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Teaming up with termites—Appraising termites’ contributions to earth technologies in West Africa

Faire équipe avec les termites. Une évaluation des contributions des termites aux technologies de la terre en Afrique occidentale
Jan Jansen et James R. Fairhead

Résumés

Cet essai explore le rôle et l’impact des termites dans l’histoire sociale et culturelle de l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Il propose une compréhension intégrée d’un large éventail de pratiques jusqu’ici comprises de manière symbolique ou métaphorique, liées à l’extraction du fer et de l’or, à la production de fer, à l’agriculture, à la santé, à la sculpture sur bois et à la poterie ainsi qu’aux mythes de création et à l’épopée de Soundjata.

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Texte intégral

The authors’ first attempt to explore a so-called deep history—a history that goes further back in time than history programmes usually teach and that emphasizes trends and processes rather than individuals and events—was made by Jan Jansen in a presentation at the seminar “Deep History in the Mande World”, organized by Kevin MacDonald (2014, London). After the seminar Jansen was introduced to James R. Fairhead because of their shared fascination with termites. That meeting resulted in the current essay and in “The Mande creation myth, by Germaine Dieterlen—A story of Marcel Griaule’s laboratory boat and Kangaba’s intellectual elite”, Journal of West African History, 6-2 (2020), 93-114. The current essay has gone through many transformations, in search of the right composition and the right audience and to fine-tune its argument. We thank the late Joseph C. Miller († 2018) for his detailed comments and editorial advice on a previous draft of this essay. We thank Caroline Robion Brunner and David Gordon for their comments and suggestions during the panel discussion of the “Extracting the Past from the Present” conference. We are much indebted to Nancy Jacobs for her generous advice during summer 2021, and we are grateful to the two anonymous reviewers of this journal who saved us from a number of incorrect speculations, claims, and generalizations—and who may be disappointed that we have not included in the final draft the numerous fascinating literature suggestions and topics for debate that they kindly suggested.

Introduction

1There is something about termites. They are omnipresent in the imagination and practices of West African peoples, but for reasons that are not always very clear. By studying peoples’ interactions with termites through their joint use of earth, this essay explores human–termite relationships in West Africa. This evaluation of both humans and termites as earth technologists may serve to open up new perspectives on the available ethnographic scholarship and texts on mining of iron and gold, agriculture, artisanal production of iron and iron-work, ritual practices, wood sculpture and pottery, as well as having something to say about traditional health care, creation myths, and the Sunjata epic. We shall show that in West Africa, respect for the earth and its affordances is an overarching principle in the social order. That sense of respect is expressed by giving a special place to any beings able to transform earth itself, whether non-human earth technologists such as termites, or human beings such as blacksmiths and potters. We shall explain how, in West Africa, earth—and the iron and gold that are extracted from it—is often experienced as a substance containing a transformative force that is manifest in the industriousness of termites. Earth is not mere lifeless matter simply lying there waiting to be exploited as a physical resource for human consumption, with no thought of complying with the earth’s inherent powers and those who make it manifest.

  • 1 U. Beisel, A.H. Kelly, N. Tousignant, 2013, p. 3, on insects in general.

2Although termites may be “sure to unsettle ontological and epistemological distinctions”,1 this essay does not link up with such paradigmatic claims, as the data of the current exploration are anthropomorphic and regionally limited. Most of the data for this essay were in fact drawn from the West African savanna and Sahel—where both authors have conducted long-term fieldwork among West African Mande peoples (i.e. Bamana, Kuranko, Kisi, Maninka).

Termites are agents in human society as earth technologists

3It is known that termites engineer the earth’s fertility, and certain types of termite mound—especially those of the Macrotermes termites, which are unique because of their “fungus cultivation habit”2—are strongly linked to indigenous cropping practices that profit from termites’ soil engineering.

  • 3 For a visualization of the immense irrigation system that termites create, search for “casting term (...)

4Termites’ extensive underground tunnel networks function as giant irrigation and aeration networks helping rainwater to infiltrate the soil, groundwater to rise and pass through it, and air to circulate within it. Termite mounds are associated with increased soil humidity as they draw moisture from aquifers to the surface of the soil,3 and plant roots follow their tunnels.

  • 4 P. Hauser, 1978.

