Sorcerers against their will. The interview by Kirill Babaev to “Patron” magazine (April 2014).

“The notion of supernatural does not exist for the African. He or she does not comprehend the meaning of the expression “in the afterlife”. Distant celestials are substituted by perfectly accessible spirits of the ancestors, which dwell at his or her side in this world and are constantly carrying on a dialogue. The spirits give advices, reward, punish, and help to identify countless bearers of sorcery. Therefore, a special governmental program exists in some African countries: foundation of camps for witches and sorcerers”. A known Russian linguist and ethnographer Kirill Babaev (our readers had already got a chance to become acquainted with this person in our October and December ‘2013 issues) – speaks of religious beliefs, mysticism and sorcery on the Black Continent, the theme that is surrounded by mystery and is still awaiting thorough examination.

A corpse is authorized to declare

-- Have you got a chance to personally experience a phenomenon, which is beyond your comprehension?

-- More than once. For instance, in Benin: a festivity dedicated to the Zangbeto spirit was underway in the village square. There was no flooring or fittings – simply a sandy soil, typical for this location. Music started and something resembling a haystack began to circle around the sand: a conic thingy just below human height, dyed in different colours. The cone was moving around the whole square and it was apparent that someone is inside. When the figure stopped I was told that anyone can approach it and look what is inside. I lifted the cone with one hand: it was empty! I put it back and stepped aside. The music started again and the figure resumed spinning around the square. The next time we put the figure sideways – the same result – no one inside! I stepped aside one more time and everything repeated: with the first sounds of music the haystack started to circle around the sand. When the figure stopped for the third time it was lifted by the local priests, and it revealed a tiny, fist-sized, wooden figurine – a fetish of the Zangbeto spirit.

-- Did they give you something to drink or to smoke beforehand?

-- No, the experiment was absolutely pure. There were two persons with me who also saw all this. It appeared that the only persons to be astounded were the three of us. For the Africans themselves there is no mystery: it was the spirit of Zangbeto who was dancing. You see, they have a totally different attitude toward mysticism. Odd and supernatural phenomena are nonexistent for the Africans – this is the crucial distinction between us and them. We are separated from the over world by several restraints, one of which – the church: it has the path to God but we do not, therefore we go to a temple where a priest serves as a mediator between flock and heavens. Everything is different with the Africans. You can directly communicate with ancestors with ease. They visit you in your sleep, you can see and hear them, you can ask a question and get the answer.

-- Is it the state of eternal ecstasy? What do you mean by “spirits can be seen and heard”?

-- They are confident that spirits are constantly giving them signs, speak with them. Take, for example, the interrogation of a corpse – a very popular ceremony in Africa. Imagine that a chief has died in a village. It is a strange and mysterious situation for the villagers. It does not matter that he was 94 years old and had been long suffering from disease if only yesterday he was still walking and talking – so, why did he die? Probably someone has casted a spell on him. One can put his thinking cap and decide who is the chef’s murdered. Otherwise, one can ask the chef himself, he will definitely tell. Folks are gathering on the square and four men – close relatives, as a rule, – bring the body of the deceased on the stretchers. The head priest asks the corpse, “Oh, the great chief, do you hear us?” The stretchers start to sway, meaning that the deceased “hears” his people. “Can you show us your murderer?” The stretchers swing again – sure thing! After that the people with stretchers pass by every resident of the village. Where the stretchers list forward – there is the murderer.

-- And who controls the process? Who told the carriers before whom they should list the stretchers?

-- I believe that these are the elders of the community who tip off the carriers who is the best candidate for the role of murderer, and they involuntarily are moving the stretchers before this person, being convinced that this is the spirit’s will. Of course, they will be denying it.

-- But these are clearly different phenomena. Corpse investigation – an obvious trick. Dancing haystack – the true mystery.

-- Corpse investigation is not a trick; it is the result of conviction. People are doing it unknowingly. These are not different phenomena for the Africans; these two instances are equal evidence of spirit existence.
Here is one more miracle: a deep nigh, a small village lost near the city of Sokode in Togo. Drumbeats are heard, folks are dancing down to a frazzle around the fire. One of the dancers picks up a burning branch, puts it in his mouth and starts to eat it. Then he shows blazing pieces of branch in his mouth, chews them and puts them on his tongue. I tried to touch this branch – no kidding, it really is burning. But the dancer draws the branch up and down his body without leaving any traces. What is it – a prepared trick? Only a person who has never been to these places can think so.

