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What will happen to Mali's griots?

John ThorneThe Christian Science Monitor

Down a street of red earth near the outskirts of the Malian capital, a family is preparing for the naming ceremony of its newest member – an event now forbidden in their northern home region by Islamist militants who seized control there earlier this year.

"They say sharia forbids it," says Rakiatou Wallet Tannal, an aunt of the newborn girl, referring to Islamic law. "That's their sharia, not the sharia of Muslims."

The stricture hits especially hard for families like Ms. Wallet Tannal's, part of a hereditary caste of bards and storytellers found across West Africa and commonly known by their French name, "griot."

For centuries, griots have directed ceremonies, smoothed over disputes, and served as repositories of history and genealogy. Now in northern Mali they are out of a job. Yet their troubles highlight a larger problem: Having taken control of northern Mali, hard-line Islamists are smothering social interaction with religiously motivated bullying and brutal punishments.

A Sept. 25 report by Human Rights Watch on Islamist repression in northern Mali cited cases of hands amputated for alleged theft, beatings for listening to music, and women flogged for failing to cover themselves in public. At least one couple accused of adultery was reportedly stoned to death.

Until this year, northern Mali was known for music – spare melodies that recall the desert. Tourists went to festivals, men and women mixed freely, and Islam was a personal affair.

"Now there are no more birth [ceremonies], no more weddings," says Wallet Tannal of her family's hometown of Ménaka, on the fringe of the Sahara near Mali's border with Niger. Like most people there, they belong to the Tuareg, a nomadic people akin to North Africa's Berbers.

After Ménaka fell to the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Wallet Tannal's family fled to the city of Gao. Soon Gao fell to a mixed force of MNLA and Islamist fighters from the Movement for God's Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

For several weeks in Gao, Wallet Tannal and other women stayed indoors while gunmen swaggered in the streets. Then in April the family fled to Bamako.

"We've come to Bamako, and we don't know Bamako," she says.

Bamako is a low, dusty, crowded city. The Niger River flows sluggishly between reed-choked banks. A successful griot must know and be known, but in a new city one easily gets lost.

For the family, the new birth recalls their hometown, where they are used to conducting ceremonies like this.

"We will have the naming ceremony here in Bamako, because Bamako is where we are," says Fatima Wallet Mhamadikinan, the baby's mother, with a wistful air.

It is the eve of the ceremony. Women are slicing vegetables in the courtyard where a goat is tethered. Inside, Ms. Wallet Mhamadikinan is cradling her daughter, as her infant son Touhami toddles about.

Tomorrow there will be guests and feasting. The main dish will involve the goat and a sauce of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, bouillon cubes, and spices.

Wallet Tannal, a tall hearty woman in a blue-and-yellow gown, will superintend the festivities in true griot fashion. She must round up the guests, direct the music, and generally keep things lively.

"We will dance, we will sing, we will ululate," she says, referring to a high fluttering cry made by wailing while flicking the tongue.

If it were not her own family, she says, she would expect some remuneration – perhaps money, perhaps dates or cola nuts.

Family members have proposed names, but Wallet Tannal's mother will make the final choice, in line with custom.

"In the north, this would be impossible now," says Wallet Tannal.

The next day the family and their guests assembled down the street of red earth, said Moussa Ag Tannal, the baby's father. They sang, they danced, and they ululated, and Fatimata Wallet Moussa received her name.