5Termites in fact transform the earth: they directly improve the fertility of soil by enriching the topsoil and recycling woody organic material. They carry fine mineral-rich particles of clay from deep underground (10–15 m and up to 70 m),4 a process which both enriches the soil at the surface and compensates for erosion. Termites also concentrate minerals, especially calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which improves soil fertility. Termites also reposition the fine clay particles by eating and then defecating them.

  • 5 J. Fairhead, M. Leach, 2003; A.F. Iroko, 1996.
  • 6 J. Fairhead, M. Leach, 2003, p. 200. However, people do not always welcome all species of termites, (...)

6Despite termites potentially being pests, Fairhead and Leach and Iroko both detail how farmers in many regions prefer fields with many and large termite mounds, as they are a sign of soil fertility and moisture.5 Kuranko- and Kissi-speaking farmers of Guinea single out abandoned termite mounds as good sites for growing pepper, tobacco, squashes, and other crops with high demand for nutrients.6

  • 7 J.M. Hunter, 1984; J. Fairhead, 2017. It is cosmologically significant that it is reported that wom (...)
  • 8 A. van Huis, 2003.

7Termite earth is referenced as a direct source of nutrients in human consumption. Many pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa experience cravings to eat the earth inside termite mounds. By eating earth already transformed by termites, such women seek to transform the vitality of their own unborn children by drawing on the transformative power of the termites—in the language of modern science we should refer to this as acquiring essential mineral supplements from the termite earth.7 Termite earth is used in excision and circumcision rituals too, by blacksmiths who incorporate it into medicinal preparations they apply to the wounds of adolescent girls and boys in preparing them for the reproductive vitality of adulthood.8

8Soil fertilizers, health food, medicine…. these are not the only minerals that people have been acquiring thanks to termites; termites also provide people with extraction services. Termite mounds have been used for centuries as indicators of gold deposits, and, as both people and termites extract gold, one may speak in this case of a shared technology. Termites excavate to the depth of aquifers and their translocation of clay materials to the surface sometimes brings up gold flakes, which since ancient times has revealed the presence of the metal to artisanal prospectors and indeed does so to modern engineers prospecting on behalf of multinational corporations. Thus, we argue that termites, as earth technologists, are agents in human society; they may not have an aim (nor consciousness), but they act, thus having an effect in shaping webs of activities and—as we aim to show—of interpretation.

The termite mound represents the creation of life

  • 9 See, for instance, S.P. Belcher, 2006; G. Dieterlen, 1952; J. Jansen, J.R. Fairhead, 2020.
  • 10 Van Huis gives abundant data and references first of all for large-scale consumption of termites al (...)

9Termite mounds are a very common and widespread theme in the creation myths of societies in West Africa, as people learned to value the transformations of the earth effected by termites, and their appraisal of such transformations will have been the inspiration for the numerous oral traditions in which termite mounds feature as the cradle of life.9 Such myths attest to the central place of termite-related knowledge in human society. In a habitat liberally sprinkled with termite mounds, the centrality of termites to creative forces is almost self-evident, given their significance in successful food acquisition. In addition, it should be noted that the value of termites is not limited to their effects in preparing fields for agriculture, for in being themselves edible they act as a food source.10 Termites provide important clues about the agricultural calendar too (thus contributing to food acquisition), for the annual flight of the winged termites (called alates or aletes; see below) may not only be described as rather miraculous, but occurs predictably at a certain hour on a certain night each year, providing a precise seasonal timekeeper for farmers.

  • 11 Baobab seeds have a hard, thick peel that requires external force to be opened, thus giving space f (...)
  • 12 Cf. G. Dieterlen, 1952; S. Brett-Smith, 1994.
  • 13 For pythons in creation myths, see S.P. Belcher, 2006; G. Dieterlen, 1952; J. Jansen, J.R. Fairhead(...)

10Quite often the termites’ contribution is not directly visible as a protagonist in African creation myths, when termites afford other beings, such as trees and other animals, the opportunity to feature. For example, termite mounds regulate the germination and growth of certain flora, most notably baobabs11 and the Ficus seeds that sprout in the fungus gardens that the termites cultivate to feed themselves. Indeed, we find that these specific trees are themselves “trees of [the origin of] life”.12 The same function as originators of life is attributed to certain other creatures such as pythons, which are known to live in abandoned termite mounds.13

  • 14 For examples, see A.F. Iroko, 1996.

