After putting together a fine collection of “Putchu Guinadji”, miniature horsemen or warriors made of bronze, silver, copper, or brass, for my museum, I became curious about these talismans that were supposedly used by mad people among the Kotoko people in Cameroon and Chad, near the Lake Chad basin, along the Logone and Chan rivers. This area is where the ancient kingdom of Sao was located, from the 6th century BCE to the 16th century CE.
by Henning Christoph
editor Karen Barrett-Wilt
My curiosity was awakened. No photos exist of these pieces being used, and no texts explain their spiritual activation or how they are used. On December 7,2012 I flew to Cameroon with the goal of unraveling the secret of the Putchu Guinadji. With my two assistants, Ismaila Putuenchi, a bronze caster from Foumban, and Aboubakar Sidik Njikam, my driver, I headed 1.500 Kilometersnorth after getting a first lead in the Yaounde artisan market.
The dealer came from the village of Guilli, 20 kilometers south of Rhumsiki in the Mandara mountain region, where casters who make copies of the Putchu Guinadji live. . Metal workers were supposedly low caste among the Kotoko. According to my information, the Kotoko stopped casting with the Islamization of their tribe, and now only the Hausa, Arabs and Kanuri cast. The dealer did say, however, that the Kotoko are casting deep in the bush, and that we should find a person called “Mahmud” in Waza. He knows everything.
We arrived in Guilli on Christmas Eve after a 12 hour drive from Ngaoundere on a very bad road. The contacts that we wanted to meet here were not there. We had to continue to Rhumsiki since the only hotel in the region was in that town. The 20 kilometer road to Rhumsiki was a treacherous mountain pass with rocks and potholes that threatened to destroy our vehicle. After three hours on this road at night, we arrived in Rhumsiki. That evening I doubted my plans of discovering the secret of the Kotoko Horsemen.
The next morning the contact we wanted to meet in Guilli came to the hotel. His name was Chowar, a local dealer in Putchu Guinadji. He told me proudly that just recently he had sold four Putchu Guinadji to a man from Toulouse. He gave me the first valuable information that gave me faith that my endeavor might still be successful.
1. A marabout must diagnose the madness.
2. The marabout sends the patient to a caster with the medicine
3. The caster makes the horse and rider.
4. The maraboutboils leaves and puts the horse in the boiling water with the medicine.
5. The marabout offers blood of a chicken over the horse.
6. When power lessens, the marabout offers the blood of a new chicken over the horse and rider.
This information was a great help and underscored what I originally thought: that the casting of these pieces is a sacred act accompanied by certain rituals, and that a marabout must perform this act since the Kotoko are Muslim.
Our second contact came by a few hours later: a young man called Kotakoji who travelled all over the extreme north of Cameroon collecting pieces to sell. Kotakoji said that he knew a Kotoko marabout and a Kotoko caster, and that he could take me to meet them. I accepted Kotakoji’s offer, and we set off the next morning for Maroua.
After checking into a flea-bitten hotel, Kotakoji set off to find the old marabout in a village not too far from Maroua. Several hours later, Kotakoji came back and said that the marabout agreed to allow me to photograph and film him. The marabout was an old Kotoko man called Bakoura. As we sat down in his treatment hut, the old man observed me very closely, not really knowing what I wanted. He took out an old dirty sack and poured about 10 Putchu Guinadji, with and without leather covering, on the ground. He warned us not to touch them, because the madness of the former owners could pass on to us. He said that he had to rub each Putchu Guinadji with the Gwouabi plant to make them harmless. After he was finished I was allowed to inspect them. Some were covered with leather and on a leather band with many other attachments, and some were without covers. Bakoura said that the ones that are covered with leather and have other attachments are for very serious cases. He also said that the “warriors” he had in the bag belonged to people who have died. The families return them to the marabout who activated them.
The marabout said that a used Putchu Guinadji could be reactivated after it is cleaned with the Gwouadi plant. Bakoura then went on to show me how an uncovered horse is activated. After the horse is cast by a caster, the patient brings the horse back to the marabout, and the marabout boils the Putchu Guinadji in water containing the plants Gwouabi and Tidih Whoume. The patient must be present during this ritual.
If the Putchu Guinadji is encased in leather and has attachments, it is for a very serious case, according to Bakoura. The two plants are put under the leather in powder form. Other packets attached to the Putchu Guinadji can be filled with Koran Suren, with the plants Gwouabi and Tidih Whoume, other cast metal pieces, or things pertaining to the particular madness affecting the patient. A very good example of this is the Putchu Guinadji with a small vial of water attached. In this particular case, a woman was carrying water from the Logone River at night and went mad. After the woman died, the family brought the talisman back to Bakoura the marabout. I was able to purchase this particular Putchu Guinadji and several others from the marabout after he deactivated them.
