In Memoriam: André the Shaman

1 Jan

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While Portsmouth-based author Tom Sykes was in Ivory Coast researching a Bradt guidebook, he and his photographer Alexander Sebley met  up with a fêticheur, a traditional African shaman.

Alexander and I are led by our translator into a courtyard in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, where women with babies in back-slings sweep up dust and kola nut shells. We scale concrete steps, pass through a greasy curtain and kneel to enter a cubby hole. Its main wall is spattered with burgundy dried blood. Either side of it the skulls of cats and chickens swing from hooks above overturned rum bottles strewn around the floor. Between the bottles are black spheres of rope covered in feathers which, we are later told, represent particular spirits. On another wall is a bizarrely Mughal Indian-style picture of an African fêticheur with an equine tail and two yellow-clad African kids trampling on the belly of a moustachioed South Asian-looking man.

André, the fêticheur, comes into the room and sits down cross-legged. He’s young, no more than twenty-five, but has the deadened eyes of an old man that fail to glow when he smiles and shakes our hands.

‘Why exactly do people come and see you?’ I ask him through our translator; André is Burkinabé and prefers to speak Mandinka to French.

He fastens his palms together. ‘If someone comes to me with a problem,’ he says, ‘I can perform a ritual that will allow me to contact a good spirit for assistance. If a bad spirit is causing the problem, I can ask him what we can do on Earth to gratify him.’

‘What sorts of problems do people come to you with?’

‘Money or family issues, sickness also. I can perform a ritual either in person or by phone.’ He goes on to tell us that he inherited his magical gifts from his father and that this been a place of fetishism for 47 years.

Alexander asks him which animals he has sacrificed.

‘Goats, chickens, lambs and cows,’ says André casually.

Looking this toilet-sized room up and down, I marvel at how he ever got a cow inside, much less slaughter it.

‘Do you use a knife on the animals?’

‘No,’ he smiles.

We ask him if we can take pictures and he tells us that the last foreigner who tried to do that here died instantly.

‘Best we don’t then,’ says Alexander.

A man wearing Snoop Dogg braids and a STOP EBOLA t-shirt enters the room. He gives André some sachets of gin and a plastic bag. From the bag the fêticheur removes a black chicken with its feet tied together, and lies it down on its front.

André looks to the north, the west, the south and the east. He places two blobs of karité butter onto the floor and one into the palms of my hands.

‘Is what you are doing in Ivory Coast your idea or someone else’s?’ he asks.

‘Mine.’

Into my hands he then adds a lump of shea butter, some sea shells, a kola nut and a 1000 West African francs note. He asks me to think about all my current problems and I do so. He then takes all the items away from me, cracks the kola nut in half and tosses it onto the floor. He stares at it while muttering incantations. The chicken looks on with beady eyes.

‘What are you doing here?’ André asks.

‘Researching a tourist guidebook.’

He looks puzzled.

‘I’m writing about hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, that sort of thing.’

‘What do you want from life?’

‘Er… health and happiness, I reckon.’

He tosses the nut again, mutters some more and turns to me gravely. ‘You have to go out and buy a small can of Bonnet Rouge condensed milk and give it, along with 20 francs, to a poor person. When you get back to Britain you must fill a calibas jug with salt water and talk to it about your business plans.’

I try to think what my ‘business plans’ might entail. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any.

‘And in the short term,’ he adds, ‘I don’t see any health issues for you.’

‘Great.’ As a fairly committed rationalist and materialist, I struggle to comprehend how talking to a jug of water will have any direct bearing on my future life chances. But, at the same time, I’m fascinated by the rituals and symbols of fetishism – or more specifically their cultural meaning to and influence upon Ivorians. And, lest anyone for a moment think we in the “developed” West no longer believe in supernatural causality, don’t forget about Derek Acorah or the extraordinary political sway of Christian evangelists in the US.

André repeats the procedure for Alexander and tells him that he must purchase three different kinds of millet and one white kola nut, put them down in a garden and talk to them about his business plans. ‘Did you lose something important in England?’ he asks Alexander.

‘No, but I lost a camera tripod in Ivory Coast.’

‘Be careful,’ says André, ‘because you may lose something important in the future. To try to stop that happening you should buy another kola nut, a red one, talk to it and then throw it away. Your health is good too.’

André picks up a sachet of rum, tears it open, pours some of it on a calibas and chucks the rest over the other fetishism objects. He reaches into another plastic bag and withdraws some black medicinal powder that he won’t divulge the name of. He asks me to take two pinches of the powder and drop them onto the floor. He adds karité and mixes the substances together to create a paste which he uses to draw a cross on the inside of the calibas. He picks up the chicken by its bound feet and flips it onto its back, his hand pressing against its stomach. Eyes bulging, the chicken occasionally squeezes out a cluck. Using his free hand, André wraps up the calibas with a cloth, closes his eyes and incants some more. ‘I am asking the spirit if I am permitted to kill the chicken,’ he tells us. He then turns the chicken onto its side and breaks its wings in four places. The animal goes quiet, perhaps out of shock. André continues his incantations as he returns his hand to the chicken’s breast. Eventually its head flops to the side, eyes slowly shutting.

While Alexander and I suspect André choked the chicken using brute force, he is adamant he killed it by channelling his supernatural powers. ‘I didn’t press hard,’ he says. ‘I can do this to human beings too, but it would be an abuse of my position.’ I think of the cow again and how he could have possibly suffocated a beast that size.

At any rate, Alexander and I are now blessed. André douses his trinkets with a further sachet of rum.

‘What will you do with the dead chicken?’ I ask him as we leave.

‘I’ll have it for dinner,’ he smiles.

Postscript: André sadly passed away only yesterday, some three months after I met him. The official cause of death was untreated malaria, but those around him suspected he fell foul of evil spirits and dark forces.

Originally published in Star & Crescent.

The book will eventually be available here.

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