11Termites, or at least their mounds, are therefore important in the shrines and rituals of initiation-based societies that address matters of fertility, both productive and reproductive.14 For instance, Mande hunters go to termite mounds to revere their ‘ancestor’ Mande Bori. And the shrines of the Komo secret society that deals with matters of masculinity have the form of a termite mound. And, last but not least, ‘the governor’s palace’, the central shrine in the Hauka ritual that Jean Rouch filmed in his famous 1956 film Les Maîtres Fous, is a concrete construction shaped like a termite mound.

  • 15 A.F. Iroko,1996. Samuel Ntewusu (University of Ghana at Legon) noticed, as a child, that human corp (...)

12Termite mounds are seen not only as the origin of human life but also as the end of it: termites recycle human corpses and thereby link the living with the parallel world of the dead where the disembodied reside.15

  • 16 Termites are evolutionarily related to cockroaches and are strictly vegetarian; ants are related to (...)
  • 17 Mature alates have wings, and when they sense that conditions outside the mound are suitable, they (...)

13Throughout their lives people in West Africa feel inspired by termites, in the example they set in their social behaviour, their code of teamwork. The fact that termites work in a disciplined manner in large highly organized groups reflects values strongly upheld in initiation-based societies and labour group organization. For example, the job of worker termites is to make the mounds and produce food for soldier termites, which are incapable of feeding themselves from what is naturally available. In return, the soldiers protect the workers against attacks by ants.16 The alates’ sole purpose in life is to mate—a temporary fourth category, alates are produced only when a termite population reaches a certain size—and by doing so to establish a new termite colony elsewhere.17

  • 18 In A. Van Huis, 2017, there is an overview of ideas shared widely all over sub-Saharan Africa about (...)

14Political institutions and authority structures following the logics of the tripartite organization of a termite colony—with an organized and industrious social world with a royal couple as the centripetal source of everything, supported by soldiers/warriors and workers/slaves—are common in West Africa, and it is tempting to suggest an influence, given the termites’ impact in the many spheres of life.18 Indeed, the social metaphor derived from termites was noted by early Portuguese visitors to West Africa:

  • 19 M. Alvares, 1990 [c. 1615], volume II, p. 15.

Let us conclude by discussing the baga-baga. This is a kind of ant. Its king is one of the same kind, but bigger, that is, longer and thicker. The society of this animal is a well organized natural republic. The royal palace is a mound of earth like a pyramid, almost a small hill, filled with cells inside. The female subjects serve their leader by surrounding him in the centre of the tower. Among them is to be found the heir and successor to the monarchy, an ant which has a similar body to the king’s [but smaller], but which has the capacity to grow larger, in order to attain like him to the sceptre of royal dignity. This superior ant is served with all respect and all the signs of natural love. It never leaves the ant-hill; the others bring it the delicacies of mother nature. These ants make war on another kind of ant, a smaller sort.19

15One might say then that termites teach people how to live. In the words of the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ:

  • 20 The original says ant-hill, the older name in English for termite mound. A.H. Bâ, 1981, p. 179. Bâ (...)

If an old teacher comes upon a [termite mound] during a walk in the bush, this gives him an opportunity for dispensing various kinds of knowledge according to the kind of listeners he has at hand. Either he will speak of the creature itself, the laws governing its life and the class of being it belongs to, or he will give children a lesson in morality by showing them how community life depends on solidarity and forgetfulness of self, or again he may go on to higher things if he feels that his audience can attain to them.20

  • 21 For historiographic background information to the Sunjata epic, the primus inter pares among the ep (...)
  • 22 C. Giesing, V. Vydrine, 2007.
  • 23 Analysis in J. Jansen, 2016. See also S. Brett-Smith, 1997.

16Sometimes the lines between species blur and termites are detectable indirectly. This, we argue, is the case with the famous Sunjata epic, a narrative that seems to develop without any reference to a crucial role for termites.21 But, as Cornelia Giesing has documented, West African political elites often justify their authority by claiming descent from a hero who was born to a wild woman captured in the bush, where she lived in a burrow like an aardvark.22 Sunjata’s mother Sogolon the Ugly, for instance, is described as such a wild woman with characteristics of an aardvark—her hunchback body form—and those of a porcupine, an animal that lives in the holes dug by aardvarks and, like aardvarks, leads the life of a solitary hunter.23

  • 24 Biologically, the aardvark is a unique animal, as it is the only surviving species of the Tubiliden (...)
  • 25 This aardvarks-against-termites image may explain as well the seemingly bizarre epithets ‘Killer-of (...)

