Among the enormous variety of worldviews that exist in West Africa today, we can find brotherhoods or confraternities. These are more or less secret societies with a strong esoteric, spiritual or shamanic component. A great example is the Dozo or Doso hunters.
Dozo hunters “those who return home after a long stay in the bush”.
The Dozo are a brotherhood of traditional hunters very present in the Mandinga region or Malinké country, which is divided into several West African countries such as Guinea, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Liberia, etc. There are also counterpart brotherhoods to the Dozo in Sierra Leone called Kamajors, Poro in Liberia, or Mayi-Mayi in the D.R. Congo.
As is always the case with this type of group, the etymology of the name and its meaning varies depending on the source consulted, so we are left with the idea that Dozo can mean “the one who returns home after a long stay in the mountains”. An expression that very graphically describes the hunting and esoteric practices that give meaning to their group identity.
In Volume IV of the General History of Africa, edited by UNESCO’s International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, we read that, according to tradition, the “master hunters” were the first defenders of local communities.
Being armed and able to fight to defend their people, they were regrouped in the 12th century by Mamadi Kani, a Mandé king descended from the founders of Mali. His intention was to form an army to defend the kingdom, and to this end he called upon all the Keita clans: Traoré, Kamara, Keyta, Konate, etc.
We make this annotation to emphasise its historical importance, but we will not go into further details because it would be too long and complex an account. Today we want to talk about the character of this fascinating brotherhood that Austerio Alonso has been able to get to know in the last survey trip to Kumakonda.
The Dozo or “master hunters” form a secret society that treasures the secrets of the forest and woodland. In other words, they are the guardians of a narrow and privileged knowledge of Nature and Geography, invested with a very powerful spiritual character: medicinal plants, geography, mystical powers such as ubiquity and metamorphosis, the mastery of metal, etc.
The initiation of Dozo hunters
Dozo hunters are not a group to which one belongs hereditarily or by birth, but by ascription.
The Dozo brotherhood is also based on very deep values where the rules of “justice and righteousness” prevail: love and respect for others, moral and spiritual rectitude, fraternity, protection for everyone (including foreigners). Its pillars are, therefore, honour, loyalty, humility, sincerity, and a long etcetera of upright values, contrary to theft, deceit and evil in general.
Great teachers are proud and men of their word.
Of course, it is not possible to join such a brotherhood just like that. Each individual has to go through a sequence that more or less responds to the following steps:
1. The individual must tell his family of his desire to become a Dozo hunter, and the family must introduce him to a Dozo master. In reality, candidates are often children or teenagers, so it may be their parents who make the decision.
2. If the master says yes, a “formal request” must be made in the form of offerings such as kola nuts and an animal to be sacrificed. Such offerings serve to gain the approval of the fetishes, which are the representation of supernatural beings with powers to rule over things or people.
3. If all goes well, the student will take a ritual bath and the initiation can begin.
4. The “initiation” period of the Dozo hunters is an educational process that includes all kinds of teachings and transmission of the knowledge of the ancestors, as well as rituals and sacrifices. The pupil must obey his master unconditionally at all times.
5. This education ends when the teacher considers that the pupil is ready and has assimilated all his teachings. Both theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as those of a moral nature. The pupil then takes another ritual bath and is allowed to rejoin his family.
What do Dozo hunters learn and what are their roles in society?
In addition to moral and spiritual standards, the skills the Dozo must acquire logically begin with hunting to provide food for the community. They learn not only how to hunt, but also what to hunt, why, and even how to butcher their prey in such a way as not to offend the genies of the field.
In reality, hunting represents about 50% of his role as a Dozo, which is not insignificant. The other 50% is magic, divination, mysticism.
Another great apprenticeship is that of the properties of plants that can be used for medicinal purposes, a service to the community. A knowledge that some consider supernatural and that in any case gives them a not inconsiderable power.
