In Africa, a tradition fit for ancient kings

DAY after day, the old man sits in his grass-thatched workshop, carving canes and scepters out of ebony. The canes were once meant for African royalty - village chiefs and heads of ancient empires - and decorated with gold and ivory. But today the gold and ivory are gone, replaced by less expensive brass and the tusks of wild hogs killed in nearby farmers' fields.

Gone, too, is the ancient royalty that once bought his work. Today his buyers are nomadic Moors riding their camels - or Westerners passing by in Jeeps and Land Rovers.

But Sidy Cissokho is still here. The only woodcarver in Bakel - a sweltering town of mud huts along a ridge of quartz hills 500 kilometers (350 miles) from the Atlantic coast - he is one of the last traditional carvers in Senegal. Born into his work, following the tradition of caste, he learned his craft from his father - who had learned from his father before him, and so on, back through the generations.

A century ago, Mr. Cissokho would have sat in his workshop on a cured goatskin, patiently teaching his sons to follow in his footsteps. But today his workshop is empty except for a young man studying an English book. Even as far inland as Bakel, Senegalese youth have a passion for learning new ways.

As Cissokho works alone, listening to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren play, he talks about his regret in not having apprentices. A young cousin once began to learn carving with the old man, he says. But then a position in an auto-mechanic school opened.

''Being an auto mechanic is much more modern,'' says the hopeful young mechanic-to-be. ''I can go to work in France and make a lot more money, or maybe even to America - if you will take me there.''

But even Cissokho has adopted modern conveniences. Once his wands were rubbed with peanut oil to give them a deep richness. Now he uses a can of black shoe polish.

''It makes it shine more,'' he says.

Once, too, his assistants tapped local trees for sap to attach the hand-carved animals atop the wands. Now he uses white glue.

''It sticks better,'' he claims.

Despite the conveniences, Cissokho's work requires great patience. It takes about two days to carve one wand, for which he charges around $9. Starting with a rough piece of wood, he uses knives and chisels - once made by another craftsman, now bought from a store - to carve out a two-foot wand or the stylized shape of an animal. With hand drills, small files, and finer chisels he bevels the wand, smooths the wood grain, and drills holes for the animal's metallic eyes.

No one in Bakel's small community of Westerners is sure where Cissokho gets his ''ebony.''

''I get it from across the river in Mauritania,'' he says, when asked directly.

''He told me it comes from somewhere in Senegal,'' says Maryam Niamir, an Iranian studying range management in this sub-Saharan region.

''He told me it comes from upriver in Mali,'' says Ralph Parkinson, an employee of the United States Agency for International Development.

Cissokho regrets the passing of his trade, but he is not lonely. He has wives , children, grandchildren, and many visitors.

At lunch, a young girl brings a basin of rice covered with a spicy sauce of peanut butter and bits of meat. Invited by Cissokho, the men and boys in his workshop wash their hands and sit around the bowl to eat.

But keeping company is not the same as keeping tradition.

''This world is changing,'' he says, in a mixture of French and Soninke. ''There are not many left like me.''

Cissokho's tribe, the Soninke, are noted for their passion for modern ways. The Soninke, about 2 percent of Senegal's population, make up more than half the African migrant population working in France.

They are known for their enthusiasm for education, and for their energy and disciplined hard work. In a drab, drought-stricken land colored in gray and brown hues, their villages are orderly and brightly painted. Their mud houses have sculptured doorways, with neat mud patios swept clean daily.

Soninke villages are visible in the desert from miles away, because of the gleam of corrugated tin roofs and the lofty spires of newly built village mosques - both symbols of wealth sent home from foreign lands.

But constant emigrating has worn away the continuity of village life. When the men first began emigrating, they stayed abroad two or three years, then came home to raise their families. Today, many men marry and take their brides abroad , never to return.

Bakel, founded as a French military outpost in the late 19th century, today has 8,000 people, mostly Soninke. The Soninke once lived throughout West Africa and ruled the great Ghana Empire. But with the dissolution of that empire, the tribe shrank to a small pocket centered along the Senegal River and in the town.

But even in remote Bakel vestiges of modern life are beginning to appear. Last March marked the start of 24-hour electricity for the town. The poorest people have transistor radios. For those who can read them, there are plenty of French-language magazines and books.

''Everyone here is enthusiastic about modern life,'' the youth with the English book explains in a proud mixture of French and English. ''We all want to become modern now, so we don't learn the traditional crafts. Everything is changing, even here in Bakel.''

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