17This aardvark lifestyle suggests a deep, but antagonistic relationship with the earth and termites. Termites are in fact the main food of aardvarks, and aardvarks work tirelessly to destroy termite mounds so that they can eat the termites, of which they may consume up to 300,000 per day.24 An aardvark-like woman/princess is therefore a good mother-figure for a warrior-child destined to rule an agricultural society, in particular to overrule a predecessor when this predecessor is a blacksmith, a person whose knowledge is in particular mediated by termites.25

Both blacksmiths and potters are earth technologists

18In the human–termite relationships, (male) blacksmiths and (female) potters play key roles. In addition to smelting iron—which they have more or less stopped doing since the end of the 19th century when steel produced industrially in Europe replaced locally produced iron—blacksmiths in Africa are key players in valuing cycles of life, ranging from involvement with a person’s birth and name-giving to circumcision/excision, marriage, questions of fertility, and mortuary rites. Indeed, it might be on the basis of their strong enabling position that in large parts of West Africa blacksmiths are an endogamous and/or casted group.

  • 26 We mention such excellent studies as E.W. Herbert, 1993; S. Brett-Smith, 1996; W.E.A. van Beek, 201 (...)
  • 27 See the ‘explicit imagery’ in E.W. Herbert, 1993.
  • 28 E.W. Herbert, 1993; blowing air into the furnace symbolically represents ejaculation.
  • 29 Mutatis mutandis, people in West Africa have attributed great forces to the product that blacksmith (...)
  • 30 A. Gottlieb, 1982, 34 referring to scholars who represent menstruating women as polluting and dange (...)
  • 31 The understanding of iron production as analogous to sexual reproduction is beautifully illustrated (...)

19The transformation of iron ore into metal is considered equivalent to the production of life. Numerous studies26 describe how West African civilizations conceptualize the smelting of iron as reproduction of human life: the furnace is built to resemble a woman’s womb and breasts,27 the dual bellows resemble a man’s genitalia.28 The insertion of the tube of the bellows into the furnace to produce iron is analogous to sexual intercourse, and there are associated sexual taboos across the region regarding the blacksmith’s work. For instance, while working at a furnace, a blacksmith is not allowed to have intercourse with a woman (i.e. ‘another woman’) and is not permitted even to spend the night in the same room as his spouse, since any hint of intimacy with another woman might compromise the ‘birth’ of the iron. The cycles of reproduction of people and iron must be rigorously separated from each other.29 Women are a danger to the furnace; and in particular menstruating women are kept at a distance, since menstruation is recognized as a sign that a woman has not conceived a child and so is temporarily seen as the “antithesis of life”,30 again threatening the ‘birth’ of iron from the furnace.31

  • 32 Nouns in many West African languages are not gendered. A word for ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is added to the (...)

20The high esteem for this knowledge of ‘life issues’ is not limited to male blacksmiths; their female counterparts32—usually called ‘potters’—are equally and similarly esteemed. This becomes clear when one considers smelting as earth technology. As a matter of fact, ‘smelting’ is not restricted to the production process of iron; rather, it is the process of transferring the power of the earth into society. The key to understanding blacksmiths and potters is that male blacksmiths negotiate with hard earth (in the form of ferrous ore), and their female counterparts work with soft earth (in the form of clay). The clay is as essential to male blacksmiths too, because they use it to construct the furnaces they use to smelt the iron ore. Both male and female earth technologists transfer/integrate earth into society, and they all accomplish the transformation of earth into a societal product.

21The necessity of seeing blacksmiths and potters as earth technologists—with expertise related to both human fertility and earth transformation—becomes visible when we acknowledge the extent to which they depend on termites; all human earth technologists in West Africa will integrate the termites’ contribution.

  • 33 H. Florusbosch, 2000, he demonstrates that the numerous art historians who have worked on potters a (...)