-- But, there must be a way to explain all this!

-- Every African is persuaded since his or her childhood that a participant of the holy ceremony becomes holy himself or herself. The one who puts on a mask ceases being a human and turns into a spirit who dwells in this mask. This belief makes them do marvels. What the African cannot do being a human, he will perform being the spirit from the mask: swallow fire or become invisible.

-- It is doubtful that even the most devoted belief can make him invisible!

-- What about us? Aren’t we subjected to the same belief? We, Europeans, cannot see germs. Still, we do not consider them as being supernatural. We believe in their existence because someone told us that they exist. Moreover, this “someone” told us – look through the microscope and you will see a germ. We know that germs can cause diseases, yet they also help us to get well. Everything is subjected to belief here. Spirit for the African is the same thing. It is invisible but it exists; it can send illness, but it can also cure. The holy ceremony is the microscope available to everyone so that he or she can see miracles with ones’ own eyes. This analogy helps understanding the train of thought of the African.


Double toil and trouble

-- How come you, a linguist, engaged in studying religious beliefs? It is not your specialization.

-- I am an Africanist, and one can be an Africanist only in the broad sense of the word. In linguistic expeditions it is difficult to ignore ethnographic material. Besides, to comprehend the structure of a foreign language it is necessary first to clarify the way in which the language bearer’s thoughts flow. It primarily relates to the Africans – they possess a principally alternative perception of the world. We don’t know Africa at all. For me the traditional African beliefs became a true revelation. Here are lots of things that weren’t studied at all or had been studied by the highly biased Christian missionaries, who viewed the world through the prism of the New Testament. There is nothing in Africa that would resemble the notions we, the bearers of “contemporary” culture define as religion. For a bearer of traditional culture the ideas of religion and daily life are merged. For the African, belief in spirits dictates the norms of social behaviour, organizes his or her view of the world, relations with other people, and entirely defines medicine, law and household. Take, for example, a quite an ordinary situation – a person caught a disease. Relatives dash to the healer: “He is down with a strange illness!” As I’ve already mentioned: for the Africans, if something is wrong with health, it is definitely an unearthly case. Malaria, yellow fever, URI – are all “very strange illnesses”. Why did he fall ill? Only yesterday he was on his feet and now he is down. Strange! The healer comes and says – alright, I will be curing him, let’s see how the spirits will take it. If the ill person recovers, this means the spirits said “yes”. If dies – the spirits said “no”. In turn, it signals that it is logical to assume that the deceased was a sorcerer and harmed all of us. Then the fact that he died is a pure joy. Children, wife, parents of the deceased – all will break into a dance and say: “Thank you, healer, for saving us from this nasty sorcerer!”

-- So for them everyone who died is a creep?

-- Everyone who was cured by a traditional healer without success – they all are creeps, without exception. Those, who died on their own, with no healer’s help, are unfortunate victims of a sorcerer. That is because sorcery is what the Africans fear the most. He or she believes that sorcerers are the cause of all mishaps in life. Especially those sorcerers who do not realize being sorcerers. Everyone thought that he is a common person, and he himself thought so, he behaved like an ordinary man in daytime. But at night, when he was asleep, a sorcerous spirit came out of him, it flew around the village, entered villagers’ huts and drank their blood or implanted different muck into their bodies, that led to death – porcupine spines, bird feathers, bunches of poisonous weed. Only the healer is able to ruin these cunning plans: he dances before the patient, then bends down, digs his teeth into an area of the patient’s body and pulls out this stuff – first the spine, then feather and weed. Once the source of decease is removed, the victim turns the corner. It is funny that in recent years this assortment modernized. Healers extract SIM-cards, bolts, nuts, diskettes from their patients’ bodies… Fundamental distinction between us is in the fact that we proceed from cause to effect in our religious perception, while the African does it vice versa, “It is a good crop this year – it means that we worshiped our ancestors well”. That said they might have not made a single sacrifice during the year. But if the crop is good, the ancestors wished exactly for this worship. The following year a different situation: the field watchman fell asleep and crops were picked by birds, half a village died of smallpox or AIDS. “This means we salved our ancestors poorly. But more likely there is a sorcerer among us.” Everyone gathers for brainstorming. No one seeks for the cause – it is obvious. Everyone seeks for the sorcerer. Whom to blame? Probably the neighbouring village. “Last year we stole and ate their cow. In revenge they conjured the watchman to fall asleep and plagued villagers to die of a strange disease.” Another elder takes the word, “My opinion is that the sorcerer is among us – it is the widow who lives on the outskirt of the village. First, it is strange that she is a widow. We all know that her husband went to the capital city to earn money and died in an accident on construction site, where a slag block fell on him. It is obvious that the wife is the one who cooked his goose.” The third villager stands up, “You are right! My nephew is three years old and the day before yesterday he distinctly declared – this woman is a witch.” The child is summoned. He says, “Yes, I saw it in my dream how she boils a magic potion.” Everyone exclaims – there you go! Why to argue more? We should kill her, and everything in our village will be fine again.
This search for the guilty is a constant practice in the African villages. Every African is under pressure of permanent sorcerous hysteria – this is the way they relief eternal fear that dwells inside.

