The dozos are tribal hunters who are being employed as security guards in Western Africa. Their reputation for honesty and fearlessness earns them a lot of respect. The community of dozos includes men from various regions and backgrounds. The ethical code of not betraying another dozo is very strong. There are strong taboos. The dozos believe that a bullet cannot kill them.
A strange, solitary figure–long rifle casually slung over his shoulder by a leather strap–walks among the fine cars and gated compounds of the upscale neighborhood. Carved figurines tied to his shirt and flap around his chest. The apparition’s brown, homespun clothing resembles the kind of coarse uniform that I imagine Robin Hood’s men might have worn. I gape in surprise.
The rustic warrior patrolling the modern suburb in the evening twilight is the first dozo I have ever seen. Dozos are a society of tribal and sacred hunters that has guarded villages in Ivory Coast, Mali, and Burkina Faso for centuries, explains an Ivorian friend. “Now that crime has spread, dozos are being hired to protect the cities and towns.”
As we continue to drive through Gagnoa, a coffee and cocoa-farming center a few hours north of Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan, my friend comments: “No one trusts the private security guards. They will run away if criminals attack. But the dozos believe they cannot be killed by bullets because of their magic. So they have become security guards.
“The people trust in them.”
Enter the Dozos
Throughout West Africa, from Lagos to Abidjan, a wave of crime has frightened rich and poor alike. The promise of prosperity that came with independence in the 1960s has evaporated, leaving millions stranded in urban shantytowns without jobs, land, or hope. Subsequently, even the wealthiest slice of West African society has proved vulnerable to criminal attacks. People have been robbed at gunpoint, their Toyota, and Nissan sport utility vehicles have been hijacked, and homes have been invaded by armed criminals.
Corrupt and underpaid police forces are unable or unwilling to tackle the thieves. Private security has proved inadequate. “You can’t have much faith in a private security guard,” commented one expatriate in Abidjan. “He is likely to be resentful of his employer’s wealth and privileges, may often be drunk on the job, and will never risk his own life to save yours.”
In these circumstances, the dozos have made a remarkable transition from tribal hunting cult to vital protectors of the peace in Ivory Coast’s modern society. The dozos are men who belong to a secret society that demands honesty, courage, and a host of other virtues that have been in short supply in African cities and towns for some time. Their austere lifestyle and disciplined moral code give the dozos great stature and respect among their fellow villagers and countrymen. The dozos also believe that theft conduct–and the use of herbs, magic, and amulets–means that bullets cannot kill them.
Their fearlessness is a legend and ongoing. “To protect myself, I shot once at the panther,” said Issoufou Doumbia, matter-of-factly. “It came to attack me a second time and I shot it again, in its eye, and it fell.”
Doumbia was wounded on both arms by the 150-pound cat, which he at first thought was only a big dog.
The day after my drive through the suburbs, I see another dozo. He is keeping guard at the entrance gate to the main hospital in Gagnoa. I approach him, hoping to learn more. These may be men who believe that magic can stave off bullets, yet they are considered sane enough to be trusted and hired by wealthy, modern Ivorians such as the hospital administrators.
Suleiman rises from his rusty chair with great dignity. He warmly welcomes the foreign visitor’s request to talk about the life of a dozo. “I have been asked by the hospital to be the guard here,” he says modestly. “I have spent thirty years as a dozo.”
His weathered and intelligent face is lined with tribal marks and wrinkles, strangely offset by the modern black eyeglasses he wears. Likewise, the beads, bullets, knives, and trinkets hanging from his vest are in odd contrast to the watch on his wrist. “I am 49 years old and come from Guinea,” he explains. “I am Muslim but also belong to the secret spiritual world of the dozos.”
He quickly points out that Christians and other non-Muslims are welcomed into the dozo ton (society of tribal hunters), which is open to men of all beliefs, races, tribes, and nationalities. The majority of dozos, however, are Muslims. The dozos’ centuries-old traditions are largely drawn from the culture of the Malinke–also called Mandingo or Mande–who once ruled West Africa from Mali and now permeate many of the region’s modern nation-states, albeit often as a minority.
