Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stilt Walking In Africa (information, comments, & videos)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information and comments about stilt walking in Africa and showcases seven video examples of stilt walking in that continent.

I searched YouTube for videos of African stilt walking after reading that "Moko Jumbies", Caribbean (Trinidad & Tobago) stilt dancing traditions have their source in West Africa. I was curious to see what those traditions looked like, and as a result of that search I found videos of and information about West African and other African stilt walking customs.

In alphabetical order, the videos showcased in this post are Gabon (Central Africa), Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria (West Africa), Republic of the Congo (Central Africa), and Uganda (East Africa).

Disclaimer: This post isn't meant to be comprehensive depiction of African stilt walking traditions or the purposes for those traditions.

Click for a pancocojams post on Caribbean stilt walking/stilt dancing.

Also, click for a post on Caribbean influenced moko jumbies (stilt dancing) in the United States.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

Thanks to all those who are featured in this post and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.

From my online reading, it appears that there are a number of traditional purposes for stilt walking in Africa. Here are some article excerpts that I found on this subject:
From Sampler: Ivory Coast
"Dancing on Stilts
Every village has a stilt or mask dancer—but you have to be born into a stilt dancing family to do it!

Moha Dosso of Ivory Coast dances the Gue Pelou stilt dance

One of the most spectacular dances of the Ivory Coast is the stilt dance, also known as a mask dance. Stilt dances are ritual dances that protect the village and are performed at ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, initiations, and celebrations. During private preparations, the dancer communicates with the spirit world of the ancestors and dons a costume with tall stilts and colorful clothes that cover the face and body completely. Once in costume, no one may refer to the dancer by any name other than the spirit name—the identity of the dancer is kept secret.

Meet Moha Dosso
Could you tell us a little about your background—your village, your country, and your culture?

My name is Moha Dosso, and I’m a dancer from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, from a small village named Gouana near the city of Touba. My people are called the Mahouka, and our language is called Mahouka, too. We have a lot in common with a neighboring group of people called the Yacouba, and the name for us all is the Dan people. In Ivory Coast we have about 70 different ethnic groups—each with different languages, arts, and culture.

What is the role or purpose of dance in your culture? Is it part of a ceremony or for religious reasons; for artistic expression; or for fun and socializing?

Dance is really used for all of these things, but different dances and music are used for different reasons. Among the Mahouka people, Gue Pelou—the stilt dance—is used for ceremonies and rituals (like a wedding, funeral, or the arrival of the President or an important minister), and also for celebrations like a school dance. This mask represents a spirit who is blessing or protecting the village, so people are happy to see it. There are many other masked dances in Ivory Coast, too—using masks made of different materials and different movements. Women dance in certain masks, and men dance in certain ones."...

"One of the most popular types of masks in the Sanga region is the type known as kanaga. Like other Dogon masks, kanaga masks are worn at rituals called dama, whose goal is to transport the souls of deceased family members away from the village and to enhance the prestige of the deceased and his descendants by magnificent masked performances and generous displays of hospitality. In 1935, French anthropologist Marcel Griaule witnessed a dama ritual in which twenty-nine out of a total of seventy-four masks were of the kanaga type. These masks are characterized by a wooden superstructure in the form of a double-barred cross with short vertical elements projecting from the tips of each horizontal bar.

This kanaga mask was collected in Mali by Lester Wunderman, complete with its costume elements (see 1987.74a through 1987.74i). When the mask is worn, the back of the dancer's head is covered with a hood of plaited fiber fringe at the bottom edge. The dancer wears a vest made of black strip-woven cloth and red broadcloth strips embroidered with white cowrie-shells; strands of glass and plastic beads dangle from its edges. The kanaga dancer also wears a pair of trousers made of indigo-dyed, strip-woven cotton cloth, over which he ties a long skirt of curly, loosely strung, black-dyed sanseveria fibers and short overskirts of straight red and yellow fibers. For a traditional dama, the preparation and dyeing of the fibers are undertaken with as much secrecy and ritual as the carving of the wooden mask.

