My son comes into the kitchen with a stack of dirty plates and dumps them in the sink. I ask him to put them in the dishwasher. He walks out in a sulk. The former President of Mali’s son, Karim Keita, is filmed sipping Moët and Chandon on a luxury yacht somewhere near the Balearic islands, surrounded by hot young flesh, while many Malian citizens are wondering where their next few meals are coming from, or whether it’s safe enough to travel to their local market to buy grain. To varying degrees, both my son and the former President’s son are guilty of flouting the principles of mogoya.
Mogoya is a Mandé word that’s often translated as ‘human-ness’ or ‘person-hood’. I find that translation unsatisfactory because a human or a person can be good or bad. A better approximation is the Yiddish word ‘mensch’. A ‘mogo’ is a mensch, and ‘mogoya’ is mensch-ness.
Oumou Sangaré – Mogoya
Everyone you talk to has their own definition of mogoya. To Oumou Sangare, who released an album called Mogoya in 2017 (and has since followed it up remixed and acoustic versions), the word means “humanity” and “honesty.” The ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate describes a person with mogoya as “someone who’s incorruptible, someone who’ll never betray you, never be jealous, never wish ill on anyone.” According to the rapper Ami Yerewolo, to have mogoya is “to be there for the other, to love each other, to help each other.” Cherif Keita, professor of French and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College in Minnesota and biographer of Salif Keita, believes the basic principle of mogoya “is the knowledge that you come into the world in other people’s hands, and you also leave the world in other people’s hands. Mogoya recognizes that dependence on community, on your fellow human.”
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (Live at Müpa Budapest)
Mogoya belongs to that substratum of African spirituality that predates the arrival of Islam or Christianity. The word encompasses the institutions and attributes that make it possible for human beings to live together in peace and harmony : the village, the extended family, the exterior ‘social’ self, the care and education of children, respect for elders and ancestors, honesty, humility, cooperation, tolerance and respect. It subsumes social principles and habits that have underpinned Mandé societies for centuries, from horonya (’nobility’), to danbé (‘dignity’) to senankouya (‘jocular inter-ethnic relationships’or the ability of someone from one ethnic group to take the mickey out of someone from another group without it leading to violence).
Pitted against mogoya are the forces of darkness and discord : the wild bush country beyond the village, the ‘interior’ private self, destructive individuality, narrow self-interest, jealousy, arrogance and greed. And above all, lust for money.
The Bantu concept of ubuntu is almost identical to mogoya. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Barack Obama described ubuntu as a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift : “his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye ; that there is a oneness to humanity ; that we achieve by sharing with other, and caring for those around us.” He might just as well have been talking about mogoya.
The crucial point is that at birth, a human being is a mere animal–a wild, untamed homo sapiens. She or he must acquire mogoya in order to become a fully rounded person who’s easy to live with. It’s a lifelong process, and in traditional society it began when a baby heard her mother’s lullabies and continued with the stories, riddles, dances, music and theatre that were gifted by grandparents, extended family, the village and, in the Mande world, the griots.
By gradual osmosis, the child absorbed the wisdom of the ancestors and acquired a strong sense of her own identity, her place in the world, the difference between right and wrong. The acquisition of mogoya then proceeded through a pre-defined system of initiations and membership of year-groups and associations, through adolescence, adulthood, old age and finally death and re-entry into the invisible world of the ancestors and spirits. Education was about learning to live with others, first and foremost. Curiosity, innovation and individual brilliance were seen as secondary concerns, or even dangers to be avoided.
But that was then. Nowadays, Malians spend more time lamenting the death of mogoya than living by its precepts. It’s telling that Oumou Sangare’s album was released in Mali under the title Bi Mogoya, or ‘Today’s Mogoya.’ Considering all the tales of deception, dishonesty and sexual infidelity in the lyrics of its songs, the title makes perfect sense.
“Here in Africa we had certain values that are being lost,” Oumou told me back in 2017. “The African is very poor, but very correct. When an African says, ‘Yes, I’ll do that,’ he’ll do it, without a contract or anything. He’ll do it because he gave his word. But now, it’s the opposite.”
(…) to be continued … Read episode 2 of this article !