What is the reality of black magic

From the curse of magic

Twelve years ago David Signer entered the room of a traditional African healer for the first time. See blood-splattered walls, pots with herbal brew, cowrie shells. An eerie world, the riddle of which the Swiss ethnologist tries to fathom in many field studies. The magic, as he knows today as an initiate, actually works - albeit differently than expected. He is afraid of change. It paralyzes the development of Africa

Witchcraft is invisible

Zurich, September 2002. "Madame Coulibaly, Abengourou" is the sender on a letter. "Dear David," she writes, "your friend Tiegnouma Coulibaly died on September 16th. We are here, his two wives and five children, and we even lack the means to buy food." Tears come to my eyes. Tiegnouma Coulibaly was a healer whom I got to know at the beginning of my many years of field research in West Africa.

Witchcraft is invisible

Abengourou, October 1994. This is my first time in the dusty provincial town of Ivory Coast. For an ethnological study I am looking for contact with traditional healers, "féticheurs". They have an ambiguous reputation in West Africa. On the one hand, they are actually considered healers. On the other hand, one also trusts them to harm others. I get to know an official in a ministry. He tells of a witcher who went to Paris in seconds to devour his own son because he did not send any of his wages to his family in Africa. "Was he really eating him up?" "Of course not literally," says the man. "He destroyed the son's soul, his invisible double, as we say. The boy did not die immediately, but gradually lost his life force." "And was the father arrested?" The official explains: "Nobody could prove what he had done. His body lay here next to his wife all night. His double had flown to Paris. Witchcraft is invisible."

This afternoon I got a first glimpse of the connection between social advancement, envy and witchcraft; of a nightmare that haunts people from Dakar in Senegal to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. What Africans call "witchcraft" is a social reality. Witchcraft is a metaphor for envious social relationships: you shouldn't be any better than me. Even if one does not share the belief in flying fathers who haunt and devour their sons on the other side of the world at night, the destructive power of envy in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be overlooked. The pressure of kinship on anyone who has something is relentless. The supplicants are never satisfied. And the relationship tends to be infinite.

The blue walls are splattered with blood

The next morning the officer takes my friend Nadja and me to Tiegnouma Coulibaly's house, which a politician has given him. Coulibaly is almost 30 years old, wearing jeans and a shirt with the American flag on it. After dinner he puts on a dark yellow robe made of raw cotton, embroidered with amulets set in leather, which are supposed to protect him not only against ghost attacks, but also against bullets. He leads us into a windowless back room. The cement floor is littered with tufts of herbs, roots, candles, piles of sand, animal skins, cloth bags, clay pots, plastic bottles and glasses filled with brown liquids, seeds and bits of bark. A pumpkin bowl with a brown mass that looks like feces dangles from the ceiling. The blue walls are splattered with blood, there are notes with a kind of barcode hanging everywhere.

We sit on a straw mat. Coulibaly digs a dozen cowrie shells out of a linen bag. They are suitable as oracles because they have clearly distinguishable lower and upper sides on which they come to lie when thrown. Coulibaly spits lightly on the cowries a few times and hands them to me. He asks me to quietly entrust my questions to them. My friend Nadja is diabetic. Among other things, I ask the Kauris whether Coulibaly can say anything about it, whether he knows a traditional remedy. Then I give him the case back and add about half a euro. Coulibaly throws the cowries together with the coins in front of him on the bast mat, studies the arrangement, picks them up in a sweeping swipe and throws them again. Then he says: "You have dreams that scare you. These are the ghosts that haunt you. You have to offer a sacrifice: a white rooster, seven white kola nuts, cow's milk. I will make you a magic potion in a clay pot."

The influence of the spirits

True, I have nightmares a lot, I think. But who doesn't? I shut up. Coulibaly throws the cowries again. "One woman in your family has diabetes." I think of Nadja, of course. But Coulibaly continues: "She is losing weight. She had several children, but her marriage fell apart. Her ex-husband is dead." That is true of my grandmother. Except that her ex-husband is still alive. At the end of the session, I ask Coulibaly about Nadja's diabetes, which he did not recognize. He asks what symptoms she has. "None," she says, "as long as I keep a diet and inject insulin regularly." "Exactly," replies Coulibaly, "then the disease is not visible to the cowries either."