-- The fear of what?

-- The greatest part of people in tropical Africa lives in rural areas. These people are greatly dependent on the forces of nature, on productivity of land, on tsetse fly that devours cattle, on rain. The idea to withstand the forces of nature does not cross their minds, as they regard every factor a tool of spirits. Therefore, they live in eternal fear. The fear of hunger – that is the cornerstone that defines behaviour of the African. Compare our mythologies: in the Russian folklore if the Golden fish appears, our man immediately starts to wish for a bag of gold, a stately mansion and a royal daughter. In the African mythology the main treasure is food. Therefore, the antelope from the African fairy tales – an equivalent to our Golden fish – fulfils always one, the most fervent, desire of protagonist: continuously supplies him with food.

-- And this is despite the fact that in Africa you just need to put a stick into ground and it will grow, while in Russia conditions for agriculture are extreme.

-- It is a common misjudgment that everything grows there. Land productivity in many regions of Africa is way worse than in Russia. Soils are bad, they quickly deteriorate, and many cultures do not take roots in this climate. Our wheat is much more caloric and easily maintained crops compared with the wheat that can be cultivated, for example, in equatorial forest. Usually these are root crops – yam and cassava; from cereals – sorghum: lots of starch, few proteins, digests terribly. There is also millet, yet it is only good for brewing beer. In the majority of regions the Africans cannot stockpile excesses of food, while population grows tremendously fast. This fear – to die of hunger – is genetically rooted in people for many generations ahead. Moreover, the same fear and the desire to find guilty for the African are caused by difficulties of the modern world with which he has to cope today. He strives to confine this fear as soon as possible. This is why every day, every minute witch-hunt goes on.


Camp for evil spirits

-- In Medieval Europe the role of witches usually was assigned to young, beautiful, sexually appealing – inquisition worked off desires suppressed by celibate. And what should the African woman look like, so that the entire village can say in unison, “You witch!”?

-- The Africans are watchful of anyone who is unusual, who just a little deviates from the social norm. A physically challenged – limped, cross-eyed, blind, a person with harelip – all of them can turn out to be sorcerers. Twins are squared sorcerers. And the cubed sorcerers are albinos, as, according to the African beliefs, white is the colour of all most dangerous spirits: gnomes, water spirits who drag their victim in whirlpool, spirits of equatorial woods… In addition, suspicion of sorcery will surely be cast on those, whom villagers don’t want to support: elderly people, mature single women, orphaned children. In general – the most unprotected members of community. Earlier they were killed instantly or expelled from village which, in conditions of wild nature, is equal to killing. Today these persons got a chance to survive by relocating into so-called “witch camps”. I happened to attend a witch camp in Ngani in the north of Ghana. They look like that: clay huts behind fence. At the entrance – account number to which one can make a donation, so that the camp can expand and admit more people. There is no electricity or sewerage, and drinking water is brought in. Yet, the inhabitants of the camp – around 300 males and females, former “witches” and “sorcerers” expelled from their houses sometimes by their close relatives, are happy just to be alive, supplied with water and are occupied.

-- And what are their thoughts about accusations of sorcery?

