For centuries, griots have directed ceremonies, smoothed over disputes, and served as repositories of history and genealogy. Now in northern Mali they are out of a job.
Down a street of red earth near the outskirts of the Malian capital, a family is preparing for the naming ceremony of its newest member – an event now forbidden in their northern home region by Islamist militants who seized control there earlier this year.
"They say forbids it," says Rakiatou Wallet Tannal, an aunt of the newborn girl, referring to Islamic law. "That's their sharia, not the sharia of Muslims."
The stricture hits especially hard for families like Ms. Wallet Tannal's, part of a hereditary caste of bards and storytellers found across West Africa and commonly known by their French name, "."
For centuries, griots have directed ceremonies, smoothed over disputes, and served as repositories of history and genealogy. Now in northern Mali they are out of a job. Yet their troubles highlight a larger problem: Having taken control of northern Mali, hard-line Islamists are smothering social interaction with religiously motivated bullying and brutal punishments.
A Sept. 25 report by Human Rights Watch on Islamist repression in northern Mali cited cases of hands amputated for alleged theft, beatings for listening to music, and women flogged for failing to cover themselves in public. At least one couple accused of adultery was reportedly stoned to death.
Until this year, northern Mali was known for music – spare melodies that recall the desert. Tourists went to festivals, men and women mixed freely, and Islam was a personal affair.
"Now there are no more birth [ceremonies], no more weddings," says Wallet Tannal of her family's hometown of Ménaka, on the fringe of the Sahara near Mali's border with Niger. Like most people there, they belong to the Tuareg, a nomadic people akin to North Africa's Berbers.