Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Search for the Heart of West Africa 3

Photos: Profile of West African wrestlers with juju fetishes.

Reflections on yesterday's Magical Mystery Tour, and next steps:

G. mentioned yesterday that I might find Senegalese wrestling an interesting application of juju fetish, as wrestlers can spend up to months in mystical preparation for their fights, and up to half of their prospective winnings in enlisting the help of marabouts.

For context, the following was excepted from

The (Senegalese) wrestlers are still attired in the old tradition of loincloth, fully exposing their muscles with the waist and arms bedecked with an assortment of gris-gris charms. But despite all the efforts at modernisms, traditional wrestling a la Senegal still retains its mystic, with a massive dose of razzmatazz, while the marabout still occupy a privileged position in the magical preparations to ensure victory for their wards. Since the average fight lasts less than 10 minutes, the wrestlers and their griots (praise singers), bodyguards and supporters often over-dramatize the prematch warm-up, which in some cases lasts up to two hours, including the time for opening supporting bouts, to ensure that the paying crowd has value for money. The typical preparation for a bout ranges from the enchanting to the bizarre, involving various rituals, including digging up the ground and "bathing" the wrestlers with liquid concoctions.

Note the following links to video of and about Senegalese wrestling:

My interest, with respect to Senegalese wrestling, would be to meet a wrestler, his trainer, and team, to discuss the role of gris-gris and mysticism in their training. Otherwise, I fear the sport becomes a spectacle informed by the absurdity of an American import, such as WWF, as occurs in Mexico.

About giving and taking
From my cultural frame, information, knowledge and experience are commodities of real value. The relevant point is this: When I am asking questions, particularly in a formal interview situation, as when cataloguing medicines, or exploring a vendor's understanding of juju, I am taking something from the vendor without recompense, save the spirited exchange of a convivial conversation. Man, this is Africa, you might say, where a Western view of knowledge as a commodity may not be appropriate. Still, I'm inclined to enter into a contract, whether formal or unspoken, that I am going to take a hour of your time, pick your brain, but compensate with a fair exchange.

The next steps in this requires that I/we hang for a while with individuals, explain our aims, the public nature of the work, and the view that we enter into a fair exchange. In the coming weeks, we will certainly return to meet with a fetish dealer on Ouakam in Medine, a herbalist and incense vendor in Sandaga, and follow-up with the artifact dealer the outside Kermel.

A Search for the Heart of West Africa 2

Photos:  Grand Mosque, Touba, home of the Mouride Brotherhood, the largest Sufi Brotherhood in Senegal;  panorama of the outside of Sandaga Market.  

A group of eight of us accompanied A. on a tour of the Sandaga, Kermel, Mali and Medine Markets today, the aim being to explore traditional medicine, incense, and fetish.

We began with Sandaga, the large three-level African Market, pausing at a incense vendor, one of several selling, it seemed, identical products.  The incense comes in two varieties, one for sacred use -- prayer, meditation and purification,  the other for use in the home, some with medicinal properties.  We asked the vendor about the special properties of the incense used for sacred purposes, which included frankincense.  He offered no particular insight.  

We need to return to carry out a cataloging of materials and uses.

Our little group then wandered over to the Kermel.  Just outside the main entrance to the market, at a kiosk of masks, fetish items, and other more authentic African artifacts, A. and I discussed the nature of juju, grigris, and the role of the marabout with the vendor, a friend of A.  The flow of our conversation included the following points:

The fetish objects for sale in the kiosk are discharged, powered down, as it were.  They could be electrified (my characterization), but would require a marabout to charge it through ritual/ceremony, which involves prayer and the use of palm oil. 

The ceremony associated with electrifying the fetish object involves imbuing the object with a jinn, or spirit, of local origin.  The jinn comes with its own spirit/personality, which informs the effect of the fetish.  The jinn operates through the object.  A gris-gris, or talisman, is then assembled, and worn around the body,  connecting the individual to that jinn, whose influence is potent regardless of distance.  The gris-gris becomes, then, a kind of psychic antennae, binding the bearer to the fetish 

I am biased by my culture frame, and found that deriving shared meaning for more abstract terms and concepts from my tradition -- evil, sin, suggestibility/belief verses a material, physical energy, independent of belief -- to be challenging, requiring that I be clear and specific about my own understanding.  