22Potters integrate clay from termite mounds into their pottery, and we see this as recognizing the cosmological force of termite mounds as indispensable to the process of transforming soft earth into hard, impermeable pottery. Henrike Florusbosch, who studied potters in south-western Mali, recounts a myth about a time before there was clay, during which potters used termite mounds to produce pots. The first clay was obtained as a result of a sacrifice made to a bush spirit (jinnu) who transformed a termite mound into clay, thus providing potters with their raw material. Ever since, in return for the clay, potters have been obliged to offer an annual sacrifice to the bush spirits. When manufacturing new pots, potters use crushed pieces of old pots and material from termite mounds. Partly technically inspired, the practice also firmly grounds (pun intended!) the relationship between the earth and the pot’s future owner.33

  • 34 We have heard of cases in which the furnace was constructed on the site of an (abandoned) termite m (...)
  • 35 There may be some chemical or technical logics in integrating clay from termite mounds in mud const (...)

23Male earth technologists use clay from termite mounds in the construction of their furnaces.34 A large literature describes such earth technology from a purely metallurgical point of view, chiefly related to management of the temperature in the furnace.35 As a furnace used for smelting must be able to withstand very high temperatures and a great deal of internal pressure, a real danger to blacksmiths has always been lethal explosions caused by faults in the materials used to construct their furnaces, making the ability to select the right type of clay a crucial skill. In our view, however, it is incorrect to see the use of termite mounds in the construction of furnaces as chemical knowledge to avoid explosions; it is the relationship with the termites that is of vital importance. The choice of termite mounds as construction material for furnaces or the choice of a termite-infected piece of wood illustrates how people comply with cosmological processes by teaming up with termites, because of the transformation processes the termites induce.

  • 36 For detailed exemplification, see S. Brett-Smith, 1994 and 2014.

24Blacksmiths do not limit their integration of the termites’ work only to the production of iron and pottery but also into their third specialism, which is the production of ritual objects, such as their carving of masks and dyeing of cloths.36 For example, male blacksmiths are also the only people allowed to sculpt the masks used for the all-male Komo initiation society of the Mande regions of West Africa, in which the blacksmiths also play a leading ceremonial role.

  • 37 This theme is not restricted to Africa; it seems universal. In Greek mythology, Hephaistos was marr (...)
  • 38 For an overview of versions of the Sunjata epic that feature the clash between Sunjata and Sumaoro/ (...)

25Male blacksmiths may have a powerful position in many societies,37 but in West Africa they maintain this position, more than other people do, by integrating a contribution by termites. This offers, again, a new perspective on the Sunjata epic. All versions deal with the seemingly disconnected tales of the origin of Sunjata’s mother Sogolon the Ugly and the clash between Sunjata and Sumaoro/Sumanguru, a sorcerer-blacksmith. From a ‘deeper’ perspective, that of the termites, the two tales are closely connected, however, as the one who draws on the powers of the termite is eliminated by the son of a terminator of termites; he who complies with cosmological processes is eliminated by brute force.38

In conclusion

26We wonder if there are ways to discover what termites are up to. So far, our analysis of ‘teaming up with termites’ is limited by the anthropomorphic focus (with its attention to the human body and human procreation through sexuality) and the anthropocentric bias in the available sources, but we hope that this essay will bring us closer to the ‘truth beneath’ the understanding of all aspects of life that people have acquired thanks to teaming up with termites.

27Over centuries, the inhabitants of West Africa have woven links to their interactions with termites, which they express through agricultural practices, mining practices, iron production, pottery production, secret societies, health care, material culture, rituals, oral traditions, and art. (And some of those inhabitants have challenged this by introducing the aardvark’s counter-power….) At first sight human interactions with termites attract our attention for the analogies between them. Although such interactions may be ancient, their histories are impossible to reconstruct, and for the moment we must settle for ‘deep analogies’. The omnipresence of these interactions and interdependencies in West Africa and mounting ethnographic evidence challenge us to dismiss them in one-dimensional terms, as ‘symbolic’, ‘metaphorical’, ‘bon-à-penser’, ‘functional’, or ‘socio-technical’.

  • 39 For this reason we have avoided linking the powers manifested by termites analytically to the much (...)
  • 40 Artisanal miners in West Africa consider the use of modern extraction technology to increase produc (...)

