08 May Bògòlanfini
During the most important transitional periods of their lives—entering adulthood, before marriage, after childbirth and finally as a burial shroud, Bambara women of Mali wrap themselves in the ritual cloth—the bògòlanfini. Derived from the terms bògòlan, meaning, ‘made from mud’, and fini, meaning ‘cloth’, the mud cloth is an artful form that combines a bounty of local natural ingredients: water, earth, sun, and natural vegetable dyes along with deeply rooted superstitions. Here are some interesting facts about the bògòlanfini!
- It is only Bambara women who are fluent in the symbolic language of the designs and retain the ‘know-how’ on the cloth’s production, which dates back to the twelfth century. The meanings of the designs are kept a secret, guarded from outsiders—particularly men! It is ultimately the power of such knowledge that gives these women prestige in their societies.
- The bògòlanfini’s designs have magical and therapeutic properties. They are believed to be imbued with powerful nyama, ‘the vital life force’, and hold sacred powers of protection—helping to absorb the dangerous forces released during these important transitions.
- The process of making a bògòlanfini takes many weeks to complete and at times, up to a year. First off, locally grown cotton is spun into a yarn and then weaved on a double-heddle loom into narrow strips. The cloth is then washed and dried out in the sun. The Bambara women of Mali then pound the leafy branches of n’galama (Anogeissus leiocarpus) and cangara (Combretum gluntinosum) in a mortar and soak the paste in water for a day. They then dip cloth into the solution, which stains it a deep yellow colour, before drying it out once more in the sun. Using a piece of bamboo, designs are then painted onto the cloth using mud collected from the banks of the Niger River. These patterns stand out in yellow against the mud and once dry, they are gone over with a solution of ground peanuts, caustic soda and millet bran, which turns them brown.
- During a long-term apprenticeship, mothers teach their young daughters several techniques as well as an understanding behind the visual language of the cloths. The geometric motifs and patterns all have their own name and express a proverb or song, articulate a message, or represent a historical event.
- Some women have their own secret concoctions and use a different species of leaf to achieve a range of three different colours of the bògòlanfini, namely red, white and black. These three basic colours also have symbolic meaning. The red bògòlanfini is associated with blood and transformation whilst the black with fertility and productivity. The white bògòlanfini on the other hand, is associated with death and purity. Generally, young Bambara girls wear a red bògòlanfini during excision and the following period of isolation. The wrapper is believed to heal the wound whilst also protecting the girl from nyama, released during the ritual, which is potentially dangerous if not controlled. On the other hand, brides wear a white bògòlanfini during their wedding ceremony and when leaving their village to go live in their husband’s. The cloth is also used to wrap the deceased body before burial.