The Donso Hunter Society of West Africa and Opening Initiations to the Diaspora

Donso Celebration in Burkina Faso

Who are the Donso ( Donzo/Doso)?

The Donso is a traditional confraternity of Hunters. They also comprise of Griots and very talented Musicians who have preserved a vast history of knowledge through song and many other methods such as divination by placing the tail of a warthog above your shoulder while in song. African societies have always lived in harmony with both the seen and unseen world also known as the supernatural. They are seers and traditional healers with a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, rituals, the animal kingdom, hunting , and shrines (fetishes). They represent an example of moral integrity and are very well known and highly respected in their communities. They are now making history by opening their initiations to the Diaspora.

African societies have always lived in a close relationship with the world of visible powers and that of invisible powers, between what is real and what is supernatural. The men that act as intermediaries between these two worlds are considered the custodians of the traditions and pillars of society and are therefore greatly respected. These are the Malinke Bambara peoples of West Africa, the Donso Hunters are the guardians of the traditional rites in all of their respective communities. It is one of the oldest traditional organizations untouched by time and still today present and recognizable in the entire Madinga area of cultural influence, from Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Burkina Faso to Liberia and the Gold Coast etc. Fortunately, for many of us in the west, The Donso of Burkina Faso branch are opening their initiations to the Diaspora.

What's so special about the Donso ?

The local communities have always honored them for their courage in confronting the fiercest of animals and for penetrating the most hostile forests. However, their basic vocation is to protect society from visible and invisible enemies. The Donso are grouped in confraternities that are more or less secret and ‘democratic’ societies since they are open to all social classes from the nobility to the low castes, with members who may be important functionaries, small traders, smiths or farmers. They are traditional seers and healers with a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, rituals/spells and Shrines (fetishes). They are known for displaying their supernatural abilities such as, having many kinds of protections preventing Guns and Knives from penetrating ones skin and clothing, going invisible and much more. A lot of it can be associated with the in-depth knowledge that this Hunter Society possesses. The Donso is known for their mysteries and secrets. However, the only way to learn any of it is through the process of Initiation. It's always a joyous occasion whenever there's a Donso celebration because many generations of Donso get together and parade across the city in their Donso attire/uniforms with their rifles, great dance moves and showing off fancy trick shots with great pride. The Musicians are playing their instruments and keeping the cities live and vibrant. The Locals as well as Chiefs,Nobilities, police and military personnel come to give their support in admiration. It is no secret that the Donso are also spiritual Warriors that have protected these communities for many generations. The parades and festivals are usually annual and held on specific occasions. One of the main reasons being initiation. This process of initiation takes place in various certain sacred sites . After that, there's a huge festival that takes place welcoming the new initiates into the Donso community.

How does one become a Donso?

To become a Donso, it is necessary to first undergo initiation with a teacher, and/or in a group setting. The candidates must accompany their request with materials such as cola nuts, chickens and seek approval from the Donso Hierarchy. The materials will be used for rituals to appease to the Dieties. Once the candidates are approved, there will be a series of rituals taking place over a period of time. You will be invited to many of the sacred sites reserved only for initiates where you will be introduced to the different Dieties and their shrines along with the local Kingships and Donso villages. You will receive your traditional Hunter garments with all of the jujus, talismans/amulets, spiritual tools and protections. The education received also includes a technical portion directly related to the knowledge of medicinal plants but, the moral and spiritual part is essential. Even though being a Donso confers on the individuals great knowledge regarding many aspects of life – from the art of hunting to natural medicine, cosmogony and supernatural abilities. This is considered the gift of ubiquity and invulnerability to projectiles that implies respecting a moral and social code of conduct. Becoming a Donso would mean being an example of moral integrity; having a deep sense of honor, dignity, loyalty and humility.

One of the Sacred Spiritual Sites where only Donso Initiates and their guests are allowed.

During this time, you will learn about your specialties and become consecrated as a Donso pupil; coming under the responsibility of the teacher(s) to whom they will owe unconditional obedience, just like any other Fraternity. The Donso Hunter has been established as an organization in which one will receive certified membership. From that point on, no matter where you go if, there is a Donso branch in that location you will be embraced with open arms as family. Upon completion of the new initiations there's usually Huge Festivals held in Honor of the Donso Hunter Society and the new initiates are welcomed. In many cases these events are broadcasted on both local and National Television stations.

The presence of this group is recorded for the first time in the Late Middle Ages, during the epoch of the great Mandingo Empire. According to oral tradition, the existence of its confraternities owes its origin to two mythical brothers, Sanin and Kontron. The legend states that, driven by thirst among the ruins of the Ghana Empire, two young hunters killed a new-born child to gain possession of the water of its mother. Punished by God with death, they were resurrected and, having repented, they swore to be pure and chaste. As the ancestors of the hunters with great knowledge of the secrets of the forests, Sanin and Kontron belong to no particular clan and are known for their purity and chastity (from ‘saniya’, the purity of gold).

The head of each confraternity is a teacher; it is he who minds the altar on which ritual sacrifices are offered for protection and a successful hunt. He also administers the hunting territory and guards the Shrines. The Donso are easily known by their clothing: they wear a dark brown tunic with leather fringes and decorated with geometrical signs and amulets, with a round and stiff hat made of large woven threads and decorated with mirrors and pompoms, hunting trophies, warthog teeth, lion claws and gazelle horns. He will always have a rifle on his shoulder and a fly whisk of cow or horse hair in his hand.

The present evolution of their environment is closely bound up with the socio-economic changes in contemporary society. Regional conflicts and migrations help to create local tensions also due to ignorance of local traditions and customs. Urbanization and deforestation have reduced the great hunting grounds causing the hunt to become today a mostly spiritual activity for the protection of the environment rather than an economic pursuit. The Donso confraternities, having survived the slave trade, the influence of Islam and colonization, today enjoy enormous prestige in Malinke society, especially in the rural context. All over the Sahel, it is possible to see the meetings, parades, songs and dances of the Donso, as they display their supernatural abilities. They are a very important element of the contemporary identity of Western Africa and there are many Africans who see in them the guardians of ancient mystical knowledge, according to an uninterrupted centuries-long tradition.

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