Dakar Djibouti Mission [1931-1933]



The musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac is involved in an ambitious project; together with its scientific partners, it is re-examining the history of this landmark mission to Africa during the colonial period. The results will be shared with the public through an exhibition at the museum in 2025.

the project

A collaborative project

This ambitious project, entitled "Dakar-Djibouti: contre-enquêtes" (Dakar-Djibouti: counter-investigations), aims to bring together different perspectives on the history of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, which has marked the history of French anthropology. It will provide a fresh look at the museum's collections and involves a number of partners:

It brings together researchers and curators, as well as knowledge holders in the places of origin and France through associations and federations. This scientific mission, one of the most significant colonial-era collecting endeavours, lasted for 21 months from 1931 to 1933. It brought over 3 000 objects, 300 manuscripts and amulets, thousands of naturalist specimens, thousands of photographs, sound recordings and nearly 10,000 handwritten field notes back to Paris. This heritage and its archives are complemented by the account by the mission's secretary, Michel Leiris, in L’Afrique fantôme (Phantom Africa) (1934).

These counter-investigations re-examine the history and lessons of this mission, and in particular the circumstances in which objects, information, photographs and sound recordings were collected. They involve research in Paris and in certain places of origin with project partners.



scientific and heritage cooperation

The « Parcours des collections » "Parcours des collections" (Path of the Collections) grants from the French Ministry of Culture and the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through French embassies, enable the museum to host heritage professionals for a period of one to three months (find out more about the Reception, training and exchange programmes for foreign cultural professionals).

The talk by Daouda Keita, Director General of the National Museum of Mali, on 3 July 2022 in the J. Kerchache reading room (listen again below), is part of a strengthened scientific and heritage cooperation with the countries of origin of the African collections. The research he has carried out in partnership with the museum's conservation teams is part of the Dakar - Djibouti project.

musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac · Le Mali dans les collections du musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac

some symbolic objects

the boli collected during the mission

Among the famous objects brought back from Mali by the mission is a Boli, a sacred object linked to the secret Kono society, taken with others from the sanctuary reserved for male initiates in Diabougou.

The episode of 7 September 1931 echoes the events of the previous day in Kemeni, where other Kono objects were seized without the consent of their holders.

Tracing the controversial history of this object is part of the work carried out in the context of the Dakar-Djibouti project, and, more broadly, the provenance research started by the museum in 2019. However, not all histories are as well known or as violent as that of this object, and this is the challenge for long-term research.

  • The boli in L'Afrique fantôme : excerpt from 7 September 1931

One year after the return of the "Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic and linguistic mission", the mission's secretary, Michel Leiris, published his journal entitled L'Afrique fantôme in 1934. On the dates of 5 to 7 September 1931, he reveals that several objects, including the boli, were taken by the Dakar-Djibouti mission without the consent of local institutions.

Excerpt from L'Afrique fantôme by Michel Leiris: :

"7 September. Before leaving Dyabougou, we visited the village and kidnapped the second Kono, whom Griaule had spotted sneaking into the reserved hut. This time, Lutten and I took charge of the operation. My heart was pounding because, since yesterday's scandal, I could see the enormity of what we were doing with greater clarity. Using his hunting knife, Lutten detached the mask from the costume adorned with feathers to which it was attached, handed it to me, so that I could wrap it in the canvas that we had brought, and also gave me, at my request - because it was one of the strange shapes that had intrigued us so much yesterday - a kind of suckling pig, still made of brown nougat (i.e. coagulated blood), weighing at least 15 kilos, and I wrapped it up with the mask. (...) As we were leaving, the chief wanted to return the 20 francs we gave him. Naturally, Lutten let him keep them. But it didn't make it any less ugly..."

Tracing the history

Boliw are sacred objects crafted, handled and kept hidden from view by the initiates of the powerful Kono male society. In non-Muslim Bamana (Mali) circles, the social balance is controlled by initiation societies, including the Kono. In this secret, strictly male context, powerful objects channel and counteract energies harmful to the community and initiates. Boliw are used as portable altars, regularly fed with an mixture made from animal blood, mainly to promote fertility, resolve conflicts or intimidate evil-doers.

The strength and power of these ritual objects, and therefore their effectiveness, are linked to the elements regularly poured into them, including blood charged with nyama, a dangerous energy to manipulate. A boli can take many forms including zoomorphic, anthropomorphic or "formless", depending on the type of afflictions to be resolved for the entire community.

Context of use