Thursday, March 21, 2013

Discretion and the Baga

Elsewhere in his book Art of the Baga (did I mention that this book is very interesting?), Frederick Lamp discusses the question of how he can keep the confidences of his sources, who evidently shared with him some ritual secrets of the Baga, while still conveying enough of the essence of the matters under discussion so that readers can get a meaningful understanding of Baga culture.

Lamp faced a serious dilemma. Apparently some crucial information "has always been considered secret, the property of only the most highly ranked, initiated males" -- but "[s]ince initiations are no longer practiced on any level, the mechanisms for transmitting that knowledge are gone. The information is simply guarded by those who have it, and much of it will probably disappear with them at their death." (14) Is there a moral obligation for a scholar to preserve elements of human culture, even if the people whose culture it was would prefer for it to die with them?

Fortunately, Lamp "was able to enlist the aid of others in the community, including some elders (one aged around 107) who were not ritual officials. Through them I gained a satisfactory amount of information." (14) He also became part of discussions with the Baga themselves about these issues, and perhaps indeed they are the best people to answer the question of what part of their past culture should be preserved for history -- yet against tradition.

But meanwhile the next question was what Lamp should write. Ultimately, Lamp says, on certain ritual secrets he "decided to present only material that has already been disseminated outside the Baga community, in theses, sketches, and collection photographs, together with a minimum of what little elaboration has been offered to me by the elders themselves." He goes on to "beg the indulgence of any elders who may feel I have crossed the line." (58) This stance reflects a deep respect for the Baga elders' right to decide how much of their heritage will survive.

But there is one further note. Lamp writes that "I have withheld information that may jeopardize secrecy, and particularly details that outsiders may find abhorrent." (58) One can't read that sentence without wondering what details an outsider might find abhorrent. Here of course we, the outsider readers, do not know. But there are some intriguing hints. Lamp reprints a photograph he himself took in 1976 of a ritual event among the Temne (a group with some links to the Baga); he writes that "[t]he ritual was saturated with secrecy and I was very unwelcome, even though the part of it I saw was ostensibly public ... and I had official permission to attend.... The atmosphere was extremely tense, and dangerous to the uninitiated." (83) Later he quotes a Baga source saying that during an initiation, "the female sorcerers who would attempt, out of curiosity, to follow the operation of circumcision in the forest are physically liquidated from society by the Tshol" (94)  -- a "shrine figure" (87) with formidable powers. Perhaps there are more hints later in the book (which I've only read the first part of so far), but it does seem that part of what Lamp is not describing is the serious threat or reality of violence.

And, in a classic irony, if violence is indeed an underlying feature of Baga ritual, we have to recognize that this violence is bound up with the processes of creativity that also produced Baga art.

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