28So far, we have noted that those who have worked with termites and benefitted from their activities have experienced them as benevolent. Hence, in West Africa, termites and termite mounds are integrated into ritual life, the production of utensils and medicine, and stories told about human existence, so that the contribution of termites makes a positive impression on us.39 This is different from the contribution by earth spirits, which have recently received a certain amount of analytical and ethnographic attention, for the relationships of earth spirits with humans are ambivalent, with their wrath a constant threat to humans.40

29We stress the importance, to understanding the social order in West Africa, of the overarching principle of respect for the earth and its affordances and of the awarding of a special place to those able to transform earth: both the non-human and the human earth technologists. An analysis of the termites’ contribution is therefore an elemental question in any epistemology of social and cultural change in West Africa. We thus argue that in West Africa, earth (and the iron and gold that are extracted from it) is experienced as a substance containing a transformative force that is manifest in the energetic industry of termites. It is neither lifeless matter nor simply a commodity that can be exploited as a physical resource for human consumption.

  • 41 Such programmes insist on compensating local populations for the losses they suffer from mining act (...)

30An understanding of the earth and respect for all its affordances may also shed new light on how large-scale commercial resource extraction violates people’s commitment to and caring for the earth. When African governments sell concessions to multinational mining companies, they sell more than inert minerals—something that is rarely considered in corporate social responsibility (CSR), yet which can undermine their declared principles.41 Perhaps unsurprisingly, questions related to the earth as a vital substance cannot be negotiated through CSR programmes, which of course do not respect the termites’ contribution and do not address the matter of the earth’s aggrieved spirits. Bad times will follow, and vernacular understanding will argue that the economic outcomes demonstrate, even validate, the anger of the spirits. Dealing with large-scale mining is therefore perhaps the greatest political challenge currently faced by West African governments … and the greatest cultural threat faced by West African societies.

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Notes

1 U. Beisel, A.H. Kelly, N. Tousignant, 2013, p. 3, on insects in general.

2 http://www.termiteweb.com/the-macrotermes-termites/ [accessed 27 September 2021].

3 For a visualization of the immense irrigation system that termites create, search for “casting termite hills” on YouTube.com or check the impressive documentary (on ants) at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFg21x2sj-M

4 P. Hauser, 1978.

5 J. Fairhead, M. Leach, 2003; A.F. Iroko, 1996.

6 J. Fairhead, M. Leach, 2003, p. 200. However, people do not always welcome all species of termites, and they have various ways of evicting termites from their mounds.

7 J.M. Hunter, 1984; J. Fairhead, 2017. It is cosmologically significant that it is reported that women eat earth, since they are involved in the process of producing new life.

8 A. van Huis, 2003.

9 See, for instance, S.P. Belcher, 2006; G. Dieterlen, 1952; J. Jansen, J.R. Fairhead, 2020.

10 Van Huis gives abundant data and references first of all for large-scale consumption of termites all over sub-Saharan Africa (A. van Huis, 2017). Van Huis’s examples are all from historical time; the eating of termites may date, however, from long before cropping was invented. We note also that the fungus produced by Macrotermes termites is considered a delicacy; see http://www.termiteweb.com/the-macrotermes-termites/ [accessed 27 September 2021].

11 Baobab seeds have a hard, thick peel that requires external force to be opened, thus giving space for the inner pit to develop. This external force can vary from a bio-chemical process such as rotting, to being crushed under an elephant’s foot.

12 Cf. G. Dieterlen, 1952; S. Brett-Smith, 1994.

13 For pythons in creation myths, see S.P. Belcher, 2006; G. Dieterlen, 1952; J. Jansen, J.R. Fairhead, 2020.

14 For examples, see A.F. Iroko, 1996.

15 A.F. Iroko,1996. Samuel Ntewusu (University of Ghana at Legon) noticed, as a child, that human corpses sometimes disappeared before their burial. One day the corpse of his deceased uncle had disappeared, and he dared to ask his father where it was. His father told him that corpses of deformed people were buried under termite mounds in order to make the imperfect body disappear totally. His father admonished him to treat this knowledge with the utmost respect (personal communication to Jan Jansen, 7 February 2017).

16 Termites are evolutionarily related to cockroaches and are strictly vegetarian; ants are related to wasps and are omnivorous.

