Like Magic

@Christian Bobst
Der Zauberei begegnet man im westafrikanischen Senegal allerorten. Sie beschäftigt Studenten, Eheleute, Wrestler und sogar die Politik. Dahinter steckt viel mehr als Aberglaube

Fatou Sy knows the night side of the city. The intrigues and secret desires, the fears and the rush of jealousy – all that people entrust to a fortune teller and witch. Day after day they squeeze into her tiny office, which also serves as her bedroom. Settle on the floor between the bed and the stereo, looking expectantly at the cowrie shells Sy tosses into a raffia basket. The family spirit appeared to her for the first time when she was 13, and she is now 69. The presidents came and went, Sy read from the cowries. Like a doctor listening to the chest of a child with lung disease, Sy listens to the tugging and yearning of the people of her town. And she notes that there are more of her kind today than in the past. Senegal, country at the very westernmost tip of the African continent, 16 million inhabitants, 95 percent of them Muslims, which doesn’t stop many from consulting the wizards, miracle healers, ghost hunters and exorcists. „There’s more magic today than there used to be,“ Sy says.

It’s hard to back that up with numbers. What is undisputed is that the demand for miracles has created a huge service sector, informal and highly specialized. But there are no statistics, surveys or even a professional association of magicians. Religion, magic and medicine often merge fluidly. The word maraboutage, among many other expressions, refers to witchcraft. Originally, it comes from the Arabic word al-murabit, which was the name given to the missionary soldiers who Islamized the Berbers of the Western Sahara in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A marabout can be many things: a Muslim cleric, but also all kinds of healers and magicians, whether they work with or without the Koran.

One might find the existence of an exuberant mystical service sector in a city of millions like Dakar astonishing. After all, more young people live here today than ever before, well-connected and much better educated than their parents and grandparents, people who live a modern urban life. More people may need more sorcerers, and yet one might have expected the world to disenchant itself in Senegal as in many other places on earth.

Fatou Sy shakes her head. „The young need the sorcerers because society has become so complicated,“ she says. „Before, people didn’t have so many worries, they fished, they cultivated the fields.“ Now, he said, life has become expensive. „There are many people and few jobs.“ Miracle healer Seydou Nourou, 71, shares Sy’s observation. He has been practicing his trade for 40 years, and if he remembers correctly, business has never been this good in the first place. „It’s the times. The consumer society. Everybody wants more. Everybody has a lot of desires. Women don’t want concubines, men want more and more women.“ The fear, the ambition, the jealousy, they drive people to the magicians.

The philosopher Ibrahima Sow, who died in 2018, intensively explored the imaginary cosmos of his fellow citizen. He wrote in his work „The Maraboutage in Senegal“ that witchcraft „is a social reality, something that people resort to every day, especially when it comes to work, love or social conflict.“ But when witchcraft becomes part of reality, what does that do to a society, its economy and politics?

Sitting on the floor in front of Sy is Nabou Sow, 32, an elegant woman, always trying to keep her composure, even when life is demanding a lot from her right now. A few months ago, her husband, a Senegalese living in Texas, asked for a divorce. He wants to marry his cousin. For eight years, he had promised to bring Sow and their two sons to Texas. And she had dreamed of studying film, „being a star.“ But something always came up. Sometimes a document was allegedly missing, then the authorities dawdled, the money he sent kept dwindling. A divorced woman is considered a failure; in Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca, the term for „divorced“ can also mean „prostitute.“ Nabou supports herself and her children with translation jobs. „My husband would never have done something like that to me on his own,“ says Nabou. „The cousin must have bewitched him.“ She decided to fight back. Consulted sorcerers, twelve in number. Ten of them said he would return. Prescribed sacrifices, talismans and magic baths. She borrowed money, sold her gold jewelry. In total, she invested 500 000 West African francs in magic. That is the equivalent of 762 euros, more than half of the average annual per capita income, which in Senegal is 1300 Euros.

The market of miracle healers offers experts for every budget and every possible problem. There are those who enlarge genitals, breasts and buttocks, and others who want to offer protection from bullets, poison, disease and evil eyes. One offers spells for love, fertility and potency, for prosperity, popularity and a stellar career. One finds magicians who exorcise spirits, bring back a prodigal son, or drive a rival mad. Others grant a magical cloak to confuse others – extremely popular with flying merchants and all those who wish to pass through airports unmolested by police and customs. The instruments of magic are many and varied.

