Monday, 7 July 2014

Magic for Beginners: The sacred Baobab

[Translated by Aixa de la Cruz from the original blog entry and published in her magazine Indias/Indies. Thank you Aixa!!]

The adventure began one morning when I woke up and saw that the family was in the living room in a quieter mood than usual. One of the cousins, whom I had already met, was completely off on the sofa, expressionless, and he mechanically gave me his hand without saying a word. It’s because of Ramadan – I thought – and went to the shower. But when I came back, I found that there were more and more neighbors on the living room and my enquiries about their presence only met evasive answers, so I went out to look  for my friend in the hope that he would solve the mystery. 

It seemed that the cousin - a tough wrestler of Senegalese wrestling, jobless at the time, hardly supported by his fan club while his wife, together with his daughters, lived with her parents while filing the papers for divorce- had been found that morning, without warning, looking carefully for something on the banks of the river and dressed in drag.

While I was sleeping, they had burned some branches in the house to shoo the devil and by the time I woke up, I could see neither the devil nor the cousin dressed in drag; he was just catatonic. Little by little, after being locked down in his room, he recovered. And though he didn’t remember what happened that morning, he laughed when he was told about it and said something like:

- It must have been that bastard of my mother-in-law. She must have asked a marabou to put a spell to get my wife to divorce me.

Leaving aside whether it was really necessary to hire a wizard for his wife to divorce him, the question was: what now?

- We need to go to the village of our ancestors to ask for the protection of its god – fetish, they call it-.​- Can I go too? – I couldn’t help but ask.

And although they said I could right away, being white, the situation was more complicated than it seemed and we first had to speak with the oldest person in the village, who was in Dakar. Luckily, it was Djike, the admirable maternal grandmother of my friend Pape.

In the lively conversation that followed the initial greetings, after we told her about our intentions, I kept on hearing, after the name of the fetish, the sentence “bugul toubabs” whose meaning I happened to know: our ancestor’s god does not like whites. (I don’t blame him). Pape, without setting deference aside, explained to her that I was practically a member of the family so there surely was a way to make an exception. Djike didn’t seem too convinced and kept on giving him examples of another village where a nun had been spooked by the sight of the god who, in its animal form, came running to her because she had approached the sacred baobab.

To help defuse the conversation, we told her anecdotes of the family and showed her pictures, which she loved. Thus, when I told her everything I know in wolof, she eventually softened her position and told me that before I left Dakar I had to make a sacrifice to the fetish for him to expect my arrival.

A sacrifice!

I was already picturing myself in the middle of the city wielding a knife to cut a rooster’s throat at the location indicated… but not. It was much simpler than that. As the god happens to be fond of children, the sacrifice consisted of cooking a kind of rice pudding, though without the rice, and inviting the kids in the neighborhood to eat it. On the day of our journey, we just had to step out the door and invite them, for the bowl to be clean and shiny.

Thus, with the hope that this precaution would be enough and fighting the torrential rain as we could, we set off. Everything was slightly weirder than usual, like when we met a man who had a huge finger.

Once in the bus, while my two fellow travelers were sleeping and I looked at the landscape that became greener and wilder as we moved inland…


We had got a flat tire just beneath our seats. We were all safe and sound but… was it a bad omen?
To answer the question, we moved a bit away and the wrestler took some shells out his backpack, tossed them three times on the sand and after signaling two that were parallel but in opposite directions he told us it symbolized the departure and the return and that the disposition of the shells in-between augured the success of our purpose.

So we continued on our journey, now all of us awake. And after reaching the bus stop of the region of Fatick we had to ride some motorbikes to - through footpaths surrounded by baobabs and fields of a fresh and exuberant green color – get to the lovely village of the ancestors.

Without either electricity or tap water but with impressive kindness and the welcoming beauty of the mud walls and the thatched roofs that surrounded us in the middle courtyard of the family concession, night fell while we chained the suspension of our fasting with the greetings, and the dinner and the stories of kings and the starry night and the grandmother telling us about that one time in which the fetish, in its serpent form, appeared to her in the barn… And little by little we fell peacefully asleep with our dreams only upset by maybe the encounter that would take place in the morning under the sacred baobab.

