Adult Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Mali; Bamana peoples

Kore mask


H. 48.1 cm (19")

The Field Museum, Gift of Mr. Harold W. Geisel, Cat. #268675

Bamana people of Mali also possess a hierarchy of initiation societies extending over the course of life, with Ntomo the most elementary (Colleyn 2009). In Ntomo, uncircumcised boys “‘play’ at the discovery of mankind” (Zahan 1974: 115-8). The central character of Ntomo drama wears a mask and observes absolute silence, for “the absence of speech is analogous to interior life, monologue, and meditation.” Thus begins the soul-searching of Bamana life. The silence is occasionally broken when the boys are whipped with switches of a bush of a name associated with the tongue, “as a symbol of the evil that speech can cause.”  Meditative reflection is admired, for as Bamana adages have it, “If speech constructs the village, silence builds the world,” and “The secret belongs to him who keeps quiet” (ibid.). Eldest persons of greatest secret knowledge retain supremacy in such a power structure; furthermore, social harmony and cooperation in adult life may depend on such cool reserve.