Styling the Donzos: Warriors, Women, and Wild Men in a City Parade

From the Series: Côte d'Ivoire Is Cooling Down? Reflections a Year after the Battle for Abidjan

In the town of Bondoukou, in eastern Côte d’Ivoire, the word donzo or dozo refers to the inhabitants of a Jula clan ward who generally carry the Ouattara patronym and practice Islam: the Donzo-Ouattaras [1]. Every year, on the last day of Ramadan, they organize a parade called Sakaraboutou, which features a large group of young “traditional” warriors accompanied by a drum band and small crew of female singers (click for linked video). This spectacular event annually attracts tens of thousands of spectators and is officially presented as a city-wide military mobilization that indexes Bondoukou’s unity and resilience in the face of a long history of outside threats, from Samory Touré in the late 19th century to the Forces Nouvelles rebels in the early 21st.

While explaining the involvement of the Donzo-Ouattaras in the Sakaraboutou parade, the late Alai Kourouba told me that the word donzo means “warriors” (1997 interview): “You see, they were into hunting and became donzos. That is how their tradition was born. It is the dance of the hunters. If you see it you close your door”—in disapproval.

Given what we now know about contemporary, “real” donzos [2], it is noteworthy that, in Bondoukou, people construe Donzos as a kin group with roots in both hunting and warfare—roots which Person [3] and Green [4] also attribute to the Ouattara clans of the Jula town of Kong to the northwest of Bondoukou. Hunting and warfare situate Donzos on the brink or even outside of the space of domestication, i.e. in the bush, while their abundant use of amulets adds a “pagan” allure. These are the features which make many pious urbanites “close their doors.”

Apart from the presence of the Donzo-Ouattaras, Bondoukou and Kong also share the annual celebration of Kouroubi. This event falls three days before Sakaraboutou and features large groups of non-married girls clad in magnificent outfits, singing and dancing all night. Person [3] reported from Kong that the eighteenth-century ruler Sekou Ouattara established Kouroubi to present his warriors with brides. Trimingham [5] observed that youngsters hold parades during this “feast of the virgins.” And in 1985 Launay [6] witnessed a carnivalesque performance with Sakaraboutou-like overtones among the Muslim Jula of Kadioha, also in northern Côte d’Ivoire. He observed youngsters participating in “mock warfare” and dancing before elders to commemorate the military exploits of their ancestors. More broadly, these performances, which include mock attacks and staged “paganism,” resemble what Nadel [7] and Apter [8] have described as parts of Durbar and Muslim festivals in northern Nigeria.

These various authors corroborate my view that the Kouroubi and Sakaraboutou festivals constitute a (Jula-) Muslim ceremonial complex revolving around warriors/hunters in relation to femininity and the “wild/pagan” [9, 10]. The events unfold in a subjunctive space of impersonation and transgression. To the extent that the “real,” historical, and contemporary warriors/hunters are donzos, then Sakaraboutou is about styling the donzos.

This styling [11, 12] is constituted by representations of Donzos which open performative spaces for crossing into personae who embody warriorship, femininity, and paganism/wildness. The main resources for these semiotic reconstructions are space, lyrical repertoire, and visual tokens. An intricate, multi-layered spectacle emerges in which at least three performative zones are important: (1) In the public space delineated by the outer fringes of the moving parade and static spectators, male and female youngsters style their “traditional” characters: girls in Kouroubi outfits and boys in warriors’ tunics express their shared reverence for parents, seniors, and religious authorities. (2) In the intimate space inside the parade, male and female youngsters engage in crossing gender lines by serially appropriating and parodying each other’s lyrics. (3) Finally, small groups of “warriors” regularly leave the main parade seeking shelter from the gaze of spectators and authorities in order to style paganism and wildness in fleeting performances which demean Muslim authority figures such as imams and even the Prophet and Allah.

How well the youngsters camouflage their subversive styling is demonstrated by the fact that, for most spectators, Sakaraboutou remains an orderly, respectable custom in which Donzos exemplify their traditional military prowess. Such was the view of the national authorities in Abidjan who during the recent period of armed conflict (2002-2011) more than once prohibited the festival. They seem to have feared that Sakaraboutou Donzos would conjure up the martial spirit of those donzos who were at that time playing prominent roles in supporting the northern rebels of the Forces Nouvelles and, later, the army of Alassane Ouattara. Styling the donzos was tantamount to styling rebellion, at least in the eyes of the state. A renewed freedom of expression will come as a welcome sign of normalcy.


[1] I capitalize the word donzo when it serves as a proper noun to refer to the kin group who share the Ouattara patronym.

[2] Hellweg, Joseph. 2011. Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d'Ivoire. Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press.

[3] Person, Yves. 1968-70. Samori: une révolution Dyula. 2 vols. Nîmes: Barnier.

[4] Green, Kathyn Lee. 1984. The Foundation of Kong: A Study in Dyula and Sonongui Ethnic Identity. PhD diss., Indiana University.

[5] Trimingham, J. Spencer. 1959. Islam in West Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[6] Launay, Robert. 1992. Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[7] Nadel, Siegfried Frederick. 1942. A Black Byzantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Apter, Andrew. 2002. On Imperial Spectacle: The Dialectics of Seeing in Colonial Nigeria. Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (3): 564-596.

[9] Arnaut, Karel. 2004. "Sakaraboutou is a Bondoukou Custom": An Investigation into Ritual Spaces and Performative (Re-)Positioning. In Performing Displacements and Rephrasing Attachments. Ethnographic Explorations of Mobility in Art, Ritual, Media, and Politics, 115-202. Ph.D. diss.: Ghent University.

[10] ------. forthcoming. Making Space for Performativity: Publics, Powers, and Places in a Multi-Register Town Festival (Bondoukou, Côte d’Ivoire). In Devising Order: Socio-Religious Models, Rituals, and the Performativity of Practice, edited by B. Boute and T. Småberg. Leiden: Brill.

[11] Coupland, Nikolas. 2007. Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Rampton, Ben. 1999. Styling the Other: Introduction. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3 (4): 421-427.