Creolizing Currents: Bambara

Small Iron Lamp, Fitinew
Bamana People, Mali
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Created by Mande blacksmiths, iron lamps played an important role in both secular and sacred events of the Bambara (Bamana) peoples of Mali. Big lamps were used to illuminate nighttime performances, ceremonies, weddings and celebrations.

The flattened cups were basins for oil made from the karite nut. A wick of twisted cotton was placed inside each cup and draped over the edge to be lit at the time of the event. It is said that the cups were to represent the human mouth and the wicks signified the human tongue. Several of the cups on this lamp have a spatula hanging from the end of a chain. The purpose of this feature probably is to extinguish the flames. The other notable feature of this lamp, having a relationship to Mande script and signs, are the three human figures that top the three highest cups.

In Bambara religious beliefs, both the mouth and the tongue are sources of the spiritual concept of Nyama. Nyama is the basic energy, force and power that resides in every human being. It has been called the "energy of action... the necessary power source behind every movement, every task." [McNaughton, p.l4] The head was regarded as the seat of intelligence. It, in turn, is supported by the hands, which convert thoughts to actions. While the representation of these human figures is abstract rather than realistic, the motif of horizontal limbs turned up at the elbow is a shape repeated in other parts of the lamp (such as the thin rods to which the spatulas are attached and the framework holding the cups). Thus this lamp, and others like it, makes reference again and again to the human form, for the Bambara believed that humanity is the reason for the existence of the universe.

But religion and philosophy were not the only context for the construction of lamps like this one. They also served secular purposes. One of the most interesting was to illuminate wrestling matches at night. Some of these lamps were said to contain 100 cups. Wrestling is a popular sport in West Africa. The matches were spectacles with musicians, magicians, poets and sorcerers. Much like our athletes today, a successful wrestler was accorded great fame and respect.

The New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM) is located in Faubourg Treme, at 1418 Governor Nicholls Street, phone (504) 566-1136.

Generous assistance provided by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.