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Robert Gardner[Some extracts from The Impulse to Preserve by Robert Gardner (Peabody Press. 2006) concerning the Borroro, nomadic herders living in the Sahel of the Niger Republic. Gardner visited them in 1978 and made the film Deep Hearts]
The Borroro - Gerewol and Yaki
The Gerewol of the Borroro
It was a surreal assembly of painted and costumed dancers swaying in front of a fire that sent clouds of embers and sparks across the desert floor. The sound of dancerís leg rattles and chorused voices were alternately swallowed and amplified by the gathering winds. It was a contest between men and the elements, something I have witnessed often since coming to the Sahel. It would not have taken much for Nature to hurl us all to the furthest horizon, which prompts me to think if but one of the legion puzzled by Kurtzís dying words in the Heart of Darkness had been in this Africa for the last twenty-four hours they would at once know the meaning of: "The horror, the horror".
In the gerewol there is no room for personal or romantic notions; it is principally social in significance. No connection exists between virility and being a bull, although women sometimes come to one for a child. Between men who know they might be selected as the bull there is intense competition and it is good to be selected even though the status confers no privileges. Still, people will recognize that you are a bull and will remark on it. Gerewol is an affirmation of primordial Borroro characteristics and the bull is also and in part the result of a harmony brought about by charms and ritual knowledge. A bull must have beauty but must also be protected by magic. Sometimes there are dry bulls, ones without seductive powers.
The Borroro sing and dance all day, all night. Inexhaustible squads of young men and women seem never to falter. All participate and are impassioned, even exalted. They wear watches with hands that literally do not move; all is suspended while this spectacle unfolds.
The Borroro fear othersí eyes and mouth. The mouth because it can impart malediction as well as benediction. They say, "the mouth can eat you," whereas eyes are instruments of envy. Flocks and whole herds can be spoiled by looks but mouths are still more dangerous. Greetings, which are ritually extended, are really incantations that nullify the potential dangers of mouths. The maidens who choose the bulls are fearful of eyes, of the looks of other girls whom they say "eat or suck" them with their eyes. The one who is the best liar is the one who wins. The best liar is said to chase the other person away.
It is the fourth day and I cannot help wondering why I feel so besieged. How often is there an opportunity to witness a spectacle like gerewol against a backdrop of elemental nature such as at this moment in this place hundreds of miles from anywhere? Almost never, I would think. So my disquiet may demonstrate that ordinary expectations limit oneís wider prospects.
I sat in the moonlight until the dancing began at midnight. From time to time, I wandered about to watch the dancers putting on elaborate makeup by the light of the moon. Despite a great weariness from endless spectacle, what I saw got my full attention: accomplished males applying rouge and lipstick under a full moon in preparation for a contest to decide which of them was perfect, the bull of choice.
The filming is far more productive here than it has been up until now, partly perhaps for the reason that I know a little better what will happen next. I also have developed a few thematic ideas which might give this work some coherence. I find myself thinking about specific forms and of an overall shape those forms might take. Maybe it is not impossible to make this film after all.
The idea of a deep heart has been intriguing me since I first heard of it. As far as I can tell, the construct is of central importance in that it makes possible for Borroro males to hide their deepest and most private feelings from each other and from public scrutiny (I have not yet learned whether women have their own deep hearts). Males appear to live in such an exaggerated state of mutual envy and suspicion that, were they to reveal their true feelings to each other, there might be violent consequences. By hiding their feelings within deep hearts, the Borroro can at least pretend not to harbor them at all. Of course, they would be doing this knowing that everyone else was doing it too.
All morning I waited for the light to appear but it never came. It was strange to be here and not to see the sun at all. I took it as an omen that we should leave and so we did.