“I came to Gagnoa to guard the private neighborhoods five years ago,” he explains, speaking reasonably good French. “Four months ago the hospital hired me.”
Suleiman is married and has three children, the oldest of whom is nine. He proudly relates that his father was a famous dozo who killed many wild animals–such as lions, panthers, buffalo, and giraffes–using a muzzle-loading rifle firing powder and lead ball. “Now I use a 14-gauge French shotgun,” he says, showing the aged and worn weapon that hangs from his shoulder. He pulls two shotgun shells from his pocket. In truth, the dozo’s arsenal would be no match for criminals armed with more modern weapons. But the fact that the weapon is fired by a man who believes he cannot be killed by bullets makes the dozo a fearsome opponent.
“These things I wear are anti bullets,” says Suleiman when I ask what purpose his amulets and charms serve. “You may not touch them.”
He adds that, if “a woman touches the vest, it loses its magic powers.”
He notes, however, that some women are quasi-dozos. “They have power too: My aunt is one,” he says. “She uses her power to go fishing without entering the water.”
An American Dozo
American anthropologist Joseph R. Hellweg was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study the dozos. Eventually, he grew so close to them that he was initiated into the society. Now returned to the United States, where he is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia, Hellweg recalls his experience. “I became initiated because I felt that it was a sign of respect,” he says, “to be studying the dozos and to be taking part to whatever extent I could as an American on foreign soil.”
Hellweg spent most of his time with the dozos near Odienne in northwest Ivory Coast, near the borders with Guinea and Mali, where Malinke culture is dominant. “Initiation is not really a big step,” he explains. “It’s like a pass card into the society. Then it’s up to an individual to make the most of his network.
“After initiation, you go to rituals and ceremonies and spend time with older, master dozos. They impart knowledge about medicinal plants–how to use plants to wash oneself–and how to wash your gun. They [medicinal plants] allow you to kill particular animals, protect you from a misfortune such as bites by snakes, and make you impervious to bullets. The masters share knowledge of sorcery that involves incantation and may involve relations with djinns–the forest spirits.
“But the masters also give knowledge about ethics. A big thing with the dozos is that there may be no adulterous relation with the wife of another member of the society. If you are cheating on someone’s wife and go into the bush, you may have an accident.”
Does he really believe that the magic and spiritual powers could make him impervious to bullets, I ask? “I believe it is possible,” he responds carefully. “I saw a demonstration: A Frenchman volunteered and a dozo walked twenty-five paces, loaded his musket in front of everyone, and fired. The man was not hit, and there was lead shot at the man’s feet.”
Hellweg admits, though, that this could have been some sort of illusion.
If a dozo is shot or wounded–while hunting, standing guard, or in a fight–other dozos will say that “his magic was spoiled,” says Hellweg. The injury is attributed to the hunter’s bad moral conduct or his coming into contact with something forbidden, even by accident. Taboos include certain vegetables and some types of people. For example, the dozo may have inadvertently brushed against a menstruating woman in a marketplace.
“There’s no hard-and-fast rule here,” says Hellweg. “One kind of amulet works on one kind of taboo. Or, for example, while washing with a certain concoction you are not supposed to shake a man’s right hand.”
But the bottom line for all these spiritual hunters is that “moral character determines ability as a hunter.
“Dozos are very good as security guards because of their mystical power as well as their moral fiber. They have a national reputation.”
Their code is strict but simple: “Never betray another dozo,” says Hellweg. “No adultery. No stealing. It’s a very moral group.”
“The dozo ton is a Mande invention that probably predates the thirteenth-century Mali empire,” Hellweg explains, citing the research of another anthropologist, Youssouf Cisse. Writing in the Journal of the Africanist Society in 1964, Cisse offers a detailed study of the dozos.
