THE SECRET OF THE PUTCHU GUINADJI
In this essay, originally written in German in 2013, Henning Christoph (anthropologist and award-winning photojournalist) deals with the Putchu Guinadji, an African talisman consisting of miniatures of horsemen or warriors made of bronze, silver, copper or brass, used to treat mentally deranged people among the Kotoko in Cameroon and Chad, near the Lake Chad basin along the Logon and Chari rivers. Henning Christoph retells the story of how he discovered, during one of his sojourns in Cameroon, the significance, the ritual context and the importance of this talisman and its art of curing madness.
Having acquired a fine collection of miniature horsemen or warriors called Putchu Guinadji –made of bronze, silver, copper, or brass – for the Soul of Africa Museum, my curiosity was roused to find out more about these talismans, which were said to be used for the treatment of mad people among the Kotoko in Cameroon and Chad near the Lake Chad basin, along the Logone and Chari rivers.
There is practically no literature on the Putchu Guinadji or the Kotoko people. The Kotoko now live where the ancient kingdom of Sao once was. Pierluigi Peroni, an Italian collector, has published two beautiful art books on his outstanding collection, but provides no description as to how these horsemen were activated or used. In his book Der Einfluß Bornus, Mandaras, Bagirmis, der Kotoko-Staaten und der Jukun-Konföderation auf die Kulturentwicklung ihrer Nachbarn südlich des Tschadsees [The Influence of Bornu, Mandaras, Bagirmis, the Kotoko States and the Jukun Confederation on the Cultural Development of their Neighbors in the South of Lake Chad]1, Hermann Forki remarks that ever since Islam was introduced among them, the Kotoko no longer forge such objects themselves, but leave the trade to Arabs, Kanuri and Hausa, who form a socially inferior caste in the country and are considered as ‘unclean’ as corpses. Forki adds that the dog is regarded as their typical animal, and that the Kotoko see metalworking as contrary to Islam – which is not felt that way by any of their neighbors.
My curiosity was awakened. There are neither photos of these pieces being used, nor texts explaining their spiritual activation and use. On December 7 2012, I set out for Cameroon with the purpose of unraveling the secret of the Putchui Guinadji, accompanied by my two assistants Ismaila Putuenchi, a bronze caster from Foumban, and Aboubakar Sidik Njikam, my driver. We headed 1500 kilometers north from the country after obtaining 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. In this village live casters who make copies of the Kotoko pieces. To the best of my knowledge, the Kotoko stopped casting with the Islamization of their tribe; nowadays only the Hausa, Arabs and Kanuri preserve the art of casting. Metal workers were supposedly low caste among the Kotoko, but the dealer did say that the Kotoko still keep casting deep in the bush, and that we should look for a person called Mahmud in Waza, because he knows everything.
We arrived in Guilli on Christmas Eve after a 12-hour drive from Ngaoundere on a very bad road. The contacts we wanted to meet were not present. We had no other choice than to continue to Rhumsiki, since in that village was the only hotel of the whole region. 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 at Rhumsiki. That evening I had doubts about my plans to discover 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 and he was familiar with the Putchu Guinadji. He proudly told me that he had recently sold the four Putchu Guinadji to a man from Toulouse. He gave me the first piece of valuable information, which gave me hope that my efforts might still bring forth fruit. He named the six steps in making a Putchu Guinadji:
- A marabout must diagnose the madness.
- The marabout sends the patient to a caster with the medicine.
- The caster makes the horse and rider.
- Leaves are boiled and the horse is put in the boiling water with the medicine.
- The blood of a chicken is offered over the horse.
- When power lessens, another chicken is offered over the horse and rider.
This information was a great help and underscored what I had originally thought: that the casting of those pieces was a sacred act accompanied by certain rituals, and that a marabout had to perform this act, since the Kotoko are Muslim.
Our second contact came 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 there. I accepted Kotakoji’s offer, and we set off the next morning for Maroua.
The Putchu Guinadji are to be seen as the horse and rider who fight the demons attacking a mad person.
After checking into a flea-ridden hotel, Kotakoji set off to find the old marabout in a village not too far from Maroua. Several hours later, he came back and said that the marabout agreed to my photographing and filming him. The marabout was an old Kotoko man called Bakoura. As we sat down in his treatment hut, the old man scrutinized me, since he didn’t know what I wanted from him. He took out an old dirty sack and set about ten 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 render them harmless. After he was finished, I was allowed to inspect them. Some were covered with leather and tied to a leather band with many other attachments, and some didn’t have any covers. Bakoura said that the ones covered with leather and displaying other attachments are for very serious cases. He added that the ‘warriors’ he had in the bag belonged to people who had died. The families had returned them to the marabout, who in turn activated them.