-- I spoke to two elderly women there. They were from different parts of the country, from different tribes. But their stories were similar. The first was a widow and was supported by the relatives of her husband, who died while hunting. It is clear that they regarded her as a burden. How did she get accused – a child came to the village chief and said, “I had a dream that this woman is a witch.” The entire village was gathered and the child told them in detail, “I had a dream that she wanted to strangle me. She wanted that I never married and never had children.” That’s all they needed to drop the poor soul out of the village. She was telling me indignantly that this was a stupid accusation, that she never wanted to harm anyone, but she was separated from her children and that all this was just barbarism. By and large – a common person’s reaction. However, the second woman wearing scars on her face, who told that she was from the Dagomba tribe, shocked me with confession, “yes, I’m a witch, I murdered my brother’s wife and his daughter.” “How did you do that?” “Once I got mad at her and said, “Drop dead!”, so she died. The time has passed and her daughter also died. This means my word has magical power.” I mean, the village persuaded her – and she believed. What is characteristic: “witch camps” is a governmental program of Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and other African countries. Moreover, governments recruit priests to work in these camps! They clear newcomers of evil charms. The priest welcomes each newcomer at the entrance, “You a witch?” “Yes.” “Come here!” Then he conducts a ceremony: sprinkles a sorcerer or a witch with schnapps, smites off chicken’s head and drops its carcass on the ground. If it falls with its feet down, this means that the newcomer retained his or her magic powers. If the carcass falls with the feet up – evil powers are driven off. But even if the priest declares that the newcomer has no relation to black magic, there is still no turning back from a witch camp – the village will not accept him or her back. I believe that existence of witch camps signals how powerless the contemporary society is. Today, in the twenty-first century, it cannot persuade its members that sorcery does not exist. Therefore, every year hundreds of people continue to get expelled from their villages. And no one can do anything about it. They keep using what proved to be effective.

-- Nevertheless, Kirill, your tale contradicts the official statistics. What witches are you talking about? According to hard facts there is a small trickle of the followers of traditional African cults on the continent. The continent is divided between Christians and Muslims. Look: Ghana – 75 % Christians, 18 % Muslims. Uganda – 84 % Christians, 12 % Muslims. Mali – 90 % Muslims, 5 % Christians. And so on… How could you explain this paradox?

-- There is no paradox. The world’s religions and traditional beliefs of the Africans get along perfectly well, complementing each other. I was in the Beninese city of Ouidah – there are two religious structures facing each other – a Catholic cathedral and an ancient Temple of pythons. A python is a totemic animal for the entire western Africa and it is incredibly worshipped there. Even when chiefs were selling lands to the first arrived Englishmen, it was officially stipulated that the new owner shall not kill pythons. The Temple of pythons – a fragile structure with concrete floor. Its only decoration – tightly curled pythons – they usually get warm in this manner. A priest wearing notches on his cheeks and a python o his neck greets visitors. All in all, it is quite an obscure building in comparison with the magnificent Catholic cathedral. Nonetheless, the Beninese attend the Catholic cathedral and the pagan temple with equal eagerness. The square between two buildings holds annual voodoo festival. When Pope Benedict XVI during his attendance of Ouidah prayed at this cathedral, he understood the sentiments of the attending flock perfectly well. In his speech he pronounced that voodoo religion also serves the purpose and is good enough, which made the Africans exceptionally pleased.

-- What a flexible Pope! To say this – about one of the darkest religions on Earth, notorious for turning people into zombies with aid of tetrodotoxin poison!

-- There are no zombies in Africa. In the Fon language, one of Beninese languages, it merely means “spirit”. And, by the way, it is pronounced as “Vodu”. During mass slave-trading black people were exported from Benin in large numbers to Caribbean Islands. There this voodoo religion, terrible things about which are told today, developed and was entwined by the Indian beliefs with their traditional blood-lust. In Africa there is nothing like that. Voodoo in Africa is much less mystical: a simple spiritual cult without any brutal rituals. There is no cult of sorcery, unlike on Caribbean Islands, where this feature is in great esteem. In Africa no person would ever admit – “I am a sorcerer”. You will end up in a witch camp in no time. The African voodoo transformed greatly with the advent of Christianity. Voodoo followers borrowed many Christian elements, up to icons. They included Christ and the Virgin Mary in their pantheon, and in some places even Ganesha, Krishna and Shiva. For them all of these are quite suitable deities. Besides, the African voodooists’ pantheon houses the spirit of Christian Missionary and the spirit of Colonial soldier.