During the time spent by Griaule among the Dogon studying their complex belief system, he was initially told that the kanaga mask represents a bird with white wings and black forehead, but he later came to see this literal interpretation as characteristic of the first level of knowledge, that of the uninitiated. The deeper meaning of the kanaga mask apparently pertains both to God, the crossbars being his arms and legs, and to the arrangement of the universe, with the upper crossbar representing the sky and the lower one the earth. The disparity between these two interpretations illustrates the gaps in our understanding of Dogon art."

From The History Of Stilt Walking
..."Stiltwalkers clearly shown in decorations on ancient ruins. Black slaves brought stiltwalking to America...In digs of Benin civilization in Nigeria is a large beautiful plaque showing sword-carrying stiltwalker....

In what is now Tanzania in East Africa, an old rite centered around a tribal dancer who was called the man in the treetop. Standing high on his stilts, he would pray that the young people of the tribe might grow tall and healthy and reach the very height of their ambitions...

In the Sudan the Ekoi people tell a story about a wise old man. He had been working on his little farm, planting yams. But the day was hot, and the ground was like a griddle, burning his bare feet. The old farmer sat under a tree and whittled a few branches.

Soon he had some walking sticks on which he could carry out his planting in comfort. And it is said this was how the custom of wearing short stilts was begun in that sun-baked African land...

In Nigeria, it is usually the boys who are on stilts, trying to outdo each other in their stunts. They hop on one stilt, vie to outreach each other, and compete in their skill at stilting with no hands. Play on stilts sometimes mimics the creatures seen in nature -- the daddy longlegs spider, the tall wading birds, the giraffe."...

These examples are given in chronological order according to their publishing dates on YouTube with the oldest dated example given first.

Example #1: ikokou [Gabon, Republic of the Congo]

La muse, Uploaded on Nov 11, 2007
clip d ikoku y dimbu
Scenes that include a stilt walker begin at 3:25.

The Ikoku dance is traditional to the Puna ethnic group. That ethnic group is found in the Central Africa nations of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.

Example #2: The Dogon Dance of the Mask [Mali]

New Videos, Uploaded on Feb 11, 2008

The World Famous Dogon people of Mali West Africa.doing a ceremonial Dance.
Here's a comment from this video's discussion thread:
Jojo La verite, 2015
"This dance is called kanaga for the dogon. the same dance appear in bamileke tribe in cameroon and is called Kounga."

Example #3: Mali - Dogon's Dances

Carlo Di Marco, Published on Apr 7, 2012

The Dogon's dances represent their history. The masks depict the system in the world: animals, men and things, too. In the dance they are an important element and the Dogon use more than 80 masks, depending on the celebration.

Example #4: Dununba Drum and Dance Party with Stilt Walker Dancer Guinee West Africa [Guinea]

Aslan Koyun Published on Sep 17, 2013

Example #5: Royal Tour (1956) [Nigeria]

British Pathé, Published on Apr 13, 2014

Port Harcourt & Enugu, Nigeria.
A brief scene of a stilt dancer is shown at 2:12-2:21. The commenter indicates that this is called "the staggering dance" and that the dances imitate the movements of long legged birds that live near the Niger creeks.

Example #6: STILT-WALKING [Uganda]

NTVUganda, Published on Aug 17, 2014

Stilt-walking is an art of entertainment that is known for drawing huge crowds in circuses and other recreational areas. NTV’s Suhail Mugabi caught up with three brothers who have mastered the art and now reports.
The video narrator indicated that stilt walking is new in Uganda and that the brothers who are the focus of this video use stilt walking for entertainment purposes.

Example #7: Ivory Coast Dances | Planet Doc Express Docs [Ivory Coast]

Planet Doc Express Documentaries Published on Dec 8, 2014

There are more than sixty indigenous ethnic groups in the Ivory Coast: the Dan is one of them. For them, ceremonial dances have a special significance and importance.

The Dan are known for being fierce warriors, forever locked in a struggle with neighboring peoples.
But when it comes to dancing, they become peacemakers, organizing two-day festivals in which the best dancers from neighboring villages are chosen.

