Forgerons, Potiers and the Dance of the Leopard-Men

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Travel Weekly Crossroads' associate editor, Judy Koutsky, is on a press tour of Africa's Ivory Coast. She is chronicling her adventures in regular, on-line travelogues. Day 4 brought Judy to Korhogo, where she got up-close-and-personal with the culture and customs of the Senoufo people. This is the third chapter in the "Judy Goes to Africa" series:

KORHOGO, Ivory Coast -- A nine-hour bus ride from Abidjan, Korhogo is the capital of the Senoufo people. Our hotel here, Mont Korhogo, feels more like what one might expect of an African hotel, as opposed to a Westernized African hotel. The city, in the very north of Cote d'Ivoire, is a good way to experience the traditional life in the villages.

The Senoufo are known for their forgerons (blacksmiths), potiers (potters) and tisserands (weavers). The forgerons, through a very intricate and arduous process, extract the iron from the ground and melt and mold it into weapons, bullets and crafts. I was taken back thousands of years, watching the men work as the original metallurgists. This work, as expected, is done by the men.

Also done by men is the weaving. They use la toile de Korhogo (Korhogo cloth), which is rough, thick cotton -- the main crop in Korhogo, picked by the women -- turned bold with colors from leaves and mud. We watched the men patiently weave tablecloths, robes, pants and shirts. Originally, this was done for the hunters and for initiation ceremonies; today, it's done for the tourists. Although weavers can be found throughout the city, the best place to see them in action and to get a good deal is La Cooperative Artisanal, three blocks away from the Place de la Paix.

The women are the potiers. They have perfected the craft with little more than water and clay, without the aid of wheels, and make beautiful vases, bowls and art objects. After giving us a demonstration, the potiers asked the women in our group to trade: their pottery for our American lipstick. I only wished I brought more. The little girls wanted perfume and nail polish. Even in little villages, Western trends have infiltrated.

Wheeling and dealing. After three days in the Ivory Coast, I finally have learned the art of bargaining. At first, I would take the second price a seller offered, not wanting to offend, and also because I do not know very much French. I since have learned that bargaining is half the fun. I now pick up the object, ask how much it is, shake my head "no" and walk on. The seller will come after me asking how much I will pay. I figure out how much in American dollars, convert it (I bring my calculator everywhere) and give a price somewhat lower, showing them the amount on the calculator. He shakes his head "no" and withdraws.

I walk on toward the bus. He runs after me, and we go back and forth, punching numbers into my calculator. (For some, it's there first time seeing such an object, and they want to trade me for it). Finally I pull out the amount I originally wanted to pay, put the calculator away and offer my money. This almost always works; it's even better when the bus is leaving and they're calling my name. I just hold my money and keep nodding "no" if they insist on their price. Many exchanges have been made at the very last minute through the bus window.

Foret Sacree (Sacred Forest). The highlight of the day was being invited to watch an initiation dance in the village of Natiokabadara. In the sacred forest, the boys go through three phases of training called poro where they learn about their tribal customs and social obligations. Each phase lasts seven years, but during this time they have ceremonies, like graduation ceremonies, to mark important passages.

We witnessed the dance of the leopard-men. The Senoufo regard animals highly and believe after death they may return as one, so la dance des hommes-pantheres usually is presented after the young boys undergo their religious training. The village allows small groups of tourists to observe these rituals, and I strongly urge any visitor to the Ivory Coast to take advantage of such an opportunity. The deep, meditating cora -- a drum made from the shell of a gourd -- permeates the air, instantly setting the mood. An incision is made to produce the deep, low "boom," and a string is added for a higher pitched sound. The combination is hypnotic.

After returning to the hotel for dinner (chicken and rice, yams, cassava, papaya, pineapple, mango and plantains) and coffee and chocolate (Ivory Coast is the No. 1 exporter of cocoa in the world and No. 3 for coffee beans), we were invited back to Natiokabadara to enjoy some midnight dancing. There, we danced with the Senoufo people to the beat of the gourd drum until 2 a.m. The whole village was up and partying well into the night. Even the children seemed too excited to sleep.

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 1: "Akwaba to Cote d'Ivoire"

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 2: The Paradox of Our Lady of Peace

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 3: Forgerons, Potiers and the Dance of the Leopard-Men

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 4: Living on 'African Time'

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 5: No Electricity, but the Men Wear Levi's

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 6: Friendliness is Country's Best Attraction

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