Cisse chronicles the dozos’ ancient belief in the myth of Sanin, the first mother, and Kontron, the first hunter, who is devoted to his mother. Even today new dozos must accept Sanin and Kontron as spiritual parents. Cisse also suggests that dozos have largely hunted with guns since the seventeenth century when they abandoned traditional weapons like spears, or bows and arrows.
The hunters formed a well-disciplined society to resist the imperialism of the emerging Ghana empire. But it was open to people from any caste or tribe. “Theirs is an egalitarian ethos,” says Hellweg. If there is any hierarchy within the dozo ton, it derives from the conduct of life and length of time spent in the society.
Protectors or Vigilantes?
As a group, the dozos have a flexible structure. Each member is free to move in pursuit of game or of jobs in the cities. Their presence in urban centers has created some anxiety, however. They are, aider all, armed men–largely from a Muslim culture–in coastal cities that are dominated by Christian and animist cultures. Already some political leaders in Ivory Coast, where tribal politics and rhetoric are rather shrill, have called for disarming the dozos. Some even suggest sending them back “up the country,” away from the seat of power. But with so many wealthy people happy to have the dozos providing security, it’s not likely that they will be expelled anytime soon.
In Sierra Leone, a parallel hunters’ society, the Kamajos, became heavily involved in the recent and still sputtering civil war. Because the Kamajos knew the terrain and hated the rebels for disrupting the life of the country, the army attempted to use them as guides. But the hunters also disliked the corrupt and undisciplined army. When all order collapsed in recent fighting, the Kamajos took over and temporarily provided security.
In Ivory Coast, too, where there are an estimated 23,000 dozos, they are credited with keeping the peace in troubled times. The hunters are paid by the people whose neighborhoods they police. Private citizens pay them 60 U.S. cents a month, traders and artists one dollar, and owners of apartment blocks two dollars.
With their cowrie shells, mirror fragments, and gazelle horns hanging from their vests, the dozos present a forbidding image to the West Africans and are a serious deterrent to crime. But some reports suggest that people the dozos capture may be beaten before they are handed over to the police. This has led to complaints about dozo vigilantism. Dozos deny any wrongdoing, however. “I do not beat a thief if I catch him,” says Suleiman. “To beat, he must be judged first. I don’t have the habit of beating them.”
Suleiman lives with his brother, who is also a dozo. He comments on the scarcity of game in the countryside these days and explains that he only hunts in the season when it is permitted–often going on foot into Guinea with a team of dozo hunters. Cisse says that, in the past, hunters seeking dozo initiation had to hunt down and kill seven animals while on foot. But now, due to the lack of game, only three are necessary. Cisse also claims that, in the past, the dozos used to perform human sacrifices–especially albinos, who were taken from their parents while young and killed when they reached adulthood. I have no evidence that this kind of behavior continues or exists.
Many of the dozo songs and traditions center on a kind of macho rejection of the role of husband and householder. One such song cited by Cisse ridicules a dozo who has become a “big eater of ripe figs … a big drinker of good water,” who has “given away his powder and balls to his lover.”
The dozo cult is marked by universality because it is open to alt faiths and races, but it remains a dense matrix of taboos, traditions, rituals, and knowledge. The dozos’ role is defined by both the real and supernatural realms. In rural areas, for example, they protected the villages not only from wild animals but “from sorcerers who could turn themselves into vicious animals,” says Hellweg.
Only a few dozos get a formal education, but most can speak French. Hellweg comments that although some women became hunters he met none allowed to become dozos because women are not allowed to make sacrifices to Manimory, the founding deity of the dozo ton. The dozos he hunted with, he says, killed antelope, baboons, monkeys, porcupines, aardvarks, snakes like pythons and boas, bats, and warthogs. They also spoke of getting elephant and buffalo. Lately, however, the dozos have bagged a lot of criminals and at least one escaped panther from the Abidjan zoo. In doing so, they have earned a lot of respect from the beleaguered citizens of West Africa.
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