The Dozo masters are still active in their practice of natural medicine in the 21st century. They say that when Western medicine does not work, people turn to these men for a remedy. They can intervene in hernias, difficult births, and many other situations.
The Dozo costume
They say that the Dozo hunters’ costume is inherited and can never be washed, and that it makes them immune to enemy bullets.
Dozo hunters must wear a sacred ochre or brown suit. Totally adapted to the environment, it allows them to blend in with the rocks, sands and semi-dry vegetation of the surroundings. However, during ceremonies, more colourful clothing is permitted, with red predominating.
In addition, the trousers have narrow bottoms to prevent them from getting caught in the vegetation. They also wear a cotton cap to enhance the camouflage, in the same colour as the suit.
There is no absence of amulets or gri-gris, which provide protection against evil spirits of the forest and possible enemies. Gri-gris are small, closed leather pouches containing magical herbs or other items prepared by the masters of the Dozo hunters.
Finally, they carry daggers strapped to their chests in leather sheaths, a rifle that is always ready for use (Alonso can attest to this), and an animal’s tail to serve as a fly-scarer.
“If you don’t carry a gri-gri to protect you, you are likely to be engulfed by the Great Snake”.
The music and dance of the Dozo hunters
The culture of the Dozo hunter brotherhood is complemented by music, dance and masks of great aesthetic impact.
The music is provided by the griots dozo, authentic troubadours who sing of the warriors’ deeds and praise their successes to the accompaniment of the ngoni (lute), drums and a kind of castanet or bell played with a stick, both made of metal.
As for the dances of the Dozo hunters, the most important are the steps reminiscent of certain wild animals such as the lion, hippopotamus, buffalo, etc. These can only be danced by those who have killed such animals before.
A great simbo or master hunter from the Malinké Country invited Alonso to witness the “Medicine Ceremony”.
The experience was brutal. In the sacred forest, in the middle of the night, around a fire where a pot of boiling liquid was boiling, the Dozo hunters danced. The audience came to the ceremony with bottles to fill them with the liquid put on the fire, the medicine. With it, they could smear it all over their bodies and obtain infallible protection, as no one could kill or hurt them.
Fetishes and masks are very present in this ceremony. In addition, there are clear changes in the clothing of the dozo. The dozo masters wear a kind of shirt or waistcoat filled with gri-gris sewn on the front and back, alternating with small mirrors that serve to scare away spirits. They also wear long necklaces and hats adorned with cauries, horns or tusks from hunted game, and feathers.
Dozo hunters today
The fascinating thing about this whole tradition is that it is still very much alive in all these countries, with dances, parades, gatherings, funerals and songs telling the stories of this brotherhood. Of course, these celebrations are accompanied by animal sacrifices and masks of great aesthetic impact, often depicting wild animals.
The dozo no longer hunt or fetishise full time. Not like before. Everyone has their own profession. There are farmers, mechanics, etc., but they are still Dozo hunters.
In several countries in the Mandinga region, moreover, Dozo hunters have been incorporated into the country’s security as an auxiliary police force. In other words, as mentioned above, the Dozo hunters are still active in the 21st century. They are not a “folkloric” group that reminisces about times gone by.
In Mali, they are also very present as a force that is almost independent of the police or the army. In fact, they have acted several times between 2017 and 2020 against the Fulani or Peul because they considered that these people had aligned themselves with the jihadists. The conflicts have been harsh and bloody, leaving a good number of deaths and destruction in their wake, especially in the Dogon Country area. Fortunately, a peace agreement was reached between the two communities in 2020.
After this and previous exploratory trips, we already have a new expedition for February 2024: African Culture & Music Expedition “Deep Roots”, in which we will include the fascinating Dozo hunters and their ceremonies so that our travellers can meet them. If you want to be part of it, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t miss the following video summary!
Documentation Alicia Ortego y Austerio Alonso / ✍ Editorial: Alicia Ortego / Photography: Austerio Alonso.