-- The League of Nations, rather than a pantheon!

-- Yes, in this perspective they are like children: they take what they like. Let’s leave Benin and pay attention the most Christian country in Africa – Ethiopia. This country, by the way, is one of the oldest Christian countries in the World. Christianity appeared there already in the 4th century and had been developing in complete isolation from the European civilization for almost 1500 years. In the process it absorbed multiple local beliefs. The Ethiopian Christians tattoo cross on their foreheads; they beat drums and dance during church services. To describe the icons they have – Lord forbid! For example, one icon depicts “The Creator breaks out Adam’s rib to produce Eva”. The style of depiction is primitive. Angels, for instance, can be drawn as heads with wings. And at the main cathedral of Addis Ababa one of the icons is called “Emperor Haile Selassie addresses the League of Nations on the 30th of May 1936”. And all participants on this icon have halos above their heads. I bought a clay statuette there: the King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are lying in a bunk – on one side two heads, on the opposite – four feet. A very popular theme…
Islam in Africa gets more and more popular because it is easier for understanding. Similar to the African beliefs, Islam admits the existence of spirits – genies. It encourages circumcision and polygamy, which is characteristic for the majority of the African nations. It is very easy to become a Muslim: you just have to read the required words three times – that’s it, you are confessing Islam. Nevertheless, many prohibitions are ignored by the African Muslims. They drink alcohol. They do not eat pork (simply because there are no swine there), but they eat porcupines without ceremony, despite its clear contradiction of the Islamic canons: as far as I know, the Prophet Mohammed did not say a word about porcupines.
According to numbers, Africa is divided between Christians and Muslims approximately in equal parts. But in reality it is not so. The African Christians and Muslims keep visiting priests and healers: to cure a disease, to resolve a family issue, to deal with difficulties in business… Curious that a priest’s recipe for every occasion sounds roughly like: buy monkey’s scull, reduce it to powder, mix with certain herbs, add snake’s blood and drink. Pour what is left onto your head. Both the zealous African Christians and faithful Muslims are convinced: such a potion is better than any prayer. In the largest fetish market of Lome, the capital of Togo – crowds sweep away goods from stalls: hyenas’ heads, lions’ teeth, dried snakes, compressed hedgehogs. And if you ever say to these Christians or Muslims that it is necessary to crush a human into powder, they would react absolutely calmly. For the Africans animals and humans are different levels of the same social hierarchy.
Needless saying that when even Christian priests run to voodoo priests to get a “juju” – a mighty charm in the shape of a small sack with weeds, a bone, a tooth or animal’s paw: to attract luck. As I was told by an elderly priest in the city of Kumasi in Ghana, once a young pastor being upset by lack of attendance of his church came to a voodoo priest and asked him for help, promising to return due reward when his church is filled with parish. The priest answered, “I will give you the juju, and your church will thrive. When there are more than a thousand of parish people in your church, you will come to me, return the juju and pay me one thousand cedi.” The preacher agreed. After a while the voodoo priest meets the preacher and asks him how things were going. The preacher answers, “It is bad, people doesn’t come to my church”. It repeated several times. But one day the priest went to the church on Sunday just to see more than five thousand of parish people there. “Hey, you!” the priest cried, “Give me back my juju and the money!” A fight started between the priest and the preacher, but good-natured Christians surrounded them and filmed the fight on their mobile phones. The photos of this fight, as the voodoo priest proudly informed me, can be seen on his page on Facebook.


Laying the blame on somebody else

-- We read a strange piece of news: a law was passed in the Kingdom of Swaziland, according to which witches are forbidden to fly at altitude above 150 m in order not to interfere with civil flights. Do you think it’s just a gossip?