At dawn, with the rooster crowing and the movement that began to be felt in the family concession, the three of us woke up and got out of the bed with mosquito net we had shared.

During breakfast, we were informed that they had already spoken to the guardian of the sacred serpent, the old man in charge of the rituals beneath the Sacred Baobab.

- He’s so old that when he talks to you, you are going to be under the impression that he’s about to die at the end of each sentence.

It perhaps is necessary to clarify that in the Senegalese tradition, some trees are the official residence of many supernatural beings such as the djines, but above all, the baobab is the link with the ancestors: it is the place to which they came to make their sacrifices to the protectors. Thus, unlike Eastern and Southern Africa where the ancestors are directly invoked – they sometimes even speak through the shaman, in a trance -, here the god or the protector is invoked and he becomes the mediator between them and their ancestors.

But the question was still in the air: was a white going to be allowed to the rituals to which – as I was told – no other toubab had ever been allowed to? We didn’t have much time to wonder because they soon came and told us that the old man was waiting for us at the Sacred Baobab.

Once again Pape had to make use of his good manners and diplomacy to convince the old man, who only gave in when Pape accepted – not without fear - to take the consequences that might derive from the transgression.

So I followed them to the Baobab where, first for Pape and later for the wrestler, the guardian would open the little thatched hut where the pumpkins that contain the water mixed with the sacrifices offered to fetish were kept. He would directly address the god pronouncing the name and family of the person that was about to perform the ritual bath, asking him first permission and then his protection and blessing.

The solemnity of the situation was perceived in the delicate sound of the leafs beneath the baobab, in the silence as Pape retreated behind the screen to perform the sacred bath in which he couldn’t get either his hair or his face wet, as the tradition commands. Then it was the turn of the wrestler, the true reason of this journey to the heart of Senegal, who repeated the ritual to cure himself of the outbreak of insanity that had supposedly been caused by a marabout at the request of his mother in law to prompt a divorce.

Everything seemed to have successfully concluded but the old man stayed seated beneath the baobab and surprised us all with the question:

- Does the toubab want the blessing of Loungoulgne too?

They all remained speechless and turned to me. This wasn’t planned. We were hoping he would let me see the ritual, but it didn’t cross our minds that he would let me perform it. I gladly accepted although – I was told – first they would have to ask for the permission of the fetish that, if denied, would manifest somehow, for example by tainting blood red the water of the sacrifices in the pumpkin.

I nodded again, left Pape with my camera and approached the sacred Baobab, still bathed in light, as a requestor.

Everything went smoothly. The water didn’t turn red, so the god had accepted that I performed the ritual. After listening to the words of the old man, I went to the wooden screen on which I left my clothes and took a bath as indicated. Although a bit  nervous, I felt as if I was bathing at the same time with the water and with the rays of light that seemed to fall warm and generous on us, blessing us too.

The ceremony was over and, when I tried to thank the old man with my just learned words in Serer – here they didn’t speak wolof any more – he burst into laughter and told us again, apparently touched, that it was the first time in his life that he or his ancestors had allowed a white to perform the ritual. He seemed really content and relieved that everything had been OK.

Once purified by the ritual, we went out to walk through the fields that seem to share the magic of the sacred baobab. The limpid, somehow primordial green seems to surround the men that work the soil in the company of their children in a magnificent vignette amidst the infinite plains.

Little by little the night fell and with it came the stories, but this time we were at the neighbor’s house because she was famous for her skills as a narrator. The surprise – in addition to the woman’s proposition that I married one of her youngest daughters – came when it was the children who - one after another, occupying the center of the group and following their mother’s indications – told the stories. About the clever hare who fooled the rabbit by pleading his hair with the branches; or about the father who tried to impose the rule that nobody who was late for lunch would eat and eventually he was the one who got punished…  All of them were told in a mixture of serer translated to zolof and then to French, striving to preserve the songs and gestures and the magic.

With these stories night fell and dreams came. And I remembered the sacrifice I had had to make before starting the journey, inviting the children in the neighborhood.

And just before I fell asleep, I wondered whether these children would be the true god of the sacred baobab. 

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