17 Mature alates have wings, and when they sense that conditions outside the mound are suitable, they swarm out in search of a new place to settle. The night they leave the termite mound en masse is their nuptial flight, which ends with a pair of male and female alates isolating themselves from the rest. They shed their wings and go on to establish a new colony, of which they become king and queen.

18 In A. Van Huis, 2017, there is an overview of ideas shared widely all over sub-Saharan Africa about parallels between termite society and the ideal human society.

19 M. Alvares, 1990 [c. 1615], volume II, p. 15.

20 The original says ant-hill, the older name in English for termite mound. A.H. Bâ, 1981, p. 179. Bâ follows his argument with this comment: “Thus any incident in life, any trivial happening, can always be developed in many ways, can lead to telling a myth, a tale, a legend. Every phenomenon one encounters can be traced back to the forces from which it issued and suggest the mysteries of the unity of life, which is entirely animated by Se, the primordial sacred Force, itself an aspect of God the creator.”

21 For historiographic background information to the Sunjata epic, the primus inter pares among the epics of Africa, see: R.A. Austen (ed.), 1999; J. Repinecz, 2019.

22 C. Giesing, V. Vydrine, 2007.

23 Analysis in J. Jansen, 2016. See also S. Brett-Smith, 1997.

24 Biologically, the aardvark is a unique animal, as it is the only surviving species of the Tubilidentata. The aardvark is very shy and seldom seen, but once captured is easily domesticated. It might be common knowledge among the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa that the aardvark is in a sense invincible, because it has no natural enemy; see, for instance, the folktale on the aardvark and the hyena in G. Dumestre, 1989, p. 36-43. Note that the aardvark should not be confused with the ant eater, a totally different species of animal native to South America.

25 This aardvarks-against-termites image may explain as well the seemingly bizarre epithets ‘Killer-of-the-dark-termite-mound (tonfinfagabaga)’ and ‘Killer-of-the-light-coloured-termite-mound (tongwèfagabaga)’ for Soma Jobi, a character in the Sunjata epic who supported Sunjata (recorded by Jansen during fieldwork in Kela, Mali).

26 We mention such excellent studies as E.W. Herbert, 1993; S. Brett-Smith, 1996; W.E.A. van Beek, 2015. See also: P. O’Neill, F. Muhly Jr., P. Schmidt, 1988.

27 See the ‘explicit imagery’ in E.W. Herbert, 1993.

28 E.W. Herbert, 1993; blowing air into the furnace symbolically represents ejaculation.

29 Mutatis mutandis, people in West Africa have attributed great forces to the product that blacksmiths extract: iron. After the introduction of industrial steel to Africa in the 19th century, people’s fascination with iron and the blacksmith’s technology continued. This is well illustrated by oral traditions and ritual that provide us the lens through which the powers of colonizers have been understood. The most famous example of that lens is in Jean Rouch’s film Les Maîtres fous (1956) about the Hauka sect in Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), which venerates Western technology. While in trances, members of the sect embody emblems of the colonial system, such as ‘the locomotive’, conceived as a miracle of ironwork and fire. Another example of African fascination with European iron technology is a West African oral tradition about Patarapa/Federeba, the ancestor of the white people—a figure inspired by the mid-19th-century French governor Faidherbe. Patarapa is pictured as a false imam who steals the book of technological knowledge from the population of Mecca and takes it to the land of the white people, leaving the people of Mecca with the other book of knowledge: that of religious matters in the shape of the Koran. Some versions describe Patarapa during his flight transforming two large twigs into wheels, thereby inventing the bicycle (in the West African Mande languages nègèso, which literally means ‘iron horse’). On Patarapa, see, for instance, S. Brett-Smith, 1996.

30 A. Gottlieb, 1982, 34 referring to scholars who represent menstruating women as polluting and dangerous. Gottlieb indirectly suggests that it might be that menstruating women are kept away from furnaces in order to keep two processes of creating life separate from each other. Her own ethnographic research explores ideas that menstrual blood, as representing human fertility, must be kept from the fields, where it might otherwise pollute the fertility of the (male) earth. However, Gottlieb makes no reference to blacksmithing.

31 The understanding of iron production as analogous to sexual reproduction is beautifully illustrated by the Haya blacksmiths (living near Lake Victoria) who sing about themselves as lovers working in a landscape they imagine as the body of a receptive woman. P. O’Neill, F. Muhly Jr., P. Schmidt, 1988.

