OEven more than their beloved gold Jewellery, the Fulani women treasure the socou-go/. the traditional tattoos decorating their lips. Many Western visitors don't realise that the dark lines around their mouths aren't make-up. but are permanently tattooed.The Fulani are immensely proud of their body art. If asked politely and respectfully, they will happily pose for photographs without standing to attention as so often happens when taking portraits of tribal people. Some even pose for images in an almost professional manner, although always with a touch of shyness.
To find out more about their tattoos, my guide and my driver (both Fulani men themselves) arc taking me to the villages of these former nomads. Just a few miles outside Djenne. in the Niger inland delta, lies Senoussa. a Uf]ge area that was given to the Fulani at the time of their worst plight Now there is a picturesque, largely subsistent village there and its charismatic chief Hamadi Mama Case is pleased to welcome visitors. Without much ado. this hospitable and friendly man leads us to meet Aissa Kaycnta. the local tattooist
Mick's driver & guide
The Fulani tribe numbers between seven and ten million, scattered over the entire Sahel region between Senegal and Sudan. It is unclear where they originated, with some linguists claiming them to be related to the Senegalese Wolof. Others, along with most of the Fulani themselves, insist that they came from Ethiopia or even Egypt Indeed there arc some physical and cultural similarities to the Ethiopian Amhars (with whom they share the gum tattoos). Fulfulde. the Fulani language, even has some apparent parallels with Ancient Egyptian and is said to be one of the most complex tongues of the world Originally all Fulani were nomads (bororo). while nowadays a large proportion is forced to settle down as loroobc (town Fulani).
Tool Tittoo Majaxw« I 39
^^ While we are walking to see her. the children of the village are cheerily chanting their mantra of'Ca va?" and "Bonjour!" without immediately demanding sweets or pens or both as so often happens. In between the clay houses we meet numerous Fulani ladies and girls, all of whom were tattooed when they reached the age of around twelve. One girl actually had endured the procedure about a week before our visit. Painful? I ask. Sure, she says, but, being a proud Fulani. she would have never considered not doing it. Her tribe would never have allowed her to be the odd one out On the contrary, she looked forward to it and saved the 1000 CFA (about one pound) to get the socou-go/ by the throdi. the female tattooist. on market day.
The Mali government is clever enough not to meddle too much with the traditions of the numerous ethnic groups of the country. When I ask the chief if there is an official ban on tattooing (as in other countries of the region) he laughs out loud: "We are Fulani and do as our customs demand. Our highest goal is to be proud, brave and honest!"
In days gone by. only the lower lip and gum were tattooed at puberty, while the upper lip had to wait until the girl was married (usually to a cousin) as a visihli» sign of being in matrimony.This is one tradition that has changed however. Now teenagers frequently have the full tattoo, often in addition to small scars on their temples or cheeks, medicinal markings which underline the grace and elegance of the beautiful Fulani girls.
When we arrve at her house, the throdi Aissa Kayenta has already taken her spot in the courtyard, where she sees her customers.Today her younger sister is getting a touch-up on her gums.The Fulani want neat, clean tattoos without any scarring and Aissa is taking her time with the five needles in order to get the tattoo as dark as possible. One lower lip will take her almost two hours, she says, for a good result.The pigment is made of crushed charcoal mixed with shea butter, which comes from the Karite tree. (The soothing properties of this substance mean that it has even found its way into the Western cosmetics industry.) The throdi murmurs m3gic spells during the tattooing, secrets passed down to her through generations of this tattooing family. And. at a certain point in the future.Aissa will pass on the knowledge of the Fulani tattoos to her own daughter, for her to continue the tradition of the socou-go/.
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