It is by no means the case that every Senegalese believes in witchcraft. Yet traces of it can be found everywhere. On the radio, fortune tellers predict the future to callers. Sometimes owners of coveted properties discover magical amulets that are supposed to drive them away. In wrestling, the national popular sport, each fighter competes with a many-headed „équipe mystique,“ which pours one magic potion after another over his head in public before the tournament. Journalists are hyping the soccer match between Benin and Senegal as a battle of the national sorcerers. The vodo priests of Benin claimed that they are unbeatable because of their advanced magic power – but this proved to be false in the game. The press is full of stories about charlatans and criminals who prey on their customers. Before the elections, the fear of sorcery increases to a national psychosis. The press reports extensively about alleged child victims. The Association of Albinos pleads by advertisement in the newspapers to spare its members. Although no criminalevidence has yet been presented, the discovery of disfigured bodies, the disappearance of children and albinos puts the population on high alert. „Whenever in this period death fetches a victim, even by accident, base human sacrifices, mystical murders for the benefit of this or that politician are suspected,“ writes Ibrahima Sow. „In magical thinking, nothing happens without reason.

Witchcraft is feared in many workplaces – at the state broadcaster RTS, many of the employees are said to work under false names for fear of sorcery – but no domain is considered more sorcery-infested than politics. When former President Abdoulaye Wade refused to sit on a couch other than the one he had brought with him during the election campaign, journalists interpreted this as a fear of witchcraft. Many interpret the refusal of the current president, Macky Sall, to live with his family in the palace in the same way-a decision that a whole series of other officials in West Africa are said to have made for similar reasons, for example in neighboring Gambia. Yes, one encounters maraboutage even in a world that is nevertheless entirely devoted to ratio: science. When an important position is up for grabs at the university, traces of magic rituals can sometimes be found on the grounds. During exams, says Ibrahima Diagne, 51, head of German studies at Cheikh Ante Diop University, many of his students appeared with talismans, traces of the magic baths still on their hair and clothes. „The young generation believes in it more again. It’s contradictory. On the one hand, the international influence is getting bigger, the young are turning more to Islam, on the other hand, many of them consult the sorcerers.“ He believes they seek psychological guidance more than anything else. „Many are ashamed to confide their problems to a psychologist or to go to a friend or relative. To the marabout, they can tell everything.“

They seek comfort, reassurance, a miracle. „It’s about fighting a silent and dangerous battle against the hidden and evil forces, it’s a never-ending battle against human fear,“ writes Ibrahima Sow. „The magical world, born to fight against fear, feeds on fear.“ But at the same time, it magnifies fear. When nothing happens by chance, neither accident, illness nor death, when behind every misfortune there must be an evil-meaning person, mistrust always generates ever new mistrust. In 2011, the website La Sénégalaise published an article entitled „How to make it healthy in Senegal despite the permanent „mystical struggle““. It says:“ You wonder how you can trust your ever-smiling compatriot who always pretends to be your ally…and yet tomorrow could commission a witchcraft against you because your success bothers him.“ The mystical attack is always followed by the counterattack. A proverb says: „He who wants peace, prepares war.“

It is always necessary to protect oneself. From the evil eye, the evil tongue. When my friend Héros moves to Spain to study, he doesn’t tell a single one of his childhood friends about his impending departure. When my acquaintance Aminata suffers a stillbirth, her grandmother tells her to keep the next pregnancy a secret. She moves to another city, almost doesn’t leave the door for nine months. When Aminata asks her husband if he had bought an apartment, he hisses, „Who told you that? Don’t tell anyone.“ All the relatives in his wealthy family made their investments with great discretion, Aminata says. Everyone guards their secrets. „The witchcraft comes from jealousy,“ Aminata believes. „The competition. It starts in the extended family. You’re always measured against all the other kids.“

The extended family is everything. It helps, protects and nurtures, it reprimands and punishes, it demands the subordination of the individual. Pape Ladické Diouf, a Senegalese psychologist living in Canada, calls it „family terrorism.“ Extended families, Diouf says, create alliance systems. Almost always, he says, there is one part of the family that fights more or less openly against another. Competing with him. „It’s a question of power, it’s about dominating or being dominated.“ And as elsewhere, people in Africa have put religion in the service of power, he said.

Family constellations in Senegal are often extremely complicated – even more so when families are polygamous. More than a third of married people in Senegal live in polygamous marriages. There is often fierce competition between the women. „The competition,“ says first wife Kadia Dia, 39, „extends to all aspects of life.“ Who is prettier, who cooks better, who has more successful children? „You’re married to all your husband’s relatives, and you’re under constant scrutiny. You have to be nice to everyone, even the sheep and chickens. If you don’t give them enough to eat, they immediately say you’re a bad wife.“

What makes family constellations so delicate is the requirement of solidarity: to share one’s income, one’s goods, at least in part, with the others. This easily leaves one with the feeling of not having gotten enough. There is the second wife who believes that she and her children are disadvantaged. The cousin who feels he has benefited too little from his relative’s rise. The wife of the less successful brother who envies the beautiful wardrobe of the wife of the successful one.

