The blacksmith and the noble

All in the eyes – a girl from the Bellah caste in Burkina Faso.

Trygve Bolstad / Panos Pictures

In the Yatenga region in Burkina Faso, it is still common to see people refusing to drink from the same calabash or sit on the same mat as a blacksmith. The reason lies in an old tale. It goes: ‘In the beginning blacksmiths and nionnonses (the rulers of the land) were friends. Until the day when one of the rulers fell in love with the wife of a blacksmith. The blacksmith attacked him, and the nionnonga threw a necklace of flame around his neck...’

The origins of this tale, says El Hadj Malick Zoromé, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Burkina Faso, are lost in the mists of time. But the attitude towards so-called ‘caste’ people remains. It stains whole areas of public and political life. ‘The blacksmiths are the victims of a real apartheid’ says Zoromé. ‘Forced to live apart, they are held in contempt by other people.’

This may mean that they cannot marry outside their caste. Take Adamou S, a student at the University of Niamey, who made friends with Halima. All went well until the day when they decided to get married. Halima’s family investigated his origins. Their response to those who came on his behalf to ask for her hand was: ‘We are nobles and we cannot give you our daughter, because he comes from a caste family.’

Sometimes those from caste backgrounds feel the same way, but for different reasons. Penda Mbow, historian at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, says: ‘I am in favour of people marrying for love. But because caste remains so important to so many people, I would rather marry someone from my own caste. There will be fewer problems.’1

Caste people take pride in the tale of their ancestor, Bamago, who forged the blade that cuts the umbilical cord, the axe to chop wood, the pick to plant crops and dig graves. Bamago is the source of all life; he is there at birth and at death.

Zoromé says he is proud of his origins. But the former minister can never forget that his pride was not enough to overcome the hurdles put in his way in his political life. His adversaries said that certain high offices should never be given to a blacksmith. He even overheard one day that: ‘A blacksmith is like a mattock, you only use it during the rains. When winter comes, you put it back in the attic. Sometimes someone unbolts the door, but....’

There is still a long road to travel, even in a country where the Constitution holds up equality as a fundamental principle.

Both pieces from Panos West Africa Panos Info No 5 Les Castes en Afrique. Translated by Nikki van der Gaag.

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