Styling the Donzo

Donzo In many parts of Côte d’Ivoire, Donzo refers to a broad category of armed guardians who claim linkages to, and/or flaunt an affinity with the traditional West African hunters’ associations. The notoriety of the Ivorian Donzo stems from their more recent manifestations, first as urban vigilantes in the 1990s, and later as informal security forces associated with the political and armed opposition. Meanwhile, in the town of Bondoukou in eastern Côte d’Ivoire, the Donzo warrior-hunter tradition is the subject of representation and indeed carnivalization, in the annual parade called Sakaraboutou (see video).

Sakaraboutou is a pageant featuring a large group of young men accompanied by a drum band and a small crew of female singers. Officially, the youngsters are identified as old-style warriors, and the parade as a traditional representation of a ‘call to arms’ held annually on the last day of the month of Ramadan (Id-al-Fitr). Yet, the solemnity of Sakaraboutou’s historical raison d’être and religious scheduling, stands in stark contrast to the sheer exuberance and multifacetedness, the overall leniency and jocularity of this heritage spectacle. To wit, the urban youngsters seize the special powers attributed to the ‘traditional’ Donzo hunter-warriors as a license to engage in carnivalesque transgressive behaviour. To put it in the terms introduced or developed by Ben Rampton, the youngsters’ styling of the Donzo involves crossing into terrains ‘other’ than their own, more particularly, those of femininity and paganism.

The Sakaraboutou styling and crossing performances rework key semiotic resources such as space/time zones, parade lyrics, religious (Muslim) genres, and visual tokens. So, for instance, in the shifting but stable public space delineated by the outer zone of the moving parade and the static spectators along the road, the male and female youngsters style their ‘traditional’ personae: girls in festive outfits and boys in warriors’ tunics who express, in unison, their reverence for their parents, seniors, and (male) religious authorities. Moreover, in the intimate space inside the parading troupe, male and female youngsters engage in reciprocal crossing by serially appropriating and parodying each other’s lyrics. But also, at regular moments during the parade, small groups of three or four male youngsters separate themselves from the main troupe. They seek shelter from the hegemonic gaze of senior spectators and authorities and indulge in subversive performances that last no longer than one or two minutes. In far-going semiotic reconstructions of established religious (Muslim) genres such as benedictions, (Koran) recitations, and sermons, the crossing performances entail staging ‘mock paganism’, which includes demeaning Muslim authority figures such as imams, and even the Prophet and Allah.

Although the gender and religious transgressions are fixed ingredients of Sakaraboutou, they are immersed in an opaque multitude of partly overlapping and partly simultaneous carnivalesque interventions by (small) groups and/or individual participants. In this sense the Sakaraboutou event can be described as super-diverse in its complex and extremely elusive multi-layeredness, whereby participants constantly shade in and out of ever unstable personae, by mobilizing local as well as transnational (religious, cultural and linguistic) resources.

© Karel Arnaut