The gris-gris seems conceived and designed to address problems of daily living:  getting a raise at work, protection while traveling, protection from bad talk/gossip, or attracting praise from friends and family, even getting good grades on school exams.  (The marabout can whisper a prayer into your pen, which then should not be used prior to the exam for it to be effective.  So much for No Child Left Behind.)  All are external and practical.  I wondered whether there were gris-gris designed to attract mindfulness, sincerity and compassion, or to ward off sin -- anger, avarice, jealousy, greed -- lodged within oneself.  This was a special situation, the vendor responded.  This was psychological.

After Kermel, we paused for cold drinks at a little restaurant.  There I sat with A. and continued our discussion of grigris.  I asked about the title marabout.  It seemed like a general term for a variety of spiritual practitioners, from the juju doctor, to the herbalist (akin to the Mexican cuandero), to the Koranic teacher.  A. agreed.  He went on to refer to the herbalist as the traditional marabout, as distinct from his Mouride Brotherhood marabout, to whom his has pledged himself a disciple.

A. explained that a juju curse was placed on him some years ago, the result of jealousy, the curse concealed in something he ingested.  The effect of the this has been pain in the lower abdomen, particularly when eating, and being underweight.  A. has consulted with a number of traditional marabouts, largely without relief, but has recently found an 84 year old marabout with whom he's made some progress.

A. explained that consulting with his traditional marabout does not require a history of symptoms.  Instead, the marabout takes one of your hands, pauses to reflect, then places his hands about your solar plexus, pauses again, as if listening/reflecting/scanning, then relates your condition.  He knows what's going on, A. related, without explanation.

I asked A. how he became a Baye Fall.  

(Ibra Fall was a disciple of Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood.  Fall was known for his dedication to God, and considered work as a form of adoration.  He founded a sub-group of the Mouride called the Baye Fall, many of whom substitute hard work and dedication to their marabout for the usual Muslim observances of prayer and fasting.) 

A. explained that his brother had become a Baye Fall, and A. was introduced to his marabout through his brother.  He eventually joined the sect and became a disciple in his late teens.

A. explained that when in the presence of his Mouride marabout, A. lowers to his knees in a gesture of reverence.  If he should meet the marabout on the street, A. is to extend a hand and offer a gift, again, as a symbol of reverence and devotion.   A. confided that his marabout has an energetic presence:  encounters set his chest vibrating, and he carries a heightened energy around in the aftermath.

A. explained that my meeting and consulting with both his traditional marabout and his Mouride marabout was entirely possible.  In addition, A. invited me to join him for the annual pilgrimage to the Mouride holy city of Touba in February, where the sect's founder, Amadou Bamba, is buried.  He thought I would find the experience eye opening, as when disciples entered ecstatic, highly charged spiritual states.  Unlike the Haj to Mecca, where pilgrims reside in hotels and dine in restaurants, pilgrims attending the grand magal would be fed and lodged by local residents.  

After lunch, our group drove to explore a series of fetish vendors in the Medine district, where you find tables of animal skulls, strips of animal hide, antlers and horns, shells, all used for the making of gris-gris.  One young vendor claimed to be a marabout from Niger.  He sold ready-to-wear grigri, one for bad talk, one for virility, one to ward off attack.  He had a keyed padlock wrapped in hide.  If you wanted to seduce a particular honey pie, this lock could do it for you. Just whisper her name into the padlock, closed the lock, and voila, a good time assured. 

A. confided that he would not consult with these street side marabouts, of dubious skills and intents, but would purchase medicinal products from them.  

Several of us have an interest in returning to further catalogue their materials -- what they are and how they're used.  

Friday, November 28, 2008

Visit to Bandia Game Reserve & Acrobaobab

For lots more photos of Bandia & Acrobaobab, see BOT at (Gallery 27)

Bandia Game Reserve is a 1500 hectare park located about an hour or so (absent of traffic congestion which, apparently, is virtually never, we were lucky) SE of Dakar.  The vast majority of animals are imports.  The park is certainly not anything of the scale of the great game reserves of east and southern Africa, but it offers a pleasant getaway from the city life of Dakar. 

We traveled with two of my students, Adam and Damir, and Damir's pop, Colin, who was born and raised in Malawi, and so offered an interesting perspective and a keen eye for details, from identifying snake and ant trackways, to understanding how to conduct ourselves around game.  (When I got a little too close to a rhino, note the top photo above, Colin cautioned me to back away  s l o w l y .)

