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Front and back cover caption, volume 29 issue 5

Front cover

Mud masons in Mali

Mason Konamadou Djennepo participating in the annual re-claying of the Djenné Mosque.

Located in the heart of Mali's Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné is an ancient trading town renowned for its monumental mud-brick architecture. The art of mud building reaches its zenith in the bold compositions and sculpted contours of the Djenné Mosque (1906–07) and in the elegant façades of its historic and modern houses. Masonry has been a specialized trade in Djenné for centuries. Entrants undergo a lengthy apprenticeship and qualified practitioners are due-paying members of the barey ton association which sets wages, provides social security, and regulates working conditions and disputes. During the past two years, however, the masons – like craftspeople and artisans across Mali – struggled to find work and to survive. Their nation was beset by drought, a heavily-armed Taureg rebellion, an Islamist insurgency, and a military coup d'état. Tourism vanished, foreign investment dwindled, development aid was frozen, and Mali's frail economy was strained to breaking point.

During this period of continuing austerity and uncertainty, it is important to recall Mali's rich cultural heritage and look to its future. As mason Boubacar Kouroumansé remarked: ‘When people talk of Mali today, some automatically think about the war and about the hand-chopping that goes on now. But there are others who don't see it so narrowly. They still remember Mali for its old tradition of dignity and honour. We need to focus more on that!’

In response, a year-long exhibition on the Mud Masons of Mali opened at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History on 30 August. Curated by Mary Jo Arnoldi (Smithsonian) and Trevor Marchand (SOAS), and grounded in Marchand's fieldwork, the exhibition includes photographs, displays of tools and building materials, and a series of new documentary films that explore the lives, work, and aspirations of five Djenné masons.

Back cover

Human-elephant relations

Daytime training: young Paras Gaj is roped to adult training elephants and learns to accept Satya Narayan as his driver, 2004.

Since 1986, the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Centre in Nepal has been crucial for maintaining the captive elephant population used to help patrol Nepalese lowland national parks. Elephants assist with anti-poaching patrolling, biodiversity conservation research, and nature tourism. Khorsor is one of six government stables (hattisar) where humans and elephants live and work together. The Tharu people have been employed by the state for elephant capture and care for several hundred years, and the stable represents a total institution in which elephants are treated variously as animals, persons, and gods.

Training practices previously used for adult elephants caught in the wild, have now been adapted for captive-born elephants, like the three-year-old Paras Gaj depicted here. Along with their principal handlers, elephants go through a training process with both practical and ritual elements. Indeed, elephant training represents a multi-species rite of passage involving sacrificial practices and ritual prohibitions that produce new competencies and status roles for both elephant and handler alike. Sacrifices to the fierce forest goddess Ban Devi, and the benevolent Ganesh mark the commencement and conclusion of the liminal period of training. Training takes just a few weeks, serving to make the elephant receptive to a human rider and human command. The elephant is no longer a baby, and the handler has distinguished himself as an elephant trainer.

This issue contains the review of a symposium on Human-elephant relations in South and South-East Asia organized by Piers Locke.