-- I believe it is true. The reigning king there conceives all traditions very seriously; he wears lions’ skins, annually inspects the parade of virgins – candidates for his next wives. So could easily pass such a law. Many of the African leaders studied in Europe, have been living there for a long time, served in the European armies, worked under the Europeans’ authority and seemingly were absolutely like you and me. But when they came to power, they began to eat human flesh, practice sorcerous cults, burn fetishes, dance down with drums beating and declare themselves the spirits of progenitors. This dwells in them on the subconscious level and will be dwelling for a long time. During a hundred years period tropical Africa was thrown from traditional culture over into modern civilization. Europe had been covering this path for thousands of years! So, what do you expect…
Today even the most intelligent and educated African bears the ideology of traditional society. This is normal and logical.
I had a guide in Mali, an educated man. He was born in the capital, speaks five languages, literally lives in the Internet and is in constant contact with the European tourists. Once he told me in a friendly chat, “I have got a friend who can turn into hyena. One time he did it in my presence. Hyena looked at me and then said in human voice – “close your eyes,” and it turned back into my friend.” According to the same guide, his grandmother could turn into a bird and fly around the territory of prefecture. Mine couldn’t do so.
What is characteristic – even a white person who finds oneself in this environment starts to feel differently. On the subconscious level you acquire a small part of this global psychosis and are inspired with it. You are surrounded by inexplicable facts, numerous unfamiliar fears, everyone tells you fearsome stories, and a sensitive person involuntarily starts to feel uneasy. Remember – last time I told you about the Dogon tribe, their multiple prohibitions towards tourists and about the tombs of white people who suddenly caught diseases and died if they displayed excessive curiosity and didn’t mind their own business. Back then a local guide said to me, “Don’t walk this path – it’s sacred.” “But this path is shorter!” “You may go, but you will die.” And I remember turning around and seeing some women, who carried water, stopped, put their buckets on the ground, and watched with full confidence in their eyes that a white man was to die. My first emotion was – to dance down this path, to prove that all this are just pathetic beliefs and they shouldn’t be bluffing… But I didn’t. I think it was a wise decision: my colleague, a linguist from St. Petersburg, hasn’t returned from a recent trip to the Dogons alive.
In the land of the Dogons I got to know a person named Abdallah, a mitt reader. He sits right on the ground before different signs drawn on the sand. He is asked a question. I asked him the first question that came to my mind: how much children will I have? He drew around the sand and answered, “Come in the morning. Tonight the Pale Fox comes, he will give the answer.” I asked, “Can I stay and have a look at this Pale Fox?” “You can, but after that you will die.” Again, I was in two minds – who knows, maybe people are dying because they are persuaded that they must die. Or maybe the Dogons insensibly pin a poisonous pickle in their hearts, so that the rest of them remained in firm faith in the Pale Fox. All in all, the Pale Fox came and gave the answer: I will have three children in the following order – boy, girl, boy. Well, I have already got a boy and a girl…
One day in Ghana I approached a traditional healer to record an interview – I had been collecting the African tales for my upcoming book. The healer described me with utmost pleasure how in his childhood he was kidnapped by gnomes. Then they returned him home, but when he was 13 years old, they kidnapped him again and for a month had been teaching him sorcerous practices. At the end of the course they threw him up on the top of the tallest tree in the area. People gathered beneath the tree and couldn’t realize how the boy managed to climb this high because the tree trunk was smooth. To get him down, a fire ladder was summoned from the city (“They even broadcasted this on TV,” the healer was boasting). But the ladder couldn’t reach him. Eventually, the fire truck left, but instead came and old priest who fired an old hunting rifle several times in the air. “And in the smoke of these bullets I descended the ground,” the healer rounded up his story. I turned off the voice recorder, thank the healer and said goodbye. Yet, he obviously remained dissatisfied and said, “It seems you don’t believe me, pale-faced.” I said, “No, great priest, I don’t believe you. I’m not religious at all.” “I can prove it to you. Tell me your problem. Do you have one?”
Since childhood I had been suffering migraines, when once a week I had stable splitting headache. If you don’t take a pill on time – that’s all – you lie down like a corpse. I told the priest about this problem. He answered, “Sure thing, I will cure you!” And he left. We were talking in a small hut. Suddenly the window in the wall opened and a man wrapped in a bed sheet appeared; his face was dyed in white stripes. I looked at him – it seems he’s the priest I was talking to. Or maybe not. He was just sitting here a moment ago in a t-shirt. The healer commands, “come to me.” I approach. He puts his hand on my head and whines, “Tell your problem.” I whined my problem in rhyme one more time – headaches. The healer started to mumble something. Then he asked in his regular voice, “Listen, can you find coconuts in your country?” I answered, “Oh, great priest, there aren’t coconuts in my country.” He replied, “That’s fine. Tomorrow you go to the market and buy a coconut. Crack it open and drink its milk, and pour the rest on your head.” That is all what priest said. I asked, “Is it all?” He, “It is all. I, “So, my head won’t ache anymore?” He, “No, never.” The next day I bought a coconut, drank the milk and poured what was left on my head like a fool.