The drive out of Dakar was congested, as traffic winds along the narrow tombolo (a geologic term referring to a sand spit) that links the peninsula to the mainland.  It is a gauntlet of tight, breath-gasping traffic courses (I hesitate to refer to them as lanes), where driving is more like canoeing along a river snagged with debris in the form of other vehicles, with hawkers approaching the car selling every imaginable thing, from bras to bags of juice.  The road south along the coast, adjacent to the location of the new airport, was much improved, relatively fast and smooth.  The landscape is generally flat, with some rolling hills, dotted along the way with baobabs.  It was still quite green from a relatively wet rainy season.

We picked up an English-speaking guide at the park headquarters, who accompanied us throughout the morning, picking out a route, left here, right there, along narrow dirt paths, on his cell phone to other guides, exchanging information about the location of animals.

We were quite lucky in the variety of the animals we were able to see, and in several locations were we able to get out of the car and walk around the game, as was the case with the park's two white rhinos and the giraffes.  

Our guide confided that there are lots of dangerous snakes in the park:  python, cobra, black mamba.  (You know, I'm just not a snake kinda guy)

A highlight of the day was lunch at the park restaurant, and the green vervet monkeys who nonchalantly hung out with us tableside.  We were also fortunate to see the crocodiles in an adjacent lake fed with fish scraps from the kitchen.  Very dramatic.  Cuddly they are not.

After Bandia, we drove over to Acrobaobab, essentially a ropes course suspended from baobab trees.  The boys spent a couple hours learning the procedures, clipping-in and out, traversing various routes, concluding with with a zip line run.  The park also has the equivalent of a rock wall, with handholds hammered up the side of a baobab tree.  Much fun, lots of smiles, and a few whines (ahem, Adam).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Search for the Heart of West Africa 1

The so-called voice with which these blog entries are composed varies widely, as if written by different personalities.  Some are studious and probing;  others are more journalistic, reporting events, as a travelogue;  others are just plain silly, a spoof, clever and a little manipulative.  One person, multiple voices:  it is a psychological reality that we are, in fact, a multiple, despite our common use of the personal pronoun "I".  This is not a new idea, and does not fall into the realm of the psychopathology;  it is the reality of our highly complex, interactive natures.

This entry is the first in a series that aim to approach the core that underlies West African culture.  

There are assumptions that frame this work.  First, I assume that core beliefs are manifest through traditional forms, readily available here in Dakar:  traditional medicine;  fetish, juju, and the practice of what we in the West associate with magic;  a particular form of fetish, called the gris-gris, used to ward off evil;  and the role of the marabout, or spiritual teacher.   

Today, a small group of us are heading into Dakar on what I've termed the Magical Mystery Tour, visiting the Mali Market, Sandaga, and the Medine, guided by Almamy B., about whom I'll write more later.  I'm in search of individual vendors of medicine, incense, and fetish, with whom I might strike up a conversation, who might be willing to share their expertise with this interested toubab (white) North American over a longer period.

I do not come to this exercise empty-handed, as it were.  I have a frame of reference, from a long interest in related ideas:  the power of the mind, as manifest through belief and prayer, placebo, and psychogenic states produced through hypnosis and mediation.   

I am aware that we as beings are readily susceptible to suggestion, imagination, and magical thinking;  we are beings of habit, conditioning, and imitation;  and we tend to be passive, reactive, responding through patterns of association, in thought, feeling, and movement.

It is with this context that I begin this exploration. 

I'm searching neither for the Truth, nor a guru.  Rich religious traditions are available at home. I am very interested in applying my training and experience to this cultural context, if applicable.  I welcome being surprised, if not shocked, slapped in the face.  This is part of the accepted risk.  I, too, am fragile.  But whether my fragility stems from my susceptibility to suggestion (juju as entirely psychological), or something external, material (juju as an independent energy capable of being transfered, for good or ill), or both, is of great interest.  It's perhaps like visiting the haunted house as a kid.  What could be more terrifying than the images conjured by our own imaginations?  

The approach here is more in the vein of classic participant-observer anthropological research, rather than a spiritual search for a Teacher, though I expect they'll overlap.

I'd like to make all this public, through writing, given the constraints of time, energy and access.  I also appreciate that knowledge is shared according to one's level of being and demonstrated commitment to the teaching.  This, too, will limit what I can learn.  I'm here for a relatively short time;  signposts work for me.

Playing Tourist in Dakar: Three Market Tour

Photos (top to bottom):  the HLM Fabric Market (1-4, 6), Sandaga African Market (5, 7-8).  You'll find lots more photos from this day on BOT at (Gallery 26)

Twelve ISD staffers and visiting family, guided by A., wound through Dakar last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.  The aim was to play tourist, so we visited the big African market, Sandaga, the more upscale, ex-pat frequented Kermel Market, had lunch at the quaint French Cultural Center, then navigated through the sprawling fabric market, HLM.