Children perceive these tensions from an early age, Diouf says. „They grow up with an infinitely fine sense of social relationships. On the one hand, that makes them very resilient and highly socially competent.“ On the other hand, they quickly learn that their authenticity is not in demand. They are expected to conform. „They start wearing masks – a different one for every situation. They are like chameleons.“ And sometimes they lose themselves in the process, he said. „From a young age, you put it in the kids‘ heads that there’s an enemy in their family.“ Someone who begrudges them every success and happiness, who can secretly cast a spell on them. „There’s a saying: the knife that will kill you, it’s held by a member of your family. You always live in a slightly paranoid state.“ That’s why, Diouf says, people wear masks. They distribute their belongings, out of generosity, religiosity, to preserve their reputation. But also to protect themselves. „There’s a saying,“ Diouf says. „If you are good to one who wishes you ill, the curse will be directed against him.“

On the one hand, solidarity holds together a society that lacks a functioning state welfare system. It saves the poor, the sick and the elderly from social fall, gives people support and identity. But because profits must be distributed, little capital remains for investment. „It’s a vicious circle,“ says Diouf. „It inhibits economic recovery . Instead of becoming producers, we’ve developed a consumer mindset. We’re not inspiring our young people to become entrepreneurs. Yet they are our most valuable resource.“

Dakar-based Swiss ethnologist and NZZ correspondent David Signer has written a book about the connection between economic development and witchcraft, „The Economics of Witchcraft.“ Signer trained as a witch for three years in Mali and the Ivory Coast. Advancement and social mobility are considered dangerous, Signer argues, because they provoke the envy of those left behind. African life, especially village life, is characterized by extreme kinship solidarity (paradisiacal closeness) and extreme kinship conflict (hellish closeness),“ Signer writes. „Hell, that is the others – but without them one would be nothing.“ He quotes ethnologist Suzanne Lallemand, who studied family structures in Togo and encountered a generosity there that can be found in many places on the continent, which she calls „duty of love.“ People share their possessions, take in distant relatives to feed them through for months-sometimes years-and try to suppress any negative feelings. But of course there are. For Lallemand, the contradiction between prescribed and real feeling is the origin of the figure of the witch. She unites the unexpressed aggressiveness of the whole community. „There would be no safety from the witch,“ Signer says. „He can walk through walls and go under water. Morality is replaced by power.“ One of his teachers, he says, compared the spirits to a mafia. A Macchiavellian world in a permanent state of conflict. But „what is individualized in the witchcraft belief and attributed to the envy of a single, unsuccessful person is in fact the anonymous binding-back force of the conservative hierarchy“ Signer writes. For the belief in witchcraft is not directed against the powerful, but only against the upwardly mobile.

It protects, argues the French psychologist Jean-Marie Delacroix, the law of the ancestors and cements the power of the old. It thwarts attempts at change by preventing the direct expression of aggression. Conflict is instead banished to the realm of the imaginary. Witchcraft, writes Cameroonian economist Daniel Etounga Manguelle, „is a costly mechanism for settling conflicts and maintaining the status quo. Witchcraft is both an instrument of social coercion and a convenient political tool to eliminate any opposition. Witchcraft is a psychological refuge where all our ignorance finds answers and our wildest fantasies become reality.“

All societies are permanently in a state of conflict, Signer writes. But while modern societies used this as an engine for development, traditional ones tried to prevent and deny this change. This leads to a state „that may have been stabilizing in the village context, but under the conditions of a free market economy and democracy must mean a paralysis for any initiative.“

Senegalese society has not been a traditional society for a long time. It is highly complex; traditional, religious and Western value systems collide, overlap and reinforce each other.

Every family is different, and there are processes of individualization here as well. And in the end, going to a sorcerer is often just one of many attempts to somehow come to terms with a complicated present.

Nabou Sow’s husband, at any rate, has still not returned – despite all the magic. Still, Sow says she’s not disappointed. „At least I have a clear conscience. If I hadn’t done anything, I would have blamed myself. If he doesn’t come back despite all the sorcery, it’s because it’s Allah’s will.“

Published on  13.4. 2020 in Die Zeit, translated by deepl