32 Nouns in many West African languages are not gendered. A word for ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is added to the noun to differentiate the sexes. In the West African Mande languages, for instance, numu is the generic term, numukè = blacksmith, numumuso = potter.

33 H. Florusbosch, 2000, he demonstrates that the numerous art historians who have worked on potters and pottery have overlooked a crucial phase in the production process of pottery, which is the establishment of the potter’s relationship with the clay. See also H. Florusbosch, 2002.

34 We have heard of cases in which the furnace was constructed on the site of an (abandoned) termite mound.

35 There may be some chemical or technical logics in integrating clay from termite mounds in mud constructions: Djenné masons said that the mud from termite mounds can be mixed with mud for making a more water-resistant plaster. See T.H.J. Marchand, 2009, p. 123. And in many regions of the Sahel and savanna the tops of mushroom-shaped termite mounds are often lopped off and placed directly along the tops of mud-brick walls, to protect the walls from erosion (by rain and wind).

36 For detailed exemplification, see S. Brett-Smith, 1994 and 2014.

37 This theme is not restricted to Africa; it seems universal. In Greek mythology, Hephaistos was married to Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility, who then transferred her favours to Ares, the god of war. This is a story of historical change: warfare challenged blacksmithing and the potency of the earth as giving access to fertility. The Greeks and Romans were agriculturalists notorious for military expansion, which explains why, in their cosmological narrative, the god of blacksmiths was imagined as less favourable than the god of war, although he was acknowledged as being the god who produced the first women—Pandora—from … clay!

38 For an overview of versions of the Sunjata epic that feature the clash between Sunjata and Sumaoro/Sumanguru, see S.P.D. Bulman, 1997; SP. Belcher, 1999, chapter 5. The epic of Sunjata developed in the 20th century into a modern nation’s medieval history, and it is commonly believed that the image of Sunjata can be linked to a historical individual. The epic’s main theme of a clash between a blacksmith king and a warrior king may, however, attest to a historical shift from a society focused on earth/soil power and dominated by blacksmiths, to a society focused on territorial and political power dominated by mounted warriors on horseback. This historical shift was suggested three decades ago by G. Brooks, 1993, p. 100. For a detailed support of this idea, see J. Jansen, 2018. This thesis is in sharp contrast with M.A. Gomez, 2018. Certainly, Gomez’s book has received a great deal of attention, but a great deal of criticism too. Hadrien Collet has published several convincing critical reviews of Gomez’ work, one of them starting with the statement: “En effet, Michael Gomez rejette globalement les travaux anglophones des vingt dernières années et renoue avec une narration par le haut, suivant la succession des États, des dynasties et des souverains,” in H. Collet, 2022, p. 142. See also H. Collet 2020.

39 For this reason we have avoided linking the powers manifested by termites analytically to the much studied Mande concept of nyama, as nyama always has a sort of dangerous dimension.

40 Artisanal miners in West Africa consider the use of modern extraction technology to increase production as dangerous, for it disregards the relationship with the spirits that are the real powers and should be negotiated with, with sacrifices, in order to guarantee safe award of gold by the earth to people. However, regardless of such protection by sacrifices, revenue procured from gold is considered so dangerous that it has to be spent by quick and conspicuous consumption, for it is considered harmful to invest it in long-term undertakings. See, for example, K. Werthmann, 2003.

41 Such programmes insist on compensating local populations for the losses they suffer from mining activities. Compensation may be monetary or take the form of medical or educational projects; but in failing to consider how and to what extent the forces in the earth can be tamed, CSR programmes implicitly impose upon local stakeholders modern definitions of the earth as commodity and economic resource. The economistic definitions espoused by CSR take advantage of the structural economic poverty and political weakness of communities who cannot defend the earth and the non-human and spirit-life it supports and with which they have established historical relationships. For a critical ethnographic study of multinationals’ CSR-practices and corporate ethicizing, see D. Rajak, 2011.

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Jan Jansen et James R. Fairhead, « Teaming up with termites—Appraising termites’ contributions to earth technologies in West Africa »Afriques [En ligne], 14 | 2023, mis en ligne le 27 janvier 2024, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/3926 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/afriques.3926

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Auteurs

Jan Jansen

Lecturer at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University

James R. Fairhead

Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex

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