Photos 5, 7 & 8 were taken in and around Sandaga.  The market is, for the new visitor, daunting:  clogged with vendors selling goods from a thousand small stalls, winding through a labyrinth of aisles narrow enough for single-lane traffic, shoppers jostling past one another, with the potential for pickpockets, and the general feeling that we're not in Kansas.  My personal feelings about Sandaga have changed dramatically.  I was initially repulsed, but now view it as an immensely interesting place;  it's a milieu to experience, like Disney inside-out.  

While I was not privy to the lesson, W.'s father got a lesson in dental hygiene while in the market.  You'll note in photo 5 the stash of brushes in the background.  For an article regarding twig toothbrushes, see

Photos 1-4 and 6 were taken in the fabric market, HLM.  Photo 6 shows a couple of sheep being lead through the market presumably for sale in advance of Tabaski, an important Moslem holiday coming up on the 8th or 9th of December.  (In part, families slaughter a sheep in remembrance of God's sparing Issac by the hand of his father, Abraham.  It's not a good day to be a sheep.)  Apparently, the sheep tagged with a red collar draw a premium price.

A. is shown in photo 3 bartering for fabric on behalf of one of our group.  Randi's in photo 4 checking-out potential family Christmas gifts.  Photo 2 is of an ice cream vendor peddling through the market complete with an elves hat and sunglasses.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Randi Lands a Job With Peace Corps

I'm pleased to announce that Randi has landed a job here in Dakar with the Peace Corps, as a Medical Officer, part-time now, becoming full-time next summer.  It's a dream job, particularly given her years of experience in public health.  She'll be involved with the training of new volunteers in health-related matters, and assisting in the medical clinic in Dakar.

She'll be heading home (meaning California) in May, then returning to Senegal in July.  While the summer for me is still a little uncertain, I expect to join Randi in Monterey after school's out, then, well, I'm not sure, to be determined.

Identify the Bone, Win a Prize

I found this small bone yesterday, and I'd like to identify it.  Any ideas?

It was found right on the coast, embedded in sticky clay, out of context.  I noticed the patch of discoloration in the clay, a rich brown, familiar from the North Sea fossils I'd seen in Holland.

We are leaning toward a marine mammal, but would like your input.  What is it?  What's your evidence for it?

Please take particular note of the fourth image from the top, showing a series of punches/impressions in the surface of the bone, which I'd like to interpret as predation -- bite marks.  Check it out, see what you think.

Incentive?  I did mention a prize?  Yes sir, I did.  The person who correctly identifies this bone (understanding, of course, that I have no clue what it is) wins a roll of duct tape.  No kidding, a brand new roll of duct tape, still wrapped in its original packaging.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Senegalese Buddhist Community: The Mystical Practice of Breathing Between the Particles

(this entry is rated s for spoof)

There is a small but thriving Buddhist community here in Dakar.  They claim a lineage to somebody significant, whose name I don't recall, and I expect of little relevance to you.

A teaching colleague at the international school is a long-time member of this very tight knit community.  They get together for group mediation weekly, and for extended periods at particular times throughout the year.

It is fascinating that in a country so thoroughly influenced by Islam, the Senegalese Sufi Brotherhoods, and traditional animism, that this tiny sect of Buddhists meet to mediate, chant, and to share in a Buddhist lifestyle.  

It is through this teaching colleague that I was introduced to the founder of the community, a Rinpoche originally from Mali, who trained for years in India.  While enjoying a very pleasant dinner together, with the Call to Prayers echoing in the background from the nearby mosques, the Rinpoche inquired into my cough and obvious upper respiratory infection.  He explained that the community practiced a meditative technique which, translated, means to breathe between the particles.  

Initially, I was quite skeptical, to think that one could control one's breathing to such a high level that they inhale only between the dust particles.  It seemed a bit naive.  Still, my friend and the Rinpoche insisted.  The technique goes something like this:  

After a period of systematic quieting, one turns one's attention to the breath, and infuses one's being into the breath, so that all that exists is breath.  In this particular state of heightened being, one is then able to distinguish between the spirit and the material, which in this case is dust.  One then, with intention, inhales air in sharp bursts, from either or both nostrils, collapsing the space between particles.