Bakoura sent for an 11-year-old boy who was seriously ill. The boy had a very complex Putchu Guinadji with many attachments around his neck. I was allowed to take photos of the boy. The marabout said that a used Putchu Guinadji could be reactivated after being cleaned with the Gwouadi plant. Bakoura then went on to show me how an uncovered horse is activated. After the horse is forged, the patient brings it 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 throughout this ritual.
Bakoura pointed out that if the Putchu Guinadji is encased in leather and has attachments, it is meant for a very serious case. The two plants are placed under the leather in powder form. Other attached packets can be filled with Koran Suren, Gwouabi and Tidih Whoume, but also with other metal pieces or elements related to the particular kind of madness affecting the patient. A very good example of this is the Putchu Guinadji to which a small vial of water is attached. With regard to that particular case, I was told that a woman carrying water from the Logone river at night had gone mad. After the woman died, the family brought the talisman back to the marabout Bakoura. I was able to purchase this particular Putchu Guinadji and several others from the marabout after he had 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, which is market day in Bogo. The village was filled with Kotoko, Arabs, Hausa and numerous other ethnic groups 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 ushered into his very tiny workshop on the sandy soil of that village in the extreme north of Cameroon.
The casting of Putchu Guinadji is forbidden by Islam, and the practice is therefore dying out. There are only a few casters and marabouts2 left who still offer this service to heal people from madness. Islamic fundamentalism and Christian missions have destroyed and continue to destroy many cultural treasures 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 farmers 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. The Putchu Guinadji are therefore to be seen as the horse and rider who fight the demons that attack the mad person. The horsemen are usually worn on a string or leather band under the arm and under clothing, to conceal them from other people. No one is allowed to touch a Putchu Guinadji that is worn and active, because the madness can be transferred by such means. The sick person wears the talisman all his life and, by being rubbed against the body, the Putchu Guinadji gets the very smooth patina. After the person dies, 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 affirms that he and his brother are the only real Kotoko casters left. Others are copying them, but they lack the spiritual power to cast horses that might really help against madness. Magana said that all mentally deranged Kotoko people are brought to him. He said that he cannot count the number of people that he has already treated. His speciality is to attach a crocodile to the Putchu Guinadji in order to increase the power of the talisman.
After a person is diagnosed by the marabout as mad, he or she must bring the Gwouabi and Tidih Whoume plants from the marabout to him. They must also bring a chicken, rice and 15,000 CFA (the equivalent of € 22.90). The casting of the Putchu Guinadji is a sacred act and takes 15 days to be accomplished. 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 eventually what attachments must be added to it. Magama said that “madness has different colors”, referring to the attachments to the pieces.
Before applying the medicine, the blood of a chicken must be offered to the Putchu Guinadji, and rice must be cooked. A group of children sit around the mad person and eat the rice. One year later, the patient must return with 100,000 CFA (€ 152.67) and a goat or a cow – depending on how strong the illness is. Every consecutive year, a chicken’s blood must be poured on the Putchu Guinadji to empower it.
Magana said to me: “Only God knows how long I can still cast and cure”. It won’t be long before this old art of healing madness will disappear forever. I am sure that other bronze casters throughout Cameroon will make copies, since it is well known that these beautiful and powerful pieces sell well in Europe and America.
I asked Magana if people are afraid of him. He answered: “only those that are mad”. He added that people may copy him, “but it won’t work”. All the time, while I was interviewing Magana, he was moulding a Putchu Guinadji from bees’ wax, which he gave me when he had finished it. However, he said that he couldn’t cast it because this is something he does only for a mad person, since otherwise it is forbidden for him 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 for sale. There were copies and a few very good pieces that I could buy. Kotakoji, my guide, who knew everything and everyone, returned to his village in the Mandara mountains.
I had a great feeling of relief that I had been able to find out the secret, make photos and even a film of the Kotoko horsemen before this very old healing system disappears forever. For me, it is always essential to know the meaning and usage of the artifacts displayed at the Soul of Africa Museum.
- 1 Published in Münchener ethnologischen Abhandlungen, Bd.5, 1985,
- Originally used for scholars of the Qu’ran and religious teachers in the Islamic context, the term ‘marabout’ in Sub-Saharan Africa designated pre-Islamic priests and healers and was subsequently applied to non-Islamic spiritual guides and fortune tellers.