The next day we set off for a Kotoko village not far from Bogo near the Logone River to find one of the last Kotoko casters who make Putchu Guinaadji. It was on a Thursday, and it was market day in Bogo. The village was filled with Kotoko, Arabs, Hausa and numerous other tribes from Cameroon and Chad. Bogo is very close to the Logone River and to the border of Chad. Kotakoji found the caster, and we were invited into his very tiny workshop in his compound on the sandy earth of this Sahel village in the extreme north of Cameroon.
The casting of the Putchu Guinadji is forbidden by Islam, and it is dying out with only a few casters and marabouts left still who offer this service to heal madness. This is true in part because Islamic fundamentalism and Christian missions are contributing to the destruction of many of the old beliefs in Africa.
Magana, the Kotoko caster, said that the horse and rider symbol originally came from the Peul warriors who fought and enslaved many of the animistic tribes in the north. The Kotoko themselves were not a horse society. They were fanners and fishermen living along the Logone and Chari rivers. According to Magana, the word “Putchu” means horse and “Guinadji” means demon in the Kotoko language. Putchu Guinadji are the horse and rider who fight the demons attacking the mad person. The horsemen are usually worn on a string or leather band under the arm and under clothing, concealed from other people. No one may touch a Putchu Guinadji that is worn and active because the madness can be passed on. The sick person wears the talisman all his/her life and by its rubbing against the body, the Putchu Guinadji develops a very smooth patina. After the person has died, the piece may be sold or given back to the marabout who activated it. Some people are buried with their Putchu Guinadji.
Magana, the Kotoko caster, inherited his spiritual powers from his forefathers who were all casters. He and his brother are the only real Kotoko casters left according to Magana. Magana said others are copying but don’t have the spiritual power to cast horses that will help against madness. Magana said that all mad Kotoko people are brought to him. He said that he cannot count the number of people that he has treated. His specialty is attaching a crocodile for extra power to the Putchu Guinadji.
After the person is diagnosed by the marabout as mad, they must bring the Gwouabi and Tidih Whoume plants from the marabout to him. They must also bring a chicken, rice and 15,000 CFA (22,90 Euro). The casting of the Putchu Guinadji is a sacred act and takes fifteen days to complete. After the Putchu Guinadji is cast, the patient must bring the horse and rider back to the marabout who then activates it, and decides whether it must be covered, and what other attachments might be made. Magana said, “madness has different colors”, referring to the attachments on the pieces.
Before applying the medicine, the blood of a chicken must be offered on the Putchu Guinadji, and rice must be cooked. Children sit in a circle around the mad person and eat the rice. One year later, the patient must return with 100.000 CFA (152,67 Euro) and a goat or a cow, depending on how strong the illness is. Every consecutive year a chicken’s blood must be offered over the Putchu Guinadji to give it power.
Putchu Guinadji beeswax model
I asked Magana if people are afraid of him. He answered, “Only those that are mad”. He added that “people can copy me but it won’t work”. All the while I was interviewing Magana, he was molding a Putchu Guinadji from beeswax which he gave me when he was finished, but said that he couldn’t cast it because this he could only do for a mad person; otherwise it is forbidden to cast.
We left his village in the late afternoon and went back to Maroua to visit the artisan market. I saw about 20 Putchu Guinadji that were for sale. There were copies and a few very good pieces that I bought. Kotakoji, my guide, who knew everything and everyone, returned to his village in the Mandara mountains.
I was relieved that I was able to discover the secrets of the Putchu Guinadji and could, take photos and film of the Kotoko horsemen before this very old healing system disappears forever. For me it is essential to know the meaning and usage of artifacts displayed in my museum.
- Der Einfluss Bornus, Mandaras, Bagirmis, der Kotoko-Staaten and der Jukun-Konfoderation auf die Kulturentwicklung ihrer Nachbarn südlich des TschadseesHermann Forki, “Der Einfluss Bornus, Mandaras, Bagirmis, der Kotoko-Staaten and der Jukun-Konfoderation auf die Kulturentwicklung ihrer Nachbarn südlich des Tschadsees“, 1985 in the Münchner ethnologische Abhandlungen; Bd.5
- Seitdem bei ihnen der Islam eingeführt worden ist, schmieden die Kotoko nicht mehr selbst, sondern überlassen diese Beschäftigung Arabern, Kanuri and Hausa die im Lande eine sozial inferiore Kaste bilden and ähnlich wie Leichen als „unrein” gelten. Als für sie typisches Tier gilt ilbrigens der Hund. Die Kotoko sehen das Schmiedehandwerk als dem Islam wiedersprechend an, was von ihren Nachbarn nirgends so empfunden wird.Hermann Forki, “Der Einfluss Bornus, Mandaras, Bagirmis, der Kotoko-Staaten and der Jukun-Konfoderation auf die Kulturentwicklung ihrer Nachbarn südlich des Tschadsees“, 1985 in the Münchner ethnologische Abhandlungen; Bd.5
COPYRIGHT 2013 Henning Christoph/ Soul of Africa Museum, All rights reserved.
No portion of this article nor the accompanying illustrations can or may be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.