In a country so thick with dust during the dry season, with upper respiratory infections so prevalent, the technique makes sense.  That the practice is yet another way of bringing mindfulness into one's daily life is of value.

Interestingly, the practice of Breathing Between the Particles can be directly applied to the sixth grade classroom, a milieu where flatulence is common and distracting.  I often have to pause in my teaching to recover from the "dust" emanating from a particular student, whose name I will not herein mention.  The practice is effective.  At the first sign of trouble, usually the striking reaction of another student, in the order of What's Died?!, I quickly center myself, pull all of my being in the breath, and begin inhaling between the particles.

Did I mention:  It was this same Rinpoche who told us about the Orange Fanta.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stone Tools

We've now begun a bit of community service.  The aim is to digitize the prehistoric artifact collection at the UCAD Archaeology Lab.  The intent is to systematically work our way through the collection, site by site, photographing a cross-section of the artifacts.  It will take months, if not longer.  It's a large collection.  The work benefits the lab, providing a digitized record, available to visiting researchers and teacher outreach;  and it benefits my students, who will assist in the work, and I will certainly use the images in our study of human ancestry generally, and the prehistory of the Cap Vert Peninsula specifically.  The second photo from the top is an example of what will come out of this project.

Ile de Madeleine has an abundance of Neolithic shell middens and pottery shards.  Last Sunday, after ROVing, I explored middens looking for stone tools, or stone tool candidates.  Though my eye is largely naive and untrained, I did find a number of possible tools, including the two above, with evidence of faceting.  My sense is that they are present in abundance.

Return to Madeleine

This entry's for all the ROVers out there, past and present.

We, including 6 middle schoolers, returned to Madeleine Island last weekend to deploy the SS-MS Sub ROV, with its 30 foot tetherline.  The conditions were markedly different and much improved over our earlier trip, when the tide was extremely low.  The tide was high, enabling us to launch in a completely different location, into deeper water, with a much larger number and variety of fish.  How nice it was to be swimming in clear, relatively warm water (think Monterey Bay and 7 mm hooded-wetsuits), with the kids and their families, while the ROV roamed beneath us.  I thought about how much last year's ROVers -- Peter, Misha, Sasha, Anna, Haley -- would have LOVED to have been with us that day in the cove on Madeleine.

It's time to move on now, and deploy from a boat, which we have located.  It's available by the day, and we can book it for two hours in the evening.  It's not free:  the rental will cost us about 80 USD for a half-day or evening.  We can split the costs, of course, and gain access to deeper waters, particularly for our deeper-diving ROV Scorpion, with its 50 foot tether.

We have begun planning for the next generation of ROVs, with the battery on-board, with the thrusters controlled by relays, allowing for a much reduced tether, and eliminating any problem with voltage lost due to its length.  Unfortunately, I'm not able to run down to Home Depot to find just the right length of pvc pipe.

The Air We (You & I) Breathe

I've been struggling with an upper respiratory infection, with bronchitis-like symptoms, for nearly three weeks now.  I finally went to see a physician last week, who explained that my condition was quite common, particularly with the return of the dry season, and "the dust."

Things have gotten pretty dusty around here lately.  Surfaces are gritty: floors, table tops, railings.  We knew it was coming: off-shore winds transporting fine Saharan sands -- dust -- over West Africa, and the Atlantic, toward the Americas.  We'd been told that it could get pretty nasty around here, thick with haze, as a sand storm from the interior passes over us.  (Note the photos above.)

My physician speculated that "the dust" was more than just dust.  She was puzzled why minor cuts could become infected overnight during the dry season, and wondered whether pathogens might be hitchhiking along with the dust particles.

So what's in "the dust"?

There's a growing body of research on the transport of African dust, its composition, and the affects on ecosystems downwind, including human health.  Here's what we now know:

It has been estimated that 2.2 BILLION metric tons of soil and dried sediment is transported from Africa across the Atlantic each year.   The largest of the desert dust storms are capable of dispersing this "dust" across large areas of the sea and land.  Studies have shown that from February to April, the trade winds carry up 13 MILLION tons per year to the northeastern Amazon Basin alone.  These numbers have increased over the past 20 years, tied to climate change and the desertification of North Africa.  A long-term drought in the Sahel region of begun in the early 1970s, along with the drying of Lake Chad and poor land-use practices, are believed to have contributed to this increase.

About 50% of the African dust that reaches the United States affects Florida, while the rest may scatter as far northward as Maine, and as far westward as Texas.  Does Mickey know this?