The vocal polyphony is energetic, accompanied by loud drums; women also actively participate in the musical ritual. This is a typical imitative dance, one of the many varieties of these ethnic groups choreography in Ivory Coast.

A man wears a mask symbolizing a forest animal. To the sound of drums, the protagonist is driven to the center of the dancing arena by the ringmasters. Supported on stilts, he jumps to mimic the animal he represents.

The Dan believe in a world divided into two halves: the village and its inhabitants on one side, and on the other, the world of wild animals and guiding spirits of the forest. In Ivory Coast the amazing stunts sometimes continue until the dancers fall into a trance.

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  1. I love your site and enjoy how you have put the stories together. Even the little preview in my feed is always interesting! My husband is from Namibia, with harsh desert conditions and forced homelands. The story of the farmer's burning feet reminded me of a story my husband tells of his childhood. Food supplies were always tightly controlled and the watermelons in the neighbors farm would entice the hot and hungry youth.They would fashion stilts and raid the fields under star-light. The stilts would prevent footprints so the culprits wouldn't be caught. My mother-in-law laughed when he confessed as an adult, apparently they knew all about it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, highest shelf.

      While this post is about traditional African stilt walking performances, it's interesting to read how stilts were otherwise used in an African country.

      Best wishes!

    2. Correction: Most of the videos featured in this post are of traditional stilt walking performances. The video about the Ugandan stilt walkers/dancers is an exception.

  2. Hello Azizi
    Thank you for the most interesting information. Coincidentally, I recently purchased a antique doll or ethnographic figurine, with some search, I have concluded it is a representational figure of a stilt dancer of Cote D'Ivoire. I was wondering if you would have a look at a picture of it, to determine which village it may be from, and the cultural importance of the doll (is it significant to your people or just made for tourist). All the info I have found on stilt dancers describe the Yacouba people as synonymous with Dan people. You are the first I found, to mention the Mahouka. Your knowledge would be greatly appreciated. If you would email me, I will send photos. My email: Thank you. Celeste

    1. Greetings, Celeste.

      I appreciate your comment about this post. I have no expertise whatsoever in African culture as most of what I've learned comes from internet searches and most of the rest comes from books that I have read. Consequently, I would not be able to help you identify which African ethnic group the doll that you purchased is from.

      Usually I delete comments that include email addresses, but I kept your comment up because of the information it includes. If you want to write your comment again without your email address, I'll delete your first comment.

      Best wishes,

  3. Here's an excerpt of an article that mentions stilt walking traditions among the Garinagus (Garifuna) people in Honduras, Central America. I'm posting this comment here because that tradition may have come from the African heritage of the Garinagu people. The excerpt is from an article about the Garinagus who live in New Orleans, Louisiana (USA):
    ..."Doña Maria Elena describes typical holiday traditions as practiced in Honduras; many that were also practiced in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina:

    And during the time of the holidays, they come out with a man they call the Guarine, to begin the festivities [in December]. They dress him with coconut leaves. ? He dances from punta to punta, then they bring him back the 6th of January. Then they bring out the Guanaragua around the 26th of December to dance from house to house.

    In conjunction with the costumed man they call the Guarine, Doña Maria Elena describes how he is joined by the Pastorales; a choir of female singers who typically sing songs about rural themes and other aspects of Garifuna life, while seeking small, goodwill gifts of food or money:

    Then come the Pastorales seeking offerings. They come with a cane, their maracas and the Guanaragua like to steal the ribbons of the Pastorales so when we see the Guanaragua come, we look for other places to sing 'cause they follow us. They chase us to steal our hair ribbons to weave it in theirs and so everyone is involved in the chasing and the running away. It's very amusing.

    She continues to describe other holiday events: "On the 27th, they bring out the Flandigano, a male figure who dances in the ritual, but they put extra feet on him [stilts]. He dances and it's very beautiful to see his costume move. Everyone follows the Flangidano. It's very beautiful!" ...
    From Punta to Chumba: Garifuna Music and Dance in New Orleans
    By Amy Serrano