The influence of the spirits

The process of this consultation is typical. The healer does not ask questions of the client. Rather, his ambition is to find out everything with his oracle techniques. Traditional healers also see no difference between medical, psychological, social, or spiritual problems. Because they can all be traced back to witchcraft or the influence of spirits and must be treated with medicines, amulets and offerings. After the consultation, we will go to the market together to buy the ingredients for the treatment. Then Coulibaly withdraws, we meet him again in the evening.

The objects that he has prepared are scattered around a wooden fetish figure. "Her name is Tschamachigi", says Coulibaly, "Big Boss". A chicken lies with its feet tied in a corner of the treatment room. Coulibaly asks me to look the animal in the eye. Then he cuts his throat and lets his blood drip over Tschamachigi. Then Coulibaly hands me a clay pot filled with roots, bits of bark and bloody chicken feathers. "You have to boil it with water, let it cool and drink a glass of it a day for a week." In addition, I am supposed to have a packet wrapped in newspaper sewn into leather by a shoemaker and wear it as "gris-gris" on the waistband to ward off omnipresent witchers. Nadja receives a gold chain to protect against an unruly ghost, 100 cowries for a successful year and a silver ring to scare off envious people.

The broth, which stinks like manure, drives away the nightmares

In the following days I take the magic potion. At first I smiled at Coulibaly's remark about my nightmares, but then something strange happens: they go away. Years of psychoanalysis could not be driven out of me - but this broth, which stinks like liquid manure, succeeds. Coulibaly takes the term drug in a very broad sense. For example, a silver ring is also referred to as a drug. However, without Tschamachigi's help, a ring would remain just a ring. Only the fetish gives things that invisible "more" that turns them into healing miracle drugs. And with the gris-gris it does matter what ingredients they are filled with, but they only become effective with the help of the spirits.

Whether magic is "black" or "white" is often just a matter of perspective, and healers like Coulibaly, in their amorality, often remind me of lawyers, if not hired killers: they carry out assignments for their clients. I once asked Coulibaly about the widespread fear of human sacrifice. He just says, "Small wishes require small sacrifices, great wishes require great sacrifices." Whether healers like Dah Konwiré or Coulibaly are actually able to kill someone with black magic? Stupid question? Witchcraft is a reality, not necessarily a "material" one - but certainly a social one. Perhaps one can best describe it like this: Envy does not bounce off the envied, but causes something in his soul that is called "bewitching" in Africa.

Performance artist

African society, especially rural society, is organized in an egalitarian and hierarchical manner at the same time. Egalitarian: Anyone who breaks out of the local milieu or laps older brothers or sisters will be punished if they do not adequately compensate the overtaken. Hierarchical means: Nobody is allowed to compete with higher-ups. Arguing against a village elder or a politician is quickly perceived as disrespect. Witchcraft is therefore also a means of maintaining the status quo of a society, "pulling down" the ambitious and suppressing change. There are only two ways to escape the threat of witchcraft: Make yourself small and stay in your assigned place. Or you try your luck far away - although it is never certain that the family's disapproval will not catch up with you at some point.

Healers are "performance artists"

An African healer is at the same time less and more than a doctor: He is a pastor, therapist, master of ceremonies, a kind of performance artist - but also an economist, a specialist in burden sharing. The lesson, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that he teaches his clients is that climbing is dangerous. If the other cannot participate in your success in any way, envy is aroused. This can be fatal. Most of all, you have to watch out for your own family. It is like a rope team: the one above can save the one below from falling. But the lower can also drag the upper into the abyss. The extreme solidarity, the compulsion to level the differences, may be sensible and fair in the village. But under the conditions of the market economy they paralyze all entrepreneurship. There is a saying in Mali: "Failure is forgiven. Success is not."