Here's the rub:  it's not just dust, inert particulate matter.   One gram of desert soil may contain as many as one BILLION bacterial cells.  It has been found that the thicker the dust, the greater the concentration of microbes, and that samples collected in the Caribbean and from ship in the middle of the Atlantic match 100% with samples collected in Mali, the country immediately east of Senegal.

It is also thought that the composition of the dust has changed as a result of human activity, such as the burning of trash, the use of antibiotics, pharmaceutical and pesticides, and increased industrialization.  A few of the resulting nasties in "the dust" include polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and furans, each quite toxic.  

According to USGS microbiologist Dale Griffin, a leading voice in the field, it was originally thought that any hitchhiking microbes would be killed off by UV rays in the atmosphere, but not so, as they can be shielded in the cracks and crevasses of the dust particles.  It's also been shown that that the moderate temperatures and higher humidity over the Atlantic makes for happy and healthy pathogens.

In samples taken during an African dust event in Tampa, Florida, 6500 km from the west coast of Africa, Griffin found that 2.6 million particles were contained in one one-thousandth of a meter of air, 99% of which are small enough to penetrate deeply in the lung environment.  Of course, nose hairs and the mucus glands that line our airways are designed to block much of the larger particles.  It's the little stuff that's worrisome.  They're with us for the duration.

Areas impacted by desert dust storms, such as communities in the Caribbean, are known to have some of the highest incidences of asthma on the planet.  On the Caribbean island of Barbados, the incidence of asthma increased 17-fold between 1973 and 1996, coinciding with a period of increased transport of desert dust.  The incidence of pediatric respiratory illness on the island of Trinidad has also been linked to desert dust, which commonly contains allergens such as fungal spores, plant and grass pollen, pesticides, herbicides, industrial emissions, and toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury.

Remember that next time you're planning your Caribbean holiday.  

The transport of African dust is certainly not new --  it's been going on for hundreds of thousands of years -- and not entirely negative:  the dust fertilizes the Atlantic Ocean with nutrients, stimulating massive plankton blooms, and contributes key nutrients (especially phosphate) to the Amazon Basin.  Still, the composition of "the dust" has changed.  It has become a microbial magic carpet.  Griffin has identified of over 300 kinds of microorganisms cultured from air samples collected on St. Croix, St. John and Trinidad, during dust and non-dust conditions.  There were 2-3 times as many culturable microorganisms per volume during dusty days and non-dust conditions,  25% of which were known plant pathogens, and 10% were known opportunistic pathogens of humans.

Other consequences of African dust transport are addressed in the literature, from coral bleaching, to blooms of toxic algae (red tide), to sea fan disease throughout the Caribbean.

So here I am, coughing, dislodging phlegm, at the head winds of the African dust bowl.  Understanding why I'm coughing leads to being reminded that the Earth is a vastly complex, interactive system, for good, and for ill.

For more information on this topic, check out the following sources: (a terrific animation) (a list on publications by a leading researcher in the field, Joseph Prospero, at the University of Miami)  (a key source for USGS research, including Dale Griffin)  (an excellent short video)  (a terrific slide show by Dale Griffin)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

He Got Juju Eyeball

Photos (top to bottom):  Ceramic fetishes from Mali;  Congolese "nkondi" nail fetishes, rich in juju

Five perspectives on the meaning, significance, and obstacles to development presented by the concept of  juju  (from the first few several pages of a google search):

from Wikipedia
> Title:  Juju Magic
Juju is an aura or other magical property, usually having to do with spirits or luck, which is bound to a specific object;  it is also a term for the object itself.  Juju also refers to the spirits and ghosts in West Africa lore as a general name.  The object that contains the juju, or fetish, can be anything from an elephant's head to an extinguisher.  In general, juju can only be created by a witch doctor;  few exceptions exist.  Juju can be summoned by a witch doctor for several purposes.  Good juju can cure the ailments of mind and body;  anything from fractured limbs to a headache can be corrected.  Bad juju is used to exact revenge, soothe jealousy, and cause misfortune. 

>  from

from (18 May 2008)
+ Crime:  Battling JuJu-Marabout Medium
Today, the Ghana Police Service is not only increasingly re-connecting with its traditional roots in order to serve Ghanaians better, but moving deeper to tackle certain traditional values that have for long been untouchable despite aiding crime.

The arrest of a 40-year-old spiritualist by the police for allegedly helping, spiritually, in the robbing of the Church of Pentecost of about 2000USD is a case in point.  According to the Accra-based The Ghanaian Times, Ali Baba, the spiritualist, purportedly helped (the thief). 