-- So what?

-- My migraines disappeared. First I was thinking it’s a coincidence. Then – a change of climate. After that – the result of my recreation in Africa. Finally, I didn’t know what to think. Two years have passed since then, and my head still doesn’t ache.

-- How would you explain that?

-- I don’t know. A French ethnographer Claude Levi-Strauss was studying the shamans of southern America and told the following story in his works. Shamans took a young man for training and started to teach him manipulations: to hide a porcupine spines behind his cheek and then pretend to be drawing it out of patient’s body, and other tricks. The man realized that the shamans are plain cheaters and was very disappointed and refused to continue shaman practices. Then one day a woman came to him and said that her son was dying and asked him, a shaman, to cure him. He started to explain that he wasn’t a shaman and that it all was trickery. But the woman insisted, “I don’t want to know anything, there are no others in here, go and heal!” And the man went to the patient and did what he was told – pretended to have extracted a porcupine spine, danced and portrayed foam on his lips. And the patient got round! This news instantaneously flew across the area and people came in crowds. Repeating that it all is a bluff, he managed to cure one more person then another and another… He gained the reputation of a mighty sorcerer, despite the fact that he himself had no slightest belief in sorcery. He was saying to Levi-Strauss in despair that he didn’t know how to act: he was performing charlatanic manipulations and they worked for some reason… Apparently, there is more than charlatanism in it. Maybe it’s worth adjusting something in psychotherapy?


The Mask in Africa

-- Please, answer the question which is topical for many travellers. They went, let’s say, to Africa, bought a bunch of masks and decorated their interior at home. But now some knowing people are intimidating them: the African sorcerers embedded their evil powers in your masks, and now it will overwhelm your household…

-- A mask is simply a localization of belief. First, while it is hanging on the wall it does not pose any threat. The mask comes to life only when worn by a human. Second, in the African’s view, is not only a wooden sculpture that is put on one’s head, it’s the whole costume made of straw, cloth and tree bark. Only all elements combined are what they call a mask. When you wear this costume, as the Africans believe, you get under control of a spirit, which dwells in the mask. You start to speak in different language, begin to behave differently. But to achieve this, the mask should be created in compliance with numerous rites and ceremonies. An alien can hardly get such a mask. The masks that are simply whittled of wood and sold to tourists at the airport do not carry any spirit, the Africans believe. I brought a spelled mask from the Dogons; it will be exhibited in my museum. The Dogons claim that no white person should ever put it on, he or she will die. All these taboos are intended for maximum preservation of culture from foreigners’ invasion. When a person puts on a mask, he or she ceases to be a human and cannot even speak their language. One cannot address the Dogon priests directly – only via mediators. One cannot touch a priest, cannot enter his house because at nights a sacred python comes to this house to lick his body.

-- Who managed to advertise the Dogons so successfully?

-- There was a French ethnographer Marcel Griaule; he has been wandering across western Africa for many years and asked the Dogons to reveal their secret knowledge to him. He was very persistent. The Dogons didn’t kill him for some reason, but presented him a blind old man and an interpreter. So, the African grandpa put it all out – about cosmogonical theory of the Dogons, about the triple star Sirius, about the god-creator Nommo and his good-for-nothing son the Pale Fox. Griaule wrote the book “The God of Water” and became famous. Crowds of tourists went to the Dogons. It happened in the forties of the previous century, yet up to now the question remains opened: did the old man really reveal secret knowledge or was he simply bluffing. And the interpreter – did he translate all the information? The Dogons, just as all other tribes, which preserved their fidelity to their traditional beliefs, guard their knowledge, rites and rituals very intensely. One cannot get information from them that easily – they will talk a lot but say nothing.
Studying Africa on a professional level I can state the following: what we know of Africa is largely the result of our understanding, corrupted by the European culture and upbringing, or an obvious bluff on the part of the Africans. A large portion of what is written about traditional cultures is not true at all. This is a projection, our interpretation of foreign notions, analogues to which are missing in our culture. What happens there in reality we cannot know or are simply not able to comprehend yet…