Tiengolgo, August 1997. Coulibaly invited me to go with him on a family visit. The story of his childhood, which he told me one evening at the third Guinness, sounds adventurous: "I suffered a lot, like all good healers. I was paralyzed until I was seven years old. Then ghosts kidnapped me into the bush, where I did Spent three years. My parents thought I was dead and they had a funeral. I ate the fruits of the forest and the ghosts showed me the medicines. Then, on the day my grandmother died, I came back healed. That's how I became a féticheur. " He inherited the gift of vision from his father, says Coulibaly. But the encounter with the old man is disillusioning. He is almost blind, lies drunk and half-naked under his canopy

Shack and fooling around.

Gifts are still distributed according to a certain pattern

"No point," says Coulibaly, concentrating like a chess player, distributing presents in the village: sugar, schnapps, soap, rice, batteries, mayonnaise. Especially the 100 kola nuts have to be brought to the people after a key. Don't give anyone the feeling that they are neglected! Although Coulibaly, as a féticheur, is one of the few who, thanks to her recognized marginal position, can allow himself to break taboos and violate norms, he fears envy and the resulting attacks like any other returnees. As soon as all the presents have been distributed, we drive to the next provincial town, where we will stay overnight from now on. "I have four apprentices," says Coulibaly. "But my sons are not supposed to become healers. It's too hard." Hard because a healer acts like a warrior on an invisible battlefield. He is constantly involved in life and death conflicts and risks getting caught between the fronts.

Over the years that I spend with him in the treatment room and on trips, I discover another Coulibaly behind the daredevil: a suspicious person, haunted by premonitions and nightmares, who smells conspiracies and wickedness everywhere. We often seek out other healers on our travels. For Coulibaly, this is a kind of industrial espionage. He never reveals that he is a healer himself, and of 50 fortune tellers we visit, only one recognizes it in his Sand Oracle - and Coulibaly vehemently denies it. "If you know that I'm a féticheur and something happens to someone, you could blame me," he explains of his incognito.

A master and servant relationship

Almost greater than the fear of falling victim to black magic is the fear of being accused of harmful magic in sub-Saharan Africa. And it is justified. One always looks to the other person to blame for poverty, unemployment or alcoholism. And often with the weakest in society. Quite a few penniless parents cast their children away because they supposedly do witches - and are thus responsible for the family misery. Exorcists then take on the "possessed" in order to brutally torture them during public expulsions of the devil.

A master and servant relationship

How difficult must it be to put something aside when you're constantly being asked to share. "Tais-toi, jaloux!" "-" Shut up, envious! " is written on a sticker that many cars and mopeds in West Africa carry. And in Senegal there is a saying: "If I can't eat your money, I'll eat you". The relationship with which such social relationships can be described is that between master and servant. The poor do not participate in the wealth of the rich by emulating them, but by placing themselves under their protection, appealing to their charity and giving them obedience and admiration in return.

The Cameroonian economist Axelle Kabou argues in her book "Neither poor nor powerless" that Africa is adopting the passive, infantile attitude of a begging client towards an almighty patron towards the West: "Africans are the only people in the world who nor believe that anyone other than themselves must take care of their development. " Africa's accusations of a "stingy, exploitative, neocolonial Europe" would then be the downside of this attitude: a kind of collective threat of witchcraft. It may bring development funds or debt relief for the continent, but it is hardly a long-term growth strategy.

Establish contact with the deceased

Zurich, December 2005. Contact with Coulibaly's family has been broken off. I'm sitting in the living room of a woman in an industrial suburb who claims to be able to contact the deceased. For an hour she talks baffles. But then she suddenly notices a black man in a yellowish robe: "It is someone who is very familiar with his culture, who knows how something happens and why." She describes him in all details, size, figure, the noticeable gap between the front teeth: Coulibaly. "Nobody knows exactly how he died. It happened after an argument with another medicine man. When he mixed up something to protect himself, he made a mistake. He suffocated." She says his family is dispersed, but one of his wives has returned to his village and is now practicing what she has learned from him. Coulibaly strongly reproaches me for not making sacrifices on a regular basis. Just the old man, I think.