From pick-pockets to fraudsters to armed robbers to roadside tricksters to money doublers to most of the crimes reported at the police station, juju-marabout mediums and other spiritualists are partly to be blamed, playing heavily on the negative superstitious parts of the culture to the detriment of peace.

At this juncture, it is important to know that when the Ghana Police Service arrested leading armed robber, Atta Ayi, huge amulets and other spiritual paraphernalia, prepared for him by various juju-marabout mediums and spiritualist, were stripped from his body.

For some time, juju-marabout mediums and other spiritualists have not been considered in the larger criminology thought.  In the face of the criminality of some traditional spiritualists, including even aiding military coup detats, the traditional spiritualists have not been held criminally responsible for long -- most times out of the radar of social accountability.

+ from

Article (from Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry):  Understanding genital-shrinking epidemics in West Africa:  Koro, juju, or mass psychogenic illness?
Abstract:  A small-scale epidemic of genital-shrinking occurred in six West African nations between January 1997 and October 2003.  This article presents a summary and analysis of 56 media reports of these cases.  A clinical formulation of these cases considers a variety of explanations from theory and research in social and cultural psychology, psychopathology, and anthropology.  Of particular interest is a comparison of genital-shrinking distress in West African settings with koro, a culture-bound syndrome involving fears of genital retraction that is prominent in Southeast Asian settings.  The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the role of culture in both the experience of genital-shrinking distress and conceptions of psychopathology.

from the African Executive, Nov 5-12, 2008
=  Juju Clouds African Way of Thinking
In Africa's cultural and development context, it is not strange that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo should accuse his deputy, Mr. Atiku Abubaker, of craving to kill him through the dreaded juju spell.  Obasanjo's claims that Atiku has been "consulting Islamic holy men on the date of his demise," reflects the unrefined elements within the African culture that wait to be polished for progress.

"Don't worry, the president will be dead soon," a juju medium is said to have told Atiku.  More expression of the deeper under-currents of the troubles of the African development process, Atiku responded that Obasanjo's mind is full of "the cobwebs of juju or occult."

Developmentally, and in an era of the on-going African Renaissance, it is culturally healthy that such incidents are coming from the top ruling elites, who have been linked to dabbling in juju to the injury of Africa's progress.  Such practices have been part of the African culture for thousands of years, especially in West Africa, the most juju and witchcraft infested region of Africa.

African elites are yet to realize that juju practices are counterproductive to progress.  Dabbling in juju weakens the rulers' ability to totally rationalize developmental problems on the ground.  As the Obasanjo and Atiku row demonstrates, juju and other such practices not only weaken trust, a key ingredient in national development, but also undermines "national morality, because they are based on irrational spirit power,"  as Robert Kaplan reports in "The Coming Anarchy."

African experiences show that developmental problems are not solved by dabbling in juju.  Nigeria's Gen. Sani Aacha's juju-directed murdering spree to transform himself into a civilian President and solve his mounting problems is case in point.

Africa's development history shows that leaders, both military and civilians, who dabble heavily in juju either paralyze their country, blow it into pieces or are blinded from reasoning properly to solve problems.  From Liberia's Gen. Samuel Doe to Uganda's Gen. Idi Amin to Central Africa Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa (who ate human flesh as part of his juju rituals), dabbling in juju weakens the rational abilities of the ruling elites to handle the problems of the people.  The leaders becomes unrealistic, depending upon illiterate, irrational, unscientific and impractical juju mediums that, in all measure, are immoral and destructive.  The juju-dabbling Africa leaders see critics as enemies and live in paranoia to the detriment of Africa's progress.  Such leaders become the manipulative robots of the juju and spiritual mediums as we saw in Gen. Idi Amin's Uganda, perhaps one of the most rabid juju dabblers Africa has seen.  Amin listened to these mediums to the extent of exporting Ugandan-Asians, consequently destroying Uganda's economy.

=  from

*A New Look at Juju
African religions had their biggest boost two years ago when Pope John Paul II, on a visit to Benin, apologized for centuries of ridiculing African cultural beliefs by the Western world. Benin is the home of voodoo, one of the continent's most enduring cults.  The crucial question is whether the Pope's 'penance' will force others to start respecting African cultures, in particular the belief in African religions.

