bringing all those animists into the capital of a country that is 95% Muslim and very poor."

Hunter wrestles down his pet hyena
One man wrestled with a hyena

This was not a view shared by the scholars from three continents who attended.

"Hunters' societies go back into the depths of time," says Tereba Togola, Director of Art and Culture in Mali.

"I would say they are the first form of democracy. They are open to everybody."

Women's role

Cheick Cherif Keita, a Malian professor based in Minnesota, USA, says the hunters' societies have always stressed equality and moral virtues, which are rapidly being eroded in modern West Africa.

"Philanderers, cowards, ones who cannot put up with thirst and hunger cannot be hunters," Keita says.

Woman hunter holding tortoise
Women hunters are few

There was only a handful of women among the hunters' ranks at the festival, but Keita says that is because traditionally women were not active hunters.

"The female figure was always important for the hunter. He owed all his powers to a female figure - his mother or his sister - who would follow him into the bush and protect him when he was in danger by changing herself into an animal or something magical."

The future

Perhaps the main issue was to determine a role for the hunters, given the disappearance of wild game.

But according to Togola, "Traditional hunting is about more than just killing animals. Hunters are healers, they are diviners, they have great knowledge of the bush, of the stars and even the planets around earth."

While the traditional hunters from Niger were in Bamako for the festival, the Nigerian Government banned all hunting.

Hunters gathering
An ancient occupation that's coming in for criticism

Neino Chaibou, director of patrimony in Niger, who led the Nigerian hunters to Mali, admitted that desertification and disappearing wildlife were serious problems in his country.

But he said traditional hunters were not to blame for either of these problems, saying it was big-game hunters from "far away" who had decimated the big game in Niger.

The hunters have always been protectors of society

Cheick Cherif Keita, Malian professor
In the past three decades, wealthy trophy hunters from the Middle East and Europe have been allowed - for hefty sums - to kill lions and other endangered species in several West African countries.

The hunter is more than a hunter

Not everyone in Bamako was as enthusiastic about the festival as the hunters and the scholars.

We fear the president wants to use all the hunters' powers to extend his mandate

Malian woman

Some private newspapers alleged there were sinister political overtones.

Citing the examples of Sierra Leone and Guinea where hunters have taken sides in political upheaval and warfare, one observer said "this festival should remind hunters that they should consider their hunting activities as a culture and should not follow a military way and attacking people."

Malian officials receiving hunters
The Malian leaders are accused of politicking

As one woman quipped when I asked her if she wasn't going to watch the hunters parade to the presidential palace: "It's not good, this hunter thing. We fear the president wants to use all the hunters' powers to extend his mandate. That's what people are saying. Besides, all the shooting has given me a headache."

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