It is not easy for most people in the West to accept that the much maligned voodoo and other such cults and sects in Africa are based on the same universal belief in the supernatural found everywhere in the world.  People do not understand and appreciate the complex interplay of religion medicine and psychology in African beliefs.  In other words,  the simple fact that Africans have largely reduced religious thought and practice to everyday practice, that African religions seek to link the supernatural with the natural and the mundane, continues to baffle the Western world.

African beliefs in spirits and juju is just like taking the universal belief in the supernatural to the next logical step.  Universal belief in the supernatural and spiritism rests on a conviction of the existence of unseen beings with magical powers that can be harnessed to help the human race in their everyday existence.

Africans include the spirits of dead ancestors and relations among these unseen beings.  And the belief is that these beings are to found anywhere and everywhere.  Cults therefore revolve around wherever any such being is presumed to be found.  But the need to harness the powers of these unseen beings is separate from the beliefs in, and worship of, the Supreme Being, or God.  Thus, an akan from Ghana, pouring libation, will raise his calabash or glass to God, called Onyankopon or Twereampong -- and by other names -- before anything else.  This is true across the continent.

The commitment to God is, in other words, unaffected by the need to seek the help of minor deities to solve pressing everyday problems.  This explains the paradox of many otherwise devout followers of other religions like Christianity, Muslim and so on also concurrently consulting diviners, fetishes and other cults.

*First published in Djembe Magazine in 1995.  It was written by N. Adu Kwabena-Essem.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Change in the Weather


We've seen a dramatic change in weather here over the past several weeks:  lower humidity, cooling sea and air temperatures, and the end of the rain.  But what's happened?  What's the cause of this significant change in the weather?

First, four basic concepts, upon which everything else is based:

Hot air rises.  

The sun unevenly heats the surface of the planet.

As the season's change (from the perspective of the northern hemisphere), the zenith of the sun shifts to the south in the autumn, then northward in the spring. 

The Earth is revolving on a titled axis at the speed of about a 1000 mph (about 1600 kph).  A consequence of this is the Coriolis Effect, what we experience when passing a ball to a friend on a merry-go-round.  The path of the ball, like the motion of the wind across the surface of the Earth, bends in the direction of the rotation.  (See for a nice illustration of the merry-go-round example.)

Now, let's fit these elements together (if you're a visual kinda person, check out the animations listed below):

Warm air rises above the surface of Africa, creating convection currents, centered at a latitude corresponding to the zenith of the sun.  Naturally, as the seasons change, and the zenith of the sun shifts, so too does the relative position of the current.  This convection current is called the Hadley Cell, and the point at which warm air (from the north and south) converges is called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).  Fancy, eh?  Where's that Trivial Pursuit!

Images 1-3 illustrate the ITCZ and Hadley Cell.  

The ITCZ is a weather factory, and the source of the African monsoon, which has shifted to the south, leaving us drier weather (as shown in picture 3).  The ITCZ is also the source of many of the cyclonic storms which march across the Atlantic Ocean toward the Caribbean, pushed by the trade winds -- which bend to the right, with the Coriolis Effect.  

Check out the following COOL  animations of seasonal fluctuations in the ITCZ and the Hadley Cell:

Why are the sea temperatures dropping?

First, the northwest coast of Africa is under the influence of the Canary Current, illustrated above in images 4 & 5.  The current flows along the African coast from north to south between 30 degree N and 10 degrees S latitude.

This time of year, the prevailing winds are off-shore.  As a consequence, warmer, nutrient-depleted surface waters are pushed seaward, and replaced by deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters.  The presence of these nutrients is the result of marine snow, or the sinking and deposition of organic matter (plankton guts).  Upwelling brings this material to the surface where it becomes pizza for phytoplankton, which bloom with delight.  Such areas sustain relatively good fisheries, with the ecosystem replenished at its base with lots of grass, or it were, or as the ecologist might say, the primary production of the overlying waters strongly influences benthos standing stock and productivity rate.  

As a result of seasonal upwelling, the Senegalese coast is one of the most productive maritime fisheries in the world.

For several cool animations illustrating the Canary Current and upwelling, see: (note the animations on the right of the page)

Interestingly, we experience a strong seasonal fluctuation in upwelling and sea temperature, varying up to 15 degrees Centigrade, as warm surface currents from the south introduce tropical-like conditions in the summer.  (You'll need a full wetsuit for winter snorkeling.)  Mauretania does not experience this fluctuation;  the upwelling there is permanent and continuous.  

There you have it.  Now go and impress your mom and dad with how smart you are!  And if they shoo you away, have pity on them;  